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The biggest talking points from Motegi as Marc Márquez seals the 2018 MotoGP title in Japan
Photos: Red Bull, MotoGP
Marc Márquez’s dominance of MotoGP has been nothing short of miraculous since he arrived in 2013. He has won five titles in six years and may have won all six if Honda hadn’t miscalculated its 2015 RC213V engine spec, reducing crankshaft inertia, so the engine shut down too quickly into corners, causing skids, and it spun up too quick on the exit, causing slides.
To put his success into perspective (achieved during Grand Prix racing’s closest, most competitive era) here’s a quick rundown of some of the records that put him firmly in the pantheon.
He is the youngest rider to win five premier-class titles, taking the record from Valentino Rossi. He is the youngest rider to win seven world championships, taking the record from Mike Hailwood. Only six other riders have won seven or more titles across all classes: John Surtees (seven), Phil Read (seven), Carlo Ubbiali (nine), Rossi (nine), Ángel Nieto (13) and Giacomo Agostini (15).
Márquez is now one of only four riders to have won five or more premier-class crowns, along with Rossi, Mick Doohan and Giacomo Agostini. And he is the only rider in history to have won at least five GPs per season over nine years, across three categories.
The secret to Márquez’s success is straightforward. He is highly intelligent, he never stops riding or working, he has built an ultra-close team of engineers and mechanics around him, he can decide the right strategy and then change it in an instant, he doesn’t buckle under pressure, he has an assassin’s aggression, and he has no fear.
Repsol Honda team boss and 500 GP winner Alberto Puig – a man not given to gushing praise – summed it up on Sunday night: “Marc is no conformist… He has grown a lot – he is mature and he continues to learn.
“I think he still has many things to learn and I think he still has another step to make. He is now at a very high level, maybe one or two steps ahead of the others. He has learnt how to regulate himself and that makes him stronger.”
Ominous or what?!
And yet, there was one dark cloud hanging over Márquez on Sunday. During the slowdown lap Scott Redding stopped to give his former Moto2 rival a hug. It didn’t end well.
“I felt something strange – I’d dislocated my shoulder,” said Márquez, of the injury he first sustained when he crashed at Silverstone in 2013. “I lay down and my brother and José [Luis Martinez] put it back in again. It’s not the first time – during the season it dislocated many times during training at home.
“Maybe it was my weak point of the season. In December I need to see Mr Mir [Xavier Mir, MotoGP’s favourite surgeon] and next year will be perfect.”
The pain – popping your shoulder back into its socket isn’t a pleasant experience – was no doubt eased by the adrenaline and endorphins coursing through his veins following his 69th victory from his 183 Grand Prix starts.
From the 15 races thus far this year Márquez has scored eight wins, four second places and one third. He has missed the podium just twice and both of those were no-scores – when he got carried away in Argentina and when the front-tyre allocation was out at Mugello, causing him to crash.
“For 2018 we worked really hard in preseason to achieve consistency, because that’s what I learned about [Andrea] Dovizioso last year – he was really good at managing different situations,” said Márquez on Sunday. “This year I felt more mature and we have a very competitive bike, because last year we struggled with a not-so-good feeling with the bike, so crashed many, many times.
“This time I was able to manage in another way and find a constant pace at different tracks. Without the bike you cannot win and without the team you cannot win.
“Honda, HRC and all the people around me did a great job. Sometimes I gave more to the bike and sometimes the bike gave more to me. Every year I have the pressure and the motivation to fight for the title. I hope this will be my career until the end. Now we will celebrate in Australia, in Malaysia, at Valencia and in Cervera [his hometown]. We will enjoy it until January 1st, then we will concentrate on 2019 and work harder to be better.”
Márquez may have won the riders’ world title with three races to go, but he still has a big job to do at Phillip Island, Sepang and Valencia.
Previously when he secured the title before the season was over his strategy was simple: with no title pressure he launched himself into risk-it-all mode. The results were often spectacular; most memorably in 2016 when he won the title at Motegi, then crashed at the next two races.
But this year he will take a different approach, thinking about the people who work with him and who pay his salary.
