Marquez rides the dice roll to sit on the six
Thirty minutes of ‘as you are’ and five of bedlam and the kind of drama that typified MotoGP in 2017; an unpredictable year that followed one that hoisted nine different winners in 2016.
For the fourth time in eleven years the spiralling MotoGP trophy was awarded to a rider at the ‘stadium-set’ Ricardo Tormo and for the fourth time since 2013 it was Marc Marquez and Honda that prevailed; the 24 year old celebrating for the third occasion in his career at a sold-out Valencia.
MM93’s 12 podiums and 6 wins in 2017 were conjured from pace and a feeling scraped and banged together from 27 tumbles (“and 50 where I almost crashed,” he laughed). It might sound hazardous, foolhardy and the pursuit of younger man (or the definition of a motorcycle racer?) but it was a trial-and-error bash of limits, and an effective philosophy. “The easiest strategy would be to close the throttle, finish fifth: easy. But this is not my style and never will be my style,” he advocated late Sunday afternoon.
One sensational moment after 22 laps of 30 summed up the athlete, the approach and even the season. Monster Yamaha Tech3’s Johann Zarco was the pace-setter but Marquez found a way into Turn 1, misjudged the entry while thinking of his rival and laid a 30m black line as he crashed, propped up the Honda and somehow made it through the gravel and back onto the circuit in the top five. At the time principal title rival Andrea Dovizioso was surviving on his own limit in fifth spot but less than two seconds away. Marquez defied physics in a startling act. And one was that surprising, because it was ultimately unnecessary.
“I arrived at the end of the straight and I felt like a bike was very close to me and then I braked too late. This was the first mistake,” he said. “Then I go in too fast, and I lost the front. I just said, ‘okay, I will be with my bike until the end. I don’t know if we will finish in the gravel or in the wall, but I will be with her…’ But then I saw the rear was there and I was able to save with elbow so I just started to push with elbow and knee 100%. I think the main reason I saved the crash was because of the tension of the race. I was too stiff on the bike. At the same time, I was really sensitive all the time. Then when I pulled it up, [I thought] maybe I was able to lean again and stay on the asphalt, but I prefer to go in the gravel and finish the race in fifth. In the end, the two Ducati riders made a mistake.”
“He’s just a freak; in a good way, obviously,” opined Cal Crutchlow. “I think everyone used to talk about ‘Aliens’. There’s only one alien and the rest are all normal now. It’s just what he can do with the bike: nobody else in the world could do that.”
For tenths of a second Dovizioso saw a flicker of title hope. But for a few tenths of a second he had never been more distant. The Italian had been pushing hard at a pace well above what he’d managed all weekend and somehow Ducati teammate Jorge Lorenzo was mired in another finale controversy. The 2015 Valencian GP winner was consistently fast on Friday and Saturday but crashed at high speed entering Turn 14 on his Pole Position attempt. The Desmosedici also coughed in warm-up. The 30 year old seemed to both drag and hold up Dovizioso after the first laps of the race and instigated the infamous ‘Switch to Mapping 8’ Sepang dashboard message from the team that flashed up repeatedly. He also received signs from his pitboard to allow Dovizioso to pass but held fast and actually drew to within reasonable striking distance of Pedrosa in second place after Marquez’s circus act. Then it was over, and soon Dovizioso was also down.
Why had Lorenzo ignored the apparent team order? He exasperatingly gave justifications in several languages as darkness began to set in the paddock. “I saw the messages. But even looking at this suggestion I kept pushing until the end. My feeling was the truth because I helped him to improve this one or two tenths of pace to be closer to the first group. My intention was to arrive to the first group – as I did because I was behind Pedrosa – and if Dovizioso was on my wheel and had the option to win I would let him pass. Unfortunately it was not like that. If I saw that Marquez had crashed I would let him go. What more can I do? I tried to make my best for the team, for me and for Dovi. Maybe in some corners Dovi was close and I slowed down a little bit to give him some space but in general terms over thirty laps having my Ducati bike in front of him made him improve.”
“Gigi [Dall‘Inga, Head of Ducati Corse] asked me if I saw the messages and I told him that, for me, it was the best thing to do. I went also to Dovi to explain why I kept pushing and he said: “I did not have anything more”.”
Jorge was also defiant about what people might judge from the scenes. “Firstly I am a person – at this moment in time – that does not care about what people think. I do what I think is right, and I want the best for the team. This time it was the same. I don’t know why we keep talking about that. It is already difficult for a team to understand so imagine for people who are not in this business; it is ten times more difficult.”
Thoughts were spared for Pedrosa, who triumphed for the seventh time in all classes at Valencia and the second time this year with an finely executed pass on Zarco but again had to play wingman to the antics of his teammate.
Rookie of the year Johann Zarco was so influential with his speed at a circuit where he admitted he’d struggled in the past that Yamaha swapped to 2016 chassis for both Maverick Viñales and Valentino Rossi on Saturday night. The Spaniard crashed in warm-up so lost vital minutes to refine the late and drastic change and Rossi defaulted to the same traction issues he’d suffered. It was a remarkable measure from the factory team.
Exactly twelve months ago Viñales shared top billing with Lorenzo at the 2016 Valencia test and the first look at the colours, line-up and very early potential of a 2017 campaign. There was little doubt that the Yamaha man had shone, and his subsequent rise, wobble, resurgence and then water-tread to the fringes of the podium was one of the stranger and more dramatic narratives this season [read Neil Morrison’s excellent Blog on the topic HERE]. Viñales face became darker and sterner as the last weekend wore on and the traction issues with his M1 barely abated; to the point where the exasperated Spaniard was tossing the media curt remarks such as “I want this season to be over right now”. Such was the frustration around the Yamaha garage that Valentino Rossi could only laugh in resignation at the predicament. “At the end with this bike I never feel comfortable, from the first test,” he then assessed. “Sincerely we try, we try, we try a lot of different things. Sometimes we saw a small light at the end of the tunnel. But here in this track it is difficult. Looks like we suffer very much. Also when you ride the motorcycle, you don’t have enough confidence to push at 100%.”
