Sick of all the attention the racing gods were getting in the run-up to this weekend’s Japanese Grand Prix, the weather gods put on a show of their own. They sent Typhoon Lekima barreling toward the island on Thursday, summoned a 7.1 earthquake on Friday night, and topped it all off with Typhoon Francisco on Saturday, making a shambles of the weekend practice schedule. Undeterred by the weather, defending world champion Jorge Lorenzo ran a perfect race on Sunday, winning against all odds, and setting up a meaningful season finale in Valenciana. Take THAT, weather gods!
In a normal, non-typhoonish weekend, the big bikes of MotoGP run four free practice sessions, two qualifiers and a pre-race warm up. This weekend, everything was condensed into one long, wet qualifying session on Saturday and a sunny extended warm-up on Sunday morning. As you might expect, the result of all this disruption was a somewhat scrambled starting grid, Exhibit A being deposed Ducati pilot Nicky Hayden on the front row alongside Yamaha polesitter Lorenzo and Repsol Honda rookie challenger Marc Marquez.
The Sunday morning warm-up was ominous for Yamaha fans, as Hondas occupied four of the top five spots on the timesheets. And, as is starting to become a troubling pattern, Marc Marquez once again suffered a violent high side crash in the warm-up, going all ragdoll in an effective impersonation of Alex de Angelis’ crash in practice at Jerez in 2010. Somehow, the rookie emerged from the kitty litter with only a sore neck and shoulder, and went on to turn the third fastest lap in the session.
Lorenzo on Rails
Once the race started, the three usual suspects gathered at the front of the pack, joined briefly by Lorenzo’s Yamaha teammate Valentino Rossi, who ran in second position until Turn 11 on Lap 2 where he ran wide, allowing both Marquez and Dani Pedrosa through and exposing Lorenzo to another dreaded Honda double-team. Sure enough, before long the two Repsol Honda pilots were nipping at Lorenzo’s heels, with a palpable Sense of Impending Doom settling over the Yamaha garage. Surely, it was only a matter of time before the two Honda riders took advantage of their superior corner exit speed to track down and take out the courageous Lorenzo, who was churning out fast laps but appeared to be running at the max.
It never happened.
Last year at Aragon, Pedrosa fended off four Yamaha M1s on the way to a surprising win on a Yamaha circuit. In a similarly miraculous turn of events, Lorenzo finished first ahead of the four Hondas on the track today, at a Honda track, in front of the factory brass from both teams.
Two things became apparent during the course of today’s race. One, Yamaha’s new seamless shift transmission made the factory bikes way more competitive, compared to the last two years when Honda alone enjoyed the technology. (I keep hearing that Ducati has the same box, for all the good it does them.) Two, and more importantly, the veteran Lorenzo is capable of exerting his will on his Honda competitors, refusing to surrender in the face of all odds, unafraid to put everything on the line in the relentless pursuit of greatness. Other riders, who perhaps haven’t savored the taste of a world championship, are less inclined to go all in when the pressure is at its highest.
If you intend to be a world champion at anything, at some point you are going to have to push all your chips into the center of the table. Otherwise, you will surely end up with lots of money, a bunch of trophies, and a legacy, but no glory. In American team sports, the poster children for this unwanted notoriety are the NFL’s Dan Marino, MLB’s Carl Yastrzemski, and the NBA’s Karl Malone. Dani Pedrosa, who was once again eliminated from championship contention today, bears this heavy mantle for MotoGP, and deserves better, as do the others. His burden may be heavier, as MotoGP is an individual sport, whereas the others get a little rhythm for having been surrounded by lesser talents.
Baby-faced Marquez, in the midst of a glittering rookie season, does not yet have the mental strength to bend the grid to his will. He obviously has the rest of the package, in spades. He is getting by (and by that I mean “probably winning the 2013 title”) on sheer ability and the inability to recognize life-threatening situations. In a few more years, along with the reflexes, balance and balls, he will have the gravitas that comes with experience, and will be an irresistible force in his chosen profession. Surely, every other rider and team on the grid dreads the arrival of that day.
Riding for All the Marbles in Valenciana
For only the second time in the last 21 years, the premier class of MotoGP heads to the season finale with a title in the balance. Marquez, who saw his lead over Lorenzo shrink to 13 points today, must finish on the podium to clinch the title, assuming Lorenzo pushes to the win, as Lorenzo holds the tiebreaker. Since the rookie has podiumed in every race he’s completed – the exceptions being his crash at Mugello and his DQ at Phillip Island – this doesn’t sound like too tall an order.
Neither Lorenzo nor Marquez has experienced too much success at the Circuit Ricardo Tormo, with each having but a single win there. We will explore the ins- and-outs in our Valencia preview 10 days from now. At least we can look forward to a season finale that actually means something, as compared to the exhibition that comprises the end most MotoGP seasons. And while Marquez holds the inside position heading back to Spain, Lorenzo showed the rookie today that winning his first premier class title won’t be a walk in the park, and that he’d better eat his Wheaties two weeks from now.
Elsewhere on the Grid
Several performances stood out in today’s race, chief among them the surprisingly robust ride from Stefan Bradl who, 15 days after having all kinds of titanium surgically implanted in his ankle, recovered from a ninth place start to finish fifth. Monster Tech 3 Yamaha teammates Cal Crutchlow and Bradley Smith, who demonstrated on Saturday that they don’t like running in the rain, finished seventh and eighth, respectively, after starting disrespectfully in 11th and 13th places.
On the other side of the coin, the factory Ducati contingent of Hayden and Andrea Dovizioso showed once again that they are mudders. With Hayden having qualified third and Dovi sixth, they assiduously worked themselves down the order today, as Hayden came across the line 9th and Dovizioso 10th. Hayden, in particular, fell from third to tenth on the first lap!
This, then, is a portrait of the devil’s bargain Crutchlow has struck, walking away from a competitive satellite Yamaha voluntarily into the waiting arms of Ducati Factory Racing, the capital of over-engineered motorcycles. Have a great two years, Cal!
With at least two production Yamahas joining the grid next season, along with at least three production Hondas, it figures to be an extremely long season for team Ducati. And the new guy they stole from Aprilia has exactly no chance of turning things around in months; he will be thinking in terms of years. By which time both Dovizioso and Crutchlow will undoubtedly be gone.
In a final note today, we salute Ben Spies, who this week had the grace and good sense to walk away from motorcycle racing while he still could. Ben won a premier class race at the cathedral of moto racing at Assen, during a MotoGP career that burned like a match head, impossibly bright and intolerably brief. We will miss his humor and candor and wish him the best going forward.
Top Ten MotoGP Standings After 16 Rounds
|1||Marc Marquez||Repsol Honda||318|
|2||Jorge Lorenzo||Yamaha Factory||305|
|3||Dani Pedrosa||Repsol Honda||280|
|4||Valentino Rossi||Yamaha Factory||224|
|5||Cal Crutchlow||Monster Tech3 Yamaha||188|
|6||Alvaro Bautista||Gresini Honda||160|
|7||Stefan Bradl||LCR Honda||146|
|8||Andrea Dovizioso||Ducati Factory||133|
|9||Nicky Hayden||Ducati Factory||118|
|10||Bradley Smith||Monster Tech3 Yamaha||107|