Chasing down a championship lead can be both liberating and extremely stressful. On the one hand, your objective is simple: beat the rider who is leading the championship, and try to outscore them by as much as possible. On the other hand, you have to take more risk, as riding conservatively means you risk not scoring enough points to close the gap to the leader. Finding the balance between the two is always difficult.
Defending a championship lead is just stressful. The best way to defend it is to keep trying to win races, and make it as hard as possible for your rivals to catch you. But winning races means taking risks, and a crash can mean throwing away a big chunk of your lead in a single race. Riding conservatively is not necessarily an easier option: it is paradoxically harder to ride just off the pace than right on the pace, requiring more focus and concentration to manage the race. Giving away points every race can be like Chinese water torture, your rivals closing the gap with each drip. Tension rises every race, and containing it without bursting is extremely stressful.
The Motegi MotoGP race provided a perfect example of both of these situations. Valentino Rossi and Jorge Lorenzo came into the Japanese Grand Prix knowing that they had to win the race if they were to retain any hope of keeping the 2016 MotoGP title out of Marc Márquez' hands. The job was significantly easier for Rossi than for Lorenzo. Outscoring an opponent by 52 points in four races is easier than trying to make up a deficit of 66 points. Conversely, that put more pressure on Rossi: keeping an achievable target within reach makes winning paramount.
Going into Motegi, the calculations were simple. Valentino Rossi had to win the race, and hope for enough competition behind him to put at least three bikes between himself and Marc Márquez. Jorge Lorenzo had to win the race, and pray for a miracle, or discretely hope for a problem or DNF. (Riders never want another rider to crash, but they will take a mechanical for their rivals any time they can get it.) Marc Márquez had to keep Rossi and Lorenzo in sight, limit the damage, and try to make lifting the title at Phillip Island as easy as possible. As far as Márquez was concerned, winning the title at Motegi was impossible. Winning the race, on the other hand, was not.
Márquez turned out to be half right. Not only was he able to win the race at Motegi, but he was also able to lift the 2016 MotoGP title. The first part is all his own achievement. The second part, well he had a little help with that. But he had a hand in that too. When asked at the special championship press conference held after the main press conference, Márquez gave up the key to 2016, and the key to the outcome of the Motegi race. "The others made mistakes, but it's like last year," he said. "If nobody pushes me, I will not make a mistake. So this year, I push right on the limit, so the others make a mistake."
Márquez started applying pressure from the start. He made a strong start, but was beaten to the holeshot by Jorge Lorenzo, the Movistar Yamaha rider setting out his ambition from the off. Lorenzo pushed hard to make a break, opening the smallest of gaps to the chasing horde. Behind him, Marc Márquez and Valentino Rossi fought a fierce battle over second for a couple of laps, with Márquez coming out on top. With a firm grip on second, Márquez closed down Lorenzo and sliced underneath the Yamaha at Turn 9, holding his line tight enough to ensure he could defend the lead into Turn 10.
Upping the pressure
Márquez leading the race left Rossi in a tough position. He had his teammate between himself and Márquez, and his goal, he said after the race, was victory, nothing less. His problem was that while Lorenzo was fast, he wasn't fast enough to stay with Márquez. Ahead of him, the gap was opening to the Repsol Honda, and Rossi was stuck behind the high speed roadblock of Lorenzo. He had to get past his teammate, and then he had to close down Márquez.
Getting past Lorenzo was not easy. The Mallorcan had dithered over his front tire choice, eventually going with the medium, after a good feeling with it in FP4. He had preferred the soft, but the warmer conditions swayed his choice. It proved to be the wrong one. After the race, he complained of a lack of confidence in the front and a vibration from the tire. That prevented him from pushing as hard as he wanted.
