Photos

Tue, 2020-07-28 11:09
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Four days previously, Marc Marquez was having a titanium plate and 12 screws fitted to his broken arm


KTM is chock-a-block with talent. Miguel Oliveira shone at the second round at Jerez through practice...


... But was taken out in the first corner by his once and future teammate


The new normal on the grid, in the searing heat


Ducati's shapeshifter in action: Jack Miller's GP20 looks like a drag bike on corner exit.


2 from 2 for #20


Back on the podium after 15 months away. Making an old man (and his old friends) very happy


Joan Mir buries the bike on the brakes


Jerez 2 was a good deal less successful than Jerez 1 for Andrea Dovizoso


Pramac Ducati in hot pursuit of Maverick Viñales.Jack Miller would crash, Pecco Bagnaia suffer an engine failure


Surprise package of the weekend: Takaaki Nakagami scored his best ever result in MotoGP by finishing fourth


Brad Binder showed he was fast once again, but another mistake in the race, this time in the first corner, left him empty-handed


No easy days in MotoGP. But some days are tougher than others


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Tue, 2020-07-21 18:00
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Protective equipment and a safe distance apart: Motorcycle racing has always been ready


Cal Crutchlow got caught out in a crash in warm up, fracturing a scaphoid. One of two rider forced to miss the race due to injury


Suzuki's Alex Rins was the other, breaking his arm in a crash during qualifying. It would be a tough weekend at Jerez


If anything, the masks make MotoGP riders look even more badass


Andrea Dovizioso had never scored a MotoGP podium at Jerez until Sunday. The best possible start to the 2020 MotoGP season


Jerez showed that KTM have arrived. Pol Espargaro was genuinely competitive. This is a true MotoGP machine now


If you had said in 2016 that Valentino Rossi would have stood aside to let Marc Marquez pass, you would have been laughed out of the circuit


KTM, Ducati, Aprilia: MotoGP 2020 style is closer than ever


Man of the moment. First win for Fabio Quartararo, but definitely not the last


It was a good weekend all round for Ducati. Pecco Bagnaia had the kind of race Ducati expected of him in 2019


Foreshadowing, I think they call it


Take away Brad Binder's excursion on lap 7, and he had the pace for second. Big things expected of the South African


If you'd like to have very high-resolution (4K) versions of the fantastic photos which appear on the site, you can become a site supporter and take out a subscription. A subscription will also give you access to the many in-depth and exclusive articles we produce for MotoMatters.com site supporters. The more readers who join our growing band of site supporters, the better we can make MotoMatters.com, and the more readers will get out of the website. You can find out more about subscribing to MotoMatters.com here. You can also see these photos and all our subscriber material on our Patreon page.

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Sun, 2020-07-12 23:42
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Andrea Dovizioso at the 2020 Qatar MotoGP test - Photo by Rob Gray, Polarity Photo

66 million years ago, an object somewhere between the size of Mt. Everest and the country of Luxembourg (or the island of Puerto Rico) slammed into what would become the Yucatan peninsula in Mexico at a speed of 20 kilometers per second, or 72,000 km/h. The impact that an asteroid of that size moving at that speed made was unimaginably vast: scientists estimate that the energy released was around 100 million times that produced by Tsar Bomba, the most powerful hydrogen bomb ever built. The devastation that impact caused, helped along by wide-scale volcanic eruptions and climate change, killed a large percentage of life on earth, wiping out virtually all land and amphibian species larger than 25kg in body weight.

It could happen again. Objects from outer space hit the earth with alarming regularity. 50,000 years ago, a nickel-iron meteorite 50 meters across struck Arizona, creating the aptly named Meteor Crater. In 1908, a slightly larger object exploded a few kilometers above the forests of Siberia, near Tunguska, flattening 80 million trees. And in 2013, a 20 meter object lit up the skies above Chelyabinsk in Russia, eventually detonating some 30 kilometers up. The ensuing explosion and shock wave destroyed windows and damaged buildings in an area a hundred kilometers long and tens of kilometers in length.

These are just a few examples. The University of New Brunswick maintains the Earth Impact Database, containing 190 different impact craters known on earth. Dozens of those are large enough that the aftermath would have had been large enough to have a global effect on life on earth. Meteor or asteroid impacts pose a real threat to civilization, and indeed all life on Planet Earth. Impacts the size of the Chicxulub impactor, that wiped out the dinosaurs, occur on average once every 65 million years. The Chicxulub meteor struck the earth 66 million years ago.

Game of chance

How do we handle a risk like that, a risk with a massive downside but relatively low probability? NASA, as well as other space agencies around the world, have set up a Planetary Defense Program, the most significant part of which is spent on mapping at least 90% of the objects 140 meters or larger which cross the earth's orbit. Over the past 12 years, NASA has spent around $645 million trying to map these objects and devise ways to prevent a collision.

Is $645 million enough, given the risk that life as we know it could be wiped out in an instant? Or is this way too much to invest, given the low probability of a collision actually occurring any time soon? After all, so far, none of the objects over 140 meters identified by NASA will collide with the earth within the next 100 years.

What do meteor impacts and trying to avoid them have to do with motorcycle racing? The debate on how to handle the risk of a meteor or asteroid slamming into the earth follows the same lines as the debate over whether contracted MotoGP or WorldSBK riders should be allowed to ride motocross as a way to train. Should a rider on a multi-million dollar contract be allowed to risk injury in what is very obviously a highly dangerous sport? Or is the risk of injury riding MX outweighed by the benefits of fitness and sharpness which MX bikes can bring?

Training is a necessity

On one side of the equation, there are the benefits which motocross brings. First, there is simple fitness. "I always ride motocross, also after 2010, because I like it," Valentino Rossi said at Mugello in 2017, after suffering chest injuries in an MX incident. "I enjoy it a lot and I think it's the best training, physically and mentally." The physical intensity of riding a motocross bike for 20 or 30 minutes is one of the most demanding things you can do. It improves your aerobic fitness, and builds up the muscles you use while riding a motorcycle.

"The unfortunate thing about motocross is it's going to bite you eventually," Brad Binder, KTM's MotoGP rookie told us recently. "It's just a matter of time. The thing for me is I'd rather take the risk because for me there's no better form of training and it's something I really enjoy. So that's my go-to if I really want to have a good days training. I find that it makes you work extremely hard and I've always loved motocross too. It's always been the thing for me."

But it's not just fitness. JD Beach is one of the most accomplished all-round motorcycle racers currently competing, racing in both the MotoAmerica Superbikes class and in the American Flat Track series. Like most racers, Beach is also a keen motocross rider, and has used as both a training method and a way of improving his skills.

Transferable skills

Beach draws a parallel with other sports. "When college teams are looking to recruit school players (Football, baseball, basketball) they look for kids that have played more than one sport," he explains. "Having played more than one sport will help in different areas as far as building skills and help with not getting burned out on the sport you are really focused on."

This same multidisciplinary approach can pay dividends in road racing too. There are things that can be practiced on an MX track which help out on the asphalt. "I think riding motocross is a great tool to use to improve your skills," Beach explains. "How many times have you been at a GP race and hear that a track is hard to pass on? Remember these tracks are super wide, I’ve caught myself saying that before. But when the track is that wide you should be able to change your line up by just inches and make a pass happen."

