Jorge Lorenzo: Down but not out

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Thailand 2019 will stick in the memory as one of Jorge Lorenzo’s toughest weekends in his Moto GP career. Repsol Honda stablemate, Marc Marquez, staved off the valiant challenge of young Frenchman, Fabio Quartataro for the race victory. In doing so, sealing his 8th world title with four races to spare. Meanwhile, Lorenzo struggled to 18th place, 54 seconds behind the triumphant Marquez. For the divisive Malloracan, sleep on the flight home to Switzerland must have been very limited indeed.

2019 has been a living nightmare for Jorge Lorenzo. Since joining the factory that has yielded 6 premier class crowns in 7 attempts for fellow Spaniard Marc Marquez, Lorenzo has yet to finish in the top 10. After a tense exit from Ducati at the end of 2018, Lorenzo has also contended with injuries to his foot, wrist and back. All of which have significantly hampered his progress to build confidence with the notorious Honda RC213V.

A violent crash in free practice at Assen, resulted in a cracked vertebra. Lorenzo would have to watch the next three races from his Lugano apartment, nursing himself back to health. Shortly after his tentative return to action at Silverstone, the 5 times world champion received brutally public criticism from an unexpected source. Honda team boss, Alberto Puig, made no secret of his feelings on Lorenzo’s attitude during an interview with a Spanish MotoGP podcast. The paddock veteran, snubbed his rider, stating that Lorenzo needed to understand that “in this line of work you can get hurt and that’s part of the game”. For any sportsman returning to the highest level of competition, overcoming injury involves conquering significant physical and mental challenges. Such blunt criticism from a colleague, whose job it is to maximise your performance, is obviously unhelpful.

Disastrous on track results, chastised by his team boss, insulted by Moto GP fans on social media and journalists alike. For a rider who is known to be more mentally fragile than some of his adversaries, one can only imagine the mental and physical hurdles that Jorge Lorenzo must overcome to return to the top.

The Moto GP paddock has a horrible habit of possessing a very short memory. If your name is Fabio Quartararo, this is ideal. Lacklustre performances in the junior classes are quickly forgiven when a rider can deliver performances like the young Frenchman has in is debut season. However, the Moto GP paddock amnesia has not been so kind to Lorenzo.

Debuting in the premier class in 2008, Jorge Lorenzo spent his first nine seasons with the Yamaha factory team, riding the sweet handling M1 prototype. Guided and comforted by team manager, Wilco Zeelenberg and crew chief, Ramon Forcada, claiming three world titles on a bike that became his second skin.

In addition to 3 world titles, Lorenzo claimed 44 wins and 105 podiums during his tenure with the Hamamatsu factory. For seven of the nine years spent at Yamaha, Lorenzo dealt with the on and off track torment associated with sharing a garage with the master of mind games, Valentino Rossi. In 2010 though, Lorenzo delivered a psychological blow of his own. Finishing off the podium only twice and clinching nine victories, finally marking his territory and claiming the factory Yamaha garage as Lorenzo’s land. Comprehensively beaten by Lorenzo, Valentino Rossi defected from Yamaha to pursue a patriotic dream of winning with Ducati in 2011. As we all know, this dream turned into a nightmare for Rossi after the very first run in pre-season testing. Two years later, the Italian legend was back in the fold at Yamaha, returning to an ecosystem that now centred around the reigning world champion, Jorge Lorenzo.

In 2015, Lorenzo and Rossi locked horns in a fraught and dramatic battle throughout the season, culminating in a final round showdown at Valencia. Lorenzo would triumph in this titanic contest but undoubtedly scars were left on relations between the Mallorcan and Yamaha. Seeking a new challenge and a fresh environment, Lorenzo relented to the continued courting from Bologna and signed a highly lucrative deal to join Ducati for 2017 and 2018.

A step into the deep red Ducati unknown in 2017, proved to be highly challenging for a champion who honed a silky smooth style on the soothing Yamaha M1, over the best part of a decade. In fact, Lorenzo’s performances in 2017 are remarkably reminiscent to the poor form currently endured in his first season with Honda.

2018 started off on a similar trajectory. It would take Lorenzo until the 5th race of the season at Le Mans until a top 10 finish was delivered. By which time, Ducati felt they needed to cut their losses and explore other ways of achieving their desired results. Paddock rumour circulated that Pramac Ducati man, Danilo Petrucci, was on the verge of pinching Lorenzo’s seat in the factory team for 2019.

