Weird is still the new normal in MotoGP, though after Qatar, we appear to be entering the second half of the acid trip, the part where the hallucinations stop being overwhelming and start to take on a strange kind of internal logic once you learn to embrace the weirdness. You can sort of understand why motorcycling's premier class is throwing up the kind of bizarre surprises that it does, and the truths you held to be self-evident still have some roots in reality, though they are much, much shallower than before.
The Termas De Rio Hondo track remains one of the jewels in the crown of motorcycle racing, albeit one which could use a bit of a polish. The track is little used, which often leaves it dirty, while also becoming rather bumpy. Yet the layout is still glorious, and perfectly suited to the cut-and-thrust of two-wheeled racing, each overtaking point lovingly crafted to allow the chance to counter if passed. Layouts like that help create great racing, which is what we got in part. But the blemishes threw up anomalies, causing riders to crash out and the racing to falter.
There was still a spectacle to admire, in all three races. The day started well, with Moto3, though a break in the field cut the battle for the lead down to a group of five, with a deserving winner at the end. The Moto2 race threatened to turn into a snoozer, but the field tightened as the laps ticked off, creating last-lap drama that rendered the race memorable. And the final act was worth the wait, packed with drama and surprise.
Meet the new boss
The winner, though, hardly came as a surprise. Since his switch to the Movistar Yamaha team, Maverick Viñales has now left each MotoGP event he has participated in at the top of the timesheets. He was fastest in all four winter tests, from Valencia to Qatar, and now he has won both the opening races. With victory in Argentina, Viñales became the first rider to win the first two races since Marc Márquez in 2014, the first to do so after switching to a new team since Kenny Roberts Jr moved to Suzuki in 1999, and the first rider to do so for Yamaha since Wayne Rainey in 1990. That last statistic is particularly surprising, given that neither Valentino Rossi nor Jorge Lorenzo managed it. And neither Rossi nor Lorenzo were ever considered a slouch on the Yamaha.
A Viñales victory didn't look likely at the start, however. Marc Márquez took off from pole like a scalded cat, and quickly opened a convincing lead. His lead would not last long, however: while braking for Turn 2, and as he tipped it in to the flowing left hander, Márquez washed the front out and crashed out of the race. He was furious, absolutely livid, either with himself or with the bike.
The obvious culprit to blame for the crash was Márquez' blistering pace at the start. It was an argument he rejected. His two-second lead after a lap and a half had surprised him for one reason in particular: "I was not extremely fast," Márquez said. "I was riding in 1'40.0-1'39.8. That was the rhythm. Normally we go out and we already stay there. I was not riding '39.5-'39.0. So it surprised me, but then after three-four laps the other also come to 39.8-40 low. That was the rhythm of the race. I was leading by two-seconds and people can think, 'he was pushing too much'. But I was not pushing a lot. I was riding on the good lap times."
A glance at the lap times confirms Márquez' statements. On lap 3, the lap before he crashed out, the Repsol Honda rider did a 1'39.848, while Maverick Viñales, who had just got past Cal Crutchlow, set a 1'39.919. The lap after he crashed, Viñales, Crutchlow, and Rossi all did a 1'40.1, then Viñales followed that up with a 1'40.028, a 1'39.895, a 1'39.795, and a 1'39.700. Márquez was riding at the same pace as the trio that went on to fill the podium.
Where was the difference which explains Márquez' huge lead at the start? Blame Cal Crutchlow. The LCR Honda grabbed second place off the line, but knew that the issues he has with the front end were particularly difficult at the start of the race, with a full tank of fuel. "It was critical, no doubt about that," Crutchlow said. "I let Marc go at the start of the race, because with a full tank, I felt it was even worse. So I said, OK, just let him go." Once Viñales got past Crutchlow, he was no longer being held up, and could push at the same pace as Márquez. And a lap or two later, Crutchlow was lapping in the same times as Márquez had been.
Explaining the crash
Why did Márquez crash? He put it down to his own mistake, though he still couldn't understand the cause. "Honestly I don’t know because the crash was really strange. I was just 25-degrees banking. I was completely straight on that brake point. For some reason maybe the tire was not ready, but I was feeling really good with the bike." With Dani Pedrosa also going down in almost the same place, it seems likely to be more than just a simple mistake.
