Freddie Spencer reports after the Czech Republic Grand Prix from Brno, where a tyre gamble paid off for Marc Márquez and the MotoGP community paid its respects to a former champion
Remembering Ángel Nieto
Before we get into the race weekend, I want to talk about a rider who passed away this week: Ángel Nieto. Ángel was a great world champion with 13 world titles over 16 years of racing at the world level, which was an incredible feat in itself. He certainly was an inspiration on and off the track for so many young riders and of course had a huge influence in Spain. After he retired from racing he got into race team management, so the support and inspiration that he offered to so many young riders in Spain and around the world was incredible.
I had the privilege of seeing him win races and his last three world titles when I came over in 1982. In ’82, ’83 and ’84 he won the 125cc world championship and it was amazing to watch the way he could manage a race, even on days when he clearly wasn’t at his best late in his career. But he would will his way to the front and would manage the race so well and win on the last lap, which I saw him do a few times. I had the pleasure of getting to know Ángel these last years doing some classic and vintage events, so it was a real privilege getting to know the man away from the race track.
He was an inspiration for so many young riders, the way he was able to win races on the track, but more importantly the way he handled himself off the track. He’s certainly going to be missed by motorcycle fans all over the world, so rest in peace Ángel.
Marc Márquez continues his form at Brno
MotoGP returned this weekend after the long summer break – well, it was only four weeks, which I’m sure for some racers seemed very short, but for others it lasted forever. It was going to be interesting to see who would come out of the gate firing, certainly Marc Márquez to see if he could maintain the momentum he’d built up over the last three races. If you look before the summer break at those last three events, he was 37 points behind but was able to make that up with some mistakes from his rivals and some struggles by championship leader Maverick Viñales. That meant he was able to lead the championship going into the summer break.
He and his team-mate along with Cal Crutchlow did a two-day test at Brno over the summer break and that may have been one of the smartest things they’ve ever done. The race track at Brno is not aone that has seemed to suit Marc Márquez and Honda over the last few years and here’s why. I remember the first time I went to Brno, it was the first year that they were having a Grand Prix there and the track had just been built. It was 1987 and one of the first things that I liked about the track was the fact it was a big circuit with high-speed corners. It’s not a track where you could be aggressive on the bike, it’s more of a finesse circuit and certainly a track where you spend a lot of time on the edge of the tyre. That requires the motorcycle to have the ability to be able to change direction with those big esses and at a pretty high speed whilst accelerating.
The other thing is throttle control and finesse because you spend a lot of time on the side of the tyre. That certainly was critical back in my day on the 500 Grand Prix bikes where you didn’t have the electronics, but it’s still the case today, even though with the electronics you can make some adjustments there. It was going to be a track that maybe the Honda was going to struggle on, so certainly the Yamaha guys were looking forward to going to Brno because they’ve won there the last couple of years. Dani Pedrosa did win there in ’14 on the Honda, and Cal Crutchlow won there on the Honda last year in mixed conditions, but in normal track conditions it’s a good track for the Yamaha. You’d think it would be a good power track for the Ducati too with the horsepower and this year the Ducati seems to have its handling issues more under control, as Dovizioso has shown. Maybe this would be a strong track for them.
But you can never guess what the weather is going to do, and that was certainly the case this weekend. There was rain on Friday, then the track was dry for qualifying and it looked like maybe it was going to rain on Sunday, as it did.
Yamahas split over chassis choice
In qualifying the two Hondas were up front and Valentino Rossi was the rider who got in between them. He’s showing he’s still got the speed to get the job done, and that’s great to see. But the rider who we were keeping an eye on was of course Maverick Viñales, to see if he could break the streak of sub-par races that he’s had since that last win way back in May at the French Grand Prix. He talked about how he wanted to come back strong for the second half of the season and maybe there were still some issues deciding on which chassis he wanted to use, either the 2017 or the 2016 one.
He’s supposed to have both bikes, whereas Valentino Rossi has been focusing on just the 2017 chassis and getting the bike set-up sorted for that chassis only. I think that’s probably been good for him, because he can focus on just that. If that’s the one Yamaha wants to go for with those characteristics, you need to put your focus on that, rather than trying to split the difference 50 per cent on one bike, 50 per cent on the other. Anyway, I was interested to see if Maverick could work through and could get the focus back like when he won those first three races when his confidence was up.
He talked after the race about how he chose a 2017 chassis, but he actually went for a set-up that was closer to what Valentino was running. That was a smart move. After he ran those first three races, perhaps he recognised that he’d been struggling and thought: ‘I’m just going to focus on what I need to do’ and maybe his team and he realised they didn’t have the right mindset. So they chose what Valentino had run and he was able to finish in third position. That’s going to benefit him going into this weekend; he’s getting some of his confidence back and he made the right choice.
Marc’s tyre gamble pays dividends – eventually
At the start of the Grand Prix, the only rider who chose not to have a medium rear rain tyre was Marc Márquez. Let’s talk about the mindset from the rider’s perspective in conditions where it’s not all wet and not all dry. We could see that the track was drying on the sighting warm-up laps before the start of the race, so what is the rider thinking? One, you want to get a good start. When the track is not completely dry and you’ve got that drying line, it actually narrows up to the amount of race track that the riders will be using. You want to get a good start if possible and that’s certainly what Marc was thinking.
Using the soft rear tyre, there was a lot of speculation about why would Marc would do that. Part of the problem was the fact that they’re trying to get enough heat in the tyre, plus maybe a little bit of foreshadowing. They were thinking about getting a good start with that soft rear tyre and that maybe they could get up front and then come in the pits. That’s thinking ahead a little bit as you could see some blue sky, but we knew that they had a second bike already set up with slicks, whilst some of the other teams at the start of the race weren’t so prepared.
On that first lap I don’t think Marc knew how slow he was going to be and how difficult it was going to be from the beginning. If he did, he probably would have chosen to have the rear medium rain tyre on. After the second lap, he was so far back in the field that he didn’t have a choice but to come in. It was the right decision to come in early and to get on his bike with slicks because it meant there were less other riders to fool with in and out of the pits and he was able to get back onto the track. On the next lap most of the front-runners came into the pits and lap after lap they did, so when he came back onto the track he had a pretty clear race track. On that third lap, when he took the lead, he already had a 19-second advantage. He got in the pits smoothly and was able to make that right choice, even though it looked at the start of the race that by putting on the soft rear medium it certainly wasn’t the right choice. It worked out for him.
It was another good ride for Dani Pedrosa. He got into second position and this was his 150th podium. It shows that even though he’s never won the MotoGP world championship he’s certainly a great rider – and has of course been world champion in the smaller classes. You can’t and shouldn’t take anything away from him, so congratulations to him.
That’s the race for this weekend and Marc Márquez has showed that he’s maintaining that momentum. Now he’s got a 14-point advantage over Maverick Viñales and this weekend Valentino Rossi was right there, Dani Pedrosa was right there, and it was another good ride for Cal Crutchlow on the Honda. It’s going to be interesting going into this weekend to see if those guys will be up front again, or as we saw last year in Austria whether the Ducatis will be able to dominate. I think Jorge Lorenzo is going to be strong this weekend and if he’s going to have a chance to win a race on the Ducati this year, it might be this weekend.