Valencia is always an incredibly busy weekend. The last race of the year means a chance to look back at the season which almost past, and the last chance before the winter break to present projects for next season in front of a large audience, or at least, a large press group. As a journalist, you can end up running around the paddock like a headless chicken, sprinting from event to event with no clear idea of what you are doing and with each new event wiping the memory of the last from your mind.
A selection of the events this weekend: A press conference organized by Dorna featuring the principals from the three factories in MotoGP, to look back over the season and review the future of the sport and how it is promoted (interesting, but long-winded). The presentation of Tech 3's new Tech 3 Classics project, which will see Tech 3 engineers restoring classic racing motorcycles for the general public (mercifully brief, but with some stunning old machinery on display). The presentation of the CIP Moto3 team for next year, with Remy Gardner, son of former 500cc world champion Wayne, to contest his first full Grand Prix season. A farewell to Colin Edwards, organized by the Forward Racing team. The introduction of the collaboration project between Monlau, Marc VDS Racing and Estrella Galicia which will see them racing in all three Grand Prix categories, the Spanish CEV championship and the Pre-GP class in Spain (revolutionary, poetic, and in three languages).
It is enough to make you forget about the fact that there are bikes out on track preparing for the last races of the season on Sunday. That is, after all, the actual raison d'etre of the Grand Prix paddock, and the reason we are gathered here in the first place. Even there, new projects were on track distracting the focus from Sunday, offering a glimpse of the bikes which will feature next year. Suzuki is at Valencia for a wildcard appearance, the first time the new GSX-RR has raced ahead of the factory's return to MotoGP. And Hiroshi Aoyama has been handed the Honda RC213V-RS, Honda's new Open class bike for 2015, much to the chagrin of Scott Redding, who is battling with Aoyama for the top Open Honda slot this season.
There were strange parallels between the two new bikes on Friday. The Suzuki was the quickest of the two – Randy De Puniet ended the day as 19th overall, 1.3 seconds off the fastest time from FP2, and 1.5 seconds off the best time of the day set in the morning. Given the fact that De Puniet has not raced for a year, and is missing race rhythm, this is a very respectable result. The Suzuki is matching the times of the Open class Hondas of Scott Redding and Karel Abraham, and not far off the time of Yonny Hernandez' time on the GP13 Ducati. Just how much faster the bike would be with a more competitive rider on board – or if De Puniet had spent the year racing, rather than just testing – remains speculation. As Valentino Rossi said during the press conference, we won't really know the level of the GSX-RR until Aleix Espargaro has had a couple of days in the saddle on the bike.
The bike appears to turn and stop well, but where it is really suffering is in top speed. De Puniet registered a top speed of 312.5 km/h, sandwiched in between the Honda RCV1000Rs of Karel Abraham and Nicky Hayden. But the Suzuki was 15 km/h down on the fastest Yamaha (Pol Espargaro), 17 km/h down on the fastest Honda (Dani Pedrosa), and just under 19 km/h slower than the fastest Ducati of Andrea Iannone. The problem is not just down to De Puniet being rusty and getting out of the last corner slowly, Suzuki boss Davide Brivio admitted. The engine itself is slow. The bike looks very polished, and the engine note is simply fantastic, a vicious rasp combining with the baritone bark of the big bang firing order. But it needs more horsepower. The only comfort for Suzuki is that it is easier to give a bike that handles more horsepower than to make a powerful bike handle well. Just ask Ducati.
The new Honda RC213V-RS Open bike is the opposite story. Aoyama set a top speed of 324.1 km/h, just a few clicks down on the quickest factory Honda, and faster than the Yamahas of Valentino Rossi and Bradley Smith. Aoyama was struggling with an entirely different problem, of getting the power delivery right for the new bike, finding the right gearing, and changing the balance. They had started off cutting the power too much on acceleration, Aoyama said. "Today, we were killing too much power," he commented. The character of the pneumatic valve engine is more aggressive than the steel spring valve RCV1000R. Despite having a broader power band, outside of that power band the delivery is a lot less aggressive than the old bike. It also needed a different gearing to the RCV1000R, which is the only data the Aspar team has to go on.
The different engine characteristics also meant the bike needed a different balance, and Aoyama and his team had spent time figuring out suspension settings. The bike also used the tires differently. I spent time in pit lane on Friday morning, and took a glance at Aoyama's soft rear tire when he came in. It looked a lot worse than his teammate Nicky Hayden's, showing real signs of having been used hard. Aoyama said that the power had made a difference. Normally, the Open Honda riders would focus on the softer of the two options, as that was the only viable tire they could use. On the RC213V-RS, Aoyama felt he could get both tires to work.
The new Open Honda may be faster in a straight line, but the jury is still out on its actual performance. Hiroshi Aoyama finished the day in 21st overall, just behind his teammate on the old RCV1000R, and over two seconds off the pace of Marc Marquez. Saturday should give a better indication of how much of an improvement the new bike is, once the Aspar team has sorted out the teething problems with the bike.
At the front, it was clear that Marquez is going all out for his 13th win. The Repsol Honda rider was fastest in both the morning and afternoon sessions, setting a very strong race pace in FP2, after playing around with settings on Friday morning preparing for the test on Monday. But Jorge Lorenzo is not far off the times of Marquez, and has looked supremely comfortable all day. Dani Pedrosa, too, is not that far off the pace, his rhythm strong. There is not a great deal to choose between the front three.
