2013 Phillip Island MotoGP Saturday Round Up: A Primer On The Dry Flag-to-Flag MotoGP Race, And Apportioning Blame For The Debacle
There should have been plenty to talk about after qualifying at Phillip Island. Jorge Lorenzo's stunning fast lap, Marc Marquez getting on the front row for the 11th time in his rookie season, Valentino Rossi's return to the front row, and his excellent race pace, Scott Redding's fractured wrist ending his title hopes, so much to talk about, and more. But one subject dominates MotoGP right now: tires, the incompetence of the tire suppliers, and the stopgap solutions put in place to deal with it.
Shortly after qualifying had finished, Race Direction announced that the Moto2 race would be shortened to 13 laps, and the MotoGP race would be shortened to 26 laps, but that the riders would have to come in for a compulsory pit stop to change rear tires (or in practice, swap bikes), and that nobody would be allowed to do more than 14 laps on a rear tire. (How they intend to enforce that is a mystery, unless any rider exceeding the number of laps gets black flagged, which would be the ultimate irony). So Phillip Island makes history once again: in 2006 it was the scene of the first wet-weather flag-to-flag race; in 2013, it will host the first ever flag-to-flag race held in dry conditions.
Why a flag-to-flag race? Race Direction had three options: shorten the race to 14 laps, run two 13-lap races, or run a flag-to-flag race with a compulsory tire swap. The first option would have been the safest, but would have left the TV broadcasters with a half hour or so of dead air to fill, and would have cost Dorna money in TV rights. The second option would have overrun the allotted TV slot, and the chaos of having to line up on the grid for two starts would have been time consuming, placed a lot of extra stress on engines and clutches, and would have thrown the rest of the schedule for the support races into disarray. Two grids would effectively double the chances of something going wrong. The final option, a flag-to-flag race, was a known quantity and catered for in the rules, though it had never been done in the dry before.
2013 Phillip Island MotoGP Friday Round Up: Lorenzo's Determination, The Luck Of The Hondas, And Tire Trouble On A New Surface
If anyone was in doubt that Jorge Lorenzo was a man on a mission at Phillip Island, his first few laps of the newly resurfaced circuit should have served to remove any doubt. Lorenzo bolted out of pit lane as soon as the lights turned green, and was soon setting a scorching pace. By the time he had finished his first run of laps, he had already broken the existing race lap record, and had got into the 1'29s. He finished the morning creeping up on the 1'28s, before going on to start lapping in the 1'28s and dominate the afternoon session as well.
Lorenzo came to Australia to win, let there be no doubt about that. He knows it is his only chance, and even then, he knows that even that will not be enough, and he will need help from Marc Marquez. 'The objective is to win the race, and if I win, that will delay Marc's chance to take the title, but it will depend on his result,' Lorenzo told the Spanish media. Lorenzo pointed to Marc Marquez' crash in the afternoon practice as his only real hope of recovering a lot of points. 'I don't wish any harm to any rider, but some bad luck would be good,' Lorenzo reflected. 'We could still think about the championship. But if he finishes on the podium, it will be very complicated. Anyway, we are a long way behind in the championship, and Marc can afford to make this kind of mistake.'
Marquez was sanguine about the crash, coming away totally unharmed in what was a very odd looking crash. 'It was my fault,' Marquez admitted. He had opened the throttle a fraction too much, leaning over a fraction more than on previous laps, and had been flipped off the bike, luckily not thrown very high, so landing unhurt. He had been surprised by how aggressively the Honda had responded at that point. It had been a valuable lesson, however: 'now I know I can't accelerate any harder in that corner,' he joked.
2013 Sepang MotoGP Post-Race Round Up: Pedrosa's Revenge, Lorenzo's Valiant Defense, And History Made In Moto3
Sunday at Sepang provided a fascinating mix for motorcycle racing fans. A blistering Moto3 race, an impressive, if shortened, Moto2 race, and some breathtaking action in MotoGP. History was made several times over, and best of all, the races took place in front of a sellout crowd. Over 80,000 fans packed the stands in Malaysia, proof, if any were needed, of the slow, eastward drift of motorcycle racing's center of gravity.
In the MotoGP race, Dani Pedrosa did what he had set out to do two weeks earlier at Aragon, before he was so rudely ejected from his bike. Pedrosa had a look of grim determination on his face from the moment he rolled up at Sepang, and it barely left him all weekend. He had come to do a job, the pain in his hips merely spurring him on to get what he had been robbed of by an overeager teammate and an exposed sensor. He ruled proceedings in free practice, got caught out by conditions in qualifying, but leapt off the line at the start, as he has all year, and slotted in behind Jorge Lorenzo. After four laps, he worked his way past a valiantly defending Lorenzo, put the hammer down and went on to win.
