Archive for the ‘MotoGP Motegi’ Category

MotoGP Point Totals, Track Records and Col. Kurtz

October 23, 2018

© Bruce Allen

In this issue we’ll look at my well-reasoned and increasingly-ridiculous Marquez Point Total Projection. We’ll check the track records to see if they’re “falling like dominoes” as we predicted. Finally, we shall provide graphic evidence of what happens to people who have spent years under tremendous career pressure, have finally tapped out in accordance with the law of averages, and have suddenly ceased to have to give a shit.

First, new world champion Marc Marquez is actively shredding my projection for him in 2018. It no longer bears comment. I have shaded the standings to reflect changes in position. Note Lorenzo, who fell three spots after having to sit out Motegi.

MOTOGP SPREADSHEET AFTER 16 ROUNDS

OK. Here is the tracker for track records after Round 16. Still not bad, at 8 for 13, with three disregarded.

MotoGP Track Records 16 Rounds

Finally, as promised, here is Scott Redding, on his way to British Super Bikes. Gone upriver. Apparently feeling free to try to out-Alvaro-Bautista Alvaro Bautista.

Scott Redding Upriver

 

MotoGP Motegi Results

October 21, 2018

© Bruce Allen.  Exclusive to Motorcycle.com

Marquez Wins, Claims 7th World Championship 

The 2018 MotoGP World Championship came to a screeching, grinding halt today in a Japanese gravel trap on Lap 23 of the Motul Grand Prix of Japan. It fell to earth in the person of Italian Andrea Dovizioso who, chasing Marc Marquez for the lead, lost the front in Turn 10. Everyone knew there was going to be no stopping Marquez this year. Still, the moment the title is decided, weeks too early, is just a big ol’ bummer. But there it is. 

MM victory continues

Picture from 2014, but you get the idea.

Practice and Qualifying 

The top five on the timesheets for FP1 and FP3 were sufficiently similar to suggest who might expect podium treatment on Sunday. FP1 was topped by Dovizioso, Crutchlow, Zarco, Marquez and Vinales. FP3 included Dovizioso, Crutchlow, Zarco, Marquez and Rossi. FP2 was wet enough to keep a number of riders in their garages, so, once again, it came down to FP3 to separate the Q1 goats from the Q2 lambs. Eight of the top ten riders in the world championship went directly to Q2, the lone exceptions being Danilo Petrucci, having a miserable weekend on the Ducati GP19, and Jorge Lorenzo, who declared himself out of Sunday’s race due to a wrist injury suffered in Thailand. This allowed Dani Pedrosa and Jack Miller to sneak directly into Q2.

In a fun Q1, Alvaro Bautista (Angel Nieto Ducati) and Taka Nakagami (LCR Honda) teamed up to punk KTM’s Brit Bradley Smith, both laying down fast laps very late in the session to deny Smith the glory of passing into Q2. Once there, unfortunately, they did very little, ending up sharing row four with Dani Pedrosa.

As has become the custom, Q2 got trés busy late in the session. For a while, it appeared Crutchlow and Marquez would sit 1 and 2, Honda executives praying to any number of gods for deliverance from Gigi Dall’Igna. Alas, their prayers went unanswered, as Jack Miller threw his Ducati GP17 across the line into second before he crashed out at Turn 5. As the session closed, Andrea Dovizioso hammered his way onto pole, and the prodigal Frenchman, Johann Zarco, blew past Miller into second place, leaving the factory Hondas and Yamahas off the front row for, like, the first time since The Berlin Wall came down.

With conditions on Saturday pretty good, Dovi put in a pole lap of 1:44.590. This compares to 2015, when the top six qualifiers beat his time using Bridgestone tires. (Can’t remember when the control ECUs came on board.) Lorenzo’s brilliant pole lap that day, 1:43.790, is a full eight-tenths faster than Dovizioso’s on Saturday. Track record intact; season record now stands at 8 for 13 as I continue to seek support for my prediction that track records “would fall like dominos” in 2018. From this perspective, Motegi appears to be an outlier. Oh, and let’s not forget Lorenzo’s unique ability to qualify Yamahas on the front row. On Bridgestones.

If Marc Marquez intended to win the title on Sunday, as his gold helmet clearly suggested, he would have his work cut out for him, starting from sixth place against Dovi’s pole. The first lap could easily tell the story. 

The Japanese Grand Prix – 2018 in Microcosm 

If you’ve followed the 2018 season, you will have a pretty good understanding of how today’s race unfolded. Aside from Jack Miller, who started third, veered into Johann Zarco’s path at the start, and stayed with the leaders until Lap 5, it was Dovizioso and Marquez from the very start. Cal Crutchlow and Valentino Rossi occupied third and fourth, with Miller in 5th being stalked by both of the Suzukis, Alex Rins and Andrea Iannone. By mid-race, Dovi and Marquez had put some space between themselves and their chasers. Keeping the pace relatively slow, they allowed a few lower tranche riders—Rossi, Rins and Iannone—to enjoy visions of sugarplums dancing in their heads. For a while.

Finally, at Turn 9 on Lap 21, Marquez went through on Dovizioso and made it stick. Dovi, season on the line, chased the Spaniard desperately for two laps before losing the front in Turn 10 of Lap 23 and sliding off. He would re-enter the race and end his day in 18th position, out of the money, reduced to looking forward to 2019.

The more astute readers out there will realize about now that today’s race was, in fact, nothing like the 2018 season in microcosm. I happened to be reaching for a section header. It won’t happen again.

Dovi’s crash out of second place improved life for Cal Crutchlow, who ended up second, and Alex Rins on the Suzuki, who found himself on the podium for the first time since Assen after having started eighth. Rossi finished a kind of limp fourth, while Yamaha teammate Maverick Vinales could do no better than seventh. The fear amongst Yamaha bigwigs that Buriram (a third and a fourth) was a fluke has now been confirmed.

With top chasers Dovizioso and Rossi off the podium today, a measure of Marquez’ dominance this year was to be found on the podium itself. If one were to take Cal Crutchlow’s point total for the year (148) and add it to Alex Rins’ (118), it would still fall short of Marquez and his 296.

Clearly, my prediction that Marquez would end 2018 with fewer than 298 points was worthless. At least he won’t be able to top Rossi’s 2009 total of 373. That would have been awful. 

The Big Picture 

Most sports leagues set up their season so that there are a few exhibition matches early on, with tension building up to the last game of the season, the one deciding the championship. MotoGP, due to the nature of the game in The Marquez Era, holds the climactic race in, like, Week 16 or 17, then plays a couple exhibition matches to close out the year. By which time most of the owners and fans have jumped on their yachts and sailed off for Barbados.

This is a pity for the fans attending the races in Australia, Malaysia and Valencia. There will continue to be the little “races within the race” that light up so many true believers. There will be, one expects, continuing efforts to set new track records at the remaining venues. For all involved, it’s kind of like macular degeneration. The big picture shrinks; the importance of team and individual accomplishments is elevated the moment the title moves out of reach. From then on, it’s pretty much down to Beat Your Teammate. Once the trophy has been won, most of the competitive air leaves the balloon.

When I was new to MotoGP I didn’t clearly understand what people meant when, at this point in the season, they would say, “Man, I can’t wait for the Valencia test.” I now know fully what this means. Between now and then I plan to post nothing but Monty Python and Peter Sellers videos. 

Tranches 

After Buriram

Tranche 1:   Marquez, Dovizioso

Tranche 2:   Rossi, Lorenzo, Petrucci, Crutchlow, Rins, Pedrosa

Tranche 3:   Zarco, Viñales, A Espargaro, Miller, Iannone, Bautista

Tranche 4:   Morbidelli, P Espargaro, Smith, Nakagami,

Tranche 5:   Redding, Abraham, Luthi, Syahrin and Simeon

After Motegi

Tranche 1:   Marquez, Dovizioso

Tranche 2:   Rossi, Viñales, Crutchlow, Zarco, Rins, Bautista

Tranche 3:   Petrucci, Morbidelli, Pedrosa, Iannone, Lorenzo, Miller

Tranche 4:   P Espargaro, Smith, Nakagami, A Espargaro, Syahrin

Tranche 5:   Redding, Abraham, Luthi, and Simeon

Head Down, Keep Rowing

Next week in Australia, perhaps the most scenic venue on the calendar. The winds on the southern side of Australia can be fearsome, with cold temps, gray skies and seagulls. We will bring you a preview on Wednesday or thereabouts.

