You should never believe professional pundits. We writers and reporters, forecasters and commentators like to opine on our specialist subject at every opportunity. The wealth of data at our fingertips, which we study avidly, fools us into thinking we know what we are talking about. So we – and I do mean all of us, not just the royal we – tell our audience all sorts of things. That Casey Stoner is about to return to racing with Ducati. That Valentino Rossi is set to join the Repsol Honda squad. That Casey Stoner is not about to retire, or that Dani Pedrosa will.
Your humble correspondent is no different. In 2013, during his first season back at Yamaha, I was quick to write Valentino Rossi off. At the age of 34, I pontificated, the keenest edge had gone from his reflexes, and he was at best the fourth best motorcycle racer in the world. He would never win another race again, unless he had a helping hand from conditions and circumstances, I confidently asserted. Rossi proved me wrong, along with the many others who wrote him off, at Misano last year. Now, after three races of the 2015 season, Rossi has two wins and a third, and leads the championship.
After the race at Argentina, the experts and pundits are all rubbing their hands with glee once again. Analyzing the coming together between Valentino Rossi and Marc Márquez, ascribing intention to one rider or another, confidently claiming that they can see inside the minds of the men involved. We are certain that Márquez was trying to intimidate Rossi when the Yamaha man came past. We are convinced that Rossi saw Márquez beside him, and deliberately took out his wheel. Or that Márquez made a rookie mistake, or that Rossi is now inside Márquez' head, or any other theory you care to mention. We can be so sure our claims will go unchallenged and unchecked, because the only two men who are genuinely in a position to challenge them have much better things to do. Like race motorcycles for a living, and try to win a MotoGP title, for example.
So what did happen? What we know is that the two men collided on the penultimate lap of the race. The collision was the moment that the fans remember, but how they got to that point is a far more interesting story. One which starts at the beginning of the weekend, when the riders got to try the new tires Bridgestone had brought to the track. Having seen extreme wear from the highly abrasive track the first year MotoGP came to the Termas de Rio Hondo circuit, Bridgestone changed their allocation. They built a new, extra hard tire to bring for the Hondas and Yamahas, with a harder compound on the left shoulder. The tire felt less comfortable in the early laps, but it had better durability over the course of the race.
More importantly, the riders now had a genuine choice between two tires which were both capable of doing the race. At most tracks, there is a tire which is clearly better than the other, making tire choice simple and putting everyone onto the same tire. Some may see this as a failing, but in reality, it is a testament to the ability of Bridgestone to match tires to a track. It is a complaint often heard about the Japanese tire maker: their product is just too good. They place inhuman demands on the riders, and on the bikes.
In Argentina, Bridgestone managed the astonishing trick of getting it right twice, with two different tires. The hard was easily capable of doing the distance, offering excellent speed early in the race at the cost of some pace later on. The extra hard lacked the grip and feel in the early laps, but maintained its pace better in the second half of the race. The way the different bikes use the tire forced them into different directions. The Yamaha, which wants more corner speed, needed the more durable edge of the extra hard to make it to the race. The Honda, capable of finding grip if stood up earlier, could be made to go faster with the hard tire, not using or needing the edge of the tire so much.
The final piece of the puzzle would be track temperature. If the track was warm enough, the Hondas could use the extra hard tire as well. If it cooled a little, the hard would be the better choice. Come race day, and 4pm, track temperature was changing, growing warmer after a cool start to the day. All eyes were on Marc Márquez, and which way he would go with the tire. The reigning champion did his sighting lap on the extra hard tire, perhaps hoping to plant a seed of doubt in the minds of his opponents. Back on the grid, the mechanics swapped wheels, Márquez' tire choice shielded from public view by tire warmers until those had to be removed at the 1 minute mark before the start of the race.
Márquez' sleight of had may have unsettled some, but had no effect on Valentino Rossi. He and his crew already knew that the extra hard tire was their only choice for the race. What anybody else did was irrelevant. "I think that the key was that we don't care a lot about Marquez, but we just concentrate on us," Rossi said after the race. "[We] try to use the tire that permit to me to make the race distance with less time." A good start would be crucial, after another mediocre qualifying position, and Rossi did very well off the line. He got no help from Andrea Iannone, the Ducati man bumping Rossi wide at turn 1, and knocking him back to eighth place.
