Archive for the ‘MotoGP Losail’ Category

MotoGP 2018 Losail Results

March 18, 2018

DesmoDovi Punks Marquez for Early Season Lead

© Bruce Allen. Exclusive to Motorcycle.com

The season opener at Losail went mostly according to expectations, which is to say it was crowded up front. At one point I counted nine bikes in the lead group, a sight normally seen in Moto3. French sophomore Johann Zarco led from pole most of the day, fueling a lot of premature trash talk. Once his tires went up, though, it came down to Dovizioso and Marquez for early bragging rights. Round One goes to the Italian on points. No TKO.

Practice and Qualifying

Of the top ten riders on the combined practice timesheets, the top five included, as most of you know, three Ducs and both Suzukis. The factory Hondas sat 6th and 7th. Crutchlow, Rossi and Zarco also made it straight into Q2, wiping up the rear, as it were. Jack Miller got hot on his GP17 during Q1 and moved through to Q2, followed by Vinales, who also found something late in the day. Both appeared to be capable of making noise in Q2. Overall, Dovizioso led three of the four practice sessions (Zarco the other), topping the charts for the Q2 cabal. KTM had nothing going on, but Aprilia was showing signs of life, Aleix sitting 12th after FP3.

Q2 was seriously better than a lot of races. Fifteen minutes of straight adrenaline, with the last three minutes simply breathtaking. Riders including Dovi, Marquez, Lorenzo and Rins took turns aiming at the 10-year old track record set by white-hot rookie Lorenzo to open the 2008 season, falling short each time. But on the day’s last lap, the remarkable Johann Zarco, who we refuse to call The Flying Frenchman, pedaling his two-year old Yamaha, put down a vapor trail, crushing Lorenzo’s former record by 2½ tenths and substantially raising the price of poker in the Zarco contract sweepstakes for 2019-20. Not to mention administering a facial to factory riders Rossi (8th) and Vinales (12th). “Hey Johann, it’s that Honda guy again on line 2.”

Marquez and Petrucci, as expected, ended Q2 second and third, respectively, both also breaking the previous record. My pick for pole, Dovizioso, held it for quite some time before sagging to the middle of the second row during the final two minutes. Interesting that the first two rows of riders, all of whom appear capable of winning on Sunday, exclude three genuine Aliens—Lorenzo, Rossi and Vinales. As Steven Stills sang eons ago, “There’s something happening here.” Several weeks ago we suggested “track records appear set to fall like dominos.” Even without qualifying tires.

Batting a thousand so far on that one. [And can’t you still hear the separate guitar parts in “For What It’s Worth?” Boom.] Saturday evening, Zarco said his race pace was a concern. Right. I hope everyone got to watch the interview with Marc Marquez in which the clever young Brit interviewer managed to get him to admit, smiling widely, that tire selection for the race is very important and no we are not yet sure which tires we will use tomorrow. Wow. We journalists really get down to it sometimes.

A Race for the Ages

The 2018 Qatar Motorcycle Grand Prix unfolded as if it had been scripted. The hot French sophomore on the two-year old Yamaha—let’s call him Johann Zarco–took the hole shot from pole and led a snappish bunch of veteran riders on a merry chase for 16 laps. Suddenly, his tires turned to cheese, and those veterans began going through, Sherman-through-Georgia style. Both Dovizioso and Marquez passed through at Turn 1 of Lap 17, with Rossi following suit later in the lap. Ultimately, Cal Crutchlow, Danilo Petrucci, Maverick Vinales and Dani Pedrosa would push the impudent Gaul to 8th place. In golf they say you drive for show, putt for dough. In MotoGP, you gotta save some tire for late in the race.

It was on Lap 21 that the contenders stepped in for the pretenders. Andrea Dovizioso, who had seized the lead on Lap 17, invited Marquez to a private tête-à-tête for the last three laps, an invitation the defending champion eagerly accepted. With Rossi reduced to lurking in 3rd, hoping for something to go wrong in front of him, the two best riders on Earth squared off for six minutes of unbridled, hair-raising battle, exchanging haymakers. Marquez, unable not to make a move on Dovi at some point, finally took his shot at Turn 16 on the final lap, in a virtual replay of the Red Bull Ring and Motegi duels the two fought last year. Consistent with those contests, Dovi took advantage of his superior corner exit speed to clip Marquez by 2/100ths of a second and take a narrow early lead in the 2018 title chase.

Some Days Chicken, Some Days Feathers

In addition to Dovizioso and Marquez, riders who could anticipate a tasty chicken dinner this evening include Rossi, who did manage to climb from 8th to 3rd, and Franco Morbidelli, who edged Hafizh Sayahrin for the top rookie participation trophy. Sayahrin, for his part, became the first Malaysian rider ever to start a MotoGP race and score points therein, a record he can never lose. Kudos to the luckiest rider on the grid. Jack Miller and Tito Rabat probably feel pretty good this evening, crossing the line in 10th and 11th places, respectively.

Riders going hungry tonight include Alex Rins, Jorge Lorenzo and Pol Espargaro, all of whom crashed out, Rins while traveling in 6th position. Zarco learned a lesson today. Maverick Vinales learned his lesson yesterday while laying an egg in Q2, starting from 12th place. He rode a hellified second half today, only to end up 6th. Not a disaster, but an opportunity lost. Scott Redding, who has apparently already lost his seat for next year to Danilo Petrucci, can say only that he managed to beat Xavier Simeon, a feat comparable to winning the Taller than Mickey Rooney contest.

Over in the Junior Leagues

Spaniard Jorge Martin stiff-armed countryman Aron Canet for the win in the Moto3 race, with the new guy at Leopard Racing, Lorenzo Dalla Porta, glomming onto the third podium spot milliseconds ahead of about six other guys. Enea Bastianini, taking over the #1 seat at Leopard with the graduation of 2017 champion Joan Mir to Moto2, crashed out of a podium spot, giving an ominous start to his 2018 campaign.

Pecco Bagnaia, late of the SKY Racing Team VR46, held on to the Moto2 win today, narrowly evading the clutches of Lorenzo Baldassarri, in a thrilling contest that also came down to the last turn. Little Brother Alex Marquez, who had been fast all weekend, started from pole and was cruising along in 3rd position, well within reach of the Marquez Moto2 Brakes on Fireleaders, when his rear brakes pinched the disc and, inexplicably, held on, at which point the disc quickly cooked, changed color from gray to red to white, back to gray when they finally came unstuck, killing his chances for the win but allowing him a podium nonetheless.

Unsubstantiated Rumors

Bagnaia, according to news reports, has already signed a contract to join Jack Miller with Alma Pramac Ducati next season. The dominoes look set to fall such that Petrucci heads over to Gresini Aprilia, and Redding for points west. Apparently Honda has the early inside track to sign Zarco to the factory team to ride alongside Marquez starting next year, with Pedrosa being shown the door, as feared. Earliest silly season I can ever remember. Rossi signed for two more years last week, in case you’ve been hanging out under a rock.

Rider Rankings After Round One

Tranche 1: Marquez, Dovizioso, Rossi, Petrucci, Crutchlow
Tranche 2: Vinales, Zarco, Rins, Pedrosa, Miller
Tranche 3: Lorenzo, Iannone, Syahrin, A Espargaro, Morbidelli
Tranche 4: P Espargaro, Abraham, Bautista, Rabat
Tranche 5: Simeon, Redding, Nakagami, Smith, Luthi

Before you take to DISQUS to shred my rankings, remember Allen’s Corollary to Newton’s Third Law: For every action, there is an equal and opposite criticism.

