It is a quote I have used so often that it has become a cliché. When I asked the now sorely-missed Nicky Hayden what motivated him after a difficult day, he replied "That's why we line up on Sunday; you never know what's gonna happen." That is as true now as it was then, but you cannot escape the law of probabilities. Of course you never know what's going to happen on any given Sunday. But if you want to hang on to your money, it is wise not to bet against the most likely course of events.
As of Saturday night, Andrea Dovizioso can still become 2017 MotoGP champion. But he trails Marc Márquez by 21 points in the championship. He has to win the race to even have a chance. Márquez has to finish no better than twelfth. Dovizioso starts the race from ninth on the grid. Márquez starts from pole. And Márquez, Dani Pedrosa, Jorge Lorenzo, and Johann Zarco all have (slightly) better race pace than Dovizioso.
The chances that Dovizioso becomes champion in this timeline are rather slim. Bookies have the odds of the Factory Ducati rider winning the 2017 title at 14/1. They have Márquez at 1/50: even when interest rates are at a record low, you would make more money by putting your cash into a savings account rather than having a flutter on the Spaniard wrapping up his fourth MotoGP title on Sunday.
Proceeding to plan
So far, everything has gone to plan for Marc Márquez. He has not always been fastest in practice, but that is only because he has barely tried to post a quick lap. Fifth overall on Friday, but with the strongest pace by far. Fastest on Saturday morning, with a string of 1'30 laps, where others were struggling to post just a single lap that quick. Easily the quickest in FP4, with four laps faster than second-place man Jorge Lorenzo. Then pole position on his first run in Q2, over a third of a second quicker than anyone else. Márquez is the man in form.
The grid could have looked a little different. Marc Márquez could have been even quicker, if he hadn't lost the front on his second run in Turn 4. Jorge Lorenzo could have been on the front row of the grid, if he hadn't washed out the front in Turn 13. If Dani Pedrosa hadn't come across traffic on his fast lap, he could have been on the front row.
Márquez' qualifying crash – his 27th of the season – was due simply to Márquez pushing a little too hard on his first flying lap. He had used the hard front, and asked too much of the right side of the tire through Turn 4, the first right hander after half a lap's worth of lefts. "I spoke with Santi, my crew chief," Márquez told the press conference. "I say to him, the first lap is the good one for the rear tire, but in turn four the front tire is not ready. He said, 'You need to see. I cannot help you.' I said, okay, I try. I tried and I crashed."
When is a record not a record?
It didn't matter. Márquez still ended up with the 73rd pole of his career. (That is not a record, as Dorna erroneously claimed. Dr Martin Raines, who has compiled the statistics for the MotoGP website for many years, insists that Giacomo Agostini had far more than that during his career – probably over a hundred - but as pole positions weren't always recorded, actually gathering the results to collate them is a monumentally difficult task. There is a very good chance that Márquez will one day hold the outright record for pole positions. But today is not that day.)
What can Andrea Dovizioso do about the situation? Not much, other than focus on his own race and hope his race pace will carry him forward as the race goes on. "At the end I think we are a little bit faster than last year. I believe we are a little bit more competitive, so this is positive," Dovizioso explained. But he wasn't getting his hopes up too much. "It’s not enough. For sure, the two Hondas are a little bit faster. For the race they have a little bit better pace."
Still, the race was not yet done. "In free practice 4 we show a good pace," Dovizioso said. "Not too far, because we did a 1'31.6 and a 1'31.7 with the medium rear. I think we are two or three tenths off – no more. We know it’s difficult because 30 laps, especially if you are not smooth in your riding. This is the point where I’m working because the speed is quite close. I prefer to be a little bit more relaxed riding because I know that characteristic in the race, and especially at the end of the race. It’s very tight. I have to be very, very smooth and until now it’s not like that."
Being smooth is the key to the race on Sunday. Michelin's head of motorsports Nicolas Goubert explained to us that the long left of Turn 13 places a huge stress on the left hand side of the tire. Being smooth on the throttle and managing rear wheel slip – 12% is the perfect number, apparently – is crucial if you want your tire to make it to the finish line without a massive drop in performance. Riders who are smooth on the throttle, such as Dani Pedrosa and Johann Zarco, will have a significant advantage by the end of the race.
