2013 Barcelona MotoGP Sunday Round Up: Of Boring Perfect, Weird Strength, and Yamaha's fuel tank
Jorge Lorenzo ran a perfect race at Barcelona. Well, not quite perfect, he told veteran US journalist Dennis Noyes that he made just a single mistake. 'Luckily nobody saw it, and you cannot see it on the data,' Lorenzo said. After a difficult qualifying session, Lorenzo put the hammer down from the start, attacking Dani Pedrosa aggressively into Turn 1 once again, just like in Mugello, and then pushing hard all race long, despite a front tire that kept threatening to let go.
So how did he do it? How did he pull off a win when most people were convinced that Pedrosa had the win in the bag? Two factors: his own mental strength, and a radical and inspired set up change during warm up, in preparation for a hot race with no grip. Wilco Zeelenberg, Lorenzo's team manager, explained to me exactly what they had done. "We created a lot less pressure on the front of the bike," the Dutchman explained. "That's not what you would normally do, but because you know you won't be able to do 1'42s all race, you know you don't need the best set up."
The extreme temperatures had caused everyone problems, and Lorenzo's crew, led by Ramon Forcada, had elected to give Lorenzo more feeling, sacrificing grip. "If you look at the lap times, they bring tears to your eyes. I mean, if Dani [Pedrosa] can qualifying in 1'40.8, and he ends up lapping at 1'43 pace, then there's something wrong. It means everybody is riding on eggshells." Lorenzo himself was uncertain of the revised set up. Lorenzo had told Zeelenberg that he wasn't sure that he was really any quicker, but he could get into the corner with a lot more confidence. "That didn't give him any advantage in terms of lap time, but it meant he knew he could go exactly this far, and no further," Zeelenberg explained.
Lorenzo himself emphasized his mental strength. "The important thing is that I never lose my concentration, I never go down mentally," Lorenzo said. "I keep strong, even after the difficult qualifying, and that's how I keep fighting for the title." The burnt clutch he suffered during qualifying on Saturday hadn't fazed him, nor had the news that his team had decided to take a fourth engine of the five he is allowed for the season, despite the fact there are still twelve races to go.
Lorenzo's focus is legendary, and it is this which allows him to ride with such precision. He is able to ride without distraction, whatever fate throws at him, apparently. The team which surround him play an important part in this. Wilco Zeelenberg was brought in as team manager to provide a cool Northern European head in the rest of the hot-blooded Latin garage, and both Zeelenberg and Forcada carefully shield Lorenzo from some of the harsh realities he faces.
This was brought home once again by the engine situation. Lorenzo has had one engine withdrawn, but the Spaniard is convinced he will get the engine back without penalty. Rather than disabuse him of this notion, his team are happy to let him carry on with that illusion, as it means he stops worrying about the situation. Forcada and his engineering crew will find a way to juggle engines to ensure Lorenzo makes it to the end of the season, without worrying him with the details of their plan. Lorenzo, in turn, leaves it all up to his team, and doesn't push for the precise details of the situation.
Something similar happened last year, when Lorenzo lost an engine after he was taken out by Alvaro Bautista (who appears to have a thing for crashing into Factory Yamaha riders). After the incident, Lorenzo was convinced that he would be given a fresh engine to replace the one he lost, without it being deducted from his allocation. It was only before the next race, once he had calmed down, that his team sat down and explained exactly what the situation was. It is not that Lorenzo's team lied to him, but they never confronted him with facts outside of his comfort zone at the point where it might weaken him mentally. Ignorance is sometimes not only bliss, but it is also strength.
Lorenzo's race was without doubt absolutely inch perfect, as anyone who watched his stunningly precise lines, hitting the same millimeter of tarmac lap after lap, can attest. But a perfect race does not make an entertaining race. In fact, the opposite is true. Watching riders circulate at the very peak of their ability for 25 laps is rewarding from an intellectual perspective, but it does not provide the visceral thrill which so many seek from motorcycle racing.
The same is true in other walks of life. Objects which are absolutely perfect and without flaw soon lose their charm, people preferring instead something which is a little quirky. The race-focused power delivery of a Ducati, the weird looks and odd power delivery of a BMW, the astonishing handling but uncertain reliability of an Aprilia, all these are judged to have character, and cherished for precisely that quality. Meanwhile, a Honda which works flawlessly out of the blocks is deemed to be bland. The most famous picture of a woman is not a photoshopped picture of a supermodel, with all of the flaws removed; it is of a slightly overweight woman with an enigmatic smile on her face.
And so it is with racing. Jorge Lorenzo often complains that his victories do not receive the recognition they deserve. He is absolutely correct: his wins are taken with such surgical precision that it is hard to criticize. Yet such precision is dull to watch: viewers would rather be entertained by gladiators hacking great chunks off each other, rather than watching the neurosurgeon's scalpel perform brain surgery.
