Saturday night is the last chance to see the stars of motorcycle racing turning a wheel in anger. On 13th December, the cream of both the MotoGP and AMA flat track paddocks meet for the second running of the Superprestigio, an indoor invitation dirt track race, at the Palau Sant Jordi in Barcelona. The setting is a classic location: the Palau Sant Jordi is part of the former Olympic park, set atop Montjuic, scene of many legendary motorcycle races of the past.
For those who could not make it to Barcelona themselves, they need not despair. The event is to be broadcast in several countries around the globe, as well as streamed live online. In the UK, the Superprestigio will be broadcast on the BT Sport channel. In the US, the event will be streamed live - with English commentary - on the Fanschoice.TV website, as well as on the website of Cycle World magazine.
Many years ago, when American riders first burst onto the roadracing scene, and immediately dominated Grand Prix racing, dirt track racing was seen as a key part of their success. Training on the hardpacked dirt, where pushrod twins have far more power than they can ever transfer directly into drive, translated very well into racing 500cc two strokes, which had the same excess of power over grip. As tire technology advanced, and as the number of racers coming out of the US to race on the world stage declined, dirt track fell out of favor. Styles changed back towards keeping the wheels in line and carrying as much corner speed as possible, a skill learned in 125s and 250s, and taken up to 500s and MotoGP. The advent of the 800cc bikes, which caused a quantum leap forward in electronic control, emphasized this even further.
When the rules limiting the number of engines each MotoGP rider is allowed to use were first introduced, their usage was followed hawkishly. After pressure from veteran US journalist Dennis Noyes and myself, and with the assistance of Dorna's incredibly efficient media officer, IRTA and Dorna were persuaded to publish the engine usage charts. These were pored over constantly, searching for clues as to who might be in trouble, who may have to start from pit lane, and who would manage until the end of the season.
How the world has changed since then. Since 2010, the first full year of its application, engine allocations have been cut from six engines a season to just five, but despite that, the manufacturers are getting better and better at building incredible reliability into high horsepower engines. All eight Factory Option Honda and Yamaha riders completed around 9,000 km in 2014, using just 5 engines in the process. In the case of Bradley Smith, he raced for 9416 kilometers using just four engines, an average of 2354 km per engine.
The introduction of the engine reliability rules may have pushed the costs up at first, as factories rushed to modify their engines to suit the new regulations, it has worked well since then to help cut costs. No longer are engines crated up after every race to be flown back to Japan, there to be stripped, measured, tested and rebuilt, then flown back to Europe again ready for the next MotoGP round. Perhaps more importantly, the factories have made real technological progress in the field, Shuhei Nakamoto, Kouichi Tsuji and ex-Ducati Corse boss Filippo Preziosi frequently praising the rule for the advances they have made. It is exactly the kind of technology which will find its way into road going motorcycles, allowing more power to be extracted while retaining reliability. There is good reason to believe that the latest generation of big horsepower road bikes have been made possible thanks to advances in materials and lubrication technology which have made it possible to produce that power without sacrificing reliability.
With the MotoGP factory riders now finished their on-track work for 2014, the teams have time to reflect on their seasons. The Movistar Yamaha team has done so in a pair of press releases, containing interviews with their riders. Last week, we published the interview with Jorge Lorenzo, which means that this week, it is the turn of Valentino Rossi to look back at 2014. It was an outstanding year for Rossi, and he talks about his motivation, how the changes he made at the end of last year affected his performance, and what it takes to remain competitive at 35 years of age. Rossi makes his intention for 2015 perfectly clear: to be fighting for wins and for a title from the start of the next year:
Q: The 2014 season is over. Can you evaluate your performance?
Valentino Rossi: “I am very happy about my performance this season. The balance was very positive. For me this was the key season to decide my future. Last year I wasn’t very happy and I had to decide whether to continue or not. My target was to get to the front, fight with the top three riders and aim to get onto the podium every race. Last year this wasn’t always possible. I am happy that I was able to make it happen this year. I’ve made some big changes at the beginning of the season, but these have worked and I'm happy for that. Throughout this season I’ve always been strong in the race. I had good races and good battles.”
Q: What do you think about this year’s M1? At the beginning of the championship you suffered some lack of performances, but in the second part of the season the M1 won races with both you and Jorge.
VR: "Our M1 has improved a lot during the season, especially thanks to the good job done by both crews. Silvano, Ramon and all the engineers and technicians have worked very well. All together we were able to improve the bike to make it competitive and winning. It's a shame we weren’t able to improve the performance earlier on because most of the gap with Marc was created at the beginning of the season and then it became difficult to recover. If only we could start the season again now, things would go differently, but that's okay. What’s more important is that the bike has improved a lot and that it’s competitive now.”
The final round up of press releases from the teams and Bridgestone after the final day of testing at Valencia:
"This year's machine is not easy to ride," HRC boss Shuhei Nakamoto said of the 2014 Honda RC213V. "More difficult than last year." Given the utter dominance of Marc Marquez in the first half of 2014, that seems hard to believe. It certainly left the journalists gathered for the special press conference convened by Honda to review the season befuddled. "But Honda bikes are always easy to ride!" declared one surprised reporter. "Our bike is very easy, I can ride it, but I don't get under two minutes," Nakamoto said. "But to find the last one tenth, two tenths is very difficult," he remarked.
