Is there such a thing as momentum in sports? Athletes – that includes MotoGP racers, who are in peak physical condition and should be considered as such – believe strongly in momentum. Statisticians disagree. Momentum exists for as long as a team or an athlete keeps winning, or achieving success. Once they stop, then the momentum is gone. But there is never an explanation for why they lose, and why something tagged as momentum should so suddenly disappear.
Whatever statistics may say, if athletes believe momentum exists, then momentum matters. And if there was a moment when momentum matters, it is going into the three-race flyaways. After Sunday night, the MotoGP grid faces a brief break, and then three races in three weekends with long flights in between. It is the toughest part of the MotoGP schedule, and it helps to go into it with a strong mindset. A good result on Sunday will help a lot in that respect. If that is what momentum is, then momentum matters.
So who will take momentum with them from Aragon? The Motorland Aragon circuit does not appear to offer any one particular bike a clear advantage. Danilo Petrucci characterized it as a Honda track. The Honda riders all denied that, saying that although the layout allowed a rider to square the corner off, braking deep and late before firing it back out again, the acceleration problems which the Honda has suffered all through 2016 mean they lose on corner exit what they gain on corner entry.
Positives and negatives
The Yamaha riders are in much the same boat. There are the kind of fast, sweeping corners the Yamaha loves: from Turn 2 up to Turn 5, the fast roller coaster of Turns 10 and 11, the everlasting final corner of Turn 16 – officially split into two, though no rider ever regards it as such. Then there are the kinds of corners where the Yamaha has traditionally struggled, such as the bus stop of Turns 12, 13, 14, and 15, where the bikes exit in first gear and head off down the long back straight. Though the Yamaha still isn't as strong on the brakes as the Honda, it now has more grip and more drive out of such corners, and it does well for top speeds as well.
The Suzuki is in similar shape to the Yamaha, though the improvements to the 2016 bike make it much competitive than it was last year. That could make it very good indeed: last year Aleix Espargaro finished in sixth place, his best result of the season. This year, the bike has more power, more drive and a seamless gearbox. The one thing which could slow the Suzuki down might be the temperature, the bike still struggling with rear grip in the heat. The forecast at the moment is for 2pm to be hot, which will not help.
Then there's the Ducati. The bike is fast enough to destroy everyone out of the slow Turn 15 and on to the back straight, and fast enough to do the same out of the final corner and across the line. There are places where the bike struggles more, especially in fast changes of direction, the penalty the Ducati pays for the benefits of the wings.
But that may not be a problem. "Out of Turn 15 and into Turn 16, I guarantee that Marc [Márquez] will lose four tenths, and I will lose five tenths to Petrucci," Cal Crutchlow said. "That's to the Ducati rider with the worst aerodynamics because of his size. So you can imagine what we're going to lose to Dovizioso." Once behind the Ducatis, the other bikes struggle to get past in the corners. Even if they do, their advantage lasts only until the next straight.
Wings, stress, and arm pump
That advantage comes from the wings, of course, which help keep the front wheel down and allow the bike to accelerate harder. But that advantage comes at a price: the bike is harder to turn, and you need to hang on tighter to the bike as it hammers out of corners. That stress was causing the factory Ducati riders to get arm pump at some tracks, especially at Silverstone. The Pramac riders, being taller, had less of a problem.
"I think I'm one of the few riders that does not suffer with this kind of problem," Danilo Petrucci said. "Maybe because I'm taller compared to everyone. But I think the arm pump problem is especially a problem of when you are not so comfortable on the bike, maybe a strange set up. Because the arm pump problem is because you hold too much the handlebar. And when you are in acceleration, for sure you have to hold it, but I think with the position of the body on the bike, you can use other muscles more, bigger muscles. For sure if you can use your legs to move a little bit forward when you are in acceleration, you relax a little bit the arms and it's better. But it's very difficult."
It is a price worth paying, however. "The Barcelona test we tried without the wings, and it was much easier for changing direction," Scott Redding said. "But then I put the wings back on, and we could put a lot more power down in the straight to go forward. So have a faster bike but harder to ride? I think a lot of riders would say yes."
Eyes on the prize
The Pramac riders have another reason to be stressed. Ducati have told the team that they will be supplying one Pramac rider with a Desmosedici GP17 next year. The bike will go to the rider with the best results, with the points scoring starting at Brno. That decision had come about after a discussion between the riders and the team management. "We had an internal discussion between us," Scott Redding said, "because Danilo obviously had a broken hand at the beginning of the season and I had a lot of mechanical problems. So we decided to start again from Brno. Eight races and we can drop one of our worst results."
