From the coast to the high plains. From the hubbub of a string of seaside resorts along the Adriatic Riviera to the vast unspoiled mountains and hills of Baja Aragon. From the green and fertile Po basin to the arid olive groves and vineyards of the Maestrazgo. Contrasts don't get much greater than between Misano in Italy and Motorland Aragon in Spain.
The tracks, too, are very different. Misano is fairly slow, with a lot of tight first gear corners. Aragon is much faster, with some tighter sections, but a couple of seriously fast and flowing corners. Misano is pretty much flat as a pancake, where Aragon has its own version of Laguna Seca's Corkscrew, though not quite so precipitous, and a long, fast downhill back straight leading to a long double-apex left hander and a climb uphill to the finish.
The scenery may change, but the storyline in MotoGP remains the same. The championship remains a head-to-head battle between the Movistar Yamaha men, much as it has been since Le Mans. After Misano, the ball is very much back in Valentino Rossi's court, having extended his lead over Jorge Lorenzo to 23 points. He will need that cushion, as the championship now arrives at Aragon, a circuit where Lorenzo arrives as clear favorite, having had some strong results here in the past. Rossi, meanwhile, is at one of his worst tracks, Aragon being one of just two tracks where the Italian has never won, Austin being the other.
What's wrong with that narrative? Though it accurately reflects the record books, it overlooks the messy reality underlying the statistics. Rossi may have only finished on the podium once at Aragon, but the circuit has only been on the calendar since 2010. That year, Rossi spent nearly all season riding with a bust up shoulder, having torn ligaments in a training crash. He spent the next two years riding fruitlessly behind the leaders, having made the error of signing for Ducati, and failing to find a way to make it competitive. He finally made it to the podium in 2013, though helped by Marc Márquez accidentally sabotaging Dani Pedrosa's traction control, clipping the Repsol Honda rider's rear wheel and slicing through a sensor wire. In the treacherous conditions which marked the 2014 edition at Aragon, Rossi touched the artificial grass, and suffered a nasty crash which saw him briefly hospitalized with concussion.
So is Aragon really a bogey track for Valentino Rossi? In reality, it is hard to say. This is not the Rossi of 2010, struggling with injury, nor the rider battling with the Ducati Desmosedici, or finding his way again once back on a Yamaha. Rossi has been competitive everywhere, only difficult conditions and poor judgment ending his streak of podium finishes with a fifth place finish at Misano. Aragon is a track where the 2015 Yamaha M1 should perform well, most of its weaknesses now either removed or at least mitigated. Rossi has reinvented himself, and can race at the very highest level at any track on the calendar. Even at Austin, where Marc Márquez seems to find an extra fifteen horsepower from somewhere, Rossi finished third, just three seconds behind the Spaniard.
So writing Rossi off would be foolish indeed, especially as he and Lorenzo spent two days testing at the circuit at the beginning of September. Both riders have a good set up for the track, and should start the weekend well. Incidentally, Aragon is a track where the winglets which made an appearance at Misano may actually make a difference, the combination of high speed and downhill gradient making the front go very light down the back straight. The winglets add several kilograms of force on the front wheel at high speed, Wilco Zeelenberg told us at Misano. That is enough to keep the front wheel on the ground, and prevent it from waggling uncomfortably down Aragon's back straight.
There is also the small matter of pressure. Rossi knows that he cannot give away too many points to his teammate, but Lorenzo really needs to start gaining points back on the Italian. This is a track where Lorenzo has done well, including a victory in 2014, albeit one handed to him once the two Repsol Hondas ruled themselves out of contention. In the other four editions, Lorenzo has finished on the podium three times, and just missed out on the series' first visit in 2010, crossing the line in fourth. On paper, Lorenzo holds the advantage, especially as this is another track close to his home in Barcelona. But MotoGP riders don't race on paper, they race on asphalt. And asphalt is notorious poor in respecting statistics.
Jorge Lorenzo has been insisting that the championship is far from done. Just 23 points separate him from Rossi, and Lorenzo will win the title if he wins the next five races. He can even win three out of the five, and finish second in the other two, as long as he finishes ahead of Rossi in every race. Add a wild card like Marc Márquez into the mix – and wild card is arguably the best possible description of the reigning world champion – and all of those calculations go up in smoke, the added complexity throwing a spanner into the works of the difference engine.
The championship will not be decided at Aragon, but the result of the race will be crucial. The rider finishing ahead here will carry that momentum into the three flyaway races in Japan, Australia and Malaysia. Turning the season around in that intense and hectic period is twice as difficult as normal. If Rossi extends his lead, it will be doubly difficult for Lorenzo to close the gap again. If Lorenzo gets a fistful of points back, he will put Rossi under an ocean's worth of pressure overseas. So much of motorcycle racing is mental. The Aragon race will test the mental resilience of both Valentino Rossi and Jorge Lorenzo to the very maximum.
