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Team Orders: Is Motorcycle Racing A Team Sport?

In a few hours time, we will know who will be the 2014 World Superbike champion. Tom Sykes leads Sylvain Guintoli by 12 points going into the final two races at Qatar. With 50 points up for grabs, the title race is still completely open, and in a series as close as World Superbikes has been this year, anything could happen.

What both Sykes and Guintoli need are help from their teammates. Guintoli most of all: if the Frenchman is to be champion, he will need someone, such as his Aprilia teammate Marco Melandri, to get in between him and the Kawasaki of Sykes. Sykes, on the other hand, can wrap up the title by winning both races, or at least finishing ahead of Guintoli. If he can't finish ahead of the Frenchman, then he will hope that his teammate Loris Baz can assist.

As loyal teammates, surely Melandri and Baz will be happy to help? That was only partially the case at the last round in Magny-Cours. In race one, Melandri theatrically waved Guintoli past and into the lead, making it patently obvious that victory was Melandri's to dispense as he saw fit, and he was prepared to allow his teammate to win this time. Further back, Baz did the same same for Sykes, though without making quite as much of a song and dance about it as Melandri did.

Race two was a different affair. Once again, Melandri led, and could grant victory to Guintoli if he wanted to. He chose not to, taking the win – despite his pit board making the feelings of his team very clear indeed, for the second race in a row – and taking 5 precious points from Guintoli. If Melandri had obeyed team orders and moved over, then Guintoli would have trailed Sykes by 7 points instead of 12. That would put Guintoli's destiny in his own hands: win both races, and it would not matter what Sykes did. Now, Guintoli needs help, he needs someone between him and the Englishman. Will his teammate come to his rescue this time? Will the Aprilia WSBK team issue team orders again, commanding Melandri to serve the cause of Guintoli's championship challenge?

2014 Sepang Sunday Round Up: Beating Doohan, Rabat's Reward For Hard Work, And Miller Mastering Marquez In Moto3

How big a deal is MotoGP in Asia, and especially in Malaysia? There were officially 81,896 spectators at the Sepang International Circuit on Sunday for the races. That is a lot. To put it in perspective, it is the seventh highest attendance of the year, more than either of the US rounds of MotoGP, more than Silverstone, more than either of the Italian rounds. There were 4,400 more spectators at Sepang than at Mugello. That is quite a turnaround: in 2000, the second year MotoGP was held at the circuit, only 32,375 people attended the race, spread over all three days. The three-day total is now close to 131,000.

It is testament to both the growing wealth of the region and the growing popularity of the sport. In the podium press conference, Valentino Rossi reflected on the change. "For a long period, we have no people on Sunday," he said. Little by little attendance had grown, until now, it is a race with an atmosphere all of its own. "Now it is full, the atmosphere on the main straight is like Barcelona or Mugello. The guys are crazy for MotoGP." It was a great victory for the sport, he said. Given that those 82,000 people are mostly sitting outside, in tropical temperatures of 36°C and humidity of over 50%, those guys (and gals) must indeed be 'crazy for MotoGP'.

Their efforts were amply rewarded on Sunday, with three superb races. They saw records equaled in MotoGP, a richly-deserved title tied up in Moto2, and an exhilarating and incident-packed battle in Moto3, which sets up a grand finale for the Moto3 title at Valencia. Reason enough to come back again in force in 2015, with the added benefit of seeing the circuit fielding its own team in Moto3 next year.

2014 Sepang Saturday Round Up: Pole Records, The Secret Of Marquez' Speed, And Ridiculous Scenes In Moto3

Fancy a challenge? Try finding a MotoGP fan who is surprised that Marc Marquez claimed pole position at Sepang on Saturday. It was the Repsol Honda man's thirteenth pole of the season, setting a new record for the most poles in a season. It was a blistering lap, making him the first rider to set an officially timed lap under the two-minute mark, the clock finally stopping at 1'59.791. That time has been bettered only a couple of times during the winter tests at Sepang, when cooler temperatures make for a faster track. But to do it now, when ground temperatures got close to 60°C, making the already slippery surface of Sepang even more greasy, is astonishing. Those kinds of track temperatures are almost, but not quite, enough to cook an egg1.

