It has been a strange and fascinating first three races of the 2018 MotoGP season, but as the paddock returns to Europe, we get the first chance to see how the series will look under conditions more usually understood as normal. The three flyaways which kick the season off all have their own peculiarities which tend to skew the results. Qatar happens at night, on a dusty track. Argentina and Austin are races on circuits which don't see enough action, which the teams have only visited a few times, making the track difficult to judge. And Marc Márquez always wins at Austin anyway.
That all changes at Jerez. The next six tracks – Jerez, Le Mans, Mugello, Barcelona, Assen, Sachsenring – have been on the calendar for a decade or more. The riders have lapped the circuits thousands of times at races and in testing, and the teams and factories have enough data from the tracks to fill a small country's worth of data centers. This is familiar ground, and so everything changes.
"Coming here and it's like the season starts again, you can breathe again," is how Pol Espargaro describes it. "I don't say that we are bad in those countries, but this is home, it's where I've been racing here for many many years." Exactly how many years? "My first race here was in the Catalan championship, when I was 13 years old, I'm 26? So 2005, 2006? Look how many years racing here! But the jet lag, the food, the timing when you eat, when you sleep, the people who come to the track, we have more fans here than in any other place in the world, and this makes you feel good. And also we have much more data here than at other tracks, so for us it's much easier to face this GP."
All about the asphalt
A new season, a new start, and a new surface. This is the first time the riders will have raced on the new asphalt at Jerez since it was resurfaced last year. Almost everyone bar the Yamahas have tested on the track, however, some at the private test in November last year, and a handful of riders after the race in Qatar. The new surface was desperately needed: the old tarmac was at the very end of its life, no grip left and playing havoc on tire life. The new surface is a vast improvement on what was here before.
But even the new surface is suffering under the intensive use it gets. "I tested here after Qatar and the situation was a little bit worse," Danilo Petrucci said. "Especially in Turn 1 and Turn 8 the asphalt is not so perfect. I mean there are many patches. I don't know why because in the other parts of the track the asphalt is very good. Lot of traction. And for sure is 100% better compared to the old asphalt. But in Turn 1 and 8 you have to be quite careful."
Cal Crutchlow was also concerned about Turn 1, but he was also full of praise for the way the circuit responds to rider demands. "The first corner is rough as anything," the LCR Honda rider said. "A lot of the other corners are fantastic. When you resurface a track, it’s that grippy it looks like whatever has gone over it has actually ripped the stones off. When we rode here, it was good. They’ve done a good job."
Listening and learning
Above all, they had listened to what the riders had asked for after the Safety Commission meeting last year. "People that look after the circuit really listen to us, which is good," Crutchlow commented. "Even to the point of last year, I was talking to the boss of the circuit when I was driving home about adding a bit extra on a kerb. So they’re good like that and they did a good job. You can’t make every circuit perfect. Sure, some of the corners are ripping up like that. In the end, it’s still probably better than the first corner from last year."
Who benefits from the new surface? It is hard to say. Jerez has seen a merry pageant of different winners over the years. In the 11 editions of the Spanish Grand Prix since 2007, there have been five different winners, three of them with three wins each to their name. Valentino Rossi has won three times, Dani Pedrosa has won three times, and Jorge Lorenzo has won three times, while Casey Stoner and Marc Márquez have one victory each at the Spanish circuit.
Those are all Hondas and Yamahas, however. Jerez has never been a Ducati track, Andrea Dovizioso's best result here being his fifth place last year. Yet at the same race, Jorge Lorenzo took his first podium on a Ducati, after struggling badly in his first three races on the Desmosedici.
All in the mind
What this means is that the circuit is probably more about rider confidence than anything else. If you love the track, love the feel and the flow of it, its combination of sweeping corners and tight turns, then you will do well. If the tight cutback at Turn 2, the hard braking hairpin at Dry Sack, the short double right at Turns 9 and 10, Nieto and Peluqui, are all too fiddly for you, then you will suffer. Racing takes place in the mind as well as on the track, and if you can't get your head around Jerez, you'll never get around Jerez the way you want to.
The tighter, narrower nature of the circuit plays a role too, and will help some and hinder others. Aleix Espargaro, for instance, is happy to leave the wide open horsepower tracks like Qatar, Argentina, and Austin and return to tracks where handling outweighs horsepower. "Normally everyone says ‘we cannot wait to get back to Europe and blah blah’ but in our case it is really true," Aprilia's Aleix Espargaro said. "In the first two races we suffered a lot with fuel consumption and they were two big tracks that were not the best for our Aprilia. These tracks are a bit slower, trickier. The frame is really good, the new engine is a lot better and the consumption of the next tracks is not super-huge so we’ll be able to run full of power. I cannot wait. I hope we can be back to fight for the top six."
