Racing produces drama. When you put 24 riders on an equal number of 270hp MotoGP machines, you can never be certain of the outcome. The tired and obvious story lines you had written in your head before the race have a tendency to go up in smoke once the flag drops. Racing produces a new reality, often surprising, rarely predictable.
But that doesn't stop us from drawing up a picture after practice of how the race is going to play out. At a tight track like Jerez, passing is difficult, and so the rider who can get the holeshot can try to open a gap and run away at the front. After qualifying, it was clear that the three factory-backed Hondas were strongest, the Repsols of Marc Márquez and Dani Pedrosa, together with the LCR Honda of Cal Crutchlow were all a cut above the rest. It would be an all-RC213V podium, with the other manufacturers left to fight over the scraps. The Ducatis would do battle with the Suzukis, and the Yamahas would find some pace at last, and get in among it at the front.
It didn't pan out that way, of course. Yes, a Honda dominated proceedings. Yes, a couple of Ducatis battled with a couple of Suzukis at different points during the race. And yes, the Yamahas found some pace, with Wilco Zeelenberg telling me shortly before the race that during warm up on Sunday morning they had found a little bit of the grip they had been missing. But the race resolutely failed to stick to the script we all had in our heads before the start.
The first sign that this race wasn't going to go the way we thought was when Jorge Lorenzo got a rocket start, firing off the line from fourth on the grid straight into the lead. Dani Pedrosa and Johann Zarco followed, while polesitter Cal Crutchlow's start was the opposite of Lorenzo's, dropping to fourth place. Behind them, Marc Márquez started setting up for a run which would take him all the way to the front.
Lorenzo led in the early laps, only briefly ceding the lead to Dani Pedrosa but snatching it straight back from him. Lorenzo was strong on the brakes, and has mastered the Ducati's strongest point, its acceleration out of corners, which made him almost impossible to pass for Pedrosa. And not just for Pedrosa: Lorenzo's stout defense of his position using all the tools at his disposal would eventually end in disaster, and throw a spanner in the works of the championship.
Lorenzo's defense was not enough to keep Marc Márquez behind him, however. Once Márquez had disposed of Cal Crutchlow and Johann Zarco in the early laps, Márquez set his sights on Lorenzo, and in a pass that was clean as a whistle came through on the Ducati rider in the final corner, the turn which bears Lorenzo's name. Once through, he dialed up the pace, but not enough to be able to shake the group which had formed in his wake.
That group had consisted of Jorge Lorenzo, Dani Pedrosa, Andrea Dovizioso, and Cal Crutchlow, but the LCR Honda rider had been pushing too hard to stay with the group, and slid out at Turn 1. He would blame the crash on a lack of rear grip (stemming, according to him, from a lack of a carbon swingarm) which had forced him to push too hard and overheat the front tire. Now, Lorenzo, Pedrosa, and Dovizioso gave chase to Márquez as the Repsol Honda rider tried to make good his escape.
It was quickly becoming apparent that it was Andrea Dovizioso who was strongest, taking third from Dani Pedrosa into the final corner on lap 9. But Dovizioso found himself stuck behind his teammate, and unable to make a pass. Meanwhile, Márquez was just starting to edge away from the following trio, his pace a tenth or two better than that of Lorenzo's.
Dovizioso was desperate to find a way past, but the fact that he even found himself in that position was a remarkable turnaround. He had started the weekend a long way down the order, losing too much time to the three Hondas which had dominated practice and with no sign of improvement in sight. Deep analysis of the data persuaded Dovizioso to switch to the aerodynamic fairing, which he had initially written off as a non starter at Jerez. It transformed his fortunes, and put him in position for what looked like a certain podium.
"Normally when I’m saying that I can fight for the podium, I’m not saying bull****," Dovizioso told the media colorfully. "Yesterday in the afternoon I explained that and we did a big step from the morning to then, the afternoon. It showed anything can happen but we needed to have a really good speed. In the end it was even better than that, also because a lot of fast riders were really on the limit and they made a mistake. Lap-by-lap, during the race, you can learn some lines, some points and I was really consistent, really fast."
