With the first European round of MotoGP™ under our belts, where does the series stand? In excellent health, judging by the racing so far. We have had three different winners on three different bikes after the first four races. We have had four different manufacturers on the podium, and all six manufacturers inside the top ten. After Austin, the third race of the season, the top four in the championship were separated by just nine points. After Jerez, race four, the top four are still separated by just nine points, but now in a completely different order. Life is pretty good at the moment if you are a MotoGP™ fan, and it looks like it will stay that way for a while.
Why is the racing so good? Suzuki has made a big step forward in 2019, building on the success of late last year. Yamaha are now also heading in the right direction, though still dependent on the conditions. If the track has grip, the Yamahas can fight. If there is no grip, they are in trouble. Both Japanese factories have closed the gap on Honda and Ducati, who have made incremental improvements, but are not as dominant as they were in previous years.
Then there's the bright young talent. Alex Rins has matured into a genuine championship contender now that he has the role of team leader at Suzuki. Fabio Quartararo has been sensational pretty much from Qatar onwards, and taken to MotoGP™ like a duck to water. Petronas Yamaha SRT teammate Franco Morbidelli is much more competitive on a user-friendly Yamaha than he was on the notoriously difficult 2017-spec Honda RC213V – Takaaki Nakagami is a testament to how much better the 2018 bike is than the 2017 machine. Joan Mir is showing promise on the Suzuki, and Miguel Oliveira has been close to veteran KTM rider Pol Espargaro on more than one occasion.
This burst of youth was all too apparent at Jerez. On Saturday, Marc Márquez was the oldest MotoGP™ rider in the qualifying press conference, as he sat beside Fabio Quartararo and Franco Morbidelli. On Sunday, that happened again, as Márquez found himself flanked by Alex Rins and Maverick Viñales. "I’m 26, I’m not old," Marc Márquez said when this was pointed out to him. "I’m young but yesterday, Fabio is twenty, and of course Viñales and Rins, they are younger than me. I get more experience every race, but some day, some young riders will arrive and beat me. That is the natural thing."
It is not just the youngsters who are gunning for Márquez. At age 40, Valentino Rossi is still competitive. Speak to members of his team, and they will tell you he is riding better than ever. Ironically, he keeps himself sharp training with the youngsters in his VR46 Academy, and riding against them at his dirt track ranch. Now riders like Franco Morbidelli and Pecco Bagnaia are starting to filter through to the MotoGP™ class, he has to face them on the asphalt as well as the dirt.
Where does MotoGP™ stand after four races? Marc Márquez remains the favourite for the title, having won convincingly in Argentina and Jerez. But a sixth MotoGP™ championship is far from a given. Honda have found some extra horsepower to help them take on the mighty Ducati Desmosedici, but that has come at a cost. The 2019 Honda RC213V is a more capricious beast, more difficult to manage while braking for corner entry, once the bike's strongest point.
Though Márquez is careful not to give too much away, Cal Crutchlow has been a little more open about the issue. "We have some problem in the braking with the bike snapping a lot," the LCR Honda rider says. The more powerful engine makes engine braking more difficult to manage, and so the rear of the bike is less predictable when the rear wheel hits the ground again just before corner entry. That can push the front wheel at a critical point of the corner, causing the front to wash out. That was what happened to Márquez in Austin, where the Repsol Honda rider had a very comfortable lead before crashing. Crutchlow suffered a similar fate.
The group challenging Márquez is much bigger than it has been in recent years. Suzuki Ecstar's Alex Rins won at Austin and came second in Jerez, and was not far off the podium in Qatar either. Suzuki have made a huge leap forward since the middle of last year, thanks in no small part to the work of the test team with rider Sylvain Guintoli and crew chief Tom O'Kane. The Suzuki GSX-RR is more powerful than last year, but has kept its astounding chassis. The one area where it still needs work is in braking.
"Suzuki in the turning is better than all the bikes," Andrea Dovizioso said after Jerez. "When Rins overtook me, his speed in the middle of the corner was amazing. It’s impossible for me to understand but maybe in the hard braking they are not so strong. It didn’t look like it, but maybe they have some limits. When a big talent rides the bike it’s always difficult to see a bad point of the bike." Rins, currently third in the championship, has proved himself to be a big talent this year.
