The 2015 MotoGP season is gathering steam in a way that the series hasn’t seen in many years. Going into the 5th round at LeMans, France next weekend, there are five riders on motorcycles from three different manufacturers who could credibly win the world championship. The mid field meanwhile, is so close in performance that even there it is anyone’s guess who will triumph.
Compared to most years, this is unheard of. The typical pattern in the sport is one of a bipolar rivalry between two giants, with one or two outsiders nipping at their heels for the occasional victory or leadership challenge. One giant is usually more aggressive, the other more calculating. It has been like this since the four-stroke MotoGP era began in 2002, and while good enough to be interesting, it has rarely been the kind of melee that becomes the stuff of sporting legend.
Since the season opener in Qatar until last weekend’s Spanish Grand Prix, the deck appears to have been shuffled and the cards are even across the paddock. Among riders, the usual names are all near the top, but the gaps between them are now paltry. Leaderboards in practice, qualifying and during the races themselves are diced up and change constantly, with upstart rookies on new motorcycles taking charge and giving notice, whilst the great ones, especially Marquez, are showing signs that they are feeling the pressure.
For the last two years, prodigy Marc Marquez has claimed the role as the lead giant, winning not only the most races but also appearing completely unstoppable under most conditions. Fellow Spaniard and two-time world champion Jorge Lorenzo had a terrible season last year, causing many to question if he would ever return to his former winning ways, while 9 times champion Valentino Rossi seemed able to place in the top three when the top riders were out, but rarely deliver the speed needed for victory. The other star quality riders in the pack, men like Dani Pedrosa, Andrea Dovizioso, Stefan Bradl, and Cal Crutchlow, simply never stood a real chance of fighting for the top spots either because their machines or skills weren’t up to it.
But this year all bets are off thanks in large part to the competitiveness of the rival brands of motorcycle in the grid. Ducati, a company that has struggled to provide its riders with a machine capable of anything better than a mid field finish, came out the gate with the amazingly fast, reliable and smooth handling GP15. On this bike, factory riders Andrea Dovizioso and Andrea Iannone have demonstrated that they are capable of taking on the championship fight, with Dovizioso winning pole position and finishing second three races in a row.
Jorge Lorenzo, prior to Marquez the best performing Spaniard in MotoGP history, has come back slowly but is now performing like he used to, with a level of metronomic precision riding that left commentators dubbing him “the Terminator” after the sci-fi cyborg. He utterly dominated the Spanish Grand Prix from the first free practice until the end of the last lap, making off down the track and posting identical laps for most of the race distance like a machine. It wasn’t exciting to watch but it was deeply impressive. No one, not even hard changing Marquez, valiantly fighting a painful hand injury, could come even close to catching him.
But the most surprising factor in the 2015 season so far has been the vulnerability of defending champion Marquez. Unbeatable in most races last year, he has shown signs of weakness that would go without much mention in other riders. But this is Marc Marquez, a prodigy who in the eyes of many fans and pundits alike is a motorcycle racing god, a new Rossi for the new millennium. People expect him to dominate the proceedings and indeed, when he is on his best form as he was in Austin for the United States Grand Prix, he does.
But he has crashed a little too often for a giant in his stride, in practice, qualifying, and most infamously, trying to pass Valentino Rossi at the Argentine Grand Prix. It was an unforced error brought on by a reckless and unnecessary move that a veteran champion ought not to have made. In this, and his later off-road training accident where he injured his finger, Marquez looks vulnerable to mistakes. He currently trails in the world championship standings in fourth place behind Lorenzo, Dovizioso and current leader, Valentino Rossi, 26 points ahead.
Rossi, the oldest man on the grid at 36, is perhaps the most surprising element in this season’s racing. Clearly a titan of the sport, arguably the greatest racer ever, he was written off by most observers and even most die-hard fans as unable to win again after two disastrous years at Ducati where he struggled to finish races. Reunited with Yamaha in 2013 as a factory rider, second to Lorenzo, he spent two years as one of those wild card top riders who occasionally win a race or place in the top three. No one expected him to seriously contest a world championship again.
But from the start in Qatar, Rossi was back. He qualified poorly but climbed up the field with the ease and grace that marked his glory years in the early 2000’s, or like Marquez last year, to win decisively. He performed well in Austin gaining a solid third place, but was once more brilliant in Argentina, where careful set up, tire choices and calculation allowed him to steadily catch leader Marquez and pass him. Twice.
In Argentina Rossi had all the confidence and speed that every one of the former world champions currently in the title fight, himself, Lorenzo and Marquez, needed and exercised in winning years. At ease with his Yamaha M1 motorcycle, within the team, and with his place on the MotoGP circuit, it is difficult to imagine Rossi not being capable of contesting this season as the title front-runner right until the end.
Wild cards in 2015? There are plenty. Number two factory Ducati man Andrea Iannone sits in fourth place in the championship with solid performances in every round this year. A former test and satellite team rider, he is not exquisitely fast or aggressive, but consistent and perhaps knows more about what can be extracted from a Ducati than anyone.
Cal Crutchlow, perhaps the unluckiest man in MotoGP, is on top of his form in the saddle of the LCR Honda, in sixth place and only 9 points behind Marquez. The British rider has changed teams every year since 2013 and has been known to speak frankly about his own performances, and others. But unmarred by accidents, something else Crutchlow is good at, he should be able to continue to challenge for the odd podium, and could be a dark horse race winner in the right circumstances.
Aleix Espargaro has surpassed even the wildest expectations. In his first year aboard the brand new and previously untried Suzuki GSX-RR, the young Spaniard has posted wickedly fast qualifying times, placing himself on the front row and even leading the Argentine Grand Prix for a couple of laps, shocking everyone. His smooth style is an asset, but more than that Espargaro clearly has a deep understanding of technical set up and reading data, elements that are critical when establishing a base line of performance on new equipment. He will likely only get faster as the season goes on.
Will this depth of competition continue, or will the usual pattern of two dominant rivals squash the pretenses of all the others? The deciding factor is typically the hardware, which at this point seems unlikely to change. With the notable exception of Aprilia, every manufacturer has brought A-list motorcycles to the grid, all with realistic chances of not only winning races, but winning laps, and winning corners. That being said, and with riders that own a cumulative 21 world championships (Aprilia rider Alvaro Bautista and Suzuki’s Maverick Viñales have one each) on the track at the same time, 2015 should be every bit as thrilling as its first four races.