For the fourth time in twelve years, Valencia will play host to a MotoGP title showdown. On Sunday, Andrea Dovizioso and Marc Márquez will slug it out for who gets to call themselves the 2017 MotoGP champion. If you want a detailed breakdown of who has to finish where to wrap up the championship, you can read our separate story here. But it boils down to two simple premises: If Andrea Dovizioso doesn't win the race, the title belongs to Márquez, but Márquez can put it out of reach of Dovizioso by finishing eleventh or better.
If you are staging a championship showdown, the Ricardo Tormo circuit in Cheste, near Valencia, is a fine venue to choose. Set in a natural bowl, the circuit owners have managed to snake 4km of asphalt into a confined space. The upside to that is that spectators can see just about every part of the track from whichever stand they sit in. The furthest point of the track is at most a kilometer away, no matter where you sit.
Cramming so much track into such a tight space has obvious consequences. There are a lot of tight corners in Valencia: of the fourteen turns the circuit has, three are first gear corners, six more are second gear corners, while half of them are tighter than 90°. The compact space into which the track is crammed, combined with the long front straight create a lot of complications for tire manufacturers.
After the quick flick right at Turn 12, the bikes spend half a lap only ever turning left. By the time the next right hander appears – Turn 4 – the right side of the tires have had 45 seconds to cool off. Push the bike too hard into Turn 4, and you end up in the gravel. Making it through Turn 4 can be a relief, but overconfidence lies waiting. Almost as many riders fall off at Turn 5, the next right hander immediately following on from Turn 4.
Turns 4 and 5 are not the main places people crash, however. That (dis)honor falls on Turns 1 and 2. The reason for that is simple: at a track where passing is difficult, the first two corners are the best places to try to pass. The first corner comes at the end of a long straight, and is a straight braking battle. The second corner gives a rider a second bite at the cherry should they miss out the first time. Or a chance to retaliate, if they are passed on the way into Turn 1.
But tight as Valencia is, that doesn't mean it is entirely bereft of character. There are several spots, particularly in the final part of the track, which are among the best corners in the world. The left kink at Turn 7 is pretty special, as the exit from Turn 8 through to Turn 11. But the section leaving Turn 11 all the way to the final corner is spectacular. First, the hard braking before flicking it hard right through Turn 12. Then the glorious, never-ending left of Turn 13, where riders climb up and over the hill, the rear of their bikes hanging out as they drift over the crest and down towards the final corner. Finally, the tight left of Turn 14, the last chance to make a pass before the line.
A pass in the final corner is fraught with danger. To make it through, you have to brake late and hard for what is already a very slow corner. Then you have to try to squeeze inside the rider ahead. If you make it through without crashing (and usually taking out the rider you are trying to pass), you find yourself out wide too early and going too slow. Drive out of the final corner is crucial on the short drag to the line. And drive is the price you pay for an attempted pass in the final corner.
In other years, that final corner is where the championship might be decided, but that looks unlikely this season. Andrea Dovizioso needs to win, and Marc Márquez has to finish a long way down the field for it to happen. Neither of those events is particularly likely: Dovizioso has never won at Valencia, and has only had one podium there in MotoGP. Márquez, on the other hand, has never finished off the podium there in MotoGP, and the last time he finished outside the top ten was in 2009. It is a tough call for Dovizioso to win, but it is equally improbable that Márquez will finish worse than eleventh.
In days gone by, Valencia would have been something of a bogey track for Ducati, at least since Casey Stoner switched to Honda. But the huge step forward made with the GP15 cured some of the bike's worst woes, making it easier to turn through the tight corners. It still suffers through the long turns – Turn 13 remains the Ducati's Achilles heel – but the bike can be muscled through the tight hairpins that line the circuit.
But the Ducati has an upside: the strong drive the bike has gives it a clear advantage out of the slow corners, and a place to gain. Marry that with its strong braking, and it is competitive enough around Valencia. Andrea Iannone showed just how strong it could, putting the GP16 on the podium there last year. It was the first time a Ducati rider had stood on the podium since Casey Stoner left at the end of 2010.
The Honda's problems are the inverse of the Ducati's. The RC213V brakes well, like the Ducati, but it is extremely nimble and maneuverable. Tight corners, long corners, neither are a problem for the bike, making it well suited to the Valencia track. Where it loses is out of the slow corners, especially out of the final turn coming onto the back straight. Though that issue has been addressed to an extent this season, it puts the Honda at a distinct disadvantage out of Valencia's final corner.
If there is a Ducati rider who could perform well around Valencia, it is surely Jorge Lorenzo. Lorenzo's record with the Ducati so far has been that he is quick at tracks he likes, and tracks where he feels comfortable, and slow everywhere else. Since getting the winglets at Brno, Lorenzo has crept ever closer to the front of the pack. He has two podiums in the last four races, and has looked capable of winning, when everything falls into place.
Things almost fell into place at Sepang for Lorenzo, but he had a minor problem coming up behind him. Andrea Dovizioso was faster than him, and needed victory to keep his title hopes alive. Lorenzo received a seemingly innocuous message on his dash, "Suggested Mapping: Mapping 8". When Dovizioso passed Lorenzo a couple of laps later, that naturally launched a thousand conspiracy theories. The front-end slide Lorenzo suffered in the final corner suggested that Lorenzo was pretty much at the limit keeping Dovizioso behind him. So though he might possibly have been able to win, it wasn't worth the risk, and it certainly wasn't worth upsetting his employers.
Could Lorenzo find himself in the same situation at Valencia? Possibly. Andrea Iannone's podium proved that the bike is getting better, and Lorenzo's record at Valencia is stellar, with four wins since 2010, including the last two editions. Whatever the weakness of the Ducati, Lorenzo will be quick at Valencia. If he ends up leading the race just ahead of his teammate, he may be a little more blatant about moving out of his way. For make no mistake, Lorenzo will be willing to help Dovizioso in the final race of the year. The question is, will it be necessary?
