2017 Aragon World Superbike Race 2: Things Are Closer Than They Seem

Sometimes you can't see the wood from the trees and Aragon Race 2 was a good example of that in WorldSBK 2017. The championship standings have been dominated by Jonathan Rea all season but this was the fourth time that the reigning world champion was pushed to the limit on race day this season.

With Rea having started the day with a 100% winning record in 2017 the pressure was on the rest of the field to break his stranglehold on the series. Ultimately it came to Rea versus Chaz Davies, as had been expected, with the duo renewing their intense rivalry from 24 hours earlier.

On Saturday it was Rea's day but on Race 2 Davies made amends for crashing out of the lead in the opening race to take a thoroughly deserved victory. It was the Welshman's 21st WorldSBK victory and as he came into parc ferme to greet his team the relief and joy was clear to see.

“Yesterday was a disaster,” said Davies afterwards. “From the first lap of Friday until the last lap today it's been a tough weekend. The whole weekend was really a disaster until the last lap of the second race. The only moment of joy is bringing home the win, and it's good to bring it home like that. We know the bike is good here, although we still need to work in a lot of different areas, but for now we are really going to enjoy this and it was a great battle.”

Having fought back from tenth on the grid, with Rea starting ninth, both riders needed to be at their best at Motorland Aragon and with Marco Melandri in close proximity any mistake would have been punished. For Rea 45 points from this weekend was another positive for his title defense.

“I'm really pleased and its been a really good weekend for us,” said the Northern Irishman. “We have come to a track that's not strong for me on the bike but we put a good Friday in and I felt confident going into the races. To put in a 18 full laps with Chaz yesterday, bar to bar in both races at one of his strongest tracks was no mean feat. And today we had a good battle, so are really happy to get a podium."

With Rea extending his championship lead to 50 points this weekend and his consistency has given him a deserved advantage but the racing has been much closer than the title lead would suggest.


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2016 Jerez World Superbike Race 1 Notes - A Sign of What Awaits for 2017

Chaz Davies continued his dominant run of form in WorldSBK by winning at Jerez. The Welshman waltzed to his fifth win in the last six races and once again showed just how strong he has become in 2016.

The package of Davies and the Ducati has consistently been to the fore this season and a constant thorn in the side of Jonathan Rea and Tom Sykes. If not for a mid-season blip that saw him score just 46 points from a possible 150 Davies would be in firm title contention but that run of form ruled him out of proceedings.

Nonetheless his eight wins this year have laid down a marker to the rest of the field. The 2016 title can be won by Rea this weekend but the war for the 2017 crown has been heating up since the end of the summer break.

After taking the lead in the early laps, and forcing his way through from sixth on the grid, Davies eased away from the chasing Kawasaki riders and opened a 2s lead by half distance. After the race both Rea and Sykes said that they didn't have the pace to match Davies and it's hard to imagine that changing by tomorrow afternoon.

For Davies the victory showed once again how much he has improved this year. Jerez was always a difficult track for the Ducati rider but “after 16 years of coming here it's nice to have figured out how to ride this track!”

For Davies the challenge is now to build on these results at the end of 2016 and build a title campaign for next year where he takes the fight to Rea from the outset.

The title coronation can take place as early as tomorrow for Rea but a least one title was decided today. Kawasaki wrapped up a second manufacturers title with a 2-3 finish for Rea and Sykes. The Japanese manufacturer had to wait until last year for their first but their two in a row success shows the strength of the ZX10-R.

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2014 MotoGP Season Preview: Looking Ahead To The Most Intriguing Season In Years

It has been a long and confusing wait for the 2014 MotoGP season to begin. An awful lot has happened since the MotoGP bikes were rolled into their packing crates after the Valencia test and shipped back to the factories and workshops from whence they came. There have been shock announcements, shock testing results, and shock training crashes. There have been last-minute rule changes, made in an attempt to keep all of the different factions in the paddock from rebelling. The final rules for the premier class were only announced on Monday, and even then, they still contain sufficient ambiguity to confuse.

But this confusion and chaos cannot disguise the fact that 2014 looks set to be the most intriguing championship in years. Gone are the reviled CRT machines – unjustly reviled; though slow, they were still jewels of engineering prowess – and in their place is a new class of machinery, the Open entries. A simpler demarcation has been made, between factories running their own software on the spec Magneti Marelli ECU, and the Open teams using the championship software supplied and controlled by Dorna. The latest rule change adds a twist, allowing underperforming Ducati all the benefits of the Open class – 24 liters of fuel instead of 20, 12 engines per season instead of 5, unlimited testing and a softer tire – until they start winning races. But the 2014 grid looks much more like a single coherent class than the pack of racing motorcycles that lined up last year.

There are many questions which will be answered during the 2014 season, but the first, and most important, is whether Marc Marquez can retain his title. The Repsol Honda rider had a record-breaking rookie season, which ended with him taking the title at the first attempt, and becoming the youngest ever premier class champion. At the first test of 2014 in Sepang, he was a cut above the rest, leaving the other riders gasping for breath. A training crash saw him break his fibula, and he arrives in Qatar just five days after he started putting weight on the leg again, and having missed the last two preseason tests.

He may start the season with the disadvantage of not having ridden, but that is unlikely to have any long-term consequences. A podium at Qatar would be a solid start to the season, but despite Marquez playing down his chances, it would be no real surprise if he were to kick off his defense with a win. The talent of the young Spaniard is beyond question, but 2014 sees Honda start with a couple of major advantages.

First and foremost, there is the fuel. The Factory Option (for that is what we must now call what we called prototypes last year) machines have lost a liter, cut from 21 to 20. The Honda RC213V has always been very good with fuel, and during testing, the bike was performing without a hitch. For the Yamaha M1, a liter less fuel is a tough call. Jorge Lorenzo has struggled during preseason testing with throttle response, and Valentino Rossi, though having posted fast single lap times, is in even worse condition being heavier and taller. When asked about the fuel reduction at the press conference, Lorenzo joked that he liked the Yamaha just fine with 21 liters. Sadly, he doesn't have that much fuel at his disposal.

Then there's the tires. Bridgestone have brought a new construction rear tire for 2014, stiffer to cope with greater temperature loads. That has killed the edge grip for the Yamaha M1, which the bike needs to exploit its advantage in corner speed. At the same time, it has offered more support to the point-and-shoot style of the Honda, which needs to be picked up as quickly as possible and then hammered out of the corner. A new tire is expected later in the year, but for now, Yamaha have to make do with what they have.

At a fuel heavy track, with a tire that suits his bike, even a Marquez back from injury will be hard to beat. With a good start at the first race, and heading to two more tracks that suit the Honda – Austin and Argentina – Marquez should get his season off to a strong start. If he builds up too much of a gap early in the season, it will get harder and harder to catch him. Seen from Qatar, it is hard to see the season going down to Valencia like it did last year.

Marquez' worst enemy is the Spaniard himself. The fact that he starts the season recovering from a broken leg is symptomatic of his inability to contain his ambition. Every time he climbs on a bike, he is searching for the limits, and that includes when he is training. Marquez had a number of big crashes last year, but walked away relatively unscathed after each one. Breaking his leg during training was a warning, one which he escapes with no real harm done to his title defense. If he does the same during the season, it could have much more serious consequences for the rest of the year.

There must be some small part of Jorge Lorenzo's mind where he is hoping that this might happen. No competitor ever wishes injury on his rivals, and Lorenzo is absolutely no exception, preferring a deserved victory over a win taken by default. But an injury to Marquez is his only hope at the moment. Lorenzo has had a very bad preseason so far, struggling with less fuel and the new Bridgestones. Both changes have affected his style, the lack of edge grip combining with a rougher throttle response to make the Yamaha a much more difficult bike to ride. The Japanese factory will have to throw everything at fixing the problem, first of edge grip, then of fuel consumption, if they are to give Lorenzo the tools he needs to get the job done.

Lorenzo has the tools. Ability, speed, determination, he has all of these in abundance. But the Yamaha needs to be ridden in a particular way to get the best out of it, and the current Yamaha – with 20 liters of fuel and a hard rear tire – is not yet up to the task. The Open class has a clear appeal, so much so that Lorenzo asked Yamaha to be able to test the M1 under Open regulations. Yamaha refused his request, pointing out that there would be no point, as they are unable to switch for this season anyway. With the contracts of nearly all the factory and satellite riders ending in 2014, if Lorenzo is still not able to be competitive by the halfway mark, Lorenzo may up the pressure on Yamaha for 2015. If not, there is a lucrative contract waiting at Honda for the Spaniard.

While all the focus is on Marquez and Lorenzo, the third member of the Iberian triumvirate which dominated last year is being overlooked by many. Dani Pedrosa has had a very subdued preseason, seldom fastest, but his race pace has always been in the right ballpark to be competing for wins. Pedrosa enters his eighth season with the Repsol Honda team, and though many believed that 2013 was his best hope of winning the MotoGP title which has so far eluded him, 2014 could offer him just as much chance.

Pedrosa is happy with the Honda, happy with the fuel allowance, and happy with the new tire. He grows more relaxed each season, taking the media circus which he despises almost as much as his former teammate Casey Stoner did less and less seriously each year. The growing weight of the MotoGP bikes – 160kg for the past two years – is a disadvantage, the tiny Spaniard finding it tough to apply his weight to get the best out of the Honda. That penalty can be doubly harsh at Qatar, where the track surface becomes slippery with the dust thrown up by the desert and the massive construction sites which flank the circuit. But if the track is still clean from the test held here a week ago, Pedrosa could get his season off to a flying start.

If there are long faces on Jorge Lorenzo's side of the Yamaha garage, the atmosphere is very different for Valentino Rossi. Some major changes over the winter are starting to pay dividends for the Italian veteran. The gamble to drop long-time crew chief Jeremy Burgess is paying off, however unhappily handled that situation may have been. Communication between Rossi and new crew chief Silvano Galbusera is better, and the much greater role played by electronics engineer Matteo Flamigni is also a key factor. The very fact that Rossi was prepared to make such a ruthless change speaks of his motivation. Despite the fact that he is now 35, he starts his nineteenth MotoGP season as motivated as ever.