This was what Pedrosa had intended to do at Aragon, and he took the win in Malaysia as clear vindication of his form. He made an extra effort to thank his team, and his family, but especially the fans who had supported him, posting a message on Twitter thanking the people who had continued to believe in him. Pedrosa may be unloved in some quarters - especially among those who cannot get over an insignificant piece of ancient history - but his ability is beyond question. Now that the pendulum has swung back towards Honda, as it does the second half of every season, Pedrosa is reaping the rewards he believes he is owed. His win at Sepang was flawless.
If Saturday at Sepang taught us anything, it is that if the new qualifying system for MotoGP is exciting, the new qualifying system with a little rain mixed in is utterly breathtaking. A brief shower at the end of Q1 left the area through turns 6 and 7 very wet, while the rest of the track was still mostly dry. Add in the searing tropical heat which dries the surface quickly, and the color of the Sepang tarmac which tends to disguise wet patches, and qualifying becomes even more tricky. And then there's the fact that Sepang is a long track, the two minute lap time leaving the riders precious little time to turn laps while waiting for the surface to dry out.
Strategies went out the window, and already stressed mechanics were forced to work themselves into even more of a sweat as they rushed to set up two bikes, one dry and one wet, just in case the rain returned. Some riders went out early and despite being warned, found themselves thrown out of their seats and given a proper scare. With qualifying being just fifteen minutes, the most likely scenario was that the last rider to cross the line would be the fastest, unless it started raining again.
It didn't start raining again, and Marc Marquez was the last of the fast men to cross the line, smashing the pole record by three tenths of a second. The Spaniard's lap was scintillating to watch, pushing his Honda RC213V to its limits while still staying holding some margin of safety through the damp sections around the back of the track, and treating the kerbs with caution. It was Marquez' 8th pole of the year, extending his record of poles in what is a truly remarkable rookie season.
2013 Sepang MotoGP Friday Round Up: Pedrosa's Speed, The Brain As A Complex Organ, And Honda Flying In Moto3
Is Sepang a Honda track or a Yamaha track? On the evidence of the first day of practice, you would have to say it is definitely a Honda track. Or more specifically, a factory Honda track, according to Valentino Rossi. The Italian veteran told reporters that the factory Hondas seemed to have something extra at Sepang, even compared to the satellite RC213Vs. Having lighter riders meant they did better on the long straights, consumed less fuel and could therefore use more power, Rossi said, but there was more to it than that. They were also better on corner entry, especially in the tight corners, where HRC appears to have found something extra. The only place the Yamahas had any kind of advantage was in the longer faster corners, Rossi said. Through turns five and six, Rossi could catch Dani Pedrosa. Once they left that section, Pedrosa was gone.
If the bike is good, then Dani Pedrosa is outstanding. His lap in the afternoon was exceptional, the 2'00.554 just a couple of tenths slower than Jorge Lorenzo's pole lap record from last year. Nobody else could get anywhere near him. His only rival was teammate Marc Marquez, forced to give half a second away to Pedrosa. A brace of Yamahas followed, Cal Crutchlow 3rd fastest despite suffering badly with his still damaged right arm swelling in the tropical heat, ending a tenth ahead of Valentino Rossi, the first of the factory Yamaha machines. Both Crutchlow and Rossi were clear where they were losing out: three tenths of a second on each of the two long straights at Sepang, according to the Tech 3 man. Rossi concurred, though he was less inclined to put numbers to his disadvantage. The Yamahas are having to make up through the fast corners what they are losing in the long straights.
2013 Sepang MotoGP Thursday Round Up: Of Penalty Points, Modern-Day Gladiators, Racing As Entertainment, And Ducati
Just a few hours before the bikes hit the track, all the talk should be about the prospects for the riders in the coming weekend. At Sepang, though, it was all different. Nobody was talking about who might end where, whether the Sepang is a Honda or a Yamaha track, whether Ducati will benefit from Sepang's long straights or suffer around the fast corners, about whether Scott Redding or Pol Espargaro will have the upper hand in Moto2. It was not the prospect of on-track action, but off-track drama which captured the attention.
For Thursday was D-Day (or more accurately, perhaps, RD day) for Marc Marquez at Sepang. The championship leader faced a further hearing in front of Race Direction over the incident at Aragon, where he clipped the back wheel of Dani Pedrosa, severed a rear wheel sensor, which caused Pedrosa to highside as soon as he touched the gas. Marquez was given one penalty point for the incident, and Honda stripped of Marquez' result for the constructors' championship (see full details here).
