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.