There is always something very special about Jerez. There are few circuits on earth where fans gather to worship at the altar of motorcycle racing which quite such deafening intensity and passion as at the Circuito de Jerez in southern Spain. Fans of motorcycle racing are a passionate bunch wherever you are in the world, but the fans in Jerez add a spice and temperament which lifts the atmosphere to a higher plane. Despite Andalusia's continuing and severe economic recession, crowd numbers for the event were up again from last year, from over 111,000 to 117,001 paying customers on Sunday. Motorcycle racing lives on in Spanish hearts, no matter the state of their wallets.
Unlike last year, however, the Spanish fans were not treated to what is known in the country as a 'Triplete', or a clean sweep of Spanish wins in all three classes. Both Moto3 and Moto2 saw non-Spanish winners, and even the MotoGP podium was not all Spanish for a change. The two junior classes saw their championship chases thrown open once again, unlike in MotoGP. There, Marc Marquez tightened his stranglehold on the championship, extending his reign of terror from three to four races. At every round of MotoGP so far this year, Marc Marquez – Marc the Merciless, as veteran GP journalist Michael Scott refers to him, while some of the less appreciative fans prefer the moniker Murder Marc, after the young Spaniard's occasionally reckless antics in Moto2 – has taken both pole and victory in the first four races of the season.
This was supposed to have been the race that turned everything around. It certainly did for some. In Moto3, Romano Fenati took his second victory, reducing his deficit to Jack Miller to just five points. In Moto2, Mika Kallio broke Tito Rabat's rule of the intermediate class, while extending the hegemony of the Marc VDS Racing team on Moto2. In MotoGP, Valentino Rossi got back on the podium again, and was clearly the best of the rest. But the promise of closer racing in MotoGP, suggested by Marquez after qualifying, proved to be an illusion. It took Marquez three laps to dispose of the competition, and then he was gone. The gap across the line may only have been a second and a half, but the 2013 world champion gave away two seconds of his advantage pulling a stand up wheelie across the line. Marquez' victory was never seriously in doubt.
As ever, it was Moto3 that produced the race of the weekend. A large group concertinaed together and apart, bunching up one lap, then fragmenting into smaller collections a few laps later. At the end it was Romano Fenati who took victory, the Italian following up his win in Argentina with a second at Jerez, the circuit he took his first win in Grand Prix racing. If Fenati's win in Argentina was more down to luck and bad judgment, there were no question marks over Jerez. He dominated the Moto3 race (insofar as that is possible) the way that Miller had dominated Austin. Leading from the front, striking back immediately when attacked, always looking in control. He held off attacks from Efren Vazquez and Alex Rins, and moves to within 5 points of Jack Miller in the championship. There is still an awful lot to play for in Moto3.
The contrast with the Moto2 race could not be greater. Mika Kallio led for every meter of the race, first off the line from pole, and first across the line as winner. It was an impressive victory indeed, domination from start to finish. The Finn is proving the perfect wingman to Tito Rabat, winning when Rabat falters and taking points from Rabat's rivals. Indeed, Kallio himself is turning into Rabat's greatest rival, closing the gap to the Spaniard to just 16 points. Rabat's fourth place puts him 34 points ahead of Maverick Viñales and Dominique Aegerter, and firmly in control of the title race. The Marc VDS Racing team has put a very solid foundation in place for their second run at the Moto2 title.
It was in MotoGP where most was expected, and for the first three laps, it looked like we would have another barnburner on our hands, a little like Qatar. Valentino Rossi and Jorge Lorenzo launched serious attacks at Marc Marquez, which the Repsol Honda rider countered with conviction. Once Marquez had pulled a gap, however, the race was effectively over. Marquez was half a second faster than the chasing group led by Valentino Rossi and had built an insuperable lead by the halfway mark.
The measure of just how complete Marquez' domination of MotoGP is can be seen in the lap charts. Even on the laps where Marquez was four or five tenths quicker than the men behind, he was still losing time in the second sector, which runs from halfway between turns 4 and 5, and the speed trap along the back straight. There is only one corner there, yet he was still managing to give between one and two tenths of a second there. The problem, Marquez said in the press conference, was on the entry to the corner. He could feel the bike pushing too much, and didn't feel safe going in at the speed he wanted. So he was almost stopping the bike, then getting it stood up and sliding over the kerbstones seeking extra grip from the rough painted section.
To fans, and even educated followers like myself, it seems entirely illogical to be looking for grip on the kerbstones, so I asked him to elucidate during the press conference. Could he explain to us mere mortals, as it didn't seem to make sense? Sitting beside him, Dani Pedrosa piped up with 'Yes, for us also!' which provoked a bout of laughter from the room. Pedrosa's reputation as dour and humorless is undeserved, though he needs an opportunity and sometimes a little encouragement to let loose. When he does, it is worth it.
When your teammate and rival doesn't understand what you are doing, then your advantage is huge. It is exemplary for what is going on with Marquez at the moment, and a sign of just how far he is moving the sport on. Marc Marquez is dominating his rivals, but unlike Valentino Rossi and Mick Doohan before him, the riders he is dominating are among the very best there has ever been. It is not the fault of either Rossi or Doohan that they dominated in an era of marginally weaker grids; each rider can only race the riders in the championship at the time. Marquez, however, is up against the rider with more premier class wins than any other, the teammate who beat that rider to the championship, and the most talented rider never to win a title.
