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Maverick Vinales

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You don’t expect to be cold in the desert. On Friday evening, most of the paddock was wandering around in short sleeves and t-shirts until after 9pm. On Saturday, people were pulling on jackets shortly after sunset. By the time MotoGP finished, people were starting to lose feeling in their hands.

It wasn’t just the temperature. The wind had picked up enormously on Saturday, blowing sand onto the track in places, and blowing any residual heat from ever nook and cranny around the circuit. It was not the normal chill of the desert evening. It was cold.

That caused more than a few problems during the evening. Session after session, class after class, riders fell, mostly at Turn 2. That is the first left-hand corner for nearly 2km, after the final right-hander before the long straight, and then hard braking for Turn 1.

That is a lot of time for the front tire to cool down, especially when there is a hard headwind blowing down the main straight, whipping the heat from the tires.

What is one more press launch for today’s news cycle, am I right? A bit of a shakeup to the lineup, the Monster Energy Yamaha team debuted in Jakarta today, and as you would expect from the name, the energy drink company takes over as title sponsor from Movistar.

The names and faces are the same though, with Valentino Rossi and Maverick Viñales at the helm of the 2019 Yamaha YZR-M1 MotoGP race bike, which has a new livery on its side.

You would think that after writing about what I got wrong in my predictions last year, I would not be so foolish as to try to make predictions again for the 2019 season. As it turns out, I am that foolish, so here is a list of things I expect to happen in the coming year.

2019 certainly looks very promising for world championship motorcycle racing, in just about every class in both MotoGP and WorldSBK. A range of changes mean the racing should be closer and more competitive.

Cutting the MotoGP grid from 24 to 22 bikes, and having the Petronas Yamaha team replace the underfunded Aspar squad, means there are more competitive bikes on the grid.

Ducati will field only GP19s and GP18s, and the GP18 is a much better machine than the GP17. Honda will field three 2019 RC213Vs, and a 2018 bike for Takaaki Nakagami, and the fact that Nakagami was fastest at the Jerez MotoGP test last November suggests that it, too, is good enough to run at the front.

Yamaha, likewise, will field three factory-spec bikes, with only rookie Fabio Quartararo on a 2018-spec machine. Suzuki made big steps forward in 2018, and have a more powerful bike for 2019.

It’s not just in MotoGP either. In Moto2, the new Triumph engine will change the way riders have to ride the bike, and the introduction of electronics – very limited, but still with more than the old Honda ECU kit had to offer – will give teams more options.

Ducati’s introduction of the Panigale V4 R will make the WorldSBK series a good deal more competitive. And the cream of last year’s Moto3 crop moving up to Moto2, to make way for an influx of young talent, will make both classes fascinating and exciting to watch.

So what can we expect from 2019? Here are a few concrete predictions:

If you want to see the law of unintended consequences in action, just take a look at MotoGP testing. The nature of testing has changed as manufacturers have suffered the consequences of not fully understanding the effects of the engine development freeze during the season.

Honda suffered, Suzuki suffered, and now Yamaha have suffered when they made the wrong choice of engine in preseason testing. They learned the hard way they had to get it right.

This has meant that the Valencia MotoGP test has become first and foremost about getting the engine in the right ballpark, giving the engineers enough data to work out the fine details over the winter. A tight track and cold air temperatures sees engines at their most aggressive, with plenty of horsepower on hand and very little room on track to actually use it.

The addition of Jerez as an official winter test – to be held at the end of next week – makes this even more explicitly an engine test. If the factories bring an engine that is manageable at both Valencia and Jerez, they are in good shape for next season.

As an aside, going to Sepang rather than Jerez to test in the past couple of seasons may be one of the factors that led Yamaha down a blind alley with their engine. Sepang is hot, wide, and fast, sapping power and allowing a MotoGP bike to stretch its legs.

It is the kind of track that can hide an overly aggressive engine, which then can rear its ugly head when the season is underway, the engine spec is frozen, and it’s too late to fix the problem.

The most remarkable skill of truly great motorcycle racers is their ability to compartmentalize everything. Break down every situation, put each part into its own separate container, and not let one thing bleed into another.

Private lives – often messy, sometimes chaotic – stay in the box marked private life, and don’t cross over into racing. Pain stays in the section reserved for pain, and is not allowed to encroach in the part set aside for riding.

