Category Archives: Motorcycle Racing

Stars, Stripes, and MotoGP: What the Opening at Monster Yamaha Tech 3 Really Means for American Riders


The American motorcycle road racing press has been whipped up into a frenzy since news of Jonas Folger’s unexpected departure from the Monster Yamaha Tech 3 MotoGP team broke last week. Several of my colleagues in the MotoAmerica press corps., including Lance Oliver at RevZilla (https://www.revzilla.com/common-tread/will-a-us-rider-get-an-unexpected-shot-at-motogp), and Dave Swarts from Roadracing World (http://www.roadracingworld.com/news/motogp-who-will-monster-yamaha-tech-3-choose-to-replace-jonas-folger-in-2018/) have penned articles about the possibility of an American rider taking Folger’s place on a satellite MotoGP team. The possibility of having an American back in the MotoGP paddock after a two-year absence is worthy of the attention it is receiving. Despite how ripe conditions are for the stars and stripes to re-enter the MotoGP paddock, we need to look at why there have not been any American riders in MotoGP, as well as whether an American rider would get a fair opportunity to keep his or her ride. 

If there was going to be a team in the MotoGP paddock where an American rider would get a shot, it would most likely be Tech 3. Over the last ten years or so, the Yamaha Tech 3 squad has represented a rebellious departure from the MotoGP satellite team norm. The Ducati and Honda satellite teams have primarily chosen either proven talent in grand prix motorcycle racing’s lower ranks, or well-funded European riders. Since 2008, Tech 3 has fielded two full-time American riders and one American wild card, as well as several former superbike riders in lieu of the talent on their own Moto2 effort. Having access to essentially last year’s Moviestar Yamaha engines, chasses, and other parts has no doubt been a major reason for Tech 3’s success as a non-factory effort. However, it is interesting to note that some of that success has come from riders who are sometimes less familiar with grand prix motorcycles than other comparable team/rider combinations. Tech 3 team principal Herve Poncharal’s leadership and decision-making seem to embody the saying, “Fortune favors the bold.” 

There are also several synergies between the Tech 3 team and the American Monster Energy Graves Yamaha team that could heavily influence the situation. For one, both Yamaha-supported teams are sponsored by Monster. Given the political insanity the defines the microworld of the MotoGP paddock, common sponsorship can be a big factor in decision-making. Moreover, two of Tech 3’s sponsors over the last few seasons has been DeWalt Tools/Stanley Tools (https://motogp.teamtech3.fr/index.php/en/sponsors-en), which are brands owned by Baltimore, Maryland’s Black & Decker corporation. It would not be surprising if an American sponsor lobbied to have an American rider on a bike they sponsor.  

Despite all of these forces working toward getting an American back on MotoGP machinery, we need to keep in mind the overwhelming financial and political forces that drove American riders out of top-level grand prix racing. Even though Tech 3 has not exhibited the financial struggles of some other satellite or privateer MotoGP efforts, American riders are usually backed by American sponsors. Those sponsors are often less familiar with MotoGP than European sponsors, and are disinclined to pony up significant sponsorship for a racing series that only visits the United States once per year. Even the American sponsors who are in MotoGP (like Tech 3’s DeWalt/Stanley) have remained financially involved in MotoGP despite the absence of American riders. This would appear to signal that those sponsors are confident they will get good value for money in MotoGP with or without an American rider. 

Additionally, as my colleagues have already pointed out, there are question marks hanging over all of the potential Yamaha riders currently competing in the American MotoAmerica series. Out of the three, Cameron Beaubier is the most likely to move up. Beaubier has the most experience on literbike machinery, two top-class national championships, and rode admirably in his surprise World Superbike debut last season. However, Beaubier had a nasty shoulder injury near the end of last season , and MotoGP decision makers may remember what happened to Ben Spies after his shoulder injuries. JD Beach is likely the next best candidate for the Tech 3 seat. Beach does not have any experience racing literbikes and was overlooked for Josh Hayes’ vacant Superbike seat. Moreover, Beach struggled in the second half of the MotoAmerica season, in very large part due to the Supersport class’ switch to a more GP-spec rear tire. However, Beach is the least happy with his Graves seat out of the Yamaha three, and made European headlines by winning the Superprestigio in December. Beach is also the 2008 Red Bull Rookies Cup champion, and no stranger to grand prix racing. While Gerloff beat out Beach for the MotoAmerica Supersport title the last two years, his new deal with Graves and lack of experience on either a literbike or grand prix motorcycles likely hurts his chances and grabbing the Tech 3 seat. 

Even if one of the American riders ended up being selected as Folger’s replacement, there is no guarantee that they would get a fair shot at keeping their ride. Barring a Spies-like performance at Tech 3, several factors could easily conspire to force an American rider out at the first sign of trouble. For one, Tech 3 has a Moto2 team. Although being a Moto2 Tech 3 rider has not historically led to a Tech 3 MotoGP ride, Moto2 riders are often expected to bring six figures of sponsorship to teams and have usually come up through the grand prix ranks. It would be very easy for Tech 3 to drop an American, superbike-oriented rider for a better known, experienced grand prix rider. Additionally, there is a more general knack on superbike riders moving up to MotoGP. A few former superbike riders (Ben Spies, Cal Crutchlow) have won grads prix. Most other AMA Superbike/World Superbike riders who have moved over to grand prix racing (Colin Edwards, Nori Haga, James Toseland, and for the most part Troy Bayliss) have enjoyed far less success in MotoGP. The track record may cause a MotoGP team principal to put a former superbike rider on shorter leash than a grand prix rider. 

While the opportunity to get the stars and stripes back in the MotoGP paddock is as good as it has been in the last few years, the conditions that drove American riders out of MotoGP in the first place are still firmly in place. MotoGP has shown a commitment to opening up the American market to its brand. Their first, short-term approach of increasing the number of grands prix in the U.S. did not pan out. In response, MotoGP has switched to a longer-term strategy. The centerpiece of that strategy is MotoAmerica. The hope is likely that the re-emergence of a popular, competitive national road racing series will prime the American market for MotoGP’s eventual return to multiple U.S. grands prix. However, until MotoAmerica begins to bloom, and right now it is still digging its way out of the mess that its predecessors left the sport in, American riders have much, much less to offer a MotoGP team than an Italian or Spanish Moto2 rider. Between sponsorship, nationality, riding style/experience, and internal politics, talent is only a small part of what is needed to reach and succeed in MotoGP. Until economic and internal political conditions change in the microworld that is MotoGP, American riders will continue to struggle to find top-class rides, let alone hold onto them. 

