MotoGP Mutterings: 2018 San Marino Grand Prix

by Mat Oxley on 12th September 2018

Fenati: From two-race ban to attempted murder charge? / The Rossi/Márquez aggro still rages / Ducati: from the worst bike to the best / Could Lorenzo have won? / Why Moto2 qualifying is back to front / What happened to Rossi? / Márquez’s qualifying miracle / Racing on Mondays or Tuesdays?

Banned Moto2 rider Romano Fenati

Fenati: From two-race ban to attempted murder charge?

Moto2 rider Romano Fenati is now world famous, for all the wrong reasons. Sacked by his team for his Misano outrage, he’s made television news across the globe, been condemned on social media and may face charges for attempted murder. So, where does he go from here?

Many fans don’t fully understand the viciousness of motorcycle racing. It’s a tough, nasty sport, but usually doesn’t come across that way because most of the riders are charming enough once they’re off their motorcycles.

From the outside, motorcycle racing looks super cool and glamorous. The riders sweep majestically through the corners aboard their beautiful motorcycles, wearing their colourful leathers. However, inside the rider’s helmet and deep inside his head, racing is a much darker sport.

In the media we sometimes refer to riders as ‘axe murderers’ in an attempt to get across the aggression that’s such a part of racing bikes.

But it’s not just us. I interviewed Marco Simoncelli shortly before he lost his life and this is what he told me, “during the race you want to kill the other riders”.

Around the same time, Suzuki’s MotoGP team manager Paul Denning said of his rider Loris Capirossi, “when the lights go out Loris wants to kill everyone”. Three-time world champion Capirossi is now a member of MotoGP’s race direction, with a few skeletons in his own cupboard, so he understands the depth of feeling that goes into racing motorcycles at the highest level.

Racing bikes is like heavyweight boxing. Top exponents must be super-tough and be prepared to be super-rough, because in both sports it’s a case of kill or be killed; metaphorically speaking.

Most riders experience roadracing rage and do evil things to their rivals. Usually, these tricks are so subtle that most fans don’t notice: they gently move rivals off-line when braking into a corner, they ease rivals off the grippy line mid-turn or they shut the throttle halfway through a corner, forcing their pursuer into taking avoiding action, thus losing him vital time. Other times these tricks aren’t so subtle: riders run rivals off the track, deliberately collide with them or punch and kick them.

Romano Fenati has committed many of these crimes but what he did at Misano on Sunday was something else. The Moto3 race-winner had spent much of the race brawling with fellow Italian Stefano Manzi, who is no angel. They were bumping and barging, hoping to score a world championship point or two. In the closing stages the pair collided and ran off the track.

That’s when Fenati flipped. Once the pair had regained the circuit Fenati went after Manzi. He got level with him on the 140mph run towards turn eight, reached over with his left hand and grabbed Manzi’s front brake lever.

According to Manzi’s data, Fenati applied 20 bar of pressure to the lever, when the average around Misano is nine bar. In other words, Manzi could have been thrown over the handlebars, with disastrous consequences. In fact he crashed not long after, his 22nd tumble from 13 events, while Fenati was black-flagged.

Grabbing a rival’s front-brake lever isn’t an entirely original crime. Three years ago factory Ducati World Superbike rider Niccolo Canepa was charged with assault for allegedly grabbing the brake lever of David Cappato during a track day at Mugello. Cappato was thrown over the front of his bike and broke a collarbone. Canepa denied the charge, claiming he had merely grabbed Cappato’s arm.

The notice of sanction from MotoGP’s FIM stewards to Fenati stated that ‘you were found to have deliberately attempted to cause danger to another rider by interfering with his machine whilst on track’ and imposed a two-race ban.

Meanwhile the stewards notice to Manzi stated that ‘you were found to have been riding in an irresponsible manner causing another rider to leave the track’ and gave him a six-position grid position at the next race.

Manzi had run Fenati off the track, but that kind of stuff happens all the time. Most riders suffer from the dreaded red mist. Even Casey Stoner, who was usually well behaved, took a swipe at Randy de Puniet at Le Mans.

Some people inside and outside the paddock believe the punishment meted out on Fenati was way too kind.

“I think he should never race a motorcycle again,” said Cal Crutchlow. “As soon as he walked back into his garage his team should’ve kicked him straight out of the back. You can’t do this to another motorcycle racer, we’re already risking our lives enough. In the replay [before the brake-grabbing incident] we saw Fenati run wide, Manzi tried to go under him and there was contact. This is racing; there’s contact all the time. But to grab another rider’s brake lever on the straight, he should be kicked straight out.”

And that’s exactly what happened.

First, Fenati’s Pesaro-based CBC Corse team (which races under the Marinelli Snipers title) sacked him for ‘unsporting, dangerous’ behaviour. Then his 2019 team, Forward Racing’s MV Agusta project, tore up his contract, announcing that ‘his behaviour is incompatible with our sporting values’.

