On Friday, a young man died in a freak crash at the Circuit de Catalunya, and we mourned him. On Saturday, we went through the motions, picking up the rhythm of a normal race weekend, but in a state of mild shock. On Sunday morning, we remembered Luis Salom, the whole paddock and a circuit full of fans standing in silence, united both in the memory of a bright young talent who take took from us, and in the knowledge that it can happen again. On Sunday afternoon, we raced, and reminded ourselves of why young men and women risk their lives with the frankly rather futile objective of demonstrating that they can ride in circles on a motorbike faster than anyone else.
"It was difficult to not cry when we were in the minute of silence," Maverick Viñales reflected on Sunday afternoon. "It was a really difficult race, but I think the best way to remember Luis is racing, and trying to make the best result. I know he will be always with us." Marc Márquez felt much the same. "In the end also this Sunday, I liked it was again the atmosphere of the family, the MotoGP family. Because when we were there together on the grid, when we were racing, everybody was racing for Luis. Everybody dedicated the race to Luis."
And what races to dedicate to Luis Salom. The Moto3 race saw a tense battle go down to the line, and a thrilling finale and a win that had been a long time coming. The Moto2 race became a duel between two of Salom's recent rivals, with a masterful display to take victory. And MotoGP produced one of the fiercest duels we have seen in a while, a popular victory, and a shake up in the championship.
A management matter
The MotoGP race was the icing on the cake on Sunday. The icing on a highly decorated cake, with twists and turns, and intricate details worthy of examination all the way down the field. In effect, the race became a war of attrition, a case of managing tires as well as possible. Not so much the rear tire; though almost everyone chose the hard rear Michelin, Dani Pedrosa took third with the medium rear, and Pol Espargaro grabbed fifth. It was the front that was the bigger issue, and harder to manage, requiring balancing braking force and corner speed throughout the race, to go as fast as possible yet still ensure there was still some front tire left at the end of the race.
As at Jerez, Valentino Rossi proved himself to be the master of that. Despite a fairly disastrous start – he did not brake deep enough into Turn 1, he said, and got mixed up with Andrea Dovizioso – the Movistar Yamaha rider scythed his way through the field to move up from eighth in the opening corners to third by the end of lap three, where he found himself behind Jorge Lorenzo and Marc Márquez.
Lorenzo had not been able to capitalize on his customary lightning start, for though he led the race, he was slower than the men behind him. The complete lack of grip on a hot and greasy Barcelona track was causing his front tire to start graining, an extreme form of wear made worse by Lorenzo's high corner speed style, which demands a lot of the front tire. Robbed of his usual strength, Lorenzo struggled to maintain his pace, experimenting with riding style to try to manage the front tire, and ride around it. That change in riding style would later prove to be his downfall, though the blame for that lies entirely with Andrea Iannone.
The duel we have been waiting for
Lorenzo's travails offered opportunities to both Marc Márquez and Valentino Rossi. Rossi was the first man through on Lorenzo, but Márquez was quick to follow. Márquez stayed tight on Rossi's tail for twelve laps or so, though just how hard he had to work to do so was obvious when the Repsol Honda rider nearly lost the front completely through the new chicane, his body hanging way off the side of the bike, leg out like a track day parody of a knee down ride. He recovered his composure, and attacked with four laps to go, seeing the victory within his grasp.
That would prove to be an illusion. Márquez' attacks were fierce and frequent, but Rossi was not prepared to give ground. Every attack was countered, every loss of the lead saw Rossi strike back immediately. Rossi had been robbed of victory at Mugello by a cruel stroke of mechanical fate, and was out for revenge. Getting it in Barcelona, the town were Jorge Lorenzo lives and at Marc Márquez' home race would make victory taste all the sweeter.
Though Márquez rode an astonishing race, he was no match for a Rossi in masterful form. Márquez made a mistake with two laps to go, nearly crashing again, and the Spaniard started thinking of the championship. With Jorge Lorenzo out, second place was enough to take the lead in the championship, and give himself another chance later in the season.
Also on Márquez' mind was his experience last year, when he crashed out at both Mugello and Barcelona, before going into a much stronger second half of the season. Mugello and Barcelona were the two strongest tracks for Yamaha, Márquez explained, and his goal was to be as close to the championship leader as possible. With that goal exceeded, he can start dreaming about a third MotoGP title again.
