If there is an axis around which every MotoGP season revolves, it has to be the sparkling jewels in the crown at Mugello and Barcelona. From the glory of the Tuscan circuit, all high speed and rolling hills set just an hour down the road from the heart of Italian sports motorcycles, the circuits heads to the magnificent track at Montmeló, just outside Barcelona. A stone's throw away from the cradle of Spanish motorcycling, and with a third or so of the grid (and the paddock regulars) having been born within an hour's drive, Barcelona is MotoGP's true home race.
Like Mugello, it is a track worthy of MotoGP, where the big bikes can properly stretch their legs. A massive front straight, exhaust noise booming between the great wall of a grandstand, with a tricky right-left chicane at the end of it. Lots of long fast corners, allowing differing lines and offering up chances to try to pass. A couple of hard braking sections with more opportunities to pass.
After the chicane at Turn 1 and 2, the next favorite passing spot is into Turn 5, a tight left hander. If you're feeling cheeky, you can have a sniff at Turn 7, though that can leave you open at Turn 9. Turn 10 is prime passing territory, a fast approach with a long downhill braking section, before you flick it left round a long, wide corner. Care is needed, though, as it is easy to lose the front on the greasy off-camber corner, or run wide when passing. That allows the rider you just passed to come back underneath. If the pass does not stick there, all is not quite lost, but it will require every gram of skill and bravery you can muster. Passes are possible at the final corner, as Valentino Rossi so stunningly demonstrated in 2009, but they are far from easy.
Barcelona (hearts) MotoGP?
The setting of the track is wonderful too. Set in between low hills, the viewing at the track is superb, the hills overlooking large parts of the track. And a short train ride away is Barcelona, one of the most beautiful and remarkable cities in the world. The Catalonia round of MotoGP has much to recommend it.
It is hard to imagine a season without a race in Barcelona, despite the fact that even Dorna believes that four races in Spain are really too many. Yet there are threats to the continued existence of the race, and as usual, they have to do with money and politics. The race is subsidized in part by Barcelona city council, because of the financial boost visitors to the race give the city and the area. Yet Barcelona's new mayor, Ada Colau, is not inclined to continue to support either the MotoGP or the F1 race.
Colau, who comes from the radical movement set up to protest evictions after the collapse of the Spanish housing bubble, believes the money used for the race could be more effectively applied in helping to deal with Barcelona's homelessness problem. She points to the massive attendances both races generate, and asks why the circuit needs subsidy to stage the race. She has a point: with official attendance approaching 100,000 on race day, and tickets costing between €35 and €115, it seems strange that the track could not generate sufficient income to support the race independently. The counterargument is that both F1 and MotoGP generate a huge amount of income for the region: one study estimated that each MotoGP visitor spent €533 in the region.
Such concerns will not feature this weekend, of course. The main question on everyone's lips is who holds the upper hand? Like Mugello, Barcelona is relatively fast and flowing, putting the advantage with Yamaha. In Italy, an engine failure robbed us of the spectacle of Valentino Rossi battling Jorge Lorenzo and Marc Márquez, but the omens are set fair for a repeat at Barcelona. If, that is, Yamaha have fixed their engine concerns, as they claim to in the press release issued earlier today.
In their statement, Yamaha said the issue had been caused by the spec electronics allowing the engine to overrev as the rear wheel came loose over the crest at the end of Mugello's massive straight. Barcelona has a similarly fast straight, but it is both straighter and flatter. Yamaha's fix almost certainly involves setting the rev limiter differently in the spec electronics. But it may also involve lowering the maximum revs the factory Yamahas use.
It is notable that the engine which blew up for both Jorge Lorenzo and Valentino Rossi was engine #3, a low-use unit with just a few sessions on it. It was also notable that Jorge Lorenzo raced engine #2, which had been used for 25 practice sessions and 2 races, without incident. Though engine designs are homologated, there may have been the narrowest of cracks through which an engine could be specially prepared for Mugello. Occam's razor says Yamaha simply turned the revs up too far, and got caught out when the rev limiter didn't cut in quickly enough. But perhaps Yamaha caught William of Ockham looking the other way.
Whatever the truth of Mugello, there is every chance of seeing a three-way battle between the three championship leaders at Barcelona. Both Jorge Lorenzo and Valentino Rossi have outstanding records at the track, and it is ideally suited to the way the M1 performs. They clashed most notably in 2009, when a blistering last lap saw Rossi pull off an outrageous pass in the final corner.
Can Márquez make it a three-way?
Could he attempt the same again? Potentially, though he could find himself with both his teammate and the Repsol Honda of Marc Márquez to contend with. Barcelona is a track which lacks many hard acceleration spots, which is where the Honda RC213V struggles most. Márquez was optimistic: "Maybe I will struggle a little bit in the exit of the last corner, maybe the exit of Turn 5, which is a first gear corner, but I expect that we can be competitive." Being weak in the exit of the final corner puts him at a disadvantage compared to the Yamahas, but unlike Mugello, the drag to the line is much shorter at Barcelona. It may just be long enough to hold on to the lead if he can enter the final corner first.
Last year, Marc Márquez crashed at Barcelona, the race marking both the nadir of the season and a turning point. What Márquez learned in 2015, he told the press conference, was that he had to be careful about when to push for a result, and when to accept he could not win the race. If he is close to the leaders on the final lap, Márquez will go for the win. If he is a few seconds back, he will take the points on the table and take the title chase on to the next race, he said.
Monday's MotoGP test at Barcelona will be important for Márquez, both mentally and technically. Last year, it was that test where HRC swapped the 2015 chassis for the older 2014 chassis, which gave Márquez enough grip to be able to compete for podiums and wins again. Márquez is looking for a similar boost from Monday's test, and hoping that HRC have a solution for him. If they do not, it will not be until the Brno test that he will get another chance to test properly. That is getting perilously close to the end of the season.
