Saturday at Motegi had offered the mouthwatering prospect of the battle we have been waiting for all year. Valentino Rossi had cracked his qualifying jinx and lined up on the grid next to Jorge Lorenzo. The pair were close in qualifying times and in race pace, and with 14 points separating them in the championship, there was a lot at stake. Finally, we might get to see Rossi and Lorenzo go head to head in the struggle for supremacy, and to seize the momentum in the MotoGP title race.
As has so often been the case, the hopes of the fans withered on the vine on race day. The rain wrecked any chance of a straight and open battle between the two protagonists in the title chase, throwing the day's schedule into disarray, and turning what could have been an all-out war into a cagey battle of tactics.
We may not have been given what we hoped for, but there was still plenty for the fans to get their teeth into. Jorge Lorenzo looked to have the race sewn up by the halfway mark, but a slowly drying track blew the race wide open. There were very few direct battles, at least not up front, but an increasingly dry line radically changed the dynamic of the race. There was tension, there were surprises, myths and shibboleths were shattered. The championship took on a new impetus, and the strain of the fight going down to the line started to take its toll. This is going to be a tough year for the men who would be champion.
Man on a mission
Valentino Rossi's qualifying strategy – using other riders to get up to speed, then launch his own time attack – paid off handsomely at the start. For once, it wasn't Jorge Lorenzo who was first into the first corner, but rather his teammate. On the outside of the track, Lorenzo took a slightly slower and more cautious line, allowing Rossi to get past underneath him. Rossi's lead lasted precisely two corners – the first long right hander is counted as two separate corners, rather than a single turn – before Lorenzo rocketed past Rossi and into the lead ahead of Turn 3.
Lorenzo was a man in a hurry, and pushed hard in the opening laps, his superior speed translating just as well to fully wet conditions as it had been in the dry. Stung by claims that he had lost his touch in the wet, Lorenzo showed just what he was capable of, quickly opening a gap of over three seconds over his teammate. By lap 6, Lorenzo looked to have the race in the bag. Wilco Zeelenberg's words held true: when the track has predictable grip, either fully wet or fully dry, there is no rider faster.
A change of pace
But Zeelenberg's words would only hold true for two more laps. The track was slowly starting to dry, and Lorenzo's push had taken its toll on his tires. Lorenzo was forced to slow up just a little, his pace leveling off, but his lead over Rossi holding steady. Further down the field, Dani Pedrosa's tires were just starting to come into their own. He had equivocated on the grid about choosing the hard or the soft wet rear tire. He had not liked the feel from the hard rear on his sighting lap, and so switched to the soft rear on the grid. Off the line, that tire hadn't felt great either, so he had treated the first few laps with great caution, losing a lot of time to the leaders, and Ducati man Andrea Dovizioso who had slotted into third.
That caution, and the Spaniard's lighter weight, would pay off handsomely further down the line. "I took a lot of care at the beginning, because I couldn't really push," Pedrosa said in the press conference. "I knew towards the end it will be important, so many first and second gear you must accelerate hard from this points. Our machine is quite aggressive on the engine, so you must control a lot." Though his lap times were decent, the gap to the front grew to nearly nine seconds. He had almost resigned himself to taking fourth, when he saw the gap started to close.
Pedrosa's lap times were constant, holding in the mid to high 1'55s, but the riders ahead were starting to suffer. Where the front tires of the Yamahas and the Ducati were going to pot, Pedrosa's was holding steady. His lap times were declining slowly, while those of the mean ahead were going downhill rapidly. Andrea Dovizioso's times dropped off a cliff, and Pedrosa quickly reeled the Ducati in and took over third. By now, the difference between Pedrosa and the Yamahas was growing fast. On lap 12, he was over half a second faster than both Rossi and Lorenzo. Two laps later, the differential was getting on for a second a lap, then a second and a half, and then two seconds.
Rossi was Pedrosa's first victim, the Italian's worst nightmare. Sitting in second to Lorenzo, he was giving up 5 precious points to his teammate, his lead potentially cut from 14 to 9 points. With Pedrosa between him and Lorenzo, the gap fell to just 5 points. With three races left after Motegi, that would have blown the championship wide open. Rossi tried to grab the wheel of the Repsol Honda, but he hung in there for less than half a lap, gaining just three tenths on Lorenzo with Pedrosa's help.
