Giving it Five

Neil looks back before starting to look forward...

There we were in October of last year, thinking we were witnessing something of a one-off. A premier class contest with such variety and unpredictability was unheard of; its causes stapled to the technical changes implemented at the beginning of the year, and a spot of rain.

However, nine races into the 68th running of the MotoGP world championship and it’s anyone’s series. Ten points cover four riders (Marc Marquez, Maverick Viñales, Andrea Dovizioso and Valentino Rossi) in the title fight, with fifth placed Dani Pedrosa just 26 back of the leader. To prepare for the second half of a madcap season, we take a look at five moments that have shaped this fascinating title chase.

April 12th, Austin – A chink in Viñales’ armour

Leaving Argentina, there was already talk that should Maverick Viñales, king of the preseason and riding a wave of confidence-inspired momentum to two wins in his first two showings for Yamaha, end Marc Marquez’s winning run next time out at Austin, we could already consider this season’s championship over. There was a sense that the 22-year old suspected as much too, speaking confidently of his hopes to, at the very least, challenge Marquez for victory. At Austin? Are you sure?

How wrong those whispers were, as this outing showed a first glimpse of the then title leader’s failings. By his own admission, Viñales is still far from the finished article, his speed from the start and in opening laps some way off the best in the class. That was exposed here, as Marquez sat at the front, only for Viñales – looking slightly ragged in fourth – to fall two laps in. Suddenly, Rossi, Marquez and Pedrosa were all back in play.

May 7th, Jerez – Yamaha’s hot weather woe plain for all to see

Even when Viñales cantered to his second win of the season, there was still a lingering doubt as to why team-mate Rossi didn’t feel as competitive. At first he blamed Michelin’s ’17 spec front tyre construction, which he believed to be too soft. In Argentina he felt it was Yamaha’s ’17 chassis, which prevented him from entering corners with the requisite speed and aggression.

But with Viñales sweeping aside all before him, it was difficult to find fault with this version of the M1. That was until Jerez rolled around, its 14-year old surface and track temperatures in excess of 40 degrees offering up a whole new challenge. Neither factory Yamaha could find grip over an agonising weekend that raised more questions than it answered.

Viñales spun his way to sixth, with a set-up gamble backfiring for 2016 winner Rossi, who struggled to tenth – the first occasion Yamaha hadn’t featured in the top three here in eleven years. As satellite runner Johann Zarco placed fourth, the issue couldn’t be levelled at Yamaha. Something had to give. A race that should also be remembered for Dani Pedrosa’s flawless ride to victory, a timely reminder of his talents, and championship mettle.

24th May, Montmeló – Dovizioso finds the sweet spot

Andrea Dovizioso had worn an expression of consternation from Argentina to Jerez; his frustrations at Ducati’s inability to fix the machine’s age-old turning issues clear for all to see. But the first five races showed Ducati’s rivals to have their fair share of failings too.

After a decent showing in France, Dovizioso went to Montmeló for a private test to hone a base setting at a track around which he had previously struggled. In the wake of posting the sixth best time, the Italian talked down his chances. “We still can’t fight for the victory,” he said on the final day. But look away from the time sheet, and Dovizioso was working ceaselessly on race rhythm and tyre conservation. Two victories followed in the upcoming two weeks, taking the Italian toward MotoGP title contention for the first time.

Sunday, 4th June, Mugello – Marquez brings it home

On the face of it, sixth place doesn’t look like much if you’re the reigning world champion, attempting to bounce back from a second fall in four races. Yet the more you analyse Marquez’s race day performance at Mugello, the more it can be viewed as a turning point. The ten points scored here was the beginning of a run that carried him from championship doubtful, (37 points away) to five points clear in three races.

And when you look at the fortunes of the other HRC men (Crutchlow and Pedrosa were involved in a collision while contesting eleventh, Rabat was eleventh, Miller fifteenth) you quickly realise that Marquez was riding above and beyond the package beneath him. Hamstrung by overheating front tyres, the reigning champion maintained his cool and hovered around Alvaro Bautista to claim sixth. There was a sense of heightened maturity about the way he ably resisted temptation on the final lap too. “I thought about passing but thought what’s the point if he passes me back before the line.” Although it didn’t appear so at the time, Marquez’s chances, with good tracks coming up, were reignited with this wise performance.

Sunday, 25th June, Assen – Rossi recaptures winning feeling

Twelve months is a long time in any sport. Even more so when arguably the greatest of all time’s winless runs stretches as long. Rossi had come so close to ending it at Le Mans, two final lap errors enough to scupper his chances. But after the Montmeló disaster, the Italian arrived in the Netherlands with a new, slightly modified chassis, knowing this was the time to strike.

He had barbed at his young teammate the week before too, stating Viñales didn’t understand the complexities of how the M1 should handle. And while Viñales wore an expression of distant disquiet throughout, unwilling to shed light on chassis feedback, Rossi was front and centre, talking up the new frame, his times always hinting a 116th GP win was within reach. His ride on Sunday as the rain began to fall should be ranked among his very best. Oh, and the championship was suddenly within reach too. From twenty-eight points behind, to seven, Rossi was now right back in the mix.

Photos by CormacGP

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