And so MotoGP returns to terra cognita. At Qatar, the sand and dust conspire with temperature and moisture to make for unpredictable conditions. Termas De Rio Hondo, despite its magnificent layout, barely gets used, meaning conditions change from session to session. And the shifting substrate below the Circuit of the Americas means bumps come and go, and shift around from year to year in Austin. Furthermore, MotoGP visits Argentina and Austin just once a year, meaning the teams have very limited data for the track, making setup just that little bit more complicated.
How very different is Jerez. There cannot be a rider on the MotoGP paddock who does not have thousands, if not tens of thousands of laps around the Circuito de Jerez in Andalusia, Spain. If they raced in the Spanish CEV championship (now the FIM CEV championship), they raced there once or twice a year. When they got to 125s or Moto3, they tested there two or three times a year. Same again in 250s or Moto2. Even in MotoGP they test there regularly, both private tests and now at the official IRTA test in November. Each and every one of them could post a lap of the track blindfolded.
Yet there are still some unknowns at Jerez this year. Though the entire field tested here in November last year, the track has been resurfaced since then. The worst corners, where the asphalt had cracked and holes started to form, torn up and given a brand new layer of asphalt. The bumps are gone, the track has grip, and things are very different now.
"Yesterday, I saw that the track, the tarmac is quite changed," Takaaki Nakagami said after his reconnaissance laps of the circuit. "Let's say 80% of the track is the new asphalt so it means it's going to change the feeling of the bike, less bumps and I hear about the new tarmac has more grip but the tire life a little bit worse. Maybe the track is much more grip so the tire is more destroyed, more used."
That's why Michelin have brought four different tires, both front and rear, with an extra hard compound being added to the allocation. That hard tire is a little harder than the normal hard, though the difference is minimal. With warm weather, high asphalt temperatures, and very fast lap times expected – Stefan Bradl is said to have lapped the circuit at a very rapid pace during a private HRC test here – stresses on the rear tire, especially, could be high. The extra hard tire – and no, you won't be able to distinguish it from the normal hard rear tire, both having a yellow band and being shown as H on the TV graphics – is there as a safe bet, just in case the conditions demand it.
Being in familiar territory means that advantages are hard to find. In a field as close as the 2019 MotoGP grid, that should make for a tight and fascinating race. Jerez has a little bit of something for everyone. Want hard braking? There's Turn 6, Dry Sack, or Turn 13, the final corner. Want hard acceleration? There's the exit from Turn 5 along the back straight, or the drive out of the tight stadium section, out of Turn 10 and on towards Turn 11 and 12. Want fast corners? Those two quick rights at Turn 10 and 11, or the fast Turn 8, or even Turn 4.
All about balance
But equally, there is nowhere where top speed is everything. Sure, the back straight is quick, but they never crack 300 km/h along there, so outright horsepower will only take you so far. Yes, you can gain in hard braking, but if you set the bike up for the hairpin at Turn 6, you lose stability through Turn 12, and risk having the winds which always blow across the Jerez circuit whip your front end away before you can react.
So no, this is not a track which you can point to and say, 'ah yes, this is a Honda track, or a Yamaha track, or a Ducati track'. Jerez is a Honda track, and a Yamaha track, and a Suzuki track. Once upon a time, it was the bane of Ducati, but no longer: Andrea Dovizioso and Jorge Lorenzo were engaged in a close battle with Dani Pedrosa for the podium last year, until that bizarre three-way crash took all three of them out of the race. The Ducati can as competitive here as any of the others.
It is first and foremost a chance for Honda to redeem themselves. After three of the four RC213Vs failed to finish the race in Austin, all four Honda riders have high hopes. First and foremost, Marc Márquez, who threw away a certain win in Austin when he crashed out at Turn 12. Márquez trails Andrea Dovizioso by 9 points, hardly insurmountable but not where he had imagined being when the series returned to Europe.