Rossi was fearful indeed at that point. "When Dani arrived, I was very worried, because he beat me, but I don't know if he's able to go to Jorge," Rossi said. "Losing another 9 point like in Aragon is difficult for the championship." But Rossi's fears were short lived. Pedrosa disposed of Lorenzo with the same ease he had done with Rossi, passing him easily yet carefully on lap 18. That cut Rossi's losses by 4 points, leaving him with a 10 point lead. By then, though, tires were completely shot, and both Movistar Yamahas were slowing fast.
And then there were four...
Pedrosa was still fast, and left the Yamahas as if they were standing still. The Spaniard went on to take his 50th Grand Prix victory, moving him closer to Phil Read (52) and Mick Doohan (54) in the all time standings. The victory came not just as a relief, but also a source of great joy. It had been over a year since his last win, which came at Brno in 2014. Yet he had not savored that win as much as this, as the Brno victory had come amidst a year of suffering in silence with arm pump. "That Brno race I really didn't enjoy it, because I was suffering so much on the bike," Pedrosa said. This was different. "More than the victory today, the thing is I enjoy a lot in the race. I was feeling quite good, and this is the good part in MotoGP, like last race with Valentino." A Pedrosa relishing riding, relishing the battle is a dangerous Pedrosa. Sure, the wet weather meant the track hadn't stressed his arms as much as a dry race might have, but Pedrosa was immensely strong last time out at Aragon as well. Dani Pedrosa is a real threat again.
Pedrosa's joy in riding was evident in everything he did, the way he rode and the way he celebrated his victory. Behind the Repsol Honda, there was a lot less joy. The mental stress of riding was taking its toll on both riders, the stress of managing shot tires. Jorge Lorenzo's had the harder job, his front tire totally gone. So bad was it that on lap 19, he found himself unable to get the bike stopped into Turn 3, and ran wide, right to the very edge of the track. At the same point he had passed Rossi on the first lap, Rossi, who had closed the gap to Lorenzo, took over second spot.
Lorenzo needed all of his balance and ability to stay inside the white line and not run off into the gravel. He had lost 2nd to Rossi, but it could have been a lot worse. If he had crashed, or run off into the gravel, he could have found himself falling back much further, and losing more than just four points.
At that point, the race was settled, Rossi battling a busted Bridgestone to come home in second, Lorenzo crawling home in third. Lorenzo entered the pits in deep frustration, suffering most of all because he had seen a chance to dominate and seize control of the series back from his teammate and rival. When he got off the bike, the first thing he did was look at his front tire. The tread on the edge as pretty well mashed up, but so was the tread in the center, a sign that braking had become very difficult indeed. In comparison, Rossi's front was bad, both edges shot nearly as badly as Lorenzo's, while the middle of the tread was in better shape. By contrast, Dani Pedrosa's tires looked remarkably good. They were badly worn, but nothing in comparison with the two Yamahas.
The art of management
How had Pedrosa managed his tires better than the two Yamahas? Firstly, he had been more cautious in the opening laps, as he struggled to get some feel with the rear. As the race went on, his much lighter weight stressed the surface of the tires much less, creating less load on the tires. In the dry, this can be a real disadvantage, Pedrosa often having to work hard to create grip to prevent the bike from spinning and wheelying. In the drying conditions, Pedrosa's weight had worked in his favor.
But Pedrosa, like Rossi, had also worked harder at keeping his tires cool. Every chance Pedrosa got, he ran off line and through the wet part of the track, using the water on its surface to help cool the tires. Rossi did likewise, though the more sweeping lines the Yamaha needs made it a little more difficult for him to do so. Lorenzo, by contrast, seemed to remain on the drying racing line throughout, his tires overheating and losing rubber and grip. In the dry, Lorenzo's precision is his strength, able to hit exactly the right line lap after lap to extract maximum performance from the tire. That precision worked against him in the wet.
Rossi must have been thrilled to gain points over his rival at a track where he had expected to lose out, but he couldn't show it. It was a drained and exhausted Italian that climbed off his M1 in Parc Fermé, the struggle of keeping the bike upright having sapped all of his energy. Even in the press conference, it was clear that the battle with the bike and with the conditions had taken a lot out of Rossi. "It was very difficult, because mentally it was a big stress, especially at the end, because it was difficult to control the bike," Rossi said. "When the track is drying up, the tire give up a lot and every time become more difficult."
