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MotoGP Valencia: The Grand Finale

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Well, this is it. The end of 2016 has arrived.

After 17 races, 9 winners in MotoGP, 25 winners across all three classes, with thousands of miles travelled, tyres rubbered in and cups of coffee drank (just me?), the season is at it’s Grand Finale. Which means only one thing, it’s time for Valencia.

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The last race normally means there’s at least one Championship still to be decided, but for the first time since 2012 all three World Champions have been crowned already, although the fact that it’s been at least 14 years since the title winners have each won the final race of the year might not please them that much.

The Ricardo Tormo track itself (named after the double 50cc World Champion) is a fan favourite, even if not all the riders feel the same. It has a stadium atmosphere to it as you can see the entire track from the stands, giving fans a virtually uninterrupted view of the action.

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For the riders, it can be challenging, largely because of the 9 left-hand corners which create a lot of tyre stress, especially on the rear after the last corner due to the amount of time the riders spend leant over on the side. Rear spinning is another concern so keeping the stability even when the rear is slipping in the corners will be vital, as will the agility of the bike, with stability and grip in the fast corners the main opportunities for riders to gain time.

In terms of hard-braking, there aren’t really very many at Valencia, although according to Brembo data it’s second only to Motegi in terms of how much time the riders spend on the brakes. Turn 1 is unsurprisingly the hardest braking point on the track after the home straight, while turn 2 is also an important section, Ramon Aurin, Dani Pedrosa’s crew chief, explained that although it’s not a high-speed corner the bike is loaded heavily on the rear so getting the bike balanced again is the main objective in this braking point. The other main area of braking interest is turn 12, which is where the riders position themselves for the long sweep of turn 13 before the last corner. Aurin also noted that it’s because of these sweeping corners, that create a more “linked” circuit, that the gearing for Valencia is normally very short.

For overtaking, turn 1 is again the chief suspect as the riders come into the 90 degrees left-hander, while the following turn 2 allows them to experiment with different lines on the brakes. Turn 6 follows a sweep from turn 5 which again gives some room for testing new lines before the run down to turn 7. Turn 14 is, unsurprisingly, the last option for the riders to beat the person in front as they battle onto the front straight when it all comes down to acceleration and slipstream.

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As I’ve already mentioned, tyres will be under stress at Valencia, and Michelin has come prepared for that with both the front and rear slicks being asymmetric with a harder left side. The front slicks will be available in medium and hard compounds, with soft and medium the rear choices. Although rain looks unlikely (over the race weekend at least) wets in extra-soft, soft and medium are ready to go, along with intermediates. The slicks are not only designed to cope with the higher number of lefts, they’re also constructed to handle the cooler mornings which can cause so many problems at this time of year in Cheste, while still being more than capable of enduring the warmer afternoons when grip levels will rise.

Valencia is always a strange race for everyone, because while they’re all still fully committed to a good race on Sunday, anyone who tells you they haven’t got one eye on the tests next week is probably not being entirely truthful. But there’s still a job to do, including for World Champion Marc Marquez. He might have wrapped up his title in Japan, but Honda still needs to secure the Manufacturer’s trophy and they’re relying on their new Champion to get the job done, with the help of his returning team-mate Dani Pedrosa (whose condition remains to be seen). The Japanese factory have a 21 point lead in those standings, so 12th or better will mean they secure the title for the 22nd year, and while to most the constructor’s race might seem secondary, it’s incredibly important to the factories themselves; it’s about pride.

The other championship, which is the team title, is currently in the hands of the Movistar Yamaha garage, who are looking to retain it after 2015. They have a 10 point lead over Repsol so they’ll be hoping to ensure they get at least one piece of silverware this season, especially considering they still haven’t won a race since Barcelona.

