Retro Racing: A look back to the 2015 Aragon Grand Prix (Part 1)
The 2015 MotoGP World Championship was one of the most dramatic in the history of the series. Far more than just the clash at Sepang and the drama of the final weeks of the season this was a campaign of consistency from Valentino Rossi versus the dominance of Jorge Lorenzo at various points of the season. It would go down to the wire but as the MotoGP paddock assembled in Spain at Motorland Aragon the momentum had shifted in Rossi’s favour with a win at Silverstone and a result at home that extended his title lead over Lorenzo…
Setting the scene in Spain….
On the night of 27th September 2015, a total lunar eclipse took place. The super moon offered greater illumination of the night sky to normal, while Jorge Lorenzo’s lights to flag domination of the Aragon Grand Prix that day gave his title challenge momentum again after a Misano mishap.
Title contenders let it slip in Misano
Marc Marquez was out of title contention by the time the MotoGP paddock rolled to the Adriatic Coast. The Spaniard had endured a tough title defence, with an aggressive Honda engine that left him 77 points adrift of Valentino Rossi. Having switched back to a 2014 chassis at the Dutch TT, Marquez now had a more forgiving bike and his form had improved.
At Misano – with the race run in flag to flag conditions – the Spaniard was at his best as he claimed the win. In the past he’s made mistakes in races of this type, notably Aragon twelve months ago when he stayed out on slicks too long and crashed out of contention, but in Italy he timed his pitstop to perfection. Whereas it was the Yamaha riders mistepping in a race that saw most riders make two pitstops.
“I like the flag to flag system, even if it hasn’t always worked for me, because each rider takes the risks that he believes are necessary,” said Marquez afterwards. “No one forces you to take risks in these races and nobody forces to change bikes. The first time when I pitted I just followed Lorenzo because it was the correct time to change to wets.”
A crash for Scott Redding forced him into the pits at the perfect time to switch to wet tyres, and he’d ultimately turn it to his advantage for his first premier class podium.
“In these conditions it’s a casino and you just throw the dice and then see what happens,” said Redding. “I crashed because I was taking a risk and riding harder than some other guys. I had nothing to lose so changed tyres and it was the same when I changed again! It was still wet but I thought that I’d feel better with a slick so I changed. I was on the right tyre at the right time because I was sure the race was over for me after the crash.”
While Redding was gaining the fortune of lady luck, the Yamaha’s were pushing their luck at the front. Having lost the lead to Marquez the blue machines fought their way back past with a clear advantage in the damp conditions. With his hopes of a race win disappearing Marquez like Redding rolled the dice, and dived for the pits.
“The team showed me dry on my pitboard,” said the champion afterwards. “I knew it was time to go in and then you just wait and see what happens. There were nine laps remaining and it’s difficult to understand what’s happening in the race but you try and keep calm.”
Rossi waited an extra two laps to pit, despite the team calling him in, and would drop from the lead to fifth at the flag, but it would prove a bullet dodged by the Italian who managed to extend his championship lead over Lorenzo. With Rossi diving into pit lane to change to slick tyres his teammate was on track and hustling to get up to speed. Lorenzo pushed too hard at the penultimate corner and hit the deck.
“Is always difficult to decide when to stop,” said Rossi. “I know that if you pit earlier you can have a better result but also that it’s riskier. I wanted to stop earlier but it was still raining a little bit on the back straight, and I thought if I stop and it rains the result would be very bad. I checked where Jorge was and he was still behind me, so I decided to continue but I think that it was one lap too many. But, the people who finished in front of me had nothing to lose with the championship.”
Indeed they had not because with Lorenzo crashing out, the Spaniard had fallen 23 points adrift with five races remaining. Lorenzo has spent the year playing catch up to his teammate but he was still optimistic after the crash.
“There is nothing to gain from complaining or regretting,” said Lorenzo. “I’ll learn from my mistakes for the future but now it’s a 23 point gap. This year we have previously recovered 29 points in four races so it’s possible. It can happen again in the next races or that Valentino can make some mistakes. He has more to lose than to win now so he will have pressure and I have less to lose now.”
Rider market spins…
The rider market was spinning in Spain with with the news that Aprilia had confirmed Sam Lowes as their rider for the 2017 season. The SpeedUp star would move to Gresini Moto2 for 2016 and then onto the premier class grid.
“We had planned to go straight to MotoGP next year,” said Lowes. “But I’ve got unfinished business in Moto2 and want another year to have a proper go at it. Knowing that you’ve got a MotoGP ride for 2017 is mega and I’ll test the bike with no pressure too.”
Lowes wasn’t the only British rider with his future secure, with Danny Kent inking a contract extension with Kiefer Racing. The Moto3 World Championship leader had his first chance to wrap up the title in Aragon but crashed out, a forecast of what was to follow in the fly away races, and signed to stay with the team but move up to the intermediate class.
With a move to Moto2 confirmed Kent had officially turned down the MotoGP opportunities offered to him by Pramac and Aspar.
“There were quite a few reasons why I decided to move to Moto2 and not MotoGP for next year,” explained Kent. “Aspar wasn’t sure what bike they’d be using and the support that they’d be getting. Leopard is going to be really impressive next year and we’ve had a great year together in Moto3 and the package that they’ve put together for next year is really strong. I signed a one year contract because in 2017 all the MotoGP rider contracts are available and the plan for us is to have a great year next year in Moto2 and hopefully go straight to a factory team for 2017.”
With an uncertain future at Aspar, the team had lost their title sponsor before the opening round of the year, but it looked like there was plenty of change in the air. A switch from the Open Honda to 2014 specification Ducati machinery was yet to be confirmed, but a change in their rider line-up was confirmed with the news that the clock was ticking down on Nikey Hayden’s Grand Prix career. The American would finish his premier class career at Valencia but his future was uncertain. A move to the WorldSBK paddock was most likely but there were no guarntees of competitive machinery:
“I’m not a lot closer to announcing plans,” said Hayden at Aragon. “I’m talking to teams in WorldSBK but I wanted it to be with a good factory team and a bike that was something that could be at the front. All the factory bikes are gone now so I need to see if I’d rather stay at home or else a less competitive bike. I don’t really have any exciting options here in MotoGP; just stuff at the back of the field and a test riding role. I haven’t talked to anyone in MotoAmerica because it doesn’t really interest me. I’d probably prefer to do some MotoGP test riding instead.”
On the other side of the Aspar garage, Eugene Laverty was about to have his 2016 season confirmed. Despite having a two year contract the nature of the business was that the Irishman was awaiting news for the following season. Having come to MotoGP with the intention of learning the bike in year one and the second year to show his speed, he was in no doubt that he’d be on the grid.
“I’ve always said that I came here solely because it was a two year programme. These bikes are difficult to ride and they take time to learn. I’ve learned so much already this year and I think that the last three rounds we’ve had good pace but the weather didn’t let us show our true speed. Motegi could be a difficult race but I’m looking forward to it and especially Philip Island because it’s a track that should suit this bike.”
Moto2 World Champion Tito Rabat would have his first taste of a premier class machine at the post Aragon Test, with the Marc VDS rider stepping up to replace Scott Redding who had recently confirmed his move to Pramac Ducati.
Practice and Qualifying: Lorenzo lays down the law
With over half a second in hand at the end of Friday’s practice session, Lorenzo was in peerless form despite narrowly missing out on the pole position to Dani Pedrosa. The Yamaha man arrived in Aragon as the clear favourite, but with Rossi holding a 23 point advantage the pressure was clearly on Lorenzo to deliver.
Aragon has firmly been Lorenzo Land since Casey Stoner’s retirement, whereas it has been one of the toughest on the calendar for Rossi with a solitary podium to name there. After qualifying on the second row Rossi said “it’s not a disaster but we need to find half a second.” Rossi lost out on one lap in the session after being baulked by Andrea Iannone.
“I didn’t have a great lap,” said Rossi. “Sixth isn’t a disaster and I’m more worried about my race pace. When the temperature rises I am in a bit of trouble with the tyres. In the morning I was able to keep a good rhythm but in the afternoon I suffer more when the temperature increases. I have too much degradation but mostly with the rear tyre.
