His streak had to come to an end one day, and it turned out to be at Barcelona. Marc Marquez' run of pole positions stopped at seven – Valencia last year, plus the first six races of this season – after he was forced to concede the place to his Repsol Honda teammate Dani Pedrosa. For a change, the front row press conference on Friday afternoon did not feature a jubilant Marquez (well, actually, it did, but more that later) and a couple of dejected rivals, wondering what they can do about the Repsol Honda man. Both pole sitter Pedrosa and runner up Jorge Lorenzo were, if not exactly buoyant, at least rather perky. Hope has returned.
And rightly so. Pedrosa took pole completely on merit, posting a blistering lap that was only just off his own lap record set last year. Given how the track has deteriorated since last year – more bumps, less grip – Pedrosa's time was deeply impressive. So impressive that it forced Marc Marquez into a mistake. The Spaniard and his crew attempted a repeat of their strategy at Jerez, to attempt three runs for pole. It worked rather well, up until the very last run. Marquez was pushing hard, aware that Pedrosa had taken pole, but got into Turn 1 a little too hot, ran a little too wide onto the kerb, then had to push the front a little too hard to try to make the corner. He failed.
2014 Barcelona MotoGP Friday Round Up: A Sweltering Track, Changing Riding Styles, Ducati's Diabolical Dilemma, And Hayden's Wrist
If you thought that Barcelona could be a track to throw up a few surprises, the first day of practice proved you right. Not in Moto2, of course: Tito Rabat's dominance was crushing, making Marc Marquez' earlier reign of terror look like a close fought battle. In Moto3, Finnish youngster Niklas Ajo topped the timesheets, putting the Husqvarna name at the forefront. That was unexpected, though given the fact that the nominally Swedish Husqvarna is nothing more than a rebadged KTM straight from the factory in Mattighofen, Austria, it should be less of a surprise.
The biggest surprises were perhaps in MotoGP. That Aleix Espargaro would be quickest in the morning is to be expected, especially as he put on the super soft tire available to the Open bikes to set his time. But for Bradley Smith to go fastest in the afternoon was a major change of fortunes, and just reward for the effort Smith and his crew have been putting in over the past few weeks. His fast time was set with a fresh soft tire, but given that this compound – Bridgestone's medium tire, the hard being the other option available to the Factory Option teams – has real potential to be the race tire, it is not quite as simple as Smith having pushed in qualifying trim.
It is becoming customary for any MotoGP preview worth its salt to begin with a single question: can anyone beat Marc Marquez this weekend? That same question was put to the riders during the pre-event press conference, to which Valentino Rossi gave the most obvious answer. Of course it was possible, he said. 'It is nothing special. What you have to do is do your maximum and improve your level.' The only trouble is, every time Rossi, Jorge Lorenzo or Dani Pedrosa improve their level, so does Marc Marquez. But it is still possible, Rossi believes. 'We are not very far. It is not easy, but nothing special.'
Barcelona, like Mugello, is one of the tracks where Marquez is perhaps more vulnerable. It is a circuit where the reigning champion has always struggled – though for Marquez, 'struggling' means only managing podiums rather than wins – and where the Yamahas, especially, have been strong. Valentino Rossi has won here nine times, and Jorge Lorenzo, who has been either first or second at the track for the past five years. The track flows, and has a little bit of everything. A long, fast front straight, some elevation change climbing up into the two stadium sections, the two 'horns' of the Catalunya bull which the Montmelo circuit most resembles, a couple of esses, and long, flowing combinations of corners. Those corners more than compensate for the front straight. Jorge Lorenzo reckoned that the Yamaha had a top speed deficit of perhaps 4 or 5 km/h on the Honda, but that at Barcelona, this was less of an issue than at other tracks. After all, he pointed out, there are some 3.7 kilometers of corners in which to catch a Honda ahead of you.
It is a common complaint among MotoGP riders after the race on Sunday afternoon: the track never has the grip which the riders found on previous days during practice and qualifying. The riders are quick to point the finger of blame at Moto2. The spectacle of 33 Moto2 machines sliding around on fat tires lays down a layer of rubber which adversely affects grip during the MotoGP race.
Andrea Dovizioso was the latest rider to add to a growing litany of complaints. After finish sixth at Mugello, the Ducati rider told the media that the rubber laid down by Moto2 made it hard to obtain the same level of grip as they found during practice. 'Everybody complains about that,' Dovizioso said, 'the rubber from Moto2 makes the grip less'. Because free practice and qualifying for Moto2 always takes place after MotoGP, but the Moto2 race happens before the premier class, it meant that track conditions were different.
