One of the greatest privileges of my job is to stand at trackside and watch the riders up close. It is the ideal antidote to the malaise which can affect journalists like me who tend to spend too much time indoors, in the press room, in the back of garages, and in team trucks and hospitality units, endlessly talking to people in pursuit of information. Walking out to Nieto, Peluqui and Crivillé, turns 9, 10 and 11 at Jerez, savoring the passion of the fans cheering as their favorite riders pass by, observing each rider closely as they pass, trying to see if I can see anything, learn anything, understand anything about the way the best motorcycle racers in the world handle their machines.
There is plenty to see, if you take the trouble to look. This morning, during warm up, I watched the riders brake and pitch their machines into turn 9, give a touch of gas to turn 10, before getting hard on the gas out of turn 10 and onto the fast right handers of 11 and 12. In the transition from the left of turn 8 to the right of turn 9, you see the fast riders move slowly across the bike, while the slow riders move fast. You see them run on rails through turns 9 and 10, before forcing the bike up onto the fatter part of the tire while still hanging off the side out of 10 and heading off to 11. You see the extreme body position on the bike, almost at the limit of physics. It is hard to see how a rider can hang off the bike further, outside hands barely touching the handlebars, outside feet almost off the footpegs. Photos and video barely start to do the riders justice. To experience it you need to see it from the track, and from the stands and hillsides that surround it.
Of all the riders to watch around Jerez, none is as spectacular as Jorge Lorenzo. Lorenzo is spectacular not for his exaggerated mobility, but rather for the lack of it. He slides around the Yamaha M1 like a python, oozing from side to side, his motion almost invisible to the naked eye. One moment he is hanging off the left side of the bike, then next he is over on the right, and you find yourself with no clear memory of seeing him go from one side to the other. He appears almost motionless, while the bike underneath him chases round the track at immense speed. He looks like a special effects montage, Lorenzo having been filmed in slow motion, sitting atop a motorcycle being shown at double speed. It is a truly glorious spectacle.
Tragically for Jorge Lorenzo, the television cameras (even the astonishing 1000 fps ones being used so well by Dorna at various points around the track) fail utterly to capture his magic. In the flesh, Lorenzo is one of the most majestic riders to watch. On TV, it simply looks flat and boring. All the excitement you feel when seeing him on track disappears.
Which explains why Jorge Lorenzo's victory at Jerez seemed so flat. Make no mistake, what Lorenzo did on Sunday was extraordinary, one of the most commanding and imposing displays of motorcycle racing the world has ever seen. Though the conditions helped – light layer of cloud helped keep track temperatures well below the blistering heights of previous years – Lorenzo chased round Jerez 27 times fully 20 seconds faster than anyone ever has before. He shattered his own lap record by over eight tenths of a second. He left Marc Márquez and Valentino Rossi gasping for breath. Lorenzo's win was the perfect way to cap a perfect weekend.
Such perfection was not particularly entertaining to watch on TV, however. After two thrilling races in Moto3 and Moto2, the MotoGP race was a bit of a snoozer. Lorenzo got away at the front, Marc Márquez clinging heroically to his tail for four laps before being forced to let the Movistar Yamaha rider go. Twenty two inch-perfect laps later, Lorenzo emerged victorious, troubled only briefly by a vibration from the rear wheel around lap 17. He cut his deficit to championship leader and Yamaha teammate Valentino Rossi to just 20 points. Lorenzo is not only back on the top step of the podium, he is back in the hunt for the title. The race may not have been great to watch, but it has done marvels for the excitement in the championship.
Behind Jorge Lorenzo, the question was whether Marc Márquez would stay the distance and hold the chasing Valentino Rossi off for the second spot on the podium. That Márquez could do just that was down to a couple of factors. In the first instance, because Rossi got held up by Pol Espargaro for just long enough to allow Márquez to open a gap of over a second to the Monster Tech 3 Yamaha man. Rossi took two and a half laps to get past Espargaro, by which time he had left himself with a little more to do than he wanted. Rossi opened the chase for the Repsol Honda man, but he lacked a bit of speed to close the gap. That was down in part to the Yamaha man's assumption on Friday that the harder of the two rear tires would be the best option, losing time to figure out that it was in fact not.
But Marc Márquez deserves most of the credit for his second place behind Lorenzo. The Repsol Honda man managed his race perfectly, resting his arms when he could, then pushing on when Rossi started to close and reopen the gap, getting all that he could out of the race. Márquez knew he could not match the pace of Lorenzo, but to claw back points from Rossi was a valuable prize. Márquez had suffered a little with his injured little finger, but his biggest problem had come from arm pump in the opposite arm. To take the pressure of his injured left finger, Márquez had to over stress his right, with arm pump as a result. Márquez managed the second half of the race by backing off to relax, and give his arm a fraction to recover, then pushing on once Rossi got too near. If Márquez' Argentina race had been characterized by impetuousness, his Jerez race was one of measured maturity.
Márquez was not the only rider with arm pump. After his fast start, Pol Espargaro dropped backwards, as he too was plagued by problems at a very physical track. Espargaro blamed it largely on himself. He had pushed too hard too early to try and stay with Rossi after being overtaken. The two long right handers, followed by the harsh hairpin in the final corner, stressed his arms a little too much, and never gave them a chance to recover. Espargaro had been a little too determined to stick with Rossi, suffering the consequences of getting over excited.
