It has been a big weekend of news for KTM at Jerez. First, there was Pol Espargaro extending his contract. Then the factory KTM team announced they had signed Johann Zarco. And now, the first seat at the KTM Tech3 team has been filled, with Miguel Oliveira moving up to MotoGP for 2019.
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On paper, things are close at Jerez. At the end of the first day, the top eight riders are all within half a second of each other. The first fourteen are within a second. You would normally see the kind of tightly bunched times on a Moto2 result sheet, not MotoGP, as former Moto3 and Moto2 crew chief, and now Eurosport commentator Peter Bom put it. It has all the makings of a very tight race.
Or it does if you judge it only by the headline times. Dig a little deeper and a different picture appears. Scrap the riders who put in a new soft tire and chased a fast lap, and focus only on race pace on used tires, and it Sunday's Spanish Grand Prix at Jerez looks like being fought out between The Hondas Repsol and LCR, Ecstar Suzuki rider Andrea Iannone, and just maybe, Johann Zarco on the Monster Tech3 Yamaha. Sure, a bunch of people did some 1'38s and low 1'39s, but Marc Márquez, Dani Pedrosa, and Cal Crutchlow were banging out that kind of pace consistently, on tires which have more than half race distance on them.
Is it going to be a Honda whitewash? "It is still too early to say," Cal Crutchlow told reporters, trying to dampen expectations after finishing the day as fastest. "A lot of the other bikes take one day and overnight they are there. If they are sliding a lot then they try to fix it for day two. If we’re sliding then that's our natural bike and we don't make the same improvement overnight. I don't think we’ll suddenly have another second but other people might find another half a second."
It has been a strange and fascinating first three races of the 2018 MotoGP season, but as the paddock returns to Europe, we get the first chance to see how the series will look under conditions more usually understood as normal. The three flyaways which kick the season off all have their own peculiarities which tend to skew the results. Qatar happens at night, on a dusty track. Argentina and Austin are races on circuits which don't see enough action, which the teams have only visited a few times, making the track difficult to judge. And Marc Márquez always wins at Austin anyway.
That all changes at Jerez. The next six tracks – Jerez, Le Mans, Mugello, Barcelona, Assen, Sachsenring – have been on the calendar for a decade or more. The riders have lapped the circuits thousands of times at races and in testing, and the teams and factories have enough data from the tracks to fill a small country's worth of data centers. This is familiar ground, and so everything changes.
"Coming here and it's like the season starts again, you can breathe again," is how Pol Espargaro describes it. "I don't say that we are bad in those countries, but this is home, it's where I've been racing here for many many years." Exactly how many years? "My first race here was in the Catalan championship, when I was 13 years old, I'm 26? So 2005, 2006? Look how many years racing here! But the jet lag, the food, the timing when you eat, when you sleep, the people who come to the track, we have more fans here than in any other place in the world, and this makes you feel good. And also we have much more data here than at other tracks, so for us it's much easier to face this GP."
One of the biggest dominoes of the 2018 MotoGP Silly Season has just fallen into place. Today, KTM announced that they have signed Johann Zarco to a two-year contract for the 2019 and 2020 seasons.
That Zarco would leave the Tech3 Yamaha squad had been widely anticipated, the only question being which factory team he would end up in. The Frenchman was an extremely hot property, after displaying blistering speed on the satellite Yamaha M1 in 2017. Zarco had offers from Suzuki, Repsol Honda, and KTM, though only Honda and KTM were in the frame for the Frenchman. Zarco and his management were still unhappy with the way Suzuki had treated the Frenchman after the Japanese factory failed to honor a pre-contract Zarco had signed ahead of the 2017 season, choosing Alex Rins instead.
With the MotoGP paddock back in Europe and heading to Jerez, the first round of contract announcements is upon us, with the second wave not far behind. First domino to fall for the moment is Pol Espargaro, who will be staying at KTM for the 2019 and 2020 seasons. Ahead of his first home Grand Prix of 2018, KTM today officially announced they will be retaining the services of the Spaniard for the next two years.
Espargaro's signing had been broadly expected. The Spaniard has outperformed his teammate Bradley Smith, and with the Austrian factory's MotoGP project moving from the development phase to the point where they need to start producing results, Espargaro has been favored over Smith.
After Marc Márquez' wild ride in Argentina, Dorna CEO Carmelo Ezpeleta promised the riders present in the Safety Commission in Austin on Friday night that in the future, the FIM Stewards Panel would hand out harsher penalties for infringements of the rules. That new policy saw action the very next day, with Marc Márquez and Pol Espargaro being punished three grid places for riding slowly on the racing line and getting in the way of other riders.
Not everyone was happy, however. Towards the end of the race on Sunday, Jack Miller dived up the inside of Jorge Lorenzo, after the factory Ducati rider left the door wide open at Turn 1. Lorenzo, going for a very late apex, found Miller on his line, and was forced to stand the bike up. "Things didn't change so much, no?" the Spaniard grumbled after the race. "If I don't pick up the bike, I crash. So if the rider doesn't impact you or you don't crash, they don't do nothing."
On Sunday night, I went to speak to Mike Webb to hear how he, as Race Director and chair of the FIM Stewards Panel, viewed the new instructions issued by the Grand Prix Permanent Bureau. He explained both what instructions had been given, and how he and the FIM Stewards had interpreted them.
The Tech3 team's decision to switch from Yamaha to KTM is having major consequences. With the Yamaha satellite bikes available, and with Suzuki ready to step up and supply a satellite team with bikes, teams are having to make choices they have never considered before. This luxury is indicative of the current health of the MotoGP grid: once upon a time, a satellite Yamaha or Honda team would never even consider switching to another manufacturer. Now, there are four competitive satellite bike suppliers to choose from.
So who will end up with the satellite Yamahas for 2019 and beyond, and where does that leave Suzuki? Speaking to some of the protagonists involved in the situation, it seems that although nothing is settled as of this moment, a decision is likely to be taken soon. Meetings are planned for Jerez which will play a crucial role in sorting out the satellite bike shuffle for next season.
The key player in all of this is the Marc VDS MotoGP team. The Belgian team has the financial resources, the staff, and the riders which allow them to pick and choose their partners. They have made no secret of their intention to leave Honda, after disappointment over the level of support they have received. But they have been caught between Yamaha and Suzuki now for the past couple of months.
There is a lot to love about the Grand Prix of the Americas in Austin. As an event, it is fantastic: the facilities at the track are great, the city of Austin is a wonderful place to visit, with a lively party atmosphere downtown, and a million other things to do. The landscape the track sits on is great for spectators, and the surrounding countryside is charming.
It is a race the riders love, and they have grown to love the track. "I like this track very much, it's very good," Valentino Rossi says of the Circuit of the Americas. "It's good to ride because it's very difficult, you have emotional corners, so it's good." The bumps around the track have made it much tougher to ride, but the layout is still a favorite among many of the MotoGP paddock. It is highly technical and has a bit of everything: hard braking, hard acceleration, fast corners, slow corners, flowing combinations of corners which reward precision.
As great at the track is, it still produces rather lackluster races. The average margin of victory over all six editions has been 3.458 seconds, and that is discounting the time lost to the inevitable easing off to celebrate in the certain knowledge that victory is in the bag. The gap has never been under 1.5 seconds, and there has never been a closely fought battle for victory, or even the podium spots, in the history of racing at the track. The result of the MotoGP race in Austin is usually set in stone before the halfway mark.
Even the normally mental Moto3 races are decided by seconds rather than hundredths. Only two of the six Moto3 races run so far were won by a margin of less than a second. In Moto2, the winning margin has only once been under two seconds. That was in 2015, when Sam Lowes beat Johann Zarco by 1.999 seconds. The result in Moto2 has never been close.
