Analysis

Jerez WorldSBK Round Up: Pressure Plays Strange Tricks

In racing you’re either under pressure or you’re applying pressure. The one thing proven over the years is that pressure will do strange things to a rider. The tension that comes from pressure and your reaction can lead to mistakes and Jerez showed that once again. We saw crashes and cool heads from riders under pressure.

Some riders are at their best when the pressure is at its most, others struggle in those moments and some make their mistakes when the pressure valve is relieved. On Saturday we saw Jonathan Rea make the mistake of a rider who has been seeing a world title slip away after round by round domination of Alvaro Bautista. On Sunday it was Bautista’s turn to make the mistake of a rider out in front. With two Jerez wins already in the bag he would have been feeling secure that another hat-trick was on the cards. Between these two riders stood Michael van der Mark. The Dutchman was peerless in race trim at the Spanish circuit and never put a foot wrong over the 50 racing laps. His reward were three podiums and his first win of the campaign.

Top level sport is 90% mental. The differences in outright talent levels aren’t that significant - they can’t be when you’re looking at the best in the world. The differences are subtle. It’s hard work, dedication and the mental game that separates the great from the very good. A slice of luck doesn’t hurt but you can’t rely on the rub of green on a consistent basis!

Seek and destroy

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Mugello MotoGP Race Round Up: Teamwork Makes The Dream Work

The first person you have to beat is your teammate. It is a truth universally acknowledged in the paddock. After all, they are on the same bike as you, with the same support, so the only difference between your results and theirs is down to ability - in theory at least. Beat your teammate, and your team will prioritize you over them when it comes to contract renewal time, will pay you more money, will send more resources your way. If you're in a factory team, the engineers will listen more carefully to you, and more likely to follow the direction of development you set out.

Teams use this same philosophy to motivate their riders. They encourage internal competition, hoping the two riders will push one another on to greater heights, to risk more for better results. Trying to win a race is motivation enough, but adding the frisson of showing up your teammate adds that little bit extra, the icing on the cake. And reward enough should a rider fall short of winning. So far does this internal competition go that for most teams, the order in which rider quotes appear in the press release is determined by who is ahead in the championship, or who finished ahead during practice, qualifying, or the race.

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Aleix Espargaro: Frustration At A Lack Of Progress, Fears Of Foul Play

Six races into the season gives everyone a chance to size up where the riders, and more importantly, the manufacturers all stand. Teams have had a few races to analyze and optimize the setup of the 2019 bikes, plus a test at Jerez to find upgrades and solutions to problems which only emerge during race. Mugello is the third European race, meaning the paddock is back at tracks which they know like the back of their hand. There may still be a long way to go until the title is settled, but the shape of the championship is starting to shake out.

That leads to frustration for the riders who feel their manufacturers are not making progress. At Mugello, the frustration felt by factory Aprilia rider Aleix Espargaro boiled over into outright criticism of the Italian factory over the lack of progress being made. Essentially, Espargaro said, they were stuck with an updated version of the 2017 bike, having lost an entire season with the 2018 machine. Espargaro saw the other bikes improving, and pulling away from him on track, and there was little he could do about it.

Aprilia are bringing updates for the RS-GP, but they were not fixing the underlying problems, Espargaro said. The latest update Aprilia brought was a new fairing with revised aerodynamics, using two smaller winglet sections, instead of a single larger winglet. Having a smaller side plate made the bike easier to switch from left to right, Espargaro said, but it did not address the main problems.

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Mugello MotoGP Subscriber Notes: The Value Of Teamwork, The Value Of Foreign Travel, And What Ails Yamaha

There are two types of races at Mugello: either a rider has their bike dialed in better than the rest, and they disappear off into the distance from the start; or a group of riders on different bikes find a way to exploit their strengths at different points around the track, and they end up battling from start to finish.

On Sunday, we got the second type of race. Five riders on three different bikes slugged it out for 23 laps, no one able to make a decisive break, despite several riders trying. Each bike had its own strengths and weaknesses, but those differences equaled out over a complete lap, leaving all five on more or less the same lap time. The race was decided on the final lap, by a brave and desperate move, which came off.

