Two of the three North American MotoGP events—the U.S. Grand Prix at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca and the Indianapolis Grand Prix at Indianapolis Motor Speedway—define the beginning and end of the series’ monthlong summer break. At Laguna Seca, Yamaha’s Jorge Lorenzo was still recovering from his Assen and Sachsenring crashes (the latter allegedly caused by failure of a chassis sensor), Repsol Honda’s Dani Pedrosa was still weak, having cracked his collarbone at Sachsenring, and Yamaha Tech 3’s Cal Crutchlow was still black and blue from his crash at the German track.
The twin stunners of practice were Honda men Marc Marquez and Stefan Bradl. We expect a lot from Marquez because of his wins at Circuit of The Americas and Sachsenring, but Bradl, who would set Laguna pole, has before now seemed to have something essential missing from his style. There was talk he might be replaced. That missing something might have been the complete Honda package, which includes Brembo brakes instead of the Nissins that Bradl had been using. Finding the Brembos to be “softer” (that is, more proportional to lever pressure, not coming on and trailing off abruptly), Bradl adopted them. Through last season and the first half of 2013, Bradl has occasionally lost the front during corner entry. No such problem stopped him from finishing fourth in Germany.
Marquez topped second practice at Laguna, despite never having raced there (the track’s schedule does not include Moto2, the class in which Marquez raced the past two seasons). He did, however, do laps on a scooter. Fast learner.
In the race, Bradl led Valentino Rossi and Marquez, and on Lap 3, history was replayed as Marquez found himself outside of Rossi at the top of the Corkscrew with no place to go. In a move he had tried on his scooter (“Not possible”) and in practice on his Honda RC213V (“Intentional, but a mistake”), Marquez ran across the dirt on the inside of the lower right-hander, just as Rossi had done to Casey Stoner during their classic 2008 battle.
“I will pay the copyright,” a grinning Marquez told Rossi at the post-race press conference. Bradl was second, his first podium in MotoGP.
Insight into Marquez’s method comes from the race lap times at Sachsenring. Before 2012, the Bridgestone spec tires in MotoGP were often just as fast on Lap 22 as on Lap 3, and lap records were set in the final laps. For 2012, the tires were changed to make them warm up faster (there is real danger of falling on cold tires in early laps), and a consequence has been “tire drop,” a loss of grip at some point in a race as rubber properties decline.
At Sachsenring, the times showed that Marquez’s drop came at Lap 17, Cal Crutchlow’s at Lap 13/14, and Valentino Rossi’s on Lap 9. They finished in that order, 1-2-3, showing that Marquez’s ability to sense and conserve his tires enables him to run faster, longer. When I suggested to Honda race boss Shuhei Nakamoto that, for Marquez, two years in Moto2 had been “Tire Management University,” he said, “Hmm, I think so. He is very clever, all the time thinking.”
Marquez agreed. “Yeah, that is true. I learned a lot in Moto2. You can overheat [the tire] if you spin a lot, and then it is so difficult to go down with the temperature.” At Sachsenring, he took three laps to get his tires to working temperature. “When you feel the correct grip,” he said, “then you start to push.”
What is “correct” and how does it “feel”? That is for Tire Management grads to know and for us to ponder.
Many assume the “young gun” runs it in deeper, corners on the edge and nails the gas sooner. That older riders no longer hunger for the rich taste of danger. Romantic but false. The rising star wins because, like John Surtees, Kenny Roberts and Freddie Spencer, he exploits possibilities unseen by others. He wins not by gobbling risks but by learning something new.
A fresh situation ruled a month later at Indy. The track is bumpy, with three kinds of pavement, one described by Brammo electric-bike racer Eric Bostrom as “like a mall floor.” Slippery and yet, Bridgestone notes, very abrasive. Asked in the pre-race press conference about the surface, Marquez, a two-time Moto2 winner at Indy, said, “I enjoy it.” Not so for Pedrosa, who prefers to keep his wheels in line. And a particular problem for Lorenzo, whose big-line, corner-speed style is edge-grip based. I asked five-time 500cc World Champion Mick Doohan about this 13 years ago. He said corner speed is faster as long as grip holds up, but when it “goes off,” you must revert to the Kenny Roberts point-and-shoot style, which spends less time at high lean angle.
During a Gasoline Alley garage talk, Yamaha Tech 3 rider Cal Crutchlow told me, “I came from Superbike, so I tried to ride the M1 that way. You can’t ride it like that. It won’t do it.”
That put Lorenzo in a box. Unable to use what Crutchlow called “Honda’s V-shaped line,” Lorenzo would play the corner-speed card—on a “mall floor.” Meanwhile, Marquez lowered the qualifying lap record.
Lorenzo and Yamaha have perfected their starts—a necessity against “Rocket Pedrosa.” Lorenzo left ’em for dead, taking a half-second lead off the grid. Did Marquez intentionally take it easy, waiting for Lorenzo’s tire drop? Although Lorenzo led, lap after lap, that was the biggest gap he’d have. At Lap 11, he experienced “the worst tire drop I have had,” adding some tenths to his lap time. Marquez, having passed teammate Pedrosa four laps earlier, eased past Lorenzo on Lap 12. Then, he set a race lap record on Lap 18.
Asked after the race if his and Marquez’s lines conflicted, Lorenzo said no, and that after the pass, he had gone quicker again. There it was on the lap chart. Did Lorenzo just push harder? Not likely, considering his 99 percent style. Or might he have “taken profit from” a version of the V-shaped line?
At present, the Hondas seem to have a magical ability to “squat down and shoot out of the corner,” as Rossi’s engineer Jeremy Burgess put it at CoTA. This might connect to something being much discussed now: the dynamics of how, in mid-corner, weight is transferred off the front wheel (moments before carrying 99 percent of the weight during braking) and onto the rear wheel (moments later to be carrying 99 percent of the weight in acceleration). A bike that does this quickly and well will be fast, “shooting out of corners.” One that encounters problems in the process, well, that sounds a lot like Ducati’s current critical lack of mid-corner grip. Could that be why veteran engineer Warren Willing is now wearing a red uniform?
The big question all weekend was the future of MotoGP at Indianapolis, as another Asian nation needs a date (expanding markets beckon!). On Saturday, a series insider told me, “Up until now, Dorna CEO Carmelo Ezpeleta and IMS have been like this.” He held up his two hands, back to back, facing away from each other. “Now, they are like this.” He turned his hands palm to palm.
The Indianapolis Grand Prix will continue. The reason? Indianapolis has global reach from a rich, 104-year history, something that neither CoTA nor Laguna Seca yet has. Dorna needs that marketing power in the U.S., and it needs more strong American riders to bring fans to its U.S. rounds. That, in turn, requires a strong and competitive domestic championship, as Spain, with its latest product, Marc Marquez, has shown in spades.