MotoMatters.com is delighted to feature the work of Neil Morrison, Paddock Pass Podcast host, Moto2/Moto3 commentator, and the finest writer in the Grand Prix paddock. Neil will be contributing a review of the goings on in the Moto2 and Moto3 paddocks this season.
In one of the most topsy-turvy rounds in recent memory, Moto2 and Moto3 added to the spectacle as certain riders triumphed while others bafflingly faded away. As always we’re on hand to take a look through some of the biggest talking points through both classes.
A calmer Lowes
There was good reason to believe Sam Lowes’ hopes of a strong championship finish were over before it had all started. A slow, innocuous testing fall at Jerez in early February ruptured tendons in his right shoulder, chipped the top of his humerus bone and deprived him of his entire preseason testing programme. That kind of injury isn’t one you just shake off; the joint still gives the Englishman considerable pain at the end of each day.
It was a nightmare start to life as a Marc VDS rider in what is a critical season. But how he has fought back has been exceptional. While fortunate the suspension of racing gave him added time to recover, there has been nothing lucky about performances since. A pair of fourth places at Jerez was a solid foundation to build on. And the Czech Grand Prix – where he was never outside the top two – resulted in a first podium finish since September, 2016.
Lowes was effusive in his praise of the Marc VDS team, a squad that has won three of the past six riders’ championships in the class, in its working methods. “Before Qatar I did 15 laps on the new bike before crashing,” he said on Sunday. “In Qatar I did ten laps with no info to give to the guys because my shoulder was bad. Every time I get to a new circuit the bike is always in a good working window. We’re not changing the bike too much. My crew chief Gilles (Bigot) has a lot of experience, knows me and my riding style. I follow them and have full confidence in them. I just leave the garage and come back for the next session.”
Not just that. The Englishman has acknowledged mistakes over past race weekends could knock him off course. He has recently worked with a performance coach to hone the mental aspect of his approach.
“We all train a lot fitness wise. If you’re a sportsman it’s not good if you don’t also train your brain. A lot of my problems in the last couple of years have generally been pushing at the wrong time, getting frustrated or making mistakes. It wasn’t just pace that was letting me down. It was making a mistake and that having a snowball effect on the whole weekend. I worked with Camino Coaching and Craig Muirhead, a really good guy. We’ve worked on a few different things.”
Lowes now appears less excitable and smoother on track. The results speak for themselves.
There was rarely a smile in the American Racing Team box during either race weekend at Jerez. To say a pair of 17th places fell some way below expectations would be understating the matter to quite the degree. All that early season optimism that came off Joe Roberts’ performances in Qatar was gone.
But from Friday morning the Californian was back in the mix at Brno. He mustered a second pole position in four outings on Saturday and while his belief he had the speed to break clear of the rest and lead from the front on Sunday didn’t quite come to fruition, Roberts could bask in his first podium finish, the first for any American rider for eight years and nine months.
The raised expectations after his strong showing in Qatar had weighed him down at Jerez, he admitted. But having spent days in the hills outside Barcelona at the house of friend and fellow Moto2 competitor Edgar Pons before flying to the Czech Republic, Roberts had a chance to unwind by riding trials bikes and shed some weight. He arrived at Brno 3 kilos lighter than before.
“I was hitting my head against the wall the whole two weekends,” he said of Jerez. “I just didn’t have a good feeling with the front. If the thing is trying to close or send me down the road I just don’t feel great. (After) I just kind of had a reset. I just forgot all the expectation that I had built up over the four months of what I wanted to do in this championship and just try to focus on having fun on the bike. (Here) They put the bike exactly the same as Qatar. And I think my riding style suits these fast and flowing tracks really well.”
A whole host of names have been affected by Dunlop’s new front tire for 2020. The bigger profile has a larger contact patch and, in theory, should allow riders to brake in a more aggressive fashion. As we’re witnessing in MotoGP with Michelin’s new rear construction, the characteristics of the rubber require riders to change set-up and riding style. Some, like Luca Marini, loved it from day one. Quite a few others didn’t.
