Dani Pedrosa's announcement after the Qatar Grand Prix that he would be withdrawing from racing to seek urgent treatment for arm pump immediately triggered an explosion of speculation over who might replace the Spaniard during his absence. Fans and pundits offered a barrage of possible names to take Pedrosa's place: Casey Stoner, Cal Crutchlow, Michael van der Mark, Jack Miller, Nicky Hayden. Coming as it did just before April Fool's day, it even triggered a spate of hoax stories: Casey Stoner, Mick Doohan, Alex Marquez and Fabio Quartararo were all offered in jest.
Hiroshi Aoyama was always going to be the man to replace Pedrosa, however. For a range of reasons, Aoyama is the only reasonable candidate to take the place of Pedrosa in the short term, all the other names being bandied about subject to sponsor conflicts, race conflicts, contractual obligations or just plain unwillingness. Here's a rundown of why Aoayama got the call, and the others didn't.
2015 Qatar MotoGP Sunday Round Up: The Unexpected And The Expected, That's Why They Line Up On Sunday
"That's why we line up on Sunday. You never know what's gonna happen." Nicky Hayden was replying to one of my typically stupid questions after the race in Indianapolis in 2009. The day before, I had asked him if he had given up hope of a good result after qualifying in 6th on the Ducati in front of his home crowd. That Sunday, he had ridden a solid race and taken advantage of the misfortunes of others, ending the day on the podium. The heady mixture of hope, determination, talent and a smattering of luck put him where he wanted to be. Or close to it at least.
Hayden's phrase is one of the most succinct and accurate descriptions of motorcycle racing, as the events of the season opener at Qatar go to show. The script which we all thought had been written on Saturday got torn up and thrown out the window on Sunday. Because you never know what's gonna happen.
The Moto3 race was the usual barnstormer, where the race looked like it was anybody's, yet it still ended up with two of the most experienced riders sharing the podium. Moto2 saw one bizarre incident follow another, until the last man left standing took victory. And MotoGP turned into a heart-stopping thriller, with the favorite catching himself out, and the winner coming from halfway down the grid.
2015 Qatar MotoGP Saturday Round Up: Of Ducati's Revival, An Underrated Dovizioso, And Yamaha's Struggles
A Ducati on pole? Three Ducatis on the first two rows? Four Ducatis in the top ten? Cheater tire! The only logical explanation for the grid positions the factory and Pramac Ducati secured at Qatar is the fact they have the special soft tire available to them. And that tire, we are told by everyone who is not on a Ducati, is worth a second a lap. So the grid positions of the Ducati are a travesty, right? Come the race, they'll be rolling road blocks holding up the rest once their tires go off, right?
Wrong. This narrative, current among everyone who sees their favorite rider further down the grid than they had hoped for, bears only a very passing resemblance to the truth. The soft tire may offer some advantage to those who are allowed to use it, but it takes experience and data to get the best out of the softer rubber. Ducati have plenty of data they can pass on to the Pramac team, but the Desmosedici GP15 of Andrea Dovizioso and Andrea Iannone has barely had more than two or three laps on the soft tire. The bike is so new that they simply haven't got around to spending much time working on qualifying.
The real story is a lot more complex than just the soft tire. It starts in FP4, when Marc Márquez realized that the Yamahas were still struggling to match race pace, but showing real signs of improvement. It was time to do something about that, and he decided to deploy a trick he picked up last year. The Repsol Honda man allowed both Pramac Ducatis to get into his draft, and towed them round to help their fast laps. His ploy paid off, though not entirely. Yonny Hernandez was catapulted up into fifth, but Danilo Petrucci got a little too close and was forced into mistakes. Petrucci ended up only ninth, losing out in the second half of the track. If he had got the last two sectors right, Petrucci could have been as high as fourth.
"It's just nuts to be separated by one second over the 5 km around this place." It is hard to argue with Eugene Laverty's assessment of just how close the times are after free practice for MotoGP. Laverty is either really close to Marc Márquez, or a long way behind Marc Márquez, depending on how you measure it. The Irishman had a solid day of practice to come up just over a second shy of Márquez' best time on Friday evening. His problem is that as impressive as his time was, there are eighteen riders ahead of him.
It is, quite frankly, ridiculously close. "I don't know when was the last time you saw down to 21st was inside 1.3 seconds," Jack Miller said in awe. "It's almost like we're in Moto3 again." The closeness of the field was a frustration for everyone on the grid. Miller, Scott Redding, Nicky Hayden, even Valentino Rossi cannot believe how tough the field is. "This practice is unbelievable, because there are ten bikes in three tenths!"