The problem was that he had started further down the grid, and now found himself caught behind his teammate. He probed and prodded, but he could not find his way through. "I lost too much behind Jorge," Dovizioso said. "He was fast but he was too slow in the middle of the corner, and was struggling too much with the front. I think he also didn’t want to let me pass. He stopped too much in the middle of the corner. That’s why we lost the time with Marc because he was struggling and he slowed down to close the door. That’s why I took ten laps to try to overtake him, because I didn’t want to make a mistake."
The pace was fast, the fastest lap nearly a whole second faster than in 2017, and the riders were leaving little room for error. "Everybody was on the limit with the front, which was confirmed by a lot of crashes," Dovizioso said. Apart from Cal Crutchlow, Alex Rins had gone down – his third crash in four races – as well as Karel Abraham and Tom Luthi. Riders were pushing the front to keep up. "I was on the limit with the front and the front locked in the middle of the corner," Dovizioso said. "I lost the front three times. I didn’t want to make a mistake here because already Marc was gone and I would have taken a risk to do what? I have to just overtake Jorge because I was a little bit faster that time. I knew immediately if I was able to make one lap in front of him I would have been able to make a gap. He was really on the limit but I couldn’t create a situation because he was stopping in the middle of the corner and he accelerated in a perfect way so I couldn’t get enough to try and overtake him."
On lap 18, Dovizioso went for what looked like his best opportunity. In an attempt which he had been working toward since crossing the finish line and closing on Lorenzo since Turn 1, the Italian launched out of Turn 5 and chased his Ducati teammate down the back straight. He finally got a chance to try to outbrake him into Dry Sack, but as is always the case at Turn 6, getting past is hard and you can quickly find yourself having to brake deeper to make the corner and running wide. Lorenzo cut back underneath Dovizioso having squared the corner off as sharply as he could and got ready to fire back out of the corner and set himself up for the next left hander at Turn 7.
That's where it all went wrong. Lorenzo's line put him on a collision course with Dani Pedrosa, who had hugged the inside line at Turn 6. Neither rider saw the other, the two touched, and both men went down. Or rather, Lorenzo went down, wiping out Andrea Dovizioso in the process, while Pedrosa went up, flung from his bike as the rear tire gripped briefly then spat him off. It was his second highside in two races, the first coming at Argentina when he was pushed wide by Johann Zarco and touched a damp spot and the throttle at the same time. This time, he came off relatively lightly, with only heavy bruising to his hip, but the wrist he broke in Argentina escaped further aggravation.
The crash had enormous consequences. First of all, it handed an easy victory to Marc Márquez, allowing him to run away in the championship. Secondly, it gave podiums to Johann Zarco and Andrea Iannone, though the Suzuki rider was forced to work for it to hold off Pramac Ducati's Danilo Petrucci. It spared Yamaha's blushes, giving Valentino Rossi a flattering fifth place, rather than what would have been a disappointing eighth. (Rossi, though, was not so kind to his employer, making exactly this point and demanding changes).
Most of all, though, it deprived Andrea Dovizioso of serious points in the championship, and made his life a lot more difficult than it needed to be. The Italian had come to Jerez leading Márquez by just a single point. Had he finished behind Lorenzo, he would have left Spain trailing Márquez by 8 points. Had he successfully got past Lorenzo, that deficit would have been cut to 4 points. But now, he finds himself down in fifth in the championship, and 24 points behind Marc Márquez. His saving grace was that he was fast at a track where Ducati have struggled to be quick in the past. But that is small comfort for such a big loss of points.
The blame game
So who was to blame for the crash? Race Direction took a long hard look at the sequence of events which led to the crash, and ruled it a racing incident. That was pretty much the conclusion of every rider we spoke to about it, as well as the riders themselves. But this was another instance of reality defying the script. Crashes involving three riders are rare in MotoGP, outside of the first lap, but if it had happened and involved, say, Marc Márquez or Danilo Petrucci, nobody would have been surprised.
