2013 Indianpolis MotoGP Friday Round Up: The New King Kenny, Yamaha's Seamless Gearbox, And Returning Next Year?
There's something about America. Especially if your name is Marc Marquez. The Repsol Honda Rookie led both sessions on the opening day of the Indianapolis Grand Prix (the last one? Too early to say) going quickest both in the tricky morning, when there was very little grip, and in the afternoon, once the bikes had laid down some rubber. Marquez has won both US rounds so far, dominating at Austin and winning comfortably at Laguna Seca, and he has picked up at Indy where he left off before the summer break.
Unsurprisingly, the parallels with Kenny Roberts are starting to be made, the only other rider to become world champion as a rookie. Those parallels are unfair yet perfectly valid: both men exceeded expectations and raised the bar, shaking up the established order with a radical new riding style. Yet Roberts and Marquez also came from totally different backgrounds: Kenny Roberts had grown up racing dirt track, switched to road racing and then came to Europe to win his the championship at the first attempt, on tracks he had never seen before. Marc Marquez has had a classically European education: minibikes from a very young age, then nurtured through Spain's many road racing series, before rising up through the ranks of 125, Moto2 and now MotoGP. Marquez knows all of the tracks MotoGP races like the back of his hand, with the exception of Austin, which nobody knew, it being a new circuit, and Laguna Seca, which didn't prevent him from mastering and winning at his first attempt.
The news that Cal Crutchlow has signed a two-year deal with Ducati led to howls of despair from MotoGP fans, especially among those in the UK. Why, they asked, would Crutchlow willingly leave the Tech 3 Yamaha team and the as-near-factory-as-possible M1 to take on the miserable task of taming the Ducati? Why throw away another year on a bike which he knows he can score podiums, and perhaps even wins on, in exchange for riding a bike which has been a proven failure since Casey Stoner last climbed off it and headed next door to the Repsol Honda garage? If Valentino Rossi, the biggest name and most politically powerful rider in motorcycle racing couldn't make the bike competitive, what chance does Crutchlow stand?
Though only Crutchlow himself fully understands the motives behind his choice, he has left plenty of evidence offering some insight into why he has signed for Ducati. Though fans around the world have tried to point to a single reason - usually either money or having a factory bike - the decision-making process is far, far more complex than that. It is a case study of the complex thought process that lies behind the decisions a rider must make when steering his career. With so little time spent at their peak, and so many factors outside of their control, the decisions a rider makes are not as clear-cut and simple as the fans would like them to be.
So why did Crutchlow go to Ducati? There is no easy answer to that question. Crutchlow had a number of options on the table, but not all led to the same goal. His objective, Crutchlow has made it clear on numerous occasions, is to win races and challenge for the title. Winning races requires a competitive bike, and there is no argument that the satellite Yamaha he currently rides is capable of doing just that.
It had been widely rumored that Yamaha would have some important updates to test at their private test being held yesterday and today at Brno. The biggest expected update to be tested was a seamless gearbox, but though Yamaha Racing Managing Director Lin Jarvis had hinted they might be testing the new gearbox, it was far from certain. As the test at Brno was a private one, no media were invited who would be able to verify whether the seamless gearbox was being tested or not.
Fortunately, however, the Brno circuit was allowing visits in to watch the test. And among those was Pavel, who runs the Czech Valentino Rossi fansite http://www.rossi-yamaha.cz/. Pavel shot some video footage of the private test - thankfully not covered by the blanket ban Dorna has on all coverage of the official tests - and was kind enough to send us the audio from the recordings. Armed with that audio, we were able to analyze the sound, as we have done previously (on both the Honda and the Yamaha), to try to judge whether Yamaha were indeed testing a seamless gearbox, and if they were, what advantage it was giving them.
With the 2013 MotoGP season at its halfway mark, now is a good time to take a look back and examine the engine usage for the teams and riders. In 2012, with the engine durability regulations in their third full season, the factories appeared to have the situation pretty much under control. The only excitement arose when something unexpected happened, such as Jorge Lorenzo have an engine lunch itself after he was taken out by Alvaro Bautista at Assen last year.
