Racing produces drama. When you put 24 riders on an equal number of 270hp MotoGP machines, you can never be certain of the outcome.
The tired and obvious story lines you had written in your head before the race have a tendency to go up in smoke once the flag drops. Racing produces a new reality, often surprising, rarely predictable.
But that doesn’t stop us from drawing up a picture after practice of how the race is going to play out. At a tight track like Jerez, passing is difficult, and so the rider who can get the holeshot can try to open a gap and run away at the front.
After qualifying, it was clear that the three factory-backed Hondas were strongest, the Repsols of Marc Márquez and Dani Pedrosa, together with the LCR Honda of Cal Crutchlow were all a cut above the rest.
It would be an all-RC213V podium, with the other manufacturers left to fight over the scraps. The Ducatis would do battle with the Suzukis, and the Yamahas would find some pace at last, and get in among it at the front. It didn’t pan out that way, of course.
“To get one tenth here is so difficult,” Cal Crutchlow said after qualifying at Jerez. The timesheets bore witness in black and white to the wisdom of the LCR Honda rider’s words.
In FP3, there was less than four tenths between fourth place and thirteenth place. In FP4, there was less than half a second between second and ninth places. And in Q2, just 0.117 seconds separates second place from seventh place. The field is tight because the track is tight. And twisty.
Whether that makes for a close and exciting race is yet to be seen, however.
There hasn’t really been a close race for victory since 2010, when Jorge Lorenzo was so elated after beating Dani Pedrosa and Valentino Rossi in a tight battle that he jumped into the artificial pond used to store water for firefighting, and nearly drowned when his leathers became waterlogged.
Times are often very tight at Jerez, but if you lose a tenth to the rider in front of you, it becomes almost impossible to get it back.
So qualifying well is crucial. And qualifying well is a question of strategy.
Choosing the right time to go out, choosing the right front tire to manage the stresses of a qualifying lap, choosing the right number of stops, getting a perfect lap in when the tire is at its best, all of this has to come together just right if you are to have any hope of a front row start.
That different riders were employing different strategies was evident from the start of Q2.
On paper, things are close at Jerez. At the end of the first day, the top eight riders are all within half a second of each other. The first fourteen are within a second.
You would normally see the kind of tightly bunched times on a Moto2 result sheet, not MotoGP, as former Moto3 and Moto2 crew chief, and now Eurosport commentator Peter Bom put it. It has all the makings of a very tight race.
Or it does if you judge it only by the headline times. Dig a little deeper and a different picture appears.
Scrap the riders who put in a new soft tire and chased a fast lap, and focus only on race pace on used tires, and it Sunday’s Spanish Grand Prix at Jerez looks like being fought out between the Hondas Repsol and LCR, Ecstar Suzuki rider Andrea Iannone, and just maybe, Johann Zarco on the Monster Tech3 Yamaha.
Sure, a bunch of people did some 1’38s and low 1’39s, but Marc Márquez, Dani Pedrosa, and Cal Crutchlow were banging out that kind of pace consistently, on tires which have more than half race distance on them.
Is it going to be a Honda whitewash? “It is still too early to say,” Cal Crutchlow told reporters, trying to dampen expectations after finishing the day as fastest.
“A lot of the other bikes take one day and overnight they are there. If they are sliding a lot then they try to fix it for day two. If we’re sliding then that’s our natural bike and we don’t make the same improvement overnight. I don’t think we’ll suddenly have another second but other people might find another half a second.”
It shouldn’t come with much surprise to hear that the Tech3 squad will be making a change of machinery not only for the MotoGP class next season, but also in the Moto2 Championship as well, with the French team agreeing to ride exclusively on Austrian bikes in 2019.
Set to be a KTM satellite team in the MotoGP Championship next year, with the KTM RC16 MotoGP race bike, Tech3 will also use KTM’s Moto2 race platform in the intermediate class next season.
It has been a strange and fascinating first three races of the 2018 MotoGP season, but as the paddock returns to Europe, we get the first chance to see how the series will look under conditions more usually understood as normal.
The three flyaways which kick the season off all have their own peculiarities which tend to skew the results.
Qatar happens at night, on a dusty track. Argentina and Austin are races on circuits which don’t see enough action, which the teams have only visited a few times, making the track difficult to judge. And Marc Márquez always wins at Austin anyway.
That all changes at Jerez. The next six tracks – Jerez, Le Mans, Mugello, Barcelona, Assen, Sachsenring – have been on the calendar for a decade or more.
The riders have lapped the circuits thousands of times at races and in testing, and the teams and factories have enough data from the tracks to fill a small country’s worth of data centers. This is familiar ground, and so everything changes.
“Coming here and it’s like the season starts again, you can breathe again,” is how Pol Espargaro describes it. “I don’t say that we are bad in those countries, but this is home, it’s where I’ve been racing here for many many years.” Exactly how many years?
“My first race here was in the Catalan championship, when I was 13 years old, I’m 26? So 2005, 2006? Look how many years racing here!”
“But the jet lag, the food, the timing when you eat, when you sleep, the people who come to the track, we have more fans here than in any other place in the world, and this makes you feel good. And also we have much more data here than at other tracks, so for us it’s much easier to face this GP.”
One of the biggest dominoes of the 2018 MotoGP Silly Season has just fallen into place. Today, KTM announced that they have signed Johann Zarco to a two-year contract for the 2019 and 2020 seasons.
That Zarco would leave the Monster Yamaha Tech3 squad had been widely anticipated, the only question being which factory team he would end up in.
The Frenchman was an extremely hot property, after displaying blistering speed on the satellite Yamaha M1 in 2017. Zarco had offers from Suzuki, Repsol Honda, and KTM, though only Honda and KTM were in the frame for the Frenchman.
With the MotoGP paddock back in Europe and heading to Jerez, the first round of contract announcements is upon us, with the second wave not far behind.
First domino to fall for the moment is Pol Espargaro, who will be staying at KTM for the 2019 and 2020 seasons. Ahead of his first home grand prix of 2018, KTM today officially announced that they will be retaining the services of the Spaniard for the next two years.
Espargaro’s signing had been broadly expected. The Spaniard has outperformed his teammate Bradley Smith, and with the Austrian factory’s MotoGP project moving from the development phase to the point where they need to start producing results, Espargaro has been favored over Smith.
Jerez, the Spanish round of MotoGP, and the first event back on European soil, would in the end come down to a trial of grip. The riders and teams who understood the circumstances best, exploited their strengths, and disguised their weaknesses would come out on top.
In all three races on Sunday, the cream rose to the top. Despite rising temperatures and falling grip levels, the smart riders and teams triumphed in all three classes.
Grip was already poor for Moto3, but the lighter bikes and their smaller tires are the least affected of the three classes. Things got a lot worse for Moto2, riders struggling for grip, and the race decided by one of the two men battling for victory crashed out a third of the way into the race.
The burning Andalusian sun raised track temperatures even higher for MotoGP, and that would prove decisive in the race. Those capable of handling the poor grip triumphed, those who had counted on their good form from the morning warm up transferring to the race came away bitterly disappointed.
In Moto3, KTM made a welcome return to the front, with the Austrian bikes back to challenge the hegemony of Honda in the smallest of the three classes. That race would be won in a brilliant last-corner move when the two riders battling for the lead opened the door for the bike in third.
In Moto2, a tense duel would be settled by a mistake, leaving the last man standing to deal with staying concentrated for the second half of the race. And in MotoGP, a thoroughly imperious display saw one rider conquer Jerez, leaving a bloodbath in his wake. Jerez saw three deserving winners emerge.