Silverstone has all the makings of being a very hectic weekend for a lot of people. Not so much because of the weather – things are looking up compared to a week ago, with just a few drops of rain forecast for Friday, and dry weather for Saturday and Sunday – but more because of the goings on behind the scenes. Thursday was the deadline for Moto2 and Moto3 entries to be submitted. The class looks to be oversubscribed again, with Dorna and IRTA left to whittle the entry list down to something of its present size. The extra entries are mostly expansion projects of existing teams, one-rider teams wanting to expand to two, or two-rider teams looking to become three-rider projects. The teams now have to stump up a deposit, before presenting their final rider lists at Aragon.
That has produced a certain pressure in the paddock for teams to sign riders for next year. The main players now know more or less where they are heading, though few will admit what their plans are. Most of the top Moto3 riders are off to Moto2, with those that remain filling the juiciest spots left open by those who are departing. The Estrella Galicia team of Alex Marquez and Alex Rins is to be split up, with one Alex rumored to be off to Marc VDS alongside Tito Rabat, while the other heads to the Pons team. Which Alex goes where is yet to be confirmed, but the smart money puts Marquez at Marc VDS, and Rins at Pons, in a charmingly consonant distribution of riders. Rins' slot depends on what happens with Jack Miller: if the Australian does not go to LCR Honda in MotoGP as rumored, he will take the spot vacated by Maverick Viñales. Miller's place at Red Bull KTM Ajo is to be taken by Brad Binder.
If the situation in Moto2 and Moto3 is close being settled, all is still up in the air in MotoGP. Before the summer break, not much was expected to change, but the impending loss of Go&Fun as sponsor to the Gresini team has thrown a spanner in the works. HRC has given Gresini until this weekend to place an order for the factory Honda RC213V, but without the backing of a major sponsor, Gresini will not be able to afford the bike. That would wreck Gresini's existing plans, and lead them on a search for alternatives, one of which could be running the factory Aprilia effort.
2014 Silverstone MotoGP Preview - Yamaha Territory, Racing At Home, And The Future Of The British Grand Prix
Since the beginning of the season, as he racked up one victory after another, Marc Marquez faced the same question over and over again: can you keep on winning? And over and over again, Marc Marquez gave the same answer: one day, he would not win. On that day, he added, it would be important to think of the championship, and get on the podium if possible.
That day came 10 days ago, at Brno. After struggling all weekend with a lack of rear grip on his Repsol Honda, Marquez couldn't match the pace of his teammate Dani Pedrosa, and the two Movistar Yamahas of Jorge Lorenzo and Valentino Rossi. Fourth was all that Marquez could manage.
The measure of a champion is not just how he wins, but also how he handles defeat. As Marquez rolled back into his garage after the race – a rare occurrence indeed, this the first time Marquez finished off the podium in his MotoGP career – there were no tantrums, no anger, no shouting. He patted his mechanics on their shoulders, sat down in his seat, and immediately started analyzing the defeat he had just suffered with his team. This was clearly not an experience he was keen to replicate any time soon. If any doubt still lingered, the eagerness with which he attacked the official test at Brno on the Monday after the race quickly removed them.
Under normal circumstances, Scott Redding would already know exactly where he will be racing in 2015. He has a contract with HRC and Gresini to race with the Go&Fun Gresini team, which puts him aboard the factory option Honda RC213V next year, replacing Alvaro Bautista. Up until a few races ago, the only question mark was whether Redding would continue to run Showa suspension and Nissin brakes, which come as part of a lucrative sponsorship deal for Gresini, or whether the team would switch to Ohlins and Brembo, like the factory Honda team.
In the past couple of weeks, that situation appears to have changed. Ahead of the Brno round of MotoGP, rumors emerged that Gresini was struggling to raise the funds for 2015. Title sponsor Go&Fun is alleged to be having financial problems, with Andrea Iannone's manager Carlo Pernat telling reporters at Brno that Iannone has yet to receive the money for the helmet sponsorship deal the Italian signed with them. There are now doubts that Go&Fun will be able to afford to continue the sponsorship of the Gresini Honda team for 2015, despite having a contract with the Italian team for 2015.
One belief common among motorcycle racing fans is that racers will ride harder while they are negotiating a new contract, only to slack off once the contract is in the bag. Ask a rider about this, and they deny it fervently, saying they have to ride just as hard after a new contract is signed as they did before. That their contract situation affects their performance is beyond question, though it is not as simple as it appears.
