In the space of a week, we travel from a race track set in the heart of a bustling tourist spot to one sitting in the middle of nowhere. We go from having affordable accommodation withing 15 minutes of the track, to having to drive for 50 minutes or more to find somewhere which costs less for 5 nights than the budget of a mid-pack Moto2 team.
It's worth it though. The Motorland Aragon circuit is set in some spectacular scenery, sat on the side of a hill looking over the arid plains of Aragon's southern interior. To the south and east, the low mountains of the Maestrazgo, a wild and empty place of visceral beauty. There is no better place to combine a hiking or mountain biking holiday with a race weekend. And the roads are pretty good too.
The fact that the circuit is used a lot for testing tells you a lot about the layout of the track. It has a little bit of everything, from the long, fast back straight, to tight changes of direction like the 'Sacacorchos' or Corkscrew at Turns 8 and 9, to long and fast corners like Turns 10 and 11, and Turns 16 and 17. There are places where you brake hard: Turn 1, Turn 12, and Turn 16, the corner at the bottom hill having the added complication of being downhill before turning for a long off-camber corner which then heads back up the hill.
Turns 12 and 16 is where the passing action is, with Turn 12, or the beginning of the Bus Stop section (so-called because it is modeled on the famous Bus Stop chicane at the legendary Spa-Francorchamps circuit) the best spot on the track. With four corners in a very short space, the chances for attack and counterattack are legion. Dive up the inside at Turn 12, and you have to run a little wide on the exit, allowing the rider you just passed to strike straight back at Turn 13.
You face the same dilemma at Turns 14 and 15, with an added dash of jeopardy. Sure, you can try a pass at Turn 14 and try to block through 15, but if you get it wrong, then you lose drive out of the last corner before the back straight, and are likely to see the rider you just put all your effort keeping behind you through the Bus Stop fly past along the back straight. The only saving grace of the back straight is that it is downhill, taking the edge off the horsepower advantage of the really quick bikes. But it is still long enough for horsepower to matter.
The variety of the track means that there are plenty of ways to go fast around the circuit. Honda, Ducati, and Yamaha have won at the circuit, and in the past three seasons, four different manufacturers have been on the podium, Andrea Iannone just besting then Suzuki Ecstar teammate Alex Rins to take third behind Marc Márquez and Andrea Dovizioso.
So in theory, anyone could win. The Ducatis have been on the podium for the past two years. The Suzukis were competitive here last year, and with a stronger engine and better bike all round, they should be real contenders, especially given that Alex Rins grew up just a few kilometers from the track. The Yamahas have made huge improvements in the last nine months, looking ever more competitive as the season goes on. The M1's horsepower deficit is manageable at Aragon, where clever slipstreaming and a downhill run takes the sharpest edge off that weakness.
In practice, however, Marc Márquez is the man to put your money on. He has won here for the last three years in a row, and won on his debut in 2013 as well. It is an anti-clockwise circuit, with a lot of fast left-hand corners where you drift the rear, a subject on which Marc Márquez is the world's greatest expert at the moment. Motorland Aragon is the second-closest circuit to his home in Cervera, and a place where he feels utterly at ease.
What's more, he is highly motivated to win again this year. Taking points from Andrea Dovizioso in Aragon would go a long way to making sure he wraps up the title again in Motegi, at Honda's home circuit in front of Honda's top management, which makes his bargaining position all the stronger when contracts need to be negotiated for 2021 and beyond. (And what Márquez will be pushing for is not necessarily more money, though no doubt he will get more than the €15 million he is reportedly already on per season, but more control, to help steer the direction of the MotoGP project and ensure that the engineers he trusts are retained, rather than put into Honda's usual cycle of rotating engineers through different departments to share their knowledge and help build road bikes.)