Whether he can match the pace of the three Spaniards remains to be seen. Rossi has changed his style over the winter, and that too has brought him closer to the front. In terms of raw speed over a single lap, Rossi is right there with Lorenzo and Pedrosa. The question marks hang over whether he can maintain that speed over race distance. So far, his race simulations have been a little off the pace of the Spanish trio, but much closer than last year. He is no longer the automatic champion that he was ten years ago. But the fight and the ability is still there.

If the favorites to run at the front are predictable, what happens behind them is not. There are a host of reasons for this: big steps forward by both Alvaro Bautista and Stefan Bradl on the satellite Hondas; a stunning debut by Pol Espargaro, and a big improvement by Bradley Smith at Tech 3 Yamaha; major progress at Ducati, and the relaxation of the rules for the Italian factory for Andrea Dovizioso and Cal Crutchlow. Most of all, it has been the breathtaking speed of the Forward Yamaha in the hands of Aleix Espargaro which has put the cat among the pigeons, the Spaniard scaring the living daylights out of both HRC and factory Yamaha.

The M1 with 24 liters of fuel, softer tires and the less sophisticated championship software (the simpler, 2013 version, that is) turn out to be a perfect platform to go fast. Very fast indeed. With its main weakness eliminated – its poor fuel consumption – the Yamaha turns out to be a fantastic machine. Aleix' style (for with two Espargaros on the grid, we must perforce refer to them by their first names, rather than their last) suits the Open class M1 down to a tee. He can exploit the extra fuel, stand the bike up and take advantage of the different compounds available to the Open teams. With the super soft tire being basically a qualifying tire, Espargaro is likely to surprise as much during qualifying as he does during the race, where the harder of the Open class tires looks strong enough to last a race without degrading too much. Last year, Espargaro was in Parc Ferme a lot as best CRT machine. That distinction has now been abolished – there will only be three bikes in Parc Ferme in 2014, for both qualifying and the race – but there is every reason to believe that Aleix will still make plenty of appearances in Parc Ferme anyway.

That Aleix' speed is as much about his talent as his bike is made plain by the results of veteran teammate Colin Edwards. The 40-year-old Texan is languishing a long way off the pace, down with the vastly underpowered Honda RCV1000Rs of Nicky Hayden and Scott Redding. Edwards complains that the M1 chassis does not suit his style, and has placed all his hopes on the FTR chassis which is supposed to be coming. Given the ongoing financial difficulties between Forward and FTR, it looks unlikely that the frames rumored to be sat in the chassis builder's Buckingham workshop will ever find their way to a racetrack. The fact that the team's entry was changed from FTR Yamaha to Forward Yamaha suggests that Edwards' hope will be forlorn.

Then there's Ducati. The horse trading which went on until just a few days before the season was due to start has ended up giving Ducati everything they wanted. No longer will they compete in the Open category, which they had chosen to do to avoid the engine development freeze, and gain the freedom to test. Instead, performance-balancing concessions have been offered to factories which have not won a race in the dry in 2013. This leaves them with all of the advantages of the Open class, plus the freedom to run their own software. At the same time, it frees the rest of the Open class teams from the burden of having to run the 2014 version of the championship software, which was too complex for most of them to manage. The surprising thing is that this proposal came from the MSMA itself, suggesting that neither Honda nor Yamaha fear the performance of Ducati.

They may come to regret that. The Ducati has already made major steps forward, now being much stronger on corner entry and corner exit. The understeer remains, but with the freedom to change the engine – and just as important, the freedom to test with Crutchlow and Dovizioso, rather than test riders – means that Gigi Dall'Igna is in with a fighting chance to actually solve the problem. The extra fuel granted to Ducati is a benefit, but not as much as you might expect. The Ducati is already struggling to get the power it develops down on the track, and having fuel to burn will only make this problem worse. However, it does mean that Ducati will not have to worry about fuel at tracks where consumption is a problem. Qatar is just one such track.

With a softer tire and an improved bike, Andrea Dovizioso could throw up a few surprises in qualifying. The Italian is now in his second season with Ducati, and has adapted reasonably well to the machine, especially the uprated 2014 version. He is able to lay down a proper scorching lap, and will force a few people further down the grid than they had been hoping. Front row appearances are a definite possibility, though with the Desmosedici in its current state, it cannot maintain that pace for the full duration of a race. Still coming to terms with the bike, Cal Crutchlow has yet to figure out how to throw down a fast lap on the Ducati. That will come with time, but a front row is not on the cards in the first few races.

Qualifying is one thing, but the race is another, and what will happen as the season progresses is the more intriguing prospect. Ducati Corse boss Gigi Dall'Igna has said he needs more data before he starts making serious changes to the bike. Minor updates are likely at the Jerez test, with bigger changes to come at Barcelona, and then Brno. Ducati will not be measured on what they achieve in the first half of the season, but rather on what they do later on. This with a penchant for gambling may wish to wager a little cash on a podium or two by the end of the year. Right now, they'd get pretty good odds. I'd wager those odds will shorten considerably as the season goes on.

The advantages granted to Ducati and the Open Yamaha of Aleix Espargaro are a real thorn in the side of the satellite riders. Stefan Bradl has targeted podiums for this season, the LCR Honda rider now having two seasons under his belt. The German has made solid progress, especially since the switch from Nissin brakes to Brembo. In his third year, he expects to get on the podium regularly, now that his learning process is complete. And it is not just Bradl himself who expects this. Team manager Lucio Cecchinello, Bradl's sponsors including Red Bull, and HRC boss Shuhei Nakamoto share those expectations. If he is thwarted in his ambitions by Open Yamahas and Ducatis with concessions with technical advantages, Bradl may lose out despite his results.

Alvaro Bautista finds himself in a similar situation. Bautista knows that he will lose his seat on the RC213V to Scott Redding at the end of the season, and is riding for a new job in 2015. Fortunately for the Spaniard, Showa have made major progress with the suspension, especially at the rear, bringing him much closer to the front. Podiums are probably a little too much of a stretch for Bautista, but he will expect to be within sight of the podium at most races this year.

At Tech 3, a most entertaining battle is promised. Bradley Smith and Pol Espargaro have been rivals all their careers, and there is no love lost between the two. Smith had a tough first year in the Tech 3 team, riding round on a wildly outdated Yamaha M1, while his teammate Cal Crutchlow had a machine very close to factory spec. For 2014, Smith has the same spec machinery as Pol, their bikes very close indeed to the factory M1s of Lorenzo and Rossi. They have the seamless gearbox, but only the 2013 version without the clutchless downshifts. It is still a significant step forward from 2013, however.

So who will come out on top? On paper, Bradley Smith should win every encounter, given Pol Espargaro's rookie status. But the younger of the Espargaro brothers has made an impressive debut, picking up the pace much more quickly that many expected. The pace of this brother Aleix suggests that there is no lack of talent in the family, but Pol still has plenty to learn. Starting the season with a newly plated collarbone is far from ideal, but the emphasis for him lies not at Qatar, but later on, in the latter half of the year.

And what of the other Open bikes? Nicky Hayden was far from sad to leave Ducati behind, after spending five years on the ailing Desmosedici. But when he discovered exactly how underpowered the RCV1000R is, his joy soon turned to dismay. Honda's bike for the Open class is literally what Dorna asked for: an affordable production racer (though with a price tag of €1 million a year, it is affordable only in comparison with the outrageous price of a satellite bike). That means it is built down to a price, and that shows in horsepower and acceleration. Hayden has made significant progress in braking, but without the ponies to push him out of the corner, he takes on the factory bikes with one hand tied behind his back.

Over at Gresini, Scott Redding struggles with a similar problem. Added to the lack of power, however, he also has to cope with the Nissin brakes and Showa suspension. The Showa has so far not been too much of a problem, but an issue with braking had seen Redding pushing for an early test of Brembos. That issue has been partially resolved, and Redding will continue along the path set out at the start of the season. The benefit of an Open bike is that he has the opportunity to learn and develop in the shade of the Open class, while his former Moto2 rival must work in the media spotlight of a satellite team.

While MotoGP looks set to be a mostly Spanish affair, Moto2 and Moto3 are looking a lot more international. A Spaniard is clear favorite in the Moto2 class, Tito Rabat having nailed his colors to the mast during testing. His weakness, like that of Marc Marquez, is that he likes to push hard whenever he gets on the bike, and he gets on a bike a lot. If he can learn not to risk injury every time he goes out, Rabat has a very good shot at the title.

First, though, he will have to face his teammate and a host of other non-Spaniards. Tom Luthi is the strongest challenger on the Interwetten Suter, while Takaaki Nakagami looks set to finally get the win he has been chasing for a very long time. Sandro Cortese had been strong in his second year in the series, and 2013 World Supersport champion Sam Lowes has made a very impressive debut in the class. Lowes could turn out to be a real dark horse, and surprise more than a few people.

Moto3 looks to be even more international in nature. Preseason testing has been dominated by the Jack Miller, the Australian now on a competitive bike, but benefiting from the experience of competing on inferior equipment. He faces challenges from all quarters. His teammate Karel Hanika has made a devastating impression as a rookie, showing speed he has no right to possess. Red Bull Rookies Cup boss Peter Clifford has labeled Hanika the most talented rider to come out of the feeder series, and judging by Hanika's performance so far, Clifford appears to be right.

Miller also faces Danny Kent on the Husqvarna. A rebadged KTM, Kent has risked dropping down a category to chase a title. It is a wise decision, and Kent clearly has the talent. Then there are the Italians, with Romano Fenati, Pecco Bagnaia, and Niccolo Antonelli all having made an impression. There are Spaniards too, with Isaac Viñales having pressured Miller throughout testing, and Efren Vazquez showing very strong form.

But the real threat comes form the Estrella Galicia Honda team, with the Alexes Rins and Marquez set to challenge for the title. The Honda NSF250RW has undergone major changes, and those changes have put Rins and Marquez on the back foot. At the last test in Jerez, they confirmed that the latest updates had made them competitive. They lack set up data, but that will come quickly once the racing gets underway.

And that is only hours away now. The preseason has been dominated by arguments over rules, over the spirit of the rules versus their literal interpretation. Over whether there would be two or three categories in MotoGP. Over whether Ducati were gaining an unfair advantage, or just interpreting the rules in their favor. All that talk ends in a few hours, once the bikes hit the track. Speculation ends, and guesses will be refuted or confirmed by the facts on the ground. Let's go racing and find out the naked truth.


