Notes on Jonathan Rea wrapping up his third WorldSBK title from our man on the ground at Magny-Cours:
When they come to write the history of the 2017 MotoGP season, one of the largest chapters is going to bear the title "Weather". The weather continues to play an inordinately large role in the 2017 championship. Not always on race day, perhaps, but the amount of time wasted during practice because conditions were so utterly different to Sunday has made a significant difference to the course of the championship.
Aragon was a case in point. Wet conditions on Friday meant one less day of practice for the teams. For some, that meant never finding a solution to problems which would come to plague them on race day. For others, their first guesses at setup were pretty much spot on, the benefit of years of experience allowing for an educated guess. For the race winner, failing to find a decent setup leading to a lack of feeling was no obstacle to success. Sometimes, the will to win can overcome remarkable odds.
This lack of setup time may be the bane of the teams' lives, but it is a boon for fans. It adds an element of unpredictability, helping to shake up the field and make the races and the championship more interesting. The championship ain't over till it's over: there has been too much weirdness this year to take anything on trust.
When you lose the first day of a MotoGP weekend to rain, the remainder of practice becomes incredibly hectic. FP3, especially, becomes insane. Teams and riders are trying to force 90 minutes of practice into half an hour, and then throw soft tires at the last 15 minutes in an attempt to avoid Q1.
Unfortunately, the constraints of temporal physics make it impossible to put the best part of race distance on the different compounds of tires, try different bike balance and electronics settings to measure their effectiveness, try to follow a rival or two to figure out where you are stronger and weaker than they are, and finally throw a couple of soft tires at a quick lap, all in just a single session of free practice. Sure, there's another 30 minutes of FP4 to try to figure things out, but usually, that is where you are trying to nail down the fine details, not evaluate radically different bike setups.
So on Saturday evening, when riders are asked what their strategy is and which tire they will be racing, there is a lot of shrugging of shoulders. Andrea Dovizioso was a case in point at Aragon. "Still we don’t know," he said. "Still there is a lot of work to do about setup and also the decision of the tires, because we didn’t really have time to work on them. The temperature was so cold in FP3, and in the afternoon the temperature change a lot. In the morning you can’t work on the tires. We have only 30 minutes in the afternoon to try and understand something. I think for everybody, the decision is not clear. Still we have to study a lot of data and take a decision about the tires and the set-up. Maybe all three are an option but I don’t know."
I, along with almost every photographer and a good part of the journalists present at Aragon, made my way down to the pit lane on Friday morning, to watch Valentino Rossi's first exit on the Yamaha M1 since breaking his leg in an enduro accident. It was overcast but dry, and there was a real sense of anticipation as Rossi limped to his bike, swung his leg awkwardly over it, then exited the garage smoothly and headed off down pit lane.
Before he and the rest of the MotoGP field had reached the exit of pit lane, the rain had started to fall. Not hard enough to leave the track properly wet, but enough rain to make using slicks impossible. FP1 was a wash. Fastest man Marc Márquez was 13 seconds off lap record pace.
The track dried out again during the lunch break, but once again, just as the MotoGP riders were about to head out, the rain started to fall. They found the track in FP2 much as they had left it in FP1: too wet for slicks, not really wet enough for a proper wet test. And with Saturday and Sunday forecast to be dry and sunny, any data collected was of very little use indeed.
What is Valentino Rossi doing back on a race bike just 22 days after breaking both the tibia and fibula in his right leg? The answer is simple enough: racing. How on earth can he be thinking about racing so soon? Quite simply, because his leg is in much, much better shape than he expected it to be.
The last time Rossi broke his leg back in 2010, he was in worse shape after the accident. "I remember in 2010 after the surgery I had five or six days where I was very, very bad," Rossi told the press conference. "This time already the next day I was able to come back at home."
That was also the moment when he started to think he might be able to return to racing quicker than in 2010. In the immediate aftermath of the accident, he immediately focused on Motegi as the target for his return. But that changed quickly. "In the first days I understand that I feel a lot, lot less pain compared to last time. So I think that I can make in a shorter time. The first week was difficult, but after the first 10 days I start to improve a lot, also every day, and started to have good feeling from the leg and ankle. And started to think about Aragon."
