Last year, Marc Márquez won the first ten races of the season on his way to his second successive MotoGP championship. He ended the season with a grand total of thirteen wins, eventually tying up the title at Motegi, with three races still to go. He could have wrapped it up a race earlier, had he not crashed trying to keep pace with Valentino Rossi at Misano. Márquez and the Honda RC213V reigned supreme, clearly the best package on the grid.
Eight months later, and Márquez trails the championship leader Rossi by 49 points, having won only one race, and taken one other podium finish at Jerez. Márquez has crashed out of two races, nearly crashing out of a third as well, and is 101 points down on his total after the same number of races last year. The Honda RC213V is being universally blamed for Márquez' decline, with a series of crashes by Cal Crutchlow, Scott Redding and Dani Pedrosa also being put down to an overloaded front end. The question on everyone's lips is, how did the RC213V go from being the best bike on the grid to being behind the Yamaha and the Ducati? How could Honda get it so badly wrong in just a few short months?
The answer to that question is, of course, that they didn't. There is clearly a problem with the Honda – the obvious culprit being an overabundance of horsepower and aggressive engine braking – but it is hardly a terrible motorcycle. The bike is still faster than it was last year, race times dropping on average by over a second. But the problems Honda are facing did not happen overnight. The supremacy of Márquez has masked a slow and steady decline of the RC213V, the bike losing its advantage over the past couple of seasons.
There is more to Mugello than just MotoGP. Being so large and so fast, the track makes for great racing in all classes, though each with a decidedly different character. While the MotoGP race saw one rider escape and a tense game of cat-and-mouse behind, the Moto2 race was a game of chess with riders gaining and losing over twenty-one laps, and the Moto3 race turned into a spectacular battle, with the outcome uncertain to the end.
The first race of the day was probably the best. Polesitter Danny Kent had made his intentions clear, trying to make an early break and grind out laps which were simply too fast for the rest to follow. That worked at Austin and Argentina, where he could hold his advantage down the long, fast straights, but not at Mugello. The fast exit of Bucine means that a group always has an advantage, the lightweight Moto3 bikes slingshotting out of each other's slipstreams to hit speeds which would otherwise be impossible. At other tracks, a gap of half a second is sufficient to keep ahead in Moto3. At Mugello, you can lose that and much more down the fiercely fast straight.
Kent abandoned his attempt to make a break almost immediately, and switched tactics, dropping to the back of the group, which ebbed and flowed into two groups, then one, containing up to fifteen riders. The lead changed hands more times than there were fans in the stands, a new rider taking over every corner almost. Being Mugello, the front was replete with Italian riders. Romano Fenati, sporting a rather stunning special livery for his home round, Niccolo Antonelli, the youngsters Pecco Bagnaia and Enea Bastianini, all had their sights set on the podium, and most especially the top step.
Mugello is always a little magical, but packed to the rafters with delirious fans, it becomes something greater than just a race track. Over 90,000 fans turned up in Tuscany on Sunday, up 20% from last year on the back of the renaissance of Valentino Rossi and of Ducati, complete with two Italian riders. Something special was always going to happen here.
It certainly did, but perhaps not in the way the fans had hoped. Valentino Rossi did not score the dream victory in front of the ecstatic yellow hordes which packed the hillsides, nor did Ducati finally get the elusive win they have been chasing since 2010. But the MotoGP was packed with excitement and incident, the Moto3 race was a typical Mugello classic, and even Moto2 had some tension down to the final lap. Those who came got their money's worth.
The MotoGP race may have ended much as you might have predicted based on pace in practice, but the journey to Jorge Lorenzo’s third utterly dominant win in a row was a lot more intriguing than the results suggest, with drama right from the start. Literally: Andrea Iannone made what looked at first glance like a jump start – though not as blatant as Karel Abraham's – and Marc Márquez threaded the needle from thirteenth on the grid to make up seven places before the exit of the first corner. And did so surgically and cleanly.
But first that Iannone start. So convinced that the Italian had jumped the gun were HRC that they sent someone up to Race Direction to complain that they were not doing their job. Race Director Mike Webb was able to show them that they were doing just that, by going through the footage. He explained to me the process: there are high-speed cameras on each row and on the lights, capturing the start at a rate of several hundred frames a second. After the start, a dedicated official responsible for all of the video reviews goes over the starts, and checks for a jump start. If one is spotted, such as Karel Abraham's lurch forward, then a penalty is issued. That must be done within the first four laps, to make it fairer on the offender.