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2013 Valencia MotoGP Race Preview: In The Pressure Cooker - The Showdown At Cheste

Mixed emotions greet the final race of most MotoGP seasons. There is sadness at the prospect of four months or more without racing. There is interest and expectation, as fans look past the race weekend to the test which immediately follows, when the bikes for next year appear and the riders switching teams get their first shot at a new ride. And there is excitement of course, at the prospect of a race to wrap up the season. But with the title usually already decided in advance, there is only pride at stake, and not much more to play for.

This year, it's different. Yes, the test on Monday is a big deal, with Cal Crutchlow's debut on the Ducati, the Honda production racer making its first appearance, with Nicky Hayden on board, and the Aleix Espargaro giving the Yamaha production racer its first run out. But for the first time since 2006, the Valencia race really matters, and will decide who gets to crown themselves champion. Just 13 points separate Marc Marquez from Jorge Lorenzo, and the two men who have dominated the season cannot afford to make a mistake. Both come determined to do whatever it takes to get the job done at Valencia.

On the face of it, Marc Marquez is the hot favorite to take the title at Valencia. The 20-year-old Repsol Honda man has had an astonishing season, by any measure, smashing record after record as he takes wins, podiums, and lap records. He was expected to do well at the start of the season, after all, he came into the most powerful team, with perhaps the most highly rated crew, and on what was generally regarded as the best bike. Most pundits saw him getting a handful of podiums, maybe taking a couple of wins, and fighting for third spot in the championship.

But Marquez had other ideas, taking a podium in his first race, a win in his second, and then never finishing off the podium when he finished a race. Only twice did he fail: once through an error of his own making, finding the limits of the front Bridgestone tire at Mugello as he set about hunting down Jorge Lorenzo, and once when his team misunderstood the hastily cobbled together pit stop rules at Phillip Island, and caused Marquez to be black flagged.

His strategy has been simple: to go out and try to win every race he can, not afraid to take risks in the process. His thought process has been tightly focused, streamlined even, thinking only of what happens on Sunday, the championship never on his mind. When asked, he replied he was merely a rookie, and that whatever happened, his season would judged a success. Only in the last few races has Marquez shown the first hints of pressure, the cheerful, smiling face showing very occasional signs of strain, his brows drawn down in a severe frown a couple of times. He has reached the point where he can no longer banish thoughts of the title from his mind.

The occasional darkening of Marquez' brow has not gone unnoticed by Jorge Lorenzo and his team. Since missing the race at the Sachsenring, Lorenzo has watched his championship defense slip further and further out of his grasp. At Silverstone, the Spaniard started to turn the tide with a brilliant win which took every last ounce of resourcefulness, bravery and skill, but which handed Lorenzo the momentum once again. Another win at Misano edged him closer once again, but at Aragon and Sepang Lorenzo finished behind Marquez once again, bleeding points to his rookie rival.

It all changed at Phillip Island, when Marquez threw away a certain podium, which would have ensured he could wrap up the title at Motegi. Lorenzo saw a glimmer of hope once again, and when the weather at Motegi played into his hands - the first day of practice lost to fog, the second badly disrupted by rain, and little time for set up work - he seized the opportunity, taking a convincing win to cut the gap to just 13 points. Under normal circumstances, that should be enough for Marquez to take the championship comfortably, by just following Lorenzo around and finishing directly behind him. That would be more than sufficient.

But those looks of concern on Marquez' face... Lorenzo has seen them alright, and they have brought him out like a shark smelling blood in the water. He is circling, looking for weakness, cranking up the pressure, seeing if he can make the rookie crack. He knows Marquez is formidable at Valencia - Marquez' Moto2 race last year at the circuit was a breathtaking demonstration of raw talent combined with calculated risk, winning from the back of the grid on extremely treacherous conditions - but he knows Marquez hasn't been in a situation like this before, with the weight of the world on his shoulders. Lorenzo knows what it is to win a MotoGP title (or two), and he knows how great the pressure is.

It is far beyond what Marquez could have imagined: it is impossible to read a sports paper, or a motorcycle magazine, or a website, without someone telling him he has the title in the bag, yet Marquez knows that the smallest error can mean disaster. A technical problem, a missed braking point, entering a corner 1 km/h faster than the lap before, and his chances are gone. It is a dark, growing knot at the pit of Marquez' stomach, always there, despite his best attempts to ignore it.

Jorge Lorenzo is intent on exploiting that, cranking up the pressure as much as he can. He knows that he has to win the race, and he knows that he will either need help from at least three other riders, or he will have to force Marquez into a mistake. Given the gaping chasm which has generally yawned between the podium runners and the battle for fourth, Lorenzo has no illusions of the others coming to his aid, however much Valentino Rossi and Cal Crutchlow would like to. Lorenzo's only hope is to pile on the pressure so much that Marquez cracks under the strain.

And so Jorge Lorenzo talks of not having any pressure. He says in interview after interview that he has nothing to lose and everything to gain at Valencia. He is free to ride as he pleases, he says, attempting to place the responsibility for securing the title on Marquez. Since Aragon, this has been the team's explicit aim: take the title chase to the last race of the year, and see how it turns out. 'Anything can happen,' is the mantra repeated by everyone in Lorenzo's team, goading on that knot of doubt that sits heavily on Marquez' stomach, gnawing away at his self confidence. He will need a calm head indeed to just sit quietly in the race and not panic.

So what will Lorenzo's strategy be on Sunday? The first objective will come on Saturday, trying to intimidate Marquez with a scorching pole time. In the race, Lorenzo may eschew his normal tactic of putting his head down and trying to make a break, instead choosing to hold up Marquez and try to get some traffic backed up behind them. If Lorenzo can rattle Marquez into worrying what is behind him, instead of concentrating on Lorenzo's back wheel, the Repsol Honda rookie may make a mistake, and run wide or drop a place. One mistake begets another, especially in this situation, and pushing too hard to correct a previous error can end up spelling disaster.

Just ask Valentino Rossi. The multiple world champion came to Valencia in 2006 with a comfortable lead and needing only to stay in touch with Nicky Hayden. But he got roughed up at the start, caught up in traffic, and eventually crashed while trying to make up lost ground. Though he got back on and finished the race, Rossi had allowed himself to be flustered, and when he got flustered, he threw it all away.

Will Marquez make the same mistake? He has shown very few signs of having trouble dealing with pressure during his career. The preternatural calmness with which he dealt with a warm up lap crash at Estoril in 2010 was typical of Marquez' resolve. Starting from the back of the grid, he was at the front of the race within a few corners, going on to win at Portugal, before clinching the title at the last race at Valencia. That could be a precedent for this weekend, but the competition Marquez faced was far less formidable. If he keeps his head and stays with Lorenzo, he is champion. If he loses his head, something Lorenzo will be doing all he can to encourage, then he could toss it all away with a costly mistake.

Will Marc Marquez get any help from his teammate? Given the history between the two, Dani Pedrosa is extremely unlikely to want to go out of his way to assist his rookie teammate take the championship, something which has eluded Pedrosa throughout his eight seasons in the premier class. Pedrosa's latest title chances foundered at Aragon, when he was lightly clipped by Marquez, but that contact ended up severing a sensor wire, confusing the electronics of Pedrosa's Honda RC213V, which then threw him off viciously. Marquez' victory and Lorenzo's podium opened up a gap too big for him to close.

Yet Pedrosa may still be willing to come to the aid of Marquez, if that involves beating Lorenzo. Pedrosa will be keen to win the last race of the year at Valencia, and given his record at the circuit - he is the only rider to have won races in all three classes at Valencia - there is every reason to believe he is capable of doing so. Pedrosa's way of helping Marquez will be going all out to win the race, finishing ahead of Lorenzo and robbing him of valuable points. If Lorenzo wins the race, Marquez needs to finish in the top four. If Pedrosa can get in front of Lorenzo, then Marquez only needs to finish in the top eight. That would give him much more leeway for mistakes.

Would Pedrosa be willing to step aside for Marquez, and allow him to pass if need be, if Lorenzo were leading and Pedrosa found himself circulating ahead of Marquez in fourth? That is a less likely scenario, Pedrosa feeling no loyalty to the young upstart who has already ruined his season. Honda have already said they are philosophically opposed to giving team orders (beyond 'don't knock your teammate off', that is), and so Pedrosa will feel he has a right to try to beat Marquez. As Pedrosa has a contract for 2014, and there are few obvious candidates to take his place at Repsol Honda in the seasons following that, he will not fear repercussions.

Can Valentino Rossi do for Jorge Lorenzo what Dani Pedrosa is unwilling to do for Marc Marquez? Rossi would be delighted to help Lorenzo if he can. Mainly because it would mean he was once again running at the front, rather than five seconds or more off the back of the leaders with no way of getting in among them. At a track like Mugello or Phillip Island, he might have stood a chance, but Valencia is a circuit which has not been kind to Rossi over the years. It is a race where he has all too often ended in the gravel, or off the podium, or otherwise out of contention. When Valentino Rossi lists his favorite circuits, Valencia is never among them.

Lorenzo needs help from more than Rossi, of course. Cal Crutchlow would dearly like to get back on the podium, to say farewell to the Monster Tech 3 Yamaha team in style, the team which has been like a family to him. Crutchlow is frustrated he hasn't been able to give the team the win which he feels they deserve, despite coming tantalizingly close a couple of times. At least the Valencia track gives him a chance: tight, twisty, with a couple of sections of acceleration and braking where they lose out to the Hondas, but a couple of other spots where they can make up ground thanks to the more maneuverable M1. It won't be easy, but it's not impossible.

Then there's the satellite Hondas, with Stefan Bradl and Alvaro Bautista both having shown good form throughout the year. Bradl has had an even worse time at Valencia than Valentino Rossi, the German never managing to finish a race at the circuit. The LCR Honda rider will be wanting things to turn out differently this year, but a run like that can get into a rider's mind. There is more hope for Alvaro Bautista, the Spaniard having strung together a good run in the second half of the season. The Showa suspension is showing real progress, and Bautista is taking advantage by getting close to the podium. That could be within reach on Sunday, though that would be much to Honda's chagrin if it interfered with Marquez' title hopes. If anything, Bautista could be more susceptible to pressure from Honda than Dani Pedrosa has. After all, as a satellite rider who looks set to lose his seat at the end of 2014, he may decide that a good result is more important than keeping Honda happy.

