2018 Argentina MotoGP Preview: Well Worth The Journey

It is a good job that the Termas De Rio Hondo circuit in Argentina is one of the finest on the calendar. Because actually getting there would test the patience of Odysseus. For most of the MotoGP paddock, it is at least a 24-hour journey to get to the track. If everything goes according to plan, that is, which, as any experienced traveler will tell you, things tend not to do.

This year, as usual, a sizable portion of the paddock found themselves taking the better part of two days or more to get to the circuit. Poor weather, a diverted flight, or a missed connection meant that some paddock folk found themselves rerouted via Montevideo in Uruguay. Pol Espargaro got bumped off his overbooked flight to Buenos Aires. Members of the Marc VDS MotoGP team took 48 hours to get to Termas, with team press officer Ian Wheeler the current record holder, taking 50 hours to get from Dublin to the Argentinian track. It took him 28 hours to travel just 500km, an average speed that even I, an overweight, aging journalist manage to exceed while out cycling.

It's worth it once you get there, though. The atmosphere at the track is phenomenal, and the circuit layout is one of the best of the season. The circuit has a bit of everything, and a lot of the thing which racers love: fast, flowing, challenging corners which test rider courage and skill equally. Though there is no real elevation change, the circuit has enough dips and crests to require precision in braking.

Fast, flowing, fantastic

The layout flows through a series of combinations making passing possible, and defending after making a pass incredibly hard. There is a high speed back straight ending in a hard braking zone for Turn 5, followed by a fast and sweeping left hander at Turn 6. Another good point to try passing follows at Turn 7, which runs onto a complex of turns which keeps the field together. Another fast sweeper at Turn 11 leads into the final sector, where the rights of 12 and 13 are capped by Turn 14, and the short run to the finish line. This offers opportunities to attack, opportunities to defend, and opportunities to counterattack. It has precisely what the final section of a race track should offer: a last chance to risk it all in pursuit of glory.

The chances of such an attack succeeding got a little bit better this year. Around a third or so of the track has been resurfaced, from the entrance of Turn 12 to the exit of Turn 4 onto the straight. The resurfacing was needed; bumps had started to form in a few sections, which were becoming a nuisance. A nuisance which cost Marc Márquez dearly last year: the Repsol Honda rider crashed out of the race as he turned in for Turn 2 while leading the race. A dozen or so laps later, his teammate Dani Pedrosa did precisely the same.

The resurfaced track is very much a mixed blessing. As the riders have been unable to test the new surface, Michelin have brought an extra set of tires to handle any unexpected challenges. The riders will have four different front tires and four different rears to choose from, as well as an expanded allocation (one extra front and one extra rear) to manage conditions. There will be a soft, two mediums, and a hard to choose from, front and rear, the difference between the two mediums being the compound for the front tire, and the casing for the rear.

An embarrassment of riches

That will present a significant challenge for the riders. They already complain of spending too much time trying to figure out the best combination of front and rear tires to use, the possible permutations of three fronts and three rears limiting the amount of time they can spend on set up. This is, of course, by design, though both Dorna and Michelin will deny any such accusation. The more time the teams and riders spend puzzling over tire choice, the less optimal the set up, and the more the racing depends on the ability of the rider to manage what they have beneath them. More choice means less practice time, and less practice time makes for better racing.

Fortunately – though some would debate that qualifier – the teams will almost certainly be spared from the complexities of having to choose between four different tires. After a blistering hot and bright Thursday, the rain is set to start falling on Friday, and is only due to stop falling some time on Monday, after the teams have packed up and started the epic voyage home.

If it does rain for all three days, as it looks like doing, then that throws a spanner into the works for anyone hoping to predict what might happen based on last year. Wet weather changes everything, negating the weaknesses of one bike, exposing a whole new set of weaknesses of another.

Made for the M1?

