Rossi seizes the day, extends championship lead

MotoGP 2015 Rio Hondo Results, by Bruce Allen.  Exclusive to Motorcycle.com

The second Grand Prix de la República Argentina of the modern era started out as a parade and ended with everyone—riders, fans, announcers—gasping for air, going mad over the events on Lap 24. Defending world champion and Honda poster boy Marc Marquez would have, could have and should have won this race. But two errors on his part, combined with one of Valentino Rossi’s finest hours, spelled disaster for the young Catalan, who now sits squarely behind the eight ball heading to Jerez.

AleixResults of the practice sessions on Friday looked as though Carmelo Ezpeleta had drawn the names out of a hat. FP1 included Suzuki #1 Aleix Espargaro 1st, Pramac Racing homeboy (sort of) Yonny Hernandez 4th, Avintia Racing’s hapless Mike di Meglio 8th, and Marquez 10th, sandwiched between non-contenders Alvaro Bautista and Jack Miller. The factory Yamaha contingent featured Rossi in 14th and Jorge Lorenzo 20th. FP2 was closer to form, ignoring Rossi loitering in 9th place.

By Saturday afternoon, things were mostly squared away. Marquez qualified on pole, with my boy Aleix 2nd (Suzuki’s first front row qualifying run since Loris Capirossi at Mugello in 2009) and factory Ducati #2 Andrea Iannone edging CWM LCR Honda hothead Cal Crutchlow for 3rd place. Lorenzo could manage only 5th place, while Rossi would qualify 8th; more about that later.

Marquez Leads the Parade for 11 Laps

Yonny on fire

At the start, Marquez jumped out to the early lead, which grew to over four seconds midway through the race. Crutchlow, feeling his oats in his first visit to Rio Hondo, led the trailing group, followed by the two factory Ducatis and the factory Yamahas. Rossi went through on Lorenzo on Lap 6. Moments later, Pramac’s Hernandez was on fire, literally, the Colombian’s bike spewing flames until Yonny, suddenly aware that he was “doing a Zarco”, pulled off-track and ran away before the inevitable explosion, which failed to materialize as the marshals assailed the inferno with half a dozen fire extinguishers. Anyone in the market for a used Ducati?

By Lap 9, Lorenzo had fallen off the pace, his 2015 season starting to resemble the debacle he experienced during the first half of 2014. In quick succession, Rossi, his fuel load having dropped, went through on Iannone in Lap 9, spanked Crutchlow on Lap 10, and disposed of Dovizioso on Lap 11, emerging in second place, over four seconds behind Marquez. It was at about that time that many of us, presumably including Marquez, realized the first of his two mistakes today: he had abandoned the extra hard rear tire for the softer option after the first sighting lap. Rossi had stuck with his original choice of the harder option, a decision which would prove crucial as the race progressed.

Suddenly, It’s a Race

I quit taking notes on Lap 14, and instead jotted down the gap between Marquez and Rossi, as follows:

Lap 14 4.1 seconds Rossi
Lap 15 3.7
Lap 16 3.5
Lap 17 3.0
Lap 18 3.1
Lap 19 2.3
Lap 20 2.0
Lap 21 1.2
Lap 22 1.15
Lap 23 0.4

Things came together, in more ways than one, on Lap 24. Rossi appeared rock solid, breathing down Marquez’s neck. Marquez’s rear tire appeared made of Crisco, as he was sliding all over the place, both tires adrift in the corners. The riders exchanged places twice, leaving Rossi in the lead by a nose. In the middle of turn five the two touched, to no one’s surprise, Marquez dropping back ever so slightly. But at the exit of turn five, they came together again hard, Rossi in front and on the line, the front of Marquez’ Honda folding up, leading to a fast lowside, bike and rider sliding 50 yards into the grass. Race Direction looked at the incident for a full 20 seconds before declaring no foul. End of story.

Marquez’ second mistake? Realizing that Rossi had the pace, and being too stubborn, too willful to allow him through and settle for second place and the 20 points that would have accompanied it. Yes, he has the heart of a champion, and two world titles to show for it. Yes, his lizard brain was fully in charge at that moment. But he needs to understand that he cannot win every race, even those that appear to be his for the taking. Instead, he now trails the fully rejuvenated Rossi by 30 points. Hell, he even trails the toasted Jorge Lorenzo, not to mention both factory Ducatis. He has put himself in a bad place, with no one to blame but himself.

As promised, here’s a quick question for Rossi fans. What do today’s race, the 2015 season opener at Qatar and Phillip Island 2014 all have in common? In all three, Rossi qualified 8th and won the race. For Vale, his career has reached the point where his starting position on the grid is essentially irrelevant. With the right tires and the right setup, one thinks he can win from anywhere on the grid. At age 36, he may be as strong as he’s ever been. He has surpassed Lorenzo as the #1 rider on the Yamaha team, and he may eclipse Marquez as the 2015 world champion. Dude is tougher than a two dollar steak.

Elsewhere on the Grid

The Espargaro brothers had an interesting day. Aleix, on the factory Suzuki, started from the middle of the first row. Pol, on the Tech 3 Yamaha, started from the outside of row six. Aleix managed to finish 7th, three seconds in front of his brother in 8th.

crutchlow and millerThe CWM LCR Honda team enjoyed a successful day, with Crutchlow’s prototype pipping Iannone at the flag for third place, while Jack Miller, on the production version, finished 13th to take the top open classification award for the day, what I like to think of as the Taller Than Danny DeVito Award.

What I can’t figure out is why Cal always seems to be pissed at someone. He can pretty much be counted upon to complain about something or someone at every single round. Yesterday, he was honked at Jorge Lorenzo (a double premier class world champion) and/or Maverick Vinales for preventing him from qualifying on the pole. As if. Today, given Marquez’ ill fortune, he lucks into the last step on the podium on a day he would normally finish fifth. During the obligatory post-race interview with Dylan Gray, he goes all ungracious, thanking “all the people that wrote me off” for the win. For a guy who makes millions of dollars doing something he loves to do, he has a very unbecoming supersized chip on his shoulder. Today’s majestic, awe-inspiring triumph rocketed him up from 7th place coming into the weekend all the way up to 6th. I, for one, am blown away.

From where I sit, Crutchlow ran a good race. On a factory spec Honda, he should.

On the Horizon: Jerez

Among other things, Marc Marquez needs some home cooking. He’ll get it in two weeks at Jerez, where he will need to dispose of Jorge Lorenzo and Andrea Iannone, put himself in third place for the season, and start chipping away at Dovizioso and Rossi. Last year he dealt with the pressure of reeling off 10 consecutive wins to start the season. This year, he has a different kind of pressure to deal with. This year we’ll see what he’s made of.

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