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.
Jeremy Burgess was famous for finding that special something on Sunday morning that gave Valentino Rossi the edge in the race in the afternoon. It is a tradition carried on by Silvano Galbusera, who has replaced Burgess since the start of the 2014 season. Galbusera, too, always seems to find that extra little tweak during warm up that makes the difference between cruising in fourth or finishing on the podium, and even on the top step. The fact that it has continued since Burgess' departure suggests that the tweaks were very much a collaborative effort, with input coming from his data engineers and mechanics, as well as the rider himself, of course.
Two weeks ago in Barcelona, Rossi's team appeared to have found something extra special. For it did not just work on the Sunday in Catalonia, taking Rossi from the third row all the way up to 2nd, but it has even carried through to Assen, some 1600km further north. Rossi was quick from the moment he rolled out of pit lane for the first time at Assen, and has been at or near the top of the timesheets ever since. In this form, Rossi may well have expected to have been on the front row, but he went better than that. Putting in one of the best laps of his recent career with a couple of minutes to go, he simply hammered the opposition. As a sign of just how dominant he was at Assen, he led the second fastest man, Aleix Espargaro, by nearly a quarter of a second. The next quarter of a second difference covers second place to eleventh, from Aleix Espargaro to Danilo Petrucci. It is incredibly close at Assen, except at the front. One man reigns supreme.
If the Honda is so bad, why are two RC213Vs at the top of the timesheets? That seems like a very valid question, given the public struggles which all of the Honda riders have had with the bike this year. Has the 2014 chassis finally fixed the Honda's ailments? Is Márquez back?
If only it were that simple. Firstly, of course, Marc Márquez never went away. The double world champion still possesses a gargantuan talent, and the desire and will to use it. He was hampered by many aspects of the 2015 bike, including both the engine and the chassis. The 2015 chassis, he explained at Assen, was more precise and could be used more accurately. Unfortunately, the only way to get the best out of it was to ride it like every lap was a qualifying lap. That level of intensity is just not sustainable over race distance. At some point, you will make a mistake, and the 2015 chassis punishes mistakes mercilessly. So HRC have reverted to a hybrid version, using a 2014 chassis and the new swingarm which Márquez first tested at Le Mans. That works better for Márquez: he has been forced to sacrifice some precision, but at least now he has a chance to recover from mistakes.
Assen is a funny old track. And when I say old, I mean old, the event has been on the calendar since 1925, though there was no such thing as world championship, and the race took place between Rolde, Borger and Schoonloo, some ten kilometers east of Assen. From 1926, it moved to a route between the villages of De Haar, Oude Tol, Hooghalen, Laaghalen and Laaghalerveen. The roads, forced into short straights with fast sweeping kinks and bends by the complex drainage patterns of the creeks and ditches which keep the region from reverting back to peat bogs, gave shape to the track which was to follow. They still leave their mark on the circuit today, despite being a closed circuit since 1955, though the track has been much shortened since then.
What remains is a track with nary a straight piece of asphalt on it. The back straight meanders between the Strubben hairpin and the fast right and long left of the Ruskenhoek, living up to its name of Veenslang, or Peat Snake. The short stretches between the fast combinations of corners weave and flow, and the only thing keeping the front straight straight is the pit wall. As a piece of geometric design, it is a disaster. As a race track, it is glorious, proving that the best tracks are not designed on paper, but laid out in a landscape. Mugello, Phillip Island, Assen: all great riders track, each owing a debt of gratitude to the landscape which forms them.
All these fast, flowing bends where riders barely touch the brakes – comparatively, for a MotoGP race that is – reward a bike that can carry corner speed and change direction easily. A bike that rewards a steady hand and a smooth style. In other words, a rider like Jorge Lorenzo on a bike like a Yamaha YZR-M1. Lorenzo has been fearsome around Assen in the past, laying down a pace impossible for mere mortals to follow. Having won the last four races in a row, Lorenzo is in pretty terrifying form as well. "I am in the best shape of my life," Lorenzo told the press conference, joking that he had even beat his personal trainer on a mountain bike ride for the first time. The Yamaha is strong, and Lorenzo is strong. Who can beat him?
Frustration and resignation. Those were the two most prominent emotions at the post-race MotoGP test at Barcelona. Two sides of the same coin, in reality, as the weather robbed teams in desperate need of track time of any chance of doing the hard work which will make them all a bit more competitive. After an hour and a half of a dry track, a massive thunderstorm washed over the circuit, drenching the track and leaving it wet for the rest of the day. Dani Pedrosa was phlegmatic about the situation. " The weather is what it what is," he shrugged. "Obviously it would have been perfect for it to have stayed dry but we don't control that."