Before anyone in the paddock saw Rossi, there were few who thought he would be in any shape to be riding. But when he drove up to the paddock and got out of his car, it was clear he was in much better condition than any of us thought. He hopped out with relative ease, and took off with just a single crutch for support. No cast on his leg, just a support bandage.
Andrea Iannone has been something of an enigma since joining Suzuki. The Italian was blisteringly quick last year on the Ducati, which is one of the reasons Ducati took so long to choose between him and Andrea Dovizioso after they signed Jorge Lorenzo to the factory team. He was fast when he jumped on the Suzuki GSX-RR for the first time at the Valencia test, then carried that speed to Sepang, where he finished as second quickest overall.
Things have gone downhill since then. The Italian slipped down the order at the Phillip Island, then trailed further behind at the Qatar test. His season has gone from bad to worse since racing started: he has five DNFs from 13 races, and when he finishes, he usually ends up around tenth. His best result so far has been a seventh place in Texas, but that was the exception, not the rule.
He currently sits in sixteenth in the championship, with a paltry 33 points. Iannone, race winner in Austria last year, sits behind both Monster Tech 3 Yamaha rookies, and behind a total of seven riders on satellite bikes. His rookie teammate, who has spent most of the season banged up with injury, is threatening to beat him more and more regularly. How to solve an issue like Andrea Iannone?
Notes from Portimao from our man on the ground:
Notes on WorldSBK race 1 from our man on the ground at Portimao:
Will MotoGP survive the loss of Valentino Rossi? From the evidence of Misano, the answer is yes. According to the official figures released by Dorna, the attendance over all three days was down just 133 fans. Not bad, when the three-day attendance was over 158,000. The Sunday numbers – a better measure, as the three-day figures are mostly derived by double and triple counting – were down a little, from 100,000 to 96,000.
Disregarding the official numbers (justifiably, as there are plenty of good reasons to suspect the books are well and truly cooked at some circuits), judging visually, the grandstands and grass banks were pretty full, almost as full as last year. Despite the horrendous rain which was heaviest as the fans were making their way to the circuit, and continued all the way up until the flag dropped.
Valentino Rossi is irreplaceable as an icon of the sport, known both inside and outside motorcycle racing. But the cast of characters, heroes and villains, which the sport now has, and the intense and close racing we see is enough to keep the overwhelming majority of the fans watching. There will undoubtedly be a drop in attendance and TV figures, but on the evidence of Misano, it will be nearer a survivable 10%, not a disastrous 40%. MotoGP will survive the loss of Valentino Rossi, once he goes.
All three MotoGP classes gave the fans a reason to keep watching. The rain created a spectacle of its own, with crashes shaking up the outcomes. The early leaders crashed out in both Moto2 and MotoGP, with major consequences for the title in the Moto2 race. Though the winner checked out early in Moto3, the battle for the podium – and as a result, for the championship – heated up behind. And both MotoGP and Moto3 were decided in the last few laps, as riders launched attacks and either saw them rebuffed, or got through to seize glory.
It feels like the two days of practice we have had at Misano are set to come to naught. With a cold first day of practice, a cool morning on the second day, and a hot afternoon, conditions have been hard enough to track, especially after heavy rain on Thursday scoured any rubber from previous events from the surface. But the riders have had no practice in the wet, and with rain set to fall on Sunday – exactly when, we don't know, but fall it will – everything is very much up in the air.
The five factories who tested here should be used to it. The track feels totally different from the test here back in August, grip levels radically lower. Tires feel very different too, despite Michelin insisting they are using the same tires this weekend as they brought to the test. It's all a bit topsy turvy, so why should adding a bit of rain make it any more complicated.
A wet Sunday would be a shame in more than one way. The Misano races in all three classes are shaping up to be fantastic spectacles. In Moto3, four of the top five in the championship start from the first two rows, with Enea Bastianini thrown into the mix for good measure. Moto2 pits Franco Morbidelli against a resurgent Mattia Pasini, the Italian veteran making it four pole positions in a row. Tom Luthi may be on the third row, but his qualifying position belies his pace. Sadly, Alex Márquez will be absent, the Spaniard having banged up his hip badly enough that it's trapped a nerve.