Barcelona has always been a challenging track, but the MotoGP paddock has faced additional challenges at the Catalonian circuit over the past three years. The tragic death of Luis Salom – a typical case of confusing the improbable with the impossible, and leaving a section of track with no gravel runoff and fence unprotected – caused the track layout to be changed halfway through the weekend in 2016, dropping the long left of Turn 10 and the sweeping right of Turn 12, and replacing them with the F1 layout.
A year later, the circuit made other changes, revising the F1 chicane to stop bikes which crashed from crossing the track, while still keeping the F1 layout replacing Turn 10, a tight hairpin and quick kink replacing the long sweeping turn. But that, too, had its shortcomings.
Even the revised chicane was a poor compromise, and for 2018, the Circuit de Catalunya chose to make more radical changes. The track badly needed resurfacing, and the circuit chose to reconfigure the runoff at the sweeping right hander which MotoGP used to use instead of the chicane. That restored the old Turn 12 (though it is now Turn 13, confusingly), bringing back much of the track's old glory. The old section, the tighter right hander of Turn 12, followed by the two sweeping turns of Turn 13 and Turn 14 which build towards the finish line.
Fast and flowing
This is how the Circuit de Catalunya is supposed to be, and befits the character of the track. From the long, fast straight, where the riders hit speeds a few km/h shy of the insane speeds at Mugello, they head into Turn 1 and the fiercest braking at the track. The track goes hard right, then flicks back left for Turn 2, offering a chance to counterattack should you find someone passing you into the first corner. Two long turns follow, one fast and wide and sweeping right, then a tighter right hander, though still fast enough. A multitude of lines offers passing opportunities, but if you're not close enough there, you can line the rider in front of you up the next tight left at Turn 5.
The track runs down to the back of the paddock, and the hard left of Turn 7, followed by another flick right at Turn 8. Up the hill towards Turn 9, before a tight right turn and onto the back straight. This is where the action builds to a crescendo, riders using the braking zone for Turn 10 – not as good as the old corner, but an efficient passing place nonetheless. If outbraking at Turn 10 does not work, all is not lost. The sequence of rights from Turn 12 to Turn 14 offer opportunities, but only for the brave. There is a chance through Turn 13, and a final shot on either the outside or inside of the last corner. The Circuit de Catalunya does what all great tracks do: it makes great racing possible.
More grip please
Not only do the riders have a new layout to deal with, they also have new asphalt at their disposal. At the meeting of the Safety Commission at Barcelona last year, the riders issued the track with an ultimatum. The aging surface had no grip left, but was destroying tires, and F1 racing and testing had left the circuit littered with bumps. It was unsafe, and no fun to ride, the riders said. It needed a new surface.
The track listened, and the evidence so far points to the resurfacing being a huge success. Feedback at the Michelin tire test before Mugello was overwhelmingly positive, riders lapping a second or more faster than they had ever been round the old layout. The added runoff felt safer, the loss of the chicane widely celebrated, the two last corners a return to what the track should have been like.
The Yamaha thing
A track with more grip should benefit Yamaha, and that was certainly the case at the test. Maverick Viñales finished fastest there, beating Johann Zarco by over a quarter of a second. No wonder Viñales came away from the test feeling happy – not only had he felt a lot more comfortable with the bike, moving the weight forward and making the bike shorter for more grip and weight transfer, but he also felt there had been something of a breakthrough with the team. "In Montmelo I saw big changes in the team, and the feeling was much better. The whole team was more close, and for me this is more important than the bike," Viñales said.
That feeling lasted until Sunday at Mugello, when a combination of heat and rubber laid down by Moto2 changed the consistency and feeling of the track. Viñales went into the race feeling confident, and left the race exasperated, suffering with a lack of grip once again. Conditions had changed, and left him to suffer.
Could that happen at Montmeló? The test was three weeks ago, and the sun is hotter now than it was then. The track has plenty of grip, but how will it feel at 2pm, with the sun beating down after 30+ Moto2 machines have smeared a layer of Dunlop rubber through every section of the track? Viñales probably enters the weekend feeling hopeful. How much of that hope is left by 3pm on Sunday will be telling.
