Month: August 2015

The Inside Line #115: Sublime in Spa

TILI Logo PrintToto Wolff’s glass, assuming it wasn’t actually a paper cup, wasn’t close to overflowing. Sure, Mercedes had taken all 10 pole positions and all but two wins heading into the Belgian Grand Prix last weekend, but the scoreboard doesn’t lie. And the Mercedes executive director was wary. “We enter the second half of the season with a stronger points total than at this stage last year, and yet our margin to the competition is actually smaller,” he said, perhaps mindful of the championship-winning pedigree of the only man who can stop Mercedes winning both titles, Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel.

Vettel capitalised on a brilliant start in Hungary and a tardy getaway by both Mercedes drivers to win at the Hungaroring, but normal service was resumed at Spa last weekend after F1’s seemingly interminable mid-season break finally ended. There were plenty of sideshows coming into the race – lamenting that it was a year ago that Daniel Ricciardo last won an F1 race, guessing how many penalties Pastor Maldonado could get in one weekend, wondering how Kimi Raikkonen continues to stay employed by Ferrari – but in the wash-up, the sport’s dominant force flexed their muscles again.

Catch our review of the Belgian Grand Prix on Episode 115 of ‘The Inside Line’ this week in any of these places.

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Keeping Track #42: MotoGP ‘like learning to walk again’, says Miller

MillerLCRQatarAustralia’s MotoGP rookie rider Jack Miller says his first season at the elite level of world motorcycle racing has been as big of a challenge mentally as it has physically.

The 20-year-old from Townsville made the jump from the Moto3 world championship, where he finished runner-up last year, directly to MotoGP, bypassing the Moto2 category altogether.

Miller’s 1000cc Honda RC213V-RS MotoGP bike is twice as heavy and has four times the horsepower of his Moto3 KTM, and is 100km/h faster down the straights.

Speaking to the ‘Keeping Track’ podcast, Miller said 2015 has been a steep learning curve.

“It’s almost like learning to walk again. It’s a different style – there’s no two things you can even remotely match,” he said.

“Everything’s different, the way you ride it, the way you go into a corner, the way you hang off – no two things are even close to being the same.”

Miller has a three-year contract with Honda, which fields reigning MotoGP world champion Marc Marquez and fellow Spaniard Dani Pedrosa amongst its riders this season.

The Australian says Honda has been patient with him as he learns to cope with MotoGP machinery, but admits going from challenging for the Moto3 title to fighting in the midfield has been difficult.

“It’s taken a lot of mental strength,” Miller says.

“We came out of an awesome season last year where we were winning races, but we knew what we were getting into when we came into this … it’s back to square one, basically.”

Episode 42 of the ‘Keeping Track’ podcast also spoke to reigning world champion Marquez and two-time MotoGP world champion, Yamaha’s Jorge Lorenzo.

Listen here – and leave your feedback.

The Inside Line #114: It’s about time …

TILI Logo PrintFormula One. You remember Formula One? Sunday’s Belgian Grand Prix is just the second race in 48 days, in case you were wondering. In an ever-crowded sporting calendar with plenty of disciplines scrabbling for attention, you have to wonder if such a lengthy hiatus is either sensible or sustainable, but that’s another lengthy subject for another blog piece; in the meantime, all I do know is that F1 could use a race at Spa that rivals last year’s for drama. Because last year’s Belgian GP was the race that decided last year’s championship, and perhaps this year’s as well.

After Nico Rosberg ran into Lewis Hamilton at Spa last year and took what looked to be a commanding 29-point championship lead, it’s been a rout in Hamilton’s favour. Eleven wins to four, 12 poles to five – Hamilton has had his teammate covered like never before since Mercedes began its silver stampede to become F1’s most formidable force, and a lot of that can be traced back to his response after Rosberg overstepped the mark in Spa last year. Yes, double points in the final race in Abu Dhabi kept Rosberg in last year’s title race longer than he really was, and this year, Mercedes’ car advantage means Rosberg can be nowhere near Hamilton’s pace and still finish second. But for me, the events since Belgium a year ago show why Hamilton remains one of the best three drivers in F1, and Rosberg a next-tier talent that has occasional race-winning pace but isn’t quite world champion material – the latest in a list of drivers that includes, in recent years, Mark Webber, Felipe Massa, Rubens Barrichello and David Coulthard.

Someone who’ll be hoping he doesn’t end up on that latter list is Daniel Ricciardo; this weekend’s race in Belgium is, sadly for Australian fans, one day short of one year since he last won a Grand Prix. That drought looks set to continue at a track that should only magnify Renault’s lack of grunt compared to the Mercedes and Ferrari powerplants; Honda should have something up its sleeve for this weekend based on its comments in the (seemingly never-ending) mid-season break, and it’ll nice to actually have some racing to get a read on the pecking order for the back-end of the season.

