You would think with the deluge of words which has washed over the incident between Marc Márquez and Valentino Rossi in the last corner (and to which I contributed more than my fair share, I must confess) that there were only two riders and one race at Assen on Saturday. Beyond the clash at the GT chicane, there was much more to talk about after Holland.
Whatever the immediate aftermath of the clash between Márquez and Rossi, the longer term implications of the result have made the championship even more interesting. Márquez' decision to switch back to the 2014 chassis for his Repsol Honda RC213V has been proven to be the correct one. Though the engine is still as aggressive as ever, the old chassis in combination with the new swingarm and new forks tested at Le Mans has made the bike much more manageable. Márquez can now slide the rear on corner entry in a much more controlled way than before, taking away the behavior the reigning champion has struggled with most. The Spaniard showed he could be competitive from the start of the race to the end, instead of crashing out as the tires started to go off.
The bike is still a long way from cured, however. Márquez switched to the medium front tire rather than the soft, the only rider to do so. The medium provides a bit more support under braking, compensating for the reduced braking from the rear wheel. That support comes at the cost of extra grip provided by the softer front. Whether Márquez will be able to employ that same strategy for the rest of the season remains to be seen. For a start, Assen is not a very typical track, featuring a lot more flowing corners than usual. At circuits with more corners needing hard braking, the challenge will be greater. The next race is at the Sachsenring, where asymmetric front tires will be on offer. How the Honda deals with that will be interesting.
A more competitive Márquez will certainly liven the championship up. After Lorenzo swept the previous four races, a Rossi comeback gave him back the advantage in the championship. Without Márquez, Rossi would only have extended his lead by five more points, but the Repsol Honda man put himself between the two Movistar Yamaha teammates, meaning that Lorenzo's deficit grew to ten points. With ten races to go, the championship is still wide open, though realistically, it is only between Rossi and Lorenzo. But the influence of a rider who is consistently capable of inserting himself between the two Yamahas could end up having a major effect on the championship.
Press releases from the teams and Bridgestone after Saturday's exhilarating Dutch TT at Assen:
Press releases from the MotoGP teams and others after qualifying at Assen:
If the Honda is so bad, why are two RC213Vs at the top of the timesheets? That seems like a very valid question, given the public struggles which all of the Honda riders have had with the bike this year. Has the 2014 chassis finally fixed the Honda's ailments? Is Márquez back?
If only it were that simple. Firstly, of course, Marc Márquez never went away. The double world champion still possesses a gargantuan talent, and the desire and will to use it. He was hampered by many aspects of the 2015 bike, including both the engine and the chassis. The 2015 chassis, he explained at Assen, was more precise and could be used more accurately. Unfortunately, the only way to get the best out of it was to ride it like every lap was a qualifying lap. That level of intensity is just not sustainable over race distance. At some point, you will make a mistake, and the 2015 chassis punishes mistakes mercilessly. So HRC have reverted to a hybrid version, using a 2014 chassis and the new swingarm which Márquez first tested at Le Mans. That works better for Márquez: he has been forced to sacrifice some precision, but at least now he has a chance to recover from mistakes.
Press releases from the teams, Bridgestone and others previewing the Dutch TT at Assen:
Frustration and resignation. Those were the two most prominent emotions at the post-race MotoGP test at Barcelona. Two sides of the same coin, in reality, as the weather robbed teams in desperate need of track time of any chance of doing the hard work which will make them all a bit more competitive. After an hour and a half of a dry track, a massive thunderstorm washed over the circuit, drenching the track and leaving it wet for the rest of the day. Dani Pedrosa was phlegmatic about the situation. " The weather is what it what is," he shrugged. "Obviously it would have been perfect for it to have stayed dry but we don't control that."
In the Tech 3 garage, Pol Espargaro, suffering badly through a slump in his form, did nothing to hide his frustration. "We tested two things, one of them was not good, one of them was good, we improve a little bit. Then the rain comes, it's impossible to make one fast lap time, impossible to make a rhythm, impossible to make anything. We are looking to go to Assen to continue, because it was a disaster today." It has been a tough year for the younger of the two Espargaro brothers, as he is struggling to ride the Yamaha, a bike which requires a radically different approach than his natural tendency, to move around, and be aggressive.
The rain was perhaps toughest on Marc Márquez. Márquez' biggest problem is on corner entry, where he cannot slide the rear controllably once it touches down during braking. The reigning world champion feels strongly that braking is where he has his biggest advantage, and the ability to either pass or make up time on his opponents. Take away that advantage and he feels shackled, fighting with one hand behind his back.
Press releases after the test at Barcelona:
Barcelona was the place the champions emerged. In Moto3, Moto2 and MotoGP, riders laid a solid claim to the titles in their respective classes. Danny Kent rode with heart and head, and won the Moto3 race with a plan, extending his lead in the championship to 51 points. Johann Zarco pulled back a big gap and made the right move when it mattered most, extending his lead to 40 points. And Jorge Lorenzo and Valentino Rossi demolished all-comers to make it a Yamaha one-two, and to push their lead out to 43 and 44 points respectively, the Movistar Yamaha men separated by a single point between them. A lot can happen in the eleven races which remain, but the chances of the three titles not bearing the names of three of those four men are getting slimmer by the race. The fat lady is still a long way from starting to sing, but you get a sneaking suspicion that you just heard her taxi pull up at the artists' entrance.