Later the FMI, the Italian federation, revoked his racing licence. And then Fenati dropped his own bombshell. “I will never race again,” he said.

Yesterday (Tuesday) Sky Italy reported that the Rimini Public Prosecutor’s Office ‘is considering opening a file on the Fenati manoeuvre… for the crime of attempted murder’. Hours later FIM summoned the 22-year-old to the governing body’s headquarters in Switzerland, where they will discuss ‘the egregious and shocking nature of Mr Fenati’s act’ before considering what action to take.

Fenati has been known for hothead outbursts since he started racing as a kid. And he has been penalised for all kinds of misdemeanours since he arrived in the Moto3 world championship in 2012. At that time he was 16 years old and good enough to finish second in his debut Grand Prix and win next time out at Jerez. Many Italians thought they had discovered the next Valentino Rossi, but although the youngster has the speed and the aggression he doesn’t appear to possess the intelligence or temperament of Italy’s grand master.

Rossi presumably thought he could imbue the youngster with the qualities he apparently lacked, so he signed Fenati to his VR46 squad in 2014. However, the team sacked Fenati halfway through 2016, after an incident with VR46’s Uccio Salucci.

Fenati’s career may be over, but what if it isn’t? What should happen if his licence is reinstated and he returns to the MotoGP paddock, or any other paddock? There will be teams keen to sign him up cheap, hoping to keep his speed while also cooling his head.

If he does get his licence back then it should be on the condition that he first undergoes some kind of anger-management therapy; otherwise those in charge of the sport will be failing in their duty of care to other riders. You cannot have a rider with zero self-control on a racetrack.


Read more: Bike racers were never choirboys


The Rossi/Márquez aggro still rages

Fenati’s outrage eclipsed what had previously been the biggest drama of the Misano weekend – that awkward moment between Rossi and Marc Márquez during Thursday’s pre-event media conference.

The pair were ambushed by certain members of the media, who wondered if they would make peace and shake hands, following an interview in the Spanish press that quoted Márquez hoping for an end to the pair’s ongoing hostilities.

“I heard about this story, but it sounds a bit strange to me because in reality we don’t have any problems between us,” said Rossi. “So I don’t understand why we have to make peace. For me, we are okay.”

Minutes later, another member of the media asked Márquez to shake hands with Rossi. “For me it’s nice and of course if it’s no problem for me to shake hands,” said the Spaniard, who duly offered his hand to the Italian, who shook his head and firmly declined it.

“You see, it’s like this,” laughed Márquez. “What can I say? Anyway, no problem, I will race the same.”

The following day Márquez did indeed race the same, chasing Rossi in free practice and diving inside him at the scary 155mph turn 11. On Sunday they finished more than 16 seconds apart.

Ducati: from the worst bike to the best

Andrea Dovizioso’s Misano victory was Ducati’s third in a row. This was the first time the factory had achieved a MotoGP hat-trick since 2007, when Casey Stoner ran rampant on the GP07 while Honda and Yamaha struggled with chassis and engine woes.

Following Dovizioso’s Czech GP success and Jorge Lorenzo’s Austrian GP win, this was the first time Ducati has ever won three consecutive MotoGP races with different riders. Surely, this proves that the Desmosedici is now the best bike in MotoGP, just five years after it was the joke of the grid. In 2013 Ducati scored 155 points in the constructors’ world championship, compared to Honda’s 389 and Yamaha’s 381.

“Ducati is very strong here,” said Márquez during Misano practice. “They have very good stability at the brake points, they have good turning, so they don’t lose there like before, and they have the acceleration. When their rear tyre is new the difference is bigger, because when the tyre is used they can’t use all their torque, so the difference is reduced, so I feel I can follow them in the race.”

It didn’t quite turn out like that. “Honestly, I was on the limit and pushing too much in some areas,” said Márquez, after crossing the line 2.8 seconds behind Dovizioso.

The Italian now stands second in the championship, 67 points behind Márquez with six races remaining, but doesn’t think the title is an impossibility.

“We are consistent now, but we have to work on the details to be faster and to try and stop him,” said Dovizioso. “If we can do something important this year, okay, but if we can’t we have to be more ready for next year.”

Márquez knows he can afford to play safe and keep racking up points without risking too much to win races, but of course that’s not his style.

When someone asked the youngster if he will wait until he’s secured the title before returning to full-attack mode, Dovizioso chipped in and said, “no, Marc will attack in Aragón!”.

“Dovi is trying to push me into a mistake!” Márquez laughed. “No, I’m pushing every weekend. I pushed at Brno, I pushed in Austria to the last lap and I pushed here. Every Thursday we think we can win the race, then we see what happens. The best defence is attack, so in Aragón I will push again. If we can’t win, our mentality is to finish on the podium at every race.”