A Belgian GP preview is the focus for this week’s episode of ‘The Inside Line’; we also take a trip to Brazil with Felipe Nasr as our tour guide. Be sure to check it out.

A two-wheel interlude: Gardner finding his own way

Note: this story originally appeared here

Sometimes, the scorecard doesn’t measure the stats that matter, and the points don’t accurately reflect potential. Remy Gardner’s first full season in Moto3 is yet to get off the mark after nine races, but the 17-year-old son of Australia’s 1987 500cc world champion Wayne has made significant strides over the past 12 months, and already has his eyes set on bigger things in 2016.

It was little over a year ago that Gardner made his world championship debut on a Kalex KTM, deputising for injured German Luca Grunwald at Misano in Italy. He later raced as a wildcard for Team Laglisse Calvo in Australia as a wildcard, and as an injury replacement for Eric Granado on a KTM for Calvo Team in Malaysia, where he finished 15th and scored his maiden world championship point.

Those three showings, allied to his solid form in the Spanish CEV Moto3 championship, led to a full-time world championship ride on a Mahindra with French team CIP (Centre International De Pilotage) this season, but it’s been tough going for the Sydney-born teenager. At the halfway stage of his rookie campaign, Gardner is yet to score a point to add to his Sepang breakthrough last October, only twice qualifying inside the top 20 on a machine that’s no match for the KTM entries and the dominant Honda bikes down the straights.

That lack of top-end grunt, combined with Gardner’s inexperience in the hyper-competitive category featuring 35 of the world’s best up-and-coming riders, has made progress hard to measure. But ask Remy himself, and he’s adamant that he’s a better rider than when he made his bow on the world stage nearly 12 months ago.

“I think I’ve improved a lot in my riding style since then,” he tells motogp.com.au in the paddock at Indianapolis.

“Back then I had a better bike and was more competitive in the Spanish championship, and that showed in the results. But this year I’ve improved a lot on this bike which I can tell from the telemetry, especially under braking and with my corner speed. It’s not showing in the results yet, but it’s definitely there.”

Tough school
Mahindra emerged as a genuine contender in Moto3 last season, with top-10 finishes the norm, and Miguel Olivera (Portugal) and Brad Binder (South Africa) finishing on the podium. But Honda has stepped up its game this season, runaway championship leader Danny Kent winning five of the first nine races, while KTM has been there to pick up the crumbs on the rare days the Japanese giant stumbles. Save for some promising early-season showings by experienced Italian Francesco Bagnaia, all nine Mahindras in the field have struggled to make an impact. But rather than define the year as an opportunity lost, Wayne Gardner says his eldest son will benefit from making the best of what he has.

“It’s been tougher than both Remy and I thought it would be,” Wayne admits.

“It has been a little disappointing, but in some ways it’s helping Remy as it’s teaching the riders to get the very best out of the bike. The Mahindra people are seeing what he’s capable of and they’re impressed by it, but what he’s lacking is experience, and that’s showing in his results.

“As the year has progressed, KTM and Honda have both improved a lot, so we’re in the Mahindra race within a race, if you like. We’ve found the Mahindra is losing about a second a lap to the Hondas and KTMs in top-line speed, so when I look at that I think he’s riding really well, and better than he ever has.”

Making his own name
Dealing with the ups and downs that inevitably come with being a world championship motorcycle racer are all part of growing up, as is standing on your own two feet. Wayne’s on-track achievements have undoubtedly opened doors for Remy, but that comes with the trade-off of extra expectation, and Wayne’s career casts a large shadow. It’s for that reason that Wayne and Remy have done their best this year to have a normal father-son relationship. Wayne isn’t trackside at every one of Remy’s races any more, and Remy says that was a natural evolution that needed to happen.

“I said to Dad this year that it was important that I tried to do things on my own now, and he stayed away for a couple of races which I needed him to do,” Remy says.

“Being around the sport he was a world champion in – I was always aware of how difficult it was, but it’s an eye-opener to realise how much he had to be focused and really put his nuts on the line. But the name and how people see me doesn’t put me under any more pressure than I do myself anyway. I’m trying to create my own path; he did his thing, and I want to do my thing.”

Wayne completely understands his son’s point of view.

“I can only help him so much, because he needs to experience these things and work them out for himself,” he says.

