The crowds at Silverstone certainly got their money's worth at this year's British Grand Prix. The weather turned, the sun shone, the temperature rose and the fans were treated to three scintillating races, along with an action-packed support program. The Moto3 race was the usual nail-biter, the race only decided on the entry to the final complex at Brooklands and Luffield. The Moto2 race was a throwback to the thrillers of old, with three men battling for victory to the wire. And the MotoGP was a replay of the 2013 Silverstone race, a duel decided by raw aggression.
That the MotoGP race should be so close was a surprise. After Friday practice, Marc Marquez looked to already have the race in the bag. The championship leader was fast right out of the box, setting a pace no one else could follow. Where the rest complained of a lack of grip from the cold conditions, and of struggling with the bumps created by F1, Marquez simply blew everyone away. A night of hard work figuring out set up solutions by crew and suspension technicians saw most riders greatly up the pace on Saturday, the front end now riding over the bumps, rather than being jolted around by them. Marquez still took pole, but the pace in FP4 looked much closer.
The concerns which the Yamahas had was mostly temperature, and so a bright, sunny day was exactly what they needed. It completed the transformation of Jorge Lorenzo from Friday. The tire brought by Bridgestone – the same compound as last year, but with the heat treatment layer which makes the edge of the tire a fraction stiffer – was not working for the Movistar Yamaha rider on Friday, but come Sunday, Lorenzo's crew had solved nearly all of his problems. "We improved the bike so much from Friday," he said after the race. They had found more corner speed during the morning warm up, and that gave Lorenzo the chance to fight. Once the lights dropped, Lorenzo took off like a scalded cat and tried to make a break from the front.
Marquez followed, making a much better start than usual, but still having to first dispose of a rampant Andrea Dovizioso on the first lap. Marquez latched on to Lorenzo from the start, but could only follow in the early laps. "Today, I didn't expect Jorge like that," Marquez said. "He was so strong, and his rhythm was so high." He had expected a very different kind of race, and was forced to wait until his tires began to wear.
The pair led a group consisting of Lorenzo and Marquez, with Andrea Dovizioso, Aleix Espargaro and Valentino Rossi. Espargaro soon dropped off the front, moving backwards as his tires began to go, while Dani Pedrosa maneuvered his way forward to take Espargaro's place. But the group soon split, only Marquez able to match the withering pace being set by Lorenzo. Rossi, Dovizioso and Pedrosa were left to fight among themselves, as the stars of last year's show prepared for battle once again.
Hostilities started in earnest around lap 12, when Lorenzo braked a little earlier for Copse and caught Marquez off guard. The reigning champion was soon back on the Yamaha's tail, before taking the lead two laps later. Lorenzo was not done, though, catching Marquez and then passing him when the Repsol Honda man ran wide at Stowe. Lorenzo pushed hard to get a gap again, but Marquez was determined not so suffer his second defeat in a row. Marquez tried to get through at Village, but Lorenzo held his line through the right hander, keeping both his corner speed and the lead. That left him on his normal, sweeping line through The Loop, but that line left the door fractionally ajar for Marquez. The Spaniard squeezed his Repsol Honda up the inside of Lorenzo, just sticking his wheel onto the apex as Lorenzo started to turn in. The Yamaha man was left with two options: lift his bike and finish, or slam the door and take them both down. Lorenzo chose discretion over recklessness, and was forced into second place.
That choice eventually cost him the race, though there was little else he could do. Lorenzo lost 0.8 seconds through that section, putting him half a second behind Marquez. With two laps to go, it was more than he could make up, and Marquez could take his eleventh win of the season. Afterwards, Lorenzo refused to complain of the pass, saying only that Marquez' riding was 'aggressive', and that the Honda allowed him to ride like that. The nature of the Yamaha made it hard to defend against a pass like that, Lorenzo said.
Lorenzo's manager Wilco Zeelenberg was a little more disapproving, though he, too, refused to condemn the pass. The Honda allowed its rider to turn it on a dime and squeeze it into a tight spot, Zeelenberg explained. That was impossible for the Yamaha, as the M1 is built on maintaining corner speed. That also rewarded Marquez' aggression. He could put the bike somewhere questionable, and leave the decision about crashing to the other rider involved. "If Jorge doesn't lift, they both go down," Zeelenberg said. The rider with the most to lose in that situation is clearly Marquez. It was obvious the championship was just about out of Lorenzo's reach, Zeelenberg said, and so he had nothing to lose. All Lorenzo wants from the rest of the season is to win races, finishing anywhere else doesn't matter. If Lorenzo were to hold his line and both he and Marquez were to crash, it would make little difference to Lorenzo's championship. Losing 25 points to Rossi or Pedrosa would put a big dent in Marquez' lead, however.
