Archive - Race Story
March 20th, 2014
It has been a long and confusing wait for the 2014 MotoGP season to begin. An awful lot has happened since the MotoGP bikes were rolled into their packing crates after the Valencia test and shipped back to the factories and workshops from whence they came. There have been shock announcements, shock testing results, and shock training crashes. There have been last-minute rule changes, made in an attempt to keep all of the different factions in the paddock from rebelling. The final rules for the premier class were only announced on Monday, and even then, they still contain sufficient ambiguity to confuse.
But this confusion and chaos cannot disguise the fact that 2014 looks set to be the most intriguing championship in years. Gone are the reviled CRT machines – unjustly reviled; though slow, they were still jewels of engineering prowess – and in their place is a new class of machinery, the Open entries. A simpler demarcation has been made, between factories running their own software on the spec Magneti Marelli ECU, and the Open teams using the championship software supplied and controlled by Dorna. The latest rule change adds a twist, allowing underperforming Ducati all the benefits of the Open class – 24 liters of fuel instead of 20, 12 engines per season instead of 5, unlimited testing and a softer tire – until they start winning races. But the 2014 grid looks much more like a single coherent class than the pack of racing motorcycles that lined up last year.
There are many questions which will be answered during the 2014 season, but the first, and most important, is whether Marc Marquez can retain his title. The Repsol Honda rider had a record-breaking rookie season, which ended with him taking the title at the first attempt, and becoming the youngest ever premier class champion. At the first test of 2014 in Sepang, he was a cut above the rest, leaving the other riders gasping for breath. A training crash saw him break his fibula, and he arrives in Qatar just five days after he started putting weight on the leg again, and having missed the last two preseason tests.
November 7th, 2013
Mixed emotions greet the final race of most MotoGP seasons. There is sadness at the prospect of four months or more without racing. There is interest and expectation, as fans look past the race weekend to the test which immediately follows, when the bikes for next year appear and the riders switching teams get their first shot at a new ride. And there is excitement of course, at the prospect of a race to wrap up the season. But with the title usually already decided in advance, there is only pride at stake, and not much more to play for.
This year, it's different. Yes, the test on Monday is a big deal, with Cal Crutchlow's debut on the Ducati, the Honda production racer making its first appearance, with Nicky Hayden on board, and the Aleix Espargaro giving the Yamaha production racer its first run out. But for the first time since 2006, the Valencia race really matters, and will decide who gets to crown themselves champion. Just 13 points separate Marc Marquez from Jorge Lorenzo, and the two men who have dominated the season cannot afford to make a mistake. Both come determined to do whatever it takes to get the job done at Valencia.
There have been an awful lot of good Moto3 races this year. So many, in fact, that it's hard to pick out a single one for particular praise. But the final round at Valencia could very well be the best of the year. Moto3 riders are not known for riding conservatively or with undue caution at the best of times, but with the championship up for grabs at Valencia and the top three riders involved in a three-way winner-takes-all shootout for the title, this could be a real heart stopper. Cardiologists around the world will be rubbing their hands with glee at the amount of extra business they are about to generate.
The mathematics of the situation is simple. Just five points separate Luis Salom, who leads the championship, from Alex Rins, who is third, while Maverick Viñales is two points behind Salom and three ahead of Rins. If either Salom or Viñales win, they take the title with an outright points advantage; if Rins wins and Salom is second, the two men are tied on points and on the number of wins, but Rins is crowned champion based on the number of second place finishes he has scored. If none of the three men leading the championship win, then it all gets a lot more complicated - see the full breakdown here - but it comes down to the fact that the first of the three across the line will take the championship.
The chances of one of Luis Salom, Maverick Viñales or Alex Rins not winning is surprisingly slim. Between them, the three men who have dominated the Moto3 series in 2013 have won 16 of the 17 races, and occupying 39 of the 48 podium positions so far. Only three other men have joined the leading trio on the podium, with Alex Marquez, Jonas Folger and Miguel Oliviera the awkward interlopers. Marquez is the only rider to win a race, and even then, he was assisted by Rins and Salom taking themselves out of contention.
