2014 Argentina MotoGP Sunday Round Up: Of New Tracks, Doohanesque Domination, And The Merits Of A Rossi Revival
There is much to be said in praise of the first running of the Argentinian round of MotoGP at the Termas de Rio Hondo circuit. First and foremost, praise should be heaped upon the circuit itself. Designer Jarno Zafelli took a formerly pedestrian layout and added just enough kinks and twists to make for an exhilarating and difficult racetrack. There are plenty of places to pass, and sections different enough that teams and riders can concentrate on their strengths, though that makes them vulnerable at other parts of the track. Add in a final section which lends itself to last-gasp attacks – at the risk of penalty points, as Romano Fenati found out – and you have an utterly superb track for motorcycle racing. If Jarno Zafelli of Dromo was hired more often, instead of Hermann Tilke, there would be a lot more fantastic circuits to race at.
The only negative was the fact that the track was still so dirty, a result of it not yet having seen enough action. Once the riders got off line, they found themselves struggling for grip, losing a lot of ground. Fortunately for the races, almost everyone got off line at some point or other, putting them all on an even footing. Once the surface cleans up properly, the track should offer even more places to attack, and alternate lines through sections. The Termas de Rio Hondo circuit is a fine addition to the calendar.
Crowds and racers thought so too. Attendance wasn't as high as expected: nearly 53,000 paying customers on Sunday, well shy of the 70,000 which had been hoped, but over 6,000 more than Laguna Seca, the race it replaced, despite being a long way from the nearest large conurbations. But the atmosphere was electric, and people came from all over South and Central America to see the action. Adding a race in this part of the world was badly needed. The authorities built it, and the crowds came.
The circuit produced a mixed bag of races: a thrilling Moto3 race, a dominant display in Moto2, and a MotoGP race which was closer than expected. Race of the day was Moto3, which Jack Miller looked like he had in the bag. At a fast track like Argentina getting away is impossible on a 250cc four-stroke single, and drafting is inevitable. Miller had pushed on with Romano Fenati and Efren Vazquez, being joined by Alex Marquez and Alex Rins later on. Rins got tangled up with Vazquez and dropped off the back, leaving just Miller, Marquez and Fenati to sort it out among themselves. The lead swapped regularly, the hard right of Turn 5 at the end of the back straight being one favorite passing spot, as were Turn 7 and Turn 1. But as the last couple of corners approached, Miller felt he had the situation under control. The Australian slid underneath Alex Marquez to take the lead on the turn into Turn 13, exactly as he had planned. What he hadn't planned on was Romano Fenati making a last-gasp attempt to pass the leaders, running out of tire and bumping into both Marquez and Miller. Fenati said he couldn't control his front tire, and so couldn't get the bike stopped as he had hoped.
That loss of control gave Fenati the win, despite Race Direction awarding him a penalty point after the fact. It was a hard move by Fenati, but most of all, it was a mistake rather than a calculated and cynical attempt to bump his rivals out of the way. Miller was livid, but accepted the outcome. He still has a comfortable lead of 17 points over Fenati, but he also probably has revenge in his heart. Next time Fenati gets too close, Miller will be prepared. The fans will love it. Race Direction may not.
After a close Moto3 race, you might expect Moto2 to be more of the same. Times during practice for the intermediate class had been close, many riders within a second of the leader. But Tito Rabat had no intention of hanging around, making a break and going on to take the win unchallenged. Rabat's advantage is even larger than Miller's, the Marc VDS Racing rider leading his teammate Mika Kallio by 28 points, or more than a win. Rabat's lead in the championship is a reflection of the consistency of the Spaniard. His rivals keep failing, Maverick Viñales crashing out in Argentina, with Viñales' Pons teammate and former Moto3 rival Luis Salom taking his first podium.
