Joan Mir

Sepang MotoGP Preview - On The Usefulness Of Test Data, Yamaha's Problems, Beating Marquez, And Lorenzo's Thwarted Plan

How quickly things can change. At Phillip Island a week ago, Valentino Rossi was being feted for his 400th Grand Prix start against a background of concern over the nine-time champion's pace. Sitting seventh in the championship with 153 points, behind both Monster Energy Yamaha teammate Maverick Viñales and Petronas Yamaha SRT rider Fabio Quartararo, questions were being asked whether it was time for Rossi to retire.

And yet a year ago, at Sepang, Rossi came within four laps of winning the race, or at least taking the race down to the wire with Marc Márquez. The Italian crashed out at Turn 1, washing the front out and handing victory to his arch rival. But the race was as clear a sign as you could get that Rossi was still competitive, still capable of winning races.

Jorge Lorenzo finds himself in a similar situation. At Phillip Island, he had one of the worst races of his career, finishing 66 seconds behind his teammate, the winner Marc Márquez. Lorenzo is on his way out, the media and fans said, he can't ride the Honda. Yet in November last year, at the Jerez test, Lorenzo was fifth fastest overall, a tenth of a second behind his teammate, and 0.160 slower than fastest rider Takaaki Nakagami.

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Phillip Island MotoGP Sunday Notes: A Track Where You Have To Feel It

That Phillip Island is a special racetrack is self evident. It is unique in so very many different ways. It flows like Mugello, and has the same high speed nature, with fast corners sweeping through a loop dictated by geography rather than a CAD program. It has a fast front straight, yet it is also a track where slower bikes can find a way to stay with, and even beat, faster bikes. Speed is a factor, but the rider counts for a lot more.

What makes Phillip Island even more unique is its location, exposed to the wild weather which blows in across the Bass Strait. The track has grip, but conditions can change quickly. The sun can warm the asphalt, and the cold ocean wind can whip the heat right out of asphalt and tires just as fast. The track feels more like a force of nature than a technical challenge to be mastered.

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Motegi Race Notes: On Fuel Management, The Rookie Surprise, Ducati's Weakness, Rossi's Future, And Lorenzo's Progress

To win a motorcycle race, team, rider, and machine need to get as close as possible to extracting 100% of performance from both motorcycle and rider. In the Socratic Ideal of a motorcycle race, as the bike crosses the line, it runs out of fuel, explodes into a thousand pieces, the tires destroy themselves, and the rider drops down dead. That, however, would contravene the engine durability regulations, be extraordinarily expensive, and make winning a championship impossible.

Instead, what the riders and teams try to do is maximize the performance of the bike, and allow the rider to manage performance throughout the race. That means finding the right engine mapping to extract as much power as possible without burning through tires and fuel, and setting up suspension and electronics to keep as much edge grip, corner speed, and braking ability as possible for as long as possible.

In 2017 and 2018, tire consumption was often the limiting factor. Riders knew tire performance would drop significantly at some point, so they had to design their race strategy around that: either push hard from the beginning and manage to the end, or slow up the race and hope to keep as much performance as possible to make a dash for the end. Andrea Dovizioso was a master at this, which allowed him to control the races such that he could win them, or at least keep them close.

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Motegi MotoGP Preview: Can Ducati Upset The Marquez Machine?

The first race of the flyaway triple header is arguably the most important. It is, after all, the home Grand Prix for half of the manufacturers on the grid. It is the one race where the top echelons of Honda, Suzuki, and Yamaha management gather, the people behind the companies which put 10 of the 22 MotoGP bikes on the grid. If, for some sick and twisted reason, you wanted to destroy the Japanese motorcycle industry by removing its senior management, then the Motegi MotoGP race would be your second-best chance of success. Only the Suzuka 8 Hour race is a bigger deal for the Japanese manufacturers, and a more important race in Japan.