“Honda told me: after you win the riders’ title you crash many times!” he laughed. “Now the constructors’ and teams’ championship are in my mind, because we want to win the triple crown.”
It’s hard to say who is the wiliest rider on the MotoGP grid. It’s probably Márquez, but Andrea Dovizioso comes close, with his professorial approach to racing that allows him to deal with Márquez’s outrageous skill and bravery.
At Motegi his closest rivals finally rumbled his latest tactic, which is to continually adjust his pace while he’s leading.
“Dovi was yo-yoing the pace again,” said Cal Crutchlow. “He does two or three fast laps, then slows his pace, then does two or three fast laps, then slows again. But even when he does a slow lap the way the Ducati accelerates off the corners it’s really difficult to get a run on him to pass him into the next corner. Then he ramps up the pace again.
“I was swearing in my helmet! If I’d got a run on him I would’ve tapped him on the leg to say, come on: push, push, because we could have used the tyres and broken the guys behind us.”
So why does Dovizioso do this? Probably for several reasons: to save fuel, to save tyres, to conserve his own energy and maybe to confuse those behind him. Of course, it’s not an easy strategy to pull off, because the rider has to be very careful where he eases off, so that his rivals can’t find a way past.
“It’s difficult to ride 24 laps at 100 per cent with these bikes,” explained Dovizioso. “Also, even if the consumption of the tyres wasn’t too high here – there is a drop in grip, so you have to manage that drop and also your physical condition. You have to manage everything in a good way to finish the race in good shape, because we are always fighting at the limit.”
Both Crutchlow and Márquez are now working on a plan to deal with Dovizioso’s quick-quick-slow tactics. “Now we know, maybe we can somehow make him change that strategy,” said Crutchlow. “Yes,” added Márquez. “This is something we need to understand for next year.”
Dovizioso is not a crasher. Going into Sunday’s race he had had four accidents all season, compared to Márquez’s 18. But Michelin’s front slick isn’t an easy tyre to master and requires riders to tread a very fine line.
Dovizioso is riding harder than ever this year because he no longer has the straight-line speed advantage he enjoyed last season. Honda made a huge improvement in engine performance for 2018, so even when Márquez ran onto the grass exiting the Turn Nine hairpin, losing drive, Dovizioso was only just able to get close enough to out-brake him at the end of the back straight.
Márquez retook the lead with three laps to go and Dovizioso tried his move on the penultimate lap. He changed his line through the hairpin, trying to turn more quickly – the one thing the Ducati doesn’t like doing – so he could lift the bike sooner and get better exit drive, which might allow him to repeat that out-braking manoeuvre.
“I tried to prepare the exit too early,” he said. “I wanted to prepare the exit in a better way, to get close enough to attack, but I was too early and I asked too much of the front tyre. The positive thing is that I wasn’t over the limit when I crashed.”
If the 2018 MotoGP world championship had started at August’s Czech GP, Ducati would have had a good chance of beating Márquez and Honda to the title. Indeed, from Brno to Buriram, Márquez and Dovizioso scored the exact same number of points: 106 each.
So why did Ducati lose the championship during the first part of the season?
Jorge Lorenzo’s problems were centred around ergonomics. Once his fat fuel tank arrived at Mugello he could win races. But it took longer for Dovizioso, even though he won the first race. His crew took its first significant forward steps after Barcelona, where he had his second crash in three races.
“From Assen we started working in a different way,” he said. “We put the winglets [aero] on the bike and never removed them after that, because until then we used them sometimes, sometimes not, so this created some confusion with the set-up.
“Then race by race we analysed everything and tried to understand the way to go. We improved the set-up a little, the way we managed the tyre and so on.”
From Brno, Dovizioso fought for victory at every race, winning there and at Misano and finishing on the podium on each occasion, until he fell at Motegi.
“From Brno we had the new fairing. It wasn’t a big change; in fact we never changed anything big on the bike. It’s a mix of lots of small things and when you understand all the small things it’s a big thing.”
Dovizioso’s next job is to beat Honda – that’s Márquez and Lorenzo – in 2019.
“I am so happy with the level we are at, but now we have to be more ready for next year than we were for this year. At the moment we are as strong as Marc, but in the end he won the title. From the middle of this season we’ve had a very similar pace, which is positive for next year.
