If there is one thing that makes real life much more interesting than fiction, it is that real life is no respecter of plausible plot lines. If you were to take a script of the 2017 MotoGP season so far to a movie producer or a fiction publisher, they would reject it 30 seconds into your pitch. It is all a little too implausible.
Five riders battling for the championship after 12 rounds? Never happens. A championship leader with a record low number of points? A ridiculous notion. Riders winning races one weekend, then struggling to make the top five, or even top ten the next? A horribly transparent plot device to create tension. Championship leaders conveniently crashing, struggling with tires, or suffering bike problems? A little too convenient to be credible.
How about the supposedly colorless second rider in a team suddenly blossoming into a championship contender? The most trite of clichés, like the mousy librarian who transforms into a babe once she takes her glasses off. The struggle of a rider swapping bikes to become competitive, making up and down progress, and a big step forward when handed a technological MacGuffin? So blatant it's obscene. No professional writer of fiction would stoop to such depths.
Yet truth is stranger than fiction in the 2017 MotoGP season. Each weekend, events seem to conspire to keep the championship tight at the top. Just a handful of points separate the five riders at the top of the title chase, and the championship lead has swapped hands five times so far this season. There has been a list of improbable events: riders crashing out of the lead of the race; riders crashing out in last-lap overtaking attempts; tires and track conditions conspiring against one manufacturer one week, another manufacturer the next. And at Silverstone we can add the championship leader's engine blowing up in the race, the first time a Honda engine has self-destructed during a race since Phillip Island in 2007, when it happened to Nicky Hayden.
The incident happened on lap 14. Valentino Rossi had led the race from the start, but he was being hunted down by the group of four chasing him. Maverick Viñales had been leading the chase, but he was still preserving the soft rear tire he had elected to use for the race, saving the best for the last few laps. Andrea Dovizioso was making his way forward, and had passed Viñales on his way towards Rossi, and the lead.
"I was just trying to control the race in a way to save the front tire," Márquez said after the race. "I was able to be behind Viñales and be comfortable. I saw Valentino was there but he was not going away; he was one second ahead and inside the limit to catch. When Dovizioso overtook me I started to realize that Dovi was the guy, because he was riding really good and the Ducati is working well in every circuit. So I started to control Dovi and I immediately overtook Viñales to stay with him. I knew he was the guy."
Big bang engine
As he headed down the Hangar Straight towards Stowe, sitting behind Dovizioso and letting himself be towed towards Valentino Rossi, his engine let go. There was a puff of smoke, and Márquez immediately whipped in the clutch. "I did that immediately because I felt the rear locking and at 300 per hour I did not want to fly," Márquez quipped.
There had been no warnings that disaster was imminent. "The engine was perfect but suddenly when I arrived to the end of the straight the engine broke with some mechanical problem inside. Now we need to find what happened for the future because it was a fresh engine." It was an engine which Márquez had first used at Brno, two races earlier. It had not seen that much action: it had been used in ten practice sessions, including two sessions of Q2. It had been raced only once previously, having been used for 20 laps after the bike swap during the flag-to-flag race at Brno.
There were a couple of remarkable things about Márquez' failure. First of all, that it should happen at all during the race. Honda's engines – at least in MotoGP – have proven to be incredibly reliable, the last race blow up being 2007, the last practice blow up during qualifying in Austin in 2015. Secondly, that Márquez should be allowed to admit it was a mechanical problem. All too often, such failures are put down to electronics issues, or pipes working loose, or similar.
A new championship
Márquez blown engine had a number of effects. First and foremost, it shook up the championship. Whoever won, Márquez' lead in the championship was gone, and unless Dovizioso slowed up, there would be a new leader. Secondly, it struck fear into the heart of Maverick Viñales, who had been following just behind and rode through a cloud of white smoke on the entry to Stowe Corner. "Honestly, it was quite scary when Marc broke the engine," the Movistar Yamaha rider said, "Because I didn’t know it was oil or water, so I lose a lot compared Valentino and Dovizioso at this braking point."
By this time, Dovizioso was on to Rossi and lining him up for a pass. But the Ducati rider was content to bide his time, sizing Rossi up and waiting for a sign that his tires were starting to fade. Opportunity knocked on lap 18, and Dovizioso seized it with both hands. The Italian used the speed of the Ducati to blast past Rossi, leaving Rossi in no state to try to fight back. "We are a little bit worried because we know that we suffer a bit in the last laps," Rossi said in the press conference. "But sincerely speaking, five laps to go I think that I can do. But unfortunately, I slow down a bit in the last laps. I suffer a bit too much and Dovi and Maverick overtake me. It was a bit frustrating because I wasn’t strong enough to try to fight for re-overtake."
