Jerez is an important punctuation mark in almost every Grand Prix season. Whether it kicks off the year, as it did ten or more years ago, or whether it marks the return to Europe after the opening overseas rounds, the racing at Jerez is always memorable and remarkable. Not always necessarily exciting, but always portentous, marking a turning point in the championship.
So it was this year. The MotoGP race saw a shift in momentum, and Valentino Rossi win in a way we haven't seen since 2009. The Moto2 race solidified the positions of the three best riders in the class, and edged winner Sam Lowes towards a role as title favorite. And in Moto3, Brad Binder broke his victory cherry with one of the most astounding performances I have ever seen in any class, let alone Moto3. Put to the back of the grid for an infraction of the software homologation rules, Binder worked his way forward to the leading group by half distance, then left them for dead. It is a race they will be talking about for a long time.
The old switcheroo
First, though, to MotoGP. Valentino Rossi needed a win to get his championship back on track, and he got it in the least Rossi-like way imaginable. The Italian got the holeshot, held off attacks in the opening laps, including a fierce assault from his teammate Jorge Lorenzo, then set a metronomic pace which nobody, not even Lorenzo, could follow. He opened a gap of a couple of seconds, then managed it home to take what looked like an easy victory.
In reality, wins that look that easy are anything but. It was the result of dedicated hard work focusing on the race, rather than getting swept up in the mania of fast lap times. Rossi and his team had spent Friday working on set up and tire preservation, carrying that on through Saturday morning, before turning their attention to qualifying and securing pole. A minor modification on Sunday morning meant they dealt best with the much greater track temperatures, bringing the win within reach.
"We started well from Friday, and I feel good with the bike," Rossi said. Yesterday, I was first in both practices. When I was on the grid, I knew that I can have a good pace, but in the race it is always more difficult. My mechanic said to me 'first from the first corner to the last' and I say, this is a good idea – I will try!" And so from the start of the race, it looked as if Rossi and Jorge Lorenzo had swapped leathers: a metronomic Rossi laying down laps, while Lorenzo pushed and probed, all the while holding off Márquez behind him.
Old dog, new tricks
Taking pole and then the win in such a superior fashion is another sign of just how truly remarkable this stage of Valentino Rossi's career is. We have been over this before, but it bears repeating: at 37 years of age, in his twenty-first season of Grand Prix racing, Rossi is still just as competitive as he has ever been, and against much better competition.
He is constantly reinventing himself, learning new skills, working on new details, refining and moving forward. He trains harder than ever before, works at his dirt track ranch on specific techniques, identifies and isolates weaknesses in his riding, then teaches himself new ways of overcoming them. The mere fact he has engaged former 250cc champion Luca Cadalora to act as his riding illustrates his dedication and attention to detail.
Asked about being competitive so late in his career, Rossi said he did not think that age was a particularly important factor. "You can win races at forty. More important is motivation." That could spell bad news for his rivals: Rossi's motivation is beyond question, and if he continues to win, then the next two years may not be his final contract in MotoGP. He may choose to continue until forty-two, maybe, or perhaps even forty-four. He may even decide, for the sake of numerological serendipity, to race until he is forty-six. Anyone betting on taking over Rossi's seat when he retires could be in for a very long wait.
Rossi's victory left a despondent Jorge Lorenzo to finish in second. He had tried to hang on to Rossi for as long as possible, but a spinning rear tire had put paid to that. The rear had been spinning up not just in the many long corners which adorn the Jerez circuit, but also when the bike was upright down the track's front and back straights. He could only use 80% throttle down the fast back straight, having to coax acceleration out of the bike, rather than exploit the Yamaha's normally excellent drive. With a better rear tire, Lorenzo said, he should have been able of easily winning the race.