Márquez hinted at the root cause when he explained about using the hard front tire. "In the end we take the risk. We put the hard front tire for try to brake well, try to have stability," he said. In Qatar, they had used the medium front, and he had not been able to attack as the front had been too soft. "Here we plan to take the risk. But in the end is no excuses, it was my mistake and I must learn about this and try to improve for the future. The positive thing is that with all the problems we have we are there fighting for the victories."
In reality, it is a combination of factors. The carcass of the Michelin is not really stiff enough for the heavy braking the Hondas do, which forces them to choose a harder compound. The harder compound is usually also a little stiffer, but it is also harder to get heat into and quicker to cool. Racing the hard front means taking more risk with grip for a bit more stability.
Though it is tempting to do so, the blame can't be pinned solely on Michelin. After all, the winning bike used Michelin's medium front, and had no problems at all with either braking or grip. The design of the Honda forces the riders to seek as much performance as possible from braking, as they are still lacking in acceleration. It is a familiar refrain, yet it remains true.
While the Honda RC213V still lacks acceleration, Honda has consistently moved to strengthen its strongest point. The bike is a beast on the brakes, and can be pivoted around its front end to exploit any sign of weakness from others on corner entry. To achieve that, HRC have made the front of the bike incredibly stiff to handle braking loads, and sacrificed stability in favor of agility. Over the bumps at the Termas De Rio Hondo circuit in Argentina, both those traits worked against the Honda, making riding fast a particularly risky business.
The lack of stability over the bumps was plainly visible. Watching Márquez, and especially Dani Pedrosa, fight a bucking, weaving Honda reminded me of my own biking days in the early 1980s. As a young man, I had a Suzuki GT380, a bike built at a time when "rubber band" was considered an appropriate stiffness for a motorcycle frame. Fun was to be had hitting bumps while leaned over, which would send the bike into a pogoing frenzy to match the punks from the era the bike had been designed.
When a 2017 racing motorcycle is drawing comparisons with late 1970s road bikes, something may be considered to have gone awry.
The Happy Honda
And yet a 2017 Honda RC213V ended up on the podium, albeit on the bottom step. There are a number of factors at play here too. Firstly, Cal Crutchlow was coming off a string of DNFs, and had not finished a race since his win at Phillip Island last year. Crutchlow was a little more inclined to settle for third, rather than pushing above and beyond in pursuit of a better result. Secondly, Crutchlow is also heavier than both Márquez and Pedrosa, and this extra weight may help to settle the Honda a little. Pedrosa, in particular, looked like he was being tossed around over the bumps like a cork in a storm.
Crutchlow described his sensations with his usual color. "The Honda at the moment is really difficult to ride. Physically, the last five laps were really demanding, and I was not really pushing. But the thing is shaking all over the place, snapping in the braking zone, many things that you have to manage over the race, as well as the situation I had which I needed to manage to finish."
The LCR Honda rider was perhaps unnecessarily coy about "the situation" which he needed to manage, referring only to a warning light which kept lighting on his dash, and which he had to respond to by managing the throttle.
There are two possible explanations for Crutchlow's predicament: it was either an issue with fuel consumption, or with engine overheating. Team boss Lucio Cecchinello hinted that it was fuel, and that was backed up by Crutchlow's own explanation. "We have to look at it for Texas and start to make a plan," he said. "It's probably likely to reappear, to be honest, but I hope we're able to fix it a little bit more soon."
The two Repsol Hondas were not the only factory bikes to fail to finish the race, however. Here is where the weirdness starts: of the twelve factory bikes which started the race, only five crossed the line at the finish. Only four finished in the points, the two Yamahas taking a combined 45 points at the top, the two KTMs taking a combined 3 points at the bottom, and making history for the Austrian factory in the process. Andrea Iannone was the fifth factory rider to finish, but he ended up out of the race, after being handed a ride through penalty for a jump start.
What happened to the rest of the factory riders? Jorge Lorenzo crashed out on the first lap, after coming together with Andrea Iannone. It was a racing incident, Lorenzo cutting inside early, then finding his front wheel drifting outside just as Iannone was cutting his Suzuki towards the apex. Lorenzo's front wheel touched Iannone's back wheel, and the factory Ducati rider was off, and deeply frustrated.
Down, but not out
It wasn't the cause of the crash Lorenzo was frustrated about, but rather the loss of track time. After a miserable start at Qatar, he and his crew had something of a breakthrough in Argentina, when Lorenzo went back to the raised seat he had originally rejected when he first tested the bike in Valencia. What he needed most of all was more time on the bike, to keep testing it, he said. "I needed more than ever to find the kilometers and the laps to keep the improvement we made during the weekend with the position of the bike, with the way of riding using more the rear brake to stop the bike. And in the warm up lap I felt very very good."