For the past month or so, Nicky Hayden has been telling the press that an announcement on his future should come in the next couple of days. On race weekends, the press asks on Thursday whether there's any news, and then again on Sunday, and get the same reply: No, not yet, but it shouldn't be long.
We know who Hayden will be signing with - Hayden has been spotted going in and out of the Aspar team's truck that you start to suspect he's already been given a spare key - and up until recently, we though we knew what he would be riding, a heavily modified version of the Aprilia ART machine, with a new engine with pneumatic valves and a seamless gearbox, and a new chassis to put it in. But it appears that that bike has been put on hold, as the most important contract negotiations for 2014 are starting to reach a climax.
The man in the eye of the storm is Gigi Dall'Igna, currently head of Aprilia's racing department, and responsible for many of the successes which the Italian factory has enjoyed over the years, including a World Superbike title with Max Biaggi. Reports that Ducati have been trying to tempt Dall'Igna away from Aprilia had emerged before the summer, but Dall'Igna appeared to have rejected Ducati's offer. Dall'Igna had decided to stay with Aprilia, after receiving assurances that the MotoGP program would be expanded, to include the new ART machine incorporating more pure race technology.
The Aragon round of MotoGP left an awful lot to talk about in all three classes: Alex Rins' masterful victory in Moto3, forcing Maverick Viñales into an error; Nico Terol's emotional win in Moto2, dominating all weekend after illness; Scott Redding and Pol Espargaro's epic battle for the Moto2 championship, which Espargaro came out on top of, though only just; Jorge Lorenzo's astonishing speed at what should have been a Honda track; Marc Marquez' astounding victory, moving him closer to the 2013 MotoGP title in his rookie year; Valentino Rossi's wily race, holding off first Stefan Bradl and then Alvaro Bautista to get on the podium; and much, much more. But I won't be talking about any of that tonight.
I won't be talking about it, because what started out as a minor mistake turned into a massive incident, with a spectacular crash as a result, leading to an ongoing investigation by race direction and a lot of talk about dangerous riding. Do the facts justify the debate? In my opinion, no, but the issue needs addressing, and so address it we will.
First, the facts, insofar as we know them. Jorge Lorenzo led away from the line, and was quickly hunted down by Marc Marquez and Dani Pedrosa. Pedrosa passed Marquez cleanly on lap 5, on the way up to the Sacacorchos, or turns 8 and 9. Marquez sat behind Pedrosa for a lap, harrying his teammate throughout. On lap 6, on the way into turn 12, Marquez made a small mistake, getting a little too close and braking a fraction too late. Seeing that he was going too deep, Marquez tried to stand the bike up and run it wide, in an attempt to avoid prejudicing Pedrosa's race. He did not quite manage to avoid contact with Pedrosa, just clipping the back wheel of his teammate, a contact which at first seemed to have no effect on Pedrosa. Marquez ran wide and off the track, Pedrosa continued for a few meters, before highsiding suddenly and unexpectedly.
2013 Aragon MotoGP Saturday Round Up: On Championship Turnarounds, Honda's Moto3 Gambit, And The 2014 Calendar
Qualifying at Aragon showed that the fourteenth round of the season could turn out to be a turning point in all three Grand Prix championships. Momentum shifts, sometimes suddenly, sometimes slowly, and before you know it, title races can open up again. Foregone conclusions are shown up for the illusions they are, and the words of every championship leader - 'I won't start thinking about the title until Valencia - are brought into keen focus.
In Moto3, the lead Luis Salom had built up after the summer break has slowly been dissipating, as Alex Rins and Maverick Viñales have clawed points back from the Spanish veteran. On Saturday, Alex Rins took yet another pole - his sixth of the season - crushing the opposition and putting seven tenths of a second into Viñales, the man in second. Luis Salom struggled, ending the session in 8th, over a second slower than Viñales, and 1.7 seconds off the time of Rins. He must attempt to defend his championship lead from the third row of the grid, and with Rins, Viñales and Alex Marquez ahead of him, he will have his work cut out.
So what happened to the lap times? When MotoGP tested here at Aragon back in June, Jorge Lorenzo was nearly one and a half seconds faster than his time on the first day of practice. Marc Marquez was half a second slower than his time in testing, despite being the fastest man after FP1 and FP2, Valentino Rossi was a second slower, and Dani Pedrosa was just a couple of tenths slower than his test time, set here three months ago.
The answer is simple: no grip. Grip is missing both front and rear, as temperatures have soared unusually at the Spanish circuit. The track is also dirtier: a car event held before the test had laid rubber down and swept the track clean, but that was not the case ahead of this weekend. The lack of grip has meant everyone has struggled to match the lap times from earlier in the year.