Motegi was the stage for a parade of the walking wounded on Thursday. The first question to half of the riders in the press conference was, "How's the injury?" The answers mattered quite a lot, given that Jorge Lorenzo is engaged in a battle to the wire with Valentino Rossi for the 2015 MotoGP crown, Marc Márquez has proved to be capable of being the joker in the podium pack, and Andrea Iannone is the dark horse always looking to disrupt proceedings at the front. If any of those three are severely hampered by their injuries, it could have a major impact on the outcome of the championship.
There is, of course, one minor problem with asking riders how their injuries are, and how much trouble they are causing: you never know just how close to the truth the answer they gave you actually is. This is not necessarily because they are trying to deceive you, but as Valentino Rossi himself pointed out, often, a rider does not know just how much trouble an injury will cause until they actually get on a bike and ride. "For me, I think it's impossible to know," he replied, when asked if he thought Lorenzo might be hampered by his injury at Motegi. "But also because I think Jorge don't know. He has to wait to see the feeling when he rides the bike tomorrow morning, because the shoulder is always difficult. It can be a big pain, but it depends in normal life for for riding a motorcycle. Sometimes you have pain when you make some easy things, but you go on the motorcycle and you have less problems." He also pointed out that Lorenzo has had much worse, having raced at Assen in 2013 just a day after having his broken collarbone plated.
And so the most crucial part of the season begins. Although you could justifiably make the argument that every race is equally important, the three flyaways to the Pacific rim often punch well above their weight in terms of determining the outcome of the championships. If riders haven't all but wrapped up the title before heading East for the triple header at Motegi, Phillip Island and Sepang, then events can throw a real spanner in the works of a title fight. These are three grueling weeks of racing under any circumstances; throw in the pressure of a championship battle and mistakes are easily made.
The first challenge the riders face is the sheer amount of travel it takes to get from one race to the next. First, they must spend at least 18 hours on planes and at airports traveling from Europe to Tokyo. They face a further two hour drive to get to Motegi, and unless they are well-paid enough to be staying at the circuit hotel, will have a 50-minute commute into the circuit every day ahead of the race. On Sunday night or Monday morning, they return to Tokyo for another 10-hour flight (or longer, if they can't fly direct) to Melbourne, and a drive down to Phillip Island. A week later, another flight to Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia, this time an 8-hour flight. After the Sepang round, they finally get to head home, another 17+ hour return flight back to Europe, and a week to rest up ahead of the final round of the season at Valencia. They travel from a wet and humid Motegi, to the chill of Phillip Island's early spring, to the sweltering tropical heat of Sepang.
Motorcycle racers are hyperactive at the best of times, so getting them to sit still for the best part of a day is not easy. The Japanese manufacturers – a group including Bridgestone, also based in Japan – want to take full advantage of the presence of their top riders in Asia, and so they get taken on whirlwind tours of factories, headquarters, and as a bonus, a trip to key markets such as Indonesia or Thailand. For riders such as Cal Crutchlow and Nicky Hayden, used to spending upwards of 3 hours on a bicycle every day, their training routine is destroyed. Those who prefer training on a motorcycle, such as Valentino Rossi or Marc Márquez, do not fare any better. They might get some time in a gym, but suffering massive jet lag, in a confusing environment where they can understand very little of the language, and surrounded by strange food, it is much more difficult to maintain focus. In a sport where attention to detail has become ever more important, the smallest mistake can be ruinous. It is no wonder that titles can go astray overseas.
The move to a standard electronics package, both hardware and software, had raised the hopes of fans, teams and organizers that a more level playing field could be established, and costs cut. The ideal sketched by Dorna and IRTA when the plan first came out has proven to be impossible to achieve. The manufacturers have resisted calls for a completely spec hardware and software package, and so a compromise has been reached. The ECU hardware and software will be built, updated and managed by official electronics supplier to MotoGP, Magneti Marelli. Factories will be free to choose their own sensors, but those sensors will have to be homologated, and made available to any other manufacturer which wishes to use it at a reasonable price.
Not quite all of the sensors, however. In response to a request by the factories, the inertial platform will remain what is called a free device, i.e. any manufacturer can choose to use whichever inertial platform they like, without first submitting it for a approval to Dorna, or making it available to their rivals at a price. The inertial platform is a crucial part of the electronics package, consisting of a collection of gyroscopes and accelerometers, which describe the attitude and motion of the bike. In other words, the inertial platform tells the ECU what lean angle the bike is at, whether it is braking or accelerating, how hard it is corner, etc.
