If anyone was nostalgic for the days of 500cc two strokes, they got a glimpse of what the dark side of that era was like this weekend at Motegi. Rider after rider has been flung from his bike, spat into the air as a rear tire slipped then bit again, snapping the bike around, suspension compressing and then explosively decompressing, catapulting the rider into the sky. It has kept the medical helicopter busy: Eugene Laverty and Jorge Lorenzo have been flown to and fro for medical examination, with the second helicopter kept on standby having to take its place.
On Friday, the victims had been Eugene Laverty and Dani Pedrosa. Pedrosa had paid the heaviest price, snapping his right collarbone and flying home to Spain for another operation – his fourteenth, by all counts. Laverty had escaped relatively lightly, but was still forced to sit out the morning session on Saturday as a precaution. Jorge Lorenzo was even more fortunate. He was launched at Turn 3 at the end of FP3, and had to be flown to hospital for checks, before being allowed to return and take part in FP4. He feared he had damaged his left ankle, but checks revealed it was just bruising.
Fly me to the moon
What is causing all these highsides? Michelin boss Nicolas Goubert told the MotoGP.com website that the hard rear tire was taking a couple of laps to get up to optimum temperature, as despite the bright sunshine, ambient temperatures have been low. Cold tires were clearly the problem for Pedrosa, Laverty and Lorenzo, as all of them crashed on their first hot lap out of the pits.
It is reminiscent of the period around 2010, when cold weather and a conservative rear tire design from Bridgestone caused a spate of highsides throughout the season, including a massive one in which 250cc champion Hiroshi Aoyama fractured several vertebrae at Silverstone, and of course the most famous of them all, Valentino Rossi's Mugello highside in which he broke his leg after being flicked off at the Biondetti chicane.
The big difference, of course, is that Bridgestone was plagued with cold tire highsides all throughout 2010 (and parts of 2009 and 2011), while Motegi is the first time there is an obvious problem with cold rear tires for Michelin. The French tire maker has had a few problems on their return to MotoGP, but fortunately for the sport, they haven't often erred in the direction of cold tire highsides. So far, Motegi has been an anomaly.
One for the record books
Once the tires are up to temperature, they are capable of setting a fierce pace. In both FP3 and FP4, the quickest times were under the race lap record. And come qualifying, Valentino Rossi got within two tenths of Jorge Lorenzo's qualifying record to take pole. It was the 64th pole position of his career, drawing him level (again) with Jorge Lorenzo and Marc Márquez. Throughout this year, the three of them have been swapping places in the all time pole records.
It would be wrong to claim that Rossi, Lorenzo, and Márquez are joint record holders, however. Perhaps since the modern era – defined as beginning in 1976, when regulations and records began to be kept more rigorously – but MotoGP statistics guru Dr. Martin Raines believes that at least one, and probably more riders have more than 64 career pole positions. He believes that Giacomo Agostini probably has more than 100 poles, but actually chasing down confirmation of that is difficult. Finding records of qualifying from the 1960s is difficult, and very early on in the Grand Prix era there was no such thing as pole position. When races started six or eight abreast, riders lined up in a straight line, pole didn't mean much.
So how did Rossi end up on pole? Strategy, and a little bit of luck. Rossi had exited on his second run but found himself entangled with Marc Márquez. He slowed down after Márquez made a mistake in front of him, not wanting to give the Spaniard the advantage. When Maverick Viñales came by, Rossi saw his chance, latching on to the tail of the Suzuki rider, and using him as a target to secure pole. "At this moment you have to make a decision and be lucky," Rossi told the press conference. "I was thinking that Marc already made the pole position and I was fifth or sixth, so I had to push. In the end it was the right choice because I had a good help from him and it was a good lap."
That Rossi should use Viñales as a target is nothing new. The two appear to have an unspoken pact, as they have paired off during qualifying many times this year. At Motegi, it was Viñales following Rossi on the first run, with Rossi only slotting in behind Viñales after he had been caught up with Márquez. Collaboration? It could be argued that it has been Viñales doing the following, waiting until Rossi leaves pit lane and then following him. Rossi seems happy to let that happen, though that is not the case when other riders sit in behind him. We shall see how this develops next year, when the two men are teammates.
The only rider capable of threatening Rossi's pole was Marc Márquez. The Repsol Honda rider was the first to set a time, on a blistering lap well beyond the reach of most riders on their first runs. After a strange pit stop in which he swapped bikes, instead of just swapping tires, Márquez tried to push to improve. On each of his three laps, he set fastest times in the first sector, but made mistakes as the laps went on.
Accustomed to yellow
The mistake on his last lap may not have been his own fault, Márquez claiming he had pulled up when he saw the yellow flags from Cal Crutchlow's crash. He did not want a repeat of Silverstone, he told the press conference. Pushing too hard while yellow flags were waving is something he has been warned of previously, after the incident at Silverstone in 2013, and so he backed off.
