When they come to write the history of the 2017 MotoGP season, one of the largest chapters is going to bear the title "Weather". The weather continues to play an inordinately large role in the 2017 championship. Not always on race day, perhaps, but the amount of time wasted during practice because conditions were so utterly different to Sunday has made a significant difference to the course of the championship.
Aragon was a case in point. Wet conditions on Friday meant one less day of practice for the teams. For some, that meant never finding a solution to problems which would come to plague them on race day. For others, their first guesses at setup were pretty much spot on, the benefit of years of experience allowing for an educated guess. For the race winner, failing to find a decent setup leading to a lack of feeling was no obstacle to success. Sometimes, the will to win can overcome remarkable odds.
This lack of setup time may be the bane of the teams' lives, but it is a boon for fans. It adds an element of unpredictability, helping to shake up the field and make the races and the championship more interesting. The championship ain't over till it's over: there has been too much weirdness this year to take anything on trust.
Talent will out
Yet the cream still manages to rise to the top. The winners of the three races at the Motorland Aragon circuit on Sunday are in all likelihood the three riders who will be picking up their championship trophies at the MotoGP awards ceremony in Valencia. And the way they took their wins was a reflection of the way they have become favorites for the title. Joan Mir outfoxed the Moto3 field to lead all the way to the line. Franco Morbidelli managed his tires in Moto2 then held off a challenge by Mattia Pasini. And Marc Márquez simply overrode an unwilling Honda RC213V to get a win the bike wasn't really in any shape to secure.
Joan Mir is closest to actually wrapping up the title, an 80 point lead over Romano Fenati meaning that second place at Motegi is sufficient to put the title chase beyond doubt. Failing that, ceding five points or less to Fenati will be enough to take the Moto3 crown.
Franco Morbidelli faces a greater challenge, with a lead of just 21 points over Tom Luthi with four races (and 100 points) still to go. But Morbidelli wins much more than the Swiss rider, and his bad days are neither as bad nor as frequent as Luthi's. If Luthi wins the remaining four races, finishing second in each of them will be sufficient for Morbidelli. On the evidence of this year, though, Morbidelli can do better than that. The Italian has eight wins so far to Luthi's single victory. It is hard not to see this title race being settled before the circus heads back to Valencia.
The margins are much tighter in MotoGP, with Márquez leading Andrea Dovizioso by 16 points. The Repsol Honda rider has fewer points than second-place Moto2 man Luthi, a sign of just how close and complicated the 2017 MotoGP championship is. The lead has changed hands six times between four riders this year, with drama and surprise to be found at every turn. Given the events of this season, there is every reason to expect the title chase to go all the way down to Valencia.
It is hard to shake the feeling that Aragon will prove to be a pivotal point in the championship, though. It may not have been the most scintillating race of the season, though it entertained and thrilled in equal measure. Yet this is the race which we will probably look back on and say, here is where Marc Márquez turned the championship in his favor.
Why Aragon? Above all, because of the way Márquez won. In Austin, Márquez was simply superior. At the Sachsenring, he managed the race better, and at Brno the strategy he and his team selected meant he had won the race before it was even three laps old. In Misano, Márquez showed he was willing to take a risk for a handful of extra points, pushing past Danilo Petrucci on the last lap to take the win. But at Aragon, Márquez took a bike which wasn't really good enough to win, and won anyway. It was a masterclass in bike control and risk management, in saving crash after crash and still keeping it upright all the way home.
"During the race from the first lap I felt not so good," Márquez commented afterwards. "I was fighting against the bike all the race. I nearly crashed many times, but the fact to be racing in one of my favorite circuits at home give me this extra motivation to keep pushing all the race." It was reminiscent of Casey Stoner on the Ducati, Márquez obviously wrestling an unwilling bike around the track, but bending it to his will by sheer talent alone.
Despite, not because of
The lack of practice time meant that he and his team, like so many others, hadn't been able to find a setup he was comfortable with. "Since yesterday I didn’t feel like I expect with the bike. It was a hard physical condition, because the bike was moving, was shaking everywhere. Physically it was very demanding because, like I said, in left corners I was feeling good. Right corners I was feeling really critical with the front and nearly crashed a few times."