For 2013, the engine allocation was reduced from 6 to 5 per season. Each rider now has 5 engines to last the entire season, for use in all timed practice sessions during each race weekend. With three seasons already under their belt, no real drama was expected, yet that is not quite how it has turned out. While Honda and Ducati are right on course to last the season, Yamaha find themselves unexpectedly struggling. An unidentified design flaw has seen Yamaha losing engines too rapidly for comfort. Both factory Yamaha men have had an engine withdrawn, while there are question marks over the life left in one engine each allocated to Valentino Rossi and the two Monster Tech 3 Yamaha riders.
There was a small flurry of excitement when the minutes of the last meeting of the Grand Prix Commission, including rules on the spec ECU and factory entries were announced last week. That was then followed by a bout of confusion, as everyone tried to figure out what all of the various changes meant, and what impact they may have on the series. It appears that the answer to that question is "not as much as you might think," so let us take a look at what has changed.
The changes announced in the FIM press release (shown below) outline two major changes, both regarding the replacement of CRTs for 2014. Since the return to a larger capacity, the Grand Prix Commission (MotoGP's rulemaking body, comprising representatives of the FIM, Dorna, the teams and the manufacturers) opened the door to a simpler, cheaper form of racing, which in practice (though not by rule) consisted of putting tuned engines from road bikes into prototype chassis. To help such teams compete against the engineering prowess of HRC, Yamaha Racing and Ducati Corse, teams entering under the CRT rules were given extra engines and extra fuel, to allow them to make more power and sacrifice reliability. To prevent other factories from entering under the guise of a CRT, the GPC instituted a claiming rule, which meant that any factory could buy the engine from a CRT for 20,000 euros.
2013 Laguna Seca MotoGP Post-Race Round Up: Of Marquez' Achievements, The Legality Of The Pass, And The Lone Yamaha
It may be, in the colorful phrase of Jeremy Burgess, a "sh*tty little race track," but somehow Laguna Seca always manages to produce moments of magic. This year was no different, with Stefan Bradl finally getting his first podium, Marc Marquez breaking record after record, and Jorge Lorenzo and Dani Pedrosa coming back after both damaging their collarbones at the Sachsenring.
As memorable as those performances were, they will all be overshadowed by one moment. Marc Marquez passed Valentino Rossi in the Corkscrew on lap 4, running through the dirt in scenes reminiscent of Rossi's iconic pass on Casey Stoner back in 2008. The incident fired the imagination of MotoGP fans for so very many different reasons: the reminder of Rossi's pass on Stoner; the even deeper line which Marquez took through the gravel in 2013; the thrill of a rider running through that corner and still managing to return and maintain his position.
Naturally, it was the talk of the press conference. When asked about the pass, Rossi turned his attention to HRC team principal (and Marc Marquez' team boss) Livio Suppo. Suppo was Casey Stoner's team boss back in 2008, and had complained bitterly of Rossi's pass at the Corkscrew. "You and Stoner break my balls for two or three years about that overtake, because I cut the kerb. So what do you say about that? Have to be disqualified hey?" Rossi asked to much laughter. Not to be outdone, Suppo replied in kind: "Thanks for the question, and thanks to Marc, because after a few years, we pay you back!"
2013 Laguna Seca MotoGP Saturday Round Up: Of Surprise Front Rows, Record Books And Qualifying Shake Ups
After free practice at Laguna Seca, things looked pretty well sewn up. Marc Marquez was on another planet, with his fourth pole position a mere formality. Alongside him on the front row would be Cal Crutchlow and Valentino Rossi, with Crutchlow looking like having the stronger pace after free practice, while Rossi possessing more sheer outright speed. The rest? Well, they were irrelevant, and would be even more so once qualifying had proved the pundits right.
Only it didn't quite work out that way. A hectic and eventful qualifying saw Stefan Bradl take his first ever pole position, ahead of Marc Marquez and another surprise package in Alvaro Bautista. Rossi and Crutchlow were left on the second row, just ahead of the walking wounded pair of Jorge Lorenzo and Dani Pedrosa, the Repsol Honda rider heading up the third row.