Getting the rubber right
It is not the first time Lorenzo has complained of a vibration from the front tire, especially with harder compounds. The combination of the Yamaha M1, Jorge Lorenzo's high corner speed style, and the harder Michelins seems to create vibration at the front end. Where the fault lies in that matrix is hard to say. But the fact that neither Lorenzo nor Valentino Rossi have won a race on the Yamaha M1 since early June, when the Italian won at Barcelona, suggests there is an underlying problem with the Yamaha. In the first seven races, Yamaha was victorious five times. In the eight races since, they have not won once. Five podiums in eight races, but zero wins.
Yamaha's front end vulnerability would manifest itself with disastrous consequences once Valentino Rossi got past his teammate. With the gap to Márquez nearly a second, Rossi pushed on to chase Márquez down. A measure of how hard he was pushing was that he set his fastest sector time for the second sector on lap 7. Three corners later, the front end washed away, and Rossi's title challenge ended in the gravel. He remounted and rode the bike back to the pits, where his team looked at his bike. But Rossi had given up. "Today, I wasn't interested in second place," he told Italian media.
Rossi had no explanation for his crash. He had been checking the lap and sector times on his dash, and they were about the same as in previous laps. He was trying to catch Márquez, he said, but he had no intention of trying to pass him in one lap. The crash had happened without warning. He had used the same line, and the same speed as on previous laps, but the front was simply gone.
Finding the limit
The only explanation which Rossi could give was the front tire. The medium was a little too hard for the Yamaha, and he had been able to find the perfect setting with the bike. With that tire, he was always on the limit, and in such cases, the smallest mistake is punished mercilessly. The soft front was too soft, and therefore not an option.
The reason that Rossi had been on the limit with the medium front is because the pace of Márquez left him no choice. Rossi knew what he had to do, and he gave his all to try to do it. Rossi's error was small, but it was fatal to his title hopes. Killed by the combination of the knife edge Michelins and Yamaha's stagnant development of the M1 chassis.
One down, one to go. When Márquez saw 'ROSSI OUT' on his board, he knew it was time to push for the win. The pace he had shown in practice translated into the race, quickly opening a gap over Lorenzo. That, in turn, spelled trouble for the second Movistar Yamaha rider.
For behind Lorenzo, a chasing trio was closing. Ducati's Andrea Dovizioso was leading a brace of Suzukis, with Aleix Espargaro eventually ceding precedence to his teammate Maverick Viñales. The gap hovered around a second for seven laps, but with two thirds of the race gone, Lorenzo's pace began to falter. Dovizioso closed to within half a second, and then Lorenzo's front end folded as well.
The Italian had seen that Lorenzo was struggling. "I saw Lorenzo riding in a strange way," he said afterwards. But the crash was down to a mistake by the Spaniard. "He touched the white line with the front tire." That has been something of a characteristic of the Michelins this year. "You have to be very careful to avoid the white line," he said.
According to Dovizioso, the crashes of both Yamahas were down to the layout of the circuit and the need to push. "The characteristic of the tire is we have a lot of grip on the rear, but it is not easy to manage on the front," he said. With all of the hard braking at Motegi, it was easy to just slightly miss a braking point and enter a corner a couple of km/h faster than normal. "They didn't do anything very bad," Dovizioso said the Movistar Yamaha crashes, "but the limit is very close and it is difficult to feel when you go over the limit."
Holding it together
Lorenzo had fallen with five laps to go. When Márquez crossed the line and saw 'LORENZO OUT' on his pit board, he nearly lost his head. He had come to Motegi not expecting to win the title, telling reporters he wasn't even sure his team had brought the celebratory t-shirts, presuming that he would get his first real shot at reclaiming the title at Phillip Island. Seeing the championship there for the taking, he forgot where he was. "Honestly, when I saw Lorenzo was out I forgot everything. I missed a gear three, four, five times in the lap. I didn't know which circuit I was at!"
His confusion showed up in the lap times. From doing low 1'46s, he was suddenly lapping six, seven, eight tenths a lap slower. Eventually he recomposed himself, put his head down and focused on finishing the race. His gap to Dovizioso was big enough to allow him the luxury of confusion.
