Momentum. That's what the last race before the Australasian triple header is all about. Momentum heading towards the end of the championship. Coming out on top and carrying it forward to Motegi, Phillip Island, and Sepang is vital. The deal may get done on one of the flyaways, but Aragon is the place where the riders put their chips on the table.
All three races on Sunday had a huge impact on the MotoGP championship. In the first race of the day, a title was settled. In the second race of the day, the championship was blown even further open. The final race of the day saw another brick hammered into the wall of Marc Márquez' third MotoGP title, and further cemented his legacy. It was a good day's racing.
There are a lot of ways to win titles, but the way the 2016 Moto3 championship was settled was about as fitting as it could be. At the end of a classic Moto3 race, where a strong group battled for control until the final four laps, four men broke away from the pack. That group consisted of Brad Binder, the two men who could still mathematically challenge Binder for the 2016 title, Enea Bastianini and Jorge Navarro, and rookie revelation Fabio Di Giannantonio.
The New Ax Murderers
A fierce battle ensued, in which Binder risked it all to try and win. No quarter was asked, nor any given, yet the fight was fair. Jorge Navarro emerged triumphant, Binder crossing the line in second ahead of Bastianini. In many ways, it was the 2016 season condensed into few short laps.
Perhaps the most impressive part of Binder's race is that at no point did it look like he was thinking about the championship. He raced as hard as if he were racing for his first win, and was willing to risk crashing in the attempt. He could afford to. "Obviously I wanted to get the job done, but you know, we had another four races to go still," he told a special championship press conference afterwards.
That meant he had not felt particularly stressed, he said. He had his team boss Aki Ajo to thank for that, to a large extent. When I went down to speak to Binder in his garage on Saturday evening, after a disappointing qualifying, it was Ajo who answered the questions I aimed at Binder. "The strategy is always the same," Ajo said, and made it clear he considered my questions stupid and a distraction. Ajo played his role as team manager perfectly, protecting his rider from outside distractions. Annoying for me, perhaps, but all part of the game.
All about belief
The championship press conference revealed Binder to be exactly the champion we thought he was. Calm, reflective, mature. He heaped praise upon his team. "I think the thing that made the biggest difference is I have the most incredible team behind me. I have such a great structure, and everything has been working so well. Every single race this year, I've never gone into the race feeling not sure about something. My team worked so hard, the KTM people, my manager, everyone around me, they basically ensured that everything worked out perfectly for me this year. I think it's so nice, because when I rock up to a race weekend, I basically just carry on with my job, and everything else is sorted."
He had been helped by his first win at Jerez. There, after being forced to start at the back of the grid, Binder came through to win the race with a comfortable margin. He took a lot of confidence from that. "Any time I was struggling this year, I looked back at that and I said to myself, you know what, I could do it from last so I'm sure I can win the race any other time too," he said.
Binder has won the championship with four races left to go in the season, the first rider to do so since MotoGP adopted (or more properly, reverted to) the current points scoring system. He openly acknowledged that his rivals had made his job easier for him. "This year, we have been very consistent, but also my rivals in the championship in second and third have had a lot of moments, and things for them haven't been easy, with Jorge [Navarro] breaking a leg and also a few times he's been taken out of the race. And in those races, I've won the race each time." Enea Bastianini was too unpredictable to mount a consistent challenge, and Romano Fenati was unwilling to submit to the VR46 Riders Academy regime, and was sacked by his team while in second place in the championship.
All that is as may be, but Binder deserves this title. He was strong in the early part of the championship, and since winning the race at Jerez, he was supremely confident in his abilities. Even when the bike as not perfect, he scored points, and when it was perfect, he could win at will. There was a swagger, almost, an unshakable belief in his own ability gained at Jerez. Motorcycle racing takes place largely between the ears of its competitors, and Brad Binder's brain was as hard as diamond, as sharp, and as bright.
It's back on for Lowes
While Binder put the Moto3 title beyond doubt, Sam Lowes managed to open the Moto2 title up even further than Alex Rins had at Misano. Johann Zarco's slump continued at Aragon, the reigning world champion riding around anonymously mid pack. He had chased Rins hard, but could not catch him, despite Rins suffering badly with gastroenteritis all weekend.
