Alex Rins

Sepang MotoGP Saturday Round Up: When Mind Games Go Wrong, And Why Yamahas Rule In Sepang

Winning championships starts with winning races. But there is more to winning races than just turning up on Sunday, whacking the throttle wide open and holding it there for as long as possible when the lights go out. Winning a race is a long, drawn-out process, involving planning, strategy, assessing your strengths and weaknesses.

Sometimes, after looking at the pace of your rivals, checking it against your own data, balancing expected tire life against performance, and watching where the rest of the grid is stronger and where they are open to attack, you have no choice but to admit someone else is faster. It then becomes a question of trying to see what is possible, and trying to find a different way to succeed. Winning may be hard, but it is never out of the question.

So riders explore other ways to try to beat their rivals. The race doesn't just happen on Sunday, it starts in practice. You can try to win by going faster than everyone else, but sometimes, you can win by making your rivals go slower. You try to get into their head, intimidate them. Sometimes you do that by posting an explosive lap that nobody believed you were capable of, and which they fear to copy. Sometimes you do that by following them around on track, watching them, copying them, making them aware of your presence all the time. After all, every ounce of energy spent worrying about you is one which can't be spent on trying to go faster.

King of the hill

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Phillip Island MotoGP Sunday Notes: A Track Where You Have To Feel It

That Phillip Island is a special racetrack is self evident. It is unique in so very many different ways. It flows like Mugello, and has the same high speed nature, with fast corners sweeping through a loop dictated by geography rather than a CAD program. It has a fast front straight, yet it is also a track where slower bikes can find a way to stay with, and even beat, faster bikes. Speed is a factor, but the rider counts for a lot more.

What makes Phillip Island even more unique is its location, exposed to the wild weather which blows in across the Bass Strait. The track has grip, but conditions can change quickly. The sun can warm the asphalt, and the cold ocean wind can whip the heat right out of asphalt and tires just as fast. The track feels more like a force of nature than a technical challenge to be mastered.

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Phillip Island MotoGP Preview: Great Track, Wrong Season, Retirement Rumors, And Silly Season Kicking Off Early

From one seasonally misplaced track to another. Fresh from Motegi, which MotoGP visits at the tail end of typhoon season, the Grand Prix paddock heads south – a very long way south – to Phillip Island, on the south coast of Victoria in Australia, perched on the edge of the Bass Strait. It is a glorious location at the end of the antipodean summer, with good weather very nearly guaranteed. But unfortunately, MotoGP doesn't visit at the end of the antipodean summer in February or March.

Instead, MotoGP is condemned to brave the elements in October, when it is spring in the southern hemisphere. And all because the Australian Grand Prix Corporation, the company which runs the MotoGP round at Phillip Island, is also the promoter of the Australian Formula 1 race, held in Melbourne Park, pays a premium to host the first F1 race of the year.

With Melbourne just under two hours away, the Australian Grand Prix Corporation doesn't want to have its two biggest events too close together, to prevent fans from being forced to choose between the two races. And having paid to make the F1 race the first of the season, moving MotoGP to October is the obvious choice. An understandable choice too: the F1 race at Melbourne Park draws over 100,000 fans on race day. Race day at Phillip Island sees around 35,000 paying customers through the gates.

Real racetracks

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Motegi Race Notes: On Fuel Management, The Rookie Surprise, Ducati's Weakness, Rossi's Future, And Lorenzo's Progress

To win a motorcycle race, team, rider, and machine need to get as close as possible to extracting 100% of performance from both motorcycle and rider. In the Socratic Ideal of a motorcycle race, as the bike crosses the line, it runs out of fuel, explodes into a thousand pieces, the tires destroy themselves, and the rider drops down dead. That, however, would contravene the engine durability regulations, be extraordinarily expensive, and make winning a championship impossible.

Instead, what the riders and teams try to do is maximize the performance of the bike, and allow the rider to manage performance throughout the race. That means finding the right engine mapping to extract as much power as possible without burning through tires and fuel, and setting up suspension and electronics to keep as much edge grip, corner speed, and braking ability as possible for as long as possible.

In 2017 and 2018, tire consumption was often the limiting factor. Riders knew tire performance would drop significantly at some point, so they had to design their race strategy around that: either push hard from the beginning and manage to the end, or slow up the race and hope to keep as much performance as possible to make a dash for the end. Andrea Dovizioso was a master at this, which allowed him to control the races such that he could win them, or at least keep them close.

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Motegi MotoGP Preview: Can Ducati Upset The Marquez Machine?

The first race of the flyaway triple header is arguably the most important. It is, after all, the home Grand Prix for half of the manufacturers on the grid. It is the one race where the top echelons of Honda, Suzuki, and Yamaha management gather, the people behind the companies which put 10 of the 22 MotoGP bikes on the grid. If, for some sick and twisted reason, you wanted to destroy the Japanese motorcycle industry by removing its senior management, then the Motegi MotoGP race would be your second-best chance of success. Only the Suzuka 8 Hour race is a bigger deal for the Japanese manufacturers, and a more important race in Japan.