With no feeling from the bike, Márquez had been forced to throw caution to the wind. "I take a lot of risk," Márquez explained. "Every race you take a risk, but for example at Misano you can manage a little bit a few laps and then attack just in the end. But today the problem is that the feeling was not there."
The Motorland Aragon circuit had not left him much choice. A good variation of corners and a long downhill straight where even a MotoGP bike can grab a slipstream helps keep the bikes close together. Márquez had started the race just trying to stay calm and bring home as many points as possible. But around lap five, while he sat in fourth position, he realized that trying to play it safe was not a viable option. "On lap five, I was thinking that I didn’t feel good, but I looked up at the big TV and I saw maybe ten riders behind me. It was a big group. Then I say, okay, push. If you don't push, you can lose many, many points."
Use the tools you have
Márquez' forward charge was as scrappy as it was brilliant. He tried lap after lap to get past Andrea Dovizioso and Valentino Rossi ahead of him, but each attack ended with him running wide. On lap 9, he tried to attack Rossi and Lorenzo at the same time, passing the two former world champions on the way into Turn 12. It was extravagantly optimistic, Márquez running completely off track in the attempt and giving up the places he had gained and ground to the riders he had tried to pass.
Eventually, though, he found a way past, picking off the riders ahead of him one by one. Dovizioso was the first domino to fall, Márquez holding a better line through Turn 16. Rossi was next, though the Movistar Yamaha rider held Márquez off at Turn 16. His defense would last just a single turn, Márquez using the Honda's agility to get past Rossi in the final corner. He finally took the lead from Jorge Lorenzo at Turn 12, despite a valiant counterattack in the final couple of corners that lap.
Once in the lead, he could barely escape, but he eked enough of a gap to drop Lorenzo, then held off a late charge from Dani Pedrosa. It had been a physically draining experience. But the thought of a win at a track he loves, his second home circuit along with Barcelona, was enough to push him to victory.
It is hard to overstate the importance of this win. Sure, Márquez got a little lucky, able to bring it home while his main rivals for the titles struggled badly. Andrea Dovizioso could manage only seventh, the Ducati man going from being level on points to trailing by 16. Maverick Viñales' issues with rear grip saw him cross the line in fourth, dropping him from 16 to 28 points behind Márquez. Márquez is very much in the driving seat, perhaps more in control than a 16 point lead would suggest.
A glance at the results gives a clearer sense of just how good Marc Márquez has been recently. With the exception of Silverstone, where his engine blew up through no fault of his own, Márquez has been on the podium in every race since Barcelona. He has won four of the last six races, and finished second in another. DNFs aside, his worst result is sixth at Mugello.
Contrast that with Márquez' rivals. Andrea Dovizioso's worst results include two sixths, a seventh, and an eighth so far this year. Maverick Viñales has two sixths and a tenth, as well as a couple of DNFs. Leave Márquez' DNFs to one side, and the championship takes on a very different complexion.
But perhaps the real reason Márquez is so much closer to the title is not so much the races which have been, but the races which are to come. Looking to the next four races, you would say that Dovizioso has a good chance of victory at Motegi and Sepang. Viñales could easily win at Phillip Island and Valencia. But given his history, and the current competitiveness of the Honda RC213V, Marc Márquez could quite easily win at all four race tracks. "Every condition, every circuit try to be in the top three," Márquez gave as his goal. "This is the key."
A lucky escape?
Márquez may have been delighted to win, but he was lucky that his Repsol Honda teammate got off to such a poor start. Dani Pedrosa had had a mediocre qualifying, ending up sixth on the grid. His start had not been great, the Spaniard getting stuck behind Maverick Viñales. That had ended up costing him dearly, with Viñales just losing touch with the group of four who took off from the start.
While Lorenzo, Rossi, Dovizioso, and Márquez pulled away, Viñales couldn't follow, a gap of over two seconds opening up by lap six. Though Viñales was obviously slower than the leaders, he was proving to be an impossible man to pass. "I tried to pass Maverick but he was very fast in the straight line and very fast into the corners," Pedrosa said. "Then I couldn’t find any room to make a pass. He was not really making mistakes, until one time I forced him to make a mistake."