Standing clogs in hand, ready to cast them into the cogs of the championship machinery and destroy the plans of the Movistar Yamaha riders are Repsol Honda's dynamic duo of Marc Márquez and Dani Pedrosa. If ever there was a Honda track, it is surely Motorland Aragon, the RC213V and its predecessor, the RC212V, having dominated here in the past. Dani Pedrosa took second behind Casey Stoner on the Ducati in 2010. Stoner had switched to Honda the next year, and he and Pedrosa wrapped up a one-two. Stoner's injury meant Pedrosa was left to defend Honda's honor on his own in 2012, the Spaniard winning ahead of a swarm of Yamahas. 2013 saw Marc Márquez take victory on the Honda, and it would almost certainly have been a Honda one-two again if Márquez had not destroyed Pedrosa's race by disconnecting a sensor. Only hubris – the kind of hubris which crippled the Movistar Yamaha team at Misano – held the Hondas back at Aragon last year, both riders crashing out in the rain after staying out too long on slicks.
Can Honda win this year? No doubt the changes to the bike for 2015 will once again hamper the ability of Marc Márquez and Dani Pedrosa at a couple of key points. Braking for the crucial overtaking spot at Turn 12, under the iconic wall which marks out the circuit, will be more difficult, making them easy prey for the Yamahas, and even Ducatis. But with such a strong record in the past, it would be foolish to write them off entirely. Marc Márquez has already won four races this season, and his only goal for the rest of the year is to win still more. Teammate Dani Pedrosa is due a good result – it has been over a year since he last won a race – and has a strong record at the track. One, or possibly even both, are going to be engaged at the pointy end. Nothing would please the Honda men more than to spoil the Movistar Yamaha party. Beware the Repsol Honda riders.
All this focus on Yamaha vs Honda makes us forget there are other factories involved. Aragon could be the kind of track to suit the Ducati Desmosedici GP15, with high speed straights, strong uphill acceleration and only a couple of long and fast corners. With Andrea Iannone having reinjured his shoulder, dislocating it while training, Andrea Dovizioso will be left to shoulder the burden. That will not necessarily be easy. Dovizioso has finished on the podium here, taking third in 2012, but he has also managed to crash out of three of the five editions of the race. The bike should suit the track, and Dovizioso can be competitive here, but the question is mostly whether the Italian can stay on. It should not be too difficult, given the forecast is for dry weather. If he does, then Dovi will be up at the front mixing it with the Yamahas and Hondas.
Over at Suzuki, things will be much tougher, given the high speed back straight and fast, uphill corner onto the front straight. Aleix Espargaro and Maverick Viñales are desperate for some good results on the GSX-RR, and the bike should suit the twistier parts of the circuit. There have been rumblings that Suzuki could being a new engine to the track soon, and possibly even a seamless gearbox. The pre-race press release makes no mention of any upgrades, but that is no guarantee that there will be nothing here. There is still a lot of work to do on the Suzuki, but having more acceleration and more top speed would be a massive step in the right direction.
Much further down the field, Nicky Hayden's participation at Aragon is far from certain. The American fell while riding minibikes in Italy, injuring his right thumb in the process. He will of course be trying to race on Sunday, but riding with a fractured thumb is painful at the best of times. Fracturing the right thumb is even worse, as the right hand gets no respite. The front brake and throttle means that the right thumb is always being actively used, making riding with a broken thumb a painful experience.
While the championship fight remains close in MotoGP, Aragon could see the Moto2 title settled on Sunday. Johann Zarco needs to finish seven points ahead of Tito Rabat to rule the reigning champion out of contention, while ensuring he does not lose ten points to Alex Rins. Given Zarco's impressive run of form recently, finishing ahead of both Rabat and Rins should well be possible, but gaining seven points on Rabat is out of his hands. Though it would be nice for Zarco to wrap up the title before the flyaways, it is far from crucial. Zarco has one job on Sunday, making sure he doesn't crack under the pressure and make a mistake. So far this season, that is precisely what he has excelled at.
While Rabat is the biggest threat to Zarco's chance of a championship, the biggest challenge for victory at Aragon will surely come from Alex Rins. The HP 40 Pons Rider lives some 20 km from the Motorland Aragon circuit, in the small village of Valdealgorfa. It is a small, no-name town with a big passion for racing. Rins will want to perform at Aragon.
Things are closing up a little more in Moto3, though Danny Kent is still the clear favorite to take the title. His plan to wrap it all up at Honda's home round at Motegi has gone a little awry recently, the blame for which lies in no small part with the Englishman. Though his team made a mistake at Indianapolis, taking too long to swap tires, two weak races at Brno and Misano, where he lost touch with the leading group trying to hang on to its tail, proved very costly for Kent's title campaign. Kent has been criticized in the past for lacking aggression, and in sight of his first championship, he appears to be trying to play it safe once again. If he wants to win the 2015 Moto3 crown, he will have to go out and seize it, and that means taking charge of the race from the beginning, and not getting caught up in the melée behind the leaders. A third place finish in 2014, in a small group ahead of the chasing pack bodes well for this year, but every race is different.
The biggest challenge to Kent is the rise of Enea Bastianini. The Italian has been closing in on his first win for a very long time, and to finally get it at Misano will have a big impact. The first victory can often liberate a rider from the shackles of pressure, allowing him to ride more freely and more naturally. Bastianini is already showing huge improvement this season, and he will only get better in the future. He will be a threat at Aragon, and Kent needs to focus all his efforts on finishing either directly behind the Italian, or preferably in front. This is the toughest part of the season for Kent, and Bastianini has nothing to lose. Aragon should provide the first stage in a thrilling climax of the Moto3 season. Kent may yet wrap the title up at Motegi, but he will have to fight with every fiber in his being if he is to do so.
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