The chances of the Ducati riders getting involved at the front are very slim indeed, the Desmosedici continuing to limp through the season towards a fresh start. Though some progress has been made - the bike enters corners better, is more stable, and less aggressive on the throttle - it is still a second a lap or more off the pace of the leading trio. The chances of Andrea Dovizioso or Nicky Hayden mixing it up at the front are very slim indeed. The two will be much more concerned with the post-race test than with the race itself. Nicky Hayden will swing his leg over Honda's production racer for the first time with the Aspar team at the test, and he, along with the rest of us, will get the first real sense of how good that bike will be. While Dovizioso will have only a few minor parts to test from Monday, though the focus of the factory will shift toward 2014, and Gigi Dall'Igna will make his first appearance.

But Nicky Hayden knows better than most just what the last race of the season can bring. In 2006, it brought him a world championship, just a week after it looked like he had lost it in a crash with his teammate - one Dani Pedrosa - at Estoril. In 2011, with big things to test on the Tuesday after Valencia, Hayden found himself taken out in a first-corner, multi-bike pilot, an incident in which he damaged his hand too badly to ride. Anything can happen, as Lorenzo keeps saying, and that's why they line up on Sunday, as Hayden keeps explaining. And that's why we keep watching, because you never know when the fireworks will start, and how it will all turn out. This will be the biggest Sunday in motorcycle racing for a very long time. It will be a real thrill to watch.


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2013 Valencia Moto3 Race Preview: Winner Takes All In Valencia

There have been an awful lot of good Moto3 races this year. So many, in fact, that it's hard to pick out a single one for particular praise. But the final round at Valencia could very well be the best of the year. Moto3 riders are not known for riding conservatively or with undue caution at the best of times, but with the championship up for grabs at Valencia and the top three riders involved in a three-way winner-takes-all shootout for the title, this could be a real heart stopper. Cardiologists around the world will be rubbing their hands with glee at the amount of extra business they are about to generate.

The mathematics of the situation is simple. Just five points separate Luis Salom, who leads the championship, from Alex Rins, who is third, while Maverick Viñales is two points behind Salom and three ahead of Rins. If either Salom or Viñales win, they take the title with an outright points advantage; if Rins wins and Salom is second, the two men are tied on points and on the number of wins, but Rins is crowned champion based on the number of second place finishes he has scored. If none of the three men leading the championship win, then it all gets a lot more complicated - see the full breakdown here - but it comes down to the fact that the first of the three across the line will take the championship.

The chances of one of Luis Salom, Maverick Viñales or Alex Rins not winning is surprisingly slim. Between them, the three men who have dominated the Moto3 series in 2013 have won 16 of the 17 races, and occupying 39 of the 48 podium positions so far. Only three other men have joined the leading trio on the podium, with Alex Marquez, Jonas Folger and Miguel Oliviera the awkward interlopers. Marquez is the only rider to win a race, and even then, he was assisted by Rins and Salom taking themselves out of contention.

So who will win it on Sunday? All three men could not be more motivated. Salom and Viñales are certain to move up to Moto2, where - ironically - they will be teammates in Sito Pons' HP Tuenti team. They both want to cap their seasons off with a win and a title before they make the next step. They will be joined in Moto2 if Alex Rins wins the championship, the Estrella Galicia rider set to be promoted into the SAG Moto2 team with the backing of Monlau Competicion, the organization which ran Marc Marquez in Moto2 and now runs the Estrella Galicia Moto3 team. Salom and Viñales are going all out for pride, Rins is going for the win to gain promotion. If he doesn't become champion, he faces another season in Moto3.

Who is the favorite? Of the three, Luis Salom has been the smartest rider, benefiting from his greater experience. Salom has his game plan down pat: stay with the front runners for most of the race, taking care to stay out of the battle for the lead and so saving his tires. Salom has learned to pounce with just a couple of laps to go, using his tires to push hard enough to break the resistance behind him and take the win. It is a system which has worked so well all season that there is no reason for Salom not to use it again. If he wins, it will be a testament to his ability to keep his cool throughout the race, only taking risks when he needs to. In a class full of excitable teenagers who explode at the first sign of a battle, his age has been a boon.

More than just his age, though, Salom has been helped by being in the Red Bull KTM team run by Aki Ajo. The Finnish team manager has both a nose for talent and the ability to manage the personalities that come with it. Ajo has calmed Salom's volatile nature by directing that energy in the right direction, guiding it when needed to ensure it works for Salom, and not against him.

Maverick Viñales could use a similar guiding hand. The young Spaniard is an undoubted talent, but as his behavior last year at Sepang proved, he can be extremely volatile. In October 2012, Viñales flew to Malaysia, argued with his manager Ricard Jove - a relationship which has now ended - and refused to ride. He was back the next race on the advice of his lawyers, but secured a switch to KTM machinery for 2013, which has proven to be crucial to being competitive. Viñales has looked the rider most likely to crumble under pressure all year, losing out all too often, yet his consistency has been second to none. Only a lack of wins has prevented him from leading the championship, taking victory only twice, while mounting the podium in second and third another twelve times.

If anyone is to stop Salom from lifting the 2013 Moto3 crown, it is surely Alex Rins. The young Spaniard is arguably the rider with the most raw talent of the three, combining the maturity of Salom with the unfettered ability of Viñales. Rins is on a roll, his season really taking off in the second half of the year. In the first eight races of the season, Rins won only twice, but since the summer break, he has won four out of eight. A hiccup at Motegi - an unforced error with Salom already having crashed out - put his title challenge back a long way. That mistake was the first sign of pressure from the Estrella Galicia rider, throwing away a chance to lead the championship comfortably ahead of the last race.

The rider putting pressure on Rins was his teammate Alex Marquez. In his first full season of Moto3, the younger brother of Marc has grown enormously in stature in the second half of the year. He beat Viñales to the line at Motegi to take his first win, capping a period where he has shown great progression. If there is a dark horse at Valencia, it is surely Alex Marquez. The question is, just how firmly Emilio Alzamora will impress upon Marquez that he is not to hinder his teammate, and just how well Marquez will listen. At 17 years of age, there is reason to doubt that he will be inclined to follow orders unquestioningly, especially once the red mist descends in the heat of battle.

Is a KTM destined to win at Valencia? They have won every race this season, with Miguel Oliveira the only interloper on the Mahindra. In fact, either a KTM or a Kalex KTM has won the last twenty four races, the last non-KTM powered Moto3 winner being Maverick Viñales on the FTR Honda at Mugello in 2012. Yet Valencia is a track where the Hondas at least stand a chance, with the tight stadium section favoring a better handling chassis rather than outright horsepower. That will give Jack Miller and Alexis Masbou a better chance of being in the running with the FTR Hondas, while the Mahindras of Miguel Oliveira and Efren Vazquez could make use of their strong balance between power and handling. There could even be a surprise - Brad Binder, John McPhee, Romano Fenati, Niccolo Antonelli, all have proven themselves to be fast. But beating three of the best four or five riders on the grid on the three best bikes on the grid will be almost impossible.

That doesn't mean they won't try, and with the three leaders going all out for glory, and a host of others aiming for vindication before the season ends, the Moto3 race promises to be the best battle of the day. Though only one man will stand atop the podium on Sunday, and one will head to the Feria de Valencia to be officially awarded the trophy, there will still be 130,000 winners at the Circuit Ricardo Tormo. No prisoners will be taken, no quarter given, nor none asked. And that is exactly as it should be.


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2013 Motegi MotoGP Preview: Three Championships On The Line, And The Weather Ready To Play A Role

After the farcical yet compelling Australian Grand Prix, the Grand Prix paddock heads north to Japan for the last of the three overseas races. The contrast could not be greater: from unusually warm weather at the magnificent, sweeping Phillip Island circuit, it is cold and very wet conditions which greet the riders at Motegi, a circuit dominated by stop-and-go corners with little rhythm to it. While almost every rider on the grid adores Phillip Island, you would be hard pressed to find a rider not holding a Japanese passport with any affection for Motegi. The challenges the riders face are mainly of physical endurance, with very few spots testing their mettle and skill.

Adding the test of endurance will be the weather this weekend. Though Typhoon Francisco has now weakened to a tropical storm and is forecast to pass much further south than was feared, large amounts of rain are still expected at Motegi, especially on Friday evening and Saturday morning. While all of practice looks set to be wet, at least the riders will get some practice, as early forecasts had suggested that several, if not all, sessions could be a complete washout. For now, it just looks like the riders will be cold and rather wet.

That could add to some real excitement at the Japanese circuit. The championship is still far from decided in all three classes, after the surprises at Phillip Island stirred up the title fight. Alex Rins' victory in Australia saw him close the gap to Moto3 championship leader Luis Salom to just 5 points with two races to go; Scott Redding's qualifying crash in which he fractured his wrist allowed Pol Espargaro to turn a 9 point deficit in the Moto2 title chase into a 16 point lead; and the bizarre mistake by Marc Marquez' crew which led to him being disqualified meant that his lead over Jorge Lorenzo was slashed from 43 points to just 18. Two of the three titles could be decided at Motegi on Sunday, but there is a strong possibility that all three championships could be taken down to the final race at Valencia, the first time that has happened in the history of the series.

Marc Marquez looks the rider most likely to wrap up his title at Motegi, a result which would be a dream come true for Honda. The Japanese factory owns the Motegi Twin Ring circuit, which also serves as a test track for HRC. Sunday will see all of Honda's top brass present, and given the resources which HRC continues to invest in MotoGP, and their wish to spend heavily in Moto3, winning the championship at home would go a long way to pacifying any internal resistance from Honda's board.

The track is ideal for the RC213V, playing to the bikes strengths. Hard braking areas, followed by slow corners with hard acceleration, a long, high-speed back straight and a circuit which is very heavy on fuel: if there is a circuit where you'd bet on a Honda to win, it is Motegi. Yet at the pre-event press conference, Jorge Lorenzo was sounding confident. The Yamaha is strong in acceleration, he told the press, especially since they received the new gearbox, and the larger diameter brake disks which the teams are allowed to use because of the very heavy braking zones at the circuit help with the Yamaha's weakness on the brakes.

