Posts Tagged ‘Grand Prix motorcycle racing’

MotoGP Midseason Report Card

July 24, 2018

© Bruce Allen. Exclusive to Motorcycle.com.                      July 24, 2018

In the words of numerous shell-shocked generals throughout history, immediately after losing great battles, as we make the turn in MotoGP 2018, we must ask, with slightly slurred voices, “What happened?”

How could a year which held the promise of a serious four- or five-man competition all the way to Valencia—supported by the breathtaking finish at Losail—arrive at its midpoint in such a competitive shambles? Repsol Honda’s young, virtually invincible Marc Marquez sits, in mid-season and at the peak of his prodigious skills, in complete command of the championship. Toying with those fools.

A reader suggested we remove him and his 165 points from the picture, figuratively speaking, whence the standings would be:

Rossi            119

Vinales         109

Dovizioso       88

Zarco            88

Lorenzo          85

This is close to what I expected, with MM sitting at the top with, say, 133 points. As The Beach Boys (including two of the originals) sang the other night, under the stars, “Oh wouldn’t it be nice…” But Marquez, with his crushing 165 points, has taken the air out of the place. I never want to see a rider injured. But I suspect I’m not alone enjoying the vision of Marquez receiving a two-round suspension for throwing down and getting K.O’d in a Czech gravel trap by someone like Andrea Iannone.

Here in realityland, we’re looking at the season from Round 1 through Round 9 to understand how the results at Losail–Dovizioso beating Marquez to the line by the width of a wheel—enhanced our collective, overly-optimistic belief, now dashed, that the season would go down to the wire. In Qatar, Dovizioso and Marquez had their own war over the last three laps; earlier, the front group had consisted of nine riders. Rossi podiumed. Things looked tight—the top six riders all finished within four seconds of one another. After the race I posted the following:

  • Tranche 1: Marquez, Dovizioso, Rossi, Petrucci, Crutchlow. (In my excitement about the race, I forgot my mantra: Losail is an outlier.)

On to Argentina, where the wettish start of the race was a memorable fustercluck, Jack Miller on pole getting hosed by the rules. Marquez stalls at the start and jumpstarts his bike, turns around and re-takes his place, having gone mental. Penalized, furious, but lucky that he wasn’t black-flagged, he went on to bump and grind with a number of riders, lizard brain in control, before finishing 18th. After two rounds, he sat in fifth place, trailing Crutchlow 38-20. Dovizioso, Zarco and Vinales were also in his way, Zarco having finished second at Rio Hondo behind Crutchlow.

It looked, as the expression goes, like we had us a horse race. But in truth Marquez had great race pace all weekend in Argentina and could have easily podiumed had he not stalled his bike, a once-in-a-career screw-up. The standings after Round 2 were misleading. Yamaha fans actually believed their guys could be competitive all year without actually winning races. Ducati fans, still basking in the afterglow of Qatar, could overlook the fact that Jorge Lorenzo sat in 15th place after two rounds.

Round 3, at the Circuit of the Americas in Austin, became, for Marquez, his 10th or 12th win on American soil; he has never not won a race in the U.S. Although he won easily, as expected, those following him—Vinales, Iannone, Rossi, Dovi and Zarco—generated a top five, after three rounds, separated by eight points, with Marquez still trailing Dovi by a point. Tight, as we said back then, as tree bark. Tranche 1 included Marquez, Dovizioso and Vinales. The series returned to Europe and civilization slavering at the prospect of running at Jerez.

At Jerez, Jorge Lorenzo first adopted his current habit of running the softest tires available, being able to lead the first half of races before fading to 7th place at the end. A reader sent the following note, a conversation he allegedly overheard outside the Ducati garage at Jerez:

“Gigi, I want the soft tire! I will win the first half of the race, and then the championship!”

“You don’t get points for the first half, Jorge.”

“Give it to me, the soft!”

“We put the softest tire we have on it, Jorge. They don’t make them any softer.”

“Then marinate it in the mantequilla and leave it out in the sun! It must be softer! The Spartan commands it!”

Unsurprisingly, Lorenzo led the early part of the race until Marquez ate his lunch on Lap 8 at the new Jorge Lorenzo corner lol. Marquez was leading the race on Lap 20 when a decisive 2018 moment occurred, as Lorenzo, Dovizioso and Pedrosa got tangled up, Pedrosa going airborne, ending up in a heap in the gravel, bikes and riders everywhere. A racing incident in which either Lorenzo or Pedrosa was the “procuring cause.” No penalties assessed, but Lorenzo and Pedrosa saw their faint title hopes go up in smoke and ash. Dovizioso’s would go up later in the year.

Marquez found himself with clear sailing late in the day. This is what is meant by the expression, “Katie bar the door.” It was after Jerez that we awarded the 2018 championship to Marquez, Tranche 1 looking like this: Marquez, Zarco, and Dovizioso, with the latter two hanging by a thread. Viñales, Rossi, Crutchlow, Pedrosa and Miller made up Tranche 2 at this point, with The Great Australian Hope Jack Miller, especially, looking much stronger than expected.

Round 5 in France: Homeboy Johann Zarco became the first Frenchman to start from pole in The French Grand Prix since The Norman Conquest and finished an impressive 2nd.    At what had generally been a Yamaha track Marquez put the fear of God in the field. After Zarco, then Dovizioso, crashed out in front of him, Marquez found himself in the lead, beating Petrucci and Rossi to the flag, and stoking his margin over Vinales for the season to 95-59. Zarco and Rossi were crowding Vinales at this point, the three separated by three points.

Marquez had taken 95 of a possible 125 points for the season and could have easily had another 20 in Argentina but for his mental meltdown.

It was Round 6 at Mugello where he had the grace to slide out on Lap 5, allowing Jorge Lorenzo the unexpected privilege of winning a MotoGP race for the first time since Valencia 2016 while the series leader remounted and finished out of the points in 16th. Lorenzo, Andrea Dovizioso and Valentino Rossi stepped up to fill the surprising vacuum and breathed a little life into the series. Marquez’ margin over Vinales was cut to 23, the pack bunched up behind them through Crutchlow in eighth.

Jorge Lorenzo gave us another vivid reminder of who he used to be at Catalunya where he won again, this time after being pursued by Marquez, who didn’t have enough today. Following these two were Rossi, Crutchlow and Pedrosa, who pimped Vinales at the wire. Although relatively insignificant in the big picture, Marquez added four points to his season lead and, more importantly, reduced the total number of 2018 points available to his pursuers by one round. The Yamahas and Ducatis will never catch him treading water like this. With two rounds left until the summer break, everyone knew it was “Anyone but Marquez” time heading to Assen. Marquez could effectively break the field with wins in The Netherlands and Germany.

Round 8 at Assen provided us with one of the great races of all time, a record total of 175 overtakes from start to finish. Roughly six different riders led at one time or another. Marquez ultimately took the win. Alex Rins, finally showing some of the massive potential he possesses, stole second place from Vinales at the flag. Vinales, in turn, punked Dovizioso, who punked Rossi, trailed closely by Crutchlow and Lorenzo. Seven riders within five seconds of the winner. It was a huge win for Marquez, and a huge letdown for every other Alien and pretender. It was surely starting to look like one of those Marquez years again. Plus, the next stop was The Sachsenring, where Marquez had been incandescent for almost a decade.