That is something you can practice on an MX bike, Beach says. "On a motocross track, they are wide but not as wide as road race tracks, but like road race tracks they have a preferred line, usually a good rut. But when you go out riding and are eating roost of the guy in front of you, running the same ruts as you, you have to either give up and slow down or force yourself to change your line up some and get by them. It's good to work on that during a time that there is no money or points up for grabs. If you lose time it doesn’t matter."

Practice makes perfect

"Then there is the riding skill side of things. Even though it is dirt and different bikes, they still have the same components (throttle, brakes, clutch, shifter)," Beach explains. That makes it possible to try things out which you can apply to the track. "When I first got on the Factory 600 team with Yamaha [in MotoAmerica], I took Cameron Beaubier’s spot when he moved to SBK. The first year for me wasn’t great, and the bike was very hard to ride for me because it had been built around how Cameron rode."

"He was very good at basically overlapping braking into the turn and rolling back onto the gas," Beach says. "Something that I wasn’t used to, so once we learned that I was struggling there I could go back and ride motocross, where you do use a lot of front brakes and have front end grip. I could practice this and get that feeling. It took some time and there were crashes on the brakes, but at much lower speeds and not destroying bikes like you would at a test or track day."

Being able to practice new skills and different techniques is extremely valuable, Beach believes. And the fact that motocross tracks are fairly ubiquitous makes it even more appealing. "Could you learn that type of thing with different kinds of riding? Probably. But having a motocross bike and finding motocross tracks around the world is pretty simple."

Keeping the flame alive

Riding MX may be risky, but it is still safer than other forms of training. Crash at a circuit, and you risk serious injury because of the speeds involved. "Most of the people that I’ve trained with know that using motocross is a tool to improve their road racing," Beach explains. "They want to take risks that are safer, if that makes sense. Knowing your riding skills, you want to push yourself, so on a race weekend you can do that as well, but being smart about it at the same time."

A key, and perhaps underrated aspect of motocross is that it helps keep riding and training fun. Preventing burnout and the mental fatigue over a long season can be just as important as the physical aspect. "Also, riding motocross is something really fun for road racers, I think," Beach points out. "Most racers have been road racing their whole lives. Having at least 15 plus weekends of racing, then testing on top of that, it's not always fun to get back on your race bike for training during your free time."

This is where motocross can make the difference. "Being on a motorcycle both during the season and in the off season is very important, I feel. Most riders have a crew of guys they ride and train with, so when you go to your local motocross track it's a fun, low- or no-pressure time. We all race motorcycles because we love it, but during those tough race weekends with tons of pressure on you, you can lose sight of that love. Those week day motos and laughs can quickly rekindle that love. Then going into the next race weekend it can come down to the old adage of 'a happy rider, is a fast rider'."

Real risk lies elsewhere

Those are the benefits, but what about the risks? What good is improving your fitness and working on your skills if you are laid up at home come the race because you broke your leg in a motocross crash?

Bradley Smith at the 2020 Qatar MotoGP test - photo Cormac Ryan Meenan

Aprilia test rider – and substitute for Andrea Iannone for the start of the 2020 MotoGP season – Bradley Smith, also a fervent motocross rider, offers a counterargument. "Why do people push to the absolute maximum and risk crashing in qualifying, pushing for their fastest lap, when you don't get any points?" the Englishman says. "So it's risk vs reward there, because is one or two places in starting position going to make any difference to the championship? No. But people do try, and people go all out."

If there's an argument that improved grid position might give a rider more options during the race, that's not the case the rest of the weekend, Smith points out. "OK, that's your job, but when there's no points involved whatsoever, the question is why does anyone push in FP1, FP2, or even in testing. Why at Sepang does everyone go absolutely crazy in testing at 10am, banging in new tires, setting a lap time, and then ride around 2 seconds a lap slower for the rest of the day? In the laws of motorbikes, it doesn't really make any sense, because what actually matters is where you are on Sunday after 25 laps. What you do leading up to that point is kind of pointless, because it certainly brings no points to the table."

Of course there is a reason why people push so hard in free practice and testing. But, Smith points out, exactly the same justification applies to riding an MX bike. "So if we treat Friday and Saturday a little bit like motocross, it's just preparation. It's preparation so that when you arrive on Sunday afternoon at 2 o'clock, that you're ready to go. Whether that's sharpening your skills, waking up your senses, feeling better, mental clarity, a bit of adrenaline going; whatever it is that puts you up for a better position on Sunday, surely that's the best way to go about it."

Banged up at Buriram

There is a very recent example of riders taking extreme risks during qualifying, Smith points out. "I remember watching Thailand from home last year, seeing Marc and Fabio, Rossi, throw it away. There's that fast left and then into that next tight left on the bump, Turn 5, quite a few of them threw it down on the bump and crashed there. The question is, why? You're going to start on the front row anyway? But it is worth it, whether that's from an ego point of view or just because a racer is wired up that way."

That crash turned out to be a costly one for Marc Márquez. The Repsol Honda rider dislocated his shoulder on the day before his first shot at wrapping up the 2019 MotoGP title. Though Márquez got the job done the next day, pipping Fabio Quartararo at the post and clinching the championship with a victory, the injury was bad enough to warrant surgery at the end of the season, immediately after the Jerez MotoGP test.

This is in line with the broader point Smith is trying to make. "I don't want to go into the specifics of motocross or dirt track or supermoto or minibikes or something like that, because I don't think this is about specifics," the Aprilia rider says. "Everyone needs to look at the bigger scheme of things. Whatever a rider deems beneficial to help them arrive better on Sunday, then that's what they have to do. And on their head be it, if you're one of those guys who is willing to throw it down because you want to be the fastest guy, but you risk crashing and hurting yourself."

Lucky bounce

Luck plays a part here, Smith believes, luck in physical resistance to injury and the ability to absorb crashes. "At the end of the day, if Marc crashed and hurt himself every time he'd fallen in MotoGP, he wouldn't be world champion at the moment," Smith says. "I think he's fortunate in that position, because someone like Dani [Pedrosa] has crashed and hurt himself every time that he's crashed. So does that mean that Dani can't push until the race, because if does crash and hurt himself it's over? It just ends up in that Catch 22."

Success, or a lack of it, colors perception, Smith believes. "Marc could have easily hurt himself in free practice, and at the moment everyone calls him a genius. Because they say, 'oh yeah, Marc finds the limit in practice and qualifying and then he tidies it up for the race'. Well, not all of us are that lucky! Not all of us are that lucky to crash 25 times in one season and carry on and get up with no injuries and so on. Some of us hit the ground less than ten times a year, and end up with two nasty injuries or tweaks of something or whatever, and that affects you for the next three races."

Márquez would be viewed differently if he didn't bounce so well, Smith believes. "If Marc had hurt himself in even 25% of those crashes per season, and then not been able to ride on Sunday or struggled outside of the top ten, would people ask, why is Marc taking unnecessary risks on weekends?"

