It is becoming customary for any MotoGP preview worth its salt to begin with a single question: can anyone beat Marc Marquez this weekend? That same question was put to the riders during the pre-event press conference, to which Valentino Rossi gave the most obvious answer. Of course it was possible, he said. 'It is nothing special. What you have to do is do your maximum and improve your level.' The only trouble is, every time Rossi, Jorge Lorenzo or Dani Pedrosa improve their level, so does Marc Marquez. But it is still possible, Rossi believes. 'We are not very far. It is not easy, but nothing special.'
Barcelona, like Mugello, is one of the tracks where Marquez is perhaps more vulnerable. It is a circuit where the reigning champion has always struggled – though for Marquez, 'struggling' means only managing podiums rather than wins – and where the Yamahas, especially, have been strong. Valentino Rossi has won here nine times, and Jorge Lorenzo, who has been either first or second at the track for the past five years. The track flows, and has a little bit of everything. A long, fast front straight, some elevation change climbing up into the two stadium sections, the two 'horns' of the Catalunya bull which the Montmelo circuit most resembles, a couple of esses, and long, flowing combinations of corners. Those corners more than compensate for the front straight. Jorge Lorenzo reckoned that the Yamaha had a top speed deficit of perhaps 4 or 5 km/h on the Honda, but that at Barcelona, this was less of an issue than at other tracks. After all, he pointed out, there are some 3.7 kilometers of corners in which to catch a Honda ahead of you.
Why does Marc Marquez struggle here? A lot of it is down to the kerbs, he explained. Because they are raised up quite a lot compared to other tracks, there is less room to squeeze your leg, shoulder and arm between the bike and the kerb as you hang off the bike. Marquez' radical style means he has little space between the bike and the kerbing to squeeze himself into, hampering his riding. The problem was illustrated perfectly by our own Scott Jones, who captured what has become an iconic image of Casey Stoner at Barcelona running up against the limited space between bike and kerb:
The circuit's saving grace, as far as the reigning champion is concerned, is that it is wide, allowing a multitude of lines. This, at least, makes it better than Mugello, where despite its flowing nature, the narrowness of the track means that there is less room for creativity in picking lines. Barcelona remains, however, a track where Marquez himself believes he is vulnerable.
Both Valentino Rossi and Jorge Lorenzo know this, and will be on the attack. But both men also have obstacles of their own to overcome. For Rossi, it is qualifying: the 15-minute dash of the new qualifying format. Rossi told the press conference he was never a strong qualifier – a claim soon undermined by a quick trawl through the results section of the comprehensive MotoGP.com website – and the new system does not help. Marquez, Lorenzo, Pedrosa, all have grasped the system much more quickly, and have shown themselves capable of posting very fast laps straight out of the box. This will be Rossi's main focus this weekend, and after his strong showing at Mugello, he could challenge Marquez for a win. First, though, he will have to qualify on either the first or second rows. That will take hard work and concentration.
Perhaps the biggest threat to Marquez' hegemony comes from Jorge Lorenzo. The Movistar Yamaha rider has become ever more competitive as his fitness has improved, culminating so far in a fantastic battle at Mugello two weeks ago. There, Lorenzo said he was close to full fitness, and that at Barcelona he would be at 100%. But asked if he felt he was at 100% going into this weekend, Lorenzo remained cagey. 'I don't think we have arrived at our best level yet,' he said. The time between Mugello and Barcelona meant he was fitter again, but more improvement was possible.
His physical fitness has become something of a vicious circle for Lorenzo. The Spaniard suffered badly as a result of winter surgery delaying the start of his preseason preparations. That, combined with less fuel and the 2014 Bridgestone tires meant testing left him seriously worried. Even obvious improvements – the ability to downshift without a clutch, something which Lorenzo had been begging Yamaha to bring since 2012 – had not provided any relief. Lorenzo told the media that Rossi had assimilated that change better than he had, and he was still taking his time to adapt.
All of these factors have robbed Lorenzo of confidence. It has even affected his training program, Lorenzo sacking two personal trainers already this season. The third survives, for the moment at least, but he must surely be fearing for his job security unless Lorenzo can start to secure results. If the Movistar Yamaha man can take the fight to Marquez again at Barcelona, or even take his first win of the season, then Lorenzo may be able to break the negative spiral he finds himself in. This race and the next will be crucial for Lorenzo's peace of mind.