Argentina in two weeks. Be there. Aloha.

 

MotoGP 2018 Losail Preview

March 13, 2018

© Bruce Allen.  Exclusive to Motorcycle.com

Let the 2018 Games Begin! 

Nothing like the start of a new racing season to turn the iron in a man’s blood into the lead in his pencil. All the speculation, all the testing, all the contingencies will become moot once the lights go out in far-away Qatar. The Alien class—Marc Marquez, Andrea Dovizioso, Valentino Rossi and Maverick Vinales—is sharpening their fairings in anticipation. Another handful of riders dream of getting their tickets punched in 2018.  

Riders like Johann Zarco (Monster Tech 3 Yamaha), Dani Pedrosa (Repsol Honda), Jack Miller (Alma Pramac Ducati) and Alex Rins (Suzuki Ecstar) need to get off to a quick start if they want to challenge the usual suspects in 2018. Although the championship cannot be won this weekend, it can certainly be lost for those ending up in the kitty litter. The good news for 23 of the 24 riders lining up at the start—since 2008, only three riders who have won the opener have gone on to capture the title. Winning at Losail is not as important as finishing in the points.

Marc Marquez, the #1 rider on the planet, is the odds-on favorite to threepeat in 2018. During winter testing, he focused on eerily consistent simulations, turning hundreds of laps in metronomic fashion. He may have only topped the timesheets a time or two in the process, but he claims to love this year’s RC213V, exuding quiet confidence and entering the season in great physical shape. The caption for this photo should read, “In an effort to pander to the female readers of this stuff.”Marquez Cropped

Behind him stands a mixed bag of Aliens, former Aliens, and wannabe Aliens, with names like Viñales, Dovizioso, Zarco, Rossi, Pedrosa and Lorenzo. Of these, the career tracks of the first three are ascendant while those of the last three are heading south. Further back, several young guns—notably Miller and Rins—think they have the juice to displace some of the leaders. Somewhat lost in the sauce are the prospects for guys like Cal Crutchlow, Danilo Petrucci and Andrea Iannone who, if they were running backs in the NFL, would be referred to as “tweeners.” All three are capable of winning races. All three generally find ways not to.

Although there will be plenty of riveting action farther down the food chain, space limitations—read “your short attention span”—prevent us from talking about them too much. If you’re really interested in the prospects of Tom Luthi or Xavier Simeon, best visit their websites.

With the able assistance of Price Waterhouse, Coopers, Lybrand, Sacco and Vanzetti, we have gathered mountains of data and scuttlebutt to provide regular readers with a loose ranking of these fast movers. We use the term “tranche” instead of “group” to sound better-informed and more continental. The methodology behind this assessment is closely guarded, so much so that even I don’t understand it. We will publish the first of our 2018 rankings after the race.

Recent History at Losail 

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 to take the lead in the title chase for the first time since 2010.  Marquez got pushed way wide into the gravel on Lap 1, ultimately finishing fifth. Andrea Iannone, then laboring for Ducati, made it an all-Italian podium and overinflated our expectations for him in beating Jorge Lorenzo to the line by half a second. 2015 would be remembered as the year Marc Marquez did not win a championship.

The 2016 iteration of the 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 were 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, a wager that nine different riders would ultimately win races that year would have seemed deranged. 

Movistar Yamaha’s new kid on the block, Maverick Viñales, did to the field of the 2017 Grand Prix of Qatar what he had done ever since he first placed his bum on the saddle of the YZR-M1 the previous November.  He ended the day at the top of the podium, having outdueled Dovizioso over the last eight laps of the race.  Rossi finished third that night, with Marquez fourth, keeping his powder dry, coloring between the lines. Aleix Espargaro flogged his Aprilia RS-GP to an encouraging sixth place which would, unfortunately, stand as the high water mark of his season. 

How Do YOU Spell Xenophobia? 

As the curtain prepares to go up on the 2018 MotoGP season, let’s reacquaint ourselves with the rampant nationalism that is baked into the sport. Spain and Italy have pretty much had things their way since Casey Stoner got PW’ed into retirement by the lovely Adrianna after the 2012 season. Italy fits into that sentence only relatively, having failed to win a title during the period but having managed, on the other hand, not to lose a war. The Italian presence in MotoGP, however, is undeniable, with Valentino Rossi still competitive in his dotage and the Ducati brand having regained much of its previously lost luster. Andrea Dovizioso is now The Great Italian Hope and represents a credible threat to unseat Marc Marquez at the top of the food chain.

With premier class riders now hailing from unfamiliar places like Belgium and Malaysia, the Spanish stranglehold is under assault. One surmises that TV viewership across the globe is expanding, except in the United States, where it’s easier to find Ozzie & Harriet reruns than live race coverage. Thailand, we understand, is losing its collective mind over hosting MotoGP beginning this year. One assumes Finland will experience the same in 2019. With F1 giving up ground of late, soccer and MotoGP have become the top two spectator sports in most of the free world. This, in turn, relieves me of the sensation that I am writing mostly for readers from other galaxies. Your comments via DISQUS reinforce this relief.

Your Weekend Forecast

Expect dark, dusty, hot, repressive and oligarchical conditions in this feudal anachronism this weekend. I’ve read that within 50 years daytime highs in the country’s interior could reach 180° F, meaning they won’t be racing at Losail forever. You and I consistently place too much weight on the outcome of Round 1, which is a true outlier, the results of which should be taken with a grain of salt.

Screenshot (59)

That being said, I can confidently predict Andrea Dovizioso will win the 2018 opener. With three very competitive second place finishes in the past three years, an improved bike, and confidence instilled from last year’s championship chase, he is my solid favorite. Marc Marquez, pretty much everyone’s choice to title again this year, has won at Losail only once (2014) since joining the premier class. He should end the evening on the podium. In my mind’s eye I see Jorge Lorenzo crashing out of the lead, the factory Yamaha pair of Vinales and Rossi in the mix, and at least one party crasher making it into the top five. Jack Miller and/or Alex Rins could have a big night. Even Dani Pedrosa, in what may be his swan song for Honda in the Persian Gulf, could end up on the podium.

We will have results and analysis for you sometime on Sunday (?), since I’m unable to translate the start time and GMT zone into anything comprehensible. I will miss Nick Harris and Dylan Gray. The mad scrambles of Moto2 and Moto3 will be worth watching, and I’ll try to give them some space in the race summary.

In the words of the late great Marvin Gaye, let’s get it on. And if that song gets stuck in your brain for the rest of the day, you’re welcome.

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 2016 Losail Results

March 20, 2016

© Bruce Allen.  Exclusive to Motorcycle.com

Jorge Lorenzo kicks off 2016 with a gratifying win

The 2016 Commercial Bank Grand Prix of Qatar marked the beginning of the newest era in MotoGP, that of Michelin tires and standard electronics 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 soaring.  Under the lights of Losail, however, defending champion Jorge Lorenzo held serve for Yamaha against a strong challenge from Andrea Dovizioso and Marc Marquez; the Usual Suspects had once again asserted their dominance of the sport.

Jorge-Lorenzo-Smile-HDQualifying had produced an ethnically-striated grid—Spaniards filling up rows one and three, with an all-Italian second row and an all-British fourth.  Lorenzo laid down a fast lap early in the session, as did Marquez a bit later, and both held up despite Maverick Vinales and “Maniac Joe” Iannone taking serious runs at them at session’s end.  Vinales missed out on the two hole by 4/1000ths of a second.  Iannone could have easily moved up to the front row had he not been momentarily held up by Scott Redding, who appeared to be doing his best to get out of the way.  (A track record final lap by Marquez was tossed when it was determined he had started it one second after the checkered flag had waved.)