Bradley Smith is a case in point. Since the start of the season, the Englishman has known he has been riding for his place next year, with Yamaha and Tech 3 taking a seriously look at riders in both Moto2 and Moto3 to replace him. The pressure was starting to get to Smith, the Tech 3 man crashing rather too frequently, with the low point being the race at the Sachsenring. Smith crashed four times that weekend, twice on Friday, once on Saturday, and again in the race. It was a very tough weekend indeed.
So when Smith signed a new deal with the Monster Tech 3 Yamaha team ahead of the race at Brno, there was a palpable sense of relief. With this future secure for another year, he could get concentrate on racing again with a clear mind, and without the pressure of his results being judged every race. Over the course of the weekend at Brno, we asked Smith how he felt after his contract extension, and what effect he felt it had had on his results. His answers were revealing, and provide an insight into the pressure which all MotoGP riders must function under.
Marc Marquez did not take kindly to finishing fourth on Sunday, that much was obvious from the test. He lined up at pit lane exit at precisely 10am, waiting for the track to open. As soon as it opened, he was away, the first rider to take to the track in a long way. When Jorge Lorenzo went fastest, Marquez seemed determined to catch him, finally leaving the test at the end of a long day at the top of the timesheets.
Testing is not really about who is fastest, though riders cannot avoid turning it into a competitive sport. It is more about carefully running through options and testing parts, selecting what works and what doesn't, trying new bikes and parts, and testing out set up changes which are too experimental or time-consuming to try on a normal race weekend. Riders are still trying to go fast, but they and the teams are more interested in comparing their own times, rather than the times of others.
The factory Honda and Yamaha teams had similar programs. Both had the latest version of their 2015 bikes for the riders to test, as well as minor modifications to their current set ups in search of a bit more performance for the end of the year. That Honda's 2015 bike is working should be no surprise: Marc Marquez topped the timesheets on the new bike, praising the work done so far. It is an improvement over the 2014 machine, and faster in the middle of the corner, though there are still a few areas that need work. It was good enough for Marquez to get under Cal Crutchlow's pole record from 2013, however. Would he like to use it for the rest of the season? Though the bike is faster, it would be too much of a risk using it for the rest of the season.
The hot-hand fallacy finally caught up with Marc Marquez. His amazing streak of consecutive wins stays at ten, the Spaniard being beaten for the first time this year. In his twenty-ninth race in the MotoGP class, Marquez and his crew finally failed to find a good enough set up to win, or even make it onto the podium. The Repsol Honda man has only missed out on the podium twice before, once at Mugello last year, when he crashed, and once at Phillip Island, when he was disqualified from the tire fiasco race.
Defeat had been waiting in the wings for Marquez for a while now. Look solely at the points table, and his dominance looks complete. But go back and look at his winning margin, and his advantage has not looked quite so large. Of his ten wins, only two were by a considerable margin: one at Austin, where he has always been better than the rest; one at Assen, where rain created large gaps. His advantage at Argentina and Indianapolis was 1.8 seconds, at Jerez, Le Mans and the Sachsenring under a second and a half. Marquez could only eke out victory at Qatar, Mugello and Barcelona, races he won by a half a second or less. At most races, Marquez was winning by a slender margin indeed, lapping on average just five or six hundredths of a second quicker than his rivals. It was enough, but it was really not very much at all.
Marquez' slender advantage over his rivals was a sign of just how close they really were. Valentino Rossi, Jorge Lorenzo and Dani Pedrosa had all come close to beating Marquez, and in the case of Pedrosa at Barcelona, Marquez had been forced to delve deep into his bag of tricks to beat his teammate. Marquez' talent may have loaded the dice he was rolling, but eventually they would fall another way. "People said winning was easy for me," Marquez told the Spanish media, "but I know how hard it was."
The key to success in motorcycle racing is about controlling as many variables as you can. There are two variables which riders and teams cannot control, and which they fear for that very reason: the weather, and crashes. The weather spared both MotoGP and Moto2 at Brno on Saturday, but played havoc in Moto3. Crashes, too, made life difficult, both for MotoGP and in Moto3. It made for an intriguing day of practice.
The day started under leaden skies, with the threat of rain ever present throughout the morning. Dark clouds rolled in, then rolled right out again, chased deeper into Moravia and away from the track. They broke only briefly in the afternoon, the Moto3 qualifying session the main victim. Standing at trackside, the rain came and went so quickly that by the time I posted an update on Twitter, the weather had changed, immediately contradicting me. In the end, a red flag saved my blushes, Phillip Oettl crashing and damaging the air fence, causing the session to be halted while the air fence was repaired.
