Jorge Lorenzo's disappointing performance at the French Grand Prix at Le Mans has been the cause of some debate. The factory Yamaha man finished a lowly seventh, his worst finish (other than DNFs) since his rookie season in 2008, and finishing off the podium for the first time since Indianapolis in 2011. To say this was an uncharacteristic performance from Lorenzo is something of an understatement.
So what went wrong? Immediately after the race, Lorenzo made it clear that he believed the problem was with his rear tire. He had had no grip whatsoever, and been unable to get any drive from his rear tire. He told the press afterwards that the only logical explanation he could think of for his problems was a defective rear tire. Lorenzo had been fast in the morning warm up, though it was a little drier then, and the set up used was very similar to then. In 2012, Lorenzo had won at Le Mans by a huge margin, so he could not understand why he was struggling so badly in France.
2013 Le Mans MotoGP Sunday Round Up: Of Titles, Shot Tires, Fast Students, And A Spaniard-Free Podium
Defending titles is not easy. In the last twenty years, only Mick Doohan and Valentino Rossi have managed to win successive championships, despite both Jorge Lorenzo and Casey Stoner winning twice. Why is it so hard? A lot of reasons. Nothing motivates a rider, a team or a factory like losing. Winning a championship requires a lot of hard work and talent, but also a smattering of luck, and at some point, luck runs out. Winning a title means always looking forward, eyes on the prize, while defending a title means looking back, at everyone out to get you. All these things combine to make winning the second title in a row much, much harder than winning the first one.
Jorge Lorenzo found this out the hard way in 2011, when he faced an unleashed Casey Stoner on the Honda RC212V. And now, after his second title in 2012, he's learning exactly the same lesson again, this time at the hands of Dani Pedrosa and Marc Marquez on the Honda RC213V. At Le Mans, all of the above factors came together, working against Lorenzo to drop him down the field, and move him from just four points to seventeen points adrift of the new championship leader, Dani Pedrosa.
What happened? First and foremost, the Hondas happened. Dani Pedrosa rode a brilliant race to take his second win in a row. It was arguably one of the best races of his career: getting a fantastic start, managing the wet conditions brilliantly, and putting in a number of hard, precise attacks to gain positions. His pass at Garage Vert to take the lead for the final time was one of particular beauty: jamming the bike precisely inside Dovizioso on the first of the double right handers, holding the tighter line, then taking a clear lead through the second. From that point he was gone. Since the Sachsenring last year, Pedrosa has won nine of the last fifteen races, a strike rate of sixty percent. That's the kind of batting average you need to win a title.
2013 Le Mans MotoGP Saturday Round Up: Of Exceptional Rookies, Real Race Pace, And What It Takes To Be Champion
Marc Marquez is just starting to let the mask slip. Asked in the press conference about the fact that he will start from pole at Le Mans, despite this weekend being the first time he has ridden a MotoGP bike at the French track, Marquez admitted he always has to play down his chances ahead of each weekend. "On Thursday, I always need to say something similar," he said.
His modesty is very becoming, and throughout the preseason and the early races, he has continued to dampen down overly-inflated expectations. Yes, pole is nice. Yes, winning is fantastic. No, he is not even thinking of the title yet. But everything about Marc Marquez screams ambition, the desire to win, to do what it takes to beat his rivals and prove to everyone what he believes, that he is the best rider in the world, a (self-)belief that motivates every top level athlete.
The last-corner lunge inside Jorge Lorenzo at Jerez will be cited as evidence, but more than that, the desperate attempts in the preceding laps were proof enough, if proof were needed. Is Marc Marquez thinking of winning the MotoGP championship in his first year, a feat previously only achieved by Kenny Roberts? No, it is not chief among his concerns. Is he trying to win as many races as possible, an objective that will bring him the 2013 title if he succeeds? Of course he is. He may not be thinking about the championship, but he is definitely trying to win it.
