"I don't think it will be between only Dani and me," Jorge Lorenzo had said on Saturday night at Motegi. After qualifying, there was a sizable group of fast men, including Cal Crutchlow, Andrea Dovizioso and Ben Spies, who all looked quick enough to keep pace with Dani Pedrosa and Jorge Lorenzo. It turns out he was wrong: once the lights went out, the contest was between the two main title contenders as it has been all season, especially once Casey Stoner dropped out of contention after the massive ankle injury he sustained at Indianapolis.
Qualifying had been deceptive: Jorge Lorenzo took a brilliant pole, and had looked his usual fast and smooth self. Pedrosa had had a bumpy ride - literally, chatter mysteriously appearing early on during QP and taking a long time to get under control, leaving Pedrosa to start from 2nd. The race was similarly deceptive: Lorenzo led, stalked by Pedrosa, and the hearts of race fans beat faster in anticipation of a repeat of Brno. That would not come to be. Once Pedrosa motored by Lorenzo, he was gone, managing the gap all the way to the end.
It was an impressive display and a fantastic achievement, given the Repsol Honda man still had chatter with his RC213V. But HRC are slowly getting a grip on that situation, and are opening the gap over Yamaha once again. Jorge Lorenzo was clear that Pedrosa's advantage lay in acceleration, something which the Yamaha has traditionally suffered with, though the problem has been less this year. "There was too much difference on the straight," Lorenzo said. "I could not recover everything in the corners."
The layout of Motegi certainly helped, playing to the strengths of the RC213V, but there is more to it than that. Dani Pedrosa is a changed man this year; calmer, more confident. Though short of stature, Pedrosa stands tall when he speaks to reporters now, a change that has more to do with his bearing and mental strength than with his physical size. That difference shows in the results as well: Pedrosa has now won four of the last five races, only missing out at Misano. His problems there were not of his own doing: the brake problems and subsequent start from the rear of the grid were a problem caused by the chaos on the grid, not Pedrosa's approach to it.
Pedrosa's problem is that although he is clearly superior at this point in the championship, his deficit to Lorenzo is too great for him close the gap on his own. After his win at Motegi, Pedrosa trails the Yamaha man by 28 points. Lorenzo can afford to finish 3rd in the final three races at Malaysia, Phillip Island and Valencia, and he will still clinch the title. But there is no one to help Pedrosa. "It's just a pity that there is no one else who can stay with us," Pedrosa said, "because every race I win, he's been 2nd."
Despite early hopes, that help will not come from Casey Stoner. Stoner's ankle is still immobilized, weak and painful, and preventing him to ride as he would like to. The recovery period for this kind of surgery was normally six to eight months, his doctors had told him. Stoner is racing again after six weeks. Because of these problems, Stoner can't run the lean angles he normally does, and he can't push himself forward over the front wheel with his feet as he does when he is fit. Instead, he's having to use his arms, and that is proving to be very tiring.
The only place where Stoner might be a factor is Phillip Island. Stoner's home Grand Prix is his very reason for coming back early from injury - if the Australian race had already taken place, there is a very good chance Stoner would simply have sat out the rest of the season, never to return. But Stoner is determined to win at the Island, though his objectives have been turned down a notch after Motegi. Yet the layout of the Phillip Island circuit will help Stoner: fast and flowing, it has few hard braking and acceleration points, and with so many left handers, he is unlikely to run into the limitations of his rigid ankle.
What can Jorge Lorenzo do to hold off the storming Pedrosa? All he needs to do is keep doing what he has been doing so far, finishing 2nd when Pedrosa wins. His ambition means he is hungry for more, however, and he, like Stoner, could get help from the remaining tracks. Sepang has always been a good track for Yamaha, and the flowing nature of Phillip Island, with its fast corners, also plays to the Yamaha's strengths. Lorenzo should be able to secure his second world championship by Phillip Island at the latest, despite the best efforts of Pedrosa.
The real risk for Lorenzo is if he loses another engine. The loss of a new engine at Assen in the collision with Bautista was a concern, but the factories now have the engine situation so far under control that the sixth engine is now almost a spare. That is one reason why the MSMA are pushing for the engine allocation to be cut from six to five for next season. But Yamaha are not quite prepared for that situation: Lorenzo's crew spent all weekend swapping engines in his bike, as they juggle the old engines to eke out the maximum mileage from them, keeping his final engine for future races. Lorenzo used four engines during the course of the weekend at Motegi: two old ones, #1 and #2 for free practice, and #4 and #5 for qualifying and the race. If Lorenzo loses a relatively fresh engine, he could struggle, though it gets less critical with each race. Pedrosa has no such concerns: though he used engines #5 and #6 at the weekend, they are both low mileage units.
