Whatâs wrong with Jorge Lorenzo? Has he lost it or is he merely waiting till his back is fully fixed? And why HRCâs plans for its 2020 RC213V should give cause for optimism
Lorenzoâs 2019 season isnât easy on the track or in the garage Photo: Repsol Honda
The MotoGP paddock and fans around the world are agog with talk of Jorge Lorenzo. Whatâs up with the three-times MotoGP world champion? Has he lost it? Why doesnât he retire? Why hasnât he been sacked? Why donât they put Johann Zarco on his bikes?
Last Sunday at Sepang, the 32-year-old Spaniard finished 34 seconds down. After the race he outlined his target for next weekâs season-ending Valencia GP: âwe are getting closer and closer to the goal of being 30 seconds from the winnerâ.
Something is obviously very amiss. But what is it? Itâs been obvious since the start of the season that Lorenzo doesnât get on with Hondaâs 2019 RC213V. However, his body is also in a mess. The last time he was fully fit was when he was sat on the grid at Aragon in September 2018, before he fell at the first corner
Two weeks later a huge crash at Buriram caused serious ligament damage to his left wrist, which demanded surgery. The after-effects of that operation caused his left scaphoid to snap during winter training, which hampered him at every race, until he broke his back at Juneâs Dutch TT.
His disastrous results since his return from injury arenât simply because he doesnât feel confident on his bike. They are due to the fact that â and thereâs no nice way to put this â he doesnât want to spend the rest of his life in a wheelchair. His Assen crash was uncomfortably similar to the fall that paralysed Wayne Rainey from the chest down in 1993.
âWhen you have such a huge injury you do have your doubts â these thoughts do cross your mindâ
Lorenzoâs two fractured vertebrae â which began to crack when he crashed heavily during post-Catalan GP testing at Barcelona â still hurt. His surgeon says the breaks are healed, but if he still feels pain, how can he convince himself that if he has another big accident he wonât break his spine? That right there is his biggest problem, because a broken back is very different to a broken arm or leg.
The best way to illustrate Lorenzoâs situation is to compare his results from before and after Assen.
Lorenzo finished the season-opening Qatar GP 14 seconds behind the winner. In Argentina (where he was last away after accidentally engaging the pit-lane speed limiter) he finished 27 seconds down. At Jerez, Le Mans and Mugello he took the flag, 18, 15 and 20 seconds down. Bad results, but at Barcelona he was only four-tenths down in free practice, which may explain why he got over-excited on the first lap and ended up taking out Andrea Dovizioso, Maverick ViĂ±ales and Valentino Rossi.
On his return at Silverstone where he was in âhigh pain with my backâ he finished 56 seconds behind the winner. At Misano, Aragon, Buriram and Motegi he was 47, 46, 54 and 40 seconds down. At chilly Phillip Island he was caught in the cold-tyre Catch 22 (see last weekâs blog) and finished 66 seconds behind winner MĂĄrquez.
These are beyond disastrous results, but when you frame them in the context of someone whoâs worried about breaking his back, they look a bit different.
The body flip that fractured Lorenzoâs vertebrae at Assen Photo: Dorna Sports S.L.
So why is Lorenzo even riding? Why didnât he take the rest of the year off and get strong for 2020? Because riders are notoriously insecure about losing their rides, especially when theyâre not getting great results. They know how racing works â leave your seat empty for five minutes and someone else will take it. Then thereâs the small matter of collecting your wages.
Lorenzo has always been in his own man. You might say he lives in a bubble â letâs call it Lorenzoâs Land â where he is oblivious to the thoughts and concerns of outsiders. He has his own game plan, which involves no one else. Thus when critics suggest he should retire he doesnât even notice.
âThe criticism doesnât affect me so much,â he said at Sepang.
Presumably (because no one else knows) Lorenzoâs current game plan is to work step by step towards preseason testing in February 2020.
Until then, only one thing matters to him: looking after his spinal cord.
