2011 Aragon MotoGP Saturday Round Up: Going Over Old Ground, Motegi, Rossi, Marquez
There are a number of subjects that it feels like we've been talking about forever this season. The two biggest are obvious: Valentino Rossi's battle with the Ducati Desmosedici, and Motegi, so it becomes tedious to have to talk about them again. But the reason we keep talking about them is simple. They are big. These are the stories that really matter. So we have to keep talking about them.
The subject of Motegi will not be relevant for long. In two weeks' time, the MotoGP circus will alight at the Japanese circuit, most of whom carrying large packages containing food, and for the more paranoid, even water. All of the MotoGP riders will be there, Valentino Rossi announcing at Thursday's press conference that he would be going to Motegi, and HRC issuing a press release announcing they would have eight (count 'em, eight) riders at Motegi, with Japanese veterans Shinichi Ito and Kousuke Akiyoshi entered as wildcards.
After the front row press conference, Casey Stoner, the very last holdout, admitted he too would be going to Motegi. Like Rossi, he said that the tests had shown no positive results, and after talking to several sources he trusted (including HRC, he added) he felt he had no reason to stay away. The thing he was worried about most of all was the same as Rossi, of an earthquake hitting while he was in Japan, just as had happened to Indycar this weekend. He had experienced an earthquake in Motegi several years ago, he told the press, and he had found it surprisingly frightening.
But he will go, as will everyone else. There will be a large number of 125cc and Moto2 teams sending only the very minimum staff to Japan, many of them just the riders and team managers, and then hiring local staff to work on the bikes. It is conceivable that a large number of teams will turn up with just their riders and managers, and be unable to find staff to get the bikes to run. The teams believe that they will have fulfilled their part of the bargain by turning up in Motegi (the alternative being finding themselves without a spot on the grid for next season), the question is whether Dorna and IRTA expect them to attend, or to actually race.
While the question of Motegi is nearly done with, the question of Valentino Rossi's turbulent marriage to the Ducati Desmosedici looks set to run and run, with still no end in sight. The latest chapter will see Rossi start from pit lane, as the aluminium chassis which Rossi started to use on Friday requires slightly different engine mounts. The mounting points where the longer rear frame spars are mounted are different to the ones used for the carbon fiber chassis, meaning that Rossi can no longer use engines #4 and #5 which he had taken at Assen to allow him to use the GP11.1, the destroked version of the 2012 Desmosedici. The engine Rossi started to use at Misano already had the modified mounting points in situ for the new chassis, but the old chassis would still fit that engine, #6 in his allocation. To allow him to have two bikes with the same chassis, Rossi will now use engine #7, and accept the accompanying penalty.
For full details of the engine changes, as well as an explanation of the engine rules, see the story I wrote earlier today, but the situation is illustrative of the predicament Ducati find themselves in. While it is clear that Casey Stoner was extremely competitive on the various iterations of the Desmosedici, that is not doing Ducati very much good at the moment. As Andrea Dovizioso pointed out at Misano, it has been clear that the Ducati has been hard to ride since Marco Melandri sat in his pit box at Jerez in 2008 with a look of horror on his face. The fact that Casey Stoner found a way to ride around the shortcomings of the bike is frankly irrelevant, after all, Stoner is on a different bike this season, and no longer providing the magic ingredient that was required for Ducati's success. Comparisons between Valentino Rossi and Casey Stoner are fruitless, as the two have completely different requirements as riders. Like Freddie Spencer before him, Stoner can ride anything, and ride it as fast as the tires will permit. Rossi needs a bike that at least handles: It may be underpowered, it may wheelie too much, it may have issues with rear grip, but if the front is strong and the bike is agile, Rossi is the hardest man in the world to beat. After all, Rossi collected a total of seven world titles in the premier class, and they don't give those away with boxes of breakfast cereals.
The bike is clearly the problem, but what can be done to fix it? It is not just that development work is lagging behind the other factories, Ducati seem to actually be going backwards this year. Nicky Hayden is at a loss to explain, telling reporters "whether it's rider, bike, track, I don't know, but we're just not as fast as we were last year." He had no theories to offer, no explanations, no avenues of investigation to pursue. "Truthfully, I'm not exactly sure why we're slower. If I knew why, then we would have fixed it," Hayden said.
The question is whether the new aluminium chassis will make any difference. Rossi said that it helped, giving him a little more feel from the front. The problem was that Aragon is a track which is more about rear traction than front turning, and so it is far from ideal for testing a chassis that has been designed to help the bike turn and give the front end more feel. It was better, Rossi said, allowing him to ride the bike more like he wanted, but it was not a huge revolution.
Watching Rossi out on track, he looked more comfortable, but while Stoner and Lorenzo were at one with their machines, Rossi still looked a little stiff and awkward. Go back and watch the races from last year - even ones where Rossi was struggling in mid-pack, or suffering with his shoulder - and he looks like a different rider, regal, supremely confident, able to put the bike where he wants. Perhaps the key indicator to Rossi's comfort level on the bike is the lack of dangling leg, the trademark that he used to get inside the minds of his opponents. As a Dutch journalist friend of mine pointed out to me, the young kids in Moto2 and 125 are dangling their leg less and less, as Rossi keeps his leg close to the Ducati's footpeg.
While the Ducatis are slower, everyone else is quicker, and none more so than Casey Stoner. The Australian has a knack for excelling at tracks he is not particularly fond of, and Aragon is no exception. Stoner's race pace is depressing, for everyone except HRC, Stoner, and his fans. In the first part of qualifying, while Stoner was working with hard tires on his race setup, he was constantly posting low 1'49s. The rest - consisting in this case of Repsol Honda's Dani Pedrosa and Andrea Dovizioso, as well as Yamaha's Ben Spies - are lucky to be able to post high 1'49s consistently, with a low 1'50 likely to be the target for a strong race pace. That will not be good enough to get anywhere near Stoner though.
The MotoGP race looks to be over before it is done, with Stoner a step above the rest. The fight for 2nd could be good, though, with Pedrosa, Spies, and Dovizoso all pretty evenly matched. The wildcard is Jorge Lorenzo, who on the face of it has a pretty terrible race pace, the reigning World Champion struggling to find a setup. His one hope was for a wet race, he told reporters after QP, and judging by the reports coming from the track this evening, where a thunderstorm has been raging over the track, Lorenzo may get what he asked for.
Just because there is controversy in the MotoGP class does not mean that everything is well in Moto2. Marc Marquez has been ripping up the track at Aragon, much to the dismay of the other Moto2 riders. The reason - apart from Marquez' undeniable talent, that is - is the 2012 prototype parts the Spaniard has been given by Suter. The new swingarm and revised frame now turns better and has more rear grip, and according to Scott Redding, who also tested at Valencia alongside Marquez, the new parts offered an improvement of around three tenths of a second. Marquez sits on pole for the Moto2 race, nearly seven tenths quicker than the rest of the field. It is clear that Marquez is receiving special treatment from Suter - the other teams have been complaining that they cannot buy the new parts from Suter despite having the money to pay for them - but it is equally clear that there is good reason for him to be in such a favored position. The more we see of Marquez, the more it is clear that this is a special talent indeed.