Over the past two years, Marc Márquez and his team have proven to be a master of strategy. They have found a number of innovations, most notably the two-stop, three-run strategy during qualifying, and the bunny hop bike swap during flag-to-flag races. Santi Hernandez has earned his reputation as a brilliant crew chief, and as a strategist capable of finding advantages in places where other teams simply haven't thought of looking.
So for Márquez to first miss out on going straight to Q2, and then make a fatal error again in Q1 leaving him in thirteenth is frankly shocking. Two major blunders in one day is unlike Márquez' side of the Repsol Honda garage, and their worst mistake since Phillip Island in 2013, where they miscounted laps for the compulsory pit stop and Márquez found himself disqualified.
What caused them to mess up like this? Concern about the championship, and then a touch of hubris. Márquez spent FP3 working on set up for used tires, looking at pace later on in the race. That meant he had little time at the end of the session to push for a fast lap, and found himself bumped out of the top ten as the pace hotted up. He missed out on Q2 by a very narrow margin: just 0.009 separated him from Maverick Viñales in tenth, and less than a hundredth of a second from Bradley Smith in a very safe eighth spot.
What did we learn from the first day of practice at Mugello? We learned that Jorge Lorenzo is still at the same steamroller pace he was at Jerez and Le Mans. That Valentino Rossi is following a plan, rather than chasing a lap time. That the Ducatis are fast, almost obscenely so, and that's before they put their special Mugello engine in. That Aleix Espargaro is one tough son of a gun. That the Hondas are still fast, when the conditions are right. And that Mugello might just be one of the places the conditions are likely to be right.
Why would the Honda be good at Mugello when it was so bad at Le Mans? Marc Márquez explained in a little more detail after practice on Friday. The biggest problem of the Honda RC213V is the aggressive nature of its engine, both in acceleration and braking. In braking, the bike is sliding more than the riders want it to, and in acceleration, the riders are having to fight the bike's willingness to wheelie and spin out of the corner. Because Mugello is such a fast track (more of that later), the teams have to gear the bikes longer, both for the main straight and for the more flowing corners. Longer gearing means that the engine has to work harder to try to lift the front wheel, taming the power a little. "It looks like here the character of the engine is smoother, also because the final sprocket is longer and then the gearbox is longer," Márquez told us. "The bike is pushing less, the corners are faster and don’t have that big acceleration and that helps us."
This is in part why the problems weren't spotted at Sepang. "In Valencia when we did the test after the race I said, if it feels like this we will have problems next year," Márquez said. With a lot of tight corners which need to be geared rather short, and colder temperatures meaning denser air, allowing more oxygen into the engine, and producing more power, the engine was at its most aggressive. When they went to the Sepang tests, where Honda had brought new chassis and the latest revision of the engine, the bike felt a lot better.
I shall spare you the "rolling Tuscan hills" patter. That cliché will be trotted out in most of the press releases and previews you will read. Indeed, it is one I have done to death in many of my own previews of the race. Like all clichés, it is based on an underlying truth: the Mugello circuit is a breathaking track, set in a stunning location, and scene of some of the greatest racing over the thirty Grand Prix which have been held here since 1976. So good is the track that it has remained virtually unchanged, with only minor tweaks to improve safety. There are still a few spots which could use some improvement. The wall at the end of the main straight could use being moved further to the left, and the gravel trap on the exit of Poggio Secco is terrifyingly small, but fixing these would require moving some serious quantities of earth about. But this is Mugello, and so we look away and carry on. At least the astroturf has been removed, removing one possible source of danger.
The setting and the racetrack mean that this is always one of the highlights of the year, but 2015 could be even better than usual. It might even live up to the hype, of which there is justifiably plenty. But where to begin? With Valentino Rossi, the man who once owned Mugello, winning seven races in a row between 2002 and 2008, and who is both leading the championship and in the form of his life? With his teammate perhaps, Jorge Lorenzo, who has won half of the last six races here, and finished second in the other half? A Lorenzo, we might add, who is now firmly on a roll, steamrollering the opposition at both Jerez and Le Mans? How about Ducati, the factory just an hour up the road from their official test track, and a place where Andrea Dovizioso and Andrea Iannone had a test just three weeks ago, lapping at pretty much race record pace? Or with Marc Márquez, perhaps, the reigning championship struggling during the defense of his second title, the Honda clearly having taken a step backwards over the winter (or rather, taken a small step sideways while Yamaha and Ducati have taken giant leaps forward)?