Having watched six of the top seven riders in Moto2 jump the start, the start of the MotoGP tilt appeared somewhat sluggish, especially for Marquez and Vinales, who got lost in the sauce.  Marquez, looking WAY more comfortable than he looked last season prior to switching to his 2014 chassis, escaped from the crowd to join the lead group in fourth position.  Vinales, perhaps concerned about making an early-season mistake, found himself mired behind Dani Pedrosa, where he spent the entire evening.

The lead group formed up with Lorenzo leading the Dueling Andreas of the factory Ducati Iannoneteam, trailed by Valentino Rossi and Marquez.  At the start of Lap 2, both Ducatis flew past Lorenzo, Iannone in the lead.  Marquez slipped past Rossi on Lap 3 and began dogging Lorenzo on Lap 4.  I was just getting comfortable with the idea of Iannone winning his first premier class race when he lowsided out of the lead in Turn 13 of Lap 6, leaving Dovizioso to slug it out with the Aliens.  Sure enough, on Lap 9 Lorenzo found his way through on Dovizioso and that was that.  Marquez and Dovizioso would trade places a few times over the remaining 14 laps, but no one was able to mount any kind of serious challenge to Lorenzo once he found his rhythm.

Tell Us Again What We Learned This Winter

Nothing.  Elevated expectations for Vinales and Octo Pramac Ducati Brit Scott Redding didn’t pan out, at least in Round One.  This is a good time to point out that the Qatar GP usually offers up a few surprises to which followers of MotoGP give too much weight.  This is probably more true in 2016 than usual, given the technical changes everyone was dealing with.  Here’s what we know at this moment:

  • The top riders have already adjusted to the Michelins and the control ECU.
  • Dovizioso and Iannone will do well at the long, sweeping circuits like Brno and Phillip Island. We don’t know how they will hold up at the cramped little joints like The Sachsenring and Motegi.
  • Marc Marquez has finally learned that 16 points is better than none.
  • Valentino Rossi, now joined at the hip with Yamaha for the rest of his career, will have more fruitful days than he did today. Although he qualified better than usual, there was no late-race challenge from #46.  His choice of the harder option rear tire proved to have been in vain.
  • Michelin has figured out a lot of stuff in a very short time. Many of the riders set their fastest laps of the day late in the race.
  • Iannone has replaced the departed Nicky Hayden in the competition for the absolute worst haircut on the grid. At this point, he’s winning by a mile.
  • The competition for the top riders has already begun.

Early Season Silliness

RossiRight, so Rossi and Lorenzo were reportedly offered contracts for 2017-18 simultaneously, by email.  Rossi signs his immediately.  Lorenzo does not.  Rossi suggests Lorenzo is shopping Ducati.  (Lorenzo is, in fact, shopping Ducati.)  Lorenzo fires back that Rossi had no choice because no one else would want him.  Boom.  Bradley Smith, on the verge of eviction by Tech 3 boss Herve Poncharal, signs a deal with KTM for next year, leaving Yamaha a spot with which to woo Alex Rins.

I would say the odds of Lorenzo moving to Ducati in 2017 increased at the close of Lap 1, when the lead group entered the front straight.  Lorenzo, at the front of the pack, could only sit and watch as both factory Ducatis effortlessly blew past him, Grant-through-Richmond style, forcing him to push harder in the turns than he might have wished for the rest of the race.  The speed of the Desmosedici (Iannone was clocked at 218 mph on Saturday) combined with the skills of Jorge Lorenzo herald a formidable force if, indeed, Lorenzo elects to switch.  He would probably enjoy, too, the prospect of winning a title or three at Ducati, which The Doctor was unable to do, albeit during the pre-Dall’Igna era.

Here’s an easy one:  If and when Lorenzo bolts for Ducati, Yamaha will immediately sign the 21 year-old Vinales for as long as they can.  He’s the hottest property in MotoGP right now, despite his mediocre performance today.  Honda, on the other hand, needs to decide soon if they really want another two years of hard-luck Dani Pedrosa, or if the future wouldn’t look much brighter with Marquez and Vinales (or Marquez and Rins) fronting the Repsol factory team.

The Big Picture

I’m not even sure there IS a big picture so early in the season.  Iannone’s impression of Lorenzo’s 2014 crash in the desert has needlessly put him behind the eight ball for the rest of the year; why he was pushing so hard so early in the race, with all that bike beneath him, is a mystery.  Rossi, his meal ticket punched for the next three years, may have lost a bit of intensity—about racing, that is.  He seems fully charged up for a season-long verbal feud with Lorenzo, and would probably welcome Marquez back into the fray as well.  Dorna, it seems, is not amused by Rossi’s baiting of his two Spanish rivals, and may try to convince him to cool his jets. Having a 27 year-old Rossi snarling and snapping at you was once a frightening prospect.  A 37 year-old Rossi, who has been beaten by both Lorenzo and Marquez, not so much.  Yamaha may live to regret their pre-emptive signing of Rossi, especially if it ends up costing them both Vinales and Rins.

Two Weeks to the Middle of Nowhere

The grid has a little time to screw things back together before heading off for a back-to-back, Round Two in Argentina and Round Three in Austin.  Even old econ majors like me are not too geeked up about hearing the teams yammer on about analyzing all the data they collected this weekend.  Whatever.  It’s good to have the bikes back on track competing in anger.  It’s great having Nick Harris calling the shots in the booth.  It’s good for the sport to have Marquez competitive again this year.  It will be good—next year—to have more bikes on the grid.  And it will be fascinating to see which bums end up on which seats as the season rolls on.

For now, Lorenzo rules.

MotoGP 2016 Season and Losail Preview

March 16, 2016

© Bruce Allen.  Exclusive to Motorcycle.com

“It’s the most wonderful time of the year…” 

Here we are again, nosing around the garage area and the vicinity of the start/finish line, anticipating a full new season of MotoGP.  Everyone is optimistic.  Everyone is putting their best foot forward.  The power brokers, the likes of Yamaha’s Lin Jarvis and Honda’s Livio Suppo, are maintaining low profiles, keeping their powder dry in case—this probably of more concern to Suppo than Jarvis—their 2016 project turns out to be a dumpster fire.

How have things shaped up as the season started in years past?

victory helmet2013–Heading into the season, with Stoner gone and Marquez arrived, defending world champion Jorge Lorenzo looked ready, willing and able to repeat, with chase coming from Pedrosa, Rossi and Marquez. Rossi would take most of the year to get comfortable on the Yamaha in his first year back from Ducati purgatory.  Pedrosa and Lorenzo got hurt in the Netherlands and Germany.  Marquez made it look easy, snatching his first world championship as a rookie and assaulting the record books across the board.  Crutchlow, Bautista and Bradl were expected to make some noise at some point, and mostly didn’t.

2014–defending champion Marquez starts by reeling off 10 straight, then coasting to an effortless championship followed by Rossi, Lorenzo and Pedrosa, about as expected.

