Looking Forward, Looking Back: What We Learned At Indy, And What That Means For Brno
One race down, two more to go in the first of MotoGP's two triple headers in 2013, and this is the most brutal transition. After a draining race in the humidity of the Mid West, the teams and riders pack up, head east and face a wall of jet lag before getting ready to race at Brno, one of the most physically demanding circuits on the calendar. After that, they get to pack up again and head back west, just a short hop this time to the UK, its one hour time difference from Brno small enough not to cause jet lag, but just enough to throw your body clock just out of kilter.
Whether Brno will produce the same flashes of excitement which Indianapolis did remains to be seen. At Indy, the riders encountered what they described as the best surface they'd ever seen at the track - relative, of course, to previous visits - and that helped in some small way to spice the racing up a little. In previous years, getting off line meant running the risk of serious injury, the drop in grip levels meaning riders found themselves in low earth orbit. Getting off line in 2013 was still a risky pursuit, but if you did it in the right place, you could get away with it, and even use it to your advantage.
Valentino Rossi and Marc Marquez had the trick down to a tee. Marquez' passes on both Jorge Lorenzo and Dani Pedrosa were carbon copies of each other, if done in different places. Running wide round the outside of a left hander, before diving up the inside on the right hander. Rossi's passes on Stefan Bradl and Alvaro Bautista were similar, and the way he dispatched Cal Crutchlow was surgical.
Perhaps most worrying for his rivals was the ease with which Marquez controlled the race. After losing out off the line, Marquez settled in behind Lorenzo and Pedrosa, bided his time while the fuel burned off from his full tank, then circled in for the kill. He disposed of his two main title rivals - remarkably, we must now call double MotoGP world champion Jorge Lorenzo, and multiple times championship runner up Dani Pedrosa 'title challengers', rather than title favorites - with apparent ease, then put his head down and dropped them.
Marquez went on to win, adding to his already formidable record total: he matched Kenny Roberts record of four premier class wins in a rookie season. He also matched Roberts' record of three wins in a row in his rookie season. He became the first rider to win three races in a year in the US, joining Jorge Lorenzo and Casey Stoner as riders who had won three races in the same country. He scored his ninth podium finish of the season - the only time he missed out on a podium was at Mugello, when he crashed out - leaving him one short of Valentino Rossi's record of ten podiums in his first year in the premier class. And he achieved all this after just ten races, just over halfway through his first year in MotoGP. He has eight more to try to make those records his own, and add a few more. On his form so far this year, it would be a very foolish gambler who would lay odds against him.
It is true that he has had a little help from his rivals. Both Dani Pedrosa and Jorge Lorenzo have managed to take themselves out of the equation by breaking collarbones, with both men missing the Sachsenring round. But perhaps one of the reasons the two Spaniards have ended up hurting themselves is the added pressure of having a youngster come in and match them for pace. Marquez has forced both his Repsol Honda teammate and the Factory Yamaha to up their pace, and it was already at an incredibly high level just dealing with each other.
Can Marquez do it again at Brno? He could, but it certainly won't be as easy as it was at Indianapolis. Several factors increase the scale of the challenge he faces. First and foremost, the circuit: where Indianapolis played very much to the strengths of the Honda, with lots of tight corners and hard acceleration zones, Brno consists of a collection of wide, fast, sweeping combinations, allowing the Yamahas to make optimum use of their corner speed, and their ability to turn.
That ability was displayed in all its glory last year, in the breathtaking last lap between Dani Pedrosa and Jorge Lorenzo, the Yamaha man held his M1 on an impossibly tight line to take the lead through the stadium section, leaving Pedrosa no choice but to surrender his spot. With so many fast changes of direction and long sweeping corners, the Yamaha can push its advantage to the maximum.
But the Yamahas won't have it all their own way: the track also has a couple of second gear corners, but most of all, it has Horsepower Hill, the power-sapping climb up what looks from below like a mountain road, through the first fast chicane before it crests just as the riders enter the final chicane and head back across the finish line. It was here that Pedrosa finally took victory, exploiting the strength of the Honda up the hill to get into the final chicane just ahead of Lorenzo, retaking the lead and setting off what would be a string of victories in the second half of the season.
