Will MotoGP survive the loss of Valentino Rossi? From the evidence of Misano, the answer is yes. According to the official figures released by Dorna, the attendance over all three days was down just 133 fans. Not bad, when the three-day attendance was over 158,000. The Sunday numbers – a better measure, as the three-day figures are mostly derived by double and triple counting – were down a little, from 100,000 to 96,000.
Disregarding the official numbers (justifiably, as there are plenty of good reasons to suspect the books are well and truly cooked at some circuits), judging visually, the grandstands and grass banks were pretty full, almost as full as last year. Despite the horrendous rain which was heaviest as the fans were making their way to the circuit, and continued all the way up until the flag dropped.
Valentino Rossi is irreplaceable as an icon of the sport, known both inside and outside motorcycle racing. But the cast of characters, heroes and villains, which the sport now has, and the intense and close racing we see is enough to keep the overwhelming majority of the fans watching. There will undoubtedly be a drop in attendance and TV figures, but on the evidence of Misano, it will be nearer a survivable 10%, not a disastrous 40%. MotoGP will survive the loss of Valentino Rossi, once he goes.
All three MotoGP classes gave the fans a reason to keep watching. The rain created a spectacle of its own, with crashes shaking up the outcomes. The early leaders crashed out in both Moto2 and MotoGP, with major consequences for the title in the Moto2 race. Though the winner checked out early in Moto3, the battle for the podium – and as a result, for the championship – heated up behind. And both MotoGP and Moto3 were decided in the last few laps, as riders launched attacks and either saw them rebuffed, or got through to seize glory.
Booing turns counterproductive
The absence of Valentino Rossi may not have affected crowd numbers too much, but his fans may have inadvertently affected the outcome. During a soaking wet warm up session, Marc Márquez crashed out with a minute or so to go. The crowd in the grandstands, mostly Rossi fans, cheered as he fell, and then booed and whistled as he rode past on the back of a paddock scooter.
Márquez mischievously blew the fans kisses as he went by, knowing that was a far more effective response than getting upset. But it had annoyed him. "This honestly makes me sad, " he told the press conference after winning the race. "In the podium I can understand, but what I cannot understand is that when you crash, the grandstand cheers. This is something that when we crash we are riding 300 km/h there in the track. We are pushing in the limit. Our life is there. We can get injured. I hope that in the future minimum my fans never do this with any rider. The feeling is not nice."
Márquez carried that niggle with him to the race, and according to one prominent Catalan journalist, it made him more determined to extract revenge. He did that by taking a little more risk in going for the win, pushing harder to get past Danilo Petrucci and win in front of Rossi's home crowd. Had the fans not cheered when he crashed in morning warm up, Márquez may have been more inclined to settle for second, and take points in the championship. But they cheered, so he pushed and won.
Never seen an MX picture before?
Perhaps some of the resentment had been building up earlier, from the barrage of abuse Márquez received after posting a picture of him riding motocross after Valentino Rossi had broken his leg riding an enduro bike. Some fans saw Márquez' picture as a direct taunt aimed at Rossi, rather than just yet another in the long sequence of pictures of Márquez riding dirt bikes which make up his social media feed.
Márquez had thought nothing of posting the picture, and was surprised at the backlash. But the fans lambasting the Repsol Honda rider had fundamentally misunderstood his intentions. They thought he had posted the photo because he hates Valentino Rossi. He does – and Rossi hates him right back – but Rossi not being at a race is not a reason to celebrate. Márquez wants nothing more to beat Rossi on the track, just as Rossi wants to beat Márquez on track. Without Rossi there, victory tastes a fraction less sweet. The jeers of the crowd when he crashed restored some of that sweetness.
Every little helps
Revenge was not his sole motivation, of course. The fact that the championship is so incredibly tight was also a factor. "It was so difficult to keep the concentration because the race was so long," Márquez told the press conference. "The first part of the race I was struggling more. Then second part of the race I was okay, but the last part of the race was when I felt better. In one point I started thinking about the championship and I said, maybe second position is enough. Then I started to think more and I say, okay, I have the potential. I feel I will try. I don't know. I will try because you never know. These five points if in the end of the championship in Valencia, you might need them or not."
