For the second time this season, Factory Ducati #1 Andrea Dovizioso and Repsol Honda prodigy Marc Marquez gave us a late-race knives-in-a-phonebooth duel, a ten-point spread in the standings at the top of the heap at stake. And for the second time this season, Dovizioso prevailed in what was almost a carbon copy of the first win, a last lap exchange of fortunes in Austria. Now it’s Two for the Road, as the two “blessed” riders in this year’s championship, separated by 11 points, seem destined to square off in Valencia.

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Andrea Dovizioso and Marc Marquez battled down to the finish line, with less than a quarter of a second separating them at the checkered flag.

Then There Were Two

Entering today’s race, there were, like, two and a half contenders for the title, as Dani Pedrosa and Valentino Rossi had been eliminated every which way but mathematically, and Yamaha savant Maverick Viñales was hanging on to contention by his fingernails. Now, with all three chasers having had counterproductive days, it has come down to Marquez and Dovizioso.

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It’s been a long journey for Andrea Dovizioso, from Repsol Honda’s #3 rider to second-fiddle at Ducati to title contender.

Both riders, as we’ve said before, are at the top of their respective games. Unfortunately, it took Dovi an extra few years to arrive, causing him to miss the rock star status afforded the Spaniard. But he is the only rider out there able to trail Marquez for the lead and the title and feel good about it. The most successful Ducati pilot of the last ten years, Dovizioso appears to welcome these last lap duels, treating them like tic-tac-toe matches in which one gradually limits the possible responses available to the opponent until the door is closed. In post-race interviews, he and Marquez laughed about knowing the strategy each other would use in the last few turns.

Practice and Qualifying

Racing in the rain on Friday and Saturday produced a set of Unusual Suspects in both Q1 and Q2. Marc Marquez and Andrea Dovizioso especially found things suiting their fancies on Friday and led the way directly into Q2 joined, eventually, by the likes of both factory Suzuki riders, Pedrosa and Danilo Petrucci, Johann Zarco, Rossi, Lorenzo, and one Aleix Espargaro, having flogged his Aprilia RS-GP to the third best combined time on the grid.

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Aleix Espargaro and the Aprilia team continue to make progress.

The wet conditions, as always, pushed some familiar names down into Q1; the Usual Suspects welcomed Viñales, Cal Crutchlow, Alvaro Bautista and the cadre of Japanese subs and wildcards to the nether regions. The feel-good moment of the entire weekend occurred at the end of Q1 when both factory KTMs advanced into Q2. For being an enormous Austrian engineering and manufacturing behemoth KTM sure attracts a lot of warm fuzzies from MotoGP fans, with their bold colors, plucky riders and virtually unlimited budgets.

Q2, as usual, offered a number of great moments and a case study in not counting one’s eggs before they hatch. Marquez laid down a rapid early lap on rain tires, looking invincible, and rode around for awhile on a drying track before pitting and ending the session futilely on slicks. Rossi tried to qualify on slicks, desperately seeking solutions, failed, and would start Sunday’s race in 12th position.

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Johann Zarco secured his second MotoGP pole position.

A number of riders chose to attempt their flying lap on the last go-round, including Petrucci into a blistering second, Aleix Espargaro missing the front row by an eyelash, and Zarco, coming out of nowhere, seized his second premier class pole of 2017 on the 2016 Yamaha. (His first, at Assen, led to a 14th place finish.) With top pursuers Andrea Dovizioso starting 9th and Maverick Viñales 14th, the title chase appeared primed to take a beating on Sunday.

As the Lights Went Out

Jorge Lorenzo followed Marquez’s hole shot into second place at the start and took the lead in Turn 9. Petrucci on the Pramac Ducati and polesitter Zarco had their noses in it, with Dovizioso going through on Zarco on Lap 2 and Petrucci doing the same to Lorenzo to take the lead. With Doviozoso in the mix and Viñales out of it, the front four became, on Lap 4, Petrucci, Lorenzo, Marquez and Dovizioso. A Ducati triple-team on poor young Marc. Not to worry. Lorenzo began to actively work his way backwards, falling from podium contention to 8th by Lap 6.