Day Summary: MotoAmerica NJMP 2017, Saturday


The day’s action stated just before noon with Superpole to determine the grid the weekend’s Motul Superbike and Bazzazz Superstock 1000 races. The session ended with Yoshimura Suzuki Factory Racing’s Roger Lee Hayden on the pole. Hayden set a blistering 1:20.378 on his flying lap to edge out Monster Energy/Yamalube/Yamaha Factory Racing’s Josh Hayes by just over two-tenths of a second. Rounding out the front row was Hayden’s teammate and Superbike points leader Toni Elias. The Spaniard carried a 79-point championship lead into the weekend, and looked poised to wrap up the championship before MotoAmerica departed NJMP. Two other standouts in qualifying were Kyle Wyman and Matthew Scholtz. Wyman, who owns and runs his own privateer Superbike team was nipped off the first row by Elias in the closing minutes of Superpole, but still enjoyed his best qualifying of the year at a track he has spent an inordinate amount to time teaching at with the Yamaha Champions Riding School. Next to Wyman on the second row is pole-winner for the Bazzazz Superstock 1000 class Matthew Scholtz. The Yamalube Westby Racing rider continued his strong form from Pittsburgh, and beat Genunie Broaster Chicken Honda Superbike rider Jake Gagne for a top 5 qualifying performance. Among the disappointing surprises of Superpole was Josh Hayes’ teammate for the weekend, 2013 AMA Pro Superbike Champion Josh Herrin. According to Yamaha Press Officer Sean Bice, Herrin was struggling on one of the tire compounds for the first session on Friday and had been playing catch-up on set-up since then. Herrin finished Superpole in eighth, and would start from the third row of the grid. 

A couple hours later the day’s racing action began with the Supersport/Superstock 600 race. That race saw Monster Energy/Yamalube/Y.E.S./Graves Yamaha rider J.D. Beach take the holeshot. Beach has struggled this season since the introduction of the 180-section rear tire to the Supersport class, and has fallen behind both teammate Gerloff and M4 Suzuki’s Valentin Debise in the last few race results. Beach and Gerloff seemed poised for a two-way battle at the front, but a red flag came out before the end of lap 1 due to a crash in Turn 5. The race restarted as a shortened, 16-lap race instead the 20 laps slated for the day. Gerloff took the holeshot on the restart and never looked back, winning the race by over 10 seconds. Second place was not decided until the last corner. Debise had been following Beach for most of the race, as the two had had to deal with several packs of lapped traffic. Beach led Debise through all of the lapped traffic until the last corner, where Debise made an aggressive move and beat Beach to the line by seven-tenths of a second. Honda H35 rider Benny Solis brought his Honda CBR600RR home in fourth. After the race, all three of the podium finishers reported problems with lapped riders not adhering to the blue flags and remaining on the racing line. I asked Gerloff if he had made any set-up changes during the red flag. Gerloff indicated that he had thought about it, but decided not to because of a lack of warm-weather running this weekend.  

The Supersport action followed by a championship-deciding Motul Superbike/Bazzazz Superstock 1000 race. Graves Yamaha rider Josh Hayes grabbed the holeshot over polesitter Roger Lee Hayden, and lead the first third of the race. Championship leader Toni Elias slotted into second on the first lap and followed Hayes until lap 7, when he passed Hayes and assumed the race lead for the remainder of the race. Hayes fought hard for several laps after being passed to get back in front of Elias, but Hayes’ Yamaha R1 could be seen protesting the thrashing its rider was giving it in several corners. Hayes appeared to have used up most of his rear tire trying to stay with Elias, and was later passed by Elias’ Yoshimura Suzuki teammate Hayden. Hayden then unsuccessfully attempted to challenge Elias for the lead. Hayden was never able to show Elias a wheel, and Elias’ victory sealed the Rider’s Championship for him and the Yoshimura Suzuki squad. It was the team’s first MotoAmerica championship, and their first in top-class American professional road racing since 2009. It was Elias’ second championship of any kind, as he holds the 2010 Moto2 title as well. Talking with Elias after the race, he said this championship means more to him than his Moto2 title, in part of because of the lows he had to endure between the Moto2 title and now in order to win the MotoAmerica crown. 

The race also saw several other strong performances further back in the field. Josh Herrin finished fourth in his return to both the MotoAmerica Superbike grid. Herrin ran most of the race in fifth before a last-lap, last-corner pass on Broaster Chicken Honda’s Jake Gagne. In my estimation, the pass was aggressive and done at an unusual spot on track, but clean. After the race, Herrin reported to me that he talked with Gagne, who was not upset about the pass. Non-factory Superbike entry and Rochester, New York’s own Kyle Wyman came home in sixth place. Wyman had lead free practice 1 and reported he was feeling very comfortable on his privateer Yamaha R1. In the Bazzazz Superstock 1000 class, TOBC Racing’s Danny Eslick took his first in-class win of the season. Eslick finished ahead of ECSTAR Suzuki’s Jake Lewis, who pipped Bazzaz Superstock 1000 championship leader Matthew Scholtz for second in the closing laps of the race. Scholtz had been a strong runner all weekend, qualifying fifth on the overall grid. Despite fading to a ninth-place finish overall, Scholtz still leads the Bazzazz Superstock 1000 class by 60 points over the aforementioned Lewis, and could lock up the class title before the weekend is over. While not showing a strong performance in the race, Team WD-40/Schribe Racing’s Jason DiSalvo qualified his BMW S1000RR in seventh place for the weekend’s Motul Superbike races. After the race, DiSalvo reported the team was working to improve the bike’s handling in the early part of the race by trying a new fuel tank design, and has been successfully developing its Hayes braking system components throughout the year. The team looked good in its WD-40 attire, and it has been a big positive to see such an iconic and outside-the-industry brand enter the MotoAmerica paddock. 