But these were the three cleanest riders on the grid who were involved in the pile up. Not my words, but the words of Andrea Dovizioso, Jorge Lorenzo, Dani Pedrosa, all using the phrase independently of each other. Race Director Mike Webb used exactly the same phrase when we spoke to him. Dovizioso's pass on Pedrosa had been picture perfect. His pass on Lorenzo had been ambitious, perhaps, but it was a long way from being dangerous. Lorenzo made the absolutely standard defensive move after being passed at Dry Sack, cutting back inside and heading for a late apex. Pedrosa saw a hole, and took a fairly standard inside line. It is hard to apportion blame to something which looked like an unfortunate confluence of events.
Racing incident or not, the riders involved were far from happy. Pedrosa's first reaction when he returned to the garage was to scream with rage. Dovizioso was angry and frustrated, as was Lorenzo. All three did their best to try not to apportion blame, though there was some oblique criticism. The consensus among the three was that Dovizioso had the least part of it – after all, it was Lorenzo and Pedrosa who came together, taking Dovizioso out as a result. But both Pedrosa and Lorenzo felt the blame lay more with the other than with themselves.
"The images are clear, but to be honest I don't want to speak too much about that or to say it's his fault or it's your fault, because we are the three cleanest riders in the championship," Lorenzo said. "It was a very unlucky movement for all three, and we finished on the ground. And we are never in these type of actions."
Lorenzo had not seen Pedrosa come up on the inside, the Ducati rider said. "Obviously not. Everything happened so fast, I was obviously coming into the narrow place as always, when you run a bit wide you are coming to get the best acceleration and suddenly Dani was there, and then the crash everything happened like domino pieces."
He hadn't even know that Pedrosa was behind him, he explained. "Especially today, I said to Juanito, who does my pit board, to only tell me the rider behind. But even like that, if they put G3 on the board, which means there are three riders behind you, even like that you don't know where the third rider is, whether he is very far or close. So the third rider is the only one who has vision of the situation, because we don't have eyes in the back of our head. I would like that, to be a rider with four eyes, but it's not possible. So it's the one behind who has to be responsible. But anyway, it's Dani. And Dani, myself and Dovi, are never in those actions, so I don't want to say it's your fault, your fault. It has no meaning."
Dani Pedrosa saw it a little differently, of course. "There in that point, they made a mistake," he said. "They both went wide and – no, I was not faster, otherwise I couldn't keep my line. I did my normal line but they went slower because they were outside."
It was Lorenzo's decision to cut back inside which had caused the crash, at least according to Pedrosa. "The thing is that Jorge cut down from Dovi after the pass and he wanted to recover his position and maybe he didn't expect me there for some reason." This all happened before Pedrosa lost sight of the situation when he climbed onto the inside of his bike to hang off for Turn 6. "What I can say is in that moment there is one point that I'm watching them going wide, but then I started turning and I'm completely on the right side of my bike and I can't see anything 'here'. Even if I want, you don’t see because you are leaning on the other side."
Pedrosa felt that because Lorenzo was on the right side of his bike, and had vision to his right, where Pedrosa was coming from, then the Ducati man should have seen him. "Lorenzo was leaning on the inside," Pedrosa said. "He can, more-or-less, see me and also I think when you go out and you lose the line you must check to recover the line. But finally we touch, and we crash, and there's nothing we can do now. It's not that we wanted to finish like this because I think the three of us were doing a very good race and we all deserved to finish in the strong positions today."