“My instruction to him this year was to go out there and look and learn, try your best, work on your corners and build up your corner speed, and gain experience. You’ve got to learn when to zig and when to zag, and no matter what I tell him, he’s got to learn that himself. It’s better to let him get on with the job.”

High hopes for home
That job, for now, is continuing to make progress ahead of the Pramac Australian Motorcycle Grand Prix in October. A promising first world championship weekend at home for Remy in 2014 went to waste when a problem on the grid saw him consigned to a pit-lane start, and he eventually finished 26th on a day that promised plenty more. While the result stung initially, Remy says it was a positive experience.

“It was pretty cool, and I was happy because I was going well until the Sunday,” he laughs.

“It was my first time there on a Moto3 bike and I didn’t know my way around there that well, but it seemed to come to me naturally and I felt strong there. But it’s such a good track, so flowing, and pretty awesome on a Moto3. It’s definitely one I can’t wait to do again.”

At a circuit where his father produced performances that sparked scenes that remain entrenched in Island folklore, it would be fitting if the second-generation Gardner conjured a season-best result on home soil in October – and one that’s a stepping-stone to something bigger next season.

A two-wheel interlude: Honda happy with Miller

Note: this story originally appeared here

Repsol Honda team principal and Honda Racing Corporation (HRC) communications director Livio Suppo has declared himself content with Jack Miller’s progress as the 20-year-old Australian adjusts to life in MotoGP.

Miller made the big jump from Moto3 last season, where he finished runner-up to champion Alex Marquez, to MotoGP this season on a three-year contract with HRC, which placed him with the LCR Honda outfit for his rookie campaign.

Miller’s season has been predictably inconsistent as he adjusts to racing a bike twice the weight and with four times the power of last year’s Moto3 KTM, and he sits 18th in the world championship at the mid-season break with 12 points, an 11th at Catalunya the best of his four points-scoring efforts in nine races.

Speaking to motogp.com.au at Indianapolis, Suppo said 2015 was always going to be a learning year for the Australian, who has impressed HRC with his approach.

“We are reasonably happy,” Suppo said.

“I think Jack did his best race in MotoGP in the third race in Argentina (where he finished as the best Open-class rider in 12th). We knew it was a very difficult jump from Moto3 to MotoGP, and we always said that this is a season where he just has to learn what he could have learned in Moto2. So there’s no expectation on our side for results.

“The good point is that he’s learning; maybe he’s taking a bit more time than expected to adapt to the style of MotoGP, but it’s easy to speak and difficult to be on the bike.”

Suppo says comparing Miller’s telemetry to that of Cal Crutchlow, the vastly experienced lead LCR rider on a factory-spec RC213V, has thrown up a few surprises.

“If you look at the data and compare to his teammate, in some parts of the circuits Jack is already as fast as Cal, in others he’s losing (time), basically in braking, so this is something he should learn.

“But I’m happy, and he’s showing a good attitude.”

Miller, who spent some of his mid-season break back at home in Townsville barramundi fishing with good friend and Moto3 series leader Danny Kent, admits his learning curve has been steep this season.

While he’s frustrated at not scoring bigger hauls of points more consistently, the depth of the MotoGP field has caught him by surprise.

“HRC have been pretty good, and they’ve been happy because I’m still on the upward slope and learning every weekend,” he said.

“Before the season, I expected that I’d be doing better, but what I wasn’t prepared for was that the level is as high as it is. It’s amazing how high the level is, and I probably couldn’t have picked a more difficult year to start in MotoGP.

“You probably wouldn’t have seen the top 20 within 1.8 seconds in qualifying like we’ve seen a few times this year in the last 20 years. All the guys are fast and the level has been really competitive, so that’s what I’ve noticed the most.”

Miller’s LCR team has fielded two bikes this season after an off-season injection of funds from London-based foreign exchange trading firm CWM FX. That sponsorship has come into question in recent weeks after reports broke that CWM chief executive Anthony Constantinou is set to face trial on charges of sexual assault, with the company under investigation for fraud and money laundering.

Should CWM’s sponsorship deal with the team cease, it is likely Lucio Cecchinello’s outfit will revert to one bike for 2016, leaving Miller’s ride under a cloud.

With Miller under contract with HRC until the 2017 season, well-placed paddock sources openly speculated in the mid-season break that the Australian may be placed with the Aspar MotoGP team for next season if his LCR ride dries up.

Aspar, which runs Open class Honda machinery for 2006 world champion Nicky Hayden and category debutant Eugene Laverty this season, lost Malaysian energy drink Drive M7 as its title sponsor on the eve of the 2015 campaign.

With HRC effectively paying for Miller’s place on the grid as it grooms him for the future, the Australian’s services are sure to be highly coveted if he comes on the market at the end of his rookie season.