No news is good news

The other factor, according to Bradley Smith, is that the outside world only hears about racers riding motocross when someone gets injured, and this skews their perception of risk. "People only have a negative outlook on it when it has a negative effect, but if you knew how many times guys were riding motocross, or dirt track or supermoto or something like that, which I think social media is starting to tell how many people are doing it, but it's a low number in terms of amount of laps ridden and amount of problems had," Smith points out. Yes, there's a common denominator in terms of, wow, a lot of guys are saying when they ride motocross they get injuries. Yeah, because motocross seems to be the common denominator in terms of what people are riding."

Not riding motocross would not necessarily reduce the numbers of injuries, however. Marc Márquez has injured himself crashing a mountain bike, and broken a hand in a flat track crash. It is common for fanatical cyclists like Cal Crutchlow and Aleix Espargaro to turn up with scabs on knees, arms, and elbows having fallen off their bicycles. Crutchlow managed to take a chunk out of his hand using a cheese wire, and Valentino Rossi suffered cuts when he fell on a glass table at home.

All this means that people who aren't racers are failing to see the big picture, of how the risk is inherent in training, rather than in motocross. "Because so many guys do motocross, it seems to be the recurring thing of, oh, someone's hurt themselves doing motocross," Smith says. "But if tennis was the sport of choice, and people were doing tennis, I think we'd also see a guy out with, I don't know, a pulled groin or a twisted or sprained ankle or a shoulder injury or something like that. I just think it's by chance. Because people are doing motocross, they get injured doing motocross."

Quick recovery

Are the rewards of motocross worth the risks? The question has been brought to the forefront once again by Andrea Dovizioso breaking a collarbone in a round of a regional MX championship two weeks ago. Dovizioso told Ducati he wanted to take part in a motocross race, because the adrenaline of a real race situation sharpened the senses in a way which is impossible to simulate while training. But could the decision to race and the subsequent crash have cost him the 2020 championship?

Although it's still too early to say definitively, that seems highly unlikely. Dovizioso's injury was a clean fracture which the doctors quickly plated. Riders tend to come back quickly after breaking their collarbones and race without too much ill effect. Who can forget Jorge Lorenzo breaking his collarbone during free practice on Thursday at Assen in 2013, flying to Barcelona to get the collarbone plated, then returning to race on the Saturday, and finishing fifth?

Ten years worth of risk

That was a crash on a race weekend. When was the last time a training accident had an outcome on the MotoGP title? You would have to go back a decade, to Valentino Rossi crashing while riding a modified MX bike in the disused quarry he used to train at. He badly injured his shoulder in the crash, which took place after the opening round of MotoGP at Qatar in 2010, and after the second race of the season, at Motegi, had been rescheduled for October due to the eruption of the Eyjafallajökull volcano on Iceland, which threw vast quantities of ash into the atmosphere and brought air travel in Europe almost to a standstill.

Valentino Rossi at Indianapolis, 2010, after his return from a broken leg - photo Scott Jones

Rossi was already facing a severe challenge from his teammate, Jorge Lorenzo, who had pushed him hard for the title in 2009 and was mounting an even stronger charge in 2010. Rossi's weakened shoulder from the training crash put him at a disadvantage throughout the first half of the season, and forcing him to push perhaps harder than he felt comfortable doing. As a result, Rossi had a huge crash at Mugello, breaking his leg and forcing him to miss four races.

The broken leg may have cost Valentino Rossi the 2010 championship, but a case can be made that he only found himself in that situation because of the shoulder injury sustained in training.

From that perspective, the risk of riding motocross, or any other form of training on a motorcycle, seems acceptable. Injuries happen, but they have far less of an impact on the championship than injuries sustained while actually participating in races or practice.

Just ask Dani Pedrosa. Or Jorge Lorenzo, who probably lost the 2013 championship because of that crash in Assen. Or Loris Capirossi, whose huge smash in the first corner at Barcelona in 2006 put him out of the title chase that season. Or Casey Stoner, who lost his chance of defending his title in 2012 when he destroyed his ankle during practice at Indianapolis.

Calculated risk

So sure, training on a motocross bike is a risky business. It is possible to bang yourself up so badly that you miss races, or are forced to ride hurt and make mistakes. But the chances of serious injury are low enough that it is worth the risks, and there are ways of reducing the risk even further. "I always find I never try to really push on too hard with motocross," Brad Binder says. "I just try to maybe ride around at 80% and just use it more for the training benefits."

That is how riding motocross is like choosing not to blow most of NASA's budget pursuing every possible option to locate and destroy asteroids and meteors which could cause significant damage to planet earth. Yes, there is a risk of something terrible happening which could prove to be very costly indeed. But when you look at the odds involved, the risk is worth it. You do what you can to mitigate the risks, and hope it works out. In the case of NASA, that means spending a smaller amount cataloging objects in space which might be a threat. In the case of MotoGP riders, that means making sure to take only calculated risks on a motocross bike. So far, that gamble has paid off.


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Sat, 2020-07-11 08:00
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Andrea Dovizioso on the podium at the 2019 round of MotoGP at Spielberg, Austria - Photo Cormac Ryan Meenan

A strange week in the rider market took another turn with the threat from Simone Battistella, manager of Andrea Dovizioso, claiming that his rider would sit out 2021 in search of the right opportunity the following year.

It’s a brave gamble to take, but with Dovi set to be 36 years old by the time the season starts in 2022, it looks like a hollow threat. If Dovi sits out a year at this stage of his career, he would find it very difficult to get back on a competitive bike in the MotoGP field.

As things stand who has more leverage? Ducati, with Jack Miller under contract - not to mention having Johann Zarco, Pecco Bagnaia and a host of other riders waiting in the wings - or a 34-year-old veteran threatening to call time on his MotoGP career?

Youth vs experience

The answer seems pretty much self-evident. Speak to MotoGP managers about riders, and they will tell you that age is a big factor, preferring youthful potential over age and experience. This is one reason managers give when you ask them about signing riders from the WorldSBK paddock: they are too old, is the general consensus, with teams preferring to take a risk on a young rider from Moto2.

Andrea Dovizioso faces the same fate. If he chooses to sit out 2021, it is more likely that Ducati will choose to reshuffle their current stock of talent to make room for a fast youngster from Moto2 in either Pramac or Avintia, rather than give in to Dovizioso's demands.

It’s a sad state of affairs for Dovizioso as he clearly deserves to be paid. He’s finished second in the championship for the last three years and is closing on Casey Stoner’s record number of podiums for Ducati. He should feel aggrieved, and his manager should be flexing his bargaining muscles.

Deja vu

Could we have seen a foreshadowing of these negotiations in the WorldSBK paddock, perhaps? The news that Michael van der Mark elected to leave Yamaha for BMW in WorldSBK was greeted with a gasp by many. After enjoying a very successful three-year stint (sound familiar?) with the Japanese manufacturer, he opted for BMW. Why did he leave and will he be the only free agent to make a similarly surprising decision?

There are plenty of tea leaves that can be read about what we’re seeing in the rider market, but Van der Mark could be a telling domino to fall. His reasons for leaving will be varied, performance and potential will have counted, but we’ll see in the coming months that money, as always, will be a very important factor in the rider market.

