MotoGP 2016 Mugello Results

May 22, 2016

©  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:

Mugello Lap One

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.”

MotoGP 2016 Mugello Preview

May 17, 2016

© Bruce Allen

Rossi contemplating a trip down memory lane 

Mugello used to be, for Valentino Rossi, what Phillip Island was for Casey Stoner.  During his salad days, between 2002 and 2008, Rossi stood on the top step of the podium at his home track seven straight times, while Stoner won the Australian Grand Prix six times from 2007-2012.  On race days, the two old priests at the Catholic church in Tavullia, Rossi’s home town, would watch the race, get a load on with the locals, and ring the church bells afterwards.  The bells have been silent after the Italian Grand Prix for the past seven years. 

A number of factors have conspired to deprive Rossi of a home win during this time.  In 2009 Casey Stoner was still enjoying success wrestling the Ducati Desmosedici until lactose intolerance sidelined him during the second half of the season. He won a three-way shootout at Mugello that year, beating sophomore sensation Lorenzo by a second and Rossi by two. 2010 was the year Rossi crashed hard in practice, resulting in the only serious injury of his career and a DNS at Mugello.  2011 and 2012 were The Lost Years at Ducati, during which he finished sixth and fifth in Italy, a complete non-factor.

Rejoining the factory Yamaha team in 2013, there was the Bautista incident described below.  In 2014 Marquez and Lorenzo were faster.  Last year it was Lorenzo again, with Andrea Iannone adding insult to injury by inserting himself into second place.  Yes, he’s Italian, but he’s not Rossi.

In short, since 2008 it’s been one thing or another.  With the best bike on the grid and a shiny new contract in hand, with teammate and rival Lorenzo departing for greener (or redder) pastures at season’s end, and some good luck having come his way two weeks ago at Le Mans, he appears to have his mojo back.  The Magic Eight Ball says, “Signs point to yes” this week in Italy. 

Recent History at Mugello 

The 2013 Italian Grand Prix was not a Rossi classic.  Far from it.  Early in the race, the excitable Alvaro Bautista, starting ninth on the GO&FUN Gresini Honda, went into Turn 2 on the gas while all around him were braking, sending himself and Rossi into the hay bales. Rossi’s teammate and defending world champion Jorge Lorenzo had things his way all day, leading every lap while holding brash Repsol Honda rookie Marquez at bay.

Marquez, trying too hard to make something happen late in the day, crashed heavily on Lap 21, surrendering second place to series leader Dani Pedrosa and third to Tech 3 soccer hooligan Cal Crutchlow who, having crashed so many times in practice, was being held together with Bandaids and popsicle sticks.  (Crutchlow seems to deliver his best results when seriously injured; I’ll resist the temptation to follow that observation to its logical extreme.)  The crowd went home disappointed at Rossi’s customary bad luck, deriving little consolation from Dovizioso’s 5th place finish, with fellow paisans Michele Pirro wildcarding his way to 7th, followed by Danilo Petrucci in 12th and Andrea “The Rider Formerly Known as Crazy Joe” Iannone 13th.

In 2014, Lorenzo gave the crowd a replay of 2013.  Unfortunately for him, 2014 was The Year of Marquez.  The Yamaha icon, despite having led for 21 laps, was unable to fend off Marquez at the flag, getting pimped by 12/100ths, with Rossi third, at least finishing the race, if not winning it.  The win put Marquez six-for-six in 2014, looking dynastic, while Team Yamaha, doing everything possible under massive pressure, put both riders on the podium but was unable to take the win at Rossi’s home crib.  Marquez left Italy with a 53-point margin over Rossi, a lead which was able to withstand a great second half of the season from The Bruise Brothers.

Last year was another Lorenzo-on-rails outing, a carbon copy of what we saw in France two weeks ago.  Exciting for Jorge, numbing for the fans.  Polesitter Andrea Iannone, aboard the rapidly-improving Ducati GP15, completed his career-best premier class outing in second place despite a list of injuries more commonly found at the foot of a set of concrete stairs.  Rossi was able to take care of a healing Dani Pedrosa to claim the final spot on the podium, but 2006 it wasn’t.  Marquez crashed out mid-race during the season of his discontent.

The Big Picture

Rossi sits in third place for the year, trailing the incandescent Lorenzo by 12 points and a troubled Marc Marquez by only seven.  Lorenzo is on a roll at present, and Mugello is one of his favorite layouts, very Yamaha friendly.  For Rossi, it’s home.  For Marquez it is enemy territory; after last season’s switchblades-in-a-phonebooth war with Rossi, the young Catalan can expect a rude welcome from the 90,000 locals wedged into the friendly confines on Sunday.  With Marquez struggling with acceleration and rear grip, and Pedrosa winless for the year, times are tough in the Repsol Honda garage at present.

But not nearly so tough as things down the block at the factory Ducati digs.  The factory team, The Dueling Andreas, have been screwed, blued and tattooed thus far in 2016.  A season in which many folks, myself included, thought either could pose a genuine threat to Lorenzo Rossi Associates finds them mired in 10th and 11th places, any chance for a credible season spoken of only in the past tense.  The suits in Bologna are issuing team orders.  Gigi Dall’Igna has chewed his fingernails to the quick.  A win on Sunday at their home track would do little to wash away the wretched memories of 2016.

For the Suzuki Ecstar team, it has been a good news, bad news fortnight.  The good news, obviously, was that Maverick Vinales earned his first premier class podium at Le Mans and the first for the factory team since 2009.  The bad news was that he followed up the Veuve Clicquot and Cohíbas Espléndidos by finally signing the contract (which included an application for membership in The Alien Club) with Yamaha for 2017-18, thereby ruining everyone’s mood and producing a vacuum on the #1 saddle.  Listen carefully and you can hear this vacuum sucking Andrea Iannone inexorably toward a two-year deal with Suzuki.

Better a Devil You Know than a Devil You Don’t

Honda lived up to its longstanding reputation for being cautious, conservative and respectful by signing the aging Dani Pedrosa for another two-year, no-championship stint with the Repsol factory team.  The new contract says more about Pedrosa’s ability to give useful feedback to the engineers than it does about his competitiveness on track.  Some will point out that he had a fairly strong start to the 2014 season and a strong finish to the 2015 campaign.  But he’s never won a MotoGP title and he never will.  Too many injuries, too many other great riders, too much bad luck.  You name it, and there’s been too much of it.  Plus, there’s still that lunatic fringe of fans who will never forgive him for the Nicky Hayden incident at Estoril in 2006, and who should get a life.

As for the news on Tuesday that Ducati would be keeping Dovizioso and disposing of Iannone, the thinking apparently was that Dovizioso’s poor results are due mainly to bad luck, while Iannone’s are his own fault.  Probably a wise decision, as Lorenzo and Dovi will present a formidable front next year, presuming the GP16’s maneuverability continues to improve.  Lorenzo probably had concerns, too, about having The Maniac as his wingman.  Who wouldn’t?

I can think of a few tracks where Lorenzo is going to get some major wood blowing Vale away in the main straights.

Your Weekend Forecast

Rain should vacate the greater Scarperia area by Friday afternoon, giving way to blue skies and temps in the upper 70’s.  Rossi weather.  No reason to think The Bruise Brothers won’t both end up on the podium on Sunday afternoon.  If I had to pick a dark horse to join them, I’d go with Iannone, against my better judgment.  And there is no truth to the rumor Rossi is shopping for a used DeLorean sporting an aftermarket flux capacitor.  Just sayin’.

We’ll have results and analysis right here later on Sunday.

 

MotoGP 2016 Le Mans Results

May 8, 2016

© Bruce Allen.  Exclusive to Motorcycle.com

Lorenzo Romps; Chase Tightens at the Top 

The record books will show that Yamaha defector Jorge Lorenzo won today’s French Grand Prix by 10 seconds over teammate and rival Valentino Rossi.  The mainstream racing media will be busy slavering over young Maverick Vinales, who put a Suzuki on the podium for the first time since Loris Capirossi did so at Brno in 2009.  The real story of today’s race, however, was the eight riders, including at least three contenders, who crashed out as if the race had been run in the wet, marking the first time the Rain Gods have ruined a race on a clear sunny day. 