A two-wheel interlude: Catching up with Jack

Note: this story originally appeared here

Jack Miller came into the tenth race of his rookie MotoGP campaign at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on Sunday with a spring in his step, but left the United States with a furrowed brow and a sense of disappointment. The Australian was the only retirement in the race won by Honda’s reigning world champion Marc Marquez, crashing on lap eight while running inside the points in 15th place.

Marquez beat Jorge Lorenzo (Yamaha) after a tense race-long battle between the two Spaniards in front of an enthralled crowd of 67,648, with Lorenzo’s teammate Valentino Rossi finishing third to maintain his championship lead.

Miller started from a season-best 16th after a terrific qualifying lap on Saturday, where he finished within 0.3 seconds of a maiden appearance in Q2.

“It’s the most comfortable I’ve felt on the bike for a long time,” he said after qualifying.

“The target is to try to be the top Open (class finisher). It’s a reasonable goal, and I think we can do it. If we can get inside the top 10, I’d be really happy.”

As is his custom, Miller made a brilliant getaway when the lights went out at ‘The Brickyard’ on Sunday, jumping to 12th after lap one, and bringing his total of positions gained on the opening lap of races this year to an even 50. But a lurid moment in the fast section of left-handers towards the end of the 16-corner layout on lap three saw him drop half a second and fall to 13th, and Suzuki’s Maverick Vinales and Ducati’s Andrea Dovizioso relegated him to 15th on the next lap.

Miller was still the leading Open-class runner on lap eight when he went down at the left-handed Turn 6, the first time he’d been off track all weekend in what had been an impressive start to the second half of his first MotoGP season.

We caught up with Jack after the race.

Q: Tough one today after such a good start?
JM: Yeah, definitely. The bike was great until the third lap, when I lost all grip on the left side of the rear tyre. I had a big old high-side moment in corner 13, and that’s how (Ducati’s) Yonny (Hernandez) passed me. After that I went down on the power, but it still wasn’t enough because the bike was still really loose.

Q: That early near high-side gave you a warning of what might happen?
JM: I got sense of what was coming – I was just trying to manage it and drop the power as best as I can, but coming into the corners, I was just sliding, sliding, sliding. Then it went straight at corner six, overloaded the front and I went down, lost it on the left-hand side.

Q: Any indication during practice and qualifying that you’d have that issue?
JM: No, there was no sign of that happening all weekend before today, so it was a bit of a shock to us and we’ve got to look at it. Bridgestone are cutting the tyre to have a look what was going on with that, so we’ll see what happens.

Q: You made up four places on the first lap off the start again, which you must be pleased about?
JM: Yeah, the start was good, the first three laps actually. I stuck onto the back of (teammate) Cal (Crutchlow) and it was working really well, the bike was going really good. So, definitely disappointed, and we just have to work on it and get the consistency up so we don’t have problems like this in the future.

Q: After a frustrating one like this, it’s good that the next race is just a week away in the Czech Republic. What are your feelings for that?
JM: Brno is another good track for me, definitely one that I like. So after this one I’m looking forward to getting there.

Moto2: West breaks drought
Of the other Australians in action at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on Sunday, Ant West finished 13th in a brilliant Moto2 race won by first-time victor Alex Rins (Spain), West scoring his first points for five races.

The veteran Australian made the most of a decisive first lap, where he rose from 23rd on the grid to 14th as the field tiptoed around a circuit soaked by rain in the preceding Moto3 race.

West was passed by German Grand Prix winner Xavier Simeon (Belgium) on lap two and dropped to 15th, and the Speed Up rider hovered around the back-end of the points-paying positions for much of the race, moving to 13th on the final lap when Malaysian rider Hafizh Syahrin crashed out.

The 34-year-old stayed in 19th place in the world championship standings after his fifth points finish in 10 races this year.

Moto3: Season-best for Gardner
In a chaotic Moto3 race, Remy Gardner had the best result of his first full-time world championship campaign with 17th, which came from an equal season-best 17th on the grid.

Rain before the race saw most riders start on wet tyres, but as the track rapidly dried, the riders who had gambled on dry rubber came to the fore. The podium of race-winner Livio Loi from Belgium (who started 26th), second-placed Scotsman John McPhee (who started from pit lane after changing tyres following the warm-up lap) and third-placed German Philipp Oetll (who started last) all guessed right by running with slicks from the start, and all three finished on a Grand Prix rostrum for the first time.

Gardner ran as high as seventh on lap three as riders ahead of him pitted, and emerged in 12th after his own tyre change after lap four.

