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The resurfacing of Phillip Island at the start of 2013 caused a massive problem in both MotoGP and Moto2 during last year's Australian Grand Prix. The vastly improved surface saw lap times drop and corner speeds go up dramatically. Marc Marquez' fastest race lap of the circuit was just over 2 seconds faster than Casey Stoner's best race lap the previous year, and just under Nicky Hayden's lap record of the circuit, which had stood since 2008.
The radically faster surface led to much greater heat build up in the tires, with the rear tires of both Moto2 and MotoGP bikes showing severe and dangerous degradation. The problems forced both Moto2 and MotoGP to be drastically reduced in length, the Moto2 race slashed from 25 to 13 laps, and the MotoGP race cut from 27 to 19 laps, with the added complication of being forced to come in and swap bikes, and hence rear tires. The compulsory pit stop caused a good deal of confusion, eventually leading to the disqualification of Marc Marquez for missing the compulsory pit window.
To avoid a repeat of the situation, both Dunlop and Bridgestone are bringing new tires to the track, with much harder compounds. Both tire manufacturers have been hard at work designing tires to cope with the surface, based on data collected at a test here in March, where the factory Honda, Yamaha and Ducati riders, along with two top Moto2 teams tested a large range of tires. Dunlop and Bridgestone are both now confident that their tires will last the full duration of the race without any major problems.
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.
Ever since he left Ducati at the end of 2010, Casey Stoner has cast a long shadow over the Italian factory. He was the ever-present specter, sitting like Banquo's ghost astride the Desmosedici that any other rider dared swing a leg over. There was a contingent of fans and journalists who, after every poor result by the riders who succeeded Stoner, would point to the Australian's results and say "but Casey won on the Ducati."
What impressed me most about Valentino Rossi's time at Ducati was the calmness and dignity with which he responded to the same question being asked of him, week in, week out. "Valentino," yet another journalist would ask each race, "Casey Stoner won on this bike. Why can't you?" Not once did he lose his temper, ignore the question, or blank the person who asked it. Every week, he would give the same reply: "Casey rode the Ducati in a very special way. I can't ride that way." More than anything, the dignity with which he answered every week were a sign of his humanity, and an exceptional human being. If it takes guts to attempt the switch, it takes even greater courage for someone repeatedly tagged as the greatest of all time to admit failure.
None were immune. Stoner's former teammate Nicky Hayden would be asked why he could not match the pace of the Australian. Andrea Dovizioso had the fortune to come after Rossi, but even he was subjected to comparison with Stoner. Cal Crutchlow was the same, a situation made worse by the fact that he said before he arrived at Ducati that he believed he would be able to ride the Ducati like Stoner. Since arriving at Ducati, he has admitted that he could not.
On Saturday, Andrea Dovizioso may have taken the first step on the path to expelling Stoner's specter from the Ducati garage. The Italian became the first rider to take pole on the Desmosedici since Casey Stoner did so at Valencia in 2010. In fact, he became the first rider other than Casey Stoner to secure pole position on a Ducati since Loris Capirossi in 2006. For Ducati, having Andrea Dovizioso on pole is a very, very big deal. Perhaps even bigger than the factory themselves realize.
2014 Motegi Friday Round Up: Hard Braking Hondas, Rabat's Imperious Pace, And The Moto3 Manufacturer Mix
Will Motegi turn into another Marc Marquez show? Not on the evidence of the first day of practice. Marquez made the highlight reel alright, but for all the wrong reasons. A crash in the first session of free practice shook his confidence a little, and convinced him to take a more cautious approach during the afternoon.
The crash was typical of Motegi. A headshake coming out of Turn 4 put the front brake disks into a wobble, banging the pads back into the calipers. With the 340mm disks being compulsory at Motegi, there was enough mass there to push the pads and pistons a long way back into the calipers indeed. Marquez arrived at Turn 5 to find he had no front brake, and started pumping his front brake lever frantically. By the time the front brake started to bite, it was too late to do much good. With the wall approaching fast, Marquez decided to abandon ship, jumping off the bike in the gravel trap.