Though Yamaha has improved their acceleration between this year and last, they are still behind the fabulous RC213V. It is more than just pure horsepower, though. At Indy, Cal Crutchlow explained, he and his team had elected to run the highest horsepower engine map available. Crutchlow had more power on tap than either Lorenzo or Rossi, yet he was still out-accelerated by the Factory Yamahas. They, in turn were being left for dead out of Indy's final corner and along the back straight, the Hondas having more mechanical grip, and aided by the extra smoothness of the seamless gearbox.
Yamaha also has a seamless gearbox, but it is still not ready to use. In the press conference at Brno, Rossi and Lorenzo were asked if they needed the seamless gearbox if they were to be able to challenge the Hondas. Jorge Lorenzo was cautious not to criticize, while still making his preference clear. 'I hope we don't need it,' he answered, 'because we don't have it.' Valentino Rossi was much more forthright in his views: 'I think the seamless is very important for try to be faster. I also think it is not enough. We have to continue to work on the bike because we have some other problems compared to the Hondas at this moment which give us more difficulties to keep their pace.'
Cal Crutchlow dissected Yamaha's problems as he sees them. The Honda not only has more acceleration, but it makes its power more reliably. 'It amazes me how bulletproof Honda's engines are,' he said. The Yamaha situation - all four men have only one unopened engine left, while Honda has only just started using the third of their allocation of five - gives pause for thought. If Yamaha's engines were blowing the Honda away with horsepower, their engine situation would be more understandable. But HRC's legendary engineering ability - my words, not those of Crutchlow, I hasten to add - meant they are able to both produce an engine that is both massively powerful and massively reliable. Going by the almost mythical status of both their finish and reliability - though don't mention regulator rectifiers to a Honda owner - it should hardly be surprising that Honda's MotoGP engines are both tough and massively powerful.
Honda have also improved their braking, Crutchlow said. They can generate the same braking force in a shorter distance, offering another advantage in a straight fight. Their great weakness remained their turning, however. 'They can't turn quick enough,' Crutchlow said at Brno. All in all, it left Lorenzo facing an uphill challenge, according to the Englishman. 'It's more difficult for Lorenzo to win the title with Yamaha than with Honda,' he said. But that didn't mean he was out of the title hunt altogether. Lorenzo's secret, and his strength, lay in where he finished when things were not going his way. 'Lorenzo's bad days are better than the other riders on a bad day,' Crutchlow said.
Lorenzo has had a couple of bad days recently. The Spaniard has broken his collarbone twice, and had it fixed twice. He isn't alone: Dani Pedrosa also broke his collarbone at the Sachsenring, though he raced once again at Laguna Seca a week later. Both men are recovering well, regaining bike fitness as their injuries heal. Jorge Lorenzo is virtually pain free, but is suffering from a lack of training, having been unable to follow his punishing fitness regime for the best part of two months. Dani Pedrosa took a slightly different approach, focusing solely on rest. Pedrosa had a couple of painful days after Indianapolis, he said, but had felt much better on Wednesday and Thursday. The most important thing was that the muscles were getting a workout again from being on the bike, those muscles being impossible to train properly off the bike. His muscles were loosening up and growing stronger, Pedrosa said. Will their injuries trouble Pedrosa and Lorenzo? On the evidence of Indianapolis, it seems rather unlikely.
Both Pedrosa and Marquez were sure that Yamaha would gain from the test they had at the circuit here a couple of weeks ago. Valentino Rossi was equally sure it would make no difference. During the test, they had mainly been focusing on the seamless transmission, not working on bike set up, Rossi explained. Most of all, it was a very different track they were coming to, Rossi said. 'The condition of the track is very different. The temperature is 15° less now,' he said.
Whatever the weather, Marquez remains the man to beat. Last year, the Spaniard had a thrilling battle with Thom Luthi all the way to the line in Moto2. That year, Pedrosa and Lorenzo duked it out to the final corner as well. Add Marquez to the thrills of 2012, and it could well turn out to be quite the race. Brno is one of the greatest circuits on the MotoGP calendar, and a great race is absolutely what it deserves.