Marquez' record thirteenth pole also offers an insight into exactly what the secret of his success is. He not only holds the record for the most poles in a season, he is also the current leader in pole position frequency. Marquez has secured 50 poles from 113 qualifying session, giving him a strike rate of just over 44%. The only rider to get near to his domination of qualifying was Mick Doohan, who started from pole from 42.3% of his Grand Prix races. The nearest of Marquez' current rivals is Jorge Lorenzo, who has been on pole for 26.4% of his career in Grand Prix.

Why the emphasis on pole position? This is what Marquez does best: find the absolute limit of the performance envelope of his Honda RC213V, and balance right on the edge of it. Because he can do that for one lap, he perhaps has a better understanding of just where the limit lies over the distance of a race, and how much he has to risk when making a pass. This, perhaps, holds the key to why he currently has the best win rate in all classes of all of the current riders in MotoGP, just edging out Valentino Rossi by 38.4% to 34.8%. Then again, Rossi was racing before Marquez even started riding a motorcycle, and so has had more time to strike a run of bad luck. And of course, there were those two seasons at Ducati as well...

2014 Sepang Friday Round Up: A Starring Role For The Weather

If you wanted a demonstration of just why the weather at Sepang can play such a decisive factor, you need look no further than MotoGP FP2. Fifteen minutes before the MotoGP bikes were set to take to the track, the Moto3 machines were finishing their second free practice session in sunshine and sweltering heat. But a couple of minutes before MotoGP FP2 was meant to start, the heavens opened, producing a deluge that had first-time visitors to Malaysia hunting around for gopher wood with which to build a boat.

The downpour covered the track in several centimeters of standing water, making it impossible to ride. The session was delayed for twenty five minutes, starting after the rain had nearly eased up completely. Once the session got underway, the weather cleared up completely, the last ten minutes taking place in glorious sunshine once again.

The changes in the weather had a dramatic effect on the state of the track. It went from being fully wet, with water everywhere, to having just a thin layer of rainwater on it at the halfway mark, to being dry at most of the corners around the track once the session ended. Full wets were essential at the start of the session, but forty five minutes later, slicks were starting to become a viable option.

2014 Sepang MotoGP Preview: The End Of MotoGP's Asian Peregrinations Beckon In The Sweltering Sepang Heat

Another week, another 8 hour flight, another race track. Sepang comes as the last of three grueling weekends chasing around the Pacific Ocean to race in Japan, Australia, and now Malaysia. Even from the comfort of my European home (I lack the funds and, to a lesser extent, the inclination to pursue the paddock halfway around the world), it has been a tough schedule, and the riders and team members I have spoken to about it are all just about ready to come home. Nearly a month away from home, sharing flights, hire cars and hotel rooms can be grating even for the best of friends. Add in the stresses and tensions of Grand Prix motorcycle racing, and a lot of people are gritting their teeth and doing their best not to punch the people they work with. Some will even make it home without doing so.

The final leg of MotoGP's odyssey sees the circus travel from Phillip Island, nearly halfway to the South Pole, to Sepang, not far north of the equator. Yet though they are a quarter of a world away, the two have one thing in common: weather. The actual conditions may be different, the cold, changeable climate of Phillip Island a far cry from the sweltering heat of Malaysia, but at both tracks, the weather plays a much greater role in the proceedings than at other tracks. Judging conditions, and preparing for them, is crucial.

If anything, putting Sepang at the end of the trio of flyaways is a difficult decision. The heat and intense humidity at the track makes it the most physically demanding of the three races. Severe dehydration lies waiting for the unwary or the out of shape, if they do not drink enough to recover the fluids lost through sweat and exertion. This is a race which richly deserves its reputation as the most punishing of the year.

