There is nowhere left to hide. On Sunday, it is time for the men and women of Grand Prix racing to stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood, and lend their eyes a terrible aspect. Much is at stake: a Moto3 title that really should have been wrapped up by now; a MotoGP title rendered complicated by the impetuosity of youth and old age; and just sheer thirst for glory in Moto2. Glory is what is at stake in all three classes, what young men and women dedicate their lives and sacrifice their bodies and their time to chasing. Sweet victory is there for the lucky few, the bitter draught of defeat for the rest.
It looked like the cards had already been dealt ahead of Sunday's race when the Court of Arbitration for Sport rejected Valentino Rossi's request to have his three penalty points suspended. Then Rossi came out swinging on Friday and Saturday, not his usual eight or ninth times, and a struggle to make it through to Q2, but strong pace from the outset and competitive times. "I've been impressed with how fast he's going," Nicky Hayden said of Rossi after qualifying today. "He's looked very solid. We know he's a nine-time champion because he's fast on Sunday, but he's come out of the gate, might not be breaking track records, but compared to a normal Friday, Saturday, he's looking strong."
Then came qualifying. Rossi had earned passage to Q2 by right, and had told us on Friday he would be treating qualifying the same as he had every weekend, pushing hard for a fast lap. Rossi seemed to have the upper hand going into Q2, especially as Jorge Lorenzo was clearly suffering with nerves. He forgot to take off a tear off in the pits, then spent long seconds trying to sort it out with his assistant, before finally leaving the pits in a bit of a fluster. Not a good omen, we all thought.
Phew what a scorcher
How wrong we were. His first run was good enough for the front row, but the Spaniard looked uncomfortable, the bike moving around a lot more than usual, Lorenzo lacking his usual buttery-smooth style. His second run was the absolute opposite, a sublime display of Lorenzo's riding at its very best. "The best lap of my life," was how Lorenzo described it, and even the other riders heaped praise upon it. So smooth and unperturbed that he did not appear to even be trying. "I seen Lorenzo's lap and I couldn't tell if he was coming in the pits or what," Nicky Hayden said. "It was incredible! It looked like he had another half a second. I'm sure he didn't, I'm sure it don't feel like that, but I know sometimes you're right on the limit, and you see it on the TV and think, hey, why didn't you brake later?"
Bradley Smith, who had access to Lorenzo's data, called it "a bit demoralizing". "He had half a second on me in the last sector alone," the Tech 3 rider told us. "That kills me, because I’m sideways, crossed up, and can’t do any more, and he’s still finding half a second on me!" Smith, it is worth pointing out, finished sixth on the grid, a tenth off fourth place, and half a second off Dani Pedrosa in third. Where Lorenzo found the time was a mystery.
Lorenzo put his fast time down to the added pressure he faced in the championship. "Sometimes it happens that in the maximum moment of pressure, I can go even faster. But not always, sometimes the pressure can make you more tense, especially in the braking. Experience gives you the knowledge to handle a little bit better these kinds of things."
House of cards?
This time, it seemed like it was Valentino Rossi who handled the pressure worse. Rossi's first run was only mediocre at best, then he crashed on his second run, bringing his qualifying session to a premature end. Given that he knew he would be starting from the back of the grid, a quick time was not so important, if Rossi was working on set up rather than outright speed. That is what he told the media after qualifying. "In the afternoon I lose some grip and have to struggle more. So we decide for qualifying - because we don’t have pressure to make a lap time - to try another modification, but unfortunately it didn’t work." So they switch back to their previous setting, and that seemed to work better, Rossi quickly up to speed with strong times. But he made a mistake, he said, and crashed. Lorenzo on pole and a crash by Rossi is not how the Italian had hoped the day would go.
Is Rossi under a lot more pressure than Lorenzo in the race tomorrow? That is not necessarily the case. "From Thursday when I know that I have to start last, the situation is quite desperate," Rossi said. "I have just to try the maximum and try to make a good race from the beginning to the end and see what happens. For sure starting from last is a lot more risk."
Viewed from another perspective, Rossi has nothing to lose. If he crashes out trying to work his way forward, then he will have taken a justified risk trying to salvage his chance of the title. If he keeps it on two wheels but makes it past a lot of riders, then he is back with a shot. Lorenzo, on the other hand, really needs to finish first or second to be sure of wrapping up the title. If he ends up behind two Repsol Hondas, Rossi will only need to make it to sixth to be champion, a very difficult, but far from impossible goal. Should Lorenzo slip into fourth, for whatever reason, then Rossi only has to make it to ninth. That becomes easily achievable.
A helping Honda?