 

 

MotoAmerica Road America 2017: Saturday Summary


The weather at Road America today reflected the mood of the paddock. The day progressed from the darkness and dreariness of a memorial to the brightness of carrying on how our fallen hero would want us to. A steady rain started and stopped several times during morning practices and qualifying before the memorial activities began for the late Nicky Hayden. The tribute started with Nicky’s younger brother and Yoshimura Suzuki rider Roger Lee doing a lap on a street Suzuki GSX-R1000R with a flag bearing Nicky’s unforgettable “69” logo. Roger ended his ride at the podium, where a large crowd remained silent for 69 seconds in honor of our fallen hero. As Roger made his way around Road America’s four miles of asphalt, the rain began to gradually pick up. By the time Roger made it to the podium, the precipitation had built into a steady shower. But as the long silence drew to a close, the rain suddenly let up. While I do not propose that coincidence is evidence of supernatural intervention, the was an awe, a sense, a spirit about those moments. Whether it was Nicky looking down upon those who he had spent the last twenty years inspiring or simply a psychological phenomenon created by a group consciousness we will never know for sure. But in those moments, one could sense how Nicky’s passion had touched an entire generation of motorcycle racing fans.

As rain ended, the clouds gradually cleared and the Supersport/Superstock 600 field was left with a difficult tire choice. Even though the air temperature was coming up and the track was drying, almost the entire field opted for wet weather tires. One notable exception was Valentin Debise (#53). Debise was sitting fourth in the championship despite his two DNF’s at the previous round at VIRginia International Raceway.  The race began as an 11-lap race but was red-flagged on lap 1 due to a crash in turn 5. The race restarted as a 7-lap race, and the still damp conditions pushed Debise wide at turn 1 where he fell back to 24th. At the front, the Y.E.S. Yamalube Graves Yamaha riders Garret Gerloff (#1) and J.D. Beach (#95) took off at the front. Despite the drying line that was forming around the racetrack, Debise was not able to make any real inroads toward the front and finished 14th. In the end, Gerloff was able to stay ahead of teammate Beach for the win, with the factory-supported Honda CBR600RR of Benny Solis (#35) taking his third podium in a row. Several riders were setting their fastest lap times of the race on the last lap despite the wet weather tires getting torn up and greasy.

By the end of the Supersport/Superstock 600 race, the track had mostly dried for the Superbike/Superstock 1000 race. However, there were still a few damp spots, and Josh Hayes (#4) found one of them in spectacular fashion. Hayes was coming up the hill out of Canada corner when he hit a standing water on the track and was violently high-sided off his Monster Energy Graves Yamaha R1. Hayes was okay, but was unable to start the race. The Superbike/Superstock 1000 race featured a close three-way battle between the remaining Monster Energy Graves Yamaha R1 of Cameron Beaubier (#1) and the Yoshimura Suzuki GSX-R1000Rs ridden by Roger Lee Hayden (#95) and Toni Elias (#24). On the last lap, Elias was in the lead and Hayden passed Beaubier going into Road America’s best passing zone at turn 5. After that, Beaubier went on a charge. First, he re-passed Hayden in turn 6 to re-take second place, then went hard after Elias. Beaubier’s bike could be seen moving around and sliding a bit on corner exit as he gradually reeled Elias in. In the last corner, Elias reported after the race that he made an error on his throttle application that forced him to go wide. This allowed Beaubier to get passed Elias by the narrowest of margins as the two squared off on a drag race up Road America’s iconic front straight to decide the winner. Despite the grunt from the all-new GSX-R motor, Beaubier was able to hang on by 0.005 seconds to take the victory. Hayden finished in third, and Josh Herrin (#2) brought his privateer Meen Motorsports Yamaha R1 home in fourth. Jake Lewis (#85) onboard a Superstock GSX-R1000R took fifth overall in the race, and first in his class. It was Lewis’ first win of the season. During the post-race press conference Lewis reported his feel for the new bike has been growing over the first few rounds of the championship and he expects his performance to continue to improve as the season goes on.

The last race of the day belonged to the KTM RC390 Cup class. For buckeyes, this was a very special day. Buckeye Gavin Anthony (#176), who still competes in the Ohio Mini Roadracing League took the holeshot from a second row start. He slipped back to third at turn 3 while eventual race winner Benjamin Smith (#118) and Justin Blackmon (#618) took a commanding lead over the rest of the field. Around lap 3 of 7, Blackmon and Alex Dumas (#690) were given ride-through penalties for jumping the start. By the end of the race, Dumas was running behind Anthony and Blackmon pulled in to serve his ride through, handing second place to Anthony. Third place went to Draik Beauchamp (#77). Anthony and Beauchamp secured their places by coming out on top of a seven to eight bike pack that ran together for most of the race. Anthony’s finish was most impressive, considering he went wide at turn five on the penultimate lap, and had to battle back through that pack to secure his first podium of the professional racing career.

Day Summary: MotoAmerica VIR 2017 — Sunday


Sunday’s MotoAmerica action from VIRginia International Raceway (VIR) was tame compared to Saturday’s bar-banging drama. That said, there was plenty of on-track action in all three racing classes. The sun was out all day and conditions were much warmer and drier than either Friday or Saturday. Unfortunately, the hot conditions made the track greasy, and the day was witness to several unfortunate incidents.

Chief among those incidents was a crash involving two Ohioans. During the KTM RC390 Cup morning warm-up, Hillard, Ohio’s Gavin Anthony (#176) and Medina, Ohio’s Tyler Wissel (#200) crashed after both drafted past Tyler’s twin brother Ryan (#220) on the front straight. Based on Ryan’s description of the incident, Tyler tried to pass Gavin on the inside of turn 1 when he lost control and crashed into Gavin as Gavin was taking a wider line into the corner. The session was red-flagged and both riders were transported to a local hospital and then released. I spoke with Gavin’s father Adam later in the day and he indicated Gavin had a sprained wrist and a lot of bruising but has no broken bones. Ryan reported to me that Tyler was going to need surgery, but was generally okay. Both motorcycles looked significantly damaged when I saw them in the paddock. One of Gavin’s clip-on handlebars was broken completely off. Hopefully both riders will be healthy enough to race at Road America in three weeks time.

Gavin and Tyler’s incident was far from the last one for the KTM RC390 Cup riders. Of the 14 riders who started the KTM RC390 Cup race, six of them crashed out and one more ran off track and rejoined. Points leader Benjamin Smith (#118) crashed out when he ran into the back of another rider and lost the front at turn 1. Buckeye Ryan Wissel (#220) crashed at turn 3. I spoke with Ryan after the race and he believed his crash and a number of the other crashes had been caused by teams raising rear tire pressures too high for today’s hotter conditions. I also spoke with RC390 Cup competitor Nate Minster (#101), who reported the track felt greasier to him in the hotter conditions. With the top two riders in the KTM RC390 Cup standings not finishing Sunday’s race, the points standings have been shaken up a bit. Race winner Jackson Blackmon (#618) who entered the weekend with no points, left VIR fourth in the standings. The battle at the top of the points remains close, with the top three separated by only six points.

Today’s supersport highlights actually began during the last chance qualifier (LCQ). Xavier Zayat, who I had a chance to sit down and talk with for a bit on Saturday, had failed to finish Saturday’s LCQ due to clutch problems. During Sunday mornings’ LCQ, Zayat crashed on the warm-up lap, but came all the way back to finish second and advance to the main. Unfortunately, Zayat struggled with more clutch problems in Sunday’s main and did not finish the race.

The action at the front of the Supersport/Superstock 600 race was intense. Team Hammer M4 Suzuki’s Valentin Debise, who was a front runner all of last year and at Road Atlanta, crashed out on lap 2 at turn 1 for the second day in a row. Unlike Saturday’s crash, Debise’s fall was an unassisted low side  as he tried to make a pass for the lead. The remainder of the race featured a close battle at the front between the Y.E.S. Graves Yamahas of J.D. Beach (#95) and Garrett Gerloff (#1) with Beach coming out on top. Honda factory-supported rider Benny Solis brought his Honda CBR600RR home in a lonely third place. With Debise’s two DNFs this weekend, Solis has moved past Debise for third in the points standings. Gerloff left VIR having maintained his four-point lead in the championship over Beach.

Sunday’s Superbike/Superstock 1000 race did not feature as many of the close battles or controversy that Saturday’s race did. Sunday’s race did feature a new-old winner, as Monster Energy Graves Yamaha’s Josh Hayes took his first win of the season. Hayes grabbed the holeshot and maintained his lead throughout most of the race. Despite Hayes’ victory, the ride of the day belonged to Hayes’ teammate Cameron Beaubier. For the second day in a row, Beaubier made a mistake under braking for turn 1 that took him off the track. Beaubier rejoined the race in sixth and fought his way back onto the podium. Saturday’s race winner, Yoshimura Suzuki’s Roger Hayden, went off track at turn 1 on lap 22 of 23 and finished in sixth place. Josh Herrin, who was penalized three grid spots for his crash on Saturday that took out Yoshimura Suzuki’s Toni Elias, ran off track early in the race and finished in eleventh place. Elias ran a solid race that featured a battle with teammate Hayden throughout most of the race and was able to bring his 2017 Suzuki GSX-R1000RR home in second place. As for the overall championship, Elias has maintained his position at the top of the standings despite the DNF in race 1. Elias leads Cameron Beaubier by 10 points and teammate Roger Hayden by 11 points heading into the next round at Road America on June 3-5.

Day Summary: MotoAmerica VIR 2017 — Saturday


Saturday’s MotoAmerica action at VIRginia International Raceway could be re-named “bump day.” While the racing in all three MotoAmerica classes features close battles, all three races were defined by multiple incidents of riders banging bars to the point where one or more of them left the racing surface. Banging bars can be a sign of good or bad racing. However, when bar banging results in more crashes than close battles it begins to cross the grey area between bravery and recklessness.

Not helping the bar banging was the weather. While the rain stayed away and the sun came out for good around 11am, the heavy rains that fell on Friday continued to define track conditions throughout the day. The morning was cold, humid, and overcast, and the track dried slowly as each of MotoAmerica’s classes took their turn on track. As the sun came out, the track dried more quickly and lap times began dropping. Xavier Zayat, who was among the top three Superstock 600 riders in dry conditions at Road Atlanta a couple weeks back led the Group 2 qualifying with a 1:39.228. Michael Gilbert was the fastest Superstock 600 bike in Group 1 (which went out after Group 2) with a time of 1:31.746. Later on in the race water began seeping up from the track in areas, including a small river running across the last turn. I chatted with Hayden Gillim, who was our guest on the TWPH a couple weeks ago. He told me water coming up out of the track after a heavy rain was not unusual, but the amount of water at the last corner was very unusual. More on the impact of the water coming up can be found below.

Unfortunately, a couple buckeyes were on the losing end of the bar-banging. OMRL product Gavin Anthony was forced wide at the last corner by another rider and went down. Gavin remounted and was able to finish the race a lap down in 13th. I caught up with Gavin after the race. He was disappointed but was physically okay. Gavin had put in an incredible effort in qualifying. He came into the pits with about four minutes to go with a front brake fade problem. His dad sent him back out since there was just enough time to get in a out lap and a hot lap in before the session ended. On the hot lap the front brake fade problem came back, so Gavin had to finish the hot lap using only rear brake and backing the bike into corners. Despite having the ride the bike very unorthodoxly, Gavin jumped from ninth to sixth. While Gavin’s race did not go as planned, he will have another chance tomorrow. Gavin will again line up on the second row of the KTM RC390 Cup grid, where he should have a good chance to getting to the front again. The twin buckeyes of Ryan and Tyler Wissel also had bummer days out on track. Tyler, who told me before the race he was a big fan of VIR, was another bar-banging victim. He started the race fourth on the grid and slipped back a few positions at the start. Tyler was then forced off track at the top of the roller coaster section and crashed heavily. I swung by the Wissel Racing paddock set-up after the race and caught up with Tyler. He reported that he is physically fine despite the spectacular-looking crash, and that the KTM RC390 is repairable and will be ready for tomorrow’s race. Tyler’s identical twin brother Ryan, who reported not being a big fan of VIR, finished ninth after starting twelfth.

The Supersport/Superstock 600 was also the scene of more bar-banging. The relatively clean first lap featured another three-way battle between the Y.E.S. Graves Yamaha R6s of Garrett Gerloff and J.D. Beach and the M4 Suzuki GSX-R 600 of Valentin Debise. Debise did stand Gerloff up in turn 1, but Gerloff managed to get around Debise and Beach to take the lead. As they began lap two, Debise clipped the left rear of the Gerloff’s bike at the end of the front straight and ended up going down in the muddy turn 1. Debise was uninjured but the rider and bike were covered in a thick, wet layer of mud and grass. The remainder of the race featured a close battle between Gerloff and Beach, with Gerloff eventually breaking away and taking the win. With Debise out, Honda’s factory-supported Benny Solis was able to bring his CBR600RR home in a lonely third place for his first podium of the season. TWPH friend Caroline Olson crashed her Meen Motorsports Yamaha R6 at turn 1 on the last lap. I did not have a chance to catch up with Caroline after the race but will try to find her this morning. Despite the use of the last chance qualifier pre-race to limit the size of the Supersport/Superstock 600 grid, Gerloff and Beach began lapping riders around lap 12. That caused the gap between the leaders to change and created some close calls between the faster and slower riders on the mostly one-line VIR track. MotoAmerica may need to look at ways to shrink the middleweight grid even more the rider safety.

The Superbike/Superstock 1000 race was spectacular with its deft riding and amazing comebacks by the Graves Yamaha riders. However, the race was ultimately defined by bar-banging between Yoshimura Suzuki’s Toni Elias and Meen Motorsports’ Josh Herrin. Graves Yamaha’s Josh Hayes and Cameron Beaubier, along with Herrin, secured a Yamaha lockout of the front row. Herrin, Elias, and Yoshimura Suzuki’s Roger Lee Hayden got off to good starts while Beaubier made a mistake in turn 1 and Hayes was forced off track at the top of the roller coaster section. Herrin battled with Hayden for the first part of the race with some aggressive passes and defensive riding before Hayden’s Suzuki was able to get in front and pull away to a comfortable lead. Herrin began drifting back toward Elias while Hayes and Beaubier were trading fastest laps between them. Elias caught and passed Herrin, and Herrin attempted to make a bold pass he had completed successfully several times earlier in the race at the top of the roller coaster. That time however he lost control and crashed straight on, taking Elias out with him. Hayden was then able to cruise to a win, while Beaubier has ridden all the way back to second and Hayes back to third. Hayes, however, was piped at the line by Latus Motors Kawasaki’s Bobby Fong, who took his third Superbike podium and third Superstock 1000 win of the season. Fong reported in the post-race press conference that Hayes lost drive after running over the aforementioned river at the last turn and that is why his Superstock 1000 Kawasaki ZX-10R was able to out-drive the factory superbike to start finish. I spoke with Hayes after the race and he did not feel that the “river” slowed him down. He thought he had gone around it and just did not get a good drive out of the last corner.

There was a mixed response in the press box and the paddock to the Herrin/Elias incident. During the press conference, Fong and Hayden heavily criticized Herrin’s riding. They felt he was trying too hard and was seriously overriding his bike to pass other riders for pride rather than positions he would be able to maintain. When I asked Roger how he felt Herrin had raced him earlier in the race. Hayden responded “Clean, but dumb.” Several people in the press room also felt that Herrin had tried to come from too far back to out-brake Elias, who is renown for being strong on braking. Other members of the press and Josh Hayes felt that it was a racing incident and that Herrin had not done anything any other racer would do, or that Elias would not have done to him. Personally, I always go back to the Ayrton Senna quote, “If you no longer go for a gap, you are no longer a racing driver.” Herrin had made that same out-braking maneuver several times earlier in the race. I think he probably tried to out-brake someone he could not out-brake and got in too deep. Racers are going to make aggressive moves. They are not out there to complete the world’s fastest parade on two wheels. To me, it was not a dirty pass and did not deserve to be penalized. Instead, Herrin has been dropped three grid positions for Sunday’s race.

Day Summary: MotoAmerica VIR 2017 — Friday


After an eventful drive that started at 4am this morning, the Two Wheel Power Hour has now made its presence known in the MotoAmerica paddock for the first time this season. Because I wanted to get my credentials on Friday I left Youngstown plenty early at 4am….or so I thought. The trip was uneventful until I got on to the West Virginia Turnpike. A mile or so before the first toll booth, traffic came to a standstill….and stayed that way for almost an hour and a half. My car moved a total of ten feet during that time. A tractor trailer had crashed just south of the tollbooth, and the turnpike runs through some very rugged terrain that is not easy to access from surface roads. Once that mess was in the rear view mirror the rest of the trip was uneventful. However I had to hustle to make it to the track in time to pick up my credentials before the booth closed. Fortunately I did not hit any additional snags and made it to VIR around 330pm. A constant drizzle was coming down when I arrived and it remained that way until a downpour started right after KTM RC390 qualifying ended.

After I got to the track I was able to spend some time catching up with friends of the Two Wheel Power Hour in the MotoAmerica paddock. My first stop was the Kyle Wyman Racing tent. Kyle was in good spirits and reported being much more comfortable with his Yamaha R1 superbike this season. Kyle finished the second practice session P2 in mixed conditions, and was on his way to a kick-off event at a local motorcycle dealer when we parted ways. My next stop was the Wissel Racing tent. I spent some time chatting with the Wissel brothers’ crew chief and father Matt. Both of the twins have moved up the time sheets from last season. I also swung by the Anthony Racing set-up to chat with Gavin and Adam. Gavin took P2 in KTM RC390 Cup qualifying today, with another qualifying session coming tomorrow morning.

The day was defined by the weather. Mixed conditions governed the track from start to end. Time sheets for both the Motul Superbike and Supersport classes lacked any definition. Riders who were leading in the first practice were closer to the bottom in second practice. The two Yoshimura Suzukis of Roger Lee Hayden and Toni Elias came in P2 and P3, respectively in the first practice session. In the second session, Elias was P6 and Roger P11. The Graves Yamahas of Josh Hayes and Cameron Beaubier were P11 and P6, respectively, in first practice. In second practice, they were P4 and P3 with the R1s of the aforementioned Kyle Wyman and session-leader Josh Herrin in front of them. Conditions are expected to be similar tomorrow with less rain but the same temperatures. If the track does not dry out overnight, it could make for tricky conditions for tomorrow’s Supersport/Superstock 600 qualifying and KTM RC390 Cup qualifying in the morning.

Overall, the best part of the day was just being back in the MotoAmerica paddock. It is always good to be at any race track. For me though, MotoAmerica is a unique environment that means so much more to me. Maybe it is the effort I put into writing my strategic plan for the sport a few years back. Maybe it is that it is our national series and that stirs my sense of pride. Or maybe it is the people I got to know in the paddock last year and the sense of community I perceive as I walk about the paddock. In any event, MotoAmerica will always have a special place in my heart because of what it is and what it has overcome to reach its current level of success. I am so happy to be covering it again this year, and am looking forward to catching up with more people I know and bringing Two Wheel Power Hour listeners more stories from the paddock on Saturday.

2017 MotoGP Season Preview


Introduction 

Usually when I am writing a MotoGP season preview, I am talking about two or three riders who are expected to dominate the championship, and everyone else is about a mile behind the leaders. Usually I am writing about how MotoGP’s reliance of laboratory bikes makes for less exciting racing than World Superbike. Usually, I am writing about the “aliens” of MotoGP (Lorenzo, Marquez, Pedrosa, and Rossi) returning for another year of domination at the front. However, 2016 was anything but the usual in MotoGP. 2016 may be the year we look back at as the year MotoGP was redefined. 2016 could also end up being an aberration that those of us fortunate enough to enjoy it will look back on fondly. In either case, MotoGP’s anything-but-ordinary 2016 season gave its fans something more gripping that even World Superbike has delivered in years past. It rejuvenated a series that had become too lopsided. In 2015, the defining moment of the MotoGP season was not a ballsy pass or the emergence of a new rising star. Rather it was a poor-quality soap opera-like drama show, where the immaturity of one star and another star’s short fuse resulted in the championship being decided by the stewards. The 2014 season was a year of Marquez domination, with Marquez’s championship-winning debut season in 2013 being the series’ last re-defining season.

Despite Marquez’s enormous impact on MotoGP, from his aggressive riding and elbow dragging to his soured relationship with Rossi, 2016 was a far more important season to MotoGP’s future than 2013 every could be. Yes, Marquez is an immensely talented rider who may one day be arguably the greatest grand prix motorcycle racer of all time. However, domination is not the underpinning of commercial success in motorsports: close competition is. 2016 was the godsend MotoGP knew it needed but, despite its best efforts, had failed to produce artificially.

2016 was witness to something far more important to top-level professional motorsports than greatness: hope. In years past, only a select few riders, teams, and manufacturers won races. While Marquez picked up his third top-class title in 2016, it was far from a dominating season. From the start of the 2007 season to the end of the 2015 season, five riders (Rossi, Lorenzo, Pedrosa, Marquez, and Stoner) won all but four grands prix. Ben Spies was the last “other” winner (Assen, 2011). Other than Casey Stoner’s wins for Ducati from 2007 to 2010, the only non-Honda or Yamaha-mounted riders to win races were Loris Capirossi (Ducati, Japan, 2007), and Chris Vermeulen (Suzuki, Le Mans [wet race], 2007).

In 2016, nine different riders (Marquez, Lorenzo, Rossi, Pedrosa, Crutchlow, Vinales, Miller, Dovizioso, and Iannone) won grands prix for six different teams (Honda, Yamaha, Ducati and Suzuki factory teams, LCR Honda, and MarcVDS Honda) representing four different manufacturers (Honda, Yamaha, Suzuki, Ducati). Crutchlow won two grands prix. It may be no coincidence that the greater parity in on-track success suddenly appeared when MotoGP transitioned to spec electronic control units (ECUs) for 2016. In any event, the 2016 MotoGP season was more than something different from past seasons. It has given the teams who used to be seconds behind the two big teams the hope that they can be at the front too. 2016 was more than just an aberration: it is blood in the water. In 2017, we should expect to see a rejuvenated paddock that will attack the championship with a ferocity that we have not seen in previous years.

 

Series Changes

The only major rules change for the 2017 MotoGP season concerns “winglets.” While we usually think of wings and downforce in the context of auto racing, MotoGP teams have gradually been integrating winglets into their bodywork designs. Ducati was one of the first to use the noticeable winglets to help prevent wheelieing in the early 2010s. Last season, winglets took on some extreme iterations, notably the factory Ducati and Yamaha squads.

This year’s schedule remains essentially unchanged. Brno (Czech Republic) and the Red Bull Ring (Austria) have swapped their order on the schedule. Otherwise, MotoGP will visit all of the same tracks they visited in 2016. Unlike previous seasons when the U.S. enjoyed hosting as many as three grands prix, the only U.S. race will be at Circuit of the Americas in April. The 2017 MotoGP calendar can be viewed here: http://www.motogp.com/en/calendar/

 

Teams 

Repsol Honda Team

Bike: Honda RC213V

Riders: Marc Marquez(#93) / Dani Pedrosa (#26)

This team needs no introduction. Marquez is now a three-time and reigning MotoGP world champion, having won his first championship in his rookie season and has won three of the last four MotoGP crowns. The elbow dragger had two strong tests at Valencia and Jerez, but ended up 10th fastest at the last test in Qatar. Marquez went on the record saying he feels better going into 2017 than he did going into 2016. As always, with the engineering prowess of Honda and his sheer talent, Marquez will be a definite threat to repeat as world champion in 2017.