Victory at Silverstone takes Marquez' tally of wins to eleven, matching the record of Rossi and Giacomo Agostini, and beating the record of the man he replaced at Repsol Honda, Casey Stoner. With six races left, Marquez needs just one more win to match the record for most wins in one season, held by Mick Doohan, and two more to beat it outright. You would have to say that that is another record Marquez will hold by the end of the year.
Marquez, of course, was ecstatic, but he leaves everyone else behind him frustrated. Lorenzo was happy with a lot of things, especially the way he rode, saying that he 'put everything on the track'. He extracted the maximum from the package he had, but pointed out that 'the package' was not the best. The element of the package letting him down was clear: it was black, round, and had a heat-resistant layer combined with too hard a compound on the edge. Lorenzo still finds it hard to forgive Bridgestone for the change they have made to their tires this season. And probably never will. The good thing for Lorenzo is that this is the last time this particular combination will be used this year. From here on in, the edge of the tire is of a slightly softer compound, to compensate for the effect of the heat resistant layer.
Valentino Rossi was delighted to finally make it onto the podium at Silverstone, after three tough races in previous years. The improvements to the Yamaha mean he can brake better and be faster, but he still can't match the pace of Marquez and Lorenzo at the end of the race. Once the rear tire starts to wear, it starts to slide too much, and he loses acceleration. Fortunately for him, the others he was battling with had the same problem. Dani Pedrosa said he, too, had difficulty with rear grip, meaning he couldn't carry the consistent pace of his teammate after the first few laps. Both he and Rossi said they were fast enough in the first part of the race, but couldn't keep the pace up when the grip started to go.
The only other happy rider in the top five was Andrea Dovizioso. The Italian had spent all race battling with Pedrosa and Rossi, and had looked consistently strong. Where in previous races, his pace had dropped too much after the first half of the race, at Silverstone, Dovizioso could maintain his pace all the way to the end. There was no single explanation for the improvement, he said, it was just a matter of lots of small steps taken over the course of the year. The bike brakes better, turns in better, is faster, smoother, and generally just easier to manage. Racing with this machine was now less draining than it had been, though it remains a physically demanding and intense task.
The goal had been to get within ten seconds of the leaders, and Dovizioso was delighted and surprised to have managed that. Finishing so close to Rossi and Pedrosa had more to do with their grip issues than with his pace, Dovizioso told the press, but it was heartening nonetheless. Progress is being made, and the Ducati is not looking like the dead end it was a year ago. The next test of the improvements being made comes at Aragon, when Dovizioso and Andrea Iannone will get an upgraded bike, with a new engine and chassis. That is said to be a significant change, and though it will not solve the understeer which still plagues the Desmosedici, it should be the first step in alleviating it. That is the biggest problem of the bike, and the area where help is most needed.
If Dovizioso was delighted, his teammate was far from that. Cal Crutchlow has looked like a broken man all weekend, suffering his worst home MotoGP round mentally. His mood was slightly improved from Saturday, when journalists emerged from his media debrief ready to alert the Samaritans that their intervention was urgently needed. There were positive points to be taken from the weekend, Crutchlow said. First and foremost, he had finished the race, and had not fallen off and broken anything, as he had so often at his home race. His lap times had been consistently much better than he expected. He was also touched by the reception he had been given by his home fans. Crutchlow was fully aware that he could not reward their support with a good result. But they had supported him regardless, and he seemed genuinely humbled by that. It is hard to overstate just how tough this year has been for Cal Crutchlow. 2015 cannot come soon enough.
It was not a great race for any of the British riders at Silverstone. Bradley Smith had been confident going into the race, after showing strong pace in practice. But after a few laps, he felt his rear tire start to lose grip, eventually become so bad that he had to pull into the pits. Pressure in the rear tire had dropped from 1.8 bar, which they normally run in the race, to just 0.6 bar, the air having escaped through a cracked rim. How the rim came to be cracked remained a mystery. The wheel was well within its recommended mileage, the teams always choosing to race their best material. Smith had not hit anything out on track, and the wheel had not had a problem prior to the race. It was just another in a string of problems this season for the Englishman. Though his problems pale in comparison to the annus horribilis suffered by Ben Spies in 2012 – two duff tires and a cracked rim are nowhere near as bad as a broken shock bolt, a cracked subframe, overheating brakes and heaven knows what else – but Smith has had more than his fair share of bad luck.
