2010: Lorenzo enjoys a late lunch at Jerez

April 25, 2017

© Bruce Allen

Filet of Rossi on Lap 21; Roast of Pedrosa on Lap 27 

The Gran Premio bwin de Espana at Jerez de la Frontera on Sunday was a hash of the worst and the best that MotoGP has to offer.  The first 22 laps were an absolute parade with virtually no lead changes and little drama, aside from guys pushing 200 mph on two wheels.  The last five laps were a masterpiece by Jorge Lorenzo, who moved from fourth place to first for his first win of 2010.  In the process, he again demonstrated the patience and strategic thinking he has lacked until now.  It appears that his development as the heir apparent to Valentino Rossi may now be in its final stages. 

Sunday was a perfect day on the dazzling Spanish Riviera.  The usual suspects had qualified well on Saturday, led, somewhat surprisingly, by homeboy Dani Pedrosa, who apparently solved the suspension problems that had plagued him all year.  Pedrosa was on the pole, followed by Lorenzo, Ducati Marlboro’s Casey Stoner and Valentino Rossi.  Nicky Hayden, Randy de Puniet and Colin Edwards completed Tranche One on this round, and it looked as if the long-suffering Pedrosa might enjoy his first day in the sun since his win last year at Valencia.

Recall that Round 1 in Qatar had left Casey Stoner gasping for air, Valentino Rossi looking impregnable, and Jorge Lorenzo sporting the long-awaited maturity he had lacked as recently as last season.  Lorenzo’s balls-to-the-wall racing style had secured second place in the world in 2009, but the three DNFs he recorded in his reckless (not wreckless) style had probably cost him the championship.  At Qatar, Nicky Hayden looked rejuvenated, Andrea Dovizioso looked threatening, and rookie Ben Spies looked ready for prime time.

As they say here in Spain, “Bienvenido a Espana.”

For the bulk of the first 20 laps today, it was Pedrosa, Rossi, Hayden, Lorenzo, Stoner and Dovizioso going round and round.  There was some action in the seven-to-eleven spots, but I’m generally too busy to pay much attention to that stuff.  Several riders went walkabout early on, including the soon-to-be-late Loris Capirossi and Aleix Espargaro.  Pramac Racing’s Espargaro recovered and re-entered the race, only to spend most of his day working feverishly trying not to get lapped by Pedrosa.  Ben Spies retired on Lap 7 with mechanical issues.  By Lap 20, the guys in the row front of us started passing big joints around, noticeably bypassing us.  One of the gorgeous brunettes (a dime a dozen in these parts) in the stand next to us was fiddling with her split ends.  “Off in the distance, a dog howled.”

Suddenly, it became obvious that Jorge Lorenzo had found something.

On Lap 10 he had passed Hayden without breaking a sweat, and began patiently lining up Rossi.  By Lap 21 he was on top of Rossi, and then past him.  Pedrosa, who led all day by more than a second—plenty in MotoGP time—led Lorenzo by .8 at that point.  I was thinking it would end up Pedrosa/Lorenzo/Rossi, a nice day for the hometown crowd, when Lorenzo left Rossi in his wake and drew a bead on Pedrosa.

Everyone knows the depth of enjoyment Jorge Lorenzo experiences passing teammate and arch rival Valentino Rossi.  Judging from how Lorenzo handled himself on the last three laps of this race, it’s possible he enjoys taking down Dani Pedrosa equally well.  Teammate or countryman?  Countryman or teammate?  Who really knows what’s going on in Jorge Lorenzo’s head?

Not that it matters.  Both Lorenzo and Pedrosa performed as expected in the last five laps of the race.  Lorenzo exerted his will on his bike and his countryman.  Pedrosa rode well in the lead and folded when it mattered, running wide in a late right-hander and allowing Lorenzo through, conceding the path to the win.  Talking a brave game all week long and then lacking los cojones at the moment of truth to hold his ground and force Lorenzo on to the brakes.  The book on Dani is “doesn’t like to mix it up in the corners.”  The book had it dead right today.

All in all, it was a great day to be a Spanish racing fan.  Early in the morning, it was 18-year old Spaniard Daniel Ruiz starting the day by winning the first Rookie’s Cup race of the season.  Pol Espargaro took the 125cc race while many of the fans were still finding their way to their seats.  Toni Elias, fresh off his crash in Qatar and nursing a bad wrist, battled Thomas Luthi and Shoya Tomizawa all day and finally prevailed for his first Moto2 win before his home fans, most of whom were delirious with joy at the end of the race.  Lorenzo and Pedrosa took the top two spots on the premier class podium.  And although the fans claim to prefer Pedrosa to Lorenzo, as Jorge hails all the way from Barcelona, for God’s sake, it appears they’ve grown a little weary of Pedrosa’s mad Chihuahua routine, his underdog-singing-the-blues rap.  There was no shortage of Lorenzo fans in today’s crowd.

Elsewhere on the grid, Pramac’s Mika Kallio had a great day, starting dead last and finishing 7th.   Marco Melandri recovered from a dreadful outing in Qatar to finish 8th today.  LCR Honda’s Randy de Puniet qualified 6th and finished 9th, making him two for two this year qualifying better on Saturday than he raced on Sunday.  Alvaro Bautista recovered from a last lap fall in Qatar to finish 10th and claim the Top Rookie of the Week award from Hiroshi Aoyama, who won it at Losail but struggled today, finishing 14th.

The top five finishers in a great 17 lap Moto2 race today included Elias, Shoya Tomizawa, Thomas Luthi, Yuki “Crash” Takahashi and Simone Corsi.  The race was red-flagged early due to a pile-up involving some nine bikes, the first of what promises to be many such collisions in the overcrowded Moto2 field.

The crowd seemed as interested in the 125s today as they were the big bikes.  Espargaro claimed the top spot on the podium, flanked by two other Spaniards, Nicolas Terol and Esteve Rabat.

On to Le Mans for Round 3.

Getting to the 2010 Spanish Grand Prix was half the fun

April 25, 2017

© Bruce Allen            May 2010

For a couple of gringos, the road to MotoGP Jerez is a blast 

Last January, four of us decided to take a family vacation to southern Spain in early May.  I worked out a deal with my editor at Motorcycle.com to pay me handsomely to cover the Gran Premio bwin de Espana, subject to my securing press credentials, providing some extra copy and photos, and giving them way more than my usual vapid kitchen table rant.  In mid-April, after reserving and paying for airfare, hotels, rental cars, etc., it became fully clear that Dorna, the Spanish company that owns the rights to MotoGP, was not going to sully their pressroom by credentialing the likes of me.  What had started out as a slam dunk junket had become a longshot. 

Four of us left for Spain from O’Hare on Friday afternoon.  I/we were lacking several of the necessities for most respectable journalists:  press credentials, tickets for the race, journalistic skills, and/or a clear idea of where the track was actually located.  When I say “we”, I’m including my intrepid son-in-law and budding photojournalist, Ryan Collins, who had the good sense several years ago to marry my youngest daughter Cate.  Ryan, who knows even less about motorcycle racing than I do, told me he was pretty much up for anything, up to and including trying to find the track, trying to get into the facility, and trying to provide some semblance of “covering” the race, as opposed to just missing a day on the beach, and instead sitting around with 130,000 drunk Spanish racing fans under a hot sun for eight hours.

