Normality returns, at last. MotoGP is finally back at a track where the schedule follows the same pattern as the rest of the year, at a circuit which everyone in MotoGP – riders, teams, manufacturers, tire makers, equipment manufacturers – knows like the back of their hands, and at its normal slot in the calendar, late April and early May. After Qatar and Portimão, two tracks which held so many unknowns, we are very firmly back in known territory.
It is hard to overstate just how well everyone knows the circuit. From CEV to Red Bull Rookies to Grand Prix to WorldSBK, and even BSB and CIV, the Circuito de Jerez Angel Nieto is used to race, to test, on track days and practice days. Riders have hundreds of laps at the circuit under their belts before they even reach the Grand Prix paddock. They then proceed to use Jerez as their main testing base for Moto3, then Moto2, and back in the pre-Covid days, even MotoGP would have a winter test at the circuit. It's even one of the main test circuits for the MotoGP manufacturers.
Even journalists have an intimate knowledge of the circuit. In the ten years of traveling to MotoGP events I did between 2009 and 2019, I must have visited the track somewhere between 20 and 30 times. "This is the track where almost all riders have the most kilometers, so everybody knows the circuit very well, every single corner, every bump," Luca Marini said. Even for a rookie, this is a less intimidating prospect. The only thing they have to learn is the bike. That, at least, is a relief.
Just right Jerez
Why do they test at Jerez so often? Apart from the climate – the track sees relatively little rain, and it is warm enough to ride for at least part of the day even in the depths of December and January – the track has a little bit of everything, bar a long, fast straight. It has long, flowing corners – Turn 4, Turn 5, Turn 11, Turn 12. It has slow, tight corners – Turn 2, Turn 6, Turn 9, Turn 13.
The two straights, short though they may be, have completely different approaches. The front straight comes after the tight hairpin of Turn 13, a first-gear corner from which you have to accelerate hard. The back straight comes after the long, fast Turn 5, which allows you to carry speed at lean angle.
There are zones where you are hard on the brakes completely upright, zones where you scrub speed off at high lean angle, and zones where you are on the brakes as you change direction and lift the bike from one side to the other. You can learn pretty much everything you need to know about your motorcycle at Jerez, except for how it performs once the needle creeps past the 300 km/h mark. If your bike works at Jerez, you are in good shape for the rest of the season.
Peter Bom, Eurosport MotoGP expert and championship winning Moto2 and Moto3 crew chief, explained Jerez as follows on The In Lap, the Dutch Eurosport MotoGP podcast: "If your bike works at Jerez, it doesn't mean it will work everywhere else. But if your bike doesn't work at Jerez, then you know you are in deep trouble."
Success at Jerez is no guarantee for the rest of the season, however. Fabio Quartararo found that out the hard way in 2020, after dominating the first two races of the year, then losing his way for a large part of the rest of the season. Likewise, Maverick Viñales took two second places, before struggling for much of 2020. Yet both Quartararo and Viñales managed to win another race that season, despite finishing sixth and eighth in the championship.
And yet the Yamaha has always been strong at Jerez, with Quartararo joining Jorge Lorenzo and Valentino Rossi as winners for the Japanese manufacturer in the past decade. The circuit plays to the M1's strengths: fast and flowing, with large sections where corner speed matters. When there is grip, that helps the Yamaha get the drive to accelerate through the lower gears. And the straights don't really have enough room for the Yamaha to run out of steam; the bikes barely spend more than a few seconds in sixth gear, where the horsepower monsters like the Ducati and Honda come into their own.
For Honda, too, this has been a good track, with Marc Márquez, Dani Pedrosa, and Casey Stoner having won here since 2011. But it is also the track where Marc Márquez' career almost ended, as happened with Mick Doohan. Márquez crashed as he tried to catch the front runners at the first race of 2020, after a frantic and inspired chase through the pack made necessary by running wide. The saga of his arm is known, and riding at Portimão put many of his ghosts to rest.
Now, he must face his fears, but that is not something he has struggled with before. The bigger problem is his strength and fitness, the Spaniard forced to compromise his training to be able to race. He is still using antibiotics and is far from completely fit, and to ensure the humerus heals properly he is able to do only aerobic exercise and physio work in the weeks between races. That means skipping the dirt track and motocross work he would be doing otherwise to hone his riding skills.
