The Merciless Strikes Again
For the fifth time in sixth years, Marc Marquez laid waste to the world’s best riders in the MotoGP World Championship. This is the story of how he did it.
The year started with one big question: who could beat Marc Marquez? It was answered with three races to spare. Nobody.
Older, faster, the one-time youngest-ever champion took a fifth title in six years. But he never made it look easy. That’s not his style.
Flirting on the edge of disaster, accomplishing one knife-edge save after another, crashing 23 times—his way of finding the limit in practice, Marquez stretched the laws of physics beyond his rivals.
Photography by Gold & Goose
Did he need to take so many risks? Particularly given what was revealed at year’s end, that his left shoulder has been so often dislocated that even a friendly hug from Scott Redding made it pop out again at Motegi? A proper crash at Valencia did so again.
But the 25-year-old knows no other way. He had 25 recorded falls, two more than any other MotoGP rider during 2018.
Many of these weren’t actually crashes as such: he was already sliding on knee and elbow, and just let go of the bike. Sometimes he saved these situations, sometimes not. Either way, he had used free practice to establish exactly where the limit was. Thereafter he could dance around it at will.
Two things eased his path. One was the best Repsol Honda RC213V for years. For the past two seasons, Marquez has needed to use talent to make up for machine quirks, such as over-aggressive throttle response. This year, “I can ride it how I like,” he said early on.
The other was Andrea Dovizioso, again his closest championship rival, riding the best-ever Ducati Desmosedici. Dovi won the first race on a bike with much-improved turning, so that previous bogey tracks (like fast-cornered Phillip Island) were less of a problem. But he had to wait until after the summer break to add three more wins. He was knocked off at Jerez in a three-bike sprawl with Dani Pedrosa and teammate Jorge Lorenzo. More costly, and more uncharacteristic, were two crashes by unforced errors at Le Mans (from the lead) and Catalunya.
And maybe a third thing: Lorenzo. After an underwhelming first year at Ducati, he suddenly justified his vast sign-on fee (a rumored $27 million). Thanks not only to ergonomic changes (an extended dome at the rear of the dummy gas tank) that supported him better, but also chassis revisions, Jorge got his mojo working again big-time, and defeated Dovi on two separate occasions, as well as winning in Catalunya when Dovi tumbled. Jorge’s wins were there and at the previous Mugello race; then again brilliantly in Austria, where he turned the tables on Marquez in a last-lap shootout.
Who knows what else he might have accomplished? But he was spiked by a first-turn crash at Aragon, after his third consecutive pole, then more badly hurt when his Duke locked the back wheel and threw him in Thailand, with a still unexplained mechanical failure. His second of the year, after brake failure at round one in Qatar.
What could Jorge do on an even better Ducati next year? We’ll never know. Prematurely dumped, a move Ducati might seriously regret, Jorge phoned Repsol Honda’s new-for-this-year team manager Alberto Puig, who leapt at the chance of signing him alongside Marquez.
Valentino Rossi was third in the championship, a massive tribute to the 39-year-old’s refusal to get old, and more importantly to accept that his Yamaha wasn’t really good enough.
It was The Doctor’s first season without a win, apart from two bleak years with a bum Ducati; and he went the whole second half of the season without even a podium. But he’d done enough for five more points than his more erratic Movistar Yamaha teammate Vinales, in spite of Maverick’s win at Phillip Island.
That broke Yamaha’s 25-race losing streak, the longest in its history, blamed on an accumulation of small problems stemming from failing to get to grips with the unified software of 2016. Another issue was a too-light crankshaft in their “frozen” engine, the abrupt throttle response triggering wheelspin. And, according to Rossi (after an almost unprecedented factory apology in Austria), not devoting sufficient manpower and financial backing. Heads are likely to roll, but by year’s end the situation had improved, mainly electronically. It’s remarkable to note that if Valentino hadn’t fallen off in the last two races (while lying first and then second), he might even have finished second overall. What a guy.