After the farcical yet compelling Australian Grand Prix, the Grand Prix paddock heads north to Japan for the last of the three overseas races. The contrast could not be greater: from unusually warm weather at the magnificent, sweeping Phillip Island circuit, it is cold and very wet conditions which greet the riders at Motegi, a circuit dominated by stop-and-go corners with little rhythm to it. While almost every rider on the grid adores Phillip Island, you would be hard pressed to find a rider not holding a Japanese passport with any affection for Motegi. The challenges the riders face are mainly of physical endurance, with very few spots testing their mettle and skill.
Adding the test of endurance will be the weather this weekend. Though Typhoon Francisco has now weakened to a tropical storm and is forecast to pass much further south than was feared, large amounts of rain are still expected at Motegi, especially on Friday evening and Saturday morning. While all of practice looks set to be wet, at least the riders will get some practice, as early forecasts had suggested that several, if not all, sessions could be a complete washout. For now, it just looks like the riders will be cold and rather wet.
That could add to some real excitement at the Japanese circuit. The championship is still far from decided in all three classes, after the surprises at Phillip Island stirred up the title fight. Alex Rins' victory in Australia saw him close the gap to Moto3 championship leader Luis Salom to just 5 points with two races to go; Scott Redding's qualifying crash in which he fractured his wrist allowed Pol Espargaro to turn a 9 point deficit in the Moto2 title chase into a 16 point lead; and the bizarre mistake by Marc Marquez' crew which led to him being disqualified meant that his lead over Jorge Lorenzo was slashed from 43 points to just 18. Two of the three titles could be decided at Motegi on Sunday, but there is a strong possibility that all three championships could be taken down to the final race at Valencia, the first time that has happened in the history of the series.
2013 Phillip Island MotoGP Preview: Of Spectacular Circuits, History In The Making, And A Legend's Last Chance
Ask any Grand Prix rider for his top three circuits, and you can bet that two names will figure on almost everybody's list: one will be Mugello, and the other will be Phillip Island. The order which the rider in question will put them in may vary, but the two appear so often because they share something special. Three factors make the two tracks such magical places to ride: they are both fast, they are both naturally flowing, and they are both set in spectacular locations.
Though their settings may be equally stunning, there is one major difference between the two. While Mugello sits amid the Mediterranean warmth of a Tuscan hillside, the Bass Strait, which provides the backdrop to the Phillip Island circuit, is the gateway to the cold Southern Ocean, with little or nothing between the track and Antarctica. The icy blast that comes off the sea will chill riders, fans and team members to the bone in minutes, gale force winds often buffeting the bikes and trying to blow them off course, when it isn't throwing seagulls and larger birds into their paths. The fact that the the track has a corner named Siberia tells you all you need to know about conditions at the Australian circuit.
Despite the Antarctic chill, changeable weather, gale force winds, tiny garages and general shabbiness of the place, Phillip Island remains perhaps the best motorcycle racing circuit in the world. It is exactly what a circuit is meant to be: fast, flowing, with one corner leading into another, a few blind corners, and lots of places where the rider's courage is tested to the very limit. At Phillip Island, the rider who is willing and able to carry the speed is the rider who wins.
2013 Aragon MotoGP Preview: Honda Vs Yamaha, Fuel Consumption, Ducati's Failings, And The Benefits Of Dirt Track
One question has been raised ahead of nearly every race this season: Is this a Honda track, or is this a Yamaha track? Winners have been predicted based on the perceived characteristics of each circuit. Fast and flowing? Yamaha track. Stop and go? Honda track. The track record - if you'll excuse the pun - of such predictions has been little better than flipping a coin, however. Brno was supposed to favor Yamaha, yet Marc Marquez won on a Honda. Misano was clearly a Honda track, yet Jorge Lorenzo dominated on the Yamaha M1. More than Honda vs Yamaha, the 2013 MotoGP season has been a tale of rider vs rider, of Jorge Lorenzo vs Marc Marquez vs Dani Pedrosa.
