The MotoGP paddock is assembled in all its splendor at Jerez, and it is positively bulging at the seams. Shiny new hospitality units (very shiny, in the case of the Go&Fun Gresini unit) now pack the paddock, the existing units larger and new units added, causing the paddock to loosen its belt and expand into the adjacent car park, sequestering part of the area previously reserved for team and media cars. Under a bright blue Andalusian sky, it really is looking at its most appealing.
The expanded paddock makes you understand why IRTA decided to ban Moto2 and Moto3 riders from having their motorhomes in the paddock, all of them now expelled. The riders themselves are less impressed. "It was nice to have somewhere you could zone out during the day, and relax," Scott Redding said of the change. Sitting in the hospitality and watching the world go by was very pleasant, but still left him on his guard, he explained. Private quiet time was gone.
And it also removes part of the socialization process which young riders used to undergo, with the Moto2 and Moto3 men wandering around the paddock chatting to team members and other riders, everyone getting to know each other, and catching up on the latest news and gossip. It was part of what made the paddock feel like a village; a small Italian village, high in the mountains, with an inexplicably male-dominated population. The Moto2 and Moto3 riders added much to the fun of the place, spending most of their evenings challenging each other to wheelie competitions on mountain bikes and scooters. The paddock loses much with the change, feeling more like a workplace than a community.
2013 Austin MotoGP Sunday Round Up: Of Record Breakers, Deserved And Undeserved Attention, and Banquo's Ghost
Another day, another record. Marc Marquez now takes the place of Freddie Spencer as both the youngest rider ever to take a premier class pole, and youngest rider ever to win a premier class Grand Prix. If you had any doubt that Marquez is something special, then the inaugural round of MotoGP at the Circuit of The Americas in Austin, Texas should have removed it. Marquez is on the path which all great riders take, scoring a podium in his first race, pole and a win in his second. This is what preternaturally talented riders do: learn fast, and race fast, and win soon.
The manner of Marquez' win was what was most impressive. Together with his team, the Spaniard elected to run the harder rear tire, holding station when everyone else (except for fellow Honda rider Stefan Bradl) chose the softer of the two options. After overshooting the start, he slotted in behind his Repsol Honda teammate - a rider in his 8th season of MotoGP - evaluated how wear was affecting his rear tire, then pushed hard to pass Pedrosa in a strong and gutsy move through turns 5 and 6. He then nursed a front tire that had developed a minor problem home to take his maiden win in MotoGP, and take two of Spencer's records, both of which had stood since 1982. His win was not just a matter of talent, but also of great maturity, and of having the backing of arguably the strongest crew in the paddock.
One record down, one to go. By qualifying on pole in just his second MotoGP race, at the age of 20 years and 61 days, Marc Marquez becomes the youngest premier class polesitter in history, deposing the legendary Freddie Spencer of the crown he has held for 31 years. On Sunday, Marc Marquez will go after the next target: the record as the youngest winner of a premier class Grand Prix, also held by Spencer. If he fails to win on Sunday - a very distinct possibility - he still has until Indianapolis to take Spencer's record, making it very far from safe.
Marquez' pole was the crowning glory of an utterly impressive weekend so far. The Repsol Honda youngster has dominated most of practice, leading his teammate by a quarter of a second or more in every session but one. He was immediately fast, but his race rhythm is just as impressive. In FP3, as grip on the track improved, Marquez cranked out 2'04s and 2'05s like they were going out of style. He was consistent, too. Not quite Jorge Lorenzo consistent, but he was running a pace that would have let him build up a lead, with only Dani Pedrosa able to stay close.
The first day of practice at the Circuit of The Americas was summed up with eloquent brevity by the headline of the press release issued by the RW Racing GP Moto3 team of Jasper Iwema and Jakub Kornfeil: "No grip in Texas." Despite the awesome facility, a fascinating and difficult track, and clear blue Texan skies, the times set by all three Grand Prix classes in Austin were a very long way off what had been expected, as the riders struggled to find any grip anywhere.
Why was the grip so low? The heavy rains from the previous day didn't help, washing any rubber that was on the track away. Not that there was much, on a track that has seen very little bike use in its short existence so far. Then there was the cool temperatures, with thermostats showing just 13°C in the morning, and a strong wind blowing away any heat the sun managed to get into the tarmac. "Like riding on ice," was the common consensus in the morning, with times some five and a half seconds off that set by Marc Marquez at the previous test back in mid March, at which conditions were far from ideal.
"This is the reality," factory Ducati rider Andrea Dovizioso told the media after finishing 7th at Qatar, some 24 seconds off the pace of the winner, Jorge Lorenzo. Hopes had been raised on Saturday night, after the Italian had qualified in fourth, posting a flying lap within half a second of polesitter Lorenzo. While Dovizioso's qualifying performance had been strong, he had at the time warned against too much optimism. The Desmosedici is good on new tires, but as they begin to wear, the chronic understeer which has plagued the Ducati since, well, probably since the beginning of the 800cc era, and maybe even well before that, rears its ugly head and makes posting competitively fast laps nigh on impossible.
The problem appears to be twofold. Firstly, a chassis issue, which is a mixture of weight distribution, gearbox output shaft layout, frame geometry and, to a lesser extent, chassis flexibility. And secondly, a problem with engine response, an issue which is down in part to electronics, and in part to Ducati still using just a single injector per throttle body. The weight distribution problem causes the bike to want to run wide at corners, making it hard to keep it on line; the throttle response issue just makes this worse, with the throttle either very harsh and aggressive, and difficult to control, or, when the revised electronics package is used to soften power delivery, makes the throttle response feel remote, and removes the connection between throttle and drive from the rear wheel.