That hypothetical can of course never be tested. But what is certain is that the track was a good deal hotter on Sunday than it had been on either Saturday or Sunday. That pushed track conditions over the edge, grip dropping off a cliff and turning the surface greasy and slippery. That, in turn, had a radical effect on tire grip, and tire behavior. The Moto3 race was ten seconds slower than the race in 2015. MotoGP was over half a minute slower than last year. Everyone was struggling with rear wheel spin in a straight line: Lorenzo, Cal Crutchlow, Andrea Dovizioso, Bradley Smith, Dani Pedrosa, even winner Valentino Rossi.
Time to test tires
Pedrosa was acerbic on the subject of tires. "I was losing like I was riding in the wet. So all my riding around the seventy percent of the race was like riding in the rain, with the throttle, with the gears, with the angle, everything super smooth," he said. "I didn't watch the race, but I guess it was quite a boring race. The tire manufacturer need to come up with some ideas, because I don't think the problem comes from the bikes. We need to get some improvement, either by changing some rules and allowing more tests for Michelins that they can apply some changes and we can test them. Or do something, the championship must do something. Because I don't think it's quite interesting like that."
Bradley Smith concurred, putting the blame on the rubber used in the center of the tire. That, and the safer, stiffer construction introduced in a hurry after Argentina meant Michelin were in unknown territory in reality. The current tire was basically a prototype, Smith said. "We did five laps on this tire before it was introduced for two race weekends."
There may be a solution at hand. There is talk of Michelin going back to two different constructions at the rear, and allowing riders to choose between the two at each round. That would allow riders to pick a tire with more grip and a softer construction, allow Michelin to gather more data on those tires, while also having the stiffer safety tire on hand to cover the contingency of exploding tires.
The problem was caused by the fact that the first three races of the year took place at such strange circuits. All three are wide, open tracks which are both highly stressful on tires, and get very little use in between Grand Prix. Now back in Europe, at more "normal" tracks, the tires may behave differently. Tire testing is high on the agenda for Jerez on Monday. Michelin have done an outstanding job on their return to MotoGP, but the size of the task is not to be underestimated.
Rossi's win and Lorenzo's second place tightened up the championship, with Marc Márquez finishing in third. But he had at least finished, Márquez said. "Already before the race Nakamoto say to me, please finish the race," the Repsol Honda rider joked. In 2015, Márquez threw away a lot of points trying to keep up at the front and finish on the podium when his bike was not capable of it. If he had settled for third, fourth, even fifth, he would have had a much better chance of staying in the title chase to the end of the season. That had been a painful but important lesson.
At Jerez, Márquez had tried to make up on braking what the Honda was losing in acceleration, the rear spinning up on corner exit without providing any kind of drive. The trouble was, doing that demanded too much of the front Michelin, and though the front tires are much better already, they are prone to overheating when pushed to such an assault. Márquez had understood that discretion was the better part of valor, backed off and taken 16 points. He still leads the championship, though is advantage is cut from 21 to 17 points. More importantly, consistency is what is keeping him at the head of the championship. Márquez is almost certain to win more races later in the season. But third places like this one at Jerez could be the difference between winning his third title and seeing someone else lift the MotoGP crown.
A disappointed Dani Pedrosa took fourth, though he had had to work to keep Aleix Espargaro at bay. Pedrosa ended three seconds behind his teammate, and ten seconds off the pace of the winner Rossi. Worse still, it brought to an end Pedrosa's astonishing run of podiums. The Repsol Honda rider has finished on the podium at Jerez in every race he has contested since 2004, when he fell off his Honda RS250. The Honda RC213V remains a vicious beast, and one which is increasingly hard to tame.
A bright future?
Two Suzukis finished behind the two Repsol Hondas, Aleix Espargaro outclassing his teammate Maverick Viñales. Espargaro put his success down to the approach of his crew chief Tom O'Kane, who had convinced him to concentrate on the hard tire all weekend. It paid off in the race, Espargaro pushing Pedrosa hard for a long time, before finally having to let the Repsol Honda rider go. The Suzuki could match or even beat the Honda in acceleration through fast corners, but it was out of slower corners where they were getting beaten.
