Portuguese GP: The Rollercoaster Awaits

Image: WorldSBK.com

The 2021 MotoGP world championship arrives in Europe this weekend, at the stunning Autodromo Internacional do Algarve, on the southern coast of Portugal.

If ever there was a circuit specifically designed to put grand prix motorcycles through the ultimate test, this is undoubtedly it. With its 15 corners (9 right, 6 left), and constant changes of elevation, the circuit is affectionately known by the locals as “A montanha roussa” – The Rollercoaster.

World Superbikes were the first to arrive at the venue back in 2008. Amazingly, it took until the Covid-affected 2020 season before the grand prix paddock arrived – but boy was it worth it, with local hero Miguel Oliveira taking a thrilling victory aboard the Tech3 KTM. Now with the factory Red Bull KTM team for 2021, there is not just hope but expectation to deliver, from the home fans.   

Speaking of expectation, the unknown quantity for this weekend is undoubtedly the returning Marc Marquez. Having been given the green light by his doctor, the eight-time world champion will return to the premier class. The news would have been a morale boost for the Repsol Honda team, as new rider Pol Espargaro and HRC test rider Stefan Bradl endured torrid back-to-back weekends. 

Of course, we do not know what version of Marquez we will have back. Will it be the all conquering, all dominating rider who held an exclusive stranglehold on the championship from 2016-19? Only three riders: Giacomo Agostini, Mick Doohan and Valentino Rossi have won more successive premier class titles. Or will we see an initially more reserved Marquez, allowing his body time to adjust back to the extreme rigors of racing at the highest level? Or will injuries have taken a terminal toll to any aspirations of equaling and surpassing Rossi’s haul of 9 world titles? Certainly all and sundry of the MotoGP fan base have been very vocal in their opinions. 

One thing though is certain – Marquez backs himself to the hilt. He has returned because he feels ready to fight for wins – not merely to make up the numbers on the grid. Love him or loathe him, we all await with bated breath for Sunday’s race. Only then will we truly know which Marquez has returned.   

Marc Marquez pole sitter in the 2019 , Aragón,MotoGP race. Image courtesy of Jaime Olivares/Box Repsol

With the emphasis of this circuit very much on cornering stability and speed, the likes of Monster Yamaha and Team Ecstar Suzuki will be licking their lips in anticipation. For Suzuki, they will be eager to put a difficult opening two rounds behind them and send a statement to the field that 2020 was no flash in the pan. Whilst the factory Yamaha outfit will be hoping to continue their stellar early season form, having taken the spoils in both Qatar outings with Maverick Vinales and Fabio Quartararo.

The general consensus this week is that Ducati may well find the going tough here. Whilst the main straight does play to the strength of the V4 engine, and the bike has improved again on corner turn-in – the alarming rate (and indeed suddenness) with which their tyres wore out will be cause for serious concern. Jack Miller at least will now have full use of both his arms for this weekend. The Australian had been struggling with the dreaded ‘arm pump’ in Qatar, which prompted corrective surgery immediately afterwards.

Ducati’s main hope for success may well lie this week with Johann Zarco on the satellite Pramac Racing Ducati. The Frenchman found success in Qatar due to his very smooth riding style, eking out as much life from the Michelin tyres as possible. With tyre wear levels again expected to be high this weekend, Zarco’s ability to nurse the rubber home may yet ensure that Ducati Corse add another rostrum trophy to their collection. 

The team to watch out for this weekend is Aprilia. The Noale-based outfit have made serious improvements since last season. The new ‘slimmed-down’ V4 engine has brought a vast increase in torque for the lower gears, which has seriously improved cornering speed and stability. The trade off has been a loss of power top end. Aleix Espargaro claimed that he was losing as much as 20kph (12.5mph) down the main straight at Losail. Nevertheless, the team managed to finish round two in P10, but only 5.38 seconds behind race winner Quartararo. Both team and rider will be quietly confident that a maiden podium finish is not far away. 

Aprilia have wasted no time to ensure they keep up in the development race. 3-time premier class runner-up Andrea Dovizioso made his much anticipated debut for the team earlier this week, testing at the Jerez circuit. Whilst the team were understandably tight lipped regarding any data, the strongest rumour doing the rounds suggests that the Italian is closing in on a permanent race deal with the team. 

Credit: Suzuki MotoGP

So the King has returned, but the young pretenders are hungry. In his absence Joan Mir (Team Ecstar Suzuki) has shown he is one who can wear the crown. There are no slow riders in MotoGP, and nobody is given quarter on track for past reputation. Come 1 o’clock on Sunday afternoon, all eyes will be fixed on the 22 gladiators as the next chapter in the 2021 championship is written.

As the great Nick Harris used to say: “Let battle commence!”

Miller v Mir: The Right Call

Credit: Suzuki MotoGP

The 2021 MotoGP season has got off to a flyer, after two pulsating rounds of action in the Qatari desert. Lap records have been smashed and the rookies have shown already that their time is now! What we’ve also now got is a dose of controversy.

The decision by the race stewards to not penalise either Joan Mir (Team Suzuki Ecstar) and Jack Miller (Ducati Lenovo) for their coming together during the latter stages of the Doha grand prix was divisive amongst fans, to say the least. Depending on which rider is preferred, comments have varied from mild annoyance at supposed ‘inconsistent stewards’ to calling for riders’ heads to roll. Impressive really, when you consider that both riders involved finished the race.

