The crowds at Silverstone certainly got their money's worth at this year's British Grand Prix. The weather turned, the sun shone, the temperature rose and the fans were treated to three scintillating races, along with an action-packed support program. The Moto3 race was the usual nail-biter, the race only decided on the entry to the final complex at Brooklands and Luffield. The Moto2 race was a throwback to the thrillers of old, with three men battling for victory to the wire. And the MotoGP was a replay of the 2013 Silverstone race, a duel decided by raw aggression.
It has been a long, hard weekend of negotiating in the paddock at Silverstone for a number of team managers. Especially for everyone involved in the situation revolving around the Go&Fun Gresini team, and the rider they have a contract with for 2015, Scott Redding. Meetings have been held with factories, team managers, riders and sponsors, in a bid to get everything back on track for next year.
Silverstone, like so many British racetracks, is built on the site of a former World War II airfield. Though that fact may appear to be largely irrelevant, the location makes a massive difference to conditions at the circuit. To allow the lumbering RAF bombers to take off on their nightly runs to Germany, the airfield was set up on the flat top of a hill. The combination of altitude and ubiquitous wind gave the bombers as much help as possible at take off.
Though the bombers are gone, the wind remains, and it played havoc with all three Grand Prix classes on Friday. The blustery wind blew the bantamweight Moto3 bikes all over the track. It hammered the heavier Moto2 bikes from all sides. And it robbed the precious warmth from the MotoGP bikes' Bridgestone tires, draining heat and reducing the grip. The mixture of strong winds, major cloud cover and low temperatures made it difficult for everyone during free practice.
As the heaviest and most powerful of the three classes, the MotoGP bikes suffered the least directly. It was not so much a question of being blown about, Bradley Smith explained, as having to concentrate on your braking markers and take more care when accelerating. With a headwind in one direction, you could find yourself able to brake a little later, the Tech 3 Yamaha man said, while a couple of corners later, when you had switched direction, a tailwind would blow you into corners faster, meaning braking a little bit earlier than normal. Getting on the gas could be tricky: if the front wheel lifted too much, then you could find yourself off line and running wide. Having bikes weighing 160kg meant they were not easily overpowered by the wind, but the more subtle changes made it all the more treacherous.
Silverstone has all the makings of being a very hectic weekend for a lot of people. Not so much because of the weather – things are looking up compared to a week ago, with just a few drops of rain forecast for Friday, and dry weather for Saturday and Sunday – but more because of the goings on behind the scenes. Thursday was the deadline for Moto2 and Moto3 entries to be submitted. The class looks to be oversubscribed again, with Dorna and IRTA left to whittle the entry list down to something of its present size. The extra entries are mostly expansion projects of existing teams, one-rider teams wanting to expand to two, or two-rider teams looking to become three-rider projects. The teams now have to stump up a deposit, before presenting their final rider lists at Aragon.
That has produced a certain pressure in the paddock for teams to sign riders for next year. The main players now know more or less where they are heading, though few will admit what their plans are. Most of the top Moto3 riders are off to Moto2, with those that remain filling the juiciest spots left open by those who are departing. The Estrella Galicia team of Alex Marquez and Alex Rins is to be split up, with one Alex rumored to be off to Marc VDS alongside Tito Rabat, while the other heads to the Pons team. Which Alex goes where is yet to be confirmed, but the smart money puts Marquez at Marc VDS, and Rins at Pons, in a charmingly consonant distribution of riders. Rins' slot depends on what happens with Jack Miller: if the Australian does not go to LCR Honda in MotoGP as rumored, he will take the spot vacated by Maverick Viñales. Miller's place at Red Bull KTM Ajo is to be taken by Brad Binder.
If the situation in Moto2 and Moto3 is close being settled, all is still up in the air in MotoGP. Before the summer break, not much was expected to change, but the impending loss of Go&Fun as sponsor to the Gresini team has thrown a spanner in the works. HRC has given Gresini until this weekend to place an order for the factory Honda RC213V, but without the backing of a major sponsor, Gresini will not be able to afford the bike. That would wreck Gresini's existing plans, and lead them on a search for alternatives, one of which could be running the factory Aprilia effort.
Since the beginning of the season, as he racked up one victory after another, Marc Marquez faced the same question over and over again: can you keep on winning? And over and over again, Marc Marquez gave the same answer: one day, he would not win. On that day, he added, it would be important to think of the championship, and get on the podium if possible.
Under normal circumstances, Scott Redding would already know exactly where he will be racing in 2015. He has a contract with HRC and Gresini to race with the Go&Fun Gresini team, which puts him aboard the factory option Honda RC213V next year, replacing Alvaro Bautista. Up until a few races ago, the only question mark was whether Redding would continue to run Showa suspension and Nissin brakes, which come as part of a lucrative sponsorship deal for Gresini, or whether the team would switch to Ohlins and Brembo, like the factory Honda team.
