Archive for the ‘2017 MotoGP’ Category

MotoGP 2017 Season Review

November 24, 2017

© Bruce Allen.  Exclusive to Motorcycle.com

Marc Marquez Proves It’s a Marathon, Not a Sprint

The final installment of this year’s diatribe should, one thinks, start with an examination of the season preview from back in February. Heading into Qatar, the conventional thinking was that Maverick Vinales, newly and firmly ensconced on the factory Yamaha, the best bike on earth of late, would challenge triple world champion Marc Marquez and his Repsol Honda—you remember, the one with the acceleration issues—for the world championship.

It didn’t work out that way, as the fight ended up being between Marquez and journeyman Ducati #2 (behind the newly signed Lorenzo) Andrea Dovizioso, with Marquez, as expected, taking home the hardware and Dovi displacing Jorge Lorenzo on the #1 Ducati, at a fraction of the price.

Here are some pertinent snippets from the season preview eight months ago:

• “The Big Three factory teams of Yamaha, Honda and Ducati will dominate much of the action, as they are home to the Aliens, those riders whose balance and instincts are a step above the rest of the field—Marc Marquez, Valentino Rossi, Jorge Lorenzo and new Alien on the block Maverick Vinales.”

We ended the season in virtually complete agreement that in 2017 Marquez is the only true Alien, with Rossi, Dovizioso, and Vinales chasing, Pedrosa and Lorenzo hanging onto relevance by their fingernails. We discovered that the 2017 Yamaha M1 was inferior to the 2016 model, as the Tech 3 team of Zarco and Folger pressed the factory boys all year, especially in the rain. Vinales disappointed many, especially given his sensational start to the season.

Recall, after Le Mans, the top seven looked like this:

1. Maverick Vinales 85
2. Dani Pedrosa 68
3. Valentino Rossi 62
4. Marc Marquez 58
5. Johann Zarco 55
6. Andrea Dovizioso 54
7. Cal Crutchlow 40

Vinales was clear of the field by 17 points with three wins in the first five rounds. Had it not been for a regrettable crash out of the points at Austin his lead would have been even greater. Marquez had crashed out at Argentina and again at Le Mans, looking somewhat ragged early in the season. During the spring of 2017, it appeared the fans jocking Vinales might be right, that Marquez’s reign, like a 4th of July sparkler, could be blindingly bright and all too brief.

Let’s just be done with the castigation thing as re Jorge Lorenzo. Despite owning three premier class titles, he has a host of problems. He’s a narcissist, which means few people would be inclined to come to his rescue if, say, he found himself sitting in 18th place after two rounds, his season in tatters, his employers paying Triple World Champion salary prices and having gone public with their over-inflated expectations for 2017. If Lorenzo was on fire in the middle of the street Valentino Rossi wouldn’t stop to piss on him. Lorenzo stood there, smirking, and watched Rossi suffer for two years on the Ducati, then went and did the exact same thing for the same reasons, money and ego. I had expected him to be in the top five most rounds, which was not the case.

We’ll talk about Rossi later.

• “Keeping them honest will be the likes of Lorenzo’s teammate and wingman Andrea Dovizioso, Cal Crutchlow on the LCR Honda, and Andrea Iannone on the factory Suzuki. Alex Rins, on the second factory Suzuki, and Johann Zarco on a Tech 3 satellite Yamaha are the Moto2 grads most likely to podium this year, with Rins looking, to me anyway, like the rookie of the year for 2017. Another Alien in the making.”

So we had Dovizioso ranked ahead of Lorenzo, about whom we had serious doubts heading into the season. We missed on Crutchlow, who had a forgettable year after a solid 2016 but will happily show you pictures of his daughter. We missed on Iannone, Rins and the whole Suzuki project, which we expected to take another step forward and which, instead, went the other way, moonwalking for the first half of the season. Rins got hurt, missed a bunch of races, but came back looking stronger at the end of the season than he had early. Iannone waited until the last few rounds to awaken from his season-long stupor and do some racing.

Rookie of the Year Johann Zarco stole the show in 2017, coming up from Moto2 with a trophy in each hand—the only rider ever to do so—and immediately taking to the 2016 M1 for the Monster Tech 3 team. The early part of his season was extraordinary, capped by a front row start and podium in front of his homeys at Le Mans. He then went into a bit of a funk during the middle of the season, but finished strong, with brilliant performances on the Pacific swing and in Valencia—started and finished second—that have him itching for 2018 to start tomorrow. Stories are emerging that suggest Yamaha wants him to take Rossi’s seat in 2019. He’s a hot property, but a little long in the tooth to be Alien material (he turns 28 in July.)

• “Pramac, Aspar and Avintia Reale get new old Ducati hardware, which could improve prospects for Hectic Hector Barbera and Alvaro Bautista.”

We suggested Danilo Petrucci, aboard the Pramac GP17 would likely be in the mix for some wet rounds, which he was until tailing off late in the season. Barbera was perhaps the single biggest bust of the year, injured during the last pre-season test and never finding his rhythm ever after an encouraging 2016 and offseason. Punched his ticket back to Moto2, his career no longer in what one might call the ascendant stage. And Bautista wasn’t much better, although he gets to stick around for at least another year. Loris Baz lost his ride, Redding trudged off to Aprilia in a headscratcher, a second one occurring when Pramac Ducati signed the lost-at-sea Tito Rabat to a deal for 2018, taking over for Redding. Moving the second seat on the team from the frying pan into the fire, if you ask me.

So, as regards the Ducati contingent, we were mostly wrong about Lorenzo, Dovizioso, and Petrucci. True, we were also wrong about Barbera, Bautista, and Baz. And we were surprised by (wrong about) Karel Abraham, who showed more this season than he has thus far in his entire career. Undeterred, we will point out that we expected next to nothing from Scott Redding and he delivered. He will now take his Stiff Upper Lip to Aprilia with his customary high expectations, although, having ridden the RS-GP in Valencia for two days, he spoke during an interview of the need for Aprilia to “make the bike more user-friendly.”

That didn’t take long.

Sure, Scott. Given the choice between redesigning the entire frigging bike or directing a mediocre rider to lose 20 pounds, Aprilia is probably more inclined to go back to the drawing board. You wanker.

• “It would take another Assen-type miracle for either of the Marc VDS riders, Jack Miller and Tito Rabat, to win this year.”

Just sayin’. Miller earned a promotion to the Octo Pramac Ducati team for his efforts, while Rabat somehow managed to talk the Reale Avintia team into taking a chance on him. It will be interesting to see if Miller can wheedle a GP18 out of Gigi Dall’Igna or whether he will have to pay his dues on a 17. Rabat, showing nothing of the greatness he possessed in Moto2, is lucky to still be employed. Okay, the second half of his 2017 was better than the first. There.

Let’s Take a Closer Look

We need to talk about Valentino Rossi. Before we do, let’s tip our hats to the 2017 riders who have escaped mention thus far.
• Dani Pedrosa. Another competitive season, two more wins on Spanish soil. Low maintenance and a serviceable wingman for Marquez. I just keep thinking that there is a lot of young talent on its way up and that sooner or later Honda will make a change. I thought they would last year. I think they will after 2018. But that’s just me.
• Cal Crutchlow. Ninth for the year, no wins, another year older—33 next year—appears to have reached the high water mark of his career last season. His body is beaten up and older than he is. Will have a rookie teammate next year to corrupt. He gets quoted in the press way too often for a mid-pack rider. Probably because he gets to speak in his first language, unlike most of the contenders. I imagine he’s not the hot interview target on Telemundo that he is on BBC Sports.
• Jonas Folger. Zarco’s rookie J&J Tech 3 buddy, he podiumed in Germany before his season was ended prematurely by injury and illness. Folger showed way more than I expected early in the year, possibly because he, too, was piloting the 2016 Yamaha M1, perhaps the best bike on the grid. If he improves even a little and can stay healthy, his bank account could get laced in 2019, too, along with frère Johann.
• Aleix Espargaro again brought his “win or die trying” spirit to Aprilia, and paid the price. Though showing moments of brilliance, he failed to finish eight races and failed to start another due to crashing out, getting hurt, and suffering a number of mechanical letdowns. His 2017 bike was better than his 2016, and 2018 should be better yet. But dude needs to stay on the bike. Next year he’ll have Scott Redding instead of the departed Sam Lowes to make him look good.
• Pol Espargaro and Bradley Smith. The rookie KTM tandem had an encouraging year, despite accumulating 8 DNFs and no podiums, with top ten finishes hard to come by. Espargaro had the better of Smith most of the year, crashing out more often but finishing on top for the season. KTM, according to rumor, covets Zarco for 2019, too, and is said to be over Bradley Smith.
• Finally, Sad Sam Lowes. Sam failed to accumulate the required 10 points during an entire 18 round season, for God’s sake, necessary to qualify for a final disparagement in this column, and so we simply wish Sam good luck and Godspeed in Moto2.

