The Irish budget airline Ryanair gained something of a reputation for being, shall we say, creative with the names of the airports it flies to. Fancy a trip to Sweden? They will fly you to Stockholm Skavsta, a mere 100 km from the city of Stockholm. The same trick is played out time and time again: Paris Beauvais? Beauvais is a charming French city, and well worth a visit, but it is very long way from the French capital. Munich West (Memmingen)? 112 km west of the Bavarian capital.
So perhaps we should call this British GP the Ryanair MotoGP round. Officially, it is being run by the Circuit of Wales, located in Ebbw Vale, South Wales. Yet the race is to be run around the Silverstone circuit, nearly 200 km further East. Close, it is not. How did it end up at Silverstone? Thereby hangs a long and convoluted tail.
The Circuit of Wales won the contract to organize the British round of MotoGP back in 2014, after outbidding Silverstone, who had been pushing to have the sanctioning fee for MotoGP reduced, as crowds at the circuit were not living up to expectations. Awarding the contract to the Circuit of Wales was a gamble by Dorna. The track existed only as a CAD file on a designer's computer, and the Head of the Valleys Development Company, the company behind the circuit, did not even have permission to actually build on the land they planned to put the circuit on.
That was understood at the time the deal was signed, and so the Circuit of Wales agreed to come to an arrangement with another track in the UK for the 2015 MotoGP round. First, they talked to Silverstone, but they couldn't agree terms. So the CoW turned to Donington, the only other track in the UK which has a recent FIM homologation for MotoGP. That, too, fell through, when Donington found they could not afford the cost of the circuit changes required to bring it up to Grand Prix standard, and the Circuit of Wales proved unwilling to cover those costs. It would have looked very odd indeed had the organization dedicated to bringing a circuit to an impoverished corner of Wales been seen spending money to upgrade a track a couple of hundred kilometers away.
And so MotoGP ended back at Silverstone. Once Donington bowed out, the Circuit of Wales had no choice but to turn to Silverstone, and return to the circuit where the British Grand Prix has been held for the past five years. That is no bad thing. The circuit itself is wonderful, especially since the redesign restored it to something resembling its former glory. It is fast – the fourth fastest track on the circuit, behind Phillip Island, Mugello and Argentina – it is flowing, and it is challenging. It does not have much in the way of elevation change; the track is not quite as flat as a pancake, but there is not much in it. But being flat doesn't make it any easier to ride, there are plenty of places where it is hard to see where the track goes, precisely because it is so flat. Flat, apart from the bumps left in just about every corner by the Formula One cars, of course.
Bradley Smith summed the track up in a single word: "commitment." Asked to explain, he told us, "You have to commit 100% to every corner. At a stop-and-go track, you stop the bike, turn it, then get on the gas. Here, you have to put the bike on its ear immediately." No time for hesitation, no time for thinking, just commit and go, and get it right first time. If you don't, there is a price to pay. "You can't afford to make a mistake, because the speed is so high."
There can be no hanging around either. The riders had been told to do every lap at speed, Cal Crutchlow told us. The problem with Silverstone is its location, on top of a windswept hill. With longish straights and cold temperatures, tires lose their heat quickly, which then causes the riders to crash. "To generate the heat in the tire, we have to keep pushing the tires all weekend. Keep going, push in the out lap, generate heat or you're in the ****, honestly," Crutchlow explained. "That's why you can see everybody crashing at Turn 8 over the weekend, because down that back straight with the wind, it cools the tire so much. You brake into Turn 7, and it generates heat on the right side, but not enough in the left, and as soon as you go to the left a little, everybody crashes."
Silverstone has more going against it. It is cold in the morning – Bridgestone have brought the extra soft front tire for the cold mornings, to give the riders a little bit more grip – and then much warmer in the afternoon. There is a chance of rain on both Saturday and Sunday, throwing yet more complexity into the mix. "You have to have a good base set up at Silverstone," Dani Pedrosa told us, "because you don't get a lot of time." Conditions change so much that finding the perfect race set up is incredibly tricky. You have to turn up at the track with a bike that is there or thereabouts, and work from there.
So Silverstone is fast, flowing, and challenging? That sounds familiar. Does that mean Silverstone is a Yamaha track? In theory, it should be, and Jorge Lorenzo's record backs that up. Lorenzo has won three of the five races held at the Northamptonshire circuit, and came very close to winning last year as well. The circuit fits Lorenzo like a glove, and coming off a win at Brno and a strong result at Indianapolis, the Spaniard is the hot favorite for the Silverstone track.