The race underlined once again what a fantastic track Mugello can be. It has a range of corners and a very fast straight, and the contrasts between the bikes were stark. The Ducatis could use their top speed along the straight, but also their ability in braking and in holding a line. Alex Rins used the agility and corner speed of the Suzuki to make good any ground lost on the straight to the Ducatis and the Honda. Marc Márquez used the power of the 2019 Honda engine to match the Ducatis on the straight, and the bike's strength on corner entry to hold off the Ducatis, and not lose too much to the Suzuki.

Ducati track?

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Mugello MotoGP Saturday Round Up: Prisoner's Dilemma In Q1, A Grand Conspiracy, And The Pressure To Perform

All is fair in love, war, and motorcycle racing. When the racing is close, and the rivals are strong, then riders, teams, and even manufacturers will go to extraordinary lengths to try to win. There have already been veiled accusations of cheating at Mugello – Aleix Espargaro wondering aloud how the bikes from some factories seem to be able to do things which should not be possible with the spec electronics – though things are rarely quite that blatant. But mind games, intimidation, getting in people's way, putting them off their stride, trying to instill doubt in their minds, all these things are common.

Sometimes, those tactics can backfire. In Q1, for example, Valentino Rossi and Alex Rins found themselves caught in a classic case of Prisoner's Dilemma. In the dying minutes of Q1, while Andrea Dovizioso was chasing a quick lap to put him through to Q2, Alex Rins found Valentino Rossi behind him. At that point, Rins was clinging onto second place, behind Michele Pirro, but he knew that Dovizioso was on a charge. If Dovizioso went faster than he did, he would be out of Q2.

Stark choices lay ahead. Push for a lap and risk giving Rossi a tow, and having Rossi beat him to Q2. Try to force Rossi to pass him, then hope that Rossi would push for a lap, and use the speed of the Yamaha to gain a few extra km/h along the front straight, and bag a spot in Q2.

Caught in a trap

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Mugello MotoGP Friday Round Up: Rookie Revolution, Marquez Gets His Tires, And Ducati's Funky New Aero

And so the rookies conquered Mugello. After a motley crew topped the timesheets in the morning – Marc Márquez taking top spot, ahead of the Ducatis of Danilo Petrucci and Michele Pirro (Ducati's test rider, who is rapidly closing on a light year or so of laps around Mugello, and is immediately up to speed), followed by Fabio Quartararo, Aleix Espargaro, and Jack Miller – the rookies shone in the afternoon. Pecco Bagnaia sat atop the timesheets after FP2, fractionally ahead (0.046 seconds, ironically) of Fabio Quartararo, with Danilo Petrucci taking third, the first of the veterans to cross the line.

For Quartararo to head the timesheets is not much of a surprise. The Petronas Yamaha SRT rider has consistently been fast, already having a pole and a fastest race lap to his name. But Bagnaia's name was something of a surprise. The Italian had been heavily tipped before the start of the season, but once racing got underway, he had slowly slipped back into obscurity. That is part of the learning process, figuring out what you need from the bike at each track, learning from your crew how to get the best out of your package, understanding how the bike behaves in a variety of conditions.

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Mugello MotoGP Thursday Round Up: The Danger And Glory Of Mugello, The Risk Of Going Faster, And Aprilia's Woes

"Mugello is a fantastic track," Valentino Rossi told the pre-event press conference at Mugello, a sentiment echoed by every single rider and just about everyone in the paddock. "When you ride the feeling is great." It really is a magical place, and a magical experience.

But it is not without its dangers, chief among them the brow of the hill the riders take at over 350 km/h just before they have to brake. "It's also an old style track," Rossi said "So in some points it's also dangerous because you are very fast, not a lot of space around and the braking for the first corner is at the limit. It's very good to ride, but if you arrive at 340 or 350 km/h, it starts to be dangerous because of the jump, the hill. So maybe we have to modify a little bit, but I think it's not very easy. Maybe we try to arrive at little bit slower. Or we try to cut a little bit the jump and make it a bit more flat, if it’s possible."