The effort expended had been worth it, though. Rossi's advantage over Lorenzo is now up to 18 points. With three races left, the championship is no longer completely in Lorenzo's control. Even if he wins at Phillip Island, Sepang and Valencia – difficult, but far from impossible – he still needs someone to get in between him and Rossi at one race. Rossi, on the other hand, only needs to finish behind Lorenzo to be champion.
Rossi dismissed that suggestion out of hand at the press conference. "For me this is quite impossible," Rossi said. "Is very difficult that from now to the end, me and Jorge arrive always first and second. Because the two Hondas are very strong, because in three races we will have completely different conditions, and the typology of the three tracks are very different. So I never do this type of calculation, because in 99% of times it doesn't happen." Rossi took a very different approach than merely following Lorenzo round. "I need to concentrate on Phillip Island, and try to arrive in front of Jorge. This is the target, more than making the calculation arriving behind."
When fastest isn't fast enough
Lorenzo could not hide his frustration at the situation. He felt that fate and the elements were conspiring against him. "I didn't have the luck of the circumstances like in some other races this year," he told the press conference. "In Qatar, I have the problem of the helmet, but in some other races I was the fastest on the dry, and it rains, so I couldn't take profit of my speed in the dry to get two or three races. And today I was the fastest one ion the dry and the wet, but it dries up after a wet beginning and I couldn't win the race I believe I could have won. So yes, I believe in this moment of the championship especially, and in general, I am the fastest one this year, because the bike, because the speed, because my concentration, but circumstances don't help for the moment, and maybe it helps in the next rounds."
Is it really bad luck which has held Lorenzo back? The problem with a loose helmet lining obscuring his vision is down to poor preparation, though that is not directly Lorenzo's fault. He can't be blamed for catching pneumonia on his way to Austin, which made it hard for him to be competitive. The weather is also a factor outside of Lorenzo's control, but at least the weather is the same for everyone. Being fastest in the dry counts for nothing unless the race is also in the dry, and it has rained often enough this year for that to become a factor. Coping with changing circumstances is just as much a part of racing as being able to go as fast as possible. If Lorenzo is to put his points losses down to bad luck with the weather, then you could make the case that his wins in the dry have come as a result of good luck with the weather.
His frustration is understandable, however. Lorenzo has turned up at most races and been fastest in practice, and often also in qualifying. He has started from pole four times, and been on the front row for twelve of the fifteen races so far this year. He has six victories, which have come as a result of leading into the first corner and punishing the rest of the field with his pace. It must be galling to come to a track like Motegi, dominate in the dry from the first practice, show excellent pace in the wet in warm up, and destroy the field in the wet in the race, only for your tires to turn to chewing gum as a dry line develops, and see your rivals leave you standing, and nothing you can do about it. But perhaps Lorenzo's mistake was to believe that the weather would not change, and to apply his usual tactics of dominating from the start, without worrying about his tires. The weather is a fickle mistress, and she serves no man. Like a wayward husband, Lorenzo took her far too much for granted, and was punished for his sins.
Valentino Rossi took a dim view of Lorenzo's appeal to luck. "I think it is disrespectful to me to blame fate," Rossi told the Italian press. He could not resist taking a dig at his teammate when asked about tire preservation. "You could say I was more intelligent," Rossi answered. "But let's say that I am more lucky." Though the atmosphere in the Movistar Yamaha garage has been largely cordial throughout the year, now that the title is coming down to the final few races, the knives are coming out.
There were, of course, more than just three riders in the race at Motegi. But as the title chase reaches a climax, what transpires between Jorge Lorenzo and Valentino Rossi becomes increasingly portentous. There were many stories to tell of what went on behind the podium battle, but they must wait for tomorrow. The fight for the title is important enough to deserve a chapter of its own.
Where does Motegi leave the 2015 MotoGP championship? Valentino Rossi is firmly in control now, but the fat lady is still very much in her dressing room. A lot can go wrong for either rider in the last three races, and a single mistake can turn the championship on its head once again. Jorge Lorenzo looks certain to win one race, maybe more before the season is over. But it is looking more and more like that won't matter. Mat Oxley wrote recently that for Rossi to win the title, he needs "stuff" to happen. After the events at Motegi, Rossi no longer needs help from outside. The tenth title is now within reach. But the old rooster will not be counting his chickens just yet.
Gathering the background information for long articles such as these is an expensive and time-consuming operation. If you enjoyed this article, please consider supporting MotoMatters.com. You can help by either taking out a subscription, buying the beautiful MotoMatters.com 2015 racing calendar, by making a donation, or by contributing via our GoFundMe page.