As Yamaha slumped, Suzuki soared. They’d made the same too-light-crank error last year, and regained the concessions that allowed not just more engines (nine against seven) and extra testing, but also free engine development. In his second year, Alex Rins made the most of a bike with such sweet handling that the relative lack of top speed was not so important. Two second places in the last two races finished the season impressively, gaining fifth overall. Teammate Andrea Iannone claimed four podiums (including second in Australia) to Rins’s five, but it was too late to preserve his job, and he was replaced by rising Spanish star Joan Mir.
Dorna’s dumbed-down one-size-fits-all rules came together to provide very (at times incredibly) close racing—the MotoGP round at Assen more resembled Moto3. But it didn’t suit everybody.
Former double Moto2 champ Johann Zarco’s second season on the Tech3 Yamaha was disappointing. He was second in Argentina, round two, and at Jerez, the start of the European season. But things started to go awry after he qualified on his second pole of the year at round five in France, only to crash from the front group in the early laps. He seemed seriously detuned, and wasn’t back on the podium again until a fairly lucky third at the penultimate round.
Talking of luck, he survived a spectacular collision with Marquez in Australia, at very high speed and finished up sixth overall in the title, as top independent-team rider.
This was at the expense of Cal Crutchlow, by just 10 points. The Briton won in the Argentine GP, and was reliably the next-best Honda rider to Marquez, although a propensity for crashing somewhat undermined an otherwise sterling performance. He was back on the podium twice before a crash at the same Phillip Island turn one broke his ankle badly, ruling him out of the last three races.
The other factory Honda rider, Repsol’s Dani Pedrosa, was seldom anywhere near Marquez. For the first time in 16 years, he didn’t win a single race. Nor even make it to the podium. Dani, who announced his retirement before the summer break, was victim of his own light weight on the bike, and more particularly, the latest Michelin tires, which needed physical strength and heft to get the best out of them.
Ducati’s strong year was backed by the top satellite team of Alma Pramac Ducati, where Danilo Petrucci did well enough to be recruited to the factory in Lorenzo’s place, while teammate Jack Miller jumped off three years on a second-rate Honda to a year-old Ducati that immediately rewarded his press-on style—never better than in Argentina, when a high-risk run on slicks on a drying track netted him an epic pole.
Jack scored a string of top-10s, had a bit of a mid-season slump, but was back among the fast guys at the end. He fully repaid the faith Honda had shown taking him straight from Moto3. But on a Ducati. He will lead the highly favored Pramac team on a factory bike next year.
KTM’s second year didn’t seem to maintain their momentum. In fact, the bikes had clearly improved and were finishing closer to the winner, but with more bikes in between them, so that top-10s were hard come by.
The loss to injury of chief tester Mika Kallio and for five races Pol Espargaro cost them dear in development terms; the Spaniard’s hard-won third in the high-attrition final round in a flood in Valencia was a welcome fillip.
Aprilia had a tough year, with a miss-step in development—lead rider Aleix Espargaro only three times in the top 10. A re-boot next year sees Andrea Iannone join him on a much-revised Aprilia RS-GP.
It would have been the longest-ever season, with 19 rounds, but ended up on only 18, with the disgrace of cancellation of the British GP, on a resurfaced track that was dangerously flooded even in light rain. A bad leg break suffered by Tito Rabat in a multi-bike aquaplaning incident was a further black mark against Silverstone, with the future of the British GP in doubt.
Set against that were many high points. It was a properly great year.
The last year of the original CBR600RR engine for Moto2 was ironically enough probably the very best since the class replaced 250s in 2010, and certainly the closest. There were just seven points in it at the end, between winner Francesco (Pecco) Bagnaia (Kalex) and runner-up Miguel Oliveira (KTM).
There’d been seven different race winners on three different types of chassis, and some better-than-usual scraps, in a class where the equality of the underpowered engines makes overtaking a real challenge.
