2014 Aragon MotoGP Thursday Round Up - Marquez' Decline, Hayden's Return, The Ducati GP14.2, And Miller's MotoGP Move

Things look a little different as the MotoGP paddock arrives at the spectacular Motorland Aragon circuit. After two defeats in the last three races, Marc Marquez is looking almost vulnerable. At Brno, Marquez and his team never found the right set up, and the 21-year-old Spanish prodigy finished off the podium for the first time in his MotoGP career. Two races later, at Misano, Marquez tried to compensate for a similar lack of set up by pushing hard for the win, but crashed chasing Valentino Rossi, and remounted to score just a solitary point.

Marquez had hoped to wrap up the title at Aragon, he told the press conference on Thursday, but the crash at Misano put an end to any such aims. He would have needed a win at both Misano and Aragon, and took a risk trying to beat an unleashed Rossi at his home track. Victory at Misano proved impossible, especially against a Rossi determined to win at any cost.

So can Marquez get back to winning ways at Aragon? On paper, this should be his opportunity to reassert his authority. Of the four previous visits to the circuit, Marquez has won two, come second once, and been dumped into the gravel at the first corner once, an incident he is still less than happy about. The circuit suits the Honda, the bike having won three of the four premier class outings at the track. It was only the first year where the Honda came up short, Dani Pedrosa only managing to come second to Casey Stoner on the Ducati.

Yet the Yamaha is strong at Aragon. Jorge Lorenzo has finished second at the track for the last two races, and finished third the year before. The Movistar Yamaha team tested at the circuit back in June, perhaps giving them an edge at the circuit. But June was a long time ago, Lorenzo told the press conference. The bike had changed a lot since the test, Rossi added, making it hard to translate the lessons learned then to this weekend. Complicating matters was the fact that the track was in far from ideal condition during the test, meaning set up work was difficult.

Jorge Lorenzo is hungry for a win, his last victory coming at Valencia last year. He has been getting closer to the front since the middle of the season, finishing second places in the last four races, from Indianapolis all the way to Misano. It was frustrating, Lorenzo admitted. "For sure, it is not the best record to have," he joked, but at least it meant he had been getting ever more competitive. Valentino Rossi is coming off the back of his win at Misano, the first in which he utterly dominated a MotoGP grid at full strength, and is keen to keep that momentum going.

Then there's Dani Pedrosa. All too often overlooked, Pedrosa was the first man to beat his rampant Repsol teammate this season, and is perhaps the strongest rider at Aragon. He won the race easily in 2012, and was a clear favorite for victory in 2013 after showing exceptional pace in the early stages of the race. But Marc Marquez put an end to any hopes of Pedrosa may have had, after the youngster clipped the back of Pedrosa's RC213V, and in one of the most bizarre incidents in recent years, severed a tiny sensor cable on the swingarm with his clutch lever. The sensor gone, Pedrosa's TC was disabled, and Pedrosa highsided out of the race the next time he opened the throttle.

Pedrosa got his revenge at the next race, in Sepang, but the crash at Aragon still needs to be put right. If ever there was a race weekend to keep your eye on Dani Pedrosa, this is surely it.

While victory is likely to go to a Honda, with the Yamahas close behind, the Ducatis will be getting their fair share of attention. Andrea Dovizioso and Andrea Iannone will be taking to the track on the GP14.2, the latest evolution of the Ducati Desmosedici. The two Andreas tested the bike at Mugello earlier this week, with positive results, leading Ducati to decide to start to race the bike from Aragon.

What's different about the bike? Without having seen the machine up close, it's hard to say exactly. Reading between the lines of what Andrea Dovizioso told the press on Thursday, the bike is more compact, allowing more adjustment. The footpegs are closer together, meaning the bike is narrower, and more comfortable to ride. The geometry is changed, such that the bike now has a greater range of adjustment. On the previous iteration of the bike, the Ducati crews were running into physical limits in terms of offset and the location of the front wheel. The GP14.2 allows more freedom of adjustment, overcoming the previous limits.

Whether that helps remains to be seen. Mugello is 'a very particular track,' Dovizioso said on Thursday, where the extra adjustment was never needed. Aragon will be the first place where the Ducati riders get to test the benefits.

What the new bike doesn't fix, however, is the understeer. That problem remains, a fundamental part of the Desmosedici's DNA. What causes the understeer? There are many theories, though finding a definitive answer is difficult. The underlying problem appears to be in the size and shape of the engine, which delineates its location in the frame, and sets the basic weight distribution of the bike, and consequently its geometry. Fixing that is a much greater task, one which will only be addressed by the GP15. That bike will not make its debut until the first Sepang test. Designing and building an engine and chassis from scratch is a massive task. It is not something which can be done in half a season. The fixes being brought this season are really just band aids, experiments aimed at gathering data and testing direction. The Desmosedici is still some way from being fixed, but the interim results being booked by Dovizioso and Iannone are a sign that progress is being made.