2015, it turns out, is not the three-peat envisioned by most Marquez fans.  He crashes out d7f9e438-0c47-467c-8916-2e7aa309cf6aLorenzo imageof several races early, concedes the early lead to Lorenzo, concedes more to Rossi, and watches helplessly as the title devolves into a Rossi vs. Lorenzo scrap.  He mixes it up with Rossi on several occasions, the Italian getting the better of all of them.  Rossi and Lorenzo head into Valencia essentially tied for the lead but with Rossi having been severely punished for events in Sepang, resulting in him starting last on the grid and ultimately finishing fourth, with Lorenzo cruising to both the win and the championship, Marquez at his wing.

What Have We Learned During All This Winter Testing?

25vinalesmaverick__gp_6818_originalSeveral things.  Lorenzo appears to be the man to beat.  Maverick Vinales intends to stick his nose in some podium contests and appears to have sufficient machine beneath him to do so.  Rossi, Marquez and Iannone appear destined to battle Vinales for second and third. Scott Redding may have found the right bike at the right time to propel him into a consistent top six performer.  (Remember him during his last season in Moto2 when he would ride the wheels off in the turns then get eaten alive in the straights.)  Dani Pedrosa needs to stay upright all season long if he wants to finish in the top four, otherwise he is destined for a second division seeding along with:

  • Andrea Dovisiozo
  • Cal Crutchlow
  • Aleix Espargaro
  • Pol Espargaro
  • Hector Barbera
  • Bradley Smith

Danilo Petrucci would have been in this group had he not broken his hand, and still might end up here.  Michelle Pirro will sub for DP in Qatar.

Those Aiming for Points Alone

The third tier, looking to make it into the top 15, will include Eugene Laverty, Loris Baz, Yonny Hernandez, Stefan Bradl, Alvaro Bautista, Jack Miller and Tito Rabat.  Bradl sounds confident, but it smells of baloney.  Rabat says his goal is top ten finishes—he has his work cut out for him.

Winning at Losail—What Does it Mean?

Only three of the last eight winners at Losail went on to title in their respective years—ossi-vs-marquez-di-sepangStoner in 2011, Lorenzo in 2012 and Marquez in 2014.  Since they are also three of the last five, it’s clear to me that past performance has little to do with future performance.  Recent performance, however, might well have something to do with performance this year.

Let’s just say this.  If young Mr. Vinales challenges for the win in Doha, that is significant.  A track built nicely for the Ducs and Yamahas, the Suzuki has not enjoyed a great deal of success in the desert.  A second place finish would put pressure on the Aliens behind him, as well on teammate Aleix Espargaro, who is not getting nearly as much from his identical ride.

I also think there is room in this championship for a second division rider to compete toward the top of the timesheets.  I’m thinking here of someone like a Barbera (or a Redding) for whom the standard ECU is an improvement.  Perhaps Barbera’s practice times in Australia were more indicative of what he’s able to produce now that the electronics are mostly equal.

233_Michelin_Michelin-Logo-2013-Frame_1

And, let it not go unsaid that whichever teams get accustomed to the Michelins the quickest will end up doing the best.  This is what separates the factory Yamaha and Honda teams from the rest, the skill of their teams at finding settings that work over race distances.  On whatever rubber you got.  The Ducatis seem not to mind the Michelins.

Clearly, with 13 crashes in Australia, most of which were blamed on tires, Michelin has plenty to do as well.  Riders will need to beware on cold morning outlaps in the northern latitudes.

Silly Season Silliness

With almost all the primary riders in contract years in 2016, rumors are flying already about who’s gonna sign where and when.  Jorge Lorenzo seems to be giving ground to his masters at Yamaha, first insisting he needed a deal in hand prior to the start of the season and now, suddenly, agreeable to some mid-season negotiations.  Rossi is saying two years or nothing from here; Yamaha has not leaped into his arms as of this writing.

Herve Poncharal has delivered an ultimatum to his pair of Bradley Smith and Pol Espargaro:  The future is now.  If you cannot deliver podiums on a regular basis I will need to find riders who can.  As boss, Herve has the right to express his opinion.  My opinion is that both factory Yamahas, Marquez, a couple of the Ducatis and maybe Vinales are better than either Smith or Espargaro.  Asking the Tech 3 riders to produce consistent podiums is asking a lot.  Perhaps Poncharal is thinking more in terms of creating vacancies for Vinales or Rins/Zarco/Folger.

alex-rinsVinales and young Alex Rins in Moto2 are in the wind, pretty much everyone’s best guess as to Aliens-in-Waiting.  An aging Dani Pedrosa (dearly coveted by KTM for 2017) at Repsol Honda, a seriously aging Rossi at Yamaha; at some point the suits are gonna pull some plugs.  Plus, it’s impossible not to wonder when Casey Stoner, watching riders he considers barely his equal go flying over the handlebars trying to get it on with the Michelins, says “lol” and climbs back onboard for a wildcard at Phillips Island.  Could throw a spanner into the works of more than one rider at that point in the season.  Easier to envision if doing so were to provide him an opportunity to interrupt a Yamaha or a Honda on its way to the title.  Stoner could easily add some extra testosterone to the mix.

And what about Marquez?  Easy to see him spending his career at Honda, assuming he wants to.  What if the RC213V remains un-rideable for the next three years?  What if Yamaha or Ducati establish some genuine dominance in the category?  Is it so hard to visualize young Marquez in Yamaha blue or Ducati red?  Not for me.

Ducati, with eight riders working for them, has some keepers and some others.  Iannone, Petrucci, Redding and Baz appear to be capable of top ten finishes.  My pick as the next Ducati shining star is Iannone, but he needs to make something happen this year.  With KTM joining the fray next season interested in poaching high profile riders, and several riders talking about moving from World Superbike (Johnny Rea) and Moto2 (Johann Zarco, Rins) there could be new faces on any number of the Ducati teams.  Especially now that it’s not viewed as a career killer.

So I expect Honda to make a spirited run at Marquez and Yamaha to do the same with Lorenzo.  Beyond that, teams may keep their powder dry and wait/see, or look to strike pre-emptively and roll the dice on a Vinales or a Rins or a Bradley Smith or Pol Espargaro, someone capable of giving them regular looks at podia on the right bike, and with plenty of upside.

Logo_Losail_International_Circuit.svg

The Bottom Line

The bottom line is that Qatar is anyone’s race and 2016 is anyone’s season, most especially Jorge Lorenzo.  Will Marquez and Rossi find themselves drawn to one another, magnetically, Rossi spoiling to continue the 2015 vendetta?  Do Marquez, Vinales and Iannone have enough to challenge Lorenzo on a regular basis?  Is this Rossi’s “one season too many?”  Does Ducati push Honda out of #2 in the builder’s competition?  Is the Suzuki under Vinales for real?  Is Dani Pedrosa still relevant to the title conversation?

My only prediction is that due to the tires and the ECU, we won’t see very many processions, and we won’t have someone, other than perhaps Lorenzo if everything goes perfectly for him, run away with the title in the first third of the season.  My annual hope, for no parades and a tight title fight, looks pretty good right about now.

My second only prediction is that the top four will be comprised of Lorenzo, Marquez, Vinales and Iannone, perhaps in that order, with Rossi and Redding or Smith fighting for fifth place.  In retrospect, my pre-season predictions—2013 predicting Lorenzo, 2014 and 2015 Marquez—are usually poor.  One for three among the current lot.

There will be plenty of video and plenty to discuss in 2016.  We look forward to enjoying your comments if, as Jim Rome used to insist, you have a take, and you don’t suck.  Profanity is never welcome, but contrasting points of view, especially those that are well-written, are always appreciated.  As I’ve discovered over the years, MO has a pretty serious readership when it comes to the finer points of this stuff.  So, watch the races, bring your comments, and let’s share…lol…

The race goes off at 2:00 pm EDT; as this goes to press the TV availability is problematic.  We’ll have results, analysis and commentary right here late Sunday.

