A sense of dread must fill the hearts of senior MotoGP staff as they head to Argentina each year. There is so much to love about the round – one of the best race track layouts in the world, and probably the best atmosphere at any race – and yet somehow, the Fates always find a way to cause controversy, filling the media and fan chatter with debate about rules, regulations, and anything but the actual racing.
Since MotoGP first returned to Argentina in 2014, we have had customs hold ups, a collision between Valentino Rossi and Marc Márquez, rear tires blistering and shedding rubber, compulsory pit stops, complaints about bumps causing riders to crash out, start line chaos, another collision between Marc Márquez and Valentino Rossi (and between Marc Márquez and a whole bunch of other riders), just to mention a few things in no particular order. On more than one occasion, the Argentina round of MotoGP has forced adjustments to the rules, or clarification on how the rules are applied. As sure as night follows day, intense criticism (whether deserved or not) of Race Direction follows a MotoGP race at Termas de Rio Hondo.
So why would 2019 be any different? Sitting on the starting grid as the starting lights came on, Cal Crutchlow balanced his LCR Honda RC213V on his tiptoes, and inadvertently rolled his toes forward, moving the bike imperceptibly forward a few centimeters. Just as that happened, the lights went out, and the pack tore off towards Turn 1.
Here is the video from Race Direction showing Crutchlow’s jump start at the #ArgentinaGP
The explanation of how he was penalised for this can be found under article 1.18 section 14 of the rule book (see the tweet below for full description). pic.twitter.com/1zWN2PG0pO
— MotoGP™ 🇦🇷 (@MotoGP) March 31, 2019
A couple of laps later, Race Direction issued a ride through penalty. Crutchlow had anticipated the start, in violation of section 1.14.18 of the FIM MotoGP Sporting Regulations, and punished with the penalty stated explicitly in the rules. His race was effectively over, any chance of a podium – a realistic option, given the pace he produced both in practice and the race – gone for good.
After the race, Crutchlow was understandably furious, though he had no choice but to accept the penalty, as there is no right of appeal in those cases. "I had to accept it, because if I didn't I would have got a black flag," Crutchlow said.
Crutchlow rejected the idea he had made a false start. "They said I jumped the start," he said. "If you look at the side camera, which is what they showed me, I moved. But not even a centimeter, I'm balancing on my toes. It's not that I've released the clutch. Because when I released the clutch, we can show that the clutch is fully to the bar, and then I released the clutch once. So the gap, if there's a big gap from the clutch lever to the bite of the clutch, it's not that I'm holding it on the bike and rolling it, I'm rolling it on my toes."
Not so fast, Freddie
Crutchlow was most critical of the head of the FIM Stewards, Freddie Spencer. Spencer was brought in as an ex-world champion to give a racer's insight into situations which might arise on track, and Crutchlow was furious that Spencer couldn't see the incident from his point of view. "This is a joke as far as I'm concerned," Crutchlow fumed. "Somebody who has been brought in to understand racing, and understand the racer's point of view with regards to passing, with regards to incidents on the track, as far as I'm concerned he should … I'm not saying, give me the benefit of the doubt, because I did nothing wrong. I'm not rolling at all. I'm literally balancing on my toe. It's just ridiculous, completely ridiculous."
He realized he couldn't change the outcome, Crutchlow said, but was happy with how he had ridden. "I can't change it. I have to be proud of my race, because I think I did a good race to come through from where I did, and still get some points. The worst thing as it was a great start, a fantastic start."
The LCR Honda rider's main objection was that he had been handed a penalty for an infringement he believed would have been overlooked if a bigger name rider had been guilty of. "My problem that I have with Race Direction is that I don't believe they would have given this penalty to Marc, Vale, Dovi, or someone like that. And that's the truth."
Challenged on whether Spencer and the FIM Stewards would have punished Marc Márquez or Valentino Rossi, Crutchlow repeated his belief. "Because I don't think he would have. It's as simple as that," he said. "Do you think he would have given Valentino a ride through? I'm not picking on Valentino or any one rider, I'm talking about somebody with a high profile. I don't believe he would have. Say Marc had done that, and he was leading the race, do you think he would have given him a ride through? I don't. That's my opinion though. Of course he's going to say he would, but I don't agree with that."