Dovizioso came through first, but Viñales was quick to follow. The Italian pushed hard to make a gap, but none of any significance would open up. Viñales followed, though he never looked like he would be close enough to launch an attack. That is perhaps what we thought, but Viñales clearly had other ideas and put on an astonishing charge on the last lap. He cut seven tenths off his lap time on the penultimate lap, and was nearly have a second quicker than Andrea Dovizioso, but it was to no avail. Viñales came up just short, leaving Dovizioso to take his fourth win the season, and the championship lead from Márquez.
Viñales second place was testament to a smart tire choice and his ability to manage tires. He was the only one of the front runners to go with the soft rear tire, the rest all having opted for the hard rear on a warm and sunny Sunday. If it befuddled others, there had never been any doubt in Viñales' mind. "I think it was not a gamble," Viñales replied when asked if it had been a risky choice. "We were working really hard with the soft, doing all that we can trying to make the tire life longer. Honestly, I felt really great on the bike. In the first lap I was just trying to save tires until the end. It was quite hard when Dovi and Marc overtook me because I know my strongest point was at the end, the last ten laps, so that’s what I did. I just trying to save tire and I push at my 100% in the last five laps."
That 100% left him just over a tenth of a second shy of the win, despite posting the fourth fastest lap of the race for any rider on his final lap. He came achingly close to the win at Silverstone, enough to make you wonder about that missed braking point at Stowe when Márquez' engine blew up. He was about a tenth slower than the leader on lap 14, the gap growing from 1.166 to 1.322. Viñales lost 0.156 that lap. Dovizioso's margin of victory? 0.114 seconds.
But there is no point speculating. If we ask what might have been if Viñales had not lost time when Márquez' engine blew, we might as well ask what might have happened if Márquez' engine hadn't let go at all. Or if Dovizioso had started from the front row rather than the second row. Or if Johann Zarco had qualified better. Or if my aunt had … well, you get the picture.
And to speculate on the time Viñales lost is to take away from what was a truly masterful victory by Andrea Dovizioso. His fourth this season (and fourth in seven races) came on the back of a win at the Red Bull Ring two weeks ago. Perhaps the most impressive thing about Dovizioso's form this season is how he finds different ways to win. As he put it himself, "we won four races in different ways, so it’s mean we have a good base and we work very well during the weekend also. We are not the fastest. We stay calm and we continue to work like today. We go into the race with a good feeling and try to get the maximum, and today the maximum, I have a chance to fight for the victory. We didn’t expect and I was able to take that possibility."
Brains, not brawn
"We are not the fastest." Therein lies the key to Dovizioso's success. For sheer, outright lap time, it's a choice between Marc Márquez on the Honda and Maverick Viñales on the Yamaha, as the nine poles from twelve races the pair have racked up between them so ably demonstrates. Yet it has been Dovizioso who has been the most successful this year: his four wins are one more than two young Spaniards, and he leads them both in the championship. Where Dovizioso is winning is with what's between his ears, not what's between his legs. He is thinking his way to a championship.
Dovizioso's success can be attributed to many factors – not least the work that Ducati Corse under Gigi Dall'Igna has done to make the Desmosedici competitive – but perhaps the most important is the combination of the Michelin tires and spec software. Maximum performance from the Michelins comes from the rear tire, whereas the Bridgestone was all about the front. Spec electronics has also put more of the control into the right hand – or rather, the brain – of the rider. It is the rider managing tire wear now, no longer the predictive algorithms produced by software geniuses at HRC or Yamaha.
Prior to 2016, winning races required the ability to push the front tire to the limit from start to finish, and let the electronics deal with the drop in rear tire performance. That required a very special kind of skill, the ability to feel the front and understand just how hard you can push it. The Michelin front provides less grip at the limit, while the rear offers much more, meaning the bike has to be ridden very differently, treating the front with more respect and managing the rear more carefully. With the proprietary software gone, it is now up to the rider to manage the race, to judge when to save the rear tire and when to push it, and to spread the performance of the tire out over race distance.
Two riders who did well on Sunday offered an insight into how the change was affecting their riding style. Jorge Lorenzo only finished fifth, but was just three and a half seconds behind his factory Ducati teammate Andrea Dovizioso. Lorenzo was learning to be more refined with the throttle on the Ducati. "I changed a little bit my way of riding this time, especially with the throttle to create less spinning and to maintain the life of the tire for longer," the Spaniard explained.
"It's more a question of how I open the throttle. Until now, I opened the throttle a little bit more like with the Yamaha, and with this bike, you need to change a little bit this kind of style during the race. When you start losing the rear grip, the bike behaves a little bit more aggressive and you need to be very smooth in acceleration. Probably before this race, I was a little bit too aggressive when I started losing rear grip, and now I'm changing that style."
