2013 Assen MotoGP Wednesday Round Up: Of Weird Wednesdays, Difficult Ducatis, And MotoGP's Long Term Future
Wednesday at Assen is always a rather odd day. At most rounds, Wednesday is a travel day, and the paddock regulars spend the day in airports, planes and hire cars. But because the race at Assen is on Saturday, the events that normally take place on Thursday such as the pre-event press conference, happen a day earlier. That leaves everyone with the racing equivalent of jet lag, their bodies and minds 24 hours behind events. Mentally, we are all prepared for a day of torpor and inaction. What we are greeted with is a day of rushing around to talk to riders, team managers, and anyone else foolish enough to cross our paths. Mind battles physical reality, and both come out losers.
Even focusing on the upcoming race is hard. Rolling into the circuit under bright skies and cheery temperatures - not warm, but not freezing either - feels slightly surreal after having studied the weather forecasts for the coming days. While race day is likely to be dry, Thursday and Friday look like being full wet days. What that means is that practice may not be much of a guide to what actually happens on race day, rendering practice and qualifying relatively meaningless.
Ducati, at least, will welcome the rain. "The rain is bad for the fans, but it's good for Ducati," Nicky Hayden quipped, though he was not entirely happy with the situation. The Ducati goes very well in the wet, despite still struggling in the dry. Though a wet race may act as a placebo - though perhaps an analgesic is a better metaphor - in easing the pain of the Ducati riders, the fact of the matter is that Andrea Dovizioso, Nicky Hayden, Andrea Iannone and Michele Pirro, still taking the place of the injured Ben Spies, are starting to run out of options.
The Dutch TT at Assen looks like being a very busy few days for everyone looking for a ride next year. The end of June has been earmarked as a deadline for all sorts of negotiations, from rider contracts to bike projects. Decisions will be made and contracts - or at least letters of intent - will be signed. A lot of paperwork should get done by the time the trucks roll out of the paddock on Sunday, heading for Germany and the Sachsenring.
Though most of the prototype rides are already wrapped up, there are still a few seats open, and some interesting and major changes could be on the way. The focal point for the future, and the key to all of the moves for next year is Scott Redding. The young Briton has raised his game in 2013, elevating himself to both the favorite for the 2013 Moto2 title, and hot property for MotoGP next season. Redding's prospects went from a possible ride on a Honda production racer with Marc VDS, on a relatively limited budget, to factories reconsidering their current contracts to see if they can make room for the Gloucestershire youngster.
Redding's options are still very open, the only limit the existing contracts the factories have. All three manufacturers would be keen to get their hands on him, with Ducati the current favorite to secure his services. Yamaha's hands are perhaps most tied, especially as Cal Crutchlow appears to be drawing ever closer to renewing his contract with the Tech 3 team, possibly including some kind of additional support from the factory. Redding could only join Yamaha if Bradley Smith could be persuaded to step aside, but the Englishman's contract looks to be pretty watertight so far.
Jorge Lorenzo has won the last two MotoGP rounds in utterly dominating style. Though his win at Mugello was by a greater margin, the victory at Barcelona was one of the most impressive of his career. Afterwards, both Lorenzo's team manager Wilco Zeelenberg and Monster Tech 3 rider Cal Crutchlow said of the Barcelona win that it was probably one of the best races he had ever ridden. Lorenzo had made only one mistake, the Spaniard said afterwards, and it was so small it did not even show up on the data.
As he had done at Mugello, Lorenzo ensured that he won the drag race to the first corner, aggressively outbraking Dani Pedrosa to take the lead. From that point, he held the Hondas at bay until Dani Pedrosa finally broke, the Yamaha man going on to win by nearly two seconds. It was the second race in a row which Lorenzo had led from the start and gone on to win the race. In fact, all three of Lorenzo's wins, at Qatar, Mugello and Barcelona, have come in the same manner: Get into the first corner in the lead, push hard in the early laps, and ride as perfectly and as fast as possible throughout the entire race. There is simply no one else in the world capable of riding a motorcycle for 25 laps at full speed as well as Jorge Lorenzo at the moment.
