And so to Europe. Though the three opening races are at remarkable locations, and often throw up fantastic racing and real surprises, it is hard to shake the feeling that Qatar, Argentina, and Austin are appetizers. MotoGP serves up its main course once the circus returns to Europe, and enters the long hard grind through to the summer break.
That is not to denigrate Qatar, Argentina, or Austin. Qatar is a great track which always manages to provide exciting racing, despite its location. Termas de Rio Hondo is an outstanding circuit, fast and flowing, challenging the riders and rewarding courage and skill. Austin is one of the best events of the year, though with an entirely predictable winner each year. But Jerez is where MotoGP gets serious.
Think of it like Texas hold 'em poker. At Qatar, the riders are dealt their hands, but the two cards they have may give them a false sense of how strong their hands really is. Argentina is the flop, the first chance to put a full hand together. Austin is the turn, an extra card which may not change much, but gives a better sense of the balance of power in the game. But at Jerez comes the river: with all the cards out in the open, it is down to the rider to make the difference, to bluff, gamble, and play the hand they have been dealt to the best of their ability.
The nature of the Jerez track forces factories to lay their cards on the table too. The Spanish circuit is tighter and more tortuous than the opening three tracks, and the surface is older too. There is not much grip to begin with, and the hot Andalusian sun merely makes the track even greasier and harder to handle. But it also tests the bikes in very particular ways: stability on the brakes is required uphill into Turn 1, at the end of the back straight for Turn 6, and at the final corner, Turn 13.
It tests acceleration too, especially out of the final corner, and onto the back straight out of Turn 5. And the bikes have to be able to carry corner speed through the double and triple corners: building speed through Turns 3 and 4, scrubbing speed off through Turns 7 and 8, lining up the two tight rights of 9 and 10 correctly, to carry speed out towards the scariest part of the track, the two fast right handers of Turns 11 and 12. Jerez demands a lot of the bikes, and of their riders too.
Something in the aero tonight?
The hard acceleration points make it challenging to get drive down onto the ground. The best fix for that is to use winglets, but with winglets banned, Jerez could be the track where the teams all roll out their aerodynamic packages. The new fairings have been used sporadically so far, with Suzuki making the most use of their ducted wing fairings in Argentina and Austin.
Yamaha, like Suzuki, are fairly certain to employ their aerodynamic package, as they are confident it is working well. KTM, too, are comfortable with theirs, having given it a thorough workout in Austin. Aprilia may bring their current solution, though as they have yet to rack up sufficient podium points to have their engines and aerodynamics development frozen, they may have some more updates up their sleeves.
The big question marks hang over Honda and Ducati. Honda got clever with their aerodynamic package by making their winglet ducts basically a bolt-on package to the standard fairing. That allows them to change the shape of the winglet ducts, unlike the other factories. Ducati are in the biggest trouble with aerodynamics: after preseason testing, they abandoned their initial design when it turned out not to work as they had hoped. This has had a fairly profound effect, as they have shifted all their electronics around to clear the space at the front of the fairing to make room for the aero packaged the Internet dubbed "The Hammerhead". The relocated electronics still sit in the "salad box" package at the rear of the tail on the Desmosedici GP17, a sign Ducati have not yet come up with a new solution.
Ducati's worst track
It is far from certain that new aerodynamics would actually help much. Jerez has always been a bogey track for the Italian bike maker. They have won here once, in 2006 with Loris Capirossi, and had two podiums since then. Last year, Andrea Iannone finished 26 seconds behind the winner, Valentino Rossi. That gap with the winner has remained pretty much unchanged since 2011, when Nicky Hayden finished in third, 29 seconds behind Jorge Lorenzo on a wet track.
Will Jorge Lorenzo be able to make a difference? It is one of the Spaniard's favorite circuits – he even has a corner named after him there, Turn 13, the final corner. He has won here three times in MotoGP, twice in 250s, and been on the podium four more times. He is a joy to watch at the track: standing at Peluqui and watching him slide almost invisibly fluidly from full lean to on top of the bike is one of the great pleasures and privileges of being a journalist, and having close access to the track.
Will he look the same on the Ducati? We will have to wait and see. The bike needs to be ridden very differently, attacked more aggressively and pushed much harder. Lorenzo started making real progress at Argentina, when he went back to the original seat design of the Desmosedici, putting him higher and further forward, creating more weight transfer under braking. On a Yamaha, Lorenzo would arrive at Jerez expecting to win. On a Ducati, he can hope at best to be less than 27 seconds away from victory. That in itself would be progress. Jerez will be a bad circuit to use as a yardstick for Lorenzo's adaptation to the Ducati.
Getting closer to the front will be the main objective for Andrea Dovizioso as well. The Italian has been frustrated in recent years at the lack of progress seen from Ducati at Jerez. What ails the Desmosedici at the Spanish track? Probably the long corners, which remain the bike's weakest point. In 2014, when Ducati introduced its first big upgrade to the bike, he was pleased to see his deficit to the front cut from 41 to 27 seconds. In 2015, the gap was back up to 41 seconds, with teammate Iannone's gap around 27 seconds once again. This will likely be another tough weekend for the Factory Ducati team.
Both Lorenzo and Dovizioso will likely be looking longingly at their former machinery at Jerez. The Yamaha is phenomenal around the Andalusian circuit, especially with current championship leader Valentino Rossi aboard. This has traditionally been one of Rossi's strongest circuits: of the 17 MotoGP races he has contested here, he has won 7, and finished on the podium in a further 5. That includes a phenomenal win at the track here last year, the first time he took a flag-to-flag victory in MotoGP (which is itself a remarkable statistic).
