After practice on Friday, it looked like the MotoGP race at Indianapolis was going to a knock-down, drag-out battle between Marc Márquez and Jorge Lorenzo, both men very evenly matched. A day later, and it looks like the battle could be much bigger than that, with Dani Pedrosa and Valentino Rossi on the same pace, and maybe even Pol Espargaro, Bradley Smith, and if things go right for him, Aleix Espargaro involved in the fight. Unfortunately for the fans, the battle will be for second, as one man has moved the game on. Marc Márquez' reign in the USA is looking increasingly secure.
The Repsol Honda rider upped his game on Saturday, topping both free practice sessions comfortably, his pace in FP4 particularly fearsome. He finished FP4 over six tenths ahead of Jorge Lorenzo, setting his fast lap on old tires, in full race trim, on the second lap of a long run. His pace was solid, all mid to high 1'32s, where Lorenzo was cranking out low 1'33s. He then followed it up in qualifying with a display of supremacy which belied the ease with which he took pole. After going out and setting the pole lap on his first flying lap, he returned to the garage where he sat calmly for five minutes, unperturbed by the happenings on the track. He returned for another try, even though it was not needed, and set another lap faster than any other rider would manage.
In the press conference, Márquez explained that he was once again comfortable on the bike, and that his team had found another step forward. The language he used to describe his situation was both modest and inaccurate. "Yesterday, I saw that Jorge was really strong," he said, "but today we got closer and we had a similar pace." In truth, Márquez and Lorenzo had similar pace on Friday. On Saturday, Márquez was head and shoulders above the rest.
Lorenzo was confused and frustrated at not having been able to manage to match Márquez' pace. "To be honest, I expected to improve a little bit more the bike than I did today," he said. The trouble was that the bike was already so good when it rolled out of the air freight container on Friday, so finding improvements was hard. "We tried many settings and we couldn't improve really the setting of yesterday. That was really good." They have one more shot tomorrow morning, to try to find the couple of tenths a lap which Lorenzo is short of matching Márquez' pace.
Or Lorenzo can wait for the second half of the race, and see how it develops. "The Honda is more explosive, but I have a very good pace after ten or fifteen laps," he said. Indianapolis' unique surface means that tire wear can be a crucial factor, and having a little bit more left at the end of the race can be the difference between victory and defeat. The Honda thrives on the slippery surface, managing wheelspin better in the first part of the race. As the race progresses, however, the Yamaha comes into its own, better grip meaning less wheelspin, and less wheelspin meaning less tire wear. The race may appear over at half distance, but that may turn out to be a very wrong impression indeed.
Lorenzo is at least fortunate to be starting from the front row. That prospect looked a very long way from reality after the Movistar Yamaha rider's second run during Q2. On his very last run, he jumped from eighth up to third, and close enough to Márquez to be able to challenge, or at least follow. He had hoped to gain an advantage by trying three runs instead of two, making use of the extra medium tires he had saved by working with the hard during practice. That did not pay off in the first two runs, Lorenzo languishing well down the order. Only on his final run did the Spaniard put it all together. He was "as precise and perfect as I could be," and he moved up onto the front row. But his gamble on three runs, swapping only rear tires but not bikes, meant he spent just a fraction too long in the pits. He came up just a second short of having another shot at a fast lap on that final run. He did the lap anyway, probably not having seen the checkered flag, but the lap was untimed. Curiosity makes us wonder how fast that final lap was, though the question is, whether Yamaha would release that data.
While Lorenzo has been treading water, Dani Pedrosa and Valentino Rossi have made a big step forward. Pedrosa is pretty much a match for Lorenzo's race pace, and is likely to pose a formidable obstacle on Sunday. He starts from second, putting himself between Lorenzo and Márquez, and if the Repsol Honda man can find his former razor sharp speed off the line, then he should be capable of spicing up the race. He could end up making life difficult for his teammate, getting in Márquez' way while Márquez is capable of escaping. The question was asked in the press conference whether he believed that HRC might want to get involved in finishing order, and whether Pedrosa would be inclined to follow such instructions. Pedrosa was diplomatic about the answer, but reading between the lines the message was clear: I am here to win races, Márquez is more than capable of looking after himself.
Rossi also made a step forward on Saturday, and was much relieved about the whole affair. They had changed the balance of the bike from Assen and the Sachsenring, and that had made Rossi faster everywhere, though he was still losing too much in the second sector. At least he had the pace to match the front three, though he conceded that Márquez was probably beyond his reach. But it was Pedrosa who he was most worried about, marking the Repsol Honda man out as the main obstacle to getting on the podium. If Pedrosa is between Rossi and Lorenzo, that would put a big dent in Rossi's slim 13 point lead in the championship.
Rossi's biggest problem was once again his qualifying performance, ending up eighth on the grid. He too had gone for a three-run strategy, though the first run was merely to scrub in a brand new front tire with a used medium rear, for fear of pushing the front too hard on the first outing and risking a crash. Rossi found himself caught up in traffic, and not pushing hard enough to make a difference. A quarter of a second separated Rossi from the second row; a third of a second would have put him on the front row, and demoted his teammate to the second row. Valentino Rossi has a formidable array of weapons in his racing armament, yet his Achilles' heel, a weakness in qualifying, may still cost him the title.