Perhaps we should allow seniority, both in years and in championship position, to prevail. Can Valentino Rossi do it again at Mugello? If ever there was a year where the Italian could emerge victorious at his spiritual home, this is surely it. Rossi returned to the podium here last year, for the first time since 2009. He had appeared on the podium for each of the three years previously, but only after being called there to greet fans after the real podium ceremony, for the three riders who finished first, were over. Those appearances were painful, most of all for Rossi. He wanted to earn it, be on the podium on merit, rather than popularity. In 2014, he did just that, finishing in third behind Marc Márquez and Jorge Lorenzo. Not close enough to do battle with them, but close enough to dream of more.
2015 Le Mans MotoGP Sunday Round Up: Why The Honda Is The Third-Best Bike In MotoGP, And Wins vs Titles In Moto3
Something always happens at Le Mans. Something happens at every MotoGP race, of course, but Le Mans seems to always have more than its fair share of happenings. Unlikely events, weird crashes, high drama. Marco Simoncelli taking out Dani Pedrosa. Casey Stoner announcing his retirement. Things that nobody had seen coming emerge from the shadows. News that was half suspected is suddenly thrust into the limelight. Something always happens at Le Mans.
This year, it was the turn of Honda to make the headlines, not something you want to do at Le Mans. The weakness of the bike was finally exposed, with three factory Hondas all crashing out, and the fourth one looking likely to do the same at any moment. Dani Pedrosa and Scott Redding suffered identical crashes, losing the front early in the race. Cal Crutchlow's crash was different. He made a mistake when his foot slipped off the peg, grabbing the front brake harder than he meant to and locking the front as he turned in to La Chapelle, the long downhill right hander. But up until that moment, he had been struggling with exactly the same lack of front end grip on corner entry. Marc Márquez' spectacular and wild first few laps saw him running off the track just about everywhere, as he tried to brake hard and enter the corner, but ended up running wide.
At last there was confirmation of something which all of the Honda riders had been saying since last year. Cal Crutchlow's first reaction when he got off the RC213V was "I'll tell you what, it's a hard bike to ride." Scott Redding said much the same. "It's a difficult bike to ride, a lot more difficult than the Open Honda." Such statements were met with outright skepticism by most observers. After all, this was the same bike on which Marc Márquez had won the first ten races of the season, before going on to wrap up his second title in a row virtually unchallenged.
That was probably part of the problem. The Honda was nowhere near as good as Marc Márquez was making it look. "In my opinion, the talent of Marc hides some limits of the Honda," said Andrea Dovizioso in the post-race press conference. "He's the only one able to go fast, also last year, but especially this year. I believe Honda in this moment doesn't have a perfect balance."
2015 Le Mans MotoGP Saturday Round Up: How The Weather Shakes Up Racing, And Matching Lorenzo's Metronomic Pace
Motorcycle racing would be a good deal less complicated if it was an indoor sport. Leaving the complications of housing an area covering several square kilometers to one side for a moment, having a track which was not subject to rain, wind or shine would make things a lot more predictable. No longer would the riders and teams have to worry about whether the track was wet enough for rain tires, or slicks could be used with a dry line forming. Nor would they have to worry about track grip dropping as temperatures rose beyond a certain point. Or differences in grip from one part of the track to the next, as clouds hide the sun and strong winds steal heat from the asphalt. There would be only the bike, the rider, and the track.
Racing would be a lot less interesting, though. Saturday at Le Mans was a case in point. On Friday, it looked like the races were all pretty much wrapped up: Jorge Lorenzo was unstoppable in MotoGP, Tito Rabat was back to his best in Moto2, and Danny Kent was imperious in Moto3. Cold temperatures in the morning and rain at the start of the afternoon threw a spanner in the works for almost everyone. All of a sudden, things look a lot more complicated. And rather intriguing.
The Moto3 class were the hardest hit. The skies were pregnant with rain before qualifying started, with only very light drizzle falling. Within two minutes of the green light going on, the drizzle was heavier, and the track went from being a little slow to being downright treacherous. Fabio Quartararo got it right: first out of the pits, he took pole with his first flying lap. Then he got it wrong: he was nearly two seconds slower on his next lap, then found himself tumbling through the gravel at Turn 1, the quickest corner on the circuit. He wasn't the only one, being joined in the gravel by his teammate Jorge Navarro, while on the other side of the track, Brad Binder had crashed out. The men and women of Moto3 had had enough: they filed back into the pits as the track went from damp to wet, only a few brave souls venturing out in the second half of qualifying, circulating fifteen or more seconds off pole pace.
