Analysis

2018 Argentina MotoGP Preview: Well Worth The Journey

It is a good job that the Termas De Rio Hondo circuit in Argentina is one of the finest on the calendar. Because actually getting there would test the patience of Odysseus. For most of the MotoGP paddock, it is at least a 24-hour journey to get to the track. If everything goes according to plan, that is, which, as any experienced traveler will tell you, things tend not to do.

This year, as usual, a sizable portion of the paddock found themselves taking the better part of two days or more to get to the circuit. Poor weather, a diverted flight, or a missed connection meant that some paddock folk found themselves rerouted via Montevideo in Uruguay. Pol Espargaro got bumped off his overbooked flight to Buenos Aires. Members of the Marc VDS MotoGP team took 48 hours to get to Termas, with team press officer Ian Wheeler the current record holder, taking 50 hours to get from Dublin to the Argentinian track. It took him 28 hours to travel just 500km, an average speed that even I, an overweight, aging journalist manage to exceed while out cycling.

It's worth it once you get there, though. The atmosphere at the track is phenomenal, and the circuit layout is one of the best of the season. The circuit has a bit of everything, and a lot of the thing which racers love: fast, flowing, challenging corners which test rider courage and skill equally. Though there is no real elevation change, the circuit has enough dips and crests to require precision in braking.

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Piecing The Puzzle Together: What Caused Jorge Lorenzo's Crash At Qatar?

After a poor start, which saw him drop from ninth on the grid to thirteenth at the end of the first lap, Jorge Lorenzo was making steady progress through the field at Qatar. His lap times were starting to come down to match, and on some laps even beat, the pace the leaders were running. As the halfway mark approached, and less than four seconds behind the leaders, Lorenzo started to believe he was capable of salvaging a decent result from a difficult start.

That all ended on lap 13. The Spaniard crashed out of the race at Turn 4, when his front brake failed and he had to drop the bike in the gravel. "I just felt that the level of the front brake was getting closer to my fingers and I didn’t have brake," Lorenzo described the incident afterwards. "I lost some meters so I tried to use less front brake and more the rear to try to delay this thing that was getting worse lap-by-lap. Unfortunately when into this turn four the first part of the brake was OK, but suddenly I just missed completely this brake so I had no brake and was going very fast through the gravel to the wall and I jumped off the bike to avoid hitting the wall."

What had caused Lorenzo to crash? "The bike came to the box without one part," Lorenzo said. "Some mechanics went to the corner to see if they could find it and luckily they found it – it was very difficult, but they found it. One part was missing from the bike. I don’t know if it was before the crash or after the crash." Both Lorenzo and team boss Davide Tardozzi remained vague about the problem, referring only to "parts" in general, and not specific components. The entire braking system had been handed to Brembo for further examination.

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Consistent Tire Performance: Piero Taramasso Explains How Michelin Strives To Eliminate Inconsistency

"A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds," wrote the American poet and philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson. Little minds or no, consistency is the one complaint which many riders still level at Michelin, the official tire supplier of MotoGP. When it comes to grip, feedback, and chatter, complaints are few and far between. But consistency of feel between one tire and another remains a problem, at least in the minds of the riders.

The 2018 season opener at Qatar threw up several more examples of this lack of consistency. Ahead of the weekend, Cal Crutchlow had expressed concerns about the variation between what are supposed to be identical tires. "You can show them the data, and if you have 20% throttle here, and this tire's got this much more spin than the tire that you've got 50% throttle, and that's got less spin. It doesn't work. Apparently, they've come off the same batch."

During the race, both Johann Zarco and Dani Pedrosa believed that a lack of consistency had hampered their performance. Zarco had led for the first 17 laps, before fading with what he believed was a faulty front tire. "I got the best I could, I did what I could do, I did the job, and when I have a technician from Michelin and also on my team saying that something has been wrong, it means that OK, the rider's job is done, then when you are doing this kind of sport, this can happen." The problem, the Tech3 Yamaha rider said, was that the front tire didn't want to turn. "It was sliding. Just sliding. You go into the corner and instead of turning, you go wide. Or if you want to turn you can crash. It was this kind of problem."