Ryan and I set out from Cadiz, a jewel of a town that sits on the southern coast of Spain where the Mediterranean meets the Atlantic, on Sunday morning.  [By this time we had missed Friday practice and Saturday’s qualifications.  We had also survived a monstrous case of jetlag and the drive from Madrid to Cadiz in which I came uncomfortably close to getting us included in Spanish highway fatality statistics not once, but twice.  And although we missed the action at the track on Saturday, we caught the action on the strip in Cadiz on Saturday night, eating tapas amongst a bunch of riders and listening to the music of big bikes turning high RPMs on the seaside street in front of the restaurant all evening.]

Cadiz sits about 25 miles south of Jerez, and we had passed several Jerez exits on the drive down from Madrid on Saturday.  Once we cleared Cadiz on Sunday, the task of actually finding the track became pretty simple:  stay with the hundreds of bikes on their way to the race that morning.  Which sounds easier than it actually is, in that these bikes were mostly traveling in excess of 100 mph while the Guardia Civil politely turned a blind eye.  Finally, we were one of a handful of cars in a veritable sea of motorcycles, and getting to the parking lot was a breeze.  The way getting from point A to point B in a mosh pit is a breeze:  make no sudden movements, don’t resist, and go with the flow.

Problem #1 solved.

Problems #2 and #3—no press credentials, few journalistic skills—weren’t going to get solved this day.  This left Problem #4—no tickets to a sold out race.  On the walk from the parking lot to the track itself, I kept an eye out for ticket “vendors” on the street, and was finding none.  Plenty of guys and ladies selling a lot of other junk—Spanish flags, food, water, trinkets, belts (?), etc., from little improvised roadside stands.  No guys holding tickets in the air yelling “Got Four!” in Spanish and looking furtively over their shoulders for the aforementioned blackshirts who, one suspects, take a less generous view of ticket scalpers than they do speeders they’re unable to catch anyway.  A mile in and it was looking bleak, when we noticed a trailer set off on a little side “street” with a big sign on it reading “Taquillas”.  Ryan, my interpreter, said he had no idea what a taquilla is.  I, by this time, was hoping it was Spanish for “tequilas”, as I was ready to give in and spend the day drinking shots and eating limes.  It occurred to me that “tequila” is already a Spanish word, and one very rarely used in the plural, but I shook off this notion.

We approached the trailer, and people were, indeed, stepping up to a window and purchasing SOMETHING, but we couldn’t really tell what.  Apparently, by this time Ryan and I were looking fairly furtive ourselves, for it was at this moment that a guy in a Lakers shirt approached me and asked, in pretty good English, if we needed tickets.  He, it turned out, was getting comped by Repsol (a friend of a friend of a friend…) and was going to stand with the great unwashed in the Pelousse, the fans’ and riders’ favorite section of the Jerez track, between Turns 10 and 11, where the crowd gets right on top of the riders.  We negotiated a mutually satisfactory price for his tickets and, suddenly, Problem #4 was solved.

We still don’t know what folks were buying at that trailer; I’ll try to report back on that later tonight. (Later, it turned out they were “tickets.” but who knew?)  We do know that we sat high in the stands between Turns 12 and 13 with a great view of the race.  We spent plenty of time wandering around the facility mingling and taking pictures of a few of the gorgeous women you find in quantity at these events.  We watched one helluva Moto2 tilt and a premier class event that was a procession for the first 22 laps and a heart-stopping thriller for the last three.  We made it back to the parking lot and thence our hotel in one piece without dying of dehydration or getting T-boned by any of the nutjobs they issue drivers licenses to in Spain.  And we captured the story; a beautiful day spent 4500 miles from home in a second language, with a manual transmission, on the road to Jerez.

MotoGP COTA Results

April 23, 2017

© Bruce Allen.  Exclusive to Motorcycle.com

Marquez, Rossi Accept Gift from Vinales 

The run-up to the Red Bull Grand Prix of the Americas set the stage for a much-anticipated cage match between Yamaha phenom Maverick Vinales and Honda triple world champion Marc Marquez.  All day long, the British announcing crew was breathlessly prancing about the broadcast booth, pondering the sheer wonder of it all, going absolutely hyperbolic.  Showing no sense of the moment, Vinales crashed out of fourth place on Lap 2, letting the air out of the balloon and ceding, at least for the moment, the lead in the world championship to teammate Valentino Rossi, with Marquez suddenly back in the game. 

Practice, Practice, Practice 

FP1: Vinales was in charge, not having received the memo about Marquez’ ownership position at COTA.  FP2 was led by Marquez, snatched from Zarco; Vinales right behind, trimming his cuticles.  FP3 was Vinales, Pedrosa, Crutchlow and Marquez.

Something had to be done about the weirdness in the standings.  Early in the season, MotoGP seemed to have fallen through the rabbit hole in Alice in Wonderland. Yamaha is just taking it to Honda—the 2016 M1 is competitive with the 2017 RC213V.  All four Yamahas sit in the top 11 for the season, including the two rookies.  Cal Crutchlow, the highest-ranked Honda, sits tied with rookie Jonas Folger.  Co-rookie Johann Zarco is on the move, a mere five points behind Folger and Crutchlow.  Three Ducs rest in the top ten led by, of all people, Scott Redding in fourth.

It was time to come up from the rabbit hole.  Time to return to Europe.  Just one more foreign outing in Texas to endure before things could return back to normal.

Establishing Positions

Q2 saw a few things put right, beyond the fact that Vinales and Marquez stand head and shoulders above the rest of the field, a bunch of Aliens and wannabees slugging it out for supporting spots in the top ten.  Vinales delivered the first sub-2:04 lap of the day with maybe 30 seconds left in the session.  20 seconds later, Marquez flogged his Honda to a fifth straight pole in Texas, from which he had won the previous four races.  Rossi snuck onto the front row late in the session, creating a second row of Dani Pedrosa, the impudent Zarco on the satellite Yamaha, and one Jorge Lorenzo, clad in white and red. Oh, and perhaps the save of the season, by Loris Baz late in the session.

Lorenzo and Jack Miller had made it through Q1, with Lorenzo putting the Ducati as high as fourth position before settling for sixth.  Zarco had been up near the top of the timesheets again all weekend, putting pressure on a lot of factory rides.  Miller crashed out of Q2 and appeared to be trotting back to the garage “gingerly,” his inevitable early-season injury having possibly arrived.  Dani Pedrosa was hanging around in fourth, back to starting up front with the big dogs.

In support of my blog, Rossi and Vinales had their first set-to on Saturday during qualifying, with Vinales seemingly cheesed off about Rossi cruising on the racing line.  Race Direction was later said to be considering sending a strongly-worded letter to Lin Jarvis asking him for “best efforts to prevail” upon The Franchise not to seriously injure The New Kid in Town.

The Race Itself

The 2017 American Grand Prix was more parade than firefight.  The factory Hondas and Yamahas emerged from the early chaos to form up the leading group, with Dani Pedrosa front and center.  Cal Crutchlow got clear of The Great Unwashed, and there was even a Jorge Lorenzo sighting around fifth place on the first lap.  The usual suspects quickly found themselves strung out along the bumps and potholes littering the Circuit of the Americas, which stands in need of a paving crew.

