Ever since he left Ducati at the end of 2010, Casey Stoner has cast a long shadow over the Italian factory. He was the ever-present specter, sitting like Banquo's ghost astride the Desmosedici that any other rider dared swing a leg over. There was a contingent of fans and journalists who, after every poor result by the riders who succeeded Stoner, would point to the Australian's results and say "but Casey won on the Ducati."
What impressed me most about Valentino Rossi's time at Ducati was the calmness and dignity with which he responded to the same question being asked of him, week in, week out. "Valentino," yet another journalist would ask each race, "Casey Stoner won on this bike. Why can't you?" Not once did he lose his temper, ignore the question, or blank the person who asked it. Every week, he would give the same reply: "Casey rode the Ducati in a very special way. I can't ride that way." More than anything, the dignity with which he answered every week were a sign of his humanity, and an exceptional human being. If it takes guts to attempt the switch, it takes even greater courage for someone repeatedly tagged as the greatest of all time to admit failure.
None were immune. Stoner's former teammate Nicky Hayden would be asked why he could not match the pace of the Australian. Andrea Dovizioso had the fortune to come after Rossi, but even he was subjected to comparison with Stoner. Cal Crutchlow was the same, a situation made worse by the fact that he said before he arrived at Ducati that he believed he would be able to ride the Ducati like Stoner. Since arriving at Ducati, he has admitted that he could not.
On Saturday, Andrea Dovizioso may have taken the first step on the path to expelling Stoner's specter from the Ducati garage. The Italian became the first rider to take pole on the Desmosedici since Casey Stoner did so at Valencia in 2010. In fact, he became the first rider other than Casey Stoner to secure pole position on a Ducati since Loris Capirossi in 2006. For Ducati, having Andrea Dovizioso on pole is a very, very big deal. Perhaps even bigger than the factory themselves realize.
2014 Motegi Friday Round Up: Hard Braking Hondas, Rabat's Imperious Pace, And The Moto3 Manufacturer Mix
Will Motegi turn into another Marc Marquez show? Not on the evidence of the first day of practice. Marquez made the highlight reel alright, but for all the wrong reasons. A crash in the first session of free practice shook his confidence a little, and convinced him to take a more cautious approach during the afternoon.
The crash was typical of Motegi. A headshake coming out of Turn 4 put the front brake disks into a wobble, banging the pads back into the calipers. With the 340mm disks being compulsory at Motegi, there was enough mass there to push the pads and pistons a long way back into the calipers indeed. Marquez arrived at Turn 5 to find he had no front brake, and started pumping his front brake lever frantically. By the time the front brake started to bite, it was too late to do much good. With the wall approaching fast, Marquez decided to abandon ship, jumping off the bike in the gravel trap.
Arriving at a corner at 260 km/h to find he had no brakes had been "a bit frightening," Marquez said. In the afternoon, he had left himself a little bit more margin for error, but that meant he had not matched the pace of the fast guys: Jorge Lorenzo, Dani Pedrosa, the surprising Stefan Bradl, Andrea Dovizioso and Valentino Rossi. If Marquez is to wrap up the title at Motegi, he needs to beat Pedrosa and Rossi, but he is not looking likely to do that at the moment. He complained of not having found the right set up yet, something which has not happened often this year, but has resulted in him being beaten when he has. But it is still only Friday, and his rivals, at least, are refusing to write him off just yet. "He will be competitive tomorrow," Lorenzo said of Marquez.
Part of the Japanese round of MotoGP always seems to involve learning a new name for a natural phenomenon. In 2010, we heard of Eyjafjallajökull for the first time, the volcano which awoke from under its ice cap and halted air travel in large parts of Europe and Asia. We laughed as newsreaders and MotoGP commentators tried to pronounce the name of the Icelandic volcano and ice cap (for the inquisitive, Wikipedia has the correct pronunciation), and the race was moved from the start of the season to October.
A year later, in April 2011, it was Tōhoku which was the name on everyone's lips. The massive earthquake which shook Japan and triggered an enormous tsunami, killing nearly 16,000 people and badly damaging the Fukushima nuclear power station. Again the Motegi race was moved to October, by which time the incredible resilience and industriousness had the track ready to host the MotoGP circus. 2012 turned out to be a relatively quiet year, but 2013 saw the tail end of typhoon Francisco ravage the region, causing the first day and a half of practice to be lost to fog and rain.
So it comes as no surprise that the 2014 round of MotoGP at Motegi teaches us yet another new name. This time it is Vongfong, a category 5 super typhoon which threatens the race in Japan. The super typhoon has been described as "the most powerful storm of the year" with recorded sustained winds of 285 km/h, and gusts of up to 350 km/h. It is currently over open water southwest of Japan, but is heading northeast towards Kyushu, the southernmost island of the Japanese archipelago.