At the core of every great sport is great storytelling. Mighty heroes take one another on, and overcome insurmountable obstacles in pursuit of glory. The leather patches, helmet designs, and in in the current fashion conscious age, tattoos in motorcycle racing bear this out: everywhere you look are nothing to loses, against all odds', and never give ups. Motorcycle racing has so many truly great story lines that it doesn't need any artificial plot twists or turns to hold the viewer's interest.
Sometimes, though, it feels like the script writer for MotoGP gets a bit lazy. The hero whose efforts went unrewarded at one race goes on to win the next race. The villain of the piece one weekend immediately gets his comeuppance the following week. The plot lines are so self-evident and obvious that it they become more cheap made-for-TV melodrama than a grand sweeping blockbuster the sport deserves. It's all just a little bit too obvious.
So it was on Saturday in Austin. The story of the day had been telegraphed two weeks ago in Argentina: the reigning world champion Marc Márquez made a stupid mistake on the grid before the start of the race, then turned into a one-man crime spree trying to make up for the ground he had lost, culminating in a collision with his arch rival Valentino Rossi, reigniting the slumbering war which has existed between the two since the 2015 season.
There was good news and bad news for the MotoGP paddock after the first day of practice at the Circuit of the Americas. The good news is that the work done to the track to try to remove the bumps had not made the track much more abrasive, as some had feared. Tires are wearing normally, so pit stops or worse will not be needed.
The bad news is that the work done to try to remove the bumps has not done anything to remove the bumps. It has moved them about a little, improved them in some places, made them worse in others, but the net effect has been zero, or worse than zero. What's worse, the process used has generated a huge amount of dust, bikes coming down the back straight billowing clouds of dust in their wake.
"It's worse than Qatar," Jack Miller said. "I said to the guys, 'I hope you've got the air filter in from Qatar, because you're going to need it'." At the first race of the season, the teams have to run a special air filter to prevent the desert dust from entering the engine and causing excessive wear. "The dust is far worse than Qatar, it's that crappy concrete dust," Miller explained.
The announcement that the official MotoGP.com website were to stream the Thursday media debriefs of Marc Márquez and Valentino Rossi live raised some hackles in the paddock. The objections to the move differed with the interests of those complaining. The print media complained that there was no point in flying half the way around the world to cover the series if everything was going to be streamed live anyway. Rival factories complained that the media debriefs of their riders were not being streamed live. Some fans and journalists complained that by showing the debriefs, Dorna were merely fanning the flames, where they should be trying to calm the situation down.
In the end, there wasn't much of a situation to calm down. Sure, the media debriefs of Márquez and Rossi were streamed live. But both men went out of their way not to say anything of interest. The feud lives on, but we didn't notice because we lost interest in what the protagonists were saying about halfway through. There is much to be said for trite media speak.
To an extent, this is probably a good thing. Aleix Espargaro, whose media debrief really should have been streamed live, as it was a great deal more entertaining than all the other rider press conferences put together, pointed out the irony of the situation. "Everybody is talking about the Argentina clash and nobody is talking about the tarmac of America, which is more important!" the factory Aprilia rider complained.
Normally, the Grand Prix of the Americas, as the MotoGP round at COTA in Austin is known, is a straightforward affair. 24 MotoGP riders line up on the grid, and 23 of them stage a fierce battle over who is going to come second behind Marc Márquez. The Repsol Honda rider has won every single one of the five editions staged at the Circuit of the Americas. In fact, the Spaniard has never been beaten in any of the nine MotoGP races he has contested on American soil, at Laguna Seca, Indianapolis, or in Austin.