Dovizioso was open to suggestions of reversing the order of practice for the Moto3 and Moto2 classes, with Moto2 preceding MotoGP and Moto3 following, rather than the other way round, Moto3 practice taking place ahead of MotoGP, and Moto2 going last. The idea behind this would be to have MotoGP practicing in the same conditions as the race, once Moto2 have left their layer of rubber on the track. 'It would be an interesting test if Moto2 and Moto3 would swap,' Dovizioso said. It is a suggestion which Jorge Lorenzo's team manager Wilco Zeelenberg has also made on a number of occasions, the Dutchman have complained of differing grip conditions repeatedly for several years now.
One circuit, three races, all of them utterly different in nature. The wide, flowing layout with a long straight, fast corners, and multiple combinations of turns present very different challenges to Grand Prix racing's three different classes. For Moto3, escape is impossible, the race coming down to tactics and the ability to pick the right slipstream. In Moto2, it is possible to get away, but it's equally possible to chase an escaped rider down. And in MotoGP, the fast flicks make it possible to both defend attacks and launch your own counter attack. Mugello is a wonderful circuit, and it served up a spectacular portion of racing on Sunday.
We had expected Moto3 to be the race of the day, as it has been every Grand Prix this season. It certainly did not disappoint, but by the time the last few laps of the MotoGP race rolled around, we had forgotten all about Moto3. The Moto3 race was fantastic entertainment, but the MotoGP race at Mugello was one for the ages. The kind of race that fans will bring up over and over again, one to go along with Barcelona 2009, Laguna Seca 2008, even Silverstone 1979.
It took the return of the real Jorge Lorenzo to light a fire under the MotoGP race. Lorenzo had been looking stronger and stronger all weekend, and was coming to a track where he has previously dominated, and with tires which, he had been told, were identical to last year. Lorenzo's punishing cardio workout schedule now back on track and paying dividends. The fitness he lost when three operations during the off season forced him to abandon his normal training schedule cost him dearly.
2014 Mugello Saturday Round Up: Signs Of Marquez' Weakness, The Importance Of Equipment, And The Rocketship Ducati
Knowing that not everyone is in a position to watch qualifying and races when they are live, we try to operate a no-spoilers policy for at least a few hours after the event. No results in headlines, nor on the MotoMatters Twitter feed. But as the mighty motorcycle racing Twitter personality SofaRacer put it today, ' I know you don't like to Tweet spoilers David. But 'Márquez on pole' and 'Márquez wins' technically, erm, aren't.' To the surprise of absolutely nobody, Marc Marquez took his sixth pole of the season, and his seventh pole in a row on Sunday. Marquez remains invincible, even at what he regards as his worst track of the year.
His advantage is rather modest, though. With just 0.180 seconds over the man in second place – the surprising Andrea Iannone – it is Marquez' smallest advantage of the season, if we discount Qatar, where he was basically riding with a broken leg. You get the sense that Marquez is holding something back, almost being cautious, after being bitten several times by the track last year, including a massive crash in free practice and then sliding out of the race. It makes him almost vulnerable for the first time. His race pace is still fast, but he has others – Valentino Rossi, Jorge Lorenzo, Dani Pedrosa, even the Ducatis of Andrea Iannone and Andrea Dovizioso – all on roughly the same pace.
2014 Mugello MotoGP Friday Round Up: On Wasted Sessions, A Feisty Rossi, And American Joy And Despair
The weather didn't really play ball at Mugello on Friday. The forecast rain held off until the last five minutes of Moto3 FP2, before sprinkling just enough water on the track to make conditions too wet for slicks, too dry for wet tires. That left the entire MotoGP field sitting in their garages waiting for the rain to either get heavier and wet the track completely, or else stop, and allow it to dry up. Dani Pedrosa explained that though the track was dry in most places, San Donato, the first corner at the end of the high speed straight, was still wet. Bridgestone slicks need to be pushed hard to get them up to temperature, and if you can't push in Turn 1, then they don't. That leaves you with cold tires, which will come back and bite you further round the track.
