The summer break ended fittingly, in a downpour. Rain engulfed the Indianapolis Motor Speedway as the riders gathered for the start of the second half of the season, but it failed to dampen their spirits. Most of them were raring to go, having had three weekends away from racing. The only exceptions were the men who raced the Suzuka 8 Hour race, Pol Espargaro telling reporters he was 'a little tired' after missing out on some much needed downtime. As for the rest? "Looking forward to getting back to riding," was how Cal Crutchlow summed up the general feeling in the paddock. Fortunately for all concerned, Thursday's rain is likely to be the last for a few days. The MotoGP weekend should take place under clear skies and with good weather.
Perhaps most eager of all was Marc Márquez. He would have been happy to have skipped the summer break altogether, it coming just as he and his team had made a big step forward with the Honda RC213V. After struggling, then crashing out two races in a row, Márquez finished second at Assen, then dominated at the Sachsenring, and felt he was finding his feet. The most important thing, he told the press conference, was that he was enjoying riding the bike again, something which he hadn't done for a long while. "I didn't have this from Valencia and Sepang in the preseason," Márquez said.
The reigning world champion is currently undefeated in the USA on a MotoGP bike. Since his debut, he has won three times at Austin and twice at Indianapolis. Why does he do so well here? "They are left hand tracks, which helps me, because I train a lot on dirt track." Márquez spends a lot of his time racing on dirt ovals at his home near Cervera, and at some of the other dirt tracks which are sprouting like mushrooms across northern Spain. He expressed his fondness for the layout of Indianapolis too, calling it 'different', and rather unique among racetracks. It lost some of that uniqueness when it was changed last year, Márquez preferring the old layout. Perhaps his view is colored by the fact that the change made the track a little more flowing, making it better for the Yamahas.
Still, the reigning world champion is confident, buoyed by the results of a test at Misano, held the week after the previous race in Germany. They did not find anything major there – it is hard to find a tenth or two in MotoGP, Márquez insisted – but Honda had brought a few ideas and a couple of minor changes to test. It helped having time to actually try these things out, Márquez' teammate Dani Pedrosa said. "You can do some risky changes that you cannot take the risk at a GP," he explained. The lessons learned at Misano would be valuable going forward. So valuable that Cal Crutchlow was left annoyed that he and Scott Redding, as the other satellite Honda rider, were not allowed to test there. "I think we needed to test, but the satellite guys on factory bikes are not allowed to test, because somebody made a rule because they wanted to save money."
The Movistar Yamaha men start the second half of the year without the benefit of a test, but with the benefit of a huge lead in the championship. Both Valentino Rossi and Jorge Lorenzo were much more favorable about the changes made to the track last year, acknowledging the track worked better for the Yamaha than it did before. It was not one of his favorite tracks, Rossi conceded, but added that the first ten laps or so of last year's race were perhaps the most exciting of 2014. Lorenzo agreed that the track was better now, the chicane being more flowing and the track overall being faster. "I think the modifications they made to the track made life easier for Yamaha riders," he said.
Despite their lead in the title chase, Rossi and Lorenzo refused to write Marc Márquez off. He is still a real contender, Rossi said. "At the beginning of the season, Marc had a problem with the feeling of the bike, but he come back very strong since Assen," he told the press conference. Yes, they had a big advantage over the Spaniard, but we are still only in the middle of the season. A lot of things can happen in nine races. The bright side, however, is that Yamaha were very strong in the second half of last season, giving grounds for optimism in the second half of 2015. The danger, Lorenzo said, is making a mistake. If that happens, then Márquez could recover a lot of points quickly.
In previous years, Thursday at Indianapolis has been the place where rider announcements have been made. Not so this year, with the expected announcements – Bradley Smith and Pol Espargaro to stay with Tech 3, Cal Crutchlow to remain at LCR – still not forthcoming. The waters have clearly been muddied by the implosion of Forward Racing and the gathering storm over CWM, but even then, deals which were as good as done at the Sachsenring now seem further away than ever.
That led Bradley Smith to express a certain amount of frustration in the press conference. "I've made it very clear to my team and to Yamaha that I want to continue," he said. "There's not the same enthusiasm coming the other way, however." How much of that is genuine frustration and how much bargaining tactic? It's hard to say. Smith did everything that was asked of him: changed his attitude in the garage, put in solid results to grab sixth in the championship, and sacrificed his summer break to secure victory for Yamaha and their brand new R1 at the Suzuka 8 Hour race. So far, his commitment has gone unrewarded, though there has been plenty of interest in the Englishman from other quarters.
Perhaps Smith's frustration is down to seeing that his teammate is close to renewing his deal with Yamaha. Before Suzuka, it was Pol Espargaro's position which looked the least certain. After Suzuka, Espargaro is in much calmer waters, with rumors in the Spanish press that there are just a few details to iron out on a new deal with Yamaha. It is not an easy deal, though, with Espargaro rumored to be taking a major pay cut. The upside of that is increased factory support, giving him a better chance of being competitive.
As for Cal Crutchlow, the latest rumors place the Englishman at Pramac Ducati. That would be quite the turn up for the books, given the rather fractious relationship Crutchlow had with the Ducati establishment. He used the option in his contract to leave the factory Ducati squad a year early, and made his way to LCR under remarkably favorable terms. According to GPOne, negotiations are now well under way with Pramac for a return. Given that Pramac will have Ducati Desmosedici GP15s at their disposal next year, that would not be such a terrible move. Yonny Hernandez would be called upon to make way for Crutchlow, the Colombian moved to the Avintia squad for 2016. That would leave him on a GP14.2 for another year, but he would be back with a team he had raced with before, and where he is very comfortable.
Would Crutchlow really go back to Ducati? And would Ducati have him back? All that I have heard about the relationship between the two makes such a move seem extremely unlikely. The obstacles to be overcome are major, and LCR need a rider capable of either in or close to the podium fight. With Jack Miller likely off to Aspar once LCR lose their second bike, keeping Crutchlow would be a priority. The only question is whether they can afford what Crutchlow is asking. Stranger things have happened, but a move back to Ducati seems unlikely at best.
No doubt we will learn more over the coming days, though first, there is the small matter of a race. Bikes are back on track tomorrow. After a long wait, that will be very good news indeed.
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