Mo­toGP: COTA and Jerez

Just when it looked as if Mav­er­ick Viñales might run away with Mo­toGP cham­pi­onship, the 2017 Marc Mar­quez was back cir­cuit to his win­ning ways where he has never at a been beaten


THE CLOUDS AND chill winds that had brought so many peo­ple un­done on Satur­day were gone by Sun­day, which dawned sunny and warm. You could al­most hear the sigh of re­lief up and down the pit-lane. Mar­quez and Viñales topped morn­ing warm-up, just 0.17 sec­onds be­tween them and an aeon ahead of the rest, with third- and fourth-fastest Dani Pe­drosa and Rossi more than a sec­ond fur­ther back. It looked as if it would be a twohorse race.

Ex­cept it didn’t quite turn out like that. Pe­drosa got an as­ton­ish­ing start from fourth on the grid to lead a race for the first time since he won last year’s Misano GP. Mar­quez was right be­hind him, then Rossi, Viñales and mad-keen Jo­hann Zarco (Mon­ster Yamaha), who fought past Lorenzo and Cal Crutchlow (LCR Honda) on the first lap.

Surely, it would only be a mat­ter of time be­fore Viñales found a way past the two men in front to start what ev­ery­one had been wait­ing for: the first head-to­head clash be­tween Mo­toGP’s two fastest rid­ers. On lap three he was still chas­ing Rossi’s slip­stream, then fol­low­ing his team-mate through the long triple right — Turns 16, 17, and 18 — which is re­ally just one very long cor­ner, when the bike slid from un­der him. He was at max­i­mum lean, full load on both tyres, when he low-sided, the bike skat­ing across the as­phalt run-off and flip­ping into the gravel trap.

It was a heavy price to pay when it didn’t look like he had even made a mis­take. The crash was most likely a com­bi­na­tion of sev­eral fac­tors: a medium-com­pound front slick that wasn’t yet at its best, a full tank and those rip­ples at 18 which had caught out Mar­quez and Lorenzo dur­ing prac­tice. Viñales could hardly be­lieve it. He stalked away from the scene of the ac­ci­dent, show­ing the usual se­quence of emo­tions: dis­be­lief, frus­tra­tion, and anger. One mo­ment his head was in his hands, the next his hands were out­stretched to the heav­ens: why me, God?

“I don’t know what hap­pened; I did noth­ing wrong: the data showed it was the same speed and the same line as be­fore, but I crashed,” he said later. “I didn’t feel so good with a full tank from the first lap and the front tyre didn’t feel as good as it had in morn­ing warm-up when I was feel­ing re­ally spe­cial in that sec­tor. I lost the front which was strange be­cause all week­end, even in cold con­di­tions, I felt good there. I’m highly dis­ap­pointed, be­cause when you crash like this it’s not nor­mal; you get a bit con­fused. Any­way, it can hap­pen and we know we are strong — we were the only ones who could fight with Marc here.”

Viñales cer­tainly hadn’t ex­pected prob­lems on the bumps. Dur­ing prac­tice he said that he felt per­fectly happy with the un­du­la­tions, so he was the last man you would have ex­pected to lose all those points on Sun­day.

If any ma­chine was ex­pected to suf­fer on the bumps, it was the shorter, sharper Honda, but Mar­quez had ev­ery­thing un­der con­trol in his own inim­itable way: the rear end of his RC213V skip­ping left and right as he jammed on the car­bon brakes at the end of COTA’s 215-mph (346 km/h) back straight. He took the lead from team­mate Pe­drosa at his favourite spot: clos­ing on the RCV’s rear wheel ex­it­ing Turn Six left, then div­ing past into Turn Seven right. And that was that. Or at least that’s what most peo­ple thought.

Pe­drosa had other ideas. Miche­lin’s wider-pro­file front slick has changed ev­ery­thing for the former 125 and 250 champ. It’s still not an ideal tyre but it works bet­ter for Pe­drosa and oth­ers but not so much for Mar­quez. The former 125 and 250 cham­pion stuck doggedly to Mar­quez’s rear end, re­fus­ing to let him go. On lap 12 he swept ahead on the back straight, just hold­ing his ad­van­tage into the dead-slow Turn 12, only to run slightly wide and let Mar­quez through again. And that re­ally was that.

