Archive for the ‘Losail’ Category

MotoGP Losail Results

March 10, 2019

© Bruce Allen. Exclusive to Motorcycle.com

Dovizioso Punks Marquez in Repeat of 2018 Stunner 

In a virtual carbon copy of last year’s riveting Grand Prix of Qatar, Andrea Dovizioso, the second-best rider on the planet today, edged defending world champion Marc Marquez by .023 seconds to capture the win. Cal Crutchlow, the Black Knight of MotoGP, took the third step on the podium on a right ankle held together with bandaids and baling wire. Parity has arrived in MotoGP, with tonight’s race producing the 8th closest podium in history and the fastest Top 15 ever. 

Last year, Dovizioso’s winning margin was .027 seconds, suggesting Marquez, his surgically-repaired shoulder mostly healed, is making progress. Comparing this year’s top seven riders to last year, the only significant difference is Suzuki’s Alex Rins. Last year Rins, whose season started miserably despite my jocking him all over the place, crashed out mid-race. This year, he was in the mix the entire time, led the race for a couple of partial laps, and finished fourth, barely 14/100ths behind Crutchlow. He was followed by Yamaha’s Valentino Rossi (who started 14th), Ducati factory rider Danilo Petrucci and polesitter Maverick Vinales who, with a full fuel tank and cold tires, rides like the second coming of James Ellison. Last year, behind Dovi and Marquez, it was Rossi, Crutchlow, Petrucci and Vinales. This, I suggest, is what they mean by “the usual suspects.”

Practice and Qualifying

The weirdest thing about the weekend—and a vivid reminder for us not to pay too much attention to the goings-on in the Persian Gulf—is that Rossi topped the timesheets in FP1 before going on a mini-vacation until the red lights went out. 17th in FP2. Fourth in FP3. 18th in FP4. Fourth again in Q1. 11th in the morning warm-up. He then went out and passed eight riders during the race, showing once again that he is the epitome of the Sunday rider, the Alan Iverson of MotoGP. “Practice? We don’ need no steenkin’ PRACTICE.” Vinales, to the contrary, was the bomb diggity in practice before going out and laying another egg for the first 16 laps or so. But 5th, 7th, 11th (Franco Morbidelli) and 20th (Hafizh Syahrin) suggests Yamaha has not answered many of the questions facing them at the end of last season.

Over in Hondaland, Marquez was fast all weekend but not laser rocket fast; Losail is still one of his least favorite tracks. New teammate Jorge Lorenzo experienced his first Honda high-side on Saturday morning, complaining afterwards that he hurt “everywhere.” He recovered enough to put in a credible performance in Q1, leading the way into Q2 until he folded the front with three minutes left in the session. During those last three minutes—the best racing of most weekends—he was forced to stand by and watch as the LCR Honda duo of Crutchlow and a rejuvenated Takaa Nakagami, rookie Pecco Bagnaia and old buddy Rossi slipped in front of him. Rossi, Lorenzo and Bagnaia ended up constituting possibly the strongest fifth row in MotoGP history.

Anyone interested in picking up an expansive array of French invective need only speak to Johann Zarco, who, regrettably, made the move from Yamaha to KTM last year. An indicator of the quality of that particular decision may be found in the fact that he started last year’s race from pole and this year from 18th place. Unlike last year, however, he managed to finish the race, earning one (1) championship point for his efforts. His preseason pronouncement that he expected to fight in the top five this season begs the question: “In Moto2 or Moto3?”  KTM’s MotoGP project is, to put it mildly, behind schedule. Ask any of their four riders, all of whom must be grinding their molars to dust trying to generate any results from the RC16.

Racing at its Finest

The Dorna PR machine is pumping out release after release these days claiming, without corroboration, that MotoGP is the best racing on the planet. And although I wouldn’t disagree, most of the other 8 billion inhabitants thereof might take issue with the assertion, having never seen a motorcycle race. Certainly, in the U.S. MotoGP ranks right up there with women’s curling and caber tossing. But for those of us who follow it, the sport appears never to have been better.

Much has been made during the offseason about Ducati’s mysterious “holeshot handle” which appeared below the dashboard on the GP19 and is alleged to minimize wheelies at the start. It appeared to work for Dovizioso, who led into Turn 1 from pole, but not for the other riders—Petrucci and Miller—whose starts were less than stellar. Jack Miller, who apparently longs for the bygone “Jackass” days, was experiencing some kind of difficulty early in the race, traced the problem to his seat cushion, and summarily removed it and dropped it into the middle of the mass of riders hot on his tail, somehow skirting disaster. The nicest term Steve Day could come up with to describe Miller’s faux pas was “random.” Jack may hear from Race Direction prior to the Argentina junket.

For the most part, Dovizioso led the entire race. There were a few moments here and there when Rins or Marquez would nose in front of him, only to get blasted by the wake of his Desmosedici when it hit the top of the main straight, morphed into an F-16 fighter jet at very low altitude, and re-took the lead into Turn 1, time and time again. Raw speed in MotoGP is like height in the NBA in that it is necessary but not sufficient. The speed of the Ducati in conjunction with the skill and experience of Andrea Dovizioso would likely dominate MotoGP were it not for the genius of Marc Marquez and his unruly Honda RC213V. The Honda is faster this year than last, and Marquez will, with two intact shoulders, be better than last year. If #93 suddenly washed his hands of MotoGP and took up fly fishing, Dovizioso could easily win a couple of titles. But there is little reason to expect either. 

Elsewhere on the Grid

French rookie Fabio Quartararo was the talk of the weekend. He put his Petronas SRT Yamaha surprisingly high on the timesheets on Friday and Saturday, qualified for Q2, and started, or, rather, was scheduled to start the race, in the middle of the second row. The talk turned to sputtering gibberish when he stalled at the start of the warm-up lap, forcing him to start the race from pit lane on ice-cold tires. Having lost a full ten seconds as a result, he finished only 15-some seconds behind Dovizioso, a most impressive recovery. The top rookie of the day, however, was my boy Joan Mir on the #2 Suzuki who spent the day flirting with a podium before finally showing some respect and finishing 8th. Pecco Bagnaia, my dark horse earlier in the week, entered Turn 1 on Lap 13 at about a zillion miles an hour and rode almost through the gravel trap, needing a ticket to re-enter the fray. Alas, the race was a sellout, and his day ended early. (Prior to his going walky he was, sadly, not a podium threat.) Let me just say this out loud—the two Suzuki riders, Rins and Mir, are going to give second-tier riders some headaches this season. Mir, in fact, is probably the better of the two. Memo to Suzuki: GIVE THESE GUYS MORE HORSEPOWER NEXT YEAR! They have mad skills.

No Tranching Allowed

We are not going to bother re-ranking the riders based upon Qatar. As we’ve seen in years past, it is a true outlier, and results here are not indicative of anything in other than broad strokes. Never fear, however—I’m already working on the post-Rio Hondo standings, he lied. Today, in my real life, was a perfect storm, leaving little time or mental energy for MotoGP. But March 31st will be different. Informative. Rib-tickling. Incisive. And on time.

 

 

Here’s What’s Wrong with English Majors

March 4, 2019

© Bruce Allen

This link will take you to the article written by some English major at Dorna about the upcoming MotoGP season. He lost me at the end of the first paragraph: “Every epos begins with a single verse and a new odyssey is poised to get underway.” Too much Latin, too much overstatement (epos, odyssey?), too many unanswered questions? If you like this kind of writing, you’re not going to like most of the stuff you’ll find here. If, however, this kind of writing makes you gag, welcome aboard.

2019 Losail Preview on MotoGP.com

Capture

Header for the MotoGP preview at MotoGP.com.  Mission Winnow, that’s it!

For those of you who may have missed it previously, I am having trouble remembering the actual name of the factory Ducati sponsor. Thus, as is my wont, I try to obscure ignorance with humor. Otherwise, an editor would crucify me for using Missing Window or Wishin’ Minnow or Wishin’ Minion, etc. You’ll get used to it.

 

 

MotoGP Losail Preview

March 3, 2019

© Bruce Allen

It’s Marquez’ Title to Lose in 2019 

Welcome to MotoGP 2019, brought to you by Motorcycle.com and, well, me. I will be publishing everything I do here, and MO will, in turn, publish race results (only the results; no previews) on Sundays. My editor at MO worked hard to make this happen, and I’m happy to start my 11th season working for the friendly Canucks in Toronto and with the bozos in California.

