The difference between a successful race weekend and going home with empty hands is often made before the bikes have even turned a wheel on the track. "Base set up," that is the elusive goal which teams spend so long chasing during testing and practice. A good base set up will give you two full days to try to go faster, knowing that the worst case scenario is that your bike is only very good, rather than perfect. If the bike is competitive from the start, you can focus on winning, rather than trying to find something which works, and gambling on changes which you are not certain will be effective.
This, then, is the dilemma facing Jorge Lorenzo's rivals at Barcelona. Lorenzo has that base set up that makes him the man to beat from Friday morning. "In the last races, Jorge find always a good solution, good setting from the beginning," Valentino Rossi told the press conference. "He was able to concentrate more on improving his riding style and arrived for the race at the maximum. 100%. This is the way to do it." That is the dilemma facing Rossi and his Movistar Yamaha team. They often find themselves working hard all weekend and finding solutions to some of their problems on Sunday morning, but that leaves them with very little preparation time. Having that base set up is all important. " We hope this time to be more competitive from the beginning, or more closer," Rossi said. "It is not important that we are first, but it is important to have good pace and a good feeling with the bike."
Why does it matter so much? This weekend could provide a demonstration. The weather is looking very unpredictable, with rain having fallen on Thursday evening, meaning the track will be a little green and possibly quite dirty, making conditions far from ideal on Friday. If it stays dry, of course, which it may very well not, meaning more lost time in practice on Friday, and leaving everyone who doesn't have a good base set up with a lot of work to do on Saturday. That at least looks relatively dry, but with the possibility of rain on Sunday, it makes working to a plan very difficult. Teams and riders may have to fall back to their last known quantity, or what is known in the paddock as their base set up.
While poor weather may be tough on championship leader Valentino Rossi, it would be disastrous for Honda. HRC is throwing everything they have at solving the problem of the RC213V's aggressive engine, giving Marc Márquez and Dani Pedrosa a lot of work to do. They have a new exhaust to try at Barcelona – one of the few components capable of influencing engine performance they can actually change – as well as "some ideas," as Marc Márquez put it. "Some ideas" probably means a little bit of set up and a whole heap of electronics, as well as the odd clutch part or two.
With all this to test, what they really need is a nice, dry weekend, with comparable conditions during every session. What they are going to get is something completely different, leaving potentially in a whole world of trouble. Marc Márquez is 49 points down on Valentino Rossi, and 43 points behind Jorge Lorenzo. While there are still twelve rounds to go in the championship, he cannot afford to lose any more ground to the Yamaha men.
Can Márquez really make up all that ground on Rossi and Lorenzo? Twelve races are a lot of points, and a lot of opportunity to swing the pendulum in your favor. Having said that, a 49 point deficit is perilously close to losing control of the championship. If Márquez won the rest of the races and Valentino Rossi finished second, the reigning champion would win the title by just 11 points. If he doesn't finish ahead of Rossi at Barcelona, then he starts to reach the point where Rossi must make a mistake, or crash out, or lose an engine to put him back into the race. If Lorenzo wins and Márquez finishes off the podium, then Márquez needs Lorenzo to slip up.
Despite the cold, hard numbers, neither Rossi nor Lorenzo were willing to write Marc Márquez off just yet. "I'm worried, everybody is worried, I think also Jorge, about the distance to Marc," Rossi told the press conference. "But we know it is very clear that if he can fix the problem with the bike from tomorrow, he can recover, because he can win every Sunday." Lorenzo pointed to past examples of riders who had recovered large points deficits. "I was 50 points behind Marc in 2013 and in three or four races I was there, within three or four points. So everything can happen. Valentino with Nicky was 50 points in 2006, and in three races he recover everything. You just have to have one crash, two crashes, or one engine failure to lose all the points." What Lorenzo failed to mention, however, is that neither Lorenzo nor Rossi went on to win those championship battles, despite their impressive recovery of points. The championship isn't over yet, but the outlines of a result are starting to appear from the mist.
Despite HRC closing ranks on the problems with the RC213V – at Mugello, orders went out to a couple of riders to moderate and change their comments on the bike's problems – Márquez let slip just how much he is having to fight the bike. During the press conference, respected Spanish journalist Manuel Pecino posed an interesting question about arm pump, and why it was so prevalent in modern racing. While both Rossi and Márquez were extremely illuminating on possible causes, Márquez dropped in a telling comment. "Also it depends on how you ride the bike," Márquez said. "For example last year I didn't have any problem, any feeling, and this year already in some races I feel something. That means that for example I don't ride in the way I want to. When you ride like you are stiff on the bike, then is when these problems are coming." Last year, Márquez was quite relaxed on the bike, and could point it where he wanted it to go. This year, he is having to fight the bike, braking harder and pushing further. That means he is encountering the limit earlier, and fighting harder to prevent himself from going over it. "The limit is a thing that you feel," he explained. "But if you are riding on the limit and somebody is in front of you, you want to go faster. So sometimes you ride over the limit, and that is when you crash."
Valentino Rossi gave a good explanation of where arm pump is coming from for many MotoGP riders. "It's curious," he said. "For me, there is a technical answer for this problem. Sincerely I don't know, but for sure in the last years, the pressure you have on your arms during the braking is increased. Because the Bridgestone front tire is fantastic, the brakes are always bigger and bigger, and also the engine braking of the bike and for example the seamless in braking help a lot to stop the bike. So this is all technical force that go to your arms. And in the last years, a lot of people have this problem, I think it's for this. But for me, fortunately, I don't have a problem." Márquez broadly agreed with that hypothesis. "The level now is really high," he said. "With the bikes you can go really fast, you are pushing a lot. Not only one lap but during all the race, because the tires are so consistent too."
Rain would be the saving grace for riders with arm pump, the conditions making everything a lot easier for everyone. But it would ruin the efforts of Honda, and of Suzuki, who get a new engine here this weekend, to try to figure out whether the updates and changes have worked. The glass will be either half full, or half empty, depending on your perspective.
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