In the fourth part of our series looking back at 2013, we take a look at Valentino Rossi's season. To catch up with previous instalments, you can read part 1 on Marc Marquez, part 2 on Jorge Lorenzo, and part 3 on Dani Pedrosa.
|Valentino Rossi||Yamaha Factory Racing|
Valentino Rossi left Ducati at the end of 2012 with a palpable sense of relief. At last he would be back on a bike with a front end he could trust, and could get back to being competitive. The goal was to test himself, to see if he could still run at the front with the Jorge Lorenzo and Dani Pedrosa, he repeatedly told reporters in the preseason.
Testing looked promising. Rossi was a little way behind the Hondas, but so was his teammate Jorge Lorenzo, and that was the man he had to measure himself against. At the first race, Rossi was straight onto the podium, dishing out a lesson in racecraft to Marc Marquez along the way. It looked like he was finally back in business.
In part three of our series looking back at 2013, we review the performance of Dani Pedrosa last season. If you missed the first two instalments, you can read part 1, Marc Marquez, and part 2, Jorge Lorenzo.
|Dani Pedrosa||Repsol Honda|
At the end of the 2013 season, some sections of the media took great delight in writing off Dani Pedrosa, after he failed yet again to secure a MotoGP title at his eighth time of trying. Surely Pedrosa's days at the Repsol Honda team were numbered, as he consistently fails to deliver on the promise he showed in the 125 and 250 classes?
It is easy to dismiss Pedrosa as MotoGP's 'nearly man', and consign him to the dustbin of history, but to do so is to ignore Pedrosa's actual results. Dani Pedrosa won three races in 2013, was on the podium a further ten times, moved ahead of Kevin Schwantz, Wayne Rainey and Kenny Roberts in the all-time MotoGP rankings, and now has the same number of second- and third-place finishes as Valentino Rossi. After Assen, Pedrosa was leading the championship by 9 points.
Continuing our look back at 2013, here is the second part of our rating of rider performances last season, covering championship runner up Jorge Lorenzo. If you missed part 1, on Marc Marquez, you can catch up here.
|Jorge Lorenzo||Yamaha Factory Racing|
After as close to a perfect year as you can get in 2012, Jorge Lorenzo faced a major challenge in 2013. Defending his 2010 title, Lorenzo found himself pushing right at the limit to try to match the pace of Casey Stoner. He had hoped defending his 2012 title would be a little easier, but that would prove not to be the case.
Ironically, Lorenzo ran up against the same problems in 2013 that he had faced in 2011: a game-changing newcomer at Honda, on a bike developed specifically to beat the Yamaha. In 2011, the game-changer had been Casey Stoner; in 2013, it was Marc Marquez.
Lorenzo started the year well at Qatar, but raced at Austin knowing he could not beat the Hondas. At Jerez, he got a rude awakening, when Marc Marquez barged him aside in the final corner. His worst finish since his rookie year at Le Mans was followed by two wins, Lorenzo regaining his confidence and feeling he had the championship back under control.
As 2014 gets underway, we start our build up towards the upcoming MotoGP season. This starts all this week with a look back at the performance of the riders in 2013, rating the top ten in the championship, as well as exceptional performers last year. Later this month, we will start to look forward, highlighting what we can expect of the season to come, both in terms of riders and the new regulations for 2014. The new season starts here.
|Marc Marquez||Repsol Honda|
How would Marc Marquez fare in MotoGP? It was the question on everybody's lips at the start of 2013, as the young Spaniard left the class he had dominated to play with the big boys. It would be Marquez' moment of truth: throughout his career in the junior classes, he had always been in the best teams. Many outside observers also claimed he had been on the best bike in Moto2. In 2013, Moto2 teams who had competed against him were free to concede that Marquez had won despite his Suter, not because of it.
Their words were backed by Marquez' action. Accepted wisdom holds that a rookie year is for learning, for getting to grips with a MotoGP bike, having a few big crashes, chasing the odd podium and maybe even a win. Marquez did all that and more, but how he did it marked him out as one of a kind. His first podium came in his first race, the Spaniard benefiting from problems Dani Pedrosa suffered with the dusty Qatar surface. His first win came a race later, smashing what would be one of many records in MotoGP. Youngest race winner, youngest champion, youngest rider to set a fastest lap, youngest polesitter, youngest back-to-back winner, youngest to win four races in a row, most wins as a rookie, most poles as a rookie, highest points total for a rookie; the list goes on and on. Marquez broke records held by Freddie Spencer, Kenny Roberts, Mike Hailwood. These are very big boots to fill, yet fill them he did.