Body position – especially the modern body position which has evolved in the past ten years or so, with the body far off the bike, inside elbow dropped, and the head low and as far forward as possible – has perhaps made these types of crashes even more difficult to avoid, as it robs riders of vision completely on one side of the bike. It was a topic which had come up in other discussions inside Race Direction, Mike Webb told us, though mostly with regard to sight lines for flag posts. "It hasn’t played a big part in our thinking, but in some incidents we’ve talked about whether a rider has seen a yellow flag or something like that. The modern body position has come up in that discussion as to, where he is there hanging off the bike, he probably can’t see the flag out there," Webb explained.
A third view
Andrea Dovizioso sided with his teammate with regards to the problem of vision, however. It was the responsibility of the rider behind to ensure they can make a clean pass, Dovizioso said "If you enter faster than normal and someone is in front of you, because we were in front of Dani, so we decide the line. Right? We decide the line because the rider in front always decides the line. For sure, Jorge didn’t check like me. So, like I said before, Jorge didn’t stay. But Dani is behind and he is able to manage the situation and he cut inside faster than every other lap. And it created a crash so for sure he did a mistake. The percentage you want to put to on Jorge and Dani, you can put whatever you want. But it’s from there."
Neutral observers had very much the same assessment. "For me, when this happened, it's a little bit not a mistake of one person between Lorenzo and Pedrosa," Valentino Rossi told Slovenia TV. "Because Lorenzo come back quick, but Lorenzo cannot see Pedrosa inside. So I think that Pedrosa thought he had enough room, but he didn't have it, and they touched. So it's 50/50."
That was pretty much the conclusion that Race Direction came to. "You could possibly apportion some blame on Lorenzo, and possibly some on Pedrosa," Mike Webb explained. "Lorenzo was ahead, but he’s coming in on a strange line. Pedrosa has seen a gap and gone for it, and then there’s not a gap. And he was behind. So where do you apportion the blame? Given all the circumstances, where they ended up on the track and what unfolded, I don’t think any of the riders made ridiculous maneuvers that had zero chance of coming off. There were riders that ended up on the same piece of tarmac by the circumstances they were put in. Dani saw a gap and had a go and it was no longer there."
Precedents and parallels
The whole situation was reminiscent of the collision between Marc Márquez and Pol Espargaro in the Moto2 race at Barcelona back in 2012. There, Márquez had run wide at the old La Caixa turn, then cut back and knocked Espargaro off while they were battling for the title. "A very similar incident years ago in Barcelona with Marquez and Espargaro, with a rider running wide and then coming back on track," Mike Webb said. "I wasn’t Race Director at the time, but I remember it was penalized, and I remember also that the penalty was overturned by the FIM saying, that’s not a fair penalty. The rider was ahead."
Webb emphasized that the Barcelona incident had not been used as a template for this incident, despite the parallels. "Again, I’ll say every incident is different and we have to consider them all on their own. But taking the whole set of circumstances, track positions and what was going on at the time, the reason it’s just a race incident is because two riders ended up contacting, causing a major incident, but not with any intent to do something wrong. It was a set of circumstances."
This incident had only served to fuel Dani Pedrosa's growing frustration at Race Direction. "Well of course I had a big, big crash again and I was lying down and then I see they decide 'race incident' and of course we can see it's a race incident. But I went there to speak to Race Direction because I want to understand them," Pedrosa said. "It was a race incident for me in Argentina - it wasn't for Marc with Vale, but Zarco and me, yes. I highside because I pull up the bike. After Zarco's mistake coming into the turn I tried to give space, I finally end up in the hospital and this time- okay Lorenzo maybe don't see me, don't look or didn't expect me there or whatever – but he didn't pick up the bike and 'boom!' we ended up crashing. And I highside again. And again 'race incident'."
"So I go there to understand what is the point and how they judge things because from my point of view, it wasn't just that easy. So I ask them, 'how do you judge this?' because I don’t understand. And then we start asking, 'okay so I was on the inside, I was on the correct line on the track yes? They were on the outside and coming back from a mistake so they were re-joining the correct line on the track, yes? 'So, when you are in the right line who has the preference, the guy who is inside or the guy who is outside?' The guy who is inside. Okay, so then whose fault? 'Well we already took our decision'."