So when the paddock rolls up at Aragon, track analysis says this is a Honda track, something underlined by the fact that the last two editions were won by Hondas. With Marc Marquez growing increasingly confident and Dani Pedrosa looking for a return to the winning ways he showed last year, it seems foolish to bet against a Honda rider standing on the top step on Sunday. Yet there are reasons to suspect Pedrosa and Marquez will not have it all their own way this weekend.
First of all, there is Jorge Lorenzo. The reigning world champion has been forced to step up his game this season, and he has responded in impressive fashion. He and his crew have determined that their only chance of beating the Hondas is to take off from the start like a scalded cat, and push as hard as possible from the very first lap onwards. The strategy nearly paid off at Brno and Silverstone, though a fierce battle helped decide the race in Lorenzo's favor in the UK, and it paid off completely in Misano, where Lorenzo finally had Yamaha's seamless gearbox to help him maintain his pace and advantage in the last section of the race. No doubt Lorenzo will attempt to do the same thing at Aragon, the question is, can he pull it off?
MotoGP bikes have a tendency to make a race track feel very, very small. Where Jerez on a road bike can feel spacious and unhurried, ride it on a MotoGP bike and it's like everything happens at warp speed. No sooner have you finished change up a couple of gears than it's time to get back hard on the brakes and start tipping the bike into the next corner. But then, 260 horsepower, 160 kg and carbon brakes will do that to a track.
Silverstone is different. The fast, flowing circuit around the former World War II airbase - one of the unintended legacies of that vast and bloody war was to leave a string of deserted military installations which were perfect for racing, and which formed the basis for the British domination of motor sport for three decades after the war - is so wide on a road bike it feels like a motorway. Doing a track day there, it feels like you have time to sit up and have a look around between corners.
That scale of circuit really does justice to a MotoGP machine. The breathtaking acceleration and speeds of a MotoGP bike bring the corners close enough to feel natural, while having enough space to feel like the bike can be really opened up. It is not quite the death-defying speeds of Phillip Island or Mugello, but Silverstone at least gives you a chance to put some wear on the cogs of fifth and sixth gear.
It's been a long summer break. Three consecutive weekends without racing - four, for the returning Moto2 and Moto3 classes - means that the MotoGP riders return well-rested and raring to get back on to a bike again. Some, of course, have already spent some time on a bike over the summer, with both Yamaha and Ducati testing (more of which later), but for the most part, they have had an all too brief vacation cut short by a return to training. Training never stops for a motorcycle racer.
The location they make their return is a spectacular one. The Indianapolis Motor Speedway is the true home of American motor sports. It is a vast arena, a sprawling complex set inside a two-and-a-half mile oval (though it is more of a rectangle with rounded corners than an oval), housing an eighteen hole golf course, a magnificent museum and acres and acres of space to roam around in. It can seat up to 400,000, which it regularly does for the Indy 500. It oozes history; like Monza, everywhere you go, the ghosts of racing legends are at your side. In the shadows, you can hear them whisper.
The problem of having MotoGP at the heart of American racing is that to most Americans, motor sports involve four-wheeled vehicles. Americans love motorcycles, but the motorcycles they love are mostly American. The real American motorcycle racing fans can be found on Saturday night a few miles away, at the Indiana State Fairground, where American motorcycles turn laps on an oval made of dirt. Those American motorcycle racing fans - hard working men and women come to watch the most blue collar of sports - are joined there by a large part of the MotoGP paddock, entranced by this most quintessential piece of Americana. The Indy Mile is just one of the things that make this weekend so very special.
Ask anyone what makes a great circuit, and they will tell you that it takes three things: fast corners, great scenery and lots of elevation changes. So what makes the TT Circuit at Assen so great? It only really has one of the three factors that makes it a great circuit: if the track has elevation changes, they can be measured in centimeters. The scenery is mostly absent, though that does allow more of a view of the expansive skies the Dutch masters of the 17th Century were so famed for. The only factor which the track still possesses is a collection of really fast corners, testing the mettle of anyone with ambition to take on the circuit.