By then, Pedrosa had left himself with a big hill to climb. The battle at the front had helped a little, as Márquez had made his way past Dovizioso and Rossi and was closing in on Lorenzo. But Pedrosa still had two and a half seconds and three riders between himself and the lead. The Repsol Honda rider was unleashed, easily the fastest rider on track, often by a significant margin.
Threading the needle
Catching riders was one thing, passing them another. Dovizioso proved to be the easiest prey, Pedrosa holding a tighter line through the final corner, a place where the factory Ducati man was struggling. Passing Rossi proved a little tougher, especially when the Italian drifted left down the back straight closing in on the line Pedrosa was taken.
The Spaniard was not amused. "When I was on the bike I think it was very close," Pedrosa told the press conference, after criticizing Rossi in Parc Fermé. "I cannot judge what he sees, but obviously you know, you feel you are getting overtaken. For sure, at the beginning he didn’t see me, but once you get next to someone, you just try to give room. But I was on the line. The handlebars were like this and we were at 300 km/h. I don’t think you need to force the issue that much because the risk at this speed, the margin for error is very small."
Rossi dismissed the criticism from Pedrosa. "If he’s not happy Pedrosa have to race alone, I think," Rossi joked. "This is what I think because everyone make the same to me when they want to overtake especially on the last lap. But sincerely I exit from turn 14 you always go to the left. Maybe this was one meter more. I don’t know. Maybe these riders think that they own the track!"
Was Pedrosa right to criticize Rossi? Watching both the overhead camera shot from the helicopter and the onboard footage from Pedrosa's bike, it was clear Rossi drifted left. But that is a common thing to do at that point on the track, as the bikes exit Turn 15 and head down the back straight. If he did it intentionally – entirely plausible – he certainly left Pedrosa enough room. Just. As if daring Pedrosa to thread the needle to pass him. From Pedrosa's perspective, there really wasn't much room. At 300 km/h, it would be terrifying. But Pedrosa made it through nonetheless.
If ifs and buts were candy and nuts
The Repsol Honda rider was still on a charge, but it took him longer to catch and then pass Jorge Lorenzo. He eventually got past with three laps to go, and a gap of a second to try to bridge. Márquez had been watching Pedrosa coming, following his teammate's progress on the big screens that surround the circuit, and had to push to maintain the gap. "When I caught Lorenzo again I said, okay, now is time to push, time to keep my pace, because I saw that Dani was coming faster and faster," Márquez said. "Inside of me one thing is the feeling is not good, we need to finish the race, but another thing was like burning inside me. At your home race, you must try. You must attack, and we did."
That push was enough for Márquez to maintain his lead over Pedrosa and take victory. But Pedrosa had been in better shape throughout the race, his team finding a better setup for the RC213V on Saturday. Pedrosa finished the race less than nine tenths of a second behind Marc Márquez. But on lap 5, he had been over three seconds behind his teammate. This was a race which Pedrosa could potentially have won, had it not been for qualifying. Starting from sixth, on the inside of the track, Pedrosa found himself cut off going into Turn 1, then stuck behind the group in Turn 2. That was what cost him the race.
Lorenzo getting closer
For a long time, it looked like Jorge Lorenzo had a shot at his first win on the Ducati. He got a rocket start and led into the first corner. From there, he tried to push, though he could never really open a real gap over the riders behind him. He led the race for fifteen laps, or two thirds distance, before Marc Márquez finally got past him. But in the end, he demanded just a fraction too much of the soft rear tire he had selected for the race.
That was not because the soft rear was the wrong choice, Lorenzo said. "At the end, it was the soft rear tire, so finally 23 laps was a lot. The last seven laps as I expected was very difficult to keep in the 49’s and to keep the pace from that guys. I couldn’t do so much more." The medium rear had not been an option, he explained. "Michelin normally in the last seven tracks bring three tires that were very similar, but this time they bring three tires that were so much different."
"I didn’t try the hard one, but from the medium to the soft one was a huge difference this time, especially for me," Lorenzo said. "I couldn’t race with the medium. I tried the first practice on the Friday and it was very slow. When I put the soft one I was almost two seconds faster. So for this time was my only chance to be competitive." Perhaps, if Friday had been completely dry, Lorenzo and his team could have tried to find a way to make the medium tire work. But there was no way it was going to be competitive on the Ducati at Aragon.