Whilst fans of rival riders will always be tribal in these instances (and it’s partly what makes the sport so loved), the accusations that the race stewards are inconsistent could not be further misguided. The referees of the motor racing world have the unenviable job of trying to keep order of 22 adrenaline-fueled racers going at it on track hammer-and-tongs treading an incredibly thin line between heroics and disaster. I say unenviable, but having done some officiating in sport events myself I can confirm it is also a very enjoyable (if often thankless) thing to do.     

To gain an understanding as to how the stewards came to their decision, one must accept that there are a series of protocols that must be followed – protocols ultimately governed by the rules/laws of that particular sport. First and foremost is reviewing the evidence in chronological order, to determine what happened. 

Now knowing that, below is what objectionably happened with the two incidents:

Mir outbreaks himself into turn 6, resulting in his bike overshooting the apex. Mir corrects this by sitting the bike up, however he makes contact with Miller, and the two are forced out wide. However, Miller is not forced to take evasive action, neither are he and his bike sent tumbling into the gravel. Mir – as mentioned – is deemed to be making corrective action. Lastly, Miller is not forced beyond the track limits, so Mir’s overtake is allowed to stand. As such, no ill-intent can be proven, so it is simply classed as a ‘racing incident’. 

So far, so good. Now we move on to the second incidents where the roles are reversed.

Miller outbreaks himself into the final corner, and he overshoots the apex. Miller then ‘squares off’ the corner and begins to sit the bike up. As he does so, he makes contact with Mir. However, as with the first incident, Mir is not forced beyond the track limits, and he is not forced off the bike. If this was a stand alone incident it would be waived straight through as a legitimate overtake maneuver (albeit a very ugly one). 

However, because this incident has occurred almost immediately after the previous, the stewards are obliged to ensure there was no clear or blatant notion of the rider (Miller in this case) actively seeking revenge on another. This process has been thoroughly enforced following the controversial incidents between Marc Marquez and Valentino Rossi at Sepang in 2015, and Roman Fenati grabbing a rival’s brake lever at Misano in 2016. 

To aid with this process, the stewards have access to every camera angle possible – TV and closed-circuit cameras. As such, when reviewing the incident they can not just track the incident, but the moments leading up to it. It is the only way to ascertain whether an incident was premeditated or not. With that, it also enables the stewards to determine external events which may have contributed to the incident in question. In this case, both Mir and Miller are clearly under pressure from riders behind them as they make their attempted overtakes. As such there is a need and urgency from the rider to brake as late as possible to ensure not only their overtake sticks, but also keeps the chasers behind. 

Finally, track conditions are also accounted for – around the Losail circuit, when the wind picks up anywhere off the racing line becomes littered with sand and grip levels drop off the proverbial cliff. With this in mind you are left with two options: 1) Ban overtaking if clean passes can’t be guaranteed. 2) Accept that some overtakes will result in contact as riders struggle for grip off the ideal racing line. 

When all is said and done it is therefore impossible to conclude that Miller intentionally set up an avoidable collision with Mir, nevermind any notion of actively seeking revenge – that one shall reside in a box labelled ‘conspiracy theories’. As such, the only decision the stewards can come to is to not penalise either rider. There is no doubt though that race organisers will have had words with both parties following the race that overtakes like that on a regular basis are not encouraged. 

No penalties this time and it was the correct call – but you can be sure the stewards will be keeping an eye on both riders next time out in Portimao just in case…

Racing Legends: Casey Stoner

When talking about legends of grand prix racing, the name of Casey Stoner is never far from anyone’s lips. 

Stoner’s early career is somewhat unremarkable in terms of results. From dirt-track racing in the Australian outback, to honing his short circuit skills in the junior ranks of BSB and then through the 125cc and 250cc grand prix classes. His natural speed on a bike and his skill to ride any machine was undoubted, but throughout his junior years there was concern by many over his consistency.

His debut season in MotoGP, in 2006, seemed only to emphasise this. A regular front-row starter with LCR Honda, Stoner struggled for consistency over longer races – sending himself and bike barrelling through gravel traps as he tried to chase down those on superior machinery.  A pole position and a podium finish towards the end of the season provided a glimpse as to what was to come.

With Honda’s eggs at the time all devoted to Nicky Hayden and Dani Pedrosa, Stoner had to jump ship if he was to become a serious championship contender.

2007 – Ducati’s Golden Year

Credit: Ducati Corse

Stoner’s arrival at Ducati was met with more than a few questioning murmurs from many quarters, after a difficult debut season with LCR Honda. The discontent was particularly vocal back in his home country. Despite having claimed a maiden win for the factory outfit, Troy Bayliss was shown the door to make way for his younger compatriot.

Stoner would be paired with Loris Capirossi, with the expectation that the Italian stalwart would initially set the standard, and the young Australian would gradually build to an even footing by the end of the season. 

Whether it was the plan, or a cryptic challenge from the team, Stoner’s response on track was something else. 10 wins across the season, including an emotionally charged victory at Ducati’s home race at Misano to wrap up his first world championship crown. 

Such was his relentless charge to the title, it’s impossible not to draw similarities with Valentino Rossi. Was this a changing of the guard? The media couldn’t help but stir that particular pot. It irked Rossi, and as the season drew on there was a growing sense of rivalry between them. Things came to a head at Laguna Seca when Rossi accused Stoner of breaking the track limits to force an overtake at the corkscrew. Rossi would famously ‘repay the favour’ the following season. Whilst the two would joust each other more often than not for top honours in the years to come, Stoner was too fast and too consistent to be stopped in 2007. 

The Desmosedici machine was undeniably fast – especially on low-fuel qualifying runs and in a straight line (the traditional strength of any Ducati). However, those doubting Stoner’s racecraft were silenced as he hauled and wrestled a fully fuel laden Ducati around the circuits with relentless precision. When forced to cut through the field after a less than clean start, Stoner relied on the skills honed way back on the dirt tracks in Australia, as he dived, carved and – occasionally – bullied his way through the pack. 

The final standings for the season said it all – Stoner finished the season winning the championship by an astonishing 125 point margin. Capirossi, for the record, finished 7th and over 200 points behind. 

Stoner remains to this day Ducati’s only MotoGP world champion.

2009 – Battle with Chronic Fatigue

Credit: Getty Images

After securing another routine victory at the opening round in Qatar, the Australian’s form fell off the proverbial cliff. Nobody could fathom why. In qualifying he’d still have the beating of everyone – often by the best part of half a second. After the Catalan grand prix fell apart so spectacularly, Stoner took the unprecedented decision of taking a mid-season hiatus. 

At first it was just suspected burnout. Sit out the next round or two and be back. The reality was far more complex. After numerous tests and consultations back in Australia, Stoner was eventually diagnosed with Chronic Fatigue – a condition he is still managing to this day. The condition has many symptoms – among them most prevalent are a complete lack of energy / total exhaustion with an acute state of depression and quite often acute muscle and joint pains. Heavy exercise or over-exercising increases the symptoms. 

With this in mind one can see how racing an 800cc prototype, particularly such a demanding bike like the Ducati, resulted in such a sudden blowout for Stoner. Critics were quick to question his mentality – and even state he no longer had the desire to race as hard as his rivals. The truth is, he physically and mentally couldn’t race and needed to recuperate away from the inferno that is grand prix racing. For more information about Chronic fatigue: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/chronic-fatigue-syndrome-cfs/ is a very useful starting point.   

Stoner’s decision to take a hiatus was vindicated immediately upon his return. He followed Lorenzo home to a comfortable second place at the Portuguese grand prix in Estoril, then demolished the field at Phillip Island to secure a hat-trick of victories on home-turf. 

Stoner was back.     

2011 – The Dream Come True

Credit: HRC Images

After relations soured with Ducati in 2010, Stoner signed for the Repsol Honda team. Emulating his boyhood hero, Mick Doohan. Once more he faced critics – this time aimed more at the team than the rider. The bike, whilst a competent competitor, had fallen clearly behind Yamaha in recent years. There was also the controversy of Honda employing three riders in their Repsol-backed factory team.

With a competitive bike underneath him again, and a team actively supporting his direction, Stoner was once more given an opportunity to fight for the championship. The season couldn’t have started better. Fast throughout testing, Stoner delivered at the opening round under the floodlights in Qatar, leaving the defending champion Jorge Lorenzo in a distant second place. 

The rivalry between Stoner and Rossi briefly resurfaced at the following round when the Italian – now at Ducati – lost the front wheel into turn one and took himself and Stoner out of the race. In the aftermath, Stoner uttered to Rossi the now famous line in racing folklore: “Your ambition outweighed your talent”.

Arguably, Stoner’s finest hour of the season came at a drenched Silverstone. The start was delayed due to the continuous downpour, but the decision was finally made to get underway. Whilst chaos reigned behind him with riders constantly tripping up on the treacherous surface, Stoner executed a wet-weather masterclass, negotiating every corner and braking point – almost drifting through every apex – with an elegance previously unseen by him. His teammate Andrea Dovizioso was the best of the rest, finishing 15 seconds adrift. The race effectively ended any hope Lorenzo had of retaining the title, crashing out halfway through the race, unable to stick to the Australian.

From then on, Stoner ensured he had it all his own way for the rest of the season. At Aragon he showcased another imperious lights-to-flag victory ahead of his other team-mate Dani Pedrosa. The result ensured victory in the constructors’ championship for Honda for the first time since 2006 with the late and much missed Nicky Hayden. Stoner’s personal triumph would be confirmed once again at Phillip Island. 

The weekend had been drummed up as a tribute to Mick Doohan – officially badged to mark 20 years since he joined HRC. Essentially, it was a grand gesture from Honda to mark Stoner realising his dream of following in his hero’s footsteps. Though before he could don the champions t-shirt again, he first had to fend off a spirited challenge from Marco Simoncelli, pushed all the way to the final lap before the Italian was forced into a mistake. 

Battle won, and cue the euphoric celebrations from rider, team and fans alike. A premier class world champion with multiple teams. Only a select few have managed to claim such an accolade.

Credit: Getty Images

2012 – The Curtain Falls

The Australian may have had a much shorter grand prix career than his contemporaries – he called time on his career just 7 seasons since making his bow in the premier class.

His decision to retire stunned the racing world, in much the same vein as his signing for Ducati and his decision to take time out did. Very fitting – above all else, Casey Stoner did it his own way throughout his career. His ability and sheer tenacity on the bike ensured that he succeeded wherever he went.

Any controversy that followed him was ultimately silenced by his results.