Scott Redding also had a strong race in front of his home crowd, finishing eighth on the Pramac Ducati. After a few difficult races, this was just what Redding needed. He, too, attributed his success to changing his approach to tire management, a change which saw Michelin persuade him into running the medium, rather than the hard rear tire. "My tire wear has not been bad this week, which is strange," Redding said. "Normally, I'm always high tire wear, same as Danilo [Petrucci], but I was doing the same tire wear as Dovi and Lorenzo."
To achieve this, Redding had been changing his riding style. Not in a single aspect, but many smaller changes in different areas. "It's more just throttle control, how to brake, how to keep that rhythm, keep the speed, not make mistakes. A lot of small things, not one big thing, like throttle control. It's a lot of little things. Understanding when the tire drops, how to make it a bit more consistent. And that's what I'm finding the most is consistency, with the tires, with the laps, I can do boom, boom, boom, boom. Not like, one lap there, one lap down, one lap fast, and struggling, and the tires are changing because the temperature's too high. Like in Austria, I could do boom, boom, boom, boom, lap after lap."
A new species of alien
This is where Andrea Dovizioso has been supreme. The Italian has understood that maintaining tire performance is key, and has dedicated himself to understanding that. In an interview to be published exclusively for MotoMatters.com subscribers on Ducati's partnership with MegaRide, Gigi Dall'Igna explained how he believed the spec software had allowed Dovizioso to shine, exploiting his intelligence, rather than sheer outright speed.
Under normal circumstances, a fourth victory would be cause for debate over whether Dovizioso should be elevated to MotoGP Alien status. Given the way the sport is changing, perhaps we are seeing a new kind of Alien. No longer the mystical creatures which descend from the heavens with mind-boggling and incomprehensible powers, but rather the big-brained creatures who conquer all problems using their vastly superior intellects. Less Superman from Krypton and more Mr Spock from Vulcan.
If Andrea Dovizioso is to win his first MotoGP title – and where that was once a big if, the uncertainty is dwindling at a rapid rate – then that is how he will win it. Consistency, intelligence, management, a thoughtful approach. And, of course, the ability to ride the wheels off a bike that is not known for being particularly easy to ride, and has humbled plenty of big names in the past. Andrea Dovizioso's intelligence may be his foremost attribute, but his sheer speed and talent is beyond any question.
Progress for Yamaha?
That same ability to manage tires and win through intelligence as well as talent is usually ascribed to Valentino Rossi, but the Italian had less success at Silverstone. Yet he was still pleased with that he had achieved. "I’m happy," the Italian said, "because for me it was a very good race after a good weekend. I did a good start and I was able to ride well and give the maximum for all the race. I enjoy a lot because I have a good pace so I can stay in front and I can ride the bike in a good way."
The most important lesson from Silverstone for Rossi was the improvement they had found with tire life, a bugbear of the Yamaha since the start of the season. "I think that we still have to work for the last lap, but in this weekend we improve and we understand something important. So, we hope that we can be strong in the last part of the race before the end of the championship."
The improvements had come in part from the test at Misano, where Rossi and Viñales had focused almost entirely on electronics to save the tires for the end of the race. "In Misano we concentrate a lot on the electronics," Viñales told the post-race press conference. "There was one part that we miss a lot. We were suffering in Austria so we were looking forward to improve a lot in Misano in the hot temperature, and we did it. We didn’t focus so much in trying to balance the bike or modify so much, because already we modify a lot and we didn’t find any advantage. So, we just tried to improve the electronics and improve the consistency of the tires."
The concern for Yamaha is that the M1 still seems to vary too much from track to track. "The problem is that this year is like this," Rossi said. "Sometimes you arrive and the bike is impossible to ride, and you can do everything but you always suffer. Some other times in some other tracks like here, but also like in Brno, you arrive to the track and the bike is good. The tires work quite well. So, for this reason we have to be ready for all the conditions, all the situations, because is always a surprise."
A question of tires?
Though it would suit Rossi and Viñales to blame the Michelin tires, the facts would not support that argument. The Yamaha works superbly at some tracks and can extract the maximum performance from the tires, but struggles at others. The Honda has a similar, though less pronounced problem, the main issue for the RC213V being that the bike stresses the front tire too much. The Ducati, however, seems to work everywhere, the bike restricted more by track layout than tire performance.
There was certainly nothing wrong with the performance of the Michelins at Silverstone, helped no doubt by perfect conditions. On Saturday, Marc Márquez became the first rider to lap the Northamptonshire circuit in under two minutes, posting a pole time of 1'59.941. On Sunday, Valentino Rossi was the first rider to break the old lap record, Marc Márquez eventually ending up with the new record, four tenths quicker than Dani Pedrosa's best race lap from 2013. And Andrea Dovizioso set a new record for fastest overall race time, completing the race at an average speed of 173.7 km/h.