The good news for Japan is that Vongfong is expected to weaken as it heads towards Japan, and arrives over much cooler water. Even better news for Motegi is that the typhoon looks unlikely to reach the region in time to affect the race. Vongfong is set to make landfall nearly 1200 km southwest of the Twin Ring circuit, and have weakened dramatically by the time it reaches the area by the middle of next week. 2014 looks like being another year in which Motegi was spared.
That will please Honda greatly. With Repsol Honda riders first and second in the championship, Honda within 10 points of the manufacturers' title, and the factory Repsol squad closing in on winning the team championship – though admittedly, both Movistar Yamahas would have to not score to achieve that at Motegi – Honda would really like to celebrate at home. The Motegi Twin Ring circuit is owned and operated by the Mobilityland Corporation, which is itself a 100% subsidiary of the Honda Motor Company, and so the stakes are high. Motegi is also the main test track used for developing the factory's MotoGP machines, the RC213V having racked up monster mileages around the circuit. The combination of hard braking zones, slow corners, long, fast straights and the occasional fast combo should suit HRC's Honda RC213V down to the ground.
Given Marc Marquez' dominance of the 2014 MotoGP championship, the question is not if, but when he will wrap up his second title in a row. His original aim had been to win the title in front of his home crowd at Aragon, but crashes at Misano and then Aragon put paid to that idea. With a massive lead in the championship, Marquez heads to the flyaway races with his primary aim shifted from winning at all costs, to making sure he returns to Spain and the final round of the series with the title already safely under his belt.
Motegi is the first opportunity for Marquez to take the title, and wrapping it up there would please his HRC bosses, as the circuit is owned by Honda and operated by a subsidiary. But it is not a simple question of turning up and finishing, the reigning champion will have to ensure his rivals do not gain too much back on him if he is to lift the crown there. He has a 75 point lead over his Repsol Honda teammate Dani Pedrosa, a 78 point advantage over Movistar Yamaha's Valentino Rossi, and a 90 point lead over the second factory Yamaha of Jorge Lorenzo. So what does Marquez need to do to win the title?
What a difference a day makes. "There is no way to fight with the factory Hondas," Valentino Rossi had said on Saturday. Within a few laps of the start, it turned out that it was not just possible to fight with the Hondas, but to get them in over their heads, and struggling to hold off the Yamaha onslaught. By the time the checkered flag dropped, the factory Hondas were gone, the first RC213V across the line the LCR of Stefan Bradl, nearly twelve seconds behind the winner, Jorge Lorenzo on the factory M1.
What changed? The weather. Cooler temperatures at the start of the race meant the Hondas struggled to get the hard rear tire to work. The hard rear was never an option for the Yamahas, but the softer rear was still working just fine. From the start, Jorge Lorenzo, Valentino Rossi and the surprising Pol Espargaro were pushing the factory Hondas hard. All of a sudden we had a race on our hands. When the rain came, the excitement stepped up another notch. In the end, strategy and the ability to keep a cool head prevailed. The factory Hondas came up short on both accounts at Aragon.
The forecast for Sunday had been unstable all weekend. But conditions on Sunday morning were far worse than anyone had predicted. Heavy rain soaked the track, then thick fog blanketed the track in a cloak of gray, severely limiting vision at key points on the track. More importantly, the fog kept the medical helicopters on the ground. Without medical helicopters, there's no racing. Should a rider be seriously injured, the helicopters need to be able to get them to a hospital within 20 minutes. When the fog descends, that becomes impossible.
2014 Aragon MotoGP Saturday Round Up: Fast Hondas, Yamaha's Defective Tires, Surprising Ducatis, And Unstable Weather
Is Marc Marquez's season going downhill? You might be tempted to say so, if you judged it by the last three races alone. After utterly dominating the first half of the season, Marquez has won only a single race in the last three outings, finishing a distant fourth in Brno, and crashing out of second place at Misano, before remounting to score a single solitary point. Look at practice and qualifying at Aragon, however, and Marquez appears to have seized the initiative once again. He had to suffer a Ducati ahead of him on Friday, but on Saturday, he was back to crushing the opposition. Fastest in both sessions of free practice, then smashing the pole record twice. This is a man on a mission. He may not be able to wrap up the title here, but he can at least win.
The way Marquez secured pole was majestic, supremely confident, capable and willing to hang it all out when he needed. He set a new pole record on his first run of the 15 minute session, waited in the garage until the last few minutes, then went out. He shook off Andrea Iannone, who was trying to get a tow, then when he saw Dani Pedrosa had taken over pole from him, went all out. Despite making a bit of a mess of the final sector, he still took nearly four tenths off his own best lap, demoting Pedrosa to second.
It wasn't just his pole time which was impressive. The race pace he showed in FP4 was fast, a string of high 1'48s and a couple of low 1'49s. The only rider to get anywhere near him was his teammate, Pedrosa knocking out a sequence of 1'49.0s, followed by a handful of high 1'48s. Pedrosa still has a score to settle, and though Marc Marquez is grabbing the headlines, he could find himself with quite a fight on his hands.