MotoGP Motegi Preview

October 16, 2018

© Bruce Allen

Marquez stands on cusp of fifth title 

And so the 2018 MotoGP season comes down to this, a showdown in The Land of the Rising Sun. Home MotoGP track, basically, for Suzuki, Honda and Yamaha; much face at stake. Two samurai riders, Ducati’s Andrea Dovizioso and Honda’s Marc Marquez, expecting to go one-on-one for a title so close Marquez can smell it. Much too early in the season for all this. Elsewhere, Yamaha will be watched closely for continuing progress from their recent knees-up in Thailand, or will it be back to the drawing board again? 

  • Center court. Match point. The first of four; he’s serving. Down love-40. On your heels.
  • Game seven, down three, top of the ninth, 0-2 count, two men on base, star closer on the mound, heart thumping like a piston. 63,000 fans going mental hating you.
  • Some soccer thing, leading scorer, limping, down two late in the game, etc. Wet field. Hooligans talking about your mother.
  • NBA game seven, 1.6 seconds left, down three, at the line shooting three. You’re a 70% free-throw shooter late in your career. Miss one and it could be all over. All over.

For those of you who, like me, know more about other sports than they do about MotoGP, these are presented to give you a sense of what I think it will feel like on Sunday for Andrea Dovizioso as he is aligned, clutch depressed, taching up, waiting for the red lights to go out. 237 furious horses beneath him and his chances of making it to a second match point appear thin; everything has to go right. The pressure is beyond comprehension, even for the usually-unflappable Italian. And there’s #93 over there, looking fast and relaxed, Bushido celebration ready in the wings.  

Recent History at Motegi

2015–Dani Pedrosa chose Motegi to make his annual stand, leading Rossi and Lorenzo to the line in a wet-ish affair.  Marquez struggled into fourth place ahead of Dovizioso.  Rossi and Lorenzo chewed up Bridgestone rain tires on a drying surface; Pedrosa, winless all season and dawdling in the middle of the pack for a while, came on strong at the end. This was the race in which Lorenzo dominated all weekend on dry track and finished 12 seconds back in the wet. Rossi left Japan leading the series by 18 points with three rounds left, a virtual lock for his 10th world championship—you know, the one that was purportedly unlocked by Marc Marquez on the melting macadam of Sepang and for which most of you have never forgiven him. Scoreboard.

2016–For the third time in four seasons, Marquez claimed the MotoGP world championship.  He did it by winning the Japanese Grand Prix while the Bruise Brothers of the factory Yamaha team—Jorge Lorenzo and Valentino Rossi—choked on the bile of their rivalry, both riders crashing out of a race in which neither could afford the slightest error. Lorenzo’s forthcoming departure from the team after Valencia appeared to be a sound idea.

Last year, in a replay of their Red Bull Ring duel earlier that season, Ducati #1 Andrea Dovizioso and Marc Marquez gave us another late-race blades-at-close-quarters wheezer, a ten-point spread in the 2017 standings at stake. And for the second time that season, Dovizioso prevailed in what was almost a carbon copy of his earlier win in Austria. In winning the match, Dovi cut his deficit to Marquez from 16 points to 11 with two rounds left. (Marquez would employ the lesson he learned that day to win the same way last time out at Buriram.) Like Rossi in 2015, things would come unglued for Dovizioso at Sepang a week later. 2017, one reckons, might have been the high-water mark of Dovi’s career, likely destined to join Pedrosa as top premier class riders who coulda, woulda, shoulda, had it not been for Rossi/Stoner/Lorenzo/Marquez etc.

Marquez has clinched half of his four premier class titles in The Land of the Rising Sun. He is poised to make it three for five on Sunday. Leading by 77 points, the only thing the Catalan riding machine needs is to dispense with Dovizioso and he becomes, once again, MotoGP champion, gripping the world of grand prix motorcycle racing firmly by the sack and inviting it, in Castillian Spanish, to come play. As Elvis used to drawl so eloquently, “Oh man, it’s good to be The King.” Pronounced it “kang.” He was right.

Rins vs. Zarco

Rins Zarco Crutchlow

Rins, Zarco and Crutchlow. Anyone recognize the venue?

I’m hearing from a number of readers that the tranching of the Suzuki #1 and Tech 3 #1 riders should be reversed based upon, I suppose, 2018 body of work, recent performance, standings. How about performance in the second half of the season?

Rins:

Wins:                                        0

Podiums:                                   2

DNFs                                         4

Points:                                      102

Position:                                    10th

Points since Sachsenring:      49

Zarco:

Wins:                                        0

Podiums:                                   2

DNFs                                         1

Points:                                      123

Position:                                    8th

Points since Sachsenring:      35

Starting in Brno, both riders have finished every race. Rins had a terrible first half of the season—4 DNFs, including three of the first four rounds. Clean since then. Out-pointing Zarco. Sorry. Sticking with my rating. A certain amount of What Have You Done for Me Lately? gets into this, but not too much. Five second-half rounds seems like a reasonable comparison. It will be interesting to see how each finishes the season, with Zarco packing up to KTM, while Rins looks to stay put and partner with the up-and-coming Joan Mir starting next season. His masters at Suzuki need to get him some more grunt to go along with the sweet-handling GSX-RR.

Were I a gambling man, I’d take a substantial position on the wager that Rins will outpoint Zarco in 2019.

Your Weekend Forecast

Sunday’s forecast, from a week out, looks perfect—sunny, just barely warm, with very low ambient radioactivity readings in both the air and water. No hot weather advantage for the Hondas, no moaning from Cal Crutchlow about overheating his front. This is a stop-and-go circuit, a point-and-shoot place if you will. Hondas and Ducatis will enjoy an advantage here. I’m thinking Marquez, Dovizioso and Lorenzo on the podium, but am unclear as to the order of finish, which matters a lot.

Here’s one thing I don’t want to see. I don’t want to see Jorge Lorenzo impeding his teammate in any way at any time during the race. Time for some team orders from Ducati Corse. Any Ducati rider impeding in any way Mr. Dovizioso’s chase for the win and continued life in the championship shall be drawn and quartered in Parc Fermé immediately following the podium celebration. Two year Honda contract or not.

We’ll be back on Sunday morning with results and analysis. And then again on Tuesday with a look ahead at Phillip Island. Dang.

MotoGP Motegi Results

October 15, 2017

© Bruce Allen.  Exclusive to Motorcycle.com

DesmoDovi Smokes Marquez; Race Tightens

For the second time this season, Factory Ducati #1 Andrea Dovizioso and Repsol Honda prodigy Marc Marquez gave us a late-race knives-in-a-phonebooth duel, a ten-point spread in the standings at the top of the heap at stake. And for the second time this season, Dovizioso prevailed in what was almost a carbon copy of the first win, a last lap exchange of fortunes in Austria. Now it’s Two for the Road, as the two “blessed” riders in this year’s championship, separated by 11 points, seem destined to square off in Valencia.

Then There Were Two

Entering today’s race, there were, like, two and a half contenders for the title, as Dani Pedrosa and Valentino Rossi had been eliminated every which way but mathematically, and Yamaha savant Maverick Vinales was hanging on to contention by his fingernails. Now, with all three chasers having had counterproductive days, it has come down to Marquez and Dovizioso.

Both riders, as we’ve said before, are at the top of their respective games. Unfortunately, it took Dovi an extra few years to arrive, causing him to miss the rock star status afforded the Spaniard. But he is the only rider out there able to trail Marquez for the lead and the title and feel good about it. The most successful Ducati pilot of the last ten years, Dovizioso appears to welcome these last lap duels, treating them like tic tac toe matches in which one gradually limits the possible responses available to the opponent until the door is closed. In post-race interviews, he and Marquez laughed about knowing the strategy each other would use in the last few turns.