Arriving at a corner at 260 km/h to find he had no brakes had been "a bit frightening," Marquez said. In the afternoon, he had left himself a little bit more margin for error, but that meant he had not matched the pace of the fast guys: Jorge Lorenzo, Dani Pedrosa, the surprising Stefan Bradl, Andrea Dovizioso and Valentino Rossi. If Marquez is to wrap up the title at Motegi, he needs to beat Pedrosa and Rossi, but he is not looking likely to do that at the moment. He complained of not having found the right set up yet, something which has not happened often this year, but has resulted in him being beaten when he has. But it is still only Friday, and his rivals, at least, are refusing to write him off just yet. "He will be competitive tomorrow," Lorenzo said of Marquez.
The events of the previous MotoGP race at Aragon look set to have a major impact on tracks around the world in the near future. The crashes by Valentino Rossi and Andrea Iannone, both of whom lost control of their bikes when they hit the still wet astroturf which lines the outside of the outer kerbs, caused the subject to be raised in the MotoGP Safety Commission at Motegi. There, the Safety Commission decided to ask the circuits hosting MotoGP races to remove all of the astroturf from the run off areas around the track. Dorna Managing Director Javier Alonso told the MotoGP.com website that they would start talks with circuits to get them to remove the astroturf as soon as possible, starting with the most dangerous parts of the tracks.
The decision is a complete reversal of the earlier policy devised by the Safety Commission, the closed and private forum in which MotoGP riders can discuss safety issues and other concerns with the FIM and Dorna. As a result of a previous request, tracks had started putting in astroturf on the run off areas. That was in response to changes made primarily for car racing, where gravel traps on the outside of corners have been replaced with hard standing, such as asphalted areas. The astroturf was put in place to prevent riders using the run off as extra race track, allowing them to take corners faster.
The difference between a handshake an an officially signed contract is just under four weeks, it seems. Late on Sunday night after the race at Misano, the Marc VDS Racing team put a message on Twitter announcing they would be moving up to MotoGP for the next two years, racing a factory-backed Honda RC213V with Scott Redding aboard. Honda, however, was far from pleased with the team's adoption of 21st Century technology to communicate with fans and media, and the Tweet was quickly taken down. Though agreement had been reached at Misano on all of the details - a three-year deal to lease a factory-spec Honda RC213V, and putting Scott Redding on the bike for the 2015 and 2016 seasons - HRC deemed that the deal was not yet ready to be announced. Though the contract was public knowledge, the team went silent on the deal.
Part of the Japanese round of MotoGP always seems to involve learning a new name for a natural phenomenon. In 2010, we heard of Eyjafjallajökull for the first time, the volcano which awoke from under its ice cap and halted air travel in large parts of Europe and Asia. We laughed as newsreaders and MotoGP commentators tried to pronounce the name of the Icelandic volcano and ice cap (for the inquisitive, Wikipedia has the correct pronunciation), and the race was moved from the start of the season to October.
A year later, in April 2011, it was Tōhoku which was the name on everyone's lips. The massive earthquake which shook Japan and triggered an enormous tsunami, killing nearly 16,000 people and badly damaging the Fukushima nuclear power station. Again the Motegi race was moved to October, by which time the incredible resilience and industriousness had the track ready to host the MotoGP circus. 2012 turned out to be a relatively quiet year, but 2013 saw the tail end of typhoon Francisco ravage the region, causing the first day and a half of practice to be lost to fog and rain.
So it comes as no surprise that the 2014 round of MotoGP at Motegi teaches us yet another new name. This time it is Vongfong, a category 5 super typhoon which threatens the race in Japan. The super typhoon has been described as "the most powerful storm of the year" with recorded sustained winds of 285 km/h, and gusts of up to 350 km/h. It is currently over open water southwest of Japan, but is heading northeast towards Kyushu, the southernmost island of the Japanese archipelago.
The good news for Japan is that Vongfong is expected to weaken as it heads towards Japan, and arrives over much cooler water. Even better news for Motegi is that the typhoon looks unlikely to reach the region in time to affect the race. Vongfong is set to make landfall nearly 1200 km southwest of the Twin Ring circuit, and have weakened dramatically by the time it reaches the area by the middle of next week. 2014 looks like being another year in which Motegi was spared.