The 2013 Australian Grand Prix at Phillip Island - likely to be known henceforth as 'The Debacle Down Under' - taught us many things. It taught us that tire companies need to find ways to test at newly surfaced tracks (especially when a newly retired world champion and now Honda test rider lives in the same country), that pit stops in dry conditions are potentially dangerous when each stint is less than 10 laps, and that hurriedly changing rules and race lengths are far from ideal when trying to organize a MotoGP race. Those were the lessons that were immediately obvious to anyone watching.
There were more subtle lessons from Phillip Island as well. Marc Marquez' disqualification was not just a failure of either strategy or his ability to read a pit board, it was also a sign of growing tensions inside the Repsol Honda box. The reactions of the various members of Marquez' crew after he failed to enter the pits to swap bikes at the end of lap 10 (shown in an excellent free video on the MotoGP.com website) suggests a deep-seated failure of communication among the entire crew. Most of his crew appeared to be surprised and shocked when Marquez didn't come in to swap bikes, but Marquez' inner circle, Emilio Alzamora and Santi Hernandez, appear unperturbed as he races by on the lap that would lead to his disqualification. Cristian Gabarrini, formerly Casey Stoner's crew chief and now HRC engineer assisting Marquez' team, is immediately certain of the consequences, the cutting motion across the throat showing he knows it's over.
After the race, Marc Marquez told reporters that it had been deliberate strategy to ride for the extra lap. The strategy had been decided by a small group. 'We made the plan together, with three or four guys, with Santi [Hernandez] and with Emilio [Alzamora],' Marquez said, but the plan had backfired. 'The biggest problem was that we thought that it was possible to make that lap,' Marquez said, expressing his surprise at being black flagged. He had thought the penalty was for speeding in the pit lane or crossing the white line too early.
Talking to the Spanish media, Marquez was a little more explicit. 'We knew we had to enter on lap 9 or lap 10, and we thought we could enter the pits on lap 10. This was always the plan, to enter on the last lap possible, and we thought this was the last lap possible.' It was not, and that lap would lead to his disqualification.
After the initial disappointment at the death of the 250cc two strokes, the advent of the Moto2 class raised hopes that Grand Prix racing would enter a new era of chassis innovation, as the teams spent the money saved on engine development on exploring novel solutions to the problem of hustling a motorcycle around a circuit is the shortest time possible. The first set of designs unveiled did little to feed that hope, with most bikes being of the aluminium twin beam variety which is standard in most sports and racing machinery, with a couple of tubular trellis frames thrown in for good measure.
Even that variety did not last. The trellis frames were the first to go - mostly as a result of the extra weight the design created - and the number of chassis manufacturers dropped from 13 in the first year to 6 in 2013. Even that figure gives an inflated picture of the variety in the paddock: 28 out of the 32 permanent entries form Moto2 this year use either the Kalex, Suter or Speed Up chassis. The bikes vary in stiffness, in aerodynamic detail and in aesthetics, but other than that, they are virtually identical.
Why did the factory Yamaha team head to the Motorland Aragon circuit to join Honda and Suzuki at a private test? Was it perhaps to give Jorge Lorenzo and Valentino Rossi their first taste of the seamless gearbox Yamaha have been developing, to counter Honda's advantage? That is the question which many fans have been asking, and in recent days - and weeks - I have been inundated with questions about the seamless gearbox. Well, question, singular, actually, as it all boils down to just the one: When will Yamaha finally start to race their seamless gearbox?
It is a question I have been trying to pursue since the start of the season, since rumors first emerged that they may have used the gearbox at the first race of the year. All inquiries I made, at all levels of the Yamaha organization, received the same answers: Yes, Yamaha is developing a seamless gearbox, and is testing it back in Japan. No, Yamaha has not yet raced it, and has no plans to race it. And no, it is not yet ready to be tested.
