Marquez' Oval vs Rossi's Ranch: Which Dirt Track Layout Is Best For MotoGP?

Many years ago, when American riders first burst onto the roadracing scene, and immediately dominated Grand Prix racing, dirt track racing was seen as a key part of their success. Training on the hardpacked dirt, where pushrod twins have far more power than they can ever transfer directly into drive, translated very well into racing 500cc two strokes, which had the same excess of power over grip. As tire technology advanced, and as the number of racers coming out of the US to race on the world stage declined, dirt track fell out of favor. Styles changed back towards keeping the wheels in line and carrying as much corner speed as possible, a skill learned in 125s and 250s, and taken up to 500s and MotoGP. The advent of the 800cc bikes, which caused a quantum leap forward in electronic control, emphasized this even further.

The dirt track mindset had not disappeared completely: both Casey Stoner and Nicky Hayden cut their teeth racing on the dirt, and carried that style into MotoGP. Hayden suffered once the series switched to 800cc bikes, especially as Honda switched their development focus to corner speed, and the European 250cc style. Stoner used his dirt track skills to control the fearsome Ducati Desmosedici, the bike which destroyed the careers of so many other riders. Stoner's switch to Honda coincided with Shuhei Nakamoto's changed approach at HRC, putting more emphasis on rider input, putting more control of the rear tire back in the hands of the rider.

The return of the 1000cc bikes and the improvement of feel from the Bridgestone tires made it possible to help steer the bike by sliding the rear once again. Since then, there has been an explosion in interest of dirt track, especially due to the influence of two champions. Marc Marquez has been an evangelist of the discipline as both a great training ground for bike skills and racing aggression, Valentino Rossi has used it to hone his already formidable skills, and to test out new ways of riding and new riding styles. 

The difference in approach is visible in the tracks they use to train on. Marc Marquez' manager Emilio Alzamora managed to persuade the community of Rufea to build a short track oval in the town, not far from Marquez' home town of Cervera in Spain. Valentino Rossi constructed a huge facility with a wide variety of possible track layouts on private land he owns near his home town of Tavullia in Italy.

The Rufea layout is simple: a short oval (two left turns), where Marquez, his brother Alex and friend of the family Tito Rabat train regularly. Their training is aimed at several things: first, at gaining feeling on the bike, understanding how the bike reacts when it is sliding, how to use the power to help turn the bike. Marquez trains without a front brake, using the rear brake and throttle to help control the bike and slow it for a turn. Races are held frequently, to train aggression and hone race-specific skills: where gaps open up, how to spot them and exploit them, not to fear the close proximity of other riders, how to survive contact. Tito Rabat hailed the practice sessions at the circuit as one of the keys to his championship victory in Moto2, not just in terms of riding skills, but especially in terms of race craft, and aggression during the race.

The layout at Rossi's VR46 ranch is much more sophisticated. There is a wide variety of left and right turns, of varying speed and radius, which can be combined to create a range of different track layouts, from short and simple to long and complicated. Rossi rides there with a European-style bike, complete with front brake, as fitted to all the bikes at the VR46 ranch. The focus for Rossi seems to be much more about honing riding skills, rather than learning about racing aggression. The way the corners flow and combine teach riders more about handling a bike through difficult sections when it is moving underneath you than about pure race aggression. The wide difference in corner layouts - from very tight to fast and flowing, from reducing radius to wide open - mean that there is a chance to practice different approaches, different riding styles to deal with different types of corner. Rossi trains there with friends and fellow riders regularly, as well as with the young riders from his VR46 Rider Academy, an initiative to help nurture young Italian talent. Like Marquez, Rossi races frequently, especially with the youngsters, to help retain his aggressive edge.

Which is better? So far, Marquez is up two championships to zero against Rossi, though Rossi made the youngster's life increasingly difficult towards the end of the 2014 season. Marquez is focused on the basics of racing, of finding way past opponents, being comfortable in close proximity, and of not being afraid in racing. Valentino Rossi is focused on racing finesse, on fine-tuning his weaknesses, exploring the subtleties of riding style in a range of situations. Their two different tracks reflect that, Marquez a straight oval, Rossi's track more like an MX or Supermoto track without the jumps and the loose dirt. 

Whichever proves to be the more successful, dirt track is back with a vengeance. The switch to spec electronics in 2016 will see even more emphasis on rider throttle control, as the sharpest edges are taken off the extreme sophistication of the current generation of factory electronics. Dirt track facilities are springing up all over Europe, especially in Spain. Kenny Noyes has been running the highly successful Noyes Camp program for a couple of years now, and a new facilty has just been added closer to Barcelona. The European dirt track scene is flourishing, the level of the competition rising rapidly, and publications such as Sideburn magazine growing in popularity. Wild and irreverent events such as Dirt Quake, in which entirely inappropriate bikes are raced around an oval, are becoming cult classics.

Then of course there's the Superprestigio, an invitation event in which the best flat trackers in the world take on the best road racers in the world (as well as the best Supermoto, enduro and trials riders in the world) on an indoor short track oval in Barcelona, on 13th December 2014. This event is helping to spread the popularity dirt track even further, among fans who know little of the discipline. Expect more dirt track facilities to spring up in the next few years, though whether they will be ovals or long, complex layouts like Rossi's ranch will be determined as the two do battle on circuits around the world in the next two seasons.

Rossi's complex dirt track layout at the VR46 ranch at Tavullia: 

Compare this with Marc Marquez' short track oval at Rufea

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Because when one mentions speedway the first reaction is usually "Daytona ?" American Greg Hancock is the newly crowned World Champion for the 3rd time. He is a speedway legend and the best ambassador the sport has ever seen. Would be fantastic to see him out there with the MotoGP/2/3 guys.

Not sure which language the interview with Tito was in, but I doubt that any racing training is focused on increasing aggression. If anything, they'd focus on reducing it! I would translate Tito's "aggression" to mean "concentration", which is the defining trait of world champion racers. From the earliest of times, it has always been the coolest heads that have prevailed in racing. Eddie "Steady" Lawson, Wayne Rainey, Mick Doohan, Valentino Rossi, Jorge Lorenzo, Marc Marquez...when they're at their best, they are in a state of absolute concentration.

Aggression may help in football or hockey, but it is useless for racing. In fact, the first lesson in any racing school is to stop "trying to go fast", and start thinking about what you're doing on the bike. Pushing hard without knowing what you're doing leads to repetitive crashing. Even amateur racers understand this quite well.

The best of the best are capable of analyzing their inputs on the bike in real time, and comparing the outputs with their laptimes to see what changes helped, and what didn't. It's more akin to an iterative algorithm, and the polar opposite of raw aggression. This is best exemplified by none other than Tito himself, as he definitely has one of the coolest heads in racing. The man is a metronome on the bike, churning out consistent laps by the dozen. So I definitely think he meant concentration, not aggression.

As for dirt riding, Rossi's compound is undoubtedly superior. Only turning in one direction significantly reduces the number of variables the rider has to control, such as transitions from one direction to another and how they load and unload the suspension. Since Marquez has been invited to Rossi's ranch on numerous occasions, I'm sure that this new oval is step one in his quest to build a similar full flat track. Regarding the front brake, MX bikes have them but most flat track racing requires their removal. So this may be more Rossi's preference to have all the elements of the bike at his disposal to test under low traction conditions. Personally, I would have to agree with Rossi's choice, since experimenting with the front brakes on a flat track will yield invaluable experience for tarmac.

I wholeheartedly agree that the flat track is an excellent training ground for young racers, in addition to mini racing on tarmac. The two combined would provide a very cost effective way to build talent from the ground up in any locale, as the facilities and equipment required are extremely cheap compared to the current alternatives (races/trackdays on full-sized tarmac tracks with expensive machinery).

For those interested, it's very easy to get involved in flat tracking. All it takes is a MX bike with lowered suspension and some flat track wheels, and you're good to go!

I think you're mistaking anger for aggression. I think what Rabat, Marquez, et al are talking about is using aggression properly. With respect to aggression, a cool head isn't necessarily proof of absence, but proof of control.

I submit that Lawson, Doohan, and all the others you mention most certainly were aggressive. What made them better than the rest was that they controlled their aggression, using it to their advantage. Not just anyone can use their right wrist properly; not just anyone can use their head properly.

If that's the case, then one certainly can train for it. Put yourself in as many situations as you can where you are faced with decisions regarding aggression. When to go for it, when to back off, how hard to press; just where are the lines between being timid and being great--and between being great and being an asshole?

It certainly helps if you do that kind of training with friends, or at least people who won't hold a grudge against you. Like they'll give you payback next chance they get, but they'll laugh about it with you later.

I do not want to sound as if I am somehow capable of judging which of the two ways of training is better, so whatever I say here, take it is an attempt to understand something rather than making a statement. When I saw the videos I did think that at the MM93 track, which seems akin to a speedway on is only turning left, does not allow you to do as much as Rossi's track does.So how does one learn to change the direction while perhaps drifting the rear. Also seeing Rossi ride, one does find that he is drifting the rear in order to turn, I suppose that is called using the rear wheel for steering. So frankly I did not see too much difference in the way they were using the rear wheel. I also remember that after shifting to the 500 cc category, Rossi did go to America, presumably to Rainey's ranch (apologies if I am wrong about the place) to learn how to cut down apex speeds and use the rear wheel to turn and accelerate faster out of corners. I think Rossi does this even on the race track. Marc Marquez, no one knows what he is doing. So I better not comment and make a fool of myself. But the one thing that is probably irrefutable is that on the Ducati, Casey Stoner made greater use of the rear tyre (not as much as Gary McCoy did in the 500 cc category) than Rossi did after he went to Ducati. Back on the Yamaha I see him doing it again.

Moto2 riders like Pol Espargaro (when he was riding in that category) also let the rear slide around, unlike Scot Redding. But I do not see Pol Espargaro doing it in the MotoGP class. Too much power perhaps? Please feel to correct me if I am totally wrong about things. That way I will learn. Thanks in advance.

If you're in the Texas, Houston / Austin area this is a great time.

Many Motogp riders have been through there as well to check it out and other professionals akso show up as guest instructors.

Last year Brad Baker who will be at the Superpristigo representing America badly broke his arm when he got tangled up there.

The tracks are a combination, of turns and oval, can check them out here.

Zero question which looks more helpful as well as fun. Obvious to echo rs's statement that nothing but constant radius left handers is really limiting - only train turning oone direction? Ugh.

I had a supermoto CRF450 and tried it and flat track once. Tougher than it looks!

Is anyone sticking a low-traction rear tire on a sport bike to lap road racing tracks on? Curious.

Rossi doesn't really slide anymore and hasn't done for years. I remember him getting really excited about doing a slide at that corner in Sepang and tweeting it to his fans, though that was in testing. Haven't seen him rip a power slide in a race for ages, though that may be More due to the Yamaha characteristics. There again Rossi helped develop the 800 Yamaha that today's bike has evolved from.

Nobody now slides like Stoner used to even on an 800, including Marquez. Stoner literally smoked the rear tyre going through turn 3 Phillip Island doing roughly 250ks, only Gary McCoy was as lurid.

Thanks Machine for picking up the questions I have raised (it does not matter whether it was intentional or not) for I have got some answers. I think Rossi did slide the 990cc Honda for rear wheel steering but I could be wrong for it is well known that memory serves what it wants to. I believe one of the reasons why Stoner was such a phenomenon on the Ducati was because of his ability to steer with the rear wheel sliding. I do not see anyone else doing that on the Ducati and very few on other bikes as well. But please do tell me if Rossi's track with its twists and turns allows riders to learn how to use the rear wheel for steering. Thanks in anticipation.

Get the obsession with power slides... maybe, just maybe they don't do them because they wouldn't get around the track as quickly if they did?

My money is on not the fact they are incapable, it is on the fact it is pointless.

Have been won by riders who's style includes rear wheel steering, so I wouldnt call it pointless. At some tracks its just the fastest way around, plus it looks freaking cool.

^ Agreed, machine.

Specifically getting on and past the limit, getting into and out of 'impossible' moments, getting 'the last 2%' out of the bike. Stoner did it. Looks like the Ducati demands it. Marquez does it, and the Honda is bred for it.

I must admit I love love love out of shape sliding spectacles, but they are just that - spectacles. Gary McCoy was not an Alien. However, watching, say, Redding willing and able to spin up his rear in a corner has me starting to 'believe.' Maybe it is part of the out-of-atmosphere weightlessness?

How to be an Alien = consistently trancending the pliable limit and returning in one piece with a few tenths that did not exist.

I understand the reference, but...

I started racing Northern California dirt tracks at 13, often 3-4 times a week. With a break in the winter for motocross and enduros. I didn't even own a street bike until I was 18. When I was 19 or so the guy who rode the RD250 in AFM club races for the shop I worked at disappeared chasing a girlfriend, or the Grateful Dead, or both. So the owner asked me if I wanted to race it at the next AFM race at sears Point. At the time road racing in America was a very small community and most of the riders were fast street riders. The first thing I noticed at the first race was that they were NOT aggressive and didn't have very good racecraft. During a Thursday or Saturday night 1/4 mile at Hayward or Lodi or Dixon if a hole opened you stuck a wheel (or an elbow) in there, or someone else did. Contact was an every lap part of the game. Coming from a dirt track background was a huge advantage in road racing, even at the club level, back then. For the bike control, and for the physical close racing.

Maybe it's because of the era I came from but I have always just assumed that the kids in Moto3 and Moto2 have already learned that sort of aggressive style long before they reached the position they are in? Or maybe not.

At that point I'd been an Expert for 3 years and had been riding a Champion frame Yamaha XS on the half-miles so the speed was no big deal. It felt like a lot of the guys were just riding around fast, but not 'racing'. My stepfather was an AMA Class C Expert and had spent a lot of time teaching me that going fast is different from racing; "If you catch someone then you sure as hell should be able to pass them. Do it quick while they are unsettled that you're there." That sort of thing. There were 3 of us that bounced from dirt to pavement that year. We didn't make a lot of new friends but we won some races.

Mostly I liked it a lot. It was different and I was ok at it. A little bit of the appeal was that roadracing was sort of fringe and "European". I grew up in a racing family and everyone we knew raced in the dirt. It was the early 70's being a "rebel" was cool.

After a few months the owner of the shop bought me a used TD-2 from a guy who upgraded to a TZ. A while later I sold the half-miler and bought a TZ :)

I reckon most riders rear wheel steer to some extent, it's a prerequisite of going fast. I am not convinced that Marquez has won titles because of it though. He makes up huge time, even on Rossi, on the brakes(as Rossi did when he started) with rear wheel breaking learnt from his moto2 days. There isn't a rider that can get anywhere near him is this area at the moment. It(rear wheel steering) worked on the duke because of the huge extra power and Caseys belief that the electronics would do their bit in conjunction with his awesome technique but it only worked once on the duke(titles), and first season on the Honda but his 2nd was falling a long way short before and after the crash. I reckon Marquez style is a lot less worried by traffic than Caseys( who wanted to run specific lines) was, as he passes everyone easily on the brakes. Both tracks look huge fun and must be brilliant for low grip control as well, especially Rossi's I reckon which has direction change and braking thrown in..