MotoGP 2019 dawns on the heels of another Marc Marquez and Repsol Honda masterpiece last year. Despite extreme efforts from the likes of Ducati pilot Andrea Dovizioso, the ageless Yamaha wonder Valentino Rossi, his teammate Maverick Vinales and Suzuki newcomer Alex Rins, Marquez sailed to his fifth premier class championship in six years, utterly dominant amongst the yachting class. He took the championship lead in Jerez and never looked back, winning nine times, on the podium for five others, going 14 for 18 with Silverstone rained out.

Although there have been a number of changes—riders leaving, moving up from Moto2, switching from, say, Ducati to Honda—there is no denying that Marquez will have to crash out of the championship, a rather unlikely outcome given the fact that he practices crashing and generally avoids the whole over-the-handlebars scene. His surgically-repaired shoulder should be close to 100% by the time the red lights go out in Qatar. His shoulder became such a mess last year that a congratulatory slap from Scott Redding at Motegi caused it to dislocate again. The thought that he was able to demolish the field in that condition makes the notion of his improving this year more palatable. Not. The bike is generally unchanged, unruly and good everywhere. Having Lorenzo in the garage will increase the testosterone quotient on both sides. One expects Lorenzo to start off as a top tenner and improve from there as the season progresses.

The times are a-changin’ at the factory Monster Yamaha garage, with the torch on its way to being passed from ageless wonder Valentino Rossi to the future of Yamaha racing, at least for now, Maverick Vinales. Both riders should make consistent appearances in the top six this season as the 2019 YZR-M1 appears improved over the 2018 version (currently being ridden well by Fabio Quartararo at the Petronas SIC Yamaha satellite team.) Rossi fans are outraged by the assertion that Rossi has lost a step when, in fact, he has remained somewhat static for the past five years, constrained over and over by a steadily improving Marquez, who will officially enter The Prime of his career this year and for the next four or five.

Great.

With Rossi still selling a lot of gear and Vinales poking around podia on a regular basis, the factory team must have as its goal for 2019 to show significant improvement over last year’s bike, which neither rider liked. It has gone from the best ride on the grid on Bridgestones to the third-best on Michelins. Neither rider is likely to win a title in 2019, but the show must go on. Data harvesting, y’know.

Recent History at Losail

The 2016 iteration of the Commercial Bank Grand Prix of Qatar marked the beginning of the newest era in MotoGP, that of Michelin tires and a standard ECU across the grid.  In the run-up to the race, hopes that some new faces would emerge from the pack and find their way to the podium were building.  Under the lights of Losail, however, defending champion Lorenzo held serve for Yamaha against a strong challenge from Andrea Dovizioso and Marc Marquez; the Usual Suspects once again asserted their dominance.  At the time, a wager that nine different riders would ultimately win races that year would have seemed deranged. 

Movistar Yamaha’s new kid on the block, Maverick Viñales, did to the field of the 2017 Grand Prix of Qatar what he had done ever since he first placed his bum on the saddle of the YZR-M1 the previous November.  He ended the day at the top of the podium, having outdueled Dovizioso over the last eight laps of the race.  Rossi finished third that night, with Marquez fourth, keeping his powder dry, coloring between the lines. Aleix Espargaro flogged his Aprilia RS-GP to an encouraging sixth place which would, unfortunately, stand as the high water mark of his season.

The 2018 season opener at Losail went mostly according to expectations, which is to say it was crowded up front. At one point I counted nine bikes in the lead group, a sight normally seen in Moto3. French sophomore Johann Zarco led from pole most of the day, fueling a lot of premature trash talk in the Tech 3 garage. Once his tires went up, though, it came down to Dovizioso and Marquez for early bragging rights. Round One goes to the Italian by hundredths. No TKO.

Returning to your Previously Scheduled Programming

The new satellite Petronas team features Franco Morbidelli, moving from a 2017 Honda to a 2019 Yamaha, and apparently thrilled by the difference. Rookie French teenage teammate, heartthrob Fabio Quartararo is riding, I believe, 2018 equipment, learning the premier class game on a less-valuable bike of which, it is expected, he will destroy a dozen or so as he makes his way up the learning curve at 200 mph. One of these guys will likely take over for Rossi on the factory team when he retires, possibly as early as the end of this year, no later than the end of next year. Makes for a no-shit intra-team rivalry for the year which, in turn, suggests they will consistently fight to be in the points, perhaps the top ten, over a long season, with the Frenchman recording his share of DNFs and the Italian prevailing, himself a VR46 Academy grad. Rossi, I believe, will need to finish the season in the top six in order to honor the second year of his contract. Anything less would, I sense, be unacceptable, clear evidence that the time to retire has arrived.

The factory Ducati team, whose title sponsor I can never remember other than it is weak—Minnie Willow?—has two strong Italian contenders on brand new Desmosedicis with high motivation and proven skills. Factory crew for Danilo Petrucci, which is a first. Andrea Dovizioso, who had his career year in 2017, should still win a few races, but his championship aspirations are largely past tense. Both are, however, amongst the favorites for the Forget Marquez and His 350 Points championship fight, featuring Lorenzo, Rossi, Vinales and Suzuki’s Alex Rins.

The Pramac Ducati duo of Australian Jack Miller and rookie Italian VR46 rider Pecco Bagnaia will be wildcards at some venues especially, I suspect, at wet or flag-to-flag outings. Bagnaia is the second coming of Jorge Lorenzo, cutting his teeth on the Ducati, while Miller will need a bunch of top ten finishes to stay #1 on the #2 team. The #3 team, Avintia UnReale, fronts a recovering Tito Rabat alongside journeyman Karel Abraham, with only Rabat expected to find himself in the top ten on occasion. Dovizioso should win the intra-manufacturer trophy, but little else. (This, by the way, is the team Suzuki should look to buy out and pave the way for their satellite team.)

Speaking of Suzuki, the Ecstar team performed well enough to lose its previous concessions, forced this year to wear their big boy pants and slug it out with everyone else, same playing field. No sweat. Alex Rins is an Alien in the making and rookie teammate Joan Mir likewise, although he is a year or two behind Rins. Both are flogging improving bikes, a handful of horsepower from being consistently on the podium on a bike cognizant of Rossi’s famous words, “The front tire’s job is to inform me. The rear tire’s job is to obey me.” Suzuki gets that, and I believe a number of riders would be interested in their #2 team.

KTM, Austria’s gift to motorcycle racing, isn’t happening. Just getting that out there. The apologists are in full rant, defending performance which has been, at best, disappointing over two full years. Which, with the addition of the Tech 3 satellite operation, raised expectations amongst the PR types if few others. The factory team of Johann Zarco and Pol Espargaro are, I sense, being asked to make bricks without straw, and the satellite team of Miguel Oliveira and Hafizh Syahrin, also on 2019 equipment, is suffering likewise. The factory is throwing massive resources into a segment of the market in which it makes very little, leading some to believe that executives may be starting to use the term “or else” in their fantasy conversations with corporate rivals.

As for the intrepid, ever-optimistic Aprilia congregation, whose riders Aleix Espargaro and Andrea Iannone are keeping a stiff upper lip, Iannone suffering with his third bike in four years, his once-bright career in visible decline. Ducati to Suzuki to Aprilia. I suspect Suzuki would take him back if they did produce a #2 team, as he improved late in his previous tenure and folks say they canned him too soon.

Finally, before I forget, here are the preseason tranche projections, published previously in a separate article and cut/pasted for internal consistency:

Tranche 1:   Marc Marquez, Alex Rins, Maverick Vinales

Tranche 2:   Andrea Dovizioso, Valentino Rossi, Danilo Petrucci, Jorge Lorenzo

Tranche 3:   Jack Miller, Pecco Bagnaia, Takaa Nakagami, Cal Crutchlow, Tito Rabat, Franco  Morbidelli, Johann Zarco

Tranche 4:   Fabio Quartararo, Pol and Aleix Espargaro, Joan Mir, Andrea Iannone

Tranche 5:   Miguel Oliveira, Karel Abraham, Hafizh Syahrin

I don’t expect the final standings to look too much like this, as this is a moving target during the year owing to injuries, mostly. But, heading in, rather than being a complete jerk and allotting Marquez Tranche 1 by himself, I decided to be gracious and at least tip my hat to the other riders, as if this were going to be a real race season and no one knows who’s going to win.

Predicting the outcome of the first race of the season, under the lights in The Persian Gulf, sand and glare everywhere, a surreal shakedown cruise for everyone, is commonly referred to as “a fool’s errand.” This foolish errand boy will therefore throw out four names, three of which will, I suspect, end up on the podium (drum roll, please):  Marquez  Vinales  Petrucci  Bagnaia.

