A few notes on the first World Superbike race at Laguna Seca:
There are not many circuits in the world like the Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca. The Californian circuit offers a unique challenge in WorldSBK.
Led Zeppelin sang about Going to California and said, “I'll meet you up there where the path runs high. Standing on a hill in my mountain of dreams, telling myself it's not as hard, hard, hard as it seems.” Unfortunately for the riders in WorldSBK when you stand at the top of the mountain at Laguna Seca the challenge facing riders who dream of a win truly is as hard as it seems. This highly technical race track demands precision, consistency, imagination and above all else experience.
Coming across the line riders will take a variety of lines and gears that are defined by their bike setup. In WorldSBK gear ratios are fixed for the season and as a result we see a lot of variety at Laguna Seca. Some riders will be forced to use six gears, whereas others will use only five around the 3.6km track. With the track snaking it's way throughout the Monterey hills around a lake, it offers a little bit of everything.
Every race weekend, there are dozens of things I either miss, or don't have time to write about. Here's what I missed from the German Grand Prix at the Sachsenring:
About those chassis
Since the Barcelona test, the paddock has been awash with gossip about Yamaha chassis. Valentino Rossi was particularly enamored of one of the chassis tested at Barcelona, though his teammate Maverick Viñales appeared to be a lot less enthralled by it. At Assen and the Sachsenring, both riders had one each of the "new" chassis and one of the "old" chassis. (The new chassis is said to be a development of the chassis used last year – some even say last year's chassis – which was itself a slight revision of the 2015 chassis. The "old" chassis was a new chassis based on the chassis used last year, meant to save the rear tire, but sacrificing corner entry as a result.)
If the 2017 MotoGP season has been anything, it has been entirely unpredictable. After two races, we were declaring the season over, and penciling Maverick Viñales' name on the trophy. A race later, and we were conceding that Valentino Rossi had taken over the lead of the championship, and that meant that whoever won the title would be riding a Yamaha. After four races the top four were within ten points, and we gave up on there being a favorite, only to change our minds again after Le Mans, where Valentino Rossi crashed out trying to beat his teammate, and Viñales took a 17-point lead again.
After Mugello, when Andrea Dovizioso won his first dry MotoGP race, Viñales led by 26 points, and was ahead of reigning champion Marc Márquez by 37 points. We had our favorite once again. Three races and two changes in the championship lead later, and we have given up again. The top four are back within ten points of each other again, and making predictions is looking increasingly foolish.
There was one certainty we could cling to, and would not allow ourselves to let go: At the Sachsenring, Marc Márquez takes pole, and then goes on to win the race. It has happened the last seven years Márquez has raced at the Sachsenring, from 125s to Moto2 to MotoGP. Surely he would repeat that again? Surely, Marc Márquez would break the unpredictability of MotoGP in 2017?
There are few certainties in life. Death, sure, at some point all of us will die. Taxes, well try as you might (and the number of riders, teams, and managers based in tiny principalities and sovereign island nations known primarily for their tax codes is surprisingly large), the tax man always gets a cut, if not through direct taxation, then at the very least through indirect taxes based on sales. Oh, and Marc Márquez taking pole at the Sachsenring. That also seems to happen with a sense of inevitability.
For the past seven years, Marc Márquez has taken pole at the Sachsenring. He did it in the 125 class, in 2010. He did it in both his years in Moto2. And he has done it in MotoGP for the past four seasons, all of his time in the premier class. Bearing in mind Márquez is only 24 years of age, and took his first pole at the German circuit at the tender age of 17, that is a truly remarkable achievement.
But 2017 is different. The winds of change are blowing through MotoGP. Or perhaps it would be better to say that the winds of unpredictability are blowing, with already five different winners from eight races, as well as nine different riders with a podium finish. The championship, too, has been up and down: three races ago, Marc Márquez trailed the then championship leader Maverick Viñales by 37 points. Going into Sunday's race in Germany, Márquez trails the new championship leader Andrea Dovizioso by just 11 points. In 2017, nothing is a given.
Well, we knew the weather was going to be a factor at the Sachsenring, and we weren't disappointed. (Or perhaps we were, depending on your point of view.) The MotoGP riders started off on a bone dry track in the morning, spent an extended 55 minutes on slick tires, then suffered through a couple of full on rain showers in the afternoon. They had time on a dry track, and time on a wet track, and time on a track with a dry line forming. It was the perfect preparation for what promises to be a weekend of mixed weather. The chances of making it all the way to the race on Sunday without another wet session are very small. But they are also not zero.
