It was a long and very full weekend of motorcycle racing, and to call it eventful would be one of the more obvious understatements of the year. In the 125c class, Johann Zarco finally got the win he has been chasing for so long, and did so in convincing style. In Moto2, Andrea Iannone produced the kind of display that everyone knows that he is capable of, but that he manages a little too sporadically. In the MotoGP class, Honda finally got a win at Motegi after seven years of having to watch their rivals come to their home track and triumph, but that was actually the least remarkable thing about the premier class race.
At Magny-Cours, at the penultimate round of the World Superbike series, two new champions were crowned, to general acclaim that their titles were fully deserved. The titles were clinched in contrasting manner, Carlos Checa becoming World Superbike champion in the dominant style that he had displayed all season, taking victory in both races, while Chaz Davies rode much more cautiously, crossing the line in 6th but still ahead of Fabien Foret, his only rival to the 2011 World Supersport championship. Davies had opted for the glory approach a week earlier in Imola, leading the race by a wide margin and enough points to clinch the title there, but a blown engine with five laps to go put paid to his ambition, and saw him choose the conservative route at Magny-Cours to his first World Championship. The title is just as sweet.
For out-and-out weirdness, the MotoGP race was hard to top. It started before the red lights had even dimmed for the start, or rather, fractionally before, when Andrea Dovizioso, Marco Simoncelli and Cal Crutchlow all jumped the start. Three riders committing a jump start is virtually unheard of at the top level of motorcycle racing, and there was much head-scratching over when the last time this happened, with no easy answers, but the explanation is much simpler when you look at the way the grid lined up. Dovizioso (3), Simoncelli (6) and Crutchlow (12) sat line astern on the grid, all on the final slot on each row. Dovizioso flinched first - his first jump start ever, he protested, not just in MotoGP, nor even Grand Prix racing, but in his entire motorcycle racing career - and he caused Simoncelli, who was watching Dovizioso, and Crutchlow, who was watching Simoncelli, to move too. The lesson from all of this is that you should always watch the lights, not the riders at the start. There are no penalties if the lights flinch.
Normality returned for a couple of corners - though there was a certain amount of pushing and shoving into Turn 1, Valentino Rossi pushing his teammate wide and into the dirt - before more carnage ensued in Turn 3. Jorge Lorenzo had run a little wide on the exit of Turn 2, and headed down the short straight to Turn 3 on the left-hand side of the track. He then moved across the track towards the racing line and the entrance to Turn 3. Unfortunately, he moved to the spot that Valentino Rossi had been aiming for, as he attempted to slip up the inside of Ben Spies into Turn 3. The two collided - both men agreed it was a normal racing incident - but Lorenzo got the better of the collision, being on the inside. Rossi was knocked into the Yamaha of Spies, catching his brake lever on the Texan's M1, locking the front and crashing out. "Finishing the race after 500 meters is always the worst," Rossi said after the race, but these things happen.
What was most frustrating for the Italian was that up until that point, he and his Marlboro Ducati team had been having the best weekend of the year. After the test at Jerez, Ducati had found a new weight distribution for the bike that had helped the team get a hold on setup. For the first time, they had a base setting, with Rossi most happy about the fact that they could work on the bike each session, and make improvements as they expected. The Desmosedici was finally starting to behave like any other racing motorcycle, responding to changes and providing feedback.
Does this mean that Rossi can be competitive on the Ducati again? It is probably too early to say, but after Motegi, Rossi felt he was in with a chance of the podium. With all the ride throughs, riders running off and general carnage, Rossi felt he had the pace for the podium. The 4th fastest time during the warm up seemed to confirm this, especially as that put him ahead of two of the factory Hondas, and on the same pace as Dani Pedrosa. But the proof of the pudding will come at Phillip Island: two good weekends in a row will mean that they have really turned the corner.
An interesting side note is that Rossi and his crew chief Jerry Burgess disagree about the value of changing Rossi's position on the bike. At Motegi, Rossi told reporters that he wanted to change his position on the bike, moving further forward, but this required a modified tank and different footpeg mountings. But according to GPWeek's Michael Scott, Burgess is not convinced, saying the team have bigger fish to fry before dealing with the riding position. What is significant here is that Rossi has been testing the 2012 bike - where they experimented heavily with his riding position - with Ducati's test team, and just one or two of Rossi's normal pit crew. Burgess has not been present at these tests, understandably as he has been at home with his wife, who is still recovering from surgery and illness earlier in the year. Though Burgess undoubtedly sees all of the data from the tests, and speaks to Rossi about the tests, this raises the question of whether Burgess is missing anything, and how Rossi's communication - speaking directly to the engineers and Filippo Preziosi, and in Italian, his native language - is affecting the direction of development.
