Amid all the Assen drama it was easy to forget about the forlorn figure of Dani Pedrosa, slumped in his pit, wondering what might have been.
If all things had been equal, victory should have belonged to the Spaniard. Instead he finished a distant fourth, just one place ahead of the remarkable Jorge Lorenzo. So instead of stretching his advantage over his main title rival by 14 points, he gained just two points on him.
Pedrosa may still lead on points but his season has gone awry since his back-to-back wins at Jerez and Le Mans, because for one reason or another he hasn’t been able to get the best out of the Bridgestones. At the three races since Le Mans – Mugello, Catalunya and Assen – he has cited tyre issues for his inability to challenge for victory.
At Mugello he struggled with Bridgestone’s heat-resistant rear tyre, new for this race. “We had many problems with the new rear tyre and we had to set up the bike completely differently to get grip,” he said. “Jorge was faster in the corners.”
At Catalunya everyone struggled with the front slick, but the Hondas more so than the Yamahas. “When I tried to push, I immediately got warnings from the front,” said Pedrosa after finishing runner-up to Lorenzo for the second consecutive race.
Assen was even worse, his first finish off the podium since Qatar, where he also highlighted tyre problems. “It’s another race where we don’t know why we don’t have grip – we need to find a set-up that gives more grip,” he said.
Cynics might suggest that Pedrosa is making excuses. I don’t think he is. None of the top riders in MotoGP are winning riders one day and fourth-place finishers the next. The difference between the days that Pedrosa is in the hunt and the days he isn’t is that when he is in the hunt he’s riding to the limit of the bike and when he isn’t he’s riding to the limit of the tyres.
Of course, everyone has the same chance – the tyres are the same for all. But of course the bikes and the riders aren’t the same, so the tyres work better for some than for others. And the interface varies according to the track and the weather – just a few degrees can change everything.
Some people like to think they can predict where the Honda will work best and where the Yamaha will work best. But invariably they are proven wrong. Jerez, for example, is a Yamaha circuit, all about corner speed. But when track temperatures rose on race day, the tyres lost edge grip, the Yamahas were unable to use their corner-speed advantage and Pedrosa pointed and squirted his way to victory.
When track temperatures rose at Mugello and Catalunya, the know-alls suggested we were in for a re-run of Jerez. Again they were proved wrong. Lorenzo’s tyres worked better at both races, where he used his knew trick of launching straight into the lead (the Yamaha is much better off the start line this year), setting a devastating early pace and not letting the Hondas get past him for one moment. Lorenzo knows that the Hondas have better acceleration and braking performance, so if they do get ahead he will struggle to pass them. But when he is ahead he can negate the Honda’s advantages by using his superior corner speed, so they can’t get past him.
So what does this tell us? It tells us what most of us already knew: that the Yamaha is a more neutral motorcycle that can be more successfully tweaked to get the best out of the tyres from one track to the next. Lorenzo’s back-to-back wins also suggest that Yamaha learned something from their defeat at Jerez and now know how to look after the edge grip of the tyres in hot conditions.
It also tells us that the Honda and Yamaha are in many ways very similar in performance, in that they are capable of very similar lap times, even if they go about it in different ways. The only big difference is how they work the tyres from one track to the next.
So this is going to be one of those championships years – when the battle for the MotoGP crown sways this way and that, like a pendulum. There are people in the paddock who believe that the circuits in the second half of the championship suit the Hondas better than the Yamahas, according to results from the last couple of seasons. I’m not so sure. I think these things change from year to year, according to the bikes, the riders, the tyres and the track temperature.
The next race at the Sachsenring is certainly Pedrosa territory. He’s won on his last three visits, so if he doesn’t win this year, it will be a bad sign for him. Lorenzo, however, may have more problems in Germany than he had at Assen: the Sachsenring is all about left-handers, which will be a huge ask for his left shoulder. And the race after that is Laguna Seca, which also runs anti-clockwise. Pedrosa should be able to regain the initiative in July but, as always, it will come down to tyres.