Much has been made in the days since the thrilling MotoGP season opener at Qatar of the charge of Valentino Rossi through the field and the pace he ran to catch the group behind Dani Pedrosa. Speculation has been rife that had Rossi got a better start - and more importantly, got a much better qualifying position - he could have matched the pace of Lorenzo, and taken the fight to him. But just how realistic is the idea that Rossi could have run with Lorenzo at Qatar, and that Rossi could have matched the pace of his teammate? Reality, or just wishful thinking?
There's one way to assess the relative performance of the two riders, relatively free from speculation and conjecture: by comparing the fastest lap times of the two, and seeing whose pace is better. Setting the fastest laps of Lorenzo against the fastest laps of Rossi - and the fastest laps of all top five riders, including Marc Marquez, Dani Pedrosa and Cal Crutchlow - should give a much more objective few of the relative speed of the riders.
At least, that's the theory. In practice, there are a number of factors which influence the lap times set by each rider which need to be taken into account. When was the lap time set? Where was the rider in the running order when the time was set? What strategy was the rider pursuing when the lap times were set?
Rossi vs Lorenzo
What was the big story of the MotoGP season opener in Qatar? It's obvious: The Doctor is back. After a failed pass on Andrea Dovizioso, in which he ran wide and hit his brake lever protector on the back of Dani Pedrosa's rear tire - "The protection saved me, because for sure I crash [without it]" he said afterwards - he upped the pace and chased down the group containing Dani Pedrosa, Marc Marquez and Cal Crutchlow, passed them all, and after a thrilling battle with Marquez, went on to take second place in his first race back with Yamaha. If anyone thought that Rossi might have lost it, this was the race in which he proved that he was still capable of being at the front, the only condition being that he has a decent machine underneath him.
That reading of the race, though both attractive and seductive, is not the complete picture. Viewed with a more jaundiced eye, Rossi was comprehensively thrashed by his teammate - "In this weekend, I think it is impossible to beat Lorenzo," he admitted - closed down on a group being held up by a struggling Pedrosa, who had been troubled by a lack of rear grip all weekend, then had enormous difficulty dealing with a MotoGP rookie, racing for the first time in the class. Is that beautiful palace on the horizon real, or was it just a mirage, a trick of the light in the desert?
If you have aspirations of winning the championship, the first qualifying session of the year is your first chance to stake your claim. Qualifying is the moment you stake your claim, show everyone what you have, and what they are up against. The rest of the year, pole position is nice, but the most important thing is to be on the front row, and get a good start. But at the first qualifying session of the year for the first race of the year, you need to send your opponents a message: This is what you are up against. This is what you face if you wish to beat me.
Champions know this. At Qatar, the champions made their presence felt, and announced their intent to the world. In MotoGP, the defending champion - and the man who starts the year as favorite - set a pace that none could follow, robbing upstart Cal Crutchlow of what would have been his first pole. In Moto2, Pol Espargaro made a mistake, crashed, and corrected his error as soon as his bike was rebuilt, pushing hard to take pole in the dying seconds of the session. And In Moto3, Luis Salom took his first ever Grand Prix pole by putting it on the line when it mattered, seeing off all-comers in the final moments, while Maverick Viñales gritted his teeth to ride through the pain and grab 2nd on the grid.
Racing at the desert at night, in the false noon created by the astonishingly efficient lighting system at the Qatar circuit, is always going to be a weird experience. But on Friday, events conspired to take it from the merely odd into the strangely surreal. The culprits? The weather was one, the odd fleetingly brief shower of thick rain drops sending everyone scurrying into the pits and scratching their heads over what to do. The other thing that had many people confused was the new qualifying rules. Though not necessarily particularly complex, like all rule changes, the effect they have on the system, the way the weekend operates, only becomes apparent once the changes are put into effect.
But before I get to that, some attention deserves to be paid to Marc Marquez. In his very first MotoGP weekend, he topped his second ever session of free practice, and followed it up by being fastest in his third session of free practice as well. He has now been quickest in the majority of the official MotoGP sessions he has ever taken part in. OK, that's only two out of three, and the conditions have been a little unusual, but to be this fast this early is astonishing.
It's back. The world is a better place now that young men are wasting fuel going round in circles at irresponsibly breakneck speeds on multimillion dollar motorcycles. (On a side note, someone pointed out today that a satellite 160kg Honda RC213V costs about half its weight in gold, at current prices, which suggests that a factory bike must be close to costing its own weight in gold). The lights in the desert are once again spectacularly lit, and the sandy void which surrounds the Losail circuit again rings with the bellow of MotoGP bikes.
Not that the desert void wasn't already a surprisingly packed place. On the other side of the access road to the circuit sits a massive building site, where work is being undertaken on the Lusail Iconic Stadium, one of the many stadiums being built for the 2022 FIFA Soccer World Cup. The scale of that work is vast, as is the amount of dust the work is kicking up, much of which is being blown over the track. When the Moto3 bikes hit the track - the first class to go out at the circuit, with the exception of a QMMF Superbike round earlier in the day - it looked like the little four-stroke bikes were blowing engines left, right and center, as they kicked up clouds of dust and trailed them behind them.