It's been a long season. The difference between 18 and 19 rounds is more than the 5.5% increase it implies. The wear and tear of 19 races – well, 18 races and a day of hanging around in the rain at Silverstone – has taken its toll on the bikes, on the riders, on the teams, on the paddock. So what better way to round the season off with a giant party at the Circuito Ricardo Tormo near Valencia?
There are probably half a dozen or more places better suited to holding the last race of a MotoGP season. Phillip Island would be warmer, and guarantee an exciting race. Jerez would be less likely to see heavy rain or cold temperatures. South Africa, Argentina, even Sepang or Thailand would be more suitable, in terms of climate.
Yet Valencia still has an awful lot going for it. The track might be too tight for MotoGP bikes, but it sits in a bowl, forming a natural amphitheater, giving the fans in the stands a view of every part of the track. The fans turn up, too: 100,000 or more, creating a real party atmosphere, exactly what you need at an end of season race. The fact that it is under four hours from Barcelona, Dorna's base, meaning that most Dorna staff can sleep in their own beds on Sunday night (or for the lucky ones, on Monday, after Sunday night's prize-giving ceremony and blowout party) is a bonus.
The amphitheater the Ricardo Tormo circuit sits in also puts physical constraints on the layout of the track. Yet the circuit designers have managed to squeeze 4005 meters of tarmac – more than enough to qualify for Grand Prix length – into a 1500 x 750 meter rectangle. They did it by continually coiling the track back on itself, like a wayward strand of spaghetti.
The track starts with the long front straight starting from a first-gear corner. The bikes climb all the way up through the gears to hit over 330 km/h, before braking hard for the left hander of Turn 1. This is the easiest place to try to overtake, but braking from high speed down to a tight corner means it is all too easy to run wide, and let your prey swoop back underneath you on the exit of the first corner. Another short straight follows, and a second tight left, almost a hairpin, and another good spot to attempt an overtake.
A fast flick left at Turn 3, and then danger beckons. Two right-hand turns follow, Turns 4 and 5, the first time the right-hand side of the tires have touched the tarmac since Turn 12, nearly 2 kilometers and 45 seconds earlier. Cold tire crashes await the unwary, and so caution is needed, carefully holding a tight line against attack, before heading back to the grandstands and the tight left of Turn 6.
Building to a crescendo
From there, we are back onto the left-hand side of the tire again, a fast left into a long, tight hairpin, and then another kink left at Turn 9. That corner is the first part of the nearest thing Valencia has to a chicane, the track flicking right again at Turn 10. A long right hairpin follows, before a short back straight coming into Turn 12, another right hander, but a more treacherous one, as riders approach at greater speed and have to brake harder, before flicking right and then hauling the bike over to the left for Turn 13.
That turn – you cannot really call it a corner, as it seems to go on for ever – is the crowning jewel of the Valencia circuit, and one of the finest turns in the championship. Heeled hard over on the left of the tire, you climb up a gentle slope, then power over it and back down again, balancing the rear with the throttle, finding the line between drive and turning, eating up the left-hand side of the tire. It is the reason Michelin brings specially constructed tires to Valencia, with a much harder compound on the left than on the right, to balance the wear on the left with the need for heat on the right.
As if that corner wasn't difficult enough, at the end of it, you have to start braking hard while the bike is still leaned over, ready to take the tight final corner, Turn 14. At the same time, you face a tricky choice: leave anyone even a sliver of room, and they will be straight up the inside and past again. For the rider behind, it is a risky place to attempt a pass, though it is clearly possible. The question is whether you can hang on to the bike and prevent yourself from running wide and losing the place you have just gained.
Go fast, turn left
All those left-hand corners mean one thing: anyone with a background in dirt track has a distinct advantage. Turn 13, especially, separates the sheep from the goats. The late, lamented Nicky Hayden remains the defining sight at that corner, the rear of his Repsol Honda hanging way out wide, the American drifting his way through the turn.
Though Hayden is sadly gone, there are still a couple of riders who can lay claim to his legacy. Jack Miller grew up racing dirt track in Australia, and likes his tracks to go left. "There are tracks you enjoy and there are tracks you really love riding," the Pramac Ducati rider said. "This is one of those ones which you really love riding. It's left handed, and I'm not bad at going round left-hand corners!"