His teammate is more cautious, but as a wily veteran, Valentino Rossi knows that it is Sunday that counts, not practice, and definitely not the test. The Italian was just sixth at the test, three quarters of a second behind his Movistar Yamaha teammate, but came away from the test feeling positive, having found more grip. That improvement paid off at Mugello, with pole position and a podium. Some of that (alright, quite a lot of that) is down to the fact that it was Mugello, the track Rossi adores, and where the fans adore him. But some of it was from the bike as well.
There is good reason for Rossi to be cautiously optimistic. The Italian has a solid record at the Barcelona track, having won at the circuit ten times over all three classes, and seven times in the premier class. More importantly, Rossi won here in 2016, after finishing second the previous two years. He may have had a miserable time in Barcelona last year, just as Maverick Viñales did, but there is hope yet. Yamaha have won at Barcelona a lot. There is no reason to think that won't continue, and no reason to believe Valentino Rossi will not be the rider to make it happen.
On the other hand, it could well be Johann Zarco who gets a win for Yamaha. The Monster Tech3 rider was the first Yamaha home at Barcelona last year, despite the appalling grip. And he was the second quickest Yamaha at the test a couple of weeks ago, a sign that he is definitely competitive.
But first, Zarco has to put Mugello behind him. The Frenchman was uncharacteristically unsettled all through the weekend of the Italian GP, arguing with his crew chief and never finding the rhythm he needed. That could well be down to Mugello, of course, which is a track he is yet to master on a MotoGP bike, having a terrible time there last year as well.
If Zarco is up to speed quickly at Barcelona, he could be a genuine threat. There is a general feeling that we are just waiting for Zarco's first win in MotoGP, and the momentum behind it is building. Barcelona, a track where he is strong, in a country where he has a vast following of fans, and which he knows well from having spent so much time here, could well be where it all comes together.
Lorenzo Land again?
Barcelona may be a Yamaha track, but it might also be a Jorge Lorenzo track. The Spaniard has won here four times in his ten seasons in the premier class. More significantly, he finished fourth here last year, when he was still struggling with the Ducati. His win on the Desmosedici GP18 at Mugello proved that he was struggling a lot less with the bike, now that he has an adapted tank which helps him support his body weight while braking. The fact that it took so long for Ducati to give him what he had been asking for is one of the reasons Lorenzo had decided to leave Ducati.
There is another precedent here as well. Last year, a Ducati rider came off a win at Mugello, and cleaned up at Barcelona. Andrea Dovizioso took an emotional win at his home Grand Prix in 2017, then came to Barcelona fully prepared for the track conditions after testing here. Perhaps Jorge Lorenzo can carry some of that same momentum from Mugello into Barcelona. It would be a fitting way to rub Ducati's nose into their mistake, and show Marc Márquez that he is right to be afraid of having Lorenzo as a teammate.
But Andrea Dovizioso could well be a factor at Barcelona. He was only fifth quickest at the test – four tenths slower than his teammate Lorenzo, who was third just behind Johann Zarco – but as his wont, he was focusing on race pace, not setting a fast lap. Dovizioso held on to take second at Mugello, and though he had nothing for the unleashed Lorenzo, he was clearly the best of the rest.
He has extra motivation to chase a strong result. Marc Márquez entered Mugello with a seemingly unassailable lead, after Dovizioso had crashed out of two consecutive races. The Repsol Honda rider's crash – which took forever to happen, as he fought to save the bike on his knee – took him out of the points in Italy, and closed the championship up again. A podium in Barcelona, finishing ahead of Márquez, would start to open the championship back up again. Especially if Lorenzo, Rossi, Viñales, Zarco can all get involved at the front as well.
Perhaps the Alma Pramac Ducatis could play a role at Montmeló as well. Danilo Petrucci comes off a promotion to the factory team for 2019, and a race in Mugello where he felt he could have been on the podium at least if it hadn't been for the opening-lap incident with Marc Márquez. He was fourth at Barcelona two laps from the end of last year's race, before the rear tire gave out on him.
Jack Miller could be a factor as well, the Australian taking to the Ducati GP17 like a duck to water. A crash at Mugello left him disappointed, so he too has something to prove. As does Tito Rabat: it is an emotional weekend for the Reale Avintia squad, after their FIM CEV Moto3 rider Andreas Perez lost his life at this circuit last weekend. This is Rabat's home race – walk through the city, and you see his father's chain of jewelry shops – and a track which suits the Ducati. Rabat is a dark horse at Barcelona, and could surprise more than a few folks.