While Lorenzo's year is running smoothly, the same cannot be said for Ben Spies. His year has been almost farcically plagued by mechanical issues, and there was another problem at Motegi. Spies ran straight on at Turn 1 at the start of the second lap, after his brakes overheated and failed to stop him. Brake fade and overheating have been a problem for many of the riders at Motegi: the end of the back straight is the only place you can see the carbon disks glow during the daytime, though it is a common enough sight under the floodlights at Qatar. For the issue to arise after just a single lap is extraordinary, however. Spies has had a string of unusual problems this season, so to have another one ceases to be surprising. Where those problems are coming from remains a complete mystery, however.
Less of a mystery was the premature end to Cal Crutchlow's race. While victory was decided quickly and soporifically, the battle for 3rd was fantastic. Alvaro Bautista caught Crutchlow with a few laps to go, after hanging back a little behind the Tech 3 man in order to save his brakes. With five laps left Bautista made his move, and the two men neither gave nor asked for any quarter. Crutchlow had had one attack fail in the penultimate lap, and was lining up a final attempt on the last lap when his bike cut out. He had run out of fuel.
Crutchlow put it down to having run a very fast pace from the beginning, and from having spent so much time alone and without the benefit of a slipstream - aerodynamics is such that both leading and trailing bikes benefit from a slipstream, the rear bike from having the front bike punch a hole in the air, the front bike from having the rear bike reduce the amount of drag caused by turbulence behind the bike. Despite the extremely advanced electronics on the MotoGP bikes, which are continuously calculating fuel load and fuel usage, and adjusting the engine characteristics accordingly, there is still sufficient control left in the hands of the rider to catch the electronics out. Spending some twelve laps riding smoothly and alone, the ECU gave Crutchlow a little more fuel to use to keep up his pace. However, once battle commenced with Bautista, Crutchlow's riding style and throttle use changed sufficiently to throw the fuel calculations out of whack.
Instead of circulating smoothly, Crutchlow was braking harder, sacrificing corner speed at some points to make a pass, then having to make that up by accelerating harder. That uses more fuel; precisely the fuel that the ECU had set aside for the final third of a lap. Crutchlow parked his bike at the side of the track, and was forced to hitch a ride back to the pits on the back of Jorge Lorenzo's M1. "At least I got a ride on the factory Yamaha," Crutchlow joked afterwards.
Motegi is one of the toughest tracks for fuel, with a lot of heavy braking followed by hard acceleration, and including a 300 km/h back straight, which guzzles fuel pushing the bikes through the air at that speed. Raising the capacity from 800cc to 1000cc exacerbated the problems of fuel scarcity. There are a lot of reasons to get rid of the fuel limit, most of which revolve around the explosive effect they have on cost. Making it to the end of the race with just 21 liters of fuel while still going fast enough to win requires a lot of sophisticated electronics, and a lot of expensive ingenuity to invent, design and implement that sophistication.
Those electronics ensure that the engine is running as lean as possible as often as possible, and an engine running lean means an engine running hot. A hot engine requires yet more sophistication - and a healthy portion of unobtainium - to keep it running cool enough not to seize before the end of the race. Two more factors which add to the expense, meaning that costs continue to spiral out of control.
But those factors are precisely the reasons the factories love the fuel limits. Having engines running lean all the time means that a lot of work goes into the electronics to help make the throttle response as smooth and predictable as possible, despite having so little fuel to play with. And lean- and hot-running engines mean that the manufacturers learn a lot about materials and how they wear, and about reducing friction.
That is all very well, but the fuel limits have chased factories out of the sport due to the exponentially increasing cost of competing, and chased fans out of the sport by producing mind-numbingly boring racing. Whenever races have had to be cut back by a lap - such as happened at Sepang in 2010 due to the heat - the racing improves immediately. Giving the bikes more fuel would make the fans much, much happier than they have been recently.
The factories counter with the safety argument: more fuel means that the bikes go faster, which can cause a real problem at high-speed tracks. But that problem will be solved in 2014, when a rev limit is due to be introduced. With revs limiting top speed, there is no justification for the fuel limit any longer, other than the factories' desire to use the race track as a laboratory.
If Dorna get their way and introduce a spec ECU, then the chances are good that the fuel limit will also be raised. Dorna are currently considering allowing all the bikes 24 liters of fuel, to compensate for the loss of sophisticated electronics algorithms. That will allow the teams and the factories to concentrate on optimizing the air/fuel ratio and throttle response, rather than finding places to save fuel. Mind you, even 24 liters of fuel might not be enough: Danilo Petrucci did not make it to the line, either, on the Suter CRT machine, despite having 3 more liters than Crutchlow at his disposal. The BMW has had the most problems with electronics, and Petrucci's problems at Motegi are just another facet of that.
If the MotoGP race was devoid of spectacle, that was once again more than made up for in Moto2 and Moto3. In Moto2, Marc Marquez once again demonstrated why he is being drafted into the Repsol Honda team to replace Casey Stoner in 2013. His display of genius started with a flash of stupidity, however: as the red starting lights came on, Marquez put his bike into gear. He felt something strange, he said, but did not double check the bike was in gear. That proved to be a costly mistake: when he released the clutch, the bike turned out to be in neutral, and he lost a vital couple of seconds before he could get off the line.
