On Saturday after qualifying, I wrote about how one of motorcycle racing's defining characteristics is its unpredictability. That was written in response to a thrilling qualifying session which saw Jack Miller take pole by rolling the dice on slicks on a drying track, and outperforming everyone else. The rest of the grid had been pretty unpredictable too: Tito Rabat in fourth on the Reale Avintia Ducati GP17. Marc Márquez, the man who had been fastest by a country mile all weekend, only starting in sixth. Three first-time pole sitters in the three Grand Prix classes. Saturday at Argentina defied expectations.
Sunday at the Termas De Rio Hondo circuit made Saturday look positively straight-laced. Wild doesn't even begin to cover the events on race day. There were Moto3 riders gambling on slicks on a track with just a very narrow dry line. There were new names and fresh faces at the front of the Moto2 race, a thriller which went down to the wire. But when MotoGP came around, even those events were made to look positively mundane. So much happened that it will take several days to digest, let alone do justice to in writing. There were so many facets to this race that I will need more than one report to deconstruct it all. For now, we will start at the beginning, and work our way forwards from there.
It all begins with the weather. Heavy rain all night, followed by the track drying out through the course of the Moto3 and Moto2 races left the track in a difficult condition. The Moto2 bikes and their fat Dunlop rubber had at least cleared out a dry line around most of the track, but it was not very wide in places, and there was water crossing the track. Then a light rain started to fall as the riders prepared to leave pit lane, making them choose wets instead of slicks. All except Jack Miller, that is, who rolled the dice on slicks once again, determined to seize an advantage wherever he could find it.
Lord of misrule
From that point on, chaos reigned. New rules were invented to deal with the fact that sending everyone to start from the back of the grid basically leaves everyone starting from exactly the same place they were due to start from. There was a stalled and restarted bike on the grid, which would cause a ride through penalty, a wild chase through the field causing two more penalties and controversy to match Sepang 2015. And there was a fierce battle which saw a new name on the podium, rookies beating champions, an unexpected championship leader, and the 2018 title chase being thrown wide open.
Amidst the chaos and controversy, there was also a scintillating race. Four riders fought it out for most of the race, Cal Crutchlow and Johann Zarco deciding the race in the final corner complex in Argentina. As a spectacle, it was utterly breathtaking, but the battle at the front will likely be overlooked. The fight between Crutchlow, Zarco, Alex Rins, and Jack Miller deserves to have tens of thousands of words expended on it. But the chaos on the grid, the hastily improvised start procedure, Marc Márquez' ride through penalty and wrecking ball ride through the field, taking down his arch rival Valentino Rossi in the process, on these, the media will spend hundreds of thousands of words. Crutchlow, Zarco, Rins, and Miller deserve better. But you cannot always get what you deserve in this life.
This rubbed Cal Crutchlow up the wrong way. As race winner, he opened a half empty press conference with an attack on the press. "First of all, where’s all the media?" he asked rhetorically. The answer being that Argentina is already a sparsely attended event, a result of the cost and distance involved in getting there, and that a sizable portion of the journalists who were there were off chasing quotes from anyone in the Repsol Honda or Movistar Yamaha camps, after Marc Márquez had forced Valentino Rossi off track in a reckless pass at Turn 13, reigniting the cold war which had been simmering between the two since Sepang in 2015.
"It seems there’s a lack of respect for the show that we put on," Crutchlow castigated the media. "They’re looking to grab some of the headlines. The headlines are here. There’s three guys on the podium that just risked a lot for our teams, for ourselves. We pushed and this is disrespectful. In the end, the rest of these media people that don’t bother coming, they can not bother coming to the rest of my media for the rest of the year."
His anger was justified. It had been a truly thrilling race, once it had finally gotten underway. Jack Miller had led in the early stages, an almost inevitable result of starting six rows further forward than the rest of the field. His starting position was a small recompense for his bravery in immediately going to slicks, instead of playing safe with wets and then changing his mind on the grid.