Why did he crash? For a similar reason that Cal Crutchlow crashed out in Texas. The Honda riders ask a lot of the front end in braking, because that is where the strength of the bike lies. But braking so hard leaves the rear to move around, and that places wildly varying forces through the back wheel, leaving the engine braking system with a lot of work to keep everything under control.
The new, more powerful engine for this year is adding to those stresses, and Honda also appear to be experimenting with the clutch, somehow. In that intricate interplay between the various forces, it is easy to make a mistake, and if you get the setup fractionally wrong, it can make the bike unpredictable. In those cases, when you are right on the limit braking and entering the corner, the smallest variation can overpower the front, a bit more grip from the rear can push the front, and down you go. The 2019 Honda RC213V is a better bike than last year's machine, but it remains balanced on a razor's edge.
Jorge Lorenzo is also after redemption. His exit from Austin was through no fault of his own, but rather an issue with the electronics. The issue had been identified in Japan and rectified, Lorenzo revealed at Jerez. "The bike was sent to Japan after the race, to simulate the problem," Lorenzo told us. "It looks like the problem happened again, and they changed something in the electronic side to make the problem disappear in the future."
It has been a miserable start to his 2019 campaign. First, he broke his scaphoid in a training crash, then he bust a rib during practice. He had clutch problems in Qatar, a handlebar grip which came lose in Argentina, and then his bike died on him at Austin. Inauspicious doesn't even begin to cover it.
The stars align
So now he has a point to prove, and it looks like conditions are conspiring for him to be able to prove it. "All the circumstances are positive for me," Lorenzo said. "It looks like it's not going to rain. This grip of the tarmac is fantastic, and if it's new, it's even more fantastic. I'm better, much better than in the winter. I improved my cardio, I am fitter in my wrist, I think the bike is faster in terms of power, and I think the bike is better in general. So all the circumstances are very positive. So now we have to go to the track and demonstrate my potential with a good result."
This is a track which Lorenzo loves. If there were a track where he is likely to demonstrate his potential, this would be a very good start.
Cal Crutchlow has a point to prove after being punished for a jump start in Argentina – he said he expects the rule to be changed for 2020, but not before, to make it fairer on those who were given ride through penalties in Argentina and Austin – and then he crashed in Austin. Crutchlow crashed out of the race in Jerez in 2018 as well, caught out by gravel on the track and a strong side wind. His pace has been excellent when he has been on the bike, but all that goes to naught if he can't finish without a penalty.
Most intriguing of all is Takaaki Nakagami. The Japanese rider was fastest here in November, having made a huge step in his riding, and with the 2018 Honda RC213V. That test, coming on the back of a good result in Valencia, gave him the confidence boost he needed to get 2019 off to a good start. Coming to Jerez knowing how fast he can be should give him even more motivation.
Grip, corner grip, M1 grip
The extra grip of the new surface should also work in the favor of the Yamahas. All four M1 riders had strong races at Austin, despite Maverick Viñales' jump start in the race – his pace was close to the leaders, once he had served his ride through penalty. Valentino Rossi came up just short of beating Alex Rins, and both Franco Morbidelli and Fabio Quartararo had their best results in MotoGP.
For Rossi, he returns to a track where he has had enormous success. He has seven wins and five more podiums here, the last time in 2016. The Yamaha M1 is better this year, and the additional grip should help the bike to turn and get drive, making the bike's strong points even stronger. Rossi is on an upward trend in recent races – near victory in Sepang last year, six tenths shy of victory at Qatar after a dismal qualifying session, and two podiums in Argentina and Austin. The 40-year-old (and it remains astonishing to type that) is competitive, and in close contention for the championship.