Although it took 21 laps and 45 minutes to confirm it, the race basically came down to four moves.  1) Vinales crashed late on Lap 2, leaving Pedrosa, Marquez, Rossi and Johann Zarco in the lead group.  2)  Marquez took the lead from Pedrosa on Lap 9.  3)  Rossi and Zarco came together a few minutes later, the Frenchman pushing Rossi wide to the right where he could cut back and increase his lead, incurring a hypothetical .3 second penalty that amounted to nothing but had the announcers, fully recovered from Vinales’ crash, happy to find something new to go mental over.  4) Rossi went through on Pedrosa on Lap 19.

Game.  Set.  Match

At Ducati Corse, Life Goes On

Andrea Dovizioso being interviewed elsewhere about his place in the Ducatisphere: 

Q:  So why can’t the problems (with the GP17) be solved?

A: “There’s a big difference between understanding the problems and solving them.”

Quoted elsewhere, it seems Andrea “The Maniac” Iannone has finally accepted as fact something the rest of the planet observed late last season.  This, allegedly, is News You Need: ‘Andrea Iannone says he is resigned to having to race with a top speed deficit with Suzuki throughout the 2017 MotoGP season.’  Please refer to the above quote from Dovi with regard to this revelation.

Rubbing salt in the wound, I’m pretty sure that Danilo Petrucci and Andrea Iannone stole Jorge Lorenzo’s lunch money over the last few laps of the race.  We could be charitable and suppose JLo’s tires gave up on him.  Or we could be hateful and small and speculate that he got out-cojoñed by the two Italians.

The Big Picture 

With Vinales’ feet replanted in terra firma after an otherworldly start to his Yamaha career, we can now have a straightforward, adult conversation about the state of the MotoGP championship after three rounds.  The factory Yamahas and Hondas appear significantly ahead of everyone else early in the season.  Rossi and Vinales are frightening, Vinales for his sheer speed, Rossi for his strategic brilliance.

Marquez has atoned for his crash in Argentina and will push The Boys in Blue for the entire season.  The factory Ducati program is in deep yogurt, Dovizioso hanging onto fourth place by his fingernails while grasping bad luck with both hands.  LCR Honda stud Cal Crutchlow continues to nose around the top of the standings, his crash at Losail all that stands between him and a top three ranking.

So, order has been restored at the top of the MotoGP food chain just in time to return to racing in Europe.  Aliens occupy the top three spots in the standings.  Near-Aliens (semi-Aliens?) sit fourth and fifth, while the Alien Emeritus stands sixth.  The apparently brilliant Johann Zarco has seventh place all to himself, while teammate Jonas Folger is tied for eighth place with Pramac Ducati pilot Scot Redding and Jack Miller.  My boy Alex Rins, previously nursing a bad ankle, suffered a compound fracture of his wrist during practice this weekend and is out until further notice.

And Jorge Lorenzo, who sold his Alien Card for filthy lucre, sits counting his money in 13th place, with 12 points to show for his first three acts with Ducati.

A Look Ahead

Two weeks from now MotoGP blasts into the Spanish Riviera.  The racing will be at Jerez, while the action in the evening will be on The Strip in Cadiz.  Maverick Vinales, despite the good vibes associated with a return to home soil, probably will not be in the gift-giving mood in which he found himself today.

Excuse me while I butcher the old Smith Barney one-liner. If they want spots on the podium next time out, Rossi and Marquez will probably have to do it the old-fashioned way.

They’ll have to earn it.

Rossi, Vinales: Crossing the Line

April 19, 2017

© Bruce Allen

As teammates, the relationship between Maverick Vinales and Valentino Rossi cannot end well.

Vinales and Rossi promo shot

Back in college, we econ majors spent most of our time constructing simplistic models and graphs.  Within the current composition of the Movistar Yamaha team, we are watching an accelerated version of what some of us feared might be in store for Rossi.  His line, over time, having been very high for years, beginning to acquire a slightly negative slope after a strong upswing following the Ducati debacle.  Vinales’ line has a short, sharply positive slope.  That he will soon eclipse Rossi on a consistent basis is clear; the two lines may have already crossed.

Since last November, Rossi’s relationship with the rookie has been threatened by the Spaniard’s sheer precociousness, the same occasionally-breathtaking response we got in 2013 when Marquez and his Repsol Honda exploded onto the scene. A fulcrum point in modern MotoGP history. An obvious upsetting of the existing Order of Things.  The whole mentor/apprentice shtick advertised by Yamaha suits at the approach of winter testing lasted until, well, the very first test.

We are now at the stage where the two are competitors, likely well on their way to becoming rivals, given Rossi’s territoriality in the Yamaha garage.  Bit of a replay of Lorenzo’s arrival in 2008 and the advent of the legendary wall in the garage which turned out, after all, to have been at Bridgestone’s request, something having to do with data cross-pollination.

As Lorenzo improved and titled,  he and Rossi and learned to despise one another.  Rossi, the marketing machine, prevailed at age 37 or whatever.

This time around, it appears inevitable that Rossi will complete the circle, morphing from mentor to competitor to bitch.  Vale is only going to get older.  Vinales is only going to get better.

This relationship cannot end well.

MotoGP COTA Preview

April 17, 2017

© Bruce Allen.  Exclusive to Motorycle.com

Marquez vs Vinales

Captain America needs a win 

As the checkered flag fell in Argentina, the shape of the entire 2017 season changed.  Suddenly, Yamaha’s Maverick Vinales and partner Valentino Rossi, the Boys in Blue, sit on top of the world looking down.  Those looking up, WAY up, include defending champion Marc Marquez and the factory Ducati team, currently residing on the other side of the proverbial tracks.  Marquez has never lost, deep in the heart, which makes Sunday’s contest what my wife (eyebrows raised) refers to as “critical?” 

Even though it’s so early in the season—Round 3—the Yamaha contingent appears to be in danger of getting away.  Vinales with two wins, Rossi with two podia.  Things in general going quite well thank you.  Lorenzo and his new employers at Ducati Corse–not so well, a 10th and last week’s early DNF to show for his efforts thus far.  Marquez and Pedrosa slammed to the tarmac instantly at the same exact location—different laps, with Jack Miller narrowly avoiding a third crash there—in a mechanical Venus Flytrap for factory Hondas at Turn 2 last time around.  Having left for Argentina in a bit of a hole, the Repsol Honda team imploded, their 2017 machine appearing difficult to ride and hard on tires.  Perhaps, as LCR loudmouth Cal Crutchlow intimated, gas consumption, too.

Marquez has never lost in the first four seasons at the pretentiously-named Circuit of the Americas (as if Laguna Seca and Indianapolis don’t exist).  The purpose-built facility has been a Honda favorite since its inception in 2013.  In this wacky season, it would not surprise to see Marquez, Vinales and The Black Knight, Jack Miller, fighting for podium spots in a reprise of 2014, when Miller won the Moto3 race, Vinales the Moto2 and Marquez the MotoGP.