There are those inside the paddock who claim that the pressure on Ducati is coming more from Burgess than from Rossi. Though Rossi's struggle to adapt to the Desmosedici has harmed Ducati's reputation more than it has Rossi's - fans find it easier to love a person than a corporation - the problems have arguably been more damaging to Burgess' reputation as a crew chief than Rossi's as a rider. Up until this year, Burgess' reputation has been impeccable, piloting Wayne Gardner, Mick Doohan and Valentino Rossi to multiple world championships. Everything Burgess has touched has turned to gold, his skill at bike setup teaming with some of the best riders of their generations to win over and over again.
At Ducati, Burgess and his crew have been unable to turn the bike around and make it competitive for the first time in the collective careers. Much of the sniping Casey Stoner has done about the criticisms he faced on the Ducati have been aimed not so much at Valentino Rossi as at Burgess and the crew, Stoner pointing out that his crew chief, Cristian Gabbarini, managed to get the Ducati working, despite the difficulties in finding a setup. Others have asked the same thing, why Stoner managed to be fast on the bike while Rossi simply hasn't. Some are now starting to lay at least some of the blame on Burgess, for not doing what Gabbarini could do. Whether this is justified or not, this is not something that Burgess is prepared to accept, hence his pushing for a different direction in Bologna.
Rossi's belief that he could have fought for a podium underlines a fundamental weakness in the MotoGP field. After the winner Dani Pedrosa and 2nd place man Jorge Lorenzo, all of the finishers from 3rd to 7th either suffered a ride through penalty or ran off the track in one way or another. Casey Stoner hit some bumps down the back straight and suffered a massive tank slapper, leaving him momentarily without any brakes and lucky just to run off so deep into the gravel and not crash (afterwards, Stoner was at a loss to explain the tank slapper, saying he had hit the same bumps all sorts of ways during the weekend, but never suffered something like that). Stoner lost some 10 seconds in the incident, but still managed to put the bike on the podium, despite having his confidence take a knock: there is, after all, nothing scarier than finding yourself without brakes, especially after the brakes played up a couple of more times during the race.
Marco Simoncelli and Andrea Dovizioso were forced to take ride through penalties, losing 15 seconds in the process, and still crossed the line in 4th and 5th, Simoncelli demonstrating that when he keeps his cool and rides hard, he is a force to be reckoned with. Ben Spies was forced off on the first lap in the crash with Rossi, while Nicky Hayden ran straight on and through the gravel at Turn 1 while battling with Casey Stoner. Spies finished 6th, ahead of Hayden in 7th. Yet all of them made up positions after losing time.
So what explains this anomaly? Clearly, there is a difference in talent between the very top riders and the middle rank, though the MotoGP field is packed with champions at every level. But perhaps the results are a sign of just how important bike setup has become in modern motorcycle racing. The difference between a well set-up bike and a poorly set-up one is larger than it used to be, and as modern Grand Prix motorcycles have become ever more precise, the margin for error of setup has shrunk proportionately. A MotoGP bike is often described as a scalpel, and as any surgeon can tell you - or anyone faced with the prospect of surgery - the sharper the blade and the more precise the surgeon, the better the prospects of success.
For one of the clearest examples, look no further than Ant West in Moto2. Once West was handed a competitive chassis - the 2010 FTR machine is still a pretty good bike, despite being a year old - much was expected of the Australian's results. And while things improved a little, West was still all too often to be found in the nether regions of the results sheet. Yet since veteran crew chief Warren Willing has been brought in to run West's bike, his results have improved dramatically, the Australian now regularly in the points and threatening to join the group fighting for the top 5. With the series now heading to Phillip Island, a podium could even be beckoning.
Jeremy Burgess once said that success in motorcycle racing is 80% rider and 20% bike, though in recent years, he has revised the share to 70/30. The lessons of the past couple of years seem to point to a third factor being involved, that of bike setup. Perhaps now, it is 60% rider, 20% setup and 20% bike, as the complexities of modern racing motorcycles have added an increasing number of variables into the mix. A MotoGP machine has variable suspension, variable chassis geometry, variable engine characteristics, variable engine braking characteristics, variable traction control characteristics. Even variations in tire pressure are having bigger and bigger effects, as the single tire removes the option of changing construction and compound. Each of these variables interacts with all of the others, making for an almost infinitely complex system. Mastering that system is getting more and more difficult, and becoming more and more valuable. Those that can do so can expect their rewards to start going through the roof.