What irked Crutchlow, he repeated, was that Spencer was unable to see the incident from Crutchlow's perspective, and had no leeway to use his discretion. "He's made a fantastic name for himself in his role," the LCR Honda rider said. "I have the utmost respect for what he did as a rider, but the Safety Commission, these guys, we asked for somebody that understands racing, that's going to have some discretion and understanding of the rules and what's gaining and what's not gaining, what's bad passes and what's not bad passes. It's just ridiculous. Absolutely ridiculous."
Rules are rules
The problem for Crutchlow is that the rules are clear. Here is the section in question:
Any rider who anticipates the start will be required to carry out the ride through described under article 1.19.
The motorcycle must be stationary at the time the red lights are turned off. Anticipation of the start is defined by the motorcycle moving forward at the time the red lights are turned off.
In the case of a minor movement and subsequent stop whilst the red lights are on, the designated officials will be the sole judge of whether an advantage has been gained.
If Crutchlow had applied the brakes or stopped moving, he would not have been punished. But he was rolling forward, and the rules say that any forward motion is a jump start. And the only penalty for a jump start is a ride through. No exceptions, no discretion, no leeway.
It is clear from the video footage that Crutchlow gained no advantage from the start, though he himself said it was one of his best starts. The bike leaps off the line, but it is clearly only under power once the lights are dimmed. Crutchlow's machine lifts the front in chorus with the rest of the riders around him, and his rear wheel crossed the grid markings half a wheel length ahead of LCR teammate Takaaki Nakagami's.
Crime and punishment
Even if we take the 25 cm or so by which Crutchlow led his teammate as an advantage unfairly gained, a ride through penalty is wildly disproportionate. Crutchlow lost 25 seconds in the pits with his ride through, the Analysis timesheets show. The penalty hardly seems to fit the crime.
"Well, we know that the penalty doesn't fit THAT crime," Crutchlow expostulated. "If you jump the start, and just set off like a madman, then I understand a ride through. And the penalty is a ride through. So I have to accept it. But that penalty today didn't fit the crime for sure, because I didn't jump the start."
It wasn't just Crutchlow who suffered because of the penalty, though a podium would have meant a hefty payday, with bonuses from his team and from his sponsors. It was the team, who lost points in the team standings, and Honda, who lost out on a podium. Crutchlow felt alternative punishments should be explored, he said. "It needs looking at, because it's just ruined a whole Grand Prix for 50 staff and me. All the HRC engineers, all my engineers that have turned up. For him to make a stupid decision like that, it's just wrecked a whole Grand Prix. And it's just missed me the opportunity of a podium, which if you look at the pace was there."
That Crutchlow was on for a podium is fairly indisputable. The LCR Honda rider crossed the line 21.582 seconds behind Valentino Rossi. The ride through had cost him a little over 25 seconds. The arithmetic of the situation is inexorable.
Cal Crutchlow wasn't the only rider to get a good start, though he was the only one punished for anticipating it. Marc Márquez had two strategies going into the race in Argentina, and plan A had been to try to get away at the start. Starting from pole gave the Spaniard his best opportunity to bring that plan to fruition, and when the lights went out, that's exactly what he did. Marc Márquez fired off the line and into Turn 1 in the lead, Ducati's Andrea Dovizioso not getting close enough to mount a challenge.
From that moment on, Márquez was flat out. By the end of the first lap, his advantage was already over a second, helped in part by the battle between Valentino Rossi and Andrea Dovizioso behind him. Clear of any opposition from behind, Márquez laid down the kind of punishing pace he had displayed in practice. The only rider to stay consistently in the 1'39s, he built out his lead at astronomical pace. 4 seconds by the end of lap 5, 7 seconds at the end of lap 10, 10.5 seconds at the end of lap 15.
Márquez' lead was unassailable after lap 3, and it rose steadily to over 12.7 seconds in the final laps. Only then did the Repsol Honda rider ease off, eventually winning the race by 9.816 seconds, his biggest winning margin in a dry race. It would have been more, too, if he hadn't sat up and cruised through the final sector, celebrating. This was a display of utter dominance.