In the Tech 3 garage, Pol Espargaro, suffering badly through a slump in his form, did nothing to hide his frustration. "We tested two things, one of them was not good, one of them was good, we improve a little bit. Then the rain comes, it's impossible to make one fast lap time, impossible to make a rhythm, impossible to make anything. We are looking to go to Assen to continue, because it was a disaster today." It has been a tough year for the younger of the two Espargaro brothers, as he is struggling to ride the Yamaha, a bike which requires a radically different approach than his natural tendency, to move around, and be aggressive.
The rain was perhaps toughest on Marc Márquez. Márquez' biggest problem is on corner entry, where he cannot slide the rear controllably once it touches down during braking. The reigning world champion feels strongly that braking is where he has his biggest advantage, and the ability to either pass or make up time on his opponents. Take away that advantage and he feels shackled, fighting with one hand behind his back.
Barcelona was the place the champions emerged. In Moto3, Moto2 and MotoGP, riders laid a solid claim to the titles in their respective classes. Danny Kent rode with heart and head, and won the Moto3 race with a plan, extending his lead in the championship to 51 points. Johann Zarco pulled back a big gap and made the right move when it mattered most, extending his lead to 40 points. And Jorge Lorenzo and Valentino Rossi demolished all-comers to make it a Yamaha one-two, and to push their lead out to 43 and 44 points respectively, the Movistar Yamaha men separated by a single point between them. A lot can happen in the eleven races which remain, but the chances of the three titles not bearing the names of three of those four men are getting slimmer by the race. The fat lady is still a long way from starting to sing, but you get a sneaking suspicion that you just heard her taxi pull up at the artists' entrance.
While in Moto2 and Moto3, the title favorites have a name, in MotoGP we know only the team likely to lift the trophy in Valencia. To say that the factory Movistar Yamaha team dominated the MotoGP race in Barcelona is an understatement. While Valentino Rossi chased another metronomic performance from Jorge Lorenzo, behind them their rivals were either falling by the wayside or finishing nearly twenty seconds off the pace. Marc Márquez, Andrea Dovizioso and Aleix Espargaro crashed, Dani Pedrosa finished third just under twenty seconds behind the Yamahas, and Andrea Iannone was the first factory Ducati home, with a gap equating to a pace nearly a second a lap slower than that of the Yamahas. Jorge Lorenzo has won the last four races on the trot, Valentino Rossi has picked up two more, and not been off the podium so far this season, leaving only Austin to Marc Márquez. Even then, the Repsol Honda man won that race with a much smaller margin than usual at the track.
Jorge Lorenzo gave yet another demonstration of just how strong his riding is at the moment. The Spaniard grabbed the lead at the first corner – frustratingly so for Aleix Espargaro, who had got off the line well but started to suffer as the Suzuki changed up the gearbox, the lack of a seamless shift meaning he lost eight or nine places in the long run down to the first turn – and proceeded to make the break so many feared he would. Marc Márquez gave chase, but lasted less than three laps, the reigning champion throwing his title chances away at the La Caixa corner. Valentino Rossi rode brilliantly to work his way up to second from the third row of the grid, but left himself with too much work to do to catch Lorenzo. As the laps started ticking down, it looked like he might just manage that, but Lorenzo responded just enough to keep a healthy buffer between himself and his teammate. It wasn't an epic race by any stretch of the imagination, but there was tension and there was interest.
2015 Barcelona Saturday MotoGP Round Up: Suzuki's Triumph, Lorenzo's Pace, And Preventing Moto3 Towing Madness
1993. That was the last time there were two Suzukis in the first two positions on the grid. Then, it was Kevin Schwantz and Alex Barros who qualified first and second at Jerez. Now, twenty-two years and six weeks later, it is Aleix Espargaro and Maverick Viñales. Then, Suzuki were at the height of their competitiveness, before beginning their slow decline which went on until they withdrew at the end of the 2011 season. Now, Suzuki is back after a three-year absence, with a brand new prototype at the start of its development. Taking pole and second in just their seventh race is quite an achievement for Suzuki, and vindication of their choice to build an inline four, something they know all too well, rather than messing around with a V4, as they had done throughout the MotoGP era.
It is also a vindication for the team of people Suzuki chose to lead their return to MotoGP. Davide Brivio has proven to be a shrewd team manager, to nobody's surprise. Tom O'Kane, Aleix Espargaro's crew chief, has been instrumental in providing direction to the development of the bike. Aleix Espargaro and Maverick Viñales have lived up to their expectations, combining experience, attitude and a hunger for success.
Of course, there are no points for qualifying, and Suzuki's front row positions came at least in part with the artificial performance boost of the soft rear tire available to the Open teams and factories with concessions. But Espargaro and Viñales still had to put in the time, and they had to beat the Ducatis, who have the same concessions as they do. They deserve their position, was the near universal feeling among Suzuki's rivals.