That does not make it any easier to pick a winner, however. Marc Márquez is the least troubled of the riders on the grid, fast both in race trim and on a single lap. The Repsol Honda man spent the day working on his race pace, dropping his lap time to around 1'55.3. He could not make the same step for his single lap pace, but as Márquez has topped every session so far, that should not be too much of a concern. It is too early to be handing him the pole, however: with Aleix Espargaro managing fourth on the soft tire, Andrea Iannone getting to within two tenths of Márquez while still running the medium tire, and Cal Crutchlow and Dani Pedrosa showing some real pace on a single lap, the front row is not a given. Márquez fears the Ducatis and Pedrosa most, but warned also against writing off the Yamahas. "In one lap, they can be there," he said.
2015 Qatar MotoGP Thursday Round Up: Racing For Real, And The Strange Consequences Of Sponsorship Falling Through
When the flag drops, the speculation stops. Though usually, a rather more forthright word is used instead of speculation. After the long winter of testing, of trying to assess who was trying what on which lap to try to compare lap times, MotoGP is underway for real. Everyone on track is looking for race pace, and a fast lap to ensure they get into Q2. It is a whole lot easier to comprehend, and infinitely more thrilling.
Conditions had not looked promising ahead of practice. Strong winds blew down the front straight in the late afternoon, raising fears that they would coat the circuit in dust and sand. Then shortly before the action was due to kick off, a few drops of rain started falling, threatening to at least delay proceedings should it continue. But the wind dropped and the rain stopped, and the 2015 MotoGP season got underway as planned.
Fears about the track were unfounded, lap times quickly heading towards something resembling race pace. Danny Kent's fastest lap in Moto3 was seven tenths off the lap record in the first session of the day, and when Moto2 hit the track, Sam Lowes set about destroying the existing pole record, becoming the first ever Moto2 rider to break the two minute barrier at the circuit. In MotoGP, Marc Márquez was lapping a few tenths off lap record pace, a record still held by Casey Stoner from 2008.
The prospect of a new MotoGP season always leaves fans giddy with anticipation. Their appetites keenly whetted by winter testing, and speculation over the times set at those tests, they boldly predict that this season is going to be the best MotoGP season ever. Though the racing is often good, all too often, it never quite lives up to the preseason hype.
There is every reason to believe that this year, it will be different. The bikes, the riders, the teams, the motivation, it all points to 2015 being an exceptionally exciting season in MotoGP. At the last day of winter testing at Qatar just over a week ago, less than a second covered the top fourteen riders, and two seconds covered all but four of the MotoGP field. A similar pattern emerged at Sepang: with the exception of the occasional hot lap by Marc Márquez, there were ten or more riders within a second of each other. Things haven't been this close for a while.
The Fantastic Four
It has been a very long time – Estoril in 2006, to be precise – since a satellite rider has won a race in MotoGP. That is unlikely to change in 2015. The reasons for this are manifold, but perhaps the most important is the emergence of a group of exceptionally talented riders pushing each other on to greater heights. The arrival of Dani Pedrosa, Casey Stoner and Jorge Lorenzo posed a real threat to Valentino Rossi, and forced him to up his game to stay with them, and to beat them. When Stoner retired at the end of 2012, Marc Márquez took his place, keeping the squad of so-called Aliens at full strength.
This group – call them the Aliens, the Fantastic Four, the Factory Four, whatever moniker takes your fancy – will be hard to beat again in 2015. Márquez, Rossi, Lorenzo and Pedrosa have the best bikes on the grid, in the best teams, with the best crew chiefs. They are the most talented, and the most dedicated. They train hardest, and have the best support in terms of physical training and mental preparation. They all know that victory is won by the narrowest of margins, and attention to detail must be complete. These four are indeed fearsome, and favorites to boot.
Once upon a time, Grand Prix racing rules were fairly simple: bikes had to have two wheels, weigh 130kg, have a maximum capacity of 500cc and a maximum of four cylinders. The switch to four strokes in 2002 added a lot of complexity to the rules, and things have been getting slowly worse since then. MotoGP now has two different categories with three different rule sets covering a single class, depending on entry type and results in recent years. With Suzuki and Aprilia entering the series in 2015, and another rule change on the horizon for 2016, it's time to take a quick look at the rules for this season, and see what has changed since last year.
The basic formula for MotoGP is unchanged. A MotoGP bike is limited to a maximum of 4 cylinders, a maximum capacity of 1000cc, and a maximum bore of 81mm.
For 2015, the minimum weight has been reduced by 2kg to 158kg. That limit is likely to be reduced again for 2016. Bikes are weighed in race trim, including coolant, onboard cameras and electronics, but with an empty fuel tank.