From there, the race unfolded as the tire strategy had dictated. Marc Márquez soon blasted past Aleix Espargaro down the back straight to take over the lead, the Suzuki clearly losing out in the horsepower stakes to the Honda. Cal Crutchlow quickly followed, his task to hold up the chasing pack behind while he had the advantage from his hard tires. The Movistar Yamahas of Jorge Lorenzo and Valentino Rossi were struggling as they waited for the advantage of the extra hard to start kicking in. Lorenzo had got a dream start and was running second, but was soon swamped by the red-banded armada of hard-tire-toting Hondas and Ducatis.
It would be the start of a long slide. Though he would lose only one more place, to his teammate, then no more – the riders behind him were too far back – he simply could not maintain the pace of the front runners, and especially that of Rossi. He had no real explanation, other than that he struggled to get the tire to work. "At the moment, I don't know how to ride when I have spinning, I can't ride like Valentino does. He rode an incredible race." His goal for the future is simple. "I have to learn to be fast again. If we can be fast again, we can fight for podiums and from there, start thinking about the victory again," Lorenzo told the Spanish media.
At the moment, Lorenzo seems to be suffering a crisis of confidence. He is in good shape physically, the bike is clearly fast, and he shows flashes of his old speed. A solid weekend in Jerez or Le Mans, tracks where he has always been strong, could put him back on track. In Argentina, perhaps the choice of tires may have made things more difficult. Both Lorenzo and Smith said the fact that both tires worked meant that making a choice was more difficult. Rossi had come into the race having already made up his mind. Concentrating just on getting the one tire to work paid off for him in the end. If Lorenzo had done the same, maybe things could have been different.
The middle of the race turned into a question of tire strategy. Márquez had pulled out a big lead, and was managing the gap. Rossi's tires were starting to come in, the Italian feeling ever more comfortable as the bike started to slide. After losing ground at the start, he had set his sights on second place, and gaining maximum points for the championship. But once he took over second from Andrea Dovizioso, and saw the four-second gap to Márquez start to come down more quickly than expected, Rossi knew things could work out very differently.
"I see Marc Márquez in Argentina, first small like this, after coming bigger and bigger and bigger, and I feel maybe I arrive on the last lap," Rossi said. He would get there even faster, catching Márquez with three laps to go, and launching his first attack. Rossi has always been an example to Marc Márquez, the Spaniard saying that he had learned so much from him. One of the things Márquez learned was that when someone passes you, it is imperative to strike right back, to try to disrupt their rhythm and knock some of the confidence gained by passing out of them. Momentum and confidence is everything in racing, and changing that momentum in your favor can help decide races.
As Rossi got past Márquez the first time, the Spaniard struck back immediately. Márquez held the Yamaha man at bay for another lap, but a Rossi pass was looking inevitable. Márquez was not going to just roll over, though. As he slid out wide at the end of the straight, lining up for the right hander at Turn 5, he saw Rossi pass him on the brakes, and turn in. Márquez cut back harder, coming inside Rossi in the second half of the hairpin, and slamming into the Italian as Rossi made the turn. Rossi held his line, having the easier position as he was ahead of Márquez, and lined up to flick the bike left again ready for Turn 6.
This is where it gets messy. If this had been any other riders, or had been Márquez or Rossi and a different rider, the narrative constructed around the incident may have been different. But both Márquez and Rossi have a reputation, for being extremely firm overtakers, for not ceding positions unless they are forced to, for taking risks beyond what many others are prepared to envisage. Márquez is the worse of the two, his reputation for barging other riders out of the way following him from Moto2 into MotoGP. Since arriving in the premier class, he has calmed down considerably, though he still finds it hard to contain his appetite for risk.
Rossi treads a slightly finer line, though he is himself no stranger to controversy. If he sees a gap, he will take it, knowing that to do so may well be a risk. He is not afraid of physical contact, as he demonstrated many times, such as with Sete Gibernau in Jerez, or Jorge Lorenzo in Motegi, or Casey Stoner at Laguna Seca. On the whole, though, Rossi is fractionally more circumspect than Márquez. To use a metaphor, Marc Márquez is likely to be found with matches in his hands standing next to the ashes of a burning vehicle. Rossi always makes sure that someone else is holding the matches when a vehicle burns down, whether or not he had a hand in lighting the fire.