If anything, Marquez' season is reminiscent of Mick Doohan in 1992. That year, with the introduction of the big bang NSR500, Doohan was wiping the floor with such illustrious names as Wayne Rainey, Kevin Schwantz, Wayne Gardner, Eddie Lawson and John Kocinski. His domination ended in a hospital in Assen, when a broken leg became infected, putting him out of action for a very long time. In 2014, Marquez is reigning imperious over Jorge Lorenzo, a revitalized Valentino Rossi, and Dani Pedrosa, the man on the same bike as him.
Marquez' iron-fisted reign of MotoGP is dampening enthusiasm for the racing. As a seasoned Spanish journalist remarked, 'if you take Marquez out of today's race, everybody would be saying this was one of the best races for years.' At the moment, Marquez' voracious appetite for victory is stifling the sport. What Marquez needs to learn is to toy with the competition, the way that Valentino Rossi did at the start of the MotoGP era. Marquez holds the same advantage which Rossi held over his rivals in 2002/2003. Rossi was forced to show his hand at Phillip Island in 2003, when he was handed a ten second penalty for passing under yellow flags. In the space 16 or so laps, Rossi put 12 seconds into the Loris Capirossi, the man in second. It was Rossi's greatest race, and a sign of just how much he was holding in reserve.
Rossi doesn't hold much in reserve any more, but at least he is back where he was aiming for when he switch back to Yamaha. His dropping of Jeremy Burgess at the end of the 2013 season had been a massive gamble, he reiterated again today, but it was one which was starting to pay dividends. The set up modifications found over the winter allowed him to brake much later, and put Rossi back in the front with, as he calls them, 'the top guys'. On any Sunday, and especially at a track that he loves, Rossi is back in the podium hunt again. At Jerez, that took him to second place, easily holding off attacks from Jorge Lorenzo and Dani Pedrosa to take his second podium of the season.
Valentino Rossi's biggest problem is that 'the top guys' have been left behind themselves. Jorge Lorenzo and Dani Pedrosa are no longer in the same race as Marc Marquez, who is now in a class of his own. Any talk of 'aliens' no longer applies, there are simply three categories now in MotoGP: Marc Marquez; the two Movistar Yamaha riders and Dani Pedrosa; and the rest.
Dani Pedrosa came close to deposing Rossi, but lost ground in the penultimate lap when the rear slid out from under him. Pedrosa's form has been the inverse of previous years, starting poorly and having a slow first few laps, and only gradually picking up speed towards the end. That was the result of a change in set up direction, he said after the race, turning to focus on the end of the race, once his weakest point. They had perhaps gone too far in that direction, however, as Pedrosa was simply too slow at the start of the race. Monday's test will be spent trying to redress that, and produce a more balanced package that will work throughout the race.
As for Jorge Lorenzo, the Spaniard is just struggling with tires. Lorenzo blamed his lack of fitness for a lack of results, as he had been forced to miss a large part of his winter training schedule after surgery. At the moment, Lorenzo said, he cannot maintain the same level of effort until the end of the race. What he needs is more training, and then he will be able to be more competitive. He will be better at Le Mans, even better at Mugello, as he trains to cope with the strain of riding a bike and tires he is still not comfortable with.
Lorenzo's team boss Wilco Zeelenberg is not convinced it is solely a matter of fitness. 'I think he's fitter than he was last year,' Zeelenberg told me. 'The trouble is, riding a bike and tires he is not comfortable with is taking much more energy than last year.' Paradoxically, Lorenzo's buttery smooth style uses a massive amount of energy. Lorenzo looks like he's doing things in slow motion, but to move that smoothly and deliberately takes both mental and physical strength. On tires he is not happy with, and with an engine that is less responsive than it was last year due to a liter less fuel, Lorenzo is having to work even harder to make sure the bike is responding smoothly.
Conditions didn't help, especially the extra rubber laid down by the Moto2 class. Lorenzo could not replicate his blistering pace from FP4 because the extra rubber from Moto2 made the track even more greasy than it already was. All this just exacerbated the problem. Lorenzo fought until he was passed by Dani Pedrosa, then dropped right off the pace.
The best battle of the MotoGP race was for fifth, and quite frankly, it could have gone to any one of five riders. It was Andrea Dovizioso who came out on top, blasting Aleix Espargaro into the weeds with superior Ducati horsepower. Espargaro also had to concede to Alvaro Bautista, the Gresini Honda putting in a sterling ride after a very difficult weekend. Afterwards, Espargaro expressed frustration: 'If Dovi was not such a good friend of mine, I would have been tempted to take him out at Turn 1.'
If Aleix Espargaro thought he was frustrated, that is as nothing compared with Cal Crutchlow. The Factory Ducati rider was forced to pull in after suffering massive brake failure. The problem was later identified as some for of fluid overheating, but no solution was forthcoming. Crutchlow was livid, having suffered a mechanical issue in two of the three races he has competed in so far, after being plagued with an electrical problem at Qatar. 'I look p*****d off because I was p*****d off,' Crutchlow said. 'When you work so hard to come back, two weeks of sacrificing every single hour of every day to try and get back, going in the hyperbaric chamber, training, all to do three s**t laps. I’m not happy, sure. I am not happy with the situation,' Crutchlow said. He also pointed out that Dovizioso's finish was also not much to write home about, as the Italian remained 20 or more seconds behind the factory Yamahas and Honda. Things had better start to change soon, Crutchlow hinted.
What doesn't look like changing is Marc Marquez' unadulterated charge on the 2014 championship. It is hard to see anyone but Marc Marquez getting in his own way by crashing or suffering some other mystery mishap. So far – four wins from four poles – Marc Marquez is dominating, and given the fact he missed much of testing due to a broken leg, that is impressive enough as it is. The problem is that Marquez will only get better. We're going to be in for a long year, unless you are a Marquez fan.
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