Lowes won the race convincingly, barely brooking any opposition. He had been imperious all weekend, never out of the top three and starting the race from pole. He led from the line, dropping a surprisingly strong Alex Márquez after six laps, and claiming a confidence boosting victory. The younger Márquez brother held of a late challenge from his Marc VDS teammate Franco Morbidelli to take second, and his very first podium. Márquez has been making steady, though very slow progress, and a podium could be the breakthrough he needs to build his confidence and be competitive in Moto2. With the cream of Moto2 leaving at the end of 2016, that would put Márquez in a good situation for next year.
Victory for Lowes, while Rins and Zarco finished in sixth and eighth respectively, means that Zarco leads Rins by just a single point, while Lowes closes the gap from 53 to 40 points. Afterwards, an impish Lowes told us he felt he was back in the game, especially as Rins and Zarco seemed to be spending all their efforts on watching each other, rather than trying to win races. "Now they’re really close it’s going to be difficult for them, so I’m in a good position, you know. I love Japan, Phillip Island’s my best track so it could be good. If they get caught up at Japan and then I go to Phillip Island and have a good weekend, who knows."
After a championship settled, and another opened up, the MotoGP race came somewhere in between. A little closer to Moto3, for sure, with Marc Márquez making good on the devastating form he showed in practice. He did not quite win by the country mile everyone expected, however: as he and Jorge Lorenzo battled over the lead through the first two turns, they pushed each other wide, allowing a soaring Maverick Viñales to take the lead. Márquez fought his way back past Viñales, then lost several places when he had a monster front end slide at Turn 7.
How did he save it? On Friday night, Michelin boss Nicolas Goubert had explained to us how Márquez had been gaining confidence from a couple of massive near-crashes he had had recently. The slides allowed him to gain a real understanding of where the limits lay with the front Michelin tires, and what they could and could not do. Márquez used that understanding to hold the sliding front on his elbow, then slide it back up into some semblance of normality, slotting into fifth spot, having lost just a second in the incident.
Márquez would not be denied, however. Having learned not to push the asymmetric front too hard too early, he edged his way forward, picking off the men ahead of him. Valentino Rossi put up stiff resistance, though only for a couple of laps before having to admit Márquez was his better. From that point on, Márquez was gone, nobody capable of matching him.
The stranglehold tightens
Victory meant a lot to Márquez, coming as it did after a drought of four races. Those four races had been harder to swallow because he had been on the podium only once, and had finished behind Valentino Rossi each time. Fortunately for Márquez, Rossi had never been able to properly capitalize, the points difference never coming down fast enough to bring him back into contention.
The win opened up the gap to Rossi again, extending it from 43 to 52 points, a comfortable advantage for the Repsol Honda rider. Rossi now needs to gain an average of 13 points a race on the Spaniard, meaning that fourth place in the remaining four races will be enough for Márquez to wrap up the title, even if Rossi wins all of them.
That scenario does not favor Rossi, as he has historically struggled at Valencia, faces fierce competition from Dani Pedrosa at Sepang, and from, well, half the field at Phillip Island, and probably the Ducatis at Motegi. Márquez, meanwhile, goes well in Australia, Malaysia and Valencia. He does not need to win there, though he is quite capable of doing so.
It increasingly looks like Marc Márquez has at least one hand on the title, and possibly a finger or two of the other. Theoretically, Márquez could wrap the whole thing up after Motegi, but that would require him outscoring Rossi by 23 points and Lorenzo by 9 points. A more likely scenario is that Márquez does enough at Phillip Island to leave with a lead of more than 50 points, and clinch the title Down Under.
Lorenzo's tire adventures
Rossi's challenge had been made harder by his Movistar Yamaha teammate Jorge Lorenzo. After the Spaniard's difficult qualifying and slow pace in FP4, he had not expected to be a factor. But a crash in morning warm up proved to be his salvation: to make sure his second bike was OK, Lorenzo had gone out for one sighting lap on his second bike with the hard rear tire he couldn't make work, then switched to his race bike with the soft rear tire he had resigned himself to using for his second sighting lap to the grid.