Going out first turned out to be the key. The riders who waited for the lights to go green at the end of pit lane fill the front of the grid, those who let the pack escape first, then followed at a leisurely pace in pursuit of an empty track are all well down the order. Quartararo, Navarro, Pecco Bagnaia, Romano Fenati fill the front rows, Danny Kent and Efren Vazquez bring up the rear. It was, said Kent, a 'terrible mistake', after dominating in free practice. It was an understandable one, though, as normally, the Leopard Racing team's tactics would have bought Kent and Vazquez free space in which to set out the pace. A normally smart move backfired this time, due to the weather.
2015 Le Mans MotoGP Friday Round Up: Surprising Smith, Smooth Lorenzo, And Has Marquez Lost Another Engine?
If you had put money on Bradley Smith being the fastest man at the end of the first day of practice at Le Mans, you would probably be a very happy camper this evening. The Monster Tech 3 Yamaha rider does not often top a practice session – the last time was nearly a year ago, on the Friday at Barcelona – though he often shows plenty of speed. But there has always been one thing or another to prevent him from converting speed through a particular sector into a really fast flying lap.
That's where the Jerez test helped. At Jerez, Smith, along with several other riders, tested a new front fork set up which made a huge difference to his riding. The aim of the change had been to absorb more of the force in braking, and allow the front tire to retain its shape. By limiting the deformation of the front tire, the new fork allows Smith to brake later and enter the corner better. The tire keeps its shape, giving the rider confidence to release the brake and enter the corner fast. The bike is smoother, and Smith has benefited.
They also found improvements in engine braking, which helps the bike to turn. Better engine braking means a more stable bike entering the corner, crucial to extracting the maximum speed out of a Yamaha. Putting it all together gave Smith confidence, and with confidence comes speed.
It was a perfect afternoon for Smith all the way up to the final corner of his final lap. Smith was very fast on that run, moving up to third spot before heading the timesheets with a lap of 1'33.179. He was on course for another quick lap, but ruined it with a rookie error. Aleix Espargaro crashed in front of him, and he ran wide following the Suzuki. Trying to get back on track, he crashed, but it was a very weird crash indeed, he told reporters. He ran over what looked like a rock or a lump of rock in an asphalt join, and it flipped the bike up. A shame, but the speed he had shown before was encouraging.
The Le Mans round of MotoGP is a truly schizophrenic event. The track sits just south of the charming old city of Le Mans, a combination of medieval center and 19th Century industrial outskirts. The surrounding area is lush, rolling hills, woods alternating with open green fields. It is very much a provincial idyll. Until you reach the Le Mans circuit, and its campsites, where visions of Dante unfold before your eyes, and disinterested guards look on as large drunken hordes set about recreating some of the more gruesome scenes from Lord of the Flies.
Some people love it, others hate it. Veteran journalist Dennis Noyes always says it reminds of going to Hockenheim in the 1990s, when the police would not enter the woods at the heart of the track until the Monday after the race. Then they would go in "to pull the bodies out," as he so colorfully put it. Outside the track, the atmosphere is one of quiet provincial charm. Inside, all is wild, free, and out of control. It is an event that should be experienced at least once, though to be honest, once was enough for me.
Even the circuit is schizophrenic. The facility has two layouts. The glorious, high-speed intimidation of the Circuit de la Sarthe hosts the pinnacle of four-wheeled racing, the 24 Heures du Mans car race, on a track full of long, fast straights and sweeping corners. But MotoGP uses the Bugatti Circuit, the shorter, closed circuit, which is all hairpins and tight esses, with just the glorious Dunlop Curve left as a reminder of the larger, faster circuit.
Yet despite its shortcomings, the Bugatti Circuit has plenty to enjoy. The hard braking, then long drop off of Turn 4, La Chappelle, a treacherous turn indeed. The sweep of Musee and Garage Vert, ideal places for overtaking. The series of tricky esses in the second half of the track: the Chemin aux Boeufs, Garage Bleu, and then the double right of Raccordement, again, ideal spots for attacking an opponent, with the risk they will come back at you in either the second half of the corner, or at the next pair coming up. At most tracks, there are only a couple of places you can overtake. At Le Mans, there are only a couple of corners where you can't.