After a convincing performance in the Qatari desert two weeks ago, defending world champion Jorge Lorenzo confronts one of his demons this week. The Gran Premio Motul de la República Argentina, running as usual at the shiny new-ish Termas de Río Hondo, operates outside of Lorenzo’s Land. One of five venues on the 2016 calendar where Lorenzo has yet to taste victory in the premier class (quick – name the other four*), Lorenzo will have his work cut out for him this weekend. *COTA, The Sachsenring, Red Bull Ring and Sepang.
Having tested at Losail just weeks ago, the grid had a reasonably good idea what to expect from the standard ECU and Michelin rubber when the lights went out in Doha. Not so at Rio Hondo. Friday will mark the first time the riders have set foot on the Argentine asphalt in 2016. We are reminded of how Repsol Honda star Marc Marquez acquainted himself with the place in 2014 when the track first opened. He strolled around in 14th place during FP1, then cinched everything up, lowered his visor, and topped the charts in FP2, FP3, FP4, Q2, the warm-up practice and, finally, the race itself. Caution will be the order of the day on Friday morning.
Lorenzo’s pursuers in the 2016 chase – Ducati’s Andreas Dovizioso and Iannone, Marquez, Yamaha teammate and nemesis Valentino Rossi foremost among them – have reason to feel optimistic heading for the southern hemisphere. Both Marquez and Rossi have won here, in 2014 and last year, respectively. Repsol Honda mighty mite Dani Pedrosa finished less than two seconds behind Marquez in 2014 and in front of both Lorenzo and Rossi. Dovizioso claimed a clean second place finish last year, while Honda tough guy Cal Crutchlow was busy punking Iannone at the flag for his only podium of 2015. Iannone, especially, having crashed out of the lead in Qatar, needs to make up some ground this week to cut into Lorenzo’s 25 point advantage. God knows he has the bike upon which to do it.
Not Riblets – Winglets!
The feng shui (Japanese for “latest fad”) in MotoGP these days are these little wing thingies that have sprouted from the front fairings of just about every bike on the grid over the past few years. According to Matt Oxley, former rider and current paddock layabout, the appendages on the Ducatis are suspected of producing dirty air – read: turbulence – for trailing riders. Many of us are accustomed to hearing this concept applied to racing yachts and fighter jets, but this is a new finding in MotoGP. Matt cites anecdotal evidence that such turbulence came close to unseating Pedrosa in Australia last year.
Several thoughts on this subject: Why are the Ducs being singled out for causing problems, while none of the other manufacturers, all of whom are sporting riblets winglets, stand accused? Sure, the Ducatis flirt with low Earth orbits on long straights, as we saw illustrated vividly at the end of Lap 1 at Losail. But such would appear to be a matter of degree; it’s not like they’re breaking the sound barrier. (Yet, anyway.) Could this be a case of, ahem, “intelligent design,” deployed to discourage other riders from hitching a tow behind Iannone or Dovizioso? The strakes are prohibited in Moto2 and Moto3; why, then, are they permitted on the fastest bikes on the planet?
The irony here is that subsequent to the tragic Marco Simoncelli crash at Sepang in 2011, Dorna and Grand Gouda Carmelo Ezpeleta announced their intention to reduce speeds and make the sport safer going forward. Instead, they allow enhanced aerodynamics which improve traction, while the engineers beaver away to squeeze horsepower and torque out of the engines. The result? Iannone hits 218 mph in the warm-up at Losail, Dani Pedrosa is allegedly getting tossed around like a ragdoll in the wake, and the sport looks to be setting itself up for another pointless fatality.
MotoGP bikes are fast. Fans are unable to distinguish between a motorcycle traveling at 190 mph and one traveling at 200 unless they’re running side by side. Enough already with the winglets.
Speaking of enough already, Cal Crutchlow’s lament in Qatar that he crashed because “the bike didn’t know where it was” reveals just how Space Odyssey the electronics have become. (“I’m sorry, Dave. I’m afraid I can’t do that.”) I, for one, hope it becomes fashionable in the future for the riders to do more and the ECUs to do less, before MotoGP becomes just a big, noisy, expensive video game.
Pity Danilo Petrucci
One rider for whom I had high hopes this season is Danilo Petrucci, Scott Redding’s teammate on the Pramac Ducati team. Despite having averaged 23 points a year during his first three premier class seasons, all of which were spent on execrable machinery, someone at Ducati saw something in him and gave him a ride on a second hand Desmosedici last season. He went from having earned 17 points in 2014 to 113 and a top ten finish last year. With an even stronger bike beneath him, I thought him capable of finishing between sixth and tenth this year.
Alas, bad luck intervened. Petrucci smashed his right hand in a late pre-season testing crash, and did it again trying to return too soon in Qatar. He is now out indefinitely, his place being taken by highly qualified Ducati test rider Michele Pirro. The familiar melody you hear in the background is the Colonel Bogey March being whistled by Casey Stoner, standing around, under contract to test for Ducati but unwilling to return to the track. Virtually identical to the situation when he was testing for Honda and Dani Pedrosa broke his collarbone. Married readers may detect in all this the invisible hand of Adriana Stoner, who, it must be assumed, has assured Casey that in the event she ever sees #27 on a race day track, the only function left to be served by his didgeridoo will be urination.
Questions in Search of Answers in Argentina
In no particular order:
- Are any of the other Aliens strong enough to mount a serious challenge to Lorenzo this year? This would seem a good place to begin to find out.
- Can Iannone (or Dovi) challenge Lorenzo mano à mano on Sunday, assuming he keeps his bike shiny side up? The Alien Club beckons.
- Have Maverick Vinales, Scott Redding and Hector Barbera improved as much as we thought during the offseason?
- Is Dani Pedrosa beginning to show signs of wear? Since the end of last season, which he finished strong, his testing and early season performance has been distinguished, in my dad’s words, only by an its lack of distinction.
- Who gets the last slot on the grid for next season? The name Sito Pons keeps surfacing, with either Pol Espargaro or Alex Rins the favorites to man the bike, whatever the bike turns out to be. A brixxer would be nice.
- The weather forecast for the Esteros environs calls for hot and mostly dry conditions on Friday and Saturday, with cool, wet air moving in for Sunday. Will the weather get in Lorenzo’s way? The Ducs are voting in favor of rain.
- Cal Crutchlow’s bike had an existential crisis in Qatar. Can it find itself this week in South America?
- And what’s up with Aleix Espargaro? Maybe it’s the ECU, maybe it’s the tires; whatever it is, he needs to get with the program. His wingman is making him look sick.
For those of you still able to watch on live TV, the race goes off Sunday at 3 pm EDT. We’ll have results here late Sunday or early Monday.