Can Rossi repeat? His win in 2016 was built on intelligence and race craft: after the disaster in Argentina, Michelin brought a much harder carcass to Jerez, which made the bike difficult to ride. Rossi understood this right from the start, and spent all weekend working on tire preservation rather than outright speed. It paid off big: there was no one capable of matching his pace when the flag dropped. It was a master stroke by the master of MotoGP.
2017 will be different, however. Michelin have a much better understanding of the demands placed on tires in MotoGP, and have last year's race plus a winter test's worth of data to base their tires on. The only question mark over tires is due to be answered on Monday, at the test, when the harder construction front tire is to get another workout. Rossi may have preferred to have the stiffer front for the race, but a change to the bike balance at Argentina and Austin made a huge difference to his comfort with the bike.
Rossi does arrive in Jerez with a little extra motivation (as if any were needed). He leads the championship, having finished on the podium in each of the first three races. A win would be the best way of cementing his lead in the title chase, and of stamping his authority on the class. Should Valentino Rossi win at Jerez, that would very much put him back in the driving seat.
Clash of the titans. Again. Hopefully
Of course, there is the small problem of his teammate, Maverick Viñales. Austin saw the first signs of tension between the two Movistar Yamaha riders, Viñales lashing out on the bike when he felt that Rossi had balked him during qualifying. Afterwards, both riders insisted that it was nothing, and all had been settled between them. But the cynics in the press room (that would be just about all of us) remain thoroughly skeptical.
After his crash in Texas, Viñales is keen to get his title chase back on track. Fresh from setting the fastest time at a test in tricky conditions at Le Mans, trying out the new surface, Viñales arrives at a track he does not have a particularly distinguished record at, despite having won here in Moto3. Yet that has not stopped him at Qatar or Argentina, where he was similarly decent, but not particularly outstanding.
While his career results may not be a good guide to his performance – then again, in just his seventh season, two of which were on the relatively uncompetitive Suzuki, there is not that much data to go on – his speed since climbing aboard the Yamaha is a guide to just how quick he really is. Whatever his previous results say, Viñales will be a force to be reckoned with at Jerez.
In the lap of HRC
What everyone, fans, media, and riders alike are all anxious to see is a head-to-head race with Marc Márquez. Austin promised much, though an unforced error by Viñales put an end to any chance of us seeing it there. The battle recommences in Jerez, with Márquez keen to close the gap further on the Yamaha man.
Much will depend on the Honda, however. The new engine may be a little easier to manage, but the RC213V's problems remain. That will be a big issue at Jerez, with drive out of Turn 5, Turn 10, and Turn 13 crucial to being competitive. This would be a good time for Honda to roll out its aerodynamics package again, in an attempt to help with acceleration.
Márquez, of course, will be making up for the bike's shortcomings on the brakes, and Jerez will give him plenty of opportunities. Dry Sack, Turn 13, and Turn 1 give him a chance to try to get back the time the bike is losing in acceleration.
Can Márquez beat Viñales at Jerez? His record at the track is strong. In his four seasons in MotoGP, he may only have a single victory, but he has been on the podium at every race held there.
The dark horse
Márquez' podium streak at Jerez is no match for his Repsol Honda teammate's. Dani Pedrosa finished on the podium at Jerez in every race he competed in between 2004 and 2014. He has won twice in MotoGP, once in 250s, and had six more MotoGP podiums at the circuit. After skipping the race in 2015 to have his arm pump treated, 2016 was the first time he did not get on the podium, crossing the line in fourth, three seconds behind his teammate.
Pedrosa missing out in 2016 was not entirely down to him. The flyweight Spaniard suffered most when Michelin made their rear tire harder, finding it almost impossible to generate the heat in the tire needed to produce real grip. On better tires, at perhaps his favorite track, Pedrosa should be a factor. If there is one rider worth a bet on this weekend, it is Dani Pedrosa.
Ones to watch
What else to watch out for? The Monster Tech 3 Yamaha riders should also be a factor in Jerez, and could well end up complicating the championship. Jonas Folger's record is outstanding at the circuit, having finished on the podium every season he competed at the track in Moto2, including victory in 2015. Teammate Johann Zarco's record is less impressive, only having scored a podium at the track twice. But Zarco has adapted with lightning speed to the Yamaha M1, and at a track where the bike is strong, he could well be on for his first podium in MotoGP.
Aleix Espargaro is another rider to watch out for. He has taken to the Aprilia like a duck to water, and there are plenty of places at Jerez where he can exploit the bike's strengths, its ability to turn into the corner and its stability on the brakes. Back in Spain, Espargaro will want to make a splash, and Jerez is a place he could do that.
Cal Crutchlow faces the same obstacles as the factory Repsol Hondas, and can be competitive in Jerez. But he will struggle like the others with acceleration, and will have to take risks on the brakes to try to overcome that.
How the satellite Ducatis do will also be of interest. Alvaro Bautista had an excellent test here in November last year, and has been strong in the first part of the season. If the GP16 should go better than the GP17, that will cause more concern for the Italian factory. If Scott Redding – currently ninth, and second best Ducati in the championship – also manages to beat his Pramac teammate Danilo Petrucci, there will be worried faces indeed.
Whatever happens this weekend, Jerez will be a festival of racing. The circuit, the town, and the whole area are enamored of the sport, and come together to celebrate it. Though the season got underway in Qatar, it only really starts with a full house at Jerez.
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