Gaining on the straight, losing in the corner
So beating Marc Márquez will be hard. Who could do it? On the basis of the last couple of years, the Ducatis are very high on that list. Andrea Dovizioso came two-thirds of a second short here last year, the battle going down to the line. Jorge Lorenzo could have taken the fight to Márquez based on form in practice, but a controversial first-corner incident where he had to roll off to avoid colliding with Márquez put an end to his challenge, and started Lorenzo on a long decline through injury, which has continued through the first part of his career with Honda.
Perhaps Jack Miller or Danilo Petrucci can challenge too. They both suffered badly at Misano with a lack of grip. "I think Aragon should suit our bike, our style, and just back to some normal grip level should be nice," Miller told us at Aragon. The back straight is where the Ducati is strongest, but the bike suffers in the long, fast corners, a weakness which the GP19 retains, and which has been the cause of serious friction between Andrea Dovizioso and Ducati Corse boss Gigi Dall'Igna.
Could it be the turn of Suzuki? The bike is quicker and stronger than last year, and Alex Rins has grown as a rider, already having taken two wins this season. Sure, the first at Austin was because Marc Márquez crashed out, but the second, at Silverstone, was won in a direct duel with the reigning champion. Rins is stronger than last year, but still prone to error, as he demonstrated at Misano, crashing out while trying to make up for the time lost behind Pol Espargaro.
Joan Mir will be looking for a good result, but the young Spaniard is an unlikely candidate for victory. Though recovered from the severe bruising of the lung he picked up in a crash at the Brno test, he was missing the fitness which only a riding a MotoGP bike can bring. Coming straight from Misano, he will be focusing on chasing the top six, rather than victory.
Can Fast Fabio Do It At Last?
The Yamahas are the most intriguing prospect. At Misano, Fabio Quartararo showed that he could take the fight to Márquez all the way to the line, Márquez needing all of his racecraft to pull off a win ahead of the Petronas Yamaha SRT rider. The Frenchman does not have a particularly strong record at Aragon in the support classes, but as he has proven time and again this year, that doesn't really mean much.
The one area where he might suffer is in top speed. But Quartararo has learned to negate that at other circuits by focusing on corner speed. At Misano, Quartararo was practicing sliding the front through Curvone, the fast corner on the back straight. The lessons learned there will stand him in good stead in the long corners at Aragon.
Much attention will be paid to the factory Monster Energy Yamaha team as well. At Misano, Valentino Rossi raced the carbon swingarm and double-barreled exhaust debuted at the test two weeks earlier. Rossi is likely to continue work on those parts at Aragon, and we may also see a return of the aerodynamic wheel covers which help smooth the airflow onto the fairing.
It will be interesting to see if teammate Maverick Viñales also picks up the new parts. At Misano, Viñales left them to Rossi, the Spaniard more focused on racing what he knew rather than looking to the future. That decision was in part down to his pace at the test, and a belief he had a shot at victory at Misano. Perhaps the Spaniard might be more inclined to try the new swingarm and the new exhaust at Aragon, where he starts without the same baseline as Misano.
Could the Yamahas beat Marc Márquez? The Yamaha M1 is clearly better, but its riders must fear Turn 15, and the uphill drag out of the final corner onto the front straight. The lack of acceleration and horsepower might just be too much for them to truly take the fight to the Repsol Honda rider.
Working in the Yamaha's favor may be the starting time of the race. To avoid a clash with the F1 race in Singapore, the MotoGP race will start at 1pm CET, and before the Moto2 race instead of after it. Perhaps the lack of Dunlop rubber on the track might help the Yamahas in the early laps, the track having a little more grip than it would otherwise have.
And what of Márquez' teammate? Jorge Lorenzo is still stuck firmly in the doldrums, the Spaniard recovering slowly from the vertebrae he broke at Assen, the latest in a long litany of injuries. He struggled badly at Misano – much worse than he expected, finish 47 seconds behind his teammate rather than the 30 which had been his goal. With more grip at Aragon, and a track he loves, he should be able to get closer to the leaders. But the goal he set himself after Misano – finishing within 30 seconds of the winner – marks the modesty of his ambition. It will be a while before Lorenzo challenges Márquez for the win at Aragon again.
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