"So finally they said if you don't agree with our decision, which I don't, make an appeal. But this meant I would say that I want Jorge to be penalized, because I don't agree with the decision. But what I want them to understand is that I don't want a penalty for Jorge, I want them to understand correctly what is happening on the track because they don’t."
Respect or responsibility?
His anger was further fueled by the impression that Race Direction wasn't taking his perspective seriously, Pedrosa said. "Firstly and most importantly it's because sometimes they don’t face the things. I came there, I could barely walk, and I went there walking and Mr Mike Webb didn't even want to join the meeting and he was next door. So I deserve a little bit more respect than this."
What Pedrosa omitted to say was that he went to see Mike Webb in the middle of the Red Bull Rookies race. As Race Director, Webb was busy ensuring that that race was running safely, and so had other, more pressing matters to deal with at that point in time. Pedrosa was met by the two FIM Stewards who form the FIM Stewards Panel, together with Mike Webb, and whose responsibilities cover the adjudication of incidents and awarding penalties.
Webb explained what had happened. "We were running a race," the Race Director said. "The next race, the Rookies Cup, was still on, but I’m still responsible. The FIM MotoGP stewards are in charge of sanctions and penalties. I’m one member of the three-member panel. So they came and I said to our stewards, could you please go and speak to them and call me if there’s going to be a formal hearing or whatever. But the stewards informed me it was an informal meeting. So I left them to it. So no, I didn’t refuse to go and see him. I was busy doing other things."
The problems between riders and Race Direction seem to be mainly one of culture. Riders are used to a more informal way of dealing with incidents, as it was in the past. But over the past few years, and especially since Sepang 2015, rules, regulations, and the handling of incidents has been increasingly formalized, and dealt with in a more legalistic way. As the sport grows, the stakes for all involved grow, and so the bodies which run the sport have to organize themselves differently to deal with the situation. And with harsher penalties being imposed, as demanded by the riders, the processes to deal with them have to be clearer and more transparent.
To an extent, incidents in Moto2 and Moto3 gave a foretaste of the new environment. Aron Canet and Luca Marini were both involved in incidents in their respective classes, and both were punished much more harshly than in the past. Canet will have to start the race at Le Mans from the back of the grid, while Marini was given a six-place grid penalty. In the past, such incidents might have been handled with a warning. But no more.
With three main contenders removed from the equation, the race produced a varied grid. Johann Zarco took another podium, and with it second place in the championship, 12 points behind new leader Marc Márquez. Andrea Iannone took the final spot on the podium, his second in a row and Suzuki's third in three races. They now have 3 concession points, meaning they are halfway towards losing the special status they were granted after a difficult season in 2017. That is not something they will regret, however, as it means they are now back in a position to compete.
The loss of the two factory Ducatis and Pedrosa on the Repsol Honda, who would have made it a Ducati and Repsol top four, hides some embarrassment for Yamaha. Sure, Johann Zarco finished second, but he was seven seconds slower than Márquez, once you deduct the two seconds the Repsol Honda rider lost to his silly celebratory dance as he crossed the line. The embarrassment for the factory Movistar Yamaha team is even greater: Valentino Rossi would have been eighth without the pile up ahead of him, 12 seconds behind Márquez, while Maverick Viñales would have finished tenth. Instead, they were fifth and seventh, which doesn't look quite as bad.
Upping the ante
Valentino Rossi did not Yamaha to gloss over this situation, making a very pointed attack on his manufacturer. "At the end to arrive in the fifth position after my speed in the winter, it's positive. I'm happy," he said. "But this is not good news, to be happy after a race like this. But our technical situation now is like this. It's also true that it depends on the track, because at some tracks we suffer more, in some tracks we suffer less. But for me, it's very clear what we have to do on the bike, and it's true that we need time, but Yamaha have to do an effort to try to shorten the time. Because if not, we need another season. So I hope that Yamaha give to us the maximum support to be competitive, because like this, sincerely, today, for me, my race was good, I have good pace, but without the incident in front, I arrive eighth."