Jonathan Rea – The Art of Psychological Racing

As the great Julian Ryder once said about racing at the highest level: “Talent will get you onto the stage, but winning is a matter between the ears”.

Jonathan Rea at Aragon 2020. Picture courtesy of Kawasaki Racing Team WorldSBK

It is quite possible that Jonathan Rea has modelled his WorldSBK career on that line, and then some.

In 2020, given all the uncertainty that has gone with it, this attribute was overlooked by TV broadcasters (and in the interests of outright entertainment of the viewers, perhaps rightly so). However, as the dust has now settled on the season, it is high time to salute this remarkable, and ruthless attribute in Jonathan Rea’s arsenal:

The ability to read and control the championship.

Whilst Rea’s detractors will often highlight his supposed lack of charisma, however they cannot criticise or belittle his ability to know exactly what is needed to be done on track in any given scenario.

Few have the ability and it is the preserve of only the greatest champions: think Mick Doohan, Valentino Rossi or Carl Fogarty in the motorbike world – Michael Schumacher and Alain Prost from Formula 1. Jonathan Rea is the same.

They do not “see red” when a rival overtakes them. They do not panic and adopt a “win it or bin it” attitude. They can even accept that some days they will not be spraying the champagne on the podium.

That last one may come as a surprise to some, but it is true.

Michael van der Mark, Jonathan Rea and Alex Lowes at Magny-Cours WSBK 2019. Image courtesy of Yamaha Racing

Immediate glory on the track, these few know, pales in comparison to lifting the championship trophy at the end of the season. Their place in the standings is the only thing that matters.  It consoles them, when a race weekend heads south. You can see it in their eyes and hear it in their voices when they give answers either on the grid or in the interviews in the build up to race day.  They are fixated on it. It’s the obsession which pushes them further than the others.

This ability has been showcased on multiple occasions throughout Rea’s career. Perhaps the most clear example came in 2019. Whilst all and sundry had written off his title chances, after Alvaro Bautista’s incredible run of 13 wins from the opening 16 races, Rea’s head never dropped. By ensuring that he constantly mopped up the next best places, he had put himself in prime position to catch Bautista as an when the Spaniard’s incredible run came to an end.

The patience and discipline shown in sticking to what needed to be done ensured that, despite Bautista’s early-season dominance, Rea was never more than a couple of victories away from taking the lead in the championship.  Once that happened, Rea hit the racers’ zenith. Such was the confidence in himself and his team, it was inevitable he’d hit his own ‘purple patch’

As has been the case for the past three seasons – Chaz Davies(left) is the only rider who can challenge Jonathan Rea (right) for the title.

In 2020, the championship battle required a different tactic. With the Kawasaki being more competitive at the start of the season, Rea was able to trade early-season victories with Scott Redding. Once his rival faltered and a gap in the standings had been established, Rea defaulted to prioritising scoring only as many points as he needed to keep Redding behind. He was content enough to let other riders go up the road, safe in the knowledge that his rival could not score sufficient points to make any meaningful inroads (if any at all) to his lead.

Described like that, it is a brutal suffocation of his rivals. Yet there is a fine art to it – and is very difficult to spot on track. Certainly to a casual observer. Rea has to always ensure that his rival (Redding in 2020, Tom Sykes in 2015) finished behind him.

You cannot afford to ride slow with this tactic, let’s make that clear.

If someone puts together a string of qualifying-style laps in an attempt to break away from the field, Rea uses his judgement to let them go. He has a target pace to ride to, with a small margin to increase pace should he need to recover places later in the race.

Many riders attempt to employ this tactic. Few succeed. Even fewer succeed year after year. As racing goes, this is psychological warfare: Grind down your opponent until he believes you are always that little bit better or faster than him. When a rival cracks – as Sykes and Redding did respectively – it looks sudden and spectacular as the defeated challenger loses heart and finds himself falling back through the field – or worse crashing out.

This kind of moment ensures that race result which ultimately seals the championship, but it has taken weeks, sometimes months to grind the opponent down to such a state.

Jonathan Rea Celebrating his six WSBK titles. Picture courtesy of Kawasaki Racing Team WorldSBK

You cannot pull that off overnight. Neither can you be taught it. A state of mind. You have to be utterly ruthless with your opponent – yet at the same time make it so subtle very few can spot what you’re doing until its too late.

Jonathan Rea – a true master of his art.

Ed Hocknull

Valencia GP: Dovi And Ducati Defy The Deluge

Andrea Dovizioso bested the treacherous conditions to take a brilliant victory at the Valencia Grand Prix.

Wet track conditions, as has been the case the almost the entirety of the weekend, greeted the riders on race day. In truth, jet skis would have been more appropriate at the Ricardo Tormo circuit than motorcycles, such was the almost biblical torrents falling on the asphalt

Dovizioso (Ducati) secured his third win of the season in commanding fashion. Avoiding contact at both race starts, the Italian settled into a metronomic rhythm, closing in the race leader, and passing effortlessly. As conditions worsened the Desmosedici GP18 remarkably began to perform better, the back tyre acting almost as a rudder helping its rider to square-off every corner and avoiding those treacherous painted lines and kerbs. Not once did Dovizioso put a wheel out of line, or even suffer a wobble. A true masterclass in wet weather conditions.

The result sees Ducati break their 10-year hoodoo at the Ricardo Tormo, following Casey Stoner’s victory for the team here in 2008.