Q2 on Saturday was a study in contrasts.  Defending world champion Lorenzo lay down a 1:32.2 early in the session, which would have sufficed to put him on his first ever premier class pole at Le Mans, in front of Marc Marquez.  Later, he pitted, changed the rear tire, trimmed an annoying hangnail, then went back out and casually posted a 1:31.975, becoming the first rider ever to crack the 1:32 barrier on two wheels.  Meanwhile, Dani Pedrosa, suddenly the “presumptive” #2 rider on the factory Yamaha team for the next two years, lost the front entering the Dunlop Chicane, narrowly avoided getting creamed by several following riders, and ended the session sucking canal water in 11th place.  Rossi, for his part, struggled through a flashback to 2015 while securing 7th, mired on the third row on a narrow track not terribly conducive to overtaking, as if that made any difference to the Italian icon.

[Lorenzo’s lap begs the question:  What’s all the fuss about the standard ECU?  If qualifying lap times were two seconds slower than last year, opponents might have an argument.  From here, it doesn’t appear to make any difference in qualifying.  That it makes things more difficult at race distance is somewhat more credible.]

28 Laps of Mayhem

As expected, when the lights went out, Lorenzo took the hole shot, assumed the lead, withstood a minor early threat from the factory Ducatis, and ran away from the field.  My notes on Lap 2: “race over.”  Fans were thus reduced to enduring a battle for second place, comparable to spending 45 minutes to see who would lose The Super Bowl.  For the record, the early first group was comprised of Lorenzo, Ducati teammates Dovizioso and Iannone, Marquez and Pol Espargaro on the Tech 3 Yamaha, who got swallowed up by Rossi on Lap 3.

Marquez appeared to be struggling, while Rossi was recovering from a poor start.  Iannone went through on Dovizioso on Lap 6, and it appeared Dovi was ready to strike back until he perhaps remembered the newly issued and oppressive team rule prohibiting such a move until the next lap.  Fortunately for him, Iannone, who seems to be developing some kind of adversarial relationship with success, crashed unassisted out of second place on the Lap 7 in a replay of his bonehead move in the season opener in Qatar. The hapless Scott Redding’s Pramac Ducati retired at about the same time when his engine, in his words, “simply stopped.”

Iannone’s crash moved Marquez up to 3rd and Rossi to 4th.  On Lap 8, Cal Crutchlow crashed out of Tranche 5, as did Tito Rabat.  By now, Lorenzo’s lead over Dovizioso was 1.5 seconds.  Yonny Hernandez, working his way out of a good job, crashed on Lap 9.  On Lap 12 my only note was “here comes Rossi.”  Vale went through on Marquez at Garage Vert on Lap 13 and passed Dovizioso one lap later to take over 2nd place, with Lorenzo barely visible in the distance.

Marquez was losing great gobs of yardage to Lorenzo and Rossi exiting the corners, forcing him to brake late and hard entering the turns and putting a big load on his front tire.  My sole note on Lap 15: “Marquez going down.”  Sure enough, on Lap 16, both he and Dovizioso went down simultaneously at the Museum Corner.  The remarkable visual reminded me of an old James Bond movie in which his tricked out Aston Martin, at the mere touch of a button, sprayed oil on the road, causing the bad guys chasing him on motorcycles to slide off into the woods.  The net effect of the Lap 16 double dip was to elevate Vinales to third place, from which he would hold off Dani Pedrosa.  Otherwise, aside from Jack Miller’s customary crash on Lap 18 and Bradley Smith’s unfortunate off on Lap 20, that was that.

So.  Someone please tell me the last time a race run under perfect conditions featured eight riders crashing out, not counting Redding’s retirement.  At the post-race press conference, Lorenzo said it was an ongoing issue with the Michelins, with riders not being fully under control at any time on the track.  Rossi said it was just racing.  Vinales said it was having less control on the brakes with a full fuel load.  I wasn’t asked, but my belief is that the Rain Gods planted the expectation of a wet track in the riders’ heads and it stuck.  Having gone out on slicks, the results were almost predictable.

Yamaha to Settle for Dani Pedrosa? 

The latest rumors in the media suggest that Vinales, having played too hard in his negotiations with Yamaha, has been turned away in favor of…Dani Pedrosa?  It may be that today’s podium will cause Yamaha to up the ante again, but, if not, it seems Yamaha has taken a very short term, conservative and dull approach to filling Lorenzo’s seat.  Yes, Dani is still a good rider; that his best days are behind him is pretty clear.  Yes, he will be a threat to podium most weekends, with perhaps a few wins left in him, but he will not win a title.  Instead of taking a bold step, choosing a young gun, a Vinales or Rins, to serve as Rossi’s wingman and #2, primed to take over the top spot in 2019, Yamaha appears to have kicked the can down the road.

If Iannone, Dovizioso and Marquez had not collapsed mentally today, Pedrosa would have finished seventh.  Just sayin’.

If Pedrosa signs with Yamaha, it raises a larger question concerning who will take over the #2 seat at Repsol Honda.  Iannone would have been the logical choice last year, but has proven himself thoroughly unpredictable, a personality trait not highly prized in Japanese culture.  Marquez would object to Rins, and Rins might not be enamored of the idea of wrestling with the RC213V in its current state.  Pol Espargaro could be a good candidate, except he’s always been a Yamaha guy.  (Why Yamaha has not given Pol more consideration is a mystery.)  And any reader who suggests that Cal Crutchlow is the obvious choice should immediately seek therapy.  Five points in five rounds; the scoreboard doesn’t lie.  Honda might as well promote Alex Marquez, who himself has managed four crashes and five points in five rounds in Moto2.

Looking Ahead

A recent Facebook meme, directed at women, said, “Sure, it’s all fun and games until your jeans don’t fit anymore.”  The same could be said for the MotoGP calendar, with Mugello, Catalunya, Assen and The Sachsenring looming.  Two weeks from now the season will be a third gone, and the standings at the top are as tight as wallpaper.  The Movistar Yamaha team loves Mugello; I’m not sure Marc Marquez loves any circuit other than Austin right now.  The factory Ducati team will be looking for something, anything good to happen at their home crib in a season racked by disappointment and bad luck.  Team Suzuki Ecstar, brimming with optimism, will want to build upon their recent success.

We have arrived at the heart of the 2016 MotoGP calendar.  The silly season will be heating up, too, with Tech 3 Yamaha having this week signed Jonas Folger from Moto2.  (Folger celebrated his promotion by crashing four times at Le Mans, providing a reasonable impression of Toni Elias at his most lethal.)  Even on days like today, when the race was a snooze, there’s always something to argue about in MotoGP.

MotoGP 2016 Le Mans Preview

May 3, 2016

© Bruce Allen.  Exclusive to Motorcycle.com

Lorenzo vs. Marquez vs. Rain Gods in France

Round 5 of the 2016 MotoGP championship brings those daring young men on their wingleted machines to the French countryside for the Monster Energy Grand Prix de France.  The Loire river valley is wine country and, as most folks know, you need rain and mild temperatures to grow a decent sauvignon blanc.  What’s good for the grapes is, unfortunately, bad for motorcycle racing.  Without a clue who might win Sunday’s race, it’s a safe bet that the Rain Gods will play a part in the outcome.

Before we start, let’s address this writer’s predictions concerning Round 4 in Jerez.  I suggested that Rossi might be under-motivated, being handsomely contracted through the end of 2018, and that Lorenzo could be inclined to hold back in order to punish Yamaha for lovin’ on Vale so much that he jumped ship to Ducati for the next two seasons.  Accordingly, the two finished one-two in a Yamaha rout.  We’ll just set all that on a side burner to simmer for a while; I’m much better at discussing past events than predicting future ones.