Last but not least, Valentino Rossi. I seem to be something of a rare breed in that I neither love nor despise The Doctor. He went into the 2017 season as a dark horse for the title and sat grinning in first place during those halcyon days after Jerez and before Le Mans, where things started going downhill for the nine-time world champion. Crashing out of the front row at Le Mans, then breaking his leg later in the year, and it was all she wrote. He was never comfortable on the 2017 Yamaha, and was uncompetitive in the rain. Objectively speaking, despite having some brilliant moments, he was not the Rossi we have watched over the years, even as recently as 2015.

There are people out there—smart, otherwise-lucid folks—who sit in delirious anticipation of Rossi’s triumphant exit from MotoGP on the heels of his 10th world championship in 2018. Seriously, there are. But it’s simply not going to happen. He is old enough to have fathered most of the riders in Moto2 and all of the riders in Moto3. He is accumulating scar tissue at an accelerating rate. Yamaha needs to give him and Vinales a better bike for 2018. Even if they do, it won’t be Rossi hoisting the 2018 trophy, although it could be his teammate. Which would really piss him off. I believe next season will be his last as a full-time rider. One could easily see him as a Yamaha wildcard at Mugello and Misano in 2019 and beyond.

The 2017 Season in One Paragraph

The opening third of the season was owned and operated by the factory Yamaha team, which held first place for the first seven rounds. During the middle of the season, Rossi and Vinales began to falter somewhat, Marquez started finding his breathtaking rhythm and Andrea Dovizioso started winning races. By the last third of the year, it was a shootout between Marquez and Dovizioso, one which appeared to have been settled at Phillip Island but was, arguably, settled at Aragon, in that the standings of the top eight riders after Round 14 matched the final 2017 standings.

2017 Season Graph color snip

Although we enjoyed the drama of the Pacific swing and Valencia, in hindsight those four rounds ended up having little to do with the final results. Which is not to say that a number of us weren’t pretty geeked up at Motegi and Phillip Island. It was nerve-wrenching to watch Marquez playing defense and Dovizioso on offense. In the end, the title was decided at Valencia, just not in the manner for which most of us had been hoping.

As an aside, the spreadsheet appears to support the old golfing adage that you drive for show and putt for dough. Spraying the ball off the tee, then making long putts for saves and, finally, the win, is how the smart ones do it. In contrast to his fabled 2014 season, it took Marquez a while to understand the new bike and find his rhythm. Once he did, in Barcelona, and as he got closer to the 18th green in Valencia, he started making those putts. From then on he was essentially unstoppable.

Final Tranches of 2017

Tranche 1: Marc Marquez
Tranche 2: Andrea Dovizioso, Maverick Vinales, Dani Pedrosa, Valentino Rossi, Johann Zarco
Tranche 3: Jorge Lorenzo, Cal Crutchlow, Jonas Folger, Alex Rins, Pol Espargaro, Aleix Espargaro, Andrea Iannone, Jack Miller, Danilo Petrucci, Alvaro Bautista
Tranche 4: Bradley Smith, Scott Redding, Loris Baz
Tranche 5: Sam Lowes, Tito Rabat, Hector Barbera, Karel Abraham

The Last Word

MotoGP 2017 confirmed several pre-season predictions and missed on a few others.
Marc Marquez is the rider of the decade, discussion closed. The sun is setting on Valentino Rossi. Jorge Lorenzo made a huge mistake taking his game to Ducati. Maverick Vinales is going to be a premier class champion, just not right away. Andrea Dovizioso still has plenty of gas in his tank. The KTM team is going to be nails in the near future. Johann Zarco is the class of the rookie class of 2017, with Folger and Rins not far behind. And, with plenty of hot young talent in the pipeline, MotoGP in 2017 is as good as it’s ever been.

 

The Rest of the Story – Valencia 2017 #2

November 17, 2017

© Bruce Allen

We were taking a look at the performance of the riders at Valencia, in the order they finished the year. The first post took us through Jonas Folger in 10th place for the year. We continue:

  • Jack Miller finished seventh after starting 12th, another respectable day for the blunt Australian, whose tenure in MotoGP thus far has been somewhat predictably disappointing, having skipped the Moto2 class altogether. With little to ride for and his ticket punched for the Octo Pramac Ducati team next season, he didn’t mail it in. He also got up to speed on the Desmosedici GP17 in a hurry in the Valencia test. Good on, Jackass.
  • Alvaro Bautista, who did, in fact, mail it in, running last all day until finally putting an end to his and our misery by crashing out on Lap 15. Re-signed by the Pull & Bear Aspar team for next season, he had nothing to ride for and let it show. But his hair looked great, his smile wide and white. Happy to be there. Narcissist.
  • Andrea Iannone qualified on the front row and finished sixth, his best outing of the season, finishing the year strong with three top six finishes in his last four races. My view of his season through Misano was that he was sandbagging. Perhaps he’s just adjusting to the Suzuki and is a work in progress after four seasons with Ducati.
  • Scott Redding euthanized a grim second half of the season at Valencia by starting 22nd and crashing out early. With nothing to ride for, he has again worked himself out of a job, having failed on the Honda and now the Ducati. Perhaps Aprilia is the answer. Somehow I think not. Dude should be riding AMA on a big fat Harley.
  • Aleix Espargaro, everyone’s favorite non-winner, capped off an impressive second half by qualifying 8th, although he crashed out later. Aleix showed plenty of potential, had a few top ten finishes and just missed qualifying on the front row at Motegi, but spent too much time off the bike, too many DNFs, too many contusions. The bike needs to improve more than he does, but the overall trend for the year was positive.  Not as positive as KTM but positive.
  • Alex Rins qualified 10th and finished 4th in his best outing of a year trashed by a serious early-season injury to his wrist. Once he returned to “fitness,” he showed plenty of potential heading into 2018. I had him pegged for Rookie of the Year going into the season, and might have been right had things gone better. Plenty of reasons to be optimistic next season.
  • Pol Espargaro, the #1 KTM rider, showed major improvement in the second half of the season, though Sunday in Valencia was not his day. Having glued on his 10th engine of the season, he was forced to start from pit lane, got over-excited, and crashed out for his 5th DNF of the season. But KTM has it going on, and the outlook for 2018 is very bright for young Espargaro, perhaps less so for his teammate.
  • Loris “Too Tall” Baz lost his ride this season through no real fault of his own. But he’s kind of like a well-nourished kid who wants to seriously pursue gymnastics. At Valencia he qualified 23rd and finished 16th, mostly due to attrition. He will ride for BMW next season in WSBK and we wish him well. He’ll have the same problem, but at a few different tracks.
  • Tito Rabat had his best outing of the year in his Marc VDS swan song, starting 14th and finishing 10th, his first and only top ten finish of the season. He showed some flashes of mediocrity later in the season after a year and a half of utterly dismal showings. Ducati can be a career killer, but it has also saved a few riders. I could easily see him back in Moto2 in two years.
  • About the best thing one can say about Karel Abraham’s 2017 campaign is that he qualified 2nd in Argentina. Otherwise bupkus. Started 18th at Valencia and finished 14th. Returning to the team next season with another pile of sponsor money, a law degree, and, like Bautista, seemingly happy just to be invited to the party.

If you are interested in the results pertaining to Bradley Smith, Hector Barbera or Sam Lowes you’ll need to visit the MotoGP website, because it’s too depressing for me to try to describe with any good humor the performance of this trio over the year and again on Sunday. Smith finished 11th.  There.

Finally, a brief word about the Valencia test. Marquez, it seems, is going to be faster next year than he was this year.

Great.

MotoGP Valencia Results

November 12, 2017

© Bruce Allen.  Exclusive to Motorcycle.com.

Marc Marquez Wins Sixth World Championship 

All season long, we at MO have been chanting the mantra, “Let Valencia Decide.” With the title unsettled heading into the weekend, the opportunity for a riveting finale existed (if only mathematically), Marquez holding a 21 point lead over Ducati pilot Andrea Dovizioso as the riders lined up on the grid. The math caught up with Dovi on Lap 25 when, desperate to get past insubordinate teammate Jorge Lorenzo, he ran hot into Turn 8, ultimately laying his GP17 down gently in the gravel. And so the 2017 title was awarded at Valencia, having been decided some weeks earlier. 

Practice and Qualifying 

All weekend, the MotoGP world appeared to be owned lock, stock and barrel by a sublime Marc Marquez. He spent Friday and Saturday zipping around the Ricardo Tormo circuit, seemingly without a care in the world. His approach to racing is unique and reflects his high racing IQ: He finds The (elusive) Limit on Friday and Saturday, then goes out and manages it on Sunday. As a result, despite hitting the deck 27 times over the course of the season, he crashed out of only two races.

