The Superprestigio is supposed to be a bit of fun, a way to release a last burst of energy before the holidays start in earnest. They are not meant to be taken seriously, and the title of Superprestigio winner conveys little or nothing: no prize money, no FIM status, nothing more than a little bit of December glory in the depths of winter.
But of course, these are motorcycle racers we are dealing with here. There is no such thing as "racing for fun". Every opportunity to compete is grasped with both hands, their will to win battling with their fear of losing, pushing them to give their all at whatever they turn their hand to. The late Liverpool manager Bill Shankly summed up every professional athlete's attitude perfectly: "Football is not a matter of life and death... it's much more important than that." For football, substitute racing. Or cycling. Or even a game of Monopoly.
So it was no surprise to see the dejected look on Brad Baker's face after losing the Superfinal to Marc Márquez. It was an echo of the anger Márquez had felt at losing the first edition to Baker, though the Spaniard was a little better at hiding it, raging privately and out of sight of the press. Or most of them, anyway.
It's always about the tires
Baker's loss had come down to tire choice. He went with a new tire, hoping to exploit the grip. That proved to be the wrong choice, as the extra rubber gave the tire a slightly higher profile, which wouldn't work on the short track. New rubber had less grip than a tire which had already seen some heat cycles, Baker said, and he knew the race was lost after just a couple of laps of the 16-lap race. It was a small irony that Marc Márquez had gone with a used tire, having been beaten by Baker last year when the American had chosen a used tire and Márquez had gone with a fresh tire.
It was not just a matter of rubber, though. Set up had been key too. Baker believed that Márquez' Honda was running a little higher at the rear, with slightly softer suspension. That meant that when the Spaniard's bike squatted on corner entry and acceleration, the swing arm was a little straighter, and at a better angle to provide grip. The rear of Baker's Honda was a little lower, meaning the swing arm was at a greater angle when the suspension was compressing.
Why had Márquez gone with a higher bike? He had copied the idea from Brad Baker last year, and from watching US flat track racers. This is the most common way set up changes propagate through racing paddocks, as the riders and teams all copy each other, then figure out afterwards why and how something works.
Grasping at springs
Set up proved to be key for Toni Elias as well. The Spaniard had been deeply worried during the Superprestigio practice sessions at the Rufea short track, the dirt track facility which is home to the Márquez brothers. Elias had been horribly slow, over a second off the pace of the other riders, and unable to find a solution. He had been further hampered by the fact that he had to wait until the middle of the week for help with suspension settings, as well as by the weather.
Elias had found a solution at the very last moment, during the last training session. After finding himself sliding out wide every turn, he had used much softer springs on the suspension. That was in improvement, but it was far from perfect, so he had played around until he found a compromise. He only got a few laps in before the rain came, and had to hope it would work in the Sant Jordi indoor arena in Barcelona. It was good enough for him to put in impressive performances in the heats, go through to the Superfinal with ease, and get past Brad Baker to take second, even closing on Marc Márquez in the final laps.
Set up matters, in every discipline
That set up should be so important, even in a seemingly simple sport like flat track, is illustrative of the level in all branches of modern motorcycle racing. As athletes improve, careful attention to optimizing bike performance becomes increasingly important.
That Márquez should have a good bike comes as no surprise. He spent the best part of a week working on set up with his MotoGP crew at Rufea. His Honda CRF450 is immaculately prepared, with top of the range Öhlins suspension, a specially prepared engine and HRC electronics. During the heats, he was trying different engine mappings once he got a comfortable lead. That level of equipment is hard to match for others, but it also typifies Márquez' attention to detail. Like all great racers, he made sure that he had not overlooked anything, tweaking every possible area in search of an advantage.
That made it even harder for Brad Baker to beat him. Baker had started out with a stock CRF450 which he had modified himself, porting the engine and putting in a different cam and exhaust. The American reckoned his Honda made not far off the same power as that of Márquez, but the way it developed it was different. That is the advantage that made it easier for Márquez to exploit the available grip, though the decisive factor was tire choice, according to Baker.
Chances of a rematch?
Márquez' second win did mean that he and Baker are now level, with two victories apiece. That sets up a return match in 2017, which Baker was already eagerly promoting in the post-race press conference. The proffered glove was quickly snatched up by Márquez, making the return of the Superprestigio next year a racing certainty.
Will it come back? That will depend first and foremost on whether the event is profitable. The organizers are unlikely to divulge that kind of detail, but having attended all four editions of the Superprestigio so far, this appeared to be about as poorly attended as the first one, held in January 2014. A source close to the organization told me that the first race broke even, making it a worthwhile attempt to build a recurring event. In comparison to that first race, there was much more sponsorship on display, which would suggest that the event could be profitable, even with lower crowds.
What is really needed is more top-flight riders competing, both from AMA Pro Flat Track and from MotoGP. There were some outstanding Moto2 and Moto3 riders present – Joan Mir, especially, impressed with his speed, though he still has a lot to learn about consistency – but Márquez was the only MotoGP rider on the grid.