Recent History at Le Mans

Early in 2013, Dani Pedrosa was having the best premier class season of his career.  Starting the year with a 4th in Qatar, he chased race winner and rookie Repsol Honda teammate Marc Marquez all over the joint in Austin before settling for second.  He followed that up with a decisive win in Jerez.  Somehow, in a steady downpour, he outran Cal Crutchlow and Marquez to the flag at Le Mans, extending his lead for the year.  He held this lead until a heavy crash in practice at Round 8 in Germany, clearing the way for Marquez to eventually take the title.  At Le Mans that year, Lorenzo and Rossi floundered, so to speak, ultimately finishing seventh and 12th, respectively.

The 2014 French Grand Prix was a dry race, during The Year of Marc Marquez. The defending champion continued his historic run of poles and wins in France, although the top six finishers—Marquez, Rossi, Alvaro Bautista, Pol Espargaro, Pedrosa and Lorenzo—were separated by a mere seven seconds.  Bautista, on the Gresini Honda, worked Tech 3 Yamaha pilot Pol Espargaro by 6/10ths at the finish to deprive Herve Poncharal’s French team of what would have been an oh-so-sweet podium at their home race.

Last year, on a perfect afternoon, Movistar Yamaha delivered a clear message to the grid, notably Marquez:  anyone contemplating, say, a third world championship in 2015 would need to go through The Bruise Brothers.  Lorenzo, in a replay of his win in Jerez two weeks earlier, got away early and was never challenged on the way to his 35th career win in MotoGP.  Rossi had to slice his way through several Andreas on Ducatis to secure his ninth podium in a row and 13th out of 14 dating back to 2014.  It was a forgettable Sunday for team Repsol Honda, as Marquez crossed the line fourth, while Pedrosa, just back from radical arm pump surgery, hung on to finish 16th.

Les Étrangers en France 

Of the three current Aliens—Pedrosa’s membership status is under double secret probation—Lorenzo has enjoyed the most success at Le Mans.  Since his promotion to the premier class in 2008 he has won four of his eight starts at the Bugatti Circuit, including last year.  Marquez, with eight starts across three classes (the first when he was 15) has stood on the top step twice, in 2011 (Moto2) and 2014.  Valentino Rossi, with 16 MotoGP starts has tasted victory only three times here, the most recent in 2008.  If history is a teacher, one would be reasonable to expect Lorenzo, Marquez and Rossi to appear on Sunday’s podium.  Pedrosa could upgrade his Alien status with a podium finish, especially if he were to knock one of the Yamahas off.  Most especially if that Yamaha bore #46.

The Return of the Tranches

A tranche, as some of you will recall, is just a fancy word for stratum which, itself, is just a fancy word for a level or layer in a stack of widgets, which is a word economists use in place of “whatever.”  Back in the day, I used to assert that the grid would divide itself into rather discreet tranches based upon rider performance and character, or lack thereof in the case of Alvaro Bautista.  For the past few seasons it was difficult to discern natural breaks in the standings.  Not so after four rounds in 2016:

  • Tranche One: Marquez, Lorenzo and Rossi.  The crème de la crème.
  • Tranche Two: Pedrosa, Pol Espargaro (Tech 3), and Team Suzuki Ecstar, Aleix Espargaro and Maverick Vinales.  Vinales figures to jump up sometime in the next year or two.
  • Tranche Three: Four Ducati pilots—Hector Barbera, Eugene Laverty, and the two Andreas, plus Tech 3 Yamaha slacker Bradley Smith.  Barbera and Laverty are punching above their weight, while Iannone and Dovizioso actually belong in Tranche Two, where they would reside were it not for bad luck (Dovizioso) and oversized testicles (Iannone).  Smith, so far this season, is making KTM as nervous as Mike Tyson in a spelling bee about having tapped him for the next two years.
  • Tranche Four: Stefan Bradl (Gresini Aprilia), Scott Redding (Pramac Ducati), Alvaro Bautista (Gresini) and Tito Rabat (Marc VDS Honda).  Redding and Rabat are underachieving while heading up; Bradl and Bautista are overachieving while heading down.  Imagine how these standings would look had Gigi Dall’Igna stayed at Aprilia.
  • Tranche Five: Cal (lol) Crutchlow (LCR Honda), Loris Baz (Avintia Ducati), Yonny Hernandez (Avintia) and Jack Miller (Marc VDS).  These four just can’t get arrested.  Crutchlow, especially, has top ten talent and a world of excuses to go along with his five (5) points for 2016.  Baz has potential but must overcome a height problem, a tall order indeed.  Yonny appears to have peaked a year or two ago, while Miller really has no business in the premier class at this point in his career.

Pramac Ducati hard luck case Danilo Petrucci is, as yet, untranched, having missed the entire season with injuries.  He is slated to return this week and is said to be anxious to claim a spot in Tranche Two.  Readers are encouraged to feign outrage over the tranching (?) of their favorite riders in the Comments section below.

What to Expect This Weekend

Wine in cardboard boxes and goatskins.  Rain at least one day.  Breathtaking brolly girls.  Lorenzo and Marquez in a cage match, with Rossi and Pedrosa tangling in the undercard.  Dovizioso on the podium if it rains on Sunday.  Herve Poncharal playing the “home race” card.  Michelin people everywhere, the dopey anachronistic Bib getting seriously outdrawn by the paddock gals.

People riding scooters smoking Gauloises.  Heavy security—guys in shorts and Jimmy Buffet t-shirts wearing black steel-toed boots, with machine pistols sticking out of their waistbands.  And at least one trio of Brits in those ridiculous head-to-toe Union Jack outfits, drunk out of their gourds, thinking they had bought tickets to a football match in Germany.

As of Monday evening, the weather looks promising, partly cloudy with temps in the 70’s and a slight chance of rain.  Rain is forecast for Monday and Tuesday; if it arrives early, Jorge Lorenzo will not win the race.  The Rain Gods, currently working overtime in the U.S., have yet to turn their attention to France.  If and when they do, anything can happen.

The race goes off early Sunday morning in the states.  We’ll have results and analysis right here later in the day.

MotoGP 2016 Jerez Results

April 24, 2016

© Bruce Allen.  Exclusive to Motorcycle.com

Rossi reigns in Spain 

Just when we thought we knew what to expect from the 2016 MotoGP season, today happened.  The practice sessions leading up to the (first of four) Spanish Grand Prix found the factory Yamaha team consistently at or near the top of the charts. Repsol Honda wonderkid Marc Marquez was competitive while struggling with rear grip.  Valentino Rossi waited until the last lap of Q2 to lay down the fastest lap of the weekend, for his first Jerez pole since 2005.  Today, The Doctor made a house call on Lorenzo, “administering a dose of his own medicine” in winning at Jerez for the first time since 2009. 

Today’s race was a reversal of form in several ways.  How many times have we seen Jorge Lorenzo or Marc Marquez get out front, try to leave the field behind, only to have #46 materialize on their rear tire looking for a way to steal their lunch money?  Today Rossi took this approach, withstanding an early challenge from Lorenzo on Lap 2, surrendering the lead for roughly 50 meters, before striking back and leading the rest of the race.  My trusty Dial-A-Cliché tool suggests “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery” would fit well here.  (Look for the quotation marks this tool generates, much like a watermark.)

For the first half of the race, Lorenzo dogged his teammate, seeing red, personal animosity vying with grudging professional respect, looking desperately for a way through which never appeared.  Marquez, likewise, tailgated Lorenzo for many of the first 14 laps and looked to be lining his countryman up for what would have been a risky pass.  Having learned the hard way last year that “discretion is the better part of valor,” he decided to settle for third place, in front of his home fans, a bitter pill to swallow which left him leading the 2016 race “at the end of the day.”