As strange as it sounds, the 2017 season could devolve into an uneven two man, intra-team race between Vinales and Rossi, similar to the F-1 whippings administered by the 2002 factory Ferraris of Schumacher and Barrichello, who took turns winning 15 of 17 races that year.  After last season, with nine different winners, we thought we were past all that.  This weekend could shed some serious light on that thinking.

Recent History at COTA

Marc Marquez, whom I refer to as Captain America while the rest of the world calls him as Marc Marquez, has never experienced defeat in Austin.  He won easily as a rookie in 2013.  He overwhelmed teammate Dani Pedrosa in 2014 by over four seconds, with Dovizioso a further 17 seconds in arrears on the factory Ducati.  In 2015, Dovi finished second and Rossi third in a generally uneventful procession.

Last year, while Marquez was sunnily getting away, Pedrosa lost his grits, his bike taking Dovizioso down from behind; the Italian never knew, as it were, what hit him. Besides #93, the last men standing on the podium were Yamaha’s Jorge Lorenzo, and a “cautious” Andrea Iannone on his Ducati GP16, paying penance for his takedown of teammate and podium threat Dovizioso the previous round.  Vinales edged out teammate Aleix Espargaro for 4th place that day.

Disorder in the Standings

Due to the logarithmic scoring system and early season shakedown cruises—curiously, Lorenzo’s complaint after his first lap fall in Argentina being he missed out on 25 laps of data—the championship standings after two rounds are currently out of equilibrium.  I looked back at the standings a year ago, and they were generally orderly, what you might expect, Aliens Marquez, Lorenzo, Rossi and Pedrosa occupying the top four spots.

This year, things are startlingly different.  Undefeated Vinales and the experienced Rossi stand well clear of Dovi in 3rd, 16 points behind Rossi.  Pramac Ducati Brit Scott Redding sits 4th.  Read that last sentence twice, because you’ll probably never see it again in your lifetime.  Squabbling over 5th place are Crutchlow, surprising German rookie and Tech 3 Yamaha upstart Jonas Folger, and Jack Miller, still ambulatory this early in the season.

Marc Marquez sits in a fantastic 8th place, 37 points down to Vinales, under a degree of pressure he has not previously felt in the premier class, on a bike he does not like.  Jorge Lorenzo, humbled triple world champion, is a bit of a steaming pile in 18th, consorting with the likes of Tito Rabat and the debut KTM team of Pol Espargaro and Bradley Smith, the Laverne & Shirley* of MotoGP.  (*You know, ‘always together.’)

Rule #1:  Beat Your Teammate

Riders know that if you do this one thing on race day, you can consider your outing to have been a success.  Just beat your teammate.  Here’s where the teams stand after two rounds, up close and personal:

Factory Teams

Repsol Honda:                 Marquez 13          Pedrosa 11

Movistar Yamaha:           Vinales 50            Rossi 36

Factory Ducati:                Dovizioso 20        Lorenzo   5

Factory Suzuki:                Rins 7                   Iannone 0

Factory Aprilia:                A Espargaro 10    Lowes 0

Factory KTM:                   Pol Espargaro 2   Smith 1

 

Satellite Teams

Pramac Ducati:                Redding 17          Petrucci 9

Aspar Ducati:                   Bautista 13          Abraham 8

Tech 3 Yamaha:               Folger 16              Zarco 11

Marc VDS Honda:            Miller 15              Rabat 5

Reale Avintia Ducati:       Baz 9                    Barbera 6

As you can see, the Boys in Blue have secured almost a third of the points on offer in the first two rounds, a trend which seems unsustainable.  And, ignoring the Yamahas, the satellite teams are taking it right to the factory boys all across the board.  Over time, large series of numbers typically regress to the mean.  Essentially, I’m suggesting that the 2017 season is nowhere near over, that there is plenty of meaningful racing yet to come, and that the Movistar Yamaha team cannot afford to become slack or over-confident.  Both Marc Marquez and Andrea Iannone have now assured us that neither will crash out of a race again this season.  Taking neither offer, I would be more inclined to put my money on the Catalan than the erratic Italian.

Notice too how on the three satellite Ducati teams, the GP15 rider leads the GP16 rider two to one.  Had Hector Barbera not started the season injured, it could easily be three for three, with the factory bikes no better.  Would it be heresy to suggest that Gigi Dall’Igna’s magic peaked in 2015 and has been quietly trending downward since then?  Or is it the different riders changing things around?  All these anomalies make predicting podium celebrants, a fool’s errand in the best of times, an overt waste of time.  One can hope, for the sake of the season, that Marquez makes up some ground with the Yamahas this weekend.  He had been mostly bulletproof in Argentina until last round.  Anything other than an outright win on Sunday must be considered a painful loss. 

Your Weekend Forecast

Looking ahead four or five days, the weekend’s offerings weather-wise appear to have something for every taste and budget.  Friday—hot and cloudy.  Saturday—cool with rain.  Sunday—cool and dry.     The race goes off at 3 pm Eastern time in the U.S., and we will have results and analysis right here as soon as possible.

MotoGP 2017 Rio Hondo Results

April 9, 2017

© Bruce Allen.  Exclusive to Motorcycle.com

Viñales conquers Argentina; Marquez chokes out 

In a perfect world, Maverick Viñales and Marc Marquez, the two brightest young stars in the MotoGP firmament, would have squared off for a thrilling fight to the flag here at the Middle of Nowhere Grand Prix.  Marquez, starting from pole, took the holeshot and led the field by almost two seconds when he carelessly lost the front in Turn 2 of Lap 4.  Viñales, running second at the time, assumed the lead, laid down 21 1:40 or better laps, and won easily, hardly breaking a sweat. 

In winning his first two races on the factory Yamaha, Viñales tied two records dating back to the 1990’s.  Kenny Roberts, Jr. won his first two races on a new team in 1999 after having abandoned the Modenas KR3 team for Suzuki.  And Wayne Rainey (not Rossi, not Lorenzo) was the last Yamaha pilot to start the season with two wins back in 1990, well before Viñales was born.  Had Marquez not lost his grits today, both records might still be standing.  We’ll never know.

Practice and Qualifying Weirdness

Practice was dry on Friday.  Viñales topped FP1 and FP2, with lots of big names way down the order. Some unfamiliar names popped up in the top five—Danilo Petrucci, rookies Johann Zarco and Jonas Folger, and Karel Abraham, of all people, in FP1; both Abraham and Petrucci appeared in the top five again in FP2. Saturday was a wet day, the first ever for Viñales on the Yamaha.  Accordingly, in FP3 he slipped all the way down to second place, behind LCR Honda’s Cal Crutchlow, with Marquez in fifth.

Thus was the die cast for the first qualifying sessions of the season—Qatar canceled theirs due to some Biblical rain–and the separating of the goats into Q1 and the lambs into Q2, but in a Bizarro kind of configuration.  The lambs cinched into Q2 included, and I’m not kidding, Danilo Petrucci, Loris Baz, Jonas Folger, Alvaro Bautista, and Karel Abraham.  The goats, relegated to the ignominy of Q1, and again I’m not kidding, included BOTH factory Ducatis, Dani Pedrosa, everyone’s new fave Johann Zarco, and Valentino Freaking Rossi.  Rossi and Pedrosa snuck into Q2 on their last laps of the session.  They aren’t called Aliens (or Alien Emeritus) for nothing.

