Round 6 of the MotoGP World Championship, the Grand Prix of Catalunya, was a grinder, with the top three riders nose to tail for most of the 73-mile race distance. Factory Yamaha rider Jorge Lorenzo’s 1.7-second win over Repsol Honda teammates Dani Pedrosa and Marc Marquez in hot, clear conditions had nothing to do with motorcycle performance. Speed was capped by what the tires could give on 133-degree-Fahrenheit pavement. Anything beyond that risked losing everything. That’s the risk Marquez decided he had to take during the closing laps, running his V-Four under Pedrosa but not having the grip to make a pass. On the next-to-last lap, he lost the front entering Turn 4, exciting a big shake as he recovered.
“It was very easy to make a mistake,” said Pedrosa, “and, in fact, in the closing laps, Marc made one, and I had a slide, but in the end, we were able to take a very important second place.” Very important because it preserved Pedrosa’s points lead!
Top 10 Finishers
1. Jorge Lorenzo (Yamaha)
2. Dani Pedrosa (Honda)
3. Marc Marquez (Honda)
4. Valentino Rossi (Yamaha)
5. Stefan Bradl (Honda)
6. Bradley Smith (Yamaha)
7. Andrea Dovizioso (Ducati)
8. Aleix Espargaro (Aprilia)
9. Colin Edwards (Kawasaki/FTR)
10. Michele Pirro (Ducati)
Nicky Hayden and Andrea Iannone also lost the front in early laps, attempting to manage braking while their Ducatis were heavy with fuel. Unlike Marquez, however, they both crashed. “Maybe we were right at the limit for the conditions,” said Iannone, “because first I fell and then he did. Dovi, on the other hand, backed off, maybe because he immediately understood the situation.”
Andrea Dovizioso’s Ducati progressively lost grip through the race, but it was one of the fastest bikes through the speed trap. The two go together: The higher tune required for great speed makes an engine’s torque delivery harsher, potentially fatiguing the rear tire sooner. “He had a solid race until mid-distance,” said team manager Bernhard Gobmeier, “but he suffered a tremendous loss of grip, with blistering on the rear tire.” Blistering indicates overheating sufficient to volatilize elements of the tread rubber, like the popping that occurs when you broil a steak.
This race was a contest of how little heat a team could manage to put into the tires through riding and clever chassis setup. Marquez, who had been sixth during Friday’s practice, shot to the top on Saturday morning, then dropped to sixth in qualifying. Why such a rise and fall? Hot single laps excite us, but the riders know that achieving 25 fast laps in hot conditions will be difficult. The real job is to find ways to keep heat out of the tires.
After qualifying, Marquez said, “In the morning, I felt more comfortable, with the track temperatures lower than in the afternoon. When they rose sharply, we had more problems.” Pedrosa achieved a perfect lap in qualifying, topping Casey Stoner’s 2008 record with a sensational 1:40.893. But one lap is very different than 25.
In the race, Lorenzo’s Yamaha looked smooth and unbothered, its wheels in line. The two pursuing Hondas had their back tires “hung out” visibly, and Lorenzo had to do the same near the end. Previously, above a certain track temperature, Lorenzo’s corner-speed style had appeared to lose its grip. But on Sunday, it may have been a key to tire conservation. We’ll never know, but if Pedrosa had won the starting drag race into Turn 1, Lorenzo might have lacked the grip to pass.
Now a question: We are used to saying that the Yamahas look collected and stable, while the Hondas are “busy,” lifting their tails during braking and never looking as smooth as the Yamahas mid-corner. Is that a difference in machines? Or could it just as well be a difference in rider style? Pedrosa and Marquez ride a more dirt-track-derived style, braking later and harder, arriving in the turn with a bit too much to do and having to gather up the bike to get early on throttle, possibly with a bit of untidiness showing. But if Lorenzo were on a Honda and Pedrosa and Marquez were on Yamahas, would the outcome be different?
Thus far, Yamaha has gone through engines at a rate suggesting one or more of its riders may be starting later races from pit lane due to penalty; each rider gets five engines for the season.
Valentino Rossi topped first practice, causing veteran observers to believe he is slowly “coming to himself” and adapting to things as they are. We shall see. Lorenzo, meanwhile, attended to his proven method. “We stayed with the same tires for the whole practice to understand why they are dropping in this weather so we could solve this problem that I think all the riders are having.” Looking at race lap times, we see that all four of the top finishers suffered such a “drop” (about a one second increase in lap time) centered around Lap 6.
In FP3, Hayden was second quickest behind Marquez. Were the Ducatis coming good at last? Hayden qualified fifth—pretty good!—but his remarks were more realistic: “As soon as we lose a little bit of edge grip, it starts pumping. It was okay for qualifying, but we’ll have to try something tomorrow morning to see if we can make the tire last longer.” In Sunday morning warm-up, hard-working man that he is, Tech3 Yamaha rider Cal Crutchlow went to the top, and Hayden was again fifth-fastest. Sadly, in the race, Crutchlow, too, would lose the front and crash out on Lap 6.
Okay, last question: Where’s the racing? Spectators, knowing little of all this tire trouble, hope to see top riders spectacularly diving past each other on the brakes or getting on the throttle early for a better drive or powering past down the straight. What’s happened to all that? All I can tell you is, that’s racing. Racing is what it is because the roles of engine, tires, chassis and rider shift constantly.
Quick-fixers were sure a few years back that they could “bring back the excitement” by just switching off all the newfangled electronic aids. Then, it turned out that top riders, like Casey Stoner in MotoGP and Carlos Checa in World Superbike, had already begun to ride with their traction control turned way down. The image of top riders as passionless systems managers faded. Remember that Mick Doohan won five championships in a row without 21st-century electronics.
Bring back the excitement? Racing is what it is, and that means that the key to enjoyment is trying to understand what we are seeing.