Alex Rins (Team Suzuki Ecstar) had a near perfect weekend, surfing the rivers across the circuit to a brilliant second place. It was his fifth podium finish this season, and without doubt his finest to date. There will be a small air of disappointment as Rins had led for much of the curtailed race, and for the opening few laps following the restart. Once again, the fault – if any – lies in the lack of horsepower to the Ducati. Rins simply stood no chance on the main straight. If the team can coax enough power out of the engine to be competitive in a straight line, that first breakthrough win for Rins will become a certainty in 2019.  

Pol Espargaro claimed his first podium finish for the Red Bull KTM team in the premier class. It was also the Spaniard’s first rostrum finish since moving up from Moto2 in 2014. Having had to fight his way through the field twice (courtesy of the red flag delay) the 27-year old produced without doubt his finest performance to date, carving his way ahead of his rivals with what looked like astonishing ease. The result will send a wave of confidence through the team as they head into winter testing on Tuesday.

Michele Pirro (Ducati) wildcarding this weekend, led the charge for best of the rest in 4th place. The Italian led home the retiring Dani Pedrosa (Repsol Honda). It was fitting that Pedrosa (P5) finished the lead Honda rider home. There were emotional scenes upon his return to the team box after the race.

Takaaki Nakagami (LCR Honda) claimed the best independent rider award with his 6th place finish. The young Japanese rider has steadily improved throughout his rookie season in the premier class, and brought home his best result to date in extremely testing conditions. A successful first season, and both team and rider will look to build on this over the winter.

Johann Zarco (Monster Tech3 Yamaha) and Bradley Smith (Red Bull KTM) spent the entirety of the restarted race locked together in a thrilling battle for seventh place. The Frenchman eventually emerging victorious and securing for himself the top spot in the independent riders’ championship. For Smith, it was a solid result as the British rider bids farewell for now to racing full time in the premier class. In 2019 he moves to the Aprilia Gresini team to take up duties as test rider – though he will still wildcard in up to five rounds next season.

It was a case of so near again for Valentino Rossi (Movistar Yamaha). Having produced a fine performance prior to the red flag delay – having originally started P16 on the grid – the former world champion looked set to finish on the podium, and once again spare Yamaha’s blushes. However, with just a handful of laps remaining, his bike lost all grip at turn 12, spinning him off into the sodden gravel trap. The Italian remounted and eventually finished in P13.

It was also a disappointing finish to Alvaro Bautista’s MotoGP career. The Angel Nieto Team rider, moving to spearhead Ducati’s factory effort in World Superbikes from 2019, crashed out with 6 laps remaining of the race.

Scott Redding (Aprilia Gresini) narrowly missed out on a top ten finish, finishing just behind Stefan Bradl (LCR Honda) and Hafiz Syahrin (Monster Tech3 Yamaha) respectively. A solid result and relief that his annus horribilis is finally at an end. The 25-year old now bids farewell to MotoGP and begins life in the British Superbike Championship, on very competitive Ducati machinery for next year.

There was an extremely high attrition rate, due to the deteriorating track conditions. Amongst the fallers there were spectacular highside crashes for both Marc Marquez (Repsol Honda) and Andrea Iannone (Team Suzuki Ecstar). Maverick Vinales (Movistar Yamaha) also endured a miserable race, despite starting originally from pole position. His season ending in a brutal crash with 15 laps remaining. None of the three were able to race at the restart, but all fortunately escaped injury.

Valencia GP Qualiyfing: Top Lap for Top Gun

Maverick Vinales stormed to pole position ahead of tomorrow’s Valencia Grand Prix, after breathtaking display in drying conditions.

The rain, which had turned the three main practice sessions into more of a jet ski contest, had finally relented. With the track rapidly drying, slick tyres were finally shod for the first time this weekend as qualifying began.

It was not a straightforward hour for Vinales (Movistar Yamaha). The 23-year old, as he had to go through the first qualifying session, having not made to top 10 after the first three practice sessions. With the track drying with every lap, Vinales timed his Q1 effort to near perfection, being the last rider over the timing line, benefiting from the best possible conditions. With Q1 a rehearsal, the Spaniard nailed his final effort in Q2. Threading the eye of the needle with sheer confidence and precision (one glance of the painted kerbs would’ve ended in disaster), Vinales’ time – 1’31.312 – was good enough for pole position by 0.068s. The beaming eyes from inside the helmet, as he rode into parc ferme, said it all.   

Alex Rins (Team Suzuki Ecstar) and Andrea Dovizioso (Ducati) secured the remaining places on the front row of the grid. Despite piloting bikes with polar opposite characteristics, both riders looked in complete control as the track constantly evolved throughout the session proving that in tricky conditions the riding style has more of an impact on lap time. Both will be expecting to deliver again tomorrow.

Danilo Petrucci (Alma Pramac Ducati) backed up his form from practice with securing P4. The Italian has been ever present in the top 5 throughout the weekend, and with the promise of more rain tomorrow it would be a brave punter to bet against him securing at least a podium finish.

Marc Marquez (Repsol Honda) crashed at turn 4 on his opening flying lap, dislocating his shoulder as the bike slammed itself and rider into the deck. Remarkably, the reigning world champion returned to the track with 6 minutes of qualifying remaining setting a lap time good enough for P5, and a slot in the middle of second row.

