MotoGP: Jerez set for a Spanish struggle?

After three fly-aways to kick off the 2017 campaign, this weekend sees the MotoGP paddock finally roll into Europe for the first time this year and I for one couldn’t be more excited.

For many figures in the sport, Jerez marks the start of the season proper – the first of the eleven European races in a row that are at the heart of the MotoGP calendar – after which, given the amount of points on offer, we should have a pretty decent idea of whose name will be etched onto the World Championship Trophy. The Circuito de Jerez, to give it its full name, is also one of those classic racing tracks, steeped in character and history – indeed this year’s race will mark the 30th year that GP races have been held at the iconic venue. However all that aside, I’m just happy to be able to finally watch the races at a more tolerable time here in Asia, after having to forego a substantial amount of sleep in order to enjoy the previous three!

In terms of what could unfold at The Grand Prix of Spain, the majority of MotoGP fans will no doubt be hoping to finally see a proper battle to the finish between the championship’s current top two Spaniards – Messrs Vinales and Marquez. Three Grand Prix into the season and the two men have yet to finish on the podium together – indeed Qatar was the only race thus far where both riders managed to make it to the end. Whilst the home crowd will of course be hoping to see two of their favourites with Champagne in hand come the end of Sunday, it might be wise for them to somewhat dial down their expectations.

A Spanish Struggle

Such is the intense competition between Vinales and Marquez that so far each one has been forcing the other into mistakes. In the 2016 season, Marquez was so dominant that not only did he wrap up the championship with three races to spare, but he also finished 36 points ahead of second placed Valentino Rossi despite crashing out in Philip Island. Knowing that he had very little competition for the title last year enabled the Repsol Honda man to patiently bide his time, to push for the lead when it was within his reach, but also to settle for a podium finish when overexertion could have left him points-less. Fast forward to 2017 though, and the dynamic has changed completely. Vinales came into the season as the early favourite and then justified that tag with a win in Qatar. Consequently Marquez arrived in Argentina feeling the pressure, and despite starting on pole and pulling away for a substantial lead, the knowledge that Maverick was hunting him down in second could well have been the underlying reason behind him losing the front on lap four, crashing out, and handing the victory to the new Yamaha man.

Two weeks later in America, the roles were reversed. Marquez was – and still is – the only man to have ever won at Austin, and after pipping Vinales to pole, he came into the Sunday as the clear favourite. Once the lights went out, Maverick quickly saw himself fall back to P4, and with the pressure on he just pushed that bit too hard and crashed out with 19 laps to go – this of course from a man whose previous DNF was all the way back in 2016 at Argentina. What was perhaps most telling was the message sent to Marquez via the pit-wall that his closest competitor had crashed. That left the number 93 safe in the knowledge that all he had to do was overtake Dani Pedrosa – the race leader at that point – and the victory would be his. Marquez did indeed make the move on his teammate with 13 laps to go, and from then on in we saw the calm and composed rider of last year that I very much doubt we would have seen if Vinales were still in hot pursuit.

The Doctor is in (the lead!)

Whilst this ongoing battle between the two Spaniards makes for fascinating viewing, it also creates a perfect set of circumstances for one Valentino Rossi who, despite not winning a race thus far this season, has somehow found himself at the top of the championship standings. He has though been the only man to stand on the podium in the opening three stanzas, and it is this consistency whilst all contenders fall around him that could see the Doctor claim his 10th world title come the end of the campaign. Despite his disappointment in pre-season, The Doctor appears more and more comfortable on his 2017 bike with every passing race and there is no doubt he will arrive in Jerez as one of the favourites. It was at this Grand Prix last year that Rossi picked up his first win of the season, and with more success on this track than any other rider in the paddock, he will be confident of making it two in two years. Whilst it might be a victory on “enemy territory” as many in the motoring press like to describe it, there are very few racing fans that will be upset to see the nine-time World Champion on the top step of the podium. That being said, if either Marquez or Vinales fail to finish, Rossi will be just as happy to settle for a second or third place and extend the gap at the top of the leaderboard.

Lorenzo turning a corner?

All this talk of Jerez and still no mention of a man whose name now adorns the final corner of this famous track. It is of course a consequence of his poor start to the season that Jorge Lorenzo fails to receive a mention any earlier on in this article, but the new Ducati man has plenty to be hopeful about following his best finish of the year in Austin. After modifying an incorrect seating position that had been identified in Argentina, Lorenzo has attested that he feels more comfortable than ever before on the GP17, and if it hadn’t been for front tyre graining towards the latter end of The Grand Prix of the Americas, he could have well have finished in seventh position.

Also of great comfort to the Spartan will be that in Austin, for the first time this season, he also qualified ahead of his teammate Andrea Dovizioso – a man who’s now in his fifth year at Ducati. Not only will that provide the five-time world champion with some much needed confidence in a season where he’s so far been so evidently shorn of it, but it will also help to validate his position within the factory garage as the lead-rider at a time when some – perhaps even Lorenzo himself – were starting to doubt his switch from the blue of Yamaha to the red of Ducati. This is the track where Lorenzo holds the circuit record, the fastest lap and best pole, and having seemingly now turned a corner, it would not be with the greatest surprise to see Lorenzo come through ‘Lorenzo corner’ in one of the top three positions.

A Monster Surprise?

It would be foolish to conclude without mentioning those that have the potential to upset the apple cart in Jerez. Dani Pedrosa got off to a fantastic start from the second row in Austin to take the race lead, and if it hadn’t been for tyre degradation towards the latter stages, he could well have battled Marquez for top spot. The Baby Samurai has of course tasted victory at Jerez before – back in 2013 – and with both he and his teammate having tested at the circuit in pre-season, that could hand Pedrosa just the advantage he needs over his rivals to make it back to back podiums for the first time since 2015.

From a factory Honda to the satellite Hondas, and if it weren’t for a certain Maverick Vinales, the Monster Yamaha Tech 3 riders would no doubt be the success stories of the season thus far. Johann Zarco and Jonas Folger currently sit in 7th and 8th respectively on the standings and the two rookies have demonstrated that they have more than enough ability to mix it with the big boys. Zarco in particular, in his ‘altercation’ with Rossi in Austin, showed that he won’t easily be intimidated, and the opening laps of his MotoGP debut in Qatar still live long in the memory. Over the past two races he has shown an evident maturity in settling for 5th despite the obvious temptation to push perhaps too hard for a podium finish, and if the Frenchman is able to start from a favourable position on the grid come Sunday, he could well spring a surprise in only his fourth race in the Premier Class.

The stage is set for what will inevitably be a fascinating encounter in Jerez – I’ll see you on the Fox Sports Network as we watch all of the #motomadness unfold.

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