Barcelona was the place the champions emerged. In Moto3, Moto2 and MotoGP, riders laid a solid claim to the titles in their respective classes. Danny Kent rode with heart and head, and won the Moto3 race with a plan, extending his lead in the championship to 51 points. Johann Zarco pulled back a big gap and made the right move when it mattered most, extending his lead to 40 points. And Jorge Lorenzo and Valentino Rossi demolished all-comers to make it a Yamaha one-two, and to push their lead out to 43 and 44 points respectively, the Movistar Yamaha men separated by a single point between them. A lot can happen in the eleven races which remain, but the chances of the three titles not bearing the names of three of those four men are getting slimmer by the race. The fat lady is still a long way from starting to sing, but you get a sneaking suspicion that you just heard her taxi pull up at the artists' entrance.
While in Moto2 and Moto3, the title favorites have a name, in MotoGP we know only the team likely to lift the trophy in Valencia. To say that the factory Movistar Yamaha team dominated the MotoGP race in Barcelona is an understatement. While Valentino Rossi chased another metronomic performance from Jorge Lorenzo, behind them their rivals were either falling by the wayside or finishing nearly twenty seconds off the pace. Marc Márquez, Andrea Dovizioso and Aleix Espargaro crashed, Dani Pedrosa finished third just under twenty seconds behind the Yamahas, and Andrea Iannone was the first factory Ducati home, with a gap equating to a pace nearly a second a lap slower than that of the Yamahas. Jorge Lorenzo has won the last four races on the trot, Valentino Rossi has picked up two more, and not been off the podium so far this season, leaving only Austin to Marc Márquez. Even then, the Repsol Honda man won that race with a much smaller margin than usual at the track.
Jorge Lorenzo gave yet another demonstration of just how strong his riding is at the moment. The Spaniard grabbed the lead at the first corner – frustratingly so for Aleix Espargaro, who had got off the line well but started to suffer as the Suzuki changed up the gearbox, the lack of a seamless shift meaning he lost eight or nine places in the long run down to the first turn – and proceeded to make the break so many feared he would. Marc Márquez gave chase, but lasted less than three laps, the reigning champion throwing his title chances away at the La Caixa corner. Valentino Rossi rode brilliantly to work his way up to second from the third row of the grid, but left himself with too much work to do to catch Lorenzo. As the laps started ticking down, it looked like he might just manage that, but Lorenzo responded just enough to keep a healthy buffer between himself and his teammate. It wasn't an epic race by any stretch of the imagination, but there was tension and there was interest.
The good news for Rossi was that he and his team once again found the final step of improvement during the warm up on Sunday, and had the pace to match, and perhaps even beat Lorenzo in a head-to-head fight. In the twenty two laps during which Rossi was chasing Lorenzo, the Italian was over half a second faster, or a quarter of a second quicker if you remove the last lap, where Lorenzo slowed briefly in celebration as he crossed the line. The bad news is that Rossi lost around a second and a half in the first three laps, when he was fighting his way forward through the pack. "Valentino is a Sunday rider," Lorenzo said, probably unaware of the other connotations of the phrase. Rossi works through practice, gets caught out by qualifying, then comes good in the race. Rossi is losing the races on Saturday, in qualifying, he acknowledged. "Unfortunately when you have Jorge in this type of shape it’s very difficult try to win from the third row," Rossi told the press conference. He aired his frustration that the Ducatis and Suzukis have the soft tire which they can put to maximum effect during qualifying, while at the same time admitting there is more to it than that. "At the same time, Jorge has my bike and my tires and is able also to put all the bike together between me and him."
Where Yamaha won this race was in finding grip. The Barcelona circuit is bumpy, and greasy, and the usual problem of hot weather and its effect on the rubber laid down by Moto2 which precedes MotoGP raised its head. The track was last surfaced in 2005, and the asphalt is well past its best. Dorna and the Safety Commission try to push circuits to resurface every seven years or so, but that depends on finances. The Circuit de Catalunya, as Danilo Petrucci colorfully put it, has "short arms and deep pockets." Getting money from Barcelona city council seems very unlikely. The new anti-austerity mayor believes that the funds which the circuit would need could put roofs over the heads of a lot of the city's homeless.
Even then, it was only the factory Yamaha squad who managed to find the grip. Bradley Smith was the first (and only) satellite Yamaha home in a very commendable fifth position, but he was nearly 28 seconds slower than the factory men. Where Rossi and Lorenzo were capable of running 1'42s and the occasional 1'43, Smith, along with Repsol Honda's Dani Pedrosa and factory Ducati rider Andrea Iannone were posting high 1'43s and 1'44s. Lorenzo and Rossi are riding as well as they ever have done at any point in their careers, but they are helped by the factory Yamaha M1 being the best bike on the grid by some margin. "Our bike is working well," Yamaha boss Lin Jarvis admitted, "and the Honda seems to have a problem."
That problem is still the aggressiveness of the Honda RC213V's engine, making the bike hard to handle on corner entry, and leaving it struggling for grip on corner exit. Marc Márquez demonstrated the issue perfectly once again, getting the Honda out of shape as he braked for La Caixa trying to follow Jorge Lorenzo's pace, and ending up running wide and falling in the gravel. The fall was low speed and harmless enough, but damaged Márquez' gear lever, meaning he could not change up, forcing him to abandon. They had improved corner entry a lot, Márquez said, but the problem was still there. During practice and qualifying it was now possible to ride around the problem, losing only a little as he improvised his line to cope when the rear locked up too much. "When you are riding along in practice, I feel that sometimes slide more, less and when you slide more it is difficult to stop the bike," Márquez explained. "But when you are alone you probably can go a little bit wide, come back and only lose one tenth." When that same slide happens when you are racing against another rider, their physical presence on the track means you do not have the same freedom to choose your lines. You are forced somewhere less than ideal, and can easily end up crashing, as Márquez did.