That will please Honda greatly. With Repsol Honda riders first and second in the championship, Honda within 10 points of the manufacturers' title, and the factory Repsol squad closing in on winning the team championship – though admittedly, both Movistar Yamahas would have to not score to achieve that at Motegi – Honda would really like to celebrate at home. The Motegi Twin Ring circuit is owned and operated by the Mobilityland Corporation, which is itself a 100% subsidiary of the Honda Motor Company, and so the stakes are high. Motegi is also the main test track used for developing the factory's MotoGP machines, the RC213V having racked up monster mileages around the circuit. The combination of hard braking zones, slow corners, long, fast straights and the occasional fast combo should suit HRC's Honda RC213V down to the ground.
Given Marc Marquez' dominance of the 2014 MotoGP championship, the question is not if, but when he will wrap up his second title in a row. His original aim had been to win the title in front of his home crowd at Aragon, but crashes at Misano and then Aragon put paid to that idea. With a massive lead in the championship, Marquez heads to the flyaway races with his primary aim shifted from winning at all costs, to making sure he returns to Spain and the final round of the series with the title already safely under his belt.
Motegi is the first opportunity for Marquez to take the title, and wrapping it up there would please his HRC bosses, as the circuit is owned by Honda and operated by a subsidiary. But it is not a simple question of turning up and finishing, the reigning champion will have to ensure his rivals do not gain too much back on him if he is to lift the crown there. He has a 75 point lead over his Repsol Honda teammate Dani Pedrosa, a 78 point advantage over Movistar Yamaha's Valentino Rossi, and a 90 point lead over the second factory Yamaha of Jorge Lorenzo. So what does Marquez need to do to win the title?
With MotoGP's silly season for 2015 nearing its conclusion, we can draw up a list of contracts signed for next year and beyond. Below is who is going where for 2015, along with what they will be riding and how long their contracts are for:
Loris Baz has finally found his place in MotoGP. After being signed and then disposed of by the Aspar team, the Forward Racing team finally announced that they have signed the 21-year-old Frenchman for the 2015 season. Baz will line up alongside Stefan Bradl on board the Open class Forward Yamaha. The Forward Yamaha will be close to a 2014 spec satellite Yamaha M1, but using the Open software.
Baz' path into the premier class has not been easy. He was in talks with Aspar for several weeks, eventually signing a precontract which depended on Aspar not being able to sign Scott Redding. Once that deadline passed, Aspar the refused to honor the precontract, citing Baz' height - said to be 1.92m - as a reason to reject him.
When problems appeared with the Aspar deal, Baz turned to the Forward team, who were more willing to overlook his height. At a press conference at Aragon, where Forward and Yamaha presented their 2015 project, Yamaha boss told the press that he could not see Baz' height being a problem on the Yamaha.
Another piece of the MotoGP puzzle has been fixed into place. It was widely known that Eugene Laverty would be riding a production Honda for the Drive M7 Aspar team in MotoGP next year, but official confirmation of the fact only came today. Laverty is to line up alongside Nicky Hayden aboard the uprated production Honda, now called the RC213V-RS, taking the place of Hiroshi Aoyama.
Laverty's path into the Aspar team was far from straightforward. The Irishman had been in talks with Aspar, who at the time were also talking to replacement rider Leon Camier and Frenchman Loris Baz. Aspar then signed a precontract with both Baz and Laverty, subject to the condition that Aspar could not secure the services of Scott Redding. Once the deadline for Redding's signature passed, Aspar found themselves with two contracts on their hands. They quickly moved to break the contract with Baz, declaring that they had not known that the Frenchman was 1.92m, despite the fact that Baz' height is a matter of public knowledge. That left Laverty in line to take the seat at Aspar, despite having offers from Ducati to ride at Pramac, and having had talks with Forward Yamaha.
One of the last few pieces of the rider puzzle for 2015 has slotted into place. Today, Pramac Racing confirmed that they have reached agreement with Danilo Petrucci to race for them for the next two seasons. Petrucci will race the Desmosedici alongside Yonny Hernandez in 2015 and 2016.
The move had been widely expected, with Pramac keen to have at least one Italian rider in the team for the sake of their sponsors. Andrea Iannone had been a useful asset for the team, and they needed an Italian to replace him. The other riders linked to that ride - Loris Baz and Eugene Laverty - were less attractive to Pramac's Italian sponsors.