On July 15, Marquez goes out at The Sachsenring and just brutalizes the field. Says afterwards he had more pace if he had needed it. Oozing confidence after his ninth consecutive win at this track, back to when he was a teenager. He becomes the fifth rider this season to break a track record, joining Cal Crutchlow, Jorge Lorenzo, Valentino Rossi and Johann Zarco in that luminous group. The championship feels like a foregone conclusion.

Valencia, it appears, is screwed, which is probably also true for Sepang and, perhaps, Phillip Island. I suppose it’s mathematically possible for Marquez to clinch at Buriram, which would send the locals straight into madness. At this point we’re guessing Australia. 

Part Two: The Lambs and the Goats from the First Half 

1        Yamaha Factory Racing           228

2        Repsol Honda Team           214

3        Ducati Team                    173

4        Pramac Racing                 141

5        Team Suzuki MotoGP           128

6        Tech 3                             110

7        Team LCR                         89

Repsol Honda Team: Marquez be Marquez, while Dani Pedrosa, dealing with the erosion of his skills and desire, more titanium screw holes in him than Swiss cheese, announces his decision to retire at the end of the year rather than ride a non-competitive bike, i.e., a satellite Yamaha for the next two years. HRC immediately sacks up and signs Jorge Lorenzo to join Marquez in 2019-2020.

Movistar Yamaha Team: Running second and third to Marquez most of the season, Rossi and Vinales must feel like Beaver Cleaver when Eddie Haskell would come over and mess up his hair, call him a punk. Rossi hasn’t won since Assen last year, while Vinales’ last win was at Le Mans 2017. Johann Zarco has been more impressive on his two-year old sled. Yamaha engineers need to read the book “Good to Great.”

Factory Ducati Team: Andrea Dovizioso, who seriously challenged Marquez for the title last year, has been this year’s single biggest disappointment, having scored 35 fewer points this season than at this time last year. Jorge Lorenzo, last year’s biggest disappointment, pulled rabbits out of his hat twice this year to regain a little of his lost swagger. He is also defecting to Honda, his seat being taken by the deserving Danilo Petrucci.

Suzuki Ecstar Team: Consistently inconsistent since Round 1.

Suzuki team YTD

In but three of nine rounds have both riders finished the race, Rins has shown flashes of brilliance, while Iannone, no longer the Maniac, appears content to finish races, making hay seemingly only when misfortune strikes other riders. The team has dismissed Iannone and signed wonderkid Joan Mir from Moto2 for two years beginning in 2019. Rins, once he finds the limit of the Suzuki, will be a baller. For this year, both riders are disappointments. Iannone takes a step down to the factory Aprilia program for the next two seasons.

Red Bull KTM Factory Team: Once again, despite fierce loyalty from KTM owners and fans, the Austrian MotoGP program has been a dud in 2018. Owners and fans see great things on the horizon. I see Pol Espargaro with 32 points and Bradley Smith with 13 points after nine rounds. I see Miguel Oliveira stepping up from Moto2 to take a Tech 3 seat. I see test and wildcard rider Mika Kallio escape destruction by the thinnest of margins in his practice crash at The Sachsenring. They pick up a satellite team with the acquisition of Tech 3 racing; Johann Zarco will join Espargaro on the factory team, while Oliveira will team up with Hafiz Syahrin on the Tech 3 team, which will ride full factory bikes. Hafiz Syahrin is on his way to becoming very good rider on what is likely to become very good equipment and should feel very fortunate.

Factory Aprilia Team: Another year on the learning curve for the Italian team, as Aleix has 16 and Redding, on his way out in favor of Iannone, has 12. Aleix pushes the bike past the limit and has once again recently spent time in the hospital as a result. Redding, despite his brimming self-confidence, is too big to ride with these midgets. Aprilia will have to take the plunge on a satellite team at some point if they’re ever going to generate enough data to become competitive at this level.

Alma Pramac Ducati Team: Like a lot of B teams, this group seems to lose their best rider fairly often. After this year, Danilo Petrucci, who has been enjoying a very strong (84 vs 66 in 2017) season, leaves to join the factory Ducati effort alongside Dovizioso. Jack Miller, #2 on the team, is also having an improved year—57-41—over 2017. He will be joined next season by fast mover Peco Bagnaia, on his way up from Moto2. Promises to be wild and woolly next year as the rookie learns to tangle with the beast that is the Ducati Desmosedici.

Monster Tech 3 Yamaha:  With Johann Zarco and Jonas Folger slated to return from encouraging rookie seasons, Herve Poncharal had room to feel optimistic, until the day early this year when he learned Folger would not be returning. In quiet desperation, he turned to out-of-work Malaysian mudder Hafiz Syahrin, who has stepped in this year and done a workmanlike job of learning a big new bike on the fly. Teammate Zarco has not improved noticeably over last season and has struggled down the stretch through Sachsenring this year. The KTM deal must be a distraction. Whatever.

Team LCR: Both Cal Crutchlow on the Castrol version and Taka Nakagami on the Idemitsu version have provided marginal improvements to the team’s fortunes compared to last year, when it was Cal only. Nakagami has disappointed badly with his measly 10 points, while Crutchlow is up marginally—79-64—over last year. Both riders on this team insist the Honda is difficult to ride, a complaint you don’t hear very often from the factory riders. Cal is sticking around for next year, as is Nakagami, who has in the first year of a two-year HRC contract.

Angel Nieto Team              48

Red Bull KTM                     45

Avintia Racing                    30

Aprilia Racing Team           28

Marc VDS Racing                19

The rest of the teams I just have a hard time caring about these groups. Sure, there are some competitive riders in here—Rabat, the Espargaros, Morbidelli—but overall it’s a big Who Cares?

* * *

Halfway through the round, sitting in the clubhouse, I am approaching the second half with an almost Nordic sense of existential dread, that this might turn into an Agostini-like s**tshow with 23 riders fighting for scraps. From what we’ve seen since 2013, with the exception of 2015 when the Honda chassis was unrideable, none of the current riders on the grid appears capable of staying with Marquez over the course of an entire season. Which, in turn, means that it will have to be one of the young guns who take him down. Remember when Lorenzo arrived in 2008, a very hot property, to join The Doctor, the undisputed god of MotoGP, and put a hurting on him only two years later.

For Marc Marquez, these are his salad days. Top of his game, in full command of all his prodigious skills. Nobody on the grid with the chops or the nuts to challenge him. Able to tame the unruly RC213V when other great riders can’t. Practices saving lowside crashes with his knees and elbows. You can see other riders and teams watching him and just shaking their heads.

This is Year Six of The Marquez Era, 2015 being the exception that makes the rule. He should, by my estimate, enjoy perhaps four more years before someone gives him a serious challenge. Starting in 2021 Rossi will be horse-whipping those young Italian Sky VR46 Yamaha riders, insulting their manhood until one of them wins a title. Guys like Maverick Vinales and Jack Miller will chase Marquez for most of their careers. Guys like Zarco and Dovi will flare up during certain years, shedding more light than heat in what will likely be futile attempts to put the squeeze on #93.

