2014 Silverstone MotoGP Preview - Yamaha Territory, Racing At Home, And The Future Of The British Grand Prix
Since the beginning of the season, as he racked up one victory after another, Marc Marquez faced the same question over and over again: can you keep on winning? And over and over again, Marc Marquez gave the same answer: one day, he would not win. On that day, he added, it would be important to think of the championship, and get on the podium if possible.
That day came 10 days ago, at Brno. After struggling all weekend with a lack of rear grip on his Repsol Honda, Marquez couldn't match the pace of his teammate Dani Pedrosa, and the two Movistar Yamahas of Jorge Lorenzo and Valentino Rossi. Fourth was all that Marquez could manage.
The measure of a champion is not just how he wins, but also how he handles defeat. As Marquez rolled back into his garage after the race – a rare occurrence indeed, this the first time Marquez finished off the podium in his MotoGP career – there were no tantrums, no anger, no shouting. He patted his mechanics on their shoulders, sat down in his seat, and immediately started analyzing the defeat he had just suffered with his team. This was clearly not an experience he was keen to replicate any time soon. If any doubt still lingered, the eagerness with which he attacked the official test at Brno on the Monday after the race quickly removed them.
Yet there is good reason for Marquez to fear another defeat. After the summer break, the reigning world champion pinpointed both Brno and Silverstone as tracks where he expected to come under fire from his rivals. Fans and journalists were quick to dismiss those doubts as merely sandbagging, or playing to the peanut gallery. Had Marquez not said exactly the same thing about Mugello, Barcelona and Assen? And had Marquez not taken victory at those tracks, too? At Brno, it turned out Marquez had been telling the truth. "Everyone said that winning was easy for me," Marquez told the media. "But I know how hard it was."
Could Marquez suffer two defeats in a row, to cap his ten successive victories? There is every reason to believe that the competition at Silverstone will be even tougher than at Brno. The Northamptonshire track flows much as Brno does, consisting of several fast combinations of corners, connected by short straights. The fast changes of direction at Woodcote and Copse, Maggots, Becketts and Chapel all play to the strengths of the Yamaha. Areas where the Honda is strongest are few and far between, and even then, followed by corners and combinations which work in the favor of the Yamaha. The hard braking for Vale may be good for the Honda, but right after that follows the double right of Club, leading on to the short straight into the Arena section. The Hondas can try to outbrake their rivals once more into Brooklands, but they lose out to the Yamaha's agility through Luffield, Woodcote and Copse, as Jorge Lorenzo demonstrated so ably at Silverstone last year.
Lorenzo really is back in form again. After struggling with his fitness in the first half of the season, the Mallorcan returned to Brno looking leaner and stronger. That extreme level of physical fitness is what Lorenzo needs to maintain his buttery smooth style, especially with a more nervous Yamaha running on a liter less fuel. The Yamaha M1 is now a very different bike to the one which started the season: a combination of major electronics upgrades and a new exhaust have worked wonders to smooth the power delivery, while modifications to the chassis and swingarm have helped make the bike easier to ride on the edge of the tire. Finally, a slight change to the compounds used on the very edge of the Bridgestone rear tire have given Lorenzo back some of the edge grip he has been missing.
After a long and humiliating first half of the year, Lorenzo is finally looking competitive. If you had to pick one track where the Movistar Yamaha might put an end to his win drought, Silverstone would be the prime candidate. His win last year was a stroke of tactical brilliance and dogged determination. He took Marquez on head on, was as aggressive as the Repsol Honda rider, and bided his time waiting for the perfect moment. Knowing Marquez would try to attack at Brooklands, Lorenzo let him go, then cut back to take the harder line through Luffield, holding Marquez off to the line. If he can't get away early, Lorenzo will be relishing another fight.
What of Lorenzo's Movistar Yamaha teammate? Valentino Rossi has always professed a fondness for the Silverstone circuit, yet never been rewarded with much success. Fourth last year was his best result at the track, though still thirteen seconds away from the podium. Yet Rossi is faring much better in his second year back at Yamaha than during his first. The improvements to the Yamaha have benefited Rossi as well, especially the improvement in braking, but the Italian has worked hard to improve his riding as well. He is closer to the front than he was last year, and has been a podium regular in 2014. His increased competitiveness has made him more hungry than ever for victory, yet with Marquez in the form he is, a win has never seemed so far away for Rossi. With Marquez shown to be mortal again at Brno, Rossi must smell his chance.
Then there is Dani Pedrosa. At Brno, the fourth member of MotoGP's Fantastic Four gave an object lesson in why he is arguably the most underrated rider in the class today. Fans forget just how strong Pedrosa can be on his day, and in Czech Republic, Pedrosa really did have his day. He was strong at Silverstone last year too, fighting with Marquez and Lorenzo nearly all the way to the line. His morale boosted by the win two weeks ago, and still his Repsol Honda teammate's biggest threat in the championship, Pedrosa will be hoping to once again make his mark.
Silverstone will be a big day for the British riders in all three Grand Prix classes. For Cal Crutchlow, his main aim will be to keep out of the medical center, a place he has spent way too much time in during each of his last three British Grand Prix. Riding the recalcitrant Ducati – and bottom of the list when it comes to development parts on the Desmosedici, now he has announced he is leaving a year early – his hopes of glory must be muted. But to finish the weekend without becoming too well reacquainted with the medical staff will be an achievement in itself.