Rounding out the second row is Marquez’ compatriot Pol Espargaro (Red Bull KTM) – his best qualifying result since Australia 2017. He and the team will be hoping history can at least repeat itself tomorrow with a top 10 race result.

Andrea Iannone (Team Suzuki Ecstar) hooked it together in a frantic first qualifying session. The Italian mastered the drying conditions, setting the best lap time almost half a second clear of fellow qualifier Vinales. He heads up the third row of the grid tomorrow, in P7, and will be desperate to secure what is likely to be his last competitive result for some time.

It was, however, as disastrous qualifying for Valentino Rossi (Movistar Yamaha) who failed to make the cut into the pole position shoot out. The 39-year old will have to fight his way through the field tomorrow, from a lowly P16 on the grid.

Jorge Lorenzo (Ducati) just missed out on a place in Q2, the wrist injury was ultimately still causing him just too much trouble. Nobody can fault the Spaniard’s commitment to racing this weekend. Having steadily improved session-by-session this weekend, there will be a quiet confidence in his camp tonight that he can produce one final good result tomorrow for the team, before moving to Repsol Honda in 2019.

Maria Costello: “There is a path to a career in motorcycle racing for women”

A familiar name in the world of road racing, and one of the leading figures for women in motorsport – Maria Costello has become the first woman to be named president of the TT Riders Association, in the organisation’s 67-year history.

Maria took some time out to answer my questions, ranging from her new role to her racing career and more.

Maria Costello, the new president of the TT Racers Association (image: CostelloRacing)

EH: Congratulations on your appointment as President of the TT Riders Association. For the benefit of our readers, what does the organisation do and what does your role as president involve?

MC: My role is to assist them in raising their profile, encourage riders and ‘Friends of the TTRA’ to become members and support them in any
way that help them achieve their goals. You can find out more from their
Website: http://ttra.co.uk

EH: How did you become interested in motorcycle racing – and motorsport in general?

MC: It began when I left school and started working as a Trainee Veterinary Nurse and needed to get from home (which was in a village in the middle of nowhere) and get to work in Northampton and I got a Honda Melody scooter. Not the coolest of machines but I loved the freedom it gave me. Then friends of the family suggested I get a motorbike and I quite fancied their son and he took me round the motorbike dealers but ultimately I fell in love with a Yamaha TZR125 and that was my first proper motorbike. Then one day on my way to work I got knocked off by a car driver with dodgy eyesight. I was injured and my motorbikes was broken but I recovered and the compensation money from the insurance company bought my first race bike and the rest is history. You can read more about it in my book: ‘Maria Costello – Queen of the Bikers’.

EH: You have had considerable success at the Isle of Man TT – a regular top 15 race finisher in all entered classes as well, the accolade of being the fastest woman ever around the mountain course as well as a podium finisher at the Classic TT.  Very much a place that’s a sort of home-from-home for you. What does it take – both mentally and physically – to successfully compete at the world’s toughest race?

MC: Determination, preparation, respect, support and more determination.

EH: In addition to the TT, you’ve also been a regular competitor at other leading international
events – such as the Northwest 200 and the Ulster Grand Prix. What attracts you to
the road races?

MC: Road racing has become my home and I feel very fortunate to compete
on real roads. It’s where I get the greatest feeling on two wheels.

Maria Costello in action at the Leathemstown Road Race meeting. (Pic. Gary Hamilton Images)

EH: Its well known that you’re an ambassador for organisations such as “Dare To Be Different” programme. There are undoubtedly many talented women racers around, but what do you think are the main problems that are preventing them from achieving their motorsport ambitions, and what can be done to open up the sport more to them?

MC: Society and the way we perceive is largely the problem as young girls have not been considered for two wheels motorsports at a young enough age. We know the best in the world started from a super young age and that’s what needs to happen for young girls. Things are changing and I think it’s important to highlight what women can and are achieving to show that there is a path to a career in motorcycle racing for women. Role models are important and they need to be visible to the youngsters that could be the future of the sport male or female.

EH: Following on from the previous question, what is your opinion on the new ‘women only’ car racing series that’s starting up in 2019?

MC: It’s not necessary. Women can compete on equal terms and should be supported as equals.

EH: Finally, what advice can you give for all the young (and not so young)
aspiring racers out there?

MC: Just do it, it was the best thing I ever did and although I’ve broken 24 bones, it’s still the best! Follow your dreams!

Ducati Debrief: “We have made a good step forward”

Andrea Dovizioso secured yet another podium finish this season, with a hard fought third place during the Australian Grand Prix. Such were the scenes of celebration beneath the podium and back in the team garage, a casual observer could be forgiven for thinking they’d won the championship.  

The celebratory scenes from Sunday starkly contrast with last year’s corresponding Grand Prix, which was a complete disaster for Ducati. Slow times during the practice and qualifying sessions resulted in the humiliation of both factory riders, Dovizioso and Jorge Lorenzo, having to start from the fourth and sixth rows of the grid respectively. The race fared even worse as between them they could only manage a frankly woeful three points. It effectively killed all realistic possibility that the Italian rider could become world champion that season.

Dovizioso demonstrated serious front running pace all throughout the weekend, rarely being found outside the top 5 of the timesheets. A remarkable feat in itself as, traditionally, the Phillip Island circuit is one of the worst for Ducati. Without any long straight to blast away from the pack, and a plethora of fast sweeping corners (so long the nadir of all Desmosedici machines), the Italian team generally grit their teeth and pray for the round to end quickly. To negate the severe loss of lap time due to the above reasons, riding style – and commitment – becomes of paramount importance.

