Is there such a thing as an Alien? The provenance of the term is uncertain, though most people believe that it was coined by Colin Edwards in 2009, after he kept finishing in fifth place behind Valentino Rossi, Casey Stoner, Jorge Lorenzo, and Dani Pedrosa. Whatever he tried, he could not stay with them. "They are riding out of this world," he said.
The term has stuck. Since then, the term Alien has been applied to the top four riders, the only difference being that Marc Márquez has been swapped for Casey Stoner now that the Australian has retired. The reality is that since Jorge Lorenzo entered the class until the start of the 2016 season, the five MotoGP Aliens had accounted for all but two of the 143 MotoGP races held. The two non-Alien wins were by Andrea Dovizioso (Donington 2009) and Ben Spies (Assen 2011). Both of those races came in unusual conditions. The five Aliens dominated the podiums throughout that period as well.
2016 looks like becoming the year the Alien died. Or perhaps more realistically (and less dramatically) the year we had to readjust the concept of a MotoGP Alien. The season was going very much to plan up until Assen, when Jack Miller won an interrupted race in the driving rain. Then in Austria, Andrea Iannone finally did what everyone has been waiting for, won a race with a Ducati. Cal Crutchlow used a drying surface to his advantage to win at Brno, and then Maverick Viñales won at a dry but cold Silverstone. Questions were asked whether Maverick Viñales was the next Alien.
In Australia, Cal Crutchlow blew the concept wide open. The LCR Honda rider won his second race this year, at a dry but cold Phillip Island, joining a very small but elite group of British riders to have won two or more races during a single season. Barry Sheene, Phil Read, Mike Hailwood, John Surtees, Geoff Duke, Leslie Graham. And now Cal Crutchlow.
Most previous winners had a question mark attached to their victories. Jack Miller won in the pouring rain, when others were either being cautious or crashing out. Iannone's victory at Austria was because the Red Bull Ring is basically three drag strips connected by first gear corners and a long central section. Crutchlow's first win came when he gambled on the right tires, choosing the hard wets where others chose soft wets, and had to pit for fresh rubber.
Only Maverick Viñales was given the benefit of the doubt, though he was not quite welcomed aboard the spacecraft. The Suzuki rider had beaten all of the current crop of Aliens in the dry at Silverstone, with no extenuating circumstances. The remaining question mark was the fact that it was just a single win for Viñales, as it had been for all the other non-Aliens who had won. If Viñales won another race, MotoGP watchers agreed, then he would be granted Alien status.
The eagerness of youth
Enter Cal Crutchlow, who has just thrown a spanner into the works. At Phillip Island, Crutchlow as fast in the wet and the dry, and only a mistake in FP3 saw the LCR Honda rider having to pass through Q1 to get to Q2. He did that with ease, and ended up qualifying on the front row, where he started alongside firm favorite Marc Márquez. Márquez had been ripping up the Australian track, and was expected to dance off into the distance, now that he had wrapped up the championship and could afford to ride without the worry of the title.
Márquez looked like making good on his promise, taking over the lead from a hard charging Pol Espargaro, who had got the holeshot from the front row. Márquez quickly opened a gap, but he never really started to disappear, his lead stalling at just under the three second mark. By that time, Crutchlow had made his way into second, after a dismal start saw him drop down the order to fifth. Crutchlow then started closing the gap on Márquez, taking first two tenths, then four tenths out of the Spaniard.
Could he have caught Márquez? The question would become moot, as the Repsol Honda rider crashed out of the lead at Turn 4, the aptly named Honda Hairpin. He misjudged his braking point, braked too late, and then tried to turn the bike in too hard. The hard front tire cried enough, and Márquez ended up in the gravel, leaving Crutchlow leading the race.
Deja vu averted
It also left him terrified. Memories of 2014 ran through his mind, when he had crashed out of a certain second place finish at exactly the same corner, in very similar conditions. Both Márquez and Crutchlow had chosen the hard front tire, which worked when the track temperatures were above 30°C, but with the sun coming and going, it was hard to be sure that temperature would be sustained. In 2014, the ambient temperature dropped by some 10°C in the space of 20 minutes, dropping it below the working temperature of Bridgestone's first attempt at asymmetric front tires. Crutchlow was one of the victims at Turn 4, falling on the very last lap. "If Marc had crashed at Turn 6, I would have thought nothing of it," Crutchlow said after the race. Turn 4 brought back memories, however.
"Marc crashed lap nine or something, so I spent the rest of the race thinking, this is a disaster!" Crutchlow said. He took extra care braking into that corner every lap, fearful of making the same mistake as Márquez. The loss of Márquez made it more difficult to concentrate, Crutchlow said, because after the Repsol Honda crashed, "I didn't know what to to do. I had a target, and then I had nothing."
