What a difference a day makes. "There is no way to fight with the factory Hondas," Valentino Rossi had said on Saturday. Within a few laps of the start, it turned out that it was not just possible to fight with the Hondas, but to get them in over their heads, and struggling to hold off the Yamaha onslaught. By the time the checkered flag dropped, the factory Hondas were gone, the first RC213V across the line the LCR of Stefan Bradl, nearly twelve seconds behind the winner, Jorge Lorenzo on the factory M1.
What changed? The weather. Cooler temperatures at the start of the race meant the Hondas struggled to get the hard rear tire to work. The hard rear was never an option for the Yamahas, but the softer rear was still working just fine. From the start, Jorge Lorenzo, Valentino Rossi and the surprising Pol Espargaro were pushing the factory Hondas hard. All of a sudden we had a race on our hands. When the rain came, the excitement stepped up another notch. In the end, strategy and the ability to keep a cool head prevailed. The factory Hondas came up short on both accounts at Aragon.
The forecast for Sunday had been unstable all weekend. But conditions on Sunday morning were far worse than anyone had predicted. Heavy rain soaked the track, then thick fog blanketed the track in a cloak of gray, severely limiting vision at key points on the track. More importantly, the fog kept the medical helicopters on the ground. Without medical helicopters, there's no racing. Should a rider be seriously injured, the helicopters need to be able to get them to a hospital within 20 minutes. When the fog descends, that becomes impossible.
The rain and fog produced three radically different races, each of which had an effect on the championship. Moto3 started off with a narrow dry line, making passing difficult, which in turn caused controversy. Moto2 had the best of the conditions, racing on an almost completely dry track, producing a thrilling race. In MotoGP, the light rain which was falling from the warm up lap created overconfidence among the riders, eventually causing all too many to pay the price of hubris once the rain started to fall in earnest. It became a race of many halves, the situation changing so fast it was hard to keep up. In the end, strategy and intelligence won through, calculated risk rewarded and excessive bravery punished mercilessly. If ever anyone needed a lesson in just how capricious motorcycle racing can be, the MotoGP race was it.
The result of the race came down to pitting at the right time. The riders knew the rain was coming – they had been shown the radar images and discussed strategy with their teams ahead of time – but they were lulled into a false sense of security by the drizzle. Had it suddenly started raining, they would have taken the business of swapping bikes a good deal more seriously. However, with light rain spitting from the very start of the race, riders became a little too comfortable with the conditions. When the weather really turned, they got caught out by their own complacency.
Though Aleix Espargaro gambled best – the Forward Yamaha rider made up over ten seconds in the pit swaps, coming in a lap earlier than anyone else – it was Jorge Lorenzo who found the perfect balance. The Movistar Yamaha rider had taken the fight to the Hondas throughout the first sixteen laps of the race, but as the rain got a fraction heavier he started to lose ground. He had a choice, he said afterwards. "I thought my options were to fight for fourth or crash, or win or finish twelfth." With the Hondas disappearing into the distance, he gambled on the rain getting heavier, and pitted to swap to his rain bike.
When he exited, he thought everything was lost. Coming round at the end of his first flying lap after swapping bikes, he thought his lap board was telling him he was twelfth. It was not, Lorenzo's manager Wilco Zeelenberg explained. His team had tried to tell him he was P2, and +10 seconds to Marquez, but he misinterpreted. It did not matter, as the next time around, his pit board showed P1. Marc Marquez and Dani Pedrosa were gone, caught out by a heavy rain shower which left the first part of the circuit soaked. The two Repsol Honda riders hit that part of the circuit on slicks, then hit the ground. The two men rejoined the race, but by the time they did, their chance of a result was over.
Lorenzo's victory had been a long time coming. Since the disaster at Assen, Lorenzo has not been off the podium. But four second places in a row were starting to be more than frustrating. The sense of relief at finally winning, his first since Valencia last year, was palpable. Lorenzo's demeanor can sometimes appear a little forced, but his win at Aragon freed him of all constraints. He was truly, unconditionally happy.
Would Lorenzo have won if the Repsol Hondas hadn't thrown the race away? That is of course an entirely irrelevant question, as throw the race away they did. Why did they throw it away, rather than come in and swap bikes like the rest? On the lap before the crash, both Marquez and Pedrosa had been doing 2'03s, the same times they had been doing in the morning on rain tires. Both were thinking more of the time they would lose than the conditions on the track, and the sudden intense rain caught them out. The back section of the track was still manageable, but when they headed into the first section, it was suddenly a lot wetter, and the slicks had gotten a lot colder. Grip disappeared, and both men went down, Pedrosa crashing on the straight, and Marquez losing the front in Turn 2.
