MotoGP starts the back nine of the 2015 season this week in Indianapolis with all four Aliens looking fast and frisky. At the top of the heap, a mere 13 points separate factory Yamaha grandees Valentino Rossi and Jorge Lorenzo. Factory Ducati interloper Andrea Iannone, in third, sits squarely in the crosshairs of defending world champion Marc Marquez, who finally has his Repsol Honda figured out. Hard luck Dani Pedrosa on the #2 Repsol bike, health fully restored, loves Indianapolis. Expect an all-Alien battle for the podium in the Hoosier heartland heat on Sunday.
Having been given last rites after his third DNF of the year in Catalunya, Marquez has since returned to his frightening form of the past two years with a podium in Assen and a win at The Sachsenring. But 52 points separate him from second place; conventional wisdom suggests it took too long for him to find the proper frame and settings for an historic second half rally. While he’s finally doing well – really well – both Rossi and Lorenzo are at the top of their respective games, giving meaning to the term “veteran.” Moreover, while Indianapolis remains a Honda-friendly venue, the next four rounds – Brno, Silverstone, Misano and Aragon – are all painted Yamaha blue.
To put himself back in title contention for the home stretch, Marquez must be essentially flawless. And both Rossi and Lorenzo need to experience some serious adversity. Some might say the Bruise Brothers are overdue for a fall or two, while others will insist they can easily stiff-arm the young Catalan wonder over the next nine rounds. The wildcard in all of this is the intra-team competition at Yamaha, with both riders determined to do whatever it takes to win the title. For these two, suffering greatly from the sin of pride – machismo – second place is little different from last. Shades of 2009.
Recent History at Indianapolis
2012 saw Pedrosa win going away, followed by Lorenzo, Andrea Dovizioso on the Tech 3 Yamaha, and Casey Stoner, who rode essentially on one leg, having broken an ankle in qualifying on Saturday. Stoner’s first loss in his last four American outings would be followed by three DNSes, putting an end to any hopes he might have harbored about a repeat world title. Nicky Hayden who, along with Stoner and Ben Spies, crashed in qualifying, broke his wrist and had to sit out his home race. 2012 was the high water mark of Spies’ brief MotoGP career, as he started on the front row but blew his engine while chasing Pedrosa in 2nd place. He would move down to Ducati for a miserable 2013 season before exiting MotoGP for good at the end of the year.
Marquez’ win at Indy in 2013 gave him a hat trick of hat tricks for his first remarkable season in MotoGP. It was his third consecutive win at Indianapolis, the other two having come in Moto2. It marked his third consecutive win in 2013 following superlative outings at The Sachsenring and Laguna Seca. And it was his third consecutive win in the US, following wins in Austin and Monterey. Pedrosa took second place that day, Lorenzo third, and Rossi a distant fourth. Having topped the time sheets in every practice session, the defending world champion’s win on Sunday came as no surprise.
Last year Marquez made it four in a row at Indianapolis, beating Lorenzo by 1.8 seconds and Rossi by 6.5. He was running in third place when the two Italian leaders, Rossi and Dovizioso, had their own close encounter on Lap 6, forcing both to run wide and opening the door for Marquez. Modifications to the layout and to the racing surface during the offseason made Indianapolis more Yamaha-friendly than it had previously been, but the Catalan’s win last year put him 10 for 10 in 2014, his cushion by then so large that he was able to coast to the title despite a relatively ordinary second half season. Lorenzo, as we know, mounted a furious second half charge which fell short but which helped propel him to a strong start this year.
Silly Sponsorship Season Surprises
Events of the past three weeks have revealed just how tenuous many of the sponsor relationships are in this game. In a boutique sport like MotoGP (as opposed to a mass market industry like the NFL), owners often need to seek out sponsors who, sharing William F. Buckley’s famous view on yachtsmen, “enjoy standing under a cold shower tearing up $100 bills.” Several dominoes have fallen recently, the most unsavory being the jailing of Forward Racing boss Giovanni Cuzari on charges of money laundering, tax evasion and bribery, with an investigation of LCR Racing’s lead sponsor, CWM (Capital World Markets) boss Anthony Constantinou on charges of sexual harassment running a close second.
Forward Racing will not compete in Indianapolis, leaving the team in disarray and ascendant rookie Loris Baz unseated in the midst of competing for the open class championship. Forward lead sponsor Athina Eyewear has now bailed as well, and the team has released the struggling Stefan Bradl from his contract just in time for the German to sign up for the #2 Gresini Aprilia seat recently vacated by one Marco Melandri. (With Bradl having to come to grips with the pokey Aprilia, and Toni Elias subbing for Karel Abraham on the Cardion customer Honda, things look to get very crowded at the back of the pack in Indianapolis.)
All of the above has put the fortunes of both Forward Racing and LCR in jeopardy for 2016. And, while Bradl has kept his iron in the fire, moving from the Forward Yamaha to the Gresini Aprilia cannot be viewed as a career advancement. If such action had occurred on track, it would have been referred to as “a gigantic moment.” Meanwhile, it appears likely that LCR will be unable to field a two bike team next year, with Jack Miller’s prospects, bolstered by HRC, for continuing with the team apparently stronger than Cal Crutchlow’s, as the Brit has seriously underachieved, while running his mouth and burning yet more bridges, on his Honda RC213V this season. Poor Cal may have to go crawling on his belly back to Tech 3 which, in my opinion anyway, would be foolish to part with Pol Espargaro in favor of the consistently disgruntled and older Crutchlow.
Regular Early Silly Season Stuff
A loyal reader has pointed out how 2016 looks to be a lousy year to be a rookie in MotoGP, what with the adopted changes in electronics and tires combining to throw a one-two punch at everyone and sure to make life especially difficult for newbies. Add to this the fact that the riders in the upper tranches are already contracted for 2016. The emerging sponsorship difficulties at the back of the pack, Hayden’s long-expected move to World Super Bike notwithstanding, and rumors swirling around Johann Zarco, Tito Rabat and Sam Lowes suggest there may be more bums than seats available next year. It is easy to imagine the grid shrinking for a year before KTM joins the fray in 2017.
Your Weekend Forecast
With conditions at the IMS expected to be hot and humid, look for the Hondas to enjoy their usual advantage in such conditions. It wouldn’t surprise me at all to see Marquez at the top of the podium and Pedrosa on a lower step, with either Rossi or Lorenzo making up the final rostrum spot. We’ll have race results and analysis right here on Sunday evening.