“We will have to race with the softer rear tyre because the hard tyre is too difficult to use. The bike moves a lot and is difficult to control. I think it’s because of my weight. I am quite smooth, the same as Jorge, and it looks like he is able to use the tyre less. In the morning the tyre is okay for me, but in the afternoon it becomes a bit too soft.”
While Rossi was struggling with tyre wear, his title rival wasn’t having any issues and was “getting closer to perfection” with every change the team made. Having only missed out by 0.016s on the pole position Lorenzo said:
“We’re managing the weekend well and I’m riding very well,” said the Spaniard. “We’ve improved the bike a lot throughout the year and every time it gets better and better. Here in Aragon we are improving a little step every time we go out. It’s always difficult to compete with Marquez in qualifying because he is very explosive and aggressive for that lap. I tried to be more aggressive today but I didn’t have a new front tyre so I lost some time on my final lap. In practice though I’m very happy with my pace and my set-up for the race.”
Having pipped Lorenzo to the pole position Marc Marquez was thrilled and very confident that he had a chance to win again. The Repsol Honda man had been rejuvenated by the mid-season switch to the 2014 chassis and was in stunning form to smash the track record in qualifying. His victory last time out had given him confidence to continue at the front.
“We know that Jorge will be very strong,” said the pole sitter. “Dani is very strong too but the race will be tricky because Valentino will obviously be strong too. With the medium rear tyre I was strong and consistent in free practice. I think that everyone will use the same tyres with the soft rear tyre.”
Joining Marquez and Lorenzo on the front row was Andrea Iannone. The Ducati rider had suffered a second dislocated shoulder of the season in a training incident so his front row was very impressive.
“I tried to manage this situation today,” said Iannone. “I’m very happy about the result but I know that the race will be really difficult because after ten laps the pain is quite bad.”
One man that knew his fair share about pain management in 2015 was Dani Pedrosa. Earlier in the season it looked as though retirement was on the cards before an incredibly invasive surgery to recover from arm pump. He would qualify on the second row of the grid after suffering from front end issues on his qualifying effort.
“I don’t mind fifth position today,” said the Honda man. “I had so many warnings on the front end in qualifying and couldn’t really feel the front. Every time I was trying to push on the entry I would lose the front. When I changed to the new rear tyre I had the same issue and I wasn’t able to put the lap together. I had the problem in every sector. It’s strange because in FP4 I didn’t have a grip issue. It surprised me.
“I just need to focus on tomorrow now, to try and get a good start and do the first lap strong. We have to follow Jorge and Marc. They both start well and ride the first laps well. Also they have the same good pace. It’s very important not to lose the gap in that moment because it’s very difficult to catch back later.”
Joining Pedrosa and Rossi on the second row was Pol Espargaro with his season best performance but, like Rossi, he was suffering from rear grip issues. The Tech3 rider had been outperformed by his teammate, Bradley Smith, for much of the season but in front of a home crowd he was looking much more competitive.
“Fourth position is very positive for us,” commented the 2013 Moto2 World Champion. “It wasn’t an easy day because we lacked rear grip with the used tyre. With the new tyre I felt much more confident and I was searching for the limit.”
Further down the grid Eugene Laverty was looking a lot stronger and consistent. The Irishman had shown flashes of speed throughout the year-Brno, Silverstone and Misano for instance-but his Friday and Saturday performance gave him a lot more confidence of a strong weekend.
“The last few rounds have been stronger in practice but it all went to pot in races,” said the Northern Irishman. “The weather really made it difficult for us and in qualifying today I wanted to make sure there was no chance of traffic so I got out there early and got a clear road. There was no point in following anyone. I can understand riders with a small brain need to follow someone else but if you know what you’re doing then it’s better to go alone.
“We improved our edge grip today and now we need to pick the right rear tyre for the race. The soft tyre offers grip whereas the harder tyre is more stable. We’ve been strong all weekend and now it’s important to have a good weekend. We’ve had bad luck with the weather recently and now we have to hope that it stays dry.”
Given that twelve months ago a cold, dense fog enveloped the Motorland Aragon circuit on Sunday morning it was clear that nothing could be taken for granted on race day.
In Part 2 we’ll look back at what the paddock thought after a day that would have big implications on the outcome of the 2015 World Championship…