MotoMatters Losail Projections

March 6, 2016

As usual, the work done by my colleague David Emmett on his MotoMatters.com website is outstanding in its volume and quality.  In his recent article on the subject, he totaled the best 22 laps by each rider in order to re-evaluate the standings provided by best lap only.  He produced the following table, which I’m going to re-produce and assume his permission.  If he notifies me otherwise, I’ll gladly take it down.

David Emmett Chart

Emmett Chart1

 

 

 

 

Emmett Chart2

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

victory helmetFactor in the cosmic motion brought on by new ECU and Michelins, and uncharacteristically good performances by names like Barbera and Redding–indeed, much of the Ducati contingent–and you could leave Qatar with three Ducs in the top five.  Then move the entire show to the Middle of Nowhere, Argentina-style for the annual Bungle in the Jungle, aka Hot and Hondarific, two weeks later, followed immediately by another Honda clambake the ensuing week in Austin.

There is no reason to believe the series championship won’t feature at least three manufacturers and five or six riders in the conversation heading to Catalunya.  This could be the year the Hondas get drop-kicked out of the top two.  This could be the year Ducati or Suzuki step up and capture some significant podium spots.  This would be so good for the sport, assuming it doesn’t come attached to the cost of multiple serious Alien highsides involving the Michelins.  And when I say Alien I’m really saying Marquez, whose connection to his Honda seems. at times this year, tenuous.australia-testmaverick-vinales25

My two strongest vibrations this season include Vinales and Redding who, one remembers, would ride the wheels off his Moto2 machine in the corners only to get overtaken consistently on the straights due to his size, which, on the new and improved Ducati, is not a problem.  We overlook him because he’s a Brit, not the usual talented Saxon mother’s son from the formal penal colony of Australia.  He’s not built like a rider, but he’s certainly showing something so far on the Duc.

ReddingVinales is an Alien waiting to happen, looking for that big contract next season, which might even come from Suzuki.  Suzuki needs another two man team and more data; they’re onto something there and they need to wear long pants and do this thing right. They could win the whole thing in a year or two.

 
Here’s one I’m happy to be wrong about, but Hector Barbera finishing well into the top ten this year would certainly shut me up about Hectic Hector.  While we’re at it, let’s hope that Alvaro Bautista does not become the human bowling ball he was in 2012 and 2013 (?) when he took Pedrosa and Lorenzo out of big races.  Barbera having a good year would give me a reason to sing his praises when he does well, striking a blow for satellite teams everywhere.  People’s favorite rider.  Their least favorite being the factory rider who NEVER podiums.  Several come to mind over the years.  No need to dwell on these guys.

This is my hope.  That in 2016 well will spend as much time discussing Maverick Vinales and Scott Redding as we do Jorge Lorenzo and Marc Marquez.  Does such a thing presage less discussion going forward pertaining to Vale Rossi and Dani Pedrosa?  Probably yes.Marquez and Lorenzo

It could all be a colossal pre-season anomaly that goes away midway through the first lap at Losail later this month, when Rossi and Pedrosa emerge from the lights tight on the pipes of Lorenzo and Marquez.  A runoff from Vinales, a slider from Redding and we’re much closer to the status quo of the past few seasons.

There’s a new top three or four spot available on this grid for the year, and someone needs to step up and claim it.  It could be that Matquez takes himself out of too many races, unable to stay upright on the mad dog RC213V, what people used to say about Kawasakis back in the day–fast while they last.  Much like the Ducatis of the pre-Gigi era when they could haul it down the straights like crazy but you couldn’t turn them.  Marquez and Pedrosa, of all the Honda riders, should make the changes necessary.  Less certain on teams like LCR and Mark VDS Beer   Expect to see a lot of DNFs for all of the Hondas in 2016.

dovizioso-iannone-658x437Andrea Iannone should have what it takes to be the top Ducati rider in 2016, meaning he should be a top three contender. So Iannone, Redding and Vinales challenge Lorenzo and Marquez each week and Rossi some weeks, with more of Pedrosa or Barbera late in the season.

As usual, David Emmett is doing most of the heavy lifting when it comes to statistical analysis of the pre-season.  I’m also sure he would agree that much of the preseason stuff has nothing to do with what happens when the red starting lights go out at Losail.  Most of us are just happy to have something to cover again.  Let the games begin.

 

 

 

MotoGP: No Jocking Required

March 5, 2016

d7f9e438-0c47-467c-8916-2e7aa309cf6aLorenzo imageI’ve just discovered something I, as a would be writer, loathe.  Note to self:  Never use this technique unless it pertains to, say, the last race of the season, 5 points separating teammates and rivals, Marquez in the mix, in which case it may be permissible to jock the sport while you’re reporting on it.  Otherwise, DO NOT PROMOTE MOTOGP WHILE YOU’RE IN REPORTER MODE.

So I’m reading this nice article—pre-season preview—when it finishes with a jee-whiz-MotoGP-is-SUPERBAD or something equally self-serving; starved, as the writer visibly is, for eyeballs.

So, yes, I think it’s a shame more Americans don’t watch MotoGP and yes, I encourage australia-testmaverick-vinales25people I know and people in the universe to read about it.  But when I’m on deadline, getting paid to think hard about the sport, I’m not taking time out to ponder how I love Michelin tires on my ride.  It’s bad form, especially for someone like me who doesn’t ride at all.  Of course, if I ever found a sponsor willing to buy me a disclaimer, no telling what might happen.  None of the OEMs that MO deals with want to sully their reputations by sponsoring the likes of me, and who can blame them?

I feel no need to stroke Dorna, as they seem to derive pleasure from making the process of credentialing excessive.  One with years writing about this stuff should not have to buy tickets from a scalper in Jerez to report on the GP there, the only halfway serious American journalist bothering to make the trip, on his own dime, and they tell me they can’t find me even the usual lousy credential.  Ended up having way more fun in the crowd anyway.

FIM_LogoWhat my readers expect from me is an objective accounting of events up to and including the race, delivered with as many laughs as I can haul out of th
e closet.  They expect me to call a spade a spade, especially when it involves controversy between riders.  The only rider whose picture sits on my wall is Lorenzo, from Indianapolis in 2010, the year he won his first title.  Under the heading “Saving Grace”, the feed from Dorna is superb, and the very British commentary is helpful.  For those of you condemned to TV—now pay TV in the US—with or without commercial breaks, your coverage sucks.  With the Euro down the drain, it’s a cheap time to buy a video pass and stream the race at your leisure.

IannoneSo, we will call the 2016 season the way we see it.  At this juncture, it looks like Vinales is going to be a top four guy, and even Redding, taking to the Duc like a duc to water, is sniffing around the top of the timesheets.  Pedrosa looks miserable, Marquez desperate to stay on the bike with any pace at all, and Rossi sounding unconvincingly like all the changes work in his favor.  Lorenzo, meanwhile, has that look in his eye.  As he learned in 2011 and 2013, however, the look in the eye thing doesn’t necessarily get you a repeat, a threepeat or a fourpeat.

Jorge looks ready to defend his title actively and vigorously.