Whatever. Let the games begin. 2019 is upon us.

MotoGP Qatar 2013: A Look-back

February 22, 2019

© Bruce Allen

Fabio Quartararo 2019 Age 19

Fabio Quartararo in 2018, Moto2

The discussion around “Is Fabio Quartararo too young to be riding in MotoGP?” prompted me to look back at the debut premier class race, in 2013, of the baddest young rookie of those CRT days, Marc Marquez. (If memory serves, his most recent race prior to the 2013 season opener was the 2012 Moto2 finale in Valencia where, for conduct unbecoming during the previous race or practice or something, he was forced to start from the back of the grid and won the race anyway, making a mockery of the field. The field that day included names such as Pol Espargaro, Andrea Iannone, Johann Zarco, Takaa Nakagami and Hafizh Syahrin, all of whom he continues to school until this day.)

Anyway, here is a re-post of the 2013 season opener in Qatar, won by defending two-time MotoGP champion Jorge Lorenzo on the Yamaha M-1, back when it, too, was the baddest machine on the grid. It was pretty clear even then that Marquez was special. How special we didn’t know, but would find out. This is almost timely, in that the big bikes will finish testing this weekend in Qatar.

I think the 2013 article is better than the stuff I’ve been doing lately; don’t know why. But here it is. You can decide if our outlook for young Mr. Marquez was accurate.

MotoGP 2013 Qatar Results

Lorenzo rules in defense of his title; Rossi second 

Under the lights of Losail, Jorge Lorenzo led the big bikes of the MotoGP premier class on a merry chase from wire to wire, winning the season opener without breaking a sweat.  He was joined on the podium by prodigal son and teammate Valentino Rossi, whose return from two years in exile couldn’t have been much more exciting.  Standing in third position on the podium was Wonder Kid Marc Marquez, who punked Repsol Honda teammate and preseason favorite Dani Pedrosa for the first of what promises to be many podium celebrations for the young Spaniard. 

The new qualifying format, the Q1 preliminaries and the Q2 finale, resulted in an odd starting grid.  It included satellite Yamaha Brit Cal Crutchlow in second position, ahead of Pedrosa, whose weekend was basically terrible.  Qualifying in fourth on the Ducati—surprise surprise—was Andrea Dovizioso, while the best Marquez could manage was 6th.  Rossi starting in seventh place was more disappointing than surprising.

At the start, with 24 bikes on the grid, it looked like a Moto2 race on steroids. Lorenzo held his lead in turn one, stayed clean, put 20 meters between himself and the field, and began laying down sub-1:56 laps one after another in a fashion Nick the Announcer characterized as “metronomic.”  I might have chosen “piston-like.”

Behind him, however, it was bedlam.

Midway through the first lap, surging in 4th or 5th position, Rossi traded paint with Dovizioso, stood the bike up, and ended up back in seventh place, with the difficult Stefan Bradl and his factory spec Honda obstructing his efforts.  Pedrosa and Crutchlow had settled into second and third, respectively, and the Brit was grinding his teeth to dust trying to put Pedrosa behind him, with no success.  (Crutchlow, after a highly encouraging weekend and a front row start, ended up in fifth place, but not without a fight.)

Reviewing my notes, during Lap 2 I wrote “Here comes MM.”  Marquez, after a subdued start, started knocking down opponents like tenpins.  On Lap 2 he went through on Dovizioso into 4th place.  He passed Crutchlow on Lap 4 into 3rd, where he began actively disrespecting Pedrosa, even with an angry Brit glued to his pipes.  With Lorenzo by now having disappeared, things stayed mostly like this for the next 13 laps, at which point Marquez insolently moved past Pedrosa into 2nd.  A Lorenzo-Marquez-Pedrosa podium, at that point, looked pretty good.

Not so fast.  As tomorrow’s headlines will scream, “Rossi is BACK!”

On Lap 8, Rossi weaseled his Yamaha through on Bradl into 5th place.  Shortly thereafter, Bradl crashed out, apparently stunned at the difference between Vale 2012 and Vale 2013.  Having disposed of the German, and with a podium finish dominating his thoughts, Rossi gave us a 2008 vintage comeback.  He drew a bead on Crutchlow’s back and started laying down his own string of 1:56 laps until Lap 18, when he went through on the determined Brit who, trying to keep up, went hot into the next turn and took a brief detour across the lawn and out of contention.

Now running fourth and fast, seeing red (and orange) with two Repsol Hondas in front of him, Rossi gave us five of the most enjoyable laps EVER.  The Doctor went through on Pedrosa on Lap 19 and schooled rookie Marquez on Lap 20.  Marquez, not inclined to accept such a lesson gracefully, came right back at him.  After a few position swaps, Rossi eventually prevailed.  Thus, in some seven minutes, we were graced with a riveting tire-to-tire fight between the Future and the Past of grand prix racing excellence.  Score one for the old guy.

At the end of the day, or perhaps Monday morning local time, we find ourselves gleeful over the return of Butch and Sundance in the Yamaha garage, fascinated with Marquez, and feeling a little bad for Dani Pedrosa.  Pedrosa, who had won six of the last eight races in 2012 and had been lighting up the timesheets all winter, never got it rolling in Qatar.  The good news is that he is starting the season healthy, with arguably the fastest bike on the grid under him.  The bad news is that he was mostly a non-factor all weekend.  We will write this off as one bad outing, pending his performance in Texas in two weeks.

Ten Things We Learned at Losail 

  1. Jorge Lorenzo is not going to surrender his title willingly. Someone is going to have to step up and TAKE it from him.
  2. Valentino Rossi is a legitimate threat to win his 8th premier class title this year.
  3. Marc Marquez’s future is so bright, he needs Ben Spies’ Ray-Ban contract.
  4. Andrea Dovizioso is going to have a long two years. The 2013 Ducati is maybe a half step faster than the Power Electronics ART bikes.
  5. Contrary to his pronouncement last week, Colin Edwards is not going to run at the top of the CRT charts.
  6. The new qualifying format is a cluster.
  7. A podium celebration without champagne is like kissing your sister through a screen door in a submarine.
  8. If I were Herve Poncharal, I’d feel a lot more comfortable with Scott Redding in my #2 seat than Bradley Smith. Redding would have won the Moto2 race today if he hadn’t been carrying 20 more pounds than Espargaro.  Just sayin’.
  9. Having two Czech riders, Karel Abraham and Lukas Pesek, on the grid is about the same as having one.
  10. Hector Barbera will not qualify 22nd very often this season.

The Big Picture

The Grand Prix of Qatar is so different from any other race on the calendar—sand, lights, night racing, etc.—that it doesn’t make much sense to project forward based upon what took place today.  But the Repsol Honda team is already, after one round, being forced to play catch-up to the Bruise Brothers on the factory Yamahas.  Jorge Lorenzo would have been even more comfortable sailing in front of the fray had he known that his wingman was back there harassing and eventually disposing of the big bad RC213V’s.  On the other hand, for Lorenzo, having Rossi as his “wingman” may be only a temporary convenience.  It was only three years ago that the two rivals needed a wall built between them in the garage.

Over on the CRT side of the tracks, teammates Aleix Espargaro and Randy de Puniet are once again the class of the class.  If anyone looks capable of giving them a run, it may be Avintia Blusens’ Hector Barbera or, my personal fave, Yonny Hernandez on the PBM ART.

On to Austin

Two weeks hence MotoGP will descend upon Austin, Texas for the inaugural Grand Prix of the Americas, so named because the race organizers could not come up with anything MORE pretentious.  It is always fun to watch the riders attack unfamiliar circuits, and COTA may have a leavening effect on the field, removing some of the advantage enjoyed by the veteran riders who know every crack and crevice at places like Mugello, to the benefit of the rookies.

For his part, Marc Marquez doesn’t appear to need any more advantages.

 

 

MotoGP 2018 Losail Results

March 18, 2018

DesmoDovi Punks Marquez for Early Season Lead

© Bruce Allen. Exclusive to Motorcycle.com

The season opener at Losail went mostly according to expectations, which is to say it was crowded up front. At one point I counted nine bikes in the lead group, a sight normally seen in Moto3. French sophomore Johann Zarco led from pole most of the day, fueling a lot of premature trash talk. Once his tires went up, though, it came down to Dovizioso and Marquez for early bragging rights. Round One goes to the Italian on points. No TKO.