Lorenzo, clearly aware of such rumours, decided to take matters into his own hands. Visions of retirement on someone else’s terms, was an unthinkable and depressing thought for Lorenzo. Alberto Puig, manager of Honda’s Moto GP programme, took the call from his desperate countryman. The winner of 68 grand prix, promised to deliver results for Honda, alongside fellow Spaniard, Marc Marquez. For Spanish oil giant, Repsol, the prospect of Spain’s two most recent champions, in the Repsol Honda garage, must have been a mouth-watering prospect.

A deal was struck and in early June, the bomb shell announcement was dropped on the paddock. Jorge Lorenzo would be a factory Honda rider for the 2019 and 2020 seasons. With his future secure and development forging ahead on his Ducati machine, the old Jorge Lorenzo burst into life. A relaxed and content Lorenzo silenced critics with wins at Mugello, Barcelona and the Red Bull Ring. Most in the paddock attributed this sudden burst of speed to a new fuel tank shape. However, the boost in Lorenzo’s psychological state by securing his future in a top team, unquestionably played a starring role in the reversal of his fortunes for the remainder of the 2018 season.

Clearly, Lorenzo’s results with Honda in 2019 have been far below the expectations of the team, the paddock, fans and most of all Jorge himself. Injury and the fickle nature of the Honda bike are undoubtedly contributing factors to Lorenzo’s nightmare. However, one man has single-handedly eroded the confidence of not only Lorenzo but every other Honda rider in Moto GP. The rider responsible? Lorenzo’s team mate, Marc Marquez.

Riding a similar specification of works RC213V, gritty Briton Cal Crutchlow, has failed to tame the wild Honda in 2019. 4 crashes and limited appearances in the top 10 have left the 3 times Moto GP winner scorned. In 2019, Crutchlow has claimed on 102 points. Marc Marquez has bagged 325 points.

Marc Marquez has metronomically delivered top 2 performances in all but one race in 2019, where he crashed out of a commanding lead in Austin. The Spanish sensation has been challenged by a cast of competitors including Andrea Dovizioso, Maverick Vinales, Danilo Petrucci, Alex Rins and most recently Fabio Quartararo. One by one, he has vanquished them all in convincing fashion. Although the results tell a story of dominance, many of Marquez’s victories have been extremely hard fought.

When considering Jorge Lorenzo’s 2019 performances, it is pertinent to remember that the likelihood of any rider on the Moto GP grid stepping into the Honda lion’s cage and defeating the pride of the pack, Marc Marquez, would be highly improbable.

So, what can we realistically expect from Jorge Lorenzo in 2020? Will he be riding for Honda? Will he be competing in Moto GP at all? At this stage, we can only speculate. Honda have a difficult decision to make on how they approach their relationship with Jorge Lorenzo. The ramifications from their approach to the sensitive Spaniard will be intriguing to watch.

At the time of writing, movement of a few pieces on the Moto GP chess board, may have dire consequences for Jorge Lorenzo. Honda’s Japanese prospect, Takaaki Nakagami, is rumoured to quit the Moto GP season with 3 races remaining. The double Moto 2 winner is reportedly considering a complex shoulder operation, resulting in a long recovery period. Nakagami’s absence leaves an open seat for a rider currently languishing in the dole queue, Johann Zarco.

One could speculate that Johann Zarco may still be licking his wounds after an unsuccessful flirtation with the developing KTM RC16. Therefore, the chances of a breakthrough performance on the Idemitsu LCR Honda are possible but unlikely. Nevertheless, Johann Zarco sprung a number of surprises on his rivals aboard the Tech 3 Yamaha. Clearly, the Frenchman has speed when his frame of mind is on course. Although, on balance, I don’t envisage fireworks if Zarco steps onto the Honda RC213V, given his dire performances in 2019 so far.

So, what could this rhetoric mean for Lorenzo? Well, if current sensationalist hype is to be believed, the 5 times world champion, will be swapping Zarco for his place on the Moto GP scrap heap. Meanwhile the Frenchman, yet to win a Moto GP race, lands himself a golden berth in the Repsol Honda team. Like I say, the paddock has a very short memory indeed.

Although Jorge Lorenzo is currently at rock bottom, desperately seeking the support and reassurance of those around him, he can never be written off. The outlandish post-race celebrations of 2010 may be a distant memory but don’t be surprised if the Mallorcan maestro climbs to the top step on the podium again in 2020.

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