Both men owned up to their errors. "Today was completely my fault," Marquez said, Pedrosa agreeing that he had made a mistake. The decision had to be down to the rider, as only the rider can judge how much grip there is on the track, and sees the differing conditions in all of the corners. The team sees only the front straight, and must judge the rest from the TV, which can paint a deceptive picture of the state of the circuit. Their mistake had been to thinking about the opposition rather than the conditions. "I tried to stay out because I was thinking all the time about the distance to the second rider," Marquez said. "I was thinking about the race, and not about the risk of riding with slicks on the wet tarmac." Dani Pedrosa's reasoning was similar: "I was thinking about how much time I would lose in the pits and I decided not to come in and crashed." The two Hondas took their eye off the ball, and paid the ultimate price.
The Hondas weren't the only riders to get caught out by the conditions. Andrea Dovizioso suffered a similar fate, despite leading the chase in fourth. When he saw the rain coming, he thought he could stay out and claim victory, but instead he lost the rear and highsided out in the downhill Corkscrew section. It was a big crash, Dovizioso said, the rear sliding and gripping and throwing him off.
The situation was toughest on Pol Espargaro. He had been told by his team not to work the situation out for himself, but to watch the more experienced riders. "You are a rookie," Espargaro had been told, "follow the experienced riders." The Tech 3 Yamaha rider did exactly what he was told, but the more experienced riders in front of him were making the kind of rookie mistake Espargaro's crew were trying to protect him from. Espargaro had Marquez, Pedrosa, Lorenzo and Dovizoso ahead of him, and only Lorenzo managed to keep the bike on two wheels. Teaching young riders is important, but it is very easy to give them the right advice.
Bradley Smith had the benefit of experience of his own. In previous flag-to-flag races, he had tried to follow his intuition, but that had always ended badly, Smith explained. This time, he said, he judged it solely by the numbers: as soon his dash showed he would be lapping slower than 2'00 a lap, he made the call to come in and swap bikes. That was "the perfect call," Smith said, but the problem was the choice of tire. Both Tech 3 riders used the harder rain tire, expecting the softer wet tire not to last. Instead, the harder tire did not give the grip of the softer one, losing both Smith and Espargaro too much time when they came out of the pits.
Bradley Smith was not the only rider to benefit from his decision to head into the pits. Before making the switch, Smith had passed Cal Crutchlow, and the Factory Ducati rider recognized this was the right moment to copy Smith. His bike change was even better than Smith's, coming out ahead of Smith and pushing Aleix Espargaro all the way to the line. When Crutchlow recounted that Aragon would see him earn his first podium bonus, Smith quickly joked that he had demanded money off Crutchlow for showing him the right time to head into the pits.
Crutchlow took that rather well, perhaps because his sense of relief is even greater than Lorenzo's. Crutchlow has had a miserable time on the Ducati Desmosodici, and scoring a podium was big deal, despite owing it at least in part to the conditions. "I think we thoroughly deserved that for all the hard work we have put in this year," Crutchlow said. More important than the podium was the progress he was making on the bike. In Aragon, Crutchlow was battling with Stefan Bradl, Aleix Espargaro and Pol Espargaro, riders he has all too often been 20 seconds or more behind in the race.
Crutchlow was only slightly irked that he could not take second instead of third. He had been hunting down Aleix Espargaro all race, and looked close enough to attack. He had to wait until the last corner, but Aleix just held his line in front of the Englishman. The two came together, blocking Crutchlow's ability to build speed, as he could not shift gears up from third to fifth. Despite the position, Crutchlow was still positive. "We still have some great morale in this team," Crutchlow said.
Despite crashing out, Marc Marquez still has a comfortable lead in the championship. Marquez bagged less than a handful of points, while Pedrosa gave yet another point away to Marquez. Valentino Rossi also suffered badly, forced slightly offline and then off the track. He hit the astroturf, then a wet patch in the run off, and found himself being tossed from the bike. The crash looked ugly, but later on, he found that he came away almost unscathed. Rossi banged his head during the fall, which rendered him momentarily unconscious. A CT scan revealed no further problems, though he was still a little unsteady on his feet after the event.
It is only Jorge Lorenzo who made real hay at Aragon. The Spaniard closed the gap from 112 points to just 90. Marc Marquez can still wrap up the title at Motegi by finishing ahead of his three main rivals. If he gives away positions and points, he will raise the hopes of Pedrosa, Rossi and Lorenzo that they still have a mathematical chance. End in Japan with a single point more than his rivals, and the 2014 crown is his.