It has been a long year in MotoGP. Valencia is full of tired faces, the cold and windy weather a good reflection of the mood of the paddock. The last race of the season should be a festive occasion, but after eighteen races, and the last four overseas, there is little energy or enthusiasm left for the season finale.
Valencia made a fitting backdrop for Jorge Lorenzo's announcement that he would be retiring. It came as a surprise to almost everyone – except for one canny journo who had put a bet back on the Spaniard hanging up his helmet back in August – but it was a move which was widely understood. Spinal and head injuries are the two greatest fears of motorcycle racers, and the fact that Lorenzo came very close to suffering a life-changing injury made it easy to find sympathy for him.
There was respect not just for Lorenzo's choice, but also for the Spaniard's achievements. Until Marc Márquez came along, Lorenzo looked set to go down in history as Spain's greatest ever premier class rider. Even then, he remains the only rider so far to have won a title in the Márquez era. He was a rider whose ability to carry corner speed astounded his rivals, left them befuddled at how he could go so fast through corners without crashing. He leaves MotoGP as the fifth most successful premier class rider, and the sixth most successful rider of all time in all classes.
Hard act to follow
What did Cal Crutchlow learn from Jorge Lorenzo when he and Colin Edwards were at Tech3, and Lorenzo was in the factory Yamaha team? "Unfortunately, not much," Crutchlow said. "Because we could never follow him and the data is the same as it is now. The way he brakes, the way he scrubs off speed. He looks like he doesn’t brake late at all, but he actually brakes very, very late. It’s just how well he can decelerate the bike."
"Me and Colin used to laugh all the time," Crutchlow said. "We used to take him out of the equation. It’s a little bit like Marc at Honda. When we were at Yamaha, if you looked at his settings on the bike, everybody that rode it, it was never going work. But he always rode it like that week in and week out. And he didn’t really change much. He just rode this bike that was the same wheelbase."
Lorenzo was less reliant on the front wheel than many suspected. "How he rides was really on the rear wheel, and he didn’t really care so much about the front. It looks like he rides a lot on the front, but he rear wheel steers a lot, not by sliding but the way he puts his body and stuff like that."
"It was difficult to learn from him. And also because he’s this guy, in the garage, maybe not the most technically demanding guy in the world. He just rides the bike. And that was probably the most scary thing, when he closes his visor he was like a machine. I remember looking even this year, he did a 10-lap run somewhere and his sector was a 31.0, he did nine of them in a row. To do that is ridiculous, honestly. I remember at Yamaha some of things he was doing then, how you can stay on this level of concentration and speed, is something very special."
Teammates and rivals
"I think that Jorge is one of the most important MotoGP riders of the modern era," Valentino Rossi said of his former teammate. "I think we will lose a very important part of our sport. He is a great champion and he impressed me a lot of times for his speed, concentration and from when he arrived in MotoGP from the first moment he was always very strong, from 2008, so more than 10 years."
Rossi had come to know Lorenzo well, and found him to be a tough nut to crack. "We were teammates for a long time, a lot of years together, we shared the same box, and I think for me personally he is one of the greatest rivals in my career. Together I think we did some of the best racing that I remember in my history. It is a great shame that he finished but he is good in the body and he is okay so I wish him good luck for the future."
His current teammate had been taken by surprise by the announcement. "It was a surprise even for me, as in the team we didn’t know," Marc Márquez said. "Especially because the way that he worked in the box over the last few races, the results could have been better or worse, but his work was exactly the same as the first day he was here at Honda."
That grit and determination was what had impressed Márquez the most about Lorenzo. "One hour ago I was with him in his track just to say congratulations. Obviously for his career but especially the way he has taken the decision," Márquez told the press conference. "This is something that means a lot, how is Jorge, because he is a real champion. At the moment he felt he was not able to be in the top places he decided to stop and this means a lot about him as a strong character inside and outside of the track. He is a real champion so congratulations to him and I wish him the best for the future."
Next rider up?
Lorenzo's departure obviously leaves a hole in the Repsol Honda team, prompting even more speculation about who might take his place. Team boss Alberto Puig would not be drawn on who Lorenzo's replacement might be. "We are thinking, but obviously we don’t have a clear answer at this moment," Puig said.
The candidate list is fairly self evident. Cal Crutchlow and Johann Zarco are the obvious answers, but Alex Márquez has suddenly re-emerged a possible candidate. Even Alvaro Bautista is a possibility, Puig letting slip that the Spaniard, signed to HRC to ride in WorldSBK in 2020, would also be performing testing duties for Honda in MotoGP.
"Many things are possible," Puig said, in response to a question of whether Johann Zarco or even Alex Márquez could take the seat. "But I don’t want to say any names because this has only happened in the last hours so it would be very early to advance some news. The two guys you mention are possible but there are also other guys, so we have to analyze."