Both Bradl and Bautista have excelled at Laguna Seca so far, Bradl showing more speed, but Bautista posting a ferocious and competitive race pace. The success of the two is surprising, and wagging tongues in the paddock attribute their sudden burst of speed to the fact that both their seats are currently being widely discussed as being up for grabs for fast and competitive riders. Bradl, it is said, is likely to be moved aside to accommodate Cal Crutchlow, while Bautista could be dropped in favor of Nicky Hayden.
The two satellite Honda riders defended their seats in the most forceful way possible on Saturday. Bautista had been quick all weekend, his best laps keeping him just out of the headlines, but running a consistent pace in the low 1'22s which should be good enough to run at the very front during the race. Bradl took the honor of being the first ever German to secure a pole position, writing his name in the history books alongside his former Moto2 rival Marc Marquez.
When Yamaha announced they would be leasing their M1 engines to ex-CRT teams for 2014, the first wave of reaction was overwhelmingly positive. With 24 liters of fuel allowed, and 12 engines instead of 5, the Yamaha engine package looked like being the best thing on offer to the so-called non-MSMA teams, as CRT is to be called from next year1.
Then doubt set in. Looking at the Yamaha M1 package, what you'd want from Yamaha was the chassis rather than the motor. The engine is the least powerful of the MotoGP prototypes, but its chassis was by far the best of the bunch. Both the Honda and the Yamaha non-MSMA packages appeared to be offering the worst part of each bike: Honda offering their chassis (good, but not great) and a dumbed-down version of their superlative engine; Yamaha offering a full-fat engine (the weakest of the bunch), for teams to have someone build a chassis around without Yamaha's 20+ years of experience building Deltabox frames. Perhaps the Yamaha M1 lease package - a lot of money, just for some engines - was not the bargain it at first appeared.
Laguna Seca is a peculiar track. It is short, tight, dusty, and not really suited to MotoGP, either in terms of facilities or, if we are brutally honest, in terms of safety, despite its FIM approval. It is foggy and cold in the morning, when the sea fog rolls in from Monterey Bay, and hot and dusty in the afternoon, with nowhere for the fans to escape the heat, except for a few solitary oaks scattered around the track. It is only really on the calendar because of its location, in the very heart of California's motorcycling community (though there are many, many people in Southern California who would heartily disagree with that statement.
Despite that, it is still a magnificent venue. If you asked everyone in the paddock which was their favorite event, Laguna Seca would be right up there vying with Mugello. The atmosphere, the location, the surrounding countryside, MotoGP people love the place, so much so that they often stay on afterwards to enjoy the area with a little more time to spare.
The track may be short and tight, but it still seems to generate some great racing. The epic clash between Casey Stoner and Valentino Rossi in 2008 may be the high point, but Stoner's battle with Jorge Lorenzo in 2011, Nicky Hayden's first win when the series returned to the track in 2005, the tight battle between Dani Pedrosa and Rossi in '09. There is something about the track which can bring out the magic.
Just when it looked like the MotoGP silly season was getting ready to wrap up, a few new developments threw a spanner or two in the works. A week ago, most MotoGP pundits were convinced that Cal Crutchlow would be going to Ducati, Scott Redding would be moving up with his Marc VDS Racing team, and there was next to no interest in Yamaha's leased engines. At the Sachsenring, many things changed, in part at the instigation of Honda, and in part because of Yamaha.
Honda has made the biggest move in the market. At the Sachsenring, credible rumors emerged of Honda attempting to secure both Redding and Crutchlow, in two different moves. HRC's approach to Crutchlow could cause the biggest upset. The Japanese factory is known to be very impressed by Crutchlow, but their dilemma is that all four Honda prototype seats are ostensibly taken for 2014. While both Marquez and Pedrosa have contracts for next year, and Bautista is locked in at Gresini for 2014, Stefan Bradl's seat at LCR Honda could possibly be available. While Bradl is locked in to a two-year deal with HRC, Honda hold the option to decide not to take the second year, potentially freeing up Bradl's bike, and that seat could then be taken by Cal Crutchlow.