Meanwhile, Andrea Dovizioso, The Great Italian Hope of 2017, was having problems coming to grips with the short, tight circuit that is Valencia. FP3, for Dovi, was a mess, and almost forced him to endure the ignominy of going through Q1. Q2 was little better, as Marquez laid down the first sub 1:30 lap of the weekend early in the session while Dovi could do no better than the back of the third row. The good news for him, if any, was that Marquez was joined on the front row by Johann Zarco and Andrea Iannone, both of whom have been intemperately endowed with gobs of reckless abandon.

Despite the dreadful company on the front row, Marquez appeared buoyant all day Saturday, and the weekend had anticlimax written all over it. The racing god in charge of qualifying, facing ridicule Saturday evening from the other racing gods, was heard to say, “Bollocks. You guys wanted Dovi on pole and Marquez 9th? No idea how I got that switched around. Bloody hell.” And, before we get started, let me raise the ire of some readers while I mention needlessly that Dovi and Marquez, the last two left standing, received stunning upgrades in the brolly girl department. (By comparison, Jorge Lorenzo’s brolly person was 6’3” tall with long dark hair and an Adam’s apple.)

The Race 

As the red lights went out on the 2017 season, the two Repsol Hondas of Marquez and Pedrosa jumped out front, which was big. Johann Zarco, starting well, dispatched Andrea Iannone on Lap 1. Gaining confidence on the great 2016 Yamaha M1, he went through on Pedrosa on Lap 2 and was allowed through by Marquez on Lap 4, as expected. Marquez, he of the high racing IQ, had a rabbit in front and a wingman behind him; he couldn’t want for more. With a loosely gathered lead group of five, the race proceeded, um, processed this way for the bulk of the day.

Marquez Being Marquez

Lap 24 would prove instructive. Zarco continued to lead, visions of his first MotoGP win, and the first ever win by a satellite Yamaha, dancing in his head. But Marquez, rather than maintaining a safe gap between himself and the leader, began inching closer to Zarco, appearing to be lining…him…up. Lining him up, when the title was sitting there on a platter. But with Dovi stuck back in fifth…

MM’s lizard brain took over on Lap 24 and #93 went through fast on Zarco at the end of the main straight, executing another transcendent save before riding through the turn, the run-off area and a large expanse of gravel, practically needing to purchase a ticket to get back in the race. He re-entered in fifth position and finished on the podium after the factory Ducati team imploded.

Was this part of the Marquez team strategy? To let someone take the lead, wait until late in the race, see what’s up with Dovi and, unless he’s leading, go for the win and if it doesn’t work out oh well? Must be, since second place was there for the taking. Unlike Lorenzo, Marquez seems to stick with the plan.

Drama in the Ducati Garage

Jorge Lorenzo–expected, at a minimum, to stay out of Dovi’s way while the Italian tried to make his way up front—inexplicably and blatantly blocked him for the first 12 laps. On Lap 13, JLo received the first of three notorious dashboard alerts—Mapping 8—code directing him to allow Dovizioso through.  All of which he ignored. After having said he hadn’t seen the exact same messages at Sepang two weeks earlier.

By Lap 20 he had also ignored three clear pit board directions to allow Dovi through. My notes on Lap 21 included “insubordinate.” Lorenzo was, finally, gracious enough to crash out on Lap 25, clearing the way for Dovi who, as excited as an Iowa farm boy in a Vegas whorehouse, almost immediately ran hot into Turn 8, entered the gravel trap, and fell victim to river rock, the 2017 championship chase with him, dusted and done.

The post-race meeting between Lorenzo, his team, and the visiting suits from Bologna promises to be interesting.  And all this, after Dovi declared just a month ago what a fine teammate Lorenzo has been in 2017, especially in comparison to The Maniac he shared the garage with last year.

Repsol Honda Magic

With five laps left, Zarco led a menacing Dani Pedrosa and a distant Marquez. The last lap of 2017 took shape between Zarco and Pedrosa, not the matchup many of us expected, but a good one nonetheless. The grizzled veteran and the impudent rookie. The Frenchman with nothing to lose and the Spaniard with nothing to gain.

Pedrosa made short work of Zarco at Turn 1 of the last lap and easily held him off on the way to his second win of the year, with Marquez gaining the third step on the podium. His win, and the Ducati debacle, delivered HRC a rare triple crown in MotoGP—top rider, top team and top constructor. It also saved Yamaha from finishing outside the top two OEMs for the first time since the earth cooled.

Key Moment of the Season 

Unfortunately, there is no obvious event one can easily point to as being the decisive moment of the 2017 campaign.  Marquez says it was winning at Sachsenring and Brno, finishing the first half and starting the second half strong. Others might say it was the collection of impossible saves (races in Assen and Valencia, practices in Brno, Mugello, Motegi and, famously, the Save of the Century during FP4 at Sepang). Personally, I think it was Phillip Island, where Marquez’s win and Dovi’s dumpster fire fanned an 11-point lead into a virtually insurmountable 33 with but two rounds left. 

The Last Word 

Despite the fact that a sizable portion of the MotoGP fan world dislikes Marc Marquez, there can be little argument that he is the best rider in an age of strong riders and relative equity in the distribution of quality bikes. I never thought I’d say anything very complimentary about Carmelo Ezpeleta, the big cheese at Dorna, but his goal, begun years ago, to level the playing field and lower costs for the teams is working out, at least the first part. There is more and better competition these days, and what used to be a sharp line separating the haves from the have nots has become blurred.  Much more proletarian, with the exception of the party leaders at the very top.

Listening to Marc Marquez discuss the championship in the post-race press conference, it became clear just how much mental energy he devotes to his craft. Yes, he has the entire package of physical attributes and a great company behind him. He freely admits to practicing crashing on Fridays and Saturdays, learning to avoid injury and allow the possibility of re-entering a race. (See Joan Mir’s performance in today’s Moto3 finale.  Dude has Alien written all over him.)

Six world championships at age 24. Valentino Rossi holds the record of nine at age 38. There was once a day where it appeared inevitable a young Tiger Woods would eclipse Jack Nicklaus’ career-record 18 wins in major tournaments, and many of you know how that worked out.  Granted, there is a world of young talent out there readying itself to take on Marc Marquez in MotoGP.  Names like Morbidelli, Mir, Renati, Loggia and more. They’re all fast.  But do they have the will, the mental discipline, the determination found in few athletes—Tom Brady and Peyton Manning come readily to mind—it takes to string together world championships like a daisy chain at such a young age?

Only time will tell. For now, the motorcycle racing world has a perfectly adequate example of excellence at work in the premier class of MotoGP.

“Perfection is not attainable, but if we chase perfection we can catch excellence.”

 –Vince Lombardi

* * *    

 Thank you to the handful of readers who put up with this nonsense year after year.  It is a pleasure delivering it to you and laughing out loud at your comments.

I’ll be taking a glance at testing on Tuesday and Wednesday and will occasionally post during the offseason. I’m discussing covering both MotoGP and WSBK next season with The Powers That Be at MO, so be forewarned. I will try to talk them into ordering a 2017 Season Recap for a few weeks from now. Otherwise, I look forward to your constructive criticisms and hysterical comments again next year.  Peace.

Here are some images from Sunday’s race in Valencia.

Marquez Champ6

Marquez takes his sixth title in Valencia, 2017.

Marquez from behind

Most riders’ view of #93.

Marquez Valencia 2017

Clinching the 2017 championship, Valencia.

Morbidelli

Here comes trouble–Franco Morbidelli

Joan Mir

More trouble on the horizon–Joan Mir in Moto2 next year

Three World Champs

2017 World Champions

Screenshot (59)

The man who would be king in 2017. Kudos, Andrea.

MotoGP Valencia Preview

November 6, 2017

© Bruce Allen.  Exclusive to Motorcycle.com

Dovizioso vs. Marquez: David vs. Goliath 2017 

So, 2017 has all come down to this–a technical showdown between Repsol Honda studmuffin Marc Marquez, gripping a 21-point lead, and a determined Andrea Dovizioso, virtually hopeless onboard the Ducati GP17, for all the marbles on Sunday. Even if Dovi wins, Marquez has to finish worse than 11th in order to choke this one away. To clarify, it is a showdown in only the most technical, theoretical sense. It will take a Dovizioso win and direct intervention by the racing gods to keep Marc Marquez from MotoGP title #4 on Sunday. 