The biggest obstacle Lorenzo faces is fuel consumption. The Yamaha is the thirstiest of the MotoGP bikes - in part due to the long bang firing order of the inline four cylinder, which requires a balance shaft to cut down on vibration - and Motegi is very hard indeed on fuel. Last year, Cal Crutchlow ran out of fuel on the last lap, while battling with Alvaro Bautista for a podium. Lorenzo has finished 2nd at Motegi for the past two years, and that will be his aim again on Sunday. A 2nd place finish in Japan is all Lorenzo needs to take the title fight to a final showdown in Valencia.

To do that, he has to beat one of the two Hondas. Dani Pedrosa has won the last two MotoGP races here, and Marc Marquez won the Moto2 race in 2012, after failing to get his bike into first gear at the start, and leaving the starting line almost dead last. Staying ahead of either Pedrosa or Marquez will be a massive challenge at Motegi for Jorge Lorenzo.

Two things could come to Lorenzo's aid. The first is an appeal by Yamaha to Race Direction over Marquez' exit from pit lane at Phillip Island. When he rejoined the track after swapping bikes, Marquez cut across the track just as Lorenzo was hurtling into Doohan Corner, the fast, sweeping first corner. At the time, Lorenzo judged blame for the incident as being 50/50 between himself and Marquez, Lorenzo admitting he had run wide, and Marquez having left him little room after rejoining from pit lane. But after reviewing the footage with team managers Wilco Zeelenberg and Maio Meregalli, Lorenzo had felt that Marquez' move was more dangerous than he had at first though.

A delegation from Yamaha is to face Race Direction on Friday, where they are set to make their case for penalizing Marquez. The omens are not good for the Yamaha team, as Race Direction has not summoned either rider to hear their side of the story, a sign that penalties are unlikely. Race Direction already examined the move during the race at Phillip Island, and dismissed it as a racing incident then. The four members of Race Direction are unlikely to have changed their mind since then.

What may be of more assistance to Lorenzo is the weather, with heavy rain expected throughout practice. As the forecast stands, the first dry session the teams will get is likely to be Sunday morning warm up. What that means is that the team that gets their set up right first time will have the advantage. Though Honda have the benefit of having tested recently at Motegi, Lorenzo's crew, led by the irascible Catalan genius Ramon Forcada, have been very quick to find a working set up all this year, and for the rest of the season. If the crews have to gamble on a set up for the race, Forcada is a safe bet to get it pretty close first time.

The wet weather will also help Lorenzo's engine situation. Though it is far from critical, Lorenzo only really has one good engine, with three more that are starting to get very tired. If it's wet, then engine performance becomes far less important to setting a good time, with traction a far more significant issue. Two days of wet practice would allow Lorenzo to rest his good engine, and run up some more miles on the old motors.

Rain would also be welcomed in the Ducati garage, and not just because wet conditions are the only hope of being competitive for Andrea Dovizioso and Nicky Hayden. Hayden is running dangerously close to needing to take a 6th engine, which would incur the penalty of starting from pit lane. Two days of heavy rain - preferably including a couple of sessions where conditions made riding impossible - could be the difference between a pit lane start and making it to the end of the season without penalty. Even ordinary wet sessions would help, taking the engine decision to Valencia. There, pit lane is just about in the perfect location if you had to start from there for a penalty, offering a clear run into Turn 1.

The weather may also throw a lifeline to Scott Redding. His championship hopes seemed to be in tatters after his crash in qualifying at Phillip Island, the Marc VDS Racing rider fracturing his radius as he tried to grip on to his bucking Kalex and prevent a highside. It did not work, and Redding was forced to have surgery that Saturday night. At first, the team had announced he would not be at Motegi, but Redding was not ready to give up. After intensive therapy, he will attempt to race, and has already been passed fit by the circuit doctor, subject to another examination on Friday after free practice.

Wet weather would be a godsend for the Englishman, as it would massive reduce the stresses of braking. Fortunately - if you can call it that - for Redding, it was his left wrist he fractured, and not the crucial right. Racing at Motegi with a hand or wrist injury is always painful because of the stresses placed by the braking zones, but at least the left wrist is not needed for braking and accelerating. What effect bearing most of the strain on his right arm will have on the arm pump he recently had surgery for remains to be seen.

Having Redding competing is also good for Pol Espargaro, as the Spaniard told the press conference. Winning while your competition is absent is not the same as beating them out on track, but mistakes and accidents are part of racing, he told the press. And while wet weather favored Scott Redding, conditions on Sunday look to be going Espargaro's way, with the weather set to be sunny and dry. With tropical storms involved, of course, those things can change very rapidly, however.

The 2013 Grand Prix motorcycle racing may be drawing to a conclusion, but it isn't there yet. There is still plenty to play for, and a group of willing combatants ready to slug it out. Titles may be decided this weekend, but don't be surprised if all three championships go down to the wire. That is a sign of just how competitive all three classes have become, at least among the elite in each class. The fat lady may be waiting in the wings, but she doesn't look like she'll start warming her vocal chords just yet.


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2013 Phillip Island MotoGP Preview: Of Spectacular Circuits, History In The Making, And A Legend's Last Chance

Ask any Grand Prix rider for his top three circuits, and you can bet that two names will figure on almost everybody's list: one will be Mugello, and the other will be Phillip Island. The order which the rider in question will put them in may vary, but the two appear so often because they share something special. Three factors make the two tracks such magical places to ride: they are both fast, they are both naturally flowing, and they are both set in spectacular locations.

Though their settings may be equally stunning, there is one major difference between the two. While Mugello sits amid the Mediterranean warmth of a Tuscan hillside, the Bass Strait, which provides the backdrop to the Phillip Island circuit, is the gateway to the cold Southern Ocean, with little or nothing between the track and Antarctica. The icy blast that comes off the sea will chill riders, fans and team members to the bone in minutes, gale force winds often buffeting the bikes and trying to blow them off course, when it isn't throwing seagulls and larger birds into their paths. The fact that the the track has a corner named Siberia tells you all you need to know about conditions at the Australian circuit.

Despite the Antarctic chill, changeable weather, gale force winds, tiny garages and general shabbiness of the place, Phillip Island remains perhaps the best motorcycle racing circuit in the world. It is exactly what a circuit is meant to be: fast, flowing, with one corner leading into another, a few blind corners, and lots of places where the rider's courage is tested to the very limit. At Phillip Island, the rider who is willing and able to carry the speed is the rider who wins.

Does the fact that it is a circuit which favors corner speed over acceleration make it a Yamaha track or a Honda track? In all honesty, Phillip Island is neither. As veteran reporter Dennis Noyes put it, Phillip Island is not a Honda track, it is not a Yamaha track. Phillip Island is a rider's track. If you want a clear indication of how little difference the bike makes, just compare the lap times between MotoGP and World Superbikes. At a tight track like Misano with a similar lap time, the difference between the two series is over two seconds. At Phillip Island, the difference is half that. Indeed, World Superbikes provides an even better yardstick: all year long, the Ducati Panigale has struggled to match the pace of the other WSBK machines. At Phillip Island, the Panigale was on pole.

A sceptic might point out a Honda has won the MotoGP race at the Island for the past two years in a row. But that rather masks the fact that the man riding that Honda had also won the race for the preceding four years, this time on a Ducati. Casey Stoner owned Phillip Island, just as Valentino Rossi had between 2001 and 2005. This is a track where the rider makes the difference, much more so than the machine.

That factor gives Jorge Lorenzo hope that he can claw back points on Marc Marquez before the series heads to Motegi, a circuit which clearly favors the Honda over the Yamaha. With few spots where there is any really hard braking, the Yamaha M1's weakest point - stability in braking - is neatly masked, and it comes down to willingness to push fast through corners. Corner speed is Lorenzo's strongest point - there is arguably no rider on earth capable of carrying as much corner speed as the reigning world champion, though Marc Marquez clearly comes very close - and that can be key to winning here. Lorenzo's record at Phillip Island is very strong since 2010, always finishing and qualifying second, though he was forced to miss the race in 2011 after crashing in the morning warm up and losing the tip of a finger. If Lorenzo is to achieve his increasingly distant aim of taking the championship battle down to Valencia, this is his best chance.

The trouble is, Lorenzo finds himself up against a pair of highly motivated Hondas. Dani Pedrosa arrives at Phillip Island coming off the back of his first victory in five months, winning convincingly at Sepang. Pedrosa has a point to prove, and another win would bring his season total to four, showing that if things had gone a little differently - he hadn't broken a collarbone at the Sachsenring, and he hadn't been thrown from his bike after his teammate had damaged his rear wheel speed sensor at Aragon - he would have still been in genuine contention for the title. Sadly for Pedrosa, luck has always been a very cruel mistress to him.

And then there's Marc Marquez. The youngster looks destined to become the youngest premier class champion of all time, and match Kenny Roberts Sr's achievement of winning the title in his rookie year. Lorenzo praised his young rival as a phenomenon, pointing to both his immense talent, but also to the bike and team he has. Marquez spent the press conference fielding questions comparing him to Casey Stoner, but he played down the comparisons. Of course he had looked at Stoner's data, he said, but the way Stoner rode around the track was special. Emulating that would be hard.

Marquez is also likely to be more cautious than otherwise. As in Sepang, his first priority ensuring he finishes with as many points as possible. He does not need to win the title in Australia; in fact, Honda would probably prefer it if he didn't. If he can take the championship at Motegi, Honda's home track, in front of Honda's board, it would be a much greater coup for the Japanese factory.

The difference between Marquez and Lorenzo is 43 points, meaning that Marquez needs to extend his lead by 7 points to take the title at Phillip Island. Given that both Lorenzo and Marquez are almost guaranteed a podium, based on their form this season, that would mean Marquez would have to win and Lorenzo come third. With Phillip Island being favorable to both Lorenzo and Yamaha, and Lorenzo going all out for the win, with nothing to lose, that outcome seems unlikely.

Throwing a real spanner in the works is one Valentino Rossi. Before Casey Stoner dominated at the track, this was the circuit at which Rossi reigned supreme, much as he did at Mugello in the past. Rossi has been slowly creeping up on the three championship leaders in the last few races, as his crew have worked to resolve the braking problem Rossi has had. With braking less of a problem at Phillip Island, this is the track where the Italian should be able to show where his true potential lies. If Rossi can stay close to his teammate and the two Repsol Hondas, then it will give him hope of a return to more frequent podiums in 2014, once (or if) Yamaha have fixed the braking problem with the M1.

