One year ago, heading into Round 3 in Argentina, I was pretty sure of two things: 1. Marc Marquez was going to win a second MotoGP world championship in 2014, and 2. Valentino Rossi’s alien days were behind him. Going 1-for-2 is great in baseball, not so much in the world of motorcycle prognostication. As it turns out, Rossi may offer the biggest obstacle to Marquez’ quest for a third consecutive title. And Andrea Dovizioso’s application for membership in the alien club has now been approved, at the apparent expense of Repsol #2 Dani Pedrosa.
The remarkable resurrection of the Ducati brand under the guiding hand of Gigi Dall’Igna has finally interrupted the seemingly interminable streak – going on eight years – of Honda/Yamaha domination of podium celebrations in the premier class. Though there has been the occasional Ducati sighting – Dovi twice in 2014, Crutchlow finishing third in Aragon last year, Nicky Hayden third in Jerez in 2011, Rossi himself with three podia in two seasons – it’s been a painfully long time since the Ducati was competitive. The factory team has already rung up two second-place results and a third this season and appears capable of challenging at every track on the circuit. Dovizioso is now a top three rider, and his partner, Andrea Iannone, is right there with him, gaining experience every time out and working on his own alien resumé.
Dall’Igna has moved the Ducati MotoGP program from the outhouse to the penthouse in barely 18 months. Had Aprilia opted to give him his payday and keep him in the fold, he would have likely accelerated their own “program” back to respectability in a third of the time it will now take.
Conventional business wisdom early in the 21st century has it that, in a corporation, no one person is indispensable. I’m pretty sure Ducati brass might take the other side of that argument these days.
Recent History in Argentina
Last year’s Gran Premio Red Bull de la República Argentina saw the riders return to South America for the first time since 1999. Being the newest entry on the calendar, everyone had to familiarize themselves with the layout in the free practice sessions. Marquez’ performance during the shakedown process was instructive. He spent FP1 on his Vespa Bellissima, finishing 14th and taking in the lay of the land. He then dusted off his RC213V and finished first in FP2, FP3, FP4, Q2, the WUP and the race itself.
The race saw Marquez go through on leader Jorge Lorenzo on Lap 17, lay down a vapor trail, and cruise to a 1.8 second win ahead of Pedrosa, with Lorenzo, his season already in tatters, pushing to the limit to finish third. Rossi spent most of the day dogging Pedrosa on his way to a discouraging fourth place finish. What we didn’t know then was that The Doctor would suddenly get a second wind, producing 12 podia in the next 15 races and a solid second place finish for the year, restoring his credibility, confidence and mojo and putting to rest any claim Lorenzo might have had to being the #1 rider on the team.
The Big Picture
MotoGP, like it’s most distant of distant cousins, the NFL, occasionally finds itself with early season contests deemed “critical” by media types and Those in the Know. If Round 3 in Argentina is critical for any rider, it would be Jorge Lorenzo, battling Marquez and himself to remain in the championship conversation. He has finished fourth in each of the first two races, showing some strength early before fading late. An equipment glitch was to blame in the first instance, bronchitis (or faster riders) in the second. Entering the season I had him penciled in at #2 for the year behind Marquez, ahead of both Dovizioso and Rossi, with Pedrosa 5th. He now also has an undeniable aversion to running in the rain which, at some point during the year, will cost him.
Marquez, interviewed elsewhere this week, stated he views Dovizioso and Rossi as his primary opponents this season. Hard to argue with that. The second group forming up behind the top three includes Lorenzo, Iannone, Bradley Smith and Cal Crutchlow. Kind of group 2A and 2B. If Lorenzo wishes to climb back to the top, he will need to make some noise this weekend. He was competitive here last year; he needs to assert his will on the field, including the Catalan, and come home with some hardware, or look forward to continuing battles with the likes of Maniac Joe and Crutchlow. The suits at Yamaha corporate expect much more from him.
Team Suzuki seems to be getting as much as seems reasonable from Aleix Espargaro and Maverick Vinales, both in the top ten in Austin, both with a perceived advantage at short stubby places like Assen and the Sachsenring, and both riders young, talented and aggressive. Points every time out.
Finally, the new Ducati Desmosedici GP15 seems to be having some spillover effect on the ’14 series bikes being run by Pramac Racing. Yonny Hernandez opened the season with a top ten finish at Losail, with Danilo Petrucci following suit this past week in Texas. Other than Hernandez’ DNF in Austin, it’s been points every time out for the Ducati B Team. Everything’s coming up roses in Bologna. In the rather unlikely event Pramac runs the GP15 next season, they could be battling Crutchlow and Smith for top ten finishes all season long.
Two Riders Heading in Different Directions
Stefan Bradl, currently toiling for Yamaha Forward Racing, and Bradley Smith, onboard the Monster Tech 3 Yamaha, exemplify the vagaries of premier class racing. Bradl earned his promotion to the premier class after taking the Moto2 title in 2011 while Marc Marquez was still seeing stars from his brutal highside crash during practice at Sepang. Bradl stepped aboard the LCR practically-factory spec Honda and could only manage 8th and 7th place finishes his first two seasons before slipping to 9th last year and losing his seat to Crutchlow.
Smith, never having won a title in any division, was apparently tapped for promotion early in the 2011 season when he strung together three straight podia in Moto2. He would finish the year in 7th position, stayed another year during which he slipped to 9th before somewhat surprisingly being named to succeed Colin Edwards on the Tech 3 Yamaha. Since then he’s driven the satellite M1 to a 10th-place finish in 2013, followed by 8th last year, and currently sits 6th in this year’s chase, while Bradl has yet to score a point this season.
Herve Poncharal, owner of the Tech 3 team, and David Emmett over at Motomatters.com are getting hoarse singing Smith’s praises these days, while no one’s saying nuthin’ about Herr Bradl. And while I’m not yet totally sold on Smith, it’s clear that Bradl is methodically working himself out of MotoGP, with WSBK looming on his horizon.
Your Weekend Forecast
Other than a chance of rain on Friday, conditions should be perfect for the weekend, sunny with temps in the low 70’s. Playing the percentages, I look for Marquez, Dovizioso and Rossi on the podium at day’s end, with some kind of event involving Jorge Lorenzo niggling at the back of my mind. Last year’s race offered few surprises. Unlike most of his competitors, Marquez probably hopes for more of the same this weekend.
We’ll have results, analysis, commentary and photos later in the day on Sunday.