Andrea Dovizioso's talent remains at the same level as ever, the Ducati rider just three points behind Marc Márquez after Jerez. The Ducati Desmosedici GP19's strength lies in its horsepower, but also the way that it manages to get all that power onto the ground. Watch the onboard footage from Dovizioso's bike of any race, and you can see the drive the GP19 gets out of corners.
That drive comes in part from the balance Ducati has found between chassis and electronics, but it is also the result of Ducati Corse boss Gigi Dall'Igna's focus on aerodynamics. The Italian factory courted controversy at Qatar, choosing to fit an aerodynamic spoiler to the bottom of the swing arm, exploiting a loophole in the MotoGP™ technical regulations. The spoiler cools the rear tyre, Ducati say, helping preserve the tyre for the end of the race. Aprilia, Honda, KTM, and Suzuki complained, but the MotoGP™ Court of Appeal found in Ducati's favour. Now everyone has followed suit, Suzuki the last factory to roll out a version of the swing arm spoiler at the Jerez test.
After a difficult season in 2019, Yamaha have started the year off strong. The factory Monster Energy Yamaha team have been on the podium in three of the four races so far, and Valentino Rossi was just three tenths of a second away from making it four out of four at Qatar. Yamaha have made significant changes to their organisation, and have worked on improving the electronics in search of more traction on corner exit.
They have come a long way, but still have work to do, according to both Valentino Rossi and Maverick Viñales. The results speak for themselves: Rossi is fourth in the championship, just nine points behind leader Marc Márquez. Viñales took pole in Qatar, and both he and Rossi have been on the front row elsewhere.
But there is still work to do. "We tried to improve the rear grip, tried to improve the acceleration, we worked on the electronics," Rossi said after the Monday test at Jerez. "We didn't find anything fantastic but some small details that we will use in the next races." Traction is Viñales' big problem as well. "It’s very important for Le Mans that we make another step in the traction area," the Spaniard said after the Jerez race. "For us and especially for my riding style, that's very important, because I ride a little bit more stop and go than the other Yamahas."
Viñales' other problem has been the start of the race, but after a difficult race in Qatar from pole, he and his team have been able to make progress. Those efforts were rewarded with a podium at Jerez, Viñales hinting that the changes made were a permanent fix. "We worked a lot on the start this weekend, trying to find a method to be more consistent on the start. Finally I think we found it. Also in Austin I started well, I just moved in the last second because of the engagement of the clutch." That movement cost Viñales a ride through penalty for a jump start, despite the Spaniard not gaining any advantage.
It is Valentino Rossi who leads Yamaha's charge, however. The Italian veteran has been on the podium twice so far, but been close to very much more. At Qatar, Rossi crossed the line just six tenths behind the winner, Andrea Dovizioso, yet finished in fifth place. In Austin, he pushed Alex Rins all the way to the final laps, coming up just short of victory.
As has so often been the case in recent years, Rossi has been let down by his qualifying. At the races he has made it through to Q2, starting from fourth in Argentina and second in Austin, he has finished on the podium. At Qatar and Jerez, he wasn't fast enough in Free Practice to go straight to Q2, and couldn't find the speed in Q1 to qualify indirectly.
But he had the pace in both races. Starting from fourteenth in Qatar, Rossi fought his way to the group fighting for victory. And from thirteenth on the grid in Jerez, he still managed to make his way forward to sixth. It could even have been better if he had gone with the medium front Michelin, instead of the hard, he believed.
Rossi was happy after Jerez, and freely acknowledged that qualifying, or more precisely, his failure to get directly into Q2 was the problem. "Even if my position is worse than last year, my race was a lot better," Rossi said. "Last year I finished fifth but because there were a lot of crashes in front. And the pace of the race was very, very fast, I was like 25 seconds faster than my race last year. The gap from the first position is less, I feel more comfortable with the bike, and especially in the last lap, I was fast."
His fate was decided on Friday morning, however. "I think that unfortunately, the weekend became more difficult for me after FP3, because I missed the Q2 by just a few milliseconds," Rossi said. "Maybe if I go straight to the Q2, I can start from the second or third row, and if I start more in front, I can stay with the group with the two Ducatis, Maverick, around there."
There are much bigger reasons for Yamaha to be cheerful in 2019, however. Franco Morbidelli has made exactly the step which the Petronas Yamaha SRT team had hoped when they signed him, battling for a spot in the top five.