So what happens next is what all the conjecture revolves around. Rossi exits Turn 5, and flicks his bike over to lean left, lining up ready to attack the sweeping left hander of Turn 6. In doing so, he casts a very rapid glance to his side, the side where he had just felt the impact from Márquez. As he flicks left, the bike jumps across the track a little, and clips Márquez' front wheel. The Honda's front wheel is lifted off the ground, and then the bike is sliding along the ground, Márquez following behind it. As he comes to a standstill, Márquez leaps to his feet and sprints to his bike, in an attempt to get back on it and rejoin the race. It is too late. The engine has already cut out, and Márquez flicks the kill switch.
Did Rossi see Marc Márquez? Only Rossi knows that, and he implied in the press conference that he did not. Did he deliberately move across into the path of Márquez? He had every right to, as he was clearly leading, and it is the responsibility of the bike behind to try to get past safely. Rossi must have known that Márquez would try another pass, as he never loses a position without placing a counterattack. Perhaps he was expecting Márquez to try to cut inside him at the braking point. At the press conference, Rossi said "I open the throttle, and I try to accelerate, because I want to try to take the small advantage before the next braking."
Was Rossi's line out of Turn 5 unusual? Not particularly. In the early laps, Jorge Lorenzo had taken the exact same line, jinking left at the exact same spot to set up for Turn 6. On the lap before the crash, Rossi does exactly the same thing, taking the same, slightly wider line on the approach to Turn 6. What's more, Rossi had just had his bike unsettled by the first collision with Márquez, and so was perhaps not as free to choose his line as if he was riding on his own.
So was the crash Márquez' fault? There are two ways you can look at this. Taking the long view, of the championship rather than the race, then you would say it was. Márquez could have settled for an easy twenty points, and second place in the championship. That is not in Márquez' nature, however. "Marc is a rider who always bet all or nothing," Rossi pointed out, and this time, he came away with nothing. On the other hand, if Márquez was not a rider prepared to risk so much for a win, perhaps he would not have two MotoGP titles to his name already, and his name plastered all over the record books.
Taking the shorter view, of aiming for the race win at all costs, then it was just the kind of calculated risk which Márquez takes so often. He came in hard on Rossi at Turn 5, and was perhaps trying to hold station behind Rossi, setting up for an attack out of Turn 6 and into Turn 7, another right hander. Márquez believed he could have had the pace to match Rossi in the last two laps, and so was prepared to fight. "I knew he was coming with a good pace, but in the two last laps, I had increased mine to try to fight for the position a bit," Márquez told Spanish media. The lap charts confirm that. On lap 21, Márquez did a 1'39.4, while Rossi did a 1'39.3, on lap 23, Márquez ran a 1'39.4, Rossi a 1'39.2. Two laps, and a close battle, may have been enough to leave Márquez with a shot at the win.
From the outside, though, it looked like Márquez judged it wrong. The defensive pass up the inside of Turn 5, in which he slammed into Rossi, forced him into a position in Rossi's blind spot, behind and to the right. He was right on the line which Rossi would be likely to take, and trying too hard to defend the position now, rather than think about a counterattack later. His front wheel was exactly where Rossi's rear wheel needed to be, and in that contest, Márquez was always going to be the loser. He rolled the dice, and came up snake eyes.
Márquez himself was careful not to apportion blame, neither on himself nor on Valentino Rossi. But the statements he made to the Spanish press were a very long way from absolving Rossi from responsibility. When asked what happened, he said only "You saw what happened on TV. At the end, you could see perfectly what happened. Valentino is very much Valentino. He has always been my reference, and I always learn things from him." When asked directly if Rossi was to blame, he denied. "No. In the end, these things happen in racing. You have to learn and move on to the next page. These things happen in racing battles, you don't always leave as the winner."
So who is to blame? Marc Márquez or Valentino Rossi? Neither, really, though Márquez put himself into the position for this to happen. Race Direction investigated the collision, then dismissed it as a racing incident. While we mere mortals must make do with the footage provided by Dorna – extensive as it is, shot from three angles, from the front, from behind, and from the helicopter overhead – Race Direction have more cameras at their disposal. The circuit CCTV, and other Dorna camera shots which may not have been in focus, or have been sweeping back into position. Neither man was called in for questioning, nor any penalty points handed out.