Despite having the splendor of the old North Loop surgically removed, leaving it with just the flaccid remnant of a sequence of right handers, the southern section of the track is still as glorious as ever. From the Ruskenhoek and then De Bult, the track starts to build, the tempo picking up through Mandeveen, Duikersloot and Meeuwenmeer, before the high speed flick of Hoge Heide, and then the vast, sweeping left at the Ramshoek. The GT chicane has seen more than its fair share of last-lap battles, acting as judge, jury and executioner before heading back across the line again.
Though the removal of the North Loop took away some of the Dutch track's glory, Assen remains a favorite with the riders. Given the way the track still flows - at least, once you have left the Strubben hairpin - that is hardly surprising. It is a riders' track, suiting anyone who can string a series of corners together, and has the courage to keep the throttle hard open.
So we're back in Europe. Despite the eerie beauty of the night race at Qatar, despite the magnificent splendor of the Circuit of the America's facilities, Jerez still feels like the first proper race of the MotoGP season. The paddock is set up in its full regalia, and all of the hospitality trucks present; the fans will be out in full force - or at least much fuller force than in the previous two races, despite the entirely respectable attendance figures at Austin - and everyone knows the score: where the track entrance is, where the truck park is, where the media center is, what the schedule is. Things have now returned to normal, and we are about to embark on the meat and potatoes section of the championship.
And here we highlight precisely where the weakness of MotoGP lies: Jerez feels like home, and everyone in the paddock immediately feels much more comfortable here than at the previous two races. It is symptomatic of the Eurocentric (and Iberocentric) nature of MotoGP and world championship racing in general that the paddock is so very far inside its comfort zone here. If MotoGP is to expand to the world, this is one thing which urgently needs addressing.
Yet it is hard not to feel comfortable at Jerez. The city still has much of its old world charm, and sports a veneer of wealth from its former role at the center of the trade with the New World, at the height of Spain's conquest of South and Central America. There are also signs of decay; one of the largest motorcycle dealerships on the main drag into town from the circuit has a 'for rent' sign up, though it is still open for business. Downtown, the beggars on the street have changed: no longer is it just those who have clearly always struggled on the fringes of society; now, ordinary men and women ejected from their homes in the wake of mass unemployment and the crisis in Spain's banking system stand, heads down, throwing themselves upon the mercy of passers by. It is a hard sight to bear, in one of the most beautiful places the MotoGP circus visits all year.
"I thought Laguna Seca was a tough track to learn, and then I came here." Bradley Smith's verdict on the Circuit of The Americas at Austin, Texas, after six laps on the scooter around the track. Smith's words sum up the general feeling about the newest addition to the MotoGP calendar, mind-boggling sequences of decreasing and increasing radius turns, with blind entrances, complex combinations and a few hard-braking hairpins with tough entrance points. Even the long back straight undulates, the huge, slightly bowed, 1200 meter length of tarmac rising and falling, leaving you wondering where you are along it.
The setting is beautiful, in the rolling low hills to the east of Austin, just beyond the airport, and the facilities are quite simply overwhelming: modern, well-equipped, brightly lit, attractively designed. Indeed, both the factory and Tech 3 Yamaha teams are delighted with the facility: after a battery fire at 1am, it was only the circuit's outstanding sprinkler system and alert response by the fire service which prevented the fire spreading out of control, destroying maybe eight or twelve MotoGP machines, and causing upwards of $50 million of damage.
And yet the track is far from perfect. "The track is better to look at than to ride," Valentino Rossi described it to the Italian press. The track has a number of outstanding sections, the fast sweeper of Turn 2 and the three consecutive right handers of Turns 16 through 18 standing out above all. It has some extremely challenging and technical sections, especially the Esses of Turns 3 through 5. Getting it right in each section is crucial: end up wide in one place, miss the apex by a foot somewhere, and you are off line for the next section, which means you'll also miss the entry for the corner after that, and before you know it, you've lost half a second and can throw away your lap. Many of these corners demand precision, and above all, knowing where you need to be on the circuit for the next corner, and the one after that, and the one after that.
