There are few more intimidating atmospheres in motorcycle racing than the MotoGP race at Misano. Unless, of course, you are from what the regional government refer to as Motor Valley, the area which stretches from the Adriatic coast and the up the Po valley towards Milan. The fans are fiery, passionate, and vocal. If you are not a local, to come here and race is to enter the lion's den.
The irony is that since 2010, Spaniards have won every MotoGP race held in Italy, with the exception of the 2014 race at Misano, which was won by Valentino Rossi. The enemy has come into the heart of Italy, and left victorious. It is a grave wound to Italian pride.
For the second time this year, it looked for a long time that Valentino Rossi would heal that wound. At Mugello, it was Yamaha who broke the hearts of Italian fans, after turning up the revs on the Yamaha M1 just a little too far, and causing the engine to detonate, leaving Rossi dejected at the side of the track. At Misano, Rossi took the lead with a firm pass, exploiting a minor mistake by Lorenzo and diving through the barn-door sized opening Lorenzo had left on the inside of Turn 14. There would be fall out from that pass, but not until the press conference.
Snatched from the jaws of victory
Rossi soon opened a gap, and was storming to glory in front of the massed yellow army which came to Sunday worship at Misano. The Movistar Yamaha rider was moving away a tenth of a second at a time, inching closer to victory. More importantly, Marc Márquez was struggling to find a way past Jorge Lorenzo, handing Rossi a healthy chunk of points in the championship. Victory beckoned on two fronts: a win at his home circuit, and closing the gap in the title chase.
When Dani Pedrosa passed Marc Márquez, that put Rossi in an even stronger position. It left Márquez worried. "If Dani had a good day maybe he can finish second or third, between me and Valentino," Márquez said after the race. But that was not to be. "[Dani]had a really good day and won the race in an incredible way," Márquez said.
And it truly was an incredible performance from Dani Pedrosa. The Spaniard had shown strong pace in practice, but had suffered in qualifying, ending up eighth on the grid. A superb start put him into sixth after the first corner complex, directly behind his teammate Márquez. When Márquez got past Andrea Dovizioso, Pedrosa got a little stuck behind the Ducati, steadily losing ground to the leaders. Once past, he gathered his breath, and embarked upon his charge.
He won the race with outright pace. He was consistently faster than the riders ahead of him, converting them into riders behind him in the process. He lapped under the previous lap record, gaining a total of 4.6 second on Valentino Rossi, passing Márquez, Lorenzo, and finally Rossi in the process. The pass on Rossi was the signal for some fans in the Rossi grandstands to pack their bags and leave. But that left Pedrosa cold. He celebrated his return from the wilderness with abandon. It has been a long, hard season since Sepang last year.
To the outside world, it may seem that Pedrosa's win came out of nowhere. In reality, Pedrosa has been making solid progress since Brno. It was there that the Repsol Honda rider went back to basics, running through everything tested and finding a base set up. They found a setting which gave Pedrosa an idea of what was working with the tires, though it was not ideal, and decided to stick with that. "Then we didn't touch it for the next race and try to see how I can understand better the tires. So little by little I start to feel in Silverstone how to ride better the tire. Here also a little bit more."
Pedrosa's decision to stick with a set up which half worked and figure the rest out is illustrative of just how easy it is for riders and their teams to lose themselves down the rabbit hole in pursuit of the perfect set up. When something as major as tires change, it can take a while looking for the right baseline. If riders and their teams spend their team looking for the right feeling from the bike, they can forget the basics of motorcycle racing: you have to understand how the tires behave, and you have to understand how the bike behaves. Only once you have that understanding can you start to chase improvements.
At Brno, Pedrosa made first contact with the tires. At Silverstone, he worked on his understanding of the tires. At Misano, he plucked the fruits of that hard graft, winning his first race of the season, and extending his run of fifteen consecutive seasons Pedrosa has won a race. That puts him level with Valentino Rossi, who won a race every season between 1996 and 2010, and his win total puts him level with Phil Read, at 52 Grand Prix wins all time. Though Honda were delighted with his victory, and that his recent change of approach had paid off so handsomely, some were asking why he had not tried to follow that path at Qatar.
