Analysis

2014 Indianapolis MotoGP Friday Round Up: An Improved Track, The State Of American Racing, And Yet More Silly Season Shenanigans

For the past four years, my coverage of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway has followed something of a ritual. The riders would ride the track. The riders would talk to the media about how awful the track was, the bumps, the different types of asphalt, the drainage covers, the joints between the tarmac, the corners which were too tight. I would write about what the riders had said in my nightly round ups. And I would receive an email complaining about what I'd written from IMS' otherwise excellent media office.

It's hard to blame Indy's media office for such a reaction. They are the best media office of all the circuits on the calendar, by a country mile, better organized and providing useful and timely information on everything happening on the track. It is part of their duty to handle criticism of the circuit, especially that coming from a bunch of Europeans only using half the real Speedway track, and requiring corners. They were only doing their job.

They will have a much easier job this weekend. Rider reaction to the changes made at Indy has been overwhelmingly positive, with barely a whisper of criticism of the track. The single surface on the infield is a vast improvement, the changes to the track layout make it much more suitable for motorcycle racing, and most of the bumps have been removed. The circuit is "more like a normal track," as Marc Marquez put it. Pol Espargaro concurred. Indy is "more of a motorbike track" the Tech 3 man said.

2014 Indianapolis MotoGP Preview: A New Surface, Beating Marquez, And Silly Season Resuming

There are few motorsports venues more iconic than the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Of the places I've visited, only Monza comes close: you can feel the ghosts of all the men and women who have raced there. With its massive grandstands and historic racing museum, the vast facility is breathtaking. It is a magic place.

Sadly, the magic is all around the 4 kilometer rectangular oval on which the Indy 500 is held, and not so much around the road course used by MotoGP. The rather tight, artificial infield road circuit feels very much like an afterthought, something retrofitted to allow a greater range of activities at the facility. If the oval layout is spectacular, the road course is positively pedestrian.

To the credit of the Speedway, they have done an awful lot to try to improve the track. Last year, there were at least four different types of asphalt around the circuit, and the infield section was considered too tight for overtaking maneuvers. In an effort to solve both those problems at a stroke, turns 3 and 4, turn 7 and turns 15 and 16 have all been modified. The changes are aimed at opening the corners up a little, making them a little faster and more flowing. The change at turns 3 and 4 should make for more natural corners, and a better transition back onto the outside oval. Turn 7 has been altered to open it up, making a more natural chicane rather than the right-angle corner it was before. Turns 15 and 16 are now a little more flowing, and again have been modified to provide a more natural transition onto the oval. At the same time, the infield has been completely resurfaced, so that it now has just one type of asphalt.

Silly Season So Far, Post-Crutchlow - Who Is Going Where

With the announcement that Cal Crutchlow is to move to the LCR Honda team for 2015, making space for Andrea Iannone to move up to the Factory Ducati team, the beginnings of a MotoGP grid are starting to emerge for 2015. Both Repsol Honda seats are confirmed, as are both Factory Ducati riders and Valentino Rossi at Movistar Yamaha, with Jorge Lorenzo expected to announce a deal with Yamaha very soon. In the satellite teams, only Pol Espargaro is confirmed at Monster Tech 3 Yamaha, as is Crutchlow at CWM-LCR Honda.

With those names in place, we can start to draw up a list of who will be where, and who could be where for 2015. We have broken that list into three separate tables, based on the certainty of their deals: riders with confirmed contracts; riders and teams with deals that are expected to be confirmed very soon; and deals which are likely to happen, but are still not certain. The confirmed deals speak for themselves, those riders will definitely be on those bikes in 2015 (or longer - the contract date is in the last column of the table). The interest is in the expected and possible tables, where things are still far from certain.

Silly Season Update - Ducati Confirmed, Suzuki Announcement Imminent, And Will Aprilia Be Back Sooner?

The Danish physicist and father of quantum physics Niels Bohr is reputed to have said "Prediction is hard, especially about the future." Just a few days after our comprehensive silly season update was posted, at the World Ducati Weekend event, Andrea Dovizioso, Andrea Iannone and Cal Crutchlow all confirmed they would be staying at Ducati for next season, throwing our predictions into disarray. None of the Ducati riders were leaving for Suzuki - or in Cal Crutchlow's case, a satellite Honda - meaning that the Japanese factory was forced to make a few adjustments to their plans. And not only Suzuki: since the Ducati announcement, more of the pieces of the 2015 MotoGP puzzle have started to fall into place. Time to revisit what we know so far, and what we expect in the next few days.

The Comprehensive Midsummer MotoGP Silly Season Update - Ducati, Suzuki, Aprilia, Satellite Rides, Moto2 And Much More

This year's silly season – the endless speculation about who will end up riding where next year – has not so far lived up to the expectations from the start of the year. With all four factory Honda and Yamaha riders out of contract at the end of 2014, real fireworks were expected in the battle to secure signatures. That bidding war never unfolded, and with Marc Marquez and Dani Pedrosa back with Repsol Honda, Valentino Rossi already signed up to Movistar Yamaha, and Jorge Lorenzo looks likely to finalize his deal – a two-year contract with some kind of option to depart after a year – before the season resumes again in Indianapolis.