Qualifying itself was more or less routine, with the notable exception of the Ducati Desmosedici GP15 sitting in the middle of the front row beneath Karel Abraham.  Marquez started from pole, going four-for-four in Argentina, with Crutchlow sitting third, Pedrosa 5th and Rossi 7th.  Figuratively speaking, the wheels fell off for the factory Ducati team on Saturday, with Dovizioso slotted 13th and Jorge Lorenzo occupying his customary wet weather position of 16th on the grid.

Trouble at the Start

Lorenzo, the Great Spanish Hope of the factory Ducati team, saw his day end in the congested first turn as he tagged Andrea Iannone’s back wheel and quickly ended up in the gravel, the dream of one-upping Rossi in his own Yamaha-to-Ducati defection having morphed into a nightmare.  After two rounds, he trails series leader Viñales by 45 points.  (Although Marquez trails by 37, his deficit seems much smaller than JLo’s, since Marquez looks fully capable of winning races, while Lorenzo looks fully capable of nothing right now.)

Trouble in the Middle

Marquez’s gaffe on Lap 4 left a top five of Viñales, Crutchlow, Rossi, Pramac Ducati ex-cop Danilo Petrucci and Repsol’s Dani Pedrosa.  Petrucci, who would finish seventh, and Pedrosa spent the middle third of the race carving one another up until Pedrosa submitted a carbon copy of Marquez’ fall at Turn 2 on Lap 14. Moments later, on Lap 15, Aleix Espargaro, who has been overachieving on the Gresini Aprilia, lost the front at Turn 1 and collected factory Ducati #1 Andrea Dovizioso on his way to the runoff area.  Dovi, accustomed to getting creamed by Andrea Iannone and Dani Pedrosa, seemed nonplussed at having been clipped by the likable Spaniard.  Ducati team boss Gigi Dall’Igna, shown briefly in his garage at that moment, appeared to be throwing up in his mouth.

After the podium party, to which neither was invited, Pedrosa and Marquez could be seen in their garage, drunk, arms wrapped around each other’s shoulders, singing Citizen King’s “I’ve Seen Better Days” in some very ragged Spanish.

Ridiculous Results

Crutchlow, looking strong, managed to hold off Rossi until Lap 19.  He chased the Italian around for a few laps before calculating that 16 points were better than none, settling for third and a place on the rostrum.  No surprise there.  But who would have guessed that Alvaro Bautista, flogging the Aspar team Ducati, would cross the line fourth, followed by two rookies?  Johann Zarco, who is starting to make a believer out of me, came from 14th at the start to finish fifth, while Tech 3 Yamaha teammate Jonas Folger worked his way from 11th at the start to a legit sixth place finish and 10 points.  Tech 3 team boss Hervé Poncharal, smiling like the cat who swallowed the canary, allegedly texted his counterpart with the Repsol Honda team, Livio Suppo, after the race, asking Livio if he was interested in a few tips about racing in South America.

Scott Redding on the Pramac GP16, Jack Miller on the Marc VDS Honda and the aforementioned Karel Abraham completed today’s top ten.  Right.  That makes eight satellite bikes in the top ten, which last occurred during the 1952 Tour de France.

It would be remiss of me not to mention that both KTM riders, Pol Espargaro and Bradley Smith, finished in the points, putting KTM in the MotoGP books for the first time ever.  This is not ridiculous, either.  But KTM bosses issuing press releases declaring their intent to title in MotoGP within three years—ridiculous. 

The Big Picture

After two rounds, the big picture looks like a Jackson Pollock canvas.  Sure, the Movistar Yamaha team rules the world early in the season; I get that.  But Scott “The Whiner” Redding sits in fourth place, as if he belongs there. Rookie Jonas Folger sits sixth.  Jackass Miller sits seventh, with Marc Marquez tied for eighth with Alvaro Bautista.  WTF?  But the most acid-flashback-ish sight on the board is that of triple world champion Jorge Lorenzo tied for 18th place with the helpless Tito Rabat.   I did a fast double-check—the walls of my hotel room do not appear to be melting, nor does the flesh seem to be falling off my face in great gross chunks.  I’m not having a flashback.  Jorge Lorenzo, uninjured, has earned five (5) points thus far in 2017.  The bosses in Bologna need to lower their expectations.  Right now would be fine.

What does it all mean?  Other than Maverick Viñales having seized the 2017 season by the throat, not much.  There are 16 races left to go, and the precocious Spaniard is unlikely to win them all.  He will face some adversity along the way, allowing the rest of the Alien contingent—Marquez, Rossi and Dovizioso—back into the picture.

Viñales admitted to feeling some pressure this weekend, especially in the wet on Saturday.  After today’s race, the pressure has fallen squarely on defending champion Marc Marquez, who let one get away from him this afternoon.  Whether today’s crash has ruined his season is unclear.  What is clear, however, is that #93 needs a win in Austin, where he is undefeated, in two weeks in order to avoid joining Jorge Lorenzo in the very bad place where he now resides.

 

MotoGP 2017 Rio Hondo Preview

April 4, 2017

© Bruce Allen.  Exclusive to Motorcycle.com

Repsol, LCR Teams Anxious for Argentina

Having left the wide-open spaces of the Persian Gulf, The Greatest Show on Two Wheels heads south of the equator to Termas de Rio Hondo, Argentina.  Round Two of the tantalizing 2017 season, The Gran Premio Motul de la República Argentina, promises to answer a few questions that popped up in the desert two weeks ago.  The various and sundry Honda teams, especially, have a few things to prove at this very RC213V-friendly circuit.  But is the 2017 bike up to it? 

What we know now that we didn’t know two weeks ago is how Marc Marquez, Dani Pedrosa and Cal Crutchlow ended up with the medium front Michelin instead of the hard option.  All three blame Michelin for advising them to make the change, which did not work.  Marquez and Pedrosa had to nurse their fronts to respectable 4th and 5th places, respectively, while Crutchlow, also blaming his front tire. crashed out of what could have been a meaningful haul of points.  Twice.  Oh, and before I forget, Maverick Vinales won his first GP on the factory Yamaha and appears to be the next anointed rider.

Props to Aleix Espargaro, who put his Aprilia in sixth place, and one Jack Miller, who placed eighth on the Marc VDS Honda, punking Alex Rins at the finish. Jonas Folger made the top ten, while suddenly everyone is on the Johann Zarco bandwagon for his seven superlative laps at the start.

We are temporarily suspending the Alien status of Jorge Lorenzo until he cracks the top five in a race.  Or the standings.  Whichever comes first.  This suspension, it appears, could last up to two years.   Let’s see how he does Down South.

Tranches Anyone?

Here’s an early look at how my entrants (rider/bike) break down.  This will be a work in progress as we approach Valencia. We would love to hear how yours differ.  Not really, but go ahead anyway.