Having won races, including the Suzuka 8 Hours for Yamaha, the Dutchman would have expected to see a certain offer come his way. When it was less, he may have felt it was best to look at his other options. It’s not an easy decision for a rider to leave a team and a bike that has proven successful. But it does become easier when the numbers don’t add up.

Money's too tight to mention

The COVID-19 pandemic has hit the motorcycle industry hard. Factories were forced to shut down production and dealerships in many countries remained closed for a prolonged period of time. The realities of that shutdown have set in; penny pinching has become a key reality for many.

The same pattern is being seen across the sport. Dovizioso will find that at the negotiating table with Ducati. The same is rumoured to be happening to Chaz Davies in WorldSBK, and other personnel within the Italian squad. When belts are being tightened, it gets harder and harder for everyone.

Leverage?

“Ducati prefers to wait a few races before starting the negotiation with Dovizioso,” explained Battistella to the Spanish DAZN "Cambia el mapa MotoGP podcast. “The rider always wants a better bike to win, a constant evolution on all technical aspects. The rider always wants more. Of course, Andrea wants the bike to go better, especially in certain situations in which the circuits do not adapt to the characteristics of the bike. I think it is a normal aspect, which always happens, but I also think that the rider should improve his way of interpreting the bike.

“In recent years I’ve noticed that the Márquez-Honda pairing has managed to create a harmony with the rider that no one else has. That combination has shown everyone a different style: the bike must support the characteristics of the rider and rider must be able to interpret the bike in the best way. Others should seek that.

“Everyone could see the tension [last year]. When things get tough, there is tension. In any box, when results don’t come there is tension. It’s not a unique situation. Those tensions don’t necessarily mean negativity, because both have the same objective. Ducati and Dovizioso have been the only ones who have competed with HRC and Márquez in the Championship. The only alternative to Márquez has been Ducati and Dovizioso and that has also been the result of tension.”

Negotiating package

Moving forward in the silly season the majority of MotoGP seats are filled, and if Dovizioso did opt to sit for a year it would be a move that would all but end his career as a premier class title challenger. As Battistella commented, it is now difficult to win in MotoGP if you don’t have the package where a rider can adapt to the bike and the team adapt to the man sitting on the bike.

This is almost certainly where the two parties are at odds. For Battistella, the priority has always been the entire package, and not just the financial side of a contract. But money means something too: the budget a factory is willing to spend on a rider is a reflection of their commitment to winning in MotoGP. If they are cutting corners with the rider, it may mean they are spending less on the project than they need to win.

With that in mind, and the Covid-19 reductions in resources, there are still some very interesting deals to follow. What happens at Aprilia in MotoGP? Will Davies stay with Ducati? Who will replace Van der Mark at Yamaha? The most interesting players to follow will be behind the scenes with rider managers looking to earn their crust and grow their reputations. It can be a risky game to play but one that the rewards can be big.


This is part of a series of articles published in partnership with RacingLowdown.com, run by MotoMatters.com contributor Steve English.

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Fri, 2020-07-10 11:23
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Valentino Rossi at the 2020 Qatar MotoGP test - Photo Cormac Ryan Meenan

It appears that the deal is done. Italian media, including La Gazzetta dello Sport and GPOne.com, are reporting that Valentino Rossi has reached agreement with Yamaha for a new two-year deal to race in the Petronas Yamaha squad. The deal is to be announced during the weekend of the first MotoGP round once it resumes at Jerez next weekend.

The deal will initially be for 2021, with an option to extend the contract for a second year to 2022. Rossi will take a seat in the Petronas Yamaha squad alongside VR46 protege Franco Morbidelli, who should also be announcing a new contract soon.

The announcement will bring a long period of speculation to an end. Valentino Rossi appears to have enjoyed spending so much time at home during lockdown, with his family and girlfriend, giving rise to rumors he was seriously considering retirement. Rossi had previously said that he had wanted to wait until after the first few European races in 2020 before making a decision on his future.

Ducati's aggressive pursuit of both Maverick Viñales and Fabio Quartararo had already forced Yamaha's hand at the beginning of the year. The two youngsters were signed to the factory Monster Energy Yamaha team for 2021 and 2022, complicating Rossi's decision further. If he wanted to continue racing, he would have to move to the satellite Petronas Yamaha squad. Yamaha at least promised him a fully factory-supported Yamaha M1 if he did decided to continue.

The COVID-19 pandemic and the ensuing disruption to the 2020 MotoGP season wrecked Rossi's initial plans to wait before making a decision. With the first half of the season canceled, postponed, or rescheduled, Rossi was forced to reconsider his options. It would not be possible for the Italian to make his choice based on results; the criteria he had previously given to make a judgment was whether he felt he could be competitive.

Given the curtailed 2020 MotoGP season and the very different environment in which it will take place, it seems that Rossi did not feel that this year would be a good yardstick by which to judge whether he is still capable of winning races, or perhaps even a championship. And as a consequence, he has decided to keep racing for at least one more season, with an option to assess his performance in 2021 with a view to racing in 2022 as well.

So far, there are no details on what exactly is included in the deal. Previously, the sticking point between Petronas and Rossi involved the number of people the Italian wanted to bring into the Petronas squad. In all his previous moves, Rossi has brought his entire crew with him every time he has switched manufacturers.

The vast majority of his team accompanied him from Honda to Yamaha, from Yamaha to Ducati, and back again from Ducati to Yamaha. But Petronas team boss Razlan Razali told The Race's Simon Patterson that they did not want the disruption which bringing an entire garage crew in for possibly just a single season would involve. Razali told The Race that Petronas would only have room for two crew from Rossi's factory team, one of whom would almost certainly be the crew chief. How many people make the switch, and what happens to the mechanics and engineers who don't move with Rossi remains to be seen.

Rossi's deal removes one of the larger question marks hanging over the 2021 grid, but a couple of major issues remain. What happens in the factory Ducati squad, whether Andrea Dovizioso returns, and whether Cal Crutchlow takes the second seat in the factory Aprilia team will likely take a little longer to play out.


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Wed, 2020-07-01 16:30
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Michael van der Mark at the 2019 WorldSBK round at Assen - Photo by Tony Goldsmith

The WorldSBK rumour mill spun into action by the news that Michael van der Mark would leave Yamaha at the end of this season. The Dutchman has enjoyed a very successful three seasons with the Crescent Racing-run operation, and there’s little to suggest that he won’t be winning races this year.

The news was first broken by Speedweek, with Ivo Schutzbach reporting that Van der Mark would switch to BMW. The website has always had their finger on the pulse of what’s happening at BMW, so it would be little surprise if this rumour turns into fact very soon. The news, though, is still a surprise.

How did it all come to this?

Van der Mark and Yamaha had seemed like a perfect match for much of their time together. The 2014 Supersport World Champion arrived and formed one of the strongest line-ups in WorldSBK when he was paired with Alex Lowes. There was little friction between the two, and their relationship grew into one of great respect and, as much as is possible in racing, friendship.