Viewing the 2016 championship from a distance, the dynamics of the Honda/Yamaha rivalry have changed dramatically over the past few years with the reunion of the Bruise Brothers at Yamaha and the gradual fading of Dani Pedrosa on the #2 factory Honda.  On a personal level, the loathing existent between Rossi and Lorenzo, and Rossi and Marquez, has resulted in some strange bedfellows. Between 2011 and 2013 it was Lorenzo routinely getting double-teamed by the Hondas. In late 2013 and 2014 it was Marquez’s turn to get doubled by Lorenzo and Rossi.  Now, the personal having overshadowed the corporate, it is Rossi expecting resistance from Lorenzo and Marquez. During the podium ceremony, if you just watched Marquez and Lorenzo, you would have sworn Rossi wasn’t even there, the body language of the three screaming contempt, Latin-style.

All sports thrive on rivalries.  Team sports are far more predictable than individual sports like MotoGP because teams, despite the pronouncements of commentators, really don’t have personalities.  Highly competitive individuals, notably the three occupying the front row of today’s grid, most assuredly do.  These rivalries become more intense as they become personal; at this point they appear to be driving the 2016 season, “much to the delight” of the fans.

Elsewhere on the Grid 

Readers of a certain age will recognize the blues standard “Born Under a Bad Sign” by William Bell, the best version of which was recorded by Cream back in the 70’s.  Factory Ducati pilot Andrea Dovizioso should consider having the main lyric—“If it wasn’t for bad luck, I wouldn’t have no luck at all”—stitched onto his leathers.

Dovizioso, who could easily occupy one of the top three spots for the season, finished a strong second in Qatar.  But he got flattened by teammate Andrea Iannone in Argentina while running second, and was pancaked by Pedrosa in Austin while contending for yet another podium.  Today, having qualified fourth, with the entire Ducati contingent struggling, he was running seventh when his bike emitted a puff of smoke, causing him to pull off onto the shoulder, turn on his flashers, and call AAA, his day over “through no fault of his own.”

Dani Pedrosa managed another low impact 4th today, a complete non-factor after Lap 6 despite a decent start.  The Suzuki Ecstar team, “on the other hand,” made it happen, with Aleix Espargaro taking 5th place, two seconds ahead of soon-to-be-Yamaha hotshot Maverick Vinales.  Ducati’s Andrea Iannone enjoyed an atrocious start, falling from his qualifying slot in 11th to 14th place by Lap 5.  His hard front tire, installed while he sat on the tarmac and untested all weekend, finally warmed up, and he clawed his way back to 7th at the flag.

Tech 3 Yamaha’s Pol Espargaro, the rider NOT joining the factory KTM project next year, kept his ride vertical again for an 8th place finish, falling from 4th to 5th for the season as Pedrosa stole his spot. Eugene Laverty, overachieving yet again, finished 9th as the #2 Ducati behind Iannone, with Hectic Hector Barbera completing the top ten on another second-hand Duc.

At the bottom of the premier class food chain today were two Marc VDS Hondas, Jack Miller, he of the splintered ankle and redneck facial hair, and Tito Rabat, getting consistently KO’d “punching above his weight.”  By far the saddest sack of the day was Scott Redding, who finished last, over a minute behind Rossi, the optimism of an outstanding offseason having become but “ashes in his mouth.”  Having announced this past week that his ultimate goal was a seat on a factory Ducati, he backed it up with perhaps his worst performance ever in the premier class.  Gigi, one assumes, was not overly impressed, much as my wife is when I announce that my ultimate goal is to get jiggy wit’ Heidi Klum.  Not sure which aspiration is less likely, though my wife does not suffer such uncertainty.

“Precious” Points

While I steal liberally from race announcers Nick Harris and Matthew Birt, both of whom “have forgotten more about MotoGP than I’ve ever known,” I need to register a protest over their oppressive use of the adjective “precious” when discussing championship points.  Points are important.  Points are, well, the point of competing for a championship.  Points are never refused—“No thanks, I’ve got plenty already.”  But “precious,” other than its alliterative value, is best reserved for describing babies—kittens, puppies, penguins, etc.  Banging on about the precious 13 points Dani Pedrosa earned today, or Cal Crutchlow’s first five of 2016, makes me long for an American announcing team, who would probably refer to them as “points.”

A Look Ahead

The grid returns to the historic Bugatti circuit at Le Mans in two weeks, the standings at the top somewhat tighter than they were yesterday.  Tomorrow’s test at Jerez may offer an opportunity for the Aliens to work on the rear grip problems they all complained about—loudly–after today’s race.  The three Brits—Smith, Crutchlow and Redding—need to work on doing more racing and less talking.  Gigi Dall’Igna needs to give some thought to upgrading the machines on loan to Laverty and Barbera. Finally, with Lorenzo looming on the horizon, the two Andreas of the factory Ducati team “need to fish or cut bait.”

MotoGP 2016 Jerez Preview

April 19, 2016

© Bruce Allen.  Exclusive to Motorcycle.com

Dog Bites Man – Lorenzo to Ducati 

So Jorge Lorenzo’s move from the factory Yamaha team to the factory Ducati team is now old news.  Maverick Vinales appears set to abandon the Suzuki team to take Lorenzo’s place.  We don’t know which of the current Andreas laboring for Ducati will be dislodged next year, but Sam Lowes has been tagged to move up from Moto2 to unseat either Bautista or Bradl on the Gresini Aprilia.  Dani Pedrosa’s seat with Repsol Honda appears to be in play; Suzuki is said to covet him or Dovizioso for 2017-18.  With several up-and-comers expected to graduate from Moto2 along with Lowes—Alex Rins and Johann Zarco first and foremost—the silly season is becoming more interesting than the 2016 championship season itself. 

Especially if Repsol Honda’s luminous Marc Marquez strolls out and dominates Jerez this weekend.  Which is entirely possible, after what he’s shown us recently in Argentina and Texas.  He appears to be, ahem, back.  The looming question as the season rolls into Round Four: who will be Marquez’s teammate starting next year?

Recent History at Jerez

Dani Pedrosa won a close 2013 affair after going through on polesitter Lorenzo on Lap 6, Marquez running third.  The three spent the next 20 laps in that order, coloring in between the lines, but the heat began to take a toll on Lorenzo’s tires, and he appeared to be struggling as the race wore on.  Pedrosa and Marquez, on the other hand, looked fresh and, on Lap 27, the rookie began lining up Lorenzo as if he wasn’t a defending double world champion.  The two traded positions in Turn 6, Lorenzo refusing to yield.  But in the Jorge Lorenzo Corner, of all places, its namesake ran a smidge wide and Marquez, lizard brain calling the shots, dove inside.  As Lorenzo attempted to cut back, the two touched, the Mallorcan being forced wide into third place for the day and the season.  To say he was unamused in Parc Fermè is a serious understatement.

The 2014 race featured an incandescent Marquez winning easily from pole, on his way to starting the season 10 for 10.  Rossi managed second place for his second podium of the young season; at that time we had no idea he would end up on the rostrum 13 times on the way to finishing second for the year.  Pedrosa went through on Lorenzo late in the day for the last podium spot, another indication that 2014, despite being even-numbered, would not be the Mallorcan’s year.  Coming on the heels of his crash in Qatar, a flailing 10th place finish in Austin and a desperate 3rd in Argentina, Lorenzo’s 2014 season was over before it had fully started.

Last year’s race was pure vintage Lorenzo.  Qualify on pole, get out in front early, attach bike to rails, press “Go,” and keep the last 26 laps within half a second of one another.  Regular as a piston, as dad used to say.  The resulting procession left Marquez (nursing a broken pinkie on his right hand) alone in 2nd and Rossi likewise in 3rd.  Cal Crutchlow managed a respectable 4th place on the Come What May LCR Honda, with Tech 3 Yamaha’s Pol Espargaro closing out the top five.  My prediction of having two Ducatis on the podium was met with derision, as Maniacal Joe Iannone topped the Italian effort in 6th place, teammate Dovizioso having gone walkabout on Lap 2 on his way to a disappointing 9th.