The thrill of victory
Márquez crossed the line with an explosive release of joy. In many ways, winning the title when he hadn't expected it made for a purer, more honest reaction. In most cases, riders arrive at a particular track with a good idea they will be champion when they leave. They have spent the weeks leading up to the race building up expectations, and confronting the emotions of the title. They have had time to plan and prepare celebrations, and run through the various situations in their minds.
So when they do finally cross the line, after the initial thrill of winning, the celebrations can seem a little bit forced. It all feels very contrived and controlled, a reenactment of what the riders believed they would feel, rather than the pure, unadulterated pleasure at winning. This is why, quite frankly, so many championship celebrations are so thoroughly awful. At best they are bland, at worst they are painfully awkward, and if we are lucky, they are at least mildly quirky.
When Marc Márquez finally crossed the line, he had only raw, undiluted joy. It was obvious in every fiber of his being, in every movement, every gesture. Being a professional motorcycle may be many fans' dream job, but the reality is it is a difficult, exhausting, slog. Hours of physical training every day, riding motocross, supermoto or flat track at the very limit, the constant nagging pain of injuries picked up in the inevitable crashes, the sheer mind-numbing tedium of international air travel, hanging around at airports, hanging around in aircraft, hanging around in hotels.
Yes, you get to ride the fastest motorcycles in the world, but only ever at breakneck speed with the constant knowledge that you are a millisecond away from serious injury. When you ask riders at this level if they are having fun, they usually hesitate, have to think, before trying to persuade themselves that they are. Being a MotoGP rider is physically damaging and mentally draining.
The reason riders put themselves through that torture is for the few, fleeting moments of release which come with winning. Valentino Rossi is most expressive on this front, speaking of the "taste of victory", words usually accompanied by an involuntary movement of his hands to his lips. It is a very visceral, physical thing, this taste. And it is at its purest when it comes fully earned, yet unexpected.
Valentino Rossi is famous for his celebrations, be they for wins or for championships. But my favorite Rossi celebration came at Welkom in 2004, after his first race on the Yamaha when he beat Max Biaggi on the factory Honda. He had not expected to win, so he parked the bike at the side of the track, got off and sat with his back against the armco, head down, his shoulders shaking. He would say later that he was laughing with joy inside his helmet. To us, it looked like he was crying with joy. No matter. It was joy. It was the reason why racers race. The sweet taste of victory.
Where did Márquez' championship victory come from? It came from the lessons he learned in 2015, from the title he threw away by crashing out of the early part of the season. It was the hardest lesson of his life, but it laid the basis for 2016. Márquez learned to take risks in practice, not in races, crashing just as often, but only when it didn't count. He learned to be patient, to surrender the battle to give himself a better chance of winning the war. He learned to pick his moments, to push when he had something to gain, to be more conservative when he had something to lose.
His patience had been tested from the start. The bike was not competitive at the start of the season, but he had told HRC's engineers to trust in him in the early part of the season, and he would trust in them for the second half. His trust was rewarded, Honda getting to grips with the spec electronics, and modifying swingarms and other parts to give him enough feeling to overcome the weaknesses of the RC213V.
There had been several key moments: switching to the large wings, which he tested after Brno and used from then on, which helped in acceleration. Electronics improvements, which HRC had brought around the same time. Márquez had learned a lot from losing to Valentino Rossi, about managing the front tire. "After Montmelo, I started to understand a little bit," he said. "I saw a few things behind Valentino. That was the first race I followed him for many laps, he knows the Michelins very well, and I saw a few things." Ironic, almost, that Rossi should be the mentor to the man he hates most.
School of hard knocks
The 2016 championship is testament to the transformation of Marc Márquez. In 2013 and 2014, Márquez proved to the world his incredible talent and ability. In 2015, he learned to lose, and that added the maturity which had been missing. In 2016, Marc Márquez became a very complete motorcycle racer, capable not just of winning races, but also of managing a championship.
That elevated him into an elite group, becoming the youngest rider to win three MotoGP titles, and five Grand Prix championships. He matched his teammate Dani Pedrosa's total for MotoGP wins with 29, and surpassed Mick Doohan for total Grand Prix wins with 55. He is still only 23 years and 242 days old.
