MotoGP Phillip Island 2013 Preview
Lorenzo’s Last Stand
This MotoGP season has developed an air of inevitability. Not that Repsol Honda rookie Marc Marquez is going to win the 2013 title; that’s pretty much in the bag. It’s entirely possible he could win the next six or eight world championships. The young Spaniard may do for MotoGP what Michael Schumacher did years ago for Formula 1 – turn it into his personal playground, at the cost of much of its popularity.
Despite Dorna CEO Carmelo Ezpeleta’s efforts to level the playing field as regards equipment (which could easily take years, given the resistance he faces from the Hondas and Yamahas of the world), the observation that MotoGP is 80% rider and 20% bike is mostly true. Marquez won the 125 class when he was 17, and would have won two Moto2 titles had he not splashed out in Sepang in 2011. If you were to put the entire premier class grid on identical bikes, there’s no question in my mind that Marquez would win 75% of the races, for as long as you wanted to run them. Against Jorge Lorenzo, Dani Pedrosa, Valentino Rossi and the rest. No question. He’s that good.
Compare his premier class rookie season to that of his role model. In his first six races in 2000, Valentino Rossi, the impudent Italian fast mover, crashed twice, finished 12th, 11th and 3rd twice, earning a total of 41 points. Marquez, in a larger grid, crashed once, finished on the podium five times, had a win, and pulled down 93 points. Rossi earned 209 points in 2000 over 16 rounds (13 points/race); Marquez is on track to reach perhaps 360 points over 18 rounds (20 points/race). Rossi soon became a MotoGP icon, and years after his last competitive season in 2010, he is still recognized around the world and is the fifth-highest earning driver in all motorsports.
Statistically speaking, Marquez is almost 50% more productive than Rossi was in his rookie year. Not to mention he’s from Spain, a country that’s mad about MotoGP, in a league that runs almost a quarter of its races in Spain. Talk about a rock star. Repsol acknowledged as much last Sunday, installing a vastly upgraded brolly girl in place of his customary helper, who resembles Yoko Ono with a migraine.
As Woody Hayes, the legendarily run-oriented Ohio State football coach observed about the forward pass, “Three things can happen, and two of them are bad.” Obviously, in MotoGP, injuries play a major role in the fortunes of the top riders. Despite improvements in leathers, bikes, helmets and the tracks themselves, going 200 mph on a motorcycle is, as it were, a blueprint for disaster. For a vivid example, check out Alex de Angelis in practice for the 2010 Moto2 race at Jerez. (BTW, de Angelis walked away from it.)
Marquez could, yet this year, suffer a career-ending crash, exposing the folly of this speculation. But if he is fortunate enough to avoid a series of bone-crushing high sides over the next decade, he looks ready to rule MotoGP until someone (Alex Rins?) grows enough whiskers to mount a serious challenge. No one currently running in the premier class has the chops.
Weren’t You Going to Discuss Jorge Lorenzo?
For defending champion and Yamaha golden boy Jorge Lorenzo, the only thing that will allow him to repeat would be a significant crash by Marquez. Soon. Repsol Honda’s unlucky #2 Dani Pedrosa will, in all likelihood, be eliminated from contention this weekend, leaving Lorenzo as the last man standing in Marquez’ way. And even if Lorenzo were to run the table – a dubious proposition, with Motegi on the horizon – he would need a complete, utter collapse by Marquez, which just doesn’t appear likely, to become a three-time champion in 2013.
Marquez showed me something this past Sunday in Sepang, once he had gone through on Lorenzo into second place. With teammate Pedrosa a few seconds in front of him, and plenty of time on his hands, Marquez elected to play it safe, gather his 20 points, and move onto the next venue. If he were truly a mad dog, a pathological risk taker, he would have put the hammer down and gone after Pedrosa. I’ve said before that Dani Pedrosa, after countless surgeries, is old for his age. Marquez, by contrast, is mature for his age while still young enough to heal quickly from the “bumps and bruises” (paging Cal Crutchlow) inherent in the sport.
Anyway, Jorge Lorenzo had his game face on in Sepang, and still managed to lose to both Repsol Hondas. Phillip Island is a far friendlier track for the Yamaha M1, and Lorenzo has a decent chance to win on Sunday, further prolonging his 2013 agony. If I were Jorge, I’d have my post-race press conference blurb already prepared, ignore the questions, and talk about how I only enjoy winning titles in even-numbered years. Because, even if his championship hopes are still alive after Australia, he’s pretty much toast in Japan. With two wins in the last nine years at Motegi, Honda’s home track, putting your money on Yamaha, even with Jorge Lorenzo in charge, is a fool’s wager.
Nicky Hayden, according to Speedweek.com, will be riding the production Honda RCV1000R for the Aspar team in 2014. With current Aspar CRT champion Aleix Espargaro on his way to join Colin Edwards at NGM Forward Racing on a rented Yamaha M1 next season (displacing Claudio Corti), Aspar suggested that his choices for the #2 seat on his 2014 team were limited to Hiro Aoyoma, Eugene Laverty and Yonny Hernandez. This presumes that his current #2, Randy de Puniet, takes a year off testing for Suzuki before returning to the grid in 2015 on a factory Suzuki.
Hayden, unceremoniously dumped by Ducati in mid-season – that must sting – now has engine problems for what remains of the 2013 season. The engine he blew at Sepang was his last new one, and the other four are pretty beat up. According to MotoGP.com, Hayden may have to unwrap a sixth engine this week, becoming the second rider ever to start from pit lane as punishment for failing to manage his engine allotment. The first, you will recall, was Valentino Rossi in 2011. Who remembers where that took place?
If Marc Marquez manages to collect another penalty point this week or next, he will be forced to start the following race from the back of the grid. He’s probably not too worried about the prospect. During his first Moto2 season in 2011, after an incident during practice at Phillip Island, Marquez was banished to the back of the grid, starting in 38th place. He finished 3rd that day.
What About the Weather Down Under?
According to Weather.com, conditions at Phillip Island this weekend will be seasonal, which is to say cool and windy. Temps will be in the high 60s and low 70s with a stiff breeze out of the north, making it feel colder than it actually is. Morning practice sessions will be treacherous on cold tires.
Casey Stoner will be in the house, getting his props from Dorna in recognition of a distinguished, if whiney, career. The temptation to climb aboard Stefan Bradl’s idle Honda RC213V must be overwhelming, but I doubt he will succumb.