And then there's Marc Márquez, of course. Márquez' record on tracks which go left is out of this world: Phillip Island, Austin, Sachsenring, Aragon, Valencia, if he lines up on the grid there, he wins over 70% of the time, veteran American journalist Dennis Noyes calculated. He wins roughly 25% of the time when he has to turn right – no mean feat – but turning left he is pretty much unbeatable.
It is strange, then, that Valencia is a track where he has had so relatively few wins. The Repsol Honda has finished on the top step only twice at the Ricardo Tormo circuit, though he has stood on the podium a further four times. Where does this discrepancy come from? In 2013 and 2017, Márquez was still trying to wrap up a championship, and so had no room to take risks. But the nature of the track hasn't really suited the nature of the Honda RC213V over the years either: too much acceleration from slow corners meant the bike was too prone to wheelies, and at a track where drive out of the final corner is so crucial, that frustrated Márquez' attempts at getting past the riders he was fighting with.
His teammate has fared a little better at the circuit, Dani Pedrosa winning four times over the years in MotoGP, including victory at Valencia in the final race of last season. But even Pedrosa has struggled in recent seasons: from 2007 to 2009, he was the man to beat, finish either first or second, and then first and second again in 2012 and 2013. But he has not looked such a daunting prospect in the last four seasons, managing podiums, but having to put up a fight to get there.
Yet this is a race Pedrosa will want to win. Valencia 2017 was the Spaniard's last win, and his last podium, 2018 having been a very difficult year indeed. This is the final race of Pedrosa's long and illustrious career, cementing his place in MotoGP history, and being named a MotoGP Legend in a ceremony at Valencia on Thursday. If Pedrosa doesn't win on Sunday, 2018 will be his first season without a win since his first year in Grand Prix racing back in 2001. If he doesn't get a podium, it will be the first time in his career that he finishes a season without having gotten on the rostrum a single time. That, in itself, is a mark of his greatness.
Pedrosa faces an uphill task. The weather forecast for this weekend is dismal, with heavy rain forecast for Friday and Sunday, and a decent chance of rain on Saturday as well. We got a taste on Thursday of the weather to come: thunder and lightning wracked the circuit, with heavy rain putting the track under water, and electrical surges from the thunderstorm cutting power to the hospitality units throughout the day. The rain was so heavy that at one point, the roof of the media center sprung a leak, journalists forced to dodge a trickle of water as they entered or left. You know it's bad when the print and online journalists are getting just as wet as the photographers.
The rain has been the Achilles heel of the Yamahas in recent years, yet Maverick Viñales was extremely confident. Boosted by a win at Phillip Island and a return to being competitive during the flyaway races, the Movistar Yamaha rider felt that he could run at the front at Valencia, rain or shine. "I think we did a great improvement," Viñales said of the overseas races, "and I'm really happy and confident that here in Valencia, we can do it there, even if it rains. Because in Malaysia we tried the bike with a really different setup in the rain, and I felt great."
Viñales had used a new seat unit from Motegi, but that had not been the key to the improvement they had found, he said. "The only thing I tested that was different was the seat, which is more narrow. So it makes it easier to go side to side on the bike, so that's the only part. But basically it was basic setup, just more weight on the rear, trying to make the rear tire work, and it helped for me. I ride a lot with the gas always, so when I have grip I can do really good, but when I don't have grip, for me it's really difficult. So I mean, we are trying to understand better also the Michelin tires. I don't think we still know everything about the tires, so we need to investigate and try to follow in this line we are following now."
This is a remarkable turnaround in mood for Viñales, who was morose for much of the season. But the change in fortunes during the flyaways had left both him and teammate Valentino Rossi looking forward to Tuesday with more eagerness than usual. They had high hopes of the new bike, and of the improvements which could come. "For me it's better because I'm excited, I'm motivated, I'm really happy to start the new season, trying to change a little bit the way to work," Viñales said.
Looking to the future
Yamaha will have a new engine to test from Tuesday, based on the engine first tried after Aragon. "I have a new engine, but it's something similar to what I tried in Aragon, which I liked," Viñales told us. "So yeah, I'm really happy that Yamaha followed a little bit the line I felt, and I think it's going to be really important to continue."