But it is Morbidelli's teammate who has blown people away. On paper, Fabio Quartararo had the fewest victories of the four rookies coming into the class. Fans and media were excited about reigning Moto2™ champion Pecco Bagnaia on the Pramac Ducati, about former Moto3™ champion Joan Mir on the Suzuki Ecstar, about Miguel Oliveira progressing all the way through the ranks with Red Bull and KTM. Quartararo has put them all in the shade, however.
It started at Qatar, when the Frenchman qualified in fifth. But his nerves got the better of him on the grid, Quartararo stalling the bike before the warm up lap, and forced to start the race from pit lane. That experience proved to be useful in Jerez, where he qualified on the front row. "He learned from his mistake already," Petronas Yamaha SRT team manager Wilco Zeelenberg said. Quartararo was well on his way to his first podium when a broken gear linkage forced him out of the race.
The way Quartararo handled that disappointment spoke volumes about the 20-year-old Frenchman's character, and the way the Petronas Yamaha SRT team works. Quartararo was distraught when he entered the pits, but when he spoke to the media less than an hour later, he was upbeat, positive, focused on what he had achieved, rather than what he had lost.
Team manager Wilco Zeelenberg and rider coach Torleif Hartelman have created a fantastic environment for nurturing talent, and allowing young riders to show their potential. Quartararo is in the ideal position to do just that. That is a concern for his rivals, and even for Marc Márquez, if the rumours are to be believed. Márquez, it is said, is wary not just of Quartararo's talent, but especially of his fearlessness and his aggression.
There have been disappointments as well as positive surprises in the first four races of the season. Jorge Lorenzo's stint at Repsol Honda got off to a bad start back in January, when he fell and broke his scaphoid. The broken wrist bone meant that he missed a test, but more importantly, he has not been able to do the strength conditioning needed to cope with the Honda RC213V's ferocious braking. A tumble in Qatar saw him bruise his ribs, making the situation worse.
Lorenzo's situation is reminiscent of his first year at Ducati. The Spaniard struggled with braking, tiring after the first laps as he tried to manage the bike. Ducati eventually fixed Lorenzo's issues with a different shaped fuel tank, which gave him the support he needed under braking, and he immediately repaid them by winning two races in a row. Honda have been doing something similar, providing him with new tank shapes and seat covers in an attempt to get him comfortable.
Lorenzo has blazed a trail for other riders here too. Walk down pit lane at any of the first four races this year and you will see shaped tanks and seats in half the garages or more. Tank shapes are changing from session to session, as riders look for support in braking and for more precise control of the bike. Ergonomics has become a key part of bike set up, another tool in the engineer's toolbox.
"For sure I tried many solutions to make the bike more easy to ride," Danilo Petrucci explained in Austin, where he had tried a new tank shape. "It helps to move the bike. Our proposal is to move the bike with the legs, but it's quite difficult to do that. But we are trying everything, because for example in the Argentina race, the average difference between me and Dovi was 4 hundredths a lap. So it's the details which make the difference, and we are trying everything."
If Jorge Lorenzo is still in the process of adapting to the Honda, things are much more difficult for Johann Zarco. The Red Bull KTM RC16 requires a radically different riding style to the one Zarco used with great success on the Tech3 Yamaha. The key to going fast on a Yamaha is to relax and let the bike do the work (as if relaxing on a 270 horsepower MotoGP™ bike travelling at 350 km/h was ever easy). The KTM needs to be wrestled and wrangled, pushed to the limit to get the most out of the bike. That is one reason why Pol Espargaro took to the KTM like a duck to water, his natural style was much closer to the KTM's than the Yamaha's.
To KTM's credit, they continue to bring a raft of updates, including new chassis and new engine updates to the track to try to help Zarco get up to speed. At the moment, Zarco doesn't have faith in the front end of the RC16, however. He will need time to adapt, and KTM will need to keep searching for ways to help the Frenchman get more confidence in the bike.
As tempting as it may be to draw conclusions from the first four races, it is worth remembering that there is still an awful lot of the season to go. We may be four races in to the 2019 MotoGP™ season, but we have fifteen more ahead of us. So much can change in that time, and with tests after Barcelona and Brno, there is plenty of time for the manufacturers to find solutions to the problems which they feel are holding them back. But with the racing closer than it has ever been, it is going to be fascinating seeing how the 2019 season plays out.
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