The relaxed nature that Van der Mark brings to proceedings was always seen as a key for this. He’s hard to fluster but he does know what he wants. His manager, Laurens Klein Koerkamp, also knows what he wants and typically that’s been a high number.

Why do riders leave teams?

There are a lot of reasons that go into the decision to switch teams. Money is a factor, performance is another, but so is ego.

The coronavirus has hit lots of companies hard and motorcycle manufacturers are no different. With Razgatlioglu under contract for this year and next, it’s likely that his salary is unaffected. For a free-agent like Van der Mark that wouldn’t be the case, and he could have been looking at a drop in wages at a time in his career when he would be unwilling to take one.

Having finished third in the Superbike World Championship, won races and been successful at Suzuka, Van der Mark will certainly feel that he’s proven himself to Yamaha. He would want to be paid. In the past his Yamaha contract included the Suzuka 8 Hours, rather than having a separate Suzuka contract, and with Yamaha not racing as a factory outfit in Suzuka this year the budgets for Van der Mark’s contract might have had to come from a shallower pool than normal. With budgets getting tighter and tighter it would have been difficult to give Van der Mark what he wanted. BMW certainly won’t be afraid to splash the cash if it leads to signing Van der Mark.

Feeling wanted

In addition to money, always a good indicator of a rider’s worth to a manufacturer, ego shouldn’t be discounted. It isn’t always the ego of riders though that is the determining factor. Sometimes, like Valentino Rossi leaving Honda, it can be the pride of a manufacturer that causes the rift.

The internal struggles at Yamaha haven’t been far from the surface in recent years. The meeting offices for the Japanese manufacturer have been a battle ground, and that battle has centred on control.

Who runs the show? Is it Paul Denning? Or is it Andrea Dosoli? Denning, the Team Principal, had been used to running his own operation for years. That power has been eroded throughout the partnership between Crescent Racing and Yamaha, with Dosoli, Yamaha’s project leader, making more and more decisions. It can’t have been easy for Denning to see his decision making powers given less and less muscle.

Performance is certainly one factor that can be discounted from the decision making process for Van der Mark. The Yamaha R1 is a race winning package that should be even stronger this year with the upgrades from the new model.

Equal rights

When all factors are taken into account that they’ll split at the end of 2020 is a surprise but not a shock. During the winter one old hand of the paddock told me, “Riders are competitive. They hate when their teammate is being treated differently to them. Even if it’s for stuff they don’t like doing, they can’t stand it if their teammate is getting the attention.”

That was something that rang in my ears from that moment onwards. When the team had a victory celebration ready for Razgatlioglu winning in Australia it didn’t go unnoticed by numerous riders and they commented on how it would have made them feel.

If Van der Mark felt a balance shifting at times within the garage he wouldn’t be the first rider to have that sense at Yamaha. It would be out of character for Van der Mark to put much stock in that, but it wouldn’t be out of the question either... especially if that was paired with the Turkish rider earning more money in the future.

When Yamaha signed Razgatlioglu last year he was the hot hand in WorldSBK. They opted for him rather than retaining Alex Lowes despite the Englishman eventually finishing third in the standings. It was a brave move, but wasn’t a bad decision because when Toprak is on form he’s a force. Pairing him with Van der Mark gave Yamaha a fantastic balance of youth and experience. There was a genuine hope that it would be a team set for the long term. Now, they need to find a replacement.

Substitute

That list will centre on established names such as Loris Baz as well as Grand Prix riders looking for a switch of paddocks. There’ll also be an opportunity for the GRT Yamaha riders to step up with Garrett Gerloff an appealing prospect. The opportunity is too soon for the American as he is completely unproven on the world stage but Yamaha will look at the big picture for this ride.

Gerloff’s former MotoAmerica teammate, Cameron Beaubier, will be a name linked with the ride. He has spurned the chance of moving to WorldSBK in the past but is still very highly rated by Yamaha. Ironically, the biggest detraction for Beaubier is his domination of the early rounds of the American series this year. Winning races by ten seconds, opening gaps at over a second a lap shows his talent but also leads to questions about the depth of the MotoAmerica field. Beaubier could finish his career as the most successful rider in American history but have only a couple of WorldSBK starts to his name. It would be a shame if that was the case.

What about the other wheels that will spin as a result of the Van der Mark news? If he signs for BMW that will inevitably lead to the team making a choice between their current riders, Tom Sykes and Eugene Laverty. Throughout the winter the biggest talking point about BMW was that both of these riders were potentially in the last chance saloon. If either was outperformed by their teammate it would surely signal the end of the WorldSBK careers. The lock-down will delay that but it’s still likely that Shaun Muir will have a decision on his hands.

Elsewhere in the rider market the picture will develop over the coming weeks and months. Similar to BMW there are a host of decisions that teams will have to put on the long finger. Leon Camier’s continuing recovery from injury, and his litany of injuries in recent years, is sure to make the Barni Ducati have second thoughts about their future together. The factory Ducati and Honda squads both looked into the possibility of tempting Jonathan Rea from Kawasaki, so that means Chaz Davies and Leon Haslam are certain to feature in the next round of rumours.

With MotoGP getting underway soon and most seats now filling up fast, the up-and-coming Moto2 riders may be forced to look at WorldSBK as a stepping stone to the premier class. The next month will be a very interesting time.


This is part of a series of articles published in partnership with RacingLowdown.com, run by MotoMatters.com contributor Steve English.

If you enjoyed this article, please consider supporting MotoMatters.com. You can help by either taking out a subscription, supporting us on Patreon, by making a donation, or contributing via our GoFundMe page. You can find out more about subscribing to MotoMatters.com here.

Mon, 2020-06-22 07:35
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Danilo Petrucci enters Parc Ferme after winning the 2019 Mugello MotoGP race - Photo Cormac Ryan Meenan

Though racing has stopped, necessity is forcing teams and factories into making choices. With almost everyone in MotoGP out of contract at the end of 2020, and only a few riders already signed up, seats have to be filled for next year and beyond, racing or no racing.

After the early spate of more or less expected signings, the latest round of deals are more of a surprise. None more than the expected deal for Pol Espargaro to join Repsol Honda in 2021, displacing Alex Márquez as brother Marc's teammate before the younger Márquez has had a chance to prove his worth. That, as I wrote previously, will inevitably lead to a parting of the ways between Marc Márquez and HRC, I believe.

It has been two weeks since news of that deal emerged, and yet there is still no confirmation. Despite protestations to the opposite, the deal is very much on. But there is something of a hiccup along the way, in the form of a contractual stipulation that forbids Espargaro from discussing a deal with another factory before September 15th. No announcement will be made before then.

Actions speak louder than words

Necessity is no respecter of contractual obligations, however. KTM boss Stefan Pierer may claim that the Austrian factory still has hopes of keeping Espargaro, but the fact that Danilo Petrucci has flown to Austria to visit the KTM factory in Mattighofen, and come away making very positive noises about his visit, is something of a giveaway.

Petrucci's manager Alberto Vergani told GPOne.com that there had only been exploratory talks so far, but the fact that the pair were invited to visit the racing department is itself telling. Racing departments are very much off limits to outside parties, for fear of what might leak out. Only the privileged, or those with a contract, are allowed a peek inside.

