From Mugello to Barcelona, with, in most cases, nary a chance in between to head home and wash your smalls. It used to be that the trip from Mugello to Barcelona was a chance to see MotoGP race back-to-back at two of the great motorcycle racing circuits. Now, it's one and a half great circuits, with a nadgery little section tagged on at the end to slow everything down. Or as Marc Márquez described it in Mugello, "You arrive [at Montmelo] and you know that it's kind of two different tracks: the first part is really fast and wide, the last part tight and slow."
What was a temporary fix to solve the immediate issues exposed by the tragic death of Luis Salom last year – one year on, the paddock will doubtless be full of memorials to the bright young Spaniard – has been turned into a rather horrible bodge job. The fast sweeper of Turn 12, where Salom fell and found himself on an unexpected trajectory across asphalt, and not gravel which would have slowed him down, is replaced by an even tighter and shorter chicane than last year, made so because of the proximity of the walls on the inside of the F1 chicane used last year.
It is a tragedy – I use that word advisedly, as it cannot compare with the loss of a young man's life – to sacrifice one of the great sections of a motorcycling track. But it is also an inevitable consequence of Grand Prix motorcycles getting ever faster, being able to brake later, carry more corner speed. The progress in motorcycle development is pushing their performance beyond the capacity of race tracks to safely host that performance.
Sic transit gloria mundi
That last section of track, from Turn 10, La Caixa, round to the final corner leading back on to the front straight, illustrates the point rather well. Turn 10 was a magnificent long corner, wide, with possibilities for riders to attack going in on the brakes, and counterattack through the middle and exit of the corner. But as the bikes got faster, and the brake points moved closer, the gravel trap at the end of the turn was simply too short. It was impossible to extend it, as the barrier is already up against the barrier on the other side of the track, on the inside of the F1 chicane.
Riders would carry speed through Turn 11, before angling down through the sweeping Turn 12, lining up a possible – and nearly impossible – attempt to pass in the final corner, as Valentino Rossi demonstrated so very memorably on the last lap of the 2009 race. But Salom's tragic accident demonstrated two things: one, there should always be gravel, as riders and bikes can take unexpected trajectories; and two, the barrier there is too close, and needs moving back. But behind the barrier is a grandstand, and behind the grandstand is a steep slope. There is very little room indeed to make changes.
Of course, this could all be fixed, given enough money. The back straight leading into Turn 10 could be shortened and the corner's original layout restored, leaving more room for run off behind it. Something similar could be done at Turn 12, shortening the run from Turn 11 and leaving more run off behind it. It would be a costly exercise, but not impossible. It is solely a matter of whether the Circuit de Catalunya is able to raise the money, and to spend it on track alterations.
There is an opportunity for such change to happen soon. The track is badly in need of resurfacing, as it is greasy and bumpy. The additional cost of changing the layout of the track during resurfacing would be less than if it was done on its own. But the circuit is struggling to get the money to pay for resurfacing. Raising extra cash to change the layout would make it even more difficult.
A game of two halves
So for the time being, we are stuck with a track of two halves. The first half, up to the right hander at Turn 9, remains the same. The second half is much tighter. Marc Márquez explains: "Of course the new layout of Montmelo is a little bit strange on the first laps when you ride it, because it's different. It's completely different, it's a part that we only have in Montmelo. It's like Austin corners: very tight, stop and go, that are really strange. So Montmelo is really tight chicane, really tight change of direction."
In a way, with the track in two halves, it could help mix it up a bit. Previously, Barcelona was a Yamaha track, all long sweeping corners where corner speed mattered. But the change to Turn 10 favors bikes which can brake, and the tight chicane needs a bike that can change direction on a dime. That should help the Hondas, and the Aprilias too.
In the end, though, the race is likely to be decided by grip levels. An old surface combined with a hot, Catalonian sun tends to turn the track greasy and slick, riders struggling to find grip on the track. That is usually deadly for the Yamahas, who thrive on strong grip to carry corner speed and drive out of corners. It is better for the Hondas, not so much because their bike is better with low grip, as because they already struggle for rear grip, and so lose less when the track is not providing any.
Championship shake up?
Maverick Viñales sits comfortably atop the MotoGP championship, his advantage 26 points over Andrea Dovizioso, 30 over Valentino Rossi, and 37 over Marc Márquez. But this could be a race like Jerez, where Viñales finds himself a long way behind the front runners, and losing a big handful of points. Yet he will want to perform well here, as Barcelona is very much his home race, as it is for most other Spanish racers. Viñales may not live as close as, say, Dani Pedrosa, just 15km away from the track, or the Espargaro brothers, who grew up hearing the noise of the circuit from their home. But he is a Catalan, and he wants to win in Catalonia.
The biggest obstacle, however, will most likely be Marc Márquez. After describing the new layout of the track to us at Mugello, having ridden it at the private test after Le Mans, he ended with the rather ominous words, "I like it." Márquez' came close to a win at Barcelona last year, only capitulating to Valentino Rossi on the penultimate lap. The changes to the chicane swing the balance back in Márquez' favor, and he knows he has ground he needs to make up.
What of last year's winner? Barcelona was the last race that Rossi won, making it over a year since his last victory. That makes him hungry, but he is still suffering with the aftermath of a motocross crash which happened a week before Mugello. He had not been sure of racing at his home Grand Prix, with doubts hanging over his participation right up until he was passed fit by the circuit doctors on Thursday. Rossi raced, and raced remarkably, but the effort took a visible toll on him. With just a short week to recover, he is still not 100% for the Barcelona round of MotoGP.
Things could get complicated
Andrea Dovizioso rocketed up to second in the championship with his win in Mugello, while his Ducati teammate Jorge Lorenzo struggled in the long corners. Dovizioso comes to Barcelona with confidence, while Lorenzo comes to one of his favorite tracks, but neither of those is much of a basis for predicting a good result. The Ducati's advantage lies along the fast front straight, where they can use their speed to deadly effect. That, and the drive they can get out of corners, will be what decides where they finish. Dovizioso will hope to be in the podium battle, if he can, which would strengthen his position in the championship. Lorenzo will be hoping once again for a repeat of Jerez, where he ended up on the podium. If the two of them finish ahead of Viñales, they could take a whole lot of points from the Movistar Yamaha rider.
Aleix Espargaro is a rider to watch this weekend too. The Spaniard has made big leaps forward on the Aprilia RS-GP, but luck has simply not gone his way. Aprilia have a newer, much more powerful engine for the bike, but at the moment, they only have a single engine for each rider. Crashes at Mugello left Espargaro with only the bike with the wrong engine in it at crucial moments, making for a tough qualifying. Then, in the race, a jump start ruined his chances, though his pace after the penalty was good.
His bike died on him in Mugello, but that has merely left him wanting to make amends. In front of his home crowd – literally, his home is in Granollers, a stone's throw from the track – he will be chasing a good result. The pieces are starting to fall into place for Aprilia. It is up to Espargaro to put them together.
Gathering the background information for long articles such as these is an expensive and time-consuming operation. If you enjoyed this article, please consider supporting MotoMatters.com. You can help by either taking out a subscription, buying the beautiful MotoMatters.com 2017 racing calendar, by making a donation, or by contributing via our GoFundMe page.