Many years ago, when American riders first burst onto the roadracing scene, and immediately dominated Grand Prix racing, dirt track racing was seen as a key part of their success. Training on the hardpacked dirt, where pushrod twins have far more power than they can ever transfer directly into drive, translated very well into racing 500cc two strokes, which had the same excess of power over grip. As tire technology advanced, and as the number of racers coming out of the US to race on the world stage declined, dirt track fell out of favor.
When the rules limiting the number of engines each MotoGP rider is allowed to use were first introduced, their usage was followed hawkishly. After pressure from veteran US journalist Dennis Noyes and myself, and with the assistance of Dorna's incredibly efficient media officer, IRTA and Dorna were persuaded to publish the engine usage charts. These were pored over constantly, searching for clues as to who might be in trouble, who may have to start from pit lane, and who would manage until the end of the season.
How the world has changed since then. Since 2010, the first full year of its application, engine allocations have been cut from six engines a season to just five, but despite that, the manufacturers are getting better and better at building incredible reliability into high horsepower engines. All eight Factory Option Honda and Yamaha riders completed around 9,000 km in 2014, using just 5 engines in the process. In the case of Bradley Smith, he raced for 9416 kilometers using just four engines, an average of 2354 km per engine.
The introduction of the engine reliability rules may have pushed the costs up at first, as factories rushed to modify their engines to suit the new regulations, it has worked well since then to help cut costs. No longer are engines crated up after every race to be flown back to Japan, there to be stripped, measured, tested and rebuilt, then flown back to Europe again ready for the next MotoGP round. Perhaps more importantly, the factories have made real technological progress in the field, Shuhei Nakamoto, Kouichi Tsuji and ex-Ducati Corse boss Filippo Preziosi frequently praising the rule for the advances they have made. It is exactly the kind of technology which will find its way into road going motorcycles, allowing more power to be extracted while retaining reliability. There is good reason to believe that the latest generation of big horsepower road bikes have been made possible thanks to advances in materials and lubrication technology which have made it possible to produce that power without sacrificing reliability.
"This year's machine is not easy to ride," HRC boss Shuhei Nakamoto said of the 2014 Honda RC213V. "More difficult than last year." Given the utter dominance of Marc Marquez in the first half of 2014, that seems hard to believe. It certainly left the journalists gathered for the special press conference convened by Honda to review the season befuddled. "But Honda bikes are always easy to ride!" declared one surprised reporter. "Our bike is very easy, I can ride it, but I don't get under two minutes," Nakamoto said.
It is a good job the post-race test at Valencia is three days long. The weather in Valencia in November is usually very good, but it can turn, and you can lose track time to rain. That was certainly the case on Tuesday, rain starting early in the morning, and coming in waves all day. It meant the track was wet throughout Tuesday, only the depth of water on the track varying. The heavy rain meant that most rider decided to sit out the day, only ten riders putting in any laps.
Despite being exhausted from a full weekend (make that a complete season) of racing, the entire MotoGP grid was once again out in force on Monday, turning the first laps of the 2015 preseason (full times here). All except Nicky Hayden, that is, as Honda have brought only one RC213V-RS to Valencia, and there was no point for Hayden to spend more time on the RCV1000R, as that bike will be replaced by the new RS for next season. Hayden gets his turn on the bike tomorrow, weather permitting.
There was both old and new on display at the test, some things virtually unchanged, others radically different. New riders joined the grid, as well as two new factories, and a reshuffling of riders and crew between the garages.
The biggest change was at Suzuki, which saw Aleix Espargaro move from the Forward Yamaha team into the new Suzuki squad, where he was joined by Maverick Viñales, fresh from Moto2. Both riders were very impressed with the GSX-RR, praising its handling and the bike. "It was much better than I expected," Aleix told us. The chassis was "fantastic" he said, allowing him to lap within nine tenths of his qualifying lap on Saturday. The bike was very easy to turn, and he could carry a lot more corner speed as the bike was more compact, allowing him to hang off the bike more.
It was a fitting finale to one of the best season in years. The arrival of Marc Marquez in MotoGP has given the series in a boost in the arm. Not just in the premier class, the influence of Marquez reaches into Moto2 and Moto3 as well. Tito Rabat's move to the Marc VDS team completed his transformation from a fast rider to a champion, but the schooling and support he received from the Marquez brothers at their dirt track oval in Rufea made him even stronger. And Marc's younger brother Alex brought both talent and Maturity to Moto3.
It has been four-and-a-half years, or 87 races between Valentino Rossi's 49th pole position and his 50th. The last time Rossi started a race from the first spot on the grid was at Le Mans in 2010, where he just pipped his teammate Jorge Lorenzo into second by 0.054 seconds. At Valencia on Saturday, he was two tenths faster than Lorenzo, but this time, he had Andrea Iannone and Dani Pedrosa between him and his teammate.
Valencia is always an incredibly busy weekend. The last race of the year means a chance to look back at the season which almost past, and the last chance before the winter break to present projects for next season in front of a large audience, or at least, a large press group. As a journalist, you can end up running around the paddock like a headless chicken, sprinting from event to event with no clear idea of what you are doing and with each new event wiping the memory of the last from your mind.
A selection of the events this weekend: A press conference organized by Dorna featuring the principals from the three factories in MotoGP, to look back over the season and review the future of the sport and how it is promoted (interesting, but long-winded). The presentation of Tech 3's new Tech 3 Classics project, which will see Tech 3 engineers restoring classic racing motorcycles for the general public (mercifully brief, but with some stunning old machinery on display). The presentation of the CIP Moto3 team for next year, with Remy Gardner, son of former 500cc world champion Wayne, to contest his first full Grand Prix season. A farewell to Colin Edwards, organized by the Forward Racing team. The introduction of the collaboration project between Monlau, Marc VDS Racing and Estrella Galicia which will see them racing in all three Grand Prix categories, the Spanish CEV championship and the Pre-GP class in Spain (revolutionary, poetic, and in three languages).
It is enough to make you forget about the fact that there are bikes out on track preparing for the last races of the season on Sunday. That is, after all, the actual raison d'etre of the Grand Prix paddock, and the reason we are gathered here in the first place. Even there, new projects were on track distracting the focus from Sunday, offering a glimpse of the bikes which will feature next year. Suzuki is at Valencia for a wildcard appearance, the first time the new GSX-RR has raced ahead of the factory's return to MotoGP. And Hiroshi Aoyama has been handed the Honda RC213V-RS, Honda's new Open class bike for 2015, much to the chagrin of Scott Redding, who is battling with Aoyama for the top Open Honda slot this season.
The last race of the season is always a little bit special. They are even more special when riders are still scrapping over the spoils, battling for titles, for positions, for honor. There is much at stake at Valencia: a Moto3 title, second place in the MotoGP and Moto2 championships, and the team championship in MotoGP. Above all, though, there is victory, the glory of joining the elite band of Grand Prix winners. At the end of the day, that is what motivates motorcycle racers most on any given Sunday.
What is the biggest problem in motorcycle racing today? Is it the predominant role electronics is playing, ruining the racing? Is it the ever more restrictive rules imposed, killing bike development and the spirit of Grand Prix racing? Is it the lack of competitive machinery, making it impossible for anyone but a factory rider to win a race? Or is it the dominance of the two top manufacturers, driving costs up and discouraging wider manufacturer participation?