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.
If there is one complaint made about MotoGP it is that it is an almost entirely Spanish sport. The three title candidates in MotoGP are all Spanish, the three title candidates in Moto3 are all Spanish, and Scott Redding has his hands full holding off another Spanish rider, Pol Espargaro, for the 2013 Moto2 title. Spaniards dominate in all three classes, and it has been a long time since the Spanish national anthem hasn't been heard on a Grand Prix weekend.
So at first glance, the news that the Spanish CEV championship is to fall under FIM control and host rounds outside of Spain looks like increasing the stranglehold the Spanish have over Grand Prix racing. By raising the importance of the Spanish championship and therefore diminishing the status of other national championships, the FIM is making the situation worse, and handing even more control to Dorna, who run both the MotoGP and the Spanish CEV championships.
Though superficially attractive, there are some fundamentally wrong assumptions underlying that analysis. At the heart of the fear is the misconception that Dorna's main aim is to promote Spanish riders. The opposite is true: Dorna's main source of income is the sale of TV rights, and selling them as broadly as possible. Having too many Spanish riders in the series makes it hard to sell to broadcasters outside of Spain, hence Dorna's push to get more non-Spaniards into the series, especially in the Moto3 and Moto2 classes. Riders from outside of Spain are receiving preferential treatment in MotoGP, while pressure is being put on teams to reduce the number of Spaniards in the top class. The signing of Pol Espargaro has been a major bone of contention between Dorna and Yamaha, the repercussions of which are not yet fully worked out.
If half a second is a long time around Misano, seven tenths of a second is almost a geological era. Jorge Lorenzo was lacking grip and braking stability on Saturday; on Sunday morning, Ramon Forcada stiffened the front to improve Lorenzo's braking, and the factory Yamaha man crushed the opposition in the warm up. Four hours later, the reigning world champion did exactly the same again in the race, destroying his rivals in the first three laps, and holding on for a victory that was both overwhelming and important.
The first three laps? Lorenzo probably won the race in the first 100 meters off the line. Lorenzo had fluffed his practice starts on Saturday, bogging down and not really getting off the line. On Sunday, he was so fast away off the line that he had two bike lengths before he had even changed up into second gear. By the time he crossed the timing line at the end of the first sector, he was already 0.4 seconds ahead. By the end of the first lap, he was 1.2 seconds ahead. It was already game over.
There was the small matter of the remaining 27 laps, of course, but Lorenzo controlled the race imperiously. Every time one of the Repsol Hondas chasing him got a little closer, Lorenzo responded, upping his pace to match either Dani Pedrosa or Marc Marquez, depending on who was leading the chase. The gap climbed to three seconds, dropped to two seconds, climbed again to four before Lorenzo crossed the line nearly three and a half seconds ahead of Marquez. It had been a typically Lorenzian performance, ruling the race with an iron fist, crushing the opposition before it even had a chance to consider trying to put up a fight.
Half a second at Misano is a very, very long time. At a short track like this, gaps are measured in tenths, not seconds. The gap from 5th to 12th, for example, is 0.505. Yet the gap from Marc Marquez on pole to Jorge Lorenzo, the rider with the second fastest time, was 0.513 seconds. A huge difference.
Despite another one of his fast crashes in free practice, from which he keeps walking away almost unhurt, Marquez stayed calm, posted an impressive fast lap in his first run of Q2, and then followed it up by obliterating Casey Stoner's 2011 Misano pole lap record by over two tenths of a second. The lap was stunning - another trademark of Marquez since his switch to MotoGP - and beyond the capability of anyone to follow. The Repsol Honda man looked unstoppable during qualifying.
Not just during qualifying. There has only been one session of practice in which Marc Marquez was not fastest at Misano, and that was Q1, a session he did not participate in. Marquez has now scored six poles in his first year, joining Casey Stoner, Jorge Lorenzo and Valentino Rossi as the only riders to have started from pole so many times in a season. He is, in case you haven't noticed, downright impressive.