There are few motorsports venues more iconic than the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Of the places I've visited, only Monza comes close: you can feel the ghosts of all the men and women who have raced there. With its massive grandstands and historic racing museum, the vast facility is breathtaking. It is a magic place.
Sadly, the magic is all around the 4 kilometer rectangular oval on which the Indy 500 is held, and not so much around the road course used by MotoGP. The rather tight, artificial infield road circuit feels very much like an afterthought, something retrofitted to allow a greater range of activities at the facility. If the oval layout is spectacular, the road course is positively pedestrian.
To the credit of the Speedway, they have done an awful lot to try to improve the track. Last year, there were at least four different types of asphalt around the circuit, and the infield section was considered too tight for overtaking maneuvers. In an effort to solve both those problems at a stroke, turns 3 and 4, turn 7 and turns 15 and 16 have all been modified. The changes are aimed at opening the corners up a little, making them a little faster and more flowing. The change at turns 3 and 4 should make for more natural corners, and a better transition back onto the outside oval. Turn 7 has been altered to open it up, making a more natural chicane rather than the right-angle corner it was before. Turns 15 and 16 are now a little more flowing, and again have been modified to provide a more natural transition onto the oval. At the same time, the infield has been completely resurfaced, so that it now has just one type of asphalt.
What difference will the new track layout make? Wilco Zeelenberg estimated the track as being five or six seconds faster than the old layout. Having a single type of asphalt in the infield should also cut down on the number of crashes round the circuit. More importantly, the changes to these corners should make the track more interesting to ride, and more entertaining to watch. Will the changes make passing easier? It's hard to say. We'll find out on Sunday.
With the summer break behind him, will Indianapolis finally see Marc Marquez' record-breaking string of wins come to an end? He already has nine in a row, a win at Indy would match the record of the ten opening races held by Giacomo Agostini, and Mick Doohan's ten straight wins in a season from 1997. The odds look stacked in Marquez' favor: Honda riders have won the MotoGP race at Indianapolis for the last four years in a row, with Marc Marquez winning here in 2013. Before the summer break, Marquez looked unbeatable, inventing new ways to win almost every race. He still has the young racer's hunger, so it seems unlikely he will be letting up now that MotoGP has returned.
Marquez himself remains cautious whenever asked about his streak of wins. His answer is always the same: "I know one day I will not be able to win. What is important is to be on the podium." It is a self-evident truth, but even more importantly, it is a way of deflecting the pressure on him to win. What counts are points towards the championship. One day, someone will come and take his records away. But they will never take away a championship.
Marquez' string of wins does not make him unbeatable. It is a phenomenon known as the 'hot-hand fallacy' to think that a winning streak will not be broken. Marquez' wins have rarely come by a large margin, meaning that the competition is tight. Statistically, Marquez' results will regress to the mean, and his string of wins will come to an end. The trouble is, Marquez has taken 559 points from 27 races, or an average just shy of 21 points a race. For Marc Marquez, the mean is finishing better than second.
The favorite to beat Marquez, when it finally happens, is surely his teammate Dani Pedrosa. The Repsol Honda man has already won at the track twice, in 2010 and 2012, and the tight turns and hard acceleration zones play to the strengths of both the Honda and of Pedrosa. Pedrosa is second in the championship behind Marquez, and if he has any aspirations of the title at all, Indianapolis would be a good place to start.
Perhaps the changes to the track layout at Indianapolis will work negate some of the Hondas' superiority. The modifications have made corners more flowing and rounded, meaning the bikes can carry more speed onto the straights which follow, and reducing the Hondas' advantage in acceleration. Will that allow the Yamahas to challenge the Repsol Honda duo? It's hard to say. Both Jorge Lorenzo and Valentino Rossi have won here, but it was quite a while ago now. Rossi won the first ever MotoGP race at Indy in 2008, taking victory when the race was red-flagged because of hurricane blowing through. Lorenzo won the following year, in much more normal conditions. But since then, second has been the best they can hope for.
After a strong first half of the season, Valentino Rossi is the man to take on the Repsol Hondas for Yamaha. The Italian veteran has dealt better with the new Bridgestone tires and reduction in fuel consumption than his teammate, and has chased Marquez hard a couple of times. Rossi comes back from the summer break determined to make another step and start challenging the Hondas consistently. The Italian has finished second four times already this season, and is desperate to get another win. At Indy, that will be hard.
For Jorge Lorenzo, the Red Bull Indianapolis GP will be a very big test indeed. The first half of his 2014 season has been little short of disastrous. He started out of shape after surgery, and struggling to adapt to the 2014 Yamaha. The combination of a liter less fuel and the 2014 Bridgestone tires made the throttle response nervous and reduced the grip on the very edge of the tire. That was a double whammy for Lorenzo, and in combination with his lack of fitness, he found it impossible to use the riding style which brought him so much success in previous years.
That, in turn, made him nervous and distracted. A first-lap crash at the first race in Qatar, a jump start – by a country mile – at Austin, a mediocre race at Le Mans, and then the disastrous race at Assen, where weather conditions caused him to have flashbacks of the pain he suffered when he crashed there last year. All these gnawed away at his confidence, making him inconsistent at best.
Lorenzo had a very strong race at the Sachsenring before the summer break, and the Mallorcan has been training hard ever since. He has been spending time on the mountain bike to improve his fitness, and feels "fit, slim and motivated," as he told the press conference. He has a new two-year contract (with an escape clause after the first year) under his belt, signed, Italian reports suggest, around the Sachsenring, and so has had time to rest, clear his mind, and find his focus again. He understands the challenge he faces, and, we might presume, has now accepted it. Beating the Hondas here will be hard, but that may not be how Lorenzo measures success at Indy. If he can have a strong weekend, be fast from the start, qualify on the front row, and stay with Marquez and Pedrosa for as long as possible, that will in itself give his confidence the boost it needs. With Brno and Silverstone up next, two tracks where Lorenzo and the Yamaha excel, he will be preparing the ground at Indy.