One of the items on the list of requirements Dorna sent to Michelin was the need for an intermediate tire. Would anyone have gone out if they had had intermediates? Pedrosa believed they would have. 'With intermediates you can go out. I'm not sure whether you get anything out of it, but for sure you don't have 24 bikes in the box.' You don't learn much in terms of set up when you go out on intermediates, but more people might venture out. One team manager I spoke to was less convinced. 'We have five engines and a limited number of tires. We can't afford to lose an engine in a crash. Why take a risk, when it's better to save miles on the engine?'
2014 Mugello MotoGP Preview: Rossi's Revival In Race 300, And How Marquez And Moto2 Are Changing MotoGP
The paradox of the motorcycle racer is that every race is a big race, yet no race is more important than any other. The pressure on the MotoGP elite is so great that they have to perform at their maximum at every circuit, every weekend. Every race is like a championship decider, not just the race which decides the championship. There may be extra pressure at a home race, or on a special occasion, or when a title is at stake, but the riders cannot let it get to them. There is too much at stake to be overawed by the occasion.
Still, Mugello 2014 is a very big race indeed. It is Valentino Rossi's 300th Grand Prix, and a chance for him to return to the podium on merit again, and not just because the crowds were calling his name. It is the best hope of a Jorge Lorenzo revival, the Yamaha man having won the last three races in a row at the spectacular Tuscan track. It is the best hope for Ducati, the Italian factory having run well here in the past. And it is the first realistic chance for Marc Marquez to fail, the Spaniard has never found the track an easy one, though it did not stop him winning there.
Valentino Rossi heads into the race weekend more optimistic than he has been in years. Though Misano is closer to Rossi's home in Tavullia – it is literally walking distance, though it is a long walk indeed – Mugello is the Italian's spiritual home, the track he loves most in the world.
The news that 340mm carbon brake discs are to be allowed once again in MotoGP has rekindled a debate that has been going on behind the scenes for some time. The move to allow the discs at all tracks, and not just Motegi where they are already compulsory, has come as both power and weight of the MotoGP machines has grown over the past three years. But the real solution lies in reducing minimum weight.
There was a certain irony in the moment chosen by the Grand Prix Commission to ban carbon discs larger than 320mm. The move – made for reason of cost savings and rationalization – came just as MotoGP was to return to 1000cc, meaning the bikes were about to reach higher top speeds. Compounding the problem, the minimum weight was also increased. The initial proposal was to raise the minimum from 150kg, the weight of the old 800cc machines, to 153kg. However, to make life easier for the CRT machines, the weight limit was raised even further, in two steps, to 157kg in 2012 and 160kg in 2013.
2014 Le Mans MotoGP Sunday Round Up: Rossi's Revival, Lorenzo's Slump, Ducati's Stagnation, Miller's Revenge And Funny Front Ends
Now, Valentino Rossi knows how Max Biaggi felt. 'I did one mistake in 27 laps,' Rossi told the press conference after the MotoGP race at Le Mans. 'But in the crucial moment of the race.' Rossi braked a little bit too deep into Turn 9, ran wide, and Marquez was through. The mistake was because Rossi knew Marquez was coming, and had to try to push to keep ahead. 'I try to push, to do 1'34.0, but I knew I was at the limit.' Rossi knew that if he did not keep pushing to the full, Marquez would be upon him and past him in no time. It was perhaps that effort that caused Rossi to make the mistake that let Marquez by.
It was indeed a strange role reversal for Rossi. Ten years ago, it was Rossi himself who was hunter, stalking riders like Max Biaggi and Sete Gibernau, following them and simply waiting for a mistake. Now, the hunter had become prey, faltering when Marquez bore down upon him. At last, he got to ride a mile in Biaggi's boots.
Yet all credit is due to the veteran Italian. He is currently the only rider in the world capable of putting up any kind of resistance to the unstoppable force which is Marc Marquez. Both Rossi and Marquez were surprised and disappointed at Rossi's mistake, both relishing the chance to go toe to toe with one another. 'I don't know if I can beat him,' Rossi said, 'But I would like to fight. I think it would be fun.' Marquez concurred, telling the press conference he had expected to have 'a nice battle' with Rossi as he came up behind him, but when he saw Rossi make the mistake, he did not hesitate. He was past, had put half a second into Rossi within half a lap, and was gone. If anything, it was a mark of respect that he distanced himself so quickly. Marquez may have been prepared for a fight with Rossi, but he couldn't afford to hang around to see what Rossi could do. With five victories from five poles, Marquez may be confident, but he is not yet reckless.