2014 Le Mans MotoGP Sunday Round Up: Rossi's Revival, Lorenzo's Slump, Ducati's Stagnation, Miller's Revenge And Funny Front Ends
Now, Valentino Rossi knows how Max Biaggi felt. 'I did one mistake in 27 laps,' Rossi told the press conference after the MotoGP race at Le Mans. 'But in the crucial moment of the race.' Rossi braked a little bit too deep into Turn 9, ran wide, and Marquez was through. The mistake was because Rossi knew Marquez was coming, and had to try to push to keep ahead. 'I try to push, to do 1'34.0, but I knew I was at the limit.' Rossi knew that if he did not keep pushing to the full, Marquez would be upon him and past him in no time. It was perhaps that effort that caused Rossi to make the mistake that let Marquez by.
It was indeed a strange role reversal for Rossi. Ten years ago, it was Rossi himself who was hunter, stalking riders like Max Biaggi and Sete Gibernau, following them and simply waiting for a mistake. Now, the hunter had become prey, faltering when Marquez bore down upon him. At last, he got to ride a mile in Biaggi's boots.
Yet all credit is due to the veteran Italian. He is currently the only rider in the world capable of putting up any kind of resistance to the unstoppable force which is Marc Marquez. Both Rossi and Marquez were surprised and disappointed at Rossi's mistake, both relishing the chance to go toe to toe with one another. 'I don't know if I can beat him,' Rossi said, 'But I would like to fight. I think it would be fun.' Marquez concurred, telling the press conference he had expected to have 'a nice battle' with Rossi as he came up behind him, but when he saw Rossi make the mistake, he did not hesitate. He was past, had put half a second into Rossi within half a lap, and was gone. If anything, it was a mark of respect that he distanced himself so quickly. Marquez may have been prepared for a fight with Rossi, but he couldn't afford to hang around to see what Rossi could do. With five victories from five poles, Marquez may be confident, but he is not yet reckless.
That confidence had got him into trouble at the start of the race. He had made a mistake on the first lap, taken it too easily. 'I was too relaxed,' Marquez said, and that had cost him. It cost him even more when Jorge Lorenzo came past, ran wide and was forced to brake. That left Marquez with nowhere to go but very wide, and he was forced onto the extended tarmac run off at Garage Vert, dropping down to 10th place. All of a sudden, he had a lot of riders ahead of him, and work to do if he was to even get on the podium.
The way in which he sliced his way through the field was positively magisterial. He was not looking at the riders directly in front of him, he said, but instead was watching Rossi. He knew Dovizioso and Bradl were ahead, but knew that the man with the real pace was Rossi. Every lap at Turn 10, the second part of the Garage Bleu esses, he could see Rossi entering the final corner, and every lap he got a little bit closer. It took him 11 laps to catch him, and one more to get past.
If getting past Rossi was handed to Marquez on a plate by a mistake from the Italian, the other passes were effortless, of a surgical precision. Most riders were dispatched either at the Garage Bleu esses, or at the Dunlop chicane. The only pass he didn't really have to work for was on Rossi, who made a mistake and let him through. The rest were simply down to superior riding, braking deeper into corners, getting the bike turned better and faster, and blocking the line to prevent counter attacks. They were textbook passes, every single one.
It made for an entertaining first half of the race, but it also just how vast Marquez' superiority is at the moment. Records are his for the taking, and even having to fight his way through half the field is no handicap. He can put the bike where he wants to, pass riders – any riders, even multiple world champions – at will, and never look like he is in any real trouble. The Honda has the edge over the Yamaha, but most of Marquez' advantage is down to Marquez. As Valentino Rossi put it, 'he is the only rider who can squeeze the bike at 100%.'
Marquez' dominance is overshadowing some interesting developments behind him. First and foremost, Rossi's revival is very real indeed, the Italian capable of riding the M1 more or less as he pleases. He underlined once again that swapping crew chiefs had been more a matter of finding motivation, rather than any major technical differences. Yet working with Silvano Galbusera was going perfectly: they make progress on the bike every practice, and arrive at the race with a set up good enough to be able to run at the front.
It also puts Rossi in the interesting position of being the lead rider at Yamaha again. Though officially, neither rider is leading and both get equal treatment, factories listen to the rider getting the results. Right now, that is Valentino Rossi, the Italian closing to within two points of Dani Pedrosa in the championship standings, and having been on the podium in three out of five races. He is 36 points ahead of Lorenzo, and brimming with confidence going into Mugello, his home race, and truly his spiritual home. 'There are 25 points for victory like the other races,' Rossi said, 'but Mugello is a question of honor.' Marc Marquez has been warned, and he knows it.