For Dovizioso, having Jorge Lorenzo as a teammate offers a real advantage, especially at Valencia where the Spaniard is extremely fast. "Jorge is really fast," Dovizioso said. "He can help me to try and understand because his riding is different, his riding is different. It’s positive to have a fast rider in your box because you can study."
Lorenzo could end up helping Dovizioso in other ways, but the Spaniard was realistic about it. Lorenzo knows that Dovizioso's only chance is if the Italian is in a position to win, and if Márquez were to have some kind of problem. If that were the case, then Lorenzo would obviously be able to help Dovizioso's title bid. "I need to try to be in the front, and if Dovi's there, and if Marc has some problems, and I see on the board or on the dashboard, then I will try to help," he said.
Helping right, not wrong
Lorenzo wasn't prepared to go to endless – and perhaps improper – lengths to help his teammate, however. He wanted a fair and clean fight, without resorting to dirty tricks. "I'm sure you can do things, but it's not my mentality to do it. I want to play right. There's not so many things."
Lorenzo had survived a huge crash at Turn 13 during qualifying, sprinting back immediately afterward to try to take another shot at a quick lap. "I usually don't crash so much, but when I crash, I crash heavily. I have this "skill"! This bad skill," Lorenzo joked. "It was one of the worst places to crash, also Phillip Island was one of the worst places to crash. Or sometimes I crash in a big highside. It's not like for example Márquez, he crashes so many times, and he just slides."
The crash had been his own fault, Lorenzo explained. "I wanted to save the soft front tire for the second run, so I chose the medium front tire, which was a little bit too rigid in the first part of the braking. I was very hot on this lap, I was very quick, so I just leaned some degrees more, and used slightly more brake pressure, and the front tire didn't support it."
Lorenzo had tried to help in another way, by trying to get Michele Pirro up into the fray at the front. As he left pit lane with Pirro behind him, Lorenzo signaled to the Italian to follow him. Was it some kind of plot to use Pirro as a launch pad for pole? More the other way around, it turned out. "Jorge wanted to help Michele to thank him," Ducati boss Davide Tardozzi told me. "They are very close, like this," he said, intertwining the fingers on both hands. As rider coach and track analyst, Michele Pirro has played an enormous role in helping both Lorenzo and Dovizioso this year. This was Lorenzo's way of paying him back.
Wild, wild, wildcards
With Marc Márquez up front and Andrea Dovizioso starting from ninth, the championship looks pretty cut and dried. But the front row has a couple of wildcards on it, in the shape of Johann Zarco and Andrea Iannone, ready to shake everything up. Zarco and Iannone were the two most aggressive riders at the race in Phillip Island, making fearless and furious passes where no quarter was given. Then, three weeks ago, everyone stayed shiny side up. Valencia, a track with a lot less grip and lot more places to tempt the enthusiastic into a kamikaze move, could see things end slightly differently.
Márquez joked rather lightheartedly about the situation. "If you see front row Marquez, Zarco and Iannone, you say dangerous," he joked. "First corner, something will happen. Tomorrow it’s another race for me. I need to manage in another way. But I know that Zarco is very fast. He push a lot in the beginning. So, if he needs to take the rhythm from me, it’s okay. Iannone also is a fighter on the bike. But anyway, I will try to do my best and to finish the race will be the most important for me."
Valentino Rossi was equally entertained by the thought. "I think that Iannone and Zarco are the guys that brake deeper in the first corner of the race," the Movistar Yamaha rider said. "Sometimes when I arrive behind, I saw where they brake and I say, 'now for sure something will happen'. But at the end they are always able to make the corner! But anyway, also Marquez is a guy who - like you saw in Malaysia - brakes late at the first corner."
Can you make a prediction for the race based on what has gone on so far? Tire choice will be a factor, but so far, no one has a clue how it will play out. None of the main protagonists had made a final decision yet. Both the soft and medium rear can be raced, though the difficulty is balancing the benefits of both. The soft offers a little bit of an advantage in the early laps, but the amount the soft will drop at the end is a huge question mark. Riders disappearing into the distance in the first few laps may not be the insurmountable problem you might fear. The medium tire may prove to be that much stronger in the final laps that those choosing it could reel the early leaders back in again. Warm up will prove decisive.