The obvious candidate?
Johann Zarco tried to remain vague about his chances of getting the ride, though he acknowledged that Lorenzo's retirement did open up possibilities, not just at Repsol Honda but also beyond. "It is kinda positive for me for next year," Zarco acknowledged. "There is a place getting free for the 2020 season. Where I don’t know but somewhere there is a free place. That’s a chance for me to ride next year and just thinking about this gives me a smile."
Zarco has had a strong couple of races, first at Phillip Island and then at Sepang. He is making his case for the Repsol seat, but that is causing friction with his new temporary teammate in the LCR Honda team. "For all the steps with a factory team, it is still the dream place, this is logical," Zarco said. "We heard Cal say he is the longer time in Honda so he deserves the bike more than me. I don’t know if we can use this word ‘deserve’, as I said I took a lot of risks this season and I am still at risk and consequence for my career, and I showed at least that I can still bite very strong to catch a dream like the factory team, learning things for sure."
"It doesn’t mean I can be at the level of Marc immediately," Zarco said, pondering a place in the team. "Even in the last fifteen days Marc is the strongest one on the Honda, but from what I can see and learn. I believe I can push myself as teammate to be close to him. I hope I will have the chance to be there."
Unsurprisingly, Cal Crutchlow was not particularly enamored of the suggestion that Zarco could take the Repsol seat ahead of him. "We’re in completely different situations," Crutchlow said. "Johann’s a great rider. He’s won World Championships. But he also quit this year. Let’s not lose sight of that. That’s not me going against him."
Hadn't that been a brave decision? "Yeah, it definitely was a brave decision, but… Whatever you want to take it as. I see it as quitting, you see it as a brave decision. That’s not me going against Johann. As I told you, Johann is a great rider. I think he’s done himself proud riding the Honda the way he’s rode in the last two races. But we’ll see. These last three Grand Prix are some of his best circuits. The Honda is good at the circuits he’s been to. That’s the story. It has nothing to do with me."
Would he be annoyed if Honda chose Zarco over him? "I already have a contract," Crutchlow said. "I’m not the one looking for a job."
One advantage Zarco has over Crutchlow is sponsorship. Johann Zarco has been backed by Red Bull for a long time, having come up through the Red Bull Rookies originally, and so would fit in immediately with the Red Bull sponsorship of the Repsol Honda team. Crutchlow is a long-time Monster Energy athlete, and has a good relationship with Monster owner Rodney Sacks. Leaving Monster for Red Bull would be an upheaval, fatal to the relationship if Crutchlow were looking at a long-term contract with Repsol Honda. But if it was for a single year, and Crutchlow were to retire at the end of 2020 as he has said he will? Nothing is impossible, as they say.
Yamaha or Honda?
Beyond the drama, we have a race to ride. There is little at stake: the team championship is still open, though Repsol Honda faces an uphill challenge against the factory Ducati team, with Marc Márquez carrying most of the load on his own against Andrea Dovizioso and Danilo Petrucci. Maverick Viñales sits in third, 7 points ahead of Alex Rins, while Fabio Quartararo is just 4 points behind Petrucci in fifth. These are consolation prizes, mostly, but they all matter, more often for bonuses than anything else.
Who stands the best chance of winning on Sunday? On paper, the track shouldn't be good for Yamaha, but when I put that point to Fabio Quartararo, he quickly pointed out the error of my ways. "Well, if I'm not wrong, in 2015 and 2016, Jorge [Lorenzo] won, in 2017, Zarco was fighting for the victory, so just remembering these races makes me think that the Yamaha is not working so bad," the Frenchman said.
Looking back at past results, Lorenzo won in 2013 as well, though there have been plenty of Honda victories, from Dani Pedrosa, Marc Márquez, and Casey Stoner as well. With tight corners, the track doesn't seem suited to the Ducati, despite Andrea Dovizioso winning the race last year in a downpour. The Suzuki would seem a strong bet, doing a bit of everything well, and able to hold tight lines in slow corners, fast corners, long corners, short corners. But with Marc Márquez in his current form, it seems foolish to bet against the Spaniard.
Jorge Lorenzo's retirement may have cast a melancholic pall over the paddock in Valencia, but the last race of the season has one saving grace. We can all go up and stand in Turn 13, and watch the MotoGP riders crest the hill of the endless left hander, rear stepped out and sliding through the turn, up and over and back down toward the final corner. That is a sight to lift the spirits of any motorcycle racing enthusiast. We may be losing one of the greatest riders of his generation, and indeed, one of the best in history. But the essence of motorcycle racing remains. Jorge Lorenzo enriched that essence, adding flavor and texture to an already heady mix. His talent will be missed, but the memories remain.
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