Crutchlow's fears were mostly self-inflicted, after he had chosen the hard front tire. It had been a conscious choice, he said, in search of an advantage over the rest of the grid. Once Márquez chose the same tire, and then crashed out on it, it created doubt in his mind. He had tried to work the front tire to keep heat in it, pushing hard when the sun disappeared and the track cooled, taking it a little easier when the sun came back out again and the track warmed again. He knew he had to push hard to maintain his pace, but he wasn't sure that would last all race.
Striking the fear of GOAT into him
The appearance of Valentino Rossi's name on his pit board did nothing to remove such doubts. "I thought, surely he couldn't have come up from fifteenth?" Crutchlow said after the race. After a dismal qualifying, when he had not had any feeling with either the wet tires or the slicks in the cold and the wet on Saturday, Rossi had rediscovered his confidence in the dry warm up.
That confidence had grown as the sun shone in the race. He had sliced his way to the front in the first couple of laps, but once he reached second place, he could not make an impact on Crutchlow. If anything, Crutchlow's lead kept on growing. Rossi tried to up his pace, but he made a mistake in Honda Corner, running wide and losing over a second in a single lap. At that point, the race was over. Crutchlow came home to take his second MotoGP victory.
I can't believe it's not Alien
Does that make Crutchlow one of MotoGP's Aliens? It seems more reasonable to reassess the entire concept. Crutchlow clearly felt vindicated after winning in dry conditions. "It's nice to win one in the wet and dry because people think you can only win in the rain when you win a wet race," Crutchlow said. But this was very much a race which Crutchlow had picked out at the start of the season. "I targeted a few races this year and I said I wanted to do a good job and be on the podium at Brno and Silverstone and I did. Somebody asked me last week what I thought about going to Phillip Island and I said I planned to come and win and I don't think that they believed me," he said.
Targeting races is nothing new – just last week, Marc Márquez spoke of his strategy for 2016, of picking the races he could win and ensuring he scored enough points in the others to give him a shot at the title. But the current crop of Aliens all have in common that they have won at a lot of different tracks. Márquez has victories at every MotoGP track except Austria. Rossi is only missing Austin, Aragon, and Austria from his list of victories. Lorenzo has won everywhere except Argentina, Austin, Sachsenring, and Sepang. Pedrosa has won at 11 of the 18 tracks MotoGP visits.
So winning two races at two tracks in the same year in the wet and the dry is an incredible achievement, and proof that Crutchlow is an incredibly talented rider. It also shows that the spec electronics and new tires have shaken up the field and opened up opportunities beyond the factory Yamaha and Honda teams. To put that in some kind of context, since the Sachsenring, Marc Márquez has scored 128 points, Valentino Rossi has scored 113 points, Jorge Lorenzo has scored 71 points, and Cal Crutchlow has scored 121 points. In other words, if the championship had started in Germany, Crutchlow would be in second place, just seven points behind Márquez.
Be careful what you ask for
You can understand why Cal Crutchlow's name was being bandied about as a replacement for Dani Pedrosa when rumors of his departure to the Movistar Yamaha team were being mooted around Le Mans. Yet Crutchlow would not fit well inside a factory team. Nor is it something he particularly aspires to. Crutchlow does not fit well inside the straitjacket of a factory set up, with the tight restrictions on what he is allowed to say. And he knows that the factories know this too.
"A factory bike isn't going to happen," he told reporters. "I'm happy with my team, but maybe I deserve more support from my factory. When I rode for Yamaha, I had good support from the factory and got offered a contract to stay again. We get good support, but I think they should be helping me more, and LCR as a team more." He also dropped a few hints at the tensions between the factory and satellite teams. "It's disappointing to win a race and not see the boss at the press conference, because if you were in another factory, they would be there. I know there are people there internally that really help me, and that there are people internally that don't like them for doing it."
Still crazy after all these years
If Crutchlow's second win brought the concept of an Alien into question, Valentino Rossi's rider confirmed that some riders really are a little bit more special. It has become almost commonplace for Rossi and his crew to find something special on Sunday morning, making him much more competitive during the race. At least part of that something special is just, well, the race. Rossi loves competition – he has to, or else he would not still be winning races at age 37 – and the challenge of beating tough rivals brings out the best of him.
That was obvious in his charge towards the front. The imperious manner in which he disposed of twelve of the fourteen riders who started ahead of him was breathtaking. No one was safe on the way into Honda Corner or MG, Rossi passing one or more riders there almost every lap. It took him five laps to get up to sixth, then another five to make his way to second, assisted by Márquez crashing out. Last year, Valentino Rossi had his weakest run of results in the final four races. He is looking much stronger in 2016.