Why did the factory Yamaha team head to the Motorland Aragon circuit to join Honda and Suzuki at a private test? Was it perhaps to give Jorge Lorenzo and Valentino Rossi their first taste of the seamless gearbox Yamaha have been developing, to counter Honda's advantage? That is the question which many fans have been asking, and in recent days - and weeks - I have been inundated with questions about the seamless gearbox. Well, question, singular, actually, as it all boils down to just the one: When will Yamaha finally start to race their seamless gearbox?
It is a question I have been trying to pursue since the start of the season, since rumors first emerged that they may have used the gearbox at the first race of the year. All inquiries I made, at all levels of the Yamaha organization, received the same answers: Yes, Yamaha is developing a seamless gearbox, and is testing it back in Japan. No, Yamaha has not yet raced it, and has no plans to race it. And no, it is not yet ready to be tested.
Pity poor Jorge Lorenzo. Once again he comes to a test and tops the timesheets, and everyone is talking about someone else. This time, though, he will probably not mind, as he was not really out for glory at the test, just to work on settings before heading to the next test at Aragon on Wednesday. If it isn't rained off that is.
Lorenzo chose to skip the morning session, preferring to rest after an impressive win on Sunday, but once underway he was quickly up to speed hitting the top three after just a couple of laps, and ending the day on top. The Factory Yamaha man had been working on set up, but had also tested a new fuel tank. The new tank does not change the weight balance from the current version used by the factory riders, but it does have a slightly different shape to fit under the seat more comfortably and allow Lorenzo to position himself better on the bike.
Jorge Lorenzo ran a perfect race at Barcelona. Well, not quite perfect, he told veteran US journalist Dennis Noyes that he made just a single mistake. 'Luckily nobody saw it, and you cannot see it on the data,' Lorenzo said. After a difficult qualifying session, Lorenzo put the hammer down from the start, attacking Dani Pedrosa aggressively into Turn 1 once again, just like in Mugello, and then pushing hard all race long, despite a front tire that kept threatening to let go.
So how did he do it? How did he pull off a win when most people were convinced that Pedrosa had the win in the bag? Two factors: his own mental strength, and a radical and inspired set up change during warm up, in preparation for a hot race with no grip. Wilco Zeelenberg, Lorenzo's team manager, explained to me exactly what they had done. "We created a lot less pressure on the front of the bike," the Dutchman explained. "That's not what you would normally do, but because you know you won't be able to do 1'42s all race, you know you don't need the best set up."
The extreme temperatures had caused everyone problems, and Lorenzo's crew, led by Ramon Forcada, had elected to give Lorenzo more feeling, sacrificing grip. "If you look at the lap times, they bring tears to your eyes. I mean, if Dani [Pedrosa] can qualifying in 1'40.8, and he ends up lapping at 1'43 pace, then there's something wrong. It means everybody is riding on eggshells." Lorenzo himself was uncertain of the revised set up. Lorenzo had told Zeelenberg that he wasn't sure that he was really any quicker, but he could get into the corner with a lot more confidence. "That didn't give him any advantage in terms of lap time, but it meant he knew he could go exactly this far, and no further," Zeelenberg explained.
2013 Barcelona MotoGP Saturday Round Up: Pedrosa's Scorcher, Lorenzo's Engine Travails, And Vinales' Penalty Points
Cal Crutchlow called it right on Friday. "We know the Hondas take a little bit longer to set up, but when they come out Saturday morning, they normally take a second off." It was more like half a second on Saturday morning, but by the afternoon, Dani Pedrosa took nearly 1.6 seconds off his best time on Friday, smashing the pole record which had stood since 2008. That was a lap set on the supersoft qualifying tires still used at the time, which had Nicky Hayden happily reminiscing about the fun to be had on the sticky one-lap rubber.
It was an extraordinary lap by Pedrosa, though the Honda man himself was not overly impressed. When asked if it was his best lap ever, Pedrosa acknowledged that it was good, perhaps one of his best, but still not as good as his lap at Valencia at the end of last year.