What we can say about the track is that the Yamaha goes well there. Of the four races held so far, two have been won by a Yamaha rider, and there has always been at least one Yamaha on the podium. Maverick Viñales and Valentino Rossi finished first and second here in 2017, with Johann Zarco crossing the line to make it three M1s in the top five. The fast, flowing layout suits the Yamaha's ability to maintain corner speed, while they can also hold their own in the braking zones.

Up until Qatar, it looked as if the Movistar Yamaha team would face a much tougher task at the start of the season. Testing had gone fairly poorly, yet once the lights went out (or perhaps once they went on) at Qatar, both factory bikes were competitive. Valentino Rossi finished in a strong third place, less than a second behind the winner, while Maverick Viñales came through from twelfth on the grid to finish sixth. A change to the set up – switching to stiffer springs in FP4 – had given Viñales the support in braking and mid corner he had been seeking. He comes to Argentina with this as a starting point, and having won here last year, starts the weekend with confidence.

The wet weather had been the Yamaha's Achilles' heel in 2017, but the Movistar Yamaha riders were confident of things being better this year. "I think this year the bike is going to be much better in the rain," Viñales opined. "Already the first feeling on the bike was good in Malaysia, so I think in the rain we can be strong."

It may not be only the Movistar Yamahas pushing for the win on Sunday. Johann Zarco has started 2018 the way he ended 2017, and is in the kind of form where he expects to be on the podium and challenging for victory regularly. Valentino Rossi's data engineer Matteo Flamigni told Italian broadcaster Sky that he had been impressed by Zarco's data. "When I look at Zarco's telemetry, I see someone who is riding really well, who has developed a lot in the past year," he said. Zarco was spectacular in the dry in 2017, smoking the rear to help turn the bike around Termas' fast corners. How he will fare in the wet should be a measure of how much of a challenge he can pose in the championship this year.

Happy Honda

When Yamahas weren't winning in Argentina, Marc Márquez was. Yet the circuit has been something of a mixed bag for the Repsol Honda rider, offering either triumph or disaster. In 2014, he won the first race at the circuit on his way to a run of ten consecutive victories to open the season, and his second MotoGP title. In 2015, he crashed out when his front wheel clipped the rear of Valentino Rossi's Yamaha, after the Italian had hunted down his early lead. That incident was the beginning of the end for any semblance of cordiality between the two, and laid the foundations for the fractious end to a controversial season.

Márquez was victorious again in 2016, perfectly judging tricky conditions and an enforced flag-to-flag race due to tire concerns (unexpected heat and a heavy throttle hand caused Scott Redding's rear tire to delaminate in Michelin's first year in MotoGP, which in turn prompted an overreaction). 2017 saw Márquez crash out of the lead on the bumps in Turn 2, asking too much of the hard front tire he had selected for the race. If there is anything to numerology (spoiler alert: there isn't) Márquez should win in 2018, it being an even year.

Leaving pseudoscience and superstition to one side for a moment, there are good reasons why Márquez could well do just that. Márquez is strong at the track, the bumps which were his nemesis last year have been removed, and the 2018 Honda is a lot better than the bike which he led the race with last season. The RC213V is so good that he came within a whisker of winning the race at Qatar, a track where the Honda has not prospered in recent years. If Márquez is finishing second at a bad track, he will be a real problem for his rivals at tracks where he goes better.

Tire temperatures

For his teammate, it will be the weather which is the challenge. Or not so much the weather, as Michelin's rear rubber. Dani Pedrosa struggles in the wet, not through a lack of ability, but rather because of his light weight. He is unable to put enough load into the rear wet tires to generate the heat needed to create grip. And so he struggles until track conditions hit the precise Goldilocks zone where compound and water on the track match up just right to allow him to ride to his full potential.

Pedrosa isn't the only rider who suffers with this Goldilocks syndrome. Alvaro Bautista, only a little taller and a little heavier, has exactly the same problem in the wet. That is a real shame for the Angel Nieto Team Ducati rider, as Bautista finished fourth in Argentina in 2017. The team has gone well there too: Bautista matched Eugene Laverty's feat, the Irishman finishing fourth in 2016 riding for the same team.