âI guess Iâm conscious of it â your brain prevents you from pushing to the limit,â he added. âI still feel pain, even when Iâm lifting weights in the gym. Until I feel okay and I donât feel any pain, then my subconscious wonât change the chip that tells me: okay, now I feel normal again, now I can push.â
Most MotoGP riders, including Lorenzo on a normal day, push to within 99.9 per cent of the limit every time they ride out of pit lane. That means they are always 0.2 per cent away from going over the limit. Thatâs life on a knife-edge, which is where Lorenzo cannot afford to live at the moment.
Before Assen, Lorenzoâs average race-lap deficit to the winner was 0.7 seconds. Since he fractured those two vertebrae the gap has tripled to 2.1 seconds. Thatâs how slow you need to go to make sure you donât crash.
Inevitably this run of results (14th, 14th, 20th, 18th, 17th, 16th, 14th) have had thoughts of retirement swirling around his head.
âWhen you have such a huge injury you do have your doubts â these thoughts do cross your mind. But once you start feeling better you say, okay, I want to start again and do what Iâm able to do.â
This is an important point to remember. Top racers donât think like you and me. They would never scale the heights they do with an everyday mindset that habitually takes the path of least resistance.
If you or I were Lorenzo we would tell ourselves: Iâve won five world titles, Iâve got tens of millions in the bank and Iâm 32-years-old. You know what? I feel like kicking back in a luxury beachside villa in Bali for a few months. Then perhaps Iâll try the Caribbean. And who knows where after that, butâs time to relax and enjoy the fruits of my toilsâŠ
Lorenzo on the back row of the grid in SepangÂ Photo: Oxley
Lorenzo insists his daydreams havenât got that far. Thus we can only assume that he is working towards changing the chip in his brain early next year, once he is certain his spine is as solid as it needs to be.
âIt will come together,â he explained. âThe feeling that Iâm 100 per cent will give my subconscious the mood to flow more, it will allow me to risk more and I will be able to train harder in the gym, so Iâll arrive at the track in better physical condition.â
If Lorenzo does get that far thereâs only one other question: his motorcycle.
Hondaâs RC213V has never been an easy ride, especially for someone who goes fast by riding smooth, gliding lines.
So what are the chances of HRC building a 2020 bike that works for Lorenzo? Possibly better than you might think.
MĂĄrquez, Lorenzo and Cal Crutchlow have all tried early prototypes of the 2020 bike and didnât notice much difference. But HRC says its final prototype RC213V will have a different chassis with revised geometry and centre of mass.
HRC knows it needs to make the changes. Its 2019 RC213V featured a major boost in horsepower and torque, which helped MĂĄrquez dominate the championship. However, making big changes to a motorcycleâs engine performance usually affects chassis performance.
The 2019 RC213V has much more torque than the 2018 bike. And when you increase torque you increase negative torque. This is why all three HRC riders â to varying extents â have struggled with corner entry, because the 2019 engine has more engine-braking, which affects corner entry.
âI think the 2019 bike engine creates some kind of difficulty entering the corners, so it doesnât give the rider the same feeling with the front,â revealed Lorenzo. âThis is why I suffered some big crashes, losing the front at high speed. But some riders who ride more with the rear wheel, like Marc, have struggled less with the bike.
âI hope the new bike will fix these negative aspects and I think Honda understand what they must do to solve the problems. Itâs not only me saying these things â Cal and even Marc say more or less the same things. Our comments are not the opposite, they are quite similar. The only difference is that Marc is winning and we are very, very far away! But itâs one thing to know where your problems are and why you are failing, itâs another thing to solve them on the racetrack.â
There may be some people that want Lorenzo gone, but HRC engineers consider him a technical challenge, like Dani Pedrosa, his predecessor at Repsol Honda. Pedrosa is the size of a 14-year-old boy but HRC nearly made him MotoGP champion on a bike that was three times heavier than him.
The inside of Lorenzoâs brain will be an interesting place in the coming months. Perhaps one hemisphere of his consciousness will occasionally be disturbed by thoughts of palm-fringed beaches on Bali, while the other waits for February, hoping that HRC is building a bike that will allow him to return to his former greatness.