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Is the Chang International Circuit a great track? It depends how you look at it. "The Buriram circuit is really, really good, the asphalt is working in a good way with hot conditions, that is not easy. Also the runoff areas are really good, the pit boxes," Marc Márquez said, carefully avoiding any discussion of the layout. Andrea Dovizioso was not exactly complimentary about the layout. "The track is not the best in our championship, but at the end, everything works well." Hardly gushing praise.
It may not be the best track layout in the championship, but it served up a veritable feast of racing. Two scintillating support races, with fierce battles both in Moto3 and Moto2, and then the fifth closest podium in premier class racing, and the fourth closest top 15 in Grand Prix history, the gap between first and fifteenth just under 24 seconds. The last three laps of the MotoGP race were all-out war, with the lead swapping multiple times as a result of impossible passes. And over 100,000 fans braving the searing heat, cheering on their heroes with as much passion as you will find anywhere in the world. Is the Chang International Circuit a great track? It is when you measure it in terms of spectacle and atmosphere. The Thai Grand Prix is a worthy addition to the calendar.
The layout may not be fast and flowing throughout, but the fact that it is split into two halves with very different characters helped to keep the field close. The necessity to preserve tires did the same: Michelin had prepared for a cooler monsoon heat, not the unusual dry heat which meant track temperatures were 10°C higher than anticipated. All this, combined with a final corner ideally suited to do-or-die passing attempts, and a short run to the line meaning it really had to be all or nothing going into the final turn, and we had a recipe for fantastic racing in Thailand.
So far, the inaugural Thai round of MotoGP has been full of surprises. We expected heavy rain at the track on most days, but it has been pretty much dry as a bone throughout. We expected Yamaha to be nowhere, yet the Movistar duo of Maverick Viñales and Valentino Rossi have looked seriously threatening all weekend. We expected the round to be popular: the only surprise here is just how popular it has been. An estimated 65,000 fans came to watch qualifying on Saturday. To put that into perspective, that is more fans for qualifying than fans on race day at six of last year's rounds. Nearly twice as many as fans on race day at Phillip Island. Sunday should be packed, with a good chance that this will be the round with the highest attendance.
The hot weather has taken Michelin by surprise as well, not for the first time this year. That is hardly Michelin's fault, however: after they introduced several changes during the 2017 season, the teams demanded that Michelin set the tire allocation at the start of the year. That demand is coming back to bite the teams, as it is hard to get the allocation absolutely spot on if you have to predict the weather many months in advance. The hot European summer has caused problems on occasion, and now the heat in Thailand is doing the same.
One of the best ways of avoiding disappointments is to lower your expectations. Set the bar low enough, and it becomes almost impossible for reality slip below it. That has been the strategy adopted by Maverick Viñales recently, and with good reason: Yamaha's run of form recently has been pretty dismal. No podiums for four races, their longest run off the box since 2007. No victory for 23 straight races, the worst losing streak in their entire history in the premier class.
"I feel more positive about myself, but the expectations are the same," Viñales said on Thursday. "I have zero expectations. I want to just enjoy riding and see if we can take something positive from this weekend." It was a message which he repeated on Friday. "As I said, I don't want to make any expectations. I just want to go riding, enjoy."
There had been plenty for Viñales to enjoy. The Movistar Yamaha rider's expectations may have been set low, but he far exceeded them. In the morning, Viñales was fastest, with his teammate Valentino Rossi in second. In the afternoon, Viñales missed out on the top spot by three hundredths of a second, but Andrea Dovizioso only beat Viñales by putting on a fresh set of soft tires. Viñales had been circulating on hard tires, and lapping consistently in the low 1'31s.
Pundits proved wrong again
The next four MotoGP races are a glimpse of the sport's future. The first and last of the foursome, in Thailand and Malaysia, are truly in the heart of all MotoGP's tomorrows. The growth of the sport of motorcycle racing is explosive in Southeast Asia, and the expected crowds – already talk of crowds of up to 150,000 on Sunday – speak for themselves. If Indonesia ever manages to overcome the political instability and endemic corruption which plagues the country, and finally completes a circuit or two, we could be complaining of having four races in Indonesia, rather than Spain.
But the addition of a round at the Chang International Circuit in Buriram, Thailand highlights the issues with the current MotoGP schedule. The first five races of 2018 were spaced over 9 weeks. The last five races are crammed into just 6 weeks. By the time the MotoGP riders jump on their 2019 bikes, on the Tuesday after Valencia, they are exhausted, physically and emotionally, and ready for a break.
The timing of the Pacific flyaways is unfortunate in other ways too. The Thai round in Buriram takes place in early October, at the tail end of the rainy season. The Sepang round in Malaysia, in early November, takes place in Sepang's eastern monsoon season, with October and November being the wettest months in that part of Malaysia.
Thomas Morsellino is a French freelance journalist and photographer, with keen eye for the technical details of MotoGP bikes. You may have seen some of his work on Twitter, where he runs the @Off_Bikes account. Peter Bom is a world championship winning former crew chief, with a deep and abiding knowledge of every aspect of motorcycle racing. Peter has worked with such riders as Cal Crutchlow, Danny Kent, and Stefan Bradl. After every race, MotoMatters.com will be publishing a selection of Tom's photos of MotoGP bikes, together with extensive technical explanations of the details by Peter Bom. MotoMatters.com subscribers will get access to the full resolution photos, which they can download and study in detail, and all of Peter's technical explanations of the photos. Readers who do not support the site will be limited to the 800x600 resolution photos, and an explanation of two photos.
KTM RC 250 R engine (Moto3)
Peter Bom: This engine is tilted backwards for cleaning and maintenance. Note the (orange) caps that keep dirt out of the inlet / exhaust ports during transport and cleaning. The aluminum box on the left is the water / oil intercooler. Here, instead of using an oil cooler, the water from the radiator cools the engine oil.
How do you win a MotoGP race? In the Michelin era, you need a strategy. With all six tires which the French manufacturer brings to each weekend capable of lasting the race, selecting the right tire for your bike, and your setup, is crucial. Once the race is under way, you have to manage your pace, know when you can push hard, and when you have to sit and wait. Watch for weakness by your rivals, try to match them when attack without wrecking your own chances. With spec electronics and a wide range of tire options, MotoGP is a more intellectual game.
But it has also become more of a gamble. To find the ideal setup, the best strategy is to focus on the race during free practice, rather than worry about qualifying. But that risks leaving a rider stuck in Q1, and having to juggle front tires for Q2. You get an extra rear tire if you go through from Q1 to Q2, but not an extra front.
It is a common enough sight in Grand Prix racing: slower riders cruising around at the edge of the track, waiting for a faster rider to come by so they can get a tow. It is especially common at the Motorland Aragon circuit. With its massive back straight of nearly a kilometer in length, a decent slipstream can be worth an awful lot.
It is less common to see slower riders cruising for a tow in MotoGP. In Moto3, sure: with horsepower at a premium, cutting down on drag equates to free speed. In Moto2 as well, as the fact that the bikes all produce exactly the same horsepower means that riders have to find an advantage anywhere they can. But MotoGP? A lack of horsepower is not really a problem in the premier class. The bigger problem is usually transferring it to the tarmac to generate drive, and translate that power to speed.
But Aragon is different. Sure, tucking in behind another bike can give you extra speed using their draft, but above all, using another rider as a target makes you that little bit faster. "MotoGP is so close now that if you can follow someone, get a bit of a tow, that's obviously going to improve your time," Bradley Smith explained on Saturday afternoon. "We don't see it very often in MotoGP, to be honest, as much as it was today, but it shows how important it is here in Aragon."
Reference, not tow
What is the value of a MotoGP test? About a morning, if Aragon is anything to go by. At the end of FP1, before any real rubber had built up on the track, four Ducatis topped the timesheets. When I asked Davide Tardozzi whether he was happy with the Ducatis looking so strong so early, he replied that this was just the benefit of testing. Watch and see what Marc Márquez does in the afternoon, Tardozzi said.
Sure enough, by FP2, Márquez had caught up and then passed the Ducatis. The Repsol Honda rider ended the day on top of the timesheets, a tenth ahead of the factory Ducati of Jorge Lorenzo, and half a second quicker than Andrea Dovizioso. Cal Crutchlow was just behind Dovizioso on the LCR Honda, while Andrea Iannone was a fraction over a half a second behind Márquez. The advantage was already gone.
For Yamaha, there wasn't any advantage at all. The Movistar Yamaha team had come to the track and found some gains, Maverick Viñales in particular taking confidence from the test, which he carried into the Misano weekend. That lasted all the way until Sunday, when the grip disappeared in the heat, and the Yamahas slid down the order. Friday at Aragon was more of the same: competitive in the morning, when there was some grip, but nowhere in the afternoon, when the grip went. Rossi and Viñales made it through to Q2 by the skin of their teeth, though with no illusions of a podium, or more. Yamaha are in deep trouble, with no end to their misery in sight, but more on that later.