The main problem was electronics, rather than the physical structure of the bike, Rossi said. "For me personally, it's a little bit mechanical parts, but it's mainly electronics. 25/75. Tomorrow will have some other mechanical parts, but we are working on the 25, when it's like you work on the tip of the iceberg, but after, under water, you have a lot more. It's a shame, because for me, from what I understand, for the rest our bike is good this year. But we need that. And I hope that Yamaha will give 100% to fix the problem as soon as possible."
Yamaha in Japan have been rumored to be resistant to looking to Magneti Marelli for help, or hiring Italian engineers to assist them, preferring to try to understand the spec electronics on their own. But now, they are mulling hiring external help, but that process is not moving fast enough for Rossi. "From what I understand, this is work that needs time. This is the bad news. But the good news is that anyway, you have to work on the black box. The problem is that you need to start, because from when you start, you need time. But if you don't start, the races, months, championships pass, and you still have the same problem."
Rossi's statement was a surprise, because it was a lot more blatant than usual. Rossi is usually extremely diplomatic, good at couching criticism in gentle terms. But this was reminiscent of his time at Ducati, when on two occasions, he made very public complaints about a lack of support and a lack of progress with development. Rossi is keenly aware that he can use his public presence to bring pressure to bear on the factory he rides from, but he uses it very sparingly indeed. If he has decided to go on the attack, it means that his frustration at the situation must be enormous.
Maverick Viñales doesn't have the luxury of a high public profile, but he does feel exactly the same frustration. "It is ten months that I’m saying the same," Viñales said. "I have no grip, no grip. If I arrive to a track that is a little bit hot or not perfect I have no grip. It is impossible. I was behind Alvaro and Morbidelli – who rode a great race – but even then this is not our place. Our place is to be fighting for the podium and in some places for the win. Argh, it’s frustrating. In one weekend I have to ride with three different styles on the bike and nothing works. As the team said I ride like Lorenzo style, more aggressive; I try everything but finally I have the same problem because the bike is not accelerating. It means one thing is not working."
Which 'one thing' might that be? "It looks like electronics is the main problem. For sure we have some issues," Viñales said. "I have very negative feelings from this weekend. I came from Austin feeling very motivated and feeling very well after making good steps. But here we came to reality and where the bike is. And that's far from the top. I think today we rode 110% of the bike and we finished seventh. If the riders didn't crash then we were tenth! It is difficult right now. We need something special. I felt really bad."
The problem the Yamahas face is that from here, they leave for Le Mans, which is a track they excel at, especially since it was resurfaced last year. If they have a good race in two weeks time – and Maverick Viñales won there in 2017, and Yamaha would have had a double podium if Valentino Rossi hadn't gone all in for the win – then the temptation for Yamaha engineers will be to put this result down to the conditions, a simple one off. And that is precisely why Rossi chose to wield his incredible PR power at precisely this moment.
Tear up the script
MotoGP leaves Jerez with the championship turned on its head. Coming into the Spanish round, Andrea Dovizioso was better placed than he had ever been to go into the run of tracks which favor the Ducati. Now, though, he sits in fifth, 24 points behind Marc Márquez, and with Johann Zarco, Maverick Viñales, and Andrea Iannone ahead of him.
Marc Márquez, on the other hand, has a comfortable lead, and is coming off back-to-back wins. He is riding better than ever, the bike is better than it has been in years, and he looks set to make a run at the title almost unopposed. Or at least, that is the script we are currently drawing up for the championship after Jerez. But if the Jerez round of MotoGP taught us one thing, it is that reality is ever poised to intervene, and point the narrative into an entirely different direction. We may be four races into the 2018 MotoGP season, but there are still fifteen left to go. If you think of how much has already happened in just four races, imagine the madness that could await us in the next fifteen.
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