If you wanted proof that MotoGP fans are smarter and more engaged than most people think (and arguably smarter, more engaged, and better informed than half the journalists in the paddock), then look no further than the section added to the press conference by Dorna featuring questions submitted by fans via Social Media. The questions submitted so far have been funny, interesting, and thoughtful (though of course, it helps that the hardworking Dorna Social Media staff carefully separate the wheat from the chaff beforehand).
They have managed to be revealing, coming at riders from unsuspecting angles and forcing them to let slip things without realizing it. Or sometimes, just gets them talking in a broader context, which helps provide a greater insight into the way the sport has changed, and the direction it is heading. And sometimes, they have just made us all laugh.
The question to Valentino Rossi, asking which of his rivalries should be made into a movie to match Rush, the dramatization of the rivalry between James Hunt Niki Lauda. There is no obvious answer to that question – Rossi's rivalries have been many, fierce, and bitter, with Casey Stoner, Jorge Lorenzo, Marc Márquez, Sete Gibernau – but Rossi settled on his rivalry with Max Biaggi. "It was funny, because we also had a lot of funny stories out of the track," Rossi quipped.
That is true, but it also reveals just how much the MotoGP paddock has changed in the past fifteen years, in no small part due to Rossi. Those "funny stories out of the track" include various high jinks late at night in the paddock, involving varying quantities of alcohol and mischief, such as the time that Biaggi was sponsored by Fiat, and was driving a new Fiat 500. Rossi and a few associates thought it would be hilarious to flip the car on its roof, the Fiat 500 being a small car weighing virtually nothing at all.
Such acts are now pretty much unthinkable. Not because riders have no sense of mischief – they still do – but because the increasing professionalization of the sport has put more pressure on the riders to be tucked up in bed, sober, at 10pm, fit and ready to take on the challenges of MotoGP the very next day.
Juxtapose the fond memories of Rossi with the seriousness of Viñales. Talking about how his life had changed since leading the championship, and becoming the rider with a target on his back, he described an ascetic, monastic lifestyle indeed. "Life changed, but it changed in the way that I am more concentrated, working harder," Viñales said. "I live more for the bikes, training so hard, thinking all the time how to go faster, how to be stronger in the race, in the mind, on the track, in the garage. So life for me changed on that, that I spend much more time than before on that."
Ironically, the dedication which MotoGP of the current era requires is illustrated by the relationship status of the two Yamaha riders. Both men are now single, having ditched long-term relationships previously. Valentino Rossi broke up with his long-time girlfriend Linda Morselli at the end of the tumultuous 2015 season. How much of a strain that year put on their relationship can only be guessed at, but Rossi now has more time to dedicate to riding bikes, training, and trying to win a tenth championship. Maverick Viñales broke up with his girlfriend and Women's Motocross champion Kiara Fontanesi last winter. He was always an animal when it came to training and fitness, but he has now redoubled his efforts in pursuit of his goal of becoming MotoGP champion.
The days of the James Hunts and Barry Sheenes of this world are long gone. Riders can no longer afford to fill their nights with wine, women, and song. Instead, they live monastic lives, rising at dawn to train and study, going to bed as darkness falls, thinking solely of winning. There are riders who do not do these things, of course, but those riders don't figure in the championship.
To some extent, Valentino Rossi is to blame for this development. Though the sport has grown ever more professional over the years. Rossi represented a step change in talent when he entered the premier class. The riders who came after him worked harder on their fitness and at the sport to compete, beating him not only by talent, but also by sheer hard work and determination. So we arrive at this moment in time, where riders live like monks, and do nothing but eat, sleep, and train. No doubt in fifteen or twenty years, the riders will be even more disciplined, and the media will look back at this as a very relaxed age for racing. But it certainly doesn't feel like that right now.
Making tires last
Either consciously or unconsciously, Viñales also revealed just where he has been focusing on over the winter. In one press conference, I counted four times that the Movistar Yamaha rider used the phrase "the last ten laps". Viñales understood very early that the key to victory is having enough tire left over at the end of the race. Once he was up to speed on the Yamaha – which basically took him the first test in Valencia, then the private Yamaha test in Sepang in November – he fixed his gaze on tire wear, and spent his time figuring out how to preserve the tire for as long as possible. Two wins from two races suggests that strategy has been successful.
Scott Redding summed up succinctly what the secret to winning races is. "The middle of the race is not where you win or lose, it's the beginning and the end," the Pramac Ducati rider explained, "how the tire wear is going and how you can use the tire in the beginning." That was something Redding had been struggling with, especially the start of the race.
He had switched strategies from last year, in an attempt to be quicker in the opening laps. "Tire temperature seems to be the problem for me," Redding said. "Last year I always put the tire on the grid, but this year, I felt that going out on the tire and doing an extra lap would get it ready, but actually, we see the first laps of the race, my tire temperature is still too low, so it's not working. Also the first sighting lap, I try to save the tire, but actually I need to push the tire more to get the temperature up."
If the tire is not up to temperature, you can't push, Redding explained, and if you don't push from the start, you get swallowed up by the field and have to try to fight your way through. That, it turns out, is extraordinarily difficult.
No, the 70 isn't here
There was plenty of talk of tires in Austin. First, Michelin made clear that they would not be bringing to Austin the stiffer construction front tire which they had tried to ship to Argentina, before being confounded by customs. That tire needs to be tested properly, and the way to do that is to do it at the Jerez test, where riders have time to evaluate the tire fully. It also gives Michelin time to make the tire in a couple of compounds, to test the tire more fully.
Cal Crutchlow was keen to test the tire, though he was also cautious. "We need anything we can get," he said of the new front tire, both in terms of stiffness and compound. "Any harder rubber, any harder construction, we need. Simple. But I wish we didn't, because it would mean we wouldn't have to take as much risk in the braking zone." Taking the tire to the Jerez test was logical, but no guarantee of it being fruitful. "What happens if it's raining?" Crutchlow pointed out.
Aleix Espargaro was less enthusiastic, but he was at least happy that it would be tried during the test, rather than at a race. There was already so little time in practice, the Aprilia rider said, and they had to spend a lot of time finding out which tire they should be using. When Bridgestone was the sole tire supplier, it was easy, as the Japanese factory brought two, or sometimes three front tires, and two rear tires. The softer rear was always the race tire, and most riders would use the same front tire.
Tire testing trauma
With Michelin, all that is changed. Of the three fronts and three rears, riders used five of the six available tires at Qatar, and four of the available tires in Argentina. Aleix Espargaro was starting to regret the decision to push to expand the choice of tires. "The problem is we pushed them and I think it was our mistake to have three options of the front and rear tire," the Aprilia rider opined. "For me, now we already did three races, it’s a mistake. Because the first day is a tire test. It’s crazy. We have six tires to test. It’s unbelievable. This is our mistake."
If it were up to the Espargaro the Elder, he would scrap the third tire, front and rear. "For me, if everyone agrees, we should change this. We should go back to two tires, front and rear. If with three tires they bring one more, I don’t know. It’s going to be a session just to try tires so for me it’s better to wait for the test." Adding a fourth front tire into the mix only made the issue worse, and more difficult.
For the moment, though, the riders are stuck with it. A change to the tire allocation can only come if it is agreed by Dorna, Michelin, the MSMA, and IRTA. That would only happen over the winter, but Michelin are perfectly happy to supply three different tires front and rear. So the likelihood of a change is pretty close to zero.
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