“There are lots of positive things for us but now we must try to find something more… We have to congratulate Marc and his team because they did another special year. They did something better than everybody else.”
Ducati’s next challenge is arguably its biggest of the year: Phillip Island. The Australian track’s long sweeping corners have always brought out the worst of the Desmosedici – its mid-corner turning problem. Last year Dovizioso finished a distant 13th, effectively ending his title hopes. How the GP18 goes there next Sunday will give the best indication of how the Ducati has improved.
Motegi proved once again that Suzuki has overtaken Yamaha. The GSX-RR’s recent results have made a nonsense of those who suggested that the only way to compete is with a V4 engine, as used by Ducati and Honda, but also by Aprilia and KTM.
Suzuki has beaten Yamaha at three of the last four races, having increased engine power and braking stability to complement its always impressive turning and cornering performance.
“At Assen we got a new engine, so we’ve had more power,” said Alex Rins, who finished less than two tenths behind runner-up Crutchlow, and 1.7 seconds off the win. “We still need more top power, for fifth and sixth gears, but the bike accelerates well. Now we just need a bit more braking stability to keep the bike smooth when you attack the corner. Suzuki is working really hard…”
In Sunday’s race the best Suzuki was only 1.7mph slower than the fastest bike. And test rider Sylvain Guintoli reports that the 2019 engine he used at Motegi is another step forward.
Yamaha’s rapid pace at the previous Thai GP suggested that its sun was rising, but Motegi seemed to kill all hope of that. Valentino Rossi finished top Yamaha, crossing the line in fourth, 6.4sec behind the winner, fractionally better than the factory’s 6.8sec average deficit in the previous 14 races.
In other words, the tiny improvements of which Rossi and Maverick Viñales spoke at Buriram – traction control and anti-wheelie – came to nothing. The mountain still stands before them, waiting to be climbed.
However, Yamaha’s statements that it was trying nothing new with wildcard and development rider Katsuyuki Nakasuga at Motegi weren’t true.
Nakasuga’s M1 may have looked identical to the Movistar bikes – apart from the livery and a few other minor details – but there were potentially crucial differences beneath the paintwork.
“Nakasuga’s bike is not a standard bike,” revealed Yamaha’s MotoGP development manager Kouichi Tsuji. “He is trying something new for next year – different chassis stiffness. This is his big task this weekend.
“Also he is trying different torque maps, different chassis settings – everything.”
Although Yamaha’s problems have been blamed on engine and electronics issues, which cause the rear tyre to degrade too fast, chassis stiffness could also be to blame.
At Motegi Rossi spent a lot of time with Suzuki’s Alex Rins, who pounced on the nine-time world champion when his M1 had used its rear tyre.
“The current MotoGP tyres are very soft,” said Rossi. “It looks like the other manufacturers work in a better way to use these soft tyres. The Yamaha needs something harder, so when we have a harder tyre like at Buriram it’s an advantage for us and also for a small disadvantage for the other manufacturers.”
Rins seemed to agree after Sunday’s race. “Valentino destroyed the tyre,” he said. “So I waited until he was suffering on the exits, then I overtook him because I had better traction.”
Fine-tuning chassis stiffness can have a huge effect on tyre wear, by affecting tyre stress, lean angle and so on, but this is still a complex science, where suck-it-and-see R&D is still the way forward.
“One negative point of our bike is that it needs more lean angle to make the corner, so we use more of the edge of the tyre, so edge grip goes down,” added Tsuji. “We’ve tried many different kinds of stiffness, centres of gravity and so on, but still we haven’t found the correct numbers to suit the Michelin tyres.”
Incredible but true: the fastest bike in Sunday’s race was Maverick Viñales’s M1, which hit 193.67mph on the downhill run to Turn 11, 0.6mph faster than Dovizioso’s Ducati and 1.9mph better than Márquez’s Honda.
The Spaniard therefore doesn’t have the exit problems that bother his team-mate so much. Instead he believes Michelin’s rear slick causes him more trouble on corner entry, because riders must now use a lot of rear brake to help them slow down as the front slick can lock during heavy braking.
