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
To start with, let us examing the five fastest laps set by Jorge Lorenzo, and compare them with the fastest five laps set by Valentino Rossi. First here are the lap times:
|Lap no.||Time||Lap no.||Time||Diff|
It is clear that Jorge Lorenzo's fastest lap times are roughly between a tenth and a quarter of a second faster than those of Rossi. Comparing Lorenzo's five fastest laps to Rossi's five fastest laps, Lorenzo is 0.899 seconds faster than Rossi overall.
That, however, does not tell the whole story. Look at the point at which each rider set their fastest times and you get a bit more of the picture. Lorenzo's fastest laps are all set right at the start of the race, with four of them coming in the first five laps. The reigning world champion took off like a scalded cat, keen to big as big a gap over Pedrosa as possible as early as possible. Pedrosa was the rider Lorenzo had been most concerned about before the race started. "We saw that Pedrosa had a problem, and we took advantage of that," Wilco Zeelenberg, Lorenzo's manager explained. Lorenzo's plan was simple: "I had to push more than 100% to get two tenths every lap," he said. Those first few laps are where Lorenzo won the race. From that point on, Lorenzo focused on consolidating, dropping his pace from mid 1'55s to low 1'56s.
Rossi's early laps were much slower, in part because he got caught up in traffic, and also because he was still not completely certain what pace he could run. After first scaring himself by hitting his brake guard against the back of Dani Pedrosa's back wheel, Rossi took his time to get past Stefan Bradl on lap 8, and then needed a couple of laps to catch his breath and understand what pace he could run. With the group containing Pedrosa ahead of him, he had something to focus on, and as his confidence grew he closed on the group ahead. Rossi's best laps were set during the chase to close down Pedrosa, with the exception of the last lap when he was battling to hold off Marquez.
So how could Rossi close down Dani Pedrosa, an acknowledged master of lapping at great speed? The Repsol Honda man had had problems all weekend, the dusty surface making it difficult to get the bike to turn. At the time when Rossi was running in the high 1'55s, Pedrosa was running 1'56.3s, and Rossi was gaining nearly half a second a lap.
What would have happened if the two had been racing against each other at the same time, with a clear track and with the same level of confidence? That is hard to say. Rossi's pace of roughly 1'55.9 is clearly a pace he could have sustained for a while, and as he was setting it on worn tires, it was not the fastest he possibly could have gone. Jorge Lorenzo was capable of dropping his pace to 1'55.6 for three laps, which was enough to shake off any kind of pursuit. But from there, he was capable of running around 1'56.0 for almost the rest of the race, a pace he was clearly comfortable at and could sustain without taking any risks. The preliminary conclusion is that on the evidence of Qatar - or perhaps it is better to say, at Qatar - Lorenzo still has the upper hand.
Marquez vs Pedrosa vs Crutchlow
Leaving Rossi and Lorenzo to one side for a moment, comparing the times set by the three men who completed the top five also makes for interesting reading. Here are the top five laps set by Marc Marquez, Dani Pedrosa and Cal Crutchlow:
|Lap no.||Time||Lap no.||Time||Lap no.||Time|
What is interesting here is to see just how close together they all are. With the exception of Marquez' best lap, who sets the fastest race lap on lap 3, the times of the trio are all closely matched. This is mainly because the three men spent most of the race close together, with Pedrosa at the front of the group. After the race, Crutchlow complained of a lack of acceleration - something he later confirmed on his Twitter page could be down to a fuel miscalculation, as they finished the race with fuel still left in the tank - while Pedrosa said he had been slowed up by a lack of grip.
Marquez was fast on new tires, something which he had proved during practice, and underlined by setting the fastest lap of the race. But the young Spaniard also spent the race learning; being stuck behind Pedrosa gave him an opportunity to watch his teammate and understand how to manage the bike on worn tires. He adapted his style to compensate, standing the bike up more to use the fat part of the tire, where previously he had been trying to carry more lean angle, and losing out. The lessons paid off: though he set his fastest laps in the early stages of the race, he found another burst of speed at the end, as he fought with Valentino Rossi over the last two places on the podium. That is visible in his times too: Marquez' third fastest lap was set on the very last lap of the race.
Top 20 Fastest Laps
Finally, another way of looking at comparative pace in the race is by looking at the fastest laps set by all of the riders. Putting together all of the times set by all of the riders, the domination by the front five becomes crystal clear. The best time set by a rider other than Lorenzo, Rossi, Marquez, Pedrosa and Crutchlow is the time set by Alvaro Bautista, a lap of 1'56.122. Between them, the front five posted 28 laps faster than that time, Bautista's best lap being the 29th quickest in the race.
Ranking the laps in order of lap time, it is clear that Lorenzo's pace was unstoppable. The factory Yamaha man did not have the fastest lap, but he had 3 of the top 4 fastest laps, and 6 of the top 10. Marc Marquez had 2 of the 10 fastest laps, while Rossi and Crutchlow had just 1 each. Looking at the 11th to 20th fastest laps, it is clear that Rossi's pace here was strongest. Rossi had 4 of those laps, while Lorenzo, Marquez and Pedrosa each had two. Of the top 20 laps, Lorenzo set 8 of the fastest, Rossi set 5 of the fastest, Marquez set 4 of the fastest, Pedrosa set 2 and Crutchlow set just 1.
|Top 10 fastest laps||1:55.445 - 1:55.893|
|Fastest laps 11-20||
1:55.897 - 1:56.038
Can we draw many conclusions from the data presented? A few, perhaps, but only with caveats attached. Jorge Lorenzo is still clearly the fastest rider in the world, at least at the Losail circuit in Qatar. Valentino Rossi has refound his mojo, but faces a very tough nut to crack in his teammate. Marc Marquez possesses blistering natural speed and is learning very fast, as befits a young rider; once he is up to speed, by the halfway point in the season, he is going to be a fearsome opponent indeed. And Dani Pedrosa and Cal Crutchlow are proof that getting set up perfectly right, or having a specific problem at a particular track, is the difference between battling for the podium and settling for points.
If you'd like to go over the numbers for yourself, make sure you check out the PDF files on the results page of the MotoGP.com website. There's the Analysis file, which contains a full list of every lap and sector split for each rider, and there's the Analysis by lap file, which gives every lap by every rider, plus their gap to the front.