2015 Argentina MotoGP Saturday Round Up: The Ducati Disadvantage, Tire Choices, And How Great Tracks Create Surprises
Fast tracks are good for racing. Phillip Island demonstrates this every year, and the Termas de Rio Hondo circuit is confirming it in 2015. The mixture of fast sweepers and tricky braking sections places an emphasis on bike handling and rider ability, over and above sheer engine power. This gives enterprising riders opportunities to excel, and overcome any horsepower disadvantages they may have.
Today was a case in point. The Suzukis had shown yesterday that they were extremely fast around the Argentinian track, and Aleix Espargaro came into qualifying as a favorite to take pole. The medium tire (the softest compound available, which the Hondas and Yamahas do not have in their allocation) gave Espargaro plenty of speed, but would it be enough to stay with Márquez? Perhaps some sleight of hand would be needed. With the hard tire his only race option, Espargaro had some mediums to play with. Taking a leaf out of Marc Márquez' Big Book Of Strategy, he and crew chief Tom O'Kane decided that his best hope of getting pole would be a two-stop strategy: coming in twice to change bikes, using three new tires to chase a top time.
The trouble with stealing from Marc Márquez' Big Book Of Strategy is that you find yourself going up against the man who wrote it. It was at Argentina last year that Márquez and crew chief Santi Hernandez saw that a two-stop strategy might be possible, putting it into practice at the next race at Jerez. "Already last year, when I finished the qualifying practice here, we spoke with the team and saw that it was possible to use three tires, because the good lap was on the first lap," Márquez explained at the front row press conference in Argentina. They had done it at Jerez last year, and went for it in Argentina as well. He was amused that Espargaro had gone for the same trick. "We did it, and Aleix also, I saw that he had the same strategy as me. It was interesting."
Press releases from the MotoGP teams and Bridgestone after qualifying at the Termas de Rio Honda circuit in Argentina:
2015 Argentina MotoGP Friday Round Up: Real-Deal Suzukis, Hard Tire Dilemmas, And Ducati's Fuel Issue Explained
Eight years. That's how long it has been since a Suzuki last led two consecutive sessions in the dry. It was 2007, at Shanghai, when John Hopkins topped both FP2 and FP3 on the Suzuki GSV-R. Suzuki had a great year in 2007, spending the previous year developing the GSV-R ready for the start of the 800cc class. John Hopkins and Chris Vermeulen amassed one win (in the wet), seven podiums and a pole position that season, including a double podium at Misano. That Suzuki was a great bike, but sadly, it was the last time a Suzuki was truly competitive. It was pretty much all downhill from there.
Until today. Aleix Espargaro was fastest in the morning session at the Termas de Rio Hondo circuit, but we put that down to the conditions. The track was still very dusty in the morning, turning the standings upside down. Marc Márquez was tenth fastest, behind Mike Di Meglio and Jack Miller, while Valentino Rossi was fourteenth and Jorge Lorenzo twentieth. It was a fluke, we thought.
Then came the afternoon, and Espargaro was fastest once again on the ECSTAR Suzuki GSX-RR. No excuses about the track this time: the combined assault from the fat rubber adorning the MotoGP and Moto2 bikes had cleaned the track up considerably. Moto2 FP1 had already seen Jonas Folger lapping under the pole record set last year, and Danny Kent was just a few hundredths off the Moto3 lap record in FP2. Espargaro's time on the Suzuki was half a second under the race lap record, and half a second faster than the rest of the field. It was just a straight up fast lap.
Press releases from the MotoGP teams and Bridgestone after the first day of practice at the Termas de Rio Hondo circuit in Argentina:
2015 Argentina MotoGP Preview: Of Price Gouging, Ducati's Tire Disadvantage, And A Tough Moto3 Battle
From Austin, MotoGP heads south, to the most expensive GP of the season. The Termas de Rio Hondo circuit lies in one of the poorest regions of Argentina, but the economic reality is not reflected in the prices around the Grand Prix weekend. The cost of renting a compact car from one of the nearby airports would get you a luxury vehicle at any other place. Room rate cards for even the most modest hotel look like they have been borrowed from Claridges for the week. Local businesses appear bent on extracting as much revenue as possible from the poor souls who have no choice but to attend, such as journalists, team staff and riders. Those (such as your humble correspondent) without a wealthy employer to cover the costs for them stay away. Many teams stay up to a couple of hours away, where accommodation prices drop from the truly extortionate to the merely pricey. For much of the paddock, the Termas de Rio Hondo GP is a black hole, capable of swallowing money at an exponential rate.
Yet fans from around the region flock to the circuit. They are much smarter indeed, many bringing tents, vans, RVs, or even just sleeping bags in the back of their trucks. The money saved on accommodation is well spent: the party around the circuit is stupendous, massive amounts of meat and drink being shared around all weekend. That adds real local flavor to the event, the passion of the fans being evident at every turn.
