Round 11 of the 2017 MotoGP world championship will be remembered for the duel between Ducati #1 Andrea Dovizioso and Repsol Honda icon Marc Marquez on the race’s last lap. By then, a lead group of six or seven riders had shrunk to just the two top riders in this year’s series. At a track seemingly designed for the Ducati, Dovi held off the best rider on Earth by a fraction of a second in a race people will be talking about for years.
Practice and Qualifying
All three of the meaningful practice sessions leading up to Q1 were dry or mostly dry. Dovizioso owned Friday, at/near the top of both sheets, and, feeling confident, took some time off early in FP3 to visit a cute little used book store not far from the track, ending the session in 16th place. The Octo Pramac team could only be described as “cheesed off” after FP3. Redding, who will be riding an Aprilia next season, missed passing through to Q2 by 6/1000ths of a second. Teammate Danilo Petrucci was another full 6/1000ths behind Redding.
As expected, the Ducatis were loving themselves some Austria. In addition to Dovizioso, Jorge Lorenzo passed through to Q2 in an encouraging 4th place, while Loris Baz and Karel Abraham (having a better year than I expected) flogged their GP15s to a couple of fast laps and into the front four rows of the grid, regardless of what might happen in FP4 or, for that matter, qualifying itself. For these two riders, rapidly approaching “journeyman” status, this is a win. Punking Redding and Petrucci, both on newer bikes, had to feel pretty good, too.
Along with Marc Marquez, who led the way into Q2, most of the usual suspects did well. Johann Zarco, the factory Yamahas of Maverick Vinales and Valentino Rossi, Lorenzo, and Cal Crutchlow appeared to have solid race pace. Andrea Iannone on the Suzuki produced one fast lap in three days but made the cut. Names failing to make the Q2 grade included Dani Pedrosa, Jonas Folger, Bautista, Barbera, both Espargaros and my boy Alex Rins (20th!).
When qualifying finally rolled around on Saturday afternoon, there was a discernible lack of drama in the proceedings. Pedrosa and Petrucci passed comfortably through to Q2. Marc Marquez, in the process of securing his 70th grand prix pole, laid down a blistering lap with about six minutes gone for provisional pole, pitted for new rubber, and did the same thing again with a few minutes left. In the process, he relegated the factory Ducatis to spots two and three on the front row. The second row formed up on Vinales, joined by Danilo Petrucci and Johann Zarco, with Rossi lurking dangerously in seventh, Pedrosa eighth.
Like the Old Days. For Awhile.
When the lights went out, Jorge Lorenzo took the hole shot on the Ducati and soon led a front group including Marquez, teammate Dovizioso, Valentino Rossi and Dani Pedrosa. On Lap 2 it looked as if Jorge was getting away, reminiscent of 2010, 2012, etc. But, unlike those halcyon days, he was unable to disappear, instead leading a tight group of six. By Lap 5 Pedrosa had faded slightly, his place taken by Tech 3 rookie Johann Zarco. It should be noted that Lorenzo, Dovizioso and Zarco went out on soft rear tires, while the factory Hondas and Yamahas chose the harder compounds.
Early in the race we saw Dovi and Lorenzo double-teaming Marquez, forcing him into a two-front war. This lasted until Lap 12, which saw bikes 99-93-04 become 93-04-99. The same type of thing occurred one lap later, when 46-5-26 quickly became 26-46-5. On Lap 14, Rossi ran hot into Turn 1 and re-entered in seventh position, where he finished. No bells ringing in Tavullia tonight.
Then There Were Two
Pedrosa broke Lorenzo on Lap 20 and began chasing Marquez and Dovizioso, to no avail. By lap 25 Pedrosa had had it, leaving 04 and 93 to slug it out to the finish, and slug it out they did. Although the race analysis will show Dovi having led all of the last four laps, the splits between him and Marquez were illustrative:
Lap 25 .084
Lap 26 .159
Lap 27 .094
Lap 28 .176, including close encounters at virtually every turn on the track, as Marquez threw caution to the wind in his effort to win for the first time in Austria. After the race, Marquez laughed about the result, seeming serenely confident he will get a few wins here in the next decade. For Dovizioso, at age 31, today’s win had to be as sweet as any in his career.
Concern in Yamaha Land
A track layout that is friendly to both the Ducati and the Yamaha produced a podium of two Hondas and a Duc. To say that Round 11 was a disappointment to the Yamaha riders—Folger retired on Lap 4—is a bit of an understatement. Vinales (-24) and Rossi (-33) sit third and fourth in the standings. Vinales is not yet the dominant force he is expected to become. As for Rossi, with one win (Assen 2017) now in his last 22 starts, his last pole in Motegi last year, and his last title in 2009, we may be finally witnessing the inexorable march of time. With Lorenzo holding up well enough to finish fourth, the Yamaha delegation could manage no better than Zarco in fifth and Vinales, looking mortal yet again, sixth.
One more lesson learned here. Honda is getting close to fixing the acceleration issues that have dogged them for much of the last three seasons. Marquez was losing ground to Dovizioso on corner exit consistently today, but not like he did last year fighting mostly with the Yamahas. Even with today’s loss, Marquez extended his championship lead and has put some daylight between himself and Vinales, Rossi and Pedrosa. Dovizioso, a dark horse entering the season, sits dangerously in second, 16 points back of Marquez.
Sam Lowes is officially out at Aprilia for 2018, being replaced by Scott Redding and looking for a ride, any ride, for next year. Redding had been pushed out of the Pramac garage by the signing of Jack Miller, who had been ejaculated from the Marc VDS Honda garage by Franco Morbidelli, whose promotion from the Marc VDS Estrella Galicia Moto2 team allowed Joan Mir a place to move up from the Leopard Racing Moto3 team, joining Alex Marquez. Leopard Moto3 struck back quickly, signing Enea Bastianini from Estrella Galicia’s Moto3 team to replace Mir.
Cosmic symmetry would be achieved if Marc VDS were to sign Lowes to a Moto3 contract for 2018. But Sam will be a hot ticket in Moto2 next year. Instead, they have undoubtedly signed some unbelievably fast 14-year old Spanish kid from the CEV cadre to replace Bastianini. In the US, colleges sign high school sophomores to play hoops or football, big money in their futures. In Europe, it’s teenaged soccer players and motorcycle racers.
Final thought—Joan Mir is an Alien-in-Waiting, thrashing the field in Moto3. He will be 20 years old in September. He is a Honda guy and will be riding for one of the big money teams in Moto2 next year, albeit with a 750cc Triumph engine. You heard it here first—he will join the Repsol Honda team and Marc Marquez in 2019 and will receive his Alien Club membership card in 2020.
Two Weeks to Silverstone
While the stillborn Ebww Vale project in Wales turns to dust on the drawing board, Silverstone once again hosts the British Grand Prix on the 27th. This has historically been a Yamaha-friendly venue. Last year Maverick Vinales enjoyed his first premier class win here on the Suzuki, and must be considered a favorite for Round 12. The season is almost two-thirds complete, and Marc Marquez seems chillaxed battling four other riders and winning. He appears much as he did in 2014—calm, having fun, downplaying his unworldly abilities. He appears happy even on days like today when he loses. By an eyelash.
Marc Marquez handles himself like a champion, like he’s been there before, like he’ll be there again before too long. Congratulations to Andrea Dovizioso for winning today’s battle. My money is on Marquez to win the war.