Heading into the finale of the 2016 season, the atmosphere in Valencia was mostly celebratory. The title had been decided, the silly season was well over, and most of the riders were competing for pride alone. The Ricardo Tormo circuit here is one of the top venues in this sport, loved by the Spanish riders and most of the others, too. Bragging rights during the offseason are nice and all, but pale in comparison to a season finale with a title on the line such as we saw in 2013 and last year.
During the practice sessions on Friday and Saturday one got the feeling that this one would boil down to a duel between Honda world champion Marc Marquez and Yamaha’s Jorge Lorenzo, who is defecting to the factory Ducati team after nine years and three titles with Big Blue. Lorenzo was anxious for a win in his final race for Yamaha, wanting to go out on top after a difficult season. Marquez wanted to cap off his third premier class title with an exclamation point, as well as to avoid an awkward podium celebration.
In the end, it didn’t rain. El Gato fished his wish, while Marquez had to be satisfied with simply being king of the moto racing world. Jorge won the race, Marquez won the title, and the podium celebration was awkward, the Spanish national anthem blaring in the background, Lorenzo over-celebrating (like he had just won another world championship), and Marquez looking somewhat abashed, as if he was crashing Lorenzo’s party. The third rider on the podium, Andrea Iannone, did nothing maniacal and sacked up with a t-shirt thanking Ducati for allowing him to break so many expensive motorcycles before getting shunted off to the Suzuki team for next year.
Jorge Lorenzo and Q2 on Saturday
Having been out of town all weekend, I was finally able to locate an internet connection in northern Arizona and catch Q2 late Saturday night. It may have been the most interesting 15 minutes of the weekend. Watching it, one inferred that Lorenzo was determined to start the race from pole.
After his out lap, he set a new track record with the first lap ever by a motorcycle under 1:30 in the history of the track. He pitted, changed his front tire, got up to speed on his second out lap and proceeded to set a second track record before heading back to the pits. Again, his crew put new rubber on his M1 and sent him back out. Again, after his out lap he set a third track record, claimed pole, and sent a message to the grid: Kindly stay the hell out of my way tomorrow, or my crew and I will convert you to a grease spot on the tarmac. Marquez and Valentino Rossi made up the rest of the front row, to the dismay of riders who had been entertaining visions of becoming the 10th rider to win a race this season.
Lorenzo vs. Marquez on Sunday
Though Marquez and Suzuki wonderkid Maverick Vinales were quickest in the morning warmup, while the factory Yamahas loitered in sixth and seventh, very few people could have been thinking this wasn’t going to feature the winners of the last four premier class titles battling hammer and tongs all day Sunday.
The race was over in ten seconds.
When the lights went out, Lorenzo, taking the hole shot, appeared to have been launched from a cannon, while Marquez, fighting inertia, gravity and a number of other laws of physics, found himself buried in the vicinity of sixth or seventh place in the first few turns, at a narrow, tight track that makes overtaking difficult. At the same time, Iannone materialized on Lorenzo’s back wheel, after having started seventh. The lead group formed up quickly, comprised of Lorenzo, Iannone, Vinales, Rossi, Marquez and Dani Pedrosa, making a cameo after his seventh (!) collarbone surgery a month ago.
True, there was a bunch of jockeying around all over the track, but in terms of material effect there were basically three “events” today. First, Lorenzo got away and started laying down a series of 1:31 laps, riding on rails, the old Jorge back and in charge. The second occurred on Lap 19, when Marquez finally got past Rossi into second place, Rossi tuckered out from spending the entire afternoon jousting with Iannone. The third took place on Lap 29 when Iannone, who appeared to be out of energy and rubber several laps earlier, went through on Rossi, pushing The Doctor off the podium.
It should be noted that Marquez was chasing down Lorenzo over the last four or five laps, closing the gap from over five seconds to under two seconds. Had the race lasted another two or three laps, there is no doubt here that Marquez would have won and avoided the aforementioned awkward podium celebration. The hard front tire Marquez had chosen appeared to have a lot more life left in it than Lorenzo’s medium, which appeared to be shedding in some super slo-mo shots late in the race. Just sayin’.
Bits and Pieces
Cal Crutchlow, seemingly everyone’s favorite rider, took advantage of Dani Pedrosa’s crash on Lap 7 (which opened the door for a sixth-place finish for the year) by sliding off on Lap 17, apparently not wishing to kick a swarthy, diminutive Spanish rider when he’s down. And Jack Miller, seemingly everyone’s second-favorite rider, finished 15th and earned yet another point. Thanks to both for not messing with my assertion that neither is an Alien-class rider.
Mika Kallio rode his KTM machine well for much of the day before retiring with electronics issues. Bradley Smith and Pol Espargaro look to have a long year in store for themselves in 2017, but I, for one, expect KTM to make great strides in the next few years. Despite being a low budget operation in MotoGP, they have that Austrian engineering thing working for themselves; a little early success next year would be great. Most folks are dazzled by the progress shown by Suzuki over the past two seasons. KTM (and Aprilia) will benefit from the concessions available to non-race winning brands. Assuming they can manage the finances, it would be great to have five or six competitive constructors filling the grid in a few years.
Today’s win put a halt to the disturbing victory drought that has haunted Lin Jarvis since Barcelona. Losing Jorge Lorenzo to Ducati is bad, true, but gaining Maverick Vinales, The Next Great Rider, is good. Better, perhaps, given the eight-year difference in their ages.