Practice and Qualifying

Racing in the rain on Friday and Saturday produced a set of Unusual Suspects in both Q1 and Q2. Marc Marquez and Andrea Dovizioso especially found things suiting their fancies on Friday and led the way directly into Q2 joined, eventually, by the likes of both factory Suzuki riders, Pedrosa and Petrucci, Zarco, Rossi, Lorenzo, and one Aleix Espargaro, having flogged his Aprilia RS-GP to the third best combined time on the grid.

The wet conditions, as always, pushed some familiar names down into Q1; the Usual Suspects welcomed Maverick Vinales, Cal Crutchlow, Alvaro Bautista and the cadre of Japanese subs and wildcards to the nether regions. The feel-good moment of the entire weekend occurred at the end of Q1 when both factory KTMs advanced into Q2. For being an enormous Austrian engineering and manufacturing behemoth KTM sure attracts a lot of warm fuzzies from MotoGP fans, with their bold colors, plucky riders and virtually unlimited budgets.

Q2 offered a number of great moments and a case study in not counting one’s eggs before they hatch. Marquez laid down a rapid early lap on rain tires, looking invincible, and rode around for awhile on a drying track before pitting and ending the session futilely on slicks. Valentino Rossi tried to qualify on slicks, desperately seeking solutions, failed, and would start Sunday’s race in 12th position.

A number of riders chose to attempt their flying lap on the last go-round, including Petrucci into a blistering second, Aleix Espargaro missing the front row by an eyelash, and Johann Zarco, coming out of nowhere, seized his second premier class pole of 2017 on the 2016 Yamaha. (His first, at Assen, led to a 14th place finish.) With top pursuers Andrea Dovizioso starting 9th and Maverick Vinales 14th, the title chase appeared primed to take a beating on Sunday.

As the Lights Went Out

Jorge Lorenzo followed Marquez’s hole shot into second place at the start and took the lead in Turn 9. Danilo Petrucci on the Pramac Ducati and polesitter Johann Zarco had their noses in it, with Dovizioso going through on Zarco on Lap 2 and Petrucci doing the same to Lorenzo to take the lead. With Doviozoso in the mix and Vinales out of it, the front four became, on Lap 4, Petrucci, Lorenzo, Marquez and Dovizioso. A Ducati triple-team on poor young Marc. Not to worry. Lorenzo began to actively work his way backwards, falling from podium contention to 8th by Lap 6.

My boy Cal Crutchlow pitted on Lap 6 and crashed out on Lap 16. Rossi, enjoying a miserable weekend in the rain, crashed out on Lap 6, too, joined by Karel Abraham and the Nosane kid subbing for Jonas Folger on the Tech 3 Yamaha. For Nosane, the weekend must have been like you or me being dropped into the cockpit of Miss Budweiser in time for Thunder on the Ohio. No problem, the life vest inflates upon impact! For Rossi, his second crash in two years here puts an exclamation point on his disappointing 2017 season.

Anyway, early on it appeared Petrucci might get away for his first ever premier class win, until both Marquez and Dovizioso reeled him in. On Lap 14, both went through on the swarthy Italian, consigned him to a distant third step on the podium, and rode off for their private confab.

Mano à Mano for Ten Laps

After a few rather relaxed laps of lining him up, Doviozoso sailed through on Marquez on Lap 19, with Marquez returning the favor, a bit rudely, on Lap 22. This was the point at which I expected Marquez to get away. Instead, they exchanged the lead several more times until Lap 24, when Doviozoso found himself surviving a final desperate dive from Marquez with the extra drive coming out of Victory Corner necessary to pimp the Spaniard at the flag. This is a Reader’s Digest summary of what was a number of laps of insanely great racing by the two best in the game at this moment in history.

Elsewhere on the Grid

Fan favorite Aleix Espargaro drove his Aprilia from a 4th place start, a whisker off the front row, to a satisfying 7th place finish. The KTMs of Smith and Espargaro cleared Q1 and started 7th and 8th, respectively. Though they could only manage 11th (Espargaro) and 19th (Smith) things are looking up in KTMTown. The factory Suzuki team, fronted by Andrea Iannone and Alex Rins, came to sudden life this weekend, qualifying 10th and 11th and finishing—gasp—4th (Iannone) and 5th (Rins). Two Suzukis in the top five, in the rain.

For the moment, two riders have lost their Alien status; Tranche 1 has been pared down. Tranches 2 and 3 are, therefore, inflated.

After Round 14 Aragon

Tranche 1: Viñales, Marquez, Dovizioso, Rossi
Tranche 2: Pedrosa, Zarco, Lorenzo, A Espargaro, Bautista
Tranche 3: Crutchlow, Rins, Folger, Petrucci, P Espargaro
Tranche 4: Miller, Iannone, Redding, Barbera, Baz, Rabat
Tranche 5: Abraham, Smith, Lowes

After Round 15 Motegi

Tranche 1: Marquez, Dovizioso
Tranche 2: Vinales↓, Pedrosa, Rossi↓, Zarco, Lorenzo, A Espargaro, Petrucci↑
Tranche 3: Rins, Folger, P Espargaro, Iannone↑, Baz↑, Bautista↓
Tranche 4: Crutchlow↓, Miller, Redding, Barbera, Rabat
Tranche 5: Abraham, Smith, Lowes

Marching to Praetoria

Time just to catch our breath before coming up with a completely new, more
Australian set of out-of-round observations about some people’s favorite sport. At least at this point we can narrow our focus down to the two top guys, both of whom need to do some serious crashing before Maverick Vinales becomes relevant again.

Phillip Island appears custom-designed for the Desmosedici GP17. We have some research to do prior to mid-week, when the Australian GP preview comes your way. All I’m willing to say for sure, at this point, is that a meaningful Valencia finale just became more plausible, not less. Personally, I would like to see Dovi beat Marquez 1-2 in the next two rounds, at which point they would go to Valencia separated by a single point.

It could happen. Dovizioso needs no worse than a draw with Marquez over the next two rounds. Another win, or two, would be utterly convenient. As he has obviously learned by now, championships are won by putting the hammer down in those clutch, fight-or-flee moments. Throwing caution to the wind and letting your instincts and balance take over. He and the bike are finally one. He knows Marquez is going to come with both barrels blazing. As he did today, he needs to continue to channel the late Tom Petty:

“Well, I won’t back down.
No I won’t back down.
You can stand me up at the gates of hell
But I won’t back down…
Gonna stand my ground.”    –Tom Petty   “I Won’t Back Down”

MotoGP Motegi Preview

October 10, 2017

© Bruce Allen  Exclusive to Motorcycle.com

OMG–Three Races in Three Weeks

Once again MotoGP embarks on its annual Darwinian excursion through some of the world’s most exotic time zones for what is laughingly called The Pacific Swing. As if it were a square dance and not a grueling test of mettle and metal. One week at Honda’s glowing home crib, one on the windswept tundra of the south Australian coast, and one in the autoclave of Sepang. Can Honda’s Marc Marquez seize his fourth MotoGP title on this chaotic cruise, or will he leave things dangling for the Valenciana finale?

When Last We Left our Heroes…

They had just completed the Aragon round in which triple world champion Marquez opened a can of whup-ass on his pursuers and vaulted into a 16-point lead over Ducati #1 Andrea Dovizioso and a 28-point spread over Maverick Viñales, everyone’s pre-season pick to win the title this year. Except me. My vast experience in this game (okay, it’s just a wild ass guess) tells me Viñales has another DNF left in him this season as the pressure mounts and Marquez piles up heart-stopping save after heart-stopping save, seemingly avoiding disaster each time out by the sharpest of razor-thin margins. As good as Viñales is, and will be, it must be daunting to watch Marquez perform his magic act week after week, crash six times in practice every weekend and lead the championship.

