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OPINION

Malaysian fiasco turned Marc Marquez into a MotoGP master

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Last year’s disaster created a Marquez MotoGP masterclass.

Heading into the Japanese Grand Prix, there was a slim chance (and by slim I mean tiny) that Marc Marquez could be crowned World Champion, it seemed so unlikely that he himself said it was impossible, it would not happen, not in Motegi.

Why was it so unlikely? Because for him to be crowned in Japan, he needed three things to happen; he had to win the race, his closest rival Valentino Rossi had to finish 15th or lower and third placed Jorge Lorenzo needed to finish no higher than fourth.

But after an incredibly consistent year for the Spaniard, luck was still on his side, as first Rossi and then Lorenzo crashed out of the race, meaning Marquez simply had to finish, and he did.

So how did Marc turn around the disaster of 2015 and create such a masterclass in strategy for this season?

Well, it started at the end of last year. We all know about the shenanigans that occurred from Malaysia onwards, and no doubt we all have our own opinions on them, but the fall-out from that was an increased level of pressure and scrutiny that few will have seen before. Every move on track and off, every look, every word spoken was put under a microscope to be investigated for even the slightest extra meaning.

But even without that, last year was a turning point for Marc. He had six DNFs in 2015, he crashed out of more races than he won, which when you’re fighting for a championship you simply cannot do. And this sparked a realisation for him, something that most have been saying for quite a while; that once he started to accept that finishing fourth was better than crashing chasing for a win that is not achievable, he would be virtually unstoppable over a season, and that has been the key to 2016.

At the start of this year, perhaps he didn’t quite realise how important that mentality would become; but hit by an incredibly difficult pre-season that saw the Honda riders struggle with the mountain of work ahead of them; a new bike, new electronics that were so incredibly different to the ones the engineers were used to, and tyres which shared only two similarities with the Bridgestones of 2015: they were round and made of black rubber.

Asking Marc Marquez about the worst stage of this season he responds “During the Qatar test, near the end of the last day” because time was running out and they were one second off the pace, the first race was literally days away and it wasn’t until the very end of that last day of testing that he felt they’d made a step forward.

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For that first race at the floodlight desert track, Marquez was able to qualify second after a difficult first day, before going on to take his first podium finish in third after a battle with Ducati’s Dovizioso all the way to the last corner.

Race two meant a trip to the other side of the world for the Americas adventure, starting with Argentina. Both Repsol riders started strong on Friday, with Marquez then qualifying on pole for the first time of 2016. To say that it was a complicated weekend is an understatement. Tyres were the talk of the paddock after Scott Redding’s rear tyre exploded during practice; this meant the introduction of a new “extra safe” tyre that then wasn’t used and more new race protocols than you could shake a stick at, including mandatory pit stops.

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Marquez fought through to take the lead after an early clash with Iannone, while Lorenzo crashed out with just a few laps gone. Mandatory pitstops haven’t always been Marquez’s friend, he was disqualified after an error in calculation in 2013, so the Honda garage had been checking and then double checking their maths this time around. The bike swap went perfectly and with Rossi behind him, Marquez simply controlled the second half of the race with ease before taking his first win of the year.

After Argentina came Austin, a home away from home for the new World Champion and he won from pole to take his 10th straight win in the USA, while Rossi had crashed out early in the race.

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As MotoGP returned to Europe, Marquez lead the championship, but in Jerez, it was Valentino Rossi who proved untouchable as the Italian dominated the entire weekend. Damage limitation mode was switched on for Marc and he finished third behind the two factory Yamaha men.

The low-point of the season itself came next, with Le Mans.

At the famous French track, Marquez qualified on the front row but crashed on lap 16 in a synchronised slide with Dovizioso. He rejoined, despite missing most of his left-side fairing and finished in 13th, which was actually last because only 13 people finished in France. Speaking about that race, he called it the “hardest point” because he was no longer in control of the championship.

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From France, the paddock travelled to Mugello where Marquez and Lorenzo had a fantastic battle that went all the way to the line. Here it was plain to see Honda’s acceleration issues as the Yamaha was able to power past after exiting the last corner behind. But second wasn’t a disaster because Rossi had been forced to retire by an engine blow up and Marquez had given himself a confidence boost with the fight for victory.

