One question has been raised ahead of nearly every race this season: Is this a Honda track, or is this a Yamaha track? Winners have been predicted based on the perceived characteristics of each circuit. Fast and flowing? Yamaha track. Stop and go? Honda track. The track record - if you'll excuse the pun - of such predictions has been little better than flipping a coin, however. Brno was supposed to favor Yamaha, yet Marc Marquez won on a Honda. Misano was clearly a Honda track, yet Jorge Lorenzo dominated on the Yamaha M1. More than Honda vs Yamaha, the 2013 MotoGP season has been a tale of rider vs rider, of Jorge Lorenzo vs Marc Marquez vs Dani Pedrosa.
So when the paddock rolls up at Aragon, track analysis says this is a Honda track, something underlined by the fact that the last two editions were won by Hondas. With Marc Marquez growing increasingly confident and Dani Pedrosa looking for a return to the winning ways he showed last year, it seems foolish to bet against a Honda rider standing on the top step on Sunday. Yet there are reasons to suspect Pedrosa and Marquez will not have it all their own way this weekend.
First of all, there is Jorge Lorenzo. The reigning world champion has been forced to step up his game this season, and he has responded in impressive fashion. He and his crew have determined that their only chance of beating the Hondas is to take off from the start like a scalded cat, and push as hard as possible from the very first lap onwards. The strategy nearly paid off at Brno and Silverstone, though a fierce battle helped decide the race in Lorenzo's favor in the UK, and it paid off completely in Misano, where Lorenzo finally had Yamaha's seamless gearbox to help him maintain his pace and advantage in the last section of the race. No doubt Lorenzo will attempt to do the same thing at Aragon, the question is, can he pull it off?
Lorenzo's lightning starts are all part of his team's strategy to prevent Marc Marquez following in the footsteps of Kenny Roberts and taking the title in his rookie season. Sitting 34 points behind Marquez with five races to go, Lorenzo knows he needs to force Marquez into an error. That can only happen if he keeps up the pressure, winning when he can, and finishing ahead of Marquez when he can't. 'We have to wait and see if we can extend the fight to prevent him from being champion before Valencia,' Lorenzo's team manager Wilco Zeelenberg said after the race at Misano. 'Then in Valencia, anything can happen.'
Is the pressure starting to get to Marc Marquez? The young Spaniard shows no sign of cracking just yet, but in the pre-event press conference, he did admit that he needed to up his game. He had made a few mistakes at Misano, and he could not afford to keep doing so, Marquez said. The admission came after criticism from HRC boss Shuhei Nakamoto in UK publication Motorcycle News that both Marquez and teammate Dani Pedrosa were not starting fast enough. Nakamoto had pointed out that Casey Stoner had managed to start well and put in the kind of blistering first lap which Jorge Lorenzo had been doing recently, and so that meant that it was possible to do on the Honda. Marquez admitted Nakamoto was right. 'Already Casey started fast, so we know we can,' he said. But it is something which he will be working on in two separate stages, he said, first work on improving the starts, later work on improving the first fast lap.
Dani Pedrosa was less open to the criticism leveled by Nakamoto. He had won many races that way, Pedrosa pointed out, but it was not always possible. Pedrosa has been struggling with rear grip all season, and this was what was holding him back, both in the early laps as well as later on.
The Honda's real advantage over the Yamaha is in fuel consumption, though. Both Cal Crutchlow and Valentino Rossi voiced their concerns over the Yamaha's weakness in comparison to the Honda. 'Valentino and I are at the limit with fuel. One race he runs out, the next I run out,' Crutchlow said. 'We are in big trouble with 21 liters,' Valentino Rossi said, 'so imagine with 20. For me the big problem is the heavy and tall riders have a double disadvantage compared to the small and light rider because you have to use more fuel so you are more in the sh*t.' Crutchlow could laugh off the prospect of the fuel being dropped from 21 liters to 20 liters for 2014 ('I'm not on a Yamaha next year,' he joked) but Rossi is seriously worried. It is already hard enough to fight with the Hondas, with one liter less it will be almost impossible.
The problem does not just manifest itself at the end of the race, it is also a problem at the start. Crutchlow explained how being so tight on fuel at circuits like Misano, Aragon and Motegi made it hard to keep up in the early stages. 'Where we are losing, for sure, is on the first lap,' Crutchlow explained. 'Valentino and I believe it is a lot to do with the sighting lap to the grid as we have to ride at 30kph which means we can't scrub the tire. Then on the warm-up lap, we are trying to get the shine off the tire and we're already a lap behind.' The issue does not affect Jorge Lorenzo as badly, Crutchlow said. 'As Jorge is lighter and has a different riding style, he is able to push from the start and we are not.'