Perhaps the most surprising name to be in the doldrums is Thomas Lüthi. His excellent end to 2019, during which he scored four straight podiums in four races, coupled with his fine preseason suggested he should be a key player in the title race. But he was completely thrown off by the high track temperatures at the Spanish Grand Prix. A lack of braking stability meant he couldn’t steer. A crash was the natural outcome when he wore out the front tire and was riding “over the limit.”
Seventh at the Andalusian GP hinted at a breakthrough. “We can be confident that the set-up direction is the right one. That motivates me,” he said after, having finally found some front-end feel once more.
But he was back to square one at Brno. All weekend his team were chopping and changing with set-up to deal with the lack of grip and drop of both tires. “If you have no feeling while turning, logically you're lacking confidence after some front slides. It all comes together and then you’re missing that last bit of trust to really push yourself to the limit,” he said on Friday.
25th in qualifying was shocking – “the worst I’ve ever started from I think” – and 17th in the race capped off another disastrous weekend. Now 58 points back of the title leader, Lüthi’s dream of adding the intermediate title to his 125cc crown will have to wait until 2021.
‘The Rocket is back!’
Coming to Brno, Dennis Foggia wasn’t a name that screamed ‘potential race winner’ in the Moto3 category. His tears on pit wall after being taken out at the first turn of the Spanish Grand Prix were compounded by a mechanical failure a week later.
But here the 2018 FIM Junior World Champion was fast and composed. Benefiting from a setup used here by Lorenzo Dalla Porta in the previous two years, Foggia was consistent in practice, qualified well (fifth) and wasn’t headed after lap six. You’d never know he hadn’t tasted success at this level by the assuredness of his final lap.
It’s been a tough few years for Foggia. But his decision to leave the Sky Racing VR46 team and the VR46 Academy at the end of last year (he told Italian website GPOne “there was both a technical problem within the team and a human one within the Academy”) has been vindicated. After years riding a KTM he now seems at ease aboard Honda’s NSF250RR.
It was just deserts for a rider that has recently done good in his community. Both he and his fan club raised funds for the hospitals and communities that were hit hardest in Palestrina, the municipality next to Rome where he lives, during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Arenas has the minerals
Understandably there was more than a little doubt surrounding Albert Arenas’ Moto3 title credentials after his high-speed crash in the second Jerez outing. Firstly he Spaniard has never been a consistent performer, with his lull in results through the middle of 2019 leading one observer to comment he looked “suicidal” on the eve last year’s Austrian Grand Prix.
Secondly the ankle he sprained in the terrifying spill at Jerez’ fearsome turn eleven was a big handicap through the weekend. The colour of his left leg thankfully wasn’t a sickly dark green, as it was the day after the fall, but Arenas never put more than five laps together before Sunday and looked drained in his garage.
Yet he posted a championship ride in the 18-lap race, sitting in the pack before launching an aggressive last race attack. Tony Arbolino felt all of his might as he ploughed past the Italian at turn one three laps from the flag and he staunchly fought off Ai Ogura on the final lap to claim a richly deserved second. Arenas is fast developing into one of the class’ leading strategists.
This was the 23-year-old’s sixth podium in his last nine outings. Prior to that he had scored just one top ten in the previous ten. As he explained on Sunday, a test at Aragon after last year’s Grand Prix was crucial in finding a base setting that now works everywhere.
“I lost a little bit of confidence. But there were a lot of small things that I’ve made better. We had a test after the Aragon Grand Prix. I came away from that really confident. I remember that day, I was riding with the KTM test team. I felt really good and could work on (what had happened in) the race the day before. I tried to learn from everything that happened in the past and work from a strong base.”
Now 18 points clear in the title fight, he’ll take some stopping.
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