Valentino Rossi

2018 Barcelona MotoGP Sunday Round Up: A War Of Attrition, Internal Politics, And Friendship Between Rivals

How do you win a championship? There are two schools of thought. Casey Stoner believed that the way you won world titles was by focusing on winning races. "If you win races, the championships will look after themselves," he said when he was still racing. Others argue that consistency is key, that you win titles by getting the best result available on the day, and hope that you don't make mistakes. After all, Emilio Alzamora became 125cc World Champion in 1999 through sheer consistency, without winning a single race that season.

The riders in contention for the 2018 MotoGP title have mixed opinions about the best way to win a championship. Marc Márquez wanted to win every race he started in, until the 2015 Honda RC213V got the better of him, and he had to push too hard to try to be competitive, crashing himself out of contention. Since then, he has tamed his approach, winning whenever possible, but understanding that sometimes, he has to grit his teeth and settle for whatever is available on the day.

Valentino Rossi, wily veteran that he is, follows the same approach, take what you can, where you can, and wait to see where it takes you. That's how he came close to racking up title number ten in 2015, and that's how he has remained in contention every season since he came back to Yamaha in 2013. On Sunday night, Andrea Dovizioso affirmed that he was thinking about the championship in every race as well. "My approach to the race is always thinking about the championship," the Ducati rider said. "If I fight for the championship or for another position, I always race for the championship."

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2018 Barcelona MotoGP Saturday Round Up: Making Magic Saves, Mr Unbeatable, And Choosing Tires At The Test

The trouble with racing in MotoGP at the moment is that no matter how spectacular your riding, no matter how phenomenal your achievements, no matter how dominant your performance, you will always, always be upstaged by Marc Márquez. "The worst thing is that we have to deal with the situation of Marc saving [crashes] every week," Cal Crutchlow complained, only half joking. "It makes the rest of us on Honda look like idiots. Imagine how many he has saved this year compared to how many we have we crashed. He saves fifteen a weekend."

Saturday in Barcelona was yet another example, and perhaps Márquez' biggest yet. In the dying seconds of FP4, after passing Xavier Simeon through Turn 12, Márquez entered Turn 14 and the front folded completely on him. Where other riders would simply go down, Márquez was unwilling to surrender without a fight. "It was last corner, last lap and I lose the front," the Repsol Honda rider told the press conference. "I was fighting against everything, against the bike, against my knee pushing a lot. Then it looks like I was able to save it, but the when I go on the dirty part of the track, I again lose the front."

He had not yet had a chance to look at the data, he said. "I already said to [my team] to check, but what I can say is that the steering was full close because I feel, but it was long. It was very long this one. It was maybe the longest one in my career." Long enough to upstage everyone else on Saturday, despite there being many riders deserving of attention.

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The Comprehensive Silly Season Update: Mugello Madness Sees Lorenzo Go Repsol, Petrucci To Ducati, And More

Secrets are hard to keep in the MotoGP paddock. When it comes to contracts, usually someone around a rider or team has let something slip to a friendly journalist – more often than not, the manager of another rider who was hoping to get a particular seat, but lost out. It is not often that real bombshells drop in MotoGP.

So the report by Italian sports daily La Gazzetta dello Sport that Repsol Honda were in talks to sign Jorge Lorenzo came as a huge shock. The assumptions which almost everyone in the paddock had been making – that Lorenzo would be riding a full factory Yamaha M1 in a Petronas-funded satellite team operated by the Sepang International circuit – turned out to have been nothing more than a useful smokescreen. Instead, Lorenzo has signed a two-year deal with HRC to partner Marc Márquez. The announcement was originally due at Barcelona, but the publication by La Gazzetta forced Honda to make a hasty and brief announcement..

The Petronas rumors had plenty of fire to provide the smoke. In an interview with Crash.net, Sepang International Circuit CEO Dato' Razlan Razali openly discussed the possibility of running Yamahas with Lorenzo and Franco Morbidelli. Everyone I spoke to – including other team managers, rider managers, riders, journalists – believed that Jorge Lorenzo would be riding a Yamaha in 2019.

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2018 Mugello MotoGP Sunday Round Up: The Prodigal Son Returns And Wins

A circuit as magnificent as Mugello creates a certain level of expectation. The crowds pack the banks and grandstands expecting their favorite riders to triumph. The riders expect to be able to use skill and bravery to make up for some shortcomings of their bike, but they also expect to suffer on top speed if they are down on horsepower. The manufacturers expect to showcase their engineering prowess, at a circuit which demands the utmost of their machine in almost every aspect. The bike has to brake well, turn well, accelerate well, and be so fast it takes your breath away. Something which the front straight at Mugello does quite literally at MotoGP speeds.