Tranche 1:  Vinales, Marquez, Dovizioso, Rossi

Tranche 2:  Pedrosa, Iannone, Crutchlow, Bautista

Tranche 3:  Petrucci, Lorenzo, Zarco, (Rins), Miller, Barbera, A Espargaro

Tranche 4:  Baz, Redding, P Espargaro, Folger

Tranche 5:  Smith, Lowes, Rabat, Abraham

Once again, I may have let Qatar over-influence me.  And before anyone gets too whooped up, these factor in the quality of the bike as well.  Bradley Smith is a 3 or a 4 on the Tech 3 Yamaha but a 5 on the first iteration of the KTM.  I’m optimistic about both Bautista and Barbera on the GP16.  Lorenzo is probably under-ranked and Bautista perhaps over-ranked.  I’m taking a pass on criticism about the rookie rankings until we get to Europe in May.

“I hope that it’s the first and the last of this year.”  

This is Suzuki’s Andrea Iannone, referring to his unforced crash out of a possible podium in Qatar, as quoted elsewhere.  I would argue that this is possibly the most hilarious statement we will hear this season.  Dude crashed out of six of his 14 starts last year, some with collateral damage to other riders.  His riding style is aggressive.  He shatters limbs.  After last season, he has one iota of risk aversion in his whole body, compared to none at all previously.  All these things cost him the job on the factory Ducati.  I expressed concern at the time that he might attempt to over-ride the Suzuki, with similar results.  But at least he got the first part right. 

Recent History at Rio Hondo

Marquez memorably acquainted himself with the place in 2014 when the track first opened.  He strolled around in 14th place during FP1, possibly on a Derbi Bullet 50, then cinched everything up, mounted his bike, lowered his visor, and topped the charts in FP2, FP3, FP4, Q2, the warm-up practice and, finally, the race itself.  This was his second of ten consecutive wins to open the memorable 2014 season.

2015 was the year Rossi and Marquez came together late in the race, with Marquez going down and out in what would become his worst premier class season to date.  He had started well from pole and appeared to be disappearing early but couldn’t get away. Rossi had started eighth, but found something in the middle of the race (“Here comes Rossi!”) while Marquez’s rear tire was busy decomposing beneath him. It was an all-Italian podium, with Spaniards sucking wind down on the tarmac.  Lorenzo, never a factor that day, would come back later in the year for his third title.

Last year was the Michelin fiasco, the mandatory mid-race pit stop, Tito Rabat getting in front of Rossi as he re-entered the race, allowing Marquez to get away. (Rossi said his #2 bike simply wasn’t as fast as his #1.)  After the restart, he would be joined on the podium by Rossi and Pedrosa.

It was also the day Iannone took himself and teammate Dovizioso out of podium contention with the Bonehead Move of the Year, the winner by an eyelash over himself and his similar takedown of Lorenzo in Barcelona later in the season.  (Finishing third in the BMY competition was Dani Pedrosa, who accidentally T-boned Dovizioso at Austin in Round 3.)

Quick Hitters

So now we have another Pacific round, this one in Thailand beginning next year. Hurray. The Thai papers are full of allegations of government malfeasance in securing the rights.  Whatever.  All I can tell you about the Grand Prix of Thailand is that it will be hot, and crowded.  Rest assured that we will have our crack research staff on this like a cheap suit once, um, Valencia is out of the way.

Many readers will be amped over the news that potential ROY Alex Rins broke his ankle in training last week.  This strengthens the hands of those holding Zarco and even Folger cards.  Someone who’s not German please tell me why I should root for Jonas Folger.  And before you know it some writers are going to start referring to Sam Lowes as “plucky.”

Ezpeleta & Co have now dumped the ridiculous “points” system that arguably cost Valentino Rossi the 2015 title.  (I wouldn’t argue that, but others would.)  They replaced a former system deemed arbitrary with a different arbitrary system and have now returned to the original arbitrary system. These guys need more to do.

Your Weekend Forecast

This is Marquez land.  He is two-for-three in races here, having been knocked out of the third.  He finished fourth last time out in Qatar due to tire issues decided, in effect, by Michelin.  Unlikely to happen again.  He loves this place, where the Hondas have historically done well.  Cal Crutchlow is licking his chops. Vinales appears unperturbed.  Rossi is Rossi, and Lorenzo seems as nervous as a nun in a cucumber patch.  Pedrosa and Dovizioso sit together in a corner smiling.

Weather in greater Termas de Rio Hondo is expected to be hot and wet on Friday, with conditions improving on Saturday and Sunday.  This is shaping up to be one of those races where the season could be more easily lost than won.  For several riders, it means finishing the race and getting back in the points chase, Cal.  For those at the bottom of the food chain it means collecting data and beating your teammate.  For the top five, it means take no stupid chances.  It might possibly mean watching Maverick lay down a vapor trail.  One hopes not.

Not this week.  Not in Marquez land.

 

 

MotoGP 2017 Qatar Results

March 26, 2017

© Bruce Allen.  Exclusive to Motorcycle.com

Maverick Viñales Starts his Own Era 

Movistar Yamaha’s new kid on the block, Maverick Viñales, did to the field of the 2017 Grand Prix of Qatar what he’s done ever since he first placed his bum on the saddle of the YZR-M1 last November.  He ended the day at the top of the timesheets, having outdueled factory Ducati #1 Andrea Dovizioso over the last eight laps of the race.  In the process, he took the lead in the 2017 championship and initiated what is likely to become known as The Viñales Years. 

Saturday Washout

Weather conditions on Saturday evening in metropolitan Doha area were so foul that FP4, Q1, and Q2 were all scrubbed, leaving the combined results from the three completed practices as a proxy for the starting grid, to the immense dismay of Valentino Rossi, Jorge Lorenzo, Alex Rins and, one expects, Cal Crutchlow.  Scott Redding, having led QP3, was overheard wandering the paddock in the wee hours, sniffing about how he COULD have taken the pole and it’s just so unfair.

Starting Grid from QTimes.JPG

Whatever.  Behind the front row, at least, the starting grid was a random collection of hardware and talent.  An unexpected way to start the season.  In an unfriendly locale, with Aliens Rossi and Lorenzo pedaling hard on the fourth row. And the impudent Johann Zarco comfortably seated in fourth. 

Rain in the Desert

The weather was bad enough on Saturday to scrub everything in all classes, a veritable gullywasher of a day.  And here I thought the ONLY good thing about racing here is that at least you don’t have to worry about rain.  Sunday came along with much more teasing kinds of conditions–spitting rain, breezy, high humidity, scudding clouds.  Just as the Moto2 tilt (won by Franco Morbidelli for his first Moto2 victory) was ending, it started sprinkling.

Dorna and FIM executives began hemming and hawing.  Riders started calling their garages for tires, making changes on the track.  The bikes left the track, the bikes re-entered the track.  The race was shortened from 22 to 21 laps, then to 20 with two warm-up laps, by which time the rain had mostly stopped.  Several riders watched the red lights go out with tires they had never, or barely, ridden, traction and wear issues all over the place.  Madness was in the air.

A Rookie Leads at the Start

Andrea Iannone won the hole shot, but as the field headed towards Turns 2 and 3 one of the Tech 3 Yamahas materialized at the front, accompanied by the animated shouting of announcer Nick Harris, “Johann Zarco leads the Grand Prix of Qatar!”   Madness! Zarco was followed in close order by Marc Marquez, Iannone, Andrea Dovizioso on the Ducati, and Viñales, who was keeping his powder dry within shouting distance of the front.