Has Valentino Rossi now broken Marc Márquez, as he broke so many of his other rivals? Not at all. Firstly, Rossi's reputation as a master of mind games outstrips his ability. His talent was first and foremost on the track, and that was what broke the will of the men who tried to beat him. Secondly, the one thing which has stood Marc Márquez in such good stead is that is his phenomenal mental resilience. Anyone doubting the Spaniard's mental strength need only look back to Phillip Island 2013, where a mistake by a team member saw Márquez miss the compulsory pit stop and get black-flagged. Within an hour, he had regained his good spirits, and went on to win his first MotoGP title. Or look back at the time Márquez was nearly forced to stop racing, after his crash at Sepang in 2011 damaged his vision. Coming back from that makes a single crash on track look rather trivial.
The outcome of the crash between Rossi and Márquez does provide some real spice to the championship. Valentino Rossi, the man we all thought was washed up, is leading the championship, and with two wins from three races, as well as another podium, is looking the clear favorite for his tenth title. He has shown that the Yamaha is capable of winning, despite being short on top speed. With MotoGP now heading to Europe, and a lot of tracks which Rossi loves, he must be confident of consolidating his lead towards the middle of the season. Jorge Lorenzo and Marc Márquez, the two men tipped as favorites for the title before the season now trail Rossi by 29 and 30 points respectively. Lorenzo is yet to get on the podium, and Márquez has two big mistakes in two races. Momentum is clearly in Valentino Rossi's favor.
It is intriguing that Rossi's closest challenger should be Andrea Dovizioso. The Ducati rider now has three straight second places, and trails Rossi by 60 points to 66. Dovizioso has taken heart from the progress Ducati made throughout 2014, as Gigi Dall'Igna worked to improve the bike. And the GP15 has been simply astounding, competitive right from the very start, as fast as the Honda and as agile as the Yamaha. If the Ducati had had the extra hard tire, you wonder where Dovizioso and Iannone could have ended up. But the concessions granted to Ducati which allowed them to catch up with Yamaha and Honda are starting to have a downside. I don't think the men and women at Ducati much care. Success has been a long time coming.
Can Dovizioso actually challenge Rossi for the title? The bike will need a little bit of improvement, but it is not beyond the bounds of possibility. While Rossi revels in the spotlight, Dovizioso works, thinks, and rides his way into the championship. Dovizioso deserves every bit of success he has collected. A race win cannot be very far off now.
While all eyes were on the action at the front, the TV missed an epic battle for third. Cal Crutchlow finally triumphed over Andrea Iannone, beating the Italian in a close quarters battle all the way to the line. He was elated to get a podium in just his third race on the LCR Honda. His third different bike in three years, coming after a tough season at Ducati, getting on the box is an achievement that should not be underestimated. Ironically, that puts him up with his former teammate Andrea Dovizioso, and Valentino Rossi, as a rider who has taken podiums on the Honda, Yamaha, and Ducati.
Iannone was relegated to fourth, but had fought hard on the Ducati once again, and again impressed by his levelheadedness. The Maniac Joe is behaving more like an actuary than an ax murderer. His maturity is impressive.
Behind a dejected Lorenzo came Bradley Smith, once again putting in a solid performance and beating his teammate. The problem both he and Pol Espargaro had was getting the extra hard tire to work. Like Lorenzo, the simply could not find the grip that Valentino Rossi had.
In seventh, Aleix Espargaro took the Suzuki to its best finish of the season. Described by his crew chief Tom O'Kane as "the most underrated rider I've worked with," Espargaro has gone from overriding an Aprilia and overriding an Open Yamaha to overriding a factory Suzuki. "You know you are getting 100% out of him every time he goes on the race track," O'Kane said. Suzuki have two problems at the moment, a long-term lack of power, and a short-term problem with chatter. New parts should be coming at Jerez to help deal with the chatter, but the lack of power will take longer to fix. At the tighter tracks like Jerez, Espargaro should have a better chance to hold his own against the other factories. If they manage fix the chatter, there could be four factories fighting at the front in Jerez.
So there you have it, the considered opinion of a professional pundit, my view on the events in Argentina. Why should you take my view seriously? I firmly believe that you should read everything I write with a pinch of salt at hand. I have gathered information as best I can, watched the footage several times closely, and tried to examine it as dispassionately as possible. Am I right? Possibly not, it would not be the first time I was tripped up by my own hubris. I have set down what I think I saw, but there are no guarantees that my vision is anywhere near 20/20. As someone some people to refer to as an expert, there is every chance that I will be wrong...