Belgian rider Xavier Simeon more than made up for his error at the last race in Texas by hanging on to come home in second. This time, Simeon stayed calm, and did not make any mistakes. Rabat was beyond his reach, but a podium was not, just rewards for the Gresini rider. Simeon was not the only Belgian to do well, Livio Loi had taken his best ever finish a little earlier in Moto3. Loi's fourth place was an excellent result for the Belgian, especially as it came on his 17th birthday. Given the debut win by Michael van der Mark in the World Supersport race in Assen earlier in the day, it was an excellent day all round for the residents of the Low Countries.
Then came MotoGP. The first few laps provided some genuine excitement, with a massive battle going on behind Jorge Lorenzo, who managed to get away at the front. It proved a bit of a false dawn: once Marc Marquez had elbowed his way past the bunch ahead of him, he quickly chased down Lorenzo. There he sat, quietly and calmly, until he saw his Repsol Honda teammate Dani Pedrosa start to close in. Seeing it was time to make his move, he passed Lorenzo, dropped his lap times by half a second, and cruised home for the win. Victory in Argentina made it three wins in a row, and a perfect record for Marquez. Three poles, three wins, 75 points and an advantage of 19 points over his nearest rival, teammate Pedrosa.
The ease with which Marquez switched tactics, blitzed past Lorenzo and then put a couple of seconds into the Movistar Yamaha rider in just a few laps speaks volumes of exactly how easy this win was for Marquez. The outcome was never really in doubt, especially as Marquez had dominated practice. The Spaniard is imposing a genuine reign of terror: the last time a rider won the first three races from pole position was in 1971, when Giacomo Agostini was dominating on the MV Agusta. Ominously, that year Agostini took pole in the first eight races, which he also went on to win. The difference with 1971 is that where Agostini was riding a 500cc triple and competing with single cylinder Manx Nortons and the very first two strokes, Suzuki 500cc twins, Marquez faces a field full of factory-built bikes, Hondas, Yamahas and Ducatis. Still, Marquez' rule is complete.
If it continues in this vein, we could be in for another period of Doohanesque dominance. In the second half of the 1990s, the question was not who would be world champion in premier class, but rather how early Mick Doohan would be able to wrap the 500cc title up. It was a dark period for Grand Prix racing, fans fading away to watch World Superbikes, which featured closer racing, but more importantly, a larger-than-life character in 'King' Carl Fogarty, complete with comedy villains such as Frankie Chili. Luckily for Marquez – and for MotoGP fans – the Spaniard is a much frothier and friendlier character than the dark and dour Doohan, and though the racing in World Superbikes is excellent, there is no great narrative, no story being handed to journalists and fans on a plate. Fans are likely to stick with Grand Prix racing simply because there is no alternative, with Marquez' sunny disposition making him easier to watch.
Can Marquez' dominance be fixed? It seems unlikely. Marquez' reign of terror is not based on greatly superior machinery, though the Honda RC213V is clearly the best of the factory bikes. The rule changes coming in 2016 will make little difference in this regard, and given Marquez' control of the Moto2 class on an inferior machine – though Marquez' Catalunya Caixa Suter was immaculately prepared, it was nowhere near as easy to ride or turn as the Kalexes which dominated the grid – there is little room for hope. Much has been made of the three-class system in MotoGP, with the Factory Option bikes, Ducatis, and then Open class machines. In reality, there are only two classes: Marc Marquez, and the rest.
I always believed there was no greater racer than Giacomo Agostini, and then came Valentino Rossi. When I understood exactly what Casey Stoner was doing, I believed I would never see a better motorcycle racer than Stoner, the Australian eclipsing Rossi in terms of raw talent. Now, here comes Marc Marquez, shattering expectations, making the very best motorcycle racers in the world look rather silly. The sooner Maverick Viñales, Alex Marquez, Jack Miller, maybe even Fabio Quartararo join MotoGP's premier class, the better.
Though Marquez' talent is beyond question, clearly he also has an advantage in terms of equipment. The Honda simply manages the liter less fuel and harder 2014 tires better than the Yamaha. A fairer reference point is Dani Pedrosa, who sits in second spot in the championship. Pedrosa leads the Yamahas, but is no match for Marquez.