Old dogs, and new tricks
There are plenty of obstacles in his way, still, and Valentino Rossi may yet prove to be the most significant. Rossi is in the form of his life, the fire of his ambition still burning white hot, and boosted by the switch back to Michelins. Rossi himself put his form on his laser-like focus on race day. "The important thing is be strong and fast Sunday afternoon at two o'clock," Rossi said. "This is what I think in all my career. Last year I fight for the championship to the last race but sometimes in the race I wasn’t fast like Lorenzo and Marquez. This year it looks like I am stronger, also if I have less points." He is fast, he is happy with the Yamaha M1, and it is clearly a competitive machine. Above all, he is happy with the change of tires. "I like a lot the Michelin tire because is something that I use a lot in the past, and I grow up as a rider with these tires, so it’s something very familiar."
Rossi has had less trouble adapting to the Michelins than teammate Jorge Lorenzo, especially when conditions are difficult and grip is low. The difference between the two Yamahas is not in set up – the differences between Rossi's and Lorenzo's set ups were minimal, Wilco Zeelenberg told me on Sunday – it was all about coping with tire wear.
This was something which Lorenzo acknowledged after the race. "Rossi, with the same bike, didn't have so much graining," he told us. "Looks like he rides differently than me and he can save more the front tire, normally. Also, he is very good in difficult conditions, in conditions with no grip. Today he made an unbelievable race. I could not ride like him and could not change my riding style to avoid the front tire problems, in all the weekend. This is the truth."
Reconciliation? Let's not get ahead of ourselves
Rossi's victory over Márquez, on a weekend overshadowed by Salom's death, helped start the first steps of a reconciliation between the two riders. Or rather, change their relationship from one of pure, unadulterated hatred to more workable dislike. Since Sepang, Rossi has been consumed by hatred of Márquez. Márquez, in turn, was hurt and angered by Rossi's comments in the press conference in Sepang, and distressed by the opprobrium which has been heaped upon him since Rossi turned his sights upon him.
Márquez had suffered under the weight of all that hatred, and had wanted to return to at least some kind of cordiality in the relationship, though he had no illusions – and probably no desire – to rekindle any kind of friendship. Rossi, though, had been implacable. When the two men encountered each other waiting in corridors to go into press conferences, or when they had to share a podium, Márquez kept his distance, and Rossi would not even look at Márquez, he blanked him completely.
That changed a little in parc fermé. Marc Márquez came over to Rossi to offer his hand, and for the first time since Sepang, Rossi accepted it. There was an acknowledgement that the current situation was untenable, but the reconciliation is far more practical than anything else. When asked about this in the press conference, Rossi answered, "last night I think that we need to stay quiet, to stay relaxed, because it’s a great sport. This is a great sport, it’s our passion, but it’s also dangerous. So I think a normal behavior and normal feeling with the other riders is also helpful for stay more quiet and stay more concentrated."
No mention of forgiveness, but things are too far gone for that now. Rossi's hatred of Márquez is undiminished, but he is prepared to come to an accommodation, a coexistence with the Spaniard. His energy can go into his racing, for though a healthy hatred of rivals can help to motivate a rider, they have to be careful not to let it consume them. This is the point which Rossi seems to have reached. It will only make him more competitive.
A Honda revival of sorts
For the second race in a row, there were two Hondas in the top four, and at Barcelona, there were two Repsol Hondas on the podium. The factory Hondas have made a step forward since the beginning of the season. In Qatar, the Yamahas had been walking away from the Hondas, and Maverick Viñales had done the same on the Suzuki in Argentina, Cal Crutchlow pointed out. At Montmelo, Viñales was having to try everything he could to try to pass Dani Pedrosa, because Pedrosa was once again fast on the Honda.
Where had the improvement come from? Márquez told the press conference that the only change was an improvement in the electronics, as HRC start to get to grips with the common software. Pedrosa admitted he had more changes than just electronics. "I advanced my testing, so I really did already some tests in the weekend with the parts we have for Monday," Pedrosa told the press conference. "This is because also it’s for me more interesting testing in a race weekend than in only a test day. Normally Mondays the grip is very good, after doing race pace you have more rhythm and lap times sometimes come even better, so it’s not only related to the improvements. So testing on the weekend on the race against the other riders in the race pace, it’s also sometimes very interesting."
