As the bikes lined up for the start of the 2014 GP Monster Energy de Catalunya, the racing gods appeared to have had enough of Repsol Honda upstart Marc Marquez. His first crash of the season at the end of qualifying relegated him to the third position at the start, ending a string of seven straight poles. Teammate Dani Pedrosa looked ready to rumble, and storm clouds were building to the west; the smell of a flag-to-flag fiasco was in the air. Would his 2014 winning streak come to an end in the rain at his home track?
Um, no. Marquez engaged in a two-wheeled form of hand-to-hand combat with Yamaha mullah Valentino Rossi, followed by a knife fight with teammate Pedrosa, and ended up winning his seventh straight 2014 race by half a second over Rossi with Pedrosa settling for third. Those of us who thought we had seen the best of MotoGP at Mugello two weeks ago were treated to an even more compelling race today, as both Rossi and Pedrosa looked capable of winning. A Repsol one-two was only averted in Turn 11 of the last lap, when Pedrosa, desperate to overtake Marquez one last time, touched tires with his teammate, wobbled wide, allowing the opportunistic Rossi to capture second place. And the rain never fell.
Let’s be honest. After awhile, MotoGP fans become inoculated to the incomprehensible speeds at which these bikes operate. What we pay to see is overtaking in the turns, riders running shoulder-to-shoulder, teeth gritted and bared, massive slicks separated by centimeters and violent consequences likely when they make contact. At Mugello, Marquez and Yamaha star Jorge Lorenzo traded places perhaps a dozen times over the last third of the race, leaving the fans soaked in sweat and the announcers breathless. Today, I lost count of the encounters between the three eventual podium winners.
Rossi spent most of the day leading a group of five, the four aliens and LCR Honda’s designated fifth-place finisher Stefan Bradl. Lorenzo had taken the early lead, but was dismissed by both Rossi and Marquez during Lap 4. Rossi held the lead for the next 16 laps, holding off challenges from the Repsol Hondas, who seemed to have the pace, while Lorenzo trailed in fourth, hoping for a mistake by someone. Over the last six laps, all three of the leaders held the lead at various points. Even though Marquez technically led the last six laps, the intra-lap drama was thick; it was literally anyone’s race. Suffice it to say that as hard as Marquez had to fight in Italy, he needed even more today. And, as we’ve seen all year, he’s had what it takes when he needed it.
So, on the day that officially marked the 65th anniversary of grand prix motorcycle racing, we had the first ever instance of two brothers winning grand prix races on the same day. Marquez’ little brother Alex started the Moto3 race from pole and won comfortably on the Estrella Galicia Honda. For Honda Racing Corporation and ultra-proud father Roser Marquez, 2014 was a Father’s Day for the ages.
Checking Pulses at the Top
In Alienville, amongst the factory Honda and Yamaha teams, a quick status check is in order. Marquez remains untouchable, although his candy-colored tangerine flake enamel was slightly scuffed on Saturday when he failed to capture the pole. His win today marked the 100th win by a Honda bike during the four stroke era. It would surprise no one if Marquez is on board for their 200th win a few years down the road.
Pedrosa once again looks dangerous, after having had surgery to correct an arm pump issue. Though he captured his first pole in a year on Saturday, he hasn’t won since Sepang last year, but appears to have recovered from his physical issues.
Valentino Rossi has reclaimed the #1 spot on the factory Movistar Yamaha team, four years after having ceded it to Jorge Lorenzo. With five podia in seven starts, there can be little doubt The Doctor still has it. Lorenzo showed us at Mugello that he can still compete, but psychologically he appears very fragile. In years past he would simply go out and seize wins. In 2014, the moon, the planets and the stars all need to align perfectly in order for him to have a chance of winning. Such alignment has yet to occur in 2014.
Elsewhere on the Grid
The brothers Espargaro, Aleix on the NGM Forward Racing Yamaha and junior rookie Pol on the Tech 3 Monster Yamaha, spent most of the day eyeball-to-eyeball, with big brother Aleix ultimately prevailing in 6th position, birth order still of paramount importance in Latin European countries. Earlier in the year, I had predicted that Aleix might take a win at Assen or The Sachsenring, but such appears unlikely now, the difference in factory versus Marelli ECU software being too great to overcome. Aleix greatly covets a factory ride, which may come next year wrapped in Suzuki colors.
The Ducati contingent was led again today by veteran Andrea Dovizioso in eighth place, followed closely by Joe Iannone in ninth and a consistent Yonny Hernandez in 11th. Wildcard entry Michele Pirro, whom I had earlier this week accused of being under-rated, made a liar out of me by finishing 14th, almost a full minute behind the leaders and 18 seconds behind Hernandez. And, for the fourth time in seven starts this season, Cal Crutchlow failed to finish, apoplectic this time over an electronics issue that forced him to retire from the race. As charming as Cal has been with the media this year, he must be an absolute dream with his team, all sweetness and light, whenever a mechanical issue arises that interferes with his crashing out of the race.
Two Sponsorship Notes
Today we noticed two interesting developments on the sponsorship front. Interpol, the global equivalent of the FBI, is partnering with Ducati, having apparently signed on to help the Bologna factory locate its competitiveness, last seen in 2009.
And the brolly girls of the Gresini GO & FUN team, upon casual examination, appear to be wearing Camel Toe jumpsuits. With nothing going on for either Alvaro Bautista or Scott Redding, the umbrella girls are stealing the show. If I were Fausto Gresini, I would put Redding on the prototype and Bautista on the customer bike to see if things could possibly turn out worse.
The Big Picture
With Marquez firmly in charge, Rossi and Pedrosa now look set for a season-long battle for second place. Lorenzo and Dovizioso are close for now, but Lorenzo is likely to slowly pull away as the season progresses. The Espargaro brothers and Bradl will battle for sixth place; I expect one of the two Yamahas to prevail over the lone LCR Honda. Iannone on the Ducati and Bradley Smith on the #2 Tech 3 Yamaha are likely to complete the top ten for 2014.
Returning to Assen
Up next on the calendar is the annual pilgrimage to The Cathedral at Assen, the scene of Valentino Rossi’s surprise win last season. Steeped as it is in motorcycle racing history, Assen appears to be a suitable place for Marc Marquez to continue his assault on the record books. Low speeds are a given in The Low Countries, meaning the factory Hondas will have a built-in advantage.
As if they need another.
|2014 MotoGP Catalunya Top Ten Results|
|1||Marc Marquez||Repsol Honda||–|
|2||Valentino Rossi||Movistar Yamaha||+0.512|
|3||Dani Pedrosa||Repsol Honda||+1.834|
|4||Jorge Lorenzo||Movistar Yamaha||+4.540|
|5||Stefan Bradl||LCR Honda||+11.148|
|6||Aleix Espargaro||NGM Forward Yamaha||+14.213|
|7||Pol Espargaro||Monster Yamaha Tech3||+16.127|
|8||Andrea Dovizioso||Ducati Corse||+16.175|
|9||Andrea Iannone||Pramac Ducati||+18.040|
|10||Bradley Smith||Monster Yamaha Tech 3||+45.212|
|2014 MotoGP Top Ten Standings After 7 Rounds|
|7||Aleix Espargaro||Forward Yamaha*||54|
|* indicates an Open Option entry.|