The advantage which the Hondas have is starting to get to Jorge Lorenzo. Asked in the press conference where the Yamaha is losing out to the Honda, Lorenzo said the pattern was much the same as 2013. 'We miss more or less what we missed last year, but a little more,' he said. 'The bike needs to brake a little bit later, and it needs to stop in a short time. Also, we are missing a little bit of acceleration and top speed. More or less the things we were missing last year.' The problem is that the engine freeze means that Yamaha can do nothing to the engine to try to make up the deficit. 'We can still improve the electronics and the chassis. I will try to improve myself, and the set up with my mechanics and engineers,' Lorenzo said.
Lorenzo was at least more like the rider he was last year. Recovering some of the fitness he lost over the winter after undergoing a number of operations to remove various bits of metalwork from his body, Lorenzo is concentrating better than he did in the first couple of races, and is thinner and mentally tougher. But he is running into the limitations of the equipment he has. Yamaha will have to find some improvement if they foster any illusions of challenging Marquez. Where they will find such improvement remains to be seen.
Which brings us to the million dollar question: why does Yamaha let Honda make the rules? The reduction in fuel capacity was Honda's idea, which was accepted without question by Yamaha. The idea for an engine development freeze came from Dorna, but Yamaha were happy to acquiesce. Yamaha are getting their behinds poached, lightly grilled, and served up to them in a white wine and green herb sauce. It is a predicament of their own making, and one which they could at any time have avoided, either by switching to the Open class, as Ducati did, or by rebelling against the Honda-led MSMA. If Yamaha riders are to beat Marc Marquez, they need every advantage they can get. Meekly accepting every proposal Honda makes merely puts you even further on the back foot. At least Ducati has the moral conviction to stand up to HRC.
Which brings us to Valentino Rossi. The Italian finished 4th once again, the position he had a virtual monopoly of last year. Yet Rossi leaves Argentina optimistic. Where previously Rossi did not stand a chance of running with the top three, in Argentina, he had a shot at the podium. Getting tangled up with Stefan Bradl put him out of contention, the Italian claimed, where otherwise he would have been on the podium.
Is this true? What is certain is that Rossi is finishing much closer. In Argentina, Rossi was just under five seconds behind the winner. He was also just 1.6 seconds behind his teammate Jorge Lorenzo, who had led the race. Rossi says he has the pace, and when you look at the lap charts, you have to say he is not that far off the truth. Valentino Rossi lapped in the 1'39s on 12 occasions in Argentina, just two less than Dani Pedrosa, and five less than Marc Marquez. If you look at the twenty fastest laps set during the race, Marc Marquez posted eight of those laps, Pedrosa set seven, and Rossi managed four. Rossi's five fastest laps were a quarter of a second slower than Marquez' best five, but nearly three quarters of a second off the pace of Dani Pedrosa, who finished second. Rossi's ten fastest laps were a second slower than Marquez' ten quickest, and his fifteen best were 1.3 seconds slower than Marquez.
It is clear that Valentino Rossi has made great strides forward from last year. Rossi looks and talks as if he can be a factor again, and that has made a difference to his riding. The timesheets show that he is indeed nipping at the heels of the top three, but the question of whether he has managed to discard the moniker of the fourth best rider in the world remains to be seen. In Argentina, Rossi was once again fourth, a position he remains all too familiar with. On the evidence of 2014, Rossi will be much closer to the top three, which was his objective for the season. His trouble is that catching the leaders is one thing; regularly beating them is another thing altogether. Valentino Rossi will see a lot more of Marc Marquez, Dani Pedrosa and Jorge Lorenzo. The question is, just how close up will he be?
The next race at Jerez will be an important pointer. It is a circuit which Marquez, Pedrosa, Lorenzo and Rossi all love, though if you had to name a favorite, Dani Pedrosa would surely be it. Rossi's aim will be to find himself with a shot at the podium on the final laps, but he faces stiff opposition. The old master has his work cut out to keep the young wolves from his back.