A look at the timesheets from the test, or a chat with Marc Marquez or Dani Pedrosa about the 2015 Honda, and you understand the problem. On the last day of testing at Valencia, Marquez and Pedrosa finished first and second, but the satellite Hondas of Cal Crutchlow and Scott Redding were a little way off the pace. Crutchlow was eight tenths slower than Marquez, while Redding was struggling 1.6 seconds behind Marquez. In the last race of the 2014 season, Stefan Bradl's fastest lap was just under a second off the fastest race lap, and Alvaro Bautista a fraction slower. The Honda is obviously fast, but it is not easy to go fast on. Too aggressive, too hard to master, a bike with a lot of potential, but extracting that potential takes insight, experience, and the willingness to push an aggressive bike to its limits. It really demands the kind of dirt track background of Casey Stoner or, well, Marc Marquez.
It is a good job the post-race test at Valencia is three days long. The weather in Valencia in November is usually very good, but it can turn, and you can lose track time to rain. That was certainly the case on Tuesday, rain starting early in the morning, and coming in waves all day. It meant the track was wet throughout Tuesday, only the depth of water on the track varying. The heavy rain meant that most rider decided to sit out the day, only ten riders putting in any laps.
With the track the way it was, the finishing order was not really relevant. What was more important was gaining time on the track, and for several riders, getting to grips with Bridgestone's wet tires. Eugene Laverty, Loris Baz, and Marco Melandri, all of whom have moved over from World Superbikes, needed to adjust their minds to the Bridgestones. Even Melandri, who rode on Bridgestones the last time he was in MotoGP in 2010, said the feeling had changed a lot. The rear tire got up to temperature much faster than before, Melandri said.
Press releases from the teams after the first day of testing at Valencia:
Despite being exhausted from a full weekend (make that a complete season) of racing, the entire MotoGP grid was once again out in force on Monday, turning the first laps of the 2015 preseason (full times here). All except Nicky Hayden, that is, as Honda have brought only one RC213V-RS to Valencia, and there was no point for Hayden to spend more time on the RCV1000R, as that bike will be replaced by the new RS for next season. Hayden gets his turn on the bike tomorrow, weather permitting.
There was both old and new on display at the test, some things virtually unchanged, others radically different. New riders joined the grid, as well as two new factories, and a reshuffling of riders and crew between the garages.
The biggest change was at Suzuki, which saw Aleix Espargaro move from the Forward Yamaha team into the new Suzuki squad, where he was joined by Maverick Viñales, fresh from Moto2. Both riders were very impressed with the GSX-RR, praising its handling and the bike. "It was much better than I expected," Aleix told us. The chassis was "fantastic" he said, allowing him to lap within nine tenths of his qualifying lap on Saturday. The bike was very easy to turn, and he could carry a lot more corner speed as the bike was more compact, allowing him to hang off the bike more.
Press releases from the MotoGP teams and Bridgestone after the final race of 2014 at Valencia:
2014 Valencia Sunday Round Up: Of Dodgy MotoGP Weather, Fuel Issues in Moto2, and Miller vs Marquez in Moto3
It was a fitting finale to one of the best season in years. The arrival of Marc Marquez in MotoGP has given the series in a boost in the arm. Not just in the premier class, the influence of Marquez reaches into Moto2 and Moto3 as well. Tito Rabat's move to the Marc VDS team completed his transformation from a fast rider to a champion, but the schooling and support he received from the Marquez brothers at their dirt track oval in Rufea made him even stronger. And Marc's younger brother Alex brought both talent and Maturity to Moto3.
It made for great racing at Valencia. The Moto3 race featured the typical mayhem, but with extra edge because there was a title on the line. Tito Rabat tried to win the Moto2 race from the front, as he has done all year, but found himself up against an unrelenting Thomas Luthi. And in MotoGP, Marc Marquez set a new record of thirteen race wins in a single season, despite being throw a curve ball by the weather.
Marquez was the first to downplay his taking the record of most wins in a season from Mick Doohan. "Doohan won more than me," Marquez said. "He won twelve from fifteen races. Thirteen is a new record, but not so important." Though it is admirable that Marquez can put his own achievement into perspective when comparing it to Doohan's, that is not the full context. Doohan actually twelve of the first thirteen races in 1997, making his win rate even bigger. Then again, Doohan had to beat Tady Okada, Nobu Aoki and Alex Criville, while Marquez has had to fend off Valentino Rossi, Jorge Lorenzo and Dani Pedrosa.
Even Doohan's win rate pales in comparison with those of John Surtees and Giacomo Agostini, who both had perfect seasons in 1959 and 1968 respectively. But the 1959 season had only seven races, and the 1968 ten races, a good deal less than the current total of eighteen.
It has been four-and-a-half years, or 87 races between Valentino Rossi's 49th pole position and his 50th. The last time Rossi started a race from the first spot on the grid was at Le Mans in 2010, where he just pipped his teammate Jorge Lorenzo into second by 0.054 seconds. At Valencia on Saturday, he was two tenths faster than Lorenzo, but this time, he had Andrea Iannone and Dani Pedrosa between him and his teammate.
There were plenty of parallels to the 2010 season visible at Valencia. Just as five seasons ago, Rossi is engaged in a struggle with Lorenzo for supremacy in the championship. Back in 2010, it was just the third race of the season, and a fierce battle was emerging as Jorge Lorenzo started to gain the upper hand in the team, and in the championship. Now, the fight is over second in the championship, rather than first, but it has grown increasingly intense over the past few weeks. Signs of tension have been starting to emerge in the last couple of races, but they became a little more public after qualifying at Valencia.
Press releases from the MotoGP teams, Bridgestone and Dorna after the final qualifying session of the year at Valencia: