Sunday’s Emilia-Romagna Grand Prix hosted three dramatic races which each had huge ramifications for each championship. Here, we take a look at the big talking points from the Moto2 and Moto3 classes.
For 14 laps on Sunday, this really looked like the race where Remy Gardner’s Moto2 title challenge would come apart. After title rival Raul Fernandez crashed out of qualifying, the Australian had a golden opportunity to gain a much-needed grid advantage. Instead, he changed front tyres mid-session, saw two of his late times chalked off because of yellow flags, and by the third his front had cooled down enough it lost optimum performance.
Sunday was looking much graver. Not only was he mired in the pack, facing a Long Lap Penalty for taking down Somkiat Chantra when contesting eighth place, Fernandez was putting in the kind of performance that confirms he is the next superstar of grand prix racing. Starting from ninth, he was on course for an eighth win of the season – a feat no rookie had achieved in the 72-year history of the intermediate class, never mind Moto2.
The Spaniard’s own weekend had been complicated. If one was to point to a weakness in his make up, Raul’s riding in wet and mixed conditions would probably be it. But he gave no ground away to Gardner all weekend. There was also the small matter of his feelings toward KTM. Veteran Spanish journalist Manuel Pecino had reported the rider from Madrid, who turned 21 on Saturday, was “angry” in the extreme at the Austrian factory’s decision to not find brother Adrian a permanent seat in the Moto3 class for 2022.
This, added to his continued flirting with Yamaha even after signing a contact to step up to MotoGP with KTM, added to the sense that all is not entirely as it should be between the rider’s camp and the factory bosses, even with a move to premier class lined up for the end of the year.
Yet Fernandez put all of this to one side in a dazzling ride through the field, sweeping into the lead at Quercia on the lap 14. By then he was on course to not just eradicate the deficit of nine points in the championship fight, but to swing it eight points in his favour.
It is, however, worth reminding ourselves that Fernandez is still a rookie. As witnessed in MotoGP, Sunday posed a tricky challenge for all of the Moto2 grid. The race was the first opportunity to consistently take the bike to its limits in fully dry conditions. And Fernandez was doing just that, as Sam Lowes’ eventual race winning time was a full 15 seconds faster than the race here a month ago.
Perhaps inexperience told on lap 15, when Fernandez’s front tyre gave way when braking upright from 253 km/h for Quercia, the same corner where he had taken the lead. It was an odd crash, and, after barrel-rolling through the gravel, was one from which the rookie was fortunate to walk away.
So what caused this seismic moment in the championship? Fernandez was perplexed by the fall. “It’s really difficult to know what happened,” he said after just his third non-score of the season. It’s a fair point of view. Tucking the front when totally upright is as unusual as it is uncommon in the class.
There are a few reasons. Firstly, tyre choice. Dunlop had brought a softer rear tyre allocation for this weekend than the previous race here in September. Word from a well-placed source is that the two Ajo riders were poised to run the harder front, harder rear but were surprised when they checked the Dunlop tyre sheet: the other 28 riders on the grid chose the soft rear. They then decided on a late change.
The extra grip offered by the soft rear would, on occasion, push the front. As Gardner noted from his own race, “The rear burned up pretty quick. It was alright in the first four laps. But as soon as the grip came down, the thing was already burned up on the rear and then pushing me on the front. It was riding like a spaghetti noodle. I knew if I pushed harder, I’d have ended up on the ground. It sounds like he lost the front in a straight line. I had a few moments like that as well. I just hit the brakes and the thing would close on me in a straight line. It was just the rear pushing the front.”
It’s believed Fernandez braked around one metre later than the previous lap when carrying more speed. In those conditions, running the harder front, this was a painful consequence. Lowes made that point. “(Raul) passed me and was riding very well,” said the Englishman. “He had the hard front and at this point in the race it was maybe too hard. All weekend, conditions have been complicated. Track temperature was low and there wasn’t too much rubber on the track. He just got unlucky.”
And despite appearing incredulous, Fernandez somewhat gave the game away in his comments. He was riding at the very limit to break clear of Lowes in conditions that were far from easy to read. “I wasn’t thinking about the championship,” he admitted. “I just wanted to win the race. I did one very strange mistake because I did the same (the lap before). But all weekend it was really difficult to have control over the situation… Maybe I needed to think more on the championship and not think more about winning the race. This was a mistake.”
Prior to the crash, the championship was only heading in one direction. Now Fernandez has to recover 18 points to attempt to overhaul his team-mate yet again. With just two rounds remaining, that’s a big ask.
And Gardner breathes…
The mood in the Gardner camp post-race was one of total relief. In short, the 23-year old knew he got away with one as he never had the pace to live with the podium men in what was a complicated weekend. It started on Saturday. “The front tyre would drop (in temperature) after two laps. My second run I had two yellow flags, the third (the front) was like ice – that definitely hurt us in the race,” he said.
The late switch to the soft rear tyre meant Gardner’s settings weren’t right for the softer rubber. It was soon apparent he was in for a long race. “I went through a million emotions! That was a tough one,” admitted the #87. “Everything that could’ve happened, happened. The start was horrible, something went on with the clutch. Then I got swamped. I lost positions before I made up positions. I was just frying the rear tyre getting through the group. Then I had that moment with Chantra. It was tough and looked bad for sure. By the time he turned in, I was there. I’m sorry for him. I made the most of the Long Lap and got through it pretty fast.
“Raul’s crash today has kept us in the title fight. I was praying today! I can’t let this s*** happen again. Texas and here were two important races. Today we’ve been extremely lucky. I didn’t do a good job all weekend and we just had luck on our side. We’ve come out with some points between us but nothing’s over. As you can see it can all change in one moment.”
Finding Foggia: why the late run?
As impressive as Dennis Foggia has been in recent weeks, there are reasons to ask why this rider capable of swashbuckling feats wasn’t evident earlier in the year. After the Styrian GP, the Italian sat 97 points behind Moto3 title leader Pedro Acosta after accumulating six non-scores in the first ten races. As Christian Lundberg, Leopard’s Technical Director, noted on Saturday, “Nobody wins a championship with six zeroes.”
Sunday was another remarkable ride from the 20-year old. Starting 14th, he took precisely 15 laps to take over first place, before giving a masterclass of a last lap. Only Jaume Masia could stay with him in the race’s final third. Even still, Foggia produced his personal best time on his final circuit to win comfortably.
So where was this Dennis Foggia at the start of the year, when he finished 17th in the Doha GP or crashed out of 19th at Jerez? “We started very well in testing at the beginning of the year,” explained Lundberg. “We were really fast in Jerez and Qatar tests. We arrived at the first race thinking it would be possible to win the race. (But) the conditions changed a lot. We didn’t want to move so much that was beautiful on the bike. There were a couple of races that were really windy. His confidence when it’s like that isn’t great. So we came back to Europe with zero points and this was maybe the key.
“After these two races he was a bit disappointed in his mind. In Portimão he made a good race. But in Jerez what we tested in the winter wasn’t working anymore. We had a really bad race. In this moment of his life he didn’t have a good confidence in himself. We weren’t working on the bike; just on his mind. Just to let him know in his mind he could do this. It’s hard – so many people are expecting so much from you, the results aren’t coming and all these people are asking why. After the Jerez race the mind of the rider was a bit destroyed.”
Much has been made of the team’s decision to ban Dennis’ father Fabio from the Leopard box after the Styrian GP. A statement, released at the end of August, cited, “Fabio Foggia’s attitudes affected the harmony of the team,” hence the move. While Dennis insisted his recent upturn was largely because “I changed something on my bike with my mechanic,” Lundberg’s words indicate the rider now has more trust in his squad, whereas before outside influences had an effect.
“I’m really proud. In our team, managing his mind,” said Lundberg. “The second victory at Assen was the key. After the second victory you are more sure it is possible to win many races. We pushed on his mental stability and his confidence in himself in going up day by day. This is the key.
“Honestly, the bike is very, very similar. Last season he wanted to move the bike from one race to the other. Now, we arrived to the point we don’t change anything from track to track. From Austin to here, it’s 0.1 in the preload and 1 in front. We found one base – but it’s the same base we arrived with to Qatar – nothing special. Now he’s understood how to use this bike. before we maybe followed him too much. And maybe we destroyed a little bit our background, in the previous season just to listen to his point of view.
“We are trying to spend more time with him so he’s more involved in the team’s activity. In the end he has a strict relationship with many people outside the team which confused him a little bit. He’s spending more time with us. He understands we push 100% in one direction. Now he’s breathing this air in the team. Now he’s convinced. Sometimes he thought, especially last season, that we didn’t care about his results. Masia was faster than him in many races. Now he knows we push very hard for both riders. We share all the info. Now he has more confidence in himself and much more confidence in the team.”
