Losail circuit, March 20th, 2016; Last lap before the checkered flag. Jorge Lorenzo escapes on his way to his first win of the season. Behind him, three riders contest the other two podium spots: the ever aggressive Marc Márquez, sly fox Valentino Rossi, and Andrea Dovizioso aboard the bike that likes the Qatari track the best, the Ducati Desmosedici.
As expected, on the penultimate lap of the race, Dovizioso overtakes Marquez’s Honda on top speed and the final assault begins. Braking into corner 6, a magic point for Marc where he always manages to make a pass, doesn’t find the space this time. They arrive at turn 10, and the distance the Ducati has on Marc makes it impossible to even try to overtake. The corners continue until the turn 16, the final corner. And that’s where—it couldn’t be otherwise—Marc launches a desperate attack. In one of his signature braking moves, he pushes and pushes and finally makes it past Dovizioso. But he reaches the apex of the corner so fast he runs wide, and Dovizioso maintains his line to recover the momentarily lost position to finish ahead of the Catalan rider.
Losail circuit, March 11, 2017; sometime during the night. Standing behind the guardrail of the entrance of the last corner before the straight, I observe the different lines the MotoGP riders take. As always, the differences between the bikes and the riders on the same bikes vary. Each one has his particular style and his way of maneuvering around the track: Marquez is by far the most aggressive; Pedrosa, the most technical; Rossi, the most elegant; Viñales…uh oh, what’s happening with Maverick?
I’m surprised to see Viñales apparently struggling with corner 16. On every lap he takes a different line than the previous. On one lap he is right up on the curbing, the next he is one meter out, on the next he brakes very late and enters deep, the next he takes with a more ‘Yamaha style,’ opening the gas early. It’s perplexing. It gets even more baffling when, back in the press room, I see his name on the top of the time sheet.
A few hours later at the end of the day, I tell Maverick what I had seen and he confirms that yes, at that point in the practice and at that corner he “was testing things” … Testing things? What things could he be testing in a corner with a top speed of only 115 km/h and with just one good line through it? Well, knowing Viñales the answer quickly came to mind: Maverick was testing and preparing for the end of race!… Wait, actually – the final corner of the race!
“No, you can’t pass there,” responds Viñales the next morning when I meet him at the hotel reception. But as Marquez demonstrated last year, you can. The only thing that Marc needed to do was to square the corner off, that is, to spin the rear wheel to turn the bike quicker and deeper and get on the gas sooner. And knowing Marquez, there is no doubt that Marc has studied his 2016 move intently so that next time it will work again; If he tried once, he’ll try it again if necessary…And Maverick knows this.
True, Viñales was probably not rehearsing a pass that night in Losail, but what he was trying was a defensive maneuver! Because Maverick is well aware that if the Honda sneaks by that braking point and gets on the front straight ahead of him, he has lost the game. His Yamaha does not have the Ducati super motor to regain lost ground before the finish line. He’ll miss his chance—in a hypothetical finale with Marquez—to stay ahead.
“In the fights with Marquez I have to be more aggressive than I have been up to now; I imagine there will be times when I have to release the brakes,” explained Viñales just days before traveling to Qatar. And that’s exactly what he rehearsed a few days later in Losail… Please, let the Championship begin already!