And so the 2016 MotoGP season is nearly at an end. Though the major honors have been awarded, there are still the final few t's to cross and i's to dot. We have our three champions, Johann Zarco the last to wrap up the title in Moto2 at Sepang. Honda are hot favorites to win the constructors' championship, while Movistar Yamaha hold a narrow lead in the team championship. Cal Crutchlow has a commanding 17-point lead in the battle for top independent rider. Second place in both Moto2 and Moto3 is still up for grabs.
In reality, these don't matter all that much. Once the championship is settled, the riders on the grid race for pride. And given that we are talking about the best professional motorcycle racers in the world, there is an awful lot of pride at stake. So the battle at Valencia will be just as fierce as anything that has come before. If anything, it will be even more fierce, given that nobody has very much to lose.
They will need an extra dash of abandon at Valencia. The circuit is pushed up against a hillside, and encircled by grandstands, cramming a serpentine four kilometer track into a very tight space. Reaching the required Grand Prix length requires a lot of corners, and that drops the average speed. Valencia is the slowest circuit on the calendar, and with so many tight corners, passing spots are few and far between. Turn 1 is an obvious candidate, a hard-braking left turn at the end of a long straight. Turn 6, another sharp left hander after a short straight. And a final dive up the inside into Turn 14, after the long and glorious left at Turn 13.
Dark days last year
That was a pass that never happened last year. Jorge Lorenzo came to Valencia last year needing to win to become champion. Marc Márquez stalked Lorenzo for most of the race, but was rarely in a position to make an attack. He could have tried into that final corner, but the way the Yamaha was leaving the Honda for dead out of the corner and onto the front straight meant that even if he had got past, his lead would have lasted less than a hundred meters.
Márquez had one other option – mainly at Turn 6 – but he was holding off until the final laps, knowing he had one chance to try to make a break. The arrival of Dani Pedrosa wrecked that plan, the two Repsol Hondas getting tangled up and losing just enough ground to Lorenzo to make attacking impossible.
That outcome soured an already bitter atmosphere even further. The aftermath of Sepang left the 2015 finale feeling like the Cuban missile crisis. Two sides bitterly opposed, throwing accusations back and forth, the atmosphere as if the world were on the brink of war. A year on, and there is a world of difference. The events of last year may still simmer on in the background, but they rarely bubble up to the surface. Valence 2016 feels like a normal race. It is, to be honest, a relief to be back to normal.
The future is almost here
It helps that there is a lot to be distracted by. For many riders, this is their last race with their current teams. When they walk out of the garage on Sunday night, it will be to walk into another several doors along on Tuesday morning. Jorge Lorenzo moves from Movistar Yamaha to Ducati. Maverick Viñales leaves Suzuki to take Lorenzo's place at Yamaha. Andrea Iannone fills Viñales' seat at Suzuki, after being bumped from Ducati to make way for Lorenzo. Aleix Espargaro will head to Aprilia, Alvaro Bautista moves to Aspar Ducati, Pol Espargaro and Bradley Smith head over to join the brand new KTM MotoGP team. And a bevy of Moto2 riders move up to fill some of the gaps.
All that commotion adds a new dynamic to the paddock, and leaves everyone looking to the future with great enthusiasm. But it also fuels the grid with extra motivation, to say goodbye to their teams in the right way, to try to get a result to thank them for all of their hard work throughout the years, and for some, to prove to them that they made the wrong decision in letting them go in the first place. Everyone wants to win, or at least end up on the podium. But with 23 starters, not all of them can finish in the top three.
The energy drink family
For the Tech 3 riders, they are not just leaving their team, they are also leaving a major sponsor. There are many reasons to criticize the paddock's reliance energy drink sponsors, but the major brands treat their riders exceptionally well. When Bradley Smith badly injured his knee at an endurance race in Germany, for example, Monster Energy made sure there was someone with him, helped with medical advice, in some cases providing translation of complex medical documents to allow Smith to make decisions about how to proceed.
Such assistance is common. Some riders have a broad support network, and always have people around them to help when things go wrong. But other riders have little or no network, and so the major energy drink brands will have someone there to provide support, to get them the help they need, to smooth the way. When the money is rolling in, a company can afford to do that. A brand such as Monster does not indulge in paid advertising, relying instead on sponsoring big events to generate publicity, and enlisting athletes as brand ambassadors. The more committed they are to supporting their athletes, the more enthusiastically those athletes support and promote their energy drink brands.
Pol Espargaro spoke glowingly of the backing which Monster had given him. "The most sad thing is when I have to say goodbye to someone that helped me when I was nothing," the Spaniard said. "I was in 125 trying to be a champion. The brands that sponsored me at the beginning I appreciate me so much. They teach me a lot of things in these years together. You can imagine how sad it is leaving Monster after six years."
Playing it safe for the test?
Of course, the reason riders such as Espargaro and Smith are leaving is to take on better challenges in other teams. In one respect, this final race offers more risks than rewards, as a crash at the weekend could mean they miss out on valuable testing from Tuesday, and lose their first opportunity to climb aboard their new bikes for testing.