They say the 2017 Honda RC213V has a much more user-friendly engine, which sacrifices nothing in horsepower. That should be enough to strike fear into the hearts of the competition. There could be plenty more wins and plenty more titles to add to his name. He is not yet done with the record books.
If Márquez earned his 2016 title – which he unquestionably did – he was helped in no small part by the failings of the Movistar Yamaha riders. Here, too, the roles were reversed: in 2015, Lorenzo and Rossi fought a season-long battle which came down to consistency, while Marc Márquez threw his championship chances away early. In 2016, Márquez plugged away at scoring points, while Rossi and Lorenzo found new ways to throw the championship away.
Valentino Rossi crashed at Austin, crashed at Assen, then crashed in Japan. Sure, he also had an engine blow on him – a consequence of trying to match the speed of the Ducatis and Hondas along Mugello's long front straight – but it was the three DNFs which cost him most dearly. Without them, he would be within a handful of points of Márquez, and we would be talking about how Yamaha had cost him the championship because of the engine blow up at Mugello. Instead, it is Rossi who threw this season away, starting in Austin. That had been his mistake, he told reporters, when he had tried to force his M1 to turn too tightly and hit a bump he knew was there. Assen had been a mistake with the tires, pushing too hard when there wasn't enough grip. And Motegi? By then it was really too late, and he was having to push beyond his comfort zone just to stay in with a chance.
When strength becomes weakness
Jorge Lorenzo, on the other hand, has simply been too erratic. Lorenzo depends so much on high corner speed that he needs tires that give him good feedback from the front and a good feeling on the edge. The 2016 Michelins have changed too much during the year for Lorenzo to exploit his millimeter-precise style. When the tires have been right, and the temperatures have been right within the operating window of the Michelins – one of the two biggest weaknesses of the French tires, along with a lack of feedback from the front – Lorenzo has been unbeatable. When the tires haven't been suited to the conditions, then Lorenzo hasn't been able to adapt his style enough to use the potential of the tires.
That has been most apparent in the wet. It took Lorenzo until Silverstone to truly get his head around the Michelin wet tires, a process which hard started in earnest at Brno. But by then, he had scored two shameful results at Assen and the Sachsenring, and then exacerbated the situation with confusion over tires at Brno. Add in a crash he caused in Argentina, and being taken out by Andrea Iannone at Barcelona, and Lorenzo had given up any chance of being competitive.
In 2017, Michelin are bringing a new front tire which the riders tested at Brno, and raved about. That should solve many of the problems both Rossi and Lorenzo complain about. There is hope for a competitive championship in 2017 yet.
What matters most
There is much more to write about Motegi than just the entwined fates of Marc Márquez, Valentino Rossi and Jorge Lorenzo. There is a solid second place from Andrea Dovizioso on the Ducati. Another superb podium from Maverick Viñales, and an excellent ride by Aleix Espargaro, both Suzuki riders showing just how much that bike has improved. There was Cal Crutchlow gambling on the hard front tire, and demonstrating that he is the best non-factory rider on the grid.
There are the Aprilias, both inside the top ten, and Alvaro Bautista showing that both he and the bike are really starting to become competitive. There is a ridiculously brave ride by Bradley Smith, who has no business being on a motorbike with his leg in the shape it's in. There is a solid ride by Mike Jones, who finished his first MotoGP race on one of the most difficult bikes on the grid, the Ducati GP14.2. Not forgetting Moto2 and Moto3.
All this deserves coverage, and that will come in the future. But today, we saw history being made, and that deserves to be at the center of attention. Marc Márquez became the 2016 MotoGP champion, clinching the title in the best way imaginable, at a race where he thought it was impossible. The Honda RC213V is still not the best bike on the grid, but it is no longer the ugly duckling with the vicious nature. Honda have turned a snarling, unpredictable monster into a wild beast that can be tamed. And if ever there were a rider to race to victory on the back of a bucking dragon, it is Marc Márquez.
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