Dani Pedrosa had a similar issue, though his problem was with the rear of the bike. The Repsol Honda rider had a very good front tire and a lot of confidence with it, but the rear tire was simply not playing ball. "Unfortunately the rear was spinning a lot," the Spaniard said. "I couldn't really do better, I was losing a lot in corner 3 and the long left going up and some other corners in sector 4, everybody was getting by me, and it was difficult. Lucky that I had the front so I could go hard on the front to keep the pace, but, you know, unfortunately yesterday I had one not so good tire in the qualifying, and one today in the race." It definitely felt like it was the tire, Pedrosa added, and not the change in the track from previous days.

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What I Missed At Qatar: Lorenzo's Brakes, Crutchlow's Tires, Silly Season Starting

Once upon a time in MotoGP, the life of a journalist was easy. At the end of every day, and after every race, there were four or five riders you absolutely had to speak to, plus another couple who would be either entertaining or worth listening to on occasion. The rest of the field could be safely ignored, unless they happened to get lucky and The Big Names would crash out in front of them.

Then, a few things happened. Dorna cajoled the factories into accepting spec electronics and providing better bikes to the satellite teams. Michelin replaced Bridgestone as official tire supplier, and supplied user-friendly tires to the riders. And a new generation of talent entered MotoGP through the Moto3 and Moto2 classes.

As a consequence, there are no longer just three or four stories that need to be told at each race, but a dozen or more. Journalists need to speak as many of the twelve factory riders as possible, plus another half or dozen satellite riders. Factory PR bods add to the complexity by scheduling their riders to speak to the press five minutes apart, despite the fact that each rider debrief will go for at least fifteen minutes or more. Even the lower priority riders have genuinely fascinating tales to tell.

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2018 Qatar MotoGP Sunday Round Up: Closer Than Ever

You might call that a good start to the new season. There were four races held on Sunday at the Losail International Circuit in Qatar: three Grand Prix classes and race two of the Asia Talent Cup. All four would become titanic battles between riders, ending in searing duels to the line. Three of the four would be decided by less than three hundredths of a second. The fourth – Moto2 – would be decided by just over a tenth. The combined winning margin for MotoGP, Moto2, and Moto3 is just 0.162 seconds. Add in the Asia Talent Cup, and that takes the grand total to 0.175 seconds.

It seems fair to say we were treated to some insanely close races at Qatar. In Moto2 and Moto3, three riders broke away to contest victory among themselves. In both classes, an incident – a crash in Moto3, a technical problem with the rear brake in Moto2 – saw the trio whittled down to a duo, the race going all the way to the line.

The MotoGP race was even tighter, the closest finishing group ever at Qatar, with first place separated from seventh place by just 4.621 seconds, and from eighth by 7.112. The top three finished within a second, the top two by 0.027 seconds – a numerologically pleasing gap, given the race-winning machine.

This was the closest race in MotoGP that I can remember. The leaders streaked across the line to complete 22 laps on Sunday night, and on 11 of those laps, the gap between first and second was less than a tenth of a second. On another seven laps, the gap was between one and two tenths. On the remaining four laps, the gap was always under three tenths.

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2018 Qatar MotoGP Saturday Round Up: A Record Falls, A Horde Announce Thenselves

It took ten years and nine days, but the last of the pole records set on qualifying tires has finally been beaten. And not just once, but three times. On their final laps in the Q2 session of qualifying, three riders streaked across the line and dived under Jorge Lorenzo's now ancient pole record at Qatar set in 2008. History was made, and the final specter of the 800 era was cast out from the all-new, utterly rejuvenated MotoGP class. The slate has been wiped clean.

That Lorenzo's record stood for so long and that it was broken at all are both remarkable feats. The old qualifying record was set in Lorenzo's very first MotoGP qualifying session – though in 2008, the system was a little easier for the riders, one hour of qualifying with a generous supply of both race and qualifying tires. In the midst of the tire wars, the Michelin (and Bridgestone) qualifiers were worth well over a second a lap, and sometimes two. Lorenzo's pole lap smashed the previous record by 1.075 seconds. But that pole position, taken on his MotoGP debut, was Jorge Lorenzo serving notice that he was something a little bit special.

It took a special rider to dispatch Lorenzo's lap to the dustbin of history. Johann Zarco had been struggling during the first weekend of his second year in MotoGP, trying but failing to make an impression on the timesheets. He was clearly suffering from the pressure of the expectations placed upon him. Being linked to factory rides, being tipped for the championship before he has even won his first race. He faltered during practice, but with fresh rubber and a light bike he found his feet and dismantled Jorge Lorenzo's record along the way.