Hanging on to talent

There may not yet be an official announcement from KTM, but the facts on the ground speak volumes. It is all very well getting riders to sign contracts forbidding them from speaking about new deals before a certain date, but shopping around for their replacement is something of a giveaway.

In theory, of course, Petrucci could be a replacement for Brad Binder, who is also still without a contract for 2021. But replacing Binder with Petrucci would be a spectacular failure of management on many different grounds. Firstly, dumping Binder before he has had a chance to even race in MotoGP would be throwing away the years of investment KTM have made in the South African. Secondly, it would also upset Miguel Oliveira – another long-term KTM investment – to be passed over for the factory team for a second time in two seasons. And the Austrian factory has already lost rising star Jorge Martin to Pramac Ducati. KTM's management is way too savvy to do anything so stupid as to risk losing both Binder and Oliveira.

KTM is just one of Petrucci's options, though arguably the best one. Ducati have offered him a seat in the Aruba.it WorldSBK team, but Petrucci seems keen to remain in MotoGP. Aprilia are another option, but that is somewhat uncertain, as the Italian factory is still waiting for a verdict from the CAS on Andrea Iannone's suspension for doping. Until the outcome of that appeal is known, Aprilia is offering a show of loyalty to its rider. For the remainder of 2020, test rider Bradley Smith will step into Iannone's shoes.

Desmo Dovi lives on

Petrucci replacing Pol Espargaro at KTM rules out the chance of Andrea Dovizioso taking that seat. But in reality, Dovizioso was never likely to leave the Bologna factory. At 34, Dovizioso is in the closing stages of his career, and has shown no signs of wanting to continue into his 40s, following in the footsteps of Valentino Rossi. That doesn't leave him much time to get up to speed on a different manufacturer.

"At this time in MotoGP history it's kind of hard to be swapping machinery like that and jumping from manufacturer to manufacturer," Jack Miller said at Valencia last year, commenting on Jorge Lorenzo's retirement. "I think you need two to three years, and well into your thirties, two to three years becomes a long time. It's so hard because the biggest thing is understanding how the tyres work on each bike, how each bike works, what is it's strengths? And you can't do that in winter testing. You need racing, you need experience and it's hard to do."

If Dovizioso has any thoughts of retiring in the near future, he faces a choice. He can stay with Ducati, and hope that Gigi Dall'Igna and the engineers in Borgo Panigale finally give him the last few missing pieces that will help him solve the puzzle of winning a MotoGP title, then retire in a year or two. Or he can switch manufacturers, sacrifice a year or two to get up to speed, and hope his new employer has built a more competitive bike.

Dovizioso has shown no real appetite to continue racing for another three or four years. Ducati remains his best and most realistic shot at winning a MotoGP crown.

Symbiosis

Viewed from the other side of that transaction, it also makes sense for Ducati to do whatever it takes to retain Dovizioso. Despite the fractious relationship between Dovizioso and Ducati Corse boss Gigi Dall'Igna, the Italian rider has been an absolutely key part in the revival of the Borgo Panigale manufacturer. Since his arrival in 2013, Dovizioso has provided a lot of the input which has helped get the Ducati to where it is. He has the experience and the detailed understanding of the Desmosedici and its DNA to make it go faster.

Ducati's prospective 2021 line up needs Dovizioso to stay. Jack Miller's move up to the factory squad is deserved and timely, and his experience at Pramac as the tester for the holeshot device and "shapeshifter" rear squatting device serves him well. But he hasn't had the responsibility for leading the direction of development in a factory team yet, and is an unknown quantity. For 2021, Pramac will have Pecco Bagnaia and the (as yet to be confirmed) Jorge Martin. Bagnaia was a disappointment in 2019, after an outstanding career in Moto2, and Martin will be a rookie. They are not yet material that you can build a development effort on.

So it seems like only a matter of time before Ducati announce a contract extension with Andrea Dovizioso. But both parties will negotiate hard before agreeing a deal.

Thwarted by RNA

Where does this leave Johann Zarco? The Frenchman has perhaps been one of the biggest victims of the COVID-19 pandemic. Thrown a lifeline by Ducati after a disastrous year at KTM – the living embodiment of how difficult it can be to switch manufacturers – Zarco took a spot in the Avintia squad after being persuaded by Gigi Dall'Igna that he would get strong factory backing. He did so in the hope that he could earn a factory ride with the squad in 2021, by proving he could be quick on the bike in the early races.

Then COVID-19 happened, and all racing has been put on hold, until the middle of July. By that time, the seats at Ducati – both factory and Pramac – will be filled. The chances of the Frenchman finding a better seat than Avintia for 2021 are pretty close to zero, no matter how well he does this season. And given that he will be on a 2019 bike, a Desmosedici GP19, making a real impression at the front will be doubly hard.

So Zarco faces at least another year with Avintia, with support from Ducati. The best he can hope for is an upgrade to a GP21 for next year, but given the financial impact of the pandemic, finding the budget to fund an extra GP21 will be difficult for Ducati. His saving grace will be the fact that development on engines and aero has been halted until the 2021 season, meaning that whatever he races in 2021 will be much closer to the factory machines than the GP19 he has for this year.

The devil is in the detail

The one piece of news we are all patiently waiting for is the official confirmation that Valentino Rossi will be racing for Petronas Yamaha next year. The simple fact of Rossi on a Petronas bike seems like a foregone conclusion, but the mechanics of making it actually happen are vastly complicated.

Talks are taking place through Yamaha, rather than directly, and there is the question of Rossi's crew. He will want to end his career with the mechanics who have (for the most part) been with him throughout his 21 years in the premier class. But Petronas will not want to have to lose one entire side of the garage to make room for his crew, some of whom may also decide to retire at the same time that Rossi does.

Then there are the little details. At the moment, Rossi's PR duties are limited, one of the stipulations of his contract. Petronas will want more from him than Yamaha did, however. The counterweight to the upheaval which having Rossi as a rider brings is the PR and advertising exposure. Petronas will want to milk that for all it is worth, especially in a region in which the Italian veteran is so wildly popular. Finding a balance between the diametrically opposite PR demands of Petronas and Rossi will not be simple at all.


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Sun, 2020-06-21 11:58
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Jonathan Rea on the Kawasaki ZX-10RR at the 2020 Phillip Island WorldSBK round - photo by Steve English

The news that Jonathan Rea had re-signed with Kawasaki was met with almost universal ambivalence. There are lots of pros and cons to Rea staying put. From a racing perspective, why would he leave? He has a team centred around him with a proven track record of success. What could motivate him to move? A new challenge is the reason most cited.

In 2014 there was a general feeling in the WorldSBK paddock that Rea was a rider waiting for the right opportunity to show his true ability. Years on a Honda had seen him at the sharp end of the field, despite racing with a blunt weapon. Switching to the all-conquering Kawasaki gave him the opportunity he had been waiting for.

Five world titles, 74 race wins, and 128 podiums later, and Rea is regarded as the greatest Superbike rider of all-time. There’s nothing left for Rea to prove in WorldSBK so why would he leave? A loyal team, a good bike, a hefty pay cheque and an ambassadorial role with the manufacturer when he retires would certainly make it very difficult to walk away from Team Green.