2015 Barcelona Friday MotoGP Round Up: Fast Suzukis, The Deceptive Pace Of The Yamahas, And Tires And Electronics
What did we learn from Friday practice at Barcelona? We learned that things are not quite what they seem. Does the fact that the Repsol Honda riders are second and third overall mean that HRC's travails are behind it? Certainly not. Do the two Suzukis in the top five – and Aleix Espargaro setting the fastest overall time – mean Suzuki have found the horsepower to match the Honda and Ducati? Absolutely not. Will the Yamahas' lowly positions on the grid put them out of contention on Sunday? Leaving aside the fact that it's just the first day of practice, with another full day on Saturday, definitely, absolutely, certainly not.
Are all these assumptions completely baseless? That's where it gets interesting. In fact, there is a kernel of truth underlying them all. The Honda is improved, certainly, but racing is not practice. The Suzuki is definitely quicker, but it isn't horsepower which is putting the Suzukis where they are. And the Yamahas are clearly having a problem, but it is not a problem which will trouble them much in the race.
The headline times are deceptive, at least in the case of the Yamahas and Hondas. The fastest laps of Dani Pedrosa and Marc Márquez are impressive, but both times they were one-off laps set on very short runs in qualifying trim, rather than times set in long runs using a race set up. Perhaps spooked by his experience in Mugello, where a prolonged focus on electronics and race set up left him stranded in Q1, and then failed to get into Q2, Márquez ensured that he had a fast lap under his belt at the end of both free practice sessions. Pedrosa did much the same, working on race set up early, then pushing for a time at the end of both FP1 and FP2.
2015 Barcelona MotoGP Thursday Round Up - On The Merits Of A Good Base Set Up, A Wet Weekend, And Arm Pump
The difference between a successful race weekend and going home with empty hands is often made before the bikes have even turned a wheel on the track. "Base set up," that is the elusive goal which teams spend so long chasing during testing and practice. A good base set up will give you two full days to try to go faster, knowing that the worst case scenario is that your bike is only very good, rather than perfect. If the bike is competitive from the start, you can focus on winning, rather than trying to find something which works, and gambling on changes which you are not certain will be effective.
This, then, is the dilemma facing Jorge Lorenzo's rivals at Barcelona. Lorenzo has that base set up that makes him the man to beat from Friday morning. "In the last races, Jorge find always a good solution, good setting from the beginning," Valentino Rossi told the press conference. "He was able to concentrate more on improving his riding style and arrived for the race at the maximum. 100%. This is the way to do it." That is the dilemma facing Rossi and his Movistar Yamaha team. They often find themselves working hard all weekend and finding solutions to some of their problems on Sunday morning, but that leaves them with very little preparation time. Having that base set up is all important. " We hope this time to be more competitive from the beginning, or more closer," Rossi said. "It is not important that we are first, but it is important to have good pace and a good feeling with the bike."
From Mugello to Barcelona, or from the heart of Italian motorcycle racing to the heart of Spanish motorcycling. Or rather, Catalan motorcycling, as any of the many Catalans which fill the paddock will happily point out. Then again, Catalonia is – ironically – at the heart of Spanish motorcycling itself. If MotoGP had a home race, it would be here. Series organizer Dorna has its offices just south of Barcelona, and the working language of the organization is Catalan. Just east of the circuit lies the old factory of Derbi, once a mainstay of the 125cc class. Check the birthplaces of any one of the riders racing on a Spanish license, and most of them hail from one of the towns and villages within an hour or two's drive of the Montmeló circuit. Most riders still have a house in the area, though many elect to live in the tiny mountainous tax haven of Andorra, because of the opportunities it affords for training, so they tell us.
With so much support, can the Spaniards – or Catalans, or Mallorcans – lock out the podium at home? It would be a crowd pleaser for sure, but getting three Spanish riders to fill out the MotoGP podium at Barcelona will be far from easy. That there will be one, perhaps two Spaniards on the box is a given. But filling all three places? That is going to be tough.
Jorge Lorenzo comes to Barcelona as the man to beat, mainly because it has been impossible to do just that for the past three races. The Movistar Yamaha rider started the season with a run of poor luck and strange circumstances, but since Jerez, everything has gone perfectly for him. He and his team have worked smoothly every practice to set up a bike Lorenzo is capable of winning on, and delivered on that work on Sunday at Jerez, Le Mans and Mugello. He has led from start to finish, taking less than half a lap to dispose of the opposition. So dominant has he been that he is closing in on Casey Stoner's record of leading the most successive laps. If Lorenzo leads the first 11 laps at Barcelona, he will beat Casey Stoner's total of 88 laps, set in 2007. Given the outright superiority Stoner displayed that year, it would be a very ominous sign for the 2015 championship indeed. Lorenzo trails his teammate Valentino Rossi by just 6 points in the title chase. Rossi will have to work hard to take his lead into Assen.