Factory vs Open
As in 2014, MotoGP is divided into two categories: Factory Option and Open class. Factory Option is meant for motorcycle manufacturers, the Open class for private entries and smaller teams. However, just as in 2014, the threat of Ducati's defection to the Open class means that the concessions they were granted in 2014 stay in place, and will be extended to the new factories entering the class, Suzuki and Aprilia.
There are some worried faces in the MotoGP paddock after the second day of the Qatar test. That the Ducati GP15s are fast should come as no surprise, after all, they were fastest on the first day as well. The trouble is that everyone assumed that the speed of Andrea Dovizioso and Andrea Iannone was down to the fact that they can use the soft tire, which is not available to Honda and Yamaha. Despite the protestations of the two Ducati riders, who had said they spent all day on the medium tire, the same tire which the Hondas and Yamahas had used, Valentino Rossi, among others, had cast aspersions on their claims, suggesting that their fastest laps had been set on the soft tire.
They weren't. Ducati's official press release stated explicitly that the two Andreas had not gone anywhere near the soft tire so far, concentrating on improving the GP15 on the medium tire, the tire they will race. Ducati's press officer confirmed this explicitly to the Bikesportnews website. And just to check, I trawled through all the photos I could find of the factory Ducati team: through the official Ducati press website, through the official MotoGP.com website, and through a couple of other media sites. Not a single photo did I find of a tire with a white stripe, the sign of the soft tire. They really did use the medium tire.
What this means? It means that the times set by Andrea Iannone yesterday, and by Andrea Dovizioso today – a time under Casey Stoner's race lap record, set here back in 2008 – are a true illustration of what the GP15 is actually capable of, and not an artifact of having an artificial advantage. Gigi Dall'Igna and the team of engineers at Ducati have actually solved the problem. The Ducati Desmosedici GP15 is a competitive motorcycle. Both Valentino Rossi and Marc Márquez conceded that they now believed the GP15 is capable of winning.
Did they or didn't they? That was the question after Ducati dominated the first day of the test at Sepang. Andrea Iannone and Andrea Dovizioso spent all day swapping places at the top of the timesheets, Iannone coming out on top at the end. It was an impressive showing, but MotoGP watchers and Ducati's rivals were quick to pass judgment: of course the Ducatis were fast, after all, they were allowed to use the soft rear tire, a concession for the Open class teams and factories who have yet to win three races in the dry. That tire is worth six or seven tenths a lap, said Valentino Rossi.
Only they didn't use the soft tire. At least, that is what Andrea Dovizioso told reporters. He spent all day working on race set up, first on the GP14.3 to set a baseline, and then on the GP15 to work on braking set up and electronics. There was no point using a super soft tire, and he had ridden all day on the harder of the two options, which is the soft tire used by the factory Honda and Yamaha riders. Valentino Rossi was skeptical. "They said they didn't use the soft? I have some doubts," Rossi told Italian reporters. He may be partially right: only Dovizioso denied outright using the softer tire, Andrea Iannone skirted round the question, speaking only of being fast on both new and used tires.
Super soft or no, the fact remains that the Ducatis are quick. The GP15 is clearly competitive, something which Rossi, Jorge Lorenzo and Marc Márquez were all keen to emphasize. On the same tire, the Ducatis were as quick as the Yamahas and Hondas, Rossi said. That, in itself, is cause for concern. At least for the factory Honda and Yamaha men.
Who starts the 2015 MotoGP season as favorite for the championship? The final test at Qatar will give us a much clearer picture of where the factories and riders stand than the last two tests in Sepang. That is in part due to the fact that the factories have had time between the Sepang tests and now to work on further refining their bikes ready for the start of 2015.
But the Qatar test is also a little more representative for the rest of the season than Sepang is. The Malaysian circuit may have a good mix of fast and slow corners, but the tropical heat makes it tough on riders, tough on tires, and the track can lose a lot of grip as the temperatures rise. Qatar may not have the fast corners which Sepang does, but much lower track temps make the circuit a lot less greasy than Sepang.
It helps if if the track is clean, though. Sat on the edge of a desert peninsula, dust and sand all too often blows across the circuit, playing havoc with grip levels. Reports from the recent Kawasaki H2 launch at the circuit suggest the track is not too dusty, and having hordes of journalists circulating on a bike with a nice fat rear tire should have swept most of the dust from the circuit.
The other danger is the chance of dew forming on the track, a problem as the night draws on. The problem is that the dew on the track is impossible to see, meaning riders find themselves tumbling through the gravel wondering what just happened. Testing at least offers some way of avoiding the track once the dew settles, but the trick is not to get caught out in the first place.