It was a plan perfectly executed, Márquez told the press conference afterward. "I had plan A, that was a good start and pushing from the beginning, or plan B, that was a not so good start because you never know Ducati with that holeshot system. I was thinking if they start first I will save the tires in the beginning and push in the end." Plan B was never needed, Márquez said. "I saw in the first laps that there was plus 0.7, maybe a little bit more, and then just I keep pushing. Especially in the beginning is where I make the biggest difference because in the end of course I was not pushing on my 100% because I was trying to manage the risk."
Victory in Argentina was a timely win too. The next race is at the Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas. Márquez has not been beaten on US soil since 2011, having won every race held at COTA, all three MotoGP races and both Moto2 races he competed in at Indianapolis, and the last US GP held at Laguna Seca in his rookie season. The question is not so much whether Márquez will win in Austin, but what his margin of victory will be.
That sets Márquez up nicely for the 2019 championship. Already leading Andrea Dovizioso by 4 points, 45-41, he is almost certain to head back to Europe with a comfortable lead of 9 points or more. That should serve both as a strong foundation and a comfortable buffer or the meat of the 2019 season. With 17 race left in the championship, Márquez' sixth MotoGP title is still a very long way from being in the bag. But it is hard to regard him as anything other than the odds on favorite.
Free lap time
That is no doubt in part due to the increased performance of the 2019 Honda RC213V. After Márquez was fastest at Qatar, Cal Crutchlow was only 1 km/h slower than Jack Miller on the Ducati. Top speed isn't everything in motorcycle racing – Yamaha have an overflowing trophy cabinet proving that point – but top speed is basically free lap time, as riders will tell you. It is time gained without having to risk crashing over the front under braking, or sliding out using excess corner speed.
In previous years, Márquez had to ride a knife-edge of pushing the front tire to the limit in an attempt to mask the weakness in acceleration and top speed. HRC have addressed those two concerns over the past couple of years, meaning Márquez can ride without skating along the edge of the abyss all the time. That will be a concern for anyone hoping to get between him and the championship this year.
If victory in Argentina was a foregone conclusion after the first corner, the battle behind more than made up for it. It showcased the nature of the Termas track, a group of riders battling on a variety of machines and yet never able to open up enough of a gap to break away. Andrea Dovizioso and Jack Miller on Ducatis, Valentino Rossi, Franco Morbidelli, and after a while, Maverick Viñales on Yamahas, Alex Rins on a Suzuki, while at times, Takaaki Nakagami looked like closing in on the leaders.
Level playing field
Andrea Dovizioso led the initial charge, with Jack Miller in his wake, the two Ducatis trying to keep Márquez in their sights. But once the back straight was passed, where Ducati's horsepower reigned, the Yamahas came into their own, Valentino Rossi snatching back third from Miller on the way into Turn 7.
Maverick Viñales followed swiftly after, but the Spaniard would not hold onto his position. Viñales dropped back through the field over the next couple of laps, and would spend the race vacillating between seventh and eighth place. He would never be more than a couple of seconds off the battle for the podium, but Viñales, who started from second, would never actually feature in the podium fight.
While Viñales went backwards, his teammate took the fight to Andrea Dovizioso. Dovizioso led the chasing pack in the opening laps, while the group scrapped over the right to take on the Factory Ducati rider. Valentino Rossi looked to be the strongest of the group behind, which included Jack Miller, Franco Morbidelli, Danilo Petrucci, and until he had to pull in to do his ride through, Cal Crutchlow.
Fast here, slow there
No single rider clearly had the upper hand, though Miller and Rossi were the most prominent in the scrap. Miller would use the top speed of the Ducati down the back straight, while Rossi would use the strength of the Yamaha in the long corners to sweep past Miller later. It was encouraging for Rossi that the Yamaha could keep close to the Ducati, and attempt to pass the Ducati going into Turn 5. Once or twice, that attempt would be a little overzealous, Rossi running wide and allowing Miller, Morbidelli, and Crutchlow back underneath.
Eventually, Rossi emerged as the main challenger to Dovizioso. The Factory Ducati rider had not been able to capitalize on the battle behind him, not having any extra pace to spare to try to open a breach behind him.
That would end up costing him dearly, though it would take until the end of the race. Rossi first got past Dovizioso on lap 8, sliding up the inside at Turn 13, and using the Yamaha's ability to hold a tighter line. Rossi kept his advantage for the next six laps, but like Dovizioso, was unable to open a gap behind him, Dovizioso always on his tail.
