There’s no prize money at Valentino Rossi’s annual 100km dirt-track race, but the racing is just as vicious as MotoGP
Perhaps one day Valentino Rossi will work out how to sit back and rest on his laurels. But he’s not there yet.
Eleven weeks before his 40th birthday and two days after MotoGP’s longest-ever season of racing and testing, he was back at it: racing motorcycles around in circles (and hurting himself), because that’s what he likes doing.
And the winner is... Takaaki Nakagami! Or at least the LCR Honda rider's name sit atop the timesheets at the end of the final day of the final MotoGP test of 2018. Which both counts for a lot, and counts for very little at the same time. The fact that Nakagami was able to do the time is proof that the 2018 Honda RC213V is a much better bike than the 2017 version which the Japanese rider spent last season on – see also the immediate speed of Franco Morbidelli, now he is on the Petronas Yamaha rather than the Marc VDS Honda. It was also proof that Nakagami – riding Cal Crutchlow's bike at Jerez – is a much better rider than his results on the 2017 bike suggest. And puts into perspective that this was the bike which Marc Márquez won the 2017 MotoGP title on.
But it also doesn't really mean very much. Testing is just testing, and the riders don't necessarily have either the inclination or the tire allocation to go chasing a quick lap time the way they do on a race weekend. Nobody wants to risk it all just to prove a point and get injured just before they go into the winter break. And with the top 15 within a second of one another, and the top 7 within a quarter of a second, the differences are pretty meaningless anyway.
The trouble with post-season testing is that it takes place after the season is over. That is a problem, because the season runs well into November, so any testing after that is nearer to December than it is to October. And wherever you go inside of Europe to test, you will never get a full day's testing done, even with the best of weather.
So it came as no surprise that when the track opened at 9:30am on Wednesday morning for the first day of a two-day test, nothing happened. Or that nothing continued to happen for another couple of hours, as we waited for track temperatures to break the 20°C barrier, and make it warm enough to generate useful feedback. It is a perennial issue with no easy answers. Finding a warm, affordable track is tough this time of year.
The good news was that once the track had warmed up, we had ideal conditions for testing. Dry, sunny, warm if you were standing in the sun, though not quite so much if you were in the shade. Despite the fact that so much time was lost to the cold, the riders ended up with a lot of laps completed, and a lot of work done.
It's been a difficult test at Valencia. The weather simply hasn't played ball. Tuesday started wet, took a few hours to dry out, then rain started falling around 3pm, meaning the riders effectively had around two and a half usable hours on track. Rain on Tuesday evening meant the track was wet on Wednesday morning, and in the chill of a November morning, it took a couple of hours before the track dried out enough for the riders to hit the track.
At least it stayed dry and sunny throughout the day, and the last couple of hours saw the best conditions of the test, times dropping until falling temperatures put paid to any thought of improvement. The teams may have lost time, but at least they had a solid four and a half hours of track time to work.
For half the factories, what they were focusing on was engines. Yamaha, Honda, and Suzuki all brought new engines to test, and in the case of Yamaha and Honda, two different specs. Ducati was mainly working with a new chassis, aimed at making the bike turn better. Aprilia had a new engine and a new frame to try. And as usual, KTM had a mountain of parts and ideas to test.
It has been a strange and intense year in MotoGP, so it seems fitting that we should end the year with such a strange and intense weekend. Three races defined by the weather, by crashes, and by riders holding their nerve and playing their cards right. And at the end, an explosion of emotion. Exactly as it should have been.
There were no titles on the line on Sunday – no serious titles, though the riders vying for Independent Rider and the teams chasing the Team Championship may choose to disagree – but the emotional release on Sunday was as great, or perhaps even greater, than if all three championships had been decided. We had records broken in Moto3, a new factory on the podium in MotoGP, and a farewell to old friends in all three classes, as riders move up, move over, or move on.
The weather figured prominently, as you might expect. Moto3 and Moto2 got off lightly, the rain falling gently and consistently, keeping the track wet, but never to a truly dangerous degree. That did not stop riders from falling off, of course, and dictating the outcome of both races. Those crashes – two races, two riders crashing out of the lead – were just as emotional as the riders who went on to win.
In with the new, out with the old
The most remarkable skill of truly great motorcycle racers is their ability to compartmentalize everything. Break down every situation, put each part into its own separate container, and not let one thing bleed into another. Private lives – often messy, sometimes chaotic – stay in the box marked private life, and don't cross over into racing. Pain stays in the section reserved for pain, and is not allowed to encroach in the part set aside for riding. Crashes are to be analyzed, understood, and then forgotten, but not to be allowed anywhere near the part of a racer's mind where they keep their fears. That is the theory, at least, and the better a rider can manage to live up to the theory, the greater their chances of success.
Marc Márquez gave a masterclass in the art of compartmentalization during qualifying at Valencia. The Repsol Honda rider went out on his first run in Q2, and on his first flying lap, lost the front going into Turn 4, the first right hander after a whole sequence of lefts. It looked like a harmless low side, of the sort which Márquez has so often, and which he usually escapes without harm. But whether it was due to the bars being wrenched out of his hands, or due to his arm being folded up awkwardly beneath him as he tumbled through the gravel, he managed to partially dislocate his weak left shoulder.