If there is one thing which can really throw a spanner into Marquez' works, it is the weather. From the look of the forecast, there is a very good chance of rain on both Saturday and Sunday. A wet race – or perhaps even a half-and-half flag-to-flag race – would throw the whole contest open. Marc Marquez still has only limited experience in the wet on a MotoGP machine, though his race at Le Mans in 2013 showed just how quickly he learns. Rain would create a much more level playing field, bringing the Ducatis into the mix, and making conditions much more complicated.
Valentino Rossi was not brimming with enthusiasm for a wet race. Rain in this part of the season, during the European summer, made things very difficult to predict. Even when it did rain, the June heat in Barcelona means the track dries quickly, making it more of a half-and-half race, and much more of a gamble on tires and when to come in. Added to that, it had been a long time since anyone had spent much time riding in the wet. The last fully wet practice had been at Motegi in October last year. Before that, it had been at Assen. If it rained this weekend – especially if it only rained on Sunday – the situation could get very complex very quickly. Exciting for the spectators, perhaps, but hard to predict for the favorites.
Barcelona may be a track which promises much in the way of on-track action, there is plenty going on inside the paddock as well. With Marc Marquez the only rider so far to have signed a contract for 2015 and beyond, now is the time when negotiations over the future are starting in earnest. Valentino Rossi is getting closer to finalizing a new deal with Yamaha, the Italian telling the media that he expected news very soon. There were only a few details to iron out before the new contract could be announced. It would be a two-year deal, he insisted, despite rumors that Yamaha had been pushing for one.
At Honda, Dani Pedrosa has reportedly been offered a new deal by Honda, which he is looking upon favorably. No deal will be announced just yet, however, Pedrosa wanting more time to mull his options. Leaving Honda now seems extremely unlikely, however.
Things are hotting up at Ducati, however, which also has consequences for Suzuki. Both Andrea Dovizioso and Andrea Iannone have offers from Suzuki, but both men are focused on staying with Ducati. The trouble is, both men want the seat in the factory team currently occupied by Dovizioso. Iannone was very vocal in the press conference about his desire to move into the factory team, but it is hard to see Ducati bumping Dovizioso to make way for Iannone. The former Moto2 rider is scheduled to have talks with Ducati Corse boss Gigi Dall'Igna, but it seems likely he will attempt to persuade Iannone to remain with Pramac with increased support.
Andrea Dovizioso is also keen to stay where he is, though he acknowledged it would be quite a gamble. He had spent a difficult 18 months with Ducati, and at 28 years of age, he could not afford to wait for results another season. The upside was that a new bike would be coming at Valencia, built by people who had already made a difference this year. Switching to Suzuki could be attractive, but it was hard to judge just how competitive that option might be. Staying with Ducati would also be a gamble, but at least he had some data to compare progress against.
In an ideal world, Ducati would run a three-man factory team, but the rules prevent that. As of last year, factories are limited to two riders in a factory team, and two in satellite squads. The rules do not stipulate how much support satellite riders may receive, so there is no reason why Ducati couldn't provide full factory support to Iannone inside the Pramac squad. Whether Iannone is willing to accept such a situation remains to be seen.
Contract issues are even reaching as far as Moto3. A war is brewing between Aki Ajo and Michael Bartholemy of Marc VDS over the future of Jack Miller, the promising young Australian leading the Moto3 championship. Marc VDS have a contract with Miller for three seasons, from 2014 through 2016. As Miller wanted to remain in Moto3 for 2014, Marc VDS did a deal with the Ajo team to have the Australian ride for Ajo in Moto3. In 2015, however, Marc VDS believe they have Miller under a cast iron contract. Red Bull KTM team manager – and as of late last year, Jack Miller's personal manager – Aki Ajo is adamant that Miller is not under contract to anyone. A battle for power looks set to be played out over the head of an exceptionally talented young man. Miller is smart and talented enough not to be distracted by the problems between his new manager and his future team. But it isn't easy.