Cracking the code
Still, it was remarkable that Lorenzo had come this far. He finished just two seconds behind the winner, his closest finish yet on the Ducati. Aragon, too, had been a bad track for the Desmosedici, the bike's only success at the track coming in 2010, when Casey Stoner won and Nicky Hayden finished third. Since then, Aragon has not been kind to the Italian factory.
Lorenzo is making real progress in riding the bike, learning its subtleties and how to get the best out of it. "The important thing is that we are progressing," Lorenzo said, "especially for my side knowing more the bike, knowing the way to get the maximum, especially during the race for the Ducati. The team is giving me always some little details that give my life more easy. We are progressing very quickly." The biggest step has been in learning to be more subtle and smooth with the throttle, the Ducati's surfeit of horses otherwise prone to eating tires. The Desmosedici's strength is its ability to make the softer tires last race distance, but that requires a gentle hand on the throttle.
Lorenzo is clearly getting closer to his first win on the Ducati. This was only his second podium, but the gap to the front is falling, and he is leading races for longer. Only Marc Márquez, Maverick Viñales and Dani Pedrosa have led more laps during races, and they all have victories this season. Since Ducati gave him the aerodynamic package to help keep the front wheel planted firmly on the ground in the middle of the corners, Lorenzo has become something of his old self again.
Could Lorenzo have won at Aragon, if he hadn't pushed so hard at the beginning of the race? Like Marc Márquez and Valentino Rossi, the chasing pack hadn't given him much choice. "If I don’t use my pace [at the start of the race], I was in tenth position. I lose nine positions because the group was huge."
Better, but not best
The riders who finished just off the podium were the ones who most keenly felt the loss of Friday practice to the weather. The two Movistar Yamaha riders suffered a similar problem: they couldn't quite make the rear tire last to the end of the race, despite the fact that both Maverick Viñales and Valentino Rossi chose the harder rear tire. The new chassis and new electronics updates have been a big step forward for the Yamaha men, but there is still work to do.
"For sure losing Friday hurt us," Viñales explained, "because if we had practiced on Friday for sure I would have known not to use the harder tire and I'd have used the soft. I'd have been able to work on the bike and make the soft tire last longer." Given the data they had, the hard tire was the best choice they could make. "With the medium tire we had no grip," he said. "I think that this hard tire was the right choice because we didn't have a lot of experience and our opponents, except Dovi, all went with the hard tire."
The problem for Viñales was traction on corner exit, which was what cost him so much ground at the start of the race. "For sure it was frustrating," he said. "I woke up this morning with the target to win, but when you see your opponents starting to open a gap, and even when you are riding at 200% you can't close the gap. I was lucky that I could manage the tires until the end and it was lucky that some other riders also had a bit tire drop at the end. For the championship it will now be be really difficult because we have to improve the bike. In the traction area we are losing a lot but the front of the bike is working really well. We need to improve the rear."
His teammate could have used the ready-made excuse of his recent injury to explain his flagging at the end. To his credit, Valentino Rossi said the leg he broke only played a small part in the result. "I did a good start and in the first laps I was strong," Rossi commented. "I can fight for the victory with Lorenzo and Marquez. In the second half of the race I know that I have to suffer. I was more tired than normal and I feel some pain. Also we suffer a bit with the degradation of the rear tire. Anyway it was a good fight and to arrive in the top five is sincerely a result that I don’t expect, I don’t think I am able to achieve. It was very good."
Though much of the focus had been on his broken leg, he had barely mentioned it to his team, and it had not been a focus for them. The recovering leg was a given, and they had to work around it, pain in other areas where he was forced to compensate being more of an issue. The biggest problem was simply fitness: losing a couple of weeks of training made a circuit as physically demanding as Aragon a very tough experience. That was also Rossi's main focus for the coming weeks before the flyaways, getting into shape ready for the three back-to-back races starting at Motegi, he said.
Rossi's comments, and the comments from his rivals – all impressed at his tenacity and competitiveness – did provide an insight into how they viewed his broken leg. The fans, and especially the media, made a big deal about the fact that he was riding with a recently pinned tibia. But Rossi put the injury in context on Sunday. His 2010 injury had been an open fracture, the bone puncturing the skin and causing infection. That had made the use of a hyperbaric chamber imperative, to help reduce infection and speed healing. As this injury had not broken the skin, there had been no infection, and no need for a hyperbaric chamber. Once pinned, he could focus fully on getting back into shape to race.