The choice had been the right one for Pedrosa. Though this was his second podium of the season, the first one had come in Argentina, where the compulsory pit stop had confused the situation. Pedrosa had earned this podium in a straight fight, choosing the medium rear tire where the others used the hard, and holding off attacks from Maverick Viñales. Pedrosa's season is getting back on track, the podium coming after three straight fourth places. If Honda have a better solution to creating rear grip and acceleration at the test on Monday, then Pedrosa could soon well be a force again.
A gripping dilemma
Rear grip is what cost Maverick Viñales any chance of a podium. The Suzuki GSX-RR is a strong bike in the cool of the morning, when there is plenty of grip. But at tracks like Barcelona, when the afternoon heat robs all remaining grip from the track, the bike is only strong for the first few laps. Once the tires go off, that's it, Viñales said after the race. "When the bike has grip, like yesterday in the morning, in the first laps with a new tire, I can do incredible things. But then when the grip went down, I started to struggle with the bike," he said.
It is a constant lament, and a complaint he has had since the beginning of his time at Suzuki. It is also, perhaps, one of the reasons Viñales is leaving. Suzuki have done an incredible job to develop the GSX-RR, but this issue has remained unchanged. Whether this is the result of a design compromise or a fixable problem remains to be seen. The front of the GSX-RR is unbelievable, Viñales told us on Saturday. But the rear simply lacked grip.
Pol Espargaro solved his grip problems by going for the medium tires, both front and rear. It proved to be a smart choice, as he was quicker than Jorge Lorenzo on the factory Yamaha, and capable of staying with Andrea Iannone on the factory Ducati until Iannone took Lorenzo out. It had been a risk, Espargaro acknowledged, but one worth taking. He had been fast in the early part of the race, then just concentrated on nursing his tires home. With his tires gone, he probably lost an extra ten seconds to the leaders.
Cal Crutchlow found himself in a similar boat. Sixth place as a good finish in what has been a tough year, but it was a finish, and it was ten points. Crutchlow was buoyed by the improvement of the Repsol Hondas, though he had no expectation of receiving too many updates from the factory soon. However, if the improvement is coming from the electronics, as Marc Márquez says, then it should be relatively simple to make that available to all the satellite Hondas. That would be especially important to the Marc VDS riders, Jack Miller and Tito Rabat. It would be good for Honda too, putting the satellite bikes a little closer to the fight at the front.
Less can be more
Perhaps the most remarkable performance of the day came from Alvaro Bautista, for once benefiting from the Aprilia's weakest point. Paddock rumor puts the RS-GP's power figures at around 245 hp. That is probably 20hp or more down on the factory Yamahas, and well over 30hp down on the factory Ducatis. When tire wear becomes an issue, having less horsepower at the rear wheel reduces the stresses on the rear tire, and Bautista took advantage of that superbly. On lap 10, he was around a second a lap slower than the riders in the battle for fifth place. Ten laps later, he was a second a lap quicker than them.
Finishing eighth is an outstanding result for both Bautista and Aprilia, but it is also a clear sign of what Aprilia have got left to do. For the past couple of weeks, Bautista and Stefan Bradl had expressed hopes of seeing a new, much more powerful engine at the race track, but so far, that has failed to materialize. There are rumors of reliability problems with the new engine, and until that can be fixed, Bautista and Bradl will struggle. Given that the bike handles well, though, more power could make the bike look a lot more attractive for 2017.
The black sheep
With Rossi winning, Márquez in second, and Lorenzo struggling with his tires, the championship would have tightened up considerably. But Andrea Iannone taking Lorenzo out in Turn 10 made a much bigger difference. Iannone was penalized for the incident, and will have to start from the back of the grid at Assen. Viewed in isolation, that is a rather harsh punishment for what was basically a silly mistake, but given Iannone's previous incidents this year, especially in taking out his teammate in Argentina, Race Direction imposed a stiffer penalty upon him.
