Success in motorcycle racing is a fickle beast. Getting everything just right to get the best out the bike and rider is a difficult undertaking, with a thousand factors standing ready to throw a spanner in the works. The bike has to have the right balance of stability in braking, nimbleness in corner entry, and strength in acceleration. The rider has to be in peak physical condition, mentally on top of his game, and ready to seize any opportunity which presents itself. When track conditions are ideal, the rider has to be able to find the limit of adhesion. When track conditions or the weather are not playing ball, the rider has to guess the right time to attack, and the right time to hold off. They have to judge how the conditions are changing and when they are ripe to be exploited. Get it right, and you dominate. Get it wrong, and you are lost in the pack.
You also have to be lucky, or know how to make your own luck. The qualifying session for the MotoGP class at Assen showed just how big a role luck can play, the weather playing a massive role in proceedings. The weather changes fast at Assen. In a country as flat as the Netherlands, the wind blows cloud and rain in quickly, and carries it away just as fast. Bright sunshine can change to heavy cloud in a few minutes, with rain following on behind. Which is just what happened on Friday afternoon. Sunshine made way for gray skies, the air pregnant with moisture. It spotted with rain in the morning, briefly during FP4, but only really struck during Q2. It threw the plans and running order of MotoGP into disarray, with smart and lucky riders winning out, the ill-starred ending up well down the grid.
The weather demonstrated how sometimes, disarray can turn to your advantage. Skies had been getting heavier all throughout Q1, though it was never more than a few drops which fell. That changed as Q2 got underway. Rain started falling more heavily at De Bult, the mid-section of the southern part of the circuit, just as Q2 got underway. That caused a sprint race from pit lane exit, the riders battling more like a bunch of Red Bull Rookies than experienced veterans of motorcycle racing's premier class. The sprint soon turned into jockeying for position: nobody wanted to lead, as being the first rider into a corner turned you into the guinea pig, testing grip for everyone following. Following was not much better: though you could at least see what the conditions were for the riders ahead, you did not want to get stuck in the traffic behind. Eleven riders left the pits together, getting stuck watching each other, speeding up, slowing down, and constantly trying to figure out what the best strategy might be.
If there was one factor that surprised everyone on the first day of practice at Assen, it was the weather. Everyone had been prepared for rain, and had contingency plans for when the rain would eventually come. But it didn't. It rained all around the circuit, severe weather warnings were issued for several surrounding towns, heavy rain fell in nearby Groningen, and local beaches were evacuated because of thunderstorms, but the TT Circuit at Assen stayed dry all day. The wind blew the morning clouds away, and the sun shone down gloriously on the circuit, catching out the unwary, and giving all three Grand Prix classes, plus the many support series a full day of excellent weather.
The riders made good use of the conditions, and the unexpected track time threw up a couple of serious surprises. In the morning, Pol Espargaro set the fastest time, finishing ahead of his brother Aleix. In the afternoon session, it was Aleix who was quickest, though this time Pol could not match the pace of his elder brother. That he should not be able to is hardly surprising; Aleix Espargaro's FP2 time beat the existing pole record from 2012, held by Casey Stoner. Pol could not improve as much as Aleix did, going just a tenth of a second faster, rather than well over a second. But as a satellite rider, Pol does not have the soft tire which Aleix used to set the fastest lap, Pol was quick to point out.
May I be permitted a little bias for the MotoGP round held in my adopted country? There are many magical motorcycle races around the world. The Isle of Man TT has speed, danger, and one of the most remarkable backdrops in motorsports. Mugello has an astounding track, a hothouse atmosphere, and breathtaking scenery. Jerez has an intensity among the fans without equal, hosted in a beautiful part of the world when Andalusia is at its best, in the spring.
But I think I would still swap them all for Assen. Once, it was the greatest racetrack in the world. Fast, flowing, with challenges favoring any rider with the perfect combination of bravery and skill. Full of fast kinks, banked turns, and with a camber and crown to the surface that was a throwback to the public roads which once comprised the circuit. Throughout the years, the circuit was pruned back, from 16 kilometers, to just under 8 kilometers, to 6 kilometers. In 2006, the track was neutered altogether, as a combination of financial necessity and encroaching housing development saw the North Loop, the jewel in Assen's crown, surgically removed and replaced with the much smaller, much shorter loop which now quickly folds back on itself and takes the riders back to the old southern section, where the old glory of the track lives on.
