It is a dangerous thing to write a rider off. We learned that with Valentino Rossi, the old man currently leading the championship after two terrible years at Ducati, one tough year at Yamaha and then the first sign of resurgence from the middle of 2014. Rossi adapted, learned, progressed, and came back stronger. After the first seven races of 2015, the wolf pack in the media center had written off Marc Márquez and HRC. The Honda RC213V was too aggressive an engine to be tamed by electronics, the chassis too stiff to contain the stampede of horsepower contained in the 90° V4. The bike span, wheelied, and worst of all, slid the rear wheel unpredictably when it touched down ready for braking into the corner. Márquez was trying, but perhaps a little too hard, riding every lap as if it was his one shot at pole, overloading the front tire to compensate for the lack of braking at the rear. Márquez was pushing his luck, and it kept running out during the race, the Repsol Honda man either finishing down the order, or ending up in the gravel once the front cried enough.
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.
Jeremy Burgess was famous for finding that special something on Sunday morning that gave Valentino Rossi the edge in the race in the afternoon. It is a tradition carried on by Silvano Galbusera, who has replaced Burgess since the start of the 2014 season. Galbusera, too, always seems to find that extra little tweak during warm up that makes the difference between cruising in fourth or finishing on the podium, and even on the top step. The fact that it has continued since Burgess' departure suggests that the tweaks were very much a collaborative effort, with input coming from his data engineers and mechanics, as well as the rider himself, of course.
Two weeks ago in Barcelona, Rossi's team appeared to have found something extra special. For it did not just work on the Sunday in Catalonia, taking Rossi from the third row all the way up to 2nd, but it has even carried through to Assen, some 1600km further north. Rossi was quick from the moment he rolled out of pit lane for the first time at Assen, and has been at or near the top of the timesheets ever since. In this form, Rossi may well have expected to have been on the front row, but he went better than that. Putting in one of the best laps of his recent career with a couple of minutes to go, he simply hammered the opposition. As a sign of just how dominant he was at Assen, he led the second fastest man, Aleix Espargaro, by nearly a quarter of a second. The next quarter of a second difference covers second place to eleventh, from Aleix Espargaro to Danilo Petrucci. It is incredibly close at Assen, except at the front. One man reigns supreme.
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
One of the greatest privileges of my job is to stand at trackside and watch the riders up close. It is the ideal antidote to the malaise which can affect journalists like me who tend to spend too much time indoors, in the press room, in the back of garages, and in team trucks and hospitality units, endlessly talking to people in pursuit of information. Walking out to Nieto, Peluqui and Crivillé, turns 9, 10 and 11 at Jerez, savoring the passion of the fans cheering as their favorite riders pass by, observing each rider closely as they pass, trying to see if I can see anything, learn anything, understand anything about the way the best motorcycle racers in the world handle their machines.
There is plenty to see, if you take the trouble to look. This morning, during warm up, I watched the riders brake and pitch their machines into turn 9, give a touch of gas to turn 10, before getting hard on the gas out of turn 10 and onto the fast right handers of 11 and 12. In the transition from the left of turn 8 to the right of turn 9, you see the fast riders move slowly across the bike, while the slow riders move fast. You see them run on rails through turns 9 and 10, before forcing the bike up onto the fatter part of the tire while still hanging off the side out of 10 and heading off to 11. You see the extreme body position on the bike, almost at the limit of physics. It is hard to see how a rider can hang off the bike further, outside hands barely touching the handlebars, outside feet almost off the footpegs. Photos and video barely start to do the riders justice. To experience it you need to see it from the track, and from the stands and hillsides that surround it.
Of all the riders to watch around Jerez, none is as spectacular as Jorge Lorenzo. Lorenzo is spectacular not for his exaggerated mobility, but rather for the lack of it. He slides around the Yamaha M1 like a python, oozing from side to side, his motion almost invisible to the naked eye. One moment he is hanging off the left side of the bike, then next he is over on the right, and you find yourself with no clear memory of seeing him go from one side to the other. He appears almost motionless, while the bike underneath him chases round the track at immense speed. He looks like a special effects montage, Lorenzo having been filmed in slow motion, sitting atop a motorcycle being shown at double speed. It is a truly glorious spectacle.