Rider insight: Valencia MotoGP


Freddie Spencer’s take on the Valencia Grand Prix, and his view on Lorenzo and Ducati

It seems like just yesterday we were in Qatar beginning the season, with all the hopes and dreams that the riders have and the unknown.

Going into that first race in Qatar, one thing we knew for sure was the pace, not only the one-lap speed but also the race pace, that Maverick Viñales was able to run. In every test after the end of last season, he was leading. But as we went into the last race of the year he wasn’t even in contention for the world championship. He was knocked out with his result of last race and it was just down to the final two competitors: Marc Márquez and Andrea Dovizioso.

As we’ve talked about all year, it was the Ducati rider that we didn’t really expect. We thought Jorge Lorenzo would come into the factory Ducati team and take over the mantle, the hole left by Casey Stoner. The speed that Stoner was able to get out of the works Ducati, not even Valentino Rossi could do anything about that when he joined in 2011 and ‘12. He struggled, and so it was going to be interesting to see if Jorge Lorenzo could take that over.

It wasn’t him, it was Dovizioso, so as we have documented all season the real change in Dovi has been the confidence, the comfort that he seems to have in his general way that he’s going about preparing for the weekend. The thing that I think is really the biggest change is his performance under pressure. This sounds like a very simple thing, and all riders at the very top level should be able to perform under pressure and be able to have that clarity when they need to. And that’s what it is, it’s clarity of thought that allows you to be able to make the right decision, manage the race and be able to foreshadow and anticipate. It is about anticipating not only the bike but also making the adjustments you need to, in your race management or in reaction to what the other rider is doing. That’s what Dovi has done so well in two of his wins this year. As we know he’s beaten Marc on the last corner of the last lap and he made the right decisions. Would he be in a position at Valencia to be able to do the same thing?

The circuit

It is an incredible facility for the fans. I enjoy going there because you can see so much from the pits, suite boxes and the grandstands. But to be able to do that you must have a pretty tight race track. I’ve ridden on there a few times and even on a RS250, when we do the classic event there in February, it is pretty tight, on a 500 three cylinder it is really tight, and I had a school there so I’ve ridden a Panigale around there.

The main thing you notice is just the lack of time in between corners. It seems like you’re on the side of the tyre quite a bit and you’re accelerating a lot on the side of the tyre. Even in the short shoot between corners right and left you’re accelerating up and over and preparing for the next corner. There’s very little time straight up and down and the longest straightaway is not that long.

So you have to think it doesn’t suit the Ducati. It hasn’t had a whole lot of success there and I think that’s part of the reason why. We know it struggles with being able to make a direction change under acceleration.

The circuit makes for great racing, it makes for close racing, which is something that makes it more exciting. The unknown can happen going into the last race for the championship, as we saw in 2006 with Valentino Rossi with an eight-point lead over Nicky Hayden and he crashed at Turn 2. That was around the time he was having some of the tax issues, so who knows if that was something in the back of his mind. It doesn’t take a whole lot because we’re all human, no matter how great of a rider that Valentino may be. Was that going to happen this weekend with Marc Márquez having a 21-point lead? Was he going to feel the pressure and make a mistake?

Marc’s composure

During first practice on Friday there was a shot of Marc in his garage and it was the way he was sitting and turned to grab his helmet. There was a calmness, I could see it in his eyes – I knew it was going to be a really good weekend for him. There was a comfort level that he felt. I understand that, I’ve felt it before – I’ve felt the opposite, too. It is something that a rider that believes in being right in the right moment and it’s his time. He knows exactly what he’s going to do and he’s prepared. That’s the same as with any athlete but certainly from a rider standpoint I recognized that in Marc.

I didn’t really feel it so much with Dovi. You could see he certainly was fine, but there was a certain unsureness. He said ‘all the pressure was off me and on Marc’ but he was feeling it too. You could see that and I think as much as anything he knew this track didn’t suit the Ducati very well. No matter how much he believed in his own destiny, I think he probably realized that. Of course, the only chance he had to win the World Championship was to win the race and he knew that was certainly going to be a tall order.

Marc, even in that first session, was just very methodical. He did have a crash, in fact two, as has become norm over the weekend. He has had 27 this year.

Qualifying stars

Going into qualifying, Marc showed what he could do. He had that crash but he got pole position and it looked pretty easy for him. He had the benefit of the Honda working better around that track than the Ducati, and so he had that confidence.

Johann Zarco. What can you say about what he’s done this season? He certainly started off strong, he struggled a bit in the middle part of the season but got a second at Le Mans early in the season. You could see what he was able to do here at the end on the 2016 Yamaha M1. We know the struggles that Yamaha has had, certainly in mixed conditions, with the 2017. They’ve tried even a 2018 chassis but Valentino said in the press that if he was Zarco next season he would refuse the 2017 bike, so we’ll see what happens there. I think he certainly will try it but we’ll see what he thinks about it.

Andrea Iannone, on the Suzuki, was third quickest and he’s a guy who is able to put in a quick lap but is so erratic and so inconsistent. That’s got to be so difficult for Suzuki to deal with week in and week out. Alex Rins on the other hand, who struggled at the beginning of the year, certainly has come on strong. After the injuries he’s had you have to be impressed with him and his potential. He ran a very good race.

Qualifying for Dovi was pretty good, and there was always that possibility for Jorge to win the race if Dovi couldn’t get up the front. Would this finally be Jorge’s chance to win a race? He’s won a race every year he’s been in MotoGP so this would be the first year, if he didn’t win at Valencia. There was some pressure obviously on him but I believe that his first priority would be to try to help Dovi win the championship.

Race day

There were no issues of weather in the beautiful Valencia sunshine in front of an incredible 110,000 people. There was certainly a lot of anticipation, being in Spain and with Marc Márquez looking for a sixth world championship. We knew it was going to be exciting. Johann Zarco had a great start to get out front, Marc was right there behind him and just stayed there and Dani Pedrosa – what a great wingman – was right there with Marc. So those three were going along and then it was Jorge and Dovizioso – with not much excitement.

Then there was a little bit of uncertainty as Jorge was getting a message on his dashboard saying ‘suggested change to mapping number eight’, which is code for letting Dovizioso by. There’s been a lot of talk, but I could see that Jorge was quicker and what he was trying to do was basically keep Dovi up there and bring him along. So he didn’t let him by, which he didn’t need to.

And then Marc, with 10 laps to go, actually got by Johann and it looked like he was going to try to win the race when he realized that Dovi was dropping back. But then what a massive save, I’m sure you’ve seen it. He tucked the front, he does that over and over again, and it is amazing how he saves it on his knee. Turn 1 is such a high-speed corner and that makes it so much more difficult with the tuck because of the energy, the load and the speed. I could save a lot of front-end tucks, not only on a knee but because I ran a lot of steering damper stiffness and that helped me when I was riding the three-cylinder because I was always tucking the front end. Marc was able to save it but he ran wide off the track that allowed Johann and Dani to get by. Marc was still in fifth place until Jorge and Dovi crashed. So both the Ducatis were out within one lap and pretty much everything was settled, championship-wise.

Related:  Team spirit, not team orders

Marc was world champion and going to come home in third so the excitement was going to be with Johann potentially winning a top-tier Grand Prix for the first time or Dani ending the season strongly. On the last lap Dani was able to get by Johann and win, it was a great performance for him. He is such a nice guy.

Obviously for the Yamaha there was certainly disappointment. It has got to get prepared for next season. As for Valentino, he is crashing a little bit more. Is his time coming to an end? I know no MotoGP fan wants to see that, he’s been incredible for the sport and it’s just great to watch him ride. It’s certainly been a real treat over these 20 years, but he wants to be able to have a chance to win. And certainly, as he showed, he can be right there on any given Sunday and we’ll have to see what Yamaha is able to do with its bike for 2018 to get back up to the front consistently.

But again, what a great year for Dovi. He certainly showed that he has made that next step up in his performance and Marc has shown what a great rider he is with a sixth championship. What he’s able to do each and every week to overcome some of the problems that he has, whether that’s with the bike or save a crash and bring excitement to Grand Prix racing.

It’s been a great year. Next I will be doing an end-of-the-year review where I’m going to go through each rider and give a little insight into where I believe they’re at, and maybe where they’re going.

Read more : Márquez: the ledge beyond the edge

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