Mat Oxley

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Angles of attack

The new MotoGP season kicks off under Qatar’s entirely fatuous floodlights on March 23 and some people are already inscribing Marc Márquez’s name on the 2014 World Championship trophy. It’s easy to see why: if the youngster could beat everyone as a rookie, what will he do with a full season’s premier-class experience behind him?

There is probably only one man capable of stopping MotoGP’s grinning assassin, and that is 2010 and 2012 champ Jorge Lorenzo, who won more races than his rival last year but still lost the crown. Lorenzo rightly believes that he has a good chance of exacting revenge on his compatriot this summer, because the way he works with his Yamaha YZR-M1 puts him ahead of Márquez and Honda’s RC213V in several areas.

Firstly Lorenzo can get through corners faster than Márquez, even if he is fractionally slower into and out of them. His riding technique has evolved to prioritise mid-corner speed over everything else because that’s the strength of the Yamaha, which is longer and lower than the Honda.

The M1 and Lorenzo have developed in parallel since 2008 to the point where they are now in perfect harmony. Last year the Spaniard had fellow Yamaha riders Cal Crutchlow and Valentino Rossi comparing data and shaking their heads in disbelief. Just how does he get his M1 banked over so far?

“If I try to use the same lean angle as Jorge, I crash,” admitted Crutchlow last summer. “We don’t know how he does it.”

So how does Lorenzo do it? “It’s just instinct,” he explains. “Every rider has his own way to brake, enter the corner and open the throttle. These things affect the lean angle you can use. Maybe it’s because I am quite smooth and don’t move around the bike so much, maybe that helps me to lean more.”

Those indeed are the secrets of Lorenzo’s mind-boggling lean angles: he is beautifully smooth and stays motionless through corners, so the bike doesn’t get unsettled and he can teeter on the very edge of the tyres. That’s one reason Lorenzo only crashed thrice last year, to Marquez’s 15 tumbles.

While the Yamaha works like a blade, all smoothly carved cornering lines, the Honda works like a hammer, squaring off the corners and bludgeoning its rivals.

The flaw in the Lorenzo/Yamaha combination is that he can only enjoy his corner-speed advantage when he has a clear track ahead of him, because when Marquez is in front – using a more point-and-squirt technique – Lorenzo is unable to exploit his superior cornering speed.

Conveniently, Lorenzo’s second advantage is the Yamaha’s ability to get off the line and into the first corner ahead of the pack. When power was harder to come by during MotoGP’s 800cc era (2007 to 2011), the Honda was almost always faster to the first corner. Since the advent of the 1000s, the Yamaha is the better drag bike. Its longer wheelbase also helps here by reducing front-wheel lift, which means acceleration isn’t compromised by power cuts from the anti-wheelie software.

Lorenzo’s third strong point is a clever trick he learned from former MotoGP champ Casey Stoner. Most riders have found to their cost that MotoGP bikes don’t like to be hurled into the first corner at full chat, because the tyres take longer than that to reach optimum temperature. This problem never bothered Stoner, who was bold enough and talented enough to tip into the first corner faster than anyone else.

Lorenzo worked hard at developing this skill during last year’s pre-season testing period by bolting out of the pits with new tyres and a full tank of fuel. The effort paid off – he won six of his eight victories during 2013 by leading from the first lap to the last.

Given a clear track to do what he does best, you could set your watch to Lorenzo’s lap times. This is the fourth area in which he excels – his glassy smoothness translates into a pace that barely wavers, from lights-out to chequered flag. At last September’s Misano GP – which he led throughout – Lorenzo’s lap times varied by no more than 0.553sec.

Of course, all the above assumes the technical status quo remains. Although the RC213V won last year’s title because it allows riders to square off corners, Honda Racing Corporation engineers spent last winter at their Asaka HQ working to adapt the machine in search of more corner speed. Meanwhile, 150 miles away in Iwata, Yamaha has been searching for more in/out performance.

If the two machines meet it the middle, the 2014 title duel will be even more entertaining than last year’s, especially since Lorenzo has indicated he will give as good as he gets.

Their battles this summer, and beyond, may yet develop into another era-defining rivalry, right up there with Hailwood versus Agostini, Spencer versus Roberts and Schwantz versus Rainey. Let’s hope so.

*******

British fans of motorcycle racing don’t need reminding that it is 37 years since a Briton last won the premier-class world title, but the continent’s biggest classic racing event will do just that in July.

This year’s Bikers Classic meet staged at God’s own racetrack (Spa-Francorchamps, in case you wondered) celebrates the 40th anniversary of the creation of the machine that took Barry Sheene to the 500 crown in 1976 and 1977.

There will be a superabundance of Suzuki RG500s at Spa on July 4/5/6, representing its full eight seasons as a winning force in Grand Prix racing. Many of the square-four two-strokes will be provided by inveterate Suzuki collector Steve Wheatman, who owns so many RG500s that he’s lost count. All he knows for sure is that he’s got something like 30 bikes, including 15 factory machines, several of them ridden by Sheene.

Don’t forget your earplugs.

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