He was lucky not to have been struck from behind. Stalling on the grid is a recipe for disaster, especially with 32 bikes behind you all trying to dodge each other. Miraculously, everyone missed Marquez and he got off the line safely among the backmarkers.
Then the second miracle occurred. Marquez did not quite go from last to first - there were three or four riders behind him as he started braking for the first corner - but 23 laps later, it was Marquez who crossed the line in first. It was an incredible display, reminiscent of the race at Estoril during his last year in the 125cc class when he crashed on the sighting lap, came back into the pits to have the bike repaired, started from the back of the grid and went on to win.
Marquez' victory at Motegi was done in a similar fashion. Though he was around 28th position when he sat up to brake for the first turn, by the time he had exited Turn 2, the second of the two right handers, he had already passed ten riders, on braking ability and corner speed. He then took another couple on the run into Turn 3, and by the time he entered Turn 5, he was up to 10th. Was it down to an illegal amount of extra power on the Repsol-backed Catalunya Caixa rider's bike? Watching the replay, where Marquez is passing riders is on the brakes, braking later and harder, and threading his Suter where others are not expecting him. That is not extra horsepower; that is a willingness to take risks, the talent to ensure that you can do what you are attempting, and the confidence in your own ability to focus on what you are doing without worrying about others around you. It had been a real gamble, Marquez acknowledged. "I was at the limit, and I took a lot of risks." It paid off.
Anyone still doubting Marquez' talent, and claiming that his performance is down to the bike and preferential treatment from Suter need only look at Toni Elias. After a dismal first half of the season with Aspar on the Suter, Elias left that team early, in his pursuit of a Kalex to ride. After Aragon, he finally found one, deposing - rather undeservedly - Claudio Corti from Italtrans and taking his ride. Where Elias was lucky to creep into the top 10 on the Suter, on the Kalex he was immediately fast, spending most of the race battling for 5th, before crashing out. Elias has had just a single test on the Kalex; this was his first attempt.
While every other Suter rider struggles, Thomas Luthi being the best of the rest, Marquez challenges for victory every race, fighting off the Kalex that has become the must-have machine for a competitive Moto2 rider. Marquez is winning despite of, not because of, his bike.
If the Moto2 race was impressive, the Moto3 race was positively thrilling. The last lap was packed with drama, with the championship nearly settled as riders collided and crashed out. The drama began at the start of the final lap, when Luis Salom attempted a ridiculously optimistic pass from 4th, to try to take the lead of the group containing Alessandro Tonucci, Sandro Cortese, Danny Kent, and Maverick Viñales, led by Jonas Folger. It was a move that was destined for failure, Salom losing the front and wiping out Jonas Folger in the attempt. That left Cortese leading, with Kent and Tonucci chasing, and Viñales tagging along but unable to attack.
If the race had finished in that order, Cortese would have been champion, but Kent was out for his first Grand Prix win, and outbraked Cortese into the right hander at the end of the long back straight. Kent was through cleanly, but Tonucci, who followed Kent through, forced Cortese wide. Cortese panicked, tried to cut back inside Tonucci, but ended up slamming into him on the exit. The German fell, but kept his bike running, and went on to finish the race in 6th.
He was seething, raging against cruel fate in what was almost a caricature of the sore loser. When he spoke to the official MotoGP.com website afterwards, his anger still had the better of him, claiming that Kent and Tonucci's pass had been 'crazy' and hinting darkly at icy relations in the Red Bull KTM garage from then on. Later, presumably after a good talking to, and after having watched the footage, he apologized publicly on Twitter. "I'm really sorry about my behaviour today," Cortese wrote, "I just overreacted. I saw I could win the title already and was just disappointed about what happened!"
Though his anger was dismissed by fans as a childish and petulant display, that misses the awareness that Cortese had during that last lap. He clearly had an understanding of who had to finish where for him to be crowned champion at Motegi - Salom had to not score any points, and Viñales had to miss out on the podium - and an ability and willingness to act on that information. This, remember, is in the middle of a chaotic last-lap battle in Moto3, the class that makes Viking beserkers look like reasonable and measured people. Cortese knew not just that Salom was out of the equation - that was easy, he had seen Salom fall in front of him - but he also had to be aware that Viñales was back in fourth and unable to challenge for a podium.
That calculation had Cortese seeing visions of wrapping up his first title at the first possible occasion, and it was those visions that caused him to overreact. If he had kept his cool, Cortese would at worst have finished 3rd ahead of Viñales, extending his lead to 69 points, instead of the 56 points it is now. Cortese showed a lot of maturity on the final lap. But not quite enough, and he ran out completely once the race was over. Understandable, forgivable, but a very useful lesson.
He should take the title in Sepang, however. A 2nd place finish will wrap it up whatever Viñales does, and with the KTM in such outstanding shape, that should be an achievable target. This time, Cortese need not be so greedy.