“The first couple of laps I did I did quite well and was passing lots of people, but I think I came in for slicks one lap too late,” Gardner admitted.

Faster riders who had pitted earlier picked him off in the latter stages, and the 17-year-old Mahindra rider finished a lap down and 12 seconds from the final points-paying position of 15th.

“I would have liked to have a proper dry race, as I really feel I could have been in the points today – the pace had been pretty good all weekend,” he said.

A two-wheel interlude: Marquez vs time

Note: this story originally appeared here.

INDIANAPOLIS, August 6: Marc Marquez is coming, but does he have time to get there? ‘There’ is a third straight MotoGP world championship in as many premier-class seasons; should Marquez mow down a 65-point deficit to Valentino Rossi with half of the 2015 campaign remaining, it will go down as the landmark achievement in a CV already heaving with them.

It says much for Marquez’s talent that overcoming such a substantial deficit is thought to be realistic; the final two races before MotoGP’s mid-season break in Assen (where he came second to Rossi) and the Sachsenring in Germany (where he won at a canter) showed that the Spaniard’s early-season swoon is well and truly over.

As the world’s best riders gathered for the pre-event press conference at the Indianapolis Grand Prix on Thursday, the eyes of the assembled press were focused on just two; Marquez, the reigning champion, and Rossi, who has used an astonishing run of consistency to build a 13-point championship lead at the mid-point of the season over Yamaha teammate Jorge Lorenzo. And for Marquez, the return of MotoGP to the United States has come at the perfect time.

Quite remarkably, Marquez has won every MotoGP race he’s started in America – victories at Austin (his maiden MotoGP win), Laguna Seca and Indianapolis were part of his title-winning rookie campaign in 2013, while last year, with Laguna Seca absent from the calendar, he had to make do with backing up in Austin and Indy. Already this year he made it a hat-trick at the Circuit of the Americas, while at Indianapolis, Marquez has won his last four races at ‘The Brickyard’, two in Moto2 in 2011-12 preceding his run of premier-class dominance.

It’s little wonder the 22-year-old is confident of continuing his eight-race American rampage this weekend.

“These last two races were much better, and the break in the middle of the season arrived on the point where I wanted more and more races,” he said.

“Of course 65 points are a lot, but I lose on the first part of the season, and maybe they (Yamaha) can lose on the second part. It’s not easy and I know it’s a big distance, but we will try to focus like the last two races and try to push at the limit.”

Anyone familiar with Marquez’s all-action cornering style knows that he pushes the limits like few others, and it’s an approach that he’s employed to devastating effect ever since he set foot in MotoGP. While that signature style remains, what’s unfamiliar for Marquez this year is facing a deficit – in 2013, he led the championship standings after 13 of the 18 races to become the youngest world champion in premier-class history, while last year, he won the first 10 races of the year to turn the championship into a cakewalk. The chance to be the hunter rather than the hunted is a novelty, but not one he’s relishing.

“Of course, last year’s situation was much better,” he said.

“But this year is like that, and I know that they are really far away. But the most important thing is that I’m enjoying again on the bike, and since pre-season in Valencia it had been difficult to find this feeling. In these last two races I enjoyed it a lot, so I hope it continues.”

If Marquez is MotoGP’s irresistible force, Rossi is its immovable object. In his 20th world championship season and six years after his most recent title, ‘The Doctor’ has ridden a wave of consistency to a championship lead few saw coming; the 36-year-old has been on the podium for 13 straight Grands Prix, and 17 of the past 18 races dating back to Japan last year. The winner of the inaugural race at Indianapolis in 2008, Rossi leads the championship at the halfway stage of the season for the first time since 2009, but is well aware of Marquez’s ability to string wins together and up the pressure.

“At the start of the season Marc had some problems with the feeling of the bike, and he lost some points in the first part,” Rossi said.

“But from Assen he came back very strong, so the distance is still quite a lot, but we are still in the middle (of the season). Nine races to the end is a long way, so we have to stay concentrated.”

For all of the attention focused on the reigning champion and the man best placed to take his crown at Indianapolis on Thursday, the most telling insight into the state of play came from Lorenzo. The Spaniard knows that the best chance to make hay while compatriot Marquez struggled is over, and while the statistics suggest otherwise, he’s expecting the fight for the title to rumble all the way to Phillip Island and beyond to the season finale in Valencia.

“We didn’t put him away in the fight for the championship,” Lorenzo said

“I think he’s able to win a lot of races like he demonstrated last year in a row, so for sure with nine races to go there is a lot of points still in play, and he can recover those points if he does not make mistakes.

“For sure, he is one of the favourites for the championship.”