Every MotoGP weekend throws up dozens of talking points, notes and points of interest that can help an interested observer better understand what remains the greatest sport on earth. Some weekends have more to offer than others. And then there are weekends like Argentina. Already by qualifying, the Grand Prix at the Termas De Rio Hondo circuit had produced more wildness and weirdness than you get at most rounds. And then Sunday came along.
Yesterday, I wrote a little about the peculiar and unique set of circumstances which caused the start of the race to be delayed, and about how Cal Crutchlow came to win what would be a fantastic race riddled with controversy. Before I move on to the most controversial part of the weekend – Marc Márquez' frantic Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde ride through the field which eventually saw him penalized out of the points – a few more notes on the race itself, and the result as it ended up in the books.
First up, Cal Crutchlow, who took a convincing win in Argentina. What was impressive about Crutchlow's victory was not just the result, but the way he achieved it. It was a victory taken with patience, as Spanish journalist Borja Gonzalez astutely observed. It was a patience born of confidence, the knowledge that a good result was possible. "I knew this weekend that I could win or finish second at this Grand Prix, wet or dry," he told the press conference. "I had the pace over the last years. I had the pace in Qatar to be fast."
But it was also a patience born of necessity. "I just took minimal risk," he explained. "I stayed in fourth position a long time. My front tire was way too soft for me. It was two steps softer than what we ran here least year. I was having a lot of movement at the start of the race with the full tank in the braking zones. So I tried to save that and I stayed at a decent gap. I also chose a lot of different lines on the water to them because in case one of them crashed I didn’t want to be taken out of the race through someone else crashing. It’s a long, long season. But I knew in the end that I could pick them off. I knew that I could be there at the end of the race, first and foremost. I knew where I could pass and where I couldn’t pass."
At times, Crutchlow gets a lot of criticism from the fans for that self belief, especially when he falls short of his own expectations, whether through his own fault or the fault of another. But the LCR Honda rider explained succinctly why such confidence is an essential part of a racer's psychological make up. "When I sat on the grid I thought it was possible to win the race. If I didn’t think it was possible to win the race, I would have stayed in the garage," he said.
"That’s the truth. You have to have that mentality," Crutchlow explained. "If not, you don’t win or you don’t even finish the race. I came to Argentina believing that I could be on the podium or be able to challenge for the win. When I sat on the grid I also believed the same thing. Sure, Marc had to pit, and I think it would have been difficult with Marc's riding. He was so fast this weekend in every condition but in the end, we won the race. You have to believe you can win immediately or else it’s not going to happen. I’m sure these guys also believed, but when I got a good start and I stayed in four, five, sixth position and then start to battle a little bit, I thought it was definitely possible to win. So I played my cards when I needed to."
Honda – both HRC and Lucio Cecchinello's LCR Honda team – had played a big part in making sure Crutchlow had those cards to play. "We did a good job. My team has done a fantastic job all winter in the preseason. Honda have done a fantastic job with the engine over the two months of the winter as well. We have to give credit to my team and to them for this victory as well."
The mixture of the conditions and extra horsepower from Honda meant he could manage the medium front tire a little better. "Say it was full, full dry, and the pace was going to be 1'39s, I had to go with the hard, or else we are in a mess, to be honest. But I also don't think that we had the perfect setup, and I think the track was really slippery. The first sector was really slippery. But it was nice to be able to manage it again, where a lot of years I would have been on the floor."
Zarco's near miss
Johann Zarco came tantalizingly close to turning his second place into the first, but in the end, he couldn't find his way past Cal Crutchlow in the final section. It was not for want of trying, however. "I was pushing all the time, all the time, all the time," Zarco told the press conference. "I really didn’t live the race in the same way as Cal. So then when he overtook me also at the end, he had the better pace. I was pushing also to have this better pace. I understood a few things, but not enough at the end, I was a bit tired. I stayed close in case he made a few mistakes and I can try to go in. But after corner five and then after corner seven when I did not try, I say maybe corner 13, but will be good also to finish second."
Zarco's race had gotten off to a controversial start. At the end of the first lap, as the riders rounded Turn 12 and approached Turn 13, the Frenchman was following Dani Pedrosa. Pedrosa ran his Honda wide, to get a better approach through Turn 13 and drive on to the final corner. That left the door open for Zarco to sneak underneath and grab the apex, a common maneuver at the penultimate corner at Termas De Rio Hondo, and one of the reasons the circuit produces such great racing.
As Pedrosa went to cut back for the apex, he found Zarco's black Yamaha M1 just inside, and was forced to pick the bike up and head to the middle of the track. Normally, this would not be a problem, but on a track which was still patchy with water and on the dirty part of the surface, and forced to make a hard turn to try to make the corner, it was asking too much of Pedrosa's rear tire. The rear of the Honda RC213V slid away from him, before gripping and tossing him into the air.
Zarco insisted the pair did not touch. He saw Marc Márquez and Jack Miller getting away ahead of Pedrosa, and wanted to get past the Spaniard to give chase. He believed he had better pace than Pedrosa, and determined to make a pass at Turn 13. "I saw Marc and Jack leading the race and with a better pace than Dani," Zarco explained. "Dani, knowing him, he can sometimes be safe at the beginning of the race. I don’t want to miss the rhythm from the two guys in front, so I took quickly the decision to overtake him in corner 13 where it was the race line plus inside another dry line, and I use this dry line to overtake. When you are going into the corner with this different line, you have to go a little bit wide. The problem is going wide, then it’s getting wet. Me, I had to pick up a lot the bike just also for not crash, because if I crash I push him away and then he crash. Then I did not crash on the wet patches. I didn’t know he crashed. I saw Alex overtake me and for me, Dani was still behind. He has been unlucky on the wet patches."
Did they touch? Checking the onboard video of Marc Márquez, looking back at Pedrosa and Zarco, it is clear that Zarco forces his Yamaha into a very narrow slot. But Pedrosa senses that Zarco is there, and picks up his bike to avoid a collision. The pair run wide, and Pedrosa gets out onto the worst part of the track, where he suddenly loses the rear. There is no obvious contact, though Zarco did not leave Pedrosa too many options. It was a hard move by Zarco, but one that falls within the frame of a racing pass. If track conditions had been a little better, or if Pedrosa had slowed up and turned the bike a little slower, then he probably would not have fallen.
If anything, Pedrosa was the victim of track conditions, of racing on a track with damp patches making grip unpredictable. Turn 13 is a favorite passing spot, but Zarco was forceful in his attempt in sketchy conditions. It was a racing incident, though with Zarco's reputation for making passes that others would shy away from, it did not reflect well on him.
What did reflect well was Zarco's result. Taking second in Argentina made it three podiums in four races for the Monster Tech3 Yamaha rider. And after leading for much of the season opener at Qatar, Zarco is looking very much like being a serious championship contender this year. He may not yet have a win in MotoGP, but on the evidence so far, it is only a matter of time.
Alex Rins, rising star
The same can be said for Alex Rins. The Spaniard got lost in his rookie year on the Ecstar Suzuki, losing a lot of track time to injury, and held back by Suzuki choosing the wrong engine for the season, rendering the bike uncompetitive. They have fixed that for 2018, as the results of Rins and teammate Andrea Iannone during testing have so amply demonstrated.
He had learned a lot in the race at Phillip Island last year, Rins told me in an interview conducted in February. He had put those lessons into practice throughout preseason testing, and also in the first race of the year at Qatar, until he crashed out. He had harried Jack Miller for much of the race, taking over the lead for a lap and a half before running wide and giving it up again.
Spending time behind Miller had been another step on his path through MotoGP. "From the beginning I stayed calm," Rins told the press conference. "I was behind Jack mostly all race. When he was first I was second and I was thinking if I overtake him maybe I can open a small gap because I was going really easy behind him. I was trying to overtake three or four times, but the track conditions was very bad, a lot of patches out of the line. When I was first in the middle of the race I did a small mistake and I think, stay calm, go with them fight for podium, for the victory."