On lap 14, Dovizioso unleashed the superior acceleration of the Ducati GP19 again, using the drive out of Turn 4 to fire past Rossi onto the back straight. It was Rossi's turn to settle in behind Dovizioso again, the Yamaha rider never far from the Ducati's tail, sending occasional probes inside and outside to assess where the Ducati was weakest, and where his best chance may come.
Patience is a virtue
That Rossi was playing a waiting game became clear in the final laps. As the two Italians opened a gap to the group of Danilo Petrucci, Jack Miller, and a resurgent Alex Rins, Rossi watched and waited, making his presence known to Dovizioso, ensuring that the Ducati rider was kept on his toes and forced to ride defensively, never able to settle in and make a break.
Rossi's patience paid off, waiting for the perfect moment to strike. As the final lap started, Rossi tucked in right behind Dovizioso, and sat in his slipstream down the back straight. He knew he had to be close enough as they entered Turn 5 if he was to have a chance at second before the end of the lap. Rossi once again used the strength of the Yamaha to attack where the Ducati was weakest, carrying speed through the long left of Turn 6 to put himself in a position to outbrake Dovizioso going into Turn 7.
It was the perfect place to pass Dovizioso. From Turn 7, the track twists and winds all the way to the finish, with a series of long corners where corner speed is king. Nowhere could Dovizioso get close enough to launch a counterattack, or try to use the speed of the Ducati. The die was cast, and Rossi took second place, and his first podium since the Sachsenring last year. Dovizioso was left to settle for third.
Back on the box
For Rossi, the podium came as a much-needed boost to his confidence, after such a long time away, and coming up short at the end of last season. "I’m very happy because it was from Sachsenring of last year, so long, long time not being on the podium," Rossi told the press conference. "Also because in the last two races of last year, Malaysia and Valencia, I was strong and could have arrived on the podium, but I made two mistakes and the championship finished with a bad, bad taste in the mouth."
The podium came at an important time for both Rossi and Yamaha, after he came just six tenths short at Qatar, and still finished in fifth. "It's so important for me, for my team and also for Yamaha," he said. "For me it was a good weekend from Friday. We worked well on the setting of the bike, we worked well with the tires, I rode well from FP1. I was in good shape."
Rossi had felt the pace was slow, and so he had tried to make a break once he got to the front. "Sincerely I expected to be a bit faster, so I tried to overtake Dovi to try to go in front," Rossi explained. The warmer than expected weather on Sunday worked against him, though. "With more temperature I was more in trouble and I was not very strong. Dovi stayed in front for the majority part of the race, but I was able to stay with him, because I have some points where I feel very good with my bike. But I know that to beat Andrea I have to be very, very precise. I tried at Turn 7 because I have a good entry and it was good, I didn't go wide."
I say, old man!
Rossi had thoroughly enjoyed the battle. "To win the fight with Andrea on the last lap is always great. Winning a fight in the last lap in general is very exciting," he said. It was a remarkable achievement, coming as it did on the 23rd anniversary of his first ever Grand Prix in Malaysia in 1996, in the previous century.
There were TV clips to mark the occasion, which had amused Rossi when he saw them. "Yes, this morning I see they made this," he said. "It was quite funny because it was like another era, like it was black and white on the television."
It had also made Rossi reflect on his career and on racing. "For me, because I like, is the first part of my career. I won a lot, a lot of races, a lot, a lot of championships. You arrive at a point where it’s more difficult, because younger and stronger opponents arrive, so in that moment maybe you have to decide. Whether you prefer to stay at home and look at your trophies and be happy about this, or you prefer to continue to fight because you enjoy. I think this is my case."
Rossi's podium vindicated his decision to stay in MotoGP and keep fighting. Every off season, there are question marks over whether Rossi will be competitive, and how much longer he can keep going on. Finishing on the podium, and first Yamaha across the line, just as he had been in Qatar, proves that he is still competitive, and he is good enough to deserve to keep his seat in the factory Yamaha squad on current merit, and not on past glories. One day, Valentino Rossi will slow down, and have to make way for another rider. Sunday in Argentina was not that day, nor will it come any time soon.
If Rossi's race had been an example of perfect timing, Andrea Dovizioso once again gave a masterful demonstration of managing a race. He was not faster than Rossi, nor than the other riders behind him, but he controlled the pace, kept them all behind him, and tried to nurse his tires to give himself something extra for the end of the race. Alas, Valentino Rossi had kept that little bit more than Dovizioso, and the Ducati rider had lost out on the final lap.