The Big Early Contract Effect

From our Department of Undiluted Speculation comes this idea that riders signing big fat new contracts early in the season go on to underperform that year.  While our crack research department is looking back at earlier instances of this, we have in front of us two credible examples, with a possible third in the works:

  • Valentino Rossi re-ups with Yamaha weeks ago and is assured of a sweet ride through the end of 2018. Coincidentally (?) he’s off to his worst start since 2001, ignoring the lucrative Ducati dumpster fire of 2011-2012.
  • Bradley Smith, late of the satellite Yamaha team and moving on to richer pastures with the nascent factory KTM project next season, has amassed 16 points thus far this year. In 2014 he had 20; last year he was at 26.  Something has interrupted his trajectory, and I think it’s the money, a semi-conscious effort to avoid crashing before the big payday arrives.
  • On Monday it was announced that Lorenzo had signed his deal with Ducati, in exchange for wheelbarrows full of euros, 12-15 million at last estimate. The end of the 2015 season left the proud Spaniard’s ego bruised, with Yamaha unable to celebrate his championship in a “suitable” fashion while Rossi fumed and spat about a Lorenzo/Marquez conspiracy to deprive him of the title.  Jorge chalked up seven wins in the last 15 rounds last season.  It says here he will fall short of that mark this year.  On some level, conscious or otherwise, he may wish to punish Yamaha for their reverence of his rainmaking teammate and rival.  Saving himself for his new love and avoiding risk this season would manifest such desire; a rejuvenated Marquez would increase the possibility.

Maverick Vinales may prove the exception to the rule, as he is still trying to earn his Alien card and likely feels a good deal of loyalty toward the Suzuki team that sent his star rising.  If and when he signs his deal with Yamaha, I would expect him to keep pushing for podiums and wins, which may be within his reach at some circuits on the calendar.  He’s young enough not to fully appreciate the risks inherent in his sport, and has, as far as I know, not a single gram of titanium in his body.  Compare this to Dani Pedrosa, 20% of whose body weight is metal.  When Dani goes through airport security, klaxon horns blare and the lights start strobing.

The Kentucky Kid Gains Traction

Fans of Nicky Hayden will note that he recorded his first WSBK podium this past weekend at Assen, pushing him up to fifth place for the season.  Having watched him jump on a cruiser and immediately break the rev limiter at the AMA Indy Mile a few years ago, I thought Superbike would be a walk in the park for a guy who’s been riding since he was three.  Not so.  But he seems to be figuring it out, and few North American racing fans can be sorry to see him doing better.  You’ll not find a nicer, more accessible guy in the paddock than Nicky Hayden.

Your Weekend Forecast

As of this writing, the weekend forecast for Jerez de la Frontera is pretty much ideal—dry with temps in the mid-70’s.  They’ve been racing bikes at Jerez longer than at any other circuit outside Assen, though her glory has faded somewhat in recent years as the Spanish economy bottomed out.  Having attended the race in 2010, when Lorenzo came from WAY back to overtake Pedrosa on the last lap, I would be reluctant to count Jorge out this weekend.  My personal forecast is for an all-Spanish podium, one which includes Maverick Vinales.

The race goes off early Sunday morning EDT.  We’ll have results and analysis later in the day.

MotoGP 2016 COTA Results

April 10, 2016

Marc Marquez:  Lone Star in the Lone Star State

 On a nice spring afternoon outside Austin, Texas, Repsol Honda supernova Marc Marquez, looking much the way he did in 2013 and 2014, put on another clinic, winning the Grand Prix of the Americas from pole for the fourth consecutive year.  The win makes Captain America 10 for 10 in premier class tilts run in the United States. 

I used to think that bingo was the only game in which one could be bored and anxious at the same time.  Today’s race—a procession, punctuated by life-threatening crashes—felt like an evening in the church basement.

Yamaha rider and defending world champion Jorge Lorenzo knew, sitting next to Marquez on the front row at the start, that his only chance for a win today would occur on Lap 1, by getting in Marquez’s business, throwing the young Catalan off his rhythm, and trying to get away.  So determined was he to accomplish this that he narrowly avoided running off the track at Turn 1 and again at Turn 11, running ragged with cold tires, too much fuel, and no rhythm of his own.  It didn’t work, and Marquez took the lead he would never relinquish.

The front group included Valentino Rossi, Ducati’s hard luck Andrea Dovizioso and factory Honda afterthought Dani Pedrosa.  Rossi got caught in traffic and fell back to around 6th, where he and Pedrosa jousted for a short while.  At Turn 3 of Lap 3, Rossi lost the front at speed and slid well into the gravel, removing around a dozen sponsor logos from his leathers, his day over.  Our crack research staff tells me this is the first time in the last 25 races that Rossi has finished outside the top five.

While Marquez was disappearing, Lorenzo took firm control of second place, having gone through on Dovizioso on Lap 5.  Lap 6 saw Ducati Maniac Andrea Iannone go through on Suzuki #2 Aleix Espargaro into 5th place.  Pedrosa was dogging Dovizioso in the battle for third place on Lap 6 when the broadcast switched to his front camera.  Seconds later, Dovizioso’s bike filled the frame just in time to get poleaxed by Pedrosa, as the Spaniard lost the front in Turn 1 and his suddenly riderless bike creamed the Ducati.  How Pedrosa’s Honda missed Dovi’s left leg is a mystery.  The Italian’s day was over, but Pedrosa climbed back aboard his RC213V and turned a few more laps before calling it a day.

Everyone Please Take Three Steps Forward

With Dovizioso and Rossi out and Pedrosa trailing the field, the remaining riders behind Lorenzo received promotions of three spots.  Kind of like going from private to lieutenant in ten minutes.  Iannone, running relatively cautiously after the debacle in Argentina when he took out teammate Dovizioso in a painfully stupid move, was, suddenly, contending for a podium.  The two Suzukis, experiencing their own rebirth of sorts, found themselves contesting fourth place in a battle Maverick Vinales would eventually win over Aleix Espargaro.

Octo Pramac Ducati’s Scott Redding was winning The Battle of Britain, enjoying life in 6th place while Cal Crutchlow, on the LCR Honda, and Bradley Smith, on the Tech 3 Yamaha, were slugging it out for seventh.  On Lap 8, Crutchlow, in an unforced error that was undoubtedly somebody else’s fault, slid off the track into the runoff area.  Scant seconds later, with Smith apparently rubbernecking at Crutchlow’s misfortune, the Tech 3 rider fell, his careening bike missing the back of Crutchlow’s ankles by mere inches.  Both men remounted the remnants of their bikes and were the last two riders to see the checkered flag.

A Moment of Reflection

I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say that Andrea Dovizioso and Cal Crutchlow are incomprehensibly lucky to be walking around tonight.  This is the second week in a row that Crutchlow narrowly avoided a disaster he didn’t even realize was happening.  Such is the nature of MotoGP, with objects moving at speeds uncontemplated by our Creator or the slow crawl of evolution (take your choice), lives hanging precariously in the balance.  Some riders, like Crutchlow and Dovizioso, may be lucky enough, or blessed enough, to tell stories about these things to their grandchildren one day.  Others, like Marco Simoncelli and Shoya Tomizawa, will never have grandchildren to hear them.  When a Jorge Lorenzo gets irritated by the stupid antics of an Alvaro Bautista and talks about risking his life every time he climbs aboard, he’s not just whistling “Dixie.”

The Big Picture

If you had suggested at Sepang during winter testing, when Marquez was lapping 1.5 seconds behind Lorenzo, that he would be leading the championship by 21 points after three rounds he probably would have suggested that you get your head examined.  Yet here we are.  The other anomalies in the top ten include Tech 3 Yamaha’s Pol Espargaro sitting fourth despite seeming to be having a difficult year, swarthy Ducati pilot and underachiever Hectic Hector Barbera sitting sixth, and Ulsterman Eugene Laverty sitting ninth.  Laverty’s euphoria from last week was short-lived, as he went from a highly fluky fourth place to four points in a week.  Still, not bad for a guy on a two-year-old Ducati.