But silly season has been far from a disappointment. Over the past couple of weeks, the jostling for the remaining seats in MotoGP has really taken off, with the promise of wholesale changes taking place up and down the grid. With the exception of Pol Espargaro, who is expected to remain at Tech 3 for the second year of his two-year contract with Yamaha, just about every other seat on the grid could see a new occupant. The arrival of Suzuki and, it now appears, Aprilia offers four new factory seats to vie for, opening up new opportunities for the current crop of riders. The upgrading of Honda's RCV1000R makes the production Honda a more attractive proposition. And there looks set to be an influx of young talent into the class. The 2015 MotoGP grid could look very different, once you look past the top four.

While the factory line ups at Honda and Yamaha will be unchanged for next year, the factory Ducati team is likely to sport two new faces for 2015. Although Cal Crutchlow has a year to go on his contract with the Italian factory, neither party is particularly happy with the arrangement. Crutchlow has never really got over the shock of just how poorly the Ducati turns compared to the Yamaha he left behind, and has found it hard to keep his criticism to himself. Ducati, in turn, are not enamored of Crutchlow's forthright manner of speaking, nor of his criticism of the bike. Crutchlow's results have also been a disappointment to Ducati, although the Italian factory must bear some of the blame, given the many mechanical and electronics issue the bike has suffered. Ducati point to the performance of both Andrea Dovizioso and Andrea Iannone, though conceding that the two Italians have already had a year on the bike. For anyone who rode the Desmosedici GP13, the GP14 is a huge improvement. For anyone who rode a 2013 Yamaha M1, it is a complete disaster.

2014 Sachsenring Sunday MotoGP Round Up - Marquez' Perfect Record, Dangerous Starts, And A Spaniard-Free Zone

The former England soccer player Gary Lineker once described the sport as follows: "Football is a simple game; 22 men chase a ball for 90 minutes and at the end, the Germans always win." It feels somehow fitting to paraphrase that quote on the day that the Germans play in the World Cup final. Motorcycle racing is a simple sport, where 23 people ride a MotoGP bike as fast as they can, and Marc Marquez always wins.

He found yet another way to win at the Sachsenring. A heavy rain shower between the Moto2 race and the sighting lap for MotoGP left the grid in disarray, with about three quarters of the field heading in to swap from their wet to their dry bikes at the end of the warm up lap. That left fourteen riders to start from pit lane, five abreast, after jostling for position. At that point, the race should have been red flagged – more on that later – but instead, they all got out of pit lane safely. Just.

Marquez showed himself to be a master of improvisation, pitting quickly, swapping bikes and elbowing his way to the front of the pits. He took advantage of the chaos, exited pit lane first, and led the charge towards the shellshocked remainder of the pack who had started from the grid proper. He was 8.5 seconds behind the leader Stefan Bradl by the end of the first sector, a deficit which he had cut to 7.7 seconds by the end of the first lap. Before the sixth lap was completed, he had caught and passed the LCR Honda man, going on to win his ninth straight MotoGP race with relative ease. He faced an early challenge from his teammate Dani Pedrosa, but Marquez was more aggressive in getting past Bradl, where Pedrosa hesitated for a second. Pedrosa pushed hard once past, nearly caught Marquez, but faded towards the end.

2014 Sachsenring Saturday MotoGP Round Up - Marquez On Pole, Silly Season Shenanigans, And The Dangers Of Skipping Moto2

After he missed out on pole at Barcelona, and then again at Assen, people were starting to wonder if cracks were starting to appear in Marc Marquez's hegemony in MotoGP. His performance in qualifying may have faltered, but his reign remained intact when it counted, winning the first eight races in a row. On Saturday, Marquez hammered home his supremacy once again, taking pole by three tenths of a second – an eternity at the short and tight German circuit – and breaking Casey Stoner's pole record for the circuit from 2008, a record set on super-sticky qualifying rubber, tires which disappeared with the introduction of the spec tire a year later. Once again, Marquez moved the bar, posting the first ever sub 1'21 lap of the Sachsenring.

It was a goal he suspected was possible when he posted a 1'21.5 on used tires during FP4. Already fast on his first run, everything slotted into place on his second, and the new record was his. "I felt everything was perfect with the second tire, and I could get the record," Marquez said. His seventh pole of the season also sets him up to retain his perfect win record on Sunday. Starting on the front row is crucial at the Sachsenring. The track is tight, and passing places are few and far between. Starting from pole, especially for a relatively poor starter like Marquez, gives him a head start for tomorrow's race.

So who can challenge Marquez on Sunday? The list of candidates is short. There is of course his teammate, Dani Pedrosa always having been fast here at the circuit. Pedrosa post a fast lap on his first qualifying run, and looked set to improve it as he exited the pits for his second attempt. He was perhaps a little too eager, however, and the Repsol Honda man folded the front going into Turn 1 just as he started his second flying lap. "I think I hit a bump under braking," Pedrosa said. His race pace throughout practice was good, but could not match the pace of Marquez.