Everyone is hoping the rest of the grid fights harder for 10th place, with good fights going on all over the track.  If the elapsed time between the finish of the first and last bikes of last year, or top ten bikes of last year, versus this year show the grid tightening up, that’s what Dorna’s after, and that’s what the satellite teams are pushing for.  Whether anyone but the top four or five riders ever finds their way to the podium is another matter.  The world longs to see some new faces at the press conference.

rossi-marquez_gold_and_goose

Let us pray against parades and for flag-to-flag contests and against a championship that gets away from itself in the first eight weeks, with someone emerging at the front by 100 points.  Otherwise, there will always be things to write about.  We will miss Nicky Hayden especially, as he was always good for a laugh.  We pray that Bautista and Bradl don’t end up racing each other for last place each week.  We pray that things end well between Yamaha and 46, and Honda and 26, when the time comes.  And we look forward to meeting the next generation of Aliens, the guys who will take your dollar in a game of reflexes, the guys who can dunk at 5’7”, the guys who can execute a bicycle kick on the soccer field.  And the guys who will join Lorenzo and Marquez in the championship battles leading into the 2020’s.

No jocking required.

apex-home

The Doctor puts on a Clinic in the Desert

March 29, 2015

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

Rossi at ValenciaThere is a reason 36 year-old Valentino Rossi is still the most revered motorcycle racer on the planet. In his 313th grand prix start, Rossi, on the factory Yamaha, delivered a dazzling performance in the 2015 season opener, going hammer and tongs with factory Ducati #1 Andrea “DesmoDovi” 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 2010.

Two-time defending world champion Marc Marquez, the immediate future of the sport, saw his chances for a season-opening win end in the first turn of Lap 1, when he was pushed WAY wide into the runoff area. How far off the racing surface was young Marc pushed, you ask? Far enough, it’s rumored, that a concession vendor offered him an ice-cold Coke. Re-entering the race dead last, he spent the evening slicing his way through the field, grinding his molars to dust, eventually finishing a respectable fifth, securing 11 points, and setting his sights on Austin, Texas. Guys like Marquez have short memories, and it’s a long season; no reason to think young Marc won’t win his third consecutive premier class title this year. Yet anyway.

Aside from Rossi’s heroics and Marquez’ travails, the story of Round 1 is the Dall'Igna, French MotoGP 2014unbelievable turnaround being engineered before our very eyes in the Ducati garages by Gigi Dall’Igna, the Great White-Haired Hope of Italian racing fans everywhere. Having parted company with longtime employer Aprilia late in 2013, Dall’Igna has given a miraculous and immediate boost to the fortunes of the Ducati racing program. Keep in mind that Dovizioso and “the other Andrea”, Crazy Joe Iannone, first threw a leg over the radical new Desmosedici GP15 35 days ago. At Losail, they qualified 1st and 4th, ran in the front group all day, eventually blew away Yamaha icon Jorge Lorenzo, and finished together on the podium, the first time I’ve seen two Ducatis on the podium since, well, for a good long time.

Now, before you start getting all whooped up about some kind of paradigm shift in MotoGP, let me remind you of several facts. One, this was the first round of the season, run in the middle of the night in the Middle East on the only circuit dustier than Aragon. Two, Marc Marquez is not going to suffer this kind of race very often; I fully expect him to dominate rounds 2 and 3 in Texas and Argentina. And three, the day is approaching when Valentino Rossi will no longer be able to perform at his unique level. Losail, recall, is a Yamaha-friendly track, one of the friendliest, in fact, and the Repsol Honda contingent (which claimed 5th and 6th places today) will enjoy significant advantages over both the Yamahas and the Ducatis at a number of circuits on the tour. Relatively speaking, Losail is the MotoGP equivalent of Bonneville, while Austin, Rio Hondo and Motegi are more similar to downtown Washington, DC at rush hour.

How About Shutting Up and Telling Us About the Race?

Okay. After a clean start, the early leaders were Dovizioso, Lorenzo (who had jumped up from the six hole), Iannone, Yonny Hernandez on a Pramac Ducati, Bradley Smith on the Tech 3 Yamaha and his teammate Pol Espargaro; Pedrosa was stuck in the mud farther back, and Marquez was cruising the hinterlands. For a good part of the day, Lorenzo led The Two Andreas on a merry chase, while Rossi was working his way back into contention, having fallen as far back as 10th early.

Dovizioso went through on Lorenzo for the first time on Lap 9; the two would ultimately trade positions perhaps a dozen times, MotoGP at its finest. Iannone was keeping his powder dry in third place; Rossi showed up on his rear wheel on Lap 11. The four played Trading Places until Lap 19, when Dovizioso went through on Lorenzo again. Rossi immediately did the same, and then began his series of lead exchanges with Dovizioso, who was showing no signs of fatigue or tire wear. One had the sense that Dovizioso, younger, with more grunt, his years of handling and tire degradation problems apparently solved, would prevail in the run to the line. But it was not to be. Today, the Doctor schooled his students, all of them.

At the end of the day (Lord I hate that expression), we saw three Italians on the podium, which is to say the Spanish riders got blanked. Weird. We were left wondering whether Jorge Lorenzo, who showed up for practice 5 kilos lighter than he weighed at the end of last season, ran out of energy late in the day. Personally, I got the impression that Rossi treats practice the way established NBA stars treat the regular season—they only get amped up for the playoffs. Rossi, whose four practice sessions had him running 9th, 7th, 9th and 5th, and who qualified 8th, suddenly is the fastest guy in the joint when the red lights go out. If I’m Lin Jarvis, his boss, I’m okay with that.

Elsewhere on the Grid

Cal Crutchlow, on the Come What May LCR Honda, enjoyed a relatively successful maiden Honda outing, finishing 7th. He had taken time out of his busy practice schedule to flame Mike di Meglio of Avintia Racing for getting in his way during, like, FP1. Cal has morphed from one of the charming, likeable hard-luck guys on the grid to another mid-level clanging gong, and needs to take a nap. Tech 3 teammates Smith and Espargaro spent much of the day connected at the wrists and ankles, with Smith eventually crossing the line in 8th place, a tenth ahead of Little Brother. Yonny Hernandez completed the top ten in an encouraging outing on his Pramac Ducati, having qualified 5th (?) and running with the big dogs for a couple of early laps. Guy has some skills. In a bit of a disappointment, Big Brother Aleix Espargaro marked the return of a factory Suzuki program to the premier class with an 11th place finish after over-achieving in practice all weekend. The Suzuki is likely to perform better at the Honda tracks than places like Losail where top-end speed is at a premium.

Farther down the food chain, the maiden outing of the Aprilia Racing Team Gresini was a debacle, as expected. Alvaro Bautista got bumped by a charging Marquez early in the race and lost a brake caliper, while sad sack teammate Marco Melandri finished 34 seconds behind Alex de Angelis on his own hopeless Octo IodaRacing Team ART nag. Athinà Forward Racing’s Loris Baz, the record will show, finished his MotoGP debut three laps down, but spent some quality time mid-race in his garage getting his tires changed and spin-balanced and his ashtray emptied. The top rookie finisher today was, unsurprisingly, Maverick Vinales, who copped two points on his own Suzuki Ecstar. And Old Lonesome, Nicky Hayden, pushed his open class Honda to an uninspiring 17th place finish, just behind the once-competitive Stefan Bradl.

On to Austincircuit-of-the-americas

MotoGP returns to the U.S. in two weeks, descending upon the pretentiously-named “Circuit of the Americas” in Texas. (Let’s just call it Austin.) Expect radically different results in Round 2. But if today’s podium somehow repeats in the Lone Star State, MotoGP will have officially been turned on its head. Until then, we will view Losail 2015 as an outlier, while March 29 may be named a national holiday in Italy. Valentino Rossi fans around the world will savor today’s race, one of the best in his 20 years as The Alpha Male of Motorcycles.

