Blue on blue


Forty years ago this Saturday Jaws was released in cinemas. The film’s theme tune still reverberates in people’s minds: a spooky riff synonymous with approaching danger.

Over the past four races Jorge Lorenzo has bitten shark-sized chunks out of Valentino Rossi; 28 points, to be exact. With seven rounds done and 11 to go, he is just one point adrift of his team-mate and poised for the kill. Or is he? Perhaps Lorenzo’s momentum is unstoppable or perhaps Rossi can rally himself.

Of course, the nine-time champ has been here before. Way back in 2009 he likened Lorenzo and the other new kids on the block to sharks. “If I am not strong, I know they will eat me in one bite,” he said. “They look at me with a little bit of blood flowing and maybe they think, OK, now is the time.”

Last year Rossi reinvented himself, learning a new way of riding, more from Lorenzo than from Marc Márquez. When he returned to Yamaha the Italian studied Lorenzo’s data and worked out how to run with the youngsters. On Sunday his pace was a mere 0.03 seconds a lap off Lorenzo’s, but even that’s not enough when he’s 1.3 seconds behind after the third lap.

Lorenzo said it at Catalunya: “Valentino is a Sunday rider”. So that’s what Rossi needs to do, he needs to learn how to become a Saturday rider by learning the precarious skill of exiting the pits and attacking the first corner like it’s the last, even though the tyres aren’t up to temperature.

It is this skill – some might call it a monumental leap of faith – that has got Lorenzo where he is now. In qualifying he rides out of pitlane and explodes into action; he doesn’t work his way up to speed over a few laps. And he does the same in the race, giving himself the clear track he needs to use his unique lines.

Lorenzo wasn’t always like this. He too had to learn this skill, because that’s how Casey Stoner was beating him. A few winters ago Lorenzo girded his loins and spent much of the offseason fighting psychological warfare, with himself: the brain says don’t do it, the ego says you must do it. Throughout testing he bolted out of the pits, heart in his mouth, and hurtled into the first few corners like the world championship depended on it, which of course it did.

Rossi has known for ages that this is what he too needs to do. Indeed he had tried to learn by following Lorenzo out of the pits, but he can’t match his team-mate’s instant speed. He still needs to wind up to full speed, which doesn’t work with the 15-minute qualifying format.

So what needs to change: does his crew need to give him a special set-up that will make him faster in qualifying, or does the change need to come from inside?

These days, MotoGP technicians change very little for qualifying. All they do now is fill the 20-litre fuel tank a quarter full and slightly richen the fuelling. They add a millimetre of pre-load on the front forks, because when riders are chasing that last hundredth of a second they usually make it up on the brakes. And perhaps they’ll add a millimetre of pre-load on the rear shock, because of the extra loads created by the rider using more throttle on a brand-new tyre.

In fact the whole point is to change the bike as little as possible because bike racing is all about confidence. The rider needs to be so intimate with his set-up that he knows what his machine will do before it does it – that’s how he feels comfortable on the absolute limit. If the crew radically modify set-up in the hope of a faster qualifying lap the rider will probably be slower because he’s not intimate with the set-up.

Perhaps Rossi’s crew need to change his overall set-up, to a slightly softer suspension setting, like Lorenzo’s. But they still have different riding styles – Lorenzo sits dead still on the bike while Rossi moves around more.

Somehow Rossi must find what he needs from inside, which seems a big ask for someone who’s been grappling with this problem for several years.

But at least he is still in the title fight, unlike Honda, whose reigning world champion has scored exactly half the points of Lorenzo. Depending on whom you talk to in pitlane, Marc Márquez’s problem is either a lack of mechanical grip or a lack of flywheel weight.

The flywheel idea is plausible because a light flywheel makes the engine spin up too quickly when the rider opens the throttle, which causes wheelspin. And when the rider closes the throttle the engine shuts down too quickly, causing the rear wheel to lock. These symptoms tally exactly with Márquez’s comments.

A few years ago, HRC would’ve sorted these issues in no time. In the two-stroke era they calmed the NSR500 engine by adding tungsten inserts to the flywheel. But midseason engine development is now banned: all engines are sealed at the first race, so no changes are allowed and there’s no going back to last year’s engine.

If flywheel weight is the issue, then HRC may try to compensate by adding mass to the (cassette) gearbox or ignition pick-up, but it’s not easy to make a big difference there.

If the problem is mechanical grip, then perhaps the 2014 chassis that Márquez tried after the Catalan GP will solve the problems.

But even if Márquez starts winning now, it is surely too late for that title hat trick. Lorenzo, according to his venerable crew chief Ramon Forcada, is no longer confused, as he was at the start of the season when various gremlins destabilised him: first it was ill-fitting leathers, then a disintegrating helmet (at Qatar), a bout of illness (in Texas) and an incorrect tyre choice (in Argentina).

Since then he’s been pure perfection: a modern-era record of 103 laps in the lead and the same number of premier-class victories as Mike Hailwood. Last year we were in a froth about Márquez winning ten in a row; what chance Lorenzo this year?


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