His teammate arrives feeling optimistic. His pace after his ride through in Austin was very strong, he qualified well in Qatar (though he slipped back through the field), and was not far off the leaders in Argentina before he was taken out by Franco Morbidelli. Viñales was especially hopeful that the new surface would help. "Especially in sector three," Viñales explained, "because also even in the test I suffered so much in sector three. I was quite strong in one, two and four but sector three is always very difficult with our bike. So I think it can help, because finally I need more grip to turn the bike."
Then there's the winner of the last race, Alex Rins. The Suzuki Ecstar rider finally did what had long been expected of him, to cross the line in first. Sure, Rins was helped by Marc Márquez crashing out in front of him, but the way he dealt with the pressure of Valentino Rossi behind him marked him out as exceptional.
And we come to a track which should suit the Suzuki down to the ground. The GSX-RR turns exceptionally well, and can hold a line in the fast corners at Jerez. The bike grips and accelerates, and is very good on corner entry. A little bit more braking performance is needed, but there are plenty of places where the Suzuki could shine.
Could Rins cause a surprise at Jerez? The Spaniard has never finished higher than third at the track in all three classes. But with the confidence boost of a win, and the best Suzuki on the grid arguably since Kevin Schwantz' RGV500, the stage is set for Rins to excel.
Conditions could also help Joan Mir. The Spaniard was furious after being penalized for a jump start in Austin (he moved, but only the smallest amount, and gained no advantage whatsoever), and had strong pace after he served his penalty. Mir has been making steady progress in his first MotoGP races, and conditions are set favorably for Jerez.
Bogey track no longer
What about the championship leader? Once upon a time, the goal for anyone on a Ducati was simply to survive. But since the GP15 made huge improvements to the Desmosedici's understeer problem, the bike has been vastly more competitive. Jorge Lorenzo put the Ducati on the podium in 2017 – his first podium with the Italian factory – and both Lorenzo and Dovizioso were in line for the podium last year until the bizarre incident with Dani Pedrosa.
Dovizioso knows that his strategy must be to take as many points as possible from Jerez, and try to leave the Spanish GP still ahead of Márquez in the points. For the Italian, he knows that this year, more than ever, it will be a question of strategy. "There are a lot of faster riders and I think we are all, more than just Marc and I, are fighting for the championship compared to the last two years," Dovizioso said. With more riders at the front and capable of winning, it is easy to lose or gain a large amount of points. Managing that will be what makes the difference.
Will the new asphalt help the Ducati? "In Jerez we never know," Dovizioso said. "In the race last year our speed was really good, much better than the past but this year the asphalt is completely different so it will affect a lot everybody. Let’s see if it will affect us in a positive or negative way."
His teammate has the weight of expectation on him. "We are much faster this year," Danilo Petrucci said of his pace, "but not fast enough." Petrucci has made huge strides in 2019, but the trouble is, so has everyone else. Jerez may not be the track where he makes his breakthrough, but it will be important to lay the groundwork for the rest of the season.
Part of Petrucci's problem is the fact that Jack Miller is so fast. The Pramac Ducati rider has his eyes on Petrucci's factory seat for next year, and coming off a podium in Austin puts him in a good position this early in the season. Miller finished sixth here in 2018, but was modest about that result. "Last year we had a pretty decent result here but that was due to everyone falling off in front of us," the Australian said. "We will see what we can do this year. I’ve had good pace here in the past just never really been able to put it together in the race so I am hoping in this race we can put it all together and if it goes on like it has over the last couple of GPs then we can keep working in the same way then I think it will be good."
There could be some technical interest in the bikes at Jerez. With the test here on Monday, both Stefan Bradl and Bradley Smith are appearing as wildcards, Bradl for Honda and Smith for Aprilia. There will be much more to test on Monday, but there are already reports that some new parts could appear during the race weekend. Aerodynamic appendages are likely to sprout from underneath the Aprilia and the KTM, while Honda's new spoiler, debuted at Austin, could get a more thorough workout. And Monday could see Yamaha join the fray. The swingarm spoiler genie is well and truly out of the bottle. It won't be going back in again any time soon.
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