Triumphant day for Marc VDS
Sunday was the first occasion Marc VDS enjoyed a 1-2 finish since the Austrian GP in 2017. Lowes was superb, leading at the front from the start after gambling with Dunlop’s soft front option. “I’ve never raced it, a bit into the unknown,” he said after his third victory of the season. “It was a bit of a gamble but I wanted to be on the safe side, especially in the left corners.” Even with that rubber fitted, Lowes posted his best time on the penultimate lap.
Just as impressive was Augusto Fernandez’s fightback from a Long Lap Penalty, served on the second lap, which dropped him to 14th. He just kept getting quicker, setting the fastest lap the 4th, 8th 12th and 20th times around, before nabbing second from Aron Canet – running out of fuel – on the exit of the final corner. “I had the mentality that I was starting from 14th or 15th, like I did in Aragon. I just focussed on my riding and my pace and then started overtaking riders one-by-one.” Surely a first win for him in Marc VDS colours isn’t far away.
You had to hand it them. Journalists tried everything they knew to prize information out of Acosta post-race. His feelings on finishing third could be gleaned from his morbid expression. “You can see my face,” he said. “It could be worse. Now 21 points, Portugal and Valencia comes, we have to believe.”
Was his decision to fit the hard rear tyre – the only rider to do so – the wrong one? “To choose the hard was the wrong option for sure. We had some problems – not with the tyres – but we were in the fight.” Ok then.
Next up: How do you view Portimão? “It could be much better than here. We have fight every race for the podium. We have to be focussed on our job.” Maybe you could expand on why you couldn’t win here? “We have a problem.” Care to expand? “No.”
Is he wobbling? These terse exchanges might suggest as much. But looked at another way, Acosta limited the damage to the best of his abilities here, holding off Stefano Nepa and Nicolo Antonelli all race before stealing third off Darryn Binder on the final lap. It wasn’t enough to beat Foggia. But this was the Italian’s 70th start. It was only Acosta’s 16th. By the measure of any other rookie, this was an excellent ride.
Is Binder ready?
Moving directly from Moto3 to MotoGP doesn’t happen often. So, it’s fair to ask whether Darryn Binder will be prepared for the challenge of adapting from a machine which makes around 60bhp to one that has comfortably more than quadruple that. Jack Miller, the last man to make that switch, doesn’t see any issues. “if you've got the opportunity why not take it. If anyone can do it I think Daz, he's got that wild style, he can ride a bike when it's moving and what not. So I don’t think it'll be an issue.”
But Johan Stigefelt, Binder’s current team boss, reckons it could be a struggle. “It’s such a big jump,” he said. “It’s going to be tough. Look at the MotoGP championship now, it’s so strong. Everybody is fast. But he’s going to be on a good bike, in a good team, with good people around him. He needs to take it step by step and grow into it – not try too much at the beginning, just learn and take the experience. I believe Darryn can do it. Working with him now for a year I see his qualities. He’s very calm, talks in the right way and he has the speed. He’s not afraid and can communicate with the engineers. He’s good in that way. I believe he’s fast. He’s good in the races on Sundays. But it’s going to be tough for sure.”
Raising age limits the right move?
On Friday it was announced the FIM and Dorna had agreed in a meeting on Thursday to make changes that will affect teenagers in the motorcycle racing world. Age limits will be raised from 2023. Currently teenagers of 16 years of age can enter the Moto2 and Moto3 class. That will be raised to 18. The Red Bull Rookies Cup entry age will be raised from 13 to 15, and from 14 to 16 in the FIM Junior Moto3 World Championship.
Discussions have also been ongoing to improve the quality of rider equipment, especially for chest and neck impacts. Plus, work is ongoing with technical suppliers on how to implement 'near-instant warning systems' for riders when an incident happens ahead on track.
It’s good to see the relevant people are treating this matter with the necessary seriousness, after deaths to Jason Dupasquier (Moto3), Hugo Millan (European Talent Cup) and Dean Berta Viñales (WorldSSP300) occurring in four months. But a few issues still need to be addressed. The Red Bull Rookies still running 15 years olds on identical bikes at GP circuits could be one of them.
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