It was not stiff enough for some people. Unsurprisingly and understandably, Jorge Lorenzo said he felt Iannone deserved a race ban. Not so much for the incident, as to teach Iannone a lesson. "In soccer, you get a red card," he told reporters. He referred once again back to his own race ban back in the 250 days, which gave him time to think and consider his crimes. That would be the only lesson which might actually sink in.
What had irked Lorenzo the most was that the first thing that Iannone had said to him after the crash was to ask if there had been some kind of problem with Lorenzo's bike. He had not expected Lorenzo to brake the way he did, and so he found himself closing too quickly. That was why Iannone felt he had done nothing wrong, the Italian saying he had braked at precisely the same point as in previous laps.
Small mistake, big consequences
Pol Espargaro, sitting behind Iannone for most of the race, had a front row view of the incident, and confirmed what Iannone said. "We have to say for sure that Iannone didn’t brake late. Iannone braked in the same place," he told me. "It was not a crazy line, he was on the correct line when he hit Lorenzo," Espargaro affirmed.
The problem was that Lorenzo was struggling with the front tire, and having to brake much harder for the corner than normal. "Jorge had for sure some problems with the front tire," Espargaro said. "I don’t know why but he was not carrying his speed as his usual. His initial stop is okay but then when he have to release the brake, he hold it for too long." That meant that Iannone found Lorenzo in a place he had not expected to find him, and had hit him and taken him down.
That was no excuse for hitting Lorenzo, Espargaro was keen to point out. "It’s same as the cars when you are driving on the street. The one who is behind is always at fault." What Iannone would have done, was the general consensus among several riders and team managers, is go to the outside of the corner, not the inside. Valentino Rossi explained during the press conference, "Maybe what Iannone can do is try to go on the outside more than on the inside, because you arrive in one moment that you have to understand that you don’t stop and you have to try to go on the outside." If he had done that, Iannone may have ended up crashing, but he would not have taken Lorenzo out in the process.
Ducati boss Davide Tardozzi agreed with that assessment. "When you are on the highway, and someone put on the brakes and you hit him, it's your fault," Tardozzi said. It was a small mistake by Iannone with big consequences. But it was not like Iannone's other incident, at Argentina. That had been a major error of judgment, Tardozzi told us. This was a small mistake which anyone could make. But it could have been avoided if Iannone had gone outside instead of inside.
Perhaps Iannone's biggest error is the fact that he had plenty of time to attempt a pass somewhere else. He could even have run wide, and still caught and passed Lorenzo again. Iannone was seven tenths a lap quicker than Lorenzo on the lap before the incident. "We were catching Lorenzo so fast, in three laps we were with him," Pol Espargaro said. The issue was that Iannone had been here before, rather too many times. "He didn't make a crazy thing like Argentina," Espargaro said. "The problem is, he made this many times."
Moto2 & Moto3
There was plenty of spectacle in the junior classes as well. In Moto2, Johann Zarco and Alex Rins made a break from the field, both determined to win and dedicate the victory to Luis Salom, a rider they both knew well. Rins held the upper hand until late in the race, when Zarco should just how much he had been holding back. Though Rins could do nothing to stop the Frenchman, he was content to take second and the lead back in the championship, after Sam Lowes struggled to a sixth place finish.
Moto3 was the kind of barn burner we have come to expect from the class. A group with the best riders on the day made a break, with Jorge Navarro looking strong, and Brad Binder looking in control. But Binder ran into Gabriel Rodrigo, who, while riding brilliantly, was not quite completely in control. Rodrigo ran in too hot to the new chicane, clipped Binder's wheel, and pushed him way off line.
Binder was luck not to crash, though he bristled at the suggestion that it was luck which kept him upright, having worked hard to save the potential crash, then finish second. He was right to be offended that luck had anything to do with it. "This result is like a win," he said. "It was the best I could do after what happened with Rodrigo."
Jorge Navarro took victory, though, his first in Moto3, and a race win which has been a long time coming. Navarro is one of the few riders who have kept Binder honest, and prevented him from running away with the championship. Usually what happens when a rider gets one win, is that it opens up the floodgates to more. Though Binder has a very comfortable 44 point lead in the championship over Navarro, there is plenty of time for the Spaniard to start clawing points back.
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