2014 Phillip Island Sunday Round Up: Why The MotoGP Race Was Not A Tire Fiasco, And Rossi Reaps Rewards

Once again, a MotoGP race at Phillip Island is decided by tires. The tires Bridgestone brought to the Australian circuit were not up to the task, with riders crashing out all throughout the race. The front tires Bridgestone brought to the track were unable to cope with the conditions. The result was determined by tires, not by talent.

That, at least, is the narrative being heard around the internet after the bizarre yet fascinating MotoGP race at Phillip Island. It is an attractive narrative – a nice, simple explanation for what happened in Australia – but it is fundamentally flawed. The tire situation was complicated, certainly. Jorge Lorenzo's front tire showed very severe degradation, more than would normally be explained by the expected wear. Several riders crashed out on the asymmetric front tire Bridgestone brought. But to lay the blame entirely on Bridgestone is quite wrong.

The problems at Phillip Island are inherent to the track, and were exacerbated by changes made to suit European TV schedules. Phillip Island, like Assen, is a track which places peculiar demands on tires. It features a lot of very fast left-hand corners, with only a few right handers, two of which are the slowest corners on the track. It is located next to the Bass Strait, a freezing stretch of water connected to the globe-spanning Southern Ocean, which means the weather is highly changeable. Temperatures dropped during the race by as much as 9°C, probably a result of Dorna insisting on running the race at 4pm local time (the late afternoon) to hit a 7am TV slot in their main markets of Spain and Italy. That time will draw a bigger audience than the 5am slot a 2pm race start would fill. But to locals, racing at 4pm at this time of the year is madness.

2014 Phillip Island Saturday Round Up: The Rufea Team's Front Row Sweep, Winning Attitude, And The Secret Of Riding The Ducati

The three men on pole for Sunday's Australian Grand Prix have a lot in common. One is already champion in MotoGP, another could become champion on Sunday, the other looks to have taken control of the Moto3 title chase in the past few races. The MotoGP and Moto3 pole sitters are brothers, and the man on pole for Moto2 is a good friend of the brothers. Most importantly, perhaps, all three train together.

The "Rufea Team", as they are known to the Spanish media and among themselves, spend long days pushing each other hard at the dirt track oval in Rufea, a small parish outside of Lleida in Spain. Moto2 championship leader Tito Rabat doesn't spend as much time there as the Marquez brothers Marc and Alex, as he is mainly based in Almeria, where he spends his days whittling away the circuit record. But when he does go, the three go all out for glory, even though they are only racing among themselves, and in front of a couple of friends, and maybe the Marquez brothers' father Julià.

Is it coincidence that the trio should find themselves leading their respective championships? Marc Marquez has already proved his talent, by wrapping up four world championships, including three in a row. Tito Rabat has grown enormously as a rider after switching to the Marc VDS Racing team, and stepping out of the shadow of Pol Espargaro at Pons. Alex Marquez already proved himself in the Spanish championship, got up to speed in Moto3 last year, and is proving to be the steadiest of the Moto3 riders.

2014 Phillip Island MotoGP Friday Round Up - Special Tires For A Special Circuit, And The Rules For 2016

Phillip Island is a very special race track. That has an upside – it rewards courage and talent, and has provided some spectacular racing – but it is also special in the more pejoratively euphemistic sense of the word. It challenges not just the riders, but motorcycle designers and racing teams as well. Above all, it challenges tire manufacturers: with wildly varying temperatures, strong winds blowing in cool and damp air off the ocean, an abrasive surface, high-speed corners, more left handers than right handers, and the most of the lefts faster than the rights. It can rain, be bitterly cold, be bathed in glorious sunshine, or in sweltering heat. Try building a tire to cope with all that.

After last year's fiasco, both Dunlop and Bridgestone tried to do just that. They came to the track in March to test tires and gather data to build tires for this weekend. The only minor problem is that the test came at the end of Australia's long summer, and temperatures were much more congenial than now, as the country emerges from its Antipodean winter. The tire selections brought by Dunlop and Bridgestone are much better than last year, but they are not quite perfect. At any other track, that wouldn't be a problem. At Phillip Island, even being not quite perfect can land you in trouble.