As for an actual report card on the riders, I think the tranches after Round 9 reflect the grading curve for the first semester:

A:      Marquez

B:      Rossi, Vinales, Dovizioso, Lorenzo, Petrucci

C:      Bautista, Pedrosa, Zarco, Rins, Crutchlow, Iannone, P Espargaro

D:      Morbidelli, Syahrin, A Espargaro, Miller, Rabat, Smith

E:       Redding, Nakagami, Abraham, Luthi and Simeon

MotoGP returns to Motorcycle.com on July 31st with the Brno preview. Enjoy the break, fools.

How Do Our Tranches Compare to CRASH.net?

July 3, 2018

© Bruce Allen   07/03/2018

MO Tranching After Eight Rounds

Tranche 1:   Marquez

Tranche 2:   Rossi, Vinales, Zarco, Rins, Crutchlow, Dovizioso, Lorenzo and Iannone

Tranche 3:   Miller, P Espargaro, Bautista, Petrucci, Rabat, Pedrosa

Tranche 4:   Morbidelli, Syahrin, A Espargaro, Nakagami

Tranche 5:   Redding, Smith, Abraham, Luthi and Simeo

 

CRASH.net Ratings: Assen 

POINTS      RIDER

10               Marquez

9, 8             Rins, Rossi, Vinales, Dovizioso, Crutchlow

7                 Bautista, P Espargaro, A Espargaro, Redding, Miller, Zarco

6                 Abraham, Smith, Petrucci, Syahrin, Nakagami, Iannone

5, 4, 3         Simeon, Rabat, Luthi, Pedrosa

Not classified          Morbidelli (injured)

Please keep in mind that our tranches factor in momentum, either positive or negative, as well as the competitiveness of the bike, over the entire season, rather than a snapshot of just one race. For example, Tito Rabat is not having a Tranche 5 season. More of a “body of work” approach. Just sayin’. Otherwise, I believe the rankings are comparable.

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 2018 Season Preview, Part II

March 10, 2018

© Bruce Allen. Exclusive to Motorcycle.com
All Along the Watchtower

An odd subhead for a glance at the teams, the haves and have nots, those with title aspirations, and those barely aspirating at all. And, just to be clear, Jimi Hendrix’s cover kicked the crap out of Dylan’s original.

Angel Nieto (Aspar Ducati) Team
Karel Abraham and Alvaro Bautista

Have Nots. Always the flower girls, never a bridesmaid. This lot should find itself more or less where it ended last year, Bautista 12th and Abraham 20th. Both riders, now officially “journeymen,” on second-hand Ducatis, on a team that is usually under-financed. Only a true cynic would suggest Aspar re-named the team in order to attract more Spanish sponsorship money. Tranche-wise, a three and a four.

Aprilia Factory Racing
Aleix Espargaro and Scott Redding

Have Nots. Scientists tell us there are entire planets in faraway galaxies whose inhabitants worship the image of Aleix Espargaro putting Aprilia on Earth’s MotoGP podium. He came close a few times last year, turned some fast laps in qualifying, but the bike does not yet appear to be there. Not enough grunt, too many mechanicals. In an effort to add grunt, the team signed the full-sized Scott Redding, who promptly found the bottom quartile of the timesheets at both Valencia and Sepang.

Redding and Espargaro finished 14th and 15th respectively last year, with Redding on the Ducati GP16. The expectation here is that Espargaro improves marginally and Redding continues his decline. The new Brit will be an improvement over Sad Sam Lowes, but expect the whining to commence at any moment. Aleix could be a two. Redding, who last year alternated between a three and a four, will likely drop a notch, alternating between a four and a five. Butt ugly.

Ducati Factory Team
Andrea Dovizioso and Jorge Lorenzo

Two Haves. JLo appeared to find his lost mojo at Sepang, only to lose it again at Buriram. Dovi ran 4th at Sepang, not seeming to break a sweat, and 7th at Buriram. There have always been tracks that were difficult for the Ducati, but Dovizioso figured most of them out last year. Should Lorenzo figure them out this year, Gigi Dall’Igna and company could have two fast packages to throw at Marc Marquez and Honda in 2018. I just have this feeling that JLo has lost something. Jorge is a man in need of a comeback.

Ducati Corse seems to continue devoting vast resources to this long-term project (code name: Project Leanangle) to get the Desmosedici to turn and has been doing so since the time Rossi was there. Gigi may, in fact, be finally leading them to The Promised Land. Tranche One may get crowded this season.

KTM Factory Team
Bradley Smith and Pol Espargaro

Have Nots. So, the conventional wisdom is that KTM is, in its inexorable Teutonic fashion, preparing to conquer the MotoGP world. It is in the process of striking a deal to become the KTM satellite team. KTM wants, at the corporate level, to stick one in the eye of Honda Racing, going to far as to mimic Repsol colors in its livery. 😊

Unfortunately, it doesn’t appear to be happening with the current tandem of Smith and Espargaro. KTM is grooming a stable of riders in Moto2 and Moto3, some of whom may eventually ride for them in MotoGP. Last year, the current pair finished 17th and 21st, the Spaniard taking team honors and little else. Due to a number of circumstances the team ended up with the same pair for 2018. So, it looks like another year to collect data, to work on the bike, all in preparation for some major rider contracts on offer later this year. Sadly, I expect both riders to hang out around tranches three and four. Espargaro may be slowed early in the season by a back injury sustained at the Sepang test.

LCR Honda
Takaaki Nakagami and Cal Crutchlow

One Have Not and a Maybe. LCR takes a step up the food chain as Honda buys a second rider, agreeable Moto2 grad and underachiever Taka Nakagami, to join up with the historically disgruntled Cal Crutchlow in a tandem readers of Richard Scarry’s children’s books will recognize as Pig Will and Pig Won’t. Crutchlow had a disappointing 2017 after closing 2016 with a couple of wins in 7th place, only to finish winless in 9th place last year. Some writers would say, “Told you so, mate.”

Nakagami had to be encouraged with 15th in Sepang, while Cal was cruising to a top three finish there. Life, in winter, is good. One would expect Cal to have a better season this year were it not for names like Miller and Rins and Zarco, never mind the factory Honda and Yamaha outfits. Outlook: Tranche 2 for Crutchlow, Tranche 4 for Nakagami.

Marc VDS Honda
Thomas Luthi and Franco Morbidelli

Have Nots. Two rookie Moto2 grads, one a journeyman, one a savant. Sadly, it will take more than a savant to get many top ten results on the satellite Honda. The Marc VDS MotoGP Racing Team is distinguished, as dad used to say, only by its utter lack of distinction. Their riders finished 11th and 19th last year with the former, Jack Miller, having thoroughly worn out his welcome with HRC in the process. Tito Rabat, who moved to the Reale Avintia Ducati team this year, is trying desperately to avoid the “Bust” tag being crafted for him, a 2012 Moto2 world champion.

Morbidelli, with two Moto2 championships in hand, must be hoping the team abandons Honda and joins up with Suzuki next year, a change which would brighten his future without much of a change of scenery. Luthi, one suspects, is simply happy to be here. Being a utility player in the big leagues beats the crap out of being an all-star in Triple A. As March approaches, Frankie looks like a three/four, Luthi a four/five.

Monster Yamaha Tech3
Johann Zarco and Hafizh Syahrin

One Have, one Maybe. With Jonas Folger out for 2018, I was jocking Johnny Rea to get an American into MotoGP in a once-in-a-career opportunity. (I would argue he’s faster than anyone currently available. Contract-wise it was probably impossible.) So, unemployed Colombian Jonny Hernandez was called upon for the Sepang test and said, “Sure.” He did pretty well, never having been on a Yamaha before.

In a raging upset, Malaysian idol and Moto2 veteran Hafizh Syahrin was selected to saddle up next to Zarco this year, the first of his countrymen ever to do so. Syahrin is fearsome in the rain, but faces a steep, and likely painful, learning curve. We wish him well. He turned in a credible performance during his debut in Thailand, and another in Qatar. A podium in the rain could actually be in his future later in the season.

Even with Zarco reverting to the 2016 M1 chassis, the visions of sugarplums dancing in Poncharal’s head vanished once it was determined that Folger would miss the entire season. Recall how Fausto Gresini ended up with the despicable Spaniard Alvaro Bautista in 2011 when he lost his #1 guy at Sepang. Hopefully Herve’s luck is better today than Gresini’s was back then. The serenely competent French sophomore looks ready to carry the load for the Monster team this season in Tranche Two; he may make a few appearances in the top tier. Although he is expected back next year, there is no guarantee that Jonas Folger will ever race again.

MoviStar Yamaha (Factory)
Valentino Rossi and Maverick Viñales

Two Maxima Haves. Yamaha suits are saying the 2018 M1 is built on a 2016-style chassis. They’ve already signed Viñales for 2019-2020, and Rossi is said to be weighing an offer of a new contract as this goes to press. Were he an American football player they would describe his condition as “year-to-year.” In the most recent photograph I’ve seen of him, he looked old, tired and worn out. But, in the words of Nick Harris, “Count Rossi out at your peril.”

Sepang was a puzzle for both riders, as they topped the timesheets on Day 2, changed nothing, and couldn’t get out of their own way on Day 3. The same thing happened in Thailand. Apparently this occurred several times last season as well. The gremlins in the Yamaha garage may have been sussed out in the last testing weekend. Both riders will sit in Tranche One on March 17.

Alma Pramac (Ducati) Racing
Danilo Petrucci and Jack Miller

Jack Miller.

Knock me over with a feather. I need a new slot for these two: Kinda Maybes.

Although I generally ignore the Valencia testing, riders shaking hands with new bikes, I couldn’t help but notice that on the combined sheets Miller sat in 7th place, 6/10ths behind Marquez. On his first two days on a satellite Ducati. Fine. But then he shows up at Sepang and is eerily fast and consistent all three days. On a bike that is, according to Jorge Lorenzo, difficult to learn how to ride. Fine. Sepang is a Ducati layout; three of the top five times were recorded by Italian machines.

I’m already appalled at the volume of “Told you so, mate” comments heading my way from Down Under, with Kiwis piling on not simply because they share the accent; doing so reminds them, as does everything, of rugby.

Petrucci shows up in Sepang having lost 10 pounds from last year. Danilo needs to fish or cut bait this season. Riding essentially the same bike as Dovizioso and Lorenzo, he recorded two podiums and five DNFs in 2017. If he ever wants to toil for a factory team, any factory team, he needs to reverse those numbers. As my old boss used to say, right now would be fine.

One of these two is going to spend most of the season in Tranche Two, the other in Three. Miller may finally demonstrate on the Ducati the potential he never showed on the Honda. Okay, he won a race. So did Chris Vermeulen.

Reale Avintia (Ducati) Racing
Tito Rabat and Xavier Simeon

The oddest couple on the block. Rabat, whose career appears to have peaked in 2012 with his Moto2 title, and now Simeon, curiously promoted from Moto2 after having accomplished virtually nothing. Rabat, circling the bowl, trying to rescue his career on the Ducati, along with this second guy. Someone needs to explain to me the thinking behind signing Simeon. Eight years in Moto2, never finished higher than seventh, one win. Turns 29 this year. WTF.

His daddy must own a large chain of liquor stores.

Repsol Honda (Factory)
Marc Marquez and Dani Pedrosa

Two Maxima Haves. Last year, Marquez started the season in Tranche One; by season’s end, he was the only occupant therein. Dani Pedrosa, whose boy Alberto Puig has taken Livio Suppo’s seat as Chief Cheddar of the Repsol racing effort, looked strong in Sepang and again at Buriram. Pedrosa must realize it’s now or never. He needs to stay out of the hospital.

Marc Marquez, with four premier class titles in five years, looks formidable again this year. There will be more contenders than any in recent memory; to that extent, he will have to do more close work in the turns than he might prefer, but so it goes. His strategy last year was to hold on by his fingernails early in the season while some fast mover—Viñales, as it turned out—made a scalded-cat-type start in the early rounds, return to Europe and apply pressure, aiming to make the turn into the summer break in the lead. He then proceeded to blow away his competitors throughout the second half, finally breaking Dovizioso in Australia.

This would appear to be a sound strategy again in 2018.

Dani Pedrosa can no longer simply be Marquez’s wingman. Dani Pedrosa needs to fight for the championship this year, which promises to be his last credible opportunity to do so. Should he fail, HRC appears ready, willing and able to sign another rider in his place, for the first time in over a decade. Speculation as to whom that rider may be will occupy much of the season. This is true even with his Svengali and sponsor Puig at the reins.

Not to mention that Pedrosa might be an attractive candidate for KTM, Aprilia or Suzuki in 2019, his skills at sussing out performance issues and generating useable data second to none. Say what you will, Dani Pedrosa has forgotten more about grand prix racing than many of the fast movers in Moto2 and Moto3 have ever known. He could be an effective mentor, kind of a player/coach, for one of the younger teams.

Suzuki (Factory) Ecstar
Andrea Iannone and Alex Rins

Have Nots, but not for long. Concessions again. I keep reading that the top end speed is still insufficient, that they’re spending their money on the wrong stuff. Then I read that they’ve more power this year and could very well lose their concessions again. Rins seems pretty happy and should be vastly improved this season; his sixth-place work at Sepang did not go un-noticed. Iannone, as usual, is impossible to predict.

I will happily predict, therefore, that Rins will finish ahead of Iannone this season. Rins had mad skills in Moto3 and Moto2, comparable to Viñales. For him, 2017 was a learning experience: Good judgment comes from experience, and experience comes from bad judgment. Alex Rins is a Tranche Two guy; Iannone a Three. As last year vividly illustrated, Suzuki needs a satellite team in MotoGP to generate enough data to effectively play catch-up with the big boys.

Your 2018 Forecast

You need rocks in your head to bet against Marc Marquez taking his fifth premier class title in 2018. He is, head and shoulders, the best rider out there. I suspect Dani Pedrosa (assuming he doesn’t break a collarbone or two) may prove that he is back by chasing Marquez to the end of the season, winning two or three races along the way. Third place appears to belong to Maverick Viñales, who needs a more competitive/consistent ride under him than was the case last year. I believe Andrea Dovizioso will end up fourth, and Valentino Rossi fifth. Dovi is everyone’s dark horse this year.
Riders six through ten could include Jorge Lorenzo, Cal Crutchlow, Johann Zarco, Jack Miller and Alex Rins. If Zarco and Pedrosa trade places, it wouldn’t surprise that many fans. That would be a handing of the baton.

Riders 11 through 15 could include Danilo Petrucci, Franco Morbidelli, Aleix Espargaro, Alvaro Bautista and Andrea Iannone.

Riders 16 through 24 will float between Tranches Four and Five: Nakagami, Rabat, Simeon, Redding, Pol Espargaro, Tom Luthi, Abraham, and Smith. Syahrin could end up in Tranche Four, with a potential look at Three by the end of the season.

So let the games begin. We will have a preview of each round, beginning with Qatar, on the Tuesday before the race, with race results and analysis posted as quickly as possible by a group of editors not accustomed to working on weekends. If you need more—yeah, I know—MotoGP, please visit my Facebook page.

Cheers!

MotoGP 2018 Season Preview

March 7, 2018

© Bruce Allen. Exclusive to Motorcycle.com
Fierce Competition Awaits Marc Marquez in 2018

Part One
Overview

Here we go again. We, the fans, are fully amped on the glidepath to the start of another season of breathtaking, toe-curling two-wheeled racing. For a while after Valencia 2017 it was collect data, data and more data. In 2018, hot laps and consistent simulations became the targets. There was surprising Sepang, then that new Thai place Carmelo found one night, then the final official test at Qatar in early March, all pointed toward Round 1 under the lights, in the desert, as usual, at Losail on March 18. Optimism and jubilation reign; everyone, at this point, is undefeated.

Marquez Valencia 2017bIf you’re not familiar with MotoGP, most of what follows will not make much sense. If, however, you ARE familiar with MotoGP, most of what follows will not make ANY sense. But keep with it; it will grow on you, unless you’re hung up on things like, say, facts and accuracy. By the end of the season you’ll be all over DISQUS with the usual rabble, giving me a hard time about this and that, Valentino Rossi or my boy Cal Crutchlow.

No mega-huge contracts for 2019-2020 for factory Ducati riders, just the normal run-of-the-mill wheelbarrows of cash. The GP-18, according to management, Casey Stoner and Michele Pirro, is significantly improved over last year, with nothing having been made worse in the process. Therefore, no need going forward to, ahem, overpay for touchy, egocentric triple world champions.

Screenshot (59)

Gigi Dall’Igna, the Grand Gouda of Ducati’s MotoGP effort, it is said, has a few more tricks up his sleeve for 2018. As for 2019, he was recently overheard boasting that the GP19 will be so strong that he could win the title with Motorcycle.com’s own elderly Californian John Burns as his #1 rider.

The racing calendar extends from mid-March to mid-November, a full eight months. This, obviously, is too long. The momentum and drama of the title chase is diluted by the time spent during the summer standing around waiting for the next race. 2018 features 19 rounds, and it looks pretty clear 20 rounds will become the norm starting in 2019 when Finland goes on the calendar. The Dorna folks need to find a way to fit 20 rounds into seven months.

Honda, according to people who actually know stuff, appears to be the favorite for the constructor’s trophy heading into the season. If Sepang weren’t an outlier as regards layout, temps, rain and so forth, one could argue that Ducati should be the favorite. Yamaha has been dealing with gremlins, and the three junior manufacturers are not yet a threat, although Suzuki may be ready to move up. Ducati, with eight bikes on track, and Honda with six will be the main contestants unless The Boys in Blue, Viñales and Rossi, are fighting one and two for the title. Which, in early March, seems unlikely. So does the prospect of having only two Yamahas on track in 2019.

While the Sepang test was a win for Ducati, the Buriram test in late February was a win for Honda. Crutchlow, Marquez and Pedrosa recorded the top times on the three days, Pedrosa looking especially strong. Meanwhile, the Yamaha and factory Ducati contingents faltered. Jorge Lorenzo followed up his sizzling performance in Malaysia with a complete dud in Thailand, finishing the combined timesheets in a dismal 16th place, dazed and confused. As in comparing Chang International Circuit to Red Bull Ring, where Ducatis dominate, there being few reasons to have to turn the Desmosedici GP18 at either venue.

[On a personal note, it was good to have Ducati test pilot Casey Stoner back in January bitching about something. Seems he agrees with most of the planet that Sepang is a crappy place for winter testing. Or testing in any season, for that matter. But he has that gift for saying it in a way that just runs all over me.]

Interlopers in Thailand included last year’s rookie of the year, Johann Zarco, on the Tech 3 Yamaha, circa 2016, leaving southeast Asia with a silver medal. He was joined in the top six by two suddenly hot properties, Alex Rins on the Ecstar Suzuki and Jack Miller on the Alma Pramac Ducati GP17. Both looked good in Malaysia, both looked very good in Buriram. The pair slipped slightly in Qatar—ain’t nobody care about that. Over the last ten years, the rider winning the opener at Losail has won the title only three times.

Yamaha found itself behind the eight ball after two testing weekends, it appearing that the 2018 machine is worse than the 2017, which was worse than the 2016. The worst part, of course, is that at both Sepang and Buriram the effective settings they employed on Day Two refused to work on Day Three. This is disconcerting. Viñales finished the combined Buriram sheets eighth, Rossi 12th. But at the Qatar test, the Yamahas got things turned around, with super soph Zarco leading the way on the combined sheets for the Tech3 team, trailed by Rossi, Dovi, Crutchlow and Viñales.

Why 2018 Could Be Spectacular

The organizers of MotoGP must be prancing about re the potential competitiveness of the upcoming season. By my count, there are perhaps ten riders capable of winning on any given Sunday. These would include Marquez and Pedrosa, Rossi and Viñales, Dovizioso and Lorenzo, Crutchlow, Zarco, Miller and Rins. Maybe Petrucci, too. Of these ten or so, at least four—Rossi, Viñales, Dovizioso and Pedrosa—are capable of challenging Marc Marquez for the 2018 title. As is true in any year, some things have to go well for your guy and some things have to go badly for the other guys. In the paddock there is no more grousing about the control ECU or Michelins; lap records appear set to fall like dominoes.

2006 stands as the year the MotoGP title winner scored the fewest points in the 21st century, Nicky Hayden with 252 points over 16 rounds. Pro-rate that to 19 rounds and that number grows to 299. Marc Marquez, in winning the last two world championships, compiled 298 points in each 18-round season. Pro-rate that up to 315. Meaning he could have been expected to add 17 points in an additional round.

Here’s the point. This year figures to be unusually clogged among the top ten riders. There will therefore be more competition for the big scores, the 25, 20 and 16-point days that come with appearing on the podium. The prediction here is that, despite having added an additional race, the 2018 winner will end up south of 300 points when the curtain falls.

The 2019 silly season has already started, with Viñales and Marquez standing pat, Rossi preparing to sign another two-year Yamaha contract, and Tech 3 ready to announce a three-year affiliation with KTM which will provide them with factory spec bikes, indistinguishable from those of the factory team. This news may be enough to entice Zarco to stay with Tech 3 for the next few years; he is, without question, the hottest non-factory property in the driver corral.

Formula 1 is doing all it can to drive fans to MotoGP. Rumors that Ferrari may drop out dominate the conversation, right below the outrage engendered by Ecclestone & Co. have eliminated “track girls” from race weekends. One might as well watch the races on television.

MotoGP 2018 is going to be great fun. Don’t miss Part Two of our season preview next week, in which we defame examine each of the twelve teams.

 

MotoGP Valencia Setup

October 30, 2017

© Bruce Allen.                      October 30, 2017

Nine years since Casey Stoner won on a Ducati at Valencia, yet Dovizioso has to win on Sunday or else. Yamahas have done OK, too.

Assume Marquez slides out of the race on Lap 1. I know, I know.

In addition to Dovi, not counting Jorge Lorenzo, who wouldn’t dare, there are still four or five guys who are ready, willing and able to win in Valencia, which means Dovi has his work cut out for him. Guys who could be leading or closing on him as the last lap approaches. Maverick Vinales. Johann Zarco. Rossi? Probably not, for a number of reasons. Dani Pedrosa, Marquez’ wingman for the weekend, who could win the race and give his teammate a title at the same time. Who doesn’t give a shit about Andrea Dovizioso or Ducati. Cal Crutchlow. Aleix.

So, what we may get is what we asked for—a last lap battle for a title—between Dovizioso and somebody, just not Marquez, with nine years of history running against the Italian. Marquez, one believes, is not going to do too much fighting this weekend. Dovi is going to do nothing but fight. And I can’t imagine too many people getting too geeked up watching Dovi win and Marquez finish a distant sixth, say, and winning the title anyway.

If, on the other hand, Marquez is running by himself in 7th place with two laps left, riders who might have been deferring to Dovi, if any, could change their minds and go after him. Even Lorenzo, whose team orders would have likely expired by then. I would pay good money to see Lorenzo and Dovi going neck and neck during the final lap, even with the title effectively out of reach. Lorenzo wanting his first win on the Ducati. Dovi wanting to keep his disappearing title chance alive.

That would be worth the price of admission. In fact, the odds, as I see them, are pretty high that we will have a dramatic last lap or three, with the title possibly on the line. Take THAT, F-1.

If this site had the horsepower, I would offer up a real survey.

Survey: Rider Most Likely to Fight with Dovizioso over the Last Two Laps:

◊ Maverick Vinales
◊ Johann Zarco
◊ Dani Pedrosa
◊ Cal Crutchlow
◊ Aleix Espargaro

MotoGP Sepang Preview

October 23, 2017

© Bruce Allen.  Exclusive to Motorcycle.com.

Mature Marquez Seeking Fourth Title 

For the fourth time in five premier class seasons, Honda’s remarkable Marc Marquez stands on the cusp of a championship. His win in Australia last week left him with a short to-do list this week in Malaysia: 1. Try to finish no worse than second. 2. Try to finish ahead of Andrea Dovizioso. 3. If both #1 and #2 fail, lose to Dovizioso by seven points or less. Otherwise, he will have to return to Valencia in two weeks for some kind of decider. Probably the best thing for #93 would be to euthanize this title chase Sunday under the cover of darkness, many time zones removed from home, setting up a triumphal fait accompli return to Spain. We couldn’t disagree more. 

Recent History at Sepang

I was there in 2014 when Marc Marquez added to his record collection by taking the pole and the win, with Rossi and Lorenzo giving maximum, ultimately futile chase in The Year of Marquez. Though the title had already been settled, the grid was taking the competition seriously, seriously enough that eight riders failed to finish.  Dani Pedrosa, in the chase for runner-up for 2014, crashed twice, putting his hopes aside for yet another year.  LCR Honda’s Stefan Bradl somehow finished fourth, coming close yet again to a final premier class podium to go along with his unlikely second-place trophy from Laguna Seca in 2013.

The 2015 Shell Malaysia Motorcycle Grand Prix will be remembered and talked about for years.  Not for the fact that Repsol Honda #2 Dani Pedrosa won the race.  Nor for the fact that Jorge Lorenzo took second place to pull within seven points of the championship lead.  The 2015 race will be remembered as the day Valentino Rossi allowed his machismo to get the best of him, such that kicking Marc Marquez into the weeds became, for a brief moment, a higher priority than winning his tenth world championship.  Some of you, the lucky ones, have forgotten most of what occurred then and thereafter.  Those of you unable to forget are in danger of joining the small cadre of bitter Hayden fans who remember Estoril 2006 and still, every year, wear their pink “PEDROSA SUCKS” t-shirts to the race in Austin.

The 2016 running of the Malaysian Motorcycle Grand Prix on the newly refurbished track went especially well for several combatants, and not so well for a few others.  For factory Ducati veteran Andrea Dovizioso, his skills, his bike, the track and the weather came together in the best possible way, allowing him the relief of a second premier class win, his first since Donington Park in 2009. Contenders Cal Crutchlow, Marc Marquez and Andrea Iannone all crashed, for no obvious reason, within a minute of one another mid-race, to the delight of those following them.  DesmoDovi was joined on the podium by the factory Yamaha duo of Rossi and Lorenzo.

Tranche Warfare

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

After Round 16    Phillip Island 

Tranche 1:   Marquez

Tranche 2:   Rossi, Vinales, Dovi↓, Pedrosa, Zarco, A Espargaro, P Espargaro↑

Tranche 3:   Petrucci↓, Rins, Iannone, Redding↑, Miller↑, Crutchlow↑, Lorenzo↓

Tranche 4:   Baz↓, Bautista↓, Smith↑, Abraham↑, Rabat

Tranche 5:   Lowes, (Folger), Barbera↓

I can tell from here that whatever problem Ducati experienced at Phillip Island translated into these rankings. All six riders who dropped a spot ride for Ducati. But Scott Redding and Karel Abraham each climbed a notch, again on Ducatis. I can’t think of any rider who belongs with Marquez in Tranche 1 at the moment. Sepang, where the title race will probably be decided, will be the last round fought in anger, and thus the last round for ranking the riders.

I welcome any and all readers to argue with my assertion that Marquez currently is in a class by himself. All too often we hear riders talking about “having a good rhythm,” which, watching carefully, one can understand. I recall Cal Crutchlow commenting that if you got out of shape in Turn 2 at COTA you would be screwed all the way through Turn 9. Marquez seems to have found his rhythm this year at Catalunya, since, other than the engine problem in England, he hasn’t been off the podium since and has racked up five wins in the process. Perhaps it takes four or five races to get fully acclimated to a new RC213V each year. At present, it’s difficult to determine exactly where the bike stops and Marquez starts, so closely are they intertwined.

Who Will Challenge #93 in 2018?

My reflexive response to this question is, “Nobody.” That’s probably an overstatement.  Rossi will still be in the mix.  Yamaha teammate Maverick Vinales should improve next season and, depending on the speed and handling of next year’s M1, may push Marquez. Andrea Dovizioso my have another career year with Ducati, but our confidence in his abilities this season has been shaken.

Johann Zarco, Alex Rins and Jonas Folger will not become serious title threats, if ever, until they secure factory rides. Danilo Petrucci needs to learn how to be fast in dry conditions.  Jorge Lorenzo will, I’m pretty sure, simply serve out his sentence at Ducati and go looking for a better gig starting in 2019.  The young guns coming up from Moto2—Nakagami, Morbidelli, Luthi and Simeon—present no real threat in 2018, other than to the riders they may collect crashing out of their first few races.

One thing is certain. Honda, Yamaha, Ducati and KTM are going to engage in a hellishly expensive silly season next year positioning themselves for 2019. There is a rumor going around that KTM has offered Marquez a blank check to defect after next season.

A final word about next season. Most MotoGP people I know are excited about the improvements visible in the Aprilia and KTM bikes, while Suzuki took awhile this season before starting to show renewed signs of life. All three figure to be stronger next season. Even so, it would take a miracle, in my opinion, for any of them to contend seriously for a championship before 2020. Conversation for another day.

Your Weekend Forecast

Before I go to weather.com to confirm, let me guess that conditions in central Malaysia will be brutally hot with a chance for torrential downpours at any given moment. Yes. Temps will approach 90° each day with an 80% chance of thunderstorms all weekend and, from the looks of it, the rest of the year. There will be some gruesome stuff growing inside those leather racing suits by Sunday evening.

As for who will do what, I’m lacking any real insight, as the last few rounds of the MotoGP season remind me of the last few games of the NBA season which, for non- playoff-bound teams, is generally garbage time.  I am virtually certain that Marc Marquez will end up on the podium. If it’s a wet race I expect to see a Ducati on the podium as well, perhaps Petrucci. The third spot on the podium is anyone’s guess, but I’m going to go with Rossi, the default choice for a podium every single week.

We will post results and analysis sometime Sunday morning on the U.S. east coast.  Enjoy the show.

MotoGP Assen Results

June 25, 2017

© Bruce Allen.  Exclusive to Motorcycle.com

Classic Rossi Win Tightens Title Chase

With more passing than you’d see at an April 20 party, the 2017 Motul Assen TT was one of the more riveting races in recent memory. Tech 3 Yamaha rookie sensation Johann Zarco led the first 11 laps from pole. Meanwhile, Rossi and Ducati brute Danilo Petrucci were in the heart of the lead group along with Marc Marquez on the Repsol Honda. But Rossi—fast, patient and strategic—managed to beat Petrucci to the flag by .06 seconds. They don’t call him The Doctor for nothing.

RossiThe weather gods were just toying with us today—a drowned WUP, the usual thrilling Moto3 race on an almost-dry track, and spitting rain on several occasions during the MotoGP race. Several riders, guessing the big ol’ rain was on the way, pitted and changed to rain tires, including Zarco and Jorge Lorenzo (who had a note from Gigi D’allIgna stating he could put rain tires on whenever he wanted, even if the track was dry). The real rain never arrived, to the dismay of the early pitters, but high drama was around in excess.

Practice and Qualifying

Rehearsals for today’s battle featured something for every taste and budget. FP1 (wet) was topped by Petrucci on the Ducati GP17 followed by Zarco on the Tech 3 Yamaha and LCR Honda ruffian Cal Crutchlow. FP2 was dry, and the results were more typical—factory Yamaha pilot and series leader Maverick Vinales led, trailed by the other precocious Tech 3 rookie, German Jonas Folger, and that Marquez guy, you know, the one with all the trophies.

Saturday was pretty much wet all day, and the results reflected it. Scott Redding, Rossi, Marquez and Vinales topped FP3 in the wet; FP4 was wet again, so much so that a number of riders decided to play euchre in the garage instead of going racing. The Q1 and Q2 division had already taken place, and besides, when those leathers get good and wet, strange dark stuff starts growing in the grooves and creases. FP4 in the rain is for those other guys. Same for the soaking WUP.

Q1 saw Redding and Sad Sam Lowes, two British mudders, advance through to Q2, leaving names like Andrea Iannone, Jack Miller, both Espargaro brothers and one Jorge Lorenzo to the back half of the grid, Lorenzo notably starting in the, um, 21 hole. (I thought “holes” only go down to ten, after which comes Everyone Else.) In case you missed it the first time, that was Sam Lowes on the Aprilia advancing into Q2 for the first time. He likely won’t have that many more chances.

As usual, Q2 was a fairly orderly process of riders seeking their natural level or something a bit higher, until the last two minutes, when it became your usual fire drill. Petrucci and his big bad GP17 held pole until perhaps five seconds from the end, when Marquez flashed across the line first, followed almost immediately by overachieving Frenchman Zarco, sending his crew into paroxysms of joy as the impudent rookie claimed his first premier class pole. Didn’t someone recently suggest that strange stuff happens at Assen? For the record, two of the pre-race favorites got stoned in Q2; Maverick Vinales started 11th today, just ahead of Dani Pedrosa.

A Race for the Ages

Zarco’s intent, to get away from the pack and win going away, never bore fruit, as Marquez, Rossi and Petrucci formed a cozy lead group with the Frenchman. Rossi went through on Marquez on Lap 10 and set his sights on Zarco, passing him two laps later. Zarco struck back immediately, tried to cut inside, got his nose chopped off by Rossi, bounced wide, and never got back in the chase. With soft tires apparently dropping off, and the drizzle getting heavier, Zarco pitted on Lap 20, got caught speeding in pit lane, took his ride-through penalty, and finished the day 14th, just ahead of Lorenzo, who had not taken a penalty. For the 26-year old, dreams of world domination took a step backward today.

While Rossi led Marquez on a bracing mid-race chase, Petrucci following, several Aliens, notably Maverick Vinales and Andrea Dovizioso, were laying down fast laps and gaining on the leaders. In the final chicane on Lap 12, series leader Vinales hit the deck, his bike and championship lead cartwheeling away in the gravel.

Late in the day, Cal Crutchlow made an appearance on his LCR Honda, engaging in a personal pas de deux with Marquez all the way to the flag. While Rossi was busy pimping Petrux for the win after a sensational four-lap fight (where were the blue flags for the back markers getting lapped at the end?), Marquez and Dovi made a blurry Crutchlow sandwich at the flag, 12/100ths of a second separating Marquez in third from Dovi in fifth.

