Sunday’s inaugural Argentina MotoGP race turned out just as Ducati factory rider Andrea Dovizioso predicted it would. “The difference,” he said, “will be made by those who can ride smoothly and not aggressively.” Despite hot laps by newcomers, the top 5 finishers were the names we know best: Marc Marquez, Dani Pedrosa, Jorge Lorenzo, Valentino Rossi, and Stefan Bradl. This new Autodromo Termas de Rio Honda track is 3 miles long, has 9 right and 5 left turns, most of which require second or third gear. Riders liked the layout but were very disappointed with the initially sandy condition of the new pavement. Throughout practice, Marquez displayed confident assurance. In FP1, while others scrubbed precious rubber into powder on abrasive pavement, the Repsol Honda rider was barely present. “We sacrificed putting in a fast lap,” he said, “keeping the same tire on during the entire session to save tires for the rest of the weekend.” Marquez had done much the same during FP1 at the first race of the season in Qatar and then gone on to set pole and win—as he did this weekend in Argentina. It doesn’t take long for 3 classes to blow the sand off the racing line but not elsewhere. “The first lap [of the race] will be hard,” Nicky Hayden said, “because there is only one safe and clean line, and everybody will want to take it.” The first laps would indeed be action-packed.
Fine dust is used in experimental-rubber friction testing to eliminate the molecular-bonding part of traction, and when this occurs naturally, as in Friday’s sessions, tires slide much more and so are quickly abraded away. There was a big improvement by Saturday, when Marquez topped both FP3 and FP4 with low 1-minute, 39-second laps, a leap forward over Lorenzo’s dusty FP1-topping 1:42.804. Marquez expected further track improvement Sunday, but it was less than anticipated. As tires roll on pavement at high speed, air rushing in behind their advancing footprints has a scouring effect, blowing the dust up out of the pavement texture, allowing wind to carry it away. But only the racing line benefits from this action. As at Qatar and round 2 in Texas, it was clear in Argentina that, barring misadventure, Marquez would win easily with Pedrosa second. Yamaha is floundering, caught between the new ban on in-season engine development and the power of Honda R&D. Desperation! 2 years ago, Yamaha was crudely pressuring Ben Spies to adopt Lorenzo’s corner-speed style, and now team members want Lorenzo to switch from that to the more dirt-track-derived style of the Honda men. This is why we witnessed Lorenzo trying to “do the elbow” at Austin, and old vernier-eye himself, journalist Neil Spalding, saw Yamaha raising ride heights toward Honda-like levels. Can this “talking cure” work? If it could, then any athletic person could become fast just by listening to an “explanation” of what racers do. Lorenzo laid it on the line this way: “I would like to have a more competitive bike.”
From 2004 to the beginning of ’10, Honda was locked into a cycle of improving the chassis just until the riders found it nearly manageable, then yielding to the engineers’ permanent eagerness to peak up power, making the bike unrideable again. Building different bikes for different riders wasted R&D effort. In 2010, something changed. Someone (was it HRC VP Shuhei Nakamoto or somebody else?) steered development onto a new path. By mid-’10, Pedrosa could display some of his natural grace on the bike, and in 2011, Casey Stoner won 10 races and the championship on a Honda. With this new direction, Honda’s R&D clout shrank lap times steadily. With some delay, tire characteristics track the dominant riding style. In the late 1990s, Michelin worked to build edge grip. Today, Bridgestone seemingly favors the styles of the Honda men, and Lorenzo’s corner-speed style may be heading for eclipse. The more “spec” features there are in a racing class, the stronger the forces bending riders to a single style. In Sunday’s race, Lorenzo regained his ability to nail the start and led the first 16 laps. Early fallers Aleix Espargaro and Alvaro Bautista added drama trying to live up to the potential they’d shown in practice; Espargaro was second and Bautista third in FP1. Moving up means passing, and passing means leaving the safer, higher-grip racing line. As Dovizioso had observed, mastery, not bravery, would be needed to be there at the finish.
Marquez took over the lead on lap 17, and Pedrosa displaced Lorenzo from second just one lap from the end, setting the fastest time of the race in the process. In the meantime, Rossi had battled and overcome Bradl, Andrea Iannone, and Bradley Smith for 4th. The Ducatis are making plenty of power, as shown by top speeds in class with the Hondas (Bradl’s RC213V was fastest at 207 mph). Yet, at the end, the top-finishing Ducatis were sixth and ninth as always. Is there no escape from fate? I suspect Ducati’s work toward better finishes was trumped by the need to find tires that could go the distance. Although Hayden’s finish improved to 11th (his Drive M7 Aspar teammate, Hiroshi Aoyama, was 10th), the top speed of his Honda production racer in the race was 11 mph down from that of Bradl’s factory bike. Colin Edwards was 20th. Dorna CEO Carmelo Ezpeleta’s continual rules-making, repurposed by Ducati’s interpretation of what “Open Class” means, has brought new challengers, like the Espargaro brothers, in among the established leaders—at least during practice. This is a great step forward from the original and uncompetitive Superbike-based CRTs. Yet a more grass-roots-driven backfield still proves elusive. The new challengers depend on factory technology, as in Aleix Espargaro’s 2012 Yamaha factory bike running in NGM Forward Racing colors. The top finishes continue to go to the master riders.