Race day at the Czech Grand Prix in Brno dawned over a paddock once again in a state of remembrance.
Following the morning warm-up sessions, there was a minute of silence for Angel Nieto who passed away last week. World Champion Marc Marquez described the moment beautifully when he said that the light rain falling at the time was “like Brno was crying for Angel.. this whole weekend is for him.”
And he was right because without Angel Nieto there wouldn’t have been a weekend like this one or a race that saw 10 Spanish riders on the grid, who have 17 World Championships between them. The foundations that MotoGP currently stands on were laid by Angel and it shouldn’t be taken lightly that the Spanish riders refer to him as “father” or “Maestro”. If there’s one person the whole Grand Prix motorcycling community should be thankful to, it’s Angel Nieto.
But after a moment’s pause for recollection, it was on to racing and Moto3 saw the usual madness, while Moto2 was reduced to a 6 lap sprint that probably produced a few more grey hairs in the paddock, before it was then time for MotoGP. The track was wet, there was still some rain in the air but the sun had come out, 22 laps of complete uncertainty lay ahead.
The first thing that happened was a tyre miscalculation from Marc Marquez who was starting from pole position. He decided, to the surprise of everyone, to choose a soft rear wet tyre, despite everyone else (except Hector Barbera) running the medium and if there’s one rule for Marc Marquez and rear tyres it’s that he doesn’t go softer than everyone else. And while the final result might suggest otherwise, it was a mistake.
Marquez got a great start off the line but immediately knew he’d made an error, with the soft rear spinning up underneath him. His lead lasted until turn 5 when Jorge Lorenzo slipped in front with a drying line clearly visible on track. As the riders came around to start lap 2 Marquez was dropping back, while Valentino Rossi made a perfect pass to take 2nd, overtaking Dovizioso and Marquez in one move. After being swallowed up by the group Marquez found himself in 10th and that’s when the race changed.
Marquez pulled into the pits, forced to do so by his tyre, not through choice and by his own admission, he felt it was too early. But while the choice to box wasn’t really a stroke of genius, the decision that the team would have his bike in a dry setup surely was. Jonas Folger had followed the Spaniard in, along with the KTMs and Jack Miller, but the Tech 3 team hadn’t been expecting him so early and he had to go back out still on wets. 19 seconds after he entered pitlane and Marc Marquez was back on track, Lorenzo led from Rossi and Dovizioso and there were still 20 long laps of Brno ahead.
At the end of lap 3, riders further back pulled in to change bikes. The dangers of a flag-to-flag race were broadcast worldwide when an Aprilia mechanic let Aleix Espargaro go despite Andrea Iannone being in the process of pulling in in front of them. For the avoidance of doubt: the rider leaving the box has to give way to the rider entering and that responsibility lies on the team who are supposed to be looking.
Iannone slammed on the brakes to avoid hitting Espargaro but ended up crashing as he’d been on a drain cover at the time. What made it worse for Iannone was that his second bike wasn’t setup ready and his bike had hit his team-mate Alex Rins’ bike; it later turned out it had damaged Rins’ handlebars which in turn made Alex’s race considerably more difficult.
How do you make pitlane safer? One option put forward by Aleix is the World Superbike rules; they have an “intervention time” set by Race Direction and any rider whose pitstop is quicker than that time is penalised with a ride through. With a set time it’s supposed to stop the frenzy we normally see and you don’t gain an advantage for being quicker. Will this happen in MotoGP? It’s possible but needs to be discussed in the safety commission and then it’ll be up to the Powers That Be to decide.
Back on track and on lap 4 of 22, Rossi had taken the lead, while Jorge Lorenzo pulled in to change bikes after being signalled by his team via dashboard message, only to find they weren’t ready for him because they hadn’t expected the message to reach him so soon. That not only meant he was delayed in the pits but also that when he did head back out his bike was in a half wet, half dry setup. Dani Pedrosa had also pitted on lap 4, which he later said was 1 lap too late, along with Loris Baz who said he had knocked a mechanic during his bike swap and had been so caught up thinking about that, that he had almost crashed when back on track.
By lap 5, Marc Marquez was 10 seconds quicker, in 4th, than Rossi who was leading. It was now obvious that once again the yellow side of Yamaha had not got their strategy right for flag-to-flag. Rossi said that he had been waiting for the team to put out his board to say “BOX” but they had been late, something he called “a communication problem”. Don’t be too concerned though, he says that he thinks they can get their strategy sorted before he retires… (insert Valentino Rossi’s sense of humour disclosure here).
Dovizioso had also pitted on lap 5 with Rossi, but like his team-mate Lorenzo, found his bike wasn’t ready and then had to finish the race with the soft option slicks, which with 17 laps left was less than ideal. The only rider yet to pit was Johann Zarco who was now leading from Marc Marquez, although not for long as Marquez simply passed him at turn 4 as though the Frenchman wasn’t even there.
With everyone now on slicks, it was damage limitation time for much of the grid, Marc Marquez led by 17 seconds and showed no prospect of slowing down anytime soon. Dani Pedrosa looked to be at his best, cutting through the group easily, moving up to second. The front now settled, there were some brief battles further back with Danilo Petrucci and Aleix Espargaro fighting for third, while the Yamaha duo of Vinales and Rossi had put the hammer down and were making their way up the top 10. Alvaro Bautista hit the floor at turn 10 on lap 13, his day had not gone well with a clutch issue at the start being followed by his brakes sticking after the bike swap.
A lap later and it was clear that Scott Redding was struggling as he dropped back through the group. It later turned out that his exhaust had broken after his bike change which caused him to lose power and engine braking. The same thing also happened to Karel Abraham.