Not the pain, the motivation
This commitment, this determination, was what most impressed his rivals. Not racing with the pain of a broken bone – every racer knows this all too intimately, and none shirk the challenge – but rather Rossi's drive to get fit enough to even attempt to race at Aragon.
"Incredible to recover that fast from that kind of injury," Dani Pedrosa, an expert in recovering from serious injury, told the press conference. "Obviously, every injury as I know is different, even though it’s the same one, but sometimes you heal much slower and you don’t know why. Sometimes you heal way faster. So, this is like it is. But for sure, his determination to be here was very important."
"All the weekend is impressive," Jorge Lorenzo added, no stranger to impossible feats of physical heroism himself. "The way he did qualifying yesterday is impressive, but especially the way he recovers. It’s not the same body at 38 years old like when you are 15 years old. Then, all the recovery is much quicker."
All in the mind
For Andrea Dovizioso, it was Rossi's mental strength which was the most remarkable. "I'm not impressed about the speed he had, because if you don't have a lot of pain the speed doesn't change," the Ducati man explained. "But to be able to risk, in the fighting and with the grip we had today, it was so easy to make a mistake, I'm impressed about that."
That, perhaps, is the key to Valentino Rossi's longevity. His drive, his ambition, and his willingness to sacrifice is what keeps him racing at the age of 38. The motivation to push as hard as possible to shorten his recovery is remarkable. But the mental strength to put the danger, the risk of injury out of his mind while racing on a still vulnerable leg is what impresses most.
That drive was evident in the final laps. As he began to tire and as the pain started to grow, Rossi feared he would start to fade. One look at a big screen was enough to convince him to push, however. "In the last seven or eight laps I suffer a bit," he said. "I try to not give up because on unfortunately on my board and also on the screen I see that I have four people behind. I say, ‘***, if I give up now I arrive tenth.’ I try the maximum for the best result. At the end I was tired but sincerely, I never think that I can arrive in the top five. And I feel quite good."
New players getting closer
The closeness of the finish illustrates the robust health of the MotoGP championship in another way. Aleix Espargaro finished an outstanding sixth place, equaling his and Aprilia's best finish in MotoGP at Qatar this year. But he also closed the gap, finishing less than seven seconds behind the winner, Marc Márquez. Espargaro's sixth place meant four different manufacturers finished in the top six, and signs of real progress for the Aprilia RS-GP.
Espargaro was full of praise for the bike after the race. "Sincerely I have to say today was one of my best races ever," he said." I enjoy it a lot. I don't know if the RS-GP frame is one of the best on the grid, but at least it's the best I ever ride. It suits a lot my riding style, going into the corner I can carry unbelievable speed. Super fast. I have a lot of feeling with the front tire and this is the best thing for me."
But he acknowledged that the engine is the bike's biggest weakness, both in terms of top end but especially the way it delivers power off the bottom. "We need to improve the engine," Espargaro said. "The engineers know. The bike needs to lose some weight and improve the engine, because Aprilia and myself have a great opportunity to fight for very important things next season." For this year, the bike is still strong despite its failings. Good enough to fight for the top eight, and capable of capitalizing when the Hondas, Yamahas, Ducatis are struggling.
Aleix wasn't the only Espargaro to be happy. His brother Pol put the KTM RC16 into the top ten, finishing just fourteen seconds behind the winner. The KTM in tenth meant there were five different manufacturers in the top ten, but more importantly, the gap between the different manufacturers was small. At the first race of the season at Qatar, the KTMs finished 33 seconds behind the winner. At Aragon, they had more than cut that gap in half.
Espargaro's tenth place, and test rider Mika Kallio in eleventh, is a sign of just how rapidly the KTM MotoGP project is making progress. A new frame had helped with turning and tire life, allowing the riders to pick up the bike earlier and get it onto the fatter part of the tire. "It gives overall a little bit more grip and a little bit more turning," Espargaro explained. "And when you turn earlier, you can pick up the bike earlier, you catch the grip earlier, you accelerate earlier. It translates into more speed at the end of the straight, more acceleration, and a little bit of everything."