Giving manufacturers the freedom to use their own inertial platforms has created a lot of suspicion. Because the inertial platform plays such a pivotal role, there have been accusations that some manufacturers, especially Honda and Yamaha, wish to use their proprietary units to circumvent the rules. There are good reasons to build some intelligence into inertial platforms, as such intelligence can increase accuracy, and therefore help the ECU software perform better. This is the reason the factories give for wanting their own inertial platform; experience with the spec unit used by the Open class machines has shown it to be insufficiently accurate.
But the intelligence built in to the inertial platform could go well beyond just improving accuracy. By including a powerful processor in the inertial platform, one which could be programmed by a manufacturer with their own software, and their own algorithms and strategies, the inertial platform could hypothetically be used to modify the strategies being used by the unified software in the spec ECU.
Aragon was a busy time for the riders and managers in all three Grand Prix classes. Wrapping up contract negotiations before the circus heads east for the Pacific Ocean flyaways was high on the list of priorities, though not everything ended up getting sorted before the teams packed up at Aragon. Plenty of agreements were reached, however, as we shall see below.
Though most of the loose ends have been tied up in MotoGP, a few question marks remain. The Aspar team was one of those question marks, which came much closer to a conclusion at Aragon. The original plan was to have Jack Miller join the team, bringing his crew with him, and covering most of the cost of riding, but various obstacles prevented that from happening. Money was a major factor, in part the amount Aspar were willing to pay to have Miller in their team, but perhaps a bigger factor was being left with Hondas.
The Open class Hondas have both been a huge disappointment for all of the teams which have run them. The 2014 RCV1000R was massively underpowered, and was getting blown away by the factory bikes along the straight. To remedy that situation, Honda offered the RC213V-RS, a cheaper version of the factory RC213V, but without the seamless transmission and using the spec electronics. That bike has also not been competitive, perhaps in part because it is a stripped down version of the original. "This bike was designed to use a seamless gearbox," Nicky Hayden explained last weekend. "You can't get the best out of it without one."
While the world of motorcycle racing is still buzzing with the outcome of the MotoGP race at Aragon, it is easy to overlook a couple of exciting and important races in the Moto2 and Moto3 classes. In both cases, the championship leaders came to Aragon with the chance to put one hand on the title, and in both cases, they leave Europe empty handed, having failed to capitalize on the opportunities which presented themselves. The races also provided a couple of extremely deserving winners capping great battles in both classes.
The Moto3 race turned out to be the thriller everyone expected. A modest (by Moto3 standards) group made the break, Miguel Oliveira taking the initiative and the lead. He was joined naturally enough by the two rivals for the title, Enea Bastianini trying to push forward as much as possible, Danny Kent keeping a wary eye on Bastianini. Brad Binder tagged along at the back, while a strong start from Romano Fenati took him from his usual poor qualifying position to the fight at the front. Efren Vazquez was in the fray, as were Niccolo Antonelli and Jorge Navarro, both looking very strong. Jorge Martin impressed in the group, putting the Mahindra right in among the leaders.
2015 Aragon Sunday Round Up, Part 1 - Of Deceptive Speed, Unforced Errors And A Championship Reopened
Just when it looked like the three Grand Prix championships were getting closed to being wrapped up, along came Aragon. The three races at the last European round before the Pacific flyaways left the title chase still open in all three classes. The outcome in both Moto2 and Moto3 still looks pretty much inevitable, but a win by Jorge Lorenzo in MotoGP meant that the battle for supremacy between the Spaniard and Valentino Rossi is anything but over. The Moto2 and Moto3 crowns may end up being handed out at Motegi, Phillip Island or Sepang, but the championship fight for MotoGP will most likely go all the way to the last race in Valencia. That may be hard on the fans of the two riders involved, but for MotoGP as a series, it is great. The pressure and the tension go up with every race, and makes watching an ever greater joy.
Jorge Lorenzo's victory at Aragon was taken exactly as he has taken his previous five wins: the Movistar Yamaha rider got the jump off the line, led in to the first corner, and tried to make a break. The timesheets bear witness to just how hard he was pushing. Breaking it down into the four timed sectors which go to make each lap, Lorenzo set his fastest split times in the third and fourth sectors on his first lap, and followed that up with his fastest splits in the first and second sectors at the beginning of lap two.
If his intention was to intimidate the opposition – and clearly it was – then it worked. Marc Márquez, who had got caught up off the line behind Andrea Iannone, stuffed his Honda RC213V past the Italian's Ducati into Turn 7 on the first lap, then pushed to close the gap to Lorenzo on the second lap. He caught the Yamaha as they powered through the long left hander which comprises Turns 10 and 11. Trying to make up ground he pushed a little too hard, losing the front on the way into Turn 12. The only man who had looked like he had the pace to match, and perhaps even beat Lorenzo at Aragon, had taken himself out of contention. Now Lorenzo was left to ride, and to reign, unopposed.