Though happy to be on the podium at a track where he has not usually gone well, Dovizioso was less pleased with how the tires had held up. "This is the way we have to look the weekend because our target is to do the podium and we did it," he said. "So about that, we are happy to make up important points in a bad track. But I’m not too happy in the way the tire worked during the race. I couldn’t be fast as I want the last ten laps to create the gap to Vale. So Vale was able to study very well my way to ride and created the overtake in the last lap. I couldn’t answer, but third is okay. I’m not too happy about the way the tire work, so we have to study. I think it will be very important to analyze and understand what we can improve."
Dovizioso knew he had nothing for Marc Márquez. "When Marc is like this, he is unbeatable," the factory Ducati rider admitted. "Unfortunately this is nothing new. In some tracks in some moments with Marc we have to look at the big picture and try to bring the maximum points." 20 points would have been nice, but 16 points for third will have to do. With his win at Qatar, that brings Dovizioso's total to 41 points, his highest every haul after two races in MotoGP.
Even if Márquez wins in Austin, as he has done every year, a podium in Texas would put Dovizioso in exceptionally good shape in the championship heading back to Europe. If Andrea Dovizioso has learned anything over the previous years, it is that championships are won and lost on the days you can't win. It is by scoring podiums that Dovizioso will keep himself in the game.
If proof were needed that Dovizioso's podium was not a one-off for Ducati, Jack Miller's fourth place backed that up. The Australian had shown pace all weekend, and was almost disappointed to finish fourth, just over a second behind the factory bike. Had he not been caught in the melee behind the podium battle, then maybe more had been on the cards.
"I got stuck into a couple of battles with the likes of Petrucci and Morbidelli which cost me some time, but I’m happy to at least win that battle," the Pramac Ducati rider said after the race. "I expected a little bit more, and I was coming back to the guys in front at the end, but I’m really happy with the result. The bike worked really well all weekend, we worked really well all weekend. We definitely put in the work and you could see that by around lap 20 when I was able to pick off some guys and get back to the front. That proved the work we did."
Miller was one of only two riders who hadn't run the hard front tire, the Australian opting for the medium. After the race, he was still in two minds on whether it had been the right choice. On the one hand, the medium front tire had started to push early, but once the rear started to wear, it had allowed him to make some moves later on in the race.
"I felt better on the medium, but with the heat today maybe the hard would have been better because I was pushing the front from the third lap," Miller said. "As the rear got more worn I was able to control the front a bit more and I was able to make some moves at the end of the race. I think that my strategy could have been a bit better because I got into some tussles, with Morbidelli and a few others, when maybe I should have let them burn their tires out. Maybe I should have waited rather than trying to fight them but I learned from that today. All in all it’s a good day, we’ve got some decent points on the board and it’s better than in Qatar. I said to Pecco [Bagnaia] afterwards that 25 laps in this heat was easier than 13 laps with no seat in Qatar!"
More Q needed
While Miller had had a very good race, Alex Rins' race had been outstanding. The Suzuki Ecstar rider was less than half a second slower than Valentino Rossi between laps 2 and 25, gaining eleven places along the way. But that is exactly where Rins' problem lay: poor pace in free practice left him stuck in Q1, and then in Q1, he was unable to put in a fast enough lap to go through to Q2, leaving him to start from sixteenth place, the sixth row on the grid.
The problem Alex Rins has is his inability to put in a very fast lap during qualifying. His race pace is competitive enough to put him in podium contention, but he started from too far back to capitalize on that speed. "We did an incredible race, but what we missed for the podium was just a good qualifying," Rins said. "We could have arrived in the first positions. For sure not with Marquez. But I would have been there fighting with Valentino and Dovi."
Rins had also spent eight laps stuck behind Danilo Petrucci. The Ducati is a hard beast to overtake, Rins said, not just because of the bike's top speed, but also because of its strength on the brakes. "Yeah, because of the Ducati’s speed. Also, Petrucci and Miller were braking really hard."