He had delayed that decision until the very last lap, however. The warm up crash had made him cautious, knowing that he could easily crash again. So he followed Danilo Petrucci, trying to remain as calm as possible and not push too hard. He bided his time, waiting for the right moment to strike. "The last lap, I prepared really well. When three laps remained, I already had the possibility to overtake him. But I said, I don’t want to fight with Danilo here in Misano. For that reason, I overtook him and I pushed 100%, because for me it was better to take the risk for one lap than to take the risk in the last corner."
Hard, but not as hard as at Assen
Seeing victory snatched from him left Petrucci disappointed, but not as angry as he had been at Assen. Petrucci believed that at Assen, he could have won. At Misano, the Pramac Ducati rider was forced to accept that Márquez was simply better than him at that moment. "Today was similar to Assen," Petrucci explained. "I was trying to control the race, but in Assen I found Rins in the last lap then I was not able even to try to win. This time there was no problem. Apart from Marc! So, I am a little bit sad because I could win my first race, but Marc today was stronger. I have no regrets. For sure, I am very close to the win, but today it was difficult to lead the race in this condition, and especially with Marc always behind."
"I pushed when there were two laps to go, but in the penultimate lap he did a great last corner. Then he passed me in turn one. I tried to go in turn four, but I saw that he was a little bit wide. I tried to go in, but I lost the front and my bike stay up only because I’m very tall and I tried with the knee to stay up. In the last lap, he go wide all the corner and I say, okay, now I go in. He was far ahead. Now I try to go in, and he was far and far and far. So, I said, don’t think and just push. But he did an incredible last lap and he deserves this win today."
Márquez' win put him level with Andrea Dovizioso in the championship on points, though Márquez leads the championship because he has more podiums than the Italian. But better than third was not to be for Dovizioso, the Italian struggling with a lack of grip he was at a loss to explain. "I realized from the first few laps it was a very difficult race for me because I didn’t have the grip," he said. "I didn’t understand why. But after the crash of Jorge, Danilo and Marc make always the same pace, so I was trying to understand if I have a chance to stay with them until the end. But I didn’t have any better point compared to them to try to fight with them."
"It was so easy to make a mistake," Dovizioso added. "There was a lot of crashes in every category. So, today when I was riding on the race, I thought this is more important to take the points than the zero." He lacked the feeling with the bike to push for a better result, content to settle for third. "I lost some points in the championship, but in the condition we found in the race on the wet, and the confirmation of yesterday about our speed in the dry, I’m really happy. I think we have a chance to fight for the championship."
No room for team orders
Of course, Ducati could have insisted that Petrucci allow Dovizioso to pass him and drop a place, but neither Petrucci nor Dovizioso were well disposed to such a plan. "I have to be sincere. I thought about it. I hope Andrea was close, but I think Andrea could fight for the championship even with not my help this time," Petrucci said. Dovizioso concurred, saying that on Sunday, Petrucci fully deserved the result he got. "He did an incredible race and it’s good to see him on the podium in second," the factory Ducati rider said.
There was another reason Petrucci didn't want to let Dovizioso past. The Pramac rider may have promised on Thursday that he would help fellow Ducati man in the championship, but there was the bigger picture to consider. "If I let him pass in the last corner, I don't know if it would be a good image for the championship," Petrucci said. He has a point: team orders have no real place in motorcycle racing. Fortunately, most racers are far too stubborn and selfish to accept them even if they were given.
With Márquez and Dovizioso tied on points, there are three realistic contenders left in the championship, both men agreed. The third man, Maverick Viñales, trails the leaders by 16 points, but was relieved that it wasn't an awful lot more. Where earlier in the year, Viñales had been poor in the rain, the updates to the Yamaha M1 chassis and electronics helped make him a lot more competitive.
"Honestly, it’s positive for our side of the box," Viñales said of his fourth place. "Maybe Marc and Dovi were at the front battling, but if we remember the Sachsenring, I was eleventh and three seconds [slower per lap] in the qualifying. We did a good improvement. I think we did quite consistent laps, especially in the middle of the race. But anyway, it’s not enough. We have to do another step in the wet. I think we take the correct direction, especially with this new chassis and the electronics, but still there are points to improve. I’m happy, and I did my best, my 100 percent, and the result can show that it was difficult to be in front."