Leon Camier, too, suffered a technical problem, the brakes on his production Honda playing up in the early laps. That situation improved as the race went on, but Camier is still struggling to get the bike to behave as he wants. Whether he will have another chance to ride the bike depends on Nicky Hayden. The American is due to have a medical to assess the progress of his wrist. If Hayden cannot ride, Camier will be back on the Aspar Honda.
Even the British rider with the best result was not that happy, though the only thing he had to blame was the uncompetitiveness of the RCV1000R. Scott Redding was the fastest Production Honda once again, beating Karel Abraham by 13 seconds. He also finished ahead of Crutchlow on the factory Ducati, and Yonny Hernandez on the Open Pramac Ducati. Though his performance was excellent, this is not what he wants to be doing, he told reporters. It is hard to enjoy battling for the top ten on an underpowered bike, but over the summer break he had realized that this was what he needed to do to earn a ride on a factory-spec bike in 2015. It was not enough to just beat the other Open class Hondas, he had to beat them convincingly, and put a lot of time between himself and them. This he has managed. At Misano, he will find out whether his efforts are to be rewarded, though the question is surely where he rides the factory Honda, rather than whether he will ride it.
If the MotoGP race was better than expected, the Moto2 race trumped that by a good distance. For once, we did not have a processional race in the intermediate class, the racing made exciting by Tito Rabat coming from behind to catch his Marc VDS teammate Mika Kallio, then beat him in a fierce battle between the two. Rabat had had trouble settling into his rhythm early in the race, his lines being disrupted by being caught in a group with Maverick Viñales, Jonas Folger, Johann Zarco and Simone Corsi. But as the fuel burnt off, Rabat felt more and more confident, and towards the end of the race, he set about reeling in Kallio, who had tried to make a break. It came down to a brutal exchange between the two Marc VDS riders on the last couple of laps. In the end, it was Rabat who triumphed, taking his sixth win of the year, and extending his lead in the championship again to 17 points.
Kallio was resigned in defeat, but aware that this was one of his weakest tracks. From here on in, he said, he believed he could take the fight to Rabat. Kallio is determined not to let this chance at a title slip away, and will come back tougher at Misano. This rivalry will go all the way to the wire.
Wildcard in all of this was Maverick Viñales. After finishing sixth in Brno, the Spaniard was back on the podium again. What Viñales is really missing is consistency, but this is something which comes with time. He is not likely to get that in Moto2, as his signing to Suzuki will probably be announced at Misano, alongside Aleix Espargaro.
If the gaps at the top of the Moto2 and MotoGP championships opened up again, the battle for the Moto3 title got even tighter. Jack Miller's advantage is slowly melting away like snow in the springtime sunshine, as the Estrella Galicia Hondas start to catch him. Miller was with the front group for most of the race, but got caught up in a battle with Alexis Masbou and Jakub Kornfeil, which allowed Alex Rins, Alex Marquez, Enea Bastianini and Miguel Oliveira to escape. Miller was lucky that Alex Rins came away with the victory, after a breathtaking final lap battle, taking precious points from his teammate Alex Marquez. That leaves Miller with a 13 point lead in the championship, but still an awful lot of racing to go.
The win was a very welcome one for Alex Rins, his first of the season. He had had several podiums, but a win would not come. He thought he had claimed his first victory at the last race at Brno, but he had miscounted the laps, and crossed the line cheering a lap too early. By the time he recovered, he had lost too many places, and crossed the line in ninth. No such ignominy at Silverstone, though the fight had been as close as at Brno.
Perhaps most impressive of all was the performance of Enea Bastianini. Just 16 years old, in his first year of Grand Prix racing, Bastianini has already scored three podiums this year. Silverstone was his second in a row, and once again, he had to be carried into the press conference, his broken heel still causing him too much trouble. While Romano Fenati appears to be lost in mid-pack, Bastianini is a real ray of hope for Italian racing. His Italian nickname is 'The Beast', a play on his name. A moniker which is richly deserved. Bastianini is one to watch.
Will we back here again next year? Though the Circuit of Wales has the contract, it will not be ready on time for 2015. Donington is another option, though that track still needs work if it is to host a Grand Prix. Silverstone is ready and able, the only question being money. The Northants circuit may have a little more leverage over the Circuit of Wales than they ever had over Dorna.
The problem for any circuit organizing MotoGP is recouping costs through ticket sales. Attendance was down at Silverstone this year, bucking the trend of the races in other countries, though the weather may have had something to do with that. Could the fact that MotoGP is no longer on a free-to-air channel be a contributing factor? The numbers are too inconclusive for that. It seems more likely that cool conditions and, perhaps, a lack of promotion could be the cause. We will see whether the trend continues in 2015.