Making more work
Poor qualifying had made life difficult for Danilo Petrucci as well. "As always, if you don't qualify well, the start is difficult, and here we started only tenth," the Factory Ducati rider said. "Afterwards, it was possible to recover some positions. I had a good pace, and when I got a scent of the podium, I thought maybe I could arrive there."
The problem, though, was that he had had to push too hard to make up the ground given away by qualifying in tenth. "I had to push too much to join them, but in the end, I couldn't stay with them, and then Rins caught me, and then Jack," he said.
Petrucci almost lost places to Maverick Viñales and Franco Morbidelli as well, Viñales passing him on the brakes through Turn 5. But Petrucci held his line through Turn 6, then dived back underneath the Monster Energy Yamaha rider as they braked to enter Turn 7.
Unfortunately for Viñales, that perfectly clean pass caught Franco Morbidelli by surprise. The Italian had been battling with Viñales and Petrucci on that last lap, but when Petrucci dived underneath Viñales, that left Viñales right where Morbidelli was aiming his front wheel. With no time to react, Morbidelli clipped the rear wheel of Viñales, and both Yamaha riders went down.
"I was pushing to try to reach at least sixth position," Morbidelli said after the race. "I didn’t want to overtake anyone there. I just arrived in turn seven with a double slipstream. I was trying to stop but me arriving with double slipstream speed and Maverick, who got past Petrucci and was trying to cut the line to overtake him back. I was a bit too fast. He slowed down to try to cut the line. These two things together didn’t go well. But it’s a great luck that we are both fine."
Viñales dismissed the crash as a simple racing incident. "I think I could have finished sixth, because I was already crossing the line to Petrux, but I think it was a race incident," he said. "I have nothing to say. Finally, we're lucky we're both OK. I think Franco was quite bad when I went to stand up. But we were just lucky."
Grip woes return
Starting from second on the grid, Viñales had once again gone backwards during the race. He was mystified by disappearing grip during the race, something which hadn't occurred during practice or qualifying. "In the race, it was very difficult, honestly. I cannot understand how we lost so much grip going to the race. We saw some mistakes on the bike, so we have to keep working," he said.
"The feeling compared to this morning, it's like I have really old tires," Viñales explained. "This morning I used the one from qualifying, that you stress, you put a lot of stress and sliding. I put it in and I said, "Oh wow, the grip is excellent". So I thought in the race, I could go so fast, I thought I would be able to go with Marc. But then in the race with new tires, I felt like it was a 20 lap tire. Very strange. A very strange feeling. Honestly, we saw some problems on the data, so we need to analyze, and see if we can improve it."
This is an old and recurring problem, Viñales said. "Honestly, it's been two and a half years up until now that I have had this problem. Only in Australia is the time that I had grip," he said, referring to Phillip Island last year, where he won the race. Whatever the cause, it can't have been the Dunlop Moto2 rubber, an issue which usually gets the blame. The schedule in Argentina saw MotoGP practice directly after Moto2, instead of the other way round, so Viñales had spent all weekend riding on a layer of Dunlop rubber.
Yamaha on the up
Despite Viñales' problems, and the crash between Viñales and Morbidelli, it was a very good weekend for Yamaha. Up until the final lap, Yamaha had all four bikes in the top ten, Fabio Quartararo crossing the line in eighth after Viñales and Morbidelli went down at Turn 7. Valentino Rossi didn't suffer the grip problems which have plagued the M1 in recent years, and Franco Morbidelli complained more about the top speed of the Ducatis than a loss of grip from his Yamaha. An outstanding ride by Quartararo saw the Petronas SRT Yamaha finish eighth, a strong result for the rookie.
Whether the strong performance by the Yamahas was down to improvements from the bike, or just down to the track, we shall have to wait and see. The first three races back in Europe should give a much clearer indication of where the Yamahas truly stand.
Next step up
Takaaki Nakagami crossed the line in seventh, ahead of Quartararo, and like Viñales, he also felt a lack of grip from the tire, the soft rear giving him a different feeling during the race. "The race was really tough," the LCR Honda rider said. "I chose the soft rear, because I wanted to gain positions at the beginning of the race, but unfortunately I had a little bit different feeling from the grip of the tire."
Nakagami was worried he wouldn't be able to finish the race, but when he saw his lap time, he realized he wasn't the only rider who was fighting for grip. "I really struggled from the first lap, when I finished the lap I thought 'how can I finish with this grip?' Then I tried to change my riding style a little bit. When I saw the lap time it was a 1'40 low, it looked like everybody struggled. At the end of the race I had no energy to improve the lap time because the tire was completely finished."