Recent history at Motegi

In 2014 it was All Aliens All the Time as Lorenzo led Marquez, Rossi and Pedrosa to the flag, the gap between 1st and 4th a scant 3.1 seconds. Though Dovizioso took pole, the four Aliens were grouped 2 to 5 at the start. Marquez, leading the series, conceded the win to Lorenzo and, in the process, clinched the 2014 title. The race featured a close encounter between Lorenzo and Marquez on Lap 5 which might have cost the Catalan the race, had it mattered. The post-race Samurai ceremony afterwards was a little over the top.

2015: Dani Pedrosa chose Motegi to make his annual stand, leading Rossi and Lorenzo to the line in a wet-ish affair. Marquez struggled into fourth place ahead of Dovizioso on the Ducati. Rossi and Lorenzo chewed up Bridgestone rain tires on a drying surface; Pedrosa, winless all season and dawdling in the middle of the pack for a while, came on strong at the end. This was the race in which Lorenzo and the rain became a thing. Rossi left Japan leading the series by 18 points with three rounds left, a virtual lock for a 10th world championship that would come unlocked on the macadam griddle at Sepang.

Last year, for the third time in four seasons, Repsol Honda supernova Marquez claimed the MotoGP world championship. He did it by winning the Japanese Grand Prix while the Bruise Brothers of the factory Yamaha team—Jorge Lorenzo and Valentino Rossi—choked on the bile of their rivalry, both riders crashing out of a race in which neither could afford the slightest error.

Marquez has now won two of his three premier class titles in The Land of the Rising Sun. He won’t clinch a title on Sunday, but he is at a pivot point of the season. A win, especially a dominating win with sub-par performances by his main chasers, and he could wrap things up before returning to Europe at the end of the month. A crash, combined with podium finishes from Dovizioso and/or Viñales, could set us up for an all-the-marbles showdown in Spain in November. Let Valencia Decide!

Life in the Tranches

After Round 13 Misano

Tranche 1: Viñales, Marquez, Dovizioso, (Rossi)
Tranche 2: Pedrosa, Zarco, Folger, Lorenzo, Petrucci, Rins
Tranche 3: Crutchlow, Barbera, Bautista, Baz, A Espargaro
Tranche 4: Miller, Iannone, Redding, P Espargaro
Tranche 5: Abraham, Rabat, Smith, Lowes

After Round 14 Aragon

Tranche 1: Viñales, Marquez, Dovizioso, Rossi
Tranche 2: Pedrosa, Zarco, Lorenzo, A Espargaro↑, Bautista↑
Tranche 3: Crutchlow, Rins↓, Folger↓, Petrucci↓, P Espargaro↑
Tranche 4: Miller, Iannone, Redding, Barbera↓, Baz↓, Rabat↑
Tranche 5: Abraham, Smith, Lowes

Catalonia Referendum

There are 10 Spanish riders in the premier class of MotoGP, a multiple of that number in Moto2 and Moto3. Of those 10, seven (7) are Catalans. Seems Catalonia wants independence from Spain, with its ponderous federalism, broken economy, black-shirted police reminiscent of the fascist Franco regime, and Castillian lisp.

Much the same as the Scots, the Catalonians have felt pinched by being part of a largely foreign federation for generations despite sharing a common language. Although turnout was reported to be light, the vote this past Sunday was over 90% in favor of Catalexit, despite the horrific presence of the Spanish police, shown on video dragging young women out of the polls by their hair. Allow me to make three points here. One, don’t be surprised if symbols of the Catalan independence movement find their way to the paddock. Two, Catalonia has every right to refer to itself as the capital of Spanish motorcycle racing. Three, if, somehow, Catalans were to form their own government and retain the euro, they will be screwed in years to come by not being able to control their own currency. Paging Greece. Just sayin’.

In case you’re wondering, or haven’t yet discovered Wikipedia, the seven Catalans are Marquez, Pedrosa, Viñales, Rabat, both Espargaro brothers, and Alex Rins. The three outliers are Lorenzo (Mallorca), Hector Barbera (Valencia) and Alvaro Bautista (Castille). This is quality research you’re just not going to find on other motorcycle publications. Unless they’ve discovered Wikipedia, too.

Gazing at the Crystal Ball

The locals at Sunday’s race will have two of their own on the grid. Given the fact that Japanese-made bikes dominate MotoGP, it must be irksome not to have any Japanese riders competing in the premier class. Not to worry, as factory test rider “Katman” Nakasuga has been tagged for a wildcard by Yamaha. Hiro Aoyama, whose last full season in MotoGP was 2014, will substitute for Jack Miller who, in his ongoing mission to emulate Valentino Rossi, broke his leg in a training accident last week. Expect Nakasuga to collect a few points and Aoyama to scuff his leathers battling with Tito Rabat and Sam Lowes to avoid finishing last.

Before laying myself open for the usual scathing criticism of my picks, I just want to remind readers that Marquez is on a 2013-style roll. In the eight rounds since Mugello, he has compiled four wins, three podiums, and a DNF when his engine went up at Silverstone while he was in contention. Had he podiumed at Silverstone, which appeared likely at the time, his lead would now stand closer to 40 points than 20, and we would be readying ourselves for some over-the-top title celebration at Phillip Island. As it is, we can still light candles for Dovi and Maverick as we look forward to Valencia.

Right. The long-range forecast for race weekend calls for cool temps and wet conditions. Music to the ears of Andrea Dovizioso and Danilo Petrucci, while such news gives Maverick Vinales the creeps and has no effect whatsoever on Marquez. Dovi needs to start another hot streak about now, although Motegi is not the friendliest layout for the Desmosedici. As we say every round, perhaps this is the week Aleix Espargaro puts an Aprilia on the podium. Probably not.

Your podium on Sunday—Marquez, Dovizioso and Crutchlow, who needs to sack up and start winning races again. Rossi is still recovering, Vinales is all tensed up, and no one else is relevant to the conversation. If history is a teacher, Dani Pedrosa will have trouble getting his tires up to temperature; besides, he’s already had his win for this year. This is Honda’s home crib, and all the other manufacturers want to stick it to them at their place. But with the season on the line, don’t expect Marc Marquez to hold anything back. He’s playing with house money these days, and can afford to take a few chances. 2017 just feels like his year. Again.

MotoGP 2016 Motegi Results

October 16, 2016

© Bruce Allen.  Exclusive to Motorcycle.com

Marc Marquez – 2016 Campeón Mundial! 

For the third time in four seasons, Repsol Honda supernova Marc Marquez claimed the MotoGP world championship.  He did it by winning the Japanese Grand Prix while the Bruise Brothers of the factory Yamaha team—Jorge Lorenzo and legend Valentino Rossi—choked on their own bile, both riders crashing out of a race in which neither could afford the slightest error.  This unlikely confluence of events is responsible for, among other things, the very pedestrian championship celebration prior to the podium.  Nothing like the Bushido spectacle we watched in 2014. 

Notes from Practice and Qualifying 

Repsol              FP2–Pedrosa out; Aoyama in.  Pedrosa needs to think about retiring before he starts to resemble Quasimodo.  Second serious injury suffered here by “The Master of Motegi.”  The break, which left his right collarbone in four pieces, was described by the rider’s surgeon as the “least serious” of all of Dani’s collarbone breaks.  Right.

Ducati                   Iannone out; Barbera in.

Avintia                  Barbera out; Mike Jones in.

Yamaha                 Katman Nakasuga wildcard

Lorenzo, Dovi, Marquez and Vinales were quick on Friday.  Smith and Miller returned from injury, young Jack needing to get some laps in before fighting for the win at Phillip Island next week–in his head.  Smith is lapping very slowly on Friday and appears to be saving himself for KTM.  Miller starts 14th, with Smith alongside him in the last spot on the fifth row.

Rossi somehow took the pole everyone in the joint expected would belong to Marquez, with #93 second and Lorenzo somehow completing the front row.  An international second row formed up on the top Ducati qualifier, Italian Andrea Dovizioso, joined by Brit Cal Crutchlow and Spaniard Aleix Espargaro, who whipped his Suzuki hard, pushing teammate Maverick Vinales, in seventh by 4/100ths of a second, to the third row and feeling pretty good about it.