In fact, in spite of the final scores, Bagnaia on the SKY VR46 Kalex was the classiest act, and tied up the title with a race to spare. He had eight wins to Oliveira’s three. The Red Bull KTM rider, Portugal’s first star, had more podium finishes, but Bagnaia was equally consistent in scoring every round, and when he faltered it wasn’t usually through any fault of his own.
The decisive moment was their hand-to-hand combat at the Red Bull Ring in Austria, where Rossi protégé Bagnaia won out in the last corner.
The next-best in the championship was Oliveira’s teammate Brad Binder, in his second season after an injury-interrupted 2017. The ex-Moto3 champion equaled Oliveira’s three wins, and at several races dutifully played second fiddle to the title candidate.
Oliveira and Bagnaia are off to MotoGP next year. Binder and Bagnaia’s teammate Luca Marini are staying on, and with the latter’s year-end form bringing him a first win in Malaysia, they look set to replicate the same battle.
Alex Marquez had a dire season without a single win, including the bitter blow of seeing his rookie EG-VDS Kalex teammate Joan Mir plucked from the Cinderella class straight into MotoGP by the Suzuki factory. But Marc’s younger brother had the consolation of winning a close battle for fourth overall, after Jerez winner Lorenzo Baldassarri, Mir and Marini all crashed out on the second corner of the final race.
Fabio Quartararo (Speed Up) took two wins, justifying the early faith that brought him into GPs at 15 back in 2015—only to have one win taken away on a tire pressure technicality at Motegi.
The other race winner was 33-year-old veteran Mattia Pasini (Italtrans Kalex), who sadly was not able to find a ride for next year.
Joe Roberts, the only American in GPs, was classed as a rookie in spite of a handful of rides last year, and teamed with South African Steven Odendaal in the RW Racing team fielding the new Japanese-made NTS chassis. In a season concentrating on development, Roberts was in the points twice, 14th in Italy and one place higher in Thailand, and cruelly crashed out of a strong seventh in the wet at the final round.
The screaming of the 600cc Hondas was over at Valencia. Next year Moto2 takes the next step with lighter, more powerful 765cc Triumph three-cylinder engines, along with upgraded electronics.
Jorge Martin was imperious in Moto3, taking eleven poles without the usual slipstreaming games, and using his extra speed to escape from the usual brawl enough times to clock up seven wins.
He crashed a couple of times on his own account, and was taken out by other riders twice. But the Del Conca Gresini Honda man was clearly in a class of his own.
All the same, in his second season, Marco Bezzecchi (Redox Pruestel KTM) put up such a challenge that it was only when it was his turn to be knocked down twice, in Thailand and Australia, that his title chances finally disappeared. Bezzecchi took three wins, but a final fall in Valencia meant he lost second overall to Martin’s teammate Fabio Di Giannantonio, who took two wins and crossed the line first another time in France, only to be robbed by a penalty.
The beneficiary there was Albert Arenas (Angel Nieto KTM), who then took an ultra-close second win in Australia.
But it was Honda riders Enea Bastianini and Lorenzo Dalla Porta, with one win apiece, who took fourth and fifth overall.
KTM had fought back after being trounced last year by Honda, with better top speed to counter the Honda’s sweeter handling.
The season ended sensationally. Red Bull Rookies champion, Can Oncu (15), was given a wildcard ride at Valencia, his under-age participation sanctioned by a rule change earlier in the year that allowed the winner of the CEV Junior World Championship to compete at world level, even if they were under the minimum age of 16 years.
The talented super-teen won a difficult wet race, becoming all at once the youngest-ever GP winner, the first Turk to win a GP, and the first to win at his first attempt since 125 star Noboru Ueda back in 1991.
Next year Martin, Di Giannantonio, Bezzecchi and Bastianini, the top four in the championship, are joined by Spanish GP winner Philipp Oettl in Moto2; while Oncu joins as a full-time rider for the Ajo Red Bull KTM ooutfit. Already familiar with most of the European tracks from his Red Bull Rookies and Spanish CEV experience, the remaining riders need to be nervous. CN
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