Were expectations fulfilled this year at Mugello? Some were, perhaps. The massed sea of yellow spectators who made the pilgrimage to Mugello were not disappointed, though their joy was not unalloyed. They came to see a race which featured Valentino Rossi as a protagonist, one in which he would emerge triumphant and vanquish his rivals (especially those from the Iberian peninsula), and they got some of what they wanted. Rossi was involved in a thrilling battle for the podium for most of the race, there was an Italian victory to celebrate, and the failure of Rossi's arch rival to take pleasure from.

The weight of expectation lay heavily on Rossi's rivals, too. Marc Márquez came to a track where he has struggled in the past, knowing that the tire allocation would mean he would struggle. Andrea Dovizioso came to the place where he won last year, but on the back of crashes in the last two races, risks were even less of an option. Maverick Viñales came to Mugello after a successful test at Barcelona, where he believed the team had solved the problems he had suffered through the first part of the season. And Jorge Lorenzo came to Ducati's home track for his 24th race on the Ducati, one for every million his contract paid him, without having lived up to reasons the Italian factory had signed him: to win races, and contend for the title.

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2018 Mugello MotoGP Friday Round Up: Magnificent, Cruel, And Terrifying

Mugello is many things: majestic, magical, magnificent. Beautifully set, with a natural flow unmatched almost anywhere else. It was made to host the fastest, most powerful motorcycles in the world, giving them room to stretch their legs and challenging the rider's skill and bravery, and the bike's handling, horsepower, and braking.

Unfortunately, this challenge is what makes Mugello so dangerous. During the afternoon session, Andrea Dovizioso hit 356 km/h on the Ducati Desmosedici GP18. Shortly after, his engine spewed a huge cloud of smoke at the end of the straight, causing the red flag to come out. A little while previously, the session had also been red flagged, after a huge, vicious crash by Michele Pirro just over the crest at the end of the straight, the fastest and most dangerous part of the track.

It made for some harrowing moments at Mugello. The track fell silent, a pall descending on pit lane as the teams feared the worst. Having learned their lesson at previous tragedies, Dorna were not showing either the crash or the rider on the ground. The mood only lifted when word reached us that Pirro was conscious, and moving his arms and legs. MotoGP dodged a bullet on Friday. But there are still rounds in the chamber.

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2018 Mugello MotoGP Thursday Round Up: Beating Marquez, And Silly Season Rumors Explode

Usually we have to wait until Friday for the action to hot up at Mugello, but there was an almost hysterical vibe at the Italian circuit on Thursday. We appear to have entered what can only be described as peak Silly Season, with the rumblings of a series of rider and bike changes likely to explode into the public consciousness between now and Barcelona. By the time the MotoGP test finishes on the Monday after Barcelona, we should know where Andrea Iannone, Jorge Lorenzo, and Joan Mir are riding, and have a solid clue as to what Franco Morbidelli, Dani Pedrosa, Danilo Petrucci, and Jack Miller will be doing in 2019. It's going to be hectic.

All this is adding to what is already an incredibly stressful weekend, especially if you are an Italian rider. The paddock is already buzzing with sponsors, friends, family, and fans, so you can imagine what it will be like when the action starts in earnest on Friday, let alone the madness of race day. How do the riders cope with it? "Just let the seconds pass away from here to Sunday at 2pm," Danilo Petrucci said. The Pramac Ducati rider took a podium in Mugello last year, and has been even more competitive in 2018. He is in the hot seat to replace Jorge Lorenzo in the factory team, if the Spaniard leaves as many expect he will.

But he will not be letting the high expectations get to him. "I will do my normal things and try to do my best that’s the best I can do. If you stop and think about it I have nothing to change compared to other races as at Le Mans the situation was more or less the same. I am talking about the future, wanted to confirm my speed from last year. At Mugello I have a friendly paddock but it is not as I said it is not a big advantage. We will work in the way worked in Le Mans, controlling every detail, and they we’ll see. The podium is a target but we’ll discover it on Sunday afternoon because it is very difficult to predict the race in MotoGP in the space of two years. I can only go as fast as I can."

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2018 Mugello MotoGP Preview: Everyone Can Win At The Ideal Race Track

There is no such thing as an ideal race track. Circuits are bound by the iron laws of reality: Grand Prix level tracks have to fit a given distance (between 3.5km and 10km) of track into the available space, in a layout which will allow powerful vehicles to stretch their legs. They have to be somewhere where noise is not an issue, either as a result of being isolated from the general population, next to another source of noise such as an airport, or situated near a willing and enthusiastic town or city. They need to have space for the fleet of trucks which transport the paddock from circuit to circuit, and they have to be accessible to those trucks via roads wide enough to let them pass. Last but not least, they have to provide an attractive setting which fans want to visit, and good viewing over as much of the track as possible.

All these things militate against the existence of the ideal circuit. Find a space which is away from hostile neighbors, and it may be too small to create anything other than a tight, contorted track layout unsuitable for MotoGP bikes. Or it may be on a hilltop, with few natural viewing opportunities. Or it may be too far from large population centers to make it easily accessible for fans, or lack the space for a usable paddock layout.