Despite that lack of grip, Nakagami had been able to mix it up with a wide range of bikes and riders. That had proved particularly instructive for the LCR Honda rider, giving him a much better sense of his own strengths and weaknesses. "During the race I saw a lot of different manufacturers - Rins with the Suzuki, Ducati, Yamaha - and I can see the difference between the manufacturers," he explained. "It's quite interesting during the race, I saw their style is a little bit different but I'm much stronger than them for the hard braking. So looks good. I'm really happy to understand that because in Texas you need really strong braking and now my strongest point is hard braking."
Strength in depth
The Morbidelli and Viñales crash lifted the Espargaro brothers into the top ten, Aleix on the Aprilia beating Pol on the KTM. That put all six manufacturers into the top ten, the Espargaros crossing the line some 15 seconds or so after Valentino Rossi in second. There have been concerns that both Aprilia and KTM are struggling to be competitive, but both European manufacturers have shown real signs of progress in 2019. Podiums are still a little way off, but at least the gap is closing.
It was good that the KTM was so strong at a track where they struggled in previous years, Pol Espargaro said afterwards. "And also the race today has been faster than last year. We've been closer to the top guys than last year so, you know, it feels like in Qatar and here we've reconfirmed that we are catching back some gap that we had last year to first. Everyone is getting closer but even like that we are getting closer to them."
Even more intriguing than Pol Espargaro's result is the fact that he was followed across the line by Miguel Oliveira, a rookie on the satellite Tech3 KTM. The Portuguese rider has adapted very quickly to a brand new class, and to nearly beat the rider with the most experience on the KTM is quite an achievement.
"Two races in, I think I can safely say that I'm adapting quite good," Oliveira said after the race. "I mean, we know that we have our struggles, but already I'm battling with the top guy of KTM, who has much more experience than me. So I think it shows that I'm adapting well to the category and also to the bike. I think it's definitely positive, this start of the season."
Oliveira was optimistic of being the fastest KTM in short order. "Considering that I was one tenth from Pol and almost overtaking him in the last corner I think it shows more or less that we are there. From now on we want to continue to work like this and hopefully go back to be the first KTM. This would be always the perfect result."
Oliveira's results on an inferior machine – the Tech3 KTM are on almost identical machinery to the factory team, but they are still lacking a little top speed – are showing up Johann Zarco. After two brilliant seasons on the Yamaha, Zarco has singularly failed to get to grips with the KTM. He has to fight the bike too much to get it to do what he wants, and leaves him exhausted, he said. "It's difficult to live these kind of races where everything I would like to do I cannot at the moment and this makes me fight with the bike and then I'm exhausted."
He was having to relearn everything, as nothing he did on the bike worked, Zarco said. "It's all the movement that I want to do on the bike that I learned to do in the past, everything I do is not working. And then the bike slides or is not turning, or is difficult to stop, then everything is becoming pretty complicated, so that's why it's not only one thing to work on a global feeling to find. But I cannot find it at the moment and I have to accept it. It's pretty difficult because I finish the race exhausted. But I have to learn from that."
Part of Zarco's problem is that he does not want to just copy Pol Espargaro's riding style, as he doesn't believe that will help him or KTM improve in the long term. "I can study and analyze his data, for sure it's pretty different, and I'm quite methodical enough to understand what he is doing on the bike," Zarco said. "But I don’t want to copy that because for me it won't be the key to then make a big step that will be necessary for the future. So I want to keep also my smooth and clean style, my methodical style, and from that see where we will improve."
KTM was not choosing one rider to guide their input, Zarco explained. "KTM is fully with us, Pol and me, and if they are able to make in a different way of setting two winning bikes it would be the best. But they are not thinking that we have to follow one or another direction. They are just at the moment taking information and pretty good that Miguel is also pretty competitive and beating almost the factory guys, he beat me but not Pol. So this is just my experience for KTM, this is really what they need."
If the contrast between the results of the factory riders was big for the Red Bull KTM team, it was enormous for Repsol Honda. Where Marc Márquez cleared off into the distance, Jorge Lorenzo stumbled from one disaster to another.
