Once upon a time in MotoGP, the life of a journalist was easy. At the end of every day, and after every race, there were four or five riders you absolutely had to speak to, plus another couple who would be either entertaining or worth listening to on occasion. The rest of the field could be safely ignored, unless they happened to get lucky and The Big Names would crash out in front of them.
Then, a few things happened. Dorna cajoled the factories into accepting spec electronics and providing better bikes to the satellite teams. Michelin replaced Bridgestone as official tire supplier, and supplied user-friendly tires to the riders. And a new generation of talent entered MotoGP through the Moto3 and Moto2 classes.
As a consequence, there are no longer just three or four stories that need to be told at each race, but a dozen or more. Journalists need to speak as many of the twelve factory riders as possible, plus another half or dozen satellite riders. Factory PR bods add to the complexity by scheduling their riders to speak to the press five minutes apart, despite the fact that each rider debrief will go for at least fifteen minutes or more. Even the lower priority riders have genuinely fascinating tales to tell.
Plenty of time to sleep when you're dead
This is not meant as a lament on just how awful the life of a MotoGP journo is. It isn't: we fly around the world, get fed by teams, see the life and personalities of motorcycle racers up close, get to talk to brilliant engineers and crew chiefs and interrogate the finest minds in racing, and are privileged to witness the greatest period in MotoGP history from about as close as you can get without actually suiting up and climbing aboard an M1, GP18, or RC213V. As long as you can survive a week on four to five hours of sleep a night, it's a truly wondrous existence.
But it does have a downside: after every weekend, I mull over all the things I didn't write about over the weekend, because I forgot about them as I finished something up late at night, or I missed them at the time, and only realized how important they were in retrospect, or simply because I had to prioritize other, bigger stories at the time. So from time to time, I will try to get back to the things that I missed over the weekend, and try to do the weekend justice.
Mind over Márquez
Before we get to that, though, a quick word on that final corner again. Andrea Dovizioso beat Marc Márquez in a last-corner battle for the third time in nine races. That is a remarkable record, but it is also a perfect distillation of the character of the two men. Marc Márquez was willing to risk everything to gamble on a win over a second place, barely managing to get the bike turned into the last corner as he dived down the inside to attempt to pass Andrea Dovizioso. Dovizioso, in turn, knows Márquez is coming, is willing to let him underneath in the certain knowledge he can keep the better line, and beat him to the finish flag. This maneuver encapsulates both the audacity of Márquez, and the self-confidence of Dovizioso.
Perhaps the biggest thing I forgot to write about in my Sunday round up was the crash of Jorge Lorenzo. The Factory Ducati rider got off to a difficult start after a mediocre qualifying, losing four places in the first couple of corners and crossing the line in thirteenth after the first lap. As the laps clocked down, however, Lorenzo upped his pace and was starting to inch closer to the front again. By the halfway mark, he was back up to tenth.
On lap thirteen, it all went wrong for Lorenzo. As he started to brake for Turn 4 at Qatar, he lost part of one his front brake pads. With the front brake no longer operational, Lorenzo realized he wasn't going to make the corner, saw that he would struggle to stop the bike before he hit the wall, and chose to lay the bike down in the gravel at 160 km/h.
After the race, Lorenzo explained that the problem had been developing for a few laps, before finally failing altogether. He was squeezing the brake lever, and it was coming back further to the handlebar every lap. "I just felt that the level of the front brake was getting closer to my fingers and I didn’t have brake," Lorenzo said. "I lost some meters, so I tried to use less front brake and more the rear to try to delay this thing that was getting worse lap-by-lap."
Lay 'er down
At Turn 4, the brake failed completely, and Lorenzo ended up in the gravel. "Unfortunately when I went into this turn four the first part of the brake was OK, but suddenly I just missed completely this brake," Lorenzo said. "So I had no brake and was going very fast through the gravel to the wall and I jumped off the bike to avoid hitting the wall."