The corollary of that conclusion is that if Rossi can't close the gap to Lorenzo, Pedrosa and Marquez, he must surely start to doubt his own abilities. If the nine time world champion can't match the pace of the front runners at a track where he used to dominate, and where the weaknesses of the bike he is on are most effectively masked, then it could be the first sign that he has lost the very sharpest of his racing edge. If that is the case, then fourth - a position which he has almost exclusive rights to at the moment - could be the best he could hope for.

Not being on the podium would not be a disaster for Rossi, but a sizable gap to the top three would. If Rossi crosses the line just short of the Spanish armada, it will give him hope for the future. If he manages to actually get on the podium, then it could throw a real spanner in the works of the title chase. If he gets ahead of Jorge Lorenzo, Rossi could be the deciding factor in the title - or rather, in the timing of when Marquez becomes champion. If he can get between Lorenzo and Marquez, then he could help bring the title back within Lorenzo's reach. It is an intriguing prospect indeed.

Even Cal Crutchlow could get into the mix. Last year, the Tech 3 man took third on the podium, and with his confidence now building again, a podium spot is not beyond the realms of possibility. At Sepang, the Englishman and his crew found the wrong set up for the very hot Malaysian track, but it could work very nicely for the cold conditions at Phillip Island. Crutchlow would dearly like to get back on the podium before the season ends, and Australia is his best hope of doing so.

The flowing layout of Phillip Island could have a major impact in Moto2 and Moto3 as well. In the Moto2 championship, Pol Espargaro has been slowly regaining ground on Scott Redding, cutting the Englishman's lead in the title chase to just 9 points. Espargaro destroyed the field at Phillip Island last year, his lead nearly 17 seconds. But at a track where he does not suffer with the disadvantage of his height and weight, Scott Redding will be determined to pull back as many points as he can. Redding can run the corner speed which Phillip Island demands, and if he can qualify well - the area where he has been underperforming in recent races - he should be able to give Espargaro a run for his money, and perhaps even build a bit more of a cushion again.

In Moto3, Phillip Island could be kind to the Hondas. With top speed less important, the riders on FTR Hondas and the Mahindras should be able to take the fight to the KTMs. The FTR Hondas, in particular, are strong through the corners, and the Honda-mounted men will be looking to exploit whatever advantage they can. There might even be another Australian winner, Jack Miller having been deeply impressive throughout the year on the Racing Team Germany FTR Honda. If Miller can get within a few seconds of the winner at a horsepower track like Sepang, he should be a real threat at Phillip Island.

Of course, all such ruminations could go out of the window if the notorious Phillip Island weather strikes. So far, the forecast looks fair, with sunny conditions - if strong winds - for Friday and Saturday, with more cloud predicted for Sunday. But this is an island on the edge of the largest and fiercest ocean in the world. The weather can turn at any moment. As the saying goes, if you don't like the weather, just wait a couple of minutes. All three Grand Prix classes will be hoping that doesn't hold true on Sunday.


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2013 Aragon MotoGP Preview: Honda Vs Yamaha, Fuel Consumption, Ducati's Failings, And The Benefits Of Dirt Track

One question has been raised ahead of nearly every race this season: Is this a Honda track, or is this a Yamaha track? Winners have been predicted based on the perceived characteristics of each circuit. Fast and flowing? Yamaha track. Stop and go? Honda track. The track record - if you'll excuse the pun - of such predictions has been little better than flipping a coin, however. Brno was supposed to favor Yamaha, yet Marc Marquez won on a Honda. Misano was clearly a Honda track, yet Jorge Lorenzo dominated on the Yamaha M1. More than Honda vs Yamaha, the 2013 MotoGP season has been a tale of rider vs rider, of Jorge Lorenzo vs Marc Marquez vs Dani Pedrosa.

So when the paddock rolls up at Aragon, track analysis says this is a Honda track, something underlined by the fact that the last two editions were won by Hondas. With Marc Marquez growing increasingly confident and Dani Pedrosa looking for a return to the winning ways he showed last year, it seems foolish to bet against a Honda rider standing on the top step on Sunday. Yet there are reasons to suspect Pedrosa and Marquez will not have it all their own way this weekend.

First of all, there is Jorge Lorenzo. The reigning world champion has been forced to step up his game this season, and he has responded in impressive fashion. He and his crew have determined that their only chance of beating the Hondas is to take off from the start like a scalded cat, and push as hard as possible from the very first lap onwards. The strategy nearly paid off at Brno and Silverstone, though a fierce battle helped decide the race in Lorenzo's favor in the UK, and it paid off completely in Misano, where Lorenzo finally had Yamaha's seamless gearbox to help him maintain his pace and advantage in the last section of the race. No doubt Lorenzo will attempt to do the same thing at Aragon, the question is, can he pull it off?

Lorenzo's lightning starts are all part of his team's strategy to prevent Marc Marquez following in the footsteps of Kenny Roberts and taking the title in his rookie season. Sitting 34 points behind Marquez with five races to go, Lorenzo knows he needs to force Marquez into an error. That can only happen if he keeps up the pressure, winning when he can, and finishing ahead of Marquez when he can't. 'We have to wait and see if we can extend the fight to prevent him from being champion before Valencia,' Lorenzo's team manager Wilco Zeelenberg said after the race at Misano. 'Then in Valencia, anything can happen.'

Is the pressure starting to get to Marc Marquez? The young Spaniard shows no sign of cracking just yet, but in the pre-event press conference, he did admit that he needed to up his game. He had made a few mistakes at Misano, and he could not afford to keep doing so, Marquez said. The admission came after criticism from HRC boss Shuhei Nakamoto in UK publication Motorcycle News that both Marquez and teammate Dani Pedrosa were not starting fast enough. Nakamoto had pointed out that Casey Stoner had managed to start well and put in the kind of blistering first lap which Jorge Lorenzo had been doing recently, and so that meant that it was possible to do on the Honda. Marquez admitted Nakamoto was right. 'Already Casey started fast, so we know we can,' he said. But it is something which he will be working on in two separate stages, he said, first work on improving the starts, later work on improving the first fast lap.

Dani Pedrosa was less open to the criticism leveled by Nakamoto. He had won many races that way, Pedrosa pointed out, but it was not always possible. Pedrosa has been struggling with rear grip all season, and this was what was holding him back, both in the early laps as well as later on.

The Honda's real advantage over the Yamaha is in fuel consumption, though. Both Cal Crutchlow and Valentino Rossi voiced their concerns over the Yamaha's weakness in comparison to the Honda. 'Valentino and I are at the limit with fuel. One race he runs out, the next I run out,' Crutchlow said. 'We are in big trouble with 21 liters,' Valentino Rossi said, 'so imagine with 20. For me the big problem is the heavy and tall riders have a double disadvantage compared to the small and light rider because you have to use more fuel so you are more in the sh*t.' Crutchlow could laugh off the prospect of the fuel being dropped from 21 liters to 20 liters for 2014 ('I'm not on a Yamaha next year,' he joked) but Rossi is seriously worried. It is already hard enough to fight with the Hondas, with one liter less it will be almost impossible.

The problem does not just manifest itself at the end of the race, it is also a problem at the start. Crutchlow explained how being so tight on fuel at circuits like Misano, Aragon and Motegi made it hard to keep up in the early stages. 'Where we are losing, for sure, is on the first lap,' Crutchlow explained. 'Valentino and I believe it is a lot to do with the sighting lap to the grid as we have to ride at 30kph which means we can't scrub the tire. Then on the warm-up lap, we are trying to get the shine off the tire and we're already a lap behind.' The issue does not affect Jorge Lorenzo as badly, Crutchlow said. 'As Jorge is lighter and has a different riding style, he is able to push from the start and we are not.'

Crutchlow was at pains to point out that Lorenzo's advantage was as much about the reigning champion's ability as it was about his weight or height. It was about his smoothness with the throttle as well as his weight. Lorenzo's team manager Wilco Zeelenberg concurred. A lot of Lorenzo's advantage over the other Yamaha riders was in the way he rolled the throttle off smoothly, and rolled it off again, Zeelenberg explained. Cal Crutchlow freely admitted to chopping the throttle too much, and having spent the last three years in MotoGP trying to unlearn that habit, and while Rossi was much better than Crutchlow, even Rossi was not as smooth on the throttle as Lorenzo, Crutchlow said.

But it was also about their position on the bike, Zeelenberg said. If you see Crutchlow and, to a lesser extent, Rossi on the bike, they spent more time out of the bubble than Lorenzo did. All of those body parts protruding outside of the fairing meant extra drag, and that was what was so costly in terms of fuel consumption. Motorcycles - even the most efficient of them - are an aerodynamic disaster, and so any further disruption makes things exponentially worse. The only consolation for the Yamaha riders at Aragon is that the Spanish circuit is not quite as hard on fuel as Misano was.

While all of the focus is on the Hondas and Yamahas, the Ducatis are stuck a second off the pace. A disconsolate Andrea Dovizioso told the media he expected only to try to find the limit of the Ducati, which, he added, was still nowhere near the front. 'The gap is the gap,' he said, and not likely to be reduced any time soon. Dovizioso's frustration at the situation was starting to show, and the Italian made some barbed comments about where the real problem lies: in Bologna, with the people designing the bike.

When asked about the work on restructuring the Ducati Corse organization, Dovizioso said that this was the most important change that needed making. 'This is the key point,' Dovizioso said. 'I spoke about this at the beginning of the season. The key point is not the bike. If until now we didn't fix the problem, then the bike is the consequence of the problem. So we have to fix a different point, not the bike now, but that is difficult.' The current organization had been unable to solve the problem, Dovizioso said. '[The people] who work on the bike didn't fix the problem. So it means the people who tried to fix the problem, are not fixing the problem.' Dovizioso rejected direct criticism of Ducati Corse, but admitted the same problems remained. 'They have many ideas, but still they didn't fix the problem,' he said.

For a change, there was more excitement in the media center about the Thursday night dirt track contest between journalists than there was about practice on Friday. After Kenny Noyes opened the Noyes Camp dirt track school at the Motorland Aragon circuit in the middle of last year, the American rider and his father, veteran journalist Dennis, decided to organize a contest in which teams of journalists, photographers and press officers competed in teams at the Noyes Camp TT course. Last year's event was won by a team led by Motociclismo's Jose Maroto, and the atmosphere was jocular, but still surprisingly tense on Thursday afternoon. Where normally, the media was busy reporting on the banter between the professional riders, instead the banter was between the members of the media, and the mind games and insults were just as vicious as they can be between the top MotoGP men. There were accusations of bringing in ringers, doubts and worries about new team members brought in from outside, and tips were exchanged on how to take other riders out without either looking like it was your fault, or falling off yourself in the process.

