With seven races to go, and three to be held over the next four weekends, the MotoGP championship is entering a crucial phase. Marc Márquez' 53 point lead over Valentino Rossi means finishing on the podium for the rest of the races would be sufficient for him to clinch his third MotoGP title. The two caveats being that Valentino Rossi must win the remaining seven races, and Márquez must finish second on at least three occasions.
Márquez also has a lead of 59 points over Jorge Lorenzo. Just two second places among seven podium finishes would be enough to ensure he beat Lorenzo to the championship. Though once again, Lorenzo would have to win all seven remaining races.
A likely scenario? Not really. The chances of either Lorenzo or Rossi winning seven races in a row are very close to zero. The remaining seven races could conceivably all be won by a Movistar Yamaha rider, but the most likely scenario in that case would be both Rossi and Lorenzo swapping victories each week. An even more likely chain of events would be Rossi, Lorenzo, and Márquez taking it in turns on the top step. And if Márquez finishes ahead of either Rossi or Lorenzo, that swings the pendulum in further in his direction.
Expect the unexpected
But there are still seven races to go, and in racing, anything can happen. Engines blow, riders crash and hurt themselves, the elements intervene. And boy, how the elements have intervened in 2016. Exceptional heat in Argentina, cool conditions at Le Mans and Austria, rain at Assen, the Sachsenring, and Brno. All that, and a brand new tire manufacturer, and spec electronics have conspired to throw a spanner in the works this season. Though so far, Marc Márquez has succeeded in dodging that spanner every time.
Will Márquez manage to edge closer to the 2016 MotoGP title at Silverstone? The omens are good, but not overwhelming. Márquez has won here just twice, in 2010 aboard a 125, and in his annus mirabilis 2014, victory making it eleven wins out of twelve races in the Repsol Honda rider's second season of MotoGP. He came within a whisker of winning in 2013 as well, pipped at the post by Jorge Lorenzo.
The track is neither good nor bad for the Hondas. There are few sections which require exceptionally strong acceleration, mitigating the RC213V's greatest weakness. The acceleration points which exist all start from third gear rolling out of corners, which the Honda is able to handle Conversely, there are only three really hard braking zones, the points where the Honda has been able to dominate, especially with Marc Márquez at the helm. The bike turns on a dime, helping it at Maggotts/Becketts complex, at the transition between Vale and Club, through the interior stadium section, and around the two final corners.
Fear the mighty Yamahas?
Márquez' problem, however, is that he faces two Movistar Yamahas. Jorge Lorenzo has been utterly fearsome around the English circuit, winning in 2010, 2012 and 2013, and coming second to Márquez in 2014. The Silverstone circuit is made for the Yamaha M1: fast and flowing, with a lot of fast changes of direction and corners where you roll through and then out of them. It is a real mixture of corners: the stadium section from Abbey through the Loop to Aintree is tight and technical, Woodcote and Copse are long and fast, the Maggotts/Becketts complex a bit of both. The Yamaha is the best all round bike on the grid, and Silverstone needs a real all rounder.
The downside to Silverstone, and a legacy of its playing host to F1, is the bumps. The fast changes of direction and the bumps make the track very physical. Jorge Lorenzo is in outstanding physical shape, and should be able to cope with the demands of the track. But the bumps may unsettle the Yamaha more other bikes, and may detract from the Yamaha's speed. That situation has been made worse by the Michelins, which seem not to absorb the bumps as well as the Bridgestones did. When I asked Eugene Laverty whether he thought the switch to 17-inch wheels had made the difference, he disagreed. It was more likely just the nature of the tires, he said.
The bumps lie in wait, ready to lure an unsuspecting rider into making a mistake. That was something which Valentino Rossi feared, having already made two costly mistakes this season, at Austin and Assen. The pressure of trying to chase Márquez while trailing in the championship had caused Rossi to misjudge conditions and crash. That is not something the Italian can afford to do again.
A Rossi's progress
Once upon a time, Rossi was no great fan of Silverstone. The Italian missed the first year the series returned to the reconfigured circuit, then compounded that deficit during his two difficult years at Ducati. It was only really in 2013 that he got going at the track, finishing fourth, then a podium the following year. He mastered the circuit in 2015, taking his first win at Silverstone, though it was done in the pouring rain. Can he carry that through to this season, even if the track is dry? On paper, it is a track he should do well at: fast and technical, needing both courage and intelligence. He has slain the demons which haunted him here, and should be in the running.
The most interesting question about Silverstone this year is how the Ducatis will fare. The factory bikes, at least, should be competitive. There are no really hard braking zones where the Desmosedici can lose out, and there are plenty of high speed straights where the Ducatis can showcase their horsepower. There are no really long corners, meaning that even the GP14.2 could be in contention, the grippy rear Michelin helping to overcome the understeer of the old bike, allowing the rider to help the bike turn using the rear.