Practice and Qualifying

Of the top ten riders on the combined practice timesheets, the top five included, as most of you know, three Ducs and both Suzukis. The factory Hondas sat 6th and 7th. Crutchlow, Rossi and Zarco also made it straight into Q2, wiping up the rear, as it were. Jack Miller got hot on his GP17 during Q1 and moved through to Q2, followed by Vinales, who also found something late in the day. Both appeared to be capable of making noise in Q2. Overall, Dovizioso led three of the four practice sessions (Zarco the other), topping the charts for the Q2 cabal. KTM had nothing going on, but Aprilia was showing signs of life, Aleix sitting 12th after FP3.

Q2 was seriously better than a lot of races. Fifteen minutes of straight adrenaline, with the last three minutes simply breathtaking. Riders including Dovi, Marquez, Lorenzo and Rins took turns aiming at the 10-year old track record set by white-hot rookie Lorenzo to open the 2008 season, falling short each time. But on the day’s last lap, the remarkable Johann Zarco, who we refuse to call The Flying Frenchman, pedaling his two-year old Yamaha, put down a vapor trail, crushing Lorenzo’s former record by 2½ tenths and substantially raising the price of poker in the Zarco contract sweepstakes for 2019-20. Not to mention administering a facial to factory riders Rossi (8th) and Vinales (12th). “Hey Johann, it’s that Honda guy again on line 2.”

Marquez and Petrucci, as expected, ended Q2 second and third, respectively, both also breaking the previous record. My pick for pole, Dovizioso, held it for quite some time before sagging to the middle of the second row during the final two minutes. Interesting that the first two rows of riders, all of whom appear capable of winning on Sunday, exclude three genuine Aliens—Lorenzo, Rossi and Vinales. As Steven Stills sang eons ago, “There’s something happening here.” Several weeks ago we suggested “track records appear set to fall like dominos.” Even without qualifying tires.

Batting a thousand so far on that one. [And can’t you still hear the separate guitar parts in “For What It’s Worth?” Boom.] Saturday evening, Zarco said his race pace was a concern. Right. I hope everyone got to watch the interview with Marc Marquez in which the clever young Brit interviewer managed to get him to admit, smiling widely, that tire selection for the race is very important and no we are not yet sure which tires we will use tomorrow. Wow. We journalists really get down to it sometimes.

A Race for the Ages

The 2018 Qatar Motorcycle Grand Prix unfolded as if it had been scripted. The hot French sophomore on the two-year old Yamaha—let’s call him Johann Zarco–took the hole shot from pole and led a snappish bunch of veteran riders on a merry chase for 16 laps. Suddenly, his tires turned to cheese, and those veterans began going through, Sherman-through-Georgia style. Both Dovizioso and Marquez passed through at Turn 1 of Lap 17, with Rossi following suit later in the lap. Ultimately, Cal Crutchlow, Danilo Petrucci, Maverick Vinales and Dani Pedrosa would push the impudent Gaul to 8th place. In golf they say you drive for show, putt for dough. In MotoGP, you gotta save some tire for late in the race.

It was on Lap 21 that the contenders stepped in for the pretenders. Andrea Dovizioso, who had seized the lead on Lap 17, invited Marquez to a private tête-à-tête for the last three laps, an invitation the defending champion eagerly accepted. With Rossi reduced to lurking in 3rd, hoping for something to go wrong in front of him, the two best riders on Earth squared off for six minutes of unbridled, hair-raising battle, exchanging haymakers. Marquez, unable not to make a move on Dovi at some point, finally took his shot at Turn 16 on the final lap, in a virtual replay of the Red Bull Ring and Motegi duels the two fought last year. Consistent with those contests, Dovi took advantage of his superior corner exit speed to clip Marquez by 2/100ths of a second and take a narrow early lead in the 2018 title chase.

Some Days Chicken, Some Days Feathers

In addition to Dovizioso and Marquez, riders who could anticipate a tasty chicken dinner this evening include Rossi, who did manage to climb from 8th to 3rd, and Franco Morbidelli, who edged Hafizh Sayahrin for the top rookie participation trophy. Sayahrin, for his part, became the first Malaysian rider ever to start a MotoGP race and score points therein, a record he can never lose. Kudos to the luckiest rider on the grid. Jack Miller and Tito Rabat probably feel pretty good this evening, crossing the line in 10th and 11th places, respectively.

Riders going hungry tonight include Alex Rins, Jorge Lorenzo and Pol Espargaro, all of whom crashed out, Rins while traveling in 6th position. Zarco learned a lesson today. Maverick Vinales learned his lesson yesterday while laying an egg in Q2, starting from 12th place. He rode a hellified second half today, only to end up 6th. Not a disaster, but an opportunity lost. Scott Redding, who has apparently already lost his seat for next year to Danilo Petrucci, can say only that he managed to beat Xavier Simeon, a feat comparable to winning the Taller than Mickey Rooney contest.

Over in the Junior Leagues

Spaniard Jorge Martin stiff-armed countryman Aron Canet for the win in the Moto3 race, with the new guy at Leopard Racing, Lorenzo Dalla Porta, glomming onto the third podium spot milliseconds ahead of about six other guys. Enea Bastianini, taking over the #1 seat at Leopard with the graduation of 2017 champion Joan Mir to Moto2, crashed out of a podium spot, giving an ominous start to his 2018 campaign.

Pecco Bagnaia, late of the SKY Racing Team VR46, held on to the Moto2 win today, narrowly evading the clutches of Lorenzo Baldassarri, in a thrilling contest that also came down to the last turn. Little Brother Alex Marquez, who had been fast all weekend, started from pole and was cruising along in 3rd position, well within reach of the Marquez Moto2 Brakes on Fireleaders, when his rear brakes pinched the disc and, inexplicably, held on, at which point the disc quickly cooked, changed color from gray to red to white, back to gray when they finally came unstuck, killing his chances for the win but allowing him a podium nonetheless.

Unsubstantiated Rumors

Bagnaia, according to news reports, has already signed a contract to join Jack Miller with Alma Pramac Ducati next season. The dominoes look set to fall such that Petrucci heads over to Gresini Aprilia, and Redding for points west. Apparently Honda has the early inside track to sign Zarco to the factory team to ride alongside Marquez starting next year, with Pedrosa being shown the door, as feared. Earliest silly season I can ever remember. Rossi signed for two more years last week, in case you’ve been hanging out under a rock.

Rider Rankings After Round One

Tranche 1: Marquez, Dovizioso, Rossi, Petrucci, Crutchlow
Tranche 2: Vinales, Zarco, Rins, Pedrosa, Miller
Tranche 3: Lorenzo, Iannone, Syahrin, A Espargaro, Morbidelli
Tranche 4: P Espargaro, Abraham, Bautista, Rabat
Tranche 5: Simeon, Redding, Nakagami, Smith, Luthi

Before you take to DISQUS to shred my rankings, remember Allen’s Corollary to Newton’s Third Law: For every action, there is an equal and opposite criticism.

Argentina in two weeks. Be there. Aloha.

 

MotoGP 2018 Losail Preview

March 13, 2018

© Bruce Allen.  Exclusive to Motorcycle.com

Let the 2018 Games Begin! 

Nothing like the start of a new racing season to turn the iron in a man’s blood into the lead in his pencil. All the speculation, all the testing, all the contingencies will become moot once the lights go out in far-away Qatar. The Alien class—Marc Marquez, Andrea Dovizioso, Valentino Rossi and Maverick Vinales—is sharpening their fairings in anticipation. Another handful of riders dream of getting their tickets punched in 2018.  

Riders like Johann Zarco (Monster Tech 3 Yamaha), Dani Pedrosa (Repsol Honda), Jack Miller (Alma Pramac Ducati) and Alex Rins (Suzuki Ecstar) need to get off to a quick start if they want to challenge the usual suspects in 2018. Although the championship cannot be won this weekend, it can certainly be lost for those ending up in the kitty litter. The good news for 23 of the 24 riders lining up at the start—since 2008, only three riders who have won the opener have gone on to capture the title. Winning at Losail is not as important as finishing in the points.

Marc Marquez, the #1 rider on the planet, is the odds-on favorite to threepeat in 2018. During winter testing, he focused on eerily consistent simulations, turning hundreds of laps in metronomic fashion. He may have only topped the timesheets a time or two in the process, but he claims to love this year’s RC213V, exuding quiet confidence and entering the season in great physical shape. The caption for this photo should read, “In an effort to pander to the female readers of this stuff.”Marquez Cropped

Behind him stands a mixed bag of Aliens, former Aliens, and wannabe Aliens, with names like Viñales, Dovizioso, Zarco, Rossi, Pedrosa and Lorenzo. Of these, the career tracks of the first three are ascendant while those of the last three are heading south. Further back, several young guns—notably Miller and Rins—think they have the juice to displace some of the leaders. Somewhat lost in the sauce are the prospects for guys like Cal Crutchlow, Danilo Petrucci and Andrea Iannone who, if they were running backs in the NFL, would be referred to as “tweeners.” All three are capable of winning races. All three generally find ways not to.