Okay, so I’ve never been a big fan of Cal Crutchlow, who has always, in my opinion, talked a better race than he rides.  He so rarely mans up and takes the blame when things go wrong.  So I may be forgiven for enjoying seeing him sitting in last place, 0-for-2016 after three rounds.  Looking forward to the article on the MotoGP website—it should appear tomorrow or Tuesday—in which he explains who was to blame for today’s crash and how he skillfully avoided getting shattered by Smith’s unguided missile.  As they say in Coventry, hard cheese old boy.

And another thing.  Jack Miller, the Great Anglo-Saxon Hope, so cool and fast he was allowed to skip second grade, is declared out of today’s race after two more heavy crashes this weekend.  Honda is so anxious to locate the second coming of Casey Stoner, and the kid’s ambition is so large, he’s going to seriously injure himself or someone else out there, generally riding out of control and creating huge piles of brightly painted and utterly trashed carbon fiber.  Dude needs to think about a step back to Moto2.

A Final Thought Before Returning to Europe

Everything’s big in Texas—from the state itself, which takes 24 hours to drive across, to the iniquity of its junior US senator.  COTA maintains the tradition, with the most corners (20) in a MotoGP circuit (Red Bull Ring in Austria has nine), the longest straight on the tour, the steepest hill, seating for 120,000 fans, etc., etc.  But seriously, let’s just get it over with and rename the track the Marc Marquez Circuit.  Better yet, how about the Circuito Marc Marquez, since Texas was originally a northern state of Mexico before Sam Houston and his boys shoved the locals across the Rio Grande way back when.

Round Four touches off in Jerez in two weeks.  In the meantime, we’ll keep an eye on the Lorenzo to Ducati and Vinales to Yamaha stories, and will have them for you in full once they’re official.

MotoGP 2016 COTA Preview

April 5, 2016

© Bruce Allen.  Exclusive to Motorcycle.com

Marquez has momentum heading for Texas

After an exhausting, confusing and ultimately revelatory weekend in Argentina, MotoGP boogies 4500 miles north to Austin, deep in the heart of Texas, for Round 3 of the 2016 season.  Since its inception in 2013, the pretentiously-named Circuit of the Americas has hosted an annual Honda clambake, the other teams invited mostly to fill the grid and add to the festival atmosphere.  Repsol Honda pretty boy Marc Marquez has started and won from pole all three years, and looks ready to do the same on Sunday. 

Before examining the prospects for the riders and teams on Sunday, let’s take a few moments to savor the ridiculous spectacle that was the Grand Prix of Argentina, including:

  • The great 2016 tire fiasco which, we trust, will not be repeated this year;
  • The weather, ranging from apocalyptic heat on Friday to rain and treacherous track conditions on Sunday;
  • The outstanding performances turned in by Marquez, Aspar Ducati’s Eugene Laverty, Suzuki hot property Maverick Vinales, Avintia Ducati’s Hector Barbera and factory Ducati pilot Andrea Dovizioso, last seen pushing his GP16 across the finish line after getting de-pantsed by teammate and road hazard Andrea Iannone;
  • The rhetorical tour de force of Cal Crutchlow, who, after the race, put on a masterful display of conditional verb tenses explaining why he coulda, woulda and shoulda podiumed after crashing twice during the race. In doing so, he finished in a dead heat with the racing surface at Rio Hondo in the widely-followed Abrasiveness Challenge;
  • The feast-to-famine fortunes of the factory Ducati team, the Dueling Andreas having gotten the best of Valentino Rossi, moments away from a double podium finish, that put on display for the world the alarmingly low racing IQ of The Rider Formerly Known as Crazy Joe Iannone. Dovi’s post-race comments did little to hide the disdain with which he holds his teammate and lend credence to the speculation that he may jump to Suzuki next year.  With Lorenzo rumored to be weighing a switch to Ducati in 2017, Iannone’s comportment may become a topic of conversation in Jorge’s contract negotiations;
  • The bitterness and acrimony directed toward Ducati Corse by pretty much every non-Ducati pilot on the grid, blaming the Italian factory for the entire tire fiasco and flaming Dorna for kowtowing to Dall’Igna and Company;
  • In the junior classes, an incredible come-out-of-nowhere Moto3 win by Khairul Idham Pawi for the first win ever by a Malaysian rider in any class, and by a full 26 seconds! (Tickets for the Sepang round in October sold out 11 minutes after the conclusion of the race.)  An unthinkable Malaysian 1-2 finish was spoiled only by the terrible luck of one Adam Norrodin, who went high side a few seconds before the flag and who pushed the remains of his bike across the line, limping badly, for the best 11th place finish you’re likely to see this year.  Fellow Malaysian rider Hafizh Syahrin, with a competitive 6th place finish in Moto2, currently sits in fourth position for the year, ahead of luminaries such as Alex Rins, Jonas Folger and Danny Kent.  Having attended the 2014 Malaysian Grand Prix, these young men will return home as deities in their historically polytheistic culture.  Kudos to all three.

Recent History at COTA

The last three years of what I think of as the Texas Grand Prix can be summed up in two words:  Marc Marquez.  He finished semi-comfortably in front of teammate Pedrosa and Lorenzo in 2013, becoming the youngest rider ever to win a premier class race.  He overwhelmed Pedrosa in 2014 by over four seconds, with Dovizioso a further 17 seconds behind on his Ducati.  Last year it was Dovi finishing second and Rossi third in a generally uneventful race.

I’ve recently reviewed a number of my predictions from the past seven seasons, most of which have been terrible.  The single exception came from the COTA results article in 2013, a bit of which is reproduced here:

Suddenly, everyone else on the grid looks old, slow and uptight.  Each time he’s interviewed, Marquez comes across as a happy, humble, regular kind of guy. Watching him come up through the 125s and Moto2, like a hot knife through butter, you got the clear impression he was going to be successful one day in the premier class.  In only his second race onboard the Honda RC213V, he has now come of age, at a track he is liable to dominate for the next decade.  In doing so, he has become my favorite to win the 2013 world championship.

OK, so we know now that the happy, humble thing was an act, that he is as steely-eyed and aggressive as they come, fully capable of hatred, anger and loss of emotional control.  Big deal.  These guys, as a species, are as competitive as anyone on the planet.  To compete at a championship level in motorcycle racing, you can’t be a cuddly little puppy; you need to be a miniature Rottweiler with a bad disposition, as long as you remember to smile and wave at any MotoGP video cams aimed in your direction.

A final thought concerning Marquez:  Either he gets professionally shaved every morning on race weekends, or he hasn’t yet started shaving.  I have never EVER seen him with any kind of stubble on his chin.  One imagines him at home in Spain, dozens of lithe Spanish cuties hanging all over him, wondering what to do.  (Too bad he’s no longer on speaking terms with Vale, who could probably give him a lesson or 12 in that area.)

WSBK and Nicky Hayden

Several fans of this column have commented recently wondering a) why MO doesn’t assign me to cover World Superbike and b) how Nicky Hayden is doing in Triple A ball.  The answer to the first question is that I don’t really follow WSBK, along with the fact that MO can only stand so much of my gibberish.  As to the second, Nicky, fronting the Honda World Superbike team, sits in 8th place after this past weekend with 41 points.  Series leader Johnny Rea, MotoGP Wannabe, has gathered 131 points on the factory Kawasaki team.  It appears Hayden’s hope of becoming the only rider to win world championships in both series is, at best, premature.

Your Weekend Forecast

Marquez for the win, followed by Pedrosa and Dovizioso or Rossi.

