We continue our mid-season look at the performance of the MotoGP riders with the reigning world champion, Jorge Lorenzo.
2nd: Jorge Lorenzo, Yamaha, 122 points
Who is the real Jorge Lorenzo? Like Marc Márquez, it sometimes looks like Jorge Lorenzo's place has been taken by an impostor in Movistar Yamaha leathers. The swap would have taken place at Barcelona: in the first six races of the season, Lorenzo's results included three wins, two second places and a crash in tricky conditions in Argentina. From Barcelona onwards, Lorenzo was taken out by Andrea Iannone as he dropped down through the field, a tenth and a fifteenth place finish. Tenth at Assen was Lorenzo's worst finish in MotoGP since his rookie season. Three weeks later, he had his worst finish in Grand Prix racing since 2004.
What has happened to Lorenzo? It is hard to say whether his results at Assen and the Sachsenring represent a decline of Lorenzo's form, or whether they were merely a collapse in confidence in difficult conditions at two of the circuits which have caused him the most physical and mental pain in the past.
With a couple of weeks break to put Assen and the Sachsenring into perspective, you have to suspect the latter. Jorge Lorenzo turned up at the Sepang tests looking fitter and slimmer than he had ever done before, and proceeded to dismantle the opposition. He was out for revenge, and started 2016 wanting to prove that he had deserved the 2015 title, and not been handed it by Marc Márquez. His only mistake up until Barcelona had been the crash at Argentina, when he went slightly off line and lost the front in a bizarre flag-to-flag race.
Yet that mistake may well point the way to Lorenzo's underlying weakness. In the history of motorcycle racing, there are few riders capable of matching Lorenzo for outright pace and precision. But Lorenzo needs one thing, above all: he must have confidence in the bike, and confidence in the feedback from the tires, especially the front. Without that feedback, he cannot carry the corner speed and lean angle which are his hallmark.
There have been times in 2016 when he has lacked that confidence. At Argentina, he tried to compensate by pushing harder and trying to stay with the leading group, forcing himself into an error which would prove costly. At Barcelona, he did not push hard, and found himself sliding down the order when he was collected by a rash move by Andrea Iannone. In Germany and Holland, awful conditions left him rattled and unwilling to push. That is a legacy of 2013, when he crashed just three times all year. Two of those crashes came at Assen and the Sachsenring. He broke his collarbone both times.
Yet there is also a sense that Lorenzo is not just lacking confidence in his bike, but in the team which surrounds him. His switch to Ducati was in part motivated by a feeling that Yamaha was not fully behind him. It has been telling that so far, only one of his crew will follow him to Ducati. Neither crew chief Ramon Forcada nor team manager Wilco Zeelenberg, both instrumental in Lorenzo's success, will make the switch, preferring to stay with Yamaha.
Is Yamaha really letting Lorenzo down? That is unthinkable for an organization as professional as Yamaha Motor Racing. But the facts on the ground are not as important as the perception of those facts in the mind of the rider. Being successful at this level of motorcycle racing is 90% mental. If Lorenzo believes that his crew are not behind him, that is enough to slow him down a couple of tenths. If Yamaha can once again instill faith in his crew in Lorenzo, then the Spaniard will be a formidable opponent for the rest of 2016. If they can't, then it will be a long year.
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