My boy Cal Crutchlow pitted on Lap 6 and crashed out on Lap 16. Rossi, enjoying a miserable weekend in the rain, crashed out on Lap 6, too, joined by Karel Abraham and Kohta Nozane subbing for Jonas Folger on the Tech 3 Yamaha. For Nozane, the weekend must have been like you or me being dropped into the cockpit of Miss Budweiser in time for Thunder on the Ohio. No problem, the life vest inflates upon impact! For Rossi, his second crash in two years here puts an exclamation point on his disappointing 2017 season.

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A pair of Ducatis in Andrea Dovizioso and Danilo Petrucci sandwich Marc Marquez and his Honda.

Anyway, early on it appeared Petrucci might get away for his first ever premier class win, until both Marquez and Dovizioso reeled him in. On Lap 14, both went through on the swarthy Italian, consigned him to a distant third step on the podium, and rode off for their private confab.

Mano à Mano for Ten Laps

After a few rather relaxed laps of lining him up, Doviozoso sailed through on Marquez on Lap 19, with Marquez returning the favor, a bit rudely, on Lap 22. This was the point at which I expected Marquez to get away. Instead, they exchanged the lead several more times until Lap 24, when Doviozoso found himself surviving a final desperate dive from Marquez with the extra drive coming out of Victory Corner necessary to pimp the Spaniard at the flag. This is a Reader’s Digest summary of what was a number of laps of insanely great racing by the two best in the game at this moment in history.

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Andrea Dovizioso won out this day but Marc Marquez maintains an 11-point lead in the championship.

Elsewhere on the Grid

Fan favorite Aleix Espargaro drove his Aprilia from a 4th place start, a whisker off the front row, to a satisfying 7th place finish. The KTMs of Smith and Espargaro cleared Q1 and started 7th and 8th, respectively. Though they could only manage 11th (Espargaro) and 19th (Smith) things are looking up in KTMTown. The factory Suzuki team, fronted by Andrea Iannone and Alex Rins, came to sudden life this weekend, qualifying 10th and 11th and finishing – gasp – 4th (Iannone) and 5th (Rins). Two Suzukis in the top five, in the rain.

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Suzuki had its best weekend of the season, with Alex Rins fifth and Andrea Iannone fourth.

For the moment, two riders have lost their Alien status; Tranche 1 has been pared down. Tranches 2 and 3 are, therefore, inflated.

After Round 14 – Aragon

Tranche 1: Viñales, Marquez, Dovizioso, Rossi
Tranche 2: Pedrosa, Zarco, Lorenzo, A. Espargaro, Bautista
Tranche 3: Crutchlow, Rins, Folger, Petrucci, P. Espargaro
Tranche 4: Miller, Iannone, Redding, Barbera, Baz, Rabat
Tranche 5: Abraham, Smith, Lowes

After Round 15 – Motegi

Tranche 1: Marquez, Dovizioso
Tranche 2: Viñales↓, Pedrosa, Rossi↓, Zarco, Lorenzo, A. Espargaro, Petrucci↑
Tranche 3: Rins, Folger, P. Espargaro, Iannone↑, Baz↑, Bautista↓
Tranche 4: Crutchlow↓, Miller, Redding, Barbera, Rabat
Tranche 5: Abraham, Smith, Lowes

Marching to Praetoria

Time just to catch our breath before coming up with a completely new, more Australian set of out-of-round observations about some people’s favorite sport. At least at this point we can narrow our focus down to the two top guys, both of whom need to do some serious crashing before Maverick Viñales becomes relevant again.

Phillip Island appears custom-designed for the Desmosedici GP17. We have some research to do prior to mid-week, when the Australian GP preview comes your way. All I’m willing to say for sure, at this point, is that a meaningful Valencia finale just became more plausible, not less. Personally, I would like to see Dovi beat Marquez 1-2 in the next two rounds, at which point they would go to Valencia separated by a single point.

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With 11 points to make up and three more rounds remaining, Andrea Dovizioso has a shot of catching Marc Marquez and winning his first MotoGP championship.

It could happen. Dovizioso needs no worse than a draw with Marquez over the next two rounds. Another win, or two, would be utterly convenient. As he has obviously learned by now, championships are won by putting the hammer down in those clutch, fight-or-flee moments. Throwing caution to the wind and letting your instincts and balance take over. He and the bike are finally one. He knows Marquez is going to come with both barrels blazing. As he did today, he needs to continue to channel the late Tom Petty:

“Well, I won’t back down.
No I won’t back down.
You can stand me up at the gates of hell
But I won’t back down…
Gonna stand my ground.”

—Tom Petty
“I Won’t Back Down”