As for the weather, at this time Weather.com is calling for cloudy and breezy conditions, temps in the low 80’s, with a chance of rain on Sunday morning.  Anything short of a tornado or freak blizzard falls under the heading of “Honda weather,” the hotter the better.

Team Yamaha must feel somewhat dispirited after last weekend, with Lorenzo having struggled all weekend and Rossi extremely fortunate to podium.  Iannone gets sent back a full row on the starting grid after his brain fart on Sunday, and COTA is not a layout that will be super friendly for the Suzukis.

If you have access to the live broadcast—seriously, think about subscribing to the Dorna video feed—the race goes off at 3 pm EDT.  We’ll have results and instant analysis right here on Sunday evening.

MotoGP 2016 Rio Hondo Results

April 3, 2016

 © Bruce Allen.  Exclusive to Motorcycle.com

Marquez wins as racing gods take charge

To the casual observer looking at the final result, the 2016 Argentine Grand Prix would appear to have been just another MotoGP race.  Marc Marquez topped the podium, flanked by usual suspects Valentino Rossi and Dani Pedrosa.  Upon closer examination, however, it becomes clear that the racing gods were in complete control for the entire weekend.  From FP1 to the final turn, it was el mano de Dios calling the shots.

Friday was as hot as the hinges of hell.  The Yamahas cowered in the heat; defending world champion and Yamaha icon Jorge Lorenzo finished 12th in the morning, improving to 14th in the afternoon.  Rossi managed 6th and 7th on Friday, but was not setting the world on fire, as it were.  Riders complained that the track was dirty, that no effort had been made to put it in racing condition since its last use back in December.  Turn 1 hosted a weekend-long series of crashes reminiscent of a 1960’s Jan and Dean anthem.  Naturally, Dorna responded to the criticism by signing a new three year deal with Termas de Rio Hondo on Saturday.

Saturday afternoon, Octo Pramac Ducati pilot Scott Redding was minding his own business, doing 200 mph down the back straight when he experienced a private deus ex machina, the tread flying off his rear casing like a semi shedding a retread.  The impact removed a chunk of his rear fairing and left Redding with a welt on his back that looked like he’d been hit with a 2 X 4.  Dorna immediately went into lockdown mode (curiously re-starting the practice session) and, in consultation with a chagrined Michelin, began issuing releases faster than the scribblers could send them home, the last and most coherent of which (on Sunday morning) follows:

The race distance is changed to 20 laps.

IN THE CASE OF THE RACE STARTING IN DRY CONDITIONS:

  • Riders must change bikes at the end of their ninth, tenth or 11th Lap.
  • If rain starts and Race Direction consider the situation to be dangerous the red flag will be shown and all riders should enter pit lane.
  • Teams will be given 15 minutes between the display of the red flag and opening of pit lane to make adjustments to the machines.
  • The second part of the race will be for 10 laps. Grid positions will be based on the result of the first part and will be declared a wet race.

IN THE CASE OF THE RACE STARTING IN WET CONDITIONS

  • Riders may enter the pits to change machines only from the end of their ninth lap.
  • If the wet race is red flagged for other reasons when more than 13 laps have been completed then the result will stand and there will be no restart.

Marquez laid down a blistering first flying lap during Q2 which stood up, maintaining his record of never having not started from the pole in Argentina.  Lorenzo and Rossi had regrouped after Friday and traded places several times late in the session, with Rossi ending up second and Lorenzo third.  The second row included young phenom Maverick Vinales on the Suzuki, joined by the Dueling Andreas of the factory Ducati team, Dovizioso and Iannone.

A fifth practice session was hastily arranged for Sunday morning to introduce the riders to Michelin’s Fustercluck tire, an emergency compound intended for use only in the event of a Phillip Island 2013-scale disaster, which this was becoming.  The session was abandoned when Sunday dawned wet; the Moto3 race was a wet race, the Moto2 affair declared “dry” but far from it.  The track was drying quickly, the leaden clouds holding their water, so to speak.  After twisting itself into knots trying to determine how to avoid sending the riders out on tires they had never previously tried, Race Direction ended up with a dry race run under the ad hoc rules published above.

As the riders lined up on the grid waiting for the lights to go out, the racing gods, done messing with the weather, were casting lots to determine who would end the day frolicking with the lambs in the “Lucky” column and who would end up with the goats in the “Unlucky” column.  They apparently decided to consign one rider to a third category, “Thick as a Brick.”

Seriously, Are You Ever Going to Give Us the Race?

 The start was dicey at best.  Iannone and Pedrosa made contact in Turn 1, sending the Spaniard way wide and apparently ending his podium bid.  The front group emerged late on Lap 1 comprised of Dovizioso, Rossi, Marquez, Vinales and Lorenzo.  Goats Cal Crutchlow and Aleix Espargaro slid off simultaneously at Turn 1 (no kidding) of Lap 2, Crutchlow evading Espargaro’s unguided missile by inches. (Both would re-enter and finish the race, for whatever reason.)  Yonny Hernandez, suffering the ignominy of starting his “home race” from the back of the grid, crashed out moments later.  Goat.

Jack Miller, on the Marc VDS Honda, appearing lamb-like, climbed all the way up to 7th position and actually went through on the laboring Lorenzo before crashing out on Lap 3, unlucky as usual.  Lorenzo himself, fresh off his win in Qatar, slid off at Turn 1 of Lap 6, his goat horns appearing as little winglets on his helmet.

As the front group began thinking about their mandatory pit stops, Marquez led Rossi by less than a second, followed by Vinales and the two factory Ducatis.  Rossi and Marquez went through on each other twice on Lap 9, providing a déjà vu of last year’s race.  Vinales, Iannone and Pedrosa, among others, pitted on Lap 9 without incident.  On Lap 10, Rossi tailgated Marquez into pit lane.  Both made clean swaps, Marquez holding the lead exiting the pits.  Along comes Tito Rabat on his Marc VDS Honda, a BFF of Marquez.  Somehow (wink wink) Marquez managed to enter the track in front of Rabat, while Rossi was forced to yield.  In the next minute, Marquez stretched his lead over Rossi from a few tenths to over two seconds.  At the time, it appeared Rabat was helping his buddy; Rossi’s comments after the race dispelled that notion, as his #2 bike wasn’t nearly as sharp as #1 had been.

Marquez puts down a vapor trail, leaving Rossi to duke it out with upstart Vinales, the two Andreas snapping and snarling right behind him (Rabat had checked out, pitting on Lap 11), Pedrosa a mile behind.  This went on for a while, with Vinales appearing to be lining Rossi up for a memorable pass.  (Farther back in the pack, Redding, in pure goat mode, had climbed all the way up to seventh position before his Ducati stalled, putting the capper on a gruesome weekend for the likeable Brit.)

You could almost hear the gods howling with laughter during the final two laps.  Vinales approaches Turn 1 on Lap 18 two feet off the racing line, finds a tiny puddle of water, and goes from lamb to goat in an instant, thoughts of his first premier class podium up in smoke.  Rossi, clearly a lamb, is suddenly relieved of one serious threat to his podium hopes, but has two more, the Andreas, to contend with, both of whom seem to have more pace.  Still, if you want to go through on Valentino Rossi late on Sunday, you had better pack your lunch, because it’s not gonna be easy.

Lap 20: Rossi is holding off Dovi, with Iannone threatening, in full Maniac mode, in the last three turns.  Iannone, desperate for a podium after crashing out of the lead in Qatar, sees a possible opening in the last turn, dives inside, loses the front, and collects Dovizioso on his way into the kitty litter.  Boom—game over.  Dovi, the blameless lamb, is stuck with the worst luck of the day.  Iannone must explain his actions to Race Direction and Gigi Dall’Igna, Thick as a Brick tattooed on his forehead.  Pedrosa is shocked to suddenly find himself on the podium.  And Eugene Laverty, on the Aspar Ducati, the luckiest lamb of all, finishes the day in fourth position, the leading satellite rider, a full eight spots higher than his previous best MotoGP career finish in Qatar two weeks ago.  The only word to describe the look on his face in Parc Fermè is “stunned.”