The rules dictate that any rider can leave the grid after the sighting lap can start the warm up lap from pit lane, but they will have to start from the back of the grid. What the rules didn't set out is what to do when 23 of the 24 riders on the grid start the warm up lap from pit lane. When everyone bar the pole sitter leaves the grid, then the back of the grid moves from the ninth row all the way up to P2, and everyone is back where they started before the change.
That is neither fair, nor in this case, is it particularly safe. To avoid the chaos which would inevitably ensue from 23 riders with a rough and ready grasp of the rulebook trying to figure out where they should be starting from, Race Direction delayed the start of the race. Ostensibly on safety grounds, though there was no immediate external danger. It was confusion which posed a hazard, and so to clarify the situation, and make sure everyone knew where they were supposed to start from, Race Direction pushed the start back by 20 minutes.
Solving problems on the fly
To their credit, they devised a relatively elegant solution to the conundrum with which they found themselves faced. Technically, the back of the grid was P25, behind the last official qualifier, but as one astute Twitter user observed, there weren't enough grid slots to put 23 riders starting at P25. So Race Direction pushed everyone bar Jack Miller back as far as they could go, being in this case, P17, giving Miller an advantage of 5 grid rows, or 48 meters.
The solution may have been elegant, but it was not particularly fair on Jack Miller. The Alma Pramac Ducati had had the courage and insight to go straight to slicks. If everyone had known the procedure, and not needed it explained to them, then Miller would have had a big advantage. As it was, he lost 20 minutes sitting on the grid, trying to calm his nerves. He had a special personal technique to do that, he explained: "Swearing a lot!"
Miller took it all surprisingly well. "It was what it was," he said after the race. "I mean, I feel we did the right thing, and we can't say that anyone else did the wrong thing, but it felt strange sitting on the grid when there's supposed to be 24 bikes on the grid and there wasn't one."
The solution found by Race Direction wasn't ideal, but it was workable. "They did the best that they could under such big pressure," Miller said. "This pressure situation, and then it started raining again, and I was just thing, oh Jesus, it's going to be another nightmare. But I think we can be really happy with how everything went for such a crazy day."
Fix one problem, another arises
After the new grid positions had been explained and handed out, the riders finally headed out for the warm up lap and lined up ready for the start. More chaos: Marc Márquez stalled his Honda RC213V on the grid just before the start. The correct procedure would have been for Márquez to remain seated on his bike with his arm raised, indicating he had stalled the bike. But Márquez attempted to start his bike, and succeeded. But he had to rush back to his grid slot, and after some confusion with the IRTA grid officials, he turned his bike around, rode back in the wrong direction along the grid to his starting position, and lined up as before.
That mistake would earn Márquez a ride through penalty, and that penalty would unleash a remarkable chapter in MotoGP. It is a story which will need space in the telling, and one to which I will return in the next part of this round up. For now, we must return to the race. As Cal Crutchlow pointed out in the press conference, that's where the headlines were, or at least deserved to be.
Jack Miller got a strong start, but his 50 meter lead merely cast him as a hare to be followed by the hounds, or rather the wolves, as he himself put it. By the end of the first lap, the pack had chased him down, Marc Márquez snapping at his heels. Márquez was past the Australian on the next lap, powering past him as they raced along the back straight.
The Repsol Honda rider was unleashed, but by this time, he was under investigation for his behavior on the grid. A ride through penalty was duly issued, and after gapping Miller by just under 2 seconds in five laps, Márquez dived back into the pits to serve his punishment.
With his target gone, Miller's pace dropped just enough for Alex Rins to drag Johann Zarco and Cal Crutchlow to the front. With the four riders together, a fierce battle unfolded which saw the lead change hands and places swapped as riders exploited their relative strengths. Rins attacked Miller at Turn 5, but couldn't make it. He tried again at Turn 7, and got past into the lead, only to hand it back immediately after running wide. A lap later, they swapped place again, Rins attacking Miller, Miller attacking Rins, while Zarco and Crutchlow cozied up behind them.
Rins finally got through and opened a lead, only to run wide at Turn 7, paying the price for running wide and getting onto the still damp tarmac. His three fellow leaders all swooped past underneath, dropping Rins from first to fourth.