Read more: Ducati's cornering tool: press to turn


Could Lorenzo have won?

Lorenzo started the Misano race from pole and was pre-race favourite, so why didn’t he win and why did he crash?

When things are going well, as they were at Misano, Lorenzo usually favours Michelin’s softest front and rear tyre options. But not this time, because he didn’t believe the tyres would go the distance, even though he was advised that they would.

Instead he chose a medium front and a medium rear, which prevented him from running a winning pace and eventually led to his downfall.

“Normally I don’t like the medium option, especially the front,” said the winner of the previous race in Austria. “I didn’t have good grip on the side of the tyres or on the centre of the tyres, for stopping the bike, so this made me use a lot of front brake all through the race, so the front tyre was always closing on me. With the softer tyres I think I could have had something more than Dovizioso and Márquez, but with the medium my pace was very similar to theirs.

“Dovizioso has a different style to me, so he has a very good feeling with the medium front and he is experienced in dealing with the medium rear. I use more corner speed and lean angle, so I need softer tyres. At the last races I was able to brake later than him, but today I couldn’t stop the bike with the front or the rear.”

There has been a crucial change in MotoGP braking technique with the Michelins. During the Bridgestone era riders did all their braking with the front, because the front tyre had huge grip, while the rear had very little, which is why riders often rode into corners with the rear wheel six inches in the air. They can’t do that anymore, because they need the excellent grip of the Michelin rear to compensate the not-so-excellent grip of the Michelin front.

This was obvious when Lorenzo crashed at turn eight on the penultimate lap. As he braked the rear tyre didn’t grip, but instead slithered around, so he applied more front brake, which briefly lifted the rear wheel off the ground. When the tyre landed it unsettled the bike, so the front tucked as he leaned into the corner.

Lorenzo was pushing for the win at that time, having finally got the better of Márquez who had been doing everything possible to keep the Ducati behind him, spoiling Lorenzo’s chance of getting closer to his team-mate.

Ultimately, Lorenzo took the blame for this. “It was my fault,” he said. “If I was half a second faster I wouldn’t have had to fight with Marc.”

When Lorenzo crashed he had cut Dovizioso’s lead to 1.4sec. Obviously, getting close enough to attack with just 25 corners remaining was a huge ask, but eating into the leader’s advantage doesn’t only bring you closer, it can also unsettle the leader. In the end, however, it was Lorenzo who got unsettled.

The only questions that remains are these: could he have won the race if he had chosen soft tyres? And why didn’t he choose soft tyres?

“During the tests we did here [in August] the soft rear was very constant. But on Friday it was impossible – after five laps the tyre was destroyed,” Lorenzo explained. “We also tried the soft in warm-up but it wasn’t good.”

One of the trickiest factors in MotoGP tyre choice is trying to predict how the track will change after the Moto2 race. Throughout Friday and Saturday, MotoGP goes out after Moto3, with minimal rubber on track. But on Sunday afternoon MotoGP goes out after the Moto2 race, which has 30 or so riders doing 25 or so laps, which coats the asphalt in so much Dunlop rubber that MotoGP riders usually find less grip.


Read more: Why Lorenzo is winning


Why Moto2 qualifying is back to front

Strangely enough, a rubber-coated track creates the opposite situation in Moto2 qualifying, which has led to the unique phenomenon of Moto2 pole position usually being established at the start of the session, not at the end.

Saturday afternoon’s Moto2 qualifying session immediately follows MotoGP’s FP4, Q1 and Q2 outings, so the track is coated in Michelin rubber. This rubber actually improves grip, but as the 45-minute Moto2 qualifying session goes on, the rubber is cleaned off the track by the Moto2 bikes, reducing grip.

“Moto2 qualifying is 180-degrees different to what it used to be,” says Kalex rider Sam Lowes. “Before this year you started qualifying with a full tank, to get a feel for the bike at the start of the race, then you set your fastest lap at the end of the session, with less fuel load. You can’t do that anymore. This year pole position is nearly always set at the beginning of the session. You get a dash of gas in the tank and you go for it at the very start.”

At Misano, Pecco Bagnaia took pole position with the sixth of his 18 laps in qualifying. At the Red Bull Ring he did it on his fifth of 22 laps. At Brno Luca Marini took pole on the third of his 17 laps. At Sachsenring Mattia Pasini took pole on the fourth of his 22 laps. And so on.

How can this be? Because this wasn’t the case even last year. There can only be one explanation – Michelin’s 2018 rear slicks are slightly softer than last year’s tyres, so they leave more rubber on the track, which improves grip, rather than spoiling grip, as is the case with Sunday’s post-Moto2 MotoGP race.