Decades ago a nominally Catholic friend of mine came up with a premise as to which team eventually wins the NFL Super Bowl each season, The Blessed Quarterback Theory. Each year it’s just the blessed quarterback’s team that wins, regardless of anyone’s skill or resume. Paging Mark Rypien and Trent Dilfer. Works the same way in MotoGP. You look at the saves Marquez has made since coming up. Jorge Lorenzo was blessed in 2015. If Dovi somehow pulls it off on Sunday—millions hope he will—it will be because he, not Marquez, was the blessed rider in 2017. Otherwise, it’s status quo ante.

Recent history at Valencia 

The 2014 race was wet-ish and the title had been decided weeks earlier. Lorenzo slid out of the race late in the day. Marquez took the largely decorative win joined on the podium by Rossi and Pedrosa. The day’s procession culminated in the coronation of Marquez for the second time in his first two years, and the MotoGP world appeared to be his oyster.

No one who reads this stuff is likely to forget the 2015 season finale, at which Jorge Lorenzo won from pole while loathed championship rival and “teammate” Valentino Rossi, having been penalized for his antics with Marquez in Sepang the previous round, was forced to start from the back of the grid and could only (only) make his way back to fourth place at the finish.  There was additional controversy as to why the Repsol Honda team appeared to ride as wingmen for Lorenzo, never seriously challenging him over the last few laps.

Last year, Lorenzo was anxious for a win in his final race for Yamaha, wanting to go out on top after a difficult season.  Marquez wanted to cap off his third premier class title with an exclamation point, as well as to avoid an awkward podium celebration.  Jorge ended up winning the race, Marquez secured the title, and the podium celebration was awkward, the Spanish national anthem blaring in the background, Lorenzo over-celebrating and Marquez looking somewhat abashed, as if he were crashing Lorenzo’s party, along with Andrea Iannone, who was, in fact, crashing Lorenzo’s party.

Of the Aliens or former Aliens, Pedrosa has three wins and three podia in 11 starts. Rossi has two wins and six podia to show for 17 starts since 2000, but the most recent of those was in 2004, when Marquez was 11 years old. Jorge Lorenzo, in eight premier class starts, has four wins and a third-place finish in 2009 to go along with several violent DNFs. Vinales has bupkus, but this is a Yamaha track. Or used to be.

Marquez can boast a win, two places and a show in four MotoGP tries, barely breaking a sweat. Just once, I’d like to see him race here in anger with something on the line.  Back in 2012, he won the Moto2 race here after starting 33rd. As for the factory Ducati team, you have one rider who desperately needs to win on Sunday and his currently winless teammate who has dominated at Ricardo Tormo in recent years.

This could get interesting. What is that term again?  Team orders?

A Word About Valentino Rossi

“You have to believe in what they can do, not what they’re doing.”

A.J. Hinch, Manager, World Champion Houston Astros

Over long periods of time, we all evaluate what these riders have done. The coach was referring to his leadoff hitter, and I’m talking about the folks who expect #46 to win his 10th, and last, MotoGP title in 2018. With Rossi, an objective assessment of what he’s done since his last title in 2009 suggests he peaked around 2008-2009. But the folks who wear goofy yellow wigs and set off smoke bombs and bombard me with constructive criticism believe in what Rossi can do—they’ve watched him do it for years—not what he’s doing. He is arguably the best MotoGP rider of all time. Just. Not. Now. Now, he is competitive—highly tranched, but not realistically expected to win titles. Unless you’ve got the wig and the smoke bombs and the Kool-Aid…

Final 2017 Tranches

After Round 16    Phillip Island 

Tranche 1:   Marquez

Tranche 2:   Rossi, Vinales, Dovi, Pedrosa, Zarco, A Espargaro, P Espargaro

Tranche 3:   Petrucci, Rins, Iannone, Redding, Miller, Crutchlow, Lorenzo

Tranche 4:   Baz, Bautista, Smith, Abraham, Rabat

Tranche 5:   Lowes, (Folger), Barbera 

After Round 17    Sepang 

Tranche 1:   Marquez, Dovizioso

Tranche 2:   Rossi, Vinales, Pedrosa, Zarco, A Espargaro*, Lorenzo

Tranche 3:   Petrucci, Redding, Miller, Crutchlow, (P Espargaro)↓, Bautista↑ 

Tranche 4:   Baz, Smith, Rabat, Iannone↓, Rins

Tranche 5:   Lowes, (Folger), Barbera, Abraham 

After Sunday’s race we will compare the above tranching to the actual results, i.e., how many of the riders were in the correct group according to the final points. Folger, a top tenner all year, will get hosed, but that’s the way it goes. He would likely be a 3. 

(Wonder how Zarco and Folger feel about moving UP to the 2017 Tech 3 Yamaha M1 next season. Wonder if they’ll ask to stick with the 2016 iteration.) Zarco’s bank account gonna get laced in 2019 fo’ sho’. 

Final Thoughts and Weekend Forecast

Perhaps the reason Valencia is awarded the last race each season is the weather. Not that it’s always great, but because when it is great, it’s really great. The long- range forecast for the weekend is sunny, breezy, dry and perfect, with daytime temps reaching 70° F. Enough sun to warm the track and tires for the riders, and paradise for the teams and fans.

As I’ve said elsewhere, I think the best thing that could happen to this race would be for Marquez to blow an engine, slide or go walky out of the points in the first lap or two. This would eliminate any touchy, don’t-be-the-guy-who-cost-Marquez-the-title riding around him, which ain’t nobody need.

What it would do is make for an astonishingly meaningful race if Dovizioso is at or near the front with one or two of the other fast movers. Teammate and homeboy Lorenzo, who desperately wants his first win on the Ducati and has team orders to “help” Dovi. Homeboy Dani Pedrosa, untitled in the premier class, with team orders to beat Dovizioso. Homeboy Maverick Vinales, whose bike historically loves a dry Ricardo Tormo and who needs to fulfill my preseason prediction of four wins. Cal Crutchlow. Andrea Iannone. Sam Lowes. Someone.

So, as the sports seasons—football, basketball, hockey—start getting juicy in the United States, MotoGP is preparing to call it another year.  Reason #644 in my book 1000 Reasons MotoGP is Invisible in the United States, subtitled “Yet Another Reason I’m Not Rich and Famous.”

We are looking forward to a memorable race on Sunday, and will have results and analysis right here sometime, um, Sunday. Probably earlier if it is revealed that Andrea Dovizioso is the blessed rider of 2017. “Dog Bites Man” can wait until later in the day.

MotoGP Valencia Setup

October 30, 2017

© Bruce Allen.                      October 30, 2017

Nine years since Casey Stoner won on a Ducati at Valencia, yet Dovizioso has to win on Sunday or else. Yamahas have done OK, too.

Assume Marquez slides out of the race on Lap 1. I know, I know.

In addition to Dovi, not counting Jorge Lorenzo, who wouldn’t dare, there are still four or five guys who are ready, willing and able to win in Valencia, which means Dovi has his work cut out for him. Guys who could be leading or closing on him as the last lap approaches. Maverick Vinales. Johann Zarco. Rossi? Probably not, for a number of reasons. Dani Pedrosa, Marquez’ wingman for the weekend, who could win the race and give his teammate a title at the same time. Who doesn’t give a shit about Andrea Dovizioso or Ducati. Cal Crutchlow. Aleix.

So, what we may get is what we asked for—a last lap battle for a title—between Dovizioso and somebody, just not Marquez, with nine years of history running against the Italian. Marquez, one believes, is not going to do too much fighting this weekend. Dovi is going to do nothing but fight. And I can’t imagine too many people getting too geeked up watching Dovi win and Marquez finish a distant sixth, say, and winning the title anyway.

If, on the other hand, Marquez is running by himself in 7th place with two laps left, riders who might have been deferring to Dovi, if any, could change their minds and go after him. Even Lorenzo, whose team orders would have likely expired by then. I would pay good money to see Lorenzo and Dovi going neck and neck during the final lap, even with the title effectively out of reach. Lorenzo wanting his first win on the Ducati. Dovi wanting to keep his disappearing title chance alive.

That would be worth the price of admission. In fact, the odds, as I see them, are pretty high that we will have a dramatic last lap or three, with the title possibly on the line. Take THAT, F-1.

If this site had the horsepower, I would offer up a real survey.

Survey: Rider Most Likely to Fight with Dovizioso over the Last Two Laps:

◊ Maverick Vinales
◊ Johann Zarco
◊ Dani Pedrosa
◊ Cal Crutchlow
◊ Aleix Espargaro

MotoGP Sepang Results

October 29, 2017

© Bruce Allen.  Exclusive to Motorcycle.com

Valencia WILL Decide as Dovizioso Wins in Malaysia 

Factory Ducati #1 rider Andrea Dovizioso could hope for but one thing as the starting lights went out at the wet Sepang circuit—win the race and keep the title chase alive heading back to Spain for the finale.  Trailing defending champ Marc Marquez by 33 points entering the day, he needed to cut the deficit to less than 25 to avoid having to endure another nauseating Marquez title celebration. By winning the race, and with Marquez off the podium, the 2017 title will be decided in two weeks, and is more likely to end with a whimper than a bang. 