That tires are an issue was evident from the number of riders who crashed, both in MotoGP and in Moto2. Most crashed in right handers, a lot going down at MG, which would be one of the most difficult corners of the year wherever it was located, but a fair few followed suit at Hayshed, the right hander that follows on from Siberia (the most aptly named corner on the calendar) and precedes Lukey Heights. There were crashes at the Honda hairpin as well, the other right hander, where hard braking is at a premium.

2014 Phillip Island MotoGP Preview - Racing For Pride, The Battle For Moto2, And Crew Chief Changes

The Grand Prix Circus has barely had a chance to catch its breath after Motegi before the next round starts in Australia. With a few exceptions, perhaps, a number of teams being forced to either take a much longer route to Australia to avoid the landfall of typhoon Vongfong, or else severely delayed until the worst passed. Still, to call spending even more hours on a plane or at an airport for what is already a very long flight can hardly be regarded as a spot of rest and relaxation.

Still, they have now all gathered at what is almost unanimously regarded as the best racetrack on the planet. Phillip Island is everything a motorsports circuit is suppose to be: fast, flowing, and deeply challenging. There are plenty of spots for a rider to attempt a pass, or try to make up time, but every single one of them requires either exceptional bravery, or the willingness to take a risk. The many brutally fast corners which litter the track separate the men from the boys: Doohan Corner at turn 1, where you arrive at a staggering 340 km/h, turn 3, now dubbed Stoner corner for the way the retired Australian champion would slide both ends through it at over 250 km/h, the approach to Lukey Heights, which drops away to MG, or the final two turns culminating in Swan Corner, speed building throughout before being launched onto the Gardner Straight, and off towards Doohan again. At Phillip Island, there is no place to hide.

After the fiasco of 2013, when both Dunlop and Bridgestone brought tires which would not last the full distance of the race on the resurfaced track. The new surface was two seconds quicker than the old one, putting a lot more heat into the tires than expected. A tire test in March means that the two tire manufacturers now have tires which will last in both Moto2 and MotoGP, meaning that fans can at least be sure of getting their money's worth.

2014 Motegi Sunday Round Up: On Lorenzo's Revival, Marquez Getting It Done, And Moto3 Hotting Up

Marc Marquez had come to Motegi to give Honda the world championship at their home circuit for the first time ever. The Movistar Yamaha team had come to Japan to score a win in front of their home fans, and factory bosses. In the end, the Battle of the Bosses can be declared a draw: Jorge Lorenzo was just about unstoppable on his way to victory, winning in front of Yamaha's top brass. And Marc Marquez nudged his way past Valentino Rossi to take second, finishing ahead of the two men who could prevent him from wrapping up the 2014 MotoGP title. Marquez brought Honda a championship at the circuit they own, in front of the company's CEO, Takanobu Ito. Both Lorenzo and Marquez came to Motegi with a job to do, and they both got the job done.

The win capped a weekend of near perfection at Motegi for Jorge Lorenzo. Qualifying had been the only minor bump on the road to victory, the Movistar Yamaha man forced to start from the second row. He made up for that with raw aggression off the line, sitting Marc Marquez up into the first corner, then picking of the men ahead of him until he sat on the tail of his teammate, Valentino Rossi. Rossi had capitalized on his front row start, leading off the line and into the first corner, shuffling pole sitter Andrea Dovizioso back to second, Lorenzo demoting the Ducati man to third the next corner.

Rossi pushed hard from the off, and Lorenzo was happy to sit quietly on his tail and follow. But once Marc Marquez had gathered his composure again, passed Andrea Iannone, and closed down Andrea Dovizioso, Lorenzo decided he could wait no longer. A hard but clean pass on Rossi at the end of the back straight put Lorenzo in the lead, and though Rossi thought about attacking straight back, he found himself off line and with Dovizioso ready to pounce behind him.

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