With everyone slowly recovering from the shock of the announcement that Bridgestone is pulling out of MotoGP at the end of the 2015 season, it is easy to forget that we are here for a motorcycle race. The roar of Grand Prix machinery hurtling around the beautiful Circuito de Jerez on a glorious Andalusian morning soon dispelled thoughts of 2016, and concentrated minds on what is to come on Sunday.
The heat of the afternoon, though, made thinking tough, and riding even tougher. Track temperatures rose to over 50°, robbing the circuit of even more grip, and making it greasier than ever. Rider consensus was that the track was in pretty good shape, but when it's this hot, the already low-grip surface of Jerez becomes very difficult to ride. That meant that the number of riders who managed to improve their times in FP2 in all three classes were limited.
2014 Jerez MotoGP Thursday Round Up: On Bridgestone's Withdrawal, Slower Lap Times, And Stopping Marquez
There's a race on Sunday, but all the talk is of 2016. Why the seemingly absurd preoccupation with a date that is so ridiculously distant in the future? Because from 2016, MotoGP will have a new tire supplier, after Bridgestone announced they will be pulling out of MotoGP at the end of 2015. Why does this matter? Because tires are the single most important component of a motorcycle, and determine the performance of a machine to a massive extent. No matter how much power your engine produces, if you can't get it to the ground, it becomes irrelevant. No matter how powerful your brakes, if the front tire collapses when you squeeze the front lever, you won't be doing much slowing down. Even if you can brake and accelerate as much as you like, if the bike wanders around like drunken poodle on a skateboard when you tip it into the corner, your laptimes won't be up to much.
It is hard to overstate just exactly how important tires are to motorcycle performance. Why is Aleix Espargaro so consistently fast during qualifying, on a bike that is two years old and with an engine under strict control by Yamaha? Because the Open class entries have a softer rear tire available, and that tire itself is worth half a second or more. That is not to belittle the elder Espargaro's performance, as clearly, he is riding exceptionally well, but the softer rear tire makes a big, big difference.
Another example: during the press conference today, Marc Marquez was asked by Thomas Baujard of the excellent French magazine Moto Journal about how he manages to enter the corners on the front wheel, and tip his Repsol Honda into the turn while the rear wheel is still in the air. It looks spectacular, and seems to defy the laws of physics. Yet Marquez manages it, and manages it consistently.
2014 Argentina MotoGP Sunday Round Up: Of New Tracks, Doohanesque Domination, And The Merits Of A Rossi Revival
There is much to be said in praise of the first running of the Argentinian round of MotoGP at the Termas de Rio Hondo circuit. First and foremost, praise should be heaped upon the circuit itself. Designer Jarno Zafelli took a formerly pedestrian layout and added just enough kinks and twists to make for an exhilarating and difficult racetrack. There are plenty of places to pass, and sections different enough that teams and riders can concentrate on their strengths, though that makes them vulnerable at other parts of the track. Add in a final section which lends itself to last-gasp attacks – at the risk of penalty points, as Romano Fenati found out – and you have an utterly superb track for motorcycle racing. If Jarno Zafelli of Dromo was hired more often, instead of Hermann Tilke, there would be a lot more fantastic circuits to race at.
The only negative was the fact that the track was still so dirty, a result of it not yet having seen enough action. Once the riders got off line, they found themselves struggling for grip, losing a lot of ground. Fortunately for the races, almost everyone got off line at some point or other, putting them all on an even footing. Once the surface cleans up properly, the track should offer even more places to attack, and alternate lines through sections. The Termas de Rio Hondo circuit is a fine addition to the calendar.
Crowds and racers thought so too. Attendance wasn't as high as expected: nearly 53,000 paying customers on Sunday, well shy of the 70,000 which had been hoped, but over 6,000 more than Laguna Seca, the race it replaced, despite being a long way from the nearest large conurbations. But the atmosphere was electric, and people came from all over South and Central America to see the action. Adding a race in this part of the world was badly needed. The authorities built it, and the crowds came.