His teammate and main championship rival is also on a Yamaha, and yet Valentino Rossi has a problematic relationship with Silverstone. He missed the first race at the circuit, having broken his leg at Mugello, and since then, he has struggled to catch up. His first encounter with the circuit was aboard the Ducati Desmosedici during his years in the wilderness, and that seems to have colored his view of the track. Even back on a Yamaha, he has struggled. In 2013, he finished the race in 4th, 13 seconds behind the winner, while in 2014 he got on the podium, yet still over 8 seconds behind the victor. Why does he struggle? Impossible to say. This should be a track at which he excels. Once he realizes that, he will be a threat.
The Hondas face a tougher challenge, Silverstone having a number of spots where the bike's continuing weakness is exposed. The aggressive engine, and aggressive engine braking, make controlling the bike into and out of some of the faster corners is tricky. The RC213V can struggle with low grip tracks, and Silverstone tends to be a track with less grip, especially in the cold. Marc Márquez is back on a roll, after a win at Indy and a second place at Brno, but Silverstone could be a little tougher for the reigning champ to tackle. Dani Pedrosa has always been strong here, but whether he can overcome the weakness of the Honda remains to be seen.
The Ducatis could be the bikes to keep an eye on. Last year, Andrea Dovizioso fought a brave battle on the GP14.2 for the final spot on the podium with Valentino Rossi and Dani Pedrosa. He came off worse, but he comes better prepared to the fight this weekend. The GP15 should do everything that the GP14.2 did, but a little better. Dovizioso spent the recent Misano test working on improving the set up of the front end of the bike, looking for a little better feeling from the front. They found something, but whether it will be enough remains to be seen. The top speed of the Ducati will give the bike an advantage along the fast straights at the track. That may give them the edge on the Yamahas, should it come to a fight.
If Dovizioso gets involved, and maybe Andrea Iannone too – the younger of the two Andreas is having an outstanding season so far on the factory Ducati, is a force to be reckoned with at almost every race track we go to – then the battle for the podium could get very interesting indeed. If the Ducatis are too fast, and Valentino Rossi can't find the speed to hang with Jorge Lorenzo, then it could really shake up the championship. Rossi can afford to finish third at Silverstone, and still have some hope of making up the deficit at the next race in Misano. If he finishes fourth, or even fifth, he would start to make his job a very great deal tougher.
What of the Suzuki? The nature of the track should help the bike, with not much hard acceleration from low gear and plenty of chance to use the outstanding handling of the bike to get a jump on the competition. But the GSX-RR's main problem remains: not enough horsepower to run with the other factories, especially the Ducati and the Honda, and no seamless gearbox to improve drive out of corners and smooth braking on entry. Aleix Espargaro will need to pick up his game again, and get back to the strong results of the early part of the season, while Maverick Viñales just needs to carry on in the same vein as the last few races. Viñales has been deeply impressive, and has caught the eye of the other factories.
Silverstone will be a hive of activity for contract time. The announcement has already come that Bradley Smith has signed a deal to stay with Tech 3 in 2016, putting his contract in line with the factory riders. At 24 years of age, Smith realizes that 2017 is his best shot at securing a factory ride. If he does not get a factory contract at that point, then the next time the contracts come round will be 2019, and Smith will be pushing 28, and facing challenges from the next generation of young riders.
Cal Crutchlow also extended his deal with LCR, a contract which had been a long time coming. Crutchlow had said he was certain of two-year deal back in June, and despite a few stray suggestions he could go to Ducati, the question was only ever when Crutchlow would get a new Honda contract.
The Pramac Ducati seat had been the most hotly contested in the paddock, with a host of riders – mostly British, rather curiously – all lining up to ride the bike. Danny Kent had been given first refusal, the Moto3 championship leader offered a three-year deal. At Silverstone, he told us that he had turned the ride down, precisely because it was a three-year deal. If a factory contract came up during that period, he would be unable to take it, leaving him stranded on a satellite bike. The terms of the contract were also not to his liking, the biggest problem being the lack of a clear path to a factory ride. What he wanted, Kent said, was the best package on offer, in terms of equipment, in terms of team, and in terms of progress to reward success. Intriguingly, Kent told us he had other offers in MotoGP, but he remained coy on who that would be with.
The open Pramac seat now looks set to go to Scott Redding, who, rumor has it, has already signed a deal for next season. That contract had not been signed earlier this week, when we enquired with the team, but things change quickly once the paddock assembles. Redding looks set to leap at the chance of hopping off the Honda RC213V, which he has not been happy on, and onto the Ducati Desmosedici, of which he has happy memories from his test a couple of years ago. Redding's vacant seat at Marc VDS will be taken over by Tito Rabat, in a repeat of what happened in Moto2.
Whether Redding's Pramac deal is announced at Silverstone remains to be seen. Announcing a British rider at their home track is always good for publicity, and with OCTO being title sponsor for both Pramac and the Silverstone round of MotoGP, it is a tempting prospect indeed. But things are often not that simple.
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