Maverick Viñales also made his way forward through the field. The Suzuki rider had qualified down in thirteenth, paying the price for the silly crash he had in FP3 which prevented him from setting a fast lap while conditions allowed. Viñales was not as quick to make his way past the riders ahead, but it was obvious when he had a clear track ahead of him that he was quick. When he was in fifth and chasing his teammate Aleix Espargaro and the factory Ducati of Andrea Dovizioso, he was quicker than everyone except Crutchlow. If he had been able to get past Espargaro and Dovizioso quickly, he should have been able to catch Valentino Rossi.
I thought turbos were banned?
Getting past Dovizioso was not easy, however. Or rather, it was easy enough at Turn 2, or at Turn 4, or through Hayshed, or at MG. But getting far enough ahead at MG to prevent Dovizioso from gobbling him back again once the Italian lit the afterburners on the Ducati Desmosedici proved very difficult indeed.
Both Viñales and Espargaro suffered a fate which many riders have complained about throughout the season. Through tight sections, and especially through areas which rely on agility, it is possible to get past the Ducati. But inevitably, they pass you back as soon as they get a chance to open the throttle, and use their horsepower and acceleration advantage to blast their way back ahead. More agile bikes with less horsepower then find themselves being held up in the corners, while the Ducatis take advantage in the straights.
Once Viñales did get far enough ahead, he quickly gapped Dovizioso, benefiting also from a mistake made by Aleix Espargaro, who crashed out at Turn 4 after entering on a wider line. Viñales went on to claim his fourth podium of the year, including victory at Silverstone, and his second podium in two races. At Silverstone, Viñales had made it clear that he believed he had a chance to win at Phillip Island. On Sunday, he proved that was not idle talk, though he had wrecked any real chance of a win by his failure to qualify well.
Viñales' podium was significant in another way as well. It brought Suzuki's tally to one win and three third places, making a total of six concession points. That sixth concession point means that Suzuki will now lose their extra privileges as a new factory in MotoGP, aimed at helping factories without strong results catch up. From 2017, Suzuki will have just seven instead of nine engines per season, and their engine design will be frozen at the first race in Qatar. They will be limited to five days of private testing with the factory riders, instead of being limited only by the tire allocation.
The lack of testing, especially, could have a big effect on Suzuki. Next season, they have two new riders with Andrea Iannone and Alex Rins, and they will want to get them up to speed as quickly as possible. More private testing would have helped with that. Now, they will have to draw up a test plan to optimize the five days they have.
The loss of concessions may be a disadvantage for Suzuki (or more accurately, the loss of an advantage), but the Japanese factory will not shed a tear over it. The aim of racing in MotoGP is to prove you are successful as a manufacturer, have racing pedigree, and can build fast bikes. Suzuki have already demonstrated that. They would take podiums and wins over extra engines any time.
Will engines come into play next year for Suzuki? At Aragon, Viñales took his eighth engine, while Espargaro took his one race later, at Motegi. That would have put them over the limit this year, though Suzuki were still actively modifying the engine, having brought a power upgrade earlier in the season. Cutting back to seven engines for 2017 will be a challenge, but not an insurmountable one.
After getting the holeshot, Pol Espargaro slipped back down the order, losing grip and unable to stay with the front runners. He still finished fifth, however, comfortably ahead of Jorge Lorenzo on the factory Yamaha. Espargaro has had a very strong season so far, and has been very consistent. His trouble is that Cal Crutchlow has been much stronger, and is building up an insurmountable lead in the race for best independent rider.
A lack of heat means a lack of feel
While Valentino Rossi found confidence on Sunday, Jorge Lorenzo did not fare very well at all. The Movistar Yamaha rider started from twelfth on the grid, but could not stay ahead of either Rossi or Viñales when they came past. He did slowly pick his way forward, but he crossed the line in sixth, 20 seconds behind Crutchlow, and 16 seconds behind Rossi. It was a mediocre end to a dismal weekend.
The culprit? The temperature, and how colder temps affect the grip of the tires. When asked what his main problem was, Lorenzo did not mince his words. "Especially the rear tire," he said. "After what happens to Baz and Redding they brought a harder rear tire. And from Brno, they bring another rear tire that we had tried in Montmeló. It should have more drive. But instead of that we have even more problems."
There are conditions where he can still get the tires to work, he said. "In a track like Motegi, which has grippy tarmac, we are there fighting in the top three. We keep the same tires but as soon as we have much less grippy conditions like this weekend our Yamaha struggles and I struggle more than other Yamaha riders because of my riding. I am so smooth so I need more rear grip than the others, who prefer more spinning and less rear grip."
The problem is that because of his smooth style, he cannot get the temperature in the tires that other riders can, a problem he shares with Dani Pedrosa. "When there is grip on the rear I can ride like I want without being scared of crashing and make the difference," Lorenzo explained. "I make the difference when I pick up the bike. I am very good and have a good drive and be very, very quick." When he can't get the temperature into the tire, he struggles, and is slow.
