2014 Indianapolis MotoGP Saturday Round Up: Fast Brits On Proddy Hondas, An Early Title For Marquez, And An Epic Moto3 Race
Is Indianapolis really a Honda circuit? With four Yamahas on the two front rows of the grid, you would have to say it wasn't any longer. There is a Honda on pole, but as that's Marc Marquez, that doesn't really count: alongside his perfect nine wins from nine races, he now also has eight poles from ten qualifying sessions. Any discussion of the relative strengths and weaknesses of the different manufacturers at a circuit really needs to disregard Marquez at the moment. In 2014, the Spaniard is just too much of an outlier, as his ability to put a couple of tenths or more on the opposition at will demonstrates.
Behind Marquez, the grid looks a lot more interesting. Behind Marquez is exactly how Andrea Dovizioso bagged another front row start, the Italian grabbing a tow off the Repsol Honda rider to set the second fastest time. The tow had allowed Dovizioso to follow Marquez' "crazy lines" as the Ducati rider put it, and the extra boost of the new engine Dovizioso has at his disposal may have contributed. The engine comes with a new fairing with revised cooling, suggesting the changes are more to do with making the engine more reliable at the top end, allowing it to be revved higher for longer. Given the Desmosedici's propensity for going up in a puff of smoke – Dovizioso has already lost three of his twelve engines this year, Andrea Iannone has got through four – reduced friction and reduced temperature would be a boon.
Jorge Lorenzo is the last man on the front row of the grid, but he was not disappointed with that. It was important for the Spaniard to build his confidence at Indy, and qualifying definitely helped. Lorenzo remarked that he was closer to Marquez than at the previous race, and that's not just true of qualifying. Lorenzo's race pace is strong too, though still a way off that of Marquez. In FP4, Marquez was running mid 1'32s consistently, while Lorenzo was hitting low 1'33s.
Lorenzo is one of a group of riders lapping around that same pace. Movistar Yamaha teammate Valentino Rossi ran a short string of low 1'33s in FP4 as well, and even Stefan Bradl managed a similar pace on the LCR Honda. But both men couldn't translate that pace from free practice into a better qualifying position. Rossi's fifth place on the grid is decent, though he continues to struggle with the new qualifying format. He was held up by traffic, something which Lorenzo also complained of, which prevented him from putting in a really fast lap. Rossi will need a good start, but if he can stay with Lorenzo and Marquez in the early laps, he can fight with Lorenzo for the podium.
The task facing Stefan Bradl is much greater. After being fastest in the morning, and showing strong pace in FP4, he simply couldn't put together single fast lap. He was making too many mistakes, he said, and that left him stranded down in tenth. He is in good company: Dani Pedrosa is just two positions ahead of him in eighth. The Repsol Honda rider has been struggling to find grip all weekend, and that left him in trouble during qualifying. Pedrosa is in second place in the championship, but starting behind Rossi and two rows behind his teammate could allow Rossi to pass him again. Any result other than second for Pedrosa brings the round Marquez will tie up his second MotoGP title just that little bit closer.
The key to Sunday's race with be tire choice, and that is going to depend on temperature. The hard and medium options available to the factory riders are very close in spec, and both can clearly be used. For Lorenzo, his team found a set up change which worked well with the hard tire, but didn't work with the soft. All of the riders face a similar dilemma, a situation made more complex by the fact that the track surface is changing rapidly. Grip levels are coming up as rubber goes on the track, and the circuit is cleaned up. That probably won't help the Ducatis, however: Indy is one of the tracks where they are suffering with the softer tire choice they are allowed to use. Only the medium tire (the harder of the two options available to all Ducati riders) will last the race, and even that will drop off quickly after a few laps. Bad news for Dovizioso, whose fourth place in the championship is coming under threat from Jorge Lorenzo. If Lorenzo finishes ahead of Dovizioso on Sunday, the Movistar Yamaha rider takes over fourth spot.
Indianapolis may not be so much of a Honda track as it was previously, but it clearly suits the RCV1000R production racer very well, at least in the hands of riders from Britain. Scott Redding is having an outstanding weekend at Indy, getting through to Q2 and finishing ahead of his teammate Alvaro Bautista on the RC213V. Bautista wasn't helped by the mother of all highsides during free practice, but that does not detract from Redding's achievement. During FP4, the Go&Fun Gresini rider was giving away over 23 km/h to Dani Pedrosa, and nearly 15 km/h to Marc Marquez. Despite his speed deficit, Redding was just four tenths slower than Pedrosa, and within 1.3 seconds of Marquez. Indianapolis is a track where Redding goes well, but he is far exceeding expectations here. He fully deserves the factory RC213V he will ride next year.
Despite finishing behind Redding, the achievement of Leon Camier is arguably even more impressive. The Briton was drafted in to the Drive M7 Aspar team to replace Nicky Hayden, who is still recovering from surgery on his wrist. Despite never having seen the Indianapolis circuit before, never having ridden a MotoGP bike before, and never having used the notoriously difficult Bridgestone tires, Camier is sixteenth on the grid. He cut his deficit to the leaders from five and a half seconds in FP1, to just over two seconds in FP4. He qualified ahead of both Hiroshi Aoyama and Karel Abraham, both of whom are MotoGP regulars and on the same bike. If Camier's appearance is to be viewed as an audition for a future seat in MotoGP, he is doing exceptionally well, especially as it comes on top of a few replacement rides in World Superbikes where he performed similarly well.
If the MotoGP title race seems settled, the Moto2 championship is tightening up. Mika Kallio grabbed his second pole of the season, ahead of his Marc VDS teammate and championship leader Tito Rabat. Domi Aegerter is the other man on the front row, the Swiss rider carrying the confidence boost he got from his first Moto2 victory at the Sachsenring on to Indianapolis. With Maverick Viñales on the second row, there could be quite the scrap on Sunday.
The best race of the weekend will surely be the Moto3 race, however. Jack Miller grabbed pole by the smart use of tactics, much as Mika Kallio had in Moto2. For Kallio, it was about using a good tire early because of the threat of rain, which never emerged. For Miller, it was about taking advantage of an empty track, and not getting caught in traffic. He was helped by his teammate Karel Hanika, needing a slipstream along the massive front straight at Indy, but the strategy came off.
That front straight is what will make the Moto3 race such a tight affair, Miller told the qualifying press conference. Indy's massive grandstands tend to channel the wind along the straight, and a major headwind makes escape impossible on a tiny Moto3 machine. The race will see a big group all drafting each other, and with Efren Vazquez, Alex Marquez and Romano Fenati in the top four, competition will be tough. The race will come down to being in the right position coming out of the final corner. The right position is almost certainly not in the lead, but ensuring you are in second or third slot is possibly even tougher than being in the lead. "It's going to be a real scrapping kind of a race," Miller predicted. "I'll have to put the boxing gloves on for sure."
The question now is what happens with the weather. Early August in Indiana is a time of occasional heavy showers and big thunderstorms. So far, the weather has treated Indy kindly, with rain only falling in the evening, other than just a few spots of rain during practice. The forecast is that another storm could move in on IMS on Sunday afternoon, some time after two o'clock. The later it comes, the better. The racing should be good enough as it is.