The crash looked scary as observer, and it looked as if Márquez had touched Jorge Lorenzo. Lorenzo certainly seemed to think so, but Márquez denied he had touched him. The three podium men – Lorenzo, Rossi and Pedrosa – were all asked if they felt that Márquez overriding the bike like that put other riders in danger. Lorenzo shrugged suggestively, Rossi joked about Márquez being the kind of friendly guy that always wants to touch you, and Pedrosa remained studiously noncommittal. Later, Bradley Smith was much more vocal. Was he afraid that Márquez would take someone with him when he crashed? No, said Smith. "He always gathers up his problems. He never takes another rider with him," he said. "When he has his issues he makes sure he avoids everybody and then he has his problems off the race track. It’s the same thing that we were talking about let’s say Jerez in his first year. The fact that he nearly hit in the back of everyone and everyone said, it’s dangerous. Yes, it is dangerous but if you’re not going to hit the other riders then really it’s nothing to complain about."
Why take the risk of crashing, we members of the press wondered. Why not ride more conservatively, try to grab some points, and live to fight another day? Firstly, it is not in his nature, Márquez said. "Sure I can finish the race 20 seconds behind them but you know it is not my style," he told reporters. More importantly, though, he had nothing left to lose. "Yesterday I say that now I am at the point where I need to take risks if I want to win this championship but I cannot lose any race." It is a fiendish dilemma indeed. Márquez is so far behind in the championship that he cannot afford to finish behind the Yamaha men. But finishing ahead of them requires taking a massive amount of risk every lap, and you can only get lucky for so long. Finishing third every race will definitely lose him the championship. Trying to win it but crashing will also lose it. "The thing is that these first two laps I was able to follow [Lorenzo] but always at the limit, always riding really smooth. When you are trying to follow them you need to ride 100% on the limit and then when you do a small mistake, like Mugello and here, you lose the race. But for me my mentality it was the only way to win this championship. I tried." And probably failed. Márquez is now on 69 points, exactly half of Rossi's total. He can no longer rely on his own results to win the championship, he will need both Lorenzo and Rossi to start throwing away points.
Márquez' crash is illustrative of Honda's travails. Dani Pedrosa finished a long way behind Lorenzo and Rossi. Part of that may still be Pedrosa's recovery period from arm pump surgery, but this was getting better every race, and even every day, he told the press conference. Still, Pedrosa's problems were responsible only for a small part of the gap. Even fully fit, Pedrosa would still have been a long way from the Yamaha men. Cal Crutchlow, taken out entirely accidentally by Aleix Espargaro on the first lap, a crash in which he broke the rear brake and was forced to pull into the pits, reckoned he could have a good shot at the podium, but he would have been twelve seconds behind the leaders. Honda can't fix the engines, as they are all sealed, and the development moratorium on electronics comes in at the end of this month. That leaves only the chassis for them to play with, but with at least two different specs of chassis – the stiffer variant favored by Marc Márquez, and one with a bit more flex preferred by the other Honda riders – finding a direction is complicated for HRC. They will get there, though. It is just a small matter of research budgets.
Could the Suzukis have been more competitive? Maybe. They still have a lot of work ahead of them now, as the run to the first corner demonstrated. Aleix Espargaro described what happened. "I started really good with first gear, and once I go inside the bike, everybody started to overtake me, and that moment, I was really angry. I felt that the bike was good today, so I pushed a lot even with the full tank, I overtake a lot of riders, I don't even remember where I overtook everybody. It was a crazy three laps. But then I felt that the front was already in the limit. It was so hot, the track was slippery, and I use a lot in the first five laps, so it was all race a battle between the front tire and me, I tried to follow Pedrosa, but it was almost impossible,. Then I was not pushing so much, but I hit a bump and I lose the front." The GSX-RR had been very strong in the first part of the race, but they had used up the front tire too quickly, and Espargaro crashed out of the race. His brother fared little better on the Tech 3 Yamaha: Pol crashed running wide at Turn 3, trying to hold the bike in the turn but running too wide and losing the front. It was a tough race for both men at their home race - (literally: the pair hail from Granollers, the town besides the circuit).
After the race, Aleix Espargaro was a good deal less complimentary about the engine than he had been all weekend. "With first gear, we have less acceleration, and we don' t have the seamless," he said. "I think with the seamless gearbox, for the engine is a lot more easy, because the RPM does not go down as much as us. It's more easy for the engine."
If it is hard to see past the factory Yamahas for the MotoGP title, Johann Zarco is the red hot favorite for the Moto2 class. The Frenchman had to make up four seconds during to latch onto the leading group. Not only did he do that, he also bided his time until the last lap, to ensure he was in position to strike for the win. He made a perfect block pass on Tito Rabat, leaving Alex Rins and Rabat to duke it out for supremacy. Rins took a brilliant second place, showing a lot more of his rookie promise than expected this early in the season.
In the Moto3 class, it was raw speed versus intelligence and racecraft. Enea Bastianini once again shone, arguably the fastest man on pure speed. But Danny Kent was working to a plan, and then adapting as circumstances changed. Everything went according to plan, Kent making sure he did not enter the main straight on the penultimate lap as first. He knew that the leader at the start of the penultimate lap would be swamped by the slipstreaming onslaught. So he made sure he was last of the small group at the start of the las lap, used the slipstream to get into position to attack, rode round the outside to take second, then passed Vazquez at turn 4 to take the lead. He held off a charge from Bastianini, and went on to take the win, his fourth so far this year. It was an impressive display of thoughtful riding, doing exactly what was needed to secure victory. There is still a long way to go, but Kent must be feeling confident.
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