Valentino Rossi is having a much tougher time, as is all too often the case at Valencia. The Italian has struggled at the track in recent years, and so far, 2014 has been much the same. They tried an awful lot of changes to try to get the bike to work. Rossi put a positive spin on that, but it is clear they are struggling. They need to find a better balance with the bike, and so they need to come up with something on Saturday. Valencia is such a tight, technical track, that the field can end up very close, with dire consequences for grid position. Less than half a second separates the top 7, while the top 12 are all inside a second of Marc Marquez' best time. Even a minor mistake in set up can cost you dearly at this track. Rossi complained that his Yamaha M1 was still far too nervous, an issue they will have to solve if they are to qualify well on Saturday.
Valencia also sees the return of the asymmetric front tire brought by Bridgestone. Opinion is divided on the tire, sometimes even in the same team. Bradley Smith absolutely loved the tire, but said he had loved it from the first time he tested it at Brno. His Monster Tech 3 Yamaha teammate Pol Espargaro did not like it at all, the feeling between the two sides of the tire being far too different, he said. Cal Crutchlow, who crashed out of a certain second place at Phillip Island when he used the tire there, was pretty adamant. "I'm not going near it!" He quipped. His factory Ducati teammate Andrea Dovizioso had been the ideal guinea pig, going out on the tire early on in the morning, and liking it immediately. But the pain of Phillip Island is still too fresh for Crutchlow, convincing him to stay away.
Of the activities off track, the most intriguing was the presentation by the Marc VDS and Monlau teams. The two teams will now work together in the Spanish championship and Grand Prix racing, providing both a pipeline of talent for young riders with a career path leading all the way to MotoGP, and a platform for sponsors to back a rider from a young age through to the very top level, without the fear of losing that rider to a rival sponsor when they change categories and teams. Riders will start at the Pre GP level of the CMV and CEV, before moving up to CEV Moto3, then up through Moto3, Moto2, and eventually to MotoGP, should they prove talented enough. The entire project is to be backed by Estrella Galicia, the Spanish beer brewer.
There was much poetry at the presentation, with both Marc van der Straten and Ignacio Rivera waxing lyrical about the project. Van der Straten described his Moto2 project in terms of a great orchestra, which had a great conductor leading fantastic soloists to make exceptional music. Rivera, boss of the brewers producting Estrella Galicia said that the project was one born from passion, and shared with the fans: a passion for beer, and a passion for bikes.
Looked at more prosaically, the project is a powerful way of structuring motorcycle racing teams to ensure mutual benefit for riders, teams and sponsors. The Marc VDS and Monlau teams will remain separate structures, but will cooperate intensely with both each other and with the Estrella Galicia marketing team. Monlau brings engineering expertise – the technical vocational training has already trained some 40 mechanics and engineers in the Grand Prix paddock, including Andrea Canto Pastor, the data engineer for both of Marc VDS' Moto2 riders. Marc VDS brings a solid and successful Moto2 team, now moving up to MotoGP to compete with Scott Redding. And Estrella Galicia provides both a large part (though not all, by a long chalk) of the financial backing for the project, and the marketing expertise to make the project a success.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the agreement is the way it fixes a problem often encountered by riders when the move from one class to another. A rider may have been working with a particular sponsor through his early years, only to find that when moving up to the highest levels of racing, they are forced to drop sponsors because of preexisting agreements with the team they are joining. The most famous example is perhaps Dani Pedrosa. Pedrosa had had backing from Spanish telecoms giant Telefonica throughout his time in 125s and 250s, and Telefonica was desperate to move up to MotoGP with Pedrosa. That proposal was rejected by Repsol, who insisted that they would keep title sponsorship of Honda's factory team, and would not work with Telefonica to allow Pedrosa to retain his backing from them. Dismayed and angered, Telefonica withdrew from motorcycle racing altogether, only returning this year with the factory Yamaha team.
The Monlau / Marc VDS tie up aims at preventing a similar situation from arising in the first place. Sponsors wishing to back a young rider can help them in the Pre GP category, move up to the Spanish championship, then follow the rider through the ranks as their career progresses. The teams can guarantee that the investment a sponsor makes in a particular young rider will not risk being lost when they move between the different categories. A successful rider can retain the support of their sponsors all the way from Pre GP to MotoGP.
The significance of that cannot be overstated. Companies are more willing to invest in young riders secure in the knowledge that if it pays off, and the rider is good enough, they will see a return from that investment when they arrive in MotoGP. They need not fear bringing a young rider up through the smaller categories, only to lose that rider to a rival company once they reach the higher echelons of motorcycle racing. In the long term – we are talking 5 to 10 years here – this will have a very positive effect on racing and on sponsorship in general. All parties involved – Emilio Alzamora from Monlau, Michael Bartholemy and Marc van der Straten of Marc VDS, and Ignacio Rivera of Estrella Galicia – are to be praised for their foresight, and their farsightedness.
What this deal does throw up is just how well Honda have a handle on the situation, and on young talent. They have a pipeline through which to fast track the international talent which comes up through the Spanish championship. That leaves Yamaha and Ducati to fight over the scraps, trying to persuade riders established in Moto2 to make the jump to MotoGP with them. They have to rely on the talent-spotting skills of others, and hope that talent becomes from when it is time to move to MotoGP. Without a pipeline similar to the Monlau/Marc VDS collaboration, Yamaha and Ducati could well suffer in the future.