"The handling of the bike today was really good. I’m happy with the front," Viñales said. "The front tire and the behavior of the bike with the front was good. I’m happy. I have the same feeling in the dry – we improved the front feeling. But on the rear it was very difficult to get the traction, especially on the left. It was sliding a lot the bike. I could not lean. I touch maybe four of five times the left knee down during the race. It was difficult, like going on ice."
Viñales was one of several riders who were not comfortable with the soft rear rain tire Michelin brought to Misano. It was especially the Yamaha riders who struggled most, unable to get the same heat in the left side of the tire as in the right. "The Yamaha riders, we had that feeling on the left, like it was going on the ice," Viñales explained. "I could not open the gas. It was so difficult. There was a lot spinning, especially in the acceleration of the left. I don’t know. Maybe it was our bike, it was not really accepting that time. As I said, on the front I felt really good. It’s always nice to have that feeling on the front because at the Sachsenring and other tracks it was so difficult. It was good to ride. We did many laps in the wet. We have good data to understand the situation and where we can improve."
With five races to go and 125 points still on the table, 16 points between three riders is not very much at all. The championship is still completely open, though Valentino Rossi's absence and Dani Pedrosa's struggle to get any heat whatsoever into the tires put them both well out of contention. Rossi is now 42 points behind the leader Marc Márquez, an obstacle which is probably too big to scale. Pedrosa, meanwhile is 49 points behind, needing to gain ten points a race on Andrea Dovizioso and Marc Márquez to take back control. Dovizioso has been the height of consistency, and Márquez has shown flashes of genius. Neither man is going to give up positions easily, and so putting enough space and sufficient riders between themselves and Dovizioso and Márquez is going to be nigh on impossible.
When heavier is better
Pedrosa, along with Alvaro Bautista, had perhaps the toughest day at the office. Though his light weight is often regarded as a huge advantage, it is probably more often than not quite a disadvantage, as he can't get the heat into the Michelins, especially in the soaking wet. "You have to arrive to the minimum temperature," Pedrosa explained. "Below that, you don't start the chemical thing in the tire, so it doesn’t work. When you arrive at the minimum, you start to work with the suspension, with the gas and it's like a chain reaction. But if you don't start, you don't go."
That was exactly Pedrosa's problem, an inability to get the tire temperature above the minimum point at which the tire starts to work. "Tire temperature for me was under the limit, like I had in Assen. I crashed this morning and I tried to be there in the race but I was doing 1'54s, because I had zero grip. I can't lean the bike, I cannot go on the throttle, I cannot do anything on the bike. I was almost crashing in every corner."
It was especially bad while the track was fully wet, but once the water started to dissipate, the tire could warm to above the working temperature. Once that happened, the bike became radically different. "At the end of the race when it stopped raining and there was less water, boom! Suddenly I reached the tire limit and I started to have some temperature. I dropped almost six seconds from my lap time. I finished lapping 1'49, 1'48 high instead of 1'54." By that time, though, it was far too late.
Pedrosa and his team had tried everything to fix this problem. "We've tried everything, but like I say you can do everything you want on the bike – we added weight on the bike today to simulate me being heavier. But you need to go reach the minimum of the tire and this is hard to handle. The big riders have more feeling in this situation and they will complain in the other part of the window. But sure today nobody will tell you, 'ah, Dani has an advantage'. You can see the disadvantage is bigger than the advantage."
Alvaro Bautista has exactly the same problem, though he is a little taller and a little heavier than Pedrosa, and so the problem is not quite so pronounced. "Dani also struggled a lot, and Dani and me are not so heavy, and maybe our riding style, our weight, and all these pieces, we struggle more than other riders, especially on rear contact," the Aspar Ducati rider said.
The perils of distracted driving
If Bautista and Pedrosa had been unable to get going because of tire temperature, that had not been an issue for Jorge Lorenzo. The Spaniard had taken off like a scalded cat at the start, quickly taking the lead then pulling out a gap. He was the fastest man on track by a country mile, hitting lap times that the rest would only match after the halfway mark, once the track dried out a fraction.
