MotoGP 2015: Dutch TT Wrap-Up

Marquez may be back on pace, but Rossi proves the Old Men still rule.

Valentino Rossi race action from Assen

Valentino Rossi, age 36, continues to lead the 2015 MotoGP championship after winning the Dutch TT at Assen by 1.242 seconds over Honda-mounted Marc Marquez. Jorge Lorenzo, never in contention, finished 3rd, nearly 15 seconds behind the leader.

The race was a closely equal contest between Rossi, on a Yamaha with a new chassis that has never been better, and Marquez, who for this race reverted to a 2014 chassis for both his mysteriously not-quite-right bikes. Although Rossi was the more consistent, making nine race laps in the 1:33 range to Marquez’s six and Lorenzo’s two, Marquez by lap 20 pushed past Rossi on the brakes into Turn 10, with Rossi re-passing on lap 24. In a final bid to win, Marquez stuffed his front wheel into a controversially small space in the right-hand entry to the chicane, and the two bikes touched.

Rossi: “I braked and entered on the right to make the chicane and I was on the line, but unfortunately his touch put me on the outside and I didn’t have any chance to stay on the line because he pushed me to the outside.

“So I go onto the gravel and the first reaction I have is to open the throttle because I don’t know how deep it is and I don’t want to crash on the gravel. I was lucky to control the bike.”

Valentino Rossi race action

Just as when riding in sand, you must gas it to keep the front end light, preventing it from digging in, losing direction and throwing you down.

Marquez had a different view: “During all the race I had studied perfectly the last chicane, to put the bike in the correct place, to not give the space to him.”

Rossi felt he had the line and the touch came from Marquez. Marquez felt he had the inside and noted Rossi had cut the course (as both of them have so famously done at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca’s famous Corkscrew).

In the end, Race Director Mike Webb ruled it a “racing incident.” Who’s right? It doesn’t matter. Events play out and a ruling is made by race direction.

Several developments contributed to the drama of events. Rossi has in the past performed poorly under the new 15-minute qualifying system. Yet he sensationally overcame that at Assen, qualifying on pole and setting a new record.

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Marquez has had a tough season until now, telling us that his 2015 bike has problems entering and exiting corners. Switching back to the 2014 chassis is surely only the visible change, as Marquez has said the problem is mainly with the engine.  At Catalunya, Honda race boss Shuhei Nakamoto looked haggard. How much could they accomplish under the sealed engine rule? But what’s life without a challenge?

Marquez at Assen was 2nd in FP1 and FP2, dropped to 6th in FP3, then topped FP4 and the race-day morning warm-up.

“It’s nice to be back!” he said. “At this circuit we’ve always struggled and we thought we’d be really far behind Yamaha. Maybe we’re a bit closer than usual and in the last races. The rhythm is good and I’m happy we’ve been able to work toward the race with a different setup and different electronics.”

Riders watch their competition closely and can put numbers to what they see.  Dining at the Red Lobster in Daytona Beach, Florida, at a 1979 tire test, Mike Baldwin told me, “I’m thinking about today and I can see how I can go two-tenths of a second quicker tomorrow.” He did just that: 2 minutes 2.3 seconds. Marquez noted that even with the improved bike he still needed a tenth or half-a-tenth of a second per lap to be solidly on-pace. Half-a-tenth over the 26 laps would have put him .058 seconds ahead of Rossi, and a full tenth would have put him 1.4 seconds ahead. These men are skilled “accountants of time.”

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All top riders are compensating for the shortcomings of their bikes. No one is “just goin’ for it.” Often, all that is preventing chatter is a conscious alteration of riding style. Load the front one way on corner entry and it chatters and runs wide. Load it another way and it settles and holds line.  Once that bike rolls onto the start grid, it’s all up to the rider to get the most from it. If braking stability is marginal, extra care must be taken through every corner approach. One rider finds more benefit in the traction gained by a bit softer suspension than is lost to the slight turn-in delay that goes with it. Riders strive to stay between the invisible lines of compromise that every machine set-up draws.

No, the Honda isn’t “fixed,” but it’s better. Marquez: “In FP4 I was trying different maps. With the best one I was fast and I was able to keep a constant pace in the high 1:33s. With the old chassis we have gained a bit on the rhythm, but still we need to work hard because the problem I've had all year is still there.”