Yet something approaching the ideal circuit truly exists. A track where the bikes can use all of the 270+hp at their disposal. A track which challenges every aspect of the rider, from managing their reactions at 360 km/h, to braking late and entering corners hard, to sweeping through fast combinations of turns carrying as much speed as you dare without washing out the front or having the rear come round and bite you. A track with a roomy paddock, near a major highway, and several large population centers. In a country full of bike-mad fans. Set in a valley among some of the most enchanting scenery on the planet. Oh yes, and the food in the paddock restaurant is some of the best you will eat all season.

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2018 Le Mans Sunday Round Up: Crashes Shape The Championship, Yamaha's Woes, Ducati's Decision, And Moto3 Madness

Looking back, it is always easy to identify the pivotal moments in a championship. Last year, it was the Barcelona test, when Honda brought a new chassis which gave Marc Márquez the confidence he had been lacking. In 2015, it was arguably Motegi, where Valentino Rossi stayed ahead of Jorge Lorenzo, but the effort it took in the difficult conditions left him drained at the start of a long and exhausting set of flyaways. In 2012 it was Misano, where a tire warmer got stuck to Dani Pedrosa's brake disc, forcing him to start from the back of the grid, and leaving him in a position to get tangled up with Hector Barbera, and crash out of the race.

In the midst of a racing season, however, such pivotal points are much harder to identify. Or rather, all too easy to misidentify. After Estoril 2006, everyone thought that Nicky Hayden's championship challenge was over. Valentino Rossi's heartbreaking engine blow up at Mugello looked like it would put paid to his shot at the 2016 title, but he still kept the fight alive for a long time. Anything can happen during the course of a season, so when we look back at a season we can easily overlook the drama of a single race that seemed important at the time. 2015 is a case in point: there were so many twists and turns that it is hard to pinpoint a single turning point, so fans and followers tend to pick their own.

Looking at it now, just five races into a nineteen-race season, it is easy to believe that the races at Jerez and Le Mans will be the turning points we look back at when the bikes are packed up for the final time after Valencia. The three-rider crash at Dry Sack two weeks ago, in which Andrea Dovizioso, Jorge Lorenzo, and Dani Pedrosa managed to all take each other out without any obvious culprit being to blame, had a huge impact on the championship. And Sunday's drama-packed race at Le Mans will surely be spoken of in the same terms. Not just because of who didn't finish the race. But also because where some riders finished is going to have a profound impact on their futures.

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2018 Le Mans MotoGP Friday Round Up: Old Hards Vs. New Softs, Avoiding Electronics, And Dovi's New Deal

Andrea Dovizioso's manager arrived in Le Mans on Friday morning, and by Friday afternoon, the Italian had a new two-year contract with Ducati, provisional pole after FP2, and a new lap record. Not a bad start to the weekend, and a harbinger of good things to come, you might think. This is after all not particularly a Ducati track, yet here he was, on top of the timesheets.

Perhaps having his future settled helped, but Dovizioso has been an expert at excluding distractions from his race weekends. The simple fact is that the Ducati man was quick at Jerez, and is quick here, because he is in good form, and the bike is working really well. Dovizioso heads into qualifying feeling confident.

But there is a fly in the ointment, and it is Márquez-shaped, as always. Dovizioso had been pretty quick throughout the first part of FP2, just a couple of tenths behind the leader Márquez. Then in his final run, he fitted a new soft rear slick, dropped six tenths of a second off his best time and set a new lap record around Le Mans. It was an impressive showing of blistering speed.

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2018 Le Mans Thursday Round Up: Honda's Advantage, Yamaha's New Engine, And 20+ Races In 2019

For the past decade or so, Le Mans has been a Yamaha track, with Yamaha riders taking seven wins in the last ten races. The answer to whether that situation can continue or is simple: it depends. Maybe a Yamaha can win at Le Mans on Sunday. Or maybe another bike will take victory here instead.

That answer is generic almost to the point of meaninglessness, but beneath it lies a kernel of truth. The first four races in MotoGP have taught us a few lessons which point to who and what could do the winning on Sunday. The more precise answer? If a Yamaha is going to win, it is more likely to be be the Tech3 bike of Johann Zarco, rather than the factory Movistar machines of Valentino Rossi or Maverick Viñales. If a Yamaha doesn't win, then the Ducatis are in with a much better chance than you might expect, with Andrea Dovizioso and, who knows?, maybe even Jorge Lorenzo in with a shout.

But the lesson of the first four races of 2018 is that the most likely outcome on Sunday is that a Honda will win, and probably a Honda in the hands of Marc Márquez. That is clearly what most of the riders felt on Sunday. The one recurring theme that came back from riders on every competing manufacturer was that they were both impressed and feared how much the Honda has improved since last year.

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