In an ideal world, Ducati would supply both riders with GP17s, but the Italian factory simply does not have the resources to do that. Jorge Lorenzo's signing has forced their hand, however: spending a rumored €25 million over two years means there is a lot of pressure on Ducati to win races, and preferably a championship. That means getting all the input they can, wherever they can get it. "I think whoever gets the factory bike, it's more for Ducati to have another bike on the track," Redding said. "To help them understand, because I think they are changing the bike a bit more for Lorenzo's style I guess. So they want to have another bike out there. It makes sense." It was worth it, though, from Redding's perspective. "You maybe have to work a bit more and try things for them, but in the end to have that chance to go with a factory bike - you have more of a chance to fight for the top five."
Nine from nine?
Will Ducati have to wait until 2017 to start winning again? With eight different winners in the last eight races, the question is who might be the ninth. The verdict of the MotoGP riders in the press conference was unanimous. "Dovizioso," Valentino Rossi opined, and Jorge Lorenzo, Dani Pedrosa, and Marc Márquez agreed. How realistic a possibility is that? The Ducati should be fast around Aragon, and Dovizioso is fit and hungry. But being fit and hungry is not enough.
Yet the reason there have been eight winners in eight races is why there is every chance of there being a ninth. If there was a common theme through all of the answers given in the press conference, by Rossi, Lorenzo, Pedrosa, and Márquez, it was that this year has been unpredictable. "It's very difficult to know where you can win, or where you will struggle more, especially this year with the tires," Rossi said. The Michelin tires and spec electronics have thrown everyone a curve ball. Just when you think you have got a handle on the series, something else unexpected happens.
Hayden helping the youngsters
Could the ninth winner even be Nicky Hayden? The American laughed off that suggestion on Thursday. Hayden is replacing Jack Miller at Aragon, the Australian's injured right hand still giving him problems, and needing some time to heal. Hayden was happy to be riding a MotoGP bike again, but he was not happy to be replacing someone like Miller, who he described as "a buddy".
This was not to be regarded as an attempt at a return to MotoGP, Hayden warned. "This isn’t a comeback or nothing like that, to be clear," the American said. "Superbike is my home now, my goals are there." He had almost replaced Miller at Silverstone, when the Australian had been in doubt due to a cracked vertebra. Miller's back had improved, but the bones in his hand had not, meaning it was better if he missed a race so that he would be completely fit for the three flyaway races.
How will Hayden fare? He at least has some history with the Michelin tires, though it was a very long time ago. He rode Michelins between 2003 and 2008, though the tires are likely to have changed very much in the intervening period. "I always liked Michelins," he said. "I like a little softer feel to be honest so I'm curious to see how I can get on with them." But the tires will have changed so much since he last used them that he expected to have to start almost from scratch.
Why did Marc VDS choose Hayden to replace Miller? In large part, to help provide input for the teams two young riders, team manager Michael Bartholemy told us. "For us, the biggest headache as a satellite team with two young riders is always this thing where you are sometimes a little bit unsure about your package," he said. "Because Jack is in first year with a factory bike, Tito is in his first year in MotoGP. So the comments from the riders are many times the same, but also sometimes you are a little bit, let's say, in a circle." Having an experienced rider on the bike meant having good feedback, and something useful for the team to make a comparison. "If we can learn something from this, this is the goal."
Binder on the verge of glory
While everything is open in the MotoGP class, Aragon could see Brad Binder wrap up the Moto3 title, and become the first South African to win a Grand Prix championship since Jon Ekerold in 1980. A second place finish would be enough to wrap up the title, regardless of what anyone does. For someone on the verge of clinching his first ever world title, Binder comes across as incredibly relaxed. Despite the obvious pressure on him, he doesn't seem concerned at all. Even his own family had been urging him to wrap up the championship at Aragon, saving them the expense and worry of attending the flyaways.
None of that seemed to touch Binder, however. "Whatever happens, I still have four more races after this one," he said. Having Aki Ajo behind him helped, as well as the team. The Red Bull KTM Ajo team was so used to winning that were very calm about the whole affair, keeping the atmosphere light and relaxed. His race at Aragon last year gave Binder a lot of hope. "I was second when Bastianini took me out on the last lap," he said. "I can do that again." We shall see if Sunday brings us the first champion of 2016, or whether we have to wait until the circus heads overseas.
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