A permanent and bitter debate rages among British fans over where the home of the British round of MotoGP should be. One faction believes that Donington Park should play host to MotoGP. The other states categorically that, no, the true home of MotoGP in the UK is the Silverstone circuit. (There is a third, far smaller faction which claims that Brands Hatch is where the British Grand Prix should be held. Blinded by nostalgia, they hark back to the halcyon days of World Superbikes, when fans packed the track to watch Carl Fogarty dominate. But they ignore the fact that the circuit is too short, too tight, and frankly, too dangerous to play host to 270+hp MotoGP machines. The Ducati would barely get out of third gear around Brands. The Brands Hatch faction can safely be ignored.)
The battle lines between Donington and Silverstone are clearly drawn. Donington is set on a rolling hillside, with grass banks where fans can watch a large part of the action. Fans love Donington for the views, and for the access (though not so much for the facilities). Silverstone is a vast affair, with lots of fast sweeping corners where the MotoGP bikes can really stretch their legs. Racers love Silverstone for the challenge of riding fast and hard, but fans complain of limited access, limited views, and cold and windy seats up in grandstands.
Which track is better? In terms of racing, there is really no contest. Donington is too small, too tight to host a modern MotoGP machine. The final sector, the Melbourne Loop, was a late addition to find the necessary length to allow the track to qualify as a Grand Prix circuit. It was added without any thought or imagination on how to make the circuit more interesting.
Sweeping is superior
Silverstone is a grand, sweeping affair, with a variety of corners allowing a variety of lines, and allowing different types of MotoGP bikes to play to their strengths. The racing at Silverstone is often close and entertaining, with the rider counting for much more than the machine. Silverstone belongs in the racing pantheon alongside Mugello, Assen, Brno, Phillip Island. Donington would need a radical redesign to reach those heights.
But the complaints of the fans are valid. For anyone not actually racing, a visit to Silverstone is a rather soulless experience. The track sits atop a hill, windswept and forlorn. Photographers hate Silverstone even more vehemently than the Donington fans do: with no backdrop and limited track access, it is hard to squeeze some life from their shots. There is little scenery, and no elevation differences offering views of the track. There are grandstands, and there is the void between them.
The location, perched atop a hill, also means the weather can change rapidly. There is nothing to stop the wind, and rain squalls can blow in and out quickly. When the rain hangs around, the track can be a cold, wet, and bleak place. But even then, the track presents a real challenge, rewarding skill and bravery in the wet, just as it does in the dry.
Fortunately for the MotoGP paddock, the rain is expected to stay away this weekend. The forecast is for bright, dry weather, though without the searing heat which has swept across most of Europe through this long, hot summer. Cooler weather will come as something of a relief for Michelin. The track has been completely resurfaced, but the circuit was unable to arrange a tire test at the track, as has happened at other circuits which have had new asphalt. To cope with this, they have brought four different tires both front and rear, including two different choices of hard tire. Reasonable temperatures combined with a sufficiently wide choice of rubber should ward off any chance of a tire disaster.
There are still questions over the track surface, however. Some F1 drivers complained that the track was still too bumpy at their race here back in July. Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton called it, "the bumpiest track I've ever experienced," comparing it to the Nordschleife, the old road circuit at the Nurburgring. McLaren's Fernando Alonso did not understand what the fuss was about, saying it was "better, less bumpy, and with more grip". "They don't remember the race last year," the Spaniard quipped.
How will the MotoGP riders find it? A lot of the complaints from the F1 drivers seem to concern the bumps in the straights. Those are not necessarily the main fear for MotoGP riders: the main issue for anyone on a bike is the ripples pulled up by the F1 cars in the braking zones, which make it impossible to pitch the bike into the corner predictably and safely. If the bumps are only on the straights, MotoGP may well be able to live with it.
Last year's race is a demonstration of why Silverstone deserves to be the home of the British Grand Prix. Four riders on three different brands of bike fought for victory right up until the moment Marc Márquez' engine decided to go bang. Despite the disappearance of the Honda, the remaining three riders – the Movistar Yamahas of Valentino Rossi and Maverick Viñales, and the factory Ducati of Andrea Dovizioso – fought all the way to the line, Dovizioso just taking the win from the two Yamahas.
