The heat of the summer has come to the northern hemisphere, and the MotoGP circus is off on holiday. Each year around this time, the usual pattern of race events every two weeks is broken by a month-long pause so that even the gods of motorcycle road racing and their teams can relax a bit. Let’s take this moment to review what’s happened so far in 2015, and where the championship stands going forward.
Since preseason testing, it was evident 2015 was going to be hyper-competitive. Unlike previous years (most years, in fact), there weren’t two or three key players so dominant that they were in a race by themselves. Instead, we saw the stunning speed, reliability and handling prowess of Ducati in the hands of the twin Andreas (Andrea Dovizioso and Andrea Iannone) setting record lap times at simulated race distances. We saw too the return of Suzuki, one of the all-time great names in road racing, with young guns Aleix Espargaro and the improbably named Maverick Viñales at the ‘bars. But finally, and perhaps most unexpectedly, we saw a fearsomely quick Valentino Rossi.
From the season opener at Qatar, it was clear six riders – both teammates from the factory Honda, Yamaha and Ducati teams – were capable of winning, a depth of competition unseen in a decade. That the Repsol Hondas of defending double world champion Marc Marquez and perennial runner-up Dani Pedrosa were near the top was a given. Honda, always the biggest, best-funded and most technologically advanced racing team saw to that. But what was not foreseen was the high performance level of the unofficial Honda teams, the so-called “satellite” operations like Gresini LCR, who with British rider Cal Crutchlow on board were posting times that credibly put them in the top six on good days.
The same could be said of the satellite Pramac Ducati team, and to a lesser extent the Tech 3 Yamaha outfit, both of whom were much closer to the top factory riders than in previous years. As a result of some push back during the 2014 season regarding manufacturers keeping the latest and fastest prototype equipment strictly to themselves, teams like Gresini now have access to almost the same Honda RC213-V as the Repsol team. Yamaha and Ducati too were reducing the delay and specification difference with their satellites.
But equipment aside, the track action delivered the results. Rossi smashed all expectations by winning in Qatar, followed by Dovizioso and Iannone on the Ducatis making it an all-Italian podium. Rossi’s Yamaha teammate Jorge Lorenzo placed fourth, with the factory Honda pair of Marquez and Pedrosa fifth and sixth respectively with the LCR Honda of the outspoken Crutchlow nipping at their heels. Both Marquez and Pedrosa were not in the same league as the leading four, never threatening for the podium – an ominous beginning and foreshadowing of what was to come.
In the eight races since, Rossi has finished on the podium every time, winning twice; at Assen and in Argentina. Prior to this season, the 36-year-old Italian, a nine-time world champion, had been written off by most MotoGP observers as a contender, a view made logical by the depth of young talent currently on the grid – there are nine former GP champions racing now (including all classes), all but one of which are under 30! In a physical sport like motorcycle road racing, where high-speed injuries compound over a lifetime, and where technology and racing style evolves so quickly, having Valentino Rossi in contention in 2015, much less leading the world championship, is unreal.
But the shock and awe doesn’t end there. Rossi’s Yamaha teammate, two-time MotoGP world champion Jorge Lorenzo staged an incredible four-race winning streak that looked so easy, so effortless that many were expecting him to just keep winning. Lorenzo, after a disastrous 2014 campaign filled with doubt, mistakes and bad luck, has not finished lower than fifth this year and trails Rossi in the title fight by a mere 13 points at the halfway mark. When he is at the front, Lorenzo is by far the most dominant, riding as though he had an additional gear that all the other competitors lack. His 2015 victory tally is certain to keep adding up.
Iannone and Dovizioso
The Andreas too, have performed at a level not seen at Ducati since the days of Australian Casey Stoner‘s tenure at the Italian factory. Both have multiple podiums, with Iannone showing a speed and consistency that rivals the champions. His worst finish was fifth, so he enters the break in third place in the world championship. His teammate Dovizioso placed second three times on the trot plus another podium, but has crashed out twice and suffered mechanical failure once (the only one suffered by Ducati this year), which leaves him fourth in the title. Both men are capable and now possess the machinery to win races, which they will undoubtedly do this year.
Which brings us to Marquez. Even with the unexpected strength of Rossi, and the stunning victory streak of Lorenzo, the story of 2015 is the fall of Marquez. Or rather, many falls.
The 2013 and 2014 MotoGP world champion was so utterly dominant that many called him a wunderkind, and some even suggested that he may be the greatest of all time … But Marquez has shown that he too is mortal, and suffered a series of crashes (all self-induced) that have left many openly questioning his maturity and, not for the first time, his lack of judgement.
Marquez took himself out in Argentina, Catalonia, and Italy in exactly the same way: by making daredevil passing attempts that were clearly beyond the limits of man and machine. Always known for his domineering passing style since his days racing in Moto3 and Moto2, Marquez has repeatedly demonstrated that he expects other riders to give way when he shoves his front wheel inside their corner entry line. At Qatar, he did this to Aprilia man Alvaro Bautista, and shredded the front brake lines clean off. Bautista was forced to retire while Marquez raced on. He’s been accused of dangerous passing many times, particularly in 2014, but as long as he kept winning no one seemed to take notice.
Then came the final corner passing attempt on Rossi at Assen. Official camera footage shows that Marquez rammed into Rossi while entering the corner at a speed and angle that would not have allowed him to execute the turn, said the official MotoGP race control. Rossi bounced into the gravel, cut the corner and went on to win, while Marquez wobbled into second place. The controversy expanded with Honda filing a complaint, and Marquez telling the press that “in my mind, I won the race”, suggesting not subtly that Rossi cheated.
Regardless of the innuendo, Marquez has performed well when not crashing. He won in Austin, Texas, and the last round in Germany and finished second twice. He is an amazing talent and, armed with a new Honda that is a hybrid of last year’s frame and this year’s engine, he appears to be riding more like in previous years. If he can keep his ego and ambition within the confines of what is realistically attainable, he could compete for second place in the 2015 world championship, although any chances of winning it are surely gone. Maybe.
The final notes in this midway point are the stellar performances given by rookies Aleix Espargaro and Maverick Viñales (who’s made history by leaping straight up from Moto3) aboard the Suzuki GSX-RR. Back in MotoGP for the first time in nearly a decade, the storied Japanese factory has delivered a strong, cohesive team as well as a fast, fine-handling motorcycle that appears ready to make itself felt, and perhaps a race contender in 2016.
Sadly, the opposite is true of Aprilia. The Italian company, itself winner of 33 grand prix world championships in 125cc and 250cc classes, as well as multiple World Superbike champions, have been nothing less than pathetic. Regulars at the very bottom of the standings, riders Marco Melandri, a man once capable of winning races, and his beleaguered teammate Bautista have exchanged sour glances and verbal barbs at the press regarding their prospects. Aprilia’s plan to end its successful SBK team to concentrate on MotoGP in 2016 leaves many doubting the wisdom of the decision.
The 2015 season is half done, but the MotoGP story is really wide open. Anything can happen, and the possibilities are all exquisite. Could Rossi win a record 10th Grand Prix championship? Could Lorenzo keep up his speed and rack up another four wins? Can Marquez come back and threaten for the top slot? It could be the season to end all seasons.