Ducati and Suzuki – more guests at the party
What of Ducati? At Mugello, both Andrea Iannone and Andrea Dovizioso showed they could be quick, though Dovizioso struggled with a chronic neck problem. Iannone's issue was at the start, the Italian going backwards off the line after qualifying on the front row. If Ducati can fix that issue, then they could both be competitive. Barcelona plays to the strengths of the Ducati, which now turns well enough to handle the circuit's long corners. But the massive front straight, and the fast back straight mean that if either Iannone or Dovizioso are close enough, they can try to outdo the Yamahas and Hondas on horsepower, and use their top speed advantage.
Perhaps the most interesting question at Barcelona is how Suzuki will fare. Last year, Aleix Espargaro took pole and Maverick Viñales started from second, demonstrating the potential of the GSX-RR. But the 2015 rules flattered Suzuki to deceive: the soft tires which Suzuki were allowed to use meant they could find that little bit extra during qualifying. On race day, that advantage disappeared like snow in May: on the same tires as everyone else, the lack of horsepower and lack of a seamless gearbox saw both Espargaro and Viñales swamped before they got to the first corner.
Things are different in 2016. Firstly, the special tires are gone, with everyone on the same rubber this year. Secondly, the 2016 Suzuki GSX-RR is a vastly improved bike, the combination of a small stableful of extra ponies and a seamless gearbox giving them a fair shot at arriving at Turn 1 together with the front runners, rather than lagging behind them. Both men will be motivated: both Viñales and Espargaro are local – the Espargaro brothers are about as local as it gets, coming from just the next town over – and want to do well in front of their home crowd. Espargaro is even more fired up, keen to prove that Suzuki are making a mistake in letting him go.
Silly Season settles further
Where is Aleix Espargaro headed, if he cannot stay with Suzuki? During the press conference, the Spaniard admitted he had several good offers, including a couple of strong offers in World Superbikes. But he also admitted he was in talks with Aprilia, to take the second MotoGP seat alongside Sam Lowes. Wherever he went, it was important that he felt appreciated and wanted, something which has not been the case with Suzuki since it became clear they were courting Alex Rins over him.
His brother's future is more settled. At Barcelona, Pol Espargaro announced he would be joining KTM for the next two seasons, to ride alongside his current teammate Bradley Smith. When I asked Smith whether it would not be better for KTM to take a much older and more experienced rider who had ridden several different machines, the Englishman put me firmly in my place. "If I were a team manager, I would choose Pol. Why would I choose Pol to partner me in particular? Because you are basically taking the two fastest non-factory riders that are available at the moment," Smith explained.
"If you are going to build a factory team," he continued, "you take two of the best guys, which obviously makes sense. Those two guys have then ridden a Yamaha together for the last two years, and they've pretty much put it on the same piece of tarmac week in, week out. Their settings must be pretty close to each other, because they stay within Yamaha's general parameters. They rode exactly the same motorcycle in Suzuka and were both within 0.2 of each other round there and won that as well."
"So it seems that those two riders work quite well together, just as a generic thing, they push each other forward, they've improved each other's performance year in, year out. That means that when you actually build a chassis, you're not having to build one for one rider, and one for another, and one bike's going like this and the other like that, because they are actually working in parallel with each other. Which can only lead to good success. Because they've been similar speeds, you then have to look at it and go, if one is faster than the other it's because something's seriously wrong or something's not working, because we know that they're at a very similar level. So it's a good benchmark and security throughout."
It was a simple matter of engineering thoroughness, of eliminating as many confusing factors as possible, Smith explained. "It's reducing the number of variables, especially when you are coming in as a brand new factory, you need to reduce your variables as much as possible."
Life is for adventures
Why would Pol Espargaro go for a bike which he hasn't yet even seen in the flesh, and with no track record to measure it with? "Life is for adventures and for the ones who trust in something that is not working," Espargaro said. "It’s a matter of spirit, winning spirit. For sure it’s more comfortable to stay where I am but I have a spirit that says, ‘You have to win and catch the front guys because you can.’ I did it in 125s. I did it in Moto2. The guys that I was fighting and beating some times, now they’re beating me by 20 seconds. At the end I want to show that I can do it. The best way is to go to a factory bike. We’ll see if it’s good or bad but we don’t know."
His main concern was KTM's steel trellis chassis, and whether it would work. "We need to check if the tubular chassis works," he said. "The engine, sooner or later, you improve. We saw that Maverick and Suzuki are faster than us now on the straight. If the tubular chassis is not working we will struggle so much. I prefer a slow bike that is good in the corners than a fast bike on the straight and impossible to manage. I think it [the chassis] will be harder than we are used to do with Yamaha. It’s a different system."
I had asked a similar question of a KTM engineer at Mugello, about whether the number of welds in a steel trellis frame would be a problem. The KTM engineer dismissed it out of hand. "There are a lot of welds in an aluminum frame as well," he said. "But nobody worries about them." KTM have a lot of experience with the steel trellis frame in Moto3 and with their RC8 roadgoing Superbike. They are confident they can produce a chassis which can be competitive in MotoGP. Espargaro's concerns seem born more of traditional paddock conservatism than anything else.
Pol Espargaro was not the only rider to announce he had signed a contract at Barcelona. Marc Márquez also announced that he had finally agreed terms with HRC for the next two seasons. When asked what his main priorities had been, Márquez named the technical package first, then the financial part, then expounded at length on the importance of being able to keep his team together at Honda. That suggests that this could have been an area of friction, a clear possibility given that Márquez basically removed all of the crew Honda had assigned him and replaced them with the team he had gathered around him in Moto2. Once again, riders prove that they race just as much with their hearts as with their minds.
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