A lap later, it was Jack Miller's turn to run wide. The Australian got in a fraction too hot through the tricky Turn 13 and ended up on damp asphalt. The other three leaders came past him, dropping him to fourth. He would never recover the gap to the leaders again, and would come home a slightly disconsolate fourth place.
"It's a bit bitter-sweet, that's for sure," Miller said after the race. "After leading the race for so long, and taking the pole, it hurts a little to not come away with a podium. But, all in all it was a good day. I tried to ride smart, especially on the first laps with all the commotion that went on on the grid. Just tried to keep my emotions in check and be as mature as I could be, I guess, which sometimes isn't my strong point. So I was happy with that, and then just a couple of costly mistakes later on in the race, at the front feeling a little bit the pressure from the rear. Ran wide at the last corner onto the wet stuff, and then tried to make it all back up in Turn 1 and ran nearly completely off track and onto the wet stuff again. So that wasn't very cool. But apart from that, really really good day, good weekend, can't thank the team enough."
Then there were three
There were three left at the front, but the battle was clearly between Cal Crutchlow and Johann Zarco. Crutchlow led at first, only to relinquish the place to Johann Zarco when he hit a patch of water. Zarco took over at the front for a couple of laps, but with two laps to go, Cal Crutchlow seized the opportunity to take the lead. From there, he had the race under control, though Zarco gave his all to try to get back at him again. The Monster Tech3 Yamaha rider closed up in the final section and did what he could to get within striking distance of the LCR Honda, but Crutchlow would prevail. The Englishman went on to take his third Grand Prix victory and Honda's 750th, and take over the lead in the championship as a result of the carnage behind him.
"I knew this weekend that I could win or finish second at this Grand Prix, wet or dry," Crutchlow said after the race. "Honestly speaking, I spoke to Lucy before the race, and I was not happy, just because of the weather and this that and the other, and she said to me, you can easily be on the podium, even from tenth, and you can win. And with two laps to go, there's no doubt I can win this, whatever happens. I also thought it on the starting line, and then the start of the race, the first ten laps of the race, I was just sat in a very comfortable position, out of the slipstream, not taking the same lines as them on the water as well, because I was concerned that if one of them crashed on the water, then they would take me with them."
Taking those different lines helped him save his front tire, and that was the key to success. "I was trying to take a completely different line to them on the water, and I think it was working well for me, because I was losing onto the back straight, which I was happy with. Because I wanted to save the front tire as well, the front tire was way too soft for me. Even in these conditions, we should have gone with the one step harder front tire. So I think that we managed the situation very well. I won the race at the slowest possible speed, to be honest. I could have gone to the front and probably gone away, but I didn't need to take the risk. I knew that if I needed to pass them, I could, and I knew where, and I did."
New era, new names
Crutchlow was impressed by the two men he shared the podium with, and saw it as a harbinger of more battles at the front for them. "I have to give credit to Johann and Alex for their podiums as well, but look at the sheer facts, these guys were also battling for the win and for the podium in Qatar. They've stepped up their game. And also Jack, he was there in the fight starting in Qatar. I told you that ten guys could be on the podium this weekend, and you would have got great odds on that result today."
Crutchlow's victory puts him at the head of the title race, the first British rider to lead the championship since Barry Sheene in 1979. He was assisted by the title favorites faltering badly. Andrea Dovizioso finished sixth, and is now just 3 points behind the LCR Honda rider. Johann Zarco added to his tally by finishing second after a more modest eighth in Qatar. Maverick Viñales trails Crutchlow by 17 points after finishing in fifth. But Marc Márquez is in fifth after failing to score points after being penalized by 30 seconds for causing Valentino Rossi to crash, and Rossi was left empty handed after the crash caused by Márquez.
The story of how that came about, how Márquez demonstrated at the same time that he is both the most talented rider on the grid, and the most reckless and dangerous, will have to wait for tomorrow. It is a tale that needs to be told at length. The last word has not been said about Argentina. Nor will it be for a very long time to come.
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