The last two races have followed a familiar pattern. On Friday and Saturday, Jorge Lorenzo has laid down a scorching pace, which his rivals – and more importantly, his teammate and rival for the 2015 MotoGP title, Valentino Rossi – have been unable to follow. Lorenzo's name was penciled onto the winner's trophy, and his grip on the MotoGP class looked secure.
Then on Sunday, everything changed. The weather gods intervened, rain lashed down at Silverstone, then started and stopped at Misano, throwing the race into disarray. Both times, Valentino Rossi handled the conditions better than Lorenzo, gaining big points in both races. At Silverstone, Rossi won comfortably, while Jorge Lorenzo struggled home in fourth. At Misano, Rossi rode a tactically poor race, but still managed to come home in fifth. Lorenzo got caught out by the pace of Scott Redding, failing to understand that the Marc VDS rider had already been out for several laps and had his tires up to temperature and his brain up to speed. The Movistar Yamaha rider tried to stay with Redding, and paid the price when he turned left after a long series of rights, crashing out and scoring zero points.
What's the value of testing? Judging by Jorge Lorenzo's time on Friday – a second under the race lap record, and three tenths off the outright lap record – you would have to say that it's good at least for a day's worth of practice. The Movistar Yamahas came to the Motorland Aragon circuit having tested here twice, once after Barcelona, once before Misano. The test in September allowed them to find a strong set up for this weekend, one which works well, as Lorenzo's blistering lap time in the afternoon showed so clearly.
Though Lorenzo set his time, as Valentino Rossi put it, in "a real time attack, 100%," it was one lap in a series of four, three of which were quicker than anyone else. It was perhaps not so much an early attempt at a qualifying lap as it was simulating the start of the race. The partial sectors on Lorenzo's out lap bear that out. His time through sector 2 was relatively slow, seven tenths of a second of Rossi's fastest time through the same sector, but in sector 3, he was just a tenth off Rossi's best pace, and in the final sector, Lorenzo was faster than Rossi's quickest time through that part of the track.
Was Lorenzo going all out while Rossi sandbagged? Racing is never quite as simple as that. Lorenzo seems to have been practicing the first few laps, his strategy being to gap the field from the start and make his escape. Given that this is exactly how Lorenzo won all five of the races he took victory in this year, that should hardly be a secret. Valentino Rossi, meanwhile, was probably working on his race pace, doing slightly longer stints than his teammate, five-lap runs rather than four lappers.
2015 Aragon MotoGP Thursday Round Up: Being Fastest vs Finishing First, And Advice For Young Riders From A Moto2 Champ
When different riders agree on a subject, it is worth listening. Summing up the 2015 championship, both Marc Márquez and Andrea Dovizioso independently came to the same conclusion. When asked in the press conference who was stronger, Valentino Rossi or Jorge Lorenzo, Marc Márquez explained that it wasn't as simple as that. "It's difficult to say," Márquez said. "If you ask me, I would say Jorge is faster because his speed is really good. On the other side, Valentino is doing his 100% and he always finishes in front these last two races."
Earlier in the day, Ducati's Andrea Dovizioso had been asked if he could become one of the wild cards which could help decide the championship. "In a normal situation, it's quite difficult. But not impossible," Dovizioso replied. But the championship was far from decided, Dovizioso went on to add. "I think that the points gap between Valentino and Lorenzo is quite big now, and Valentino is really good at managing the points. But I think Lorenzo has the speed to fight and to gain the points. Still there a lot of races left. I think he has the speed and is strong enough thinking about himself to try to win the race, and anything can happen."
From the coast to the high plains. From the hubbub of a string of seaside resorts along the Adriatic Riviera to the vast unspoiled mountains and hills of Baja Aragon. From the green and fertile Po basin to the arid olive groves and vineyards of the Maestrazgo. Contrasts don't get much greater than between Misano in Italy and Motorland Aragon in Spain.
The tracks, too, are very different. Misano is fairly slow, with a lot of tight first gear corners. Aragon is much faster, with some tighter sections, but a couple of seriously fast and flowing corners. Misano is pretty much flat as a pancake, where Aragon has its own version of Laguna Seca's Corkscrew, though not quite so precipitous, and a long, fast downhill back straight leading to a long double-apex left hander and a climb uphill to the finish.
The scenery may change, but the storyline in MotoGP remains the same. The championship remains a head-to-head battle between the Movistar Yamaha men, much as it has been since Le Mans. After Misano, the ball is very much back in Valentino Rossi's court, having extended his lead over Jorge Lorenzo to 23 points. He will need that cushion, as the championship now arrives at Aragon, a circuit where Lorenzo arrives as clear favorite, having had some strong results here in the past. Rossi, meanwhile, is at one of his worst tracks, Aragon being one of just two tracks where the Italian has never won, Austin being the other.