Hard braking for De Haarbocht, named for the village now absorbed by Assen's urban sprawl, the everlasting right hander through Madijk and Ossebroeken round to the Strubben hairpin. A hard, short turn onto the Veenslang, the back straight. Straight? Not so much: the literal translation is 'turf snake', and snake it does, down to the blistering right-left-right of the Ruskenhoek chicane. Through the right at Stekkenwal, and another snaking straight down to De Bult – 'the lump' and a very lumpy corner it is indeed. From there it is all rights, building speed through Mandeveen, Duikersloot, and Meeuwenmeer, on to perhaps the most perfect piece of race track in the world. First, there's the Hoge Heide – 'High Heath' – the right-left flick that looks like nothing at all on a track map, but is one of the most intimidating corners on the planet. Making that change of direction at over 270 km/h is not easy, especially as you still have to lift the bike over the crown of the track, avoiding the dip on the far end of the flick. The run through the Ramshoek, a hot-and-fast left, before the Geert Timmer bocht, the chicane named after the legendary racer and circuit commissioner.
2014 Barcelona MotoGP Test Round Up: Yamaha's Busy Schedule, Ducati's Shortcomings, And An Alternative Track Layout
It should hardly come as a surprise that Marc Marquez should be fastest man on the day at the post-race test at Barcelona. The Spaniard has been the standout of the season, and for him to be fastest, even at a track where he has not dominated like at others, is starting to become par for the course. More of a surprise is the name of the man in second. Bradley Smith came up just four hundredths short of Marquez, making up for a mediocre race on Sunday, caused by a tire which was not performing as expected. The first thing Smith did when he started testing in earnest this morning was to try the same tire he used in the race. It was a tire which had already been used on Saturday, yet he was immediately as fast as he was in the race, and ended up going four tenths of a second faster on the same tire. Smith had something to prove, and matching Marquez' time did just that. Now he just needs to replicate it in a race.
2014 Barcelona MotoGP Sunday Round Up: MotoGP's New Golden Age, Ducati's Bad Luck, And Honda Ending KTM's Moto3 Streak
Whenever I have the pleasure of running across MotoGP's official statistician and number cruncher Dr Martin Raines, he likes to point out to me exactly why we are living through a golden age of racing. His arguments are backed with a battery of indisputable facts and figures, which boil down to a single fact: the races have never been closer. Not in terms of gap between the podium finishers, not in terms of gap between first and last, nor between all points finishers. This is an era of truly great racing.
As if to underline his point, the Barcelona Grand Prix served up a veritable smorgasbord of fantastic races: a strong win and thrilling podium battle in Moto3, a surprisingly hard-fought Moto2 race, and to top it off, perhaps the most exciting MotoGP race we have had since 2006, with four riders slugging it out and swapping places right to the final lap. The winner of the MotoGP race may have been predictable – any bet against Marc Marquez looks more and more foolish each week – but in Barcelona, Marquez' victory looked in doubt all the way to the final couple of corners. At half a second, his margin of victory is overstated. If things had run a little bit differently, Marquez winning streak – now up to seven in a row – could have ended along with his string of poles.
It was a scintillating race indeed. Four men swapped the lead frequently. Dani Pedrosa got the holeshot, changes to weight distribution having given him back his lightning start. Jorge Lorenzo took off after him, taking the lead with an outrageous 'porfuera' pass around the outside of Turn 1, lining him up for Turn 2. Lorenzo then tried to pull a gap, but that simply wasn't happening, Movistar Yamaha teammate Valentino Rossi took over the lead after three laps, getting past his teammate after a brutal exchange of passes in the first part of the lap. Marc Marquez followed, exploiting Lorenzo's moment of weakness to follow Rossi through, before latching onto the Italian's tail. There he found his teammate Dani Pedrosa stalking him, jabbing and probing, seeking a way past. The two exchanged blows for six laps, before Marquez finally escaped from Pedrosa's clutches and started snapping at Rossi's heels. Marquez took over at the front with six laps to go, holding off attacks from both Rossi and Pedrosa, swapping the lead with Pedrosa, before the final do-or-die lap, where he countered Pedrosa's final attack and held on for the win. Any opportunity to pass was seized, all four men just as aggressive in their passing as each other.
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.