Practice and Qualifying 

Friday provided a dry session for FP1 and a wet session for FP2. Dovi topped the charts during both, looking very relaxed for a guy down 33 points with two races left. Marquez, typically, took his time in FP1, looking around, then got serious during the wet afternoon session and trailed only Dovizioso at the end of the day

Saturday was hot and “dry” all day, if you think of 90% relative humidity as “dry.” FP3 was decisive in culling the herd, as all but two of the riders set their fastest times of the weekend in the morning, topped by Dr. Rossi, who came out of nowhere on Friday to headline FP3 on Saturday. Those passing directly into Q2 included both factory riders from the Yamaha, Honda, Suzuki and Ducati teams and the two satellite Hondas of Cal Crutchlow and Jack Miller, who has been on something of a roll since breaking his leg.

Q1 was pretty orderly, as my boy Alex Rins and KTM heartthrob Pol Espargaro made it through to Q2, Espargaro directly after laying down his bike very late in the session. This set the stage for Q2, which I would like to summarize by simply listing the riders who sat pole during the 15 minute session:

Jack Miller (after Marquez crashed on his first flying lap)

Johann Zarco, looking fast all weekend

Dani Pedrosa, loving the hot track

Jorge Lorenzo, loving the dry track

Johann Zarco again, and for quite awhile. Then, quickly, as the session was ending

Dani Pedrosa

Valentino Rossi

Andrea Dovizioso

Johann Zarco once more, and, finally

Dani Pedrosa, for his first pole since Catalunya.

The final minute of the session was a blur, one which pushed Marquez to the seven spot, topping row 3. After his first lap crash, he changed bikes, put in one fast lap in which he was out of shape most of the time, got off the bike and had it put away for Sunday.  Previously, FP4 was the scene of what some are calling The Save of the Century, when he traveled perhaps 60 yards on his rear wheel and right knee, his front wheel, akimbo, laying down a thick black line, before righting himself and continuing gingerly down the road.

So, Sunday’s race would feature Pedrosa, Zarco and Dovizioso on the front row and Rossi, Vinales and Lorenzo on Row 2, with Marquez, Rins and Iannone comprising Row 3. With loose cannons Zarco and Iannone in the mix heading into Turn 1, it seemed Sunday’s race, for some riders, could be rather brief. Not a good thing with a championship at stake late in the season. No one wants to be collateral damage, or the cause of it.

The Race

Once the red lights went out on Sunday, Marquez appeared to have been shot out of a howitzer, taking the hole shot into Turn 1 hot, then watching Johann Zarco and Jorge Lorenzo slip by as he settled into third, Dovizioso trailing in fourth. On Lap 4, Dovizioso and Marquez did a little do-si-do after which Dovizioso took over third place and Marquez dropped back to fourth, where he would finish. So far so good for the Italian challenger, though Lorenzo and Zarco would still need to be dealt with. At that point, there was plenty of race left.

By Lap 9, Zarco appeared to be having issues with his soft rear rain tire, as first Lorenzo, then Dovizioso, went through on him.  (Though he would not win today’s race, he did clinch the Rookie of the Year award, as well as the Top Independent Rider for 2017, and he will be a hot property in next year’s silly season.) Thus, with factory Ducati rider Lorenzo leading factory Ducati rider Dovizioso, the talk in the commentary booth turned to “team orders,” that euphemism loathed by racing fans in which money and/or politics is injected into the rather Darwinian proceedings on track, occasionally producing some perverse results.  The Ferrari F-1 team back in the 90’s, head and shoulders above the rest of the field, with Michael Schumacher and Rubens Barrichello driving, used to take turns winning races, to the disgust of fans around the world.  Such concerns were alive and well in Malaysia today.

Lorenzo did not appear to be having any of it.  The triple MotoGP champion, winless in 2017 with an ego as big as the great outdoors, had said, earlier in the year, that if Dovi needed “help” in Valencia he would try to provide it. This, however, was not Valencia, although it might as well have been.  Had Lorenzo beaten Dovizioso today, with Marquez slotted fourth, the championship would have been decided.

Other than Alex Rins getting disqualified for taking a shortcut back to the pits on Lap 12, things proceeded apace until Lap 16. At turn 15, the hairpin between the back and front straights, Lorenzo lost his grits, ran wide, nearly came off, and left a bright red stripe on the asphalt where his left knee slider was all that stood between him and a painful visit to the kitty litter. While this was going on, Dovizioso quietly slipped through and took the lead he would not relinquish.

The Big Picture

Marc Marquez’ ride today was reminiscent of his outing at Brno in 2014.  He had won the first 10 races that year.  He was virtually a mortal lock to win the title.  He had been fast all weekend in practice.  Yet, once the race rolled around, he appeared disinterested in challenging for the lead and an untouchable record 11th consecutive premier class win. Instead, like today, he rode a conservative, low-risk race to a 4th place finish with no harm done. His effort today sets up a deciding match in Valencia, but not the kind we were hoping for.

Marc Marquez returns to Spain in two weeks leading by 21 points. The number of permutations and combinations on offer next time out plummeted today. Dovizioso must win the next race to have any kind of chance for the championship; should he finish second or worse, Marquez is champion again.  Assuming, for a moment, that Dovi wins, Marquez would have to finish 12th or worse, the odds of which, with a title on the line, are incalculably high. Back in the day when I had a friendly bookie in St. Louis, such a parley—Dovi wins, Marquez scoring fewer than five points—would pay around 200-1. So, though we may have the pleasure of watching the title decided at the last race—our fervent hope all season—it provides about as much drama as watching iron rust.

Preparing for Valencia

We have a number of things on our plate for the next two weeks. The final tranching of the riders. Trying to figure out a way to pump some drama into the last race of the season.  Most worrisome of all, coming up with a classic quote that captures the essence of a great campaign that may have lasted two weeks too long. Andrea Dovizioso has enjoyed his finest MotoGP season ever this year, tripling his number of career premier class wins and pushing the eighth wonder of the world to the brink to the very end.

Andrea Dovizioso in 2017 is destined for one of two undesired labels.  The first is “plucky,” which will be his if he finishes second this season.  The second is “lucky,” which will be his if he wins in Valencia and Marquez finishes out of the points, having been collected, for example, by an Andrea Iannone or an Alvaro Bautista, each on his way to another undistinguished season.  Riders in Valencia may be somewhat cautious around Marquez, not wishing to be the villain, or goober, who keeps him from his appointed fourth premier class title in 2017.

MotoGP Sepang Preview

October 23, 2017

© Bruce Allen.  Exclusive to Motorcycle.com.

Mature Marquez Seeking Fourth Title 

For the fourth time in five premier class seasons, Honda’s remarkable Marc Marquez stands on the cusp of a championship. His win in Australia last week left him with a short to-do list this week in Malaysia: 1. Try to finish no worse than second. 2. Try to finish ahead of Andrea Dovizioso. 3. If both #1 and #2 fail, lose to Dovizioso by seven points or less. Otherwise, he will have to return to Valencia in two weeks for some kind of decider. Probably the best thing for #93 would be to euthanize this title chase Sunday under the cover of darkness, many time zones removed from home, setting up a triumphal fait accompli return to Spain. We couldn’t disagree more. 

Recent History at Sepang

I was there in 2014 when Marc Marquez added to his record collection by taking the pole and the win, with Rossi and Lorenzo giving maximum, ultimately futile chase in The Year of Marquez. Though the title had already been settled, the grid was taking the competition seriously, seriously enough that eight riders failed to finish.  Dani Pedrosa, in the chase for runner-up for 2014, crashed twice, putting his hopes aside for yet another year.  LCR Honda’s Stefan Bradl somehow finished fourth, coming close yet again to a final premier class podium to go along with his unlikely second-place trophy from Laguna Seca in 2013.

The 2015 Shell Malaysia Motorcycle Grand Prix will be remembered and talked about for years.  Not for the fact that Repsol Honda #2 Dani Pedrosa won the race.  Nor for the fact that Jorge Lorenzo took second place to pull within seven points of the championship lead.  The 2015 race will be remembered as the day Valentino Rossi allowed his machismo to get the best of him, such that kicking Marc Marquez into the weeds became, for a brief moment, a higher priority than winning his tenth world championship.  Some of you, the lucky ones, have forgotten most of what occurred then and thereafter.  Those of you unable to forget are in danger of joining the small cadre of bitter Hayden fans who remember Estoril 2006 and still, every year, wear their pink “PEDROSA SUCKS” t-shirts to the race in Austin.

The 2016 running of the Malaysian Motorcycle Grand Prix on the newly refurbished track went especially well for several combatants, and not so well for a few others.  For factory Ducati veteran Andrea Dovizioso, his skills, his bike, the track and the weather came together in the best possible way, allowing him the relief of a second premier class win, his first since Donington Park in 2009. Contenders Cal Crutchlow, Marc Marquez and Andrea Iannone all crashed, for no obvious reason, within a minute of one another mid-race, to the delight of those following them.  DesmoDovi was joined on the podium by the factory Yamaha duo of Rossi and Lorenzo.

Tranche Warfare

After Round 15    Motegi

Tranche 1:   Marquez, Dovizioso

Tranche 2:   Vinales, Pedrosa, Rossi, Zarco, Lorenzo, A Espargaro, Petrucci

Tranche 3:   Rins, Folger, P Espargaro, Iannone, Baz, Bautista

Tranche 4:   Crutchlow, Miller, Redding, Barbera, Rabat

Tranche 5:   Abraham, Smith, Lowes

After Round 16    Phillip Island 

Tranche 1:   Marquez

Tranche 2:   Rossi, Vinales, Dovi↓, Pedrosa, Zarco, A Espargaro, P Espargaro↑

Tranche 3:   Petrucci↓, Rins, Iannone, Redding↑, Miller↑, Crutchlow↑, Lorenzo↓

Tranche 4:   Baz↓, Bautista↓, Smith↑, Abraham↑, Rabat

Tranche 5:   Lowes, (Folger), Barbera↓

I can tell from here that whatever problem Ducati experienced at Phillip Island translated into these rankings. All six riders who dropped a spot ride for Ducati. But Scott Redding and Karel Abraham each climbed a notch, again on Ducatis. I can’t think of any rider who belongs with Marquez in Tranche 1 at the moment. Sepang, where the title race will probably be decided, will be the last round fought in anger, and thus the last round for ranking the riders.

I welcome any and all readers to argue with my assertion that Marquez currently is in a class by himself. All too often we hear riders talking about “having a good rhythm,” which, watching carefully, one can understand. I recall Cal Crutchlow commenting that if you got out of shape in Turn 2 at COTA you would be screwed all the way through Turn 9. Marquez seems to have found his rhythm this year at Catalunya, since, other than the engine problem in England, he hasn’t been off the podium since and has racked up five wins in the process. Perhaps it takes four or five races to get fully acclimated to a new RC213V each year. At present, it’s difficult to determine exactly where the bike stops and Marquez starts, so closely are they intertwined.

Who Will Challenge #93 in 2018?

My reflexive response to this question is, “Nobody.” That’s probably an overstatement.  Rossi will still be in the mix.  Yamaha teammate Maverick Vinales should improve next season and, depending on the speed and handling of next year’s M1, may push Marquez. Andrea Dovizioso my have another career year with Ducati, but our confidence in his abilities this season has been shaken.

Johann Zarco, Alex Rins and Jonas Folger will not become serious title threats, if ever, until they secure factory rides. Danilo Petrucci needs to learn how to be fast in dry conditions.  Jorge Lorenzo will, I’m pretty sure, simply serve out his sentence at Ducati and go looking for a better gig starting in 2019.  The young guns coming up from Moto2—Nakagami, Morbidelli, Luthi and Simeon—present no real threat in 2018, other than to the riders they may collect crashing out of their first few races.

One thing is certain. Honda, Yamaha, Ducati and KTM are going to engage in a hellishly expensive silly season next year positioning themselves for 2019. There is a rumor going around that KTM has offered Marquez a blank check to defect after next season.

A final word about next season. Most MotoGP people I know are excited about the improvements visible in the Aprilia and KTM bikes, while Suzuki took awhile this season before starting to show renewed signs of life. All three figure to be stronger next season. Even so, it would take a miracle, in my opinion, for any of them to contend seriously for a championship before 2020. Conversation for another day.

Your Weekend Forecast

Before I go to weather.com to confirm, let me guess that conditions in central Malaysia will be brutally hot with a chance for torrential downpours at any given moment. Yes. Temps will approach 90° each day with an 80% chance of thunderstorms all weekend and, from the looks of it, the rest of the year. There will be some gruesome stuff growing inside those leather racing suits by Sunday evening.

As for who will do what, I’m lacking any real insight, as the last few rounds of the MotoGP season remind me of the last few games of the NBA season which, for non- playoff-bound teams, is generally garbage time.  I am virtually certain that Marc Marquez will end up on the podium. If it’s a wet race I expect to see a Ducati on the podium as well, perhaps Petrucci. The third spot on the podium is anyone’s guess, but I’m going to go with Rossi, the default choice for a podium every single week.

We will post results and analysis sometime Sunday morning on the U.S. east coast.  Enjoy the show.

MotoGP Phillip Island Results

October 22, 2017

© Bruce Allen.  Exclusive to Motorcycle.com
Marquez Wins in Australia, Leads by 33

Honda triple MotoGP world champion Marc Marquez survived a crowded, snappish, paint-trading lead group today for the win that now makes the 2017 championship his to lose. With Yamahas everywhere, and guys like Johann Zarco and Andrea Iannone bouncing around like pinballs, it was just another picture-perfect Phillip Island grand prix. The confounding Valentino Rossi somehow finished second today, teammate Maverick Vinales third. But having both factory Yamahas on the podium felt like a small achievement on the same day the team’s faint hopes for a championship came to an end.

Screenshot (44)Marc Marquez and RV213V fully engaged at Phillip Island.

The championship race, which has been tight all season, came unwound today. Andrea Dovizioso completed his dumpster fire of a weekend by getting broken at the line by both Scott Redding and Dani Pedrosa for a miserable 13th place finish, his deficit to Marquez ballooning from 11 to 33 points. Vinales was eliminated from title contention today, as Marquez now leads him by 50 points and holds the tiebreaker. The first match point between Marquez and Dovizioso comes next week. If Marquez can hold onto 26- of his 33-point lead, it will suddenly become game over, see ya next year.

Notes from Practice and Qualifying

FP2 on sunny and windy Saturday saw the top 13 riders in the 1:29’s, led by my boy Aleix Espargaro on the Aprilia at 1:29.225. Everyone improved on their previous best times in FP1. With the weather expected to become inhospitable on Saturday, the FP2 times, which would then determine who passed directly into Q2, excluded both Rossi and Lorenzo, who would have to battle their way through Q1. Oy. Such indeed proved to be the case.

Both qualifying sessions were run on dry track. Rossi and Brad Smith— I know, right? –escaped to Q2, Smith putting both KTMs into Q2 for the second week in a row, a definite sign of improvement in 2017 for the Austrian giant. Lorenzo starting 16th should put to rest all this talk about him finally coming around, after doing his ankle laying it down in the grass during FP4. Scoreboard.

Q2 ended with several riders flirting with disaster (notably Andrea Dovizioso, mucking around in 11th, and Lorenzo) and several others delivering first class rides, including polesitter Marquez, who took it from Vinales, who had taken it from odds-on ROY Johann Zarco. Jack Miller gave his homeys a thrill qualifying 5th. Oddly, there were no Ducatis in the top ten and only one, Dovizioso, in the first four rows. And at a track I used to think plays up to their strengths, but I guess not. It did in the Stoner days. No Ducs in the front row at PI for the first time since 2006.

Good for the title chase is Marquez (fourth consecutive PI pole) and Vinales on the front row. Bad for the title chase is Dovizioso sitting on row four. Marquez telling Dylan Gray how comfortable he feels on the bike these days is bad news for the field. Dovi shrugged off his worst qualifying session since Jerez, claiming his race pace had him feeling confident. Marquez would give that confidence a test on Sunday afternoon.

All six manufacturers were represented in Q2. Very good sign for the sport. Marquez enters the second of three Pacific rounds with a perfect game plan: Lead, somehow, by 26 points or more heading home to Valencia.

Race Day

Sunday morning’s warm-up practice was run on a wet track, the results somewhat meaningless, although Marquez still found his way to the top. By the time the main event rolled around (after Joan Mir had clinched the Moto3 title and KTM had swept the top two positions in Moto2, deferring Franco Morbidelli’s title celebration, like Marquez’, to next week), the track was dry, the sun was shining, and the breeze had dropped. The heavy black rain clouds heading toward the track had the announcers speculating about a likely flag-to-flag race which, to the disappointment of many, failed to materialize.