In an unprecedented move, the FIM has overruled the FIM Panel of Stewards' decision at Misano to ban Romano Fenati for two races. After meeting with Fenati and his representative at FIM headquarters in Switzerland, the FIM decided to withdraw his racing license for the remainder of the 2018 season.
Fenati will now have to reapply for a racing license according to the FIM procedures if he wishes to race in 2019. Whether he will or not is unknown: after he lost his 2018 ride with the Snipers team, and the 2019 ride with the MV Agusta Forward team, Fenati announced he would retire from racing altogether. He has already had his license issued by the Italian federation FMI suspended pending further notice.
The FIM press release appears below:
FIM withdraws Romano Fenati’s licence after discussions in Mies, Switzerland
Moto2 rider Romano Fenati attended a meeting at the FIM Headquarters in Mies on Tuesday 18 September following an incident in Misano during the Moto2 race on Sunday 9 September 2018.
Mr Fenati, accompanied by his legal representative, was received by FIM President Vito Ippolito and FIM Deputy CEO and Legal Director Mr Richard Perret.
Mr Fenati was asked to explain in person his act on the track in Misano, which has given rise to many extreme reactions in the traditional media and on social media platforms.
Naming a corner after a rider confers a particular honor on that rider, but it also puts enormous pressure on them. The last time it happened – Jerez in 2013, where the final corner was named after Jorge Lorenzo – things didn't quite work out the way the honoree had hoped. Dani Pedrosa went on to win the race comfortably, while Lorenzo was bumped aside in his eponymous corner by Marc Márquez, finishing the race in third, and clearly upset. That gave rise to an episode of "Handshakegate", a recurring paddock melodrama, where Jorge Lorenzo refused the proffered hand of Marc Márquez, wagging his finger in the younger Spaniard's face as a sign of disapproval.
So what does this mean for Turn 10 at the Motorland Aragon circuit? The long left hander which starts at the bottom of the "Sacacorchos", Aragon's very own version of Laguna Seca's Corkscrew, dips then rises round towards Turn 11, and the back half of the circuit. Today, after resisting for several years, Marc Márquez finally accepted the honor of having the corner named after him, in a ceremony featuring Dorna boss Carmelo Ezpeleta, the circuit director Santiago Abad, and circuit President Marta Gaston.
Misano is still casting a long shadow over the Grand Prix paddock. Or at least parts of it. Most specifically, the aftermath of Romano Fenati's disqualification after touching Stefano Manzi's brake lever during the Moto2 race, and the decision by the Reale Avintia team to draft in Frenchman Christophe Ponsson to replace the injured Tito Rabat.
First, Fenati. The Italian had the suspension of his license confirmed by the Italian federation FMI on Friday, after a hearing held in Rome. Fenati is suspended from taking part in any sporting activities sanctioned by the FMI for at least two months, while the Italian federation conducts further investigations. They will decide on further action at the end of that period.
Even if Fenati's suspension had not been upheld, he would not have been eligible to race. Fenati is serving a two-race ban during Aragon and Thailand, and will not be eligible to race in Grand Prix again until Motegi. Fenati's future is still unclear, though he is due to appear at a hearing with the FIM in Switzerland today. He himself has said he has retired from racing altogether.
Apologies for the extreme tardiness of this report, dear readers. Travel delays, the Romano Fenati situation, and a minor mishap at home threw my work schedule into utter disarray, and I got a long way behind. Aragon will be better.
"I have my strategy," Andrea Dovizioso told us after qualifying on Saturday at Misano. "It's always better to have a clear strategy, but to have a strategy and be able to make your strategy is a different story. You have to adapt to the conditions."
Dovizioso had seemed quietly confident as he sat in Ducati's hospitality unit and told us about his day qualifying. The Italian often exudes a sense of calm, but in hindsight, this was calm built on a sense of confidence. Dovizioso believed he could win on Sunday. But first, he would have to dispose of Jorge Lorenzo and Maverick Viñales, both of whom had stamped their authority on practice with great ferocity. Then there was Marc Márquez, of course, who had spent practice concentrating on old tires, working for the latter stages of the race. Throw in a couple of wildcards – Jack Miller had impressed all weekend, while Cal Crutchlow and Valentino Rossi were perennial threats – and winning in Misano was obviously a tough gig.
Another new feature on the site starting this week. After every round of MotoGP, the immensely talented Cormac Ryan Meenan of CormacGP will be supplying a selection of photographs from that weekend's event. If you'd like to see more of his work, you can follow him on Twitter or Instagram, or check out his website, cormacgp.com.