Cal Crutchlow would not necessarily agree with that assessment of the Michelins. Crutchlow, like Márquez, stresses the front tire a lot, and spent most of the race trying to ensure his front Michelin was not overheating. Fourth place was not the result he had hoped for. "I’m disappointed," the LCR Honda rider said after the race. "I came here to win but I finished fourth and didn't even get on the podium."
Crutchlow put his problems down to the front Michelin. "The front tire was too soft for us, and me and Marc were concerned about it at the start of the race. We did a good job of saving it but when we are behind the other riders it gets worse and worse. If I was at the front of that pace I would have been a lot better than being at the back, but you cannot pass because the tire was getting worse and worse. I waited quite a long time to see to if theirs would drop as well and then in the last five laps our rear tires was melted because you have to ride in a different way because the front is not great and you spin the rear a lot. That was the end tale. We didn't have enough grip."
Normal service resumed?
The story behind Crutchlow told a tale of a more orderly weekend, with few surprises. Jorge Lorenzo's adaptation process to the Ducati is proceeding, the Spaniard finishing closer to the leader than ever before since switching manufacturers. Johann Zarco had a strong weekend, but lost out because he didn't qualify well enough, and was starting from the third row. An intriguing aspect of Zarco's race is that he focused all weekend on the harder tires, where at previous races he has opted for the softest compounds.
Dani Pedrosa had a better race than expected, coming home in seventh, eleven seconds behind Dovizioso. Asked if he was disappointed to be seventh, he retorted "I was seventeenth in practice". Pedrosa never really got the bike to react well over the bumps at Silverstone, and struggled throughout practice. In the end, they abandoned everything they had tried during practice and Pedrosa started the race with the same setup he went out in FP1 with.
It was a damage limitation exercise, but it wasn't a complete disaster for the Repsol Honda rider. He is 35 points behind Andrea Dovizioso in the championship, with six races and 150 points still in play. This has been such an eventful season that it is hard to rule anyone out just yet. Dovizioso leads the championship with the lowest ever points total after twelve races. Two, three good results for any of the top five could shake up the championship, as could a crash or DNF. There have been so many of those this year that it would be rash to start laying bets on anyone just yet.
One final word of encouragement for Alex Rins. The Suzuki rider equaled his best result of the year, finishing ninth at Silverstone as he had at the season opener in Qatar. But Rins looked much more comfortable and quick all weekend, signs that he his making real progress. With teammate Andrea Iannone crashing out, and taking Pramac Ducati's Danilo Petrucci out in the process, the balance of power is shifting towards Rins in the Ecstar Suzuki team.
Moto2 and Moto3 madness
If the main race served up a fantastic show, the first two races of the day were more than worth the (rather high) price of admission. In the Moto2 race, Alex Márquez crashed out of the lead to allow Taka Nakagami take his first win of 2017, and adds weight to the decision to move him up to MotoGP in 2018. Mattia Pasini looked like he was in with a shout of victory, but he couldn't quite make it, ending up second less than a second behind.
Despite finishing third, Franco Morbidelli extended his lead in the championship, Tom Luthi never able to match the pace of the front group. But Morbidelli's title is a long way from being in the bag. The Marc VDS rider leads Luthi by just 29 points. With six races to go, Morbidelli needs to win at least one race to have a better shot at the title. Luthi, meanwhile, is starting to need help from the other riders. But given the strength of the rest of the field – Alex Márquez, Mattia Pasini, Miguel Oliveira, and now Taka Nakagami have all shown themselves capable of taking podiums and wins – help is in plentiful supply.
The Moto3 race provided the most frantic entertainment of the day, a group of 20+ riders in contention until the final lap. Or what should have been the final lap: the race was red-flagged early after Juanfran Guevara skittled Bo Bendsneyder at the end of lap 16. Bendsneyder was not amused, Guevara having ridden like a wild man after running off twice previously during the race.
Bendsneyder had felt Guevara's front tire paint the inside of his leathers three corners previously, and so was not entirely surprised to find himself sliding across the tarmac. Guevara paid a heavy price, however: he lay motionless on the tarmac for a while after the crash, blood pouring out from a blow to his nose. Fortunately, he escaped without serious injury, and was taken to hospital for a CT scan which found nothing to worry about.
Guevara's intemperate passing attempt left Joan Mir fairly furious as well. The championship leader had been biding his time and waiting to attack on the final lap, but the red flag robbed him of that chance. That gave victory to Aron Canet, who now takes over second place in the championship. Canet finished just ahead of his teammate Enea Bastianini, finally finding some speed on the Estrella Galicia Honda, and getting his first podium of the year. Jorge Martin finished third, another outstanding performance from a man whose leg was so seriously smashed up earlier in the year, and who is still riding in great pain.
From Silverstone, we head down to Misano, a very different track. But with all of the factories bar Suzuki having tested there recently, everyone should be very well prepared. There is much to play for at Misano, and also much to lose. The pressure is starting to rise
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.