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