Viñales dumped the 2016 Yamaha at Turn10 in warm-up and was then twelfth in the race, for the direct antithesis of his emotion one year earlier and those first giddy laps. The inability to make the motorcycle work with the Michelin tyres in low-grip conditions (wet, cold, poor asphalt) simmering to another boil and rather than gesticulating at his crew with a ‘what’s happening?’ expression as at the Catalan Grand Prix in June elected to walk right through the box and out of the garage on Saturday. Yamaha Racing MD Lin Jarvis stopped short of calling the season a disaster in a special press conference for manufacturer Heads on Friday but made no attempt to dress it up.
The ‘Bermuda Triangle’ for Yamaha potentially looms over Zarco now and the satellite Tech 3 garage, who routinely field Yamaha’s year-old equipment and, according to Jarvis, this situation will not change. The Frenchman – riding the 2016 M1 so effectively to earn 6th in the series, 3 podiums and Rookie of the Year gongs in his maiden term and came within three tenths of a second of beating the steady Dani Pedrosa – claimed to be unaware of any testing slate for Tuesday and Wednesday “I will start like I start my weekend: with a natural mind and mood and see what I can feel and what information I can give,” he said. “It will be the best way to work; with the 2017 [M1], the future 2018 or more laps with the 2016. I don’t know.” But was then bullish about the apparatus Yamaha will bestow. “I think the media are more worried than me about next year! If there was something was really wrong with the bike then I don’t think Viñales would be third and Valentino fourth in the championship. I’m finishing the season well. Trust me: the Japanese are doing all they can and analysing many things on the bike.”
On Tuesday two rookies come into MotoGP: Moto2 World Champion Franco Morbidelli with the Estrella Galicia Marc VDS Honda and Taka Nakagami to give LCR Honda two riders for the first time in two years (Thomas Luthi will not be on the VDS bike until he’s recovered from his fractured ankle sustained in Malaysia). Heading the other way to Moto2 will be Sam Lowes. Last year at Valencia the Brit was a world championship contender and GP winner in the class and was salivating at the chance to grab the works Aprilia. After a confidence-bashing 2017 where the 27 year old headed the crash charts and was largely bombed out of the Italian set-up in favour of Scott Redding (#45 now into his third team and third motorcycle in four years) Lowes described his déjà vu feeling of enthusiastically finishing one chapter and starting another as “times three million” on this occasion. He was also frank when asked on the biggest lesson he’d learned this year: “Don’t always believe everyone.”
Again harking back to 2016 and there were emotional moments in the KTM garage. Mika Kallio’s debut with the RC16 came to a halt with an electrical problem in their premier class debut. This time Pol Espargaro was fizzing to a 3rd fastest time on Friday that was quicker than his best effort on the Yamaha the previous November and again tucked the new bike less than a second away from the leaders throughout the weekend. KTM Motorsport Director Pit Beirer joked that at the current speed the factory and team have sliced away 1.5 seconds from their deficit at the start of the year the Austrians will be 1.5 ahead in fourteen months time. Tales of exceptional technical turnaround times and experimental engines being flown from tracks in the back of rider’s private planes came from an entertaining media talk with Beirer on Friday and can be found in the next issue of OTOR. It was encouraging to see Bradley Smith enjoying a top ten ride on the bike.
KTM’s fix on Moto2 held fast with the third consecutive 1-2 for Miguel Oliveira and Brad Binder and on three very different circuits/conditions. The Portuguese dealt with Alex Marquez and caught Franco Morbidelli to make sure of a fiery end of season streak, more prolific than the world champion’s form at the end of 2016.
When asked about his fantastic recovery from 19th position through a nine-rider gaggle to reach 2nd place Moto3 World Champion Joan Mir’s first response was “it’s a shame”. The Spaniard might have reason to lament losing a good chance of an eleventh victory after needing to exit the track from third spot with Gabriel Rodrigo’s highside but his charge was emphatic; particularly his out-braking into Turn 1 that allowed him to gain positions with every lap.
Mir’s grin was quick to return however and he acknowledged that the performance was a memorable one to sign off his Moto3 career at 20 years of age. Jorge Martin finally converted one of his nine Pole Positions this year into a chequered flag and the Rodrigo-Mir incident was the rare breather he needed to extend a six-seven second gap. Eight of the first ten riders across the line were either Spanish or Italian and John McPhee ended the ill-fated BTT project with eighth place at the line and seventh in the championship. The other talking point was Fabio Di Giannantonio’s sensational main straight crash after nudging the rear wheel of third-placed Marcos Ramirez. The Italian was lucky to loop-out and slide away from the racing line. If he’d sailed the other side then he would have smashed into the pit wall. It was one of the scarier moments of Moto3 this year and from the weekly clutch of gripping racing melees that defines the class.
Thoughts on MotoGP remaining at Silverstone? Despite the general apathy of most of the paddock to the somewhat out-dated facilities in Northampton, the track is probably better for Grand Prix than Donington Park. The venues sharply divide opinion but the history, organisation and familiarity make Silverstone a better bet. News of the two-year deal that broke on Saturday was greeted with muted acceptance.
As is now custom, Valencia brings an end to a season but immediately swings open the door to the next. Tests on Tuesday and Wednesday and then another sizeable gathering at Jerez with a number of Superbike teams also present the following week.
Photos by CormacGP