Pedrosa's blistering record lap was not the only excitement during qualifying, which turned into an intriguing session. It started off with Jorge Lorenzo taking off out of the pits in his customary fashion, only to cruise back in again after his first full lap. The clutch on his Yamaha M1 had destroyed itself, and so he had to leap back on to his second bike and try to set a time on that. That machine never felt the same as his number one bike, and so Lorenzo didn't quite have the confidence to push as hard as he hoped to. That left him third on the grid, but at least still on the front row.
It has been a while since Valentino Rossi's name has topped the timesheets in MotoGP: once during the test at Jerez back in March, before that at a wet Silverstone almost exactly a year ago. Since that time, he's been close on occasion, but never fastest. Until today.
The Italian set out on a hot final run to set the best time of the day, and take over the top spot from his Yamaha Factory Racing teammate Jorge Lorenzo, to the delight of the assembled crowd, so many of whom wear his colors. (On a side note, I often wonder what colors will adorn the racetracks of the world once Rossi retires. Right now, you do not need a GPS to guide you to the circuit, you just follow the sea of yellow to the gates.)
Rossi was delighted, but he was also relieved, having confirmed to himself that he can still be at the front. "Today I am very happy about the result," Rossi told the press, saying that to be at the front was a great feeling. But Rossi was also realistic: it is only Friday, he pointed out to the media, and he had been fast on Friday at previous races.
This is going to be a big weekend in MotoGP, perhaps one of the most significant in a long while. The outcome of Sunday's race is unlikely to be earth-shattering - the chance of the top three being entirely Spanish, and composed of two Repsol Hondas and a Factory Yamaha is pretty large - and the championship will look much the same on Sunday night as it does now. Yet this weekend will be key.
Much of the interest - and intrigue - revolves around the test on Monday. The most visible piece of the MotoGP puzzle will be in the Suzuki garage, where their brand new MotoGP machine is due to make its first real public debut. The bike has had a number of private tests, some more secretive than others, the latest being last week at Motegi with Randy de Puniet. The times that were leaked from that test were respectable, though with only test riders for competition, it is hard to put them into context.
At Barcelona, a public test, with official timing, and up against the full MotoGP field, there will be nowhere to hide. Will the Suzuki be able to match the times of the Hondas and Yamahas? Unlikely, the bike is still at an early stage of development. But it should be faster than the CRT machines, and close to the Ducati satellite bikes. De Puniet's first target will be himself, and the time he sets during practice and the race on the Aprilia CRT he rides for Aspar.
Even more intriguing at the test is what Yamaha will be bringing. Rumors abound that the seamless transmission which the factory is working on is due to be tested soon, with many believing it could get its first official run out in the hands of the factory riders at Barcelona on Monday. Raising further suspicions that something major is afoot in the Yamaha camp is the fact that they also have a test scheduled for Aragon later in the week. If the gearbox is not quite ready to be raced, then Yamaha could wait to try it at Aragon; if it is ready, trying it at two different circuits would be a good way of giving it a thorough workout. The difference between a seamless and a conventional gearbox is audible, so we should know soon enough.
Dorna took Suzuki's departure from MotoGP at the end of the 2011 season badly. After bending over backwards to accommodate the Japanese factory during their final few years in the class - giving Suzuki an exemption from the (now defunct) Rookie Rule, allowing the factory a larger engine allocation, and finally accepting the reduction from a two-rider effort to just a single entry, that of Alvaro Bautista - Suzuki finally pulled out of the series altogether, though they promised to return at a later date. Coming on top of Kawasaki's withdrawal ahead of the 2009 season, Suzuki were the second Japanese factory to depart the class after a string of broken promises.
So unsurprisingly, when Suzuki opened talks about a return to MotoGP, Dorna was hesitant. Their entry was to be subject to a number of restrictions; Suzuki would be made to pay penance for their initial abandoning of the series. Initially Suzuki were told that they would only be allowed to enter through an existing team, rather than creating their own infrastructure. The idea behind this was that none of the teams who had remained in the series should lose out just because Suzuki wanted to return. When it became clear that the teams which were candidates to aid Suzuki were not really up to supporting a full factory effort, that idea was quietly dropped.