If nothing else, Mike Jones, the replacement for Barbera at Avintia, won the battle of “Who Gets to Wear #7?”, beating Hiro Aoyama who, denied his usual number by some guy named Mike Jones, went with #73 and a long story as to why.

Rossi, Lorenzo and Marquez each have 64 poles across all classes.  Rossi’s been at it 21 years, Lorenzo 15 and Marquez nine.  And, by the way, 64 is the all-time record, which will get broken a number of times every year for the next decade at least.  Is this the Golden Age of motorcycle racing?  Possibly.

The Race 

The 2016 Japanese Grand Prix was, itself, a conventional, low-drama affair.  Early on, the Yamahas asserted themselves, as the front group consisted of Lorenzo, Marquz, Rossi and Aleix Espargaro, who, along with his teammate Maverick Vinales, discovered how much the Suzuki GSX-RR does love itself some Motegi.  Rossi took a couple of swings at Marquez early but couldn’t get anything to stick, while Lorenzo was riding with “bumps and bruises” suffered on Saturday morning that would leave most mortals lying in a hospital somewhere.  Marquez went through on Lorenzo into the lead on Lap 4.  Rossi crashed on Lap 7.  Lorenzo crashed on Lap 20.  Season over.  Oh, and Dovizioso claimed second while Vinales took third.

Historians will argue for years weeks as to where this race was actually won, or lost.  Some will insist it was at Turn 10 on Sunday when Rossi went lowside, unforced, for the third time this season.  Some will say it was at Turn 9 on Sunday, where Marquez went through on Lorenzo on Lap 4 and where Lorenzo lost his grits on Lap 20, the moment at which Marquez effectively clinched the title.  Some will say it was Turn 2 on Saturday, when Lorenzo crashed heavily in FP3 and was airlifted to the local hospital, only to return in time for FP4.  After Lap 4, when Marquez took the lead for good, the only drama concerned whether the 2016 trophy would be awarded to Marquez in Japan or Australia.

Random Thoughts Before The Big Picture 

  • The pressure on Lorenzo and Rossi, especially, had to be immense while the riders waited for the red lights to go out. Rossi, who suffers notoriously from jetlag, can’t have been feeling great sitting on pole, while Lorenzo had been in a wheelchair with an IV drip barely 28 hours earlier.  It was pressure for one and pain for the other that forced the errors.  It also extended the Yamaha non-winning streak to 8.
  • Riders at Motegi spend 30% of their time on the brakes. Looks like the fabled braking power of the Yamaha M1 may be overrated, as Pol Espargaro was the top-finishing Yamaha 19 seconds behind Marquez.
  • In the Redding vs. Petrucci cage match going on at Pramac Ducati, Scott Redding exercised his “rope-a-dope” strategy to perfection, staying on teammate Danilo Petrucci’s rear wheel all day and conceding a single point to the Italian. Not sure what the official score is in the garage, as Petrucci was penalized by management for his takedown of Redding in Aragon.
  • Today’s race attendance was just over 52,000. Back in the late 70’s I was sitting in a friendly nickel-dime-quarter poker game one night and drew three cards inside to a straight flush for a $2.00 pot.  Marquez today probably felt at least a little like I did that night long ago, taking the world championship thousands of miles from home in front of a small crowd in the middle of the night.
  • What is the Repsol Honda team going to do with all the props they’ve packed away for the Phillip Island championship celebration? 

The Big Picture

With three races left, we turn our attention to the MotoGP undercards and the Moto2 title fight.  Johann Zarco gave himself some breathing room over challenger Alex Rins by taking second place today while Rins finished out of the points, presumably the result of a crash or a leisurely walkabout in the kitty litter.  Zarco’s 21-point cushion with three rounds left make him the odds-on favorite to become the first repeat Moto2 champion since the category came into existence.

The undercards in the premier class:

  • Rossi and Lorenzo recorded DNFs; Rossi’s margin over Lorenzo in the battle for second best remains 14.
  • Maverick Vinales leapt over the injured Dani Pedrosa into fourth place for the season with his 16 points today, to the delight of Team Suzuki.
  • Andrea Dovizioso’s podium today pushed him past Cal Crutchlow into sixth place. Crutchlow, for his part, rallied from a non-descript start to finish fifth and blamed disruptions in the Earth’s magnetic field for his poor start.
  • Tech 3 Yamaha’s Pol Espargaro claimed 10 points today, breaking the tie for eighth place with the idle Andrea Iannone.
  • Suzuki pilot Aleix Espargaro, on the strength of his formidable fourth place finish today, cut Hector Barbera’s lead in the race for 10th to two points. This despite the fact that Barbera had a shiny new Avintia Racing GP16 to crash today, which he took full advantage of on Lap 9.

Marching to Pretoria

Round 16 launches this next week at Phillip Island.  As such, it kicks off the dreaded Epilogue section of the season, the three races (and three previews) we here at MO need to spice up to maintain your interest and engagement once the title has been decided.  (Not that our usual work has all that much to do with motorcycle racing anyway.)  Rest assured that we’ve kept our own powder dry and are fully prepared to speculate on things at least remotely related to MotoGP in Australia, Malaysia and Spain.

As Arlo Guthrie admitted in the folk classic “Alice’s Restaurant,” I’m not proud.  Or tired.

MotoGP 2016 Motegi Preview

October 4, 2016

© Bruce Allen.  Exclusive to Motorcycle.com

The Yamaha non-win streak is a thing 

Round 15 of the 2016 MotoGP championship is the first leg of the annual Pacific flyaway, three races in three weeks during which the title will be decided.  Unlike 2013 and last year, this year’s finale at Valencia will not be the dramatic season-decider they love hosting in Spain in November.  A question gaining traction in the paddock raises the issue of whether it’s the Honda winning the title or the Yamahas losing it.  Big Blue hasn’t had a win this year since Rossi’s win over Marquez at Catalunya back in early June. 

After going four-for-four between Jerez and Catalunya, things have gone badly for the factory Yamaha team, their current winless streak their longest since, um, a long time ago.  Factory officials deny any problem, giving us the “it’s just one of those things that happen some years…” explanation.  Rossi continues to fight hard, the end of his career somewhere on the horizon.  Lorenzo, since Mugello, has amassed 67 points out of a possible 200.  Do people agree it’s a fair statement that most of the wins collected by the six non-Movistar winners have come at the expense of the Yamaha factory team, specifically Jorge?  Is it possible he has, subconsciously, checked out?  Seeing red, as it were?

The 2016-2017 workout conducted by the Repsol Honda team at Aragon on 9/28, their fifth day of the five allotted to them this season, was characterized as fruitful.

All of which puts a little extra pressure on young Vinales heading into 2017. 

Recent history at Motegi

The 2013 race, preceded by two typhoons and an earthquake, was won by, of all people, Jorge Lorenzo.  Marquez and Pedrosa followed, the only riders to finish within five seconds of the Mallorcan.  A good idea of how Rossi’s day went is the fact that he ended up in sixth place behind Alvaro Bautista and Stefan Bradl.

In 2014 it was All Aliens, All the Time as Lorenzo led a pack of highly-paid pursuers to the finish line, with Marquez, Rossi and Pedrosa all following on their factory machines, the time between 1st and 4th a scant 3.1 seconds. Though Dovizioso took pole, the four Aliens were grouped 2 to 5. Marquez, leading the series, conceded first place to Lorenzo and, in the process, clinched the title. The race featured contact between Lorenzo and Marquez on Lap 5 which might have cost the Catalan the race, had it mattered. The second-world-title Samurai ceremony afterwards was cool if somewhat overdone, testament to the belief of many that anything worth doing is worth overdoing.

Last year, Dani Pedrosa chose Motegi to make his annual stand, leading Rossi and Lorenzo to the line in a wet-ish affair.  Marquez struggled into fourth place ahead of Dovizioso on the Ducati.

Pedrosa would go on to win at Sepang.  He recorded seven wins in 2012 to two in 2015; he is well along the back nine of his distinguished career.

Rossi’s lead over Lorenzo stood at 18 points with three rounds to go.  The title was his to lose.

Elevated Frustration Coefficients 

Aside from Marquez, every rider on the grid is suffering from Elevated Frustration Coefficients (EFC) due to the circumstances of his 2016 season, the number raised by every piece of bad equipment, bad riding, bad luck and low rent under the sun.  Here are a few—

  • Valentino Rossi: a slide-off in Texas, an engine in Italy, a careless fall at Assen stand between him and a title chase. He loathes his teammate.  And he’s been caught on camera recently being somewhat crude.  Hurts t-shirt sales.  EFC unusually high.
  • Jorge Lorenzo: crashed in Argentina and Catalunya; made a hash of the middle of the season. Appears unable to compete on wet tracks.  Starting to look like a short-timer at Movistar Yamaha.  Trailing Rossi elevates his EFC.
  • Dani Pedrosa: disaster of a season somewhat revived by his stirring win at Misano. Continues to have grip problems on a bike being built to Marquez specifications.  Giving feedback on new equipment while #93 stays on his 2014 frame.  EFC somewhat dulled, along with expectations.
  • Maverick Vinales: on the cusp of greatness.  Already being called an Alien—he’s not.  But he soon will be on the factory Yamaha.  With Rossi there to guide him until they become rivals—figure six rounds next season—he will have a steep learning curve, nothing he can’t handle.  Less stressed than most.
  • Cal Crutchlow: in a perfect world he would be leading the championship series.  Just ask him.  As it is, he’s a midfielder with more quotes than podiums.  He won his race this season.  Will there be more?  EFC gets raised by waking up in the morning.

And so on and so on.  The lead that Marquez has built, one brick at a time, along with the drought at Movistar Yamaha, along with the startling EFC data, suggest he will have to be suckered into losing the 2016 title.  The only thing that can hurt him now is crashing out of a round or two.  People praying for a close premier class finish must necessarily pray for rain, otherwise it appears to be smooth sailing for Marquez and his third title in four seasons.

Here’s what 2017 looks like in Tranches 1-4:

Same Equip                New Equip

  1. Marquez (1)      Lorenzo (2)
  2. Rossi (2)            Vinales (2)
  3. Pedrosa (3)       Iannone (3)
  4. Crutchlow (2)  P Espargaro (3)
  5. Dovizioso (3)    Rins (3)
  6. Barbera (4)        A Espargaro (3)
  7. Redding (4)
  8. Bautista (4)
  9. Petrucci (3)

The changes at the top of the food chain—Lorenzo to Ducati, Vinales to Yamaha, Iannone and Rins to Suzuki—appear to weaken Marquez’s 2017 competition, as all of these guys will be on new equipment.  Rossi remains the exception, and will continue to press the detested Spaniard.  The 2017 Yamaha M1 is being advertised as a quantum evolution of the bike; one assumes Honda engineers have something going on to give the RC213V more grunt coming out of turns.  Can Yamaha improve their bike by more than enough to compensate for the growing realization that, mano á mano, Marquez, today, probably beats Valentino on identical equipment?  Can Lorenzo and Vinales crack the top five consistently on new rides?  What if it rains?  Is Crutchlow actually in Tranche 2?

Here We Go Again

The MotoGP season is beginning to resemble a Red state/Blue state map of the racing world.  Both Honda and Yamaha (joined by Ducati) have tracks where they are expected to win, due to layout, design, average speed, average corner speed, etc.  Austin for the Hondas, Mugello for the Yamahas, etc.  Red and blue states if you will, where holding serve is imperative.  This, then, leaves the “battleground states,” the tracks where neither manufacturer enjoys a distinct advantage.  Teams fight desperately for wins in those battleground states, as they typically decide the title when things go according to form. They also present opportunities for upsets—see Assen over the years.

Marquez, with four wins and ten podiums, has scored points in blue and red states.  Starting to smell a landslide.

Riders Returning

Bradley Smith (Tech 3 Yamaha), Andrea Iannone (Factory Ducati), and probably Jack Miller (Marc VDS Honda) will return to the track off of injuries, following Loris Baz, who came back for Avintia Racing at Aragon.  All the regulars should be out for practice on Friday.  Thank you very much to Alex Lowes, Michele Pirro and Nicky Hayden for helping to fill up the grid of late.

We’ll have results and analysis right here around noon on Sunday.

MotoGP 2015 Motegi Preview

October 6, 2015

© Bruce Allen.  Exclusive to Motorcycle.com

Round 15: The Bruise Brothers Square off in Japan

mothra-vs-Godzilla - CopyThe MotoGP website is somewhat predictably promoting this week’s tilt between Movistar Yamaha tough guys Jorge Lorenzo and Valentino Rossi as “The Clash of the Titans.” Which, to an on-the-street local racing fan here, would naturally bring to mind Godzilla. If, in fact, the Motul Grand Prix of Japan gives us a replay of Mothra vs Godzilla, I assume the indomitable lizard triumphs, suggesting that Rossi will play the role of Mothra. It is easy to envision Lorenzo on the top step this weekend, surrounded by Honda pilots, Rossi’s margin at the top of the 2015 heap vanishing in the haze.

This is the way racing is supposed to be. It’s a relationship thing, really. Rossi and Lorenzo have known each other as friends and rivals for a decade. Together, they’ve already given their present employer Yamaha the 2015 Manufacturer’s championship. They have a bazillion world championships between them, and Rossi’s current 14 points advantage. Lorenzo’s, um, demeanor when he came up as a rookie in 2008 was such that they built a wall down the middle of the garage and had to be kept separated. Since then, each has mellowed, Lorenzo has matured, and Rossi, somehow, remains humble, irrepressible and fast. Beating one another is one of their great pleasures in life.

It doesn’t get much better than this. If you’re a Honda fan, you can still have a good time. You’ll just have to wait for Rossi & Lorenzonext year to have a rider in contention for a world championship. This is The Year of the Yamaha.

Recent History at Motegi

2012. Heading into the race Yamaha Chico de Oro Jorge Lorenzo led Honda #2 Dani Pedrosa by 33 points, with Stoner in third recovering from the ankle he trashed in Indianapolis. That day, Pedrosa beats Lorenzo and Gresini Honda’s Alvaro Bautista (?) comfortably in as empty a win as you’ll ever see. During the race, Stoner has issues, as does Rossi, plodding on his Ducati. Spies crashes off the factory Yamaha early, Crutchlow off his Tech 3 Yamaha late. Pedrosa, with all the momentum, leaves Japan trailing the rock-hard Mallorcan by 28 points with two rounds left, the fat lady singing in the background.

The 2013 race was summarized elegantly by this publication, as follows:

Sick of all the attention the racing gods were getting in the run-up to this weekend’s Japanese Grand Prix, the weather gods put on a show of their own. They sent Typhoon Lekima barreling toward the island on Thursday, summoned a 7.1 earthquake on Friday night, and topped it all off with Typhoon Francisco on Saturday, making a shambles of the weekend practice schedule. Undeterred by the weather, defending world champion Jorge Lorenzo ran a perfect race on Sunday, winning against all odds, and setting up a meaningful season finale against Marquez in Valenciana. Take THAT, weather gods!

Last year it was All Aliens, All the Time as Lorenzo led a pack of highly-paid pursuers to the finish line, with Marquez, Rossi and Pedrosa all following on their factory machines, the time between 1st and 4th a mere 3.1 seconds. Though Diviozioso took the pole, the four Aliens were grouped from the 2 to 5 holes. Marquez, leading the series, conceded first place to Lorenzo and clinched the title. The race featured contact between Lorenzo and Marquez on Lap 5 which arguably cost the Catalan the race. The Samurai ceremony afterwards was cool if somewhat ironic, in that a number of fans might have been offended while most western observers were clearly stoked.Samurai celebration

Comings and Goings

The team lineups are beginning to shape up for 2016, the year of the “spec” ECU and Michelins. The four top factory teams will remain the same. A supposedly revived Gresini Aprilia team will feature MotoGP underachievers Alvaro Bautista and Stefan Bradl. Brit Sam Lowes reportedly has a contract with Aprilia for 2017-18, meaning one of the two vets will have to go. My take on this is that Fausto has barely tolerated Bautista all these years since Simoncelli, and that Bradl hadn’t had enough time to get under his skin yet but surely will. Big changes underway for the Gresini team this offseason.