With the second seat at Pramac taken, that leaves just four seats unfilled. Eugene Laverty is believed to have signed to take the seat at Aspar Honda alongside Nicky Hayden, while Loris Baz is close to a deal with Forward Racing to race the Open Yamaha alongside Stefan Bradl. Only the second seat at Gresini Aprilia, and the second slot at Avintia, aboard the Open Ducati remain unfilled.
Suzuki have revealed yet another of MotoGP's worst-kept secrets (and the competition has been tough for that claim this year) at the Intermot motorcycle show in Cologne, Germany, officially confirming that they will be returning to MotoGP from next season, after an absence of three seasons. Suzuki team boss Davide Brivio unveiled the latest version of Suzuki's MotoGP bike - now dubbed GSX-RR - and announced that Aleix Espargaro and Maverick Viñales will race for the team. At the same time, Suzuki also confirmed that Randy De Puniet will race as a wildcard on the bike at the final MotoGP round of the season at Valencia.
The official announcement had been a long time coming, despite the riders and team being an open secret. The wait had been down to a request from Suzuki headquarters at Japan, who had wanted to combine the team launch with the launch of Suzuki's 2015 road bike line up at the Intermot show. The presence of senior Suzuki staff at the launch was seen by the team as a powerful display of support by the Japanese factory.
What a difference a day makes. "There is no way to fight with the factory Hondas," Valentino Rossi had said on Saturday. Within a few laps of the start, it turned out that it was not just possible to fight with the Hondas, but to get them in over their heads, and struggling to hold off the Yamaha onslaught. By the time the checkered flag dropped, the factory Hondas were gone, the first RC213V across the line the LCR of Stefan Bradl, nearly twelve seconds behind the winner, Jorge Lorenzo on the factory M1.
What changed? The weather. Cooler temperatures at the start of the race meant the Hondas struggled to get the hard rear tire to work. The hard rear was never an option for the Yamahas, but the softer rear was still working just fine. From the start, Jorge Lorenzo, Valentino Rossi and the surprising Pol Espargaro were pushing the factory Hondas hard. All of a sudden we had a race on our hands. When the rain came, the excitement stepped up another notch. In the end, strategy and the ability to keep a cool head prevailed. The factory Hondas came up short on both accounts at Aragon.
The forecast for Sunday had been unstable all weekend. But conditions on Sunday morning were far worse than anyone had predicted. Heavy rain soaked the track, then thick fog blanketed the track in a cloak of gray, severely limiting vision at key points on the track. More importantly, the fog kept the medical helicopters on the ground. Without medical helicopters, there's no racing. Should a rider be seriously injured, the helicopters need to be able to get them to a hospital within 20 minutes. When the fog descends, that becomes impossible.
2014 Aragon MotoGP Saturday Round Up: Fast Hondas, Yamaha's Defective Tires, Surprising Ducatis, And Unstable Weather
Is Marc Marquez's season going downhill? You might be tempted to say so, if you judged it by the last three races alone. After utterly dominating the first half of the season, Marquez has won only a single race in the last three outings, finishing a distant fourth in Brno, and crashing out of second place at Misano, before remounting to score a single solitary point. Look at practice and qualifying at Aragon, however, and Marquez appears to have seized the initiative once again. He had to suffer a Ducati ahead of him on Friday, but on Saturday, he was back to crushing the opposition. Fastest in both sessions of free practice, then smashing the pole record twice. This is a man on a mission. He may not be able to wrap up the title here, but he can at least win.
The way Marquez secured pole was majestic, supremely confident, capable and willing to hang it all out when he needed. He set a new pole record on his first run of the 15 minute session, waited in the garage until the last few minutes, then went out. He shook off Andrea Iannone, who was trying to get a tow, then when he saw Dani Pedrosa had taken over pole from him, went all out. Despite making a bit of a mess of the final sector, he still took nearly four tenths off his own best lap, demoting Pedrosa to second.
It wasn't just his pole time which was impressive. The race pace he showed in FP4 was fast, a string of high 1'48s and a couple of low 1'49s. The only rider to get anywhere near him was his teammate, Pedrosa knocking out a sequence of 1'49.0s, followed by a handful of high 1'48s. Pedrosa still has a score to settle, and though Marc Marquez is grabbing the headlines, he could find himself with quite a fight on his hands.