That puts pressure on Pol Espargaro to step up and perform on the Repsol Honda, though Espargaro rejected any idea that he might feel extra pressure based on Márquez' results. "In the end the pressure for me does not change if Marc is doing better or worse results. The one who is putting pressure on myself is me," the Spaniard said.
The problem for Honda (and also KTM) so far this year has been the use of the asymmetric front tire in the hardest compound. Michelin have introduced it to give a bit more durability on the side of the tire which is subject to the most wear, while still providing grip on the side which sees less action. But that attempt has not been met with unbridled enthusiasm.
Red Bull KTM Factory rider Brad Binder explained some of the issues the asymmetric front has been causing. "Sometimes the asymmetric tire works quite OK for us," the South African said. "Others, like the one we’ve had this year, doesn’t really feel very good. It just depends."
The issue is the transition between the two rubbers, Binder said. "The main feeling is when you cross from one rubber to the other, you almost have a bit of a lock or a slip. It gives you a lot of negative feedback, especially when you’re pulling the front brake going into the corner. It gives you an unexpected close of the front or wash of the front sometimes which isn’t fun. It’s not fantastic," he said. The only solution was to learn to deal with it, however. "It’s just something we need to get used to," Binder told us.
Pol Espargaro was less than delighted with the choice of front tires for this weekend. "The adaptation here is a bit strange and not because of the dual compound but because we get a softer rear than last year, which is normal because we will have about 30 degrees less on the track which is a lot! But on the front we have a harder compound and it is hard to understand why," the Repsol Honda rider said.
"This is very dangerous," he pointed out. "For sure it is not a matter of this is matching Ducatis or matching Yamahas – it doesn’t matter – for me it is about safety. With these track conditions and these kinds of compounds – and we don’t have as much of the softs and mediums as we want – so we need to use these on a track with thirty degrees less. What will happen when we have to use a harder compound than last year?"
The basic issue is, of course, that in response to demands by the teams, Michelin are forced to set the tires to be used for the entire season before the season has even begun. Inevitably, this means that the teams arrive at a track with unseasonable weather, where the temperatures are either much higher or much lower than expected, as is the case this weekend at Jerez. And that drastically limits the number of usable tires the riders have at their disposal.
"They always tell our their priority is safety. But they do not want to bring new tires or new kinds of tires, but then they bring this kind of harder compound here compared to last year," Espargaro complained. There was a better approach to this problem, he insisted. "The most important or intelligent thing they could do is set 4 tires for each weekend at the beginning of the year and then when we are approaching the races, maybe two weeks in advance you can see the weather. You can choose from these four compounds if the temperature is going to be hot you go one step harder, if it is going to be cold then one step softer."
The reigning world champion was equally concerned about the front tires Michelin had brought to Jerez. "We have a bit of a problem here, mainly with the front," Joan Mir said. "I didn’t check well with Frankie [Carchedi, crew chief]. As far as I know, we have the K as the soft. We don’t have a softer compound than the K. I think we have the H as medium tire and another tire that is harder than the H. it’s difficult to understand because the temperature is not the same as last year here. It’s a different moment of the year. To not have a softer compound is difficult for a lot of manufacturers."
And yet the Suzuki can be expected to go well at Jerez. The GSX-RR does many of the things which the Yamaha does well, and in addition it is gentle on its rear tire, meaning that Alex Rins and Joan Mir often have an extra burst of speed at the end of the race. Jerez was not kind to Suzuki in 2020 – Alex Rins had a massive crash on the first weekend and was left carrying an injury for the rest of the season – but they also showed potential.
Perhaps the most interesting prospect at Jerez is the Ducati, and more specifically, Pecco Bagnaia. Andrea Dovizioso got Ducati their first podium in many years in 2020, and both Jack Miller and Pecco Bagnaia looked very promising. In the second Jerez race last year, Bagnaia looked well on his way to a podium, until his bike packed up and dumped him out of second place.
Bagnaia is on a roll, and carries momentum into this weekend. He comes off a podium in Portimão, and knows that he can be quick at Jerez. But Jerez might be the first test of the Italian's preparation over the winter. Last season, Bagnaia was quick when it was hot, but struggled in cooler temperatures. His issue, he explained prior to the start of the season, was in getting enough heat into the front tire as quickly as possible. That required commitment, and trust that the front would grip despite the cool conditions. He spent the winter on supermoto and street bikes practicing pushing from the moment he exited the pits, to force heat into the tire and be fast from the off. At Jerez, we might get to see whether that has worked.
