Some say current technical regulations are unfair for bigger riders like Petrucci and Rossi, so is it time to even things up a bit? Michelin and Ducati think so
Some years ago I thought MotoGP needed a combined rider/machine minimum weight. After all, I reasoned, if Formula 1 (where the car weighs around nine times more than the driver) has a combined limit, surely it would make sense in MotoGP (where the bike is a bit more than twice the weight of the rider).
So I talked with several MotoGP engineers and technical director (now race director) Mike Webb. They were all convinced this wasn’t the way to go. They said it’s swings and roundabouts, especially in the case of soon-to-retire Dani Pedrosa whose advantages on the swings (the straights) are easily outweighed by his disadvantages on the roundabouts (the corners).
Press releases from the MotoGP teams and Michelin after the Malaysian Grand Prix:
Press releases from some of the MotoGP teams and factories ahead of this weekend's Malaysian Grand Prix at Sepang:
"The secret," said Niki Lauda, "is to win going as slowly as possible." That racing maxim, first recorded by legendary writer and broadcaster Clive James (and how did I miss that he wrote about F1 in the past?) is as true now as it was back in 1984, when Lauda stated it to a press conference in Portugal. And as true as in the early 1950s, when Juan Manuel Fangio may have first uttered it.
If you want to see that maxim in action, watch a MotoGP race in 2018. The action is often thrilling, usually tense, and always absorbing. Race after race, we see podiums separated by tenths of a second, not tens of seconds. The reason for that is simple. The field is close in terms of rider talent and bike performance, and the Michelin tires can be applied in many different ways, except for one: if you try to take off and disappear at the front, you risk using up the best of your tires, and being caught in the latter stage of the race.
So MotoGP has become a chess game. A battle of minds, as much as machines, of brains as much as bodies. Riders pace around one another like wolves around a herd of caribou, watching out for any sign of weakness, waiting to pounce and destroy their prey. And sometimes, getting it wrong and suffering a severe kicking from their intended victims.
Nature vs nurture
Riders, teams, journalists, fans, almost everyone likes to complain about the layout of the Red Bull Ring at Spielberg. Three fast straights connected by hairpins, with a long left hand corner thrown in for the sake of variety. The facilities and setting may be magnificent, but the track layout is pretty dire. Coming from the spectacular, flowing layout of Brno, the contrast could hardly be greater.
And yet the Red Bull Ring consistently manages to produce fantastic racing. The combined gap between first and second place across all three classes on Sunday was 0.867 seconds, and nearly half a second of that was down to Moto3. The MotoGP race was decided on the last lap again, just as it had been in 2017, though the race was decided at Turn 3, rather than the final corner. Spielberg once again served up a breathtaking battle for MotoGP fans, with a deserved winner, and the rest of the podium riders losing with valor and honor.
If we were to be picky about it, it would be to complain that the protagonists of the MotoGP race were rather predictable. It is no surprise that the factory Ducatis would play a role at the front of the race: a Ducati had won in Austria in the previous two races, and the long straights from slow corners are almost made to measure for the Desmosedici's balance of power, mechanical grip, acceleration, and braking stability. Nor was it a surprise that Marc Márquez should be involved, the gains made by Honda in acceleration giving the RC213V the tools to tackle the Ducatis.
As if anyone needed reminding of just how close the MotoGP field is at the moment, you have to go a very long way down the standings to find the first rider more than a second slower than Jorge Lorenzo, the fastest man on the first day of practice at the Sachsenring. Eighteen riders are within a fraction over nine tenths of a second of each other, with Scott Redding the first over a second away.
It's even closer than that, once you discount Lorenzo's time. The Factory Ducati rider put in a searing lap at the end of FP2 to go fastest, and was over a quarter of a second quicker than second-place man Danilo Petrucci. The gap between Petrucci in second and Johann Zarco in eighteenth was 0.645 seconds. Or approximately two blinks of an eye.
That makes it hard to judge riders by position. A tenth of a second would move you up three or four places; three tenths is the difference between eighteenth and eighth. A small mistake in a single corner could be the difference between being comfortably through to Q2, and going to sleep on Friday night worrying about posting a fast enough time on Saturday morning in FP3. "I needed to make a perfect lap," Red Bull KTM's Pol Espargaro bemoaned his twelfth place, before joking, "or my rivals needed to not make a perfect lap!"
Press releases from the teams and Michelin after Sunday's Spanish Grand Prix at Jerez:
Marquez takes a momentous win at Jerez, Pedrosa crashes out of podium fight
Press release previews from the MotoGP teams and Michelin:
MotoGP arrives at Jerez de la Frontera for the Spanish GP, the first European round of the 2018 season
Motorcycle racing is many things, but above all, it is unpredictable. Just when you think a racing series has settled in to a pattern, either during a season or over the course of a race weekend, along comes some unexpected factor or other to throw a spanner into the works and turn it all on its head. Suddenly, the script has gone out of the window and the protagonists are all ad-libbing their way to a completely new and unimagined story.
This is why so many riders sport symbols of gambling on their leathers, helmets, or bikes. Look around the MotoGP grid, and you see dice, cards, and poker chips everywhere. With so many random elements which can affect the outcome, from mechanical misfortune to errors of judgment to choosing the wrong tires to the fickleness of the weather, there is always the hope that things can break your way. It's always worth rolling the dice, because from time to time, a gamble will pay off handsomely.
That is how we ended up with the polesitters in the three classes at Argentina all taking pole for the first time in their careers. And it wasn't just the riders on pole: in MotoGP, three of the top four riders in qualifying were on satellite bikes. In Moto2, two of the top three hadn't finished anywhere near the podium in the first race in Qatar. And the same in Moto3, the favorites qualified down the order, with fresh faces at the top of the timesheets.