Although Marquez took the holeshot into Turn 1, Jack Miller, screaming out of the middle of the second row, took the lead in Turn 2 and appeared to be actually getting away early. The vast majority of the crowd immediately went completely mental, convinced Stoner’s Australian Magic had descended upon Jackass, looking forward to hearing the national anthem twice in one day. Such was not to be, either, though he managed a very respectable 7th today and may need re-tranching.

What happened was that a lead group of eight riders started trading paint in the corners for about 20 laps, resembling a hybrid of Moto3 and NASCAR. The contestants included Marquez, Rossi, Vinales, Miller, Zarco, Cal Crutchlow, Aleix Espargaro on the Aprilia, and Andrea Iannone looking aggressive on the Suzuki. I do not recall ever seeing as many passes in the front group as we saw today. Nor have I seen more bumping and grinding in the turns, with most of the eight brawlers sporting black tire marks on their leathers afterwards. At the post-race presser, Rossi complained a little bit about the danger involved in all the bumping from the younger riders (i.e., everyone), but all three podium finishers agreed “that’s racing” and Race Direction found it necessary to examine exactly zero of the, um, encounters.

Lap 22 of 27 turned out to be critical. Vinales had just taken the lead from Marquez when he got tagged by Andrea Iannone, causing his heart to miss a beat as he wobbled back to seventh place. Marquez, who had the lead on the previous lap, retook it, leaving Rossi, Zarco and Iannone to slug it out for the last two podium spots, Rossi on one leg. While the three were slicing each other up, Vinales came storming back and, at the wire, slipped in front of Zarco by 1/100th of a second to deprive the Frenchman of his second premier class podium, the first since Le Mans. It was, indeed, a day of finish line punking, as illustrated by the following deficits to Marquez:

2 Valentino Rossi YAM +1.799
3 Maverick Vinales YAM +1.826
4 Johann Zarco YAM +1.842

5 Cal Crutchlow HON +3.845
6 Andrea Iannone SUZ +3.871

9 Pol Espargaro KTM +16.251
10 Bradley Smith KTM +16.262

11 Scott Redding DUC +21.652
12 Dani Pedrosa HON +21.668
13 Andrea Dovizioso DUC +21.692

It’s nice to see both KTMs and both Suzukis in the Top Ten. On the other hand, Phillip Island was a debacle of epic proportions for Ducati Corse as their top finisher (from eight that started) was Redding in 11th place. Someone somewhere knows how long it’s been since a Ducati failed to finish in the top ten anywhere. Dovizioso, the top title challenger coming into the weekend, got caught up in the generally bad juju the Ducati teams experienced all weekend, and watched as the last best title opportunity of his premier class career mostly went away. And, BTW, Johann Zarco and his Tech 3 Yamaha are developing a reputation as the second coming of The Maniac. Not a compliment.

On to Sultry, Sweltering Sepang

The teams continue the grueling Pacific swing with their annual visit to Malaysia, much of the season’s suspense and excitement having been dissipated by another brilliant performance from Marquez, for whom the second half of 2017 has been, well, kind of easy. Podiums everywhere since Mugello with the exception of having thrown a rod at Silverstone. Now leading the season series by 33 points with two rounds left, he is speaking out loud about the need to be patient and protective of his nascent championship. He needs only to beat a gutted Andrea Dovizioso next week to claim his fourth premier class title in five seasons.

Sepang, with its raving crowds, broiling tarmac, torrential rain and friendly layout, is where the 2017 title will likely be awarded. Until then, like him or hate him, let’s just salute Marc Marquez for the workmanlike manner in which he approaches his job these days. Little flash, no bling, just superhuman balance, comically quick reflexes, a wide field of vision and a positive working relationship with his lizard brain.

Screenshot (41)

Celebration Lap at Phillip Island 2017

 

 

MotoGP Phillip Island Preview

October 17, 2017

© Bruce Allen.  Exclusive to Motorcycle.com

Marquez vs. Dovizioso: All In Down Under

Those readers who can recall all the way back to last year will remember it as the year of nine winners. Some will recall it as a year Marc Marquez titled and eight other guys won races. 2017 will be remembered as the year Andrea Dovizioso got his Alien card punched and went looking for Marc Marquez at crunch time, anxious to take on the Spanish wonderkid.

Two legitimate title threats, neither one named Rossi, Lorenzo or Pedrosa. Each capable of winning on any track under any conditions. Each at the height of his powers, each virtually joined at the wrists and hips to his bike after years of getting up close and personal with it in some tight spots.

The last three races of the season beckon. Eleven points is like nothing.

For me, the most interesting moment at Motegi was when Dovizioso decided not to allow Marquez to get away over the last three or four laps. After leading a Ducati doubleteam with Danilo Petrucci for 20-some laps, it would have been a perfect opportunity for Dovi to settle for second, acknowledging Marquez’ inevitable place in the racing firmament. Instead, still having some rear tire to work with, he closed back up on #93, lined him up again, passed him on the last lap, resisted the late-lap dive, and put himself in great position to win a championship.

At this point in Marc Marquez’ career, there are few riders anxious for him to suddenly appear on their rear wheel late in a race. Dovizioso, it appears, doesn’t let it bother him. Certainly, he’s been there, done that on both the Honda and the Ducati, and has learned how to tame the Ducati, allowing it to do what it loves to do, which is to approach liftoff on the straights and try to keep it close in the turns.

Recent History at Phillip Island

2014: Having clinched the title the previous week at Motegi, Marquez crashed out of a four second lead on Lap 18 as his Bridgestone front seemed to turn to ice. 23 riders started the race; 14 finished. Valentino Rossi led a trio of Yamaha M1s to the checkered flag, joined on the podium by Lorenzo and premier class podium virgin Bradley Smith, who whipped his Tech 3 Yamaha to his first premier class podium. None of it really mattered, as Marquez left Down Under a barely visible speck in the distance, ahead of chaser Rossi by 57 points on the way to his second world championship. In case we’ve neglected to mention it in the past, Phillip Island is a Yamaha/Ducati kind of joint.

2015: The Pramac Australian Motorcycle Grand Prix had something for everyone. Repsol Honda defending double world champion Marc Marquez, in his season of discontent, laid down an historic last lap to steal the victory from compatriot Jorge Lorenzo. Lorenzo, trailing Yamaha teammate Valentino Rossi by 18 coming in, was blessed that day by a statement performance from factory Ducati (then #1) Andrea Iannone, who slipped past Rossi for the last of many times on the final lap, surging onto the podium and trimming Rossi’s lead over Lorenzo to 11 points heading for Sepang and Round 17. Keeping in mind that Lorenzo ended up beating Rossi in 2015, Dovi should feel pretty good about trailing by only 11 with three rounds left.

The 2016 Michelin Australian Motorcycle Grand Prix was about what one would expect from this great track after the championship had been decided—see 2014. Crown champion Marc Marquez, on the factory Honda, having given a clinic on Saturday to take pole, obliterated the field early, apparently on his way to an easy win. Until Lap 10, when he apparently lost focus, went to Bermuda for a few moments, pushing harder than necessary, folded the front in Turn 4 and handed the win to an astonished Cal Crutchlow. Cal was joined on the podium that afternoon by Rossi and Maverick Vinales, then employed by Suzuki Racing. As so often happens in this sport, the best contest of the day was the fight for 7th place, won by Scott Redding on the Pramac Ducati, trailed by Bradley Smith, Danilo Petrucci and Jack Miller, the gap from 7th to 10th a full 45/100ths of a second.

So, to review and summarize, we’ve had two of the last four races here in which the title had already been decided, and two with real stuff on the line. Four different winners in four years. Honda having won the last two is the only discernible trend. Dovizioso has never done well here on the Ducati, but 2017 is a whole new year for him and the entire team minus, of course, Jorge Lorenzo, who is mentally re-living 2016 and 2015 every day.

Marquez is on a monstrous roll since Mugello, his gritty performance in Japan doing nothing to diminish the dimensions of his accomplishments this season. And challenger Dovizioso is unafraid. With a championship in the balance, this sounds like a pretty good recipe for a weekend of racing.

Short Quiz

Match the rider on the left with the number of premier class wins he has enjoyed since the end of the 2009 season:

Valentino Rossi_____               6

Jorge Lorenzo_____                12

Marc Marquez_____               21

Dani Pedrosa_____                 34

Andrea Dovizioso_____         38

[Answers, in order: 12, 38, 34, 21, 6]

Yes, it’s true. As much as we like to take cheap shots at Dani Pedrosa. As much as some of us, um, YOU worship the very ground Valentino Rossi limps on. Yet, in the years since The Doctor’s last title, Pedrosa has won almost twice as many races (21 to 12) as has Rossi. Marc Marquez trails Jorge Lorenzo by four wins and three years.

Just sayin’.