Motegi matters most to Honda. The Japanese motorcycling giant owns the circuit (as it does Suzuka) and it houses the Honda Collection Hall, a magnificent display of motorcycling history. As it is Honda's 60th anniversary in Grand Prix racing, this year's race is even more important. Before the previous Grand Prix in Thailand, HRC President Yoshishige Nomura told Marc Márquez to wrap up the rider's title in Buriram, so he could arrive in Motegi as champion, a goal Márquez dutifully fulfilled. The target at Motegi will be to clinch the manufacturers crown, which he can do by simply finishing ahead of the first Ducati.

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Marc Marquez: Six Titles In Seven Seasons - Where Does He Go From Here?

What was impressive about Marc Márquez wrapping up his sixth MotoGP title in seven years was not so much that he took the title with a win (as outstanding as it was), but how he got there in the first place. Márquez' record after Thailand is almost unparalleled in the MotoGP era: 9 wins, 5 second places, and a single DNF. Márquez' sole DNF came when he crashed out of the lead in Austin, a result of the engine braking problems the 2019 Honda RC213V suffered early in the season.

The only rider to have done anything like this before was Valentino Rossi in 2002. Then, in the first year of the 990cc four strokes, Rossi won 11 of the 16 races, and took 4 second places, with one DNF, caused by a problem with his rear tire. It was Rossi's third season in the premier class, a year after winning his first title aboard the 500cc two stroke Honda NSR500.

To find other parallels, you have to go back further in time. In 1997, Mick Doohan won 12 races out of 15, finishing second in two more and not finishing in the last race of the year, his home Grand Prix at Phillip Island. Before that, there was Freddie Spencer, who won 7 races in 1985, finishing second in 3 more, crashing in Assen and choosing to skip the final race in Misano. To find greater dominance, you would have to go even further back, to the days of Giacomo Agostini on the MV Agusta, who either won or retired in every race he started in during the period from 1968 to 1971.

Closer than ever

Márquez' 2019 season stands above all of those, however, for the sheer level of competitiveness of the current era. When Agostini was racing, the MV was in a league of its own, the Italian regularly lapping the rest of the field. In 1985, Spencer's only real opposition came from Eddie Lawson, and from his own successful attempt to secure the 500cc and 250cc titles in the same season.

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Buriram MotoGP Subscriber Notes: A New Generation Rising, Yamaha's Hope, Honda's Gamble, And Aprilia's Failure

We are in the middle of a major transition in MotoGP. One generation is on the verge of passing, another generation is rising, and right in the center of it all, towering over it, is Marc Márquez. The reigning champion has dominated 2019, while rivals of a variety of ages on a variety of bikes try to usurp his place.

The Thai Grand Prix illustrated this mix of generations nicely. On pole for the race sat the Young Pretender, Fabio Quartararo, 20 years of age. Alongside him, Maverick Viñales, 24, two years Márquez' junior, and the reigning champion himself. Behind them, two more 24-year-olds, Franco Morbidelli and Jack Miller, flanking the 28-year-old Danilo Petrucci.

On the third row, two veterans and a young rookie. Joan Mir, 22, sat between 40-year-old legend Valentino Rossi, and Andrea Dovizioso, at 33 years of age the only rider left who could stop Márquez from lifting his sixth MotoGP title in seven seasons in the premier class. Behind them, Alex Rins, 23, beside the Espargaro brothers, Pol, 28, and Aleix, 30.

Of the front twelve, Márquez, Viñales, Quartararo, Miller, Rins, Dovizioso, and potentially Rossi had the pace on paper for a legitimate shot at the podium. It was not inconceivable for the podium to represent a cross section of the current set of MotoGP generations. Or for Rossi to be sharing a podium with a man half his age.

Youth has the future

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Buriram MotoGP Preview: Can It Be Even Closer Than Last Year?

On paper, the Chang International Circuit at Buriram is a very simple proposition. A tight corner followed by a short straight, then a tight corner followed by a very long straight, and then a long hairpin followed by a medium-length straight. And then a bunch of complicated twists and turns to get back to the start and finish line.

Of course, a track is never the same on paper as it is when motorcycles actually race on it. Sure, Buriram has three straights which determine a lot of the circuit's character. But there is much more to it than just getting the bike turned and getting on the gas as quickly as possible. There are a plenty of places with a choice of lines, where a canny rider can find an opening on the rider ahead. And the nature of that tighter interior sector is such that a bike which isn't a basic drag bike can make up a lot of ground.

Take Turn 3 (the long back straight has a kink formally designated as Turn 2), the long hairpin at the end of the straight. Not perfectly flat, it offers a choice of two lines: stay inside and hug the inside kerb, and try to make the ground up on corner exit; or run in wide and cut back to the second apex carrying more speed. Both lines work. Both lines get you to the corner exit at roughly the same point in time. And both suit two very different bike characters. It may look point and shoot, but it really isn't.

Fast and fear-inducing

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