Hopes will be higher for Bradley Smith, who is finally starting to put a race weekend together. After a disastrous start to his 2014 campaign, a new contract with the Monster Tech 3 Yamaha team put him on a more even keel. Smith had a decent weekend at Brno, though he struggled with a lack of rear grip during the race in much the same vein as Marc Marquez. Smith has often raced well in front of his home crowd, and will be looking to chase the leaders as closely as possible.
For Scott Redding, the taste of home victory is still fresh in his mouth. The Go&Fun Gresini rider won the Moto2 race here last year, running a special Union Jack livery on his Marc VDS Kalex bike. The only victory he can dream of this year will be to be the best Open bike, his RCV1000R too underpowered to pose a serious threat to the factory bikes at the front. Beating Aleix Espargaro on the Forward Yamaha will be tough enough as it is, the leased Yamaha M1 engine clearly more powerful than the production Honda.
Redding may also have his future on his mind at Silverstone. Despite having a two-year contract with Gresini, it is far from certain that he will be able to remain with the team. Honda has given Gresini a deadline of this weekend to confirm their order of a satellite RC213V for next season, the bike intended for Redding. But Gresini is in severe financial straits, and may be forced to forfeit the Honda satellite bike. The Marc VDS Racing team stands ready to step up to MotoGP and take Gresini's place, slotting Redding back into the structure in which he had so much success. But such a move may not be as simple as Redding and Marc VDS may hope. There are many obstacles still to be faced.
Redding is not the only British rider looking to his future in MotoGP at Silverstone. Leon Camier has been impressive at the two races he has replaced Nicky Hayden at so far. With no experience, Camier has stepped in and immediately been competing with the other production Hondas. After the test at Brno, where Camier finally got to work on set up and riding without the pressure of a race weekend, Camier will be raring to go at his home race. The Englishman has caught the eye of several MotoGP teams, and a strong result at Silverstone could seal a 2015 deal for Camier.
Eugene Laverty and Johnny Rea will also be heading to Silverstone, to continue talks started at Indianapolis and Brno. Laverty appears to be on the short list for the second Pramac Ducati machine for next year, while Rea is looking for a ride on a production Honda, a bike which is expected to be much stronger in 2015. The situation at Gresini has complicated his position, as it is uncertain whether Gresini will run Hondas at all next season. That leaves a chance at the Drive M7 Aspar team, and a slot at LCR Honda. But the second bike at LCR Honda looks destined to go to Jack Miller, unless the Australian decides not to skip Moto2 altogether, and joins the Pons team instead.
The Moto2 race looks set to be another clash between the two Marc VDS Racing riders. Tito Rabat seized the initiative once again at Brno, after suffering a few defeats at the hands of his teammate Mika Kallio. Kallio, in turn, is focused on chasing down Rabat in the title race, and that means taking as many points from the Spaniard as he can. The rest of the Moto2 grid has the feel of a supporting cast, but with actors of the status of Maverick Viñales, Tom Luthi, Dominique Aegerter, and a determined Sam Lowes, the supporting cast could well turn out to be the stars of the show.
The best race of the weekend will be saved until last. The revised running order at Silverstone – Moto2 first, followed by MotoGP and then Moto3 – sees the smallest class running last, to allow MotoGP to hit its preferred 2pm TV slot in Europe. Silverstone, like Brno, is a track at which it is almost impossible to escape, which means that the race will likely be decided in the final corner from among a large group. If a large enough group can hang together from the beginning, that will give Danny Kent another chance at glory, after his first podium of the 2014 season at Brno. The Englishman has had problems pushing hard in the early laps, but if he can stay with the group, then his chance awaits in the latter part of the race.
While Jack Miller, Alex Marquez and Efren Vazquez will be watching each other in their chase for the championship, Alex Rins will be out to make amends for Brno. The young Spaniard cheered a lap too early in the Czech Republic, raising his arms and punching the air as he crossed the line for the penultimate lap, rather than when it counts. Rins' season has not gone to plan so far this year, and the Spaniard is keen to get back on the top step of the podium. The man who beat him here last year is gone, Luis Salom having moved up to Moto2. That makes Rins very much the dark horse in Silverstone.
Will this be the last year of MotoGP at Silverstone? On paper, the British Grand Prix passes into the hands of the Circuit of Wales for 2015. Unfortunately for all concerned, construction work on that facility has not even begun, and it will not be ready for next year. With only Donington Park the other serious contender to stage a British Grand Prix in 2015, Silverstone's position is looking very strong indeed. That will please the riders, who love the fast, fearless and flowing nature of the track. Some of the fans will be less enchanted with the prospect. Despite the outstanding nature of the circuit – Silverstone is one of the very best layouts on the calendar, and regularly named in riders' top three tracks – its location makes it a difficult circuit for spectating. Spread out over a flattened hilltop in Northamptonshire, it is hard to get an overview of the circuit from any particular vantage point. That is a tragedy, and the circuit deserves better. It is truly a great track for racing. It's just hard to soak up just how great the racing is as a spectator. But the atmosphere, and the traditional Day of Champions on Thursday, more than make up for any shortcomings. It is worth the pilgrimage.