The next four MotoGP races are a glimpse of the sport's future. The first and last of the foursome, in Thailand and Malaysia, are truly in the heart of all MotoGP's tomorrows. The growth of the sport of motorcycle racing is explosive in Southeast Asia, and the expected crowds – already talk of crowds of up to 150,000 on Sunday – speak for themselves. If Indonesia ever manages to overcome the political instability and endemic corruption which plagues the country, and finally completes a circuit or two, we could be complaining of having four races in Indonesia, rather than Spain.
But the addition of a round at the Chang International Circuit in Buriram, Thailand highlights the issues with the current MotoGP schedule. The first five races of 2018 were spaced over 9 weeks. The last five races are crammed into just 6 weeks. By the time the MotoGP riders jump on their 2019 bikes, on the Tuesday after Valencia, they are exhausted, physically and emotionally, and ready for a break.
The timing of the Pacific flyaways is unfortunate in other ways too. The Thai round in Buriram takes place in early October, at the tail end of the rainy season. The Sepang round in Malaysia, in early November, takes place in Sepang's eastern monsoon season, with October and November being the wettest months in that part of Malaysia.
There are no easy answers to this conundrum – grouping the flyaways together is the most cost-effective way of handling this, and the European races are necessarily constrained to, roughly, April to September due to the climate and the amount of daylight. But as MotoGP adds races outside of Europe – obviously the right choice for the future of the sport – this problem will need addressing with growing urgency.
Come see the show
So far, the signs for the inaugural Thai MotoGP race in Buriram are good. The weather looks set fair, with no sign of the sometimes torrential rain which can hit the region. It will be hot, and it will be humid, but it should at least stay dry, for the most part. The fans who are expected to flock to Buriram deserve that, at least. That is a prospect which many riders are also looking forward to. "For me, I think I would like to see how many fans are coming here, how much they enjoy watching us," Dani Pedrosa said on Thursday. "I like when I go to places that they are amazed at what we do, and I'm looking forward to see how the fans react here."
Whether the layout of the track will give the fans the exciting racing they deserve is open to question. The evidence from the WorldSBK series is not promising. Four times the production championship has visited Buriram, and only in 2016 were the races close. But MotoGP is not WorldSBK, so there is hope.
All straights and corners
On paper, the track looks made for the Ducatis. At the end of the front straight, the bikes brake hard in a straight line, before tipping in to the tight right leading onto the second straight. The exit of the corner is crucial, as this is where the drive onto the back straight begins, all the way up through the gearbox, the bikes hitting 330km/h just after the slight kink of Turn 2, before braking hard for the hairpin of Turn 3. Once the hairpin has been rounded, it's back towards the grandstands on Buriram's third long straight, and the place where the fun begins. Turn 4 is a fast and fun left hander, with plenty of run off on the outside, daring riders to try to take it just a little bit faster, for kicks and for a lap time.
Two more left handers follow, the bike never off the side of the tire, before flicking back hard right through Turn 7. Another right hander and then brief respite, before the esses of Turns 9, 10, and 11, where the riders have to wrestle their machines from right to left to right. Another quick straight, and then down through the gears for the final corner, a slow, first gear right hander leading back onto the front straight.
Back at the test here in February, held at the behest of Michelin, Hondas dominated. Cal Crutchlow topped the first day, Marc Márquez the second, Dani Pedrosa the final day of the test. There were three Honda riders in the top five on the first day, a Repsol Honda one-two on the second, and three Hondas in the top four on the third day. Even more impressive was Marc Márquez' race pace, doing near race distance with a consistent run of 1'30s.
Testing means nothing
All that doesn't mean much now, though, according to Márquez. "We did the test in the winter time, but I think all manufacturers arrive now with a different balance, different bikes, and it will be interesting to understand which is the level of each one," he told the press conference.
"For sure the situation about the speed of the riders is a bit different than February, so everything can happen," Andrea Dovizioso agreed. "We did just the test, we didn’t race here, so we can’t know all the details and the tires are completely different than at the test," the Ducati rider said. Michelin has brought a more heat resistant tire to Thailand, after finding the temperatures in the rear were getting very high during the test.
It seems odd that the Hondas were so dominant at the test, given that on paper, Buriram looks like a Ducati track. Three long straights should be more than enough to kill off the opposition, though Honda's improvement on horsepower has certainly allowed them to catch up. Ducati's mediocre performance in February can perhaps be put down to the fact that it was just that, a test. Andrea Dovizioso and Jorge Lorenzo were testing chassis, and aerodynamics, and generally working through plans for the coming season.
No repeat for Lorenzo
Allied to this is the fact that it was at Buriram where Lorenzo lost his way in the preseason. The Spaniard got caught between two chassis, even going back to the 2017 bike in pursuit of some kind of feeling from the bike. Lorenzo left Thailand as sixteenth fastest, nearly a second back from fastest man Dani Pedrosa. Things were not looking good for his 2018 season.
Much has happened since then, of course. Several key changes to the bike transformed Lorenzo's year from disaster to triumph, with three wins to his name. Lorenzo's concern now is the foot injury he picked up in the first corner at Aragon, in an incident he still clearly blames on Marc Márquez. "For sure, I can guarantee you that if I was 100% here, I would be much faster than at the test," Lorenzo said on Thursday. "Because now the bike is much better, the bike now is much more in control, it has parts that I didn't have before, and I am in a good shape – I WAS in a good shape. Now, with this injury, it will be very tough. I don't know at the same level as the test, or even worse, or a little bit better. I hope a little bit better, if I am able to race."