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It’s in the factory Yamaha box that one of the biggest changes will take place after the race on Sunday, as Jorge Lorenzo packs up his blue bags and moves down the pitlane to the red of Ducati. “Valencia is going to be a very special race for me because after 9 years with the Yamaha family I have to say goodbye and it won’t be easy.” It’s an important weekend for the Spaniard and he’s set his sights firmly on victory to end his time with Yamaha and secure third place in the standings, where he is under threat from his replacement Maverick Vinales. Tuesday will see him on the GP17 for the first (and only time before next year), but almost more important will be the time he spends with his new crew chief Cristian Gabbarini; the relationship they’re able to build early on will be key for his success next season, especially as he is leaving all but one mechanic at Yamaha.

The Ducati team he moves to, arrives in Valencia full of motivation as they’re still enjoying Andrea Dovizioso’s win in Sepang. Dovi is still hoping to secure 5th in the championship as Pedrosa is just 7 points behind him at the moment. The Malaysian win took some pressure off the Italian and he’s ready to race; “It was a really special feeling for me to win in Sepang, because it was important to win a race this season, and now I can go to Valencia with this off my mind and fully aware of my worth.”

On the other side of the Yamaha garage, Valentino Rossi is firmly staying put, although the Italian expects a tricky weekend; “Usually on this track, I suffer a bit and it’s not good for me”. But while his motivation never dips he is looking towards 2017 ; “After the race, I will finally try the new M1. I’m very impatient to get to know next year’s bike!”

Rossi’s incoming team-mate Vinales is another rider hoping for a good end with their current team. Suzuki should be able to have another competitive race at Valencia and Maverick would like nothing more than to catch Lorenzo in the standings. Next year, he has one of the “easier” moves and I expect him to get up to speed quickly. He’ll need to adapt to a new crew as he will inherit Lorenzo’s team but he’ll be happy to discover a Yamaha with better corner exit drive than the Suzuki he leaves behind, although he might find it slightly less agile.

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The Suzuki garage will have a completely new look next year with a rookie in the form of Alex Rins, who has had a tough end to 2016 in Moto2. He’ll need to take it slightly easier in the post-race test and just get acquainted with MotoGP before spending the winter getting ready for a long season ahead. His team-mate will be Andrea Iannone, who isn’t fully recovered yet and goes in the opposite colour direction to Lorenzo, as he swaps from red to blue. Like Vinales, Iannone should be able to get comfortable with his new bike quickly, especially as it will be a less physical ride than the Desmo, although he will have to resign himself to having less top speed. Luckily, the Italian is able to keep his crew chief as Marco Rigamonti makes the move with him.

As Iannone and Rins move into Suzuki, Aleix Espargaro follows Vinales in moving out as he heads to Aprilia, which considering their recent improvements could prove very interesting. Aleix brings the experience that the team will need, especially as he’ll be partnered by another rookie, with Sam Lowes moving up from Moto2. Lowes will need to temper his enthusiasm to start his MotoGP journey; he’s shown in Moto2 that he has the talent and the speed, but a few too many crashes have left him in the gravel when he could’ve been winning. Aprilia’s 2017 bike isn’t ready yet, which with two new riders isn’t necessarily a bad thing as they’ll be able to tailor it to the new blood, so they’ll run this year’s RS-GP.

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Tech 3 are another team that will have an all-new line-up for 2017 with not one, but two rookies in the form of Moto2 World Champion Johann Zarco and Jonas Folger. The bikes currently ridden by Lorenzo and Rossi will be wheeled out from the Yamaha garage and into their new French home to be given a new black and green look before they head off to join the factory riders in Sepang at the end of the month.

The Repsol Honda team are, thankfully, staying unchanged with Marc Marquez and Dani Pedrosa, although the latter is having another crew chief change with Giacomo Guidotti moving from Pramac to join the Spaniard. The main focus for the Repsol riders in testing will be the new Honda engine, which they have already ridden in Aragon a couple of months ago. Overall, first impressions seem positive and the hope is that it will give them the acceleration boost they so badly need.