2014 Aragon MotoGP Friday Round Up - Honda vs Yamaha Explained, The Slimmer GP14.2, And Hayden's First Day Back On The Bike
Is the Motorland Aragon circuit a Honda track or a Yamaha track? On the evidence of Friday, it is first and foremost a Marc Marquez track. The reigning world champion may not have topped the timesheets – the two de facto factory Ducati riders, Andreas Dovizioso and Iannone did that – but he set a scorching race pace that only his Repsol Honda teammate could get close to, though Dani Pedrosa was still a couple of tenths off the pace of Marquez.
"This is one of my favorite tracks," Marquez said afterwards, adding that he was happy with his rhythm and he had really enjoyed his day. The Spaniard may have lost any chance of wrapping up the title at Aragon with a win, but that didn't make him any less determined to take victory here. The crash at Misano made no difference to his attitude. Was he afraid of crashing? "No. You can't race and be afraid of crashing." Marquez was pushing to the limit once again, laying down a marker for others to follow.
If the mood in Marquez' garage was elated, things were different in the Yamaha camp. Though the gap to Marquez in terms of pace was not huge, it was still significant. Jorge Lorenzo was concerned. "We are slower than last year," he told the media, "we are slower than at the test [in June]." They had started the weekend using the set up which had worked well enough over the last four races for Lorenzo to finish second, but it simply was not working at Aragon. The plan was to revert to the set up used before Indianapolis, he said.
2014 Aragon MotoGP Thursday Round Up - Marquez' Decline, Hayden's Return, The Ducati GP14.2, And Miller's MotoGP Move
Things look a little different as the MotoGP paddock arrives at the spectacular Motorland Aragon circuit. After two defeats in the last three races, Marc Marquez is looking almost vulnerable. At Brno, Marquez and his team never found the right set up, and the 21-year-old Spanish prodigy finished off the podium for the first time in his MotoGP career. Two races later, at Misano, Marquez tried to compensate for a similar lack of set up by pushing hard for the win, but crashed chasing Valentino Rossi, and remounted to score just a solitary point.
Marquez had hoped to wrap up the title at Aragon, he told the press conference on Thursday, but the crash at Misano put an end to any such aims. He would have needed a win at both Misano and Aragon, and took a risk trying to beat an unleashed Rossi at his home track. Victory at Misano proved impossible, especially against a Rossi determined to win at any cost.
So can Marquez get back to winning ways at Aragon? On paper, this should be his opportunity to reassert his authority. Of the four previous visits to the circuit, Marquez has won two, come second once, and been dumped into the gravel at the first corner once, an incident he is still less than happy about. The circuit suits the Honda, the bike having won three of the four premier class outings at the track. It was only the first year where the Honda came up short, Dani Pedrosa only managing to come second to Casey Stoner on the Ducati.
The upcoming MotoGP round at Aragon looks like being another busy week for official announcements. Press officers representing Dorna, the FIM and the teams will have their hands full managing the stream of news expected to come in Spain.
The two most eagerly awaited announcements are the MotoGP calendar, and the Moto2 and Moto3 rider line ups, in that order. The MotoGP calendar is almost certain to feature 19 races, and look very similar to the 2014 calendar, with the addition of Brazil, and the moving of the British Grand Prix from Silverstone to Donington. As usual, the season will kick off in Qatar, the Losail circuit paying a premium for the privilege.
The Qatar race had been expected to be run on 22nd March, that date coming a week after the F1 season opener in Australia, and a week before the second F1 race of the season at Sepang. However, it looks like MotoGP will be moved back a week to the 29th, as the 22nd of March sees the two biggest clubs in Spanish soccer face off, with Real Madrid set to meet Barcelona at the Camp Nou stadium on that Sunday night. While MotoGP is massive in Spain, it is still dwarved by the interest in soccer, and TV audiences will suffer. Moving to the 29th would mean running on the same weekend as F1, but the late evening slot for the race means there would be no overlap between the races.
Misano was the stage for a flurry of negotiating among riders, though much of it was dependent on the fate of Scott Redding. As was previously the case with Marc Marquez, Jorge Lorenzo and Cal Crutchlow, Redding was proving pivotal in which seats would be available. With Redding now firmly ensconced in the Marc VDS Racing team for the next two years, the other seats can start to fill up.
Below is a list of all of the seats currently filled and available in MotoGP, with notes on individual contracts and speculation on who could fill the empty seats. PBM has sold its grid slots to IRTA, who will be selling them to Suzuki. The IODA team have made no announcement on their future, but they seem unlikely to continue, given the dearth of funding for the project. The grid as it stands consists of 24 bikes, two more than IRTA's target of 22. All 24 will get a start, but the grid slots with the worst record at the end of 2015 will lose their IRTA travel allowance.
Here's the state of play so far: