From Mugello to Barcelona, or from the heart of Italian motorcycle racing to the heart of Spanish motorcycling. Or rather, Catalan motorcycling, as any of the many Catalans which fill the paddock will happily point out. Then again, Catalonia is – ironically – at the heart of Spanish motorcycling itself. If MotoGP had a home race, it would be here. Series organizer Dorna has its offices just south of Barcelona, and the working language of the organization is Catalan. Just east of the circuit lies the old factory of Derbi, once a mainstay of the 125cc class. Check the birthplaces of any one of the riders racing on a Spanish license, and most of them hail from one of the towns and villages within an hour or two's drive of the Montmeló circuit. Most riders still have a house in the area, though many elect to live in the tiny mountainous tax haven of Andorra, because of the opportunities it affords for training, so they tell us.
With so much support, can the Spaniards – or Catalans, or Mallorcans – lock out the podium at home? It would be a crowd pleaser for sure, but getting three Spanish riders to fill out the MotoGP podium at Barcelona will be far from easy. That there will be one, perhaps two Spaniards on the box is a given. But filling all three places? That is going to be tough.
Jorge Lorenzo comes to Barcelona as the man to beat, mainly because it has been impossible to do just that for the past three races. The Movistar Yamaha rider started the season with a run of poor luck and strange circumstances, but since Jerez, everything has gone perfectly for him. He and his team have worked smoothly every practice to set up a bike Lorenzo is capable of winning on, and delivered on that work on Sunday at Jerez, Le Mans and Mugello. He has led from start to finish, taking less than half a lap to dispose of the opposition. So dominant has he been that he is closing in on Casey Stoner's record of leading the most successive laps. If Lorenzo leads the first 11 laps at Barcelona, he will beat Casey Stoner's total of 88 laps, set in 2007. Given the outright superiority Stoner displayed that year, it would be a very ominous sign for the 2015 championship indeed. Lorenzo trails his teammate Valentino Rossi by just 6 points in the title chase. Rossi will have to work hard to take his lead into Assen.
Beating Lorenzo in his current form will be difficult for the Italian, but he has happy memories at the track. Valentino Rossi has won five times at the Montmeló circuit, including one of the most thrilling battles of recent years in 2009. Then, Rossi pulled off an almost impossible move to dive inside Lorenzo in the final corner, coming out on top after a scintillating final lap. It is a move Rossi will find it hard to replicate: since that race, every rider leading into the final corner has taken a much tighter line, wary of a last-ditch dive up the inside from the rival they are trying to beat. Especially if the rider behind them answers to the name of Valentino Rossi.
The Yamahas will be hard to beat at the Circuit de Catalunya. The layout suits the bike, with a lot of long, fast corners and changes of direction, favoring corner speed and courage, qualities Rossi and Lorenzo have in abundance, as do the Tech 3 pairing of Bradley Smith and Pol Espargaro. Smith could be a fly in the ointment at Montmeló, the Englishman currently in the form of his MotoGP career. Espargaro – the younger of the two, that is – wants to get his season back on track, after a couple of tough early races. Pol grew up within earshot of the circuit, and the Espargarins, the fanatical fan club which follow the Espargaro brothers around, will be urging him on. The dark horses at Barcelona will likely be wearing Monster colors.
The one area where the Yamahas will struggle is in top speed, Barcelona boasting a massive, and massively fast front straight. Top speed records alternate between Mugello and Barcelona, and with the GP15 having set a new standard at the Italian track two weeks ago, the Ducati Desmosedici will be a formidable prospect at the Catalan track. Andrea Iannone comes to Barcelona brimming with confidence after his podium in Mugello. The Italian has a solid record at the Spanish circuit,having won here twice before, in 125s and in Moto2. Iannone has shown great maturity in his first year as a full factory rider for Ducati, and that maturity is translating into results.
Iannone's teammate Andrea Dovizioso arrives in Barcelona with amends to make. Dovizioso came to Mugello with high expectations, but a worn rear sprocket – virtually unheard of in MotoGP – forced him to retire early. The Italian lost a lot of ground in the championship because of that, and will want to make that up. Dovizioso was a podium regular in the support classes, but has stood on the box only once in MotoGP, in his days with the Tech 3 team. The Desmosedici GP15 can nearly match the Yamaha for corner speed now, as well has having good grip out of corners. Both those qualities should allow it to stay with the M1 through Barcelona's fast and flowing sections, but the killer punch could be delivered along Barcelona's front straight. Anyone on a Yamaha is going to have to work very hard indeed to catch the Ducatis back up if either Dovizioso or Iannone lead out of the final corner.
Could a Ducati win at Barcelona? It is not beyond the bounds of possibility, the track playing into the strengths of the GP15. Ducati have strong support at every track around the world, and can count on the sympathy of neutral fans, coming back from a long period in the wilderness. But an Italian rider on an Italian bike beating the local favorites would not be as popular in Catalonia as it would have been at Mugello.
The biggest question mark for Barcelona is how the Hondas will fare at the track. The bike has horsepower aplenty to deal with the long front straight, but it is that power which is hampering everyone on the RC213V as they set up for the corners. The aggressive nature of the engine makes it hard to control under braking, and as the rider first cracks the throttle through the corner. HRC have paid a high price in the pursuit of outright power, corner entry being sacrificed for top speed. That leaves the rider overloading the front tire in an attempt to compensate for the lack of braking help from the rear. At some point, that becomes too much for even the incredible grip and support of the Bridgestone front tire. Honda riders find themselves hitting the floor before they even know what happened.
The one rider who may be able to handle this better than the other Honda men is Dani Pedrosa. The man from Sabadell is that little bit smoother and that little bit gentler on the brakes than both his teammate and the satellite riders, and that may give him the edge. Pedrosa has made good progress recovering from the radical arm pump surgery he had earlier in the year, and should be close to full fitness at what is truly his home race. Honda are in need of a solid result, and Pedrosa may be the man to bring it to them.
It will be tough for Marc Márquez. The reigning world champion won here last year, and finished on the podium the year before. But in 2015 he has been hardest hit by Honda's powerful engine, its aggressiveness robbing him of his greatest riding strength. No longer can Márquez brake at will, and make seemingly impossible passes up the inside of his rivals. Instead, the bike pushes wide, the front unable to control the bike the way Márquez used to when he could use both wheels to help slow the bike. The problem was most visible at Mugello at San Donato, the first corner at the end of the front straight. Márquez took a different line through that corner every lap, the front finally giving out on him a couple of corners later at three quarters distance.
That was despite a new electronics package to try to alleviate the problem, and spending all of free practice working on set up. So focused were Márquez and his crew on set up that they missed out on a fast lap in FP3, and were forced to go through to Q1. There further ignominy awaited, Márquez electing to conserve tires for Q2, but getting caught out when Aleix Espargaro and Yonny Hernandez posted hot laps to bump Márquez out of the top two slots, and suffering too much with a lack of rear grip to do anything about it.
Márquez' focus for Barcelona will once again be working on set up, with HRC likely to have brought yet more electronics updates to try to calm the engine braking. But the weather may work against the reigning world champion: some rain is forecast for Friday, with perhaps more coming on Saturday. Every lap lost to wet conditions puts Márquez even further on the back foot, and he and his team will have their fingers crossed for four dry sessions of free practice. The test set for Monday cannot come soon enough for the Repsol Honda team, with time to explore solutions more fully.
If the weather could work against Márquez during practice, it may work in his favor during the race. The Circuit de Catalunya can be a swelteringly hot place, thinning the air and depleting it of oxygen. Less oxygen means less power, and less power means a more amenable engine. The heat may be tough on Márquez, but it would be a godsend for the RC213V.
For the first six races, the Suzuki team would have committed foul and bloody murder for some of the surplus ponies which have plagued the factory Honda. At Barcelona, they are set to see their prayers answered, if the paddock grapevine is to be believed. Extremely reliable rumors have it that Aleix Espargaro and Maverick Viñales are to receive an updated engine for Barcelona, with the extra horsepower they have been wanting. That engine is said to be close to the Yamaha in horsepower, putting the Suzuki men in with a fighting chance of staying with the race leaders. The bike is already the most agile on the grid, turning and braking better than anything else. If the extra ponies allow them to stick with the Hondas, Yamahas and Ducatis out of the corners and along the straights, then they will be in with a chance of beating them through the twisties.
The biggest question mark is just how the Suzuki GSX-RR's agile chassis will respond to have another twenty-odd horsepower thrown at it. Nothing ruins handling like horsepower, as every factory has found out to their despair at one point or another. Aleix Espargaro and Maverick Viñales may find themselves with a lot more work to do than they expected once the new engine is slotted into the frame. The final piece in the puzzle for Suzuki will be the arrival of a seamless gearbox, but that is not due to come until some time after the summer.
Aleix Espargaro faces another challenge at his home race. The surgery he had on the ligaments in his thumb should be much better than it was at Mugello, but he will still face a good deal of pain. As long as he has a little more strength in his thumb, he should be able to put up a good fight.
Espargaro senior is not the only rider in MotoGP's sick bay. Cal Crutchlow suffered a horrific crash at Mugello, badly damaging his right ankle in the process. Though he has been training and having therapy to try to fix the ankle, he will be far from fully fit at Barcelona. It is a small mercy that the damaged ankle is the right one, the foot he uses least when racing a MotoGP bike. He will still have a lot of weight to bear on it, though, and with a wayward Honda RC213V, he faces a long race on Sunday.
Andrea Iannone is another who is still suffering the aftereffects of a crash. The Italian damaged his shoulder in a crash during testing at Mugello, and is taking some time to get back to full fitness. It has not slowed him down, but Iannone still has some pain and a bit of a lack of strength in the shoulder.
Injuries or no, MotoGP waits for man nor woman. On Friday, practice starts, ready or not. It should be a long, hot weekend in the heart of Catalan racing.