So what has gone wrong with Jorge Lorenzo? In a brutally honest assessment, the Spaniard said he was simply not riding well. He had got a bad start, tried to push too hard, was too tense on the bike and too nervous. It meant he wasn't capable of replicating the pace he had in practice, where he had been very impressive indeed. 'I'm riding well until the race,' Lorenzo told the press. Bad starts meant he found himself bunched up behind other riders, a position he simple wasn't accustomed to being in. 'I couldn't be leading the race, or in second place, which is where I am used to.'
Lorenzo's problem is still the heat-resistant Bridgestone tire. Despite the Japanese tire manufacture having brought new rears with a special treatment to give them a bit more edge grip, they weren't really helping the Spaniard. The problem, he explained, was that the tire was still missing grip on the drive section, the part of the tire just inside the edge where acceleration starts in earnest. When he started to open the throttle hard after the corner, the rear was spinning and not driving. Lorenzo's problems had been exacerbated by a set up gamble, which his crew had found in the morning warm up.
They had moved more weight to the rear of the bike, and in the cooler temperatures of the morning, this had provided more drive out of corners. That drive had come at a price, with less feeling from the front tire, but it was a gamble Lorenzo had been willing to take. The problem was that in the heat of the afternoon, the advantages from having more weight on the rear disappeared, leaving Lorenzo with neither grip at the rear, and still with no feeling on the front. Lorenzo drew comfort from the success which Rossi was having, but for himself, he simply had to knuckle down and wait for better times. 'We are improving little by little, so it will come,' he told reporters.
But it's not just Lorenzo and the Yamaha which is suffering with the tires. Dani Pedrosa complained of a similar feeling, describing it as like riding in the wet. Pedrosa's problem was more with the front tire than with the rear, however, the front end wanting to fold on him all race long. It meant that he could not make the passes he needed to get closer to the front, and it took him all race to climb his way up to fifth. Like Lorenzo, Pedrosa found himself caught up in the middle of the pack in the early laps, forced to back off after aggressive moves by Bradley Smith and Andrea Iannone. Unaccustomed to fighting his way forward, and struggling with both a lack of grip and his newly operated-on forearms, he could not make the passes he needed to get by.
And what of Ducati? Andrea Dovizioso could not convert his promising front row start into a strong result, and Cal Crutchlow rode around to a modest eleventh place finish. Despite improved braking, and excellent drive on new tires, the Desmosedici's main problem remains: the bike simply will not turn. The problems were exactly the same as last year, Dovizioso explained. 'The reason is the same, the limit is the same. With a new tire, we have special grip with our bike, and it is enough to do a good lap time. After the tire drops, maybe more than our competitors, the main point is always the turning.' The understeer which plagues the Ducati remains.
Despite their differing starts, both Dovizioso and Crutchlow finished just three seconds apart, and both well over twenty seconds behind the winner. Dovizioso's strength is the ability to exploit the new tire in the early laps, while Crutchlow is still unable to push. But once the rear tire goes off, both Crutchlow and Dovizioso end up in the same boat. To illustrate the point, you can compare the two men's first five laps with the remaining 23 laps. From the start of the race to the end of lap 5, Dovizioso is nearly five seconds faster than Crutchlow. Between lap 6 and lap 28, it is Crutchlow who is quicker, by 1.3 seconds. There you have Ducati's problem in a nutshell: with a fresh tire, you can ride around the Ducati's weakness, exploiting its strength in acceleration. Once the tire goes away, it is damage limitation time.
The brilliant races by Marquez and Rossi, and the dismal performance of their teammates Pedrosa and Lorenzo masked a couple of superb performances behind the winner. After a terrible start to the season – three crashes in three races – Alvaro Bautista rode a strong and impressive race to take his first podium in over eighteen months. When they get the set up right, and can get the Showa suspension and Nissin brakes working, Bautista still has the pace to challenge for the podium. But at some tracks they simply lack data, and cannot find the right suspension set up to be competitive.
Perhaps the most impressive performance of the weekend came from Pol Espargaro. A superb effort in qualifying saw him start from second on the grid, but he did so with no illusions. In the qualifying press conference on Saturday, he had told the press that he knew his qualifying time was just a single fast lap, and was not a real reflection of his race rhythm. 'If I tell you I will fight for the podium, I am lying to myself,' he had said. It turned out he was not, as he fought at the front all race long. In the end, he lost out to Alvaro Bautista, but still ended within a second of the podium. In just just fifth MotoGP race, Espargaro is showing real pace and competitiveness.
Espargaro's boss, Monster Tech 3 Yamaha team boss Herve Poncharal, told MotoGP.com that he was surprised just how quickly the rookie had settled in. 'Pol was a little bit angry in the beginning of the season, because he wanted to be closer [to the front] quicker,' Poncharal said. 'I told him, you have to wait, and it will come. It is coming maybe quicker than I was expecting, but this guy is a genius!' The Yamaha M1 was a good bike, Poncharal was quick to add, and above all, he was with a great team, the Frenchman said, with a wink and a nod.