While in Moto2 and Moto3, the title favorites have a name, in MotoGP we know only the team likely to lift the trophy in Valencia. To say that the factory Movistar Yamaha team dominated the MotoGP race in Barcelona is an understatement. While Valentino Rossi chased another metronomic performance from Jorge Lorenzo, behind them their rivals were either falling by the wayside or finishing nearly twenty seconds off the pace. Marc Márquez, Andrea Dovizioso and Aleix Espargaro crashed, Dani Pedrosa finished third just under twenty seconds behind the Yamahas, and Andrea Iannone was the first factory Ducati home, with a gap equating to a pace nearly a second a lap slower than that of the Yamahas. Jorge Lorenzo has won the last four races on the trot, Valentino Rossi has picked up two more, and not been off the podium so far this season, leaving only Austin to Marc Márquez. Even then, the Repsol Honda man won that race with a much smaller margin than usual at the track.
Jorge Lorenzo gave yet another demonstration of just how strong his riding is at the moment. The Spaniard grabbed the lead at the first corner – frustratingly so for Aleix Espargaro, who had got off the line well but started to suffer as the Suzuki changed up the gearbox, the lack of a seamless shift meaning he lost eight or nine places in the long run down to the first turn – and proceeded to make the break so many feared he would. Marc Márquez gave chase, but lasted less than three laps, the reigning champion throwing his title chances away at the La Caixa corner. Valentino Rossi rode brilliantly to work his way up to second from the third row of the grid, but left himself with too much work to do to catch Lorenzo. As the laps started ticking down, it looked like he might just manage that, but Lorenzo responded just enough to keep a healthy buffer between himself and his teammate. It wasn't an epic race by any stretch of the imagination, but there was tension and there was interest.
2015 Barcelona Saturday MotoGP Round Up: Suzuki's Triumph, Lorenzo's Pace, And Preventing Moto3 Towing Madness
1993. That was the last time there were two Suzukis in the first two positions on the grid. Then, it was Kevin Schwantz and Alex Barros who qualified first and second at Jerez. Now, twenty-two years and six weeks later, it is Aleix Espargaro and Maverick Viñales. Then, Suzuki were at the height of their competitiveness, before beginning their slow decline which went on until they withdrew at the end of the 2011 season. Now, Suzuki is back after a three-year absence, with a brand new prototype at the start of its development. Taking pole and second in just their seventh race is quite an achievement for Suzuki, and vindication of their choice to build an inline four, something they know all too well, rather than messing around with a V4, as they had done throughout the MotoGP era.
It is also a vindication for the team of people Suzuki chose to lead their return to MotoGP. Davide Brivio has proven to be a shrewd team manager, to nobody's surprise. Tom O'Kane, Aleix Espargaro's crew chief, has been instrumental in providing direction to the development of the bike. Aleix Espargaro and Maverick Viñales have lived up to their expectations, combining experience, attitude and a hunger for success.
Of course, there are no points for qualifying, and Suzuki's front row positions came at least in part with the artificial performance boost of the soft rear tire available to the Open teams and factories with concessions. But Espargaro and Viñales still had to put in the time, and they had to beat the Ducatis, who have the same concessions as they do. They deserve their position, was the near universal feeling among Suzuki's rivals.
Press releases from the MotoGP teams after qualifying at Barcelona:
2015 Barcelona Friday MotoGP Round Up: Fast Suzukis, The Deceptive Pace Of The Yamahas, And Tires And Electronics
What did we learn from Friday practice at Barcelona? We learned that things are not quite what they seem. Does the fact that the Repsol Honda riders are second and third overall mean that HRC's travails are behind it? Certainly not. Do the two Suzukis in the top five – and Aleix Espargaro setting the fastest overall time – mean Suzuki have found the horsepower to match the Honda and Ducati? Absolutely not. Will the Yamahas' lowly positions on the grid put them out of contention on Sunday? Leaving aside the fact that it's just the first day of practice, with another full day on Saturday, definitely, absolutely, certainly not.
Are all these assumptions completely baseless? That's where it gets interesting. In fact, there is a kernel of truth underlying them all. The Honda is improved, certainly, but racing is not practice. The Suzuki is definitely quicker, but it isn't horsepower which is putting the Suzukis where they are. And the Yamahas are clearly having a problem, but it is not a problem which will trouble them much in the race.
The headline times are deceptive, at least in the case of the Yamahas and Hondas. The fastest laps of Dani Pedrosa and Marc Márquez are impressive, but both times they were one-off laps set on very short runs in qualifying trim, rather than times set in long runs using a race set up. Perhaps spooked by his experience in Mugello, where a prolonged focus on electronics and race set up left him stranded in Q1, and then failed to get into Q2, Márquez ensured that he had a fast lap under his belt at the end of both free practice sessions. Pedrosa did much the same, working on race set up early, then pushing for a time at the end of both FP1 and FP2.
Press releases from the teams and Bridgestone after the first day of practice at Barcelona: