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MotoGP: did Lorenzo just decide this year's championship?

Bryan Edwards

The Circuit of Catalunya, Barcelona, venue for the Spanish Grand Prix for both F1 and MotoGP is often the source of drama. But the MotoGp 2019 race was drama with what may turn out to be huge consequences. And it all began because someone started to call the Barcelona circuit "Lorenzo Land."

Jorge Lorenzo is a strange character: his personality is not so much complex as compartmentalised; his riding style is not so much brilliant as dull with flashes of genius. His ability to pout and whine is more suited to a teenage girl and his ability to display anger and hold a grudge is epic. But most telling of all is that he's a winner when he gets his way and a loser the rest of the time. He's a triple MotorGP world champion (2010, 12,15) for one reason, he dominated his team and had a bike built to his personal preference. The rest of the time he's at best at the back of the primary group and at worst amongst the best of the rest.

For example, 2018, Lorenzo, turned up at Barcelona on the Ducati that was, indeed, to his liking. Unlike in the Rossi years when, on a good day, the bike was rubbish and the team management refused to listen to its riders, Ducati had learned to trust the riders' judgement and Lorenzo had been firm about what he wanted. While not perfect, especially when it was full of fuel, the Ducati that Lorenzo began 2018 aboard was something he could work with. In pre-season testing he beat the long-standing Sepang (Malaysia) lap record (albeit, as it was testing, unofficially). He had joined Ducati in 2017, it might be suspected to prove that he could do something his bitter rival Valentino Rossi could not: succeed at Ducati. But the 2017 season left Lorenzo with the same failure to win as Rossi had had during his time with the Italian manufacturer. In the meantime, however, Ducati had become part of the Audi Sport camp and some of the Italian arrogance that was the dominant management attitude in the Rossi years was diluted. Rossi is known for his on-track rivalries. Lorenzo is unusual in that it carried over into real life. Lorenzo's arrival, on board a workable Ducati, suggested a 2018 full of fireworks.

It was not to be. Qatar: DNF (brakes), Argentina - 15th, USA (CotA) 11th, Spanish GP (Jerez) - 19th, France - 6th, Italian (Mugello) - win. Catalan GP (Barcelona) win Dutch TT - 7th, German GP - 6th, Czech GP - 2nd, Austrian GP - win, British GP - , San Marino GP - 17th, Aragon (spain) DNF (crash) - Thailand & Japan, - DNS due to injury but did practice in Japan before withdrawing resulting in Ducati being one rider short for Championship points), Australia - DNS, did not practice. Malaysia - DNS: declared fit, practiced, withdrew. Valencia (Spain) - 12th

Lorenzo finished the 2018 season in 9th place with less than half the points of Marc Marquez riding a Honda and more than 60 points behind Rossi. That was something Lorenzo would not tolerate : he was determined to pick up more world Championships and with riders such as Johan Zarco, Marc Marquez, Danilo Petrucci and Andrea Dovizioso ( who, aboard the same Ducati was second in the championship with more than 100 points more than Lorenzo), to say nothing of the persistent Rossi (third), it was clear that time was running out: another difficult year at Ducati would not meet his needs, even though the company modified the design of the fuel take, fitted aero aids, solved the problem with the soft front end that had seen Rossi come a cropper more than once and generally done whatever it could to cosset him. He was not in a winning frame of mind. Some might say that Lorenzo had already given up with Ducati by the time he turned up in Barcelona last year: when Dani Pedrosa announced that he would retire from MotoGP after 13 years with Honda, the company needed someone to pair with Marquez. In June 2018, Honda said that that person would be Lorenzo. From Lorenzo's point of view, what could possibly go wrong? Pedrosa could ride the bike, Marquez could make it do magic. Lorenzo, with all his experience, would be at the front from day one, right? As Lorenzo's 2018 fizzled to an ignominious end, the Honda became even stronger with modifications to give it power to get closer to the brute force that Ducati had on the straights and the immense stopping power that allowed Dovizioso to brake late into the corners.

