Intense competition among the three riders who are MotoGP’s backbone has made injury the focus. Just when it looked as though Honda’s R&D had handed complete dominance to its top rider, Marc Marquez, the young Spaniard crashed in the morning warm-up for Sunday’s British Grand Prix at Silverstone and suffered a painful dislocation of the left shoulder (and a peak of 22.6 gs, as measured by his pneumatic Alpinestars suit). Instead of winning in his usual way—brilliant riding founded upon intelligent tire management—Marquez had to deal with the twin problems of his injury and Jorge Lorenzo’s breathtaking 1.2-second qualifying chop at Casey Stoner’s 2011 lap record.
Marquez was equal to the task. In the final minutes of qualifying, he replied with a lap that was 0.128 seconds faster, but it cost him visible effort, requiring big slides and hectic recoveries. Lorenzo, too, was sliding, but in his own letter-perfect, wheels-in-line manner. When a rider is near his limit, we expect to see mistakes increase—little, unscheduled breakaways that take time to fix, shaking, wobbling. But looking at Lorenzo, whose theme is smoothness, who was to say he couldn’t go faster? This is a kind of poker in which facial “tells” and subtle hand tremors are replaced by out-of-shape motorbikes.
Both Repsol Honda men took note of the bumpy track in practice, suggesting their setups featured harder spring and damping rates, which favor quick maneuvers at some sacrifice of tire contact over bumps. No contact equals no grip. “The track is really, really bumpy,” said Marquez’s Repsol Honda teammate, Dani Pedrosa. “There was just a lot of spinning on the rear and no grip.”
Alvaro Bautista, on a Gresini lease Honda, said, “I feel it is too bumpy this year. [I am] not able to open the gas when I want to.” Stefan Bradl, on his 99-percent-factory LCR Honda, said, “Today, we worked to find some more rear grip.”
This is what we must expect from the difference in rider styles. Lorenzo’s big-line, corner-speed style requires maximum edge grip, which, in turn, necessitates softer spring rates to keep the rubber on the road. This absorbs bumps with fewer disturbances. The subtly dirt-track-based, V-shaped line of Marquez and Pedrosa calls for the quickest-possible turning at the apex of the “V.” That means no time can be wasted as squishy suspension takes up the load. But bumps upset grip, leading to unscheduled sliding. These riders memorize the position of every bump and carve a “line of minimum disturbance,” but it’s nice to have choices.
Marquez’s experience tells him that it’s better to control events than merely respond to them. Better, therefore, to hit a bump with your bike already sliding than it is to let the bumps start the sliding. Kevin Schwantz used this technique at a Willow Springs Raceway tryout that earned him a Yoshimura Suzuki ride in the U.S. and launched him toward his 1993 500cc world championship.
Cal Crutchlow has oscillated between extremes this year. One moment, he is a serious threat to Yamaha factory riders on his leased Tech 3 Yamaha, and the next, he is down the list among the Ducatis. On Friday, he did back-to-back testing with two fuel tanks: the new one, which helps in the critical first laps, when the fuel load makes braking and corner entry tricky; and the old one, which seems to perform better in the last third of the races. The tests were done with a full fuel load as well as almost empty. There was no clear result.
Track medical staff quickly popped Marquez’s dislocation collarbone back into place, but such injuries are painful. Riders just get on with it, as we have seen so often this year. Lorenzo’s collarbone break at Assen didn’t stop him from taking a fifth that weekend, thanks to a plate and eight screws installed overnight. Another crash two weeks later at Sachsenring bent the plate. Pedrosa cracked his collarbone that same weekend, and the durable Crutchlow has lived the life of Dashiell Hammett’s perpetually worked-over, hard-boiled detective—sore all over. He crashed three times this past weekend, once at tremendous speed.
Just as he had at Indianapolis and Brno, Lorenzo nailed the start and gained a half second in dry conditions. But “the few tenths” he had spoken of as the key to beating the Hondas were not there to enable him to pull away from Marquez, who was giving his injury the Scarlett O’Hara treatment: “I’ll think about that tomorrow.”
“I pushed from the beginning to try to open a gap,” said Lorenzo, “even more than in recent races, but it was impossible.” Still, Lorenzo was lapping fast enough to compel Marquez to work his tires hard. No cruising away in later laps on carefully conserved rubber.
Therefore, the big drama was reserved for the final laps. Marquez dived under Lorenzo at the end of Lap 18. “I studied him a little for one lap,” said Lorenzo, “and I saw he was struggling in some braking, so I overtook him on the corner where he crashed [in qualifying]. He left a small opening in the last corner, so I thought, ‘Now or never.’ I tried and got it.” Play your strength to your opponent’s weakness.
Pedrosa’s team was unable to overcome his lack of rear grip, and he finished third, 1.5 seconds back. Valentino Rossi, who had been passed by Bradl and Bautista after getting away fourth, was able to craftily ease past both to finish fourth. Behind Bautista and Bradl was the battered but still-functioning Crutchlow.
Here is the very interesting nub: Data shows that Lorenzo generally brakes early and less hard than “the V-line bunch,” as part of never upsetting maximum tire grip. But this time, he was braking very hard, with the rear tire clear of the pavement for a long time. This takes some thought with Lorenzo’s setup, which is long and low. Just mashing the brake lever on such a setup slides the front. Lorenzo fed in brake torque in step with weight transfer, and once he was at maximum, his long setup became an advantage, decelerating faster than could a shorter, vertically taller bike. The two bikes may have touched, but Lorenzo was through.
Surely, Marquez’s injury affected his braking, which throws the rider’s weight so heavily onto his hands, acting through his shoulders, as it has affected Lorenzo, Pedrosa, Crutchlow and others through this season. Turn again.
Yamaha’s press release said, “[Lorenzo made] the definitive move just two corners from the end, and holding the tighter line into the last turn [was able] to cross the line victorious and claim his fourth win of the season.”
This suggests that Lorenzo’s style is still evolving, and that he is, as he likes to say, “taking profit” from his close contests with Marquez. This offers a parallel with Kenny Roberts’ battles in the early 1980s with Freddie Spencer. Facing so strong a challenge, Roberts knew that doing the same old things harder was no answer (when a rider says he has to ride harder, expect a crash). Roberts replied to the challenge by learning new techniques.
MotoGP World Championship Points:
Marc Marquez – Repsol Honda – 233
Dani Pedrosa – Repsol Honda = 203
Jorge Lorenzo – Factory Yamaha – 194
Valentino Rossi – Factory Yamaha – 156
Cal Crutchlow – Yamaha Tech 3 – 136
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