Further down the grid, Avintia will remain unchanged with Barbera and Baz, with the former getting an upgrade to the GP16, while the Frenchman moves up to a GP15. In the Aspar garage, it’s all change, with Alvaro Bautista moving from Aprilia to ride a GP16 and he’ll be joined by a returning Karel Abraham on the GP15.

The race for a GP17 in the Pramac garage is pretty much decided in Danilo Petrucci’s favour, but no matter who succeeds in the internal battle between him and Scott Redding, both will run the GP16 in the test next week, although the winner will probably have a few new pieces stuck on theirs.

It’s a great honour to be the one to compete with it for the first time… I’m not going to be at the back of the pack in this race… I can race without pressure and I believe I’ll be on fire when the lights go out.”

But the test won’t all be about new bikes and new riders, as Michelin will provide the first look at next year’s tyre specifications, including a new front that should give the riders more feedback and thereby reduce the number of crashes (hopefully). If it succeeds in this, there’ll be a few wishing they could’ve run it this weekend as front end crashes could be an issue in the right-handers, especially in the cooler mornings.

Finally, one of the biggest talking points of Valencia has to be KTM. The Austrian factory is fielding Mika Kallio as a wildcard entry this weekend on the RC16 as they prepare to join the premier class full-time next year. Kallio hasn’t raced in a while but he’s raring to go; “It’s a great honour to be the one to compete with it for the first time… I’m not going to be at the back of the pack in this race… I can race without pressure and I believe I’ll be on fire when the lights go out.”

When current Tech 3 riders Pol Espargaro and Bradley Smith move over to KTM next week they’ll have to adapt to a bike that will feel very different to the one they’re used to, particularly with a completely different chassis. Much of the initial testing in Valencia will have to fall to Pol, as Bradley isn’t fully recovered from his horrendous leg injury so will have to take it slightly easier.

But before the riders and teams can get to testing, they’ve got practice, qualifying and a race to get through first. With everyone fully motivated to end the season on a high, the 30 lap race (yes, you read that right 30 laps) promises to be a fantastic one, and while a 10th winner seems unlikely, the end to 2016 will be one you don’t want to miss.

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World SBK Assen: Rea holds off home hero van der Mark for race one victory

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At the historic and iconic Cathedral of Speed, Alex Lowes started off strong taking his first ever World Superbike pole position.

Unfortunately for the Brit his good fortune didn’t carry through to the race, as he continuously fell back through the pack and into 12th due to a mistake with tyre fitting; his R1 was fitted with a ‘C’ compound tyre, when it should’ve been fitted with a ‘B’.

While Lowes fought furiously with his Yamaha, his fellow countrymen were fighting up the sharp end.

Jonathan Rea took an early lead, but home hero Michael van der Mark was on his tail, eventually taking the lead on lap eight. We all know that Rea isn’t one to lay down and take it though, and he regained the lead on lap ten to control the race pace and bring home his 12th win at the Dutch track.

However, van der Mark managed to stay with the reigning champion, and also managed to stay within a second of him over the line to finish second.

Towards the end of the race Chaz Davies began to pile on the pressure but dropped off towards the end to settle for third.

And now for some breaking news – Tom Sykes actually passed someone. Actually passed several people. Yes, you did read that right.

He muscled his way past Xavi Fores, who has so far impressed, and Marco Melandri, who is usually difficult to pass. Sykes even tried to pass Davies for third, but had to settle for fourth and pole position for race two.

There’s still a lot of talk around the new rules, and it’s clear that they are starting to make a difference. By regulating the entire field, there is no one bike that has an outstanding advantage as Kawasaki did last year. If anything, Kawasaki are suffering compared to Ducati, who seem to be making the most of the new rules. Although it’s great to see Kawasaki, Ducati (both factory and independent) and Yamaha fighting at the top, something still needs to even the field more for the other teams who are so desperately fighting to catch up.