The contest reveals a wider point, however. After falling out of favor for several years, dirt track has once again become the primary tool for rider training. Valentino Rossi had a huge track laid out at his dirt track 'ranch' near his home in Tavullia, where he spends much time training. After Misano, a large group of riders assembled there for a spot of training, including Nicky Hayden and Jack Miller, who both grew up racing dirt track. Rossi was particularly impressed by the speed of Hayden, unsurprising given Hayden's background.

But Rossi isn't the only rider to have his own practice track. Marc Marquez also has a track where he practices, which though 'big enough to hurt yourself,' as one person who has seen the track described it, is not on the scale of Rossi's ranch. Marquez and his brother train their regularly, while Aleix and Pol Espargaro also have a dirt track where they train. Kenny Noyes' dirt track school at the Aragon circuit is growing rapidly in popularity with amateur and professional racers, while Colin Edwards' Boot Camp in Texas is also popular with both Grand Prix racers and casual punters. Despite all the electronics on a modern racing motorcycle, throttle control and the ability to control sliding tires front and rear are key skills in racing. Kenny Roberts described it as the only form of practice worth a damn, and that appears to be as true today as it was nearly forty years ago.


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2013 Silverstone MotoGP Preview: Of Home Winners, Historic Domination, And Stopping A Rookie

MotoGP bikes have a tendency to make a race track feel very, very small. Where Jerez on a road bike can feel spacious and unhurried, ride it on a MotoGP bike and it's like everything happens at warp speed. No sooner have you finished change up a couple of gears than it's time to get back hard on the brakes and start tipping the bike into the next corner. But then, 260 horsepower, 160 kg and carbon brakes will do that to a track.

Silverstone is different. The fast, flowing circuit around the former World War II airbase - one of the unintended legacies of that vast and bloody war was to leave a string of deserted military installations which were perfect for racing, and which formed the basis for the British domination of motor sport for three decades after the war - is so wide on a road bike it feels like a motorway. Doing a track day there, it feels like you have time to sit up and have a look around between corners.

That scale of circuit really does justice to a MotoGP machine. The breathtaking acceleration and speeds of a MotoGP bike bring the corners close enough to feel natural, while having enough space to feel like the bike can be really opened up. It is not quite the death-defying speeds of Phillip Island or Mugello, but Silverstone at least gives you a chance to put some wear on the cogs of fifth and sixth gear.

It is not just the speed that makes it popular among the riders. Though almost completely flat, Silverstone is notoriously difficult to master because of the number of blind corners. Being situated on top of a flat, windy plain means there are no trees, no hills, no buildings, no visual references to use when turning into some of the corners. The complex of turns through Maggots and Becketts is almost entirely blind, and the consequences of getting it wrong mildly disastrous. As at Assen - a track just as flat, and just as fast - the lack of elevation proves to be just as challenging for a rider as massive drops or steep climbs.

While the speed and intrigue of the Silverstone circuit makes for a great experience as a rider, it is less rewarding for spectators. The sheer spacious scale of the place leaves spectators with a lot of walking to do to get from place to place. Its flatness makes viewing difficult; lacking the earth banks of Assen or the natural hillsides of Mugello, spectators are left with windswept grandstands, with a limited view of the circuit. It is a bitter irony that Silverstone should offer such a diametrically opposed MotoGP experience to riders and fans. If the fans could get a taste of the track the riders see, their passion for the place might be greater.

At least the British fans will have something to cheer for on Sunday. The days of British domination - once far, far greater than the Spanish supremacy of the present day - may be long gone, consigned to history once Barry Sheene hung up his helmet, but MotoGP finds itself in the midst of a UK resurgence. After years of British riders mostly making up the numbers, the series returns to the UK with a realistic chance of home success. A clean sweep of wins is possible, if mainly in theory, but there is a very realistic chance of the British national anthem being heard at least once at Silverstone, and a real possibility of multiple British podiums.

Favorite to secure a win must be Scott Redding in Moto2. The Gloucerstershire youngster will want to perform at his home round, for a number of reasons. Beyond the normal home pressure, Redding needs to seize back the initiative in Moto2. Since the Barcelona round, his rival for the title Pol Espargaro has been clawing back points from Redding slowly but surely. Silverstone is a track which suits Redding, with few spots where his weight disadvantage works against him, and a lot of places he can use his advantage in corner speed. A win over Espargaro would help turn the tide in his favor once again, and force Espargaro back on the defensive. The British rider is also due to announce he will be moving up to the Gresini Honda team in 2014 this weekend, and will want to crown his announcement with a win. If ever there was a big weekend for Redding, this is surely it.

While Scott Redding is the favorite to win in Moto2, compatriot Cal Crutchlow has a much bigger mountain to climb in MotoGP. Redding's only serious rival in Moto2 is Pol Espargaro, but Crutchlow faces the three best riders in the world at the moment, as well as the man who once dominated the championship, an upstart German, and perhaps even an errant Spaniard. Just to get on the podium against Marc Marquez, Dani Pedrosa and Jorge Lorenzo is an enormous struggle, let alone considering victory.

Yet Crutchlow is a serious candidate for the win at Silverstone. The Tech 3 man has been within a tenth of the top three all year, making four visits to the podium already. He has been close to winning his first MotoGP race a number of times, and he has a little bit extra at his home round. His race last year, starting at the back of the grid after missing qualifying due to breaking an ankle during practice, then charging through the field to finish 6th. This year he is even stronger, and the strong points of the Yamaha - agility and corner speed - suit Silverstone down to the ground. Of the few chances Crutchlow has left to win a race, this is probably his best.

Or it would be, if he hadn't been given the new fuel tank he had been asking Yamaha for throughout the first half of the season. For his sins, Yamaha decided to give it to him at Indianapolis, and without time to work on finding the best set up for the tank, Crutchlow has struggled. The positive point is that the Englishman is now much faster at the start of the race than he has been previously. The downside is that his team have yet to find the best set up to allow him to maintain his pace throughout the race. The difference is small - so small he can't really feel it, Crutchlow explained at Brno - but it is subtly different enough that a rider can run into trouble with the tank if they are not fully prepared.

But Crutchlow's main problem is nothing as trivial as a fuel tank. The greatest challenge he faces is beating the precocious genius that is Marc Marquez. Marquez came into MotoGP with high expectations, and proceeded to make those talking him up feel guilty about underestimating him so badly. He has already seen many premier class records fall: youngest ever race winner, most race wins in a rookie season, first rookie to win four in a row, equaling Valentino Rossi's record of 10 podiums in his rookie year (and there are still 7 races to go) and just 2 points shy of Dani Pedrosa's record rookie year points haul. More will surely follow, with Marquez currently favorite to equal Kenny Roberts' record of winning a world title in his rookie year.

Marquez has won the last four MotoGP races, and looks set to win more. The Repsol Honda rookie has got into his stride and is looking harder to beat every time he takes to the racetrack. His ascendancy has been hastened by joining the factory team of the biggest manufacturer, riding arguably the best bike, and being surrounded by arguably the best pit crew in the business. But while all those factors have made Marquez' life a good deal easier, it is still the young Spaniard who has to twist the throttle, squeeze the brakes and hustle the bike through the corners. He is proving to be an exceptional talent at doing just that.

Silverstone is one place where Jorge Lorenzo needs to put a halt to the rise of Marquez. It is a track Lorenzo loves, and one he performs exceptionally at, having won in 2010 and 2012. It suits the Yamaha - long, flowing corners, playing to the strengths of the M1 - and nobody rides the Yamaha like Jorge Lorenzo. Lorenzo's problem is that the Honda is stronger in braking than the Yamaha, meaning that Lorenzo has only one strategy left: get out in front at the start of the race, try to set such a blistering pace that his rivals are unable to follow, and either break their spirit or force them into a mistake. Unfortunately for Lorenzo, neither Marc Marquez nor Dani Pedrosa appear to be taking much notice of his tactics. So far, the Honda men keep beating him, and without help from Yamaha, this looks set to continue.

While Dani Pedrosa is happy to be leading Lorenzo at this stage of the championship, his real problem is that he is being beaten by his rookie teammate. The Repsol Honda man has had little luck at Silverstone so far, though he managed a strong podium just behind his teammate - shades of deja vu - last year. With the series heading to the tracks at which he dominated in 2012, Pedrosa will be confident of beating Lorenzo for the rest of the season. The real question is whether he will also be able to beat Marc Marquez.

For Valentino Rossi, Silverstone presents a conundrum. The Italian missed the first year the series raced at the circuit, then was forced to suffer through two long and painful weekends in the years he was riding a Ducati. Now back on a Yamaha, Rossi is eager to find out exactly what he can do at the British circuit. Rossi's problem is that he is still struggling with braking, a recurring issue that he is only sometimes able to overcome. Rossi is a notorious late braker, which runs entirely counter to the direction Lorenzo has taken the bike in, but now even Lorenzo is suffering against the Hondas. If the Italian is to take the fight to the front runners, he will need to find a set up like he had at Assen. Given that Silverstone shares a number of characteristics with Assen, Rossi has reason for optimism.

The opposite is true for the Ducatis. Though work proceeds apace on the Desmosedici, with the latest iteration of the bike easier to manage and be consistent on, the lap times of Andrea Dovizioso and Nicky Hayden remain woefully slow. The pair keep finding themselves fighting each other, 20 seconds or more behind the leaders. With few updates of any consequence available at Silverstone, it looks like being another interminably long weekend for the boys in red. The suffering may be alleviated in 2014, but that is still a very long way away.

All that will take place on Sunday, but the British Grand Prix kicks off as it always has, with the Day of Champions. A bigger, better event than most which surround a GP weekend, and a chance for the fans to get up close and personal with the riders, who are otherwise sequestered in the paddock and out of reach of mere mortals. For a taste of how accessible riders ought to be, get yourself along to Silverstone on Thursday and check it out. And while you're there, stay for the MotoGP racing. I have reason to suspect it might be worth the effort.