Where Pedrosa struggles, Cal Crutchlow can flourish. The LCR Honda rider got the season off to an exceptional start, and has two podiums in Argentina. He is strong in the wet (and pretty good in the dry too), and will be a dark horse come Sunday if it's raining.

Third time's a charm

The wet weather may help Ducati as well. Andrea Dovizioso has had a run of bad luck at Argentina in the past two years, having been wiped out by other riders in 2016 and 2017. In 2016, it was his then teammate Andrea Iannone who robbed him of a podium on the very last lap. (That incident also cost Iannone any chance of remaining with Ducati, after the factory had already signed Jorge Lorenzo). Last year, it was Aleix Espargaro who took Dovizioso out, losing the front at Turn 5 and wiping out Dovizioso, the Ducati rider not standing a chance.

Dovizioso has started the season stronger than last year. He finally got a win at Qatar, after finishing second there three years in a row. He is strong in the wet – victories at Sepang and Motegi are testament to that – and is not bad around Argentina. With Austin up next, a track where Marc Márquez is yet to lose, Dovizioso needs to ensure he finishes ahead of his main championship rival. Championships are won on the days when you don't win, that was the lesson of 2017 for Andrea Dovizioso. Expect to see him apply it on Sunday.

A win would also help Dovizioso's cause as he enters the final stretch of negotiations for his contract. At the moment, Dovizioso and Ducati are at the stage where they are telling each other they can both manage perfectly well without the other. Dovizioso – or rather his management – has intimated he has interest from Honda. Ducati have expressed regret at the thought of losing Dovizioso, but acknowledged it would not be the end of the world. Dovizioso looks like being the next domino to fall in MotoGP's Silly Season, the rest of the contracts on hold until this deal is done. It will get done, the only question is how much of Ducati's budget does Dovizioso swallow up.

Seeking salvation

However much that ends up being, it will mean a substantial pay cut for Jorge Lorenzo. The Spaniard, brought to Ducati to help win a title, has got his 2018 campaign off to a difficult start, through no fault of his won. A brake failure at Qatar left him without points, and his performance throughout testing has been very much up and down. Argentina has not been a very good track for Lorenzo, and the Spaniard has struggled in the wet. If Lorenzo has any hope of laying claim to the bulk of Ducati's rider salary budget – or a hefty salary at a rival factory – then solid points and preferably a podium is what he needs in Argentina.

The layout of the Termas De Rio Hondo circuit should also suit the Suzuki. Fast, flowing, with plenty of changes of direction, the track seems made to measure for the GSX-RR, especially now that the bike has a much improved engine. It is hard to judge where Andrea Iannone and Alex Rins stand judged on their performance from last year – Rins was injured and then crashed out, Iannone jumped the start and was given ride through penalty – but both riders have been quick in preseason testing, Iannone finishing a respectable ninth in Qatar. Maverick Viñales crashed out of the leading group on the Suzuki in 2016. Rins and Iannone will hope to hang in there in 2018.

Wet weather may play into the hands of Aprilia as well. The RS-GP has a much improved chassis, and a little more top end for 2018. It is still weak in acceleration – too much like a two-stroke, and not enough torque and mid range to be effective – but Aleix Espargaro has shown that he can be competitive on the bike. If it's wet, the Spaniard could cause a few problems during the race.

Then there's the satellite riders, especially the wet weather specialists among them. Danilo Petrucci has been very strong both in the wet and in the dry on the Pramac Ducati, and Argentina could be the prime opportunity for him. Jack Miller has won a race in the wet, and been very competitive on the Pramac GP17 so far. And what about Hafizh Syahrin? He may be a rookie, but he has proved that he is outstanding in the wet in Moto2. The Malaysian could surprise quite a few riders on the Tech3 Yamaha if it rains.

It is a shame, perhaps, that the rain won't let the riders take full advantage of the brand new surface around a third of the Termas De Rio Hondo circuit. But that won't make the racing any less exciting.

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