Riding in both weather conditions gave the riders a chance to assess the grip of the new surface. The response was overwhelmingly positive. Aleix Espargaro summed up the general impressions, and entirely in character, he also summed it up with the most enthusiasm. "It's unbelievable," the Aprilia rider said. "They did a super job, a fantastic job. The tarmac has zero bumps, nowhere. The grip is super high. Actually, I think we finished five seconds from the dry times, which is very very very fast. So, German style, they did a great job!"
The grip was generally judged to be good in the dry, but absolutely phenomenal in the wet. "Honestly, in the wet you can’t believe it," Cal Crutchlow told us. "I left the pit lane. I was late because we were messing around in the garage. Marc had done three laps. I saw the blue flags, sit up and I looked down and Marc’s got his elbow on the floor! When I see someone’s got their elbow on the floor it means you’ve got to push."
From Assen to Sachsenring, 700 kilometers in 7 days. One of the shorter hauls between back-to-back races, but a tight schedule nonetheless. Sachsenring's weird split paddock was full of tired looking faces on Thursday, as truck drivers and hospitality staff rushed to tear the entire paddock down in Drenthe, then build it all up again in Saxony.
It is hard to think of a greater contrast in circuits, too. Assen is flat, fast, and sweeping, the Sachsenring tight, slow, and with massive changes in elevation. There are similarities too: the bikes spend a lot of time on the edge of the tire at both tracks. At Assen, it's especially the right side of the tire, as riders sweep through the succession of right handers from Mandeveen all the way to the Ramshoek. At the Sachsenring, it's all left-hand side of the tire which takes the punishment, as the bikes come out of the Omegakurve, pitch into Turn 4, then hustle their way all the way down and then up and over the hill before Turn 11.
Turn 11 is a vicious beast, laying in wait for the unwary, its voracious gravel trap waiting to claim anyone who flicks the bike just a little too enthusiastically right after spending so much time on the left-hand side of the tire. The opposite right-hand side has had 40 seconds to cool off, while the right-hand side of the tire takes all the punishment. The transition from left to right, from scorching hot to cool rubber, from one of the hardest tire compounds of the year to one of the softest, is tricky. Switching between two very different feeling rubbers catches plenty of riders out, in both MotoGP and Moto2.
There are days when being a MotoGP journalist can be hard work. You spend hours each day trying to wheedle tidbits of information from unwilling conversation partners, then hours chasing round after riders. You top it off with hours trying to spin a day's worth of platitudes into something vaguely readable and semi-interesting, before hopping into bed for five hours' sleep, only to do it all over again. There were years when writing race reports containing any entertainment value was a hard slog through tiny details, as for much of the Bridgestone years, the riders would pretty much finish in the order in which they qualified. You keep doing it from a deep love of the sport, and the hope of better days.
You keep doing it for days like today. Sunday at Assen saw not one, but three breathtaking races. Each race was packed with a season's worth of drama, and combined spectacular passing, raw, undiluted speed, tricky weather conditions and surprise results from the first race through to the last. It was a reminder that majestic tracks produce phenomenal racing. A reminder that we are living through a new golden age of Grand Prix racing, with the outcome of any of the three races completely up in the air on any given weekend.
Above all, though, it was a reminder that we are watching giants of the sport at play. In twenty years' time, when MotoGP fans come to draw up their lists of the top ten racers of all time, at least half of the names they choose will have been on the grid on Sunday. Assen was a veritable cornucopia of racing greatness.
Motorcycle racing is an outdoor sport. The riders are at the mercy of the elements. Not just the riders, but the teams and factories too. A bike that works well in the dry may be terrible in the wet. A bike that is strong in the wet may struggle when conditions were mixed. Finding the right balance when conditions change can throw the best laid plans into disarray.
All of these questions were multiplied by the weather at Assen. With nothing between the circuit and the North Sea but a row of sand dunes, the odd high rise office block, and a hundred kilometers of pancake-flat farmland punctuated by the occasional tree, the wind, sun, and rain blow out just as quickly as they blow in. The weather at Assen is as fickle as a pretty teenager in a crowded disco.
That made it tough for MotoGP at the Dutch circuit. Searching for the right setup was both perilously difficult and ultimately futile, for as soon as you found something in the right ballpark for the conditions, the rain would come or the track would dry out, and you would have to start all over again. Add in tarmac which has fantastic grip in the dry but diminishing grip in the dry, and you had a recipe for, if not chaos, then at least a fairly random mix of riders topping qualifying.
Just how clever has Honda been with their fairings? At Assen, Cal Crutchlow spent Friday going back and forth between bikes with and without the addition of aerodynamic side pods on the outside of the fairing. That led to some confusion among the media. Had Honda homologated the aerodynamic fairing already? Or was this something new?