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2013 Indianapolis MotoGP Preview: Honda vs Yamaha In The Heart Of American Racing

It's been a long summer break. Three consecutive weekends without racing - four, for the returning Moto2 and Moto3 classes - means that the MotoGP riders return well-rested and raring to get back on to a bike again. Some, of course, have already spent some time on a bike over the summer, with both Yamaha and Ducati testing (more of which later), but for the most part, they have had an all too brief vacation cut short by a return to training. Training never stops for a motorcycle racer.

The location they make their return is a spectacular one. The Indianapolis Motor Speedway is the true home of American motor sports. It is a vast arena, a sprawling complex set inside a two-and-a-half mile oval (though it is more of a rectangle with rounded corners than an oval), housing an eighteen hole golf course, a magnificent museum and acres and acres of space to roam around in. It can seat up to 400,000, which it regularly does for the Indy 500. It oozes history; like Monza, everywhere you go, the ghosts of racing legends are at your side. In the shadows, you can hear them whisper.

The problem of having MotoGP at the heart of American racing is that to most Americans, motor sports involve four-wheeled vehicles. Americans love motorcycles, but the motorcycles they love are mostly American. The real American motorcycle racing fans can be found on Saturday night a few miles away, at the Indiana State Fairground, where American motorcycles turn laps on an oval made of dirt. Those American motorcycle racing fans - hard working men and women come to watch the most blue collar of sports - are joined there by a large part of the MotoGP paddock, entranced by this most quintessential piece of Americana. The Indy Mile is just one of the things that make this weekend so very special.

Sadly, the road course inside IMS' spectacular facility is not one of them. Originally designed to be run in the opposite direction for Formula One, the track which MotoGP uses is tight, with most of the corners closing up instead of opening out, as they were intended to be run the other way. The asphalt - though resurfaced - is a bit of a patchwork, with four different types of tarmac as the track runs onto and then off the oval, and through the center of the massive facility. Last year, there were a lot of complaints that the new tarmac had no rubber on it, which led to a large number of serious crashes. The worst of those hit Casey Stoner, who effectively ended his season and his title defense there when he broke the bones in his foot and ankle. This year, the track should be a little better, now that it has had cars lay down a little rubber on the surface, but it remains a finicky and difficult track to ride.

You have to wonder if the memory of last year's crashes will linger with the two men tipped to win the title this season. Both Jorge Lorenzo and Dani Pedrosa return to action at Indianapolis still not fully recovered from their broken collarbones, and at the start of a triple header of three races on three consecutive weekends. Will they tread with a little more care around Indy's road course, its changing surface ready at any moment to catch them out? It will be hard for them to hold anything in reserve, for they both trail rookie Marc Marquez, Dani Pedrosa lagging 16 points behind his Repsol Honda teammate, while factory Yamaha man Jorge Lorenzo has a 26 point disadvantage to the young Spanish prodigy.

What's more, Indy is a Honda track: a group of tight corners tying a couple of straights together. The slow exit onto both the back and front straights plays to the advantage in acceleration which the Honda has. The history books bear that out: a Honda has won the last three editions of the Red Bull Indianapolis GP, Dani Pedrosa winning in 2010 and 2012, while Casey Stoner took victory in 2011. The odds of Honda making it four in a row seem strong.

But which Honda? Marc Marquez comes off the back of two victories in a row, at the Sachsenring and again a week later at Laguna Seca. Marquez has momentum on his side, and he is just about hitting his stride. He won his last two races here, taking victory in Moto2 in 2011 and 2012. He enters the weekend leading the championship, and as favorite to take the win, while both Pedrosa and Lorenzo are still not back to 100%. On a track that turns left, their recovering left collarbones will be tested hard.

Adding more complications is Stefan Bradl, the LCR Honda man having found his feet in the MotoGP class since the switch to Brembo brakes after the test at Aragon in June. Since then, Bradl has had his first front-row start, his first pole position, and his first podium. He arrives at Indianapolis with his contract for 2014 confirmed, and brimming with confidence. Bradl could pose a problem for the front runners. If he can stay with Marquez, Lorenzo and Pedrosa, he could end up taking points from any of the championship contenders, making life much more complicated than before for them. If Marquez gets away, Bradl could end up costing either Lorenzo or Pedrosa precious points. Alternatively, if either Lorenzo or Pedrosa make a break, and Bradl gets between them and Marquez, he could help to close the gap. The Indy round of MotoGP could have a profound impact on the 2013 title race.

Then there is Valentino Rossi, of course. Rossi, like Lorenzo, is at a disadvantage at Indianapolis, the Yamaha losing out to the Honda on acceleration. But Rossi's confidence is high, boosted by his win at Assen and bolstered by the test at Brno held last week. The seamless gearbox they tested at the Czech circuit is an improvement, but not yet ready to be raced, at least not as far as Yamaha is concerned, though both Rossi and Lorenzo feel otherwise. Even if it was completely ready, the factory Yamaha men would probably not be able to use at Indy, as if it needs new engine cases - which most insiders believe it does - then they can only use it with a new engine, and Rossi and Lorenzo only have one unused engine each left in their allocation.

So can Rossi and Lorenzo hold back the Honda Hordes? It will be tough, and it will require strategy more than anything. Their hope will be that the track is a little dusty and a little green. On a slippery, greasy track, the Hondas lose their advantage, the Yamahas coping with those circumstances much better. If the Hondas can't get their power down, Rossi, Lorenzo and Cal Crutchlow will hope to take the fight to the Hondas, and come out on top.

A strong result at Indianapolis will be doubly important for Cal Crutchlow. The Englishman had a dismal race at Laguna Seca, out of character with the rest of the outstanding season he has had so far. Crutchlow is out to make amends for his poor performance, but also to make a point. Fresh from signing a two-year deal with Ducati, he wants to prove that he deserves a factory ride, and show his potential. Crutchlow is still chasing his first win in MotoGP - his critics would say that he has to get one before he leaves Yamaha for Ducati - but Indy seems an unlikely spot for him to achieve this. Silverstone, on the other hand ….

While Crutchlow has two weeks to wait before his home Grand Prix, the man he will replace next season races in front of his home crowd this weekend. Nicky Hayden lives just a few hours from the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and brings a large following to the track. That support always gives him an extra boost, and he has been on the podium here twice, including once on the Ducati. That, though, was way back in 2009, but Hayden will want to be closer to the front runners in front of his home crowd.

Fortunately, the layout of Indy helps. There are no really fast changes of direction, which is where the Ducati suffers most, though the tendency of the bike to run wide was made painfully clear at Turn 1 last year. With his future still in the balance - the Kentuckian has admitted he is talking to "everyone" - Hayden will be looking for a good result at Indianapolis.

Ben Spies, the other American on a Ducati, will be more concerned with easing his way back into MotoGP. The Texan returns after a long layoff, which was in turn down to trying to come back too early from his shoulder surgery. Spies damaged his shoulder at Sepang last year, had surgery on it, came back to test the Ducati in February, a long time before he was fully fit, then to race. The struggle to compensate for his weak shoulder saw him overcompensate with his chest muscles, leading to a complications in his pectoral muscles. After Mugello, he finally conceded he was not yet fit and did the right thing, waiting until he was back to full fitness before even trying to ride a motorcycle.

Now, of course, the big test comes. Being able to do a full work out in the gym is a completely different proposition to wrestling a 160kg, 260bhp MotoGP machine around, especially a bike as physical as the Ducati. Spies wants to demonstrate that he can still race at the highest level - or at least, as high a level as the Desmosedici will allow in its current state - but coming back for three races on three consecutive weekends is a tough return. Objective number one for Spies is to finish the weekend in one piece, objective number two is to get back up to speed. But after such a long layoff, and such a long period of doubt over his fitness, his main objective will surely be to test where he really can still race a motorcycle competitively again.

Moto2 and Moto3 return to action at Indianapolis as well, and the two classes look set to continue their respective two-way and three-way fights. (There is a pleasing numerological symmetry in the fact that Moto2 has two men battling for the title, while Moto3 has three young riders fighting over who will be champion.)

In Moto2, Pol Espargaro returns to Indianapolis hoping to maintain the momentum he built after the test at Mugello, the Spaniard brimming with confidence now that he has a solution to the lack of grip he complained of earlier in the season. He can also focus completely on 2013, now that he also has his contract for MotoGP with Yamaha for next year signed. Scott Redding comes to Indy determined to get his title challenge back on track, after being forced to take a back seat to Espargaro since Barcelona. Redding, too, has little to worry about for next year, though his deal will probably only be announced at Silverstone. It has been an intriguing battle so far, and it should continue at Indianapolis. Espargaro has the better record at the track - a pair of 2nd places, vs a 3rd a 5th and a 6th for Redding - and the hard acceleration out of the final corner militates against the Marc VDS rider. But Redding will be looking for something to disrupt Espargaro's progress.

As for the Moto3 class, the trio of Spaniards continue to battle it out at the front. Luis Salom, Maverick Viñales and Alex Rins have battled all year long, with little to choose between them. Salom is showing maturity and wiles in waiting to the end of the race to pounce, Viñales has established himself as a genuine title candidate after showing much promise last year, and Rins has been the surprise package of 2013, battling for the championship in just his second full year of Grand Prix racing. It seems unlikely that anyone will be close to the trio come Sunday.

Those that do get close will have to be on a KTM. The layout of Indianapolis suits the horsepower of the Austrian machine, putting anyone on a Honda out of contention. This is especially hard for Jack Miller, the Australian having repeatedly outperformed the underpowered FTR Honda he is riding. The track at Indy leaves Miller little room to take advantage of the superior handling of the FTR chassis, as he will be left for dead once the bikes hit the two straights at the circuit. Honda continue to live up to the spirit of the Moto3 regulations - providing affordable production racers - which leaves them giving away precious horsepower to KTM, who have basically been providing a factory racer down to a price. The revised regulations for 2014 and 2015 should help rectify that situation, but by then, there may not be a single Honda in the Moto3 paddock.

MotoGP's visit to Indianapolis could well end up being the series' last to the iconic venue. Rumors continue to build that the circuit will be dropped from the calendar next year, with three races in the US being considered too much of a good thing. Though few will lament losing the circuit for its layout, there will be many that will mourn the loss of the Indy event as a whole. The ghosts of heroes past that haunt Indy will whisper a little quieter once the thunder of MotoGP departs.


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