While Dovizioso and Iannone are working towards next year's bike, Hector Barbera and the Avintia team are helping Ducati on their way towards the new rulebook in 2016. From this weekend, Barbera will be racing the 2014 bike with the Open class software, helping Ducati to understand how the Desmosedici works with the software that will become standard from 2016 on. After two years on the Kawasaki-powered Avintia bike, which showed no signs of improvement despite receiving pneumatic valves, Barbera is delighted to be back on a fully-fledged MotoGP bike once again. The team still has a mountain to climb to get the bike working with the Open software, but at least it is a stronger starting point to work from.

The other main focus at Aragon will be Nicky Hayden, and the American's return from surgery. Hayden is to ride a MotoGP bike for the first time since the Sachsenring, after having the row of bones including the scaphoid removed from his wrist. It was a drastic operation to fix a chronic problem, Hayden's wrist swollen, painful, and movement limited, the result of a scaphoid broken in 2011.

Hayden appeared with physio tape on his wrist, but for the first time in perhaps 18 months, Hayden's wrist did not look swollen to me. The surgery had made an immediate difference: before going under the knife, his doctors had measured movement of less than 10°, far too little to ride a MotoGP bike safely. After surgery, and the initial stages of rehab, his movement was already up to between 30° and 35°. The aim, Hayden said, was to get the movement back up to 45°, but it was a question of making small steps as his recovery progressed. Having a row of bones removed had given him a different feel in the wrist, forcing him to relearn some of the control of the wrist, especially in the more subtle throttle control.

It had been the movement in his wrist which he had been most concerned about, Hayden said, but the progress made so far had been encouraging. The second worry had been strength, but that too had been good so far. Whether his wrist is strong enough to race a MotoGP bike was an unknown quantity, and in reality, there was only one way to find out. In response to questions about putting a percentage on the recovery of his wrist, Hayden repeated the same answer several times: "ask me tomorrow, after I've ridden the bike."

Will he make a full recovery? A full recovery is probably a little bit too much to ask, but Hayden still has the hunger to keep on racing. The operation had been a risk, but a calculated one. He had told his surgeons that under no circumstances were they to fuse the wrist bones, which is the common approach to injuries such as Hayden's. Nicky Hayden still wants to race, and so far, the signs are good that he will be able to. We will only really know once he has ridden the bike.

Aragon was the best place to test the state of his wrist, Hayden said. A left-handed track without too many very hard braking areas, it would not stress his injured right wrist too heavily from the start. A lot different from Motegi, which is all hard braking zones and right-handed corners. "Just ask Brembo," Hayden joked. Better to give his wrist a gentle work out at Aragon, than submit it to the torture of Motegi from the start.

The press conference at Aragon was also the first chance which the media had to talk to Jack Miller after it was announced that the Australian would be joining the LCR Honda team for 2015. He faced a barrage of questions about making the leap straight from Moto3 to MotoGP, skipping Moto2 altogether. What would he miss by skipping Moto2? "Riding a 600," Miller quipped, underlining why Dorna and Honda were so keen to see him in the premier class.

It was an opportunity he could not afford to pass up, Miller said. He was already struggling to keep his weight down for the Moto3 class, and moving up to MotoGP would give him a little breathing space. Skipping Moto2 made sense, as he was already much heavier than Marc Marquez when the Spaniard left 125s to move to Moto2.

It was not just Jack Miller who faced questions about his decision to go straight to MotoGP. Every MotoGP rider that spoke to the media in one form or another was asked to give their opinion on Miller's move. The overall consensus was that it was a massive step, and bigger than Miller realized. Most thought it was a bad idea, though they phrased it carefully.

It wasn't the power that Miller should fear, however. "The throttle goes both ways," Cal Crutchlow said. What's more, electronics should help, as they have largely made highsides a thing of the past. Where Miller would struggle is in the mental aspect, several riders commented. "The level in MotoGP is 50% higher," Crutchlow believed. It was not possible to sit behind another rider and size them up, everyone is riding at the absolute limit.

The toughest part would be not to get carried away, Valentino Rossi said. "Taking his time will be the biggest challenge for Jack," Rossi told the press conference. "It's easy to say, I will arrive quiet, but when you are on the track, you always want to arrive in front and give the maximum," the nine-times world champion told the press conference. In Miller's favor is that he has a three-year deal with HRC, meaning he is under no immediate pressure to achieve results. Against him is the fact that he is nineteen years old, and hungry as a wolf, ravenous for results. Holding himself in check, and taking things slowly will be the biggest challenge he faces.

Is it a bad idea? I don't think so. Miller will be the same age as Marc Marquez when he entered MotoGP, and the Australian is a wily young man. He may have missed a lot of school – a situation he will remedy as soon as possible, if he is smart – but he has street smarts, and he understands racing. He didn't ride a road bike until 2009, spending all his time racing dirt track before that. He is a relative newcomer to racing on pavement, and so is not yet set in his ways. More importantly, he has spent a lot of time on second-class machinery, and has had to adapt his style and invent ways of going fast. He is very flexible in his approach to riding, and should adapt well.

But as Rossi says, the biggest challenge he faces will be himself. The rider's natural instinct is to try to beat they guy ahead of him, and often, young riders will try to force results which aren't coming naturally. That's when big crashes happen, and riders are face their biggest challenges.

Miller has HRC on his side, however. The one message they have drummed in to him is to take his time, Miller told us. There is no pressure to score results, and with a three-year contract, he has plenty of time. If ever there was a young man who could bear the pressure, it is Jack Miller.

The Motorland Aragon round of MotoGP marks the 800th Grand Prix event. At the pre-event press conference, surrounded by riders ten years or more his junior, Valentino Rossi joked that he had raced in the first one, in 1949. That may have been a gross exaggeration, but it is worth remembering that Rossi has won 81 premier class races, or over 10% of GPs run. In fact, taken together, the top four riders in the championship have a total of 155 race victories, or nearly 20% of all premier class races. If anyone ever doubted the level of the current generation of riders, that statistic alone should be enough to convince them.

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Comments

I think Jack Miller has the right stuff. A few years from now, with Rins and Marquez in MotoGP, we will be able to compare and judge if it was a good idea to skip Moto2.

Rossi is making some fun jabs at his "old age", clearly feeling like the sage amongst a swarm of youngsters.

I look forward to these types of races. Rossi hungry, Marquez wanting to makeup for the crash, Dani fighting for second in the championship, and Lorenzo, the only Alien without a win.

Which will end up off the podium?

Regarding "Miller will be the same age as Marc Marquez when he entered MotoGP"

I don't think Marquez is a fair benchmark for anyone at all. He is the biggest anomaly in MotoGP till date. We must remember that Marquez had 2 world championships when he came to premier class (which could have been 3 if it wasn't for the concussion) and was an utterly dominant force. And going by the current form of the estrella galicia boys, it's looking increasingly unlikely that Miller would be able to take this year's championship (although Miller is still the favorite by a very slim margin).

Being said that, I have no doubt Miller can do well in MotoGP. I'm feel sure that he will score atleast a few top 10 finishes in his first year and he has time on his side.

Surely the jump from moto3 to motogp is a big one; a much bigger bike, producing 3-4x the power, better electronics, and carbon brakes. That said, moto2 doesn't have much that moto3 doesn't; they all use the same engine, mostly the same frames, brakes, suspension, etc. The technical aspects of moto2 are fairly stagnant - and I'm not sure how much there is to learn in that respect. The biggest thing to come out of moto2 has been the loose style of riding.

Perhaps there is Macroceph - the power needs throttle control, electronics or not. That right hand can get banged around willy nilly on such a low powered bike but not on the bigguns. And then there is the manner in which the MUCH greater speeds make everything happen so FAST. You have comparably much more time to process what is going on and adjust on the wee bikes relative to the bigguns, the tracks seem smaller. It is like slow motion vs fast fwd.

I am w you on appreciation for the loose riding style coming of Moto2 as well as the low level of electronics allowed. There seems to be a bit of swelling rise of disatisfaction w what Moto2 has become though don't you think? I for one eagerly await something more than one chassis and one engine but am open to reasoning in favor of a Honda-Kalex cup.

I can speak for moving to too fast a bike too soon limiting one's potential. My first track bike was a Yamaha R1! It wasn't fun, I wasn't advancing. Then started racing middleweight bikes. I love having a 600 on tracks, feels nice! And there is a joy btw in riding a bike at its limit which I for sure cannot on a liter bike. Anyhoo, there is legitimate concern in Miller's jump methinks. It could be dangerous, could impede his growth trajectory as a rider, he could sink in the deep end. Looking fwd to seeing how he fares and hope it goes great.

I agree that the level of competition in MotoGP is at the historical peak. Many very talented riders, all coming from fierce battles in Moto2 and Moto3/125. Better eletronics have reduced crashes and resulted in longer career for riders, all together allowing for a very high profile championship.

Still, counting the total wins of the top riders as percentage of total number of races is, imho, misleading. The number of races per years has increased a lot in the last 20/30 years and the stats reflects also this fact.

David you left out something there. Casey won from Pedrosa from who?! Thats right, Nicky Hayden!!! :)
What an awesome race that was! Casey having his worst Ducati season ever and Hayden was really starting to get to grips with the bike and made a brilliant move to take Lorenzo! Double podium for Ducati for the first time since... hell Motegi that time with Loris?
I miss those days when Ducati was on

As if anyone seriously thinks someone can challenge Marquez on this track for the win. Maybe Lorenzo but I doubt it. Marquez owns this place like Stoner owned Philip Island.

I hope the other guys won't make it easy on him though, let's hope for some good battles.