Crashes are to be analyzed, understood, and then forgotten, but not to be allowed anywhere near the part of a racer’s mind where they keep their fears. That is the theory, at least, and the better a rider can manage to live up to the theory, the greater their chances of success.

Marc Márquez gave a masterclass in the art of compartmentalization during qualifying at Valencia. The Repsol Honda rider went out on his first run in Q2, and on his first flying lap, lost the front going into Turn 4, the first right hander after a whole sequence of lefts.

It looked like a harmless low side, of the sort which Márquez has so often, and which he usually escapes without harm. But whether it was due to the bars being wrenched out of his hands, or due to his arm being folded up awkwardly beneath him as he tumbled through the gravel, he managed to partially dislocate his weak left shoulder.

He got up out of the gravel in obvious pain, doubled over and shambling towards the barrier. Once behind the tire wall, he was picked up by his manager and mentor Emilio Alzamora, and taken on the scooter back to the paddock.

He was rushed up into the Repsol Honda truck, where Dr. Mir examined him. He suited back up, put his helmet on, and went and sat in the garage, as his team held his second bike ready to go.

Given the severity of the storms that have washed across the Malaysian peninsula, you might expect practice for MotoGP to be a wet one minute, dry the next.

So far, however, only the Moto3 class has had a problem with wet conditions, the day starting out on a drying track, then rain disrupting FP2 for the smallest class in Grand Prix racing. MotoGP was a good deal more fortunate, left with a dry track in surprisingly good condition.

That might explain why the times were so good: there were a handful of riders knocking out 1’59s in both the morning and afternoon sessions, times which normally only appear once qualifying starts. In 2017, only Valentino Rossi got into the 1’59s in free practice. In 2016, only Maverick Viñales managed it.

“Lap times were fast today,” said an impressed Bradley Smith of KTM. “1’59s were like a miracle in the past. Guys were on 1’59s from the first session and there in the second session as well, it wasn’t just when the track was cool. We’re still a little way away from a 1’58, which I think Jorge did in the test, but not that far away that I think it’s the track conditions.”

There is no obvious explanation for why the track would be so fast, Smith said. “Here we know, from February 1st to February 20-something, the track can be half a second slower, or faster, whichever way the conditions are going. I really can’t put my finger on one thing or another.”

Whatever the reason, there is no denying the track is fast. Seven riders got inside the two-minute bracket on Friday, Danilo Petrucci, seventh fastest man, just two tenths slower than the fastest man of the day, Alex Rins.

Qualifying is a tricky business at the best of times. Having qualifying just half an hour after FP4 – that is, if you don’t have to pass through Q1 – makes it even more complicated.

That final session of practice is the only chance to work on setup without worrying about getting through to Q2 – and in my book, makes it the most interesting session of practice all weekend.

But that also means that if you want to compare two different setups, FP4 is the session you do it. After FP4, you have thirty minutes to get two bikes ready for qualifying, with identical setups.

Will we see a Ducati vs. Honda showdown at Motegi? After the first day of practice at the Japanese track, it looks like that is still on, though we lost one potential protagonist. Jorge Lorenzo went out to test how well his injured wrist would hold up, but found his wrist unwilling to play ball.

He did two out laps, but couldn’t cope with the immense strain that the braking zones at Motegi – the toughest on the calendar – put on him. After those two laps, Lorenzo decided to withdraw from the Japanese Grand Prix.

“Yesterday my feelings weren’t very positive and unfortunately today I had confirmation not only of the pain, but also that there was a serious risk of making the fracture worse,” he said afterwards.

“On hard braking I couldn’t push with my left wrist and I had a lot of pain in the left corners and especially in the change of direction. I wasn’t fast, I wasn’t comfortable and I wasn’t safe, so there was no meaning to continue.”

Despite the loss of Lorenzo, Ducati are still in a very comfortable position, Andrea Dovizioso having finished the day as fastest, despite sitting out FP2.

The Italian wasn’t alone in that choice: Marc Márquez, Cal Crutchlow, Pol Espargaro, and Jordi Torres all elected to skip the afternoon session, which started out damp, the track never really drying out fully by the end of the session, though half the field managed to squeeze in a couple of slow laps on slicks on a drying track at the end of the session.