It cannot be underestimated how brave Dovizioso is under braking, regularly being given the title of ‘Last of the Late Brakers’. Although there is no official measurement as to the stopping points of each rider, from the TV images the Ducati man does visibly brake later than the rest of his rivals. In addition to this, he possesses pinpoint accuracy with both his corner entry and exit lines. All of which results in an extremely competitive performance regardless of the circuit.

Speaking after the race, Dovi was beaming in the winners’ enclosure: “Phillip Island was a fundamental test to understand our level of competitiveness and now we know we have made a good step forward over last year.” Typically understated as always. Ducati have made an enormous step with the development of their bike.

Andrea Dovizioso battles with Andrea Iannone (Team Suzuki Ecstar) for podium honours. Such a thing was not even remotely possible last year.

Across the garage, there were equally joyous scenes. Standing in for the injured Jorge Lorenzo, 33-year old Alvaro Bautista enjoyed a brilliant first weekend on the Desmosedici GP18. Having not ridden this year’s machine at all before the Friday practice sessions, the Spaniard went to considerable length in the build up to the weekend, stating that Ducati “had no real targets to aim for”.

Perhaps predictably as a consequence, he took a few tumbles during the early stages of the weekend as he learnt where the performance limits of the factory bike were. Despite this, Bautista produced a faultless race day performance, looking completely at one with the factory bike – and racing it as if he had been for a full season. His riding style – comparable to that of Casey Stoner – suits the Desmosedici, and the Spaniard relishes the physicality required to haul and wrestle the bike through the faster corners. Having started from P11 on the grid, Bautista charged through the pack, dicing for a place on the podium alongside his teammate for almost the entirety of the race before falling back to consolidate fourth place.

Speaking after the race, Bautista explained the reason for dropping behind his teammate:  “In the last few laps I made a few small mistakes and lost contact with Dovizioso and Iannone, but in any case I’m very happy with my overall result, especially for the team and for Ducati, whom I would like to thank once again for the trust they have shown in me.” Any disappointment for not making the podium quickly evaporated, having achieved a lifetime ambition to race for the factory team.

Having taken some time on Friday to adjust to the GP18 performance limits, Alvaro Bautista produced a stunning ride on race day.

Despite not taking the race victory, Dovizioso has nevertheless demonstrated to the full just how far Ducati have developed the Desmosedici this season. It is still a rocket down a long straight, but crucially they have now made a bike that is stable enough at most circuits to enable the riders to attack the faster corners with confidence.

As for Bautista, he has almost certainly secured the factory ride now for as long as Lorenzo remains out injured. The result for the Spaniard could not have come at a more opportune moment ahead of his move to World Superbikes next season, with the factory supported Aruba.it Ducati team. A clear statement of intent to the established front runners of the series, watching on from their hotel rooms in Qatar.

Australian GP Review: Yamaha Finally End Winless Drought

Maverick Vinales ended the longest winless streak in the history of the Japanese manufacturer with a blistering ride, at the Phillip Island circuit.

Having qualified in the middle of the front row Vinales (Movistar Yamaha) was a constant presence at the front during the opening stages. This in itself was an early warning sign to the field, as the young Spaniard has routinely dropped back through the pack at the start of most races this season.

After a few laps, in which to allow the tyres to warm up on the cool track surface, Vinales forced his way to the front with some brave manoeuvres at the Hayshed and over the top of Lukey Heights. Once in the lead the Yamaha man pulled clear from his rivals with ease, setting a series of fastest lap times until he’d opened up a more than manageable lead of 4 seconds…  

There was a ferocious race-long battle for the remaining podium places. Andrea Iannone (Team Ecstar Suzuki) eventually secured second place, after holding off the ever-present Andrea Dovizioso (Ducati) in third. The two Italians wound back the clocks to Austria 2016, when (then as Ducati teammates) they’d diced it out for victory.

Alvaro Bautista (Ducati) first weekend on the 2018 factory Desmosedici machine, secured a brilliant fourth place. Replacing the injured Jorge Lorenzo, the achievement of Bautista cannot be understated. Prior to this week he had never ridden the 2018 Desmosedici before, perhaps reflected in his relatively modest starting place on the grid – P12. Powering his way up the order and once settled into his rhythm, he was not be moved outside of the top five, even leading his team leader for multiple laps. A strong display from arguably the most underrated rider on the grid.

Alvaro Bautista stormed through the field at Phillip Island on his debut appearance for the factory Ducati team.

Although Bautista eventually dropped back from Dovizioso and Iannone in the closing stages, he had more than enough in hand to fend off Valentino Rossi (Movistar Yamaha) and Alex Rins (Team Ecstar Suzuki). Both men had fancied their chances in the run up to this weekend of emerging with at least a podium finish to their names. Rins will not be too disappointed with his fifth place as in truth his Suzuki, whilst working well through the faster flowing corners, struggled visibly down the main straight with a lack of power. Rossi, despite wringing every ounce of performance from his M1, will leave the circuit tonight wondering how on earth his teammate could cruise to victory whilst he could only manage P6.