Although there will be plenty of riveting action farther down the food chain, space limitations—read “your short attention span”—prevent us from talking about them too much. If you’re really interested in the prospects of Tom Luthi or Xavier Simeon, best visit their websites.

With the able assistance of Price Waterhouse, Coopers, Lybrand, Sacco and Vanzetti, we have gathered mountains of data and scuttlebutt to provide regular readers with a loose ranking of these fast movers. We use the term “tranche” instead of “group” to sound better-informed and more continental. The methodology behind this assessment is closely guarded, so much so that even I don’t understand it. We will publish the first of our 2018 rankings after the race.

Recent History at Losail 

In his 313th grand prix start, Rossi delivered a vintage performance in the 2015 season opener, going knives-in-a-phone booth with factory Ducati #1 Andrea Dovizioso all night before punking his compatriot by 17/100ths to take the lead in the title chase for the first time since 2010.  Marquez got pushed way wide into the gravel on Lap 1, ultimately finishing fifth. Andrea Iannone, then laboring for Ducati, made it an all-Italian podium and overinflated our expectations for him in beating Jorge Lorenzo to the line by half a second. 2015 would be remembered as the year Marc Marquez did not win a championship.

The 2016 iteration of the Commercial Bank Grand Prix of Qatar marked the beginning of the newest era in MotoGP, that of Michelin tires and a standard ECU across the grid.  In the run-up to the race, hopes that some new faces would emerge from the pack and find their way to the podium were building.  Under the lights of Losail, however, defending champion Lorenzo held serve for Yamaha against a strong challenge from Andrea Dovizioso and Marc Marquez; the Usual Suspects once again asserted their dominance.  At the time, a wager that nine different riders would ultimately win races that year would have seemed deranged. 

Movistar Yamaha’s new kid on the block, Maverick Viñales, did to the field of the 2017 Grand Prix of Qatar what he had done ever since he first placed his bum on the saddle of the YZR-M1 the previous November.  He ended the day at the top of the podium, having outdueled Dovizioso over the last eight laps of the race.  Rossi finished third that night, with Marquez fourth, keeping his powder dry, coloring between the lines. Aleix Espargaro flogged his Aprilia RS-GP to an encouraging sixth place which would, unfortunately, stand as the high water mark of his season. 

How Do YOU Spell Xenophobia? 

As the curtain prepares to go up on the 2018 MotoGP season, let’s reacquaint ourselves with the rampant nationalism that is baked into the sport. Spain and Italy have pretty much had things their way since Casey Stoner got PW’ed into retirement by the lovely Adrianna after the 2012 season. Italy fits into that sentence only relatively, having failed to win a title during the period but having managed, on the other hand, not to lose a war. The Italian presence in MotoGP, however, is undeniable, with Valentino Rossi still competitive in his dotage and the Ducati brand having regained much of its previously lost luster. Andrea Dovizioso is now The Great Italian Hope and represents a credible threat to unseat Marc Marquez at the top of the food chain.

With premier class riders now hailing from unfamiliar places like Belgium and Malaysia, the Spanish stranglehold is under assault. One surmises that TV viewership across the globe is expanding, except in the United States, where it’s easier to find Ozzie & Harriet reruns than live race coverage. Thailand, we understand, is losing its collective mind over hosting MotoGP beginning this year. One assumes Finland will experience the same in 2019. With F1 giving up ground of late, soccer and MotoGP have become the top two spectator sports in most of the free world. This, in turn, relieves me of the sensation that I am writing mostly for readers from other galaxies. Your comments via DISQUS reinforce this relief.

Your Weekend Forecast

Expect dark, dusty, hot, repressive and oligarchical conditions in this feudal anachronism this weekend. I’ve read that within 50 years daytime highs in the country’s interior could reach 180° F, meaning they won’t be racing at Losail forever. You and I consistently place too much weight on the outcome of Round 1, which is a true outlier, the results of which should be taken with a grain of salt.

Screenshot (59)

That being said, I can confidently predict Andrea Dovizioso will win the 2018 opener. With three very competitive second place finishes in the past three years, an improved bike, and confidence instilled from last year’s championship chase, he is my solid favorite. Marc Marquez, pretty much everyone’s choice to title again this year, has won at Losail only once (2014) since joining the premier class. He should end the evening on the podium. In my mind’s eye I see Jorge Lorenzo crashing out of the lead, the factory Yamaha pair of Vinales and Rossi in the mix, and at least one party crasher making it into the top five. Jack Miller and/or Alex Rins could have a big night. Even Dani Pedrosa, in what may be his swan song for Honda in the Persian Gulf, could end up on the podium.

We will have results and analysis for you sometime on Sunday (?), since I’m unable to translate the start time and GMT zone into anything comprehensible. I will miss Nick Harris and Dylan Gray. The mad scrambles of Moto2 and Moto3 will be worth watching, and I’ll try to give them some space in the race summary.

In the words of the late great Marvin Gaye, let’s get it on. And if that song gets stuck in your brain for the rest of the day, you’re welcome.

MotoGP 2017 Qatar Results

March 26, 2017

© Bruce Allen.  Exclusive to Motorcycle.com

Maverick Viñales Starts his Own Era 

Movistar Yamaha’s new kid on the block, Maverick Viñales, did to the field of the 2017 Grand Prix of Qatar what he’s done ever since he first placed his bum on the saddle of the YZR-M1 last November.  He ended the day at the top of the timesheets, having outdueled factory Ducati #1 Andrea Dovizioso over the last eight laps of the race.  In the process, he took the lead in the 2017 championship and initiated what is likely to become known as The Viñales Years. 

Saturday Washout

Weather conditions on Saturday evening in metropolitan Doha area were so foul that FP4, Q1, and Q2 were all scrubbed, leaving the combined results from the three completed practices as a proxy for the starting grid, to the immense dismay of Valentino Rossi, Jorge Lorenzo, Alex Rins and, one expects, Cal Crutchlow.  Scott Redding, having led QP3, was overheard wandering the paddock in the wee hours, sniffing about how he COULD have taken the pole and it’s just so unfair.

Starting Grid from QTimes.JPG

Whatever.  Behind the front row, at least, the starting grid was a random collection of hardware and talent.  An unexpected way to start the season.  In an unfriendly locale, with Aliens Rossi and Lorenzo pedaling hard on the fourth row. And the impudent Johann Zarco comfortably seated in fourth. 

Rain in the Desert

The weather was bad enough on Saturday to scrub everything in all classes, a veritable gullywasher of a day.  And here I thought the ONLY good thing about racing here is that at least you don’t have to worry about rain.  Sunday came along with much more teasing kinds of conditions–spitting rain, breezy, high humidity, scudding clouds.  Just as the Moto2 tilt (won by Franco Morbidelli for his first Moto2 victory) was ending, it started sprinkling.

Dorna and FIM executives began hemming and hawing.  Riders started calling their garages for tires, making changes on the track.  The bikes left the track, the bikes re-entered the track.  The race was shortened from 22 to 21 laps, then to 20 with two warm-up laps, by which time the rain had mostly stopped.  Several riders watched the red lights go out with tires they had never, or barely, ridden, traction and wear issues all over the place.  Madness was in the air.

A Rookie Leads at the Start

Andrea Iannone won the hole shot, but as the field headed towards Turns 2 and 3 one of the Tech 3 Yamahas materialized at the front, accompanied by the animated shouting of announcer Nick Harris, “Johann Zarco leads the Grand Prix of Qatar!”   Madness! Zarco was followed in close order by Marc Marquez, Iannone, Andrea Dovizioso on the Ducati, and Viñales, who was keeping his powder dry within shouting distance of the front.

By Lap 6, Zarco was looking very relaxed, trailed by Dovizioso, Marquez, Iannone, Viñales and, of all people, Valentino Rossi, who had started 10th but worked himself up close to the lead group.  The law of averages suddenly made its presence felt, as Zarco crashed out of the lead on Lap 7.  Then there were five.  Having picked my boy Cal Crutchlow to finish on the podium today, he took revenge on me for past insults, real and imagined, by crashing out on Lap 4.  Crashlow got back up and immediately crashed again on his Lap 5 for good measure.