But opinion was split between the factory Andreas, and the Pramac Ducati riders Danilo Petrucci and Scott Redding. Redding was the most non-committal, this being his first year on the Ducati, but he agreed with Danilo Petrucci's assessment that they were conceding horsepower and drive out of corners to the factory teams. "Our engine is nothing special," Petrucci said, hinting that the factory bikes have more power than Pramac's GP15s.
Ducatis change direction?
For Andrea Dovizioso, the proof would come in the first part of the track. Especially the section at Maggotts and Becketts would be revealing. That part of the track resembles the complex of Turns 3 through 9 at the Circuit of the Americas in Austin. Last year, the Ducati had gone well at Silverstone, but this year they had experienced severe problems at the left-right jinks at Austin. If they can get the bike through there, then there is no reason the Ducati can't be competitive.
Andrea Dovizioso will have to fight his own condition, however. The Italian banged his knee up badly in a crash during a private test at Misano. Dovizioso and his team had found an improvement to the front of the Desmosedici, which allowed the Italian to push a little bit harder. He did just that, and overstepped the limit at the end of the test, crashing in a low-speed corner. The crash itself was harmless, but the problem was that Dovizioso got his ankle caught when he hit the gravel. That led to him tweaking his knee, and bruising the top of his tibia. The injury was not serious, but it was painful, Dovizioso said. "The only limit is pain," he told us. MotoGP riders are made of stern stuff indeed.
Part bravery, part lunacy
That fortitude was on display in various places around the paddock at Silverstone. A badly hobbled Bradley Smith was present, come to appear at the Day of Champions. He was clearly still in pain, after another rider ran over his leg in a crash during practice for the Oschersleben 8 hours race just under a week ago. But he was also focused on his recovery, turning it into a contest, he told me. He was trying to beat the clock, working hard on rehabilitation to try to beat the estimates of doctors. Had you or I suffered an injury like that, we would be lying in a hospital bed with our injured leg up. Smith was pushing, despite being in obvious pain.
Smith's mixture of gritty determination and excessive optimism was shared by Jack Miller. The Australian cracked a couple of vertebrae in a crash in Austria, and had not raced in Brno. That decision had been taken jointly between Miller, his personal manager Aki Ajo, the Marc VDS team and HRC, with Miller wanting to race, the other three counseling against it.
At Silverstone, Miller had initially been passed fit, but HRC had insisted that the Marc VDS Racing rider have another MRI to check on the state of Miller's vertebrae. "This is not like a wrist injury," HRC's Livio Suppo told me. HRC had sought further medical advice from specialists, to try to make an assessment of the risks involved. They wanted to be sure that if Miller were to race, the risk of further injury – and in the case of a spinal injury, further damage could prove life-changing – was at an acceptable level.
In the end, Miller was approved to race by all concerned. The MRI scan showed sufficient progress, with Miller's cracked vertebrae healing well. That left Nicky Hayden out in the cold: the American was present at Silverstone, and had been told to bring his leathers and gear just in case he had to fill in for Miller. They turned out to be surplus to requirements, but Hayden's availability speaks of the American's closeness to Honda, still.
A sensible limit to courage
It is heartening to see teams and factories take injuries like Miller's so seriously. Riders will always want to race, unwilling to look beyond Sunday afternoon for consequences. Damaged vertebrae are different, however. A weakened vertebra is susceptible to much more severe damage, which in turn can cause spinal trauma. Most riders carry some form of permanent injury from crashing, such as bent fingers and hands, or arthritis and damage in wrist and ankle joints. Another crash on a damaged ankle may be serious, perhaps even career-ending. But a spinal trauma is a life-changing event, capable of leaving a rider in a wheelchair. There is always a risk of that kind of injury in motorcycle racing. But reducing that risk as much as possible must be a priority.
Speaking of reducing risk, Danilo Petrucci learned a hard lesson about the value of protective clothing on scooters and motorcycles a few days after Brno. The Italian had borrowed his father's brand new scooter – 1 month old, just a few hundred kilometers on the clock – to pop to the hairdressers and get his hair cut, in response to complaints his hair was getting way too long. As he rode round a roundabout, an old man on a cellphone entered the roundabout and hit him from behind, knocking him off the scooter.
Wearing only a t-shirt, shorts and flip flops, Petrucci suffered some nasty road rash. He had been forced to sleep on his side, the one without the massive scabs, he told us. But the damage to his skin had not been his main concern, he said. The thing he was most worried about was the damage to his father's scooter. His father, on the other hand, was far more concerned about his son.
Riders make rash decisions, and end up with road rash as punishment. Petrucci feared that when he pulled on his leathers, it would be painful. But racing a MotoGP bike is a heady drug, capable of numbing much pain. Petrucci will not be denied his biweekly fix.
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