“This is an im­por­tant vic­tory af­ter the crash in Ar­gentina,” said Mar­quez, who ben­e­fited from chas­sis and elec­tron­ics im­prove­ments. “It was tricky be­cause the track was much hot­ter than on Satur­day,

so I said I wanted to go with the hard front, be­cause I push a lot with the front. At the be­gin­ning of the race I took care to un­der­stand the limit of the tyre be­cause I hadn’t tried the hard since Fri­day when it was hot­ter. My mis­take in Ar­gentina was a big mis­take and I didn’t want to re­peat it! When I saw Dani strug­gling I a bit I knew it was time to at­tack, so it was a per­fect race. I saw that Viñales was out by board and the big screen but it didn’t change my plan.”

Mar­quez crossed the fin­ish line three sec­onds ahead of Rossi, who was two sec­onds in front of Pe­drosa, whose late pace was com­pro­mised by an overused front tyre.

“When I was lead­ing I could’ve gone faster, but I knew I had to take care of the tyres be­cause all week­end we had prob­lems with tyre life, es­pe­cially with the right side of the rear,” said Pe­drosa. “I man­aged that well in the race, but de­stroyed the right side of the front, so I had to slow my pace.”

Thus sec­ond place and, more im­por­tantly, the world cham­pi­onship lead went to the old­est man in the race. The pre­vi­ous month, when Rossi was still strug­gling to fine-tune his 2017 YZR-M1 dur­ing Qatar GP prac­tice, some look­ers-on had dared to spec­u­late that this was the be­gin­ning of the end. But once again it wasn’t. Third in Qatar, sec­ond in Ar­gentina and Texas, the 38-year-old in­her­ited the points lead from his floored team-mate. Even he could hardly be­lieve it.

“It’s a big sur­prise for us be­cause af­ter test­ing we were quite des­per­ate,” said Rossi. “We tried to think, to use the bike at its best. But the prob­lem was just that we needed more time to un­der­stand the new bike, the best way to ride it and the best way to set it up.”

So Rossi left for Europe at the top of the world cham­pi­onship, mak­ing most peo­ple very happy. But be very thank­ful that he didn’t win the race by two-tenths of a sec­ond or beat Pe­drosa by two-tenths.

The big­gest talk­ing point at COTA wasn’t Mar­quez’s win or Viñales’ crash; it was a 0.3-sec­ond penalty (or cor­rec­tion) handed out to the nine-time cham­pion af­ter he had been forced off the track by hard-charg­ing rookie Zarco. On lap seven Rossi was chas­ing Mar­quez when he ran wide, ex­it­ing Turn One. That hurt his speed into and through Turn Two, where he crashed out last year. Zarco saw his chance, crept up on Rossi as they launched out of Turn Two and then dived in­side Rossi as the pair at­tacked Turn Three, the start of the COTA zigzag. From a man con­test­ing his third Mo­toGP race at­tack­ing a man rid­ing his 291st Mo­toGP race it was a brave or fool­ish place to at­tempt a pass.

They may have col­lided and crashed but Rossi lifted in the nick of time, ran off the track, took a look at Zarco, missed out Turn Four and re-joined at Turn Five, still ahead of Zarco, but now right on the tail of Mar­quez.

Min­utes later the FIM Mo­toGP Stew­ards’ Panel an­nounced that Rossi would have three-tenths of a sec­ond added to his race time, not as a penalty but as a cor­rec­tion for the time he had in­ad­ver­tently gained by us­ing the as­phalt run-off at Turn Four. The de­ci­sion caused plenty of con­tro­versy. In the end, it had no ef­fect on the re­sult, but that’s not re­ally the point.

“It’s not right — ei­ther I did what I did or we would’ve touched and crashed,” said Rossi, who then un­der­stood the sit­u­a­tion. “All right, so the penalty is for gain­ing an ad­van­tage and, for sure, I did gain an ad­van­tage, so 0.3 sec­onds is all right. For me the prob­lem isn’t Race Di­rec­tion; it’s Zarco.”

The French­man, who spent the rest of the race bat­tling for fourth with Crutchlow and fin­ished just be­hind the Bri­ton, wasn’t im­pressed by Rossi’s com­plaints. “This is rac­ing,” he said.

Cool, calm and com­posed Rossi man­aged to fin­ish in sec­ond spot, which makes him the cham­pi­onship leader

It was a good day for Mar­quez as the Spa­niard took his first vic­tory of the sea­son

Crutchlow (35) fought his way up to fin­ish fourth; Dovi (04) fin­ished sixth, gain­ing just one place

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