With but eight points separating the top five riders, MotoGP storms into Jerez on fire, happy to be back in Europe, the contenders looking for a little separation as Round Four is upon us. Jerez is one of those beloved tracks – along with places like Mugello, Assen and Valencia – where riders aspire to join the great ones. With almost a dozen legitimate podium threats starting the race, of which only four have ever won here (in the premier class), the odds of a fifth rider from this grid finishing Sunday standing on the top step of the podium has never been better. Paging Cal Crutchlow.
Let’s keep it real here for a moment. Let’s acknowledge that Marc Marquez could easily be sitting on 70 points were it not for The Red Mist at Rio Hondo. Let’s also acknowledge that he’s not, and that it’s his own fault. There. Marquez is probably going to win Sunday’s race and take over the lead in the 2018 title chase. Maverick Viñales and Andrea Dovizioso are awesome, Valentino Rossi and Dani Pedrosa are still threats every time out. Crutchlow’s in there. And guys like Jack Miller and Alex Rins occasionally show up out of a clear blue sky. But the (first of four) Spanish Grand Prix is #93’s to lose.
2015 was pure, vintage Jorge Lorenzo. Qualify on pole, get away early, attach bike to rails, press “Go,” and keep the last 26 laps within half a second of one another. Metronomic. Somewhat stupefying for those of us looking for rubber-on-leather and paint trades in the turns. Marquez and Rossi crossed the line way back in second and third. After the race Rossi led Lorenzo by 20 points. Points is points; Lorenzo took nine out of Rossi this day, in a season in which he won the title over the Italian by five (5) points. This is what they mean when they say every point counts.
2016 was a Yamaha kind of year at Jerez. The Doctor made a house call on soon-to-be-former teammate Lorenzo, winning at Jerez for the first time since 2009. He led every lap after an early challenge from his restless teammate, with Marquez running a quiet third. It was a Yamaha year, starting and finishing in the top two slots. The church bells rang in Tavullia as Rossi spit in the eye of both Lorenzo and Marquez. On their home soil. For Rossi fans, this was a keeper.
2017, on the other hand, was your basic Honda year here. Repsol Honda #2 Dani Pedrosa, looking like the 2012 version of himself, won, leading wire to wire for his first win since Misano in 2016. Teammate and defending champion Marquez gave chase for most of the race, but never seemed to have quite enough to mount a serious challenge to Pedrosa on one of those Dani days. Underdog Lorenzo claimed third step on the podium in a credible performance on the factory Ducati, his first podium in red which, he said afterwards, felt like a win. This “win” started a string of nine off-podium finishes that turned his season to mud. Still, Lorenzo likes Jerez.
So, we know that Lorenzo, Marquez, Pedrosa, and Rossi like this place. We suspect that, in 2018, Dovizioso, Viñales, Crutchlow and one of the Suzuki pilots, Rins or Andrea Iannone, will like it here as well. With the standings at the top of the food chain as tight as they are, the riders must know that finishing in the points is crucial. It’s probably safe to say that the top 10 riders on the grid all have the same game plan: Get out front and leg it. Since, for at least nine of them, Plan A will fail, possibly spectacularly, they need to be prepared to sub-optimize, to get as far up in the points as possible without dumping it on the deck. How many times have we talked about a second-tier rider who qualifies on the front row as having “nothing to lose?” In Sunday’s race there will be a lot of guys with skin in the game, as it were, and a number of them are likely to be twitching waiting for the lights to go out.
So, Pecco Bagnaia, late of Moto2 and a rising star, one of Rossi’s Sky VR46 kids, gets slotted next to Miller on a Pramac Ducati for 2019-2020. Adios Danilo Petrucci. And super soph Johann Zarco has reportedly decided to become a KTM guy beginning next year. Adios Bradley Smith. Petrucci heads for Aprilia. Sayonara Scott Redding. For now, only the Bagnaia deal is official. There figure to be plenty more.
I can’t help but think Honda has its eye on Joan Mir for the #2 bike in the Repsol garage starting next year. Honda is evaluating whether to sign loyal foot soldier Pedrosa to another contract, or whether it’s time for new blood to race alongside Marquez. Pedrosa has long been linked to KTM (his long-standing ties to team sponsor Red Bull is the obvious connection) but the Austrian manufacturer is happy with Pol Espargaro, announcing a new contract today with the 26-year-old to a contract extension that will see him stay in orange through 2020. With Zarco set to join him, that door appears to have closed for Dani.
ED: The 2018 Jerez race is set to start Sunday at 8 am Eastern time. Normally, we try to get his race reports up as soon as we can after the race, but Bruce is dealing with some health concerns and wants to apologize preemptively for being late with his analysis.
But we’re not going to let him, because his health is priority #1 and he’s got nothing to apologize for. Well… except, perhaps, for jinxing Cal Crutchlow by saying he’s got a shot this weekend. Here’s to a quick and full recovery, and we look forward to hearing from Bruce after the race.