Round 15 of the 2016 MotoGP championship is the first leg of the annual Pacific flyaway, three races in three weeks during which the title will be decided. Unlike 2013 and last year, this year’s finale at Valencia will not be the dramatic season-decider they love hosting in Spain in November. A question gaining traction in the paddock raises the issue of whether it’s the Honda winning the title or the Yamahas losing it. Big Blue hasn’t had a win this year since Valentino Rossi’s win over Marc Marquez at Catalunya back in early June.
After going four-for-four between Jerez and Catalunya, things have gone badly for the factory Yamaha team, their current winless streak their longest since, um, a long time ago. Factory officials deny any problem, giving us the “it’s just one of those things that happen some years…” explanation. Rossi continues to fight hard, the end of his career somewhere on the horizon. Jorge Lorenzo, since Mugello, has amassed 67 points out of a possible 200. Do people agree it’s a fair statement that most of the wins collected by the six non-Movistar winners have come at the expense of the Yamaha factory team, specifically Jorge? Is it possible he has, subconsciously, checked out? Seeing red, as it were?
The 2016-2017 workout conducted by the Repsol Honda team at Aragon on 9/28, their fifth day of the five allotted to them this season, was characterized as fruitful.
All of which puts a little extra pressure on young Maverick Vinales heading into 2017.
Recent history at Motegi
The 2013 race, preceded by two typhoons and an earthquake, was won by, of all people, Lorenzo. Marquez and Dani Pedrosa followed, the only riders to finish within five seconds of the Mallorcan. A good idea of how Rossi’s day went is the fact that he ended up in sixth place behind Alvaro Bautista and Stefan Bradl.
In 2014 it was All Aliens, All the Time as Lorenzo led a pack of highly-paid pursuers to the finish line, with Marquez, Rossi and Pedrosa all following on their factory machines, the time between 1st and 4th a scant 3.1 seconds. Though Andrea Dovizioso took pole, the four Aliens were grouped 2 to 5. Marquez, leading the series, conceded first place to Lorenzo and, in the process, clinched the title. The race featured contact between Lorenzo and Marquez on Lap 5 which might have cost the Catalan the race, had it mattered. The second-world-title Samurai ceremony afterwards was cool if somewhat overdone, testament to the belief of many that anything worth doing is worth overdoing.
Last year, Dani Pedrosa chose Motegi to make his annual stand, leading Rossi and Lorenzo to the line in a wet-ish affair. Marquez struggled into fourth place ahead of Dovizioso on the Ducati. Pedrosa would go on to win at Sepang. He recorded seven wins in 2012 to two in 2015; he is well along the back nine of his distinguished career. Rossi’s lead over Lorenzo stood at 18 points with three rounds to go. The title was his to lose.
Elevated Frustration Coefficients
Aside from Marquez, every rider on the grid is suffering from Elevated Frustration Coefficients (EFC) due to the circumstances of his 2016 season, the number raised by every piece of bad equipment, bad riding, bad luck and low rent under the sun. Here are a few:
- Valentino Rossi: a slide-off in Texas, an engine in Italy, a careless fall at Assen stand between him and a title chase. He loathes his teammate. And he’s been caught on camera recently being somewhat crude. Hurts t-shirt sales. EFC unusually high.
- Jorge Lorenzo: crashed in Argentina and Catalunya; made a hash of the middle of the season. Appears unable to compete on wet tracks. Starting to look like a short-timer at Movistar Yamaha. Trailing Rossi elevates his EFC.
- Dani Pedrosa: disaster of a season somewhat revived by his stirring win at Misano. Continues to have grip problems on a bike being built to Marquez specifications. Giving feedback on new equipment while #93 stays on his 2014 frame. EFC somewhat dulled, along with expectations.
- Maverick Vinales: on the cusp of greatness. Already being called an Alien – he’s not. But he soon will be on the factory Yamaha. With Rossi there to guide him until they become rivals – figure six rounds next season – he will have a steep learning curve, nothing he can’t handle. Less stressed than most.
- Cal Crutchlow: in a perfect world he would be leading the championship series. Just ask him. As it is, he’s a midfielder with more quotes than podiums. He won his race this season. Will there be more? EFC gets raised by waking up in the morning.
And so on and so on. The lead that Marquez has built, one brick at a time, along with the drought at Movistar Yamaha, along with the startling EFC data, suggest he will have to be suckered into losing the 2016 title. The only thing that can hurt him now is crashing out of a round or two. People praying for a close premier class finish must necessarily pray for rain, otherwise it appears to be smooth sailing for Marquez and his third title in four seasons.
Here’s what 2017 looks like in Tranches 1-4:
|Same Equip||New Equip|
|Marquez (1)||Lorenzo (2)|
|Rossi (2)||Vinales (2)|
|Pedrosa (3)||Iannone (3)|
|Crutchlow (2)||P. Espargaro (3)|
|Dovizioso (3)||Rins (3)|
|Barbera (4)||A. Espargaro (3)|
The changes at the top of the food chain – Lorenzo to Ducati, Vinales to Yamaha, Iannone and Rins to Suzuki – appear to weaken Marquez’s 2017 competition, as all of these guys will be on new equipment. Rossi remains the exception, and will continue to press the detested Spaniard. The 2017 Yamaha M1 is being advertised as a quantum evolution of the bike; one assumes Honda engineers have something going on to give the RC213V more grunt coming out of turns. Can Yamaha improve their bike by more than enough to compensate for the growing realization that, mano á mano, Marquez, today, probably beats Valentino on identical equipment? Can Lorenzo and Vinales crack the top five consistently on new rides? What if it rains? Is Crutchlow an Alien?
Here We Go Again
The MotoGP season is beginning to resemble a Red state/Blue state map of the racing world. Both Honda and Yamaha (joined by Ducati) have tracks where they are expected to win, due to layout, design, average speed, average corner speed, etc. Austin for the Hondas, Mugello for the Yamahas, etc. Red and blue states if you will, where holding serve is imperative. This, then, leaves the “battleground states,” the tracks where neither manufacturer enjoys a distinct advantage. Teams fight desperately for wins in those battleground states, as they typically decide the title when things go according to form. They also present opportunities for upsets – see Assen over the years.
Marquez, with four wins and ten podiums, has scored points in blue and red states. Starting to smell a landslide.
Bradley Smith (Tech 3 Yamaha), Andrea Iannone (Factory Ducati), and probably Jack Miller (Marc VDS Honda) will return to the track from injuries, following Loris Baz, who came back for Avintia Racing at Aragon. All the regulars should be out for practice on Friday. Thank you very much to Alex Lowes, Michele Pirro and Nicky Hayden for helping to fill up the grid of late.
We’ll have results and analysis right here later on Sunday.