The Monster Tech 3 team is to stand pat with Pol Espargaro and Bradley Smith as expectations there continue to rise. Pramac Ducati gives Yonny Hernandez’s seat to Scott Redding, who needs all the grunt the Desmosedici can muster, to team with the ascendant Danilo Petrucci. (I’m not sold on Redding in the premier class yet, but am totally sold on Gigi Dall’Igna.) LCR Honda continues with the disappointing Cal Crutchlow, and Marc VDS signs Tito Rabat to a factory Honda, coming up from Moto2, to take Redding’s seat. The Most Blessed Jack Miller, the Anointed One, has a full ride with factory Honda and will land either on LCR or VDS.

Team Aspar, seriously negotiating a change from Honda to Ducati equipment for 2016, has signed Hernandez. Their second seat appears up for grabs, with incumbent Eugene Laverty enjoying no advantage going in. Deposed incumbent Nicky Hayden appears surely to be headed to World Super Bike, where he can expect to contend for titles again.

Avintia Racing stays with Ducati, Hector Barbera and the recently-signed Loris Baz aboard. The French Baz appears to have a surprisingly bright future at 6’3”, making the jet setters look like teenagers while whipping his cobbled-up Yamaha toward the top of the heap for open class riders.

Farther down the food chain, two of the remaining three teams looks to be out of business next season. Most likely to continue with Alex de Angelis is brave little Ioda Racing, hoping to field a two man satellite Aprilia team, rider #2 as yet un-named. Forward Racing seems doomed, and Karel Abraham’s future with his dad’s Cardion AB team is in doubt as he seems to have permanent damage from a foot injury he suffered last season. Dude needs to retire.

All of which suggests that KTM, upon their entry to the grid in 2017, may bump a team out of the chase, in addition to skimming a couple of up-and-coming riders, perhaps on their way up from Moto2. The chase is intended to be more competitive due to the standard ECU, which writers elsewhere have described as something of a target-rich environment for tampering behaviors similar to those admitted to recently by Volkswagen. Regardless, MotoGP continues, at its core, to be rather biblical, as you will always have the poor with you, the “privateer” teams that struggle every season but can’t pull themselves away easily. Those of you who have stood or rode on the tarmac understand the juice that drives these behaviors. I should be nicer to these guys.

The Thing is…

Everybody tells me the tires are everything. Whomever adjusts to the new Michelins most quickly will take the lead in the championship next year. It is probably going to be the worst year in MotoGP history to bet on the outcome. Though it could easily last only for a season, or even part of a season, there could easily be a shakeup in the Aliens lineup come 2016, the older riders becoming most vulnerable. Suppose Rossi decides to go out on top. Suppose Yamaha begins flirting with Marquez.

It promises, at the least, to be interesting.

Your Weekend Forecast…

…couldn’t be worse for most teams. Sunny on Friday and Saturday with a 90% chance of rain on Sunday. I was going to suggest people “plan to listen to the Spanish national anthem after the race, not the Italian.” But if it is a wet race, all bets are off on the outcome, with Rossi clearly holding the upper hand. Once again the weather gods appear poised to influence the standings.

Mothra may be feeling pretty good about the rematch.

Samurai Marc Marquez seizes second consecutive premier class title

October 12, 2014

MotoGP 2014 Motegi Results by Bruce Allen.  Exclusive to Motorcycle.com.

On a cloudy, cool Saturday afternoon in Haga District, Tochigi, Japan, 21-year old Repsol Honda pilot Marc Marquez clinched his second world championship in the premier class of MotoGP. This follows earlier championships in the Moto2 and 125 classes, giving him four titles in five years of grand prix racing. We at Motorcycle.com are impressed.

Victory signGrand prix motorcycle racing fans often speak about the Alien class of riders, typically comprised of the four savants that make up the factory Honda and Yamaha teams. In almost every round of every season, it is these four souls from which the three podium celebrants emerge. This lack of variety is one of the shortcomings of the sport, at least in the premier class. In the two underclasses, the concentration of power is more diluted, and the result is more exciting, less predictable races.

Heading into today’s race at Motegi, all four of this year’s Aliens had a part to play in the drama which unfolded. Repsol Honda #2 Dani Pedrosa and Movistar Yamaha #2 Valentino Rossi were responsible for keeping young Marquez from securing the title by whatever means necessary; one or both had to beat him to keep the chase alive heading to Phillip Island next week.

Jorge Lorenzo, who has fairly dominated the second half of the 2014 season after a calamitous first half, was under no such pressure, having been eliminated from title contention weeks ago. For him, the war was over, despite having several battles left to wage. An accidental collision with Marquez, however, would not be the worst thing for his factory Yamaha team on this day. Such things are, after all, possible on two wheels in close quarters at high speeds. And a possible explanation for the presence of Yamaha factory test rider Katsuyuki Nakasuga as a wildcard entry on a factory spec YZR-M1 for Divine Wind Racing. Just sayin’.

Disorder at the Start

Being on the wrong side of the International Date Line, qualifying at Motegi took place locally on Friday, with the resulting grid finding all four Aliens in the middle of a Ducati sandwich, factory #1 Andrea Dovizioso having qualified brilliantly for his second career pole, and Pramac Racing overachiever Andrea Iannone starting from the six hole. The special status Ducati enjoys in the premier class, somewhere between factory and open specs, allows the Dueling Andreas to qualify on pillow-soft rear tires that would not last a third of a race, but which are great for front row starts.

The start of every race, when the red lights go out and 20-some guys release their brake and clutch handles at the same time, is the most dangerous 20 seconds of the entire day. The mad dash to the first turn results in a substantial amount of contact between riders. In the lower classes, especially Moto3, it is not surprising to see half a dozen riders leave the macadam, stomping their feet and shaking their fists at one another. On the big bikes, riders generally trade a little paint and keep on trucking, occasionally falling back in the pack but staying upright.

Thus, it was not surprising today to watch #5 starter Lorenzo veer into #4 starter Marquez heading into turn one, causing the defending champion to briefly rise up and lose two or three spots. He would regain them in the next half lap, by which time Rossi led the field, followed in close disorder by Dovizioso, Iannone and Lorenzo. Marquez and Pedrosa were, at this moment, kind of lost in the sauce, an increasingly frequent problem for Pedrosa in 2014. But by the end of Lap 1, the leaders were Rossi, Lorenzo, Dovizioso, Iannone, Marquez and Pedrosa. Two minutes into the race, one must guess Marquez had but three things on his mind: Must. Catch. Rossi.Rossi 2014

Marquez Seeks Out #46

The rest of the afternoon was, in hindsight, fairly predictable. On Lap 4, Marquez passed Iannone into 4th place, with Pedrosa doing the same to the Italian the next time around. Lap 5 was noteworthy as Lorenzo went through on teammate Rossi into the lead he would maintain for the rest of the day. On Lap 6 I noted that Pedrosa was running alone in 5th place watching his season end in front of him.

On Lap 9, Dovizioso ran his Ducati a bit wide in one of the mid-lap turns, allowing Marquez through into 3rd place with the blue and yellow of #46 now directly in front of him. Rossi’s pit board immediately informed him that, in essence, the weight of the world now rested squarely on his shoulders, that it was up to him to hold off the young Spaniard for 15 laps or else turn out the lights on the 2014 season. As we now know, it was too much to ask for the 35-year old nine time world champion, or anyone else for that matter.

Marquez Finds #46

Lorenzo, by this time, was in his private place, leading by roughly 3 seconds and laying down fast laps one after the other; sadly, aside from his team, no one seemed to care too much. The 43,000 fans in attendance were focused on the contest for second place as Marquez gradually, inexorably tracked down his idol, closing the gap steadily until Lap 15, when the two briefly traded positions, Rossi surviving the first challenge. The second would come on the following lap, as Marquez smoothly, cleanly and effortlessly went through on the Yamaha and made it stick. Both Rossi and Pedrosa would push their machines to the absolute limit for the remaining 10 laps in a doomed effort to overtake Marquez.