Marquez’s teammate Dani Pedrosa is also well-known to Americans, though for less-than-memorable reasons. Pedrosa is entering his eleventh season with the factory Honda squad. His rookie season miscue where he took out eventual championship-winner and then-teammate Nicky Hayden at Estoril seems like a distant memory now. In his first eight seasons with Repsol Honda, Pedrosa has finished second or third in the riders’ championship seven times. However, since 2014, Pedrosa has finished no higher than fourth in the championship. Honda appears to be holding onto Pedrosa as its reliable #2 rider. Pedrosa has scored at least one win every season in MotoGP, the team’s Spanish petroleum sponsor Repsol would probably like to see the team feature two Spanish riders whenever possible. Pedrosa will likely be near the front again, but his consistent slide in performance makes one wonder how many more seasons Pedrosa will be able to hang onto one of the most coveted rides in the MotoGP paddock.

Honda was the most outspoken team on the issue of electronics the last several seasons. They were reported as being ready to quit the sport on more than one occasion if they were not allowed to use their own electronic rider aide package. Well, for Honda, that came to fruition last season, and they are still in the paddock. Honda did still take second in the constructors’ championship in 2016, 28 points behind Yamaha.

 

Moviestar Yamaha MotoGP

Bike: Yamaha YZR-M1

Riders:  Vinales (#25) / Rossi (#46)

The 2016 constructors’ champion is entering 2017 with more steam than they probably expected at the end of 2016. Most would have likely thought having to replace Jorge Lorenzo, who won three world championships in his nine years riding for the team, would be a tall order. While the 37 year-old Valentino Rossi actually led the team in points in 2016, Lorenzo’s past success and pace on the Yamaha were thought to be nearly impossible to replace. Then along came Maverick Vinales. Vinales, who is a former Moto3 world champion and the 2015 MotoGP Rookie of the Year, has showed immediate pace on the factory Yamaha machine. Vinales was the fastest overall rider in all three winter tests and won a race on the factory Suzuki last season. Look for Vinales to be at the front all season long in 2017. It remains to see how well Vinales will handle the pressure of a one of MotoGP’s most coveted rides. However, his past championship success in Moto3, success in his one season in Moto2 and young age (22) means we likely have not even seen Vinales’ full potential yet.

While Vinales may be one of MotoGP’s stars of the future, Vinales’ teammate remains the unequivocal face of MotoGP. Valentino Rossi, despite being the elder statesman of the MotoGP grid, is coming off a very strong season in 2016. The Doctor has shown that age does not feed on speed nor consistency. Rossi has finished the last three MotoGP seasons second in the riders’ championship, and likely had a legitimate shot at the 2015 title before his incident with Marquez at the Malaysian Grand Prix. However, off-season testing was not kind to Rossi. The Doctor was in the middle of the pack for most of the off-season testing sessions. Rossi finished the Valencia test seventh-fastest, Jerez fifth-fastest, and Qatar eleventh-fastest. At the Qatar test, Rossi was almost one second off of teammate Vinales’ pace. The Doctor has had a career of success by adjustment. But like an old clutch cable, could Rossi be coming to the end of range of adjustment? Rossi will likely still be at the front this season, but may not be there consistently for the early part of the season. It may be a matter of how quickly the Doctor’s team can master the new M1, as well as how much pace some of the other factory teams like Ducati have picked up over the offseason.

 

Ducati Team

Bike: Ducati Desmosedici GP17

Riders: Jorge Lorenzo (#99) / Andrea Dovizioso (#04)

But for Maverick Vinales’ unexpected pace at Yamaha, Jorge Lorenzo’s move to Ducati would likely be taking all of the MotoGP headlines. After nine years and three world championships with the factory Yamaha squad, Lorenzo is attempting to do what Rossi failed to do during the 2011 and 2012 seasons: Win on a Ducati. The Ducati team is in much better shape now that it was during Rossi’s short tenure, as it is coming off of its highest team points total since 2008 and won races for the first time since the Stoner era in 2010. Testing started slow for Lorenzo in Valencia, as the Ducati is a very different bike from the Yamaha. Lorenzo finished eighth-fastest in Valencia, ninth-fastest in Jerez, and fourth-fastest in Qatar. Lorenzo’s raw talent may allow him to be a consistent threat for podiums, but there is likely to be a bit of a learning curve on the Duc.

Lorenzo will team with returning Ducati rider Andrea “Dovi” Dovizioso. Dovi scored one of Ducati’s two wins in 2016, and got his first career MotoGP win all the way back in 2009 during his short tenure as a factory Honda rider. Dovi has shown consistent pace on the Honda, satellite Tech 3 Yamaha, and Ducati, relative to each machine’s potential. As the rider who had input into the development into the GP17, Dovi will be a threat for wins at tracks that suit the Ducati (Austria, Sepang), and will be a barometer that Lorenzo’s ability to adapt to the Italian machine will be measured by.

 

Aprilia Racing Team Gresini

Bike: Aprilia RS-GP

Riders: Alex Espargaro (#41) / Sam Lowes (#22)

Aprilia’s return to MotoGP as a full participant has been a bit dismal. The Gresini-Aprilia pairing has scored only 111 points over their two seasons together, and are already on their fifth and sixth different riders. Despite Gresini’s past success in several classes of grand prix racing, and Aprilia’s success in World Superbike, the RS-GP has failed to live up to the hype so far. For 2017, the RS-GPs will be piloted by riders Sam Lowes and Aleix Espargaro. Lowes is the 2013 World Supersport champion who has had some success in his three Moto2 seasons. Lowes scored two wins last season in Moto2, and finished fifth in that championship before being promoted to Gresini’s top-class squad. Espargaro is coming off of a disappointing season with the factory Suzuki team. He was comprehensively outperformed by them-teammate Maverick Vinales, finishing the season with 93 points compared to Vinales’ 202. In preseason testing, Espargaro was often mid-pack, while Lowes found himself near the bottom of the time sheets. While incremental improvements in performance are possible in 2017, preseason testing seems to indicate Aprilia have not taken the steps they needed to in the off-season to become a real threat in MotoGP.