After Mugello, the low point for everyone came at Barcelona with the loss of Luis Salom. Racing continued with his family’s blessing and all three classes put on fantastic displays. MotoGP saw Rossi and Marquez at the front with the Italian taking the victory while Lorenzo crashed out thanks to Iannone. Marc says that this is where he started to really understand the front tyre, as after following Rossi he tried to use it in a different way. Barcelona also saw a bit of bridge building between the two, with their past differences being put behind after a tragic weekend put things into perspective.

From Spanish sunshine to Assen’s rain for race number eight. The race had to be restarted due to awful conditions, while the second attempt saw many riders hit the deck including Rossi, while Jack Miller took the lead and his first MotoGP win, with Marquez being sensible and sticking to second.

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Sachsenring again saw the rain make itself known with Marquez dropping as low as 14th at one point, but he took the initiative with an early trip to the pits to change to slicks before slicing through the field to take his 7th win in a row at the German track. This put him in a great position heading into the summer break, with a 48 point lead over Lorenzo in second.

But the start of the second half of the season didn’t quite go to plan.

MotoGP visited Austria for the first time in 20 years, and it turned out to be the perfect hunting ground for Ducati, with Andrea Iannone securing his first MotoGP win, and with Marquez not being entirely happy with his tyre choice and finishing 5th.

The following race in Brno was another tricky one thanks to less than ideal track conditions, but again it was damage limitation mode as Marquez had his sensible cap on and rode a clever race to finish third behind another first-time winner, this time, Cal Crutchlow, and second placed Rossi.

Race 12 at Silverstone saw that sensible cap thrown away and the damage limitation mode firmly switched off as Marc Marquez rode like a madman, much to the delight of almost everyone, although he later admitted it had been a mistake to do so. He was battling like a man possessed and had more than a few close calls with his fellow riders. Ultimately he had to settle for fourth, while MotoGP saw yet another first-time winner with Maverick Vinales.

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In Misano, it was a Honda rider on top but it wasn’t Marc, as the San Marino race saw the revival of Dani Pedrosa, who put everyone to shame with an incredible race thanks to a perfect tyre choice. Marquez again finished off the podium in fourth, but his title lead hadn’t taken too much damage.

Now we approached a red circle on the calendar, one that Marc Marquez had marked very early on in the year… Aragon. He knew that he could win here and he did, taking his 54th Grand Prix win after securing his 64th Grand Prix pole the day before and extending his lead over Rossi to 52 points, which meant coming into the next race in Japan he had his first shot at the title and we all now know how that panned out.

While undoubtedly he has been helped by Yamaha errors this season, perhaps in part thanks to the pressure he has been exerting, 2016 is a title won by Marc Marquez, not lost by anyone else. He has been on the limit across every practice and qualifying session, using that time carefully so that he doesn’t have to take those risks in the race.

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We’ve seen some spectacular saves from the Spaniard, including a few that were technically crashes, as he still defies belief, logic and physics by simply pushing himself back up on his elbow and knee. There have been close calls, such as Austria when he nearly took out his team-mate and dislocated his shoulder in the process, but finding that limit before the race has been crucial and has given him the ability to have what he grades as a 9.5 season “the half-point off might be because of Le Mans. I made a mistake where I should have avoided it.”

His ability to push the tyre to the very edge, to adapt to the bike he was riding, to eek every drop out of unwilling electronics and to assess a situation perfectly, have given Marc Marquez his fifth World Championship. Some refer to him as ragged, he’s not, he just has more flexibility around the bike’s behaviour. What is “out of shape” for others, is simply another way of getting the bike around the corner for him.

When he told Honda at the start of the year that he would change his style and mentality for the first part of the season, he meant it.

Marquez has carried that through until the job was done, but it also required Honda to keep up to their side of the bargain and they really have been working tirelessly with both Marquez and Pedrosa to continuously improve this year’s bike; whilst not taking their eyes off next year. Is the bike now perfect? No, definitely not but it’s come a long way from those first pre-season tests thanks to the constant work from both rider and team.

To an outsider winning the title with three races left might suggest an easy year for Marc Marquez, but it’s been far from it. Whoever won this year wasn’t going to have done so with ease, thanks to the tyres and electronics that are so different to what they were used to. It’s had to be all about consistency and this season Marquez has produced a masterclass, finishing every race within the points, something no other rider has achieved this year.