It wasn’t happening.

And that was that. The day ended with Lorenzo, Marquez and Rossi on the podium for the fourth time this year. The celebrations in both the Yamaha and Honda camps seemed just a shade muted, as Yamaha claimed a double podium on a day in which they were eliminated from the title chase, while Honda locked down another world championship but was denied the pleasure of seeing Marquez on the top step of the podium.

victory helmetYoung Marc did claim the mantle of utter coolness by virtue of the gold helmet he wore for his victory lap and the elaborate Samurai ceremony staged to honor him as a new member of the esteemed warrior class of ancient Japan. In it, Marquez unsheathed the sword of honor and used it to cut the string that tethered a white balloon with the #1 stenciled on it, releasing the balloon toward the heavens and securing the young Spaniard’s place in his adoptive country’s ancient tradition of sledgehammer symbolism and truly whacked out honorifics.

Samurai celebration

On to Phillip Island

MotoGP now confronts a month of anticlimactic denouement. True, the contest for second place for the year could not be closer, with Rossi and Pedrosa tied and Lorenzo trailing the two by a mere three points. We’ll see a few wildcard entries, with Suzuki scheduled to make a cameo appearance at Valencia prior to its full-fledged return to the premier class next year. We’ll catch you up on the last sips of the silly season and forthcoming news from the Marc VDS and Gresini Aprilia teams. A measure of the existential crisis confronting the rest of the premier class season is the growing anticipation of the post-race testing slated for Valencia in November.

How fitting is it that the sun should begin to set on the 2014 season in The Land of the Rising Sun? Congratulations to world champion Marc Marquez!

MM victory continues

Countdown to a championship begins in Hondaland

October 7, 2014

MotoGP 2014 Motegi Preview, by Bruce Allen.  Exclusive to Motorcycle.com.

pedrosa-marquezThe Motul Grand Prix of Japan marks the beginning of the annual late season three-races-in-three-weeks “Pacific flyaway” during which the MotoGP world championship is usually clinched. Last year, for only the second time in 21 years, the grid traveled to Valencia with the title, eventually won by then rookie Marc Marquez, up for grabs. This year appears certain to revert to form, as Marquez stands on the cusp of his second premier class title.

Before one of our more devoted readers blasts us for ignoring the fact that there are still 100 points “on offer” for the 2014 season, let me clarify a point raised last time out, when we asserted that Marquez’ magic number was/is one (1). We were expressing Marquez’ objective relative to his closest rival, teammate Dani Pedrosa, who trails him today by exactly 75 points. Should Pedrosa maintain his grip on second place this weekend—he leads Yamaha icon Valentino Rossi by a scant three points—and sees his deficit to Marquez increase by a single point, Marquez clinches. THAT is the one point we were discussing. We are ignoring the possibility that Marquez could go 0-for-October and November, just as we ignore the possibility that the same reader could, in theory, jump over the Empire State Building.empire_state_building1

Clearly, the question is not “if.” The question is “when.”

In our reader’s defense, the young Spaniard has looked remarkably ordinary in three of his last four outings. Sure, he won at Silverstone, beating Yamaha double champion Jorge Lorenzo by 7/10ths in a riveting battle that raged all day. But he gave us the curious 4th place finish at Brno the previous round, and followed his triumph in Britain with the mystifying lowside at Misano and the ill-conceived crash in the rain at Aragon. The fact remains that Marquez has a virtually insurmountable lead with four rounds left. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if our crack research staff were to comb the archives and determine that no rider in the history of MotoGP has failed to clinch the title when leading by 75 points with four rounds left.

(I take that last one back. In that we don’t actually have a crack research staff, it would surprise me immensely if “they” were to discover anything at all about MotoGP, bird-watching, or the price of beer.)

Recent History at Motegi

twin ring motegi

From the air, Motegi resembles a heavy-duty stapler.

The fabled Twin Ring Motegi Circuit is the home track of Honda Racing Corporation, where HRC does the testing that produces arguably the fastest grand prix prototypes on the planet. Ducati fans will, at this point, protest, citing the Italian bike’s higher top end speed, which is relevant in places like the Bonneville Salt Flats but less so on the road courses that comprise grand prix racing. Suffice it to say that Honda has won more constructor championships in the premier class than any other manufacturer, including the last three. If your bum is planted on a factory spec Honda, you have no viable excuse for finishing outside the top six every week.

It is, therefore, surprising that Honda has enjoyed so little recent success at its home crib. Since the Japanese Motorcycle Grand Prix returned to Motegi from Suzuka in 2004, Honda has won here exactly three times, in 2004, 2011 and 2012, the last two courtesy of Dani Pedrosa. One fears that a number of ritual suicides may have occurred at HRC headquarters in the intervening years, as a string of executives lost serious face to Yamaha and even Ducati during the period. In hindsight, the three consecutive years in which Loris Capirossi rode his Ducati to victory (2005-2007) must have been particularly chilling.

Back in 2011, Pedrosa comfortably outpaced Lorenzo’s Yamaha and teammate Casey Stoner after Stoner ran himself out of contention and into the gravel early on. The young, charismatic Marco Simoncelli rode his San Carlo Gresini Honda to an impressive fourth place finish, and would surpass that result the next time out when he podiumed in second place at Phillip Island. Sic would start the final race of his career the following week at Sepang.Dani-dani-pedrosa-9702356-435-380

In 2012, Pedrosa would repeat at his employer’s home track, followed again by Lorenzo, with the unpredictable Alvaro Bautista claiming thirdplace on what I think of as Simoncelli’s satellite Honda. Dani was in the process of winning six of the last eight races of the year in a futile attempt to overtake Lorenzo. He would win again the following week at Sepang, only to see his season come to a grinding halt at Phillip Island in a slow-motion lowside eerily evocative of Simoncelli’s own tragic lowside the previous year in Malaysia. Pedrosa, thankfully, would live to race again.

Last year, on top of to two typhoons and a 7.1 earthquake on Friday night, rookie Marquez put his title chances in deep peril with a violent high side in the Sunday morning warm-up that left him with a sore shoulder and neck rather than the broken collarbone he probably deserved. Demonstrating unexpected toughness, he stayed close enough to the leaders to claim third place and hold Lorenzo at bay. Lorenzo, in an effective impression of Pedrosa the preceding year, won five of the last seven races to finish the year, allowing Marquez to claim the title by a scant four points.

Looking Back, Looking Ahead

Part of the mystique attached to Marc Marquez derives from the way the two previous seasons ended. Leaving Valencia in 2012, one couldn’t help believing that 2013 could be Dani Pedrosa’s year, that he had finally found the formula for winning a title. Along comes rookie Marquez, who puts that theory to rest with a sensational rookie campaign, having made a lot of hay while Pedrosa was injured in the middle of the season. Fast forward to the end of 2013, when Lorenzo sets expectations for his 2014 season—both of his titles came in even-numbered years—sky high. Instead, Lorenzo finds himself down 80 points to Marquez after five rounds, gasping for air, his season in ruins. So much for expectations.

Young man has the world by the balls.

Young man has the world by the balls.

 

It was French humanist and scientist René Dubos who first observed that “trend is not destiny.” Marquez graduates from Moto2 and wins his rookie premier class campaign by four points. He returns the following year and wins by, let’s say, 50 points. (Should he break Mick Doohan’s record of 12 wins in a season it’ll be more like 100.) Does this suggest that he’ll take the 2015 title by 150 points? Hardly. Does it suggest that he could be winning championships for most of the next decade? Unequivocally. He will have to deal with Lorenzo and Pedrosa, Vinales and hermano pequeño Alex, perhaps an Espargaro or a Redding. But he will ultimately find himself in a place where guys like Michael Jordan, Peyton Manning and Michael Schumacher end up. In a league of their own, competing with themselves. And whether you’re a fan of #93 or not, it is a privilege to watch him do his job.

 

The Japanese Grand Prix goes off at 1 am EDT on Sunday. We’ll catch the video later in the morning and have results right here Sunday afternoon. Konichiwa.