Jack Miller (Alma Pramac Ducati) was the first independent rider under the chequered flag, giving the passionate and knowledgeable home crowd yet another reason to cheer. On an old GP17 machine, the popular Australian gave it everything – even leading on the opening laps as he had done so this time last year. Although disappointed in his personal result, his team were in a very celebratory mood after the race and with good reason – Two Ducatis in the parc ferme winners’ enclosure (Miller and Dovizioso). Additionally, five riders aboard Desmosedici machines scored points – compared to this time last year when the best finisher for the manufacturer was Scott Redding in a very modest fourteenth place.    

Marc Marquez (Repsol Honda) and Johann Zarco (Tech3 Monster Yamaha) involved in a frightening collision on the entry to turn 1 early in the race. Approaching the fast right hand bend, Marquez moved across to the left hand side of the track to open up the corner entry. However, unsighted for the Spaniard, was Zarco’s Yamaha. With nowhere to go, and no time to take any evasive action, the Frenchman struck the back of the Honda and speared off into the gravel – reportedly at around 280kph. The Yamaha was completely wrecked in the aftermath, but thankfully Zarco walked away shaken but not stirred. True testament to the both the trackside safety measures, and the air-bags inside the riders’ leathers. Marquez retired from the race soon after, but both will be fit to fight it out again next week in Malaysia.

Bradley Smith secured a solid finish in tenth place for the Red Bull KTM team. Prior to the race it had been another difficult weekend for the 27-year old, but dug in once again dragging the RC18 kicking and screaming into a very respectable position.

Finally. a mention for Belgian rider Xavier Simeon (Avintia Reale Ducati) who scored his first point in the MotoGP world championship with fifteenth place. It has been a difficult debut season for him, having spent the majority of it aboard the outdated GP16 Desmosedici. However, since Tito Rabat sustained his broken leg at Silverstone, Simeon has been on a GP17 machine and today he showed he can be competitive in the premier class.   

WorldSBK Qatar: Race 1 – Double Delight For Kawasaki

Kawasaki Racing Team secured their fourth 1-2 finish of the season, as Jonathan Rea led home Tom Sykes under the floodlights of Losail.

Rea made the holeshot from the grid to take the lead at turn 1 and, as so often is the case, began pulling clear from the field almost immediately. Once with a manageable gap, the newly-crowned 4x world champion was able to dictate terms with his familiar metronomic rhythm. Today’s victory makes it 17 for the Northern Irishman this season – equalling the record set by Doug Polen, way back in 1991.

Tom Sykes, in his final weekend for the Kawasaki Racing Team has not been prepared to go out on a whimper. The Yorkshireman secured pole position in qualifying earlier this afternoon, and also had his sights set on victory. Whilst his teammate ensured that this was impossible, Sykes secured second place – his first podium finish in five races (and his eighth of the season).

Such is the vast length of the Losail International Circuit (5.38km) and the technical nature of the corners, within a couple of laps there were considerable time gaps already opening up between the various groups of riders. Nevertheless, there was action aplenty as riders diced and duelled with each other.  

Xavi Fores (Barni Racing Ducati) and Marco Melandri (Aruba.it Ducati) thrilling fight over fourth and fifth places. Lacking the cornering stability of the factory counterparts, Fores produced a strong defensive ride on his independent Ducati, utilising the raw horsepower to pull as much of an advantage down the 1km long main straight, and holding a defensive line through the sweeping corners. However disaster stuck for the Spaniard as technical issues forced him to drop back through the pack – eventually crawling home in P13.

His loss was very much Melandri’s gain, as well as more than a fair amount of relief. Despite throwing everything at him, the factory Ducati man could not find a way past the independent Ducati rider. The Italian, who is seeking a new ride for next season, finished in P5 – collecting a very respectable 11 points for the factory backed outfit.

Chaz Davies (Aruba.it Ducati) started P11 on the grid and immediately set about trying to carve his way up the order. Doubtless he was motivated on by the ongoing battle for second place in the championship with Dutch rider Michael Van der Mark (Pata Yamaha). Van der Mark eventually finished in P7, taking the bragging rights today and ensuring that this personal battle for honours goes down to the final race tomorrow. Both riders however were royally mugged in the closing stages by Loris Baz (Gulf Althea BMW). The Frenchman had done a remarkable job of preserving his tyres, and blasted past the duo who could offer no reply.

Eugene Laverty (Milwaukee Aprilia) and Alex Lowes (Pata Yamaha) were locked in a thrilling battle for the final place on the podium. Both riders have looked strong throughout the weekend so far, with Laverty firmly putting himself in the proverbial shop window for a potential ride with Red Bull Honda next season. However it was Lowes who emerged the triumphant, forcing his R1 machine past the Aprilia on the final lap, holding on to third place through the final corners. Laverty will at least have the consolation of starting from pole position on tomorrow’s partially reversed grid.

Jake Gagne (Red Bull Honda) secured his best finish of the season so far, with a hard fought ninth place. It has been a tough debut season for the young American, with his place under much scrutiny in recent weeks. A solid return of points today might go some way to securing his future in the class for 2019. Additionally, the result makes up for his teammate Leon Camier who crashed out with 10 laps of the race remaining.

Rounding out the top ten, and being the first independent rider home, was Toprak Razgatlioglu (Puccetti Kawasaki). The Turkish star once again managed to extract the most amount of performance from his ZX-10R machine, fighting with the Hondas and Lorenzo Savadori (Milwaukee Aprilia) for much of the race.