Viñales Prevails

With Dovizioso leading by mid-race, Iannone and Marquez traded a little paint here and there, just like the old days, while the two factory Yamahas lurked in fourth and fifth places.  Almost on cue, on Lap 10 Iannone had an unforced lowside in Turn 7 and crashed out of podium contention.

The last eight laps were outstanding.  While Marquez faded to fourth, never appearing totally comfortable with his tires, Dovi and Viñales began enjoying a number of close encounters, Rossi hanging back, appearing to wait for something to happen in front of him.  Viñales would take the lead around Turn 6 and keep it through Turn 16, after which Dovizioso would blow by him on the main straight and take the lead heading into Turn 1.  This continued until the two riders entered Turn 1 on the last lap with Viñales in the lead.  He held it all the way, in and through Turn 16, and took the win by half a second.  A legend, as the expression goes, is born.

Elsewhere on the Grid

Dani Pedrosa has had worse days than today.  With little expected from him, he qualified seventh, spent the early part of the race in mid-pack, then bided his time as guys started falling off in front of him, ultimately finishing fifth.  Shades of Colin Edwards late in his career.  Aleix Espargaro, in perhaps the best ride of the day, flogged his factory Aprilia from 15th position at the start to sixth at the finish, the best result for the team since they re-entered MotoGP last year.  Scott Redding scored a heartening seventh on his Ducati GP16, Jack Miller (we are officially amazed) was eighth on the Marc VDS Honda, and my boy Alex Rins held onto his Suzuki well enough all day for ninth place, becoming the leading rookie for the season.

For other riders, the 2017 opener was forgettable.  Crashers include Crutchlow (2), Iannone, Zarco and Bautista, while Danilo Petucci had to retire his GP17 with mechanical issues.  The KTM team of Pol Espargaro and Bradley Smith was saved from the indignity of finishing last and next-to-last only by the futility of Sam Lowes, who delivered his own Aprilia to the finish line some 40 seconds behind teammate Aleix, and was the last rider to cross the line.  Out of the points and, hopefully, dissuaded from any illusion that he might score more than 20 points all year.

We would be derelict in our reportorial duties were we to fail to mention that triple world champion Jorge Lorenzo, in his debut with his new Italian employer, started 12th, had four guys in front of him crash out or retire, and finished 11th, 20 seconds behind teammate Dovizioso.  We know rain gives Jorge the yips.  Now, it appears that high humidity does the same thing.  And, lest readers assume this is just a Qatarian anomaly, it is true that Lorenzo won here last year from pole.  Just sayin’.

The Big Picture

Having been burned in the past, we must be careful to draw too many conclusions from what occurred tonight.  We learned, or confirmed our suspicions about, several things:

  • Maverick Viñales is a baller.
  • Valentino Rossi at age 38 is about as good as anyone out there.
  • The Suzuki can compete for wins.
  • Andrea Dovizioso is the #1 rider on the factory Ducati team.
  • We have been underestimating Johann Zarco since November.

In two weeks the grid heads off to Argentina for its annual Bungle in the Jungle.  Rio Hondo is a Honda-friendly circuit, as is Austin two weeks later.  Marc Marquez should win the next two races.  If, instead, Maverick Viñales should win either, MotoGP is likely to have a new champion this year.  And if it does, you can tell your grandkids you watched Maverick win the very first race of The Viñales Years.

 

 

2016 MotoGP Top Tenner

December 29, 2016

 

©Bruce Allen.  Exclusive to Motorcycle.com, who, in accordance with their editorial calendar, have elected to hold it until January 6, 2017.

Here are the top ten “things” that defined the 2016 season, in rough order. Not all of them are actual events.

  1. Danilo Petrucci earns promotion over Redding to a full factory ride at Pramac for 2017. The moment?  Valencia.  Started 14 races, finished in the top ten eight times.  Flirted with a front row start at The Sachsenring, tied Rossi, in fact, but fell to fourth over some obscure tie-breaker. At 26 and relatively burly he’s not Alien material, but he can handle the Desmosedici as well as any of the satellite riders and is a baller in the rain.  On a full factory bike Mr. Petrucci could easily challenge for a podium or three in 2017.

    iannone-and-dovi-in-argentina

    Iannone collects Dovizioso in Argentina

  1. Andrea Iannone gets his first premier class win in Austria while working himself out of a job—slide-off at Losail; collects Dovi at Rio Hondo; crashed out of second place at Le Mans; crashes at Catalunya, Silverstone and Sepang. By mid-season the fearless Italian was being encouraged by Gigi to consider a change of teams for next season, with Suzuki eventually drawing the winning number.
  1. The decline of Dani Pedrosa. The moment?  When the lights went out at Losail.  More losailDNFs in 2016 than wins.  Another Motegi collarbone, this time in FP2.  But a brand new contract nonetheless.  Dani peaked in 2012 (seven wins, finished second to Lorenzo by 18 points), and is definitely on the back nine of his career.  An entire career spent with one manufacturer is impressive in itself.  Pedrosa, although well-liked in the paddock, has always struck me as a kind of brooding guy, when he wasn’t displaying his “little man” complex and beating hell out of the field at joints like Laguna Seca.  To embark upon another two years of non-Alien level competition may prove to be a mistake.  The next Colin Edwards.
  1. The Silly Season. Jonas Folger, Johann Zarco, Sam Lowes and Alex Rins earn promotions from Moto2. The return of the prodigal lawyer, Karel Abraham, to Aspar Ducati, his pockets bulging with sponsor money.  Out the door are Eugene Laverty to WSB in a very raw deal (I thought he earned another MotoGP season), Stefan Bradl, taking his declining game to WSB as well, and the unfortunate Yonny Hernandez, who had a great 2015, a lousy 2016 and not enough backers to keep his ride.  A healthy number of current riders changed scenery, as usual, but a 23- bike grid with six manufacturers offers a number of alternatives for those journeymen seeking the elusive factory ride.  Paging Bradley Smith.
  1. Cal Crutchlow rises from the dead after a difficult start to the season (five points incrutchlow the first four rounds) with wins at Brno and Phillip Island. The moment:  Brno, Lap 16, on a drying track.  Crutchlow goes through on Iannone and quickly gets away, having made the correct tire choice in one of the 2016 rounds that started wet and ended dry.  First win by a British rider since the earth cooled.  At Phillip Island he went out and thumped the field (Marquez having already secured the title), establishing himself as a credible podium threat in 2017, when he will have even more microphones shoved in his face, to which we look forward with great enthusiasm.
  1. Marquez titles after a difficult 2015. Uncharacteristically settles for third in Jerez marquezbehind Rossi and Lorenzo, showing a maturity that wasn’t there in previous years.  The moment?  Motegi, when both Rossi and Lorenzo crashed out.  His win on Honda’s home field suddenly made him world champion for the third time.  Some people will say his save in practice at Assen was the moment, but he has made a career out of impossible saves.  Winning titles is what makes him go.

marquez-season-graph-jpeg

  1. maverick-vinales-wiki-profile-picture

    The Next Great Rider == Maverick Vinales

    Maverick Vinales gets first podium at Le Mans, wins at Silverstone on his way to the factory Yamaha team. The Next Great Rider secured Suzuki’s first podium since 2009 at Le Mans, then broke their 10-year non-winning streak with a scintillating win at Silverstone.  Nature, and Yamaha executives, abhorring a vacuum, he was the only real choice when Lorenzo announced his impending departure.  Vinales’ Alien Card is stamped and waiting.  The best part?  See him in civilian clothes and he looks like a cabana boy at the Ritz.