Crutchlow was at pains to point out that Lorenzo's advantage was as much about the reigning champion's ability as it was about his weight or height. It was about his smoothness with the throttle as well as his weight. Lorenzo's team manager Wilco Zeelenberg concurred. A lot of Lorenzo's advantage over the other Yamaha riders was in the way he rolled the throttle off smoothly, and rolled it off again, Zeelenberg explained. Cal Crutchlow freely admitted to chopping the throttle too much, and having spent the last three years in MotoGP trying to unlearn that habit, and while Rossi was much better than Crutchlow, even Rossi was not as smooth on the throttle as Lorenzo, Crutchlow said.
But it was also about their position on the bike, Zeelenberg said. If you see Crutchlow and, to a lesser extent, Rossi on the bike, they spent more time out of the bubble than Lorenzo did. All of those body parts protruding outside of the fairing meant extra drag, and that was what was so costly in terms of fuel consumption. Motorcycles - even the most efficient of them - are an aerodynamic disaster, and so any further disruption makes things exponentially worse. The only consolation for the Yamaha riders at Aragon is that the Spanish circuit is not quite as hard on fuel as Misano was.
While all of the focus is on the Hondas and Yamahas, the Ducatis are stuck a second off the pace. A disconsolate Andrea Dovizioso told the media he expected only to try to find the limit of the Ducati, which, he added, was still nowhere near the front. 'The gap is the gap,' he said, and not likely to be reduced any time soon. Dovizioso's frustration at the situation was starting to show, and the Italian made some barbed comments about where the real problem lies: in Bologna, with the people designing the bike.
When asked about the work on restructuring the Ducati Corse organization, Dovizioso said that this was the most important change that needed making. 'This is the key point,' Dovizioso said. 'I spoke about this at the beginning of the season. The key point is not the bike. If until now we didn't fix the problem, then the bike is the consequence of the problem. So we have to fix a different point, not the bike now, but that is difficult.' The current organization had been unable to solve the problem, Dovizioso said. '[The people] who work on the bike didn't fix the problem. So it means the people who tried to fix the problem, are not fixing the problem.' Dovizioso rejected direct criticism of Ducati Corse, but admitted the same problems remained. 'They have many ideas, but still they didn't fix the problem,' he said.
For a change, there was more excitement in the media center about the Thursday night dirt track contest between journalists than there was about practice on Friday. After Kenny Noyes opened the Noyes Camp dirt track school at the Motorland Aragon circuit in the middle of last year, the American rider and his father, veteran journalist Dennis, decided to organize a contest in which teams of journalists, photographers and press officers competed in teams at the Noyes Camp TT course. Last year's event was won by a team led by Motociclismo's Jose Maroto, and the atmosphere was jocular, but still surprisingly tense on Thursday afternoon. Where normally, the media was busy reporting on the banter between the professional riders, instead the banter was between the members of the media, and the mind games and insults were just as vicious as they can be between the top MotoGP men. There were accusations of bringing in ringers, doubts and worries about new team members brought in from outside, and tips were exchanged on how to take other riders out without either looking like it was your fault, or falling off yourself in the process.
The contest reveals a wider point, however. After falling out of favor for several years, dirt track has once again become the primary tool for rider training. Valentino Rossi had a huge track laid out at his dirt track 'ranch' near his home in Tavullia, where he spends much time training. After Misano, a large group of riders assembled there for a spot of training, including Nicky Hayden and Jack Miller, who both grew up racing dirt track. Rossi was particularly impressed by the speed of Hayden, unsurprising given Hayden's background.
But Rossi isn't the only rider to have his own practice track. Marc Marquez also has a track where he practices, which though 'big enough to hurt yourself,' as one person who has seen the track described it, is not on the scale of Rossi's ranch. Marquez and his brother train their regularly, while Aleix and Pol Espargaro also have a dirt track where they train. Kenny Noyes' dirt track school at the Aragon circuit is growing rapidly in popularity with amateur and professional racers, while Colin Edwards' Boot Camp in Texas is also popular with both Grand Prix racers and casual punters. Despite all the electronics on a modern racing motorcycle, throttle control and the ability to control sliding tires front and rear are key skills in racing. Kenny Roberts described it as the only form of practice worth a damn, and that appears to be as true today as it was nearly forty years ago.