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:
The press room is usually a pit of cynicism. Races and laps which have the fans on their feet are met with polite applause at best, mild disinterest at worst. But not today. After Marc Márquez had parked his ailing Repsol Honda against pit wall, vaulted over the wall and sprinted back to his garage, jumped on to his back up bike – fitted with the wrong front tire and a far from perfect set up – then set off on his out lap, making it back across the line with three seconds to spare, and post one of the most fearsome laps ever witnessed aboard a MotoGP bike, the room erupted in heartfelt and solid applause. There was no cheering, no utterances of joy. Just loud and prolonged applause, appreciation of what we had just seen. We knew we were witnessing a piece of MotoGP history, and were in awe of what we had just seen. If you ever wanted to see the definition of awesome – something that will fill you with awe – then just watch that lap by Marc Márquez.
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.
Racing season is now truly upon us. MotoGP kicked off ten days ago at Qatar, last weekend the British Superbike championship had their first race of the year at Donington Park, and this weekend sees a bumper crop of racing. MotoGP is at Austin, where MotoAmerica also kicks off its inaugural season since taking over the AMA series from the DMG. World Superbikes heads to the Motorland Aragon circuit in Spain, where they are joined by the Superstock 1000 and Superstock 600 classes. It is going to be a busy weekend.
Despite the bustle of action, the amount of real news emerging has been limited. Teams and riders are too busy racing, absorbing the lessons of the first races while preparing for the next races, to be plotting and scheming beyond that. Here's a rundown of things you might have missed this weekend anyway.
And you thought the Stoner return was a surprise...
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.
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.
Press releases from the MotoGP teams and Bridgestone after qualifying at Qatar: