If you think that silly season has been a bit quiet this year, you'd be right. Normally by now, we would have passed through the stage of outrageous fabrication, left the wildly inaccurate rumors behind us, and be well into probable rider signing scenarios. This year, the annual merry-go-round has barely registered, with very little sign of who may end up where for the 2016 season.
Of course, for the most part, this is because all of the factory seats bar the second slots at Aprilia and Ducati are already spoken for in 2016. Valentino Rossi, Jorge Lorenzo, Marc Márquez, Dani Pedrosa, Andrea Dovizioso, Aleix Espargaro, and Alvaro Bautista all have contracts for next year. Maverick Viñales' seat at Suzuki is safe through 2017. Of the currently active factory riders, only Andrea Iannone's contract could be ended after 2015, but Ducati will be keeping the Italian for 2016 as well. The only truly vacant seat is the one at Aprilia vacated by Marco Melandri, who never really wanted to be in MotoGP anyway.
With no factory seats available – or rather, with no truly desirable factory seats available – options to move up the MotoGP food chain are limited. Teams, too, are reluctant. 2016 sees the return of Michelin and the advent of spec software, making teams wary of changing too many variables at one time. Better to stick with the rider you know, whose data you already have and understand, and who has a solid relationship with the crew chief and team, rather than get a new rider in and spend a lot of time and effort trying to figure out whether problems are down to the rider or adapting the bike to the new technical regulations.
Nine races down, nine to go. The Sachsenring marks the mid-point of the season, and in all three Grand Prix classes the outlines of the championship are becoming clear. In Moto2 and Moto3, there is one rider who can dominate, winning often, taking a hefty points haul when he can't, and having luck work in their favor and against their opponents. In MotoGP, the title looks to be settled between the Movistar Yamaha teammates, with the Repsol Hondas playing a decisive role.
The three races in Germany all played out following the broader patterns of their respective championships. In the Moto3 race, Danny Kent steamrollered his way to victory, his teammate Efren Vazquez helping him to extend his lead in the championship to 66 points by taking second ahead of Enea Bastianini. In Moto2, Johann Zarco narrowly missed out on victory, the win going to Xavier Simeon. The Belgian plays no role in the championship, while Zarco's nearest rival Tito Rabat was taken out by Franco Morbidelli in the final corner. Rabat's crash means Zarco now leads Moto2 by 65 points. Both Kent and Zarco can start to pencil their names in for the respective championships, their leads starting to edge towards the unassailable.
In MotoGP, the title chase is still wide open, with both Valentino Rossi and Jorge Lorenzo easily capable of winning. The championship started strongly in Rossi's favor, then the momentum swung towards Lorenzo, before creeping back towards Rossi in the last two races. At Assen, Rossi put a big chunk of points between himself and his teammate. In Germany, the Repsol Honda men played more of a role in the championship than the two Yamaha riders, limiting Rossi's points gain to just three. He now sits thirteen points ahead of Lorenzo, with everything still to play for, and neither man capable of dealing a decisive blow.
2015 Sachsenring MotoGP Saturday Round Up: Why The Hondas Are Fast, And Who Can Stop Marquez Or Kent
Is the run of Yamaha domination about to come to an end? After winning seven out of eight races, the Yamaha YZR-M1 certainly looks like the best bike on the grid, so on paper, it should continue to crush the opposition beneath its wheels at the Sachsenring. After all, the strength of the Yamaha is its ability to carry corner speed and get drive out of corners, and the Sachsenring has barely a straight line in its 3.7 kilometers. Yet after two days of practice, it has been the Hondas which have ruled the roost in Germany. The bike which is supposed to have problems looks untouchable, with Marc Márquez looking untouchable, Dani Pedrosa the best of the rest, and both Scott Redding and Cal Crutchlow showing real promise.
Why is the Honda so fast at the Sachsenring? Two reasons. Firstly, the circuit only has a couple of the types of corners where the Honda has struggled. It is only in Turn 8 and Turn 12 where the riders are braking almost straight up and down, the rear stepping out and becoming difficult to control. "Where we have a problem here is only two corners," Marc Márquez said at the press conference. "The rest is just with the gas, and there we don't have the problem." Those other corners are where the Hondas are making up the time. And they are making up the time because the track lacks grip.
One of the enigmas which we in the media center have been struggling with is whether the Honda does better in cold weather or in hot weather. But after much discussion with a bunch of people who are much smarter than we are, we came to the conclusion that the temperature of the track is irrelevant. It is not whether it is hot or cold that matters to the Honda, but whether the track actually has any grip. On a good track with plenty of grip, the Yamahas can carry corner speed and use the excellent mechanical grip of the bike to their advantage, and make a break. If such a track then also has a lot of sharp corners, where the Honda riders are struggling to control the rear under braking, and get it to slide controllably, then the Yamaha simply walks away, as do the Ducatis, and perhaps even the underpowered Suzukis. All three of those bikes can exploit mechanical grip, to carry corner speed and get drive as the riders lift the bike up from the edge of the tire into the traction area, where it can dig in and push the bike forward.
2015 Sachsenring MotoGP Friday Round Up: Marquez Gets His Magic Back, Redding Learns That Relaxing Helps You Go Faster
It is a dangerous thing to write a rider off. We learned that with Valentino Rossi, the old man currently leading the championship after two terrible years at Ducati, one tough year at Yamaha and then the first sign of resurgence from the middle of 2014. Rossi adapted, learned, progressed, and came back stronger. After the first seven races of 2015, the wolf pack in the media center had written off Marc Márquez and HRC. The Honda RC213V was too aggressive an engine to be tamed by electronics, the chassis too stiff to contain the stampede of horsepower contained in the 90° V4. The bike span, wheelied, and worst of all, slid the rear wheel unpredictably when it touched down ready for braking into the corner. Márquez was trying, but perhaps a little too hard, riding every lap as if it was his one shot at pole, overloading the front tire to compensate for the lack of braking at the rear. Márquez was pushing his luck, and it kept running out during the race, the Repsol Honda man either finishing down the order, or ending up in the gravel once the front cried enough.
Márquez crashed out at Barcelona, but that crash did not tell the whole story. Márquez and his crew had made a step forward that allowed him to control the rear under braking a little better, taking the sharpest edge off the area where the Spaniard was suffering most. At Assen, they made another step forward, and for the first time this year, Márquez started to enjoy riding the bike again. He knew he could be competitive, making his disappointment at being beaten – and outsmarted – by Valentino Rossi all the greater. "The first target was to try to feel again that confidence with the bike," Márquez said after practice on Friday. "In Assen I did and I felt it well. Now the second target is win a race."
Two races ago, a bet against Márquez winning would have been a safe one to take. After two sessions of free practice at the Sachsenring, Márquez has once again assumed the mantle of favorite for victory. He was fastest in the morning with a consistent pace, but was downright intimidating in FP2. The gap may have been reduced from a third of a second to just a single tenth over the man in second place, but nobody has the pace of Márquez. The Repsol Honda rider hammered out nine laps of 1'21, more than all the other riders on the grid put together. His nearest rival in terms of consistency is his teammate, Dani Pedrosa, and Pedrosa could only string together three 1'21s.
"Honestly, I’m happy because it was a long time ago that I feel like this on the Friday," Márquez said. "In Assen I had that feeling with the bike but only in qualifying and on the race, but today from the beginning I feel good and this is important." The feeling was the same at Assen, the knowledge that he had better control over the bike. "I’m able to stop better the bike and I’m able to be more constant. The bike is less critical on the front. Then I’m able to be more constant in some laps. If I do some mistakes I can keep the line and this is important."
2015 Sachsenring MotoGP Thursday Round Up: A Plethora Of Tires, A Bullish Marquez, And The Dangers Of Suzuka
The Sachsenring treated us to its usual surprises on Thursday, with rain and squally winds blowing through the paddock in the morning, and the sun coming out as the day went on. Fortunately, the only people out on track were the riders doing reconnaissance laps on the scooters, and safety officers cutting fast laps during their usual pre-weekend track inspection. As an observer, it is hard to tell the difference between a circuit safety inspection and hooning round the track in one of the many high-end BMW sports cars which the German car maker provides to Dorna, but I'm sure that as ex-racers, both Loris Capirossi and Franco Uncini know what they are doing.
Weird weather has already had its effect on the tire allocation. Originally, Bridgestone had brought three specifications of front tire, the soft to deal with the cold mornings, the medium to deal with the warmer afternoons, and the asymmetric tire with soft rubber on the right and a compound closer to the medium on the left, to handle the wind gusting to cool the right side of the tire. But when Bridgestone's engineers turned up at the track a week ago, Saxony was in the middle of a heatwave, with air temperatures of 38° C or more. Bridgestone rushed a small compliment of their hard front tires in to the Sachsenring, just in case temperatures reached the high 30s again. It does not look like they will, but it looks like being a complicated weekend for the riders.
Will the asymmetric front tire prevent a lot of crashes on Friday? It should help, but it won't prevent them altogether. "We all know that Turn 11 is dangerous," Bradley Smith said of the blind and blisteringly fast right hander at the top of the hill, which has caught so many riders out in the past. "But we all see people forget in FP1, they have their wake up call, and then they don't crash again." One crash there is enough to remind everyone to treat the turn with the respect it deserves. "We know it's dangerous, but they crash in FP1 and then they don't for the rest of the weekend. That's not because the conditions suddenly get better, it's because they were more wary and showed it more respect. Maybe if they had a sign at the end of pit lane saying be wary at T11..."
2015 Sachsenring MotoGP Preview: How Great Last Corners Create Epic Battles, And Silly Season Starting
What makes for great racing? Many things, but great last corners really help. A great last corner, or sequence of corners, allows riders to attack the bike ahead of them, and take one final shot at victory. Even better is when the option to attack offered by the final corner comes with some risk attached: getting ahead is one thing, but staying ahead to the line is quite another.
MotoGP moves from one track with a last corner which guarantees spectacle to another. The final GT chicane at Assen produced fireworks with the clash between Valentino Rossi and Marc Márquez, and the last two corners at the Sachsenring offer similar opportunities. At Assen, the hard-braking right corner is followed by a quick flick left, giving the defending rider the chance to counterattack if he is passed.
At the Sachsenring, the long drop down the steep, steep hill provides the ideal platform to launch an attack from, diving up the inside on the brakes on the way into the penultimate left hander. That line comes at a price, though, as it forces the attacker to run wide on the exit. That opens allowing the defending rider to strike back up the inside on the approach to the final turn, the last left uphill towards the line. Even entering that corner ahead is no guarantee of the win: like Turn 12, Turn 13 offers two lines, inside and outside, both of which can be used to pass.
The only other place to pass at the Sachsenring is the first corner, at the end of the front straight. The rest of the track is so tightly coiled that the bikes are spending too much time on their sides to try to line up a pass. If you're lucky, you can try to figure something out through the section between turns 7, 8, and 9, but from that point on, your mind is focused just on one thing. The crest of the hill just after Turn 10 and then the lightning fast flick right at Turn 11 heading down the Waterfall, and towards the last two turns again.
It is hard to overstate just how important the relationship between a motorcycle racer and his crew chief is. A rider must have complete confidence that his crew chief both understands what he needs from a motorcycle to go fast, and is capable of giving it to him. A crew chief must be able to interpret the sometimes confusing and mixed signals from his rider, filter out the non-essential information, identify priorities from that which will offer the greatest gains, and assign the work to the rest of the crew in the garage. There has to be complete trust between the two, or neither rider nor bike will achieve their full potential.
This was made all too apparent when I interviewed Ecstar Suzuki rider Aleix Espargaro and his crew chief Tom O'Kane for a story I wrote recently for the Dutch publication MOTOR Magazine, due out later this month. One part of the interview which did not make it into the magazine was the relationship between Espargaro and O'Kane, and how they first started working together. However, it is a story which offers a fascinating insight into how a rider and their crew chief work together.
Aleix Espargaro explained how they first met. Suzuki had already arranged for Espargaro and O'Kane to meet at Aragon last year. Espargaro had been uncertain, as he had been asking Suzuki to allow him to bring his own crew chief with him. "Actually before when I started to talk with Suzuki in the middle of last year at the beginning I pushed to bring my crew chief with me, Matthew [Casey]. Because I had good feeling, three years working with him, so it was good for me."
That turned out not to be possible, but the change had worked out well. Espargaro was very happy with the change, he said. "Matthew is a very, very good crew chief but with Tom I discovered that I can work really, really good. Sometimes it’s not bad to change. With Tom, the feeling I have is fantastic. He’s very good. I met him in Aragon last year and we start to talk there. He was really quiet so I thought that it would be difficult to work because I’m completely different, but he’s the opposite. He’s helping me a lot."
At Assen, Dorna, the FIM and IRTA held a joint press conference announcing their plans for the future of the championship. From 2017, they told the media, the MotoGP teams would receive 30% more money from Dorna, factories would have to make bikes available to satellite teams, all 24 riders will receive financial support from the organizers, and Dorna retain the right to buy the grid slots of the two riders who finish last in the championship.
For MotoMatters.com readers, this is nothing new. We reported on this back in May, after the Jerez round of MotoGP. Only a few details have changed in the intervening period, but those changes are worthy of comment. And it is important to note that the new regime starts from 2017, with 2016 being a transitional year. So what will the future of MotoGP look like? Here's an overview.
For next year, the existing system will continue as it is, with teams receiving free tires from the official tire supplier – Michelin, as of 2016 – and an allowance to cover travel costs. Dorna will support 22 riders for next season, meaning that three riders will not receive any support. Which three those are will be decided by IRTA, on the basis of the results of each rider during 2015. The three riders currently out of the top 22 are Karel Abraham, Alex De Angelis and, rather surprisingly, Marco Melandri. Abraham is struggling with a foot injury, but there have been rumors that the Czech-based team is looking at a switch to World Superbikes for 2016.
De Angelis losing his slot would also not come as a surprise. Though they entered the championship with high hopes, Giampiero Sacchi's IODA Racing team have struggled in MotoGP, unable to field a competitive motorcycle. Withdrawing from MotoGP would be a blow, but would allow them to focus more on their Moto2 effort.
Marco Melandri's position is much more troubling. Although the Gresini Aprilia team is a factory effort, the subsidy from Dorna is very welcome. At the moment, Melandri and Aprilia are at loggerheads over the future. Neither one wishes to continue for the rest of the season, but Melandri will not leave without being paid, and Aprilia are disinclined to pay for such a gross underperformance. If this continues, however, it may be worth their while to pay for Melandri to leave. The Italian is rumored to be on a salary well north of €1 million a season, and he is keen to see that money. The amount of money Gresini Aprilia would be missing out on for 2016 if Melandri (or his replacement) is around €1.5 million, so it may prove to be more costly to keep Melandri at 25th in the rider ranking than to replace him with someone capable of finishing nearer to his teammate, Alvaro Bautista, and ahead of a few other riders.
You would think with the deluge of words which has washed over the incident between Marc Márquez and Valentino Rossi in the last corner (and to which I contributed more than my fair share, I must confess) that there were only two riders and one race at Assen on Saturday. Beyond the clash at the GT chicane, there was much more to talk about after Holland.
Whatever the immediate aftermath of the clash between Márquez and Rossi, the longer term implications of the result have made the championship even more interesting. Márquez' decision to switch back to the 2014 chassis for his Repsol Honda RC213V has been proven to be the correct one. Though the engine is still as aggressive as ever, the old chassis in combination with the new swingarm and new forks tested at Le Mans has made the bike much more manageable. Márquez can now slide the rear on corner entry in a much more controlled way than before, taking away the behavior the reigning champion has struggled with most. The Spaniard showed he could be competitive from the start of the race to the end, instead of crashing out as the tires started to go off.
The bike is still a long way from cured, however. Márquez switched to the medium front tire rather than the soft, the only rider to do so. The medium provides a bit more support under braking, compensating for the reduced braking from the rear wheel. That support comes at the cost of extra grip provided by the softer front. Whether Márquez will be able to employ that same strategy for the rest of the season remains to be seen. For a start, Assen is not a very typical track, featuring a lot more flowing corners than usual. At circuits with more corners needing hard braking, the challenge will be greater. The next race is at the Sachsenring, where asymmetric front tires will be on offer. How the Honda deals with that will be interesting.
A more competitive Márquez will certainly liven the championship up. After Lorenzo swept the previous four races, a Rossi comeback gave him back the advantage in the championship. Without Márquez, Rossi would only have extended his lead by five more points, but the Repsol Honda man put himself between the two Movistar Yamaha teammates, meaning that Lorenzo's deficit grew to ten points. With ten races to go, the championship is still wide open, though realistically, it is only between Rossi and Lorenzo. But the influence of a rider who is consistently capable of inserting himself between the two Yamahas could end up having a major effect on the championship.
Great final corners make history, every track should have one. A chicane, or a wide, tight final turn which allows riders to attempt a desperate last-gasp plunge up the inside, or for the exceptionally brave, round the outside, for the win. The truly great corners have just enough options after the turn for the attacking rider to make a mistake and let the rider he just passed retake the lead.
Assen has such a final corner. And not just a great final corner, but also a great sequence of corners which lead up to it, allowing riders to both plan ahead and to react to the unexpected. On Saturday, Assen's GT Chicane, and the complex from De Bult all the way to the exit of Ramshoek, delivered spectacular and exhilarating racing. It also delivered a moment which will go down in the annals of MotoGP history, and be debated for years to come. It might even prove to be the decisive moment in the 2015 championship.
The names of the protagonists should come as no surprise: Valentino Rossi led into the final corner, with Marc Márquez in hot pursuit. What happened next depends on whose version of events you wish to believe, as the participants differ in their perceptions. Rossi says he turned in to the first part of the chicane in front, got bumped wide by Márquez, and had no choice but to gas it across the gravel to avoid crashing. Márquez says he had the inside line in the corner, Rossi cut him off, then cut the corner on purpose to take the win. Which version is the truth? We'll come to that later, but to understand what happened we have to go back to the beginning of the race.