As soon as he completed his second sighting lap, he knew he had made a mistake, and urged his crew to swap back to the hard rear he had used on his spare bike. The soft rear was not working, but the hard rear gave him a much better feeling, a feeling which had been missing on Saturday. What changed in the intervening period? One source close to Lorenzo expressed doubt over the consistency of Michelin tires, but a spokesperson from Michelin countered that Lorenzo had ignored Michelin's advice on Saturday, but followed it on Sunday. Who is right? Who knows. All we do know is that Jorge Lorenzo caught Valentino Rossi towards the end of the race, and passed him to take second.
A costly error
Rossi had not given up the place without a fight, however. He hung onto the tail of Lorenzo for several laps, biding his time to make a counterattack. Unfortunately, an error of judgment saw Rossi try to pass Lorenzo back way too early, and in the wrong place, the entrance to Turn 13. Rossi freely admitted it had been a mistake, and Wilco Zeelenberg later told me he felt that Rossi had been caught off guard by Lorenzo's lines.
Rossi found himself braking later on the entrance to Turn 13, and suddenly on the inside of Lorenzo. If he had tried to make the corner, Rossi would have ended up taking out Lorenzo, and possibly himself. He had no real chance of getting the bike safely stopped and turned for Turn 13, so he let off the brakes and ran wide. It meant surrendering second place, four more valuable points to Marc Márquez, and a differential of eight points with his teammate. With just 14 points between them, the battle for second in the championship is very much open.
Ordinarily, second place in the championship is not worth fighting exceptionally hard for. Riders would prefer to take more risks and try to win races – not least because a win bonus is more valuable than the bonus for second place in the championship. But this is Rossi vs Lorenzo, and Lorenzo is leaving for Ducati at the end of the season. Both men want to impose their will on the other, to show the other who is boss while they are still on the same bike. The race for the title may be over, but there is still plenty of entertainment left in the championship.
Suzuki making things last
Maverick Viñales was left off the podium, yet the Suzuki rider was much happier than he had been in a while. The Suzuki rider has made a step in recent races in conserving rear grip, even when the track temperatures rise. He had still had drive grip left on lap 18, much longer than in previous races. "This time the tire lived until lap 18," he said. "Next time we try to make it live until the last lap."
Where he might find that is in engine braking, which became a problem as the race progressed. The rear of the bike was locking up on entry, making him lose a little too much time, and nearly caused him to run into the back of Valentino Rossi. That had been the point at which he had lost touch with Rossi, settling for fourth in the end.
A frustrated Cal Crutchlow crossed the line in fifth, angry at having been held up in traffic once again. If he hadn't crashed during qualifying, and started the race from further up the grid, he felt he had the pace to run with the leaders, and maybe even battle with the podium. However, he found himself stuck behind Aleix Espargaro first, and then Andrea Dovizioso and Dani Pedrosa. By the time he got past, the leaders were gone. His pace, though strong, was not good enough to catch them.
Two tires, two different causes
Pedrosa and Dovizioso suffered similar fates, though for widely differing reasons. The Ducati of Dovizioso developed a vibration in the front tire after about four laps, which made it impossible for him to keep his front pace. Dovizioso was carefully neutral about whether the problem was a tire issue, or came from the bike. His demeanor said that he believed it was a problem with the tire. But as Michele Pirro had developed a similar problem, it is not unreasonable to suspect that the cause may be found in the bike.
The obvious culprit would be the wings afixed to the Desmosedici: such front tire issues are common in the factory and Pramac teams, both of whom use the wings extensively, yet occur much less often in the Avintia and Aspar teams, where the bikes have no wings. There are bigger differences between the GP15/16 and the GP14.2, but as the wings put pressure on the front wheel, it is hard not to suspect they are a factor.