Ducati remained vague about the cause of the problem, team boss Davide Tardozzi saying only that Lorenzo "had a problem with the front brakes". He did hint that it was a parts failure, though. "We are investigating this with Brembo," Tardozzi explained. "It’s not the kind of mistake of somebody. It’s a technical problem that we are investigating with Brembo."
Lorenzo told reporters afterwards that they had gone looking in the gravel for clues to explain the failure, and had found something there. "The bike came to the box without one part," the Spaniard said. "Some mechanics went to the corner to see if they could find it and luckily they found it – it was very difficult, but they found it. One part was out of the bike. I don’t know if it was before the crash or after the crash. What I know is that I didn’t have any brakes."
The crash left Lorenzo feeling frustrated, coming as it did on top of a problem with the fuel pump on his preferred bike on Saturday. The Spaniard believed he could have had a much better result at one of his favorite tracks. "Everything was possible today," Lorenzo said. "We had plenty of riders going in the same pace. Luckily for me they went faster than me in the beginning, but they were getting slower and slower and I was getting faster and faster. For the first time I felt that I had a faster second part of the race than the first. But unfortunately I couldn’t prove it because I crashed. I was passing very fast Miller, I was getting closer very fast to Iannone and I was catching the first group in my vision very fast."
That frustration does not bode well for the current state of negotiations between Ducati and Lorenzo. It had been Ducati's intention to have both Lorenzo and Dovizioso signed to new contracts before the start of the season, or at least that was what we were told at the launch in Bologna in January. Before the race,I asked Ducati boss Paolo Ciabatti why they hadn't been able to sign either rider up yet. "It's complicated, like everything in MotoGP," he replied.
Davide Tardozzi moved to smooth over the situation after the race. "Whatever we will do, is we keep on saying that we would like to renew with both riders," the Ducati team boss said. "We are happy with both riders. Then we will see what happens in the next future, but for the time being we have no discussion with them. Everything is fine. We really hope to put Jorge in his position, the position he deserves."
Making a point with tires
Cal Crutchlow found himself in a position where he felt he could have done better. He was running comfortably at the front, but lost touch with the leaders when Johann Zarco slowed up towards the end of the race. "I was sat in fifth thinking I could win. But when the crunch came I was with Vale, and I thought I could pass him. I knew Vale was going to be there until the end, and thought, ‘Just sit pretty behind him.’ Then he passed Zarco and I got stuck behind Zarco for one lap and I lost one second."
Unlike the Repsol Hondas, Crutchlow had raced the medium front, instead of the hard front. It was a decision made to prove a point, he said. "Once I made my mind up, I was stubborn, thinking I was going to race the medium. I wanted to prove to myself, my team and Honda that we could manage the medium front. That’s a good thing now. The turning of the bike was OK. With the hard it was good for the braking. Turning? I felt the same. But I wanted to manage the medium. That was my stubbornness. It was me proving a point to myself, and to Honda."
What point was so important that Crutchlow felt he wanted to make it to Honda? This is the downside to being a factory rider outside the factory team. There have been instances in the past where the riders in the factory team have wanted a particular front tire in the allocation. It is said that to add weight to their arguments in favor of that tire, HRC put pressure on Crutchlow to also express a preference for that tire. This may be Crutchlow's not so subtle way of making the point that his judgment on tires is just as valid as that of the factory riders.
More power, more fuel
Neither KTM nor Aprilia made much of an impression at Qatar, a worrying development for the two factories. The new engine Aprilia brought for the RS-GP made more power, but it came at a very serious cost. At a track which is not particularly hard on fuel, Aleix Espargaro ended up running out of fuel.
"I started the race very well but after lap three I had a warning about my fuel," the elder Espargaro brother said. "I started the race on a very lean map and I was aiming to conserve fuel in the early laps before using a qualifying map in the final laps. When I saw the alarm I was obviously very angry because even though I was using full throttle everywhere I was so slow."