MotoGP 2014 Losail Results

March 23, 2014

Marquez starts where he left off; major fail for Lorenzo 

 

Marquez in Sepang 2013

After a shocking offseason, in which the MotoGP world appeared to have been turned on its head, it was mostly the usual suspects occupying the podium as the big bikes of MotoGP kicked off 2014 in fine style under the lights of Losail.  Defending world champion Marc Marquez, six weeks after breaking his leg, barely held off a resurgent Valentino Rossi for the win, with Dani Pedrosa sneaking onto the podium in third place.  Double world champion Jorge Lorenzo, who has been singing the blues for months, crashed out of the lead on Lap One and landed squarely behind the eight ball. 

Before getting into the race itself, let’s examine the rule changes in microcosm, by comparing the second qualifying sessions from 2013 and this past Saturday.

2013 and 2014 QP2 Capture

MotoGP 2014: The Playing Field Leveled

In the run-up to the race, considerable discussion centered around the off-season rule changes and the effects those changes would have on life in the upper reaches of the premier class.  (See this great article in Cycle World for a fascinating look behind the scenes of these changes.)  A comparison of the 2013 QP2 and 2014 QP2 illustrates how far off base many of those conversations were. Without exception, every rider who made it through to QP2 in 2014 improved his time compared to last year.

The expectation that the 2014 Open class would be more competitive than the 2013 CRT class has been clearly met.  The groaning and gnashing of teeth emanating from the Movistar Yamaha team that the new rules punish them for their previous success ring hollow, in that they, too, improved their qualifying times from last year.  The “unfair advantage” Ducati allegedly enjoys by opting to run in the Open class is a myth; in 2013, Ducatis qualified 4th, 10th and 11th, while this year they managed 4th, 8th and 11th.  And even poor Nicky Hayden, whose Honda Production Racer is, according to him, only slightly faster than a 1986 Vespa, improved on his time from last year, just not by enough to make it to QP2.  Waah waah waah.

The last word on this subject:  the most fascinating aspect of all of this is the remarkably reduced spread in the QP times.  Last year, the difference between Lorenzo and Aleix Espargaro was 2.3 seconds.  This year, the margin between Marquez and Pol Espargaro is a mere .6 seconds.  Despite the sniveling and whining from Lorenzo and Rossi, this portends much more exciting racing in 2014.

But What about the Race?

With a front row comprised of Repsol Honda’s wonderkid, FUN&GO Gresini Honda’s Alvaro Bautista, and Monster Tech3 Yamaha Brit Bradley Smith, the offseason madness looked set to continue into the season opener.  Movistar Yamaha’s Lorenzo?  Fifth.  Repsol Honda veteran Pedrosa?  Sixth.  Aging factory Yamaha icon Rossi?  Tenth.  Expectations were all over the board.  NGM Forward Yamaha poster boy Aleix Espargaro, who had owned the offseason and the first three practice sessions in Doha, choked on a bone in qualifying, crashing both of his bikes, and started from ninth place.  Of the first 12 qualifiers, four were factory studs, another four represented satellite factory teams, and four enjoyed Open class advantages in fuel and tire choices, three of which were Ducatis.

Anything could happen.

The race got off to a clean start, with Lorenzo vaulting into the lead, putting his ambition to become a Spanish blues singer on hold.  Then, in turn 15 of Lap One, the unthinkable occurred—Lorenzo crashed out of the lead, an unforced error which just as suddenly revived his musical aspirations.  As the riders crossed the start/finish line for the first time, it was Stefan Bradl on the LCR Honda, Marquez, Smith, Andrea Dovizioso on the factory Ducati, Andrea Iannone on the satellite Ducati, and Rossi leading the way.  My thoughts, at that point:

  • Stefan Bradl?  He’ll crash.
  • What are Dovizioso and, moreover, Iannone doing up front?
  • What happened to Bautista?  Did he crash already?
  • Where’s Elmo Dani Pedrosa?
  • Does Bradley Smith look like a chemo patient with eyebrows, or what?

Gradually (ignoring the Lorenzo debacle) a state of normalcy began to settle over the field.  Iannone crashed out on Lap Two, but would recover sufficiently to finish tenth.  Both Bautista and Pedrosa began picking riders off and moving up the chart.  Rossi, who I thought had been sandbagging over the winter, suddenly materialized in fourth place on Lap Six.  Bradl crashed out at turn six of Lap Nine, at which point the top five riders were Marquez, Rossi, Smith, Pedrosa and Bautista.  Instead of a 2013 front group consisting of one or two riders, there were four or five in the picture.  Things were getting interesting.  And by “interesting”, I mean that Marc Marquez and Valentino Rossi, Tomorrow and Yesterday, suddenly found themselves in a cage match that would provide 13 laps of grand prix motorcycle racing at its finest.

Ultimately, Smith crashed his satellite Yamaha on Lap 19, giving up 11 championship points in the process, and Bautista laid his RC2013V down on Lap 21, handing third place to Pedrosa.  That Marquez would enjoy his seventh career win in the premier class was not a shock; for him, a broken leg seems about as bothersome as a head cold.  That he would need every ounce of skill, daring and luck he owns to nip Rossi at the flag is remarkable.  Rossi is not a seven time premier class champion for nothing, and his ability to adjust to pretty much anything—outside of a Ducati Desmosedici—is firmly established.  There must be some serious head-shaking going on in the Movistar Yamaha garage tonight, as the new boss has, for the time being, given way to the old boss.  And I wonder how Jeremy Burgess, Rossi’s former crew chief, is feeling about now.

Elsewhere on the Grid

Aleix Espargaro, despite his miserable QP and inauspicious start, ended the day in fourth place, and must still be feeling wildly optimistic about his prospects for the season.  The two other Brits in the field, Cal Crutchlow on the Ducati and rookie Scott Redding on the production Honda, ended up sixth and seventh, sticking it in the eye of the American contingent of Nicky Hayden and Colin Edwards, who still had relatively good days.  Hayden drove his Vespa to an eighth place finish, while the 40 year old Edwards enjoyed his first top ten finish in over a year aboard the #2 NGM Forward Yamaha.  Edwards insists that he will switch to the FTR frame once it is ready, while teammate Espargaro seems pretty happy with the status quo.  As noted above, Andrea Iannone completed today’s top ten.

Five Things We Learned Heading to Austin

  1. The world has never seen anything like Marc Marquez.
  2. Valentino Rossi still belongs in MotoGP.
  3. Aleix Espargaro may not win the 2014 title, but his stock is way high.
  4. It could be a very long year for Jorge Lorenzo.
  5. After a number of dull, predictable years, MotoGP is BACK.

Top Ten after 1 Round

The State of the Game: MotoGP in 2014

March 23, 2014

Then, There Were Eight 

The decision, announced on February 28, 2014, that the once-proud Ducati factory would compete the 2014 MotoGP season on the “Open” side of the tracks suggests that Dorna chieftain Carmelo Ezpeleta’s not-so-secret mission to dumb down the sport is working.  As the season starts, 15 of the 23 bikes on the grid will be running in the Open class. 

In 2012, Dorna introduced us to the CRT class of bikes, for which I was never able to come up with satisfactory filler for the acronym.  While expanding the grid from the mid-teens to the mid-20’s, the move increased the number of bikes traveling at relatively slow speeds (BTRSS) without increasing competition at the top of the food chain (TFC) where only three riders won races in 2013.