Does that mean they would be taking it easy, taking fewer risks this weekend? Bradley Smith was adamant it would make no difference. "Every time I get on a MotoGP bike, there's risk and there's danger," he told us. "It doesn't matter if a rider says, 'Oh, I just played it safe and took it easy,' we're all here to race. And every time we do a lap, we are taking a risk." Whether he arrived at the end of the straight going at 300 km/h and braked 100 meters before the corner, or arrived at 299 km/h and braked with 101 meters to, the difference in risk was practically zero.
The first test was important, Smith said, but it needed to be seen as part of a bigger picture. "Of course it's important what happens on Tuesday and Wednesday, but in the grand scheme of things, we've got nine days after that before we go to the first round in Qatar. So it doesn't really play on my mind too much, no. If that had been the case, I wouldn't have rode since then, and just turned up on Tuesday and got on the bike. But that's not what I'm here to do."
New tires, new opportunities
The risk of crashing at Valencia may be slightly reduced by the fact that Michelin have brought their 2017 front tire to the race track. The new front has a revised profile that provides more edge grip and more feel from the edge of the tire, and that should help reduce the propensity of the MotoGP riders to crash out. This was the tire the riders tested at Brno, and really liked. The new front is asymmetric to deal with Valencia's tight layout, where the bikes spend a lot of the time on the left of the tire, but the right handers are few and far between.
How does that affect the race? It may help the riders who rely on edge grip a little more. Jorge Lorenzo could be one such beneficiary, allowing him to feel what is happening with the edge of the tire a little better. His chances of finding a good set up should be strongest on Friday, when the weather is expected to be best. The sun is strong at Cheste, where the circuit is located, but ambient temperatures remain low. On Saturday and Sunday, cloud cover is set to expand, dropping track temperatures as well as air temperatures. If Lorenzo can get the bike right on Friday, he should be in with a shout in the race.
Lorenzo has a lot of reasons to want to win, to beat his teammate one more time before leaving Yamaha. And if there is a track where he can do just that, it is surely Valencia. Lorenzo has an outstanding record at the circuit, having won here twice in the last three years. It is a track that also suits the Yamaha, with some long corners where corner speed is key, and a track where precision is crucial.
Not a goat track
Despite it being a good track for Yamaha, it has not been a good track for Valentino Rossi. He has only been on the podium at the track four times in the last ten years. His last victory at the circuit came thirteen years ago, in 2003. He has had much bad luck here, including losing two championships, in 2015 and 2006.
Valencia has been a better track for the Hondas. A Repsol Honda has won at Valencia four times in the last seven races, Dani Pedrosa winning twice, and Marc Márquez and Casey Stoner picking up a win a piece. Pedrosa is back in action once again, fit enough to race after surgery on his collarbone. His injured foot had been more of a concern, but that too was strong enough for him to be racing at Valencia. The fact that it was his right foot, rather than his left, also made it easier to decide to come back.
But to win, Pedrosa would first have to beat his teammate, Marc Márquez. After two races where he has crashed out, including Phillip Island where he was leading the race at the time, Márquez wants to finish the season in style. He wants a result at Valencia, but he also wants to actually cross the line in one piece as well.
Bolt from the blue?
The dark horse at Valencia could well be the Suzukis. The tight nature of the track should play to the strengths of the GSX-RR, probably the easiest bike on the grid to get to turn. Cold temperatures should also help, the Suzuki providing plenty of drive grip when track temperatures are low. After a record-breaking season which saw nine different winners for the first time in Grand Prix history, it is not unthinkable to start penciling in Aleix Espargaro's name for victory on Sunday.
As much as he would love for that to happen, Espargaro was realistic about his chances. "I wish!" he exclaimed when asked if he would like to be the tenth winner. "I will try my best obviously. To win is not easy. It's very, very difficult." But he did not write the idea off completely. "Sincerely in the last three dry races we were quite close. Maybe closer than ever. In Japan just [four] seconds from Marc, in Australia from Cal and in Malaysia I also felt really good in the dry." Realistically, however, Espargaro knows that his only hope is for extraordinary circumstances. Though the Suzuki still has some way to go in the wet, it could benefit if conditions are unstable.
All eyes on the new boy
KTM will not be wanting conditions to be anything other than predictable. The Austrian manufacturer is set to make their racing return in MotoGP at Valencia. Mika Kallio is due to race as a wildcard this weekend, as a reward for all the hard work he has put in testing the KTM RC16 MotoGP machine. Interest in the bike is already high, a steady stream of journalists and photographers passing by the garage to photograph the bike. What results to expect from the bike is much harder to say.
The entire paddock is intrigued to see the level of performance of KTM's MotoGP bike, but assessing where it stands will be hard to say. If the bike is slow, we will not now whether the problem is due to the RC16, or due to Kallio. The Finnish rider has not raced in a year, having spent 2016 testing the KTM in preparation for next season. Lacking that racing edge may mean he is a little off the pace, or he may still be as quick as he used to be. A top ten finish might be a worthy objective, but a more likely result would be somewhere just inside the points. That in itself would be an achievement.
We will only be able to understand the real pace of the bike once Pol Espargaro and Bradley Smith get on the bike, and have a preseason of testing under their belt. At Qatar, we will have a better idea of how good the KTM RC16 is as a MotoGP bike. But it is an unmitigated pleasure just to see it on the grid.
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