World Superbike race one:

  1. Jonathan Rea – Kawasaki Racing Team – 33:40.360
  2. Michael van der Mark – Pata Yamaha Official WorldSBK Team +0.981
  3. Chaz Davies – Aruba.it Racing Ducati +1.282
  4. Tom Sykes – Kawasaki Racing Team +1.413
  5. Xavi Fores – Barni Racing Team +8.625
  6. Marco Melandri – Aruba.it Racing Ducati +14.903
  7. Loris Baz – Gulf Althea BMW Racing Team +17.301
  8. Leandro Mercado – Orelac Racing VerdNatura +21.482
  9. Jordi Torres – MV Agusta Reparto Corse +21.938
  10. Toprak Razgatlioglu – Kawasaki Puccetti Racing +24.939

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MotoGP COTA Preview: Is Marquez still the lone star in Texas?

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For round 3 of the 2018 MotoGP season, the riders and their trusty steeds have touched down in Texas, where the Circuit of The Americas is hosting the “horsepower rodeo” for the 6th year.

The city of Austin proudly proclaims to keep it weird and the track itself is certainly unique, mainly because it isn’t. When Herman Tilke designed COTA he deliberately took some of the best aspects from circuits worldwide to combine them into 5.5km of long sweeps, sharp hairpins, one of the longest straights, hard braking, both low and high-speed sections, quick changes of direction and an elevation change of 41 metres.

COTA is hard, both physically and technically, and it’s fast. It pushes both rider and bike to their limit in one of the most demanding stops on the calendar.

There is one possible upside this year though. The bumps that have plagued Austin thanks to cars that also call it home have been ground down in many areas. The surface should now be smoother, but what that will actually mean, especially for tyres, remains to be seen.

The track starts demanding absolute commitment from the riders at turn 1, which sits atop the hill at the end of the start-finish straight. With riders braking uphill it pushes suspension to its limit, but there’s not much they can do about that without seriously affecting their performance in the rest of the circuit. Making the corner itself can prove tricky; turn too soon and you hit the kerb, turn too late and you can find yourself pushed wide (you’ll see the runoff here get plenty of use this weekend).

From there the circuit starts to wind it’s way back down through a mix of fast changes of direction before they hit the hairpin of turn 11 that leads onto the fast back straight. They then hit the hardest braking zone on the circuit at turn 12, which will see riders enter at 339km/h before braking over 322 metres in 6.3 seconds to reach a final entry speed of just 67km/h.

It’s then briefly back to changing direction again, before a longer sweep through turns 16, 17 and 18, before the two final left-handers take you onto the front straight for an uphill climb to the line.

Another change this year is the race distance being reduced by 1 lap. It might not sound like much but with fuel consumption already on the limit for some teams, every little helps, and it could make tyre life a little less critical as well.

Since Austin arrived on the calendar Marc Marquez has been its lone star

With the surface being a bit of an unknown ahead of this weekend, how the tyres will perform is uncertain but slicks will be in the usual soft, medium and hard compounds, with the rears being asymmetric with a harder right side. Hopefully, we’ll avoid any rain after Argentina (although Saturday looks a bit iffy), but wets will be in soft and medium, with the rears again being asymmetric.

Texas is known as the Lone Star state and one thing is certain; since Austin arrived on the calendar Marc Marquez has been its lone star. On paper it looks similar to the weekend in Argentina.. if anyone is going to beat Marc Marquez, it’ll probably be Marc Marquez. Of course, we all know how that ended.

Marc has won the last 9 MotoGP races in the USA, plus the two races he won in Moto2 before that. At COTA he has always been on pole, with the only US pole position missing from his collection coming at Laguna Seca in 2013, which was taken by Stefan Bradl.

Ahead of this weekend, he obviously feels confident in his abilities and carries forward a good feeling with the bike from Termas 2 weeks ago. The closest rival he’s had at COTA was his team-mate, Dani Pedrosa, last year, but this time out it’s pretty unlikely that will be repeated.