The Big Picture

Marc Marquez seizes the 2016 championship lead, ahead of Rossi, Pedrosa and Lorenzo.  Pedrosa, looking thoroughly downcast after the race, needs to figure out what’s up with his 2016 RC213V.  Hector Barbera resides in seventh place for the season, ahead of off-season strivers Vinales and Redding.  And The Maniac, who I had tagged as an Alien-in-waiting, having crashed out of five of his last six races, is 0 for 2016 after two rounds.

Next week it’s another Honda-friendly track in Austin.  One hopes that the racing gods got their fill today.  American racing fans don’t like all that livestock wandering around their racetracks.

MotoGP 2016 Rio Hondo Preview

March 30, 2016

© Bruce Allen.  Exclusive to Motorcycle.com

Lorenzo looks to extend his lead in Argentina

After a convincing performance in the Qatari desert two weeks ago, defending world champion Jorge Lorenzo confronts one of his demons this week.  The Gran Premio Motul de la República Argentina, running as usual at the shiny new-ish Termas de Río Hondo, operates outside of Lorenzo’s Land.  One of five venues on the 2016 calendar where Lorenzo has yet to taste victory in the premier class (quick–name the other four*), Lorenzo will have his work cut out for him this weekend. 

d7f9e438-0c47-467c-8916-2e7aa309cf6aLorenzo imageHaving tested at Losail just weeks ago, the grid had a reasonably good idea what to expect from the standard ECU and Michelin rubber when the lights went out in Doha.  Not so at Rio Hondo.  Friday will mark the first time the riders have set foot on the Argentine asphalt in 2016.  We are reminded of how Repsol Honda star Marc Marquez acquainted himself with the place in 2014 when the track first opened.  He strolled around in 14th place during FP1, then cinched everything up, lowered his visor, and topped the charts in FP2, FP3, FP4, Q2, the warm-up practice and, finally, the race itself.  Caution will be the order of the day on Friday morning. Marquez swims across the line

Lorenzo’s pursuers in the 2016 chase—Ducati Andreas Dovizioso and Iannone, Marquez, teammate and nemesis Valentino Rossi foremost among them—have reason to feel optimistic heading for the southern hemisphere.  Both Marquez and Rossi have won here, in 2014 and last year, respectively.  Repsol Honda mighty mite Dani Pedrosa finished less than two seconds behind Marquez in 2014 and in front of both Lorenzo and Rossi.  Dovizioso claimed a clean second place finish last year, while Honda tough guy Cal Crutchlow was busy punking Iannone at the flag for his only podium of 2015.  Iannone, especially, having crashed out of the lead in Qatar, needs to make up some ground this week to cut into Lorenzo’s 25 point advantage.  God knows he has the bike upon which to do it.

Not Riblets—Winglets!

Ducati wingletThe feng shui (Japanese for “latest fad”) in MotoGP these days are these little wing thingies that have sprouted from the front fairings of just about every bike on the grid over the past few years.  According to Matt Oxley, former rider and current paddock layabout, the appendages on the Ducatis are suspected of producing dirty air—read: turbulence—for trailing riders.  Many of us are accustomed to hearing this concept applied to racing yachts and fighter jets, but this is a new finding in MotoGP.  Matt cites anecdotal evidence that such turbulence came close to unseating Dani Pedrosa in Australia last year.

Several thoughts on this subject:  Why are the Ducs being singled out for causing problems, while none of the other manufacturers, all of whom are sporting riblets winglets, stand accused?  Sure, the Ducatis flirt with low Earth orbits on long straights, as we saw illustrated vividly at the end of Lap 1 at Losail.  But such would appear to be a matter of degree; it’s not like they’re breaking the sound barrier.  (Yet, anyway.)  Could this be a case of, ahem, “intelligent design,” deployed to discourage other riders from hitching a tow behind Iannone or Dovizioso?  The strakes are prohibited in Moto2 and Moto3; why, then, are they permitted on the fastest bikes on the planet?

The irony here is that subsequent to the tragic Marco Simoncelli crash at Sepang in 2011, Dorna and Grand Gouda Carmelo Ezpeleta announced their intention to reduce speeds and make the sport safer going forward.  Instead, they allow enhanced aerodynamics which improve traction, while the engineers beaver away to squeeze horsepower and torque out of the engines.  The result?  Iannone hits 218 mph in the warm-up at Losail, Dani Pedrosa is allegedly getting tossed around like a ragdoll in the wake, and the sport looks to be setting itself up for another pointless fatality.

MotoGP bikes are fast.  Fans are unable to distinguish between a motorcycle traveling at 190 mph and one traveling at 200 unless they’re running side by side.  Enough already with the winglets.

Speaking of enough already, Cal Crutchlow’s lament in Qatar that he crashed because “the bike didn’t know where it was” reveals just how Space Odyssey the electronics have become.  (“I’m sorry, Dave.  I’m afraid I can’t do that.”)  I, for one, hope it becomes fashionable in the future for the riders to do more and the ECUs to do less, before MotoGP becomes just a big, noisy, expensive video game.

Pity Danilo Petrucci

PetrucciOne rider for whom I had high hopes this season is Danilo Petrucci, Scott Redding’s teammate on the Pramac Ducati team.  Despite having averaged 23 points a year during his first three premier class seasons, all of which were spent on execrable machinery, someone at Ducati saw something in him and gave him a ride on a second hand Desmosedici last season.  He went from having earned 17 points in 2014 to 113 and a top ten finish last year.  With an even stronger bike beneath him, I thought him capable of finishing between sixth and tenth this year.

Alas, bad luck intervened.  Petrucci smashed his right hand in a late pre-season testing crash, and did it again trying to return too soon in Qatar.  He is now out indefinitely, his place being taken by highly qualified Ducati test rider Michele Pirro.  The melody you hear in the background is the Colonel Bogey March being whistled by Casey Stoner, standing around, under contract to test for Ducati but unwilling to return to the track.  Virtually identical to the situation when he was testing for Honda and Dani Pedrosa broke his collarbone.  Married readers may detect in all this the invisible hand of Adriana Stoner, who, it must be assumed, has assured Casey that in the event she ever sees #27 on a race day track, the only function left to be served by his didgeridoo will be urination.

Questions in Search of Answers in Argentina

In no particular order:

  • Are any of the other Aliens strong enough to mount a serious challenge to Lorenzo this year? This would seem a good place to begin to find out.
  • Can Iannone (or Dovi) challenge Lorenzo mano à mano on Sunday, assuming he keeps his bike shiny side up? The Alien Club beckons.
  • Have Maverick Vinales, Scott Redding and Hector Barbera improved as much as we thought during the offseason?
  • Is Dani Pedrosa beginning to show signs of wear? Since the end of last season, which he finished strong, his testing and early season performance has been distinguished, in my dad’s words, only by its lack of distinction.
  • Who gets the last slot on the grid for next season? The name Tito Pons keeps surfacing, with either Pol Espargaro or Alex Rins the favorites to man the bike, whatever the bike turns out to be.  A brixxer would be nice.
  • The weather forecast for the Esteros environs calls for hot and mostly dry conditions on Friday and Saturday, with cool, wet air moving in for Sunday. Will the weather get in Lorenzo’s way?  The Ducs are voting in favor of rain.
  • Cal Crutchlow’s bike had an existential crisis in Qatar. Can it find itself this week in South America?
  • And what’s up with Aleix Espargaro? Maybe it’s the ECU, maybe it’s the tires; whatever it is, he needs to get with the program.  His wingman is making him look sick.

For those of you still able to watch on live TV, the race goes off Sunday at 3 pm EDT.  We’ll have results here by 6 pm EDT Sunday.   Instant analysis, free of charge, and worth every penny.

*COTA, The Sachsenring, Red Bull Ring and Sepang.  You thought I forgot.

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