Aleix Espargaro was then given a 3 place penalty for an unsafe release in the pitlane, which allowed Vinales the space to pass Crutchlow and Petrucci to take third and with that the podium was complete.
Loris Baz crashed out at turn 7 on lap 16 after struggling with turning and chatter on his second bike, he’d tried to push through the problems but ended up in the gravel. While Valentino Rossi was making a good comeback as he moved into 5th past Petrucci before turning his attention to Crutchlow.
Last lap and Marquez’s gap to Pedrosa was only 16 seconds (only!) and Bradley Smith retired on the KTM due to a technical issue. As the World Champion was already wheelieing his way up “Horsepower Hill” Rossi passed Crutchlow up the inside of turn 5 to secure 4th place, before Marquez crossed the line to take his 3rd win of 2017 arms outstretched as he stood on the footpegs, before a raised hand to the sky gave a moments tribute to Angel Nieto.
Pedrosa followed his team-mate home in second to take his 150th Grand Prix podium, giving him the 3rd most in history after Rossi and Ago, before Vinales completed an all Spanish podium, a fitting nod to the Maestro himself, after making a good comeback from a difficult weekend.
Flag-to-flag races are, by their very nature, chaotic. As Herve Poncharal put it “in this kind of race you either lose it or win it with the strategy”. In MotoGP, there is a very fine line between genius and fool, but it’s one that Marc Marquez seems to walk very comfortably. The timing of his bike-swap was good luck forced by an error in tyre choice, but the decision to have the bike setup for dry was a masterstroke by him and the Repsol Honda team.
The genius really shone through as Marquez negotiated a still slippery track on slick tyres, making it look easy as he stormed ahead, but he will be the first to tell you it wasn’t easy, he nearly crashed multiple times on the first two laps on slicks. No-one, and I mean no-one, can make slicks tyres work on a damp track like Marc Marquez and he, along with his team, are the undisputed kings of flag-to-flag (ignore Phillip Island 2013 obviously).
For the teams that didn’t have the bikes ready when their riders pulled in, and there were many of them, it was an understandable dilemma. Do you take the risk of having bike 2 setup dry and being stuck if they crash on the wet bike during the sighting or warm-up lap or do you have two wet bikes that then mean a mad scramble to get everything changed? Well, the track dried quicker than anyone expected it to, much quicker than in 2016 or the Moto3 race this year, but if you wait for the track to be ready for slicks you’ve waited too long.
The performance of the weekend has to go to Marc Marquez, he was simply better than everyone else, aided by the test the Honda team did over the summer break at Brno which gave them a setup that worked straight out of the box. Team-mate Dani Pedrosa is a close runner-up, showing good pace across all 3 days and had it not been flag-to-flag he probably would’ve shown his team-mate a decent challenge.
For Yamaha, it was a mixed weekend. Valentino Rossi showed good pace in practice and qualifying and was strong in all conditions, but while 4th was good damage limitation if they had gotten their strategy slightly more polished it could’ve been a podium. Maverick Vinales struggled on both Friday and Saturday with his bike not turning or braking how he wanted it to, but with the help of Rossi’s data the team turned it around on Sunday and he put in a decent race and got back on the podium for the first time since Mugello.
Ducati let themselves down with the bike swaps, Lorenzo was probably a lap late despite being too early for the team but with the new aero-fairing he’s gained confidence with the front of the GP17 and showed decent pace. The same can be said for Dovizioso, he also should’ve pitted earlier and again the team weren’t ready when he did. The good news for the Italian team is that the next race is in Austria, where they dominated last year, and it’ll be a good measuring stick to see just how competitive Jorge can be at this stage of the season.
Suzuki fell foul of Aprilia’s pitlane error with both of their riders, Iannone hit the floor and his bike hit Rins’ but both feel they’ve made a step forward over the weekend so it’ll be interesting to see if they can carry it forward. Aprilia themselves brought upgrades to Brno that definitely made a difference, both Espargaro and Lowes showed improvements in pace but lost that after the change of bikes because only the bike they had started on had the new bits fitted.
KTM secured their first top 10 in MotoGP with Pol Espargaro and definitely showed they’ve made a step forward over the summer, Pol says they’ve improved braking, although the turning still needs some work.
For the satellite teams, it came down to strategy and not having the bike ready. Jonas Folger had to pit twice because Tech 3 weren’t ready for him the first time and Johann Zarco was far too late. But they are rookies and this is a good learning experience for them. Jack Miller’s Honda wasn’t ready and both he and team-mate Tito Rabat lacked rear grip and feel after the swap. Cal Crutchlow was overall pleased with the weekend, although somewhat disappointed not to make the podium, he followed the wrong Repsol rider, choosing Pedrosa not Marquez as a “when to box” marker.
Danilo Petrucci pitted late and had a difficult race but was still fairly happy with the weekend’s work and looking forward to Austria, while Scott Redding was happy with his pace although not the result. Karel Abraham had a decent weekend at home and 13th gives him some important points. His bike-swap was timed well, but the exhaust braking and causing a loss of bottom-end power stopped his progress fairly quickly. Hector Barbera joined Jonas Folger in the double pit-stop club after a technical issue with bike 2 after the swap, while both Alvaro Bautista and Loris Baz ended their weekends in the gravel.
The lessons from Brno? If it’s a flag-to-flag race follow Marc Marquez and his team, they get it right far more often than they get it wrong. Now the option for dashboard messages is there, use them; some teams still haven’t got these homologated yet and they should do so quickly. And in the pitlane? Check for an incoming rider, check again and then check a third time just to be sure.
The Czech Grand Prix may not have been a classic, but when we arrive at Valencia I guarantee it will be one that everyone remembers.