In years gone by, you could safely write off the Ducatis at Jerez, as the track emphasized the bike's weaknesses, and didn't give it a chance to showcase its strengths. But Johann Zarco enters the weekend optimistic that the Desmosedici GP21 will not only be competitive at Jerez, but even be capable of winning.
The Ducati does start the weekend with one hand tied behind its back, Zarco admitted. "Compared to the other tracks we have one of the lowest top speeds, we don't go over 300 km/h," the Pramac Ducati rider said. "Maybe in other tracks where we lose a few tenths in a few places, a few sectors, then we can get it back on the straight. Here we don't have time to get back the time in the straight."
Turning things around
It was the Ducati's unwillingness to turn easily which handicapped it at Jerez, Zarco said. "It's this turning feeling, I think. I don't say the Ducati doesn't have it, but it's sometimes hard to find on the Ducati. Now the Ducati has made progress in the last years, and again from last year to this year."
The performance of Bagnaia at tight tracks left Zarco optimistic for this weekend. "For me, Pecco is a good example, because on a small track like Portimão – it's not a small track, but a track with tight corners – he is going well," the Frenchman explained. "Last year he did well here, and also Misano where there are tight corners, he is going fast. So there is a way to ride the bike, confidence to get on the brakes, to get this step and enjoy a lot."
If he could get more comfortable on acceleration, make it a more automatic process, he felt a podium was a possibility, Zarco said. "It's really a compromise of a lot of things. When you do the entry and the braking right, you also have to stay brave on the exit and control the power, because even if we have the electronics, you can see that you are always able to get an advantage with what you can control with your hands . But control with the hand sometimes makes you think a bit more, so then you are less relaxed. So that's why I say when it's more automatic you will think less, and be faster."
Finally, Thursday at Jerez was the first chance that journalists got to ask Valentino Rossi about the news that emerged that the VR46 team is to be backed by Tanal Entertainment Sport & Media, a Saudi Arabian development company heavily involved in developing and promoting the KSA New Cities project, which entails building a large number of new cities with extensive entertainment complexes. The announcement met a mixed response, with many pointing to Saudi Arabia's appalling human rights record.
Saudi petroleum giant Aramco is slated to be the title sponsor, though there are reports that Aramco are unaware both of any deal with the VR46 team, and even of who Valentino Rossi is. When asked about Aramco and whether the human rights issue concerned him, the Italian pointed out that Aramco backs a lot of sporting endeavors. "Aramco in the last years supports a lot of different sports, from football, and also very much in motorsport," he said. "They support also Formula One and for us it's an important partner and can help to make the team in MotoGP. And after, for the rest we will see, maybe we can do something for improve the situation, but under our point of view, our relationship is for that."
Rossi denied that he had been involved with the deal, saying that the team was being run by the management team, freeing him up to concentrate on being a MotoGP rider. "I didn’t speak with them because first of all I'm a MotoGP rider at this moment, so I'm focused there," the Petronas Yamaha rider explained. "For sure I'm involved because obviously the bike has VR46, like this year with the Moto2 and with the Ducati of Luca [Marini]."
It is entirely plausible that Valentino Rossi was bypassed in the discussions. During their racing career, riders are totally focused on racing, to the exclusion of almost everything else. Though they might be nominally involved in a range of projects, that is largely limited to a cursory glance and a nod of approval. The strain of performing at the very highest level consumes every ounce of spare energy, leaving little room for complex and nuanced considerations of global politics or human rights.
That is not to excuse the deal, however. They are allowing their names to be used in a context that, were they to spend the time to think about it, they may come to believe is not the right thing. But taking the time to do the research is hard, and time consuming, and time is a commodity that MotoGP riders simply do not have.
Rossi rightly spoke of his pride in helping to put together the VR46 Academy which has been instrumental in bringing a new generation of young Italian talent into MotoGP. "I think we built something good, starting from the Italian championship in Moto3," he said. "We also helped a lot of riders to arrive in MotoGP. I think that we made important things for this movement." But most of the hard work was done by people inside the team, he explained. "I'm not directly involved sincerely, there are a lot of people in VR46 that work for this deal and also for the Moto3, Moto2 and future MotoGP team."
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