What 2017 holds is anyone’s guess with riders swapping teams, new manufacturers, rookies, new engines and another evolution with the Michelin tyres.

One thing is for certain however;  with this year’s mentality, Marc Marquez will remain a very difficult rider to beat.


 

 

In a shameless piece of Motofire merchandising, we’ve just remembered that we have our very own Marquez t-shirts available.

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OPINION

When Projects Creep Out of Control

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Is ‘more’ always better?

Back in 2008, after more than a decade working in the motorcycle industry, I finally bought my first brand new bike. Like the kid in the proverbial candy store, I wandering through my local motorcycle dealer with my stomach in knots knowing that one of these shiny, magnificent machines would be mine. And like so many people tilted by emotion, despite years of experience and insider knowledge, or perhaps because of it, I let excitement take over the decision making process. I bought a motorcycle far beyond my needs.

It was not long after taking possession of my Yamaha FZ-1 that I realized my mistake. The bike was technically faultless, the problem lay in that it was not at all what I needed. With a tiny fuel capacity and very firm ride it was a lousy touring rig (especially in Quebec where road surface quality is akin to a bombed out airstrip), but conversely it was too bulky and heavy to flick into corners on curvy A roads. It was bigger, faster, incorporated superior suspension and materials technology than it’s predecessor, the Fazer 1000 I helped develop years earlier, an yet somehow the new package was less motorcycle.

When you ask motorcyclists what they want in a new bike, the answer is always “more”. More power, more space, more features. The only thing they don’t want more of is cost. It makes sense, after all we all want more of a good thing. With motorcycles problems often arise when designers and engineers are tasked with piling on those ever increasing specifications to an existing model. This mission creep can, if not managed carefully by a strong project leader, end with a product so packed with features and high specification that it can do everything, but none of it particularly well.

The 1998 – 2004 Yamaha FZS600 Fazer was a wildly successful motorcycle design. At a time when entry level, middle displacement (500cc to 650cc) street bikes were either extremely basic or used obsolete technology, the Fazer delivered modern handling and performance in a user-friendly package. Featuring the engine and brakes from Yamaha’s YZF600R Thundercat, and a compliant chassis made of steel pipe to keep costs down, the little Fazer sold like mad satisfying a wide array of beginners and experienced riders alike.

With motorcycles the temptation is always to add more performance.

Yamaha introduced a mildly revised version two years later, along with the aforementioned larger, 1000cc version. Honda blatantly copied the Fazer formula of packaging supersport technology into an inexpensive package with the CB600F Hornet. Yamaha saw sales plummet, so along with a dozen other designers and engineers I was brought into a group to create the next, all-beating Fazer.

And that’s when the wheels came off the cart.

A whirlwind tour of European cities took place in which we interviewed hundreds of entry-level 600cc customers. The specification list grew longer and longer each day, as the demands of existing users piled on. More fuel tank range! More wind protection! More cargo carrying capacity! And of course… more power! Always more power.

Back at headquarters, the project leader handed over the design brief. As a very young designer I was confused. The new Fazer would now have an R6 motor. It would feature an all aluminum, Deltabox frame, lightweight R6 rims and a 180 section rear tire. Projector headlights. LEDs. Twin, under seat stainless steel exhausts. The brief read like the spec sheet from a top-of-the-line flagship project, not the replacement for Yamaha Motor Europe’s best selling motorcycle.

This is project creep, and it happens when an organization is beset by fear and acts out of ignorance of the big picture. The reasoning behind this phenomenon seems sound: if your opponent has three guys with knives, you better make sure you have six. It makes sense until you discover that you only have enough food for four, and so field six starved, exhausted guys against three strong and healthy ones. In manufacturing history there are hundreds of examples of this, the most famous of which may be the case of the Ford Edsel. It had more of everything than any of its competitors, and yet was so much less car.

With motorcycles the temptation is always to add more performance. After all, motorcyclists are fundamentally sold on the thrill of speed and aggressive handling. The problem is that too much performance makes most motorcycles into unmanageable, sphincter-clenching torture devices. Among our tribe few are skilled enough to exploit even half of the potential of modern bikes, which makes adding high performance to models destined for the rest of us an academic exercise. Of course our egos won’t allow us to admit it, but inside we are terrified of opening the throttle fully mid-corner. So we don’t, and wobble around on large, expensive bikes that not only don’t satisfy, but fill us with regret because we cannot master the objects of our desire.