Dalliances

In the past Rea has dallied with options on the table from other manufacturers. He’s flirted with Ducati in the past and held court with Aprilia and Suzuki, but there was never a concrete offer on the table to move to MotoGP. Moving to Ducati in WorldSBK, which would give the possibility of moving to MotoGP, would be an attractive proposition for any rider, but Rea is also a realist. He’d want to be paid for leaving Kawasaki. After all his success, he holds the cards at the negotiating table.

With that being the case he opted to remain with what he knows and stayed with Kawasaki. Is it such a bad thing that Rea has elected to stay with Kawasaki for “multiple years?” The Northern Irishman has won five titles in a row and is the bookies favourite to make it six in 2020.

Why would he leave indeed?

The biggest reason to leave is the competitive balance of WorldSBK. Have Ducati moved into the ascendancy with their V4R? Their bike certainly looked all-conquering with Alvaro Bautista in the early rounds last year. The Spaniard was a perfect match with the bike and circuits in the early part of his Superbike career and it showed what was possible. When the Ducati was on form it was unbeatable.

Would that have sparked any doubts for Rea? It would only be human for them to surface and he surely needed to hear some arguments from Kawasaki about their future plans for the ZX10-RR. Whether it will be the right decision for the final chapter of Rea’s career remains to be seen, but it could make for a compelling close to his career.

Digging deep

Last year was Rea at his best. The ability to dig deep and overcome the battering ram that was Bautista was amazing. One rider fell apart while the other asserted themselves. It was a one-of-a-kind campaign from Rea. Whether he can do that in future years, particularly 2020, will be a very interesting story to follow. We’ve seen what Rea can do with the dominant package in WorldSBK and now we need to see how the Ducati develops with Scott Redding this year.

Redding is the key player in WorldSBK. He has arguably the best bike on the grid and is with a team that’s as well resourced as Kawasaki Racing Team. The Englishman is incredibly motivated and took to WorldSBK well in Australia. Was that a sign of what we’ll see from him all year? Or was testing a more accurate portrayal, where he was fast but not amazingly so? Has Rea signed on for “multiple years” of chasing Ducati rather than setting the pace?

Challenges internal and external

For a championship that has, wrongly, been derided for having a dominant champion, suddenly we’ll see Rea have to dig deep on a regular basis. He’ll do that with a teammate, Alex Lowes, who’s out to win and prove his mettle. With a second year of his contract confirmed Lowes is as relaxed as he is focused.

Battles within and battles outside Kawasaki look set to rage for Rea. It’s going to be fascinating to see how reacts to both. Would it have been good to see Rea on another bike? Definitely. I’m also definite that it wouldn’t have been good to see him on the Ducati. Rea won’t have it all his own way going forward because the Ducati V4R is just too good a motorcycle for that to be the case.

The greatest Superbike rider of all time has signed his new contract, and we’ll get to see him at his best with his back against the wall at times. It’s an exciting prospect.


This is part of a series of articles published in partnership with RacingLowdown.com, run by MotoMatters.com contributor Steve English.

If you enjoyed this article, please consider supporting MotoMatters.com. You can help by either taking out a subscription, supporting us on Patreon, by making a donation, or contributing via our GoFundMe page. You can find out more about subscribing to MotoMatters.com here.

Tue, 2020-06-16 09:25
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Aleix Espargaro on the Aprilia RS-GP at the 2019 MotoGP round at Valencia. Photo: @CormacGP

Aleix Espargaro speaks to me seated in the living room of his Andorra home, in the middle of a very lively and hectic family life. Max and Mia, the Espargaro twins who just turned two years old a few days earlier, are talkative and active playing just a few meters away. Their joyful squeaking punctuates the interview, providing a unique soundtrack. Behind him hangs the Aspar ART bike he was given as a present from Jorge Martinez for his wedding - a location he had to negotiate with his interior designer wife Laura, before she agreed to have it stood pointing skyward, front wheel vertical. When asked, Espargaro said that Aspar was upset when he left for team Forward (2014) and only forgave him when he invited his former team to the wedding.

The older of the two Espargaro brothers has been racing at world championship level since 2005 – it's easy to forget that Aleix Espargaro was the youngest ever Spanish 125cc champion of the 125 all the way back in 2004. He has ridden for some of the biggest teams in the last 15 years, but undoubtedly his contribution to the development of the Aprilia RS-GP in the last three seasons (and before that to the Suzuki) has brought him a well earned third contract with the Italian manufacturer.

Espargaro was never afraid to speak his mind. He was not shy to talk about politics, stand against bullfighting and also share his thoughts about his own team. Lack of staff, mistakes in the development., promises broken by the team and lack of support for the riders with early dismissal of his teammates. He was also the first to commend them about the changes done in the team’s structure.

Here, too, Espargaro speaks his mind. So much so that we have had to split the interview into two parts. In the first part, Aleix Espargaro talks about cycling, training, testing, the importance of family, how close he came to retiring, and how that turned into another contract with Aprilia. But first of all, he says he is happy at the prospect of racing again.

Aleix Espargaro: I am very happy they released the calendar. I am enjoying this lockdown but I want to race, I need to travel, I need some rock & roll.

Q: You look ready, very skinny, very fit

AE: Andorra is a very nice place to live and to train, but it is a very hard place as well, because there isn't a single meter of flat ground. I train a lot with the bicycle so I am very fit. I think I am skinnier than ever, 65 kg. I think on the physical side I'm better than ever. I used this time, this period to train a lot and obviously we need the rhythm, the pace of riding a MotoGP bike, but physically I feel better than ever.

Q: When you train by cycling it means you are not training the upper body, so how do you overcome that?

AE: I want to train my upper body, but I do it very carefully as I do not want to gain any grams of weight. During two sessions per week in my home gym with my physical trainer, I train the upper part of the body while trying not to use weights, so I try to train with just my body weight. Like this I have enough power but I don't gain muscle mass so much. The priority for me, as I am a very tall guy, to try to be as light as possible for the acceleration, agility and aerodynamics.

Q: You have been back on the bike at the mini circuit in Andorra, and on the RSV4 Superstock bike at Barcelona, can you describe the feeling of the first time on the bike?

AE: Yes, I mean, this is like riding a bicycle, you never forget. But especially the first day of riding at Montmelo on the Superstock bike, I remember when I rode it in the past I thought it was boring and very slow, which it is not, but if you compare it to MotoGP bike, it is. But the first time I rode it after three months in Montmelo, I thought ‘wow this is very fast!’ Then after two runs, I started to feel that the bike is slow, but at the beginning the feeling of speed was very nice.

Q: At the moment Biaggi, Savadori and Smith are testing in Misano, but you aren't there yet?

AE: The plan was that I would go there and ride the Superbike. The first day's schedule was for Bradley to try the new engine, different parts and to see how the bike is after such a long time. The plan was that I would ride the Superbike, but it was very difficult as there were no flights to go there. I had to drive for 12 hours just to ride one day, so at the end Aprilia said to me, we will postpone it, and that I should ride the old Superstock in Barcelona or wherever I can, and I will come next week. Because I will go there on 22nd June, so no rush.