2013 Le Mans MotoGP Friday Round Up: Of Four Fast Men, Improved Ducatis, Redding's Reign, And A Quota On Spaniards
So far, so good. That seems to be the story from the first day of practice at Le Mans. A full day of dry weather - except for the last few minutes of FP2 for the Moto3 class, where the rain turned briefly to hail, only to blow out again as quickly as it came - means that everyone had a chance to work on their race set up. With the top four separated by just 0.166 seconds, the top five are within a quarter of a second, and Alvaro Bautista, the man in ninth, is just over seven tenths from the fastest man Dani Pedrosa.
A good day too for the Hondas. Dani Pedrosa was immediately up to speed, as expected. Marc Marquez was also quick in the afternoon, which was less expected. Unlike Jerez and Austin, this was the first time he rode a MotoGP machine at Le Mans, and getting used to hauling a 260 hp, 160kg bike around the tight layout of the French track is a different proposition to riding a Moto2 bike with half the horsepower here. He took a morning to get used to the track, asked for a few changes to the base set up inherited from Casey Stoner, and then went and blitzed to second in the afternoon, 0.134 seconds off his teammate.
More important than Marquez' speed is his consistency, however. In the afternoon, he posted seven laps of 1'34, which looks to be the pace to expect for a dry race. Only two men did more, Pedrosa and Jorge Lorenzo having posted nine laps at that pace, with both men also consistently a tenth or two quicker than the Spanish rookie.
Where do you draw the line? That's the central question in the paddock at Le Mans. The last-corner incident at Jerez is still front and foremost in many riders' minds, though perhaps none more so than Jorge Lorenzo's. Jorge Lorenzo still believes that Marc Marquez should be penalized for the move he made at Jerez, while the rest of the world remains to be convinced.
The subject came up at a rider briefing held by Race Direction at Le Mans, after all of the riders had arrived at the track, but before the press conference was due to begin. The briefing had been convened to discuss other issues - what to do when races are red flagged, behavior on the grid, the procedure for restarts, and a host of other complicated but important details surrounding safety. The briefing was clearly needed, as Marc VDS rookie Livio Loi's post red flag crash at Jerez made clear, the youngster's lack of experience causing him problems.
It was inevitable that the subject of the clash between Marquez and Lorenzo would come up at a meeting such as this, and, depending on whose account you believe, it was inevitable that tempers would be frayed. Lorenzo was described on GPOne as being 'furious' with Race Direction over their refusal to penalize Marquez for his pass at Jerez, though in the press conference, Lorenzo played that report down. He stood by his assertion that Race Direction needed to penalize Marquez, and that he had left the meeting early because "I thought it was over, the briefing, and I leave. Someone has to leave first, so I was the first one to leave."
2013 Jerez MotoGP Post-Race Round Up, Part 2: Of Forgotten Winners, Worried Yamahas And New-found Optimism
At the post-race press conference, as he fielded question after question of his last-corner clash with Marc Marquez, and refused to give an answer, Jorge Lorenzo eventually came out with the slightly exasperated quip: "Now a lot of questions to me, and when I won in Qatar, no questions for me. It's a little bit strange." It is a common occurrence in sporting journalism, and makes clear that while the athletes believe they are involved in a purely sporting endeavor, the media understands that what they are involved is actually show business. The big story of the weekend is not necessarily who stands on the top step of the podium.
Which is a shame, as Dani Pedrosa's victory at Jerez was both well-deserved and deeply impressive. The Hondas has come to the track with a disadvantage from testing, and were expected to struggle against the mighty Yamahas. It did not quite turn out that way, the Hondas - and especially Pedrosa and his crew chief Mike Leitner - found the grip they needed to beat Jorge Lorenzo and the rampaging Yamaha hordes, despite the horribly greasy conditions of the hot Jerez track.
We'd been wondering how long it would last. Nobody had started a formal pool yet, but we knew that at some point in the season, Marc Marquez would try something which would generate a mountain of controversy. The question was not if, but when, surely.
It took three races, which is positively restrained measured by the standards of his 2012 Moto2 season. Then, he managed to embroil himself in controversy in the very first race when he ran Thomas Luthi off the track at the end of the straight at the beginning of the final lap.