By Lap 6, Zarco was looking very relaxed, trailed by Dovizioso, Marquez, Iannone, Viñales and, of all people, Valentino Rossi, who had started 10th but worked himself up close to the lead group.  The law of averages suddenly made its presence felt, as Zarco crashed out of the lead on Lap 7.  Then there were five.  Having picked my boy Cal Crutchlow to finish on the podium today, he took revenge on me for past insults, real and imagined, by crashing out on Lap 4.  Crashlow got back up and immediately crashed again on his Lap 5 for good measure.

Viñales Prevails

With Dovizioso leading by mid-race, Iannone and Marquez traded a little paint here and there, just like the old days, while the two factory Yamahas lurked in fourth and fifth places.  Almost on cue, on Lap 10 Iannone had an unforced lowside in Turn 7 and crashed out of podium contention.

The last eight laps were outstanding.  While Marquez faded to fourth, never appearing totally comfortable with his tires, Dovi and Viñales began enjoying a number of close encounters, Rossi hanging back, appearing to wait for something to happen in front of him.  Viñales would take the lead around Turn 6 and keep it through Turn 16, after which Dovizioso would blow by him on the main straight and take the lead heading into Turn 1.  This continued until the two riders entered Turn 1 on the last lap with Viñales in the lead.  He held it all the way, in and through Turn 16, and took the win by half a second.  A legend, as the expression goes, is born.

Elsewhere on the Grid

Dani Pedrosa has had worse days than today.  With little expected from him, he qualified seventh, spent the early part of the race in mid-pack, then bided his time as guys started falling off in front of him, ultimately finishing fifth.  Shades of Colin Edwards late in his career.  Aleix Espargaro, in perhaps the best ride of the day, flogged his factory Aprilia from 15th position at the start to sixth at the finish, the best result for the team since they re-entered MotoGP last year.  Scott Redding scored a heartening seventh on his Ducati GP16, Jack Miller (we are officially amazed) was eighth on the Marc VDS Honda, and my boy Alex Rins held onto his Suzuki well enough all day for ninth place, becoming the leading rookie for the season.

For other riders, the 2017 opener was forgettable.  Crashers include Crutchlow (2), Iannone, Zarco and Bautista, while Danilo Petucci had to retire his GP17 with mechanical issues.  The KTM team of Pol Espargaro and Bradley Smith was saved from the indignity of finishing last and next-to-last only by the futility of Sam Lowes, who delivered his own Aprilia to the finish line some 40 seconds behind teammate Aleix, and was the last rider to cross the line.  Out of the points and, hopefully, dissuaded from any illusion that he might score more than 20 points all year.

We would be derelict in our reportorial duties were we to fail to mention that triple world champion Jorge Lorenzo, in his debut with his new Italian employer, started 12th, had four guys in front of him crash out or retire, and finished 11th, 20 seconds behind teammate Dovizioso.  We know rain gives Jorge the yips.  Now, it appears that high humidity does the same thing.  And, lest readers assume this is just a Qatarian anomaly, it is true that Lorenzo won here last year from pole.  Just sayin’.

The Big Picture

Having been burned in the past, we must be careful to draw too many conclusions from what occurred tonight.  We learned, or confirmed our suspicions about, several things:

  • Maverick Viñales is a baller.
  • Valentino Rossi at age 38 is about as good as anyone out there.
  • The Suzuki can compete for wins.
  • Andrea Dovizioso is the #1 rider on the factory Ducati team.
  • We have been underestimating Johann Zarco since November.

In two weeks the grid heads off to Argentina for its annual Bungle in the Jungle.  Rio Hondo is a Honda-friendly circuit, as is Austin two weeks later.  Marc Marquez should win the next two races.  If, instead, Maverick Viñales should win either, MotoGP is likely to have a new champion this year.  And if it does, you can tell your grandkids you watched Maverick win the very first race of The Viñales Years.

 

 

MotoGP 2017 Qatar Preview

March 21, 2017

© Bruce Allen.  Exclusive to Motorcycle.com

Is This Maverick Viñales the Real Deal? 

Welcome, everyone, to the 2017 presentation of MotoGP, The Greatest Show on Earth now that the circus has folded.  The first year of six manufacturers, three of which have an honest shot at the title.  And the year fans will likely remember not for the debut of an upstart KTM team, but for the introduction of Yamaha’s Apparent Next Great Modern Rider, Maverick Viñales, to polite society. 

Of course, it is way early to lay this title on him.  Call me a frontrunner.  Viñales completed his demolition of the offseason by casually finishing first in Qatar.  He, Andrea Dovizioso and, surprisingly, Dani Pedrosa have been the only contenders not having visible or audible (read: complaining) problems adjusting to this year’s machines.  Seems I may have been premature suggesting Dani Pedrosa is vectoring down if one ignores the fact that he gets hurt every year.  Honda’s decision to develop their new big bang engine has coincided with Viñales’ sudden arrival on the M-1, putting defending champion Marc Marquez’s title in jeopardy.  Marquez crashed three times on Sunday in final Qatar testing. Pedrosa (and Crutchlow) seem to be adjusting just fine.

Then there’s €46, Valentino Rossi, reminiscent of Mario Andretti in his later years at the Indy 500, “slowing down” in the back straight.  He is not a contender right now, entering the 2017 season.  But Rossi defines the expression “a guy who shows up on Sunday.” He will contend, as the season grinds away, unless he gets overly aggressive early in the year and gives away points sliding through the kitty litter.

Former teammate Jorge Lorenzo’s switch to Ducati has been predictably difficult, but, like Rossi, he’s an Alien, capable of wondrous things on two wheels.  Some people will take offense when I point out that Rossi has been seeking his 10th world championship since 2010.  He would probably do better on a one year contract–now or never.  Win or bin.  Etc.

In 2015, defending champ Marc Marquez failed to repeat.  In 2016, defending champ Jorge Lorenzo failed to repeat.   If Marquez is destined to lose his title this season, most people assume it will be to Viñales.  As a fan, I am looking forward to those two giving us a show every time out.  With four years in the saddle, I like Marquez to repeat.  He will ride an inferior bike to the title over Viñales because young Maverick is going to get overly excited.  Just like rookie Lorenzo in 2008.  You and I know what happens when that occurs.

Marquez vs Vinales

Keeping them honest, you’ve got your Crutchlow, your Dovizioso, your Iannone, your Bautista (?!), and this Jonas Folger fella, who, alongside teammate Johann Zarco, have set themselves up as the top Moto2 grads thus far, on the Monster Tech 3 Yamaha team.  I wish Folger well and drop the phrase “flash in the pan” only for its descriptive value.  Alex Rins, I feel, belongs in the top ten. The rest of the field will all find something to brag about.  “Hey, so we ran 10th at San Marino, y’know, which isn’t so terribly bad for a brand-new team.”  Kidding, kidding.  (All the Aliens must have crashed out.) 