 

Red Bull KTM Factory Racing

Bike: KTM RC16

Riders: Bradley Smith (#38) / Pol Espargaro (#44)

KTM is entering its very first season in MotoGP. Despite its success in the lower classes of grand prix racing and in the off-road competition, first seasons in top-class grand prix racing are usually disappointing. It appears KTM may be following that trend. KTM have opted to use a trellis steel frame for their machines. The remainder of MotoGP teams use aluminum perimeter frames. Ducati was the last team to use the steel trellis design before it moved over to carbon fiber in the late 2000s. It remains to be seen whether KTM has something in mind that Ducati did not, or whether this may be a short stint in MotoGP for KTM.

One thing KTM did very well was put quality talent on their machines. The team signed both Tech 3 riders from last season (Bradley Smith and Pol Espargaro). Smith is known for being among the most intelligent riders in the MotoGP paddock, and Espargaro is coming off a relatively strong season where he was the second-highest finishing non-factory rider behind Crutchlow. KTM’s performance in winter testing reflected their rookie status, with all test riders consistently finishing near the bottom of the time sheets. Though not much is to be expected from the Austrian squad, this will be a pivotal year for the team. How they respond to what they learn this year may well dictate the mark’s future fortunes in MotoGP.

 

Team Suzuki Ecstar

Bike: Suzuki GSX-RR

Riders: Andrea Iannone (#29) / Alex Rins (#42)

The relatively young factory Suzuki squad is coming off an unexpectedly positive 2016 season. While the team’s fastest rider (Maverick Vinales) has moved on to the Yamaha factory effort, the team scored its first win since 2007 and had its most successful season since it ended its two-year hiatus from grand prix racing in 2014. The team signed two new riders for 2017. Andrea Iannone moves over to Suzuki from the factory Ducati outfit after a successful yet forgettable 2016 season. Iannone’s success in achieving Ducati’s first win since 2010 at the Red Bull Ring last season was overshadowed by his submarine move on then-teammate Andrea Dovizioso in the closing stages of the Argentine Grand Prix, erasing a sure double-podium for Ducati. Iannone will be teamed with MotoGP rookie Alex Rins. Rins was the runner-up in the 2013 Moto3 championship, and has finished second or third in the last three Moto2 championships. Rins and Iannone were very close in the last two preseason tests. Look for Suzuki to continue to build on its success last season with its recent experience, past success in grand prix racing, and young talent. While wins may be a stretch for the team without the tremendously fast Vinales behind the bars, Suzuki will likely see at least one of their riders consistently in the top five. Podiums are possible depending on what happens with the frontrunners.

 

LCR Honda

Bike: Honda RC213V

Riders: Cal Crutchlow (#35)

2016 was a year of completely unexpected success for Crutchlow and LCR Honda. Crutchlow, who is the 2007 World Supersport champion and is entering his seventh season in MotoGP, has been known as a rider who has immense talent who does not always have the machinery underneath him to allow his full potential to be shown. While Crutchlow only moved up one place in the riders’ world championship between 2015 and 2016, last season saw Crutchlow take a pair of wins. For LCR, it was the team’s first two wins in its eleven year tenure in grand prix motorcycle racing’s top class. For 2017, Crutchlow returns to the team, and will again be paired with a factory-supported Honda RC213V. In preseason testing, Crutchlow showed consistent pace, but was still a little bit behind the frontrunners. He finished inside of the top 10, but outside of the top five, in all three preseason tests. While it may be difficult for Crutchlow to repeat his 2016 success, look for Crutchlow to challenge for podiums occasionally in 2017.

 

Monster Yamaha Tech 3

Bike: Yamaha YZR-M1

Riders: Johann Zarco (#5) / Jonas Folger (#94)

Yamaha’s French-based satellite team gets a complete makeover with its 2017 rider line-up. With both of its 2016 riders moving over to the new KTM factory team, Tech 3 secured the services of two-time and reigning Moto2 world champion Johann Zarco and Moto2 stand-out Jonas Folger for the 2017 season. Despite being bitter rivals in Moto2 for the last several seasons, they will share the Tech 3 garage and contest the 2017 top-class championship aboard year-old Yamaha YZF-M1s. Look for both riders to be mid-pack most of the season while they learn the ropes in MotoGP, much like both riders were in preseason testing. The two may reignite their fierce rivalry this season or in 2018 if and when it becomes clear that Rossi may hang up the leathers at the Yamaha factory team.

 

Other Teams 

The teams below are privateer or satellite teams who are not expected to be major contributors to the 2017 championship. The lone major participant in the 2016 championship from this group was Jack Miller. Miller grabbed a very unexpected win in mixed conditions at Assen last season. Miller was a standout in Moto3 before being promoted directly to the MotoGP class. Miller’s teammate Rabat, the 2014  Moto2 world champion, has yet to demonstrate his talent in the MotoGP class. Both riders will return to the team for 2017 aboard satellite Honda machinery. The three Ducati satellite teams will campaign several different iterations of past and present MotoGP chassis. The only rider to get current-year equipment is Danilo Petrucci, who has shown glimpses of speed, mostly in mixed or wet conditions. Petrucci’s teammate Redding, the 2013 Moto2 runner-up, has yet to show that same pace in the MotoGP class. He has slipped over the past couple of seasons, falling from 12th to 13th to 15th in the riders’ championship over his three seasons in MotoGP. Barring something unforeseen, none of the remaining riders are expected to make even occasional challenges for top fives or podiums in 2017.

 

EG 0,0 MarcVDS Racing

Bike: Honda RC213V

Riders: Jack Miller (#43) /  Tito Rabat (#53)

 

Octo Pramac Racing

Bike: Ducati Desmosedici GP17 / Ducati Desmosedici GP16

Riders: Danilo Petrucci (#9) / Scott Redding (#45)

 

Reale Avintina Racing

Bike: Ducati Desmosedici GP16 / Ducati Desmosedici GP15

Riders: Hector Barbera (#8) / Loris Baz (#76)

 

Pull&Bear Aspar Team

Bike: Ducati Desmosedici GP15 / Ducati Desmosedici GP16

Riders: Karel Abraham (#17) / Alvaro Bautista (#19)