Motegi matters most to Honda. The Japanese motorcycling giant owns the circuit (as it does Suzuka) and it houses the Honda Collection Hall, a magnificent display of motorcycling history. As it is Honda's 60th anniversary in Grand Prix racing, this year's race is even more important. Before the previous Grand Prix in Thailand, HRC President Yoshishige Nomura told Marc Márquez to wrap up the rider's title in Buriram, so he could arrive in Motegi as champion, a goal Márquez dutifully fulfilled. The target at Motegi will be to clinch the manufacturers crown, which he can do by simply finishing ahead of the first Ducati.

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Buriram MotoGP Saturday Round Up: Why Pride Pushes Riders To Take Risks, Why Priorities Matter, And A Classic Race In The Making

Looked at objectively, motorcycle racing is a pointless exercise. Sure, it has some benefits. The engineering involved helps make motorcycles better, safer, and more efficient. The determination of riders to return to action as quickly as possible makes them willing guinea pigs for medical science to try out new ideas for faster and better recovery from injury. But in the grand scheme of things, being able to ride a motorcycle around a track faster than anyone else is fairly meaningless.

Unsurprisingly, that is not how the actual competitors see it. For motorcycle racers, being able to go around a track faster than anyone else is the most important thing in the world. To paraphrase former Liverpool FC manager Bill Shankly, it is not a matter of life and death, it's more important than that. That is precisely how riders end up as willing guinea pigs for medical science. As Marc Márquez explained to Spanish journalist Mela Chercoles in the sports daily AS, "to understand the limits of the bike, you have to accept that if it takes 25 crashes to understand, then you have to be willing to crash 25 times in a season."

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Aragon Subscriber Race Round Up: Honda's Biggest Problem, A Ducati Resurgence, Punishment Fitting The Crime, And Riding Without Winglets

Winning a MotoGP race is never easy. Even when the winner crosses the line with a huge victory margin, it's never easy. Riding for 42 minutes and 117 kilometers at close to maximum intensity is tough on the body, and tough on the mind. Disaster is only a momentary lapse of attention away.

That thought was on Marc Márquez' mind going into the race at Aragon. He had qualified on pole with a lap a third of a second faster than anyone else. In terms of race pace, he looked to be half a second a lap quicker than the rest of the grid. On paper, the race was in the bag.

That was pretty much what we thought at Austin back in April as well. But there, Márquez crashed out of the race on lap 9, after he had built up a lead of nearly 4 seconds. Up until that point, he had looked as unbeatable as ever at the Circuit of the Americas. But a minor hiccup with engine braking pushed the front, the bike getting away from him, and down he went.

Coming into Aragon, Márquez led the championship by 93 points. He could feel his sixth MotoGP title was within his grasp. He knew he had the pace to win comfortably. But the crash at Austin was preying on his mind, and he knew that a repeat would make his life unnecessarily difficult. Eyes on the prize, at all times.

Command and control

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Aragon MotoGP Preview: Who Can Beat Marc Marquez At A Counterclockwise Track?

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.

Passing lane

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MotoGP Misano Thursday Round Up: Track Preconceptions, Disagreement In Aprilia, Coming Back From Injury, And Lorenzo Parries Criticism

Thursday was the first chance most of the media got to talk to the MotoGP riders after the test at Misano two weeks ago, and find out what they really thought about the test, rather than trying to decode the meaning of the press releases issued. That clarified a lot about the test, answering some of the questions we had been left with, and intriguingly, raising yet more questions which had slipped under the radar.

As always, however, when you ask different riders about a subject, they will have different opinions. Even if they are teammates, like Fabio Quartararo and Franco Morbidelli. Asked about the state of the track, Quartararo expressed concern about the lack of grip, especially in certain places.

"For me, [track grip] was terrible, but some corners were good, some corners were less, and one corner was totally a disaster, corner 14," the Petronas Yamaha rider said. "I think many riders crashed in this corner. I heard that when Marc crashed, he thought it was the white line which they just painted, but as soon as you want to put lean angle in this corner, you crash. And I have a lot of big moments in this corner. Let's see if it improves this weekend, because in the test it was a really critical place to ride."

Better the devil you know

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