2016 has been a strange year. New tires have made teams have to gamble much more on set up. New electronics have drawn the teeth of Honda and Yamaha, making it easier for Ducati, Suzuki, and to a lesser extent, Aprilia to catch up. The wet and wild weather has made it even more difficult to get set up right, with session after session lost to the rain. A wider range of competitive bikes has upped the level of competition even further. So we enter the final race of the year having already seen nine winners, and with dreams of a tenth.
That seems vanishingly unlikely. The three riders on the front row at Valencia have won ten of the seventeen rounds, with two more winners on the second row, and other two on the third row. At a track like Valencia, with so few passing opportunities, it is hard to see how a rider who hasn't won yet can make their way past the previous winners to claim victory. They will not get any assistance from the weather – the forecast looks steady and constant, not particularly warm, but dry and sunny. The only way to win the Valencia round of MotoGP is the hard way.
And then there's Jorge Lorenzo. The Spaniard has been up and down all season, at the tender mercies of available grip levels and the nature of the tires Michelin have brought to the races. At Valencia, everything has fallen into place. The rear tire Michelin have brought uses the more pliable carcass which was also available at Brno and Misano. The new profile front tire the French tire maker has brought is stronger in the middle of the corner, which plays to Lorenzo's strengths. And boy, is Lorenzo strong at Valencia.
The timesheets told the tale even before qualifying began. Marc Márquez was fastest in both FP3 and FP4, but that was not necessarily a fair reflection of the standings. In FP3, Lorenzo did not bother pushing for a single fast lap, confident his race pace would get him through to Q2. Instead of coming in for new tires, Lorenzo stayed out for a long twelve-lap run. In FP4, he did another long run, with metronomic consistency. The rest of the field had been warned.
If he was strong in practice, during qualifying, Lorenzo was absolutely indomitable. When he took pole in 2015, Lorenzo called it a perfect lap. On Saturday, the Movistar Yamaha rider posted three laps under his 2015 time, one on each of his three runs. It turns out there is a level above perfect, and Lorenzo showed just what it was at Valencia. "Today, I was inspired," he told the press conference. "Everything I tried worked."
It was visible from the side of the track. Whichever corner I watched Lorenzo from the side of the track, he looked like the Lorenzo of old. Completely in charge of the motorcycle, smooth as butter, fast as lightning. Lorenzo has historically been fast at Valencia, and there are no indications he will be anything but fast on Sunday.
Beware of the Marquez
Can anyone stop him? Aleix Espargaro believed that someone can. "I think Marc is the strongest guy regarding the pace," the Suzuki rider told us. "Stronger than Jorge, but the difference is not huge." Márquez' run in FP3 was formidable, clearly quicker than Lorenzo's, but Lorenzo had the upper hand again in the afternoon. The Repsol Honda rider had also made life difficult for himself, by losing the front in FP4 and damaging his preferred bike. "For some reason this weekend I feel much better with that bike that I crashed than the other bike," he told the press conference. Stacking it in FP4 meant he did not have it in qualifying.
That does not mean he did not give it his all. Márquez pushed a couple of times, and was quick in the first couple of sectors. But the last part of the track is where the Yamaha really shines. In the first three sectors of the track, from the starting line round to Turn 11, Márquez was give up just over a tenth of a second. In the final sector, the run into Turn 12, then the long left of Turn 13, before the tight final corner and the run onto the straight, Márquez was losing over two tenths. That was the part of the track where Lorenzo beat the Hondas last year. The same outcome looks likely in 2016.
Valentino Rossi starts his race from a very different position to last year. In 2015, Rossi had been forced to start from the back of the grid, despite being quick during practice. This year, Rossi starts from the front row, alongside the two rivals he accused of stealing the championship last year. Rossi's pace looks to be a little off the pace of Márquez and Lorenzo, but this is Valentino Rossi. The Italian is always impressive on Friday and Saturday, but it is only on Sunday that he finally unleashes the beast. If Rossi gets away with the front early, he is in with a chance.
If there is one rider who can challenge the front row men on Sunday it is Maverick Viñales. The Spaniard has shown impressive pace on the Suzuki all weekend, and is pretty much on pace with Rossi at least, and maybe even faster. The Suzuki is very strong around Valencia, the tight corners playing to the strengths of the GSX-RR. Both Viñales and teammate Aleix Espargaro have been impressive, though Espargaro managed to crash out as he pushed for a final fast run. Conditions are ideal for the bike: cold weather gives them grip, and the many tight flowing turns mean that Viñales and Espargaro can use the sweet handling nature of the bike to maximum effect.
There are two Ducatis up front too, though neither Andrea Dovizioso nor Andrea Iannone were under any illusions of being competitive. They had managed a fast single lap, but consistent pace was a little harder. Valencia is tough on the Ducati, despite the fact that the bike is much improved this year. The bike is still not turning as well as it should mid corner, an issue at a track like Valencia where the bikes spend do much of their time on their sides.
Andrea Dovizioso learned in qualifying that he will be needing the soft front tire for the race on Sunday. Normally, he explained, you need support from a stiffer tire during qualifying and the race. But the hard front that had appeared to work so well during FP4 did not withstand the comparison with the soft front during qualifying. Braking stability was acceptable, but the grip was so much better. Sometimes it takes an experiment to uncover the truth.
Round rubber throwing it all away
FP4 showed a lot of riders that the hard front was not the right tire. There were seven crashes on Saturday, four of which were during FP4. Of the eight crashes throughout the weekend at Valencia, seven of them had been with the hard front tire. Turn 10, especially, was treacherous, the front letting go almost without warning once you started to push.
Tire choice is going to be key for the race, both front and rear. The hard tires at both ends of the bike have plenty of endurance, but lack the early speed needed to keep up with anyone who fits a soft rear from the start. There are some factories which will still be using the soft, however, and trying to manage their tires in the second half of the race. Thirty laps is a long time around Valencia, and the soft tire will have to be pampered to make it to the finish line.
The other team objects
Jorge Lorenzo looks like fitting the soft front and soft rear, as is his want. Valentino Rossi is yet to decide on the soft or the hard rear, though he too will probably use the soft front. At Honda, the riders have surprised their engineers by managing to run the soft front tire, in preference to the hard. Braking stability is not the issue they had feared, and the softer rear makes the bike easier to manage. There will probably be a good mixture of tires on Sunday afternoon, much of which will depend on the weather. That looks like being stable, but this is 2016, and anything can happen.
Even KTM had reason to celebrate after qualifying. The Austrian manufacturer had made up a lot of ground from the first day to the second, gaining nearly a whole second on the times they had set on Friday. They had made a step with the set up, and used the softer tires to help the bike turn. Mika Kallio was somewhat surprised, expecting to fnd a project that was some way off the pace.
The improvements which the KTM had made were clearly visible from trackside, the bike more stable on corner entry, and not losing quite so much on corner exit. The improvement had come in no small part by ditching the harder rear tire in favor of the soft one. Whether the rear would last for 30 laps was still not sure, but at least Mika Kallio would in among the tail enders, and fighting for points. KTM were obviously pleased, project leader Sebastiann Risse said afterwards. Kallio was greeted like a conquering hero by the KTM staff which thronged the garage for MotoGP.
Will we see winner number 10 on Sunday? Given stable weather, the answer is probably no. But this is 2016, and if there is one thing we have learned it is that anything could happen. Don't bet on anything for Sunday. Reality is likely to intervene, as it has so often this year.
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