Losing the numbers game
Pedrosa's victory left Valentino Rossi visibly dejected. Rossi had come to Misano to win, and had been cruelly denied. Victory at home meant a lot – "next race is Aragon, his home race, why he doesn't wait?" Rossi joked to BT Sport in parc ferme – and coming second also meant losing valuable points. For the fourth race in a row, Valentino Rossi has finished ahead of Marc Márquez, reducing the gap from 59 to 43 points. Yet after all of those four races, the points per race which Rossi needs to close to Márquez has increased. Rossi needed just over 6.5 points per race after the Sachsenring. He now needs to score 8.6 points per race. Every time Rossi has beaten Márquez, the championship has moved further out of his grasp.
There was nothing Rossi could have done to beat Pedrosa, he admitted. The Repsol Honda rider simply had the better pace. Jorge Lorenzo admitted the same, both Rossi and Pedrosa were simply faster. As for Marc Márquez, he knew he could not match the pace of the podium trio, because he simply could not use the new construction front tires which Michelin had brought to Misano.
Those black and round things
Tires proved to be crucial at Misano, but in a different way to previous years. Most of the grid used the medium front and medium rear, while Dani Pedrosa used the soft front, and Marc Márquez and the two Suzukis used the hard front. In previous seasons, everyone would end up on exactly the same tire combination. That has changed with the switch to Michelins. "Looks like this year with Michelin everybody have to understand the right tire for him, not the right tire in general," Valentino Rossi explained.
That means finding a tire – front or rear – and getting it to work for you. Pedrosa's style is to be smooth and float the bike around the track, letting it go where it will. His size and weight give him no option, and it is a skill which he has mastered. But it leaves him unable to artificially create stress in the tire to try to generate more heat. His size prevents him from moving his weight around as others do, and stressing the tire more.
Marc Márquez, on the other hand, needs a tire which can withstand the heat. He hammers the bike into the corner, braking deep and getting the bike turned on its nose. Michelin's Misano medium was not able to handle the stress, and the hard tire was an older construction that could cope with the heat, but did not have the stability he needed. Braking deep into corners, the tire was still moving, slowing Márquez up.
Still leading, despite losing
Márquez himself was not too disappointed in his pace, though he was disappointed with the result. "My rhythm was really similar to FP4 but the others were able to be even faster," he told us afterwards. Márquez' race pace had looked good enough for a podium during practice, but he missed out in the race.
Even that he did not regard as a disaster. This is one of tracks he had marked on the calendar as having the potential to lose a lot of points. His goal was merely to limit the damage, come away as unscathed as possible, and take the championship fight on to other tracks which would suit him better. "Today, I felt good and I didn't want to throw away 20 points," he said.
Did he worry about being beaten by Valentino Rossi for the last four races in a row? Márquez response was a sarcastic "Ooh, pressure! Pressure!" Part of the job of a journalist is to ask uncomfortable questions. The smart riders throw such questions back in the reporter's face. I felt suitably rebuked.
There were more journalist tactics on display in the press conference. A TV commentator asked Rossi and Lorenzo about Rossi's pass on the Spaniard, making a special point of asking Lorenzo for his opinion. The question kicked of a session of bickering between the two teammates, in which Lorenzo accused Rossi of making an unnecessarily aggressive pass, and Rossi disagreeing and accusing Lorenzo of doing the same.
The argument provided some entertainment, but did not lead to much enlightenment. The scene was more reminiscent of two siblings bickering than anything else. Dorna were quick to exploit the tension, releasing the clip to social media immediately. It is a tactic they have been getting better at, but understood fully how they could exploit in the aftermath of Sepang 2015. Controversy generates interest, and interest generates income.
Was Lorenzo right to criticize Rossi for that pass? It did not look particularly harsh from my perspective. Lorenzo left the door wide open, and Rossi could not look a gift horse in the mouth. The pass did require him to claim the apex of the corner, standing Lorenzo up when he turned in and found Rossi in his path. But if Lorenzo had taken a more defensive line, knowing Rossi was behind him, the Italian would have found it much harder to make that move. It was not the kind of move which you might expect between teammates, but Rossi and Lorenzo ceased being teammates a very long time ago. They probably never were.