2014 Sachsenring Friday MotoGP Round Up - Marquez' Big Crash, Some Fast Yamahas, And Fixing Turn 11 Again

There are those who say that Marc Marquez is due a big crash soon. He is always riding so close to the edge of traction that at some point, he will go over the limit and suffer the consequences, they reason. They will therefore not have been surprised to learn that Marquez had a huge highside on Friday morning. What will surprise them is the cause of the crash. It was not due to pushing his Honda RC213V beyond the limits of adhesion, he explained to the media afterwards, but was caused by a minor slip of his foot. His toe touched the gear lever, clicking the bike into 3rd, and that caused the rear tire to grip momentarily and flick him off.

The crash happened at Turn 2. "You turn with the gas in second gear," Marquez said. "I didn't know at the time, but I was touching a little bit the gear lever." In the last part of the corner, he accidentally engaged third, and as he kept the throttle in the same position, the bike highsided. Marquez was thrown upside down, and landed on his neck. He was lucky to walk away, but walk away he did. He returned to the garages and was straight back on the bike again, posting the sixth fastest time, six tenths off the pace of Aleix Espargaro, and a third of a second behind Jorge Lorenzo.

By the afternoon, Marquez was back at full speed, and second quickest behind Aleix Espargaro once again. He still had some stiffness in his neck, he said, but it was not really hindering him. "The neck feels a bit locked in some corners, but it is not a problem," he said. Intensive physiotherapy kept his neck warm, and prevented it from seizing up and becoming painful. That only happened after the session was over, and his neck started to cool down.

2014 Sachsenring MotoGP Preview - On Breaking The Streak, Fighting For Contracts And Keeping The Waterfall

After winning the first five races of the season, Marc Marquez said he feared the trio of Mugello, Barcelona and Assen, which were to follow. He would surely be beaten at one of those tracks, given they favored the Yamaha M1 and were strong tracks for both Jorge Lorenzo and Valentino Rossi. Three races and three wins later, and Marquez is looking increasingly invincible. The Repsol Honda man keeps inventing new ways to win, and keep his opponents at bay.

So if Marquez is impossible to beat at a Yamaha circuit, perhaps he can be beaten at a Honda track. So far, Dani Pedrosa has been the only rider to get close to beating his teammate, after pushing him all the way at Barcelona. The Sachsenring is a track where Pedrosa has reigned supreme in recent years, having won four times in the last eight years. Impressive as it is, that does not do his record at the track justice. In his rookie year, he finished fourth in Germany, missing out by just three tenths of a second in one of the closest and most thrilling races to be held at the circuit. In 2008 he crashed out of the lead in the wet, a result that would lead him to concentrate on improving his riding in the rain. In 2009 he finished third, close behind the battle between Valentino Rossi and Jorge Lorenzo, and in 2013, Pedrosa was absent after breaking a collarbone during practice.

There is just one minor problem. If you think Dani Pedrosa's record at the Sachsenring is strong – and numbers don't lie, Pedrosa is the man to beat in Germany – just wait until you see what Marc Marquez has done at the circuit. For the past four years, in three different classes, Marquez has won the race after starting from pole. The Spaniard won here in his last year in 125s, won both Moto2 races he contested here, then took victory in his first MotoGP race at the circuit. It was his second win in the class, after becoming the youngest ever winner at Austin earlier in 2013. Marquez did not have to beat either Pedrosa or Lorenzo, of course, both men having withdrawn with broken collarbones. So this race is a straight fight for Sachsenring supremacy. The winner in 2014 may rightly call himself King of the 'Ring.

The Comprehensive MotoGP Silly Season Update: How Things Stand For Honda, Yamaha, Ducati, Suzuki, Kalex, And Even Moto3

The current status of MotoGP's silly season? Two down, plenty still to go. Valentino Rossi may have joined Marc Marquez as the only other factory rider to have put pen to paper for 2015 and 2016, the rest of the grid is still in the middle of negotiating their riders for next year. Even Cal Crutchlow, who has a contract to race with Ducati in 2015, but more of that later.

Who will join Rossi at Movistar Yamaha and Marquez at Repsol Honda? Most likely, the two men who are already there. It is hard to see either Dani Pedrosa or Jorge Lorenzo jumping ship to ride anywhere else. Though HRC boss Shuhei Nakamoto flirted with Lorenzo late last year, he understands that it would be terrible team politics to upset his number one rider, and the man who is likely to bring a fleet of titles to Honda over the next few season.

What HRC needs is a reliable number two rider, and Pedrosa has proven to be perfect in that role. Fast enough to win races of his own accord, and a solid force in the team, not the kind of character to kick up a fuss. He has six podiums this year, as well as a pole position, and can win should Marquez falter. Spanish media are reporting that Pedrosa is close to wrapping up a contract with the Repsol Honda team, with talks having gone at Assen. The new contract would mean less salary for Pedrosa, but at least at Honda, he has a chance of winning races. Big money offers from Ducati and Suzuki are much more of a gamble, with neither bike yet having proven capable of winning.

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