Despite that, he was happy. "Today though I felt fantastic and I managed to stay very consistent in the race. My corner speeds were higher during the race than they were in qualifying because I had to change my style and I was able to catch Miller and Iannone very comfortably. I think that I could have finished ninth but the bike stopped on the last lap. I think that if we could have used the strategy as planned I could have fought for the top five."
The main problem the Aprilia suffered with was a lack of rear grip. Espargaro and Scott Redding had very different experiences with that grip, though. Espargaro lacked grip in the early laps, before it all came good. For Redding, that improvement came only very late. "We struggled in the race the same way that we've struggled all weekend. The rear grip just wasn't there and I couldn't stop the bike, turn the bike or exit the corner until suddenly with five laps to go it starts to get better. It was too late with five laps to go."
The difficult second season
The Qatar round was even worse for KTM. At the end of last year, the KTM was on the verge of becoming a regular top-ten finisher, with hopes of breaking into the top five by the end of the season. At Qatar, the RC16 looked like it was struggling to even score points.
Pol Espargaro was the better of the two KTM riders, as always, despite still struggling with a back injury he picked up in a monster crash at the Sepang test. But even he could only manage to engage in the battle for fifteenth place, a second or more a lap behind the leaders. An electronics problem forced him out of the race, and teammate Bradley Smith finished eighteenth, 31 seconds behind the winner.
A result this poor is a real problem for KTM, especially given the timing of it. We are in the middle of the negotiating period for MotoGP's Silly Season, with riders taking a serious look at their options for the next two years. On paper, KTM should be high on the list as a viable destination for a top-level rider. But results like this could well dissuade exactly the kind of rider they need to attract.
Johann Zarco is one candidate being linked to KTM. The Frenchman has made clear that he is only interested in signing to a factory team. But it has to be a factory team where he can be competitive. With Repsol Honda also showing an interest in Zarco, KTM has to be much better than eighteenth if they are to tempt the Frenchman away.
Zarco to Repsol wasn't the only rumor doing the rounds at Qatar. There was talk that Jorge Lorenzo was looking beyond the bounds of Ducati. There was also talk that Andrea Dovizioso was entertaining offers from Honda and Suzuki, though such talk seemed to be aimed more at boosting his negotiating position with Ducati than closing in on a deal with the two Japanese manufacturers.
The satellite Yamaha situation also took the first step towards being resolved. A couple of weeks ago, it looked like Marc VDS were leaning more towards becoming Suzuki's satellite team, rather than taking on the bikes left unused by Tech3. But the Belgian team is believed to have had talks with Yamaha at Qatar. A spokesperson for the team told me that they were unable to comment at the moment, usually a sign that negotiations are hotting up, though not necessarily that they will come to a particular conclusion.
Whatever the outcome of those talks, there was at least good news for the Marc VDS team. Franco Morbidelli finished the Qatar race as the first rookie, crossing the line in twelfth, sixteen seconds behind the winner. He finished three seconds and two places ahead of Hafizh Syahrin, the Malaysian rider on the much easier to ride Yamaha (though to be fair to Syahrin, he has two fewer tests under his belt than Morbidelli). He was also well ahead of both teammate Tom Luthi and LCR Honda Idemitsu's Taka Nakagami.
Throughout testing, Nakagami had looked the pick of the rookies. But Nakagami's weakness was always consistency on Sunday, the Japanese rider's results always unpredictable come race day. That was not an issue for Morbidelli, the Italian winning eight races and taking four more podiums last year. Morbidelli started the season strongly, and will only get better as the year progresses.
The MotoGP paddock is home now, with training in full swing ahead of the next race. With three weeks between Qatar and Argentina, the riders are using the free time to work on fitness and preparation for the rest of the season. After Qatar, racing happens every two weeks without a break until July. Even then, the break between Sachsenring and Brno is just three weeks, meaning no real pause to speak of. A grueling schedule lies ahead.
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