One belief common among motorcycle racing fans is that racers will ride harder while they are negotiating a new contract, only to slack off once the contract is in the bag. Ask a rider about this, and they deny it fervently, saying they have to ride just as hard after a new contract is signed as they did before. That their contract situation affects their performance is beyond question, though it is not as simple as it appears.
Marc Marquez did not take kindly to finishing fourth on Sunday, that much was obvious from the test. He lined up at pit lane exit at precisely 10am, waiting for the track to open. As soon as it opened, he was away, the first rider to take to the track in a long way. When Jorge Lorenzo went fastest, Marquez seemed determined to catch him, finally leaving the test at the end of a long day at the top of the timesheets.
Testing is not really about who is fastest, though riders cannot avoid turning it into a competitive sport. It is more about carefully running through options and testing parts, selecting what works and what doesn't, trying new bikes and parts, and testing out set up changes which are too experimental or time-consuming to try on a normal race weekend. Riders are still trying to go fast, but they and the teams are more interested in comparing their own times, rather than the times of others.
The factory Honda and Yamaha teams had similar programs. Both had the latest version of their 2015 bikes for the riders to test, as well as minor modifications to their current set ups in search of a bit more performance for the end of the year. That Honda's 2015 bike is working should be no surprise: Marc Marquez topped the timesheets on the new bike, praising the work done so far. It is an improvement over the 2014 machine, and faster in the middle of the corner, though there are still a few areas that need work. It was good enough for Marquez to get under Cal Crutchlow's pole record from 2013, however. Would he like to use it for the rest of the season? Though the bike is faster, it would be too much of a risk using it for the rest of the season.
The hot-hand fallacy finally caught up with Marc Marquez. His amazing streak of consecutive wins stays at ten, the Spaniard being beaten for the first time this year. In his twenty-ninth race in the MotoGP class, Marquez and his crew finally failed to find a good enough set up to win, or even make it onto the podium. The Repsol Honda man has only missed out on the podium twice before, once at Mugello last year, when he crashed, and once at Phillip Island, when he was disqualified from the tire fiasco race.
Defeat had been waiting in the wings for Marquez for a while now. Look solely at the points table, and his dominance looks complete. But go back and look at his winning margin, and his advantage has not looked quite so large. Of his ten wins, only two were by a considerable margin: one at Austin, where he has always been better than the rest; one at Assen, where rain created large gaps. His advantage at Argentina and Indianapolis was 1.8 seconds, at Jerez, Le Mans and the Sachsenring under a second and a half. Marquez could only eke out victory at Qatar, Mugello and Barcelona, races he won by a half a second or less. At most races, Marquez was winning by a slender margin indeed, lapping on average just five or six hundredths of a second quicker than his rivals. It was enough, but it was really not very much at all.
Marquez' slender advantage over his rivals was a sign of just how close they really were. Valentino Rossi, Jorge Lorenzo and Dani Pedrosa had all come close to beating Marquez, and in the case of Pedrosa at Barcelona, Marquez had been forced to delve deep into his bag of tricks to beat his teammate. Marquez' talent may have loaded the dice he was rolling, but eventually they would fall another way. "People said winning was easy for me," Marquez told the Spanish media, "but I know how hard it was."
The key to success in motorcycle racing is about controlling as many variables as you can. There are two variables which riders and teams cannot control, and which they fear for that very reason: the weather, and crashes. The weather spared both MotoGP and Moto2 at Brno on Saturday, but played havoc in Moto3. Crashes, too, made life difficult, both for MotoGP and in Moto3. It made for an intriguing day of practice.
The day started under leaden skies, with the threat of rain ever present throughout the morning. Dark clouds rolled in, then rolled right out again, chased deeper into Moravia and away from the track. They broke only briefly in the afternoon, the Moto3 qualifying session the main victim. Standing at trackside, the rain came and went so quickly that by the time I posted an update on Twitter, the weather had changed, immediately contradicting me. In the end, a red flag saved my blushes, Phillip Oettl crashing and damaging the air fence, causing the session to be halted while the air fence was repaired.
The rain had disappeared by the time MotoGP qualifying rolled around, conditions good enough for Marc Marquez to get close to Cal Crutchlow's pole record from 2013. That Marquez should take pole is hardly a surprise – that's nine out of eleven this year – but the way he controlled not just pole position, but the whole front row of the grid. Marquez jumped straight to pole on his first run out of the pits, but as he started his second run, he picked up a passenger. Andrea Iannone latched onto the tail of Marquez, and as Marquez flashed across the line to improve his time, Iannone used his tow to leapfrog ahead of his time, taking provisional pole from the Repsol Honda man. His soft tire spent, Iannone couldn't follow Marquez on his second run, the world champion going on to reclaim pole and demote Iannone to second. Further down the grid, Andrea Dovizioso followed Valentino Rossi around the circuit to improve his own time, moving up to second and demoting Iannone another spot.