Even Valentino Rossi was already thinking about testing, rather than the race on Sunday. "We still have a lot of work to do during the winter and we always try to push for the maximum for something to try," Rossi told the press conference. "The next two or three months will be important moments to try to understand for next year to see if we can be more competitive."
It is perhaps not so surprising that Rossi is not thinking about Sunday's race. Valencia has been a bogey track for the Italian for a very long time now. He has only won here twice from eighteen attempts in the premier class, a relatively poor record for a rider so used to winning. Those two victories came back in 2003 and 2004, a very long time ago. His last podium at Valencia dates from 2014, and that was a solitary uptick ending a three-year drought. At Sepang, Valentino Rossi demonstrated that he is as fast and impressive as he ever was, perhaps even faster than ever. But Valencia is just not his track, and this has just not been his year.
Rossi's experience at Valencia stands in stark contrast to his former teammate's. Jorge Lorenzo was outstanding on the Yamaha round the Ricardo Tormo circuit, winning in four of his nine appearances. Even last year on the Ducati, Lorenzo looked very strong, despite the debacle of Ducati almost begging him to move out of the way to let Andrea Dovizioso past, so he could try to chase down Marc Márquez. In the end, both Dovizioso and Lorenzo crashed out, making the dispute meaningless, and perhaps defraying the tension. But the fact that Lorenzo was so much quicker than Dovizioso for much of the race showed just how much difference racing at a circuit he loves makes.
This year, Lorenzo faces a different challenge. He has the bike sorted to his taste, but he is fresh off surgery to fix tendon damage in his wrist, sustained in a huge crash in Thailand. He tried to ride in Sepang, but was unable, leading to some snide comments from his teammate Dovizioso, and a strong reaction on Twitter from Lorenzo. Ducati management had to bang heads to defuse the situation, and an uneasy peace has been restored.
Can Lorenzo be competitive at Valencia? "I will be riding on Sunday," the Spaniard told the press conference. "I think I’m quite well to be able to ride, in Sepang I wasn’t or I wasn’t able to fight for anything important; the top ten or even top 15. I was too slow. But the injury has improved a lot in the last ten days, so now I feel good enough to try to achieve the best result possible for the team. Maybe the rain will help me a bit to not stress the injury too much in the recovery too."
It will be an emotional race for the Spaniard, as he ends a chapter of highs and lows with Ducati. The switch from the comfortable Yamaha to the beast of a Ducati had been much harder than he had hoped, Lorenzo said. "The first person I had to demonstrate something to was myself, but not even that because I always believed I can go fast on any bike. It's just a question of time," he told the press conference. "We’ve seen changing bikes in MotoGP is very difficult, the level is so high and every small bit of time is so important. In tenths you go from winning to losing ten positions. It was just a matter of time, and with that time I showed I was competitive enough to win races. Not fighting for the target I wanted to achieve at Ducati, but here the good moments were very good and I want to give them the last present of a good race on Sunday."
Dark horses on parade
The rain could throw up plenty of dark horses on Sunday. Danilo Petrucci is outstanding in the rain, and is another rider leaving his team, and wanting to show his gratitude with a strong result. "It’s very emotional," the Pramac Ducati rider said. "It’s the last race for me in this team. Four years ago, when Francesco Guidotti called me at the end of September, my thoughts for the future were that I would never have another MotoGP race in my life. In my brain I said I tried in MotoGP, and I was not successful. But then after four years this team permitted me to stay here, to score some podiums, to become a factory rider. It’s very sad to leave. I’m very happy to have arrived at this point of my career."
Even a rider such as Scott Redding, finishing his MotoGP career after a disastrous year with Aprilia, could be a factor. Whenever it has rained heavily, Redding has been a feature, finishing second in the rain in FP2 at the Red Bull Ring, almost making it out of Q1 when it rained in Sepang. Redding leaves MotoGP with no regrets – well, only one, that he missed out on winning the Moto2 title in 2013 – but if he has a chance to shine in the rain, he will not pass it up.
Could Redding really get on the podium, or even win at Valencia? Stranger things have happened. It even rained in the media center here on Thursday, so all bets are off.
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