Bradley Smith summed the whole experience up rather succinctly. "I don't think anyone enjoys coming down to Argentina. It costs a lot of money for a lot of people. There always seems to be more hassle than positives from the logistical side," Smith said. "But in terms of the track, once we're out on track, it's an awesome track and they've done a great job here. The night atmosphere, the fact that the fans are so passionate, so it's a trade off. If we sit here on Wednesday and Thursday, we don't like the place, but once we get into the weekend, it's OK."
It may cost a fortune to get there, but the track itself is worth it. Fast, sweeping, with a good variety of fast and slow corners. The nature of the track is reflected in the tires: Bridgestone are having to bring an extra hard rear tire to the circuit, to cope with the extreme loads placed on the tire. There are long corners, and corners where a lot of braking has to be done while still heeled over. They all take their toll, as we learned last year.
Press releases from the MotoGP teams and Bridgestone after Sunday's race in Austin:
2015 Austin Friday MotoGP Round Up: Postponed Sessions, Stray Dogs, and The Final Word On Casey Stoner
The day did not start well. It was not just the high winds and the rain which created problems at the Circuit of the Americas. An absence of track staff – apparently, a lack of medical marshals when the first session of the day was due to start – meant that FP1 for the Moto3 class was delayed by three quarters of an hour. Conditions were pretty miserable once they got underway, but, it turned out, things could be worse. That became apparent when the MotoGP session was red flagged, after a stray dog ran onto the track – that's on the track, not along the side, but actually on it. It took a good fifteen minutes to chase the dog off the track and towards safety, making the old cliché about herding cats seem strangely inappropriate.
By the time practice resumed, the original schedule had gone to hell. The qualifying session for the MotoAmerica Superbike class was rapidly dropped, and the lunch break dispensed with, getting the event quickly back on track.
Despite the weirdness, it turned into a good day. The rain all morning meant the track was at least consistently wet for all three FP1 sessions, as well as FP2 for Moto3. Rainfall stopped towards the end of that practice, with MotoGP starting on a wet track, but the surface drying rapidly, bar a stream of water crossing the back straight. That was a little unsettling, several riders finding themselves in trouble with aquaplaning through it. Overall, though, the consensus was that the track offered pretty reasonable grip in the wet.
Press releases from the MotoGP teams and Bridgestone after the first day of practice at the Circuit of the Americas:
Press releases from the MotoGP teams and Bridgestone ahead of this weekend's race at Austin:
Ever since he first entered the MotoGP class, Marc Márquez has owned the Circuit of the Americas at Austin. In 2013, in just his second ever MotoGP event, he was fastest in all but two practice sessions, then went on to win the race, becoming the youngest ever MotoGP winner in the process. A year later, he was fastest in every session, and extended his advantage over his teammate in the race, winning by over four seconds. The gap to third that year was demoralizing: Andrea Dovizioso crossed the line nearly 21 seconds after Márquez had taking victory.
With two one-two victories for Honda in two years at Austin, does anyone else really stand a chance? Surprisingly, it seems there might be. Much has changed over the past year: the renaissance at Ducati, the improvements at Yamaha, both of the bike and, more significantly, of the riders. And with Dani Pedrosa out with injury, Márquez faces the challenge from Movistar Yamaha and factory Ducati alone.
It is also easy to forget that the 2014 race was a real anomaly. First, Jorge Lorenzo took himself out of contention early. An out-of-shape Lorenzo arrived at Austin under pressure after crashing out at Qatar. He got distracted on the grid and jumped the start by a country mile, his race over even before it began. Valentino Rossi struggled with a front tire that chewed itself up, putting him out of contention almost immediately. And though the Ducatis were better than they had been before, the GP14 used in the first few races was a far cry from the much better GP14.2 which Ducati raced at the end of the year. Finally, Márquez himself was brimming with confidence, having won the first race of the season despite having broken his leg just four weeks before.
Ducati is to lose the first of the special concessions granted at the start of the 2014 season. The two podiums which Ducati scored at Qatar bring its dry podium total to three, which means that the fuel allowance for all Factory Option Ducati bikes will be cut from 24 liters to 22 liters, as we reported on Sunday night. The allowance of 22 liters is still 2 liters more than the 20 liters used by Yamaha and Honda, who race without any concessions.
The extra fuel allowance was part of a package of extra allowances granted to Ducati to persuade them to remain a Factory Option entry and not to switch to the Open class. Manufacturers entering MotoGP for the first time in 2015, or like Ducati, did not have a dry win during the 2013 season, were granted a number of exceptions to the standard rules. Such factories were given 24 liters of fuel rather than 20, were allowed to use 12 engines a season instead of 5, were not subject to the freeze on engine development, were allowed unlimited testing, and were given the softer tire allocation granted to the Open class entries.
Press releases from the MotoGP teams and Bridgestone after Sunday's thrilling opening round at Qatar:
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.