With the season about to start, Phillip Island will soon be home to World Superbikes. Testing is getting underway and line-ups have been finalised, so what can we expect from the series now it’s owned by Dorna? So far, it looks very familiar, with the promised 17” wheels and headlight stickers, but the reigning champion has left while Ducati have a new bike to unleash upon the grid. The six kilos that plagued the 1098R have been consigned to history as Ducati bring back their factory team to challenge for the title with the new Panigale 1199R. When the world champion leaves a series, it leaves a vacuum that needs filling and both nature and motorcycle racers abhor a vacuum. Max Biaggi has left the series with at least half a dozen riders that think they can challenge for the crown.
November 8th, 2012
In an ideal world, championships are settled in a straight fight between the main contenders in the final race of the season. Unfortunately, the world we live in is far from ideal - as the ever-dwindling stock of prototype machines on the grid testifies - and so the last race of the year can be a bit of a formality. In 2012, with the champions in all three classes securing their titles during the flyaways, there is not much more at stake at Valencia.
Except pride. And given that pride is what motivates a motorcycle racer above all else, that means that there is every reason to hope for a real treat at Valencia on Sunday. This is the last race of the season, the last chance to prove your worth, to silence your doubters, to settle those scores before the long winter begins. No need to be conservative here, no need to calculate the odds. You can take that chance, take a risk and crash out trying. At the last race of the season, you go all in, as Nicky Hayden's leathers proclaimed at Valencia in 2006, when it looked like he might miss out on his first ever MotoGP title.
So MotoGP heads back to Spain for the third time this year, rolling into the Motorland Aragon circuit as the series enters its final stretch. Despite there being still five races left to go, the three different classes all look pretty much settled, after the races at Misano. Jorge Lorenzo benefited from Dani Pedrosa's misfortune at Misano to lead the MotoGP race by 38 points, Marc Marquez beat Pol Espargaro to the line in a do-or-die move in Moto2 to extend his lead to 53 points, and Sandro Cortese rode a brilliant race in Moto3 to enlarge his lead to 46 points. In reality, only misfortune or gross rider error stands in between titles for the three men, and in his studio in Barcelona, Marc Garcia is starting to pencil in the names on the trophy.
That doesn't mean there is no interest left in the series, however. If you had been thinking of skipping the Moto2 races for the rest of the year, then you haven't been paying attention; the life-and-death racing between Pol Espargaro and Marc Marquez, the result of the fiercest and most bitterly contested rivalry in Grand Prix at the moment, continues to be breathtaking. Moto3 is seeing the rise of a generation who will sound in the end of Spanish domination in MotoGP, though many fast and promising Spanish youngsters remain.
The first Moto2 round held at Misano under its new name, the Misano World Circuit Marco Simoncelli, left us a clear idea of Marc Marquez’s intentions to become world champion by the end of this season, before he will join one of the toughest groups of riders ever in the MotoGP class in 2013.
Márquez’s seventh win of the season at Misano last weekend –third in a row- over Pol Espargaró and Andrea Iannone takes the Spaniard further ahead in the point standings with 238, while Espargaró stands second with 185. Iannone is third with 165 points and Luthi fourth with 161. Far behind, the young British rider Scott Redding stands fifth with 115 points.
With five rounds still to go and even Redding still in with a mathematical chances of becoming champion, the 2012 Moto2 season seems to be in Marquez’s hands. In fact, if Márquez wins in Aragon and Japan too, with Espargaró or Iannone finishing second, the Spaniard could even become champion in Malaysia with two rounds still to go. It could happen even earlier: in the case that Márquez wins the next round at Aragon and Espargaró DNFs, the Cataluyna Caixa Suter rider could celebrate his Moto2 world title on the following round at Motegi.