What is clear is that there are four riders who are quicker than the rest. The pace of Marc Márquez is fearsome, but behind the Spaniard, his Repsol Honda teammate is pretty much on a par with Ducati's Jorge Lorenzo and Monster Tech 3 Yamaha rider Johann Zarco. Pedrosa and Zarco are probably the smoothest of the bunch, and that may pay off at the end of the race.
If – and it is a massive if – there are just the two of them left leading the race at the end, then this could well be Johann Zarco's best chance of getting his first win. The Yamaha – the 2016 Yamaha, that is – has better drive out of corners than the Honda, and the short run from the tight final left to the line could prove decisive.
The Honda has improved in that area, Pedrosa said. "We are better than last year." But it was still a distinct weakness. "Still we are not the strongest manufacturer in the acceleration due to certain different things, one is grip and the other is the wheelie. I think the others are still better on the power because the power is maybe more smooth. I don’t know, really, but maybe they get a little bit less wheelie or a little less spin and that’s why the acceleration, maybe they can use more gas or they can use more torque because they wheelie or they spin less and at the end this is more acceleration."
Out with the new
If the 2016 Yamaha M1 has an advantage, the 2017 bike is a very different proposition. Valentino Rossi will start from seventh, which seems positively respectable when compared to Maverick Viñales, who lines up in thirteenth, having just missed out on Q2. Viñales was disconsolate after the session, though he insisted he was not. "I am not in a hole," he said. "I have motivation, strong as always. When I have the bike, I can be top three."
But he didn't have the bike. The 2017 Yamaha M1 has several fundamental problems, Viñales said. "The traction is quite good, and when I've been behind some riders the traction is quite good. The problem comes on the brakes. It's so difficult to stop on the brakes, and as soon as I lean a little bit, I go straight. I can't turn. These are the biggest issues."
Those problems meant that Viñales was over a second slower than he had been last year at the test, on his second day on the bike. How was this possible? "If you can ask Yamaha, it's better," he said with a pained expression. "I have no explanation."
Valentino Rossi was equally displeased, but was more resigned than desperate. "Maybe I'm less frustrated because I already know this from before," he commented wryly. "At the end with this bike I never feel comfortable, from the first test. Sincerely we try, we try, we try a lot of different things. Sometimes we saw a small light at the end of the tunnel. But here in this track it is difficult. Looks like we suffer very much. Also when you ride the motorcycle, you don't have enough confidence to push at 100%."
Both Rossi and Viñales placed the onus on Yamaha's Japanese engineers to find a solution to the problem. "This is important to understand very quickly for try to make another way for next year and we spoke a lot with the Japanese. Looks like the situation now is clear also for them and I hope that we can make better for next year," Rossi said. Rossi was open to testing the 2016 bike again during the test on Tuesday and Wednesday.
The question is, though, what is there to gain? Johann Zarco has shown that the 2016 Yamaha M1 is quick, but the results of 2017 are clear. Zarco is sixth in the championship, but Maverick Viñales is third and Valentino Rossi is fourth. Viñales has scored 72 points more than Zarco, Rossi has scored 43 points more than the Frenchman. In 2018, the Honda, Ducati, Suzuki, even Aprilia and KTM will be better bikes. The 2016 Yamaha won't be better. Relative to its rivals, it will have gone backwards.
It is easy to get carried away. But in reality, it is Johann Zarco who has been impressive in 2017, not the 2016 Yamaha M1. The Frenchman has been outstanding as a rookie, but he still only has two podiums so far this season. Viñales has seven, Rossi has six.
What is needed in Movistar Yamaha is a new bike which is an improvement on its current machine. That will only come if the Yamaha engineers do their job. And if the Movistar Yamaha riders start agreeing on the direction the bike needs to take once again. There is much work to do.
In a few hours time, someone will be crowned 2017 MotoGP champion. In most timelines, that is going to be Marc Márquez rather than Andrea Dovizioso. Most, but not all: in some, where the sequence of events is a little stranger than you would expect on the basis of the current practice results, Dovizioso still comes out on top. That may be a crowd pleaser, but either way, I believe most people will be satisfied. The 2017 MotoGP season will go down in history as something very special, with two riders who took it down to the wire and who both deserved to win.
It may be a shame, but that is not how championships work. On Sunday, two men will enter the Arena at Valencia, ready to do battle. Only one will emerge victorious. The other will be carted off defeated. But the loser will be able to hold his head up high, secure in the knowledge that he gave it his all. And that, after all, is what counts.
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