The rain had disappeared by the time MotoGP qualifying rolled around, conditions good enough for Marc Marquez to get close to Cal Crutchlow's pole record from 2013. That Marquez should take pole is hardly a surprise – that's nine out of eleven this year – but the way he controlled not just pole position, but the whole front row of the grid. Marquez jumped straight to pole on his first run out of the pits, but as he started his second run, he picked up a passenger. Andrea Iannone latched onto the tail of Marquez, and as Marquez flashed across the line to improve his time, Iannone used his tow to leapfrog ahead of his time, taking provisional pole from the Repsol Honda man. His soft tire spent, Iannone couldn't follow Marquez on his second run, the world champion going on to reclaim pole and demote Iannone to second. Further down the grid, Andrea Dovizioso followed Valentino Rossi around the circuit to improve his own time, moving up to second and demoting Iannone another spot.
2014 Brno MotoGP Friday Round Up: Yamaha's Big Improvement, Elbow Down In The Wet, And The Factory Bosses Speak
The first day of practice at Brno turned out to be a day of two halves. The morning was glorious, sunny and relatively warm. Clouds began gathering shortly after lunch, and the first spots of rain started to fall just as FP2 for the Moto3 class came to a close. The rain grew steadily heavier for the first half of the MotoGP afternoon practice session, easing up and stopping with some ten minutes to go. By the time the Moto2 bikes took to the track, the circuit was already drying, though it only really dried out completely towards the end of Moto2.
The two halves of MotoGP practice showed the same picture, however. Marc Marquez is fast in the wet and fast in the dry, and clearly looking comfortable on the Repsol Honda. Teammate Dani Pedrosa is also quick in both conditions, though a little closer to Marquez on a wet track than on a dry track. In the dry, Jorge Lorenzo is very close to Marc Marquez, but in the wet, both he and Movistar Yamaha teammate Valentino Rossi are a second off the pace of the Repsols.
Speed in the morning had given Lorenzo confidence he could be competitive with Marquez, and his pace in the wet was not a worry, he said. Everyone had started slowly in the wet, and Lorenzo was no exception. For Rossi, the second they are giving away to the Hondas in the wet is an issue, but losing track time to the rain was more of a problem. Rossi had been fifth in the dry, just a quarter of a second off Marquez, and after FP1, he and his crew had some ideas to improve turn in and enter the corner faster, right where he is losing out to the others. The rain meant he did not have a chance to test it, and with the chance of rain on Saturday, Rossi was concerned he would not be able to try it out before the race.
Leon Camier turned a lot of heads at Indianapolis in his first ride on the Drive M7 Aspar Honda production racer. The Englishman was drafted in to replace Nicky Hayden while he recovers from surgery, but despite it being the first time he rode a MotoGP bike, the Bridgestone tires, carbon brakes, and the Indianapolis circuit, Camier was very quickly up to speed with the other Open class Hondas.
Having a fast rider come in to MotoGP from World Superbikes allows a number of comparisons to be made. Among the most interesting is the difference in technology and tires. At Brno, Camier explained the difference in feel and cornering between the World Superbike Pirellis and the MotoGP Bridgestones. The front tire, especially, is a completely different kettle of fish, requiring a different style, and therefore different set up.
"The main [differene] for me is the tires and the brakes," Camier told us, "the tires being the biggest one. It's just that you have so much more front grip and with angle that you can brake and turn in with the brake on. [The front tire] is adjusting itself to be able to do that."
Is this the race it finally happens? Will Marc Marquez' record-breaking streak of wins, his perfect season, finally come to an end? We have discussed the statistical improbabilities of it continuing to the end of the year before. At some point, the chips will fall someone else's way, and a small mistake by Marquez, or just a perfect weekend by one of his rivals will see someone else on the top step of the podium.
What would it take to beat Marquez? Dani Pedrosa had a strong idea. "A win makes you stronger, so every time Marc wins, he is more committed," Marquez' Repsol Honda teammate said. "So your approach every time is harder, you have to be even more committed." Did he have a plan to try to beat Marquez this weekend? Proceed as normal, look for speed every session, try to find the perfect set up. There was no point trying to formulate a plan of attack. "You can't plan things against Marc," Pedrosa said, "he is smart, he can adapt each time."