All eyes will of course be on the Repsol Honda team. Marc Márquez comes to his home circuit with a comfortable lead – 23 points over Valentino Rossi, 28 points over Maverick Viñales, 29 over Andrea Dovizioso – and with a bike that he can bend to his will. He was second here last year, but those were very different circumstances. A hot track with low grip is ideal circumstances for the Honda RC213V, as the bike is at its best when it is sliding around. We might have a hot track again come Sunday, but the new surface means more grip, and more grip is bad for the Honda as a rule.
Having said that, Márquez won at the newly resurfaced Jerez, then at Le Mans, which was resurfaced two years ago. The RC213V might be outstanding when grip is low, but it is also pretty good when grip is high too.
The big question for Márquez is whether he chooses to start managing the championship, reducing the number of risks he takes in races. Though there are still 13 rounds (including Barcelona) to go, a 23-point lead is a comfortable buffer which he could ride to his fifth MotoGP title. But that is not in his nature: his character forces him to attack whenever possible, to always chase the win. Sometimes, that chase leads him down a rabbit hole, which is what his rivals must hope for in Barcelona.
Then there's his teammate, Dani Pedrosa. While the world waits with bated breath to find out what Pedrosa has to announce about his future this afternoon, Pedrosa arrives at his home track. He was born just a few kilometers south of the circuit, and has always been strong at Montmeló. Strong enough to end on the podiums nine times in MotoGP, though he has only won here once in the premier class.
Pedrosa seems to be getting on better with the Michelins, and is recovering well from the injuries – fractured wrist, badly bruised hip – picked up in crashes earlier this season. He was not fast at the test, finishing thirteenth overall and 1.5 seconds behind Viñales, but he was in much worse shape then than he is now. Whatever Pedrosa decides to announce – the most likely options are either retirement or a switch to the new Petronas-backed Yamaha team – he will want to make an impression on his last visit to his home track with the Repsol Honda team, of which he has been a member for so many years.
We cannot write off Cal Crutchlow at Barcelona either. The LCR Honda rider is having a strong season – including a win in Argentina – and has proven himself to be competitive here. He was quick at the test too, fourth fastest, half a second behind Maverick Viñales, and the fastest Honda at the test. Crutchlow's objectives for 2018 are to score as many podiums and wins as possible, and not concern himself too much with the championship. Barcelona could be his chance.
Point to prove
The Suzukis could be a factor at Barcelona as well. For Alex Rins, it will be the first time he rides the track on a MotoGP bike, having missed last year due to injury. Neither Rins nor Andrea Iannone were particularly fast at the test, yet the track should suit the nature of the Suzuki GSX-RR. The track flows and has many sweeping corners, which plays into the strength of the Suzuki, its outstanding agility. With a better engine this year, it should be competitive.
That should help Andrea Iannone. The Italian had a miserable ride in Barcelona last year, nearly being caught and passed by temporary teammate Sylvain Guintoli. That ride was exemplary of some of the factors which caused him to lose his ride at Suzuki for next year, as he announced at Mugello two weeks ago. But Iannone has been very strong so far this year, and Barcelona would be a good place for him to show Suzuki what they will be missing out on now that they have signed Joan Mir for 2019.
Saving face, saving grace
His new employers could have a decent race. Aleix Espargaro was having a good race at Barcelona last year on the Aprilia RS-GP until misfortune struck. That has been the story of his life on the bike so far, but if Aprilia can find some semblance of reliability, then he should be capable of a decent result at what is very literally his home Grand Prix. The Espargaro brothers were born in Granollers, the town beside the track (ironic, since the circuit is formally in the town of Montmeló), a stone's throw (for those with a strong arm) from the circuit.
Brother Pol will be hoping to get through his home Grand Prix with a reasonable result. The KTM RC16 is suffering as a result of their choice of engine, the new one not ready yet for a few more races. A dismal display at Mugello needs to be wiped from memory, and both Pol Espargaro and Bradley Smith need to just go out and score a decent result.
That is even more important for Smith – and Aprilia factory rider Scott Redding – than it is for Pol Espargaro. The two British riders look to be out of a job for 2019, and must start to post results, and especially to start beating their teammates. That is a tough ask for Redding, who goes up against Aleix Espargaro who has much more experience on the Aprilia. But it should be possible for Bradley Smith, who came to KTM as the same time as Pol Espargaro.
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