Lorenzo said this problem was made worse by a lack of progress with the electronics. Honda and Suzuki had made big steps forward, while Yamaha were just standing still. He had problems in every area, he said. "I have blocking when shifting down. I have lack of confidence in the entry because the engine braking is not perfect. And I have problems with spinning on the exit of the corners, I cannot drive. With good grip, you cannot see so much these problems. When there is torque or very low grip the problems are three or four times."
That Lorenzo should struggle with tires should come as no surprise. 2016 looks like a repeat of 2014, when Bridgestone introduced the heat resistant layer into their rear tire. Those tires, combined with a reduction in the fuel allowed, left Lorenzo struggling for grip and for smoothness. It took a modification towards the middle of the season (or very hot conditions) for Lorenzo to start making progress. Once Bridgestone brought new tires with a softer edge, the Spaniard was competitive again.
Hoping for heat
With MotoGP heading to Sepang next, Lorenzo will be hoping for relief from his problems. The tropical heat should mean the tires won't be a problem, though it remains to be seen what effect the new surface will have on the tires. Looking forward to 2017, however, Lorenzo will have to hope that Michelin modify their tires to provide a little more edge grip, and a little more drive grip. That, more than anything the Ducati does, will be the key to Lorenzo's two years with the Italian factory.
If the racing at the front was far from scintillating, the crowd was treated to a proper ding dong battle for seventh place. At one point, seven riders were involved, positions being swapped nearly every lap. But Jack Miller forced Nicky Hayden down, and then Hector Barbera crashed on his own, to thin the group out to five. The battle for seventh went all the way down to the wire, Scott Redding eventually emerging victories.
Bradley Smith rode a brave and smart race to finish in eighth, staying out of the way until the final lap, still struggling to ride with his injured leg. Smith only got involved in the final laps, and took advantage of that scrap to finish behind Redding. Redding will be extra pleased with Smith, as the Tech 3 Yamaha rider finished between Redding and his Pramac Ducati teammate Danilo Petrucci. The two are engaged in a battle for the solitary GP17 which will be on offer to the team next year. Having Smith take a point from Petrucci will make Redding a happy man.
If the battle for seventh was exciting, the Moto2 race provided exactly the kind of breathtaking racing which Phillip Island serves up. In a fierce three-way battle, Tom Luthi eventually prevailed over Franco Morbidelli and Sandro Cortese. Luthi came out of that scrap very well, taking over second in the Moto2 championship and closing the gap to Johann Zarco to just 22 points. With both Alex Rins and Sam Lowes crashing out, Luthi is looking like the main challenger for the 2016 Moto2 title.
What is remarkable about Moto2 this year is just how inconsistent the title challengers have been. Sam Lowes has crashed out several times, though not always through his how fault. He crashed again at Phillip Island, but only because the bike he was riding was still not 100% after he had damaged it in a crash in warm up in the morning. Johann Zarco has won races and finished nowhere, and at Phillip Island he finished twelfth. Zarco is one of the very few riders who do not feel comfortable at Phillip Island, and he suffered accordingly.
Next week, Moto2 heads to Sepang, a track where the Frenchman won last year. But he held off a hard-charging Tom Luthi, who is in the best form of his life. Luthi has been the most consistent Moto2 rider in the second half of the championship, and Phillip Island was his first ever back-to-back win. If Zarco does not pick up his game, he could find himself heading to Valencia defending a rapidly dwindling lead.
Both Rins and Zarco are having a torrid second half of the season, the two riders fighting for the championship one week, nowhere the next. This will be a concern to their new teams for 2017, when they make their ascent to MotoGP. Zarco heads to Tech 3, where Guy Coulon and Hervé Poncharal have the task of managing Zarco's mind and bending it to MotoGP. Rins joins Suzuki, where he has the opportunity to learn in the shadow of Andrea Iannone. They will have to learn fast.
The cream always rises
If Moto2 was thrilling, Moto3 was terrifying. The race saw rider after rider crash out, before a huge crash involving John McPhee saw the race red-flagged. McPhee was later diagnosed with concussion and a broken thumb, and will be forced to miss Sepang. The race was restarted as a ten-lap sprint, one which 2016 champion Brad Binder ended up dominating. Andrea Locatelli cruised home to a strong second, while another mental battle was fought out for the final podium position. Aron Canet came out on top of that one, just ahead of Darryn Binder. Afterwards, Brad Binder seemed happier for his brother Daz' fourth place than for his win at Phillip Island.
And so on to Sepang. From the freezing cold of Phillip Island, to the broiling tropical heat of Malaysia, it is going to feel like moving from an excessively air conditioned office into the sweltering jungle heat. After two tough weekends in the cold, the paddock faces a brutal third weekend in the sauna that is Sepang.
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