A top six would be a good result for Aprilia, but the odds are this will be a battle between the Hondas and the Yamahas. Normally, the man to beat at the track is Dani Pedrosa, but the Spaniard is still recovering from the wrist he broke in Argentina. He managed to race in Austin – probably the most physical track on the calendar – in part because he wanted to be back for Jerez, a circuit he knows he can do well at. He has been on the podium ten times from eleven MotoGP starts, and with three victories to his name, this is one of his best chances to notch up another win. That matters, because with Honda team boss Alberto Puig believed to be ready to look at a replacement – Joan Mir's name is said to be at the top of his list – a few wins are what Pedrosa needs to either win back the confidence of his former manager, or prove that he deserves a seat at another factory.
Close but no cigar
Normally, Marc Márquez would be Pedrosa's main rival, but this is one of the tracks where Márquez is always close, but rarely manages to finish on top at. He has been on the podium in each of his five appearances in MotoGP here, but he has only ever won here once, back in 2014 in that epic run of ten straight race wins at the start of the season. The Honda RC213V is a better machine than it was last year, but the extra horsepower HRC has uncorked in 2018 will only go to waste at Jerez. Márquez will be trying to make it all up on the brakes again, and not lose too much to wheelies out of corners.
Jerez was where everything started to go wrong for the Yamahas last year. The Movistar Yamaha team came to Jerez on a high, with Valentino Rossi leading the championship, while Maverick Viñales had won two of the first three races. But at Jerez, they discovered they could no longer hide the weaknesses of the bike. "Usually when I arrive in Europe I am very happy because there are a lot of tracks I love," Valentino Rossi told the press. "Unfortunately we started to struggle very much at a track where I was very strong in 2016 and was able to win. From that moment we were able to understand the limit of our bike and that we had a problem."
"Last year we struggled a lot with the front tire, but not with the grip, so I'm quite curious to see how the bike is working," Maverick Viñales said. The 2018 bike has solved most of the problems the Yamaha had last year, and is better adapted to the Michelin front introduced at Mugello last season. What was evident from both Rossi and Viñales was that their feeling coming into Jerez was very different to 2017. This time last year, they came with swagger, and found their hubris punished. On Thursday, there was cautious optimism that after a difficult start to the season, they are on an upward trend. Jerez could be where they take flight, rather than come crashing down to earth.
Then there's the curious case of Johann Zarco. Jerez was another race where Zarco proved he was something special, finishing fourth not far behind Jorge Lorenzo. More importantly, he finished ahead of both factory Yamahas, struggling less with the tires than Rossi and Viñales. This is a good opportunity for Zarco to get his first win in MotoGP. That would be a perfect cap to the new contract he signed with KTM ahead of this weekend. More about that tomorrow.
Ducati poses a different challenge. For Jorge Lorenzo, this is a chance to show that he still has his mojo, and can get on the podium on the Ducati, even at a bad track for the bike. More importantly, it is a chance to finish ahead of his teammate, and prove a point. Though Lorenzo's time at Ducati looks likely to come to an end, his stock is lower than he would like it to be at the moment. If he is to get paid what he wants from a future employer (that's Suzuki, to you and me), then he needs a few very strong results. A podium or better here would be a very good start.
Andrea Dovizioso, on the other hand, is playing the long game. This year, it is the Italian who arrives at Jerez leading the championship. He probably knows that he will leave here trailing Marc Márquez in the standings, but that doesn't really matter. What counts for Dovizioso is to limit the damage, and ensure that he still has Márquez within his sights. This time last year, he was 8 points down on Márquez and 26 behind the leader. Dovizioso has a run of much stronger tracks coming, and what he learned last year is that championships are won on your bad days, not your good days. Win when you can, but make sure you don't lose too many points when you can't.
Like Aprilia, Jerez should suit the Suzuki as well. The bike's strongest point is its handling, and with two podiums in the first three races, the engine is strong enough now, with both riders performing very well too. Suzuki's top brass is here this weekend, for talks with Marc VDS and (we suspect) for discussions about whether they can afford a rider like Jorge Lorenzo or Dani Pedrosa. Alex Rins will want to prove that Suzuki was right to put their faith in him as a rookie last year, while Andrea Iannone will want to show to the world that if Suzuki don't keep him, he deserves a factory ride with another manufacturer.
Take your pick
In fact, Zarco's signing and the persistent rumors around moves at Repsol Honda and Ducati have lent the series a somewhat frantic feel. Riders are jockeying for position, both in the media, but above all, on track. Cal Crutchlow made it clear that he was very happy with his deal at LCR Honda, while simultaneously hinting heavily that he would like some more factory support, so that he can go toe-to-toe with the factory riders. His results say that he has earned it, but you are only as good as your last race, and Crutchlow crashed out in Austin. Crutchlow, too, can be strong here.
He faces a horde of others who could be quick. Tito Rabat is unleashed on the Ducati, and is very strong at Jerez. Jack Miller has gone from strength to strength on the Pramac Ducati, and will be vying for a shot at an empty factory Ducati seat. Danilo Petrucci was enormously quick at the test here in November, and has shown real speed in the first three weekends, though he has yet to put it all together for a race. Take your pick of the top eighteen or so riders, and anyone could possibly feature.
It is Southern Spain, the weather is a little cooler than normal, but still glorious, the atmosphere is like no other, and the circuit is set in a natural amphitheater. There is no better place for a season reboot. Jerez promises much this year, and it usually makes good on its promises.
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