The decision by HRC to stage a private testing session at the Austin MotoGP circuit in March unleashed a wave of criticism in some circles, especially from other teams. Yamaha eventually decided to join the Repsol Honda and LCR Honda teams at the track, but only after much internal deliberation, taking only a skeleton crew to the test. Ducati refused to go altogether as a political statement, saying that the costs were simply too high for them to ship all their equipment from Europe to the US, and then back again in time for the final IRTA test at Jerez. The costs involved have caused some inside the paddock to call for a ban on private testing, to prevent this situation from being repeated.
Certainly, the bare cost of testing at Austin was close to astronomical. Sources in Sepang reported that testing at the Circuit of the Americas would cost around 350,000 euros in total for the three days, including shipping, track rental, staff flights, accommodation, insurance and all the other odds and ends that are involved in traveling. That is a real stretch for Yamaha, the team already operating on a tight budget, and well beyond the reach of the satellite teams, with the exception of LCR Honda, who had some help in getting there. Even for the mighty Honda, largest and richest of the motorcycle manufacturers, dropping that kind of coin on a three-day test pushes budgets to the limit, and it is not a simple decision to take.
So how did HRC manage to afford it? The answer is simple: marketing footage. The private MotoGP test at Austin was not just a chance for Dani Pedrosa and Marc Marquez to get to learn the track at Austin. It was also a chance for HRC to unleash their marketing department, unhampered by the restrictions of filming at a Dorna-organized event.
When the news that Dorna would be taking over World Superbikes broke, there was a wave of outrage among fans, expressing the fear that the Spanish company would set about destroying the series they had grown to love. So far, Dorna have been careful not to get involved in debates about the technical regulations which seem to be so close to fans' hearts, their only criteria so far appearing to be a demand that bikes should cost 250,000 euros for an entire season. Yet they have already make one move which has a serious negative impact on the series: they are clamping down on video footage from inside the paddock.
There was some consternation - and there is still some confusion - about the situation at the first round of WSBK at Phillip Island at the end of February. Where previously, teams and journalists had been free to shoot various videos inside the paddock, there were mixed signals coming from Dorna management, with some people told there was an outright and immediate ban, with threats of serious consequences should it be ignored, while others were saying that they had heard nothing on the subject. That Dorna is determined to reduce the amount of free material on Youtube became immediately clear after the race weekend was over: in previous years, brief, two-minute race summaries would appear on the official World Superbike Youtube channel after every weekend. After the first race of 2013, only the post-race interviews were posted on the site. It is a long-standing Dorna policy to try to strictly control what ends up on Youtube and what doesn't. It is their most serious mistake, and one which could end up badly damaging the sport unless it is changed very soon.
This is a battle that has been going on inside Dorna, and many other major companies involved in motorcycle racing. It is about a fundamental change in the media landscape, a shift away from centralized control towards a diffuse and distributed form of media broadcasting, communication strategy and promotion. It is a shift that is permanent, affects the way in which sports are promoted and monetized, and radically alters the balance of power throughout all levels of the sport. The old hierarchies are dead, and trying to maintain them will merely end up crippling motorcycle racing.
This is part 1 of a new series entitled 'Under the Radar'. In it, we will be looking at stories we believe will have a major impact on MotoGP and World Superbikes in the next season, but which are not currently receiving much attention. While everyone expects Marc Marquez in MotoGP to be a big story, or Valentino Rossi's return to Yamaha, these are the stories which you won't hear much about by the start of the season, but which could end up playing a major role in 2013.
Everyone can guess the big names that are likely to make an impact in MotoGP in 2013: Marc Marquez will clearly be an exciting rookie to watch, Valentino Rossi should be competitive on a Yamaha, Pol Espargaro looks set to dominate Moto2, and Maverick Viñales and Luis Salom will be major players in Moto3. But look beyond the obvious candidates, and there are a number of candidates who could cause a surprise in 2013. Here are some of the riders to watch this season.
The Red Bull Rookie Invasion
The Red Bull Rookie Cup was set up to give young riders from around the world a shot at getting into MotoGP. The subtext has always been to avoid having a single nation or championship (i.e. the Spanish CEV championship) being the only viable route for anyone with aspirations of riding in MotoGP. In that, it has been remarkably successful, with its record improving with every year.