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.
Last year, Marc Márquez won the first ten races of the season on his way to his second successive MotoGP championship. He ended the season with a grand total of thirteen wins, eventually tying up the title at Motegi, with three races still to go. He could have wrapped it up a race earlier, had he not crashed trying to keep pace with Valentino Rossi at Misano. Márquez and the Honda RC213V reigned supreme, clearly the best package on the grid.
Eight months later, and Márquez trails the championship leader Rossi by 49 points, having won only one race, and taken one other podium finish at Jerez. Márquez has crashed out of two races, nearly crashing out of a third as well, and is 101 points down on his total after the same number of races last year. The Honda RC213V is being universally blamed for Márquez' decline, with a series of crashes by Cal Crutchlow, Scott Redding and Dani Pedrosa also being put down to an overloaded front end. The question on everyone's lips is, how did the RC213V go from being the best bike on the grid to being behind the Yamaha and the Ducati? How could Honda get it so badly wrong in just a few short months?
The answer to that question is, of course, that they didn't. There is clearly a problem with the Honda – the obvious culprit being an overabundance of horsepower and aggressive engine braking – but it is hardly a terrible motorcycle. The bike is still faster than it was last year, race times dropping on average by over a second. But the problems Honda are facing did not happen overnight. The supremacy of Márquez has masked a slow and steady decline of the RC213V, the bike losing its advantage over the past couple of seasons.
There is more to Mugello than just MotoGP. Being so large and so fast, the track makes for great racing in all classes, though each with a decidedly different character. While the MotoGP race saw one rider escape and a tense game of cat-and-mouse behind, the Moto2 race was a game of chess with riders gaining and losing over twenty-one laps, and the Moto3 race turned into a spectacular battle, with the outcome uncertain to the end.
The first race of the day was probably the best. Polesitter Danny Kent had made his intentions clear, trying to make an early break and grind out laps which were simply too fast for the rest to follow. That worked at Austin and Argentina, where he could hold his advantage down the long, fast straights, but not at Mugello. The fast exit of Bucine means that a group always has an advantage, the lightweight Moto3 bikes slingshotting out of each other's slipstreams to hit speeds which would otherwise be impossible. At other tracks, a gap of half a second is sufficient to keep ahead in Moto3. At Mugello, you can lose that and much more down the fiercely fast straight.
Kent abandoned his attempt to make a break almost immediately, and switched tactics, dropping to the back of the group, which ebbed and flowed into two groups, then one, containing up to fifteen riders. The lead changed hands more times than there were fans in the stands, a new rider taking over every corner almost. Being Mugello, the front was replete with Italian riders. Romano Fenati, sporting a rather stunning special livery for his home round, Niccolo Antonelli, the youngsters Pecco Bagnaia and Enea Bastianini, all had their sights set on the podium, and most especially the top step.
Mugello is always a little magical, but packed to the rafters with delirious fans, it becomes something greater than just a race track. Over 90,000 fans turned up in Tuscany on Sunday, up 20% from last year on the back of the renaissance of Valentino Rossi and of Ducati, complete with two Italian riders. Something special was always going to happen here.
It certainly did, but perhaps not in the way the fans had hoped. Valentino Rossi did not score the dream victory in front of the ecstatic yellow hordes which packed the hillsides, nor did Ducati finally get the elusive win they have been chasing since 2010. But the MotoGP was packed with excitement and incident, the Moto3 race was a typical Mugello classic, and even Moto2 had some tension down to the final lap. Those who came got their money's worth.
The MotoGP race may have ended much as you might have predicted based on pace in practice, but the journey to Jorge Lorenzo’s third utterly dominant win in a row was a lot more intriguing than the results suggest, with drama right from the start. Literally: Andrea Iannone made what looked at first glance like a jump start – though not as blatant as Karel Abraham's – and Marc Márquez threaded the needle from thirteenth on the grid to make up seven places before the exit of the first corner. And did so surgically and cleanly.
But first that Iannone start. So convinced that the Italian had jumped the gun were HRC that they sent someone up to Race Direction to complain that they were not doing their job. Race Director Mike Webb was able to show them that they were doing just that, by going through the footage. He explained to me the process: there are high-speed cameras on each row and on the lights, capturing the start at a rate of several hundred frames a second. After the start, a dedicated official responsible for all of the video reviews goes over the starts, and checks for a jump start. If one is spotted, such as Karel Abraham's lurch forward, then a penalty is issued. That must be done within the first four laps, to make it fairer on the offender.