Q: What is planned to be tested then

AE: During the two test days they were comparing the two different spec engines that I tried in Qatar. I think Savadori also tried the old spec bike, and the plan is to try everything again with me later on. Also, there was a lot of time with no activity for the engineers and the mechanics, so it was also a good schooling day for them. Next week I will travel to Portugal to Portimao to train with the Superbike bike for two days, and then I will fly to Italy. And I can't wait to ride the RS-GP because one test before the Jerez race is obviously more than welcome.

Q: Congratulations on your third contract with Aprilia - the longest an Aprilia rider has been under contract in the current age. How important was it for you to carry on with the project?

AE: The last two months of the last season, I didn't know if I should retire but I almost decided to go. Retire or see about other options for the future, because I struggled a lot and I know I won't be racing until I am 40 years old, so the last part of my career I want to enjoy riding, I want to fight for the podium. Last year I struggled a lot and I did not enjoy it at all.

But then after Christmas when I flew to Malaysia and I tried the new bike, everything changed in my mind. The new bike convinced me, but not only that, the direction the project is going towards with the arrival of [Massimo] Rivola, the arrival of a lot more engineers. Aprilia is going to another dimension so this convinced me.

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Fri, 2020-06-05 08:00
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Data: this is the information which engineers try to mine in pursuit of ever more performance

In the first part of the interview with Andrea Zugna, the former Honda and Yamaha engineer told the story of how he came to MotoGP, brought in by former Yamaha racing boss Masao Furusawa. Zugna talked about the different roles he played at Yamaha. And he gave an engineer's view of the MotoGP technical regulations, and rules in general.

At the end of 2009, Zugna left Yamaha to join Honda. As Head of Performance at HRC, his role expanded to include the entire bike, and not just the electronics. "In general, performance analysis is where you look at the whole package - rider, bike, tires and everything - and you try to figure out where to work, what works and what doesn't, and so on," Zugna explained.

"I think now every company, every manufacturer has kind of a performance analysis group, also because we are at the point of refinement where you don’t make big steps. It’s more about refining, analyzing deeply and so on. So objective numbers are getting more and more important. But, at that time in 2010 it was just starting," the Italian told me.

Things have changed a lot over the last decade, however. "Now, maybe ten years later, it’s common practice. Not only in MotoGP - you have data science, whatever, machine learning, cloud computing… all these terms that are now normal, weren’t ten years ago. So maybe that was more of a general process in how you tried to get the maximum out of the data you had."

An ocean of data

Just as it has in the world at large, the amount of data collected in racing has exploded. And that creates its own sets of challenges and opportunities. "I think we collect much more than we analyze," Zugna said. "This is a general trend, I think, even in normal industry, not just racing."

This has forced a different approach. "At first everybody realized, OK, now we have to do data science, so they just started to spend money, collect data and getting nothing out of it. Then they started to say, now we have to do machine learning and so on. Now the latest trend in the industry is to say, we have to put the data scientists in contact with the people who know about the subject. Because in reality, data science without the common sense of knowing the subject you are studying is sort of giving you the obvious. But then you want to look at what is the difference from the obvious and go deeper and deeper and deeper."

This is where Andrea Zugna feels he benefited from the approach taken by Yamaha boss Masao Furusawa, who put him through an apprenticeship of sorts, as he explained in the first part of this interview. "The key point was analyzing data knowing the practical side," he told me. "That’s why I said Furusawa had the master plan nearly sixteen years ago where he said data people have to first know how to learn the basics, do the mapping for the rider, then go to the development, then put it all together. So this is the thing that makes a difference now in MotoGP."

Wetware not hardware

It was not always an easy ride, however. As valuable as working with engineers from an earlier era, whose education and style had been far more hands-on and practical had been, those engineers had not exactly welcomed him into the fold. "It helped, but also it was quite hard at the time because there was a lot of rejection," Zugna told me. "For example, when I showed up in the garage for the first time in 2004, and JB was in the winter before the first year of racing with Vale [Rossi] in Yamaha. So I came there, they introduced us to each other. I said, I’m here, I’m young, I will work on data analysis. The first thing he told me was he started to count the computers in the garage and he said, 'We don’t need computers here, we need good brains. If you come here with a computer, you are useless.' So that was sort of, 'we have too many computers in the garage'."

Despite the lack of a welcome, there was a lot for Zugna to learn. "At the beginning there was a lot of rejection, but for me it was very helpful to listen to people that had to make a good, winning bike without the help of computers. So it sort of told me, OK, you have to do at least as good as them and then something better with the computer. Not trying to match what they could do with their brain with your computer, or reinventing the wheel with a computer, replicating what a good brain could do already by itself. This kind of approach."

Marginal gains

Zugna benefited from entering the sport in that transitional period, in the time after everything was done by experience and feel, and before data dominated. And that helped him as times changed and riders who grew up looking at data entered the class. "They definitely use data a lot," he explained. "The debriefs have gotten longer and longer, but not because the riders of the past were more clever, no. It's simply that the more you get closer to the optimal performance, the more a small gain comes with a big effort."

This is all part of the development of MotoGP as a sport over the past couple of decades. As the bikes have become more equal, and the riders have become more professional, the margin for finding an advantage has become slimmer. "So about 15 years ago, all the steps were more gross, or bigger," Zugna explained. "So brains counted more, but because you were working on ideas more than really the last millimeter. While now everybody is sorted out on the basics, almost, and then you are really working on the last millimeter or the details."

This brought its own set of dangers, Zugna warned. "There is a danger now that some people think about the millimeter and lose contact with the big picture. So sometimes you could have a totally wrong weight distribution, but just think about the fine details and not just make one step back and look at the big picture sometime. Forget all the details. That’s the danger with the young generation of engineers. (Now I can say young because I’m getting older, so I can talk about young people, not me!) So that’s a risk. They are deep with their nose into their screen and they lose the grand picture."

Working with the greats

Being talent-spotted by Masao Furusawa and given the opportunity to develop, and then earning a reputation as an engineer that could help make a bike competitive meant that Zugna got a chance to work with not just the best engineers and technicians, but also the best riders in the world. "I was so lucky to work with the greats: Vale (Rossi), Jorge (Lorenzo), Casey (Stoner), Dani (Pedrosa), and Marc (Márquez), all of them. Dovi (Andrea Dovizioso) as well, because in the end, when he was in Honda in 2011 we could do third in the championship, which was great from him. From there on he even improved further to become the challenger for the championship in the last few years."

Working with arguably the six best riders of recent years was a privilege, but it also made it that much more important to be able to understand and use their feedback. "The first thing is you have to learn the language they use. They are not engineers so they will maybe use inappropriate words to say the correct thing. So first of all, you have to make this first layer of translation," Zugna explained. "Then they have their routines with the crew chief, so you let them go and maybe at the end you can ask one or two questions."

Each rider was different, in the feedback they gave and how to translate it. "Vale was the guy that you felt you could listen to him and you didn’t need to switch on your computer afterwards at the time, because he had already explained in words what you would see in the data," Zugna said. "This was Vale."

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