What of Ducati? The changes to the track certainly don't favor the Desmosedici. The less a track flows, the better, at least until Gigi Dall'Igna fixes the chronic understeer that has plagued the Ducati since the introduction of the spec Bridgestone tires. Ducati have brought a new engine and new fairing for Indianapolis, initially due to be used at Brno. The new, more powerful engine should help the Ducati along Indy's spectacular front straight.
The interesting question is whether Cal Crutchlow will get the same upgrades as Andrea Dovizioso. After Crutchlow's decision to exercise his option to leave Ducati – a day late, but with the blessing of senior management in Bologna – the Englishman is likely to have slipped down the pecking order at the Italian factory. There were signs at the Sachsenring that that had already happened, updates appearing on the bikes of Andrea Dovizioso and Pramac rider Andrea Iannone. This may have been a curious attempt to motivate Crutchlow after a disappointing start to the season, though it smacks a little of the old army adage: "the beatings will continue until morale improves."
Crutchlow was understandably cagey about the details of his departure from Ducati, especially after telling the fans at the World Ducati Weekend at Misano he would be staying. Asked in the press conference if he could provide more details, Crutchlow refused point blank. "You don't need to know the details," Crutchlow said. "The details are between Ducati and me, and we're happy." Though both parties are happy with the separation, Crutchlow's refusal is more likely to be down to Ducati than any reluctance on his part. He is under contract until the end of 2014, and Ducati will not want to appear in a negative light. It is not uncommon for riders leaving a factory to be under strict instructions to keep quiet about the reasons for their departure. It would be naive to expect that to be any different for Cal Crutchlow.
For Dovizioso, the extra power of a new Desmosedici engine could well come in handy. The Italian has cut the gap to the front in half this season, and has threatened the satellite Yamahas, something which was very hard last year. His consistency, and the occasional fragment of good fortune, have seen him snag a couple of podiums this season, and take fourth place in the championship. Indianapolis is a track where Dovizioso has a strong record, finishing in the top five every year except in 2013. If the updates Ducati have brought do what they hope, Dovizioso could once again threaten the top five this weekend.
Andrea Iannone will also be motivated to do well. Crutchlow's departure makes room for the Italian in the factory team, a move Iannone has been dreaming of all season. He has had some good results and been quick in practice, beating both factory Ducati men on occasion. Boosted by certainty over his future, he will be on the attack once again at Indy.
For the fans of American riders, Indianapolis will be a difficult weekend. Nicky Hayden is out after surgery on his wrist, and Colin Edwards is still struggling toward the back of the pack on the Forward Yamaha. Hayden was upbeat at the press conference on Thursday, saying his wrist had improved and he had a lot less pain in it than he had in a long time. Doctors were very positive about his recovery so far, but he is still some way from being able to ride. Neither Indy nor Brno are achievable for Hayden, but missing Indy hurts for the Kentucky Kid. The track is just a few hours drive from his home, and truly his home Grand Prix.
It will be an emotional weekend for Colin Edwards, his last ever race in the US. It may even be one of his very last races ever, as rumors continue to swirl around exactly when and where he will be racing for the rest of the season. Edwards has previously said he will race at Indy, then at Silverstone, Misano and Valencia. But rumors among the Spanish and Italian press media suggest he may well be out earlier, with either Indy or Silverstone being his last race. Edwards himself remains cagey, and as yet, there has been no official word from Forward Yamaha Giovanni Cuzari.
It is possible that Cuzari has been too busy talking to potential replacement riders for Edwards and Aleix Espargaro, to race alongside Stefan Bradl in 2015. With the paddock once again reassembled at Indianapolis, negotiations are once again in full swing. In the press conference, Aleix Espargaro admitted that he was close to finalizing a deal with Suzuki, with the expectation being that he will be joined there by Maverick Viñales.
Jack Miller now looks almost certain to move up to MotoGP, skipping Moto2 altogether, with HRC likely to make an extra production RCV1000R available to LCR Honda for Miller to ride. Would that be a bad thing? Not necessarily. Though Pol Espargaro was keen to point out that there is much to be learned in the Moto2 class, both Nicky Hayden and Cal Crutchlow felt that Miller's talent would shine on a bigger bike. "I had a chance to ride with Jack at Rossi's ranch," Hayden told the press conference. "His talent will only come out more on a bigger bike where the power is more."
Bradley Smith has been given a short reprieve, and now has a couple of races to earn his ride at Tech 3 for next year. With much of the good talent in the support classes accounted for, Smith is looking like a more attractive option once again. What he needs is a couple of solid weekends, where he is consistent and manages to score some decent points. Smith has had a podium at Indy in the 125cc class, and did well here in his rookie MotoGP season. It is as good a place as any to start.
Though the road course at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway may not be the greatest circuit in the world, the Indy GP is still one of the best events on the calendar. On Friday, there is the Indy Mile, one of the greatest two-wheeled spectacles in the world. Grand Marshall at the Mile is Marc Marquez, the world champion being a devotee of dirt track. American Honda have already presented him with an RS750 dirt tracker, and if HRC top brass (Shuhei Nakamoto and Livio Suppo) will let him, he may even do a few laps of the Indiana State Fairground. All weekend the city is filled with bikes, the charming center becoming mecca for everything on two wheels. The MotoGP race may look a little forlorn on the TV, but there is more to a MotoGP weekend than just 45 minutes on Sunday.