© Bruce Allen
Lorenzo wins in Italy; Rossi blown away
For those of you whose loyalties lie elsewhere, let’s be clear: Jorge Lorenzo deserved to win the Gran Premio d’Italia TIM today. After a poor qualifying session on Saturday, he slingshotted his way into the lead in Turn 1 of Lap 1, withstood heated challenges from teammate Valentino Rossi and rival Marc Marquez, and crossed the finish line a blink of an eye in front of Marquez. But heading into the second third of the 2016 season, storm clouds are building on his horizon.
Drama on Saturday
Ducati pilot Andrea Iannone, who had been a blur in practice all weekend, laid down his fastest lap midway through Q2 and goofed off thereafter, believing he had claimed pole. He failed to account for #46 and his almost infallible sense of the moment. Rossi scorched Mugello to secure the pole on his last flying lap, sending the crowd into paroxysms of joy. Minutes later, teammate-in-waiting Maverick Vinales pushed his Suzuki to the very limit, crossing the line a mere 9/100ths of a second behind Rossi, dropping Iannone to third and Marquez to fourth, with an unhappy Jorge Lorenzo relegated to the five hole. Aleix Espargaro managed sixth, producing a rock-hard first two rows featuring both Suzukis, two Yamahas, a single Honda and, somewhat surprisingly, Iannone’s lone Ducati.
The drama/collusion between Rossi and Vinales offers a useful glimpse into the future, as Vinales flirted with the all-time track record on a relatively inferior machine. Remaining deferential to his soon-to-be teammate, his performance on Saturday served notice that Vale should dismiss any presumption of occupying the #1 seat on the team next year. Maverick Vinales is, arguably, The Next Great MotoGP Rider.
Yamaha Blows Up on Sunday
I’m trying and failing to remember if I’ve ever seen a Yamaha four-stroke throw a rod in MotoGP. Yet Jorge Lorenzo lost one in the warm-up practice on Sunday morning at the end of the front straight. No harm done, other than putting a dent in his limited engine allocation for the year. But when Valentino Rossi lost his engine on Lap 9 while in hot pursuit of Lorenzo, that was a different story. What had been shaping up as a classic all day intra-team battle with title implications devolved instantly into Rossi’s second DNF of the season and a 37 points deficit to Lorenzo for the year. Both incidents appeared to involve engine braking, perhaps pointing out a flaw in the seamless transmission Yamaha worked so hard to develop over the past few years. Team press releases later this week will provide some clarity.
Fans Left Breathless at the Finish
The start of today’s race took the qualifying results from Saturday and dumped them into a VitaMix superblender. Compare the starting grid with the standings after Lap 1:
Rossi having left the building, Lorenzo was able to take a momentary breather until Marquez and his RC213V showed up on his rear tire. Marquez remained there, apparently lining Lorenzo up, for 13 laps, with Lorenzo, the unmovable object, refusing to budge. Twice Marquez tried to pass at the end of the front straight, both times running wide, allowing Lorenzo to retake the lead. The last lap was one for the ages, the riders trading paint and positions half a dozen times, with Marquez exiting the last turn with a 10 meter lead and minus his left elbow slider. But Honda’s Achilles heel in 2016, crappy acceleration exiting the turns, once again bit Marquez, as Lorenzo slipped in behind him, pulled around 50 meters from the line, and won by a 100th of a second.
The record will show Lorenzo having led all 23 laps, apparently enjoying another of his patented cakewalks. Nothing could be farther from the truth. He spent the first eight laps fighting off relentless pressure from Rossi; it was easy to envision the mutual disrespect, in conjunction with the primary MotoGP edict to beat your teammate, leading to disaster, with both riders in the gravel. Suddenly, in contrast to the yellow smoke that had filled the air all day, there was an enormous cloud of white smoke billowing from Rossi’s pipes. Some of the 99,000+ fans might have thought a new pope had been elected; the reality that their idol’s day was over sent a number of them heading for the exits, any reason for hanging around having gone up, as it were, in smoke.
Iannone won his second-half-of-the-race battle with Dani Pedrosa to claim the final spot on the podium, which appeared to belong to Dovizioso until he made an uncharacteristic mistake on Lap 19, running hot and way wide, allowing both Iannone and Pedrosa through. Having started 13th, having failed to advance through Q1, Dovi was probably happier today than he was yesterday. Iannone undoubtedly enjoyed putting one in the eye of Ducati after losing his seat for next season. With but a decent start he could have won the race today, as his pace after the third or fourth lap was dazzling.
Farther Down the Food Chain
Dani Pedrosa showed some pace during the last six or eight laps today, finishing fourth for the third round in a row, followed by Dovizioso. Vinales ended his day in sixth place, his sensational qualifying performance long forgotten, while Tech 3 Yamaha Brit Bradley Smith enjoyed his best performance of the season, crossing the line in seventh. The top ten was completed by Pramac tough guy Danilo Petrucci, Suzuki afterthought Aleix Espargaro and Michele Pirro on another Ducati wildcard.
For the record, LCR Honda egoist Cal Crutchlow doubled his point total for the season with a sparkling 11th place finish. Shut my mouth.
The Big Picture
Lorenzo now leads the season by 10 points over Marquez, a source of confidence for the Mallorcan if not one of security. Rossi, despite deserving better, finds himself 27 points behind Marquez and only 12 points ahead of Pedrosa, with Vinales another seven points back. A gaggle of riders sits in the 40’s—the Espargaro brothers, Hector Barbara and Iannone. Eugene Laverty, the great Irish hope, closes out the top ten. That Hector Barbera is the highest ranked Ducati pilot a third of the way through the season says something, though I’m not sure what.
A Question for Readers
Someone please enlighten me. How is it that Honda, with a reputation for overly aggressive acceleration for years, comes into 2016 with a bike that accelerates so poorly as to cost young Marquez today’s race and several others already this year? Most recently, Marquez blamed his crash at Le Mans on pushing too hard to compensate for the lack of power exiting the turns. Put Marquez on the Yamaha and I would be happy to argue he would be undefeated this season. Honda needs to thank their lucky stars they have Marquez; any other rider would be residing in Pedrosa’s neighborhood, with 60 or 70 points to his name.
About Those Storm Clouds on Lorenzo’s Horizon
Jorge Lorenzo is by no means a shoe-in for the 2016 title. He has engine allocation concerns. He has a number of circuits—Assen and The Sachsenring leap to mind—in his immediate future where he doesn’t normally do well. He has a hungry and angry teammate to contend with. Marquez is out-riding him on a slower bike which he suggested today in the post-race presser the engineers are getting figured out.
Vinales is juiced and will be a factor once he learns how to start races. Rossi was reported to have spent the damp FP1 doing practice starts, working on getting up to speed in a hurry without wheelies or burning up his clutch. Vinales should take a lesson from his teammate. This reminds me of the old joke in which a tourist with concert tickets, visiting New York City for the first time, accosts one of the locals. “Excuse me, sir, but can you tell me how to get to Carnegie Hall?”
“Practice, man, practice.”