Your Weekend Forecast

The long-range weather forecast for the greater Cowes metro area calls for temps in the 50’s, windy conditions, with the best chance of rain on Sunday. Worse, possibly, than those we found in Motegi last week. And none of which matters in the least to our two primary punters, who will arrive ready for anything.

Marquez has the advantage of owning the lead (however slight), more successful history at this track, and the experience of having won multiple premier class championships. Andrea Dovizioso has the proverbial fire in the belly and the fastest bike in the civilized world. Dovizioso won in Japan due to a small “moment” and routine breathtaking save by Marquez midway through the last lap. One suspects it will be uncomfortably close again this weekend in the former British penal colony.

The race goes off in the middle of the night in most of the Northern hemisphere. Unlike all those pesky European rounds, we’ll post results after breakfast, my morning constitutional, and a bit of a hot shower.

 

MotoGP Motegi Results

October 15, 2017

© Bruce Allen.  Exclusive to Motorcycle.com

DesmoDovi Smokes Marquez; Race Tightens

For the second time this season, Factory Ducati #1 Andrea Dovizioso and Repsol Honda prodigy Marc Marquez gave us a late-race knives-in-a-phonebooth duel, a ten-point spread in the standings at the top of the heap at stake. And for the second time this season, Dovizioso prevailed in what was almost a carbon copy of the first win, a last lap exchange of fortunes in Austria. Now it’s Two for the Road, as the two “blessed” riders in this year’s championship, separated by 11 points, seem destined to square off in Valencia.

Then There Were Two

Entering today’s race, there were, like, two and a half contenders for the title, as Dani Pedrosa and Valentino Rossi had been eliminated every which way but mathematically, and Yamaha savant Maverick Vinales was hanging on to contention by his fingernails. Now, with all three chasers having had counterproductive days, it has come down to Marquez and Dovizioso.

Both riders, as we’ve said before, are at the top of their respective games. Unfortunately, it took Dovi an extra few years to arrive, causing him to miss the rock star status afforded the Spaniard. But he is the only rider out there able to trail Marquez for the lead and the title and feel good about it. The most successful Ducati pilot of the last ten years, Dovizioso appears to welcome these last lap duels, treating them like tic tac toe matches in which one gradually limits the possible responses available to the opponent until the door is closed. In post-race interviews, he and Marquez laughed about knowing the strategy each other would use in the last few turns.

Practice and Qualifying

Racing in the rain on Friday and Saturday produced a set of Unusual Suspects in both Q1 and Q2. Marc Marquez and Andrea Dovizioso especially found things suiting their fancies on Friday and led the way directly into Q2 joined, eventually, by the likes of both factory Suzuki riders, Pedrosa and Petrucci, Zarco, Rossi, Lorenzo, and one Aleix Espargaro, having flogged his Aprilia RS-GP to the third best combined time on the grid.

The wet conditions, as always, pushed some familiar names down into Q1; the Usual Suspects welcomed Maverick Vinales, Cal Crutchlow, Alvaro Bautista and the cadre of Japanese subs and wildcards to the nether regions. The feel-good moment of the entire weekend occurred at the end of Q1 when both factory KTMs advanced into Q2. For being an enormous Austrian engineering and manufacturing behemoth KTM sure attracts a lot of warm fuzzies from MotoGP fans, with their bold colors, plucky riders and virtually unlimited budgets.

Q2 offered a number of great moments and a case study in not counting one’s eggs before they hatch. Marquez laid down a rapid early lap on rain tires, looking invincible, and rode around for awhile on a drying track before pitting and ending the session futilely on slicks. Valentino Rossi tried to qualify on slicks, desperately seeking solutions, failed, and would start Sunday’s race in 12th position.

A number of riders chose to attempt their flying lap on the last go-round, including Petrucci into a blistering second, Aleix Espargaro missing the front row by an eyelash, and Johann Zarco, coming out of nowhere, seized his second premier class pole of 2017 on the 2016 Yamaha. (His first, at Assen, led to a 14th place finish.) With top pursuers Andrea Dovizioso starting 9th and Maverick Vinales 14th, the title chase appeared primed to take a beating on Sunday.

As the Lights Went Out

Jorge Lorenzo followed Marquez’s hole shot into second place at the start and took the lead in Turn 9. Danilo Petrucci on the Pramac Ducati and polesitter Johann Zarco had their noses in it, with Dovizioso going through on Zarco on Lap 2 and Petrucci doing the same to Lorenzo to take the lead. With Doviozoso in the mix and Vinales out of it, the front four became, on Lap 4, Petrucci, Lorenzo, Marquez and Dovizioso. A Ducati triple-team on poor young Marc. Not to worry. Lorenzo began to actively work his way backwards, falling from podium contention to 8th by Lap 6.

My boy Cal Crutchlow pitted on Lap 6 and crashed out on Lap 16. Rossi, enjoying a miserable weekend in the rain, crashed out on Lap 6, too, joined by Karel Abraham and the Nosane kid subbing for Jonas Folger on the Tech 3 Yamaha. For Nosane, the weekend must have been like you or me being dropped into the cockpit of Miss Budweiser in time for Thunder on the Ohio. No problem, the life vest inflates upon impact! For Rossi, his second crash in two years here puts an exclamation point on his disappointing 2017 season.

Anyway, early on it appeared Petrucci might get away for his first ever premier class win, until both Marquez and Dovizioso reeled him in. On Lap 14, both went through on the swarthy Italian, consigned him to a distant third step on the podium, and rode off for their private confab.

Mano à Mano for Ten Laps

After a few rather relaxed laps of lining him up, Doviozoso sailed through on Marquez on Lap 19, with Marquez returning the favor, a bit rudely, on Lap 22. This was the point at which I expected Marquez to get away. Instead, they exchanged the lead several more times until Lap 24, when Doviozoso found himself surviving a final desperate dive from Marquez with the extra drive coming out of Victory Corner necessary to pimp the Spaniard at the flag. This is a Reader’s Digest summary of what was a number of laps of insanely great racing by the two best in the game at this moment in history.

Elsewhere on the Grid

Fan favorite Aleix Espargaro drove his Aprilia from a 4th place start, a whisker off the front row, to a satisfying 7th place finish. The KTMs of Smith and Espargaro cleared Q1 and started 7th and 8th, respectively. Though they could only manage 11th (Espargaro) and 19th (Smith) things are looking up in KTMTown. The factory Suzuki team, fronted by Andrea Iannone and Alex Rins, came to sudden life this weekend, qualifying 10th and 11th and finishing—gasp—4th (Iannone) and 5th (Rins). Two Suzukis in the top five, in the rain.

For the moment, two riders have lost their Alien status; Tranche 1 has been pared down. Tranches 2 and 3 are, therefore, inflated.

After Round 14 Aragon

Tranche 1: Viñales, Marquez, Dovizioso, Rossi
Tranche 2: Pedrosa, Zarco, Lorenzo, A Espargaro, Bautista
Tranche 3: Crutchlow, Rins, Folger, Petrucci, P Espargaro
Tranche 4: Miller, Iannone, Redding, Barbera, Baz, Rabat
Tranche 5: Abraham, Smith, Lowes

After Round 15 Motegi

Tranche 1: Marquez, Dovizioso
Tranche 2: Vinales↓, Pedrosa, Rossi↓, Zarco, Lorenzo, A Espargaro, Petrucci↑
Tranche 3: Rins, Folger, P Espargaro, Iannone↑, Baz↑, Bautista↓
Tranche 4: Crutchlow↓, Miller, Redding, Barbera, Rabat
Tranche 5: Abraham, Smith, Lowes

Marching to Praetoria

Time just to catch our breath before coming up with a completely new, more
Australian set of out-of-round observations about some people’s favorite sport. At least at this point we can narrow our focus down to the two top guys, both of whom need to do some serious crashing before Maverick Vinales becomes relevant again.

Phillip Island appears custom-designed for the Desmosedici GP17. We have some research to do prior to mid-week, when the Australian GP preview comes your way. All I’m willing to say for sure, at this point, is that a meaningful Valencia finale just became more plausible, not less. Personally, I would like to see Dovi beat Marquez 1-2 in the next two rounds, at which point they would go to Valencia separated by a single point.

It could happen. Dovizioso needs no worse than a draw with Marquez over the next two rounds. Another win, or two, would be utterly convenient. As he has obviously learned by now, championships are won by putting the hammer down in those clutch, fight-or-flee moments. Throwing caution to the wind and letting your instincts and balance take over. He and the bike are finally one. He knows Marquez is going to come with both barrels blazing. As he did today, he needs to continue to channel the late Tom Petty:

“Well, I won’t back down.
No I won’t back down.
You can stand me up at the gates of hell
But I won’t back down…
Gonna stand my ground.”    –Tom Petty   “I Won’t Back Down”