Already recovering from a broken rib and a fractured scaphoid, Lorenzo was in rough shape to begin with. Starting from twelfth was not ideal, but erroneously engaging the pit limiter instead of the launch control meant he had a disastrous start.
"It’s unbelievable," Lorenzo said. "In Qatar with the clutch and here with the pit limiter… It looks like I pressed it unconsciously. I remember just pressing the start procedure button but suddenly the RPM went down and I didn’t know what was going on. It looks like the button of the pit start was on and the bike didn’t go. Everyone overtook me and I was in last position again like in Qatar."
Clip grip slips
Lorenzo's woes were not over, though. He started to fight his way through the field, but as he did so, the handlebar grip on the left clip on started to let go and slide off. "When I started to recover positions I felt I was missing some rubber in the left handlebar lever. It was coming out and I was with no rubber in my left hand," he said.
This made the bike really difficult to control, with no purchase on the left handlebar. "There was no grip at all," Lorenzo said. "Everything was bad. It was a very difficult race to recover positions. Also the grip was very bad after the Moto2 race and with the very hot conditions. It was like a nightmare. Finally I’m lucky because Viñales and Morbidelli crashed so some more points. But I’m disappointed because it looks like when you’re in bad conditions, you get more problems. Hopefully in the future it will not happen again, these strange, unlucky things."
Where to lay the blame? Jorge Lorenzo has a history of struggling with buttons, crashing out of the lead at Misano in 2017 when he went to switch an engine map on the Ducati. Pressing the pit limiter instead of the launch control button suggests he has not committed the buttons on the Honda to memory, and perhaps falling into old habits picked up on the Ducati.
But for a handlebar grip to come loose is almost unheard of, and certainly not in a factory team like Repsol Honda. Yet the Repsol team had a pretty bad weekend in Argentina: in addition to Lorenzo's handlebar grip, Marc Márquez' chain jumped the sprocket during FP4. These are not the kind of errors you would expect to see in a factory team, and makes you wonder if there are deeper issues in play. With Márquez in a very strong position after two races, and the RC213V in the best shape for years, Honda really cannot afford to risk a poor result thanks to a simple mechanical mistake.
There was much to enjoy in the Moto2 and Moto3 races in Argentina as well. In Moto2, Lorenzo Baldassarri showed the patience and confidence to take a comfortable win and consolidate his lead in the championship. But all eyes were on Remy Gardner, who finally got the podium he came so close to at Qatar. The Australian found it hard to speak after the race, overcome with emotion after a long and hard road.
Jack Miller made his way to Parc Ferme to congratulate Gardner after the Moto2 race, and sang his praises when he spoke to the press. "Remy getting on the podium is unreal and he should have had a podium in Qatar too," Miller said. "He’s had pace all weekend and he’s looked impressive. He’s getting ten out of ten for style points that’s for sure! It’s his first year on a decent Moto2 bike and to instantly take it to those guys is really good. He’s second in the championship now and that’s great."
Miller pointed out that being the son of 500cc world champion Wayne Gardner put a lot of extra pressure on Remy. "Wayne and him put in a lot of work and having a father that’s a world champion can be a blessing and a curse. They’ve had to work their asses off because people will always say ‘he’s not got what his dad had’ or something, but that’s completely wrong because his dad was a completely different bloke. I’m stoked for him because he can stick the finger up to anyone that said he couldn’t do it."
If Remy Gardner was struggling to control his emotions, Jaume Masia found it absolutely impossible. After taking his first win in Grand Prix racing, the Spaniard was in tears almost from the moment he crossed the line to the point he walked up the stairs to the podium. Masia is widely regarded as a huge talent, and getting the first win under his belt is a sign of things to come.
Racing is emotion
The tears of Masia and Gardner were a reminder of just how deep the emotions run in motorcycle racing, and how hard fought success can be. Most riders who enter the Grand Prix paddock are destined never to win a race, or even taste a podium. Even successful riders can go for a long time between successes, and having to find the motivation to make the sacrifices success demands can be a struggle in those long dry spells.
When you see riders finally achieve the success they have been chasing for so long, and what it means to them, you get the tiniest glimpse into the soul of a motorcycle racer at the elite level. In many ways, racers are normal young people, just like you and I. But in some respects, they are a very different, and very special breed indeed.
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