A sixth place finish for Maverick Viñales could turn out to be more momentous than it has any right to be. When asked whether the result at Jerez could influence his decision to either go to Yamaha or stay with Suzuki, Viñales was alarmingly frank. "When you see Yamaha are first and second, and me and Aleix are fifth and sixth, it make you think a little bit," he said. "But I trust in Suzuki, and I trust that still they can show me the results. A decision on Viñales' future could come by Le Mans. That would not give Suzuki a great deal of time to convince Viñales to stay.
Andrea Iannone crossed the line in seventh, a result he had not been expecting given his otherwise dire weekend, but he merely closed the gap on the fastest Ducatis. Hector Barbera on the Avinta GP14.2 and Eugene Laverty on the Aspar GP14.2 lead the way in the championship. Both men are riding very well, and taking advantage as opportunities come their way. Both are also impressing potential future employers: on underpowered ART and Open Class machines, neither man made much of an impression last year. In 2016, they are both looking like viable candidates to take over better bikes. If, of course, such a thing exists.
On to Moto2. Or in Sam Lowes' case, "onit" to Moto2. Lowes came in strong, and put together the kind of weekend where he is simply unstoppable. Unfazed by the changing conditions, Lowes held Jonas Folger at bay for most of the race before putting his head down and getting away. Lowes, Alex Rins and Johann Zarco have now all had perfect weekends, with Jonas Folger on the verge of making the same breakthrough. The championship is shaping up nicely, but with Lowes extending his lead to ten points, his rivals need to respond. Sam Lowes' name is being bandied about with existing team managers, despite him having a factory Aprilia contract for next year. With so many strong manufacturers in MotoGP in 2017, he could have his pick of factory rides.
The alien's alien
As impressive as both Rossi and Lowes were, the ride of the day must go to Brad Binder. Binder has been on the verge of his first win in Moto3, and boy did he find a way to take his first victory. Binder was forced to start from the back of the grid after an inconsequential error saw him end up running a non-homologated software map. The mistake was almost farcically trivial: a KTM engineer made some minor wet-weather modifications to the mapping for the Dell'Orto spec ECU, and gave the new mapping a new file name. A USB stick was sent to MotoGP's Technical Director Danny Aldridge and Dell'Orto, who homologated the correct mapping with the wrong filename.
After qualifying, Binder's bike was checked, and an illegal mapping was detected on the basis of the filename. The FIM Stewards decided to put him to the back of the grid, despite an appeal by KTM on the grounds that the map itself was not illegal, the mapping just used the wrong filename. Binder was unlucky: if he had not qualified on the front row, the scrutineers would not have checked his bike. And given the fact that this was an official engine map supplied by KTM, you have to wonder how many other teams were running the same mapping, but were not caught, as they were not on the front row.
It was the race in which Binder was most impressive, though. The South African moved quickly forward, after nearly being taken out by his brother, passing everyone on the brakes – the strongest point of the bike, he explained. He was surprised at just how much faster than everyone else he was, even once he latched on to the leading group. Realizing his advantage, he pushed on and went on to take a truly remarkable victory. This will have done wonders for Binder's confidence, and he should be a threat for the win from now on.
Until Binder arrived, the battle for the lead had been intense, and intensely satisfying. Jorge Navarro appeared to be in control, but Pecco Bagnaia and Nicolo Bulega had entirely different ideas. On the final lap, Bulega launched an attack which saw him take over second. Meanwhile, Bagnaia, who has something of a reputation for taking other riders out, made a perfectly executed pass on Jorge Navarro on the last lap to take third.
The two Italians excelled themselves, but they did so on a day when Brad Binder achieved something truly remarkable. This victory will be talked about for a long time, and not just because it is the first South African victory since Jon Ekerold won a 350cc race in 1981. Binder totally owned this race, and owned Moto3. As motorsports commentator Marieta Evans put it, there is perfect, and there is Brad Binder.
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