Yet while Marquez' pass on Jorge Lorenzo is already generating enough print copy to wipe out a small forest, it is totally different from his move at Qatar in 2012. That was a cynical slide to the left which saw him edge Luthi off the track and out of contention. This was a dive up the inside of a gap left by Lorenzo in the final corner of the final lap, after Marquez had spent the previous five or six laps making it perfectly clear to Lorenzo that he was hell-bent on finishing ahead of him.
Saturday at Jerez was a crash fest, in just about every class. Why? The heat - well, perhaps heat is an exaggeration, but certainly the weather was better than anyone expected a few weeks ago. Once the heat hits the Andalusian track, the grip drops off a cliff, and the riders are left struggling to cope. In Moto3, MotoGP and Moto2, a lot of riders hit the deck on Saturday afternoon.
Alex Rins was one of the first to fall, crashing out during qualifying for the Moto3 class. It did not slow him down, the Spaniard grabbing pole for the second race in succession. MotoGP was much worse: during the final session of free practice, Cal Crutchlow threw his Monster Tech 3 Yamaha away at the start of the back straight. Later in that session, Crutchlow watched from behind as Marc Marquez fought a losing battle with gravity at the other end of the straight, the front folding and the rear whipping round on him despite valiant efforts to save it. "I was willing him to save it," Crutchlow joked afterwards, "but in the end gravity won."
Ask Jorge Lorenzo if there is one thing which the Yamaha needs to allow him to compete with the Hondas, and he will tell you it is a seamless gearbox. The system used by Honda on the RC213V allows the riders to shift gear while the bike is still leaned over, without upsetting the machine. It is an important factor in the Honda's better drive out of corners, as Dani Pedrosa, Marc Marquez, Stefan Bradl and Alvaro Bautista can shift gear earlier and make optimum use of the rev range to accelerate harder.
That Yamaha is working on a seamless gearbox is no secret, with Yamaha's test riders currently racking up the kilometers around tracks in Japan, testing the reliability of the maintenance-intensive system to the limit before using it in a race. Recently, however, Spanish magazine SoloMoto published an article suggesting that Yamaha has already been using its new seamless gearbox since the beginning of the season. In evidence, the magazine pointed to an apparent difference in fuel consumption between the factory Yamahas and the satellite bike of Cal Crutchlow. While both Cal Crutchlow and Valentino Rossi made mistakes at Qatar, only Rossi was able to recover, and then battle with Marc Marquez for the podium. The theory put forward by SoloMoto was that the smoother transition between gears gave both better drive and lower fuel consumption, as the ignition is cut for a much shorter period, wasting less of the limited gasoline the MotoGP bikes are allowed.
2013 Jerez MotoGP Friday Round Up: Yamaha vs Honda, Or Going Just As Fast In Two Very Different Ways
For the past couple of years, it has seemed as if there is some kind of unwritten law which states that any MotoGP weekend must be accompanied by rain. The weekends without the threat of rain or some other form of ill weather have been few and far between, so it is both a relief and a joy to come to Jerez and have the prospect of a full weekend of stable and dry weather. That's not to say that no rain has fallen: this morning, as we walked to the car, we felt three or four large drops, but that was all. From the forecast, this looks like the entire quota of rain for the weekend, and the paddock is duly grateful for small mercies.
A consistently dry track still posed problems for the riders, however. The last time MotoGP was here, back in March, conditions were far from ideal. It rained, every day, with plenty of sunshine in between, leaving the track treacherous and difficult, with low grip levels and a patchy surface. Though the teams collected plenty of data at that test, very little of it is usable this weekend, with much higher temperatures and better grip. Until the afternoon, that is, when the warmer temperatures meant that grip levels started to drop again, a perennial problem at Jerez. The bumps, too, are an issue, with many riders running wide after hitting them as they braked for the hairpins at the circuit.
Despite the fact that the conditions are better, times so far have not been faster than at the test. Quickest man on the first day of practice was Jorge Lorenzo, the reigning champion picking up where he left off at Qatar before the rude interruption of Austin. His advantage is small - just over a tenth over Dani Pedrosa, a fraction more over Cal Crutchlow - but his race pace is impressive so far. Lorenzo put a lot of laps on a single set of tires, testing tire wear, and getting ready for the race.