Now, he faced a long layoff from riding. "A bad moment, because still ten, twelve days before I can get on the bike again, and I would like to go tomorrow. It's difficult, but at least I'm not injured, and we found a good way to be more competitive in the future. Every time I ride differently, more like you have to ride the Ducati, using the rear brake to stop, I improve so much in the braking. "
Andrea Dovizioso suffered similar bad luck. For the second year in succession, the Italian was skittled by another rider in Argentina, this time by Aleix Espargaro (yet another rider who crashed). Dovizioso did not blame Espargaro, however. The factory Ducati man put the blame squarely on the shoulders of Danilo Petrucci, the Pramac rider behind whom Dovizioso and Espargaro found themselves stuck.
"When I was behind Danilo and he finished completely the rear tire he was riding in a bad way," Dovizioso complained." He stopped a lot of riders. He rode in a strange way. I think it was too much. Everybody tries to use his [own] style and this is normal, this is good. But in the way he use it, it was very bad. I tried to overtake him on the inside and he brake late and close the door. Like this it’s very bad. You don’t give the possibility to do something because you can’t brake like him. He’s heavier and he’s able to brake harder. This is not fair. This is not over the limit but this is not fair."
The crash had been caused because he had been forced to miss Petrucci as they braked for Turn 5, Dovizioso said. That had caused Espargaro to tighten his line, and in doing so, he lost the front end and took both himself and Dovizioso out of the race. True gentleman that he is, Espargaro was immediately full of remorse, rushing over to Dovizioso to check on him and apologize profusely.
Friday at fault
The real cause of Lorenzo's crash, and to a certain extent Dovizioso's too, was their qualifying position. If the two Ducatis hadn't performed so poorly on Friday, and missed out on the top ten, they wouldn't have found themselves stuck in Q1, trying to make their way through to Q2 and a shot at the front of the grid. Instead, Lorenzo found himself heading into Turn 1 amidst a pack of riders, with nary an inch to spare. The smallest error of judgment proved costly, and saw him crash.
Dovizioso, for his part, had the pace to be battling for fourth, but had a lot of riders to get past to do so thanks to his poor qualifying. The more riders ahead of you, the greater the risk in trying to get past them, and Dovizioso ended up paying the price.
Alex Rins was the last factory rider to crash out, losing the front of his Suzuki and falling heavily on his already damaged right ankle. Though he tried to remount, the pain was too great to continue, and he pulled into the pits. Sam Lowes also pulled into the pits, the Aprilia RS-GP developing gearbox problems, and being forced to abandon.
Aliens, young and old
While others struggle, the factory Yamahas appear to be leading a charmed life. Viñales' second win in two races – a 100% record on a factory Yamaha – confirms his ascendancy to Alien status, any question marks about his talent now completely removed. He had won his first race in Qatar by being patient, biding his time and working his way forward. He had won his second race by taking the opportunity handed to him and running with it. There is a lot more to come from Viñales.
A lot has already come from Valentino Rossi. An awful lot, in fact, second place in Argentina making it a grand total of 223 podiums from 350 Grand Prix starts. Rossi continues to break records, and most remarkable of all, he continues to be competitive, showing the hunger and ambition to do whatever it takes to keep grabbing podiums and keeping himself in the championship hunt.
It certainly hadn't looked that way on Friday, however, nor at any point during winter testing. "The preseason for me was a disaster," Rossi said after the race. "I was very sad. Difficult. But the important thing is just the Sunday afternoon when you cross the line." Rossi has learned over the years that he has to keep the faith, keep working until he finds a solution. "In my long career I learn that you have always to be concentrate and never, never give up, that a lot of things can happen. The race in Qatar gave to me a good feeling, a good vibe because I started to know better the bike and I know that also if I suffer I can be competitive on Sunday."
What he and his team had found was some improvement in braking. "During this weekend I was always struggling during the braking but we improved the balance on Sunday. Today in braking I was very strong, especially after the back straight. Also great work from Yamaha because it looks like that this year our engine is more competitive, and we suffer less in the straight. We have always a good driveability but also we have a good top speed."