Will someone finally break Márquez' winning streak in the US? On the evidence of the 2018 season so far, the only person capable of beating Márquez at one of his strongest tracks is Marc Márquez himself. In Argentina, the Repsol Honda rider managed to thoroughly sabotage his own race. First by stalling his bike on the starting grid – a grid already thrown out of kilter by the changing weather. Then by trying to make up for the time he lost serving a ride through penalty for a multitude of infractions at the start by charging through the field like a wrecking ball, slamming into one rider after another, taking out his arch nemesis Valentino Rossi, before being hit by another penalty, this time adding 30 seconds to his race time and demoting him out of the points.After the race and in the intervening days since, Rossi has gone on the attack, calling Márquez a dangerous rider who is a threat to everyone on the track with him. He doesn't feel safe on the track with Márquez, Rossi said. Rossi's remarks, while understandable, should be seen within the wider context of his vendetta with Márquez, after he lost the 2015 championship, which Rossi blames entirely on deliberate interference by Márquez. Further stoking the fire, Rossi was pictured in a social media post with a framed picture of the Argentina incident lying on a sofa at his dirt track ranch.
Whatever the root of Rossi's remarks, there can be no doubt that they are a distraction, both for Márquez and for Rossi himself. When the pair arrive at the Circuit of the Americas in Austin, they will face questioning on one subject only. And that won't be Márquez' chances of winning on Sunday.
On Friday, the Hondas were looking pretty strong at the Termas De Rio Hondo circuit in Argentina. Dani Pedrosa led FP1, with Cal Crutchlow just behind him. In FP2, Marc Márquez opened a big lead over Crutchlow, with the rest some distance behind.
On Saturday, Marc Márquez looked just about unbeatable, despite his slip up in qualifying. Six tenths quicker than Johann Zarco, and effortlessly quick in a wet FP3. Over a second quicker than his teammate Pedrosa in FP4, an advantage that was almost embarrassing. The portents were clear on Saturday night: this was Marc Márquez' race to lose.
And that is exactly what he did, before the lights had even gone out. A combination of ignorance of the rules and panic meant he blew his chance of winning the race as soon as he jumped off his bike to try to restart it on the grid. From there, he piled error upon error to make the situation worse. By the end of Sunday, he had managed to throw away any chance of salvaging points from the Argentina round, and run up a 15-point deficit to Andrea Dovizioso. He had also managed to create a public relations disaster, though to be fair, he had more than a little help doing that.
Ignorance is no excuse
But it all starts with ignorance of the rules. When he arrived back at the grid, the engine of his Honda RC213V stalled as he pulled up at his grid slot. His immediate reaction was the right one: to raise his hand in the air. That lasted a little more than one second (approximately 1.26 seconds, averaging multiple timings), before he jumped off his bike and tried to push start it. That set in motion a chain of events that would generate an unstoppable tidal wave of controversy.
Dani Pedrosa has suffered a fractured wrist in his lap one crash at the Termas De Rio Hondo circuit in Argentina on Sunday. Although there has not yet been official confirmation from Honda, well-informed Spanish media are reporting that Pedrosa is to undergo surgery today in Barcelona to fix the fracture in his right radius.
Every MotoGP weekend throws up dozens of talking points, notes and points of interest that can help an interested observer better understand what remains the greatest sport on earth. Some weekends have more to offer than others. And then there are weekends like Argentina. Already by qualifying, the Grand Prix at the Termas De Rio Hondo circuit had produced more wildness and weirdness than you get at most rounds. And then Sunday came along.
Yesterday, I wrote a little about the peculiar and unique set of circumstances which caused the start of the race to be delayed, and about how Cal Crutchlow came to win what would be a fantastic race riddled with controversy. Before I move on to the most controversial part of the weekend – Marc Márquez' frantic Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde ride through the field which eventually saw him penalized out of the points – a few more notes on the race itself, and the result as it ended up in the books.
First up, Cal Crutchlow, who took a convincing win in Argentina. What was impressive about Crutchlow's victory was not just the result, but the way he achieved it. It was a victory taken with patience, as Spanish journalist Borja Gonzalez astutely observed. It was a patience born of confidence, the knowledge that a good result was possible. "I knew this weekend that I could win or finish second at this Grand Prix, wet or dry," he told the press conference. "I had the pace over the last years. I had the pace in Qatar to be fast."