Recent History at Losail

Back in 2014, everyone was all whooped up about Marc Marquez, who, as a rookie in 2013, had imposed his will upon the field, taken advantage of injuries to Jorge Lorenzo and Dani Pedrosa, and stormed to the title in front of a delirious crowd at Valencia in November.  Among the records he would establish in 2014 were most wins in a season, youngest rider to repeat as world champion, and the most poles. 

A mere six weeks after breaking his leg in the pre-season, Marquez barely held off a resurgent Valentino Rossi for the season-opening win, with Dani Pedrosa sneaking onto the podium in third place.  Double world champion Jorge Lorenzo, who had been singing the blues for months, crashed out of the lead on Lap 1 and subsequently faced an uphill struggle the entire season.

In his 313th grand prix start, Rossi delivered a vintage performance in the 2015 season opener, going knives-in-a-phone booth with factory Ducati #1 Andrea Dovizioso all night before punking his compatriot by 17/100ths of a second to take the lead in the title chase for the first time since, well, 2010.  Marquez got pushed way wide into the gravel on Lap 1, ultimately finishing fifth.

Both factory Ducatis ended up on the all-Italian podium, leading to grossly overinflated expectations for Maniac Joe Iannone and a persistent golden halo resting upon the brow of one Gigi Dall’Igna.  Here’s my favorite bit from the 2015 post mortem: “(Cal) had taken time out of his busy schedule, during a TV interview, to flame Mike di Meglio of Avintia Racing for getting in his way during, like, FP1. Cal has morphed from one of the charming, likable hard-luck guys on the grid to another mid-level clanging gong, and needs to take a nap.”  Lorenzo finished a disappointing fourth that night. 

Yamaha must have known 2016 would be Jorge Lorenzo’s last year with the team.  Coming off his third world championship in 2015, he had won that year’s opener, enhancing the swagger amongst his declining number of fans, who believed a fourth title might be in the offing in 2016.

Last year’s Commercial Bank Grand Prix of Qatar marked the beginning of the newest era in MotoGP, that of Michelin tires and a standard ECU across the grid.  In the run-up to the race, hopes that some new faces would emerge from the pack and find their way to the podium had been building.  Under the lights of Losail, however, defending champion Lorenzo held serve for Yamaha against a strong challenge from Andrea Dovizioso and Marc Marquez; the Usual Suspects once again asserted their dominance.  At the time, the wager that nine different riders would ultimately win races that year would have seemed deranged.

And So Here We Are

At the dawn of another testosterone-pumping MotoGP season, there is optimism everywhere.  The first formal practices of the year loom under the eerie spotlights in the desert.  For all three classes.  Moto3 and Moto2 both promise tons of effervescent wheel-to-wheel stuff, the numbers and aggressiveness of the riders well above the relatively staid comportment, and smaller grids, of the premier class.

With four of its top riders having graduated to the majors, Moto2 appears to be wide open, with the likes of veteran Thomas Luthi and…gasp…Alex Marquez having encouraging off-seasons.  There is a surfeit of fast young Italian riders out there, some affiliated with Rossi’s SKY Racing Team VR46, some not.  Malaysians are getting very excited about the prospects for their boy Hafizh Syahrin, who managed a respectable ninth place finish last season and has podium ambitions.  (This is a shout out to the Malaysian National Board of Tourism, which paid for my junket to Sepang in 2014, and for whom I failed to produce the somewhat flowery article requested, in exchange, by The Government.)

Moto3 is simply too much for me.  I love to watch the races but am so unfamiliar with the riders I can’t generate sufficient comedic material to obscure my lack of insight.  Since 2008 I’ve picked up enough about the premier class to more or less keep up, but Moto3 reminds me of the Rat Races they used to hold every year at an American Legion hall in Covington, Kentucky, where you could hardly tell one little racer from another, them piling on top of one another in the corners, occasionally heading the wrong way and such. Lots of yelling, parimutuel-style betting and heavy drinking, all for a good cause.  Moto3 is great fun, but I’m mostly just a spectator.

Sunday Night—S—U—N—D—A—Y!!!

Sounds like it should be dragsters.  At Losail, more than any other race of the season, practice sessions and qualifying runs are closely watched and competed, bikes being raced in real anger for the first time since November.  In conditions resembling a moonscape, with two-wheeled missiles between their legs, these guys will go at it for real.  Again.  Qualifying will tell much of the story.  I am unwilling to try to predict a race winner, as Qatar has become a true outlier.  Over the past four seasons, only one race winner here has won the title—Marquez in 2014.

I am willing to predict that, as the red lights go out, the front row will consist of Marquez, Viñales, and Dovizioso, in whatever order you like.

OK–Viñales, by less than two seconds over Marquez.

FINE–Crutchlow third.  Just don’t bet on it.  The race goes off at 2 pm EST Sunday.  We will post results and analysis right here before suppertime.

Let’s start this party.

Michelin MotoGP: Tech and Tires

March 19, 2017

Michelin, the sole provider of tires for the premier class of MotoGP, the crème de la crème of two-wheeled racing, has been beavering away all winter working on new stuff.  Since Bridgestone vacated the premises after the 2015 season, the French monolith has been in charge of rubber and seems to be running stride for stride with the manufacturers and riders entering Year Two.  Better compounds.  More choices.  Bells and whistles.

Along with the rubber work, Michelin has implemented radio technology in the tires which will display, in homes outside the U.S., which compound each rider is using.  The veddy British broadcast crew for the MotoGP video feed includes Dylan Gray working trackside.  Dylan is very good at his job, half of which has suddenly disappeared, as it was Dylan in recent years going on during the last half hour before the start about tire choices. Now, the compounds (three fronts and three rears available at every race) will show on the screen in real time, something of which Dorna is very capable.

With more choices of compound available, this decision by the rider becomes more difficult.  Nine possible configurations to choose from.  Throw out the top two and bottom two and he still has five configurations to figure out.  One hopes the riders will become less inclined to blame the tires for their dismal showing and instead blame themselves for having chosen the wrong tires.  That would be refreshing.

Michelin must be given credit for the resources–human, manufacturing and financial–they are throwing at this program.  The fact that lap times in 2016 were competitive, in the presence of the standard ECU, suggests Michelin was fairly well prepared for last year and totally prepared for this year.  No new circuits on the calendar in 2017, meaning they have data for every track.

233_Michelin_Michelin-Logo-2013-Frame_1

Unless you have a ridiculously spectacular seat at a MotoGP race, I would strongly argue you get much more watching the video feed.  The guys in the broadcast booth are knowledgeable, sure, but they are sometimes guilty of over-sharing.  And loveable Nick Harris is getting along in years.  But the camera work and the on-screen information–revs, lean angles, now tires–is hugely helpful to those poor folks who have to write about this stuff for a living.  I used to bring my laptop to the Indianapolis round and the AP guys would watch the race on my computer.

Thumbs up to Michelin IMO.  MotoGP demands more from riders than any form of automobile racing, and tire choice has become more important.  Michelin is doing their part to see that the two tiny tire patches–all that stand between riders and a sudden visit to the inflatable wall–are the best they can be.  Like offensive linemen in American football, anonymity is a good thing for the tire providers, since the only time you get noticed is when you screw up.  Now, if the riders would just man up.