Marc Márquez' teammate may also be in a position to get involved in the title fight. If Lorenzo's record at Valencia is stellar, then Pedrosa's is intergalactic. The Spaniard has won three times in MotoGP, and is the only rider to have won there in all three classes. He has another four MotoGP podiums to his name at the track, including four in a row between 2012 and 2015. It is a track that suits the Spaniard perfectly.
That would suit Marc Márquez perfectly too. The best thing Dani Pedrosa could do for his teammate is win the race. If Pedrosa wins, that automatically hands Márquez the title. Of all the possible scenarios for deciding the 2017 championship, this is the most likely.
Turning gold into lead
What of Yamaha? On paper, Valencia is a track where the Yamaha can excel. After all, Jorge Lorenzo won there four times on the bike. His former teammate Valentino Rossi has had a lot less luck there in recent years. His last podium came in 2014, and his last win way back in 2004. It is the track he lost the 2006 world championship to Nicky Hayden, and he hasn't managed much better than fourth in recent years.
Maverick Viñales' prospects are a good deal brighter. The Spanish youngster finished fifth at the circuit last year riding a Suzuki. This year, on what is a significantly better bike, he should be stirring things up at the front of the pack. If the Yamaha can keep the rear tire in one piece, that is. The M1 seems to be the most difficult bike to set up this year, outstanding one weekend, nowhere the next.
There is some strange alchemy happening somewhere in the combination of tires, chassis, engine, and electronics. When Yamaha hit the sweet spot, the bike is unstoppable. But that window is extremely narrow in 2017. Where does the issue lie? The extreme temperature sensitivity of the Michelins plays a role, but Yamaha only really have themselves to blame. Perhaps they sacrificed a little too much manageability in pursuit of more power. Perhaps they haven't found exactly the right electronics settings yet. Perhaps elements of chassis and swingarm stiffness are not quite where they need to be. But probably, it is some combination of all these factors.
Out with the new, in with the old?
For the Yamaha M1 has been proven to be quick in 2017, in lots of different conditions at lots of different tracks. But unfortunately for the Movistar Yamaha team, the M1 which was quick was the 2016 bike in the hands of Johann Zarco, and when fit, Jonas Folger. Zarco proved his mettle at Valencia in Moto2 over the past four years, the Frenchman taking podiums in 2013 and 2014, then winning from pole last year. On a bike on which he is obviously comfortable, at a track where he can be fast, could this be the place where Zarco takes his first MotoGP win? The competition will be fierce. But it is not beyond the realm of possibility.
The Suzukis, too, could go well at Valencia. Andrea Iannone and Alex Rins return from the flyaways with strong results at Motegi and Phillip Island under their belts, and arrive at a track which should suit the nimble GSX-RR. Iannone had a podium at Valencia on a Ducati last year, and Rins was on the podium in Moto2 in 2015, so both go well at the track.
Though Suzuki would love a good result to banish the memory of what has been a difficult season, a podium would be something of a poison pill. If Suzuki finish the season without a podium, they get full testing and engine development concessions back for next year. That would allow them to rectify some of the problems the bike had this year, and regain some of the ground lost. But if Rins or Iannone get a sniff of the podium on Sunday, they will take it. Apart from podium bonuses – lucrative indeed from factory teams and personal sponsors – MotoGP racers ride for pride. And nothing soothes an ego bruised by a year of underperforming quite like a magnum of podium cava.
All six quick
MotoGP's other two factories could just as easily be a factor at Valencia. Both Aprilia and KTM have tested extensively at the track, and have a server farm's worth of data to fall back on. For Aprilia, Aleix Espargaro is back from injury, and keen to finish the year off with a strong result, reward for all of the progress made this year.
There will be more relief than joy on the other side of the garage, however. Sam Lowes was abandoned by Aprilia very early on in the season, after getting off to an admittedly weak start. But Lowes' poor results in testing and the start of the season are in part down to the fact he was never on the same spec equipment as Aleix Espargaro. But a larger part was due to Aprilia simply never taking an interest in him, nor putting in the effort to help him.
Lowes' MotoGP career comes to a premature – and, he hopes, temporary – end at Valencia. But it is hard not to think that we don't really know how good a MotoGP rider Lowes is, because he was never really given the chance to show himself. Maybe he is a promising rider full of potential. Maybe he just can't cut it in MotoGP, and needs to stick to smaller bikes. We can't tell either way, because Lowes never really had a chance to prove it one way or the other.
The KTM team is the most intriguing prospect at Valencia. Mika Kallio has hundreds of laps of testing here under his belt, and the team has heaps of data. Bradley Smith has found his mojo again, now that his future is secure. Pol Espargaro continues to go from strength to strength, the Spaniard having fallen in love with the RC16 as soon as he swung a leg over it. Kallio has the time on the bike and another chance to prove himself, though he will once again be forced to settle for a testing role in 2018, his hopes of securing a permanent ride failing to materialize.
For KTM, though, the real work begins on Tuesday at the post-race test. The RC16 still suffers a little understeer, and is hard to force through long, fast turns. A revised engine for 2018 should address that weakness. Smith and Espargaro have already demonstrated the potential of the bike this year. A new and improved machine for 2018 should make it properly competitive. A podium may be out of the question this Sunday, but who knows what could happen a year from now?
That, in essence, is the charm of motorcycle racing. Even as one season comes to an end, another one starts just two days later. Opportunities missed in 2017 will reappear in 2018. Doors which are already closed will open up once again after Sunday. On Monday, we wipe the slate clean again. But first, spectacle awaits on Sunday.
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