With Lorenzo out, this has all the hallmarks of another Márquez versus Dovizioso slugfest. The Ducati is superior along the straights, but the Honda RC213V can probably stay with the GP18 in its slipstream. Márquez will have to push his advantage in agility through the second half of the circuit, and hope to arrive at the final corner ahead of Dovizioso. His record when arriving at the final corner with Dovizioso in front of him is not good, the Italian consistently getting the better of the reigning champion. That won't discourage him from trying, however.
The test is history
The man who was fastest at the test is a little less optimistic about matching his February performance. "I think the most important thing is to understand from the test here, now everybody has improved their bikes, their feeling," Pedrosa said. The way the season has played out will be a factor as well. "Also their state of mind is at a different point for everybody. So I think this is going to be the biggest difference. But apart from that, technically, I think that the biggest difference is that we have the different rear tire, with the safe construction, let's say. So that's what we have to see how it's working and what's the feeling with it, and we know there is less grip with this tire."
Pedrosa has struggled with the more heat resistant tires, his light weight making it difficult to get heat into the tires, and subsequently compromising grip. The fact that it is so hot in Thailand may help mitigate that, allowing him to try to run the soft rear tire. But it was all very much up in the air, he said. "It's difficult to know. I think today, you cannot trust the feeling until Sunday. Because as you saw in the last race, some riders, say three riders of the top five were on the soft rear. And the condition was also very hot. So the window is open, and it's better to have it open."
Keeping the heat out
Where Pedrosa struggles to get heat into his tires, Danilo Petrucci has the opposite problem. His issue has been that his tires get hot too early, raising tire pressures, and never cool down again. "For sure tire temperature will be an issue, more than other races, and for me it's always an issue," Petrucci said. "So during these two weeks, Ducati worked for me to understand which are the differences between me and Dovi and Jorge, who are faster than me, especially in the second half of the race."
The issue wasn't all down to the weight, Ducati had found. "They said that 70% is the riding style, 30% is the weight. For sure having more weight doesn't help you, but they watched on the data the whole race in Aragon, and they saw some small differences, especially when the tire became hotter. And I have to work on this part. And I have to use this race to understand how to ride the bike, and not overheat the tire."
Petrucci would have to alter his riding style to try to fix the problem, but he views this as part of preparing to the join the factory Ducati team next year. "It's not easy, because I have to change many, many things from the braking, and it's not a work that I can do in one race, for sure. But now we start to work for next year, from now, and it's quite good for me."
"My problem is that I go into the corner with too much speed," Petrucci explained. "Especially the last part. And the problem is that the turn is the same for everyone, and I go always a little bit wide. And on acceleration, I am wider on the line. If you check all the images, you see me going into the corner on braking with much speed, and going out wide. And this is good for one lap, it's good for five laps, but for 25 laps, not so much. So in a few words, I have to stop better the bike. And then, yes for sure I have to change the line, the way I pick up the bike, the way I open the throttle."
As the veteran of the series, a new circuit for MotoGP means adding another track to Valentino Rossi's tally. Buriram will be the 37th different track at which the Italian has raced a Grand Prix, according to Dr. Martin Raines. That is a testament to how the series has changed through the years, with just six tracks remaining on the calendar since Rossi first entered Grand Prix racing in 1996, though there have been significant changes. Mugello, Jerez, Brno, and Barcelona are all pretty much unchanged since Rossi's first season. Assen has been drastically shortened, and while the layout of the Red Bull Ring has not been changed since it was called the A1-Ring back in 1996, it has been closed, had grandstands and pit buildings demolished, and rebuilt again.
But neither Rossi nor Movistar Yamaha teammate hold out much hope of success in Thailand. Yamaha are in their worst slump since entering Grand Prix racing, now having gone 23 races since they last won a race. In addition, it has been four races since they were last on the podium, their worst record since 2007. Things are generally bleak, and Maverick Viñales' terse responses to questions on Thursday merely underlined the mood in the factory Yamaha team. "I have zero expectations. I want to just enjoy riding and see if we can take something positive from this weekend," he said.
Michelin's tire selection was not giving Viñales much reason for hope. "I think it’s going to be really hard here because already in the test the grip was really down and here they have brought harder compounds, like Austria," he said. "We struggle with these hard types of tires. But anyway, let’s see. I have made no expectations in my mind. I’ll try to go, give my feeling and see if we can be happy or positive."
Despite all their difficulties, Valentino Rossi is still third in the championship. "With the speed that we demonstrate during the season to be on the third position is a good achievement at this moment," Rossi told the press conference. Holding on to third will be difficult, despite a 29-point lead over Maverick Viñales and Jorge Lorenzo. Lorenzo's injury may give Rossi breathing space to hold off the challenge of the Ducati rider.
Whether Lorenzo will race is still to be seen. Both he and KTM rider Pol Espargaro, recovering from surgery to plate his collarbone, were passed fit by circuit doctors on Thursday. But being passed fit and managing pain for 26 laps are two very different kettles of fish.
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