It is a constant topic in the Safety Commission, where the riders meet with FIM and Dorna officials to discuss how to make the racing safer and better. Marc Márquez explained that the end of the straight, where the track snakes right and left up a slight incline, until reaching the brow of the hill before plunging down towards San Donato, the first corner, was something under continuous discussion. The wall on the left is too close, the crest itself is dangerous, and speeds generally are very high at that point of the track.

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Mugello MotoGP Preview: Speed, Danger, And Beauty - The Magic Of Mugello

Once upon a time, every Mugello press release started with the same words: "Nestled in the Tuscan hills, Mugello is the jewel in the crown of MotoGP race tracks". After a few years, that cliche became too much even for the writers of press releases. And yet the basic statements in those press releases are as true today as they ever were. There is, after all, a reason cliches come about.

For Mugello is arguably the most beautiful race track on the MotoGP calendar. The circuit is wedged in a valley, the track snaking its way around one side up towards the head, then off along the other side, and down toward the dip between the Arrabbiatas, and the track entrance. It is set against a backdrop of steep Tuscan hills, covered in a mixture of woodland and pasture. It is a bucolic setting for one of the greatest race tracks in the world.

What makes it truly great, of course, is the fact that it is large enough for the MotoGP machines to stretch their legs. The official top speed recorded at the track is 356.5 km/h last year, but the speed trap is at a point where the bikes are starting to brake. Dorna don't like people to talk about just how fast the bikes really go at Mugello, and Brembo are said to be reluctant to state the real speeds reached. There is good reason to believe they are hitting around 360 km/h already, and it could easily be even faster.

Racing, reflected

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Le Mans MotoGP Race Round Up: Taking Victory, Beating Marquez, And Finding More Speed

The key to success in MotoGP is adapting to the tools you have been given. That means understanding what the bike will and won't do, and how to get the most out of it. It means understanding how to make a tire last, where to use the available grip, and how to save wear as much as possible. It means knowing what your crew chief needs to know to give you the bike you need. And it means understanding where a track will give you an advantage, and where to minimize your losses.

The 2019 MotoGP field is an object lesson in just how difficult this can be. Johann Zarco went from chasing podiums on the Tech3 Yamaha to competing for points on the factory Red Bull KTM. Jorge Lorenzo went from being a red hot favorite on the Yamaha to struggling on the Ducati to winning on the Ducati to struggling on the Repsol Honda.

Their prospects of success on these bikes are down to their approach. Lorenzo learned on the Ducati that he had to change his riding style, and if he did, Ducati could tweak the bike to bring it closer to something he could use, and eventually a bike he was capable of winning on. He is now going through that process again on the Honda. Zarco has tried and failed to get his head around the fact that the KTM will not ever be a Yamaha, and he cannot try to ride it like one. He persists in trying to be smooth, while Pol Espargaro wrestles the RC16 ever further forward.

Change is the only constant

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Le Mans MotoGP Subscriber Notes: Winning Tactics, Overheating Front Tires, What Yamaha and Ducati Want, And The Impossibility Of A KTM Aluminum Chassis

There are lots of ways to win a motorcycle race, but most racers are only capable of applying one. Some riders can only win they can break away at the front, and have a clear track to ride clean, fast lines. Other riders can't maintain a pace on their own, so have to sit behind a fast rival and wait until the end of the race to pounce. Some need to sit in a group and exploit the dynamics of that group to create the right moment to strike.

Great riders can adapt to any type of race. If they need to break away, they break away. If they need to sit with another rider and wait, they wait. If they need a group to drag them along, they sit in front of a group and slow the whole thing up to control the race and wait to pounce.

The truly great riders can manage all of this, and understand what is needed in any particular situation. They don't just adapt to a type of race, they create the race they need in order to win. It can render them nigh on invincible, as they control the race. They write the rules, and force everyone else to play along with them. Then they rewrite them again, and leave their rivals on the back foot.

Finding a way to win

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