MotoGP: Brno, Silverstone, San Marino
If the outcome of MotoGP’s return to Austria had Italy celebrating Ducati’s first triumph in 100 races, then the Grand Prix of the Czech Republic was a reminder that, after many barren years, Britain can once again justifiably call itself a player in Gran
TRACK CONDITIONS ensured this was a real race of two halves. Upon drawing the curtains on Sunday morning, forecasters were proved right. In the morning it rained. Then it rained some more. But crucially, and to ensure this race was one of strategy, that very rain stopped an hour before the flag dropped.
Another shower was unlikely, leaving riders pondering whether the track would dry, necessitating a bike-swap for intermediates, or even slicks. With conditions in the German Grand Prix still fresh in the memory, the factory Ducatis, Marquez and Viñales all expected to pit during the 22 laps.
Temperatures had risen from morning to early afternoon and rain had ceased, leaving conditions noticeably different from morning warm-up. Another factor: this was the first premier class race to be held in outright wet conditions at the Brno circuit in spite of its inclusion in the GP calendar in every year since 1987, barring one. Going into the race, the speed at which the track dried was an unknown factor.
Thus, the majority of the field chose Michelin’s soft front and rear wet. “What happened before the race, when the rain stopped the quantity of water became almost zero very quick. So I think everybody was surprised by that and expected to make flag-to-flag,” said Dovizioso. Meanwhile, Lorenzo echoed many riders’ thoughts on choosing the soft front. “We tried it in the morning and at the end it was like new.” It almost appeared unthinkable it could suffer near terminal wear.
Several, including Lorenzo and Rossi, gambled on the harder rear, while Crutchlow, Loris Baz [Avintia Ducati] and Tito Rabat [Marc VDS Honda] fitted the harder compound front and back. “After the warm-up it was clear that the softer front was on the limit,” said Crutchlow’s crew chief Christophe Bourguignon. “Then when we saw that it stopped raining around one o’clock, he came into the garage and said he was going with that.” It proved to be an inspired choice.
The early laps were always going to favour those with the softer compounds fitted. Marquez shot into an early lead before a three-pronged Ducati attack, consisting of Iannone, Scott Redding [Pramac Ducati] and Dovizioso, swallowed him whole. Surely, what they say about London buses couldn’t be the same with Ducati wins? The trio spent the first nine laps trading positions, with Marquez, Barbera and Viñales never far away.
By contrast, those early laps were sobering watching for the eyes of Yamaha bosses. Despite Lorenzo’s strong start, he plummeted down the order at a worrying rate. Rossi, too, was out of his comfort zone. “The first laps were a nightmare,” he said post-race. “I was desperate.” Ten laps passed before he breached the top 10. Crutchlow, meanwhile, was an even more distant 15th at the close of lap one. But, as Germany had shown, patience was key. Soon, their tyres would come into their own.
On that same lap came the first sign of the Ducati’s use of the softer front. The hapless Dovizioso had little choice other than pulling to the outside of the track, after a strip of the Michelin rubber had torn off. By then Crutchlow was really on the move, posting the fastest lap the ninth time around. With Rossi not far behind, the pair soon bridged the gap to the leading men, which, at five laps, had stood at over 10 seconds.
Crutchlow was by the fading Redding — hampered by the same front tyre degradation as Dovizioso — on lap 14 and within two more Iannone was
powerless to relinquish the lead to the Englishman, that first grand prix victory within his sights.
Apart from a moment at Turn 10, the grip offered by the hard-hard tyre combination on track that was drying in some places, still wet in others, was enough. “The lead was 1.5 seconds and then a few laps later it was four,” said an exultant Crutchlow. “But with four laps to go, I nearly had a crash. I changed to sixth gear where normally we would keep fifth. So then I just said, ‘Calm down!’ But I was just cruising around. Honestly, I made the perfect choice.”
Behind, Iannone’s front was also in trouble. In a shot, Rossi, who knew his tyre choice was correct once he recognised the track was not going to dry out fully, was past. “At one point I understand that, maybe, today doesn’t dry enough for a flag-to-flag race. From that moment I know my choice was better. I just tried to ride well and didn’t make mistakes. It was great fun,” said Rossi, who finished seven seconds behind Crutchlow, his title bid gaining a boost of sorts.
Marquez had ridden with the intelligence and calm that have come to define his season throughout. The 23-year-old sought out wet puddles, and never overly-exerted his soft-soft combination to score another crucial podium place. “Honestly, I expected a flag-to-flag race but the humidity kept it wet and it was impossible to go to slicks,” he said after extending his title lead to 53 points. “Then when I realise it will be all race in wet, I said, ‘I need to manage the tyres’.”
The extension of his advantage was in part due to an apparently baffling decision by Lorenzo to pit for a bike swap just after he had posted his fastest time. As he ran from one bike to the other, crew chief Ramon Forcada signalled for him to stay with the first machine. Rejoining on slicks only to pit again a lap later, Lorenzo’s chance of scoring points was over. Only later would his reason for pitting become clear.
Using the same combination as Crutchlow, an advancing Baz finished a mightily impressive fourth, just three seconds from the podium. “I was 13th and stopped looking at the pit board,” he said. “When I looked next, I was P6 and suddenly I thought that the podium was here and I needed to push harder!” A fine day for the Avintia squad, Barbera managed his soft-soft combination brilliantly for fifth, with Eugene Laverty [Aspar Ducati] making it three Ducati GP14.2s in the top six.
Danilo Petrucci [Pramac Ducati] was never comfortable all weekend, but collected seventh, ahead of a disgruntled Iannone and Viñales, both relieved to finish with their fronts chunking. The third man to use the hard-hard combination, Rabat was 10th.
JUST AS JOHANN ZARCO [Ajo Kalex] was building up an unshakeable head of steam, down came the rain. The Frenchman nabbed his second straight pole position from Sam Lowes [Gresini Kalex] at the death on Saturday. Yet on race day he was nowhere, leaving Jonas Folger [Dynavolt Kalex] to break free from the off.
If anyone was handed an early morning reprieve, it was Alex Rins [Pons Kalex]. Off the pace for most of the weekend, the Spaniard challenged Folger early on, before the German pulled clear in worsening conditions to win by a comfortable five seconds. Lowes gave chase, but he, too, had no answer for the man in front, leaving the podium positions set in place in the final laps.
“It was a fairly relaxed race, to be honest, except for the last few laps, when I risked a lot to gain the four-second advantage. It was long but we finally did it,” said Folger, who climbs to fourth in the championship. Zarco’s lead over Rins, meanwhile, was reduced to 19 points.
JUST AS BRAD BINDER [Ajo Red Bull KTM] had one hand on the Moto3 world championship, his rear Dunlop tyre gave way, and showed that even in this year of dizzying consistency, the South African is human after all.
Binder was leading in near underwater conditions with only McPhee [Saxoprint Peugeot] able to give chase. That was until he fell foul of the wet track at Turn One with three
laps to go, leaving McPhee with an insurmountable eight-second lead.
Jorge Martin [Aspar Mahindra] took advantage of wet-weather specialist Khairul Idham Pawi’s [Honda Team Asia] mid-race mistake to collect a début podium, after holding off promising rookie Fabio Di Giannantonio [Gresini Honda], who finished third.
“We had a good rhythm after warm-up and I just had to keep calm. I’m absolutely delighted to bring it home,” said McPhee, the first Scottish winner of a solo GP since 1962.
Team-mates at it again, Rossi overtakes Lorenzo early on in the race
Rossi bows down to Crutchlow after the Brit conquered Brno