Over the hill is far away
Can Rossi compete with his young teammate? On the face of it, it looks like Viñales has the upper hand. But perhaps if Michelin bring the new stiffer front tire, which will help Rossi in braking a little more, and if Yamaha can alter the bike a fraction to help him in corner entry, and his team can keep finding the right balance for the bike on Sunday, then who knows?
Ten, fifteen years ago, whenever Rossi lined up on the grid, he started the race as favorite. He may no longer be favorite now, but you can still never write him off or count him out. The talk over the winter that Rossi might be past it, and no longer capable of competing has evaporated. One day, Rossi will indeed struggle to compete, and see the young guns disappearing into the distance. One day, Rossi will indeed be past it. But we, fans and observers of the sport, will only ever recognize that moment in hindsight, looking back.
The Flying Frenchman, Part Deux
Argentina proved there was much to look forward to as well. After crashing out while leading the race in Qatar, Johann Zarco confirmed his status as exceptionally talented, by coming through the field from fourteenth on the grid to finish fifth, and have a reasonable shot at fourth. The Frenchman was a joy to watch, fearlessly attacking established riders, striking back immediately when passed himself, and putting the Monster Tech 3 Yamaha M1 wherever he wanted on the track.
What surprised was seeing he maintained his pace all the way to the end. Zarco was lighting up the rear tire of his Yamaha on corner exit, using it to cut back underneath other riders and make passes which looked almost impossible. Yet his pace only dropped off in the last couple of laps, once fifth place had been secured.
Zarco identified corner exit as a distinct problem, and something he and his team were trying to work on. "My weak point is I think the traction in the exit of the corner. I can be very good into the corner, in corner speed, on the brake, but I'm losing too much time on the gas," he said. The hard rear he had used lasted well, and was the tire he preferred, and the fact that he had smoke pouring off of it as he got on the gas did not matter to him. "The target was just to fight and follow the others, so smoke or not, I wanted just to push."
Slaying giants the Aspar way
Zarco finished behind Alvaro Bautista, once again deeply impressive on the Aspar Ducati, and ahead of his teammate Jonas Folger. Bautista is riding with enormous maturity and concentration, managing his tires to perfection and capable of racking up results. After a crash in Qatar, Bautista wanted to make sure he brought points home for his team. He did that, and much more.
It was a good weekend for the Aspar team, with Bautista's fourth place coming on top of Karel Abraham's front row start from qualifying. Abraham himself came home in tenth, losing out in a fierce battle with Scott Redding and Jack Miller. A front row, fourth, and both riders in the top ten is a very good result for the MotoGP grid's most cash-strapped team. They may be operating on a shoestring budget, but it's remarkable just how far you can make a shoestring stretch these days in MotoGP.
If Aspar had a good weekend, Tech 3's weekend was outstanding. Zarco fifth and Folger sixth means the team is punching well above its weight. As team boss Hervé Poncharal said to me in Jerez earlier this year, his riders are making him look like a genius. Given the sheer volume of talent which has passed through the squad, perhaps that impression is not that wide of the mark.
Yamaha champs one eighth of the way in
After the first two races, it is clear that Yamaha are the big winners of the season so far. They lead the constructors' championship from Ducati by 17 points. The Movistar Yamaha team and Monster Tech 3 Yamaha team are first and second in the team championship. Lin Jarvis looks like a genius for signing Maverick Viñales as the star of the future to ride alongside the all-time great Valentino Rossi. Hervé Poncharal looks like a genius for signing two-time Moto2 champion Johann Zarco and Moto2 race winner Jonas Folger, both of whom have taken to MotoGP like ducks to water.
Above all, the Yamaha M1 is the most complete bike on the grid, doing most things very well, and with no real weaknesses. The extra horsepower the 2017 bike has removed its most glaring shortcoming, and the bike still brakes well, can hold unmatched corner speed, and has outstanding mechanical grip and drive off the corner. Yamaha have the electronics down pat, the bike responding well to the throttle and the engineers understanding how to make the bike do what they want it to.
But this is only the second race of the season. With sixteen races still to go, there is an awful lot of racing to be done before we reach Valencia. A lot can happen in the seven months until the final race, and Honda and Ducati are not as far behind Yamaha as the results so far suggest. We should not be getting ahead of ourselves.
Apart from the madness of MotoGP, there were two other races in Argentina. Morbidelli in Moto2 and Mir in Moto3, along with Maverick in MotoGP (which is only cheating a little), made it all the Ms in motorcycle racing. That, however, is a tale for another day.
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