Two races and three qualifying sessions in, and all three classes in MotoGP are providing an object lesson in the importance of consistency. Marc Marquez has taken pole for all three MotoGP races, Tito Rabat has done the same in Moto2, and Jack Miller has been on pole for two out of three Moto3 races. There's a similar pattern in the races as well, with Jack Miller having cleaned up in Moto3, and Marc Marquez winning both MotoGP races so far. The only interlopers are Alex Rins, who nabbed a Moto3 pole at Qatar, and Maverick Viñales, who gatecrashed the Moto2 party at Austin. Then again, if you were hoping to have your party gatecrashed, you'd definitely want it done by a man called Maverick.
The routes Marquez, Rabat and Miller have taken to domination of their classes are markedly different, though. Rabat is the most lackadaisical of the three, always leaving it to the last minute before laying down a scorching lap with which he secures pole. His advantage is usually slim, but enough to get the job done. Rabat's leadership of the Moto2 class is sheer consistency, getting the results he needs when he needs them, and always being on the ball.
2014 Argentina MotoGP Friday Round Up: Of Dirty Tracks, Confusing Lap Times, and MotoGP-Hungry Argentinians,
What did we learn from the first day of practice at the brand new Termas de Rio Hondo track in Argentina? We learned that Marc Marquez and Jack Miller learn tracks very quickly indeed. We learned that Moto2 is tight as ever. We learned that South America has been crying out for a round of MotoGP almost since the moment the series left Argentina for the last time in 1999. And we learned that a brand new track always faces teething problems the first time it appears on the calendar. In Argentina, the biggest problem is a dirty track, covered in sand, wreaking havoc on the tires. That, though, is a relatively easy problem to solve: a few more sessions and a grand total of 90 different bikes circulating will clean the track up very quickly.
If anyone was in any doubt as to whether building a circuit in a small town in the middle of the Argentine pampas was a good idea, the crowds lining up to get into the circuit on Friday morning should have dispelled their fears. Reports were that the fans were queuing to get into the track at 7am on Friday. That is quite unheard of in Europe, where the first day of practice is always a good day to spend at the track if you want to explore it and see the action from various points around the circuit. The Argentina round is reportedly already a sell out, with 70,000 tickets sold and only VIP passes left on the open market. This bodes well for the future of the event, and justifies the investment made by government in the facility. If the aim is to attract tourists to Termas de Rio Hondo, and put the town on the map, they have clearly already succeeded.
Why on earth would you organize a MotoGP race in what is effectively the middle of nowhere? The answer is as simple as it is obvious: money. Dorna are being well paid by the circuit to bring the three Grand Prix classes to the little town of Termas de Rio Hondo in the heart of the Argentinian pampas. (And in case you should start to rail against Dorna's greed, it is fair to point out that a significant part of that money will also go to the teams, to pay transport costs and to cover at least part of their annual budget. Some of that money, but not all.)
A more relevant question might be why would a circuit in the middle of nowhere pay Dorna a massive amount of money to come race there? If it's in the middle of nowhere, then surely they are unlikely to make back at the gate what they paid to Dorna to organize the race? They won't, but that is not necessarily the point. The circuit, after all, is not paying most of the fee. The vast majority of the cash (indeed, probably all of it) is being paid by the regional authorities, with help from the central government. The regional tourism promotion council is counting on the increased profile of the Santiago del Estero province attracting more visitors to the region, and to Argentina in general.
Two races in, and patterns are already starting to emerge in Grand Prix's junior classes. In Moto2, preseason favorite Tito Rabat is living up to expectations as his challenges fall by the wayside. In Moto3, Jack Miller has a far firmer stranglehold on the class than expected, while the new Honda NSF250RW is proving that when HRC put their minds to building a factory race bike, the competition had better watch out.