Mat Oxley Speed book

What happened to Rossi?

Both Rossi and Movistar team-mate Maverick Viñales seemed confident of a decent race at Misano. Their pace during earlier tests at the track and during Silverstone practice convinced them that they were finally closing the gap on Ducati and Honda.

But they ended Sunday’s race bitterly disappointed: Viñales fifth, 16 seconds behind Dovizioso, Rossi eighth, 19 seconds down. The problem was the usual M1 mystery.

“In yesterday’s FP4 I wasn’t too bad,” said Rossi after the race. “But for some reason which we don’t understand everything today was more difficult. I was struggling very much from warm-up, also Maverick and [Johann] Zarco. But that was with used tyres and 15 degrees less heat on the asphalt, so I was confident that in the race I could run more or less the same pace as in FP4. But for some reason the feeling with the bike and the tyres was worse. I had less grip. I tried to do the maximum but I was not fast enough.

“We don’t know if it’s the Moto2 rubber, but that’s the same for Ducati and Yamaha, so it’s strange if the Moto2 rubber is only bad for Yamaha, but it could be. Sincerely, we don’t know if that’s true and if it’s true then we don’t know why.”

Rossi is usually diplomatic when talking about his motorcycle, but his increasing frustration with his lack of results has had him asking bigger and bigger questions of Yamaha.

“The last three seasons we’ve started the season at quite a good level, but during the season, especially during the second part, we suffer more, from a technical point of view. If you look at my results over the last three years, I make many more podiums in the first half of the season than in the second half. So it looks like Ducati and Honda are able to develop their bikes in a better way. Yamaha needs to understand why.”

Marquez racing back to the MotoGP pits during Misano Grand Prix

Márquez’s qualifying miracle

Márquez may have left Misano with a 67-point title lead, but his weekend will be best remembered for what happened on Saturday afternoon. During Q2 he crashed heavily at the 90mph turn 15, destroying his bike. He was already up and running back to pitlane for his second bike before he had even stopped rolling, while at the same time trying to fix his damaged visor. He ran down the service road until he found a marshal riding a scooter, hopped on the back, returned to the paddock, sprinted into his garage and was riding out of pitlane. During those two minutes and 17 seconds he never once stopped moving.

“The time even surprised me!” he laughed. “It was faster than making an in-lap! The guy on the scooter was pushing a lot; it was scary sometimes because I thought we would crash, but he did a great job.

“Unfortunately I wasn’t able to improve my lap time – I had some dust in my eye, so riding like this it was so difficult to stay concentrated.

“In the crash I lost the front too early and where I didn’t expect. I leaned the bike too aggressively. I always expect to lose the front later in the corner, so this time I wasn’t ready with my elbow. I tried to save the crash but I saw the gravel trap and the wall coming. It was a big crash.”

Márquez started from the second row of the grid.

Racing on Mondays or Tuesdays?

The Silverstone disaster was still very much on the paddock’s mind at the start of the Misano weekend, with Dorna CEO Carmelo Ezpeleta announcing that in future MotoGP will race on Mondays or even Tuesdays, if necessary.

However, Rossi had a better idea. “To me, you say something like this to divert attention,” said the nine-time world champion. “It’s not a problem of Monday or Tuesday, it’s a problem of having asphalt which is good for racing in the rain. Anyway, if we have to race Monday, it’s okay with me. The important is that we have enough time to get to the next race. We can stay one week if they want!”

When the 2008 Qatar GP was rained off and run on a Monday, the teams were compensated by Dorna, who were most likely recompensed by the Qatari promoters. Obviously, when a GP is delayed the costs of rebooking travel at the last minute for 2000 people and 270 juggernauts or several jumbo jets is immense.

“Dorna gave a contribution to the team expenses in Qatar, which went some way to covering the extra costs,” said Mike Trimby, CEO of teams’ association IRTA. “That’s the protocol for the future in Qatar – if we can’t race on Sunday, it will only be MotoGP that’s postponed until the Monday. The other races won’t be run, for cost and logistics reasons.

“At Silverstone, Dorna said they would’ve looked at a contribution, but we didn’t get to that point. It would be a huge expense, but occasionally in life you have to swallow something like that. Teams have got to look at their deals with their sponsors, who lost their exposure at Silverstone. Some teams got a really hard time from their sponsors for that.”

The biggest worry about the British Grand Prix right now is that the event itself is under threat. Dorna insists the track must be resurfaced. And if that doesn’t happen there will be no British GP in 2019, because Donington Park still requires a lot of work on the track and its facilities, while Dorna staff say they’re wary of negotiating with MSV, who will know that Dorna has nowhere else to go. And obviously greater profits await Dorna in other parts of the world.


Read more: Silverstone MotoGP: The aftermath


 

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