Wrong. Come 2019, from day one, Lorenzo struggled. A bike set up for Marquez is, seemingly, not set up for anyone else. Lorenzo's in ability to jump on board a bike and make it work became obvious. Moreover, as Lorenzo's failures became ever more obvious, one thing became clear - it was, once more, a bike set up for late braking that Lorenzo could not handle. Then there was the same complaint as with the Ducat - he didn't like the front end. Honda flew him to the factory before the Barcelona race and they talked him through all kinds of options. When the bike came out of the box, it had some strange wings fitted to the sides of a new-shape fuel tank. Obviously prototypes, they weren't even properly painted when the bike first rolled out. Ironically, it bears some resemblance to the tank Ducati designed for him in 2018, right before his first win (Mugello). What Lorenzo told reporters was telling: "Hopefully I can use a little bit [less energy], save a little bit more energy, [and then] use a bit more energy at the end of the race," he is quoted as saying in Autosport magazine. It has been obvious this year that, even with decent qualifying, Lorenzo has fallen back down the field later in the races. The general consensus was that he was using up his tyres far too early: now it seems that it's his own strength and/or fitness that is in doubt.

For Lorenzo, the new tank, he said, allows him to "ride a little bit more aggressive, with slightly more speed, with slightly more consistency."

Which brings us to the start of the Catalan GP yesterday with Lorenzo on what was a typically mid-field starting position of 10th. Ahead of him would be this year's star-find on his first pole, Fabio Quartararo, Marquez, Morbidelli, Rossi, Dovizioso, a resurgent Viñales, Petrucci, Rins and, on a Honda without the Lorenzo-tank, Crutchlow. With the expectation that the two Yamahas of the Sepang/Petronas team would fall back at the start, as they usually do, Lorenzo would expect, by lap 2, to be battling for sixth or seventh.

Lorenzo flew off the start and was up to fifth by turn two. He was riding with a passion that was not "a little bit more aggressive" but was aggression personified. Every gap was an opportunity, even if it wasn't a gap when he went for it. It was both wondrous and a bit scary to watch. He was not the only one: at the end of the first lap, the entire field crossed the line in less than three seconds. But Lorenzo clearly felt he had something to prove: after all, as Quartararo slithered down the field, there were a gaggle of riders battling for the first five or six places but it was Marquez, on the unmodified Honda, who created a small lead. Fixated on proving he can ride a Honda when it's designed for him, Lorenzo tucked onto the white line, ran hard up the inside of everyone approaching turn ten and ran into Viñales, causing a domino-like chain reaction. Down went those two plus Dovizioso and, as he took evasive action during which Lorenzo's bike seemed to target him, Rossi.

Lorenzo returned to the garage, helmet on, head down. The other riders, watching the crash on replay, all adopted much the same attitude: Lorenzo had been crazy. A few minutes later, Lorenzo made himself available for the official pit-lane reporter, Simon Crafar, a strangely-spoken New Zealander with an excellent pedigree as a rider in several classes including the 500 class of MotoGP and a superb ability to explain what happens and why. Lorenzo told him plainly that the crash was his fault and he was sorry it had happened. Later, in other interviews, Lorenzo said he had been "too excited."

But it is the consequences of the crash that are as important as the how and the why. By taking out Dovizioso and Rossi, Lorenzo, who had gathered only 19 points in six races (Catalunya being race 7), converted the championship: now Marquez, his team-mate, has a 37 point lead going into two races (Assen (formerly Rossi territory) and Sachsenring) where Marquez is widely considered unbeatable. By tht time the circus reaches Austria, the Championship is likely to be pretty much a foregone conclusion as the primary contenders, who were all expected to be in the front handful at Barcelona, scored nothing.

Has Lorenzo decided the Championship in favour of Marquez? No. But he has made it much more difficult for anyone to challenge him, in the absence of some kind of disaster. Moreover, as Lorenzo is already more than 12 points adrift, he's not going to get there himself. There are reasonable odds that that's not the kind of team player Honda was expecting when they signed him up.

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