Valentino Rossi and Maverick Viñales, who passed the waved yellows ahead of Márquez, had not slowed down. "I saw one bike out," Rossi said, "and it was not on the line, so I continued to push." Márquez' previous punishments may have contributed to a different approach. The rules say that riders "must slow down and be prepared to stop." If they do not, their lap times may be canceled.
Race Direction must have felt there was no cause for punishment, as laps for neither Rossi nor Viñales were canceled. Not that it would have made any difference: the lap where the pair passed Crutchlow's crashed bike was Rossi second fastest, and Viñales had already posted a lap good enough for seventh.
A potent brew
Qualifying left us with a fascinating grid. Jorge Lorenzo joins Rossi and Márquez on the front row, a remarkable performance after his ballistic highside in the morning. Lorenzo was still in pain, but the heady mixture of adrenaline and painkillers – the motorcycle racer's cocktail of choice – was enough to dull the pain for Lorenzo to put the Yamaha into third.
Behind this season's main protagonists sit Andrea Dovizioso, Cal Crutchlow and Aleix Espargaro. All three have been surprisingly strong this weekend, with both Dovizioso and Crutchlow looking capable of a podium. Crutchlow was so determined to get on the front row that he pushed just that little bit too far on his second run. It ended with the LCR Honda rider in the gravel, and yellow flags being waved behind.
Looking at the timesheets for race pace offers the mouthwatering prospect of a very close race. FP4 ended with the top five within two tenths of a second, as did FP3, though the names were different. Marc Márquez seems to have the upper hand, lapping repeatedly in the low 1'45s during both FP3 and FP4. But Jorge Lorenzo, Valentino Rossi, Andrea Dovizioso, Cal Crutchlow, and even Aleix Espargaro are not far behind, all lapping in the mid to high 1'45s, and all with a few laps in the low 1'45s.
Toughing it out
Endurance could end up being an issue. Valentino Rossi complained of being sick, finding it hard to breathe when he pushed hard. Yet the runs he was doing during practice were just as long (seven to eight laps) as anyone else on the grid. But 24 laps of Motegi is physically very tough, because of all the hard braking zones. When Rossi got off the bike at the end of the race last year, he looked pale, drawn, and as tired as I have ever seen him after a race.
Are Rossi's warnings of ill health a spot of disinformation, or is he really under the weather? There is every reason to believe he is genuinely ill. But Sundays always have a remarkably stimulating effect on the Italian. He has always been able to reach deep within himself on race day. There is no reason to believe this Sunday will be any different. The question is, how much energy will that leave him for the rest of the flyaways?
Jorge Lorenzo faces a similar ordeal. Painkillers and adrenaline will help get him through, but he will wake on Sunday morning very stiff and sore. Lorenzo will have his sights set on Rossi, however, the intra-team battle for second in the championship still very much alive. Lorenzo needs to gain points at every race, and cannot afford a moment of weakness at Motegi.
Out of the shadows
The tribulations of the Movistar Yamaha team may open a window of opportunity for the others behind. Andrea Dovizioso will be particularly dangerous on the Ducati Desmosedici. All weekend long, Dovizioso has been destroying everyone who gets in his way with the Ducati's horsepower out of corners. If the Italian can get a good start, he is going to be impossible to pass, and impossible to stay ahead of should anyone actually manage to get by. If ever there were a time to take a punt on a ninth winner, this is probably it.
From the front of the field to the back. Australian Mike Jones was drafted in at the last minute to replace Hector Barbera at Avintia Ducati, after Barbera had been promoted to the factory squad. With no experience of a MotoGP bike – 270 horsepower, Michelin slicks, carbon brakes, a chassis as stiff as an iron rod – Jones has gone quietly about his business, getting quicker every time he left the pits. He finished FP1 7.7 seconds behind the fastest man. In FP2 he cut the gap to 5.8 seconds. On Saturday morning, the gap was just over 4 seconds, and then 3.4 seconds at the end of FP4. He ended qualifying ahead of Hiroshi Aoyama, in for the injured Dani Pedrosa.
It is easy to fail in MotoGP. The process of adapting to such alien machines is not easy, and requires ability, intelligence, and courage. Jones has shown himself possessed of all three, and capable of making quiet progress. There is real potential there, which also reflects well on the Australian Superbike championship. There are still fast Australians, but they need to get to Europe if they are to secure a world championship ride.
In Moto2, the momentum seems to have swung back towards Johann Zarco, thanks in no small part to Alex Rins' crash on Friday. The Spaniard is suffering badly from the aftermath of that get off, and is struggling for speed. Zarco, on the other hand, has found his feet once again, and starts from pole. The Frenchman leads by a single point. That will almost certainly be more by Sunday night.
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