 

  1. Nine race winners. Moment—when Dovizioso crossed the finish line at Sepang to become #9.  I expect some of you to quibble about whether an entire season can be somehow characterized as a “moment.”  If this really bothers you, I encourage you to read Nietzsche, and to remember that, when considered across the eons of time in the frigid vacuum of space and an expanding galaxy, the entire 2016 MotoGP season is the blink of an eye.  So go quibble somewhere else.

lorenzo

  1. Jorge Lorenzo to Ducati announcement on April 19. One of the worst-kept secrets entering the season was that triple world champion Lorenzo would defect from the factory Yamaha team to Ducati in 2017.  It was confirmed prior to the Jerez round, with Big Blue having already signed teammate and rival Rossi through 2018.  The forthcoming changes amongst the Alien contingent in 2017 produced undertones that seemed to color the entire season.  A number of factors conspired to limit Lorenzo to a disappointing third place finish in 2016, but he seems certain the grass is greener on the other side of the hill.  We shall see.
  1. Rossi blows an engine at Mugello. The turning point of the season.  Despite a careless slide-off in Austin, Rossi entered Italy with the scoreboard reading Lorenzo 90, Marquez 85, Rossi 78.  A three-man race.  He left Italy bereft, with Lorenzo 115, Marquez 105, Rossi 78.  He had completed Lap 8 checking out Lorenzo’s back wheel when, at the bottom of the main straight, his engine went up, just as Lorenzo’s had without consequence during practice.  Control of his 2016 future went up with it, in the thick white smoke pouring from his bike.  The bad luck he needed caught up with Lorenzo in the Teutonic territories of Holland, Germany, Austria and the Czech Republic, but Marquez sailed through the season unscathed.

valentino-rossi-mugello

2016 was a season Rossi could have won.  Coulda?  Woulda?  Shoulda?  Didn’t.  Dude will be fired up for next year.  That makes two of us.

 

MotoGP 2016 Losail Results

March 20, 2016

© Bruce Allen.  Exclusive to Motorcycle.com

Jorge Lorenzo kicks off 2016 with a gratifying win

The 2016 Commercial Bank Grand Prix of Qatar marked the beginning of the newest era in MotoGP, that of Michelin tires and standard electronics across the grid.  In the run-up to the race, hopes that some new faces would emerge from the pack and find their way to the podium had been soaring.  Under the lights of Losail, however, defending champion Jorge Lorenzo held serve for Yamaha against a strong challenge from Andrea Dovizioso and Marc Marquez; the Usual Suspects had once again asserted their dominance of the sport.

Jorge-Lorenzo-Smile-HDQualifying had produced an ethnically-striated grid—Spaniards filling up rows one and three, with an all-Italian second row and an all-British fourth.  Lorenzo laid down a fast lap early in the session, as did Marquez a bit later, and both held up despite Maverick Vinales and “Maniac Joe” Iannone taking serious runs at them at session’s end.  Vinales missed out on the two hole by 4/1000ths of a second.  Iannone could have easily moved up to the front row had he not been momentarily held up by Scott Redding, who appeared to be doing his best to get out of the way.  (A track record final lap by Marquez was tossed when it was determined he had started it one second after the checkered flag had waved.)

Having watched six of the top seven riders in Moto2 jump the start, the start of the MotoGP tilt appeared somewhat sluggish, especially for Marquez and Vinales, who got lost in the sauce.  Marquez, looking WAY more comfortable than he looked last season prior to switching to his 2014 chassis, escaped from the crowd to join the lead group in fourth position.  Vinales, perhaps concerned about making an early-season mistake, found himself mired behind Dani Pedrosa, where he spent the entire evening.

The lead group formed up with Lorenzo leading the Dueling Andreas of the factory Ducati Iannoneteam, trailed by Valentino Rossi and Marquez.  At the start of Lap 2, both Ducatis flew past Lorenzo, Iannone in the lead.  Marquez slipped past Rossi on Lap 3 and began dogging Lorenzo on Lap 4.  I was just getting comfortable with the idea of Iannone winning his first premier class race when he lowsided out of the lead in Turn 13 of Lap 6, leaving Dovizioso to slug it out with the Aliens.  Sure enough, on Lap 9 Lorenzo found his way through on Dovizioso and that was that.  Marquez and Dovizioso would trade places a few times over the remaining 14 laps, but no one was able to mount any kind of serious challenge to Lorenzo once he found his rhythm.

Tell Us Again What We Learned This Winter

Nothing.  Elevated expectations for Vinales and Octo Pramac Ducati Brit Scott Redding didn’t pan out, at least in Round One.  This is a good time to point out that the Qatar GP usually offers up a few surprises to which followers of MotoGP give too much weight.  This is probably more true in 2016 than usual, given the technical changes everyone was dealing with.  Here’s what we know at this moment:

  • The top riders have already adjusted to the Michelins and the control ECU.
  • Dovizioso and Iannone will do well at the long, sweeping circuits like Brno and Phillip Island. We don’t know how they will hold up at the cramped little joints like The Sachsenring and Motegi.
  • Marc Marquez has finally learned that 16 points is better than none.
  • Valentino Rossi, now joined at the hip with Yamaha for the rest of his career, will have more fruitful days than he did today. Although he qualified better than usual, there was no late-race challenge from #46.  His choice of the harder option rear tire proved to have been in vain.
  • Michelin has figured out a lot of stuff in a very short time. Many of the riders set their fastest laps of the day late in the race.
  • Iannone has replaced the departed Nicky Hayden in the competition for the absolute worst haircut on the grid. At this point, he’s winning by a mile.
  • The competition for the top riders has already begun.

Early Season Silliness

RossiRight, so Rossi and Lorenzo were reportedly offered contracts for 2017-18 simultaneously, by email.  Rossi signs his immediately.  Lorenzo does not.  Rossi suggests Lorenzo is shopping Ducati.  (Lorenzo is, in fact, shopping Ducati.)  Lorenzo fires back that Rossi had no choice because no one else would want him.  Boom.  Bradley Smith, on the verge of eviction by Tech 3 boss Herve Poncharal, signs a deal with KTM for next year, leaving Yamaha a spot with which to woo Alex Rins.

I would say the odds of Lorenzo moving to Ducati in 2017 increased at the close of Lap 1, when the lead group entered the front straight.  Lorenzo, at the front of the pack, could only sit and watch as both factory Ducatis effortlessly blew past him, Grant-through-Richmond style, forcing him to push harder in the turns than he might have wished for the rest of the race.  The speed of the Desmosedici (Iannone was clocked at 218 mph on Saturday) combined with the skills of Jorge Lorenzo herald a formidable force if, indeed, Lorenzo elects to switch.  He would probably enjoy, too, the prospect of winning a title or three at Ducati, which The Doctor was unable to do, albeit during the pre-Dall’Igna era.

Here’s an easy one:  If and when Lorenzo bolts for Ducati, Yamaha will immediately sign the 21 year-old Vinales for as long as they can.  He’s the hottest property in MotoGP right now, despite his mediocre performance today.  Honda, on the other hand, needs to decide soon if they really want another two years of hard-luck Dani Pedrosa, or if the future wouldn’t look much brighter with Marquez and Vinales (or Marquez and Rins) fronting the Repsol factory team.

The Big Picture

I’m not even sure there IS a big picture so early in the season.  Iannone’s impression of Lorenzo’s 2014 crash in the desert has needlessly put him behind the eight ball for the rest of the year; why he was pushing so hard so early in the race, with all that bike beneath him, is a mystery.  Rossi, his meal ticket punched for the next three years, may have lost a bit of intensity—about racing, that is.  He seems fully charged up for a season-long verbal feud with Lorenzo, and would probably welcome Marquez back into the fray as well.  Dorna, it seems, is not amused by Rossi’s baiting of his two Spanish rivals, and may try to convince him to cool his jets. Having a 27 year-old Rossi snarling and snapping at you was once a frightening prospect.  A 37 year-old Rossi, who has been beaten by both Lorenzo and Marquez, not so much.  Yamaha may live to regret their pre-emptive signing of Rossi, especially if it ends up costing them both Vinales and Rins.

Two Weeks to the Middle of Nowhere

The grid has a little time to screw things back together before heading off for a back-to-back, Round Two in Argentina and Round Three in Austin.  Even old econ majors like me are not too geeked up about hearing the teams yammer on about analyzing all the data they collected this weekend.  Whatever.  It’s good to have the bikes back on track competing in anger.  It’s great having Nick Harris calling the shots in the booth.  It’s good for the sport to have Marquez competitive again this year.  It will be good—next year—to have more bikes on the grid.  And it will be fascinating to see which bums end up on which seats as the season rolls on.

For now, Lorenzo rules.

MotoGP 2016 Season and Losail Preview

March 16, 2016

© Bruce Allen.  Exclusive to Motorcycle.com

“It’s the most wonderful time of the year…” 

Here we are again, nosing around the garage area and the vicinity of the start/finish line, anticipating a full new season of MotoGP.  Everyone is optimistic.  Everyone is putting their best foot forward.  The power brokers, the likes of Yamaha’s Lin Jarvis and Honda’s Livio Suppo, are maintaining low profiles, keeping their powder dry in case—this probably of more concern to Suppo than Jarvis—their 2016 project turns out to be a dumpster fire.

