Analysis

2018 Motegi MotoGP Saturday Round Up: A Costly Mistake, Marquez vs Dovi Again, And The Split In Yamaha

Qualifying is a tricky business at the best of times. Having qualifying just half an hour after FP4 – that is, if you don't have to pass through Q1 – makes it even more complicated. That final session of practice is the only chance to work on setup without worrying about getting through to Q2 – and in my book, makes it the most interesting session of practice all weekend. But that also means that if you want to compare two different setups, FP4 is the session you do it. After FP4, you have thirty minutes to get two bikes ready for qualifying, with identical setups.

There is little room for error. Should you, say, crash in FP4 on the bike with your preferred setup, as Marc Márquez did at Motegi, then it makes qualifying complicated. Even if you get the bike back to the pits quickly, your team probably won't be able to get the bike back ready to race in time for the start of Q2. And if your second bike uses a very different setup – some combination of a different rear link, a different offset, different rear shock, say – then your team might not have time to change it all back again to the way you want it.

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2018 Motegi MotoGP Friday Round Up: Losing Lorenzo, Dovizioso's Stable Base, And A Yamaha Revival

Will we see a Ducati vs Honda showdown at Motegi? After the first day of practice at the Japanese track, it looks like that is still on, though we lost one potential protagonist. Jorge Lorenzo went out to test how well his injured wrist would hold up, but found his wrist unwilling to play ball. He did two out laps, but couldn't cope with the immense strain which the braking zones at Motegi – the toughest on the calendar – put on him. After those two laps, Lorenzo decided to withdraw from the Japanese Grand Prix.

"Yesterday my feelings weren’t very positive and unfortunately today I had confirmation not only of the pain, but also that there was a serious risk of making the fracture worse," he said afterwards. "On hard braking I couldn't push with my left wrist and I had a lot of pain in the left corners and especially in the change of direction. I wasn't fast, I wasn't comfortable and I wasn't safe, so there was no meaning to continue."

Despite the loss of Lorenzo, Ducati are still in a very comfortable position, Andrea Dovizioso having finished the day as fastest, despite sitting out FP2. The Italian wasn't alone in that choice: Marc Márquez, Cal Crutchlow, Pol Espargaro, and Jordi Torres all elected to skip the afternoon session, which started out damp, the track never really drying out fully by the end of the session, though half the field managed to squeeze in a couple of slow laps on slicks on a drying track at the end of the session.

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Freddie Spencer To Lead FIM Stewards: The Politics Of MotoGP Disciplinary Bodies

Once upon a time, disciplinary measures in MotoGP were simple. If a rider was felt to have transgressed the rules, they were hauled up before the Race Director and given a punishment, and that was just about the end of it. Sometimes, riders appealed against those judgments, and sometimes, the FIM even found in their favor.

But times change, cultures change, social mores change. What was once regarded as acceptable is now frowned upon. Physical contact and riding with the intent to obstruct others became less and less acceptable. Suspected transgressions were examined more closely and judged more harshly. The increase in the number of cameras covering the track, and the vast improvement in resolution and picture quality, helped identify more potential offenders. In turn, this created more pressure on Race Direction to punish these transgressions.

Then came Sepang 2015. When the two biggest names clash on the track amid a bitter personal feud, then the pressure on the series organizers to treat the situation with kid gloves becomes almost unbearable. In the fallout of that ugly incident, Race Direction was reorganized, and the disciplinary duties moved to a separate body, the FIM Panel of Stewards. The official explanation was that this would allow Race Direction to get on with the job of managing the race, while the Stewards could focus on assessing whether a particular action needed to be punished or not.

The Forever War

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2018 Motegi MotoGP Preview: Dovizioso vs Marquez, The Rematch?

MotoGP's Asia-Pacific races tend to get lumped together in the popular imagination. They are "The Flyaways", formerly three, now four races in parts East, a long way away from the homes of the vast majority of the paddock. The triple header – Motegi, Phillip Island, Sepang – is especially susceptible to this, as the three back-to-back races tend to leave the paddock in a state of constant befuddlement, fatigued from jet lag, and spending much of their time on 8+ hour flights between the various venues. Everything tends to become one big blur.