Wings definitely did not play a factor in Dani Pedrosa's tire troubles. The Spaniard was finding it impossible to brake, his front tire developing a severe problem in the final third of the race. Afterwards, it was clear that there were chunks of rubber missing from his front tire, making stopping the bike very hard indeed. In an attempt to compensate, Pedrosa had been dragging his booth, wearing it completely through at the front to his toes.
The problem was clearly with the tire, and Michelin took it away to their base in Clermont Ferrand for further inspection and to determine the cause. The photos which appeared, first on social media and later on the websites of the international press, were unusual in that normally, teams cover up the tires they use in order to hide the wear patterns. However, it can sometimes be convenient for a team to forget to cover up a damaged tire, and accidentally wheel it past the camera phone of a waiting journalist. Having photos of the damage removes any doubt over the root cause of a rider's problems.
Buoyant in Noale
While Dani Pedrosa was extremely disappointed to have finished in sixth, especially after his win in Misano, there was a sense of satisfaction in the Aprilia garage. Both Alvaro Bautista and Stefan Bradl finished inside the top ten, Bautista taking ninth ahead of Bradl in tenth. The performance gains from Misano had proved to be very real, the new chassis and set up they found giving the Aprilias real speed and confidence.
What makes this a real breakthrough? They had been fast at Misano, Bautista said, and they had been fast at a test at Valencia, a couple of days later. Then they had continued that step at Aragon, where they were also much more competitive than before. Three very different tracks with different characteristics, and being fast at all of them was proof they were getting closer to the front.
The next step for Aprilia is to bring second bikes for both riders, so that they could do more work on the set up, running back-to-back tests on set up on the same chassis. At Aragon, like in Misano, they had each had one new and one old chassis, which had frustrated those attempts. A second chassis should be available at Motegi, Stefan Bradl hoped.
If the Aprilia teammates were optimistic, things where quite the opposite in the Pramac garage. Ducati's decision to give one Ducati GP17 to either Scott Redding or Danilo Petrucci for 2017 is slowly starting to backfire. The two are engaged in a bitter battle for results, the best rider getting the new bike. That battle is creating the potential for mistakes, something which we saw at Aragon.
Petrucci ended up taking out Redding on the first lap, in a wild and uncontrolled passing attempt that was never going to succeed. He was punished for that attempt by being given a ride through by Race Direction, a penalty which he had earned given his earlier form for this. He had done something similar to Eugene Laverty in Austria, and Race Direction felt it was time to clamp down.
Other riders felt this was necessary, and had been so for some time. When asked about Petrucci, Pol Espargaro immediately accused the Italian of riding far too dangerously on the opening laps. "He takes too many risks at the beginning," Espargaro said, "too many overtakes on the limit." Espargaro had been a victim of that, as had his brother Aleix on the Suzuki. With Laverty and now Redding being hit, Pol Espargaro felt that it was time for Petrucci to serve a race ban. If the Pramac Ducati rider hits someone else, there is every chance he might just be forced to do that.
Marc Márquez came to the Motorland Aragon, he saw, and he conquered. He inscribed his name even more firmly into the record books, taking on top spot for recorded pole positions since 1974 with Jorge Lorenzo (64) and matching Mick Doohan for the number of Grand Prix wins (54). Sensitive Australians – and they do so often seem to be extremely sensitive about the extraordinary achievements of their fellow countrymen – were quick to point out that Doohan's wins all came in the premier class, aboard a Honda NSR500, while Márquez' victories came in all three Grand Prix classes, 125cc, Moto2, and MotoGP.
That is a valid criticism, but Márquez cannot be blamed for Doohan not having competed in 125s and 250s. Márquez' win rate is a little slower than Doohan's – Márquez took 146 races to get to 54 wins while Doohan needed just 135 races to achieve that target. But Márquez is still just 23 years of age, while Doohan was 33 when he achieved his 54th victory. Márquez still has Giacomo Agostini, Valentino Rossi, Angel Nieto, Mike Hailwood, and Jorge Lorenzo ahead of him in the all-time standings. It is a good bet that he will pass most of those names before his career ends. Though crucially, probably not all.
It is going to be fun finding out just how far he can get, and just how high Valentino Rossi can set the bar.
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