How have things shaped up as the season started in years past?

victory helmet2013–Heading into the season, with Stoner gone and Marquez arrived, defending world champion Jorge Lorenzo looked ready, willing and able to repeat, with chase coming from Pedrosa, Rossi and Marquez. Rossi would take most of the year to get comfortable on the Yamaha in his first year back from Ducati purgatory.  Pedrosa and Lorenzo got hurt in the Netherlands and Germany.  Marquez made it look easy, snatching his first world championship as a rookie and assaulting the record books across the board.  Crutchlow, Bautista and Bradl were expected to make some noise at some point, and mostly didn’t.

2014–defending champion Marquez starts by reeling off 10 straight, then coasting to an effortless championship followed by Rossi, Lorenzo and Pedrosa, about as expected.

2015, it turns out, is not the three-peat envisioned by most Marquez fans.  He crashes out d7f9e438-0c47-467c-8916-2e7aa309cf6aLorenzo imageof several races early, concedes the early lead to Lorenzo, concedes more to Rossi, and watches helplessly as the title devolves into a Rossi vs. Lorenzo scrap.  He mixes it up with Rossi on several occasions, the Italian getting the better of all of them.  Rossi and Lorenzo head into Valencia essentially tied for the lead but with Rossi having been severely punished for events in Sepang, resulting in him starting last on the grid and ultimately finishing fourth, with Lorenzo cruising to both the win and the championship, Marquez at his wing.

What Have We Learned During All This Winter Testing?

25vinalesmaverick__gp_6818_originalSeveral things.  Lorenzo appears to be the man to beat.  Maverick Vinales intends to stick his nose in some podium contests and appears to have sufficient machine beneath him to do so.  Rossi, Marquez and Iannone appear destined to battle Vinales for second and third. Scott Redding may have found the right bike at the right time to propel him into a consistent top six performer.  (Remember him during his last season in Moto2 when he would ride the wheels off in the turns then get eaten alive in the straights.)  Dani Pedrosa needs to stay upright all season long if he wants to finish in the top four, otherwise he is destined for a second division seeding along with:

  • Andrea Dovisiozo
  • Cal Crutchlow
  • Aleix Espargaro
  • Pol Espargaro
  • Hector Barbera
  • Bradley Smith

Danilo Petrucci would have been in this group had he not broken his hand, and still might end up here.  Michelle Pirro will sub for DP in Qatar.

Those Aiming for Points Alone

The third tier, looking to make it into the top 15, will include Eugene Laverty, Loris Baz, Yonny Hernandez, Stefan Bradl, Alvaro Bautista, Jack Miller and Tito Rabat.  Bradl sounds confident, but it smells of baloney.  Rabat says his goal is top ten finishes—he has his work cut out for him.

Winning at Losail—What Does it Mean?

Only three of the last eight winners at Losail went on to title in their respective years—ossi-vs-marquez-di-sepangStoner in 2011, Lorenzo in 2012 and Marquez in 2014.  Since they are also three of the last five, it’s clear to me that past performance has little to do with future performance.  Recent performance, however, might well have something to do with performance this year.

Let’s just say this.  If young Mr. Vinales challenges for the win in Doha, that is significant.  A track built nicely for the Ducs and Yamahas, the Suzuki has not enjoyed a great deal of success in the desert.  A second place finish would put pressure on the Aliens behind him, as well on teammate Aleix Espargaro, who is not getting nearly as much from his identical ride.

I also think there is room in this championship for a second division rider to compete toward the top of the timesheets.  I’m thinking here of someone like a Barbera (or a Redding) for whom the standard ECU is an improvement.  Perhaps Barbera’s practice times in Australia were more indicative of what he’s able to produce now that the electronics are mostly equal.

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And, let it not go unsaid that whichever teams get accustomed to the Michelins the quickest will end up doing the best.  This is what separates the factory Yamaha and Honda teams from the rest, the skill of their teams at finding settings that work over race distances.  On whatever rubber you got.  The Ducatis seem not to mind the Michelins.

Clearly, with 13 crashes in Australia, most of which were blamed on tires, Michelin has plenty to do as well.  Riders will need to beware on cold morning outlaps in the northern latitudes.

Silly Season Silliness

With almost all the primary riders in contract years in 2016, rumors are flying already about who’s gonna sign where and when.  Jorge Lorenzo seems to be giving ground to his masters at Yamaha, first insisting he needed a deal in hand prior to the start of the season and now, suddenly, agreeable to some mid-season negotiations.  Rossi is saying two years or nothing from here; Yamaha has not leaped into his arms as of this writing.

Herve Poncharal has delivered an ultimatum to his pair of Bradley Smith and Pol Espargaro:  The future is now.  If you cannot deliver podiums on a regular basis I will need to find riders who can.  As boss, Herve has the right to express his opinion.  My opinion is that both factory Yamahas, Marquez, a couple of the Ducatis and maybe Vinales are better than either Smith or Espargaro.  Asking the Tech 3 riders to produce consistent podiums is asking a lot.  Perhaps Poncharal is thinking more in terms of creating vacancies for Vinales or Rins/Zarco/Folger.

alex-rinsVinales and young Alex Rins in Moto2 are in the wind, pretty much everyone’s best guess as to Aliens-in-Waiting.  An aging Dani Pedrosa (dearly coveted by KTM for 2017) at Repsol Honda, a seriously aging Rossi at Yamaha; at some point the suits are gonna pull some plugs.  Plus, it’s impossible not to wonder when Casey Stoner, watching riders he considers barely his equal go flying over the handlebars trying to get it on with the Michelins, says “lol” and climbs back onboard for a wildcard at Phillips Island.  Could throw a spanner into the works of more than one rider at that point in the season.  Easier to envision if doing so were to provide him an opportunity to interrupt a Yamaha or a Honda on its way to the title.  Stoner could easily add some extra testosterone to the mix.

And what about Marquez?  Easy to see him spending his career at Honda, assuming he wants to.  What if the RC213V remains un-rideable for the next three years?  What if Yamaha or Ducati establish some genuine dominance in the category?  Is it so hard to visualize young Marquez in Yamaha blue or Ducati red?  Not for me.

Ducati, with eight riders working for them, has some keepers and some others.  Iannone, Petrucci, Redding and Baz appear to be capable of top ten finishes.  My pick as the next Ducati shining star is Iannone, but he needs to make something happen this year.  With KTM joining the fray next season interested in poaching high profile riders, and several riders talking about moving from World Superbike (Johnny Rea) and Moto2 (Johann Zarco, Rins) there could be new faces on any number of the Ducati teams.  Especially now that it’s not viewed as a career killer.

So I expect Honda to make a spirited run at Marquez and Yamaha to do the same with Lorenzo.  Beyond that, teams may keep their powder dry and wait/see, or look to strike pre-emptively and roll the dice on a Vinales or a Rins or a Bradley Smith or Pol Espargaro, someone capable of giving them regular looks at podia on the right bike, and with plenty of upside.

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The Bottom Line

The bottom line is that Qatar is anyone’s race and 2016 is anyone’s season, most especially Jorge Lorenzo.  Will Marquez and Rossi find themselves drawn to one another, magnetically, Rossi spoiling to continue the 2015 vendetta?  Do Marquez, Vinales and Iannone have enough to challenge Lorenzo on a regular basis?  Is this Rossi’s “one season too many?”  Does Ducati push Honda out of #2 in the builder’s competition?  Is the Suzuki under Vinales for real?  Is Dani Pedrosa still relevant to the title conversation?

My only prediction is that due to the tires and the ECU, we won’t see very many processions, and we won’t have someone, other than perhaps Lorenzo if everything goes perfectly for him, run away with the title in the first third of the season.  My annual hope, for no parades and a tight title fight, looks pretty good right about now.

My second only prediction is that the top four will be comprised of Lorenzo, Marquez, Vinales and Iannone, perhaps in that order, with Rossi and Redding or Smith fighting for fifth place.  In retrospect, my pre-season predictions—2013 predicting Lorenzo, 2014 and 2015 Marquez—are usually poor.  One for three among the current lot.

There will be plenty of video and plenty to discuss in 2016.  We look forward to enjoying your comments if, as Jim Rome used to insist, you have a take, and you don’t suck.  Profanity is never welcome, but contrasting points of view, especially those that are well-written, are always appreciated.  As I’ve discovered over the years, MO has a pretty serious readership when it comes to the finer points of this stuff.  So, watch the races, bring your comments, and let’s share…lol…

The race goes off at 2:00 pm EDT; as this goes to press the TV availability is problematic.  We’ll have results, analysis and commentary right here late Sunday.