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2018 Qatar MotoGP Friday Round Up: Winter Is Over, And Silly Season Is Here

Winter is officially over. Though meteorological winter ended on 1st March, and the astronomical winter will end next week on 20th of March, the long MotoGP winter came to an end at 12:50 local time in Qatar, when Moto3 rolled out for their session of free practice. After World Superbikes got everyone warmed up at Phillip Island in February, the advent of the Grand Prix classes means that racing is back again in earnest.

It is also back in weird way, as is to be expected at Qatar. The schedule remains a curiosity, the latest iteration merely shuffling the weirdness around. For MotoGP, the first session in the blistering heat, the second in the relatively cool of the evening. Track temperatures in FP1 were hitting the mid to high 40s °C, whereas in FP2, they had dropped into the mid 20s. In essence, FP1 is as good as useless for finding a setup. Times dropped by a second between FP1 and FP2, a good indication of the difference in track grip.

The riders had talked about the schedule in the Safety Commission meeting, hastily scheduled for the end of the day after the riders decided against doing it between FP1 and FP2. "In my opinion, it's a special weekend, and we know that," Marc Márquez told us. "Of course FP1, you ride, you feel it's the same layout, but it's for nothing. You cannot try the setup for the race. It's a special weekend, and it will be impossible to find the best schedule. If you want a GP of five days, yes, because then we start on Wednesday, but for me it's OK."

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2018 Qatar MotoGP Thursday Round Up: Making A Weird Weekend Even Weirder

Qatar is always a strange place to kick off the MotoGP season: a windswept circuit in the middle of the desert (though not for long, as the suburbs of Doha are rapidly approaching the track), racing under the floodlights, around a circuit with just a single grandstand a VIP pavilion. It is an odd location with a weird atmosphere. The race feels surreal, part of a science fiction spectacular, an impression reinforced as you drive back to Doha afterwards, the huge Blade Runner-esque skyscrapers awash with ever-shifting patterns of blinking lights.

You would think that the season opener couldn't get much odder, but series organizer Dorna has found a way. In response to complaints of dew forming after 9pm in the evening, rendering the track treacherous (and incidentally, buying room to run the race later at night should a rain shower threaten to upset the apple cart), the race times have been shifted. MotoGP is now the only class that runs in the dark, with FP2, qualifying, and the race all taking place after sunset. Moto2 and Moto3 will both practice and race during daytime.

The unfortunate side effect to the new schedule is that MotoGP now has two radically different sets of conditions. FP1, FP3, and Warm Up all take place around 3pm, when the sun is still hot and the track is scorching. FP2, FP4, qualifying, and the race all take place after dark, once air and track temperatures have dropped by a significant margin. It is not quite as bad as Moto2, however: the intermediate class holds FP2 and qualifying after dark, but will race at 5:20pm, 25 minutes before sunset. They will start the race in sunlight, finish it in the dark, and heaven knows what the difference in track temperatures will be between the start and the end of the race.

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The Comprehensive, Cover-All-The-Bases 2018 MotoGP Preview: Yes, It's A New Golden Age

It seems safe to say we are living in a new Golden Age of MotoGP. The stomach-churning tension of 2015 was followed by an unimaginably wild 2016 season, the racing turned on its head by the combination of Michelin's first season back in MotoGP and the switch to fully spec Magneti Marelli electronics. 2017 saw the surprises keep on coming, with new and unexpected names such as Andrea Dovizioso and Johann Zarco becoming serious factors in the premier class. The field got deeper, the bikes more competitive, domination a thing of the past.

All the signs are that this trend is going to continue in 2018. Preseason testing has shown that there is now little to choose between four or maybe five of the six different manufacturers on the grid, while the sixth is not that far off being competitive as well. Where we once regarded having four riders capable of winning a race as a luxury, now there are ten or more potential winners lining up on a Sunday. This is going to be another thrilling season, with the title likely to go down to the wire once again.

Once upon a time, winning a championship meant being on a factory Honda or Yamaha. The balance between the two bikes shifted from year to year, as one of the two would find an incremental improvement the other couldn't match. One year, Honda would find more top speed which the Yamaha couldn't compensate for. The next, Yamaha would add stability on the brakes, which allow its riders to match the Honda going into the corner, then leave it for dead on the way out. It was a game of small steps, the championship swinging one way then the other.

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