Dani broke his right wrist after crashing on a wet patch during the last race and underwent surgery back in Barcelona where he had a screw fitted in his radius. Since then he’s undergone some physio and he’s decided it’s worth his time to travel to Texas and see what he can do. There aren’t really any tracks that are ideal for coming back less than 2 weeks after breaking your wrist, but if there were, Austin wouldn’t be one of them. How he’ll feel on the bike will only be discovered on Friday morning, but it’s going to be a tough weekend for Dani stateside.

In Argentina, it was Cal Crutchlow that took Honda to the top step and there’s every reason to expect him to be just as strong this time out. Last year saw the British rider cross the line in 4th and with him leading the championship he’s going to have all the motivation he needs to secure another strong result. As he said in Parc Ferme, don’t doubt him.

Also on the podium in Termas was Johann Zarco, who will be hoping to repeat the feat and if possible, take that first MotoGP win, which is surely just around the corner for the Frenchman and his Yamaha M1. Alex Rins rounded out the top 3 for Suzuki, and COTA is one of his favourite tracks, although last year didn’t go so well, with Alex crashing out and injuring himself, which then ruled him out for a large part of the season. This year he’s fully fit and with both him and the bike performing better, it should be another good weekend for him. Of course, the Hamamatsu factory will be hoping that their other rider Andrea Iannone will also start to find his feet this weekend.

When it comes to finding a good footing, no-one needs that more than Jorge Lorenzo at Ducati. It has not been a good start to the season for the Spaniard, who has taken just 1 point from the first two races. He has taken two podiums at COTA in the past, but right now his focus needs to be on finding a way to make the GP18 work for him.

All the riders face a challenge in Austin

On the other side of the Ducati garage is Andrea Dovizioso who summed Austin up simply as “a really nice track but rather a difficult one”. Marquez’s issues in Argentina helped Dovi in terms of points but this weekend he’ll be hoping to be far more comfortable and get his pace back. I fully expect him to do so and Dovi should be right at the front again in Texas.

In Argentina, Ducati was mostly represented by Jack Miller who took an extraordinary pole position before being abandoned on the grid, leading numerous laps and finally finishing 4th. His team-mate Danilo Petrucci struggled but both Pramac riders will be looking for good form at COTA.

Then there’s the factory Yamahas. Vinales salvaged 5th in Termas but this season is the first time since 2014 that there’s been no Yamaha win in the first two races. Maverick likes the layout of COTA and after crashing out of the race last year, he wants to start turning the season around, “we can’t afford mistakes. We need to fight for the victory with all our strength”. A win could be a lot to ask, especially if Marquez is firing on all cylinders on Sunday, but a podium would be a very good way to end the first flyaways of the year.

Valentino Rossi secures his first front row start since 2016

For Valentino Rossi, Argentina never really saw him threaten the front group but while he acknowledges the difficulties of Austin he enjoys being Stateside. Valentino has his focus on the setup of his bike and working towards improvements with his team. While he may not have won on US soil since 2008, he has taken 2 podiums finishes at COTA, which he’ll fight to repeat on Sunday.

All the riders face a challenge in Austin. Setup will require a compromise between agility and stability. Aero could be back as a concern. How the surface will perform is unknown, so tyre life is uncertain. Riders will be pushed physically just as much as their teams and bikes will be technically.

We’re 2 races into 2018 and already we’ve had 6 different podium finishers. Crutchlow leads the championship with 38 points, which is the lowest total for the leader after 2 races since the current points system was introduced. The top 15 is covered by just 33 points, again the lowest with this points system. And only 10 riders have scored points in both of the previous races.

MotoGP is on top form and in Austin this weekend, we’ll see some more incredible racing before finding out who will head to Europe as top gun.

I feel the need, the need for speed.

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