But Lorenzo would be punished for his enthusiasm. On lap 7, Lorenzo came through Turn 6 and flung himself into the air, the rear of his Ducati Desmosedici GP17 coming round on him and causing a massive highside. The reason, Lorenzo explained, had nothing to do with overeagerness, and everything to do with getting used to the Ducati. "I just wanted to change the map on the electronics, and this caused me a little bit to lose concentration in some corners," Lorenzo said. "Especially in that corner, I made the change of direction a little bit quicker and not using the rear brake, with less pressure, and because the track was so critical that a small change to your riding makes a big difference, and I couldn't stay on the bike."
The crash is down to the usability of Ducati's electronics setup, Lorenzo said. "The system on the Ducat is a little more complex, so it's still not natural to me, because I usually don't change it too much within the weekend. So I'm still not completely adapted to all the possibilities, where I am, where I have to go. And this causes me to lose a little bit the concentration of riding, just sliding. That doesn't mean that I couldn't ride, or I went away from the track, but it's changing a little bit the riding in the change of direction, slightly faster and not using the rear brake so much and I completely lost the rear and I was flying."
Wet, dry, and in between
It was a shame, Lorenzo said, because he had felt so strong in the wet. "Big pity because today we had the first chance to win with the Ducati, but we lost it. But it's a matter of time before another podium arrives, for sure, and maybe even a victory," Lorenzo assured. "In the dry, we are not far, but also we are not the fastest with the best pace. But we are very close. And this weekend, I believe that in a dry race, we could stay there with the front group, a little bit better than in Silverstone. But it rained, and in the rain I knew I was really strong, because in the warm up I felt strong, I wasn't pushing, so in the race I felt even better. We made a modification which gave me a little bit more confidence, so just riding quite calmly I opened the gap, one second each lap."
Two things spring to mind listening to Lorenzo's explanation. The first is that Ducati would benefit from employing a competent usability designer, who could make the electronics and engine brake settings much easier to use. The second is that Lorenzo is just fine in the wet, as long as the conditions are stable and predictable. If it's fully dry, Lorenzo can be quick. If it's fully wet, he is probably the fastest of them all.
Lorenzo's problems come when conditions are neither one thing or another, when a track is drying strongly, or when spots of rain are falling and starting to condition the track. When the track is greasy, Lorenzo's confidence goes out the window, and he goes from being a potential winner to a rider capable of hanging on to a top 10 placing. Addressing that issue is extremely tricky. How, after all, do you practice on a track which is neither one fully wet nor fully dry?
There was a special cheer went up for Johann Zarco around the circuit. The Frenchman ran out of fuel on the final lap, coasting to a start at the final corner. From there, he jumped off the bike and started to push it, getting it all the way across the finish line just in time to take 15th, and score a point. "I got the fuel problem before corner 11, I immediately understood, ah, fuel problem, so I tried to stay in sixth gear and really use the minimum of the bike. This was working until corner 14, but then the last two lefts was even less. And from the last corner, I had to get off and run next to the bike, and it was long. I knew that there are two lines, the start line and the finish line, and the finish line was really far. It's good to have the crowd for that. We have to remember MotoGP races are like a show, and so at least I did some show, and we won't forget it."
Both the support classes also threw up fascinating spectacles. In Moto3, Romano Fenati put on a display of sheer wet-weather brilliance, winning by nearly 29 seconds. Despite Fenati's victory, Joan Mir remained comfortably in the championship lead, his advantage now cut to 61 points from 64. But it is still a commanding lead, and Mir is likely to wrap up the title with plenty of time to go.
Moto2 saw the first ever Swiss 1-2 of the intermediate class, Domi Aegerter posting an impressive win over Tom Luthi on the Interwetten bike. Aegerter became the first rider on a Suter chassis to win a race since Valencia in 2014. But it was Luthi who got the most advantage from the tight duel at Misano. With Franco Morbidelli crashing out, the Italian's lead had gone from 29 points to just 9. What once looked like a sure thing for Morbidelli is now looking increasingly difficult. Tom Luthi may yet sneak up on the Estrella Galicia rider and snatch the Moto2 title from his grasp.
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