Espargaro's problems allowed Cal Crutchlow to get past and into fourth once again. Like Rossi, Crutchlow felt that he had lost too much time in the early battles, a problem which could have been avoided if he had qualified better. By the time he was past Espargaro and chasing Rossi, he felt that he had to be careful not to destroy his rear tire. Managing that meant he closed on Rossi, then dropped back again, as he cosseted his tire to the end of the race.
The Jerez race turned into something of a nightmare for the factory Ducati team. First, Andrea Iannone failed to get off the line, with no apparent explanation. After the race, it emerged that Iannone had accidentally pressed the wrong button sequence, engaging the rain mode instead of launch control for the start. That meant that Iannone's GP15 was circulating under the impression that it was fitted with rain tires and on a wet track. With rain mode changing everything, from traction control to horsepower to anti-wheelie to engine braking, it was impossible to be competitive. To finish sixth is an incredible achievement, given the circumstances.
The first sign that something was wrong was the fact that Iannone's rain light had come on, the red LED rear light fitted to every MotoGP bike for use in the rain. Iannone plummeted down the order, before the adaptive settings of the Ducati started to figure out there was more grip than expected, and modify the setting a little bit. That helped, but did not fix the issue completely. It did allow Iannone to fight his way forward and cross the finish line in sixth. Ducati project leader Paolo Ciabatti hailed his performance as 'exceptional', in explaining what had gone wrong.
"On our bike, if you look at our left handlebar, there are all these switches, which are actually the switches that Marelli gives to all the Open teams," Ciabatti explained. "We use them since the beginning of last year, because we think they are useful, and they have a lot of functions. So basically, in the middle, you have a yellow button, which is the mode, and then on top, you have a blue button, which is the launch control. So to change the map, the mechanic will push this yellow button for I think 5 seconds, in order to go into that menu, and then from there. If you press there, and you have a dry map, and you keep pressing it, it goes into wet automatically. Then the launch control, you have to press it for 1 second before it's engaged, and the dashboard will say "launch control" or it will say "wet". For whatever reason, and I think he has already sufficiently apologized for his mistake, because mainly it's spoiled the race, he was able to do a very good race, and considering he rode the race with a wet, or rain map, I think he did an exceptional race, for the whole race with a rain map."
Why did Iannone not simply switch back from rain mode to dry mode? The system is protected from doing so, to avoid riders doing it accidentally. Selecting the dry mode in the middle of a downpour is a sure-fire way of getting a one-way ticket into low earth orbit. "To disengage it is complex, and especially when you are already a little bit in a situation where you have to manage a race which is going in a different way than what you expected, and you are 11th, starting from the front row of the grid. So, anyway, he didn't really have time to do the procedure while riding the bike at that speed," Ciabatti said. That this was possible is solely because Ducati had never even thought it might be possible for someone to accidentally engage rain mode. They realize now that there is no reason for this to happen, usually, this mode is selected by a mechanic on the grid or in the pits. Expect Ducati's electronics to be a lot harder to put into rain mode by the time the paddock rolls up at Le Mans.
Iannone's teammate, Andrea Dovizioso, also had a tough weekend. Dovizioso had suffered a glitch with the engine braking system, forcing him to run straight on into the final corner. That left him dead last once he rejoined, so to fight his way forward to ninth is quite an achievement.
At Suzuki, a frustrated Aleix Espargaro mourned a lack of grip, despite having opted for the softer of the two options. The bike was still lacking some grip on corner exit, Espargaro said, and this, more than plain horsepower, was what was holding the Suzuki GSX-RR back. Both Espargaro and Viñales have new parts to test on Monday, including a swing arm, a new software package, and other sundry parts. By the time they leave here, Suzuki should be more competitive.
If the MotoGP race was barely memorable, that cannot be said of Moto3 and Moto2. Danny Kent won a thriller of a Moto3 race, holding off a very stiff challenge from Fabio Quartararo, Brad Binder and Miguel Oliveira to take victory. This was a much bigger deal than most of his races, as Kent has previously been able to escape at the front. This time, he had to participate in a four-way tussle before emerging victorious.
It nearly didn't happen: Quartararo entered the final corner determined to win, and attempting a dive up inside into the final corner. It was a little too much to ask, however, the Frenchman locking up the rear and nearly taking Kent out. At 16, Quartararo is showing incredible maturity for his age.
Moto2 was not quite the barnstormer which Moto3 had turned out to be. Tito Rabat was robbed of second after Alex Rins tried a similar move to Quartararo in Moto3, but failed to save it this time. That put Rins out of contention, and Rabat heading home with a third place rather than a second. Victory went to Jonas Folger, once again a rider after Jorge Lorenzo's heart. Fast, smooth, and lonely. Johann Zarco bagged second, having profited from Rins' mistake. Rabat finished third, but still happy. Finally the reigning champion had had a good weekend, his head having been turned round by the smallest thing: his crew chief and his data engineer having gone out to Almeria, and having helped him find a little more speed for his training.