Austin, Texas, proved to be a case in point. A bizarre start to the Moto2 race saw a massive pile up at the treacherous first corner, the run up the hill combining with the massive nerves of a Moto2 start – arguably motorcycle racing's most rabid class – to produce chaos. Josh Herrin, feeling the strain of coming in as reigning AMA Superbike champion to find himself running anonymously in mid-pack in Moto2, ran in to Turn 1 too hot, try to jam his Caterham Suter into a spot which wasn't there, and ended up taking down half the field. Herrin was understandably nervous in front of his home crowd, and feeling the pressure of being the ambassador for American racers, but he did himself and any AMA hopefuls looking to Moto2 a disservice. Herrin fractured a collarbone whle training, and so will have to wait until Jerez to start to make amends.
Championship leader Tito Rabat also got a mediocre start from pole, then dropped back a long way in the first couple of laps, before starting to fight his way forward again. Xavier Simeon looked like making it a very big day for Belgium for most of the race, before massively outbraking himself on the way into Turn 1 as he came under press from Dominique Aegerter and Maverick Viñales. Aegerter led for a while, but he could offer no resistance to Viñales. The reigning Moto3 champion quickly opened a gap and crossed the line with a comfortable margin to spare.
Normally it takes bad weather to shake things up in a MotoGP race. For most of the day, it looked like the rain was ready to start at any time, but in the end it stayed pretty much completely dry, bar a quick and meaningless shower just before the Moto2 race started. Regardless of what the weather decided to do, we still ended up with a bizarre MotoGP race anyway. The weirdness started even before the race had started, and continued pretty much all the way to the very last corner.
Jorge Lorenzo came to Texas knowing he faced an uphill challenge. Last year at the Circuit of the Americas, Marc Marquez had run away with the race, with only Dani Pedrosa able to follow. Lorenzo had put up a valiant struggle, but had been unable to prevent a Repsol Honda whitewash. In 2014, Lorenzo had come facing an even tougher task, if that were possible. After crashing out at the first race, Lorenzo knew he had to score as many points as he could without taking too many risks. He would have to find a very fine balance between pushing hard to try to catch – and who knows, maybe even beat – the Repsol Hondas, and ensuring he didn't risk ending up with a second zero to go with the crash at Qatar.
Those who fear a Marquez whitewash at the Circuit of the Americas could draw some comfort from the raw numbers on the timesheets as Saturday progressed. Marquez gap from Friday was cut dramatically, first to under a second in FP3, then to a third of a second in FP4, before being slashed to less than three tenths in qualifying. Is the end of Marquez' dominance at Austin in sight?
But raw numbers are deceptive. Sure, the gap in single lap times is small, but there is still no one who can get close to the reigning world champion. Marquez' four flying laps were faster than the best laps by any other rider on the grid. Second place man Dani Pedrosa's fastest lap was still slower than Marquez' slowest. In FP4, Marquez punched out four laps in the 2'03s, while the best anyone else could do is lap in the 2'04s. During the morning FP3 session, Marquez racked up five 2'03s, while only Pedrosa could manage two 2'03s, Stefan Bradl, Andrea Dovizioso and Bradley Smith managing only a single solitary lap under 2'04.
How do you solve a problem like Marc Marquez? The short answer is you don't. You can push as hard as you like, beat everyone else on the grid, but try as you might, you still find yourself a second or more behind the reigning world champion. Marquez came to Texas, he saw, and he conquered. Just like last year. And nobody seems capable of stopping him.
Valentino Rossi could only shake his head in dismay. 'Today he was very strong. He is on another level,' Rossi said. Was it down to the bike, was it Marquez? Sure, Austin is a Honda track – first-gear corners are still where the Honda has the advantage – but the bike wasn't really the issue. 'He makes the difference,' Rossi said. Sure, the bike was good, but it was mostly down to Marquez' riding. Speaking to the Italian press, Rossi had a single word to describe Marquez' riding: 'bellissima'. Beautiful.