The above is the rational scenario, based on the weather remaining stable and the race being dry. The weather, however, is not inclined to play ball, and looks set to intervene. The current forecast is for rain to start falling sometime after noon, with a good chance of rain falling during the MotoGP race. A wet race – or even worse, a half-wet, half-dry flag-to-flag race, with conditions changing rapidly – would well and truly put the cat among the pigeons, not least because the already slippery circuit is even more difficult in the wet. When asked for his opinion on the chances of rain, Bradley Smith was blunt. "I think it would be a total disaster for everyone!" he said. The lack of time in the wet here would make it very difficult to manage in the race. "I don't think anyone has really ridden here in the rain. There's low grip in the dry, so I can't imagine how it's going to feel in the rain round here."
Smith may not relish the prospect of rain, but it would certainly spice things up. It might also give the men on the second row a chance to benefit from their sterling work. Cal Crutchlow came close to grabbing a front row spot before being demoted by Jorge Lorenzo, missing out by just a couple of hundredths of a second. An outstanding ride and clever use of the slipstream put Danilo Petrucci into fifth, just behind Crutchlow. And Smith matched his best qualifying of the year, ending Q2 in sixth. There was little to choose between then, less than a tenth of a second separating Smith in sixth from Lorenzo in third.
The Suzukis were once again impressive, with Maverick Viñales once again shining on the GSX-RR. Aleix Espargaro had been in despair on Friday, but was positively upbeat after qualifying. They had made a big step on Saturday to put them into contention. Espargaro only qualified in twelfth, but he had been eighth in FP4, less than half a second off Jorge Lorenzo. The Misano test had proven useful, making a good step forward in base set up. They were also much closer in terms of top speed, though team boss Davide Brivio attributed that more to where the speed traps were located. Still, Maverick Viñales posted a top speed of 343.8 km/h, less than 5 km/h off the top speed of the Ducatis. Whatever the circumstances, being just 5 km/h off the Ducatis means your bike is fast.
In the support classes, the picture is a little less clear. Throughout practice and qualifying, Tito Rabat has once again been setting the formidable pace for which his so famous. But the favorite for victory is surely Alex Rins, the young Spaniard taking pole and showing outstanding pace in every session. The Paginas Amarillas HP 40 rider has come to Indianapolis with a mission, and is not looking like a man who will be denied. The main obstacle in his way remains Tito Rabat, but Indy could well be the scene of Rins' first victory in MotoGP. It will almost certainly not be his last.
Indianapolis is the first race where Johann Zarco has looked vulnerable. Circumstances have conspired against the championship leader, with technical issues plaguing his weekend so far. He starts from eighth, a tricky situation when Rabat and Rins start from the front row. Still, a cushion of 65 points means Zarco can afford to have a single bad weekend still not have to worry too much about the championship.
In Moto3, Danny Kent is still firmly in charge of the class. Kent wrapped up his fourth pole of the season, though the margin by which he did so were slim. In the press conference, Kent admitted that he had expected to have a greater advantage at Indianapolis, but the field was much closer than he had hoped. That did not change his plan, however: try to escape at the front, and if that doesn't work, then sit in the front group and figure out a plan to maximize his points haul. Getting away would be difficult, he said, the back section of the track not sufficient for him to gain the three to four tenths he needs to maintain his lead along the long front straight. That had been possible at Austin, with the longest front straight of the season, but a repeat did not look likely at Indy.
That doesn't mean that Kent will not emerge victorious at Indianapolis. The Englishman has proven capable of winning under almost any circumstance, and taking points when he can't. His objective, he reiterated in the press conference, was to become champion. That means winning when you can, taking as many points as you can when you can't win, and riding with an awareness of how your title rivals are doing, and where they are on the track. Winning a world championship is all about know when to hold 'em and when to fold 'em, and Danny Kent has demonstrated all year long that he makes a rather outstanding poker player.
Among all the excitement of the return to racing, there was also a reminder of the ugly side of MotoGP. Spanish TV reporter Izaskun Ruíz chased down Isaac Viñales and Jaime Fernández Avilés, manager of the Laglisse team who had let Isaac Viñales go ahead of Indy, ostensibly over poor results. Viñales painted a rather less flattering picture, telling Ruíz that after Laglisse lost a sponsor, budgets had been drastically cut and he had had no time for testing, and received no upgrades to his bike.
Fernández Avilés did not take such accusations lying down, throwing out counter accusations of his own, saying that he was still owed €140,000 by Viñales for previous seasons. On Twitter, Viñales refuted that charge, claiming instead that he was owed €100,000 by Fernández Avilés, and that his contract was very clear about the payments owed to him.
It was a demonstration, if such were needed, of the precarious situation in which most of the teams find themselves, and that it is all too often the riders who pay the price for that. At every level, MotoGP suffers a lack of finances, caused largely by a shocking lack of professionalism in sponsorship and marketing among the teams. It is common practice for teams to shift the burden of finding funding onto the riders, making them go out and find personal sponsors willing to bear the cost of riding with a team. Too many teams make the mistake of scrimping on marketing and sponsorship management, team managers trying to do it themselves. It is a false economy of the most foolish sort. More money in the team means better equipment, better riders, more competent team members, better results, and a more attractive proposition to put to sponsors.
The question of sponsorship is a two-way spiral. Too many teams ride it to the bottom, and find themselves in a pretty dire situation. The smart teams, of which there are a few, ride the spiral ever higher, building results with sponsorship investment, and leveraging those results for more sponsorship.
As ever, the victims are the riders, whose ambition drives them to go to any lengths to get a chance in Grand Prix racing. Often, that chance is an illusion: paying good money to a mediocre team for poor equipment, and a chance in the big show. Without a good team, however, they might as well set fire to that money and dance around the flames.
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