Round 7 of the 2014 MotoGP season thunders into northeastern Spain, home to the historic Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya and, as luck would have it, Repsol Honda boy wonder Marc Marquez. Growing up 70 miles west of here, Marquez considers Montmeló his home track. Sunday is likely to be Friends and Family Day in Catalunya.
Since Mugello, a number of people, some of whom have an axe to grind, have suggested that double world champion and Yamaha kingpin Jorge Lorenzo is BACK. Certainly, his performance in Italy was his best of 2014 and one of his best ever. But, with his bike performing flawlessly, at a track seemingly designed to the strengths of the YZR-M1 and riding at the limit pretty much the entire day, he was only able to manage second place. Two or three years ago, a ride like that would have been an almost certain win. In 2014, as good as it was, it wasn’t good enough.
Back in 2011, Lorenzo fought Andrea Dovizioso’s Repsol Honda, winning by one second with an elapsed time of 41:50.09. In 2012 he beat Repsol #2 Dani Pedrosa by five seconds, with a time of 41:37.48. Last year he beat Pedrosa by five seconds with a time of 41:39.73. This year, even with the time lost exchanging places with Marquez a dozen times, his time was 41:38.37. Minus Marquez and the time lost fighting him, it would have been his fastest Italian Grand Prix ever.
Not good enough. We observe that the second fastest rider on the grid riding at the absolute limit at perhaps his favorite track on the tour is not fast enough to beat Marc Marquez. Thus, we are left to conclude that the only thing standing between Marquez and perhaps 25 wins in a row will be a careless crash or plain bad luck. A blown engine. A tire losing pressure. A hornet in his helmet. Getting “collected” the way LCR Honda rider Stefan Bradl did at Mugello, by Cal Crutchlow’s riderless Ducati on its grinding way to the gravel pit.
Conventional wisdom in this sport has it that success is 80% rider and 20% bike. If you accept this, and unless you have a closet full of #93 gear, the prospect of the standard ECU in 2016 has to give you the creeps. I expect Marquez to come to grips, as it were, with the Michelin tires in 2016 as quickly as anyone and sooner than most. With a standard ECU and everyone running the same software, 80% may go to 90%. An unsettling prospect, to be sure.
Recent History at Catalunya
“Recent” is a relative word, especially when it comes to MotoGP. Looking back at the last three races here, we’ve seen the premier class change radically in 36 months. Exhibit A: 2011, when Marco Simoncelli took the pole on the Gresini Honda. During the race, Casey Stoner rode his Repsol Honda to the win by 2.4 seconds over Lorenzo, with Ben Spies’ factory Yamaha another 1.9 seconds in arrears. Three of the four top riders that day are no longer racing.
In 2012, the lactose intolerant Stoner started from pole, finishing off the podium as Lorenzo led Dani Pedrosa and Andrea Dovizioso across the line. Last year, Pedrosa started from pole – an accomplishment he has yet to repeat – finishing second to Lorenzo, but beating the pesky Marquez to the line by 6/100ths.
Progress at Pramac: Fact or Fantasy?
Watching the races this season, I’ve caught myself thinking that the once laughable Pramac Racing team has really improved a lot in the past year. Recall 2009 when Aleix Espargaro, Niccolo “Pokey” Canepa and Mika Kallio, late of Moto2, fronted the Italian satellite Ducati team. Kallio had a decent campaign, despite “retiring” from five races, finishing the year with 71 points. But Canepa and the 20 year-old Espargaro collected a total of 54 points between them while Rossi was winning the championship with 309 by himself.
Last year, the team started the year with Michele Pirro and rookie Andrea Iannone. Pirro, who I think is somewhat under-rated, collected five top ten finishes before being replaced by Yonny Hernandez after San Marino. Iannone, who came up from Moto2, was unprepared for life on the Desmosedici, managing a scant 57 points for the season to go along with a number of DNFs and a collection of injuries. Anyway, after six rounds in 2013 the Pramac duo had 49 points.
Fast forward to 2014, with Iannone a year farther along and Hernandez figuring things out. Iannone, especially, calls to mind what folks used to say about Kawasaki bikes – ‘fast while they last.’ He has run with the leaders for brief periods, generally fading as his tires go, and having crashed out at Jerez and Le Mans. Hernandez has been “in the points” in every race this season, but has only 22 to show for his six outings. In short, the team has managed only seven more points than it had at the same time last season. Perhaps they’ve had a little more fun along the way.
As a footnote, Cal Crutchlow had 71 points at this time last season aboard the Tech 3 Yamaha. Having earned his promotion to the Ducati factory team, he sits with 15 (15!) heading into Round 7. We’ve all heard how much Cal regrets the chain of events that brought him to where he is today. I’m wondering whether Ducati Corse doesn’t regret it at least as much as the burly Brit.
In an effort to lower costs and level the playing field, Carmelo Ezpeleta and his minions at Dorna Sports declared prior to the start of the season that, commencing in 2016, every bike on the grid would run the same Electronic Control Unit and the same software. Since Dorna themselves wouldn’t know where to start designing the software, they decided that a committee comprised of engineers from the various factory teams – Honda, Yamaha, Ducati and Suzuki – would assemble over bagels and coffee and, you know, just put their heads together and come up with the incredibly complex programming that keeps these machines from becoming airborne at every turn.
The Italian firm Magneti Marelli, headquartered in Bologna and assumed by many to be sleeping with the bosses at Ducati, has been offering its ECU to the Frankenbikes since the start of the CRT era in 2012. Honda, wanting nothing to do with Marelli or a control ECU, has threatened to pull out of MotoGP altogether over the issue, but seems to be bluffing, having signed Marquez through the 2016 season. The suits at Ducati are apparently screaming that Honda is having too much influence on the design of the software. Yamaha and Suzuki, like Brer Rabbit in the Uncle Remus stories, just be layin’ low, claiming, oddly, that they’ll be happy to work with whatever emerges from the coffee klatch/death match between Honda and Ducati. The dynamics of the whole deal – maximizing input without giving away trade secrets – are fascinating. Whether Ezpeleta & Co. designed this sideshow on purpose, or have been taken by surprise, it will be fun to watch for the next 20 months.
Your Weekend Weather Forecast
Sunny skies and mild temperatures are on tap for all three days, as one would expect for Marc Marquez’ homecoming parade. Anyone want to bet we won’t see the exact same podium this week as we did at Mugello? The lights go out at 8 am EDT; we’ll have results and analysis right here on Sunday afternoon.