Yet there are vast differences between all four flyaways. Leaving the crushing heat of Thailand, the paddock heads east to Motegi, a track where conditions can be almost Northern European, with mist, rain, and cold mornings. Across the equator to Australia, and the edge of the Bass Strait, from a massive circuit complex to an old-fashioned facility perched on a cliff above the sea, from stop and go to fast and flowing. Then north again to Malaysia, and more oppressive tropical heat.

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2018 San Juan Villicum Round Up: What We Learned In Argentina

WorldSBK's South American adventure saw the history books once again rewritten by Jonathan Rea, with the Northern Irishman claiming a tenth consecutive victory. The world champion claimed a comfortable win on Saturday, the series' first ever race in Argentina, but after a weekend of cleaning a dirty and dusty track, it was the temperature that caused problems on Sunday.

With over 43°C temperatures on the asphalt, it was as slick a surface as many riders could remember, with overnight rain also washing away any rubber that had been put down on the surface. It was easy to make a mistake, and coming from the third row of the grid Rea certainly made his fair share in the early laps. Once on clear track, however, he was imperious and comfortably the fastest man on track. He used this advantage to charge down Xavi Fores and claim a historic double that broke the long-standing record of Colin Edwards (2002) and Neil Hodgson (2003) for most consecutive victories in WorldSBK.

Digging Deep

Rea had to earn the win though. The Kawasaki rider spent Saturday night in the throes of a stomach virus, and by race day morning he was weak and tired. Spending the afternoon hydrating and trying to stay as relaxed as possible, he was likely glad of the later race start time and the extra time to be ready for action.

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Discovering The San Juan Villicum WorldSBK Track With Eugene Laverty

The Circuit San Juan Villicum has surprised everyone in the WorldSBK paddock this weekend. With the Andes Mountain range offering one of the most picturesque backgrounds in all of racing, this brand new facility has instantly added a unique circuit to the championship.

The 4.2km circuit has received positive feedback from the riders and teams, and Milwaukee Aprilia's Eugene Laverty offered us his perspective of the track.

“I think that they've done a really nice job with this track and I've been quite impressed with it,” said the Irishman. “It took a day to rubber the track in, but in FP4 it has really started to offer more grip and we could start to push on. Over the start finish line we're able to hold fourth over the start finish straight, it's a bit too slow an exit from the final corner with low RPM to need fifth gear for us, but we're back to first for turn one.

“There's a steep descent into this corner, like at Portimao, and it's tricky going into that corner, but coming around Turn 2 it opens up and we're into second and then through the kink we'll hold second gear even though some riders are able to get into third for it. It's really nice through the faster section as you take third and fourth gear through the sweeping corners, and it's similar to Misano into Turn 6 and 7.”

Passing spot

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Perspectives On A Brand New Circuit - The Rider, The Crew Chief, And The Tire Company

A new circuit presents new challenges for everyone in the paddock. Whether its riders learning the layout, engineers understanding the compromises required of the track, or the challenges facing a tire manufacturer, a new circuit has so many variables.

This weekend in Argentina, the WorldSBK paddock will face that task. For a rider, the build up is spent trying to learn the track with videos or track maps. For an engineer, they'll use the information to hand, length of straights and corner design, to try to come up with a baseline setting for the weekend.

“Usually it's quite easy to learn a new track,” explained Pata Yamaha's Alex Lowes. “We ride at so many tracks that after a handful of laps you typically know the layout and understand where you need to be. I've always been quite good at learning new tracks; if I think back to 2014 and my rookie season in WorldSBK I was up to speed quite quickly at circuits that I hadn't ridden at before.

“There's a lot of ways that you can try to speed up the process and the easiest is to find some on-board laps from circuits or old race footage. Even from the cameras around the circuit you learn a lot about the lines and where you have to be. Obviously, for this weekend in Argentina we don't have a lot of information to use because it's brand new, but we have enough information to know what to expect.”