“At Buriram I felt much more grip from the centre of the rear tyre, also when I lean or pick up the bike, so the bike turned better and I could be much more precise,” said the Spaniard. “Usually I cannot stop the bike the way I like. At Buriram I could stop much more in the early part of braking, which permitted me to enter corners faster. Here at Motegi I struggled to find that grip, so I needed to reduce my speed to enter the corners.
“The exit of the corners is good – I’m really happy with the traction. The balance of the bike is good in the exit, especially when I pick up the bike. Our problem is on entry. I can brake hard but I can’t be effective.”
Yamaha still has a huge amount of work to do: one rider can’t get into the corners, the other can’t get out. Will Nakasuga’s Motegi data allow them to make that much-needed breakthrough?
Jorge Lorenzo’s withdrawal from the Japanese GP following first practice posed the inevitable question: who will ride his Desmosedici for the next race or two?
The answer seemed obvious: give Jack Miller a factory GP18 for his home Grand Prix at Phillip Island this weekend. But, to the disappointment of thousands of Australian fans, this will not happen.
In September, MotoGP amended the engine-supply regulations to prevent fiendish teams from bending the rules. Let’s assume that a team’s top rider has exhausted his engine allocation. What to do? How about telling a big fat lie about the team’s number-two rider?
For example, let’s say this occurred at Aprilia: factory number-one Aleix Espargaró runs out of engines, so his team makes up a story: Scott Redding has had a horrible accident at the hairdressers, so he won’t be able to ride at the next two races. Far-fetched? Perhaps, but not impossible, especially if a factory is fighting for the title.
But it wasn’t the new rule that stopped Miller getting Lorenzo’s bikes. The Grand Prix Commission would’ve given the 23-year-old the green light, because Ducati wasn’t attempting anything underhand.
Instead it was the Pramac team’s decision to keep Miller (and team-mate Danilo Petrucci, another potential Lorenzo sub) on Pramac bikes, because the team is fighting to win MotoGP’s independent teams prize – an important accolade for non-factory teams.
This is why Álvaro Bautista will take Lorenzo’s ride. His team isn’t in the running for the indie prize. Also, the 2006 125cc world champion will race a factory Ducati Panigale V4 in next year’s World Superbike series, so a weekend on the MotoGP version will be very useful for him.
Lorenzo’s grim run of bad luck – his Turn One crash at Aragón and then his nightmare prang at Buriram – has created his longest spell of no-scores since his first full GP season in 2003.
Just two laps in FP1 at Motegi were enough to tell the three-time MotoGP champion that he couldn’t ride properly and was only going to cause further damage by continuing.
“I wasn’t quick or comfortable and I felt unsafe on the bike, so if I pushed harder I could make mistake and crash,” he said. “It’s sad because I knew I had a good chance to fight for the win here. My next target is to try to be very strong in Malaysia and Valencia. And then next year is next year…”
Three-time world champion Freddie Spencer will be back in MotoGP next season, but on the other side of the pitwall. The American has been appointed chairman of the FIM MotoGP stewards panel, so he will be in charge of policing rider behaviour on track.
His arrival allows race director Mike Webb, who currently shares his primary duty with chairmanship of the stewards’ panel, to focus on directing races.
Spencer, who won Honda’s first 500cc world title in 1983 and a unique 250/500 double in 1985, will head the FIM’s rotating stewards panel, which includes full-timer Bill Cumbow and part-time stewards like former 500 rider Pete Goddard.
Next year’s Moto2 grid will be powered by three-cylinder Triumph engines instead of four-cylinder Hondas, but Kalex will still supply chassis for most of the grid.
The German constructor has won a clean sweep of the last five riders’ and constructors’ titles and currently leads both of this year’s championships.
Moto2’s provisional 2019 grid consists of 19 Kalex machines, nine KTMs, two Speed Ups, two NTS bikes and two MV Agustas, which will use KTM-style tubular steel trellis frames manufactured by Suter.
The new bikes, which will feature traction control for the first time, will not look entirely different from current Moto2 bikes, but there will be chassis differences. The 765cc Triumph triple is taller than the CBR600, so the all-important engine hangers will be shorter, which will require some clever work to create the right kind of lateral flex.
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