Is there anyone who can finish ahead of Lorenzo? Marc Márquez clearly has the pace to match Lorenzo, but his problem is speed off the line. Lorenzo focused on getting up to speed quickly, his third and fourth sector times already at race pace on his out laps. Valentino Rossi practiced the same trick in qualifying, though not with the regularity of his Movistar Yamaha teammate. Márquez takes a couple of sectors longer, only really hitting his stride by the time he embarks on his second lap. Dani Pedrosa is much the same, not as quick out of the gate, but as quick once he gets a rhythm going.
On paper, Lorenzo's initial pace should be enough to put a gap between himself and the Hondas, but both Márquez and Pedrosa look capable of catching the Yamaha within a few laps. If the race then turns into a battle, the championship is suddenly wide open again. The irony of two Hondas getting involved in the championship chase by battling Lorenzo, after complaints by Rossi that this was exactly what Márquez was doing at Sepang has not been lost on the paddock. Perspective can be a funny thing sometimes.
And what of Rossi's chances of fighting his way forward? In terms of race pace, he is pretty much on a par with Pedrosa. That means he is a second or more a lap quicker than anyone outside the top fifteen, and half a second quicker than everyone outside the top eight. By the second corner, Rossi should be close to the points, and have caught the battle for eighth before one third distance. After that it gets tougher, but if the group fighting for, say, fifth to eighth is close enough, then Rossi could get close enough to put himself back into title contention.
The key to tomorrow's race could end up being the temperature. The weather at Valencia has been consistently warmer than expected, meaning the tire allocation is pushing close to its limits. The riders are complaining especially about the front tires, the hardest option available being right on the limit of what is capable. The Hondas, in particular, are overheating their front tires, though it is a problem shared by most of the bikes. If the temperatures drop as expected on Sunday, the tires fall much deeper within their operating windows, and the Honda riders can push that little bit harder. If that happens, then two Repsol Hondas harassing Lorenzo should be feasible, with a possible intervention by Cal Crutchlow as well.
What is clear from all of this is that the title chase is anything but over. Though Rossi fans lament that Dorna might as well give the trophy to Lorenzo already, Valentino Rossi has shown no signs of giving up. Nicky Hayden's trite mantra is once again being trotted out by all and sundry: "that's why we line up on Sunday. You never know what is going to happen." It is a truism because it is true. Anything can happen, and they don't hand trophies out before the title is settled for a very good reason indeed.
The other title to be dealt with is in Moto3, where Danny Kent is leading Miguel Oliveira by 24 points. Kent only needs to finish in the top fourteen, but even that is proving to be much more difficult than anticipated. The Englishman qualified down in eighteenth, his worst qualifying position of the year, including the time he was hit with grid penalties. After utterly dominating the first half of the season, Kent has been on the podium only once since Indianapolis, and has made a catalog of errors.
The Leopard Racing rider needs only to stay upright, a fourteenth-place finish a formality under normal circumstances. But Kent finds himself in the middle of a pack of Moto3 riders many of whom have a reputation of being rather incautious. Pecco Bagnaia starts from behind Kent, the Italian already having taken Kent out once this year at Phillip Island. Turn 1 will be tricky enough, the tight Turn 2 could be even worse. Kent is making this as complicated for himself as humanly possible.
Fortune smiles upon us
Still, in a few more hours it will be done and dusted. Winners will be announced, championships decided, and legal action will no longer have any bearing on the outcome. This season in all three classes is destined to be talked about as one of the most thrilling in history, with enough controversy to fill a library full of novels. Whoever wins tomorrow, there will be a lot of complaining by the losers, and complaints of unfair play. If Rossi comes through to win the championship, Lorenzo will say that he only won because he had not been disqualified at Sepang, as Lorenzo had called for. If Lorenzo runs away and wins it, Rossi will claim that the outcome would have been different if he had not started from the back of the grid.
In truth, both men richly deserve the title. Valentino Rossi has staged the greatest career comeback of all time, after giving serious consideration to retirement at the beginning of 2014. To get where he is he has shown incredible dedication, brilliant racecraft, and exceptional speed. Jorge Lorenzo, on the other hand, has shown that on his day, he is the fastest motorcycle racer on the planet, with no one capable of standing in his way. Marc Márquez has proved that he can beat anyone, especially with a bike that others cannot handle, while Dani Pedrosa has shown the benefits of a second medical opinion, and taking time out to let your injury heal. It has been a wonderful year in MotoGP, spoiled only by a single weekend out in Asia. Whatever the outcome, we will look back in wonder and thank our lucky stars that we were there to witness it.
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