How close was Rins to getting his first victory in MotoGP? "We are working really hard this preseason. We improve a lot. Also my experience is higher than last year. I suffer a lot last year with the injuries and everything, but I’m quite happy because we are working on the good way. The victory I don’t know when will arrive, but sure we are close." It is only a matter of time before Rins gets his first win. And if Spanish sports daily AS.com is to believed, only a matter of days before his new contract with Suzuki is announced.
There were plenty of other noteworthy performances in Argentina. Tito Rabat consolidated an outstanding qualifying to take seventh place on the Reale Avintia Ducati. Rabat has been reborn since jumping off the Honda RC213V and onto the Desmosedici GP17. The Spaniard had appeared to sink like a stone once he entered MotoGP, and faced a lot of criticism from the fans for that. On a different bike, one which he feels is much easier to ride, he is a much more competitive proposition.
Johann Zarco's Tech3 teammate Hafizh Syahrin also deserves praise. As a late replacement for Jonas Folger, he missed half of preseason testing. He also missed having the winter break to adjust his physical training to adapt to the demands of riding a MotoGP bike, an underrated aspect of the sport. Syahrin, too, has been viewed with scorn by some fans, and seen as undeserving of a MotoGP ride.
In Argentina, he proved his worth on the Monster Tech Yamaha M1. The Malaysian rider held his own at the Termas De Rio Hondo circuit, crossing the finish line in ninth, in the group with Andrea Dovizioso, Andrea Iannone, and Tito Rabat, 24 seconds behind the winner. Hervé Poncharal promised that any rider he signed to replace Folger would have "a great adventure," and so it is turning out for Syahrin. He is a worthy addition to the grid.
Vierge and Bezzecchi
Two other riders worth pointing out after the racing on Sunday. Mattia Pasini took a brilliant win in what was an outstanding Moto2 race – the class has been resuscitated and revitalized before the switch to Triumph engines next year – but it was Xavi Vierge who was the star of the show. We already know just how good Pasini is, but with the camera on him all race long, Vierge put on a show. After taking pole on Saturday, he battled all race long with Pasini and Miguel Oliveira, just losing out in the end.
But Vierge looked good, even as he came second. The Spaniard was sliding his Dynavolt Intact Kalex through Termas' long corners, yet managing his pace all the way to the end. His body position and riding style looked ripe for MotoGP, the head forward and low, the body well off the bike, an echo of Marc Márquez or Johann Zarco. If Vierge had not left the Tech3 Moto2 team at the end of last season, he would have been in MotoGP already, taking the bike left vacant by Jonas Folger. If he continues like this, someone is sure to give him a chance in MotoGP for 2019.
In Moto3, it was Marco Bezzecchi's chance to shine. The Italian made a break at the start of a wet race, and never looked back. He had a gap of over 4 seconds after four laps, and the chasing pack never came close. Bezzecchi had shown real promise on the CIP Mahindra last year, managing a podium at Motegi. On a competitive KTM, the Italian has lived up to expectations, and exceeded them.
Bezzecchi is the latest in a long line of talent coming out of Valentino Rossi's VR46 Riders Academy. For a long time, it looked as if MotoGP would be dominated by Spanish riders for decades to come, but the VR46 Academy is rapidly putting a stop to that. The bulk of the talent in Moto3 is Italian, products of Rossi's school. VR46 Academy riders play a prominent role in Moto2, and with Franco Morbidelli in MotoGP, they are moving in to the premier class. If it carries on like this, fans will be bemoaning the Italian domination of Grand Prix racing, rather than the Spanish hegemony.
Not done yet
Tomorrow, I will deal with Marc Márquez, and the fallout of a ride that was both terrifyingly fast and reckless. There is much to be said about the pace Márquez had and what that says about his riding, and the effect of the result on the championship. But for now, sleep deprivation over an exhilarating and exhausting weekend is getting the better of me. More, much more, tomorrow.
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