Where have all the MotoGP riders gone?
This was something which Márquez had clearly made note of. "Maybe after winning in MotoGP, the normal thing would be to go to the Maldives and relax, but I have a big passion for dirt track and off road, and for motorbikes," he quipped on Friday. So here he was, spending a week preparing for an evening of racing in circles, while others – most notably, Maverick Viñales, who had been posting pictures of himself with his girlfriend, MX racer Kiara Fontanesi, on a beach in the Maldives – were taking it easy.
Why weren't the others present? A lot of reasons. First, there were the riders recovering from injury. Bradley Smith is only just getting back to riding a motorcycle, after wrecking his ACL ligaments in a crash earlier in the year. Alex Rins was still recovering from cracked vertebrae suffered at Valencia. Sam Lowes is recovering from the massive smash at the Valencia test. Nicky Hayden had fully intended to race, but had injured a ligament in his knee in a training accident, and was deeply disappointed he could not compete in Barcelona.
Then there are the factories, who are not keen to see their million-dollar investments risking their necks in a meaningless race before Christmas, instead of getting on with preparing for the 2017 season, which is what they are being paid for. Marc Márquez is in the fortunate position of being able to dictate terms to HRC, but then again, he has won three of the four MotoGP championships he has competed in. Only a very select few are in a similar position.
Then there are those who have their own reasons for not competing. Andrea Dovizioso is a dedicated motocross lover, like so many MotoGP riders. (As an aside, I sometimes have the sneaking suspicion that many top MotoGP riders are only in the series because they couldn't quite make it in motocross when they were youngsters.) Jorge Lorenzo is a rider who trains alone, to minimize risk, relying on his own intensity to achieve the required level of effort. Italian riders such as Danilo Petrucci and Andrea Iannone are less inclined to participate in an event which they regard as a Spanish affair.
Valentino Rossi, or when is dirt track not about dirt track?
And of course there is Valentino Rossi. Rossi, it is well known, is a fervent flat track rider, who has even built his very own private facility for training. He even had a Harley-Davidson XR750 crated up and shipped to his home in Tavullia. So why does Rossi not compete at the Superprestigio? The elephant in the room is of course the fact that this is Marc Márquez' event, and it is unlikely that either man would want Rossi to be there. Márquez will not be chomping at the bit to invite Rossi, and Rossi will not want to be sanctioning an event so closely associated with his bitterest rival.
Leaving that aside, there are very good reasons why Rossi would not compete, even if he and Márquez were close friends. Rossi's dirt track ranch was designed for a single purpose: to help Rossi become a better MotoGP rider. It is at the ranch were Rossi works on his riding style, trying out adjustments to his technique which he believes will help him beat Márquez, Lorenzo and the rest on a MotoGP bike.
Brad Baker has ridden both the Rufea track, and at Rossi's MotoRanch, and was very clear about what the purpose of Rossi's facility was. "His track is totally different to any other track that you’ll find in the world really for a dirt track. It’s more of a road course with a dirt surface. Very technical, very demanding, both physically and mentally because it’s a track where you have to have a lot of memory of uphill, downhill, off-camber, many turns. It’s a two minute and five seconds, two minute and ten second lap times, so a lot of racetrack to remember for training. Obviously the surface is dirt but it’s a very special type of dirt, the dirt that really doesn’t have a lot of grip so it makes the track very difficult and very technical to be able to get the power to the ground. It makes you ride very disciplined. His track is very, very unique for training."
The bikes at the two facilities are different too. Márquez rides a bike with 17-inch front wheels and without a front brake. Rossi, and everyone else at the Ranch, rides a bike with a 19-inch front wheel and fitted with front brakes. Márquez is working on his aggression, on controlling a bike on the edge and bending it to his will. Rossi is working on finesse, on precision, on tricking the bike into thinking it is never out of control. Both styles work, as their respective championships prove.
Of course, Rossi may prefer to be relaxing on a beach somewhere, rather than pushing himself to the limit in the dirt. The Italian has already got his racing fix at the Monza Rally, a safer way to go as fast as possible without risking injury.
Márquez did seem a little more concerned with the whereabouts of Rossi's teammate, however. It is entirely possible that Márquez chose the Maldives where a rider might choose to relax completely at random. But MotoGP champions have such prodigious memories and such attention to detail that this would seem very unlikely. Choosing to name the location where Maverick Viñales just happens to be vacationing seems a little too precise to be a coincidence.
If Márquez was referring to Viñales, then it means he considers him to be a serious threat for the championship. Riders never waste ammunition on those they do not fear, and if this was indeed a barb, it seems aimed with great precision. Viñales was strong the first time out on the Yamaha, and reports from Yamaha's private test at Sepang indicate he was able to match the pace of Rossi. This could be the opening salvos of a psychological skirmish between the two young Spaniards. If it is, then we have a lot to look forward to in 2017.
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