The Big Picture

The top of the 2017 standings chart are as tight as I can ever remember, with 11 points separating first and fourth places, Andrea Dovizioso parked at the top of the pile. Shades of Casey Stoner. Vinales, Rossi and Marquez are solidly in the hunt. Dovi seized the lead from Vinales today, while Petrucci leaped past Jorge Lorenzo into 7th place. Cal Crutchlow’s credible fourth place finish today allowed him to swap spots with Tech 3 rookie crasher Jonas Folger in ninth and tenth, respectively.

I was poormouthing Ducati Corse several weeks ago. Since then both Dovizioso and Petrucci have been making me look sick. Front row starts, wins, podiums—will it never cease? After a revolting start to the season (26 points in the first five rounds, two DNFs), Petrucci has come alive, with 36 points in the last three rounds, including an unlucky fall out of the points at Catalunya. And Dovizioso, the hottest rider on track for the last month, is, for the first time in his premier class career, getting asked about his chances for a world championship. Doing his best impression of an Italian-accented Colonel Klink, he consistently answers, “I know nut-thing.”

It could happen. And, simply for comparison’s sake, we should point out that of the three Ducati GP17s on track this season, triple world champion Jorge Lorenzo is running third. In eighth place for the season. Getting schooled every week by any number of less-distinguished riders. Constantly checking the weather radar on his phone. Sensitive to any aches in his surgically-repaired collarbones, sure signs of wet weather to come. From here, the only kind thing to do is quietly wonder what he’s going to do at the end of next season; Ducati has not been the panacea he had hoped for.

One Last Thing

If you sift through enough MotoGP sand, eventually you’ll discover a nugget. And so we found a video in which the British sportscaster described Bradley Smith’s left little finger, injured at Catalunya, as having been “marmaladed,” the second “a” pronounced “ah.” Evidence once again that, compared to idiomatic American English, British English has much higher comedic coefficient. Surely this term will be a heavy favorite in the “Best Use of Fruit to Describe a Rather Ghastly Injury” category at the annual British Produce Grower’s Association knees-up in Dover later this year.

With the German Grand Prix on Sunday, followed by a month of snoring through La Liga on cable, we’ll have the race preview here mid-week.

Race Results

2017 Standings

 

Getting to the 2010 Spanish Grand Prix was half the fun

April 25, 2017

© Bruce Allen            May 2010

For a couple of gringos, the road to MotoGP Jerez is a blast 

Last January, four of us decided to take a family vacation to southern Spain in early May.  I worked out a deal with my editor at Motorcycle.com to pay me handsomely to cover the Gran Premio bwin de Espana, subject to my securing press credentials, providing some extra copy and photos, and giving them way more than my usual vapid kitchen table rant.  In mid-April, after reserving and paying for airfare, hotels, rental cars, etc., it became fully clear that Dorna, the Spanish company that owns the rights to MotoGP, was not going to sully their pressroom by credentialing the likes of me.  What had started out as a slam dunk junket had become a longshot. 

Four of us left for Spain from O’Hare on Friday afternoon.  I/we were lacking several of the necessities for most respectable journalists:  press credentials, tickets for the race, journalistic skills, and/or a clear idea of where the track was actually located.  When I say “we”, I’m including my intrepid son-in-law and budding photojournalist, Ryan Collins, who had the good sense several years ago to marry my youngest daughter Cate.  Ryan, who knows even less about motorcycle racing than I do, told me he was pretty much up for anything, up to and including trying to find the track, trying to get into the facility, and trying to provide some semblance of “covering” the race, as opposed to just missing a day on the beach, and instead sitting around with 130,000 drunk Spanish racing fans under a hot sun for eight hours.

Ryan and I set out from Cadiz, a jewel of a town that sits on the southern coast of Spain where the Mediterranean meets the Atlantic, on Sunday morning.  [By this time we had missed Friday practice and Saturday’s qualifications.  We had also survived a monstrous case of jetlag and the drive from Madrid to Cadiz in which I came uncomfortably close to getting us included in Spanish highway fatality statistics not once, but twice.  And although we missed the action at the track on Saturday, we caught the action on the strip in Cadiz on Saturday night, eating tapas amongst a bunch of riders and listening to the music of big bikes turning high RPMs on the seaside street in front of the restaurant all evening.]

Cadiz sits about 25 miles south of Jerez, and we had passed several Jerez exits on the drive down from Madrid on Saturday.  Once we cleared Cadiz on Sunday, the task of actually finding the track became pretty simple:  stay with the hundreds of bikes on their way to the race that morning.  Which sounds easier than it actually is, in that these bikes were mostly traveling in excess of 100 mph while the Guardia Civil politely turned a blind eye.  Finally, we were one of a handful of cars in a veritable sea of motorcycles, and getting to the parking lot was a breeze.  The way getting from point A to point B in a mosh pit is a breeze:  make no sudden movements, don’t resist, and go with the flow.

Problem #1 solved.

Problems #2 and #3—no press credentials, few journalistic skills—weren’t going to get solved this day.  This left Problem #4—no tickets to a sold out race.  On the walk from the parking lot to the track itself, I kept an eye out for ticket “vendors” on the street, and was finding none.  Plenty of guys and ladies selling a lot of other junk—Spanish flags, food, water, trinkets, belts (?), etc., from little improvised roadside stands.  No guys holding tickets in the air yelling “Got Four!” in Spanish and looking furtively over their shoulders for the aforementioned blackshirts who, one suspects, take a less generous view of ticket scalpers than they do speeders they’re unable to catch anyway.  A mile in and it was looking bleak, when we noticed a trailer set off on a little side “street” with a big sign on it reading “Taquillas”.  Ryan, my interpreter, said he had no idea what a taquilla is.  I, by this time, was hoping it was Spanish for “tequilas”, as I was ready to give in and spend the day drinking shots and eating limes.  It occurred to me that “tequila” is already a Spanish word, and one very rarely used in the plural, but I shook off this notion.

We approached the trailer, and people were, indeed, stepping up to a window and purchasing SOMETHING, but we couldn’t really tell what.  Apparently, by this time Ryan and I were looking fairly furtive ourselves, for it was at this moment that a guy in a Lakers shirt approached me and asked, in pretty good English, if we needed tickets.  He, it turned out, was getting comped by Repsol (a friend of a friend of a friend…) and was going to stand with the great unwashed in the Pelousse, the fans’ and riders’ favorite section of the Jerez track, between Turns 10 and 11, where the crowd gets right on top of the riders.  We negotiated a mutually satisfactory price for his tickets and, suddenly, Problem #4 was solved.

We still don’t know what folks were buying at that trailer; I’ll try to report back on that later tonight. (Later, it turned out they were “tickets.” but who knew?)  We do know that we sat high in the stands between Turns 12 and 13 with a great view of the race.  We spent plenty of time wandering around the facility mingling and taking pictures of a few of the gorgeous women you find in quantity at these events.  We watched one helluva Moto2 tilt and a premier class event that was a procession for the first 22 laps and a heart-stopping thriller for the last three.  We made it back to the parking lot and thence our hotel in one piece without dying of dehydration or getting T-boned by any of the nutjobs they issue drivers licenses to in Spain.  And we captured the story; a beautiful day spent 4500 miles from home in a second language, with a manual transmission, on the road to Jerez.