In essence, the disagreement comes down to a difference in philosophy. Since his move to the MotoGP class, Lorenzo has prided himself on being a clean racer, and only making passes which were there for the taking. Rossi has always been more of a brawler, never afraid to take a chance and try to force an opening, even if it upsets his rivals. Or perhaps I should say, especially if it upsets his rivals.
But Lorenzo is no saint. He has dished out a few hard moves in his time, though not often. Valentino Rossi pointed that out in the press conference, and then immediately undermined his own point by being unable to name a specific example. This is a soap opera which will run and run, and likely intensify when Lorenzo moves to Ducati. When the three main rivals are all on different bikes, there will be no team management trying to contain the friction.
Rossi's future teammate, Maverick Viñales, came home in fifth. Viñales and his Ecstar Suzuki teammate Aleix Espargaro had diametrically opposite issues with the same bike. Viñales struggled with rear grip again, having to burn up the rear tire to help the bike turn. Espargaro chose the hard front tire and came to regret it, spending all race trying to manage the tires. "I was fighting all the time," he said. "I lose the front maybe 20 times until I crash."
Behind Viñales, the first Ducati across the line was Andrea Dovizioso. It was a disappointing result for the Italian factory, especially after they had tested here prior to the race. Dovizioso could not get the bike to turn, the Italian using a lot of energy to try to force the bike through the corners. That meant he could not run the pace at the front, ending the race in sixth. Temporary teammate Michele Pirro – promoted from wildcard to Dovizioso's teammate after Iannone was forced to withdraw with a back injury – had a very solid race, finishing seventh, three seconds behind Dovizioso.
Aprilia making progress?
The Aprilias also had a strong race, for a change. The Italian factory benefited from a private test at the circuit, but it also seems that they are making genuine progress. Alvaro Bautista ended the race in tenth, using a new frame and a different set up they had found at the test. Bautista believed that if he had not been pushed wide by Scott Redding at the start of the race, he could have been even stronger at the end of the race. Stefan Bradl had it tougher, his weekend made overly complicated by losing a chassis in a crash, and having to switch between old chassis and new chassis, and sort out a set up which worked.
More new winners
If there was no glory for Valentino Rossi himself, he could at least bask in the reflected glory of Lorenzo Baldassarri's win in Moto2. The Italian rode a strong race, benefiting from the struggles of others. If Alex Rins had not broken his collarbone before Silverstone, he may have been able to take the win from the Italian, but Baldassarri was strong enough to hold him off.
The leaders also didn't have Sam Lowes and Johann Zarco to contend with. Lowes slid out of the race from the group chasing Rins and Baldassarri. Zarco could not find the pace he had in practice, and which he believed could have brought him victory. Both men suggested tires might have been an issue, with grip in the race feeling very different than during practice.
This is one area where Dunlop hold an advantage over Michelin, and previously over Bridgestone. The intense media focus on MotoGP means that the slightest failing is immediately exposed. Though both Moto2 and Moto3 enjoy a wide following, the fans are less hungry for every single detail. Tire issues may or may not be more of an issue in Moto2 and Moto3, but we do not know, because all of the journalists in the paddock earn their bread and butter from MotoGP, and so they don't have the time to research these stories properly.
Zarco's result does mean that he has lost a lot of ground in the championship. After the race at Austria, his advantage over Alex Rins was 34 points. Three races later, his lead has been cut to just 3 points. The Moto2 championship is far from over.
Title for the taking
The same cannot be said for Moto3. Brad Binder won the opening race with ease, holding off a challenge from Enea Bastianini quite comfortably. His lead is now up to 106 points, an almost insurmountable gap. A second place finish at Aragon will be enough to secure the title before the flyaways, something which would please both the Red Bull Ajo KTM team and the sponsors, and giving them a chance to celebrate and promote it more fully.
That could be the first real pressure that Binder has come under this season. The South African has taken on a swagger which comes from knowing he is invincible, with no one capable of beating him. He needs to hold that confidence in check at Aragon, and not get carried away by it. The title is there for the taking.
The New Golden Era
Dani Pedrosa's win in MotoGP made it eight different winners in a row this season, a feat which has never been seen before. Baldassarri's victory in Moto2 made it 23 winners this season over all three classes, another record. The racing has been close and fascinating, and above all, unpredictable. This is a great time to be watching motorcycle racing. Long may it continue.
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