In the midst of last season, the two dominant MotoGP factory operators, Yamaha and Honda, announced that they would be making equipment available to the Open teams in 2014.  Yamaha announced its intent to lease, not sell, what are basically year old M-1 engines and swing arms, while Honda would be selling, not leasing, entire bikes, in this case a cranked-up version of their World SuperBike RCV1000R, affectionately known as the Honda Production Racer.

NGM Forward racing, featuring Colin Edwards and veteran older brother Aleix Esparagaro, jumped all over the Yamaha offer and slotted M-1 engines in their FTR frames.  Pretty much everyone else at all serious about actually competing in the premier class went with the Honda production bike, including Aspar with both Nicky Hayden and Hiro Aoyama onboard, and Fausto Gresini, who bought one for Scott Redding to learn on while #1 rider Alvaro Bautista gets to keep his RCV for another year.  Karel Abraham’s dad bought him one.  The Avintia Blusens team plods on for another year with their Kawasaki powered FTRs, while Paul Byrd Motorsports continues with Paul designing his own frames for Aprilia powerplants.  Ioda Racing, which had been planning another two-rider season with Aprilia, saw their main sponsor Came walk and now looks shaky as the season starts, putting the screws to Brit rider Leon Camie, whose premier class tenure appears to have lasted, um, less than one race.  Whether the team, and Danilo Petrucci, finish the season together remains to be seen.

So, propulsion this season will come from four Ducati engines, six Yamahas and eight Hondas; Aprilia will power three riders and Kawasaki two.  With most of the juice still residing in the two top factory teams, Repsol Honda and Movistar Yamaha (with one notable exception), the season opener, now less than a week away, brings with it a lot of unforced whining from some unexpected places.  Actually, pretty much everyone but Aleix Espargaro is whining about something, as follows:

  • Defending world champion Marc Marquez is placidly copacetic about the leg he broke in training last week.  This may portend something of a slow start for the super sophomore, or nothing at all.  We tend to lean toward the latter.  He’s not whining now, but if he gets off slowly this season, we’ll be waiting for it.
  • Repsol Honda teammate Dani Pedrosa, always good for a complaint or two, and with a few more microphones poked at him since Casey Stoner retired in 2012, was bitching about the lack of grip from the new Bridgestones, until the Phillip Island test, where he was the fastest guy on the track.  (One way Dani could improve grip would be to put on a few pounds.)  Dani is now on the back nine of his career, and fewer of us will be paying attention to his periodic rants as things wind down for him.
  • Double champion Jorge Lorenzo, put off by the new fuel limits and the tires, doubts he’ll be able to manage much better than second place this year.
  • Lorenzo’s Yamaha teammate, the legendary Valentino Rossi, whose last three seasons were utterly forgettable, has been laying down some very fast laps while holding his cards tightly to his chest and saying little of substance.  Perhaps he and his new crew chief have something going on.  Personally, I would love to see Rossi come back and challenge for wins again.  The game needs another Alien.
  • LCR Honda’s Stefan Bradl seems to spend a lot of time in fifth place.  Just sayin’.  He’s on the same bike as Marquez and Pedrosa.
  • Gresini Honda, sponsored again this year by GO&FUN, features chronic underachiever Alvaro Bautista on their #1 RC and recent Moto2 grad Scott Redding on their #2 RCV1000R.  Bautista has tested in the top ten, Redding in the bottom ten.  Redding will finish the season closer to Bautista than he has been during testing thus far.
  • The satellite Yamaha Tech 3 team, featuring Bradley Smith and injured rookie Pol Espargaro, seems to be having its own problems with tires and fuel mixture.  However, they will be working with the new Yamaha seamless shift transmissions this season.  Most of the interest in this duo will have to do with their intra-team competition, rather than their top-ten-but-never-contending-for-a-win performance during races. They will have a problem, however, if the Forward Racing team starts beating them on a regular basis, suggesting that engines, gas and development outweigh software and the sanctity of the “factory-made” label.
  • Bear with me while I try to think of something positive to say about the Drive M7 duo of Nicky Hayden and Hiro Aoyama turning laps on their HPRs.  OK, their livery looks minty fresh.  There.
  • The team making the most positive noise during offseason testing, without question, is the Open team at NGM Forward Racing.  Aleix Espargaro has been consistently running in the top three and appears to be loving his new Yamaha powerplant.  With four extra litres of fuel, seven extra engines during the season, a softer rear tire and Yamaha power, it figures to be only a matter of time before Espargaro becomes the first Open class rider to win a race.  My guess would be Assen or Sachsenring this year.  Funny, though, that HRC is whining in the media about how the NGM project is “outside the intent” of the new regulations.  In my half-baked opinion, that would be true only if the new FIM regulations required Open teams to finish in the bottom third of the grid.  I’ve checked—it’s not in there.  And the NGM joke is that the ancient Colin Edwards is hanging around not to milk another mediocre season out of Aspar’s horde of sponsors, but to “mentor” Espargaro, who is running circles around him.  My sides are splitting.
  • The revelation that all four Ducati Desmosedicis will run in the Open class this season is big.  Big, in that the new Powers that Be in Bologna have decided that, though the Dorna software is marginally inferior to Ducati’s own, having twice as many engines to break, more fuel, and the ability to continue development of the engine during the season, which Ducati desperately needs, far outweigh the loss of a couple of 10ths due to the software.  Dovizioso’s sentence has one more year to run, while Cal Crutchlow has now really put himself in it, having signed on for two years of Open class competition and second-rate results, but for a bigger paycheck.  Yonny Hernandez and Andrea Iannone will keep the wheels turning over at Pramac; Crazy Joe may challenge Crutchlow a few times this year, which will be great fun to watch.  Crutchlow will also have to sit around next year as the factory Honda and Yamaha teams, with Suzuki making its return, go about the process of pushing wheelbarrows full of Benjamins at Marquez and Lorenzo, with Rossi and Pedrosa on hand to drive up the bidding.
  • Life goes on at Avintia Blusens and Paul Byrd Motorsports, both of whom must have the best, most understanding, least demanding sponsors in motorsports.  Two riders per team, with a Top Ten finish for one of the four once in a while. 

The newest release of the “Dorna software” appears to be a sizeable step up, especially for Ducati.  So sizeable that Dorna and FIM threw together a third class of bikes, “Factory 2”, to which contestants running in the Open class will be dispatched if and when they start appearing on podiums on a regular basis.  Open 2 bikes basically split the difference on engines and fuel, compared to the two “established” classes.  This cobbled-up class was apparently developed, on the back of a cocktail napkin, in response to the howls of protest emanating from the Yamaha and, especially, Honda camps concerning the unexpected competitiveness of some of the Open class bikes.  Perhaps they should refer to it as The Espargaro Rule.

Until Marquez got hurt last month, it looked to be a no-brainer predicting the 2014 world champion, and it doesn’t really look much different today.  Lorenzo and Pedrosa have had some issues during the offseason testing sessions, while Valentino Rossi looks strong again, and Aleix Espargaro looks like a factory rider.  If Rossi has, indeed, regained the step he had obviously lost since 2010, and if Espargaro has the bike to remain in the top five on a regular basis, it promises to be a more interesting season than was 2013.  Marquez, even with a tender start, looks to be dominant, and Pedrosa and Lorenzo will be fine.  Issue Alien cards to Rossi and Espargaro, and it will be a fun season to watch.

As well as further evidence that Ezpeleta’s evil plot is working.