Could we see a repeat of 2017? Ducati is coming off back-to-back victories at Brno and Austria, with Dovizioso winning in the Czech Republic, teammate Jorge Lorenzo winning at the Red Bull Ring. The 2018 version of the Desmosedici is a better bike than last year, has more power and turns better, making it an even better match for Northamptonshire track. Married to that is the fact that Silverstone suits Lorenzo, the Spaniard having won three times at the track, and been on the podium another time. Both Lorenzo and Dovizioso are on form, and conditions should be favorable for them to make it three in a row. The only question is which of the two will outdo the other.
Of course, you could say that the only reason Ducati won at Silverstone last year is because the engine of Marc Márquez' Honda RC213V decided to self-destruct. Up until lap 14, on the run down towards Stowe, Márquez looked in control of the race, easily matching the pace of the front runners. Would he have won if his engine hadn't blown? We will never know. But if Marc Márquez is in the lead group on the last lap, the odds tend to be in his favor.
This year, the Spaniard has a better bike with more horsepower, and a little better acceleration. Márquez may be extending his lead in the championship each race, but he hasn't won for a while. With a 59 point lead in the title chase, Márquez may be tempted to take a risk, and Silverstone is as good a place to do that as any.
The Repsol Honda rider may find another Honda standing in his way. Cal Crutchlow believes he is in the form of his life, telling us in Austria that he was riding better than ever. He has a competitive bike, and the will to win at his home round. He is also not in any real contention for the championship, and may be tempted to take a chance if he is anywhere near the front towards the end of the race. This is a race Crutchlow has wanted to win for a long time, and he arrives at his home Grand Prix in the best situation to actually achieve that for many years.
Silverstone is nominally a Yamaha track, all of Jorge Lorenzo's wins at the circuit coming on the Yamaha, and the factory having racked up a string of podiums at the circuit. Last year, despite complaints that they couldn't manage their rear tire properly, the Movistar Yamaha team still managed to get both riders on the podium, with Johann Zarco the third Yamaha to cross the line in the top six.
The factory Yamaha team have just come off a test at Misano, where they worked on some electronics, and some setup issues. They did so with the help of new team addition Michele Gadda, Magneti Marelli electronics guru and the man sometimes credited with making the Yamaha WorldSBK R1 a much more competitive affair. How much difference can an electronics guru make in just a couple of tests? Probably not very much, but in a sport where the details count for a lot, not very much may be just enough.
Yamaha need a win. The Austrian GP at the Red Bull Ring marked 21 races in succession without victory. If Yamaha don't win at Silverstone, they will equal the longest run without a win in their history in the premier class. Silverstone is probably their best chance at bringing that shameful streak to an end.
Boys in blue
Will much of the focus will be on the current top three, it will be worth keeping an eye on the Suzukis. Two years ago, Suzuki got their first victory since their return to the premier class here, Maverick Viñales taking his first win in MotoGP. Last year was a write off for the Hamamatsu factory after the engineers got the crankshaft wrong, but the 2018 GSX-RR has proven to be extremely competitive.
Alex Rins and Andrea Iannone have also shown their mettle on the bike this year. Iannone is still fuming from being dropped by the Japanese factory, and wanting to prove his worth. He has done that on more than one occasion this year, proving once again that he is an incredibly talented rider. If only his attitude matched his talent, he would not be heading to Aprilia, and likely oblivion, in 2019.
Alex Rins has also proved his worth this season, but Rins' problem has been one of consistency. On his day, Rins is as fast as anyone on the grid. On a day which isn't his day, he is firmly mid-pack. Given the results of Suzuki throughout the year, it seems likely that the bike is not fully rounded enough to be competitive everywhere. But the GSX-RR is a proven winner at Silverstone. Can it do so again on Sunday?
The one positive thing for the MotoGP riders is that the race will take place at 1pm local time, to avoid a clash with F1 at Spa-Francorchamps in Belgium. That means the race will happen before Moto2, and so avoid having to take place on the layer of Dunlop rubber the Moto2 machines smear all over the surface. That should mean that the track is more consistent and less slippery at the start of the race, and perhaps assist notorious bad starters like Maverick Viñales. The altered schedule has not made much of a difference in the past. But in a series where the differences are so small, almost anything could turn out to be the deciding factor.
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