The problem, of course, are the motorcycles. Bridgestone has built tires which perfectly suit a Grand Prix motorcycle, which means they are stiff and unyielding, allowing a rider to get the very best out of them. The rest of the bike is built around these tires, with chassis, electronics, suspension and brakes all built to maximize that precision, and allow a rider to hit the same square centimeter of tarmac for lap after lap throughout the race. Technological miracles they certainly are. Entertaining they absolutely are not.
Even then, the tires are not quite perfect. All of the top riders complained about the rigidity of the front Bridgestones, saying that they are simply too soft to be safe. The new front tires were introduced at the beginning of last year, and were designed in response to complaints about the tires for the lighter, slower 800s. Bigger bikes, now 10kg heavier than then, are starting to cause problems.
At the time, most riders welcomed the new tires. All except Casey Stoner, that is, who warned from the start that the tire was not stable enough, and that everyone would start to complain about them once they had been racing them a while. After a litany of complaints on Sunday about the tires - from everyone except Ducati, who need the softer tire to get their bike to work - one journalist pointed out to Valentino Rossi that Stoner had already warned of problems with the new, less stiff front tire. "Stoner is like a fortune teller who can see the future!" Rossi joked, before continuing more seriously, "Sincerely speaking, I never agreed with this tire, but last year I was with the Ducati, and I remember very well, and I said for me, I am in the shit anyway. So it's a decision between Honda and Yamaha. But I remember last year speaking with the Yamaha guys, and asking are you sure that for the Yamaha OK, the soft casing? I don't remember their answers, but yes, Casey was right. Because with the hot temperature and these bikes, we are always very much at the limit."
Cal Crutchlow, Lorenzo and Pedrosa all complained of the too soft front tire. Under braking, the tire appears to deform too much, providing not enough stability for corner entry, and making it a bit of a hit-and-miss affair. The riders have already spoken to Bridgestone about this, but whether Bridgestone will fix this for this season or not remains to be seen.
The Yamaha riders seemed to be having the most problem with the tires, but their issues are exacerbated by the design of the Yamaha. While Jorge Lorenzo romps away at the front, both Cal Crutchlow and Valentino Rossi struggle with the bike in the early laps, and trying to get the bike stopped with a full tank of fuel. This problem was precisely why the factory bikes now have a revised fuel tank, which carries more of its load lower and a little towards the rear. Crutchlow does not have that fuel tank, and that makes it hard for him to push in the early laps. "I can't stop the bike at the start of the race, I lost time in the first two or three laps. We shouldn't be a second behind after one lap. We know the change the factory team have made and for this reason they moved the tank to be able to stop at the start of the race," Crutchlow said.
Rossi has the same problem. "Unfortunately, I still haven't my good setting and balance for the bike. Unfortunately, especially in the first part of the race, when the rear tire has better grip and with the full tank, I am in trouble with the front. I'm not able to enter very fast in the corner because I have pushing and moving from the front, like maybe we are a little bit out of balance, and especially the first three in that moment of the race are able to be faster than me, just 0.1, 0.2 per lap, just half a tenth for the sector, but they are faster," Rossi said after Barcelona. Rossi's problems with the factory fuel tank show that there is something more than just the location of the fuel at play; riding a MotoGP bike hard with a full tank of fuel is a lot more difficult than you may imagine.
If Jorge Lorenzo is simply too perfect to be entertainment, one rider who looks to be both entertaining and talented is Marc Marquez. It is an advantage that he has nothing to lose, as he is still in his first year in the class. But Marquez is exploiting that advantage ruthlessly, and taking risks just to learn as much as he can. "During all the race, I was very very close to crashing, maybe three or four times," Marquez told reporters afterwards. "But OK, I think for me, if I crash, everybody will say, it's his second crash, but for me I learn many many things when I am with Jorge and Dani. So for me is important to try to push, try to do my 100%, but try to be with them. Because maybe I can finish the race in 5th or 6th, but I will not learn the things that I learn when I follow them. So I take that risk. And OK, in Mugello I crash because I was too tired, I relaxed too much, but here I was pushing all the race and that was the key. "
This kind of calm, analytical approach, even to something as frightening as risk-taking, is what make Marquez such a threat. Those judgements he makes will stand him in good stead after a year in the class, and in the meantime, he remains a real threat in the championship. Marquez right now is like a sponge, absorbing any and all information which he encounters, and immediately trying to put it into practice. Once he has his first season under his belt, he will mutate from sponge to shark, and threaten anything which happens to cross his path. This, you would have to say, is a good thing. I for one am pleased.