At the cruiser end of the spectrum, the height of the chopper era saw mature, fully grown manufacturers launch models that were laden with Edsel-like heapings of features. The Honda Rune was presented as the end-all, be-all of the cruiser genre. According to Honda America’s Ray Blank, they “…wanted to set the bar higher than ever, erecting standards that no one else had yet imagined.”.

The result was a seven foot long, 400 kg, six cylinder monster that boasted 50% more torque than Honda’s then flagship superbike.

It was literally the most cruiser you could buy from any mainstream manufacturer, and yet its’ excess was its failure. At $30,000 (US) it wasn’t more expensive than a range topping Harley-Davidson, but the market balked at its bulk and cornucopia of pointless styling. Honda had failed completely to stop the design at some stage and roll it back, asking the team to refocus on what make people yearn to cruise on a motorcycle: the simple joy of sitting astride a large mechanical powertrain suspended between two chunky tires. The Chopper is, by definition, a bike “chopped” down to its basic, core elements. A little baroque styling and flair is cool, but it is not the main attraction.

As an industry, the motorcycle business is not very good at learning the lesson of project creep. The endless fight to produce the sexiest products in the marketplace inevitably drive an arms race that produces some great innovation but also squeezes out lots of poorly conceived motorcycles. If a bike comes out with a strong styling direction that hits the market like a storm, then simply copying it only with a more extreme execution is not going to work. When a competitor eats your lunch, as the Honda Hornet did when it replicated the original Yamaha Fazer concept in 2003, then just doubling down on everything is not going to win the market back.

How did we end up in a place where an entry-level street bike comes with racing style, upside-down forks and a mouse pad for a seat?

The second generation FZS600 (called the FZ6 in North America) that debuted in 2005 with all those crazy upmarket features did well in Europe for a few years, but alienated a lot of customers who loved the original Fazer’s rugged, approachable simplicity. They flocked to the second generation Suzuki SV650S, which was a better Fazer than the new FZ6 (ironically, the Suzuki’s styling was almost a copy of the updated original Fazer). By 2008, Yamaha introduced the FZ6R, a confusingly named but genuine successor to the formula that was simple, cheap, versatile and easy to use. It quietly dropped the over-spec’ed FZ6 Fazer without a replacement a year later.

In the market battlespace, project creep is easily seen in the most hotly contested areas. The 250cc class ballooned to 300cc because Kawasaki needed to edge out the class leading Honda CBR250. Then KTM launched the RC390, resplendent in its superior specification. The new Honda CBR250RR presented this winter is a very far cry from the CBR250 I tested in 2011. In five short years, the baby Honda sport bike went from being what I called “the missing link”, a motorcycle for everyone that the industry so badly needed, to being a mini CBR1000RR World Superbike contender.

I love the look of the CBR250RR, and if I am completely honest I want one rather badly. But how did we end up in a place where an entry-level street bike comes with racing style, upside-down forks and a mouse pad for a seat? I suspect it has a lot to do with looking ahead instead of behind. I’ve seen this show and I know the ending. In five years time the 250cc class will be dead again, because it will have priced itself out of the marketplace.

Getting excited and dreaming of the ultimate motorcycle is the job, but it is also the duty of manufacturers to deliver products people can actually afford and use. The ultimate anything is, as the word suggests, the last of the line. And winning the battle for the ultimate product is meaningless if you destroy the consumer base as a consequence.

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OPINION

FFS

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Ladies and Gentleman, motorcycling.

So many things to say, so few cares left to give, but c’mon people? Is this really want we think passes as a way to attract people to a biking festival?

Sure, as the guys from the Two Enthusiasts podcast so eloquently put it in their latest episode, ‘people like to see boobs’. But do you know a better way to double your boob quota for an event?

Yep – like the same guys from the same podcast also suggest – why not produce an environment that’s inclusive to women and may actually encourage them stick around and pay an interest towards these wonderful, two-wheeled machines.

Also, Bridgestone? You should know better. Even Pirelli have stopped that nonsense with their calendar now and moved on to something far more interesting.

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