The progress was as a result of the effort and working processes of the factory. Those processes inspire confidence in the riders, and provide extra motivation. "As a rider, this is the best feeling ever," Espargaro said, "because every time we finish a race, I sit with Sebastian [Risse] the project leader, and Sebastian asks me, 'What do you want to improve? What do we need to do to improve the bike?' These words I like! It's like a dream for a rider! You are getting what you are asking for."
But Espargaro's joy was in stark contrast with teammate Bradley Smith. While Pol Espargaro finished in tenth, Smith struggled to nineteenth place, 36 seconds behind the winner. Smith chose the wrong tire, and wasn't competitive, but results like these continue to raise question marks over his future. Over the weekend, KTM staff had been positive about Smith's position as a factory rider next season, hinting that the question had been settled. But with test rider Kallio finishing 16 seconds ahead, and Pol Espargaro 19 seconds ahead, the case for keeping Smith is looking flimsier.
Paying the price of practice
If Motorland Aragon is to have played a major role in the 2017 MotoGP championship, then its foremost victim will have been Andrea Dovizioso. The Italian came into the weekend level on points with Marc Márquez, but he leaves Spain now 16 points behind. Once again, it was the weather which may have cost him dearly, the loss of Friday practice not allowing his team to fix the issues he had at three different spots around the circuit.
"In the race I had especially three corners where I lose a lot and that created a problem," Dovizioso said. "Because in the race nobody was able to push, everybody had to save the tire, or make a lap time and not use 100% the rear tire. But after ten laps Jorge started to push even more and Marc overtook me I had to use the rear tire to try to stay with them. And that was too early for the tires."
Dovizioso had three different problems in three different corners, he explained. "In turn 10 it was turning, I lose a lot. Turn 15 it was acceleration, I believe it was especially the wheelie. And also the last corner, I lose a lot. It was too much." Trying to compensate for those three weaknesses was what had cost him a shot at a good result, and he hadn't had a chance to fix it. "I think we struggled in the race because maybe we suffer more because we didn’t ride Friday. Because we arrived too late – we didn't start with a good speed, so we needed more time to work on the bike and in those three corners we lose too much. In the race you can't lose too much in one part. You can lose and gain a little bit but not like this. So that's why I believe we didn’t make a perfect race. And that's why we finished the tire."
Dovizioso's struggles are in part related to Ducati's history at the track. "For sure we expected struggle in this track, for two reasons; first is the bike and also my riding style," Dovizioso said. Those issues meant that he started the weekend on the back foot, and losing track time meant he never had a chance to recover. Was it the Ducati or the track which meant it took so much longer to find the right setting for the bike? "I think it's always related to the speed you start with. So if the track is not the best for you and the bike it takes more time to fix everything, so I think it was more related to the track."
With both Andrea Dovizioso and Maverick Viñales struggling, Marc Márquez was able to maximize his advantage at Aragon, despite problems of his own. Heading to the overseas triple header gives him a big advantage: he can afford to lose four points a race to Dovizioso, and seven points a race to Viñales. Under normal circumstances, that is a situation he can manage.
It ain't over till it's over
Yet Dovizioso still sees a ray of hope for the title. The very unpredictability of 2017 means that everything is still open going into the last our races. "If we will have some cards to play, we will understand only during the races," Dovizioso reflected. "It is difficult to know before the weekend and also during the weekend. The good thing with this championship is in any moment you can change the reality. That is nice. Sometimes it's negative, sometimes it's positive. So I think we have a chance to fight for sure."
It is hard to see the 2017 MotoGP championship getting any less unpredictable when the circus lands in Japan. The Motegi race takes place at the tail end of typhoon season, with cold and wet conditions a constant possibility. Phillip Island is, well, Phillip Island, a place where you have four seasons in the place a single practice session. Monsoon rains are always a possibility in Malaysia, and if the rain doesn't get you, then the withering humidity surely will. And of course Valencia, on the cusp of Spanish winter, can always throw a curve ball.
If I were a betting man, the safe bet is Marc Márquez becoming 2017 MotoGP champion. But I would want to be betting with other people's money, rather than my own. The championship is still a very long way from being over.
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