The MotoGP race may have been intriguing, but the race of the day was Moto3. The junior class has been the real gem this season, with races inevitably decided on the last lap. Jack Miller took his third win of the season, in spectacular and perhaps controversial fashion. After suffering at the hands of Romano Fenati in Argentina, after the Italian ran wide and hit Miller's KTM, robbing the Australian of what he felt was a certain victory, Miller was not prepared to see that happen again. So when Efren Vazquez slipped past out of the Chemin aux Boeufs esses on the final lap, Miller launched a counter attack. He got ahead, then closed the door from the outside, leaving Vazquez with little choice but to hit the brakes and run wide. Vazquez saw his shot at his first win in Moto3 go up in smoke, while Miller tightened his grip on the Moto3 championship.
The move was certainly rough, and Vazquez was furious about it afterwards, hitting Miller after the line, and then complaining to MotoGP.com that such a move was dangerous. 'These riders look like they have no brain,' he said, adding that he expected Race Direction to intervene. They had not by the time the circuit emptied on Sunday night, and it seems unlikely they will.
Why not? Firstly, Race Direction has explicitly stated that riders are given a little bit of extra leeway in the last corners of the last lap. Mike Webb told me at Jerez that the intention of Race Direction was to let the riders race, and try to win. Pull that stuff earlier in the race, and especially in practice, and they would treat it much more severely, but last corner, last lap, riders have a right to try to win the race.
The second reason for not acting against Miller is perhaps more prosaic. There was more than a touch of irony in Vazquez complaining about harsh moves, as the Spaniard had pulled plenty of questionable maneuvers all race long. It was a case of the pot casting aspersions on the discoloration of the kettle, and so was unlikely to meet with much sympathy.
It was fitting end to a scintillating race, where the entire field spent the race trying to beat each other up. For a while, it looked like the internecine warfare among the group in second would hand the race to Alex Rins, who made a break around the halfway mark. Behind him, all hell broke loose, as Miller, Vazquez, Alex Marquez, Isaac Viñales, Romano Fenati and Pecco Bagnaia went at it hammer and tongs. An uneasy truce was formed towards the end, and they reeled Rins in. With three laps to go, Vazquez caught Rins, with Miller and Viñales in his wake. On the last lap, Miller pulled the pin, butting past Vazquez, briefly losing out, then securing victory with that rather vicious pass.
The Australian celebrated the win with his usual vigor, pulling massive wheelies, throwing his gloves into the crowd, and even with a spot of break dancing in the gravel. Miller is endearing himself to fans, and showing he has what it takes to be champion. Now leading the title chase by 30 points, assisted by a technical problem for Romano Fenati, Miller is firmly in control.
By contrast, the Moto2 race was almost processional. A group of six gapped the field early, with Simone Corsi – now officially on a Kalex, no longer on the anonymized KLX machine – taking the lead. Jerez winner Mika Kallio had the race under control, however, biding his time before striking, running away to take a convincing and unchallenged win. With Tito Rabat taking 3rd, the Marc VDS Racing team has a very firm grip on the Moto2 championship. Rabat leads with 99 points, but teammate Kallio is only 7 points behind. The only threat to the Marc VDS Racing team is coming from the rookies moving up from Moto3, with the Pons bikes of Maverick Viñales and Luis Salom leading the way. But Jonas Folger was strong at Le Mans as well, taking pole yesterday, and following that up with a solid sixth place.
Perhaps this is a reflection on the relative weakness of Moto2, that three Moto3 rookies can come in and immediately challenge for podiums and wins. Maverick Viñales is clearly a very special rider, and both Luis Salom and Jonas Folger are no slouches either. But with Marc Marquez, Scott Redding and Pol Espargaro all gone from the class, the talent level is not perhaps where it was a couple of years ago.
One final note. We have often bemoaned the lack of innovation in Grand Prix racing, and especially in Moto2. Spec engines and spec tires are to blame in part, but even more restrictive is the extreme conservatism of the teams. As one frustrated chassis designer put it to me, 'the teams think that if it wasn't used on a 1967 Matchless, it can't be any good.' So it was heartening to see French wildcard Lucas Mahias running well inside the points for a large part of the race on the Transfiormers Moto2 machine, before dropping back to 18th. The Transfiormers bike uses a FIOR-style front end, which is similar to a Hossack set up: a fixed solid fork, connected to the steering head using a couple of light linkages, and a single shock for suspension. Making set ups like these work with spec tires designed around telescopic forks is impressive indeed, and prove that the concept is sound. Just think what could be achieved with a decent budget, a decent rider, and above all, plenty of courage.