Yamaha used a new chassis this weekend. Rossi says it improves agility and grip on old tires. Yet he says the most important element in his quick pole time was a set-up step achieved at Catalunya. Nothing is ever perfect; teams use every moment of practice to improve their setting as much as possible. For Lorenzo, something was off, for he had to start from the third row. Said Lorenzo of his chances: “It depends on my start with the clutch. If it’s good, probably we can overtake some riders from the start. First or second lap we’ll try to find the best braking to pass them.”

Andrea Dovizioso race action from Assen

Starting 8th, he was 5th into turn 1, 3rd at the end of lap 1. A wrong tire choice gave him problems in the race, denying him the pace to pull up to the leaders.

Many people are comfortable with the simple idea that younger champions arise because they “want it more” and have fast reflexes. Yet race after race it is the same names up front. Hotties fresh from Moto2 do not blow down the big names. They may make a hot lap in practice, but in the race they fade out. There is a great deal to know, it takes time to learn, and the top men are studious. Marquez went straight to the top in MotoGP because he had things to teach his elders, exploiting new capabilities of bikes and tires that they had not yet appreciated.

Aleix Espargaro on the Suzuki qualified second but finished 9th. His brother Pol, on the Tech3 Yamaha, came home 5th. The Ducatis remain not quite fast enough, although Andrea Iannone finished 4th, unable as yet to match the laptimes of the factory Hondas and Yamahas.

How did NASA put men on the moon and return them safely to earth? Congress gave them keys to the Treasury, and NASA used the highly effective but costly method of “trampling problems to death.” Instead of trying A, then trying B, and so on, using up irreplaceable time, NASA engineers identified every possible cause of a pressing problem and dealt with all of them simultaneously. That takes big teams of imaginative engineers, advanced testing and simulation, and big money.  Any imaginative, informed person can come up with an idea, but without resources it goes nowhere. Honda’s Big Bang engine, Yamaha’s cross-plane crank, and chassis with controlled flex were all good ideas, yet required expensive resources for their realization. David and Goliath make a great story, but it can take more than a slingshot to win races.

2015 Valentino Rossi on the podium at Assen

Results: 2015 Dutch Grand Prix

Pos. Rider Num Nation Points Team Time/Gap
1 ROSSI Valentino 46 ITA 25 Movistar Yamaha MotoGP 40'54.037
2 MARQUEZ Marc 93 SPA 20 Repsol Honda Team +1.242
3 LORENZO Jorge 99 SPA 16 Movistar Yamaha MotoGP +14.576
4 IANNONE Andrea 29 ITA 13 Ducati Team +19.109
5 ESPARGARO Pol 44 SPA 11 Monster Yamaha Tech 3 +24.268
6 CRUTCHLOW Cal 35 GBR 10 CWM LCR Honda +24.373
7 SMITH Bradley 38 GBR 9 Monster Yamaha Tech 3 +24.442
8 PEDROSA Dani 26 SPA 8 Repsol Honda Team +24.656
9 ESPARGARO Aleix 41 SPA 7 Team Suzuki Ecstar +26.725
10 VINALES Maverick 25 SPA 6 Team Suzuki Ecstar +27.238
11 PETRUCCI Danilo 9 ITA 5 Pramac Racing +29.038
12 DOVIZIOSO Andrea 4 ITA 4 Ducati Team +29.418
13 REDDING Scott 45 GBR 3 Estrella Galicia 0,0 Marc VDS +46.663
14 HERNANDEZ Yonny 68 COL 2 Pramac Racing +49.305
15 BAZ Loris 76 FRA 1 Athina Forward Racing +52.396
16 HAYDEN Nicky 69 USA 0 Aspar MotoGP Team +56.005
17 BAUTISTA Alvaro 19 SPA 0 Aprilia Racing Team Gresini +59.857
18 DI MEGLIO Mike 63 FRA 0 Avintia Racing +1'14.513
19 MELANDRI Marco 33 ITA 0 Aprilia Racing Team Gresini +1 lap
20 DE ANGELIS Alex
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