Grinding gears

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2018 Buriram MotoGP Post-Race Round Up: Of Legendary Rivalries, Yamaha's Issues, And Welcome Additions

Is the Chang International Circuit a great track? It depends how you look at it. "The Buriram circuit is really, really good, the asphalt is working in a good way with hot conditions, that is not easy. Also the runoff areas are really good, the pit boxes," Marc Márquez said, carefully avoiding any discussion of the layout. Andrea Dovizioso was not exactly complimentary about the layout. "The track is not the best in our championship, but at the end, everything works well." Hardly gushing praise.

It may not be the best track layout in the championship, but it served up a veritable feast of racing. Two scintillating support races, with fierce battles both in Moto3 and Moto2, and then the fifth closest podium in premier class racing, and the fourth closest top 15 in Grand Prix history, the gap between first and fifteenth just under 24 seconds. The last three laps of the MotoGP race were all-out war, with the lead swapping multiple times as a result of impossible passes. And over 100,000 fans braving the searing heat, cheering on their heroes with as much passion as you will find anywhere in the world. Is the Chang International Circuit a great track? It is when you measure it in terms of spectacle and atmosphere. The Thai Grand Prix is a worthy addition to the calendar.

The layout may not be fast and flowing throughout, but the fact that it is split into two halves with very different characters helped to keep the field close. The necessity to preserve tires did the same: Michelin had prepared for a cooler monsoon heat, not the unusual dry heat which meant track temperatures were 10°C higher than anticipated. All this, combined with a final corner ideally suited to do-or-die passing attempts, and a short run to the line meaning it really had to be all or nothing going into the final turn, and we had a recipe for fantastic racing in Thailand.

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2018 Buriram MotoGP Saturday Round Up: The Heat Tests Tires, Strange Conditions Aiding The Yamahas, And Whether Gambles Will Pay Off

So far, the inaugural Thai round of MotoGP has been full of surprises. We expected heavy rain at the track on most days, but it has been pretty much dry as a bone throughout. We expected Yamaha to be nowhere, yet the Movistar duo of Maverick Viñales and Valentino Rossi have looked seriously threatening all weekend. We expected the round to be popular: the only surprise here is just how popular it has been. An estimated 65,000 fans came to watch qualifying on Saturday. To put that into perspective, that is more fans for qualifying than fans on race day at six of last year's rounds. Nearly twice as many as fans on race day at Phillip Island. Sunday should be packed, with a good chance that this will be the round with the highest attendance.

The hot weather has taken Michelin by surprise as well, not for the first time this year. That is hardly Michelin's fault, however: after they introduced several changes during the 2017 season, the teams demanded that Michelin set the tire allocation at the start of the year. That demand is coming back to bite the teams, as it is hard to get the allocation absolutely spot on if you have to predict the weather many months in advance. The hot European summer has caused problems on occasion, and now the heat in Thailand is doing the same.

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2018 Buriram MotoGP Round Up: Yamaha's Mysterious Speed, Lorenzo's Mysterious Highside, And Marquez' Speed On The Soft

One of the best ways of avoiding disappointments is to lower your expectations. Set the bar low enough, and it becomes almost impossible for reality slip below it. That has been the strategy adopted by Maverick Viñales recently, and with good reason: Yamaha's run of form recently has been pretty dismal. No podiums for four races, their longest run off the box since 2007. No victory for 23 straight races, the worst losing streak in their entire history in the premier class.

"I feel more positive about myself, but the expectations are the same," Viñales said on Thursday. "I have zero expectations. I want to just enjoy riding and see if we can take something positive from this weekend." It was a message which he repeated on Friday. "As I said, I don't want to make any expectations. I just want to go riding, enjoy."

There had been plenty for Viñales to enjoy. The Movistar Yamaha rider's expectations may have been set low, but he far exceeded them. In the morning, Viñales was fastest, with his teammate Valentino Rossi in second. In the afternoon, Viñales missed out on the top spot by three hundredths of a second, but Andrea Dovizioso only beat Viñales by putting on a fresh set of soft tires. Viñales had been circulating on hard tires, and lapping consistently in the low 1'31s.

Pundits proved wrong again

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