The last race of the year is always one for farewells, but we had an awful lot of goodbyes on Sunday at Valencia. The last ever race for the 800cc MotoGP bikes, the last ever race of Loris Capirossi's very long and highly colorful career (some paddock wags suggesting that the first win of his career came against a rider called Maximus Decimus Meridius), the end of the two-stroke Grand Prix era, with the 125cc bikes making way for the Moto3 machines. The departure of some of the finest journalists and broadcasters from the paddock, as the Spanish state TV company TVE ended its tenure in the paddock. Riders heading off to the World Superbike paddock, some returning to their old stomping ground, as is the case with Kenan Sofuoglu, others to try pastures new, Hiroshi Aoyama joining the Ten Kate Honda squad.
But we started with the biggest and the best of goodbyes, and certainly the most moving. After morning warm up, some 100 bikes took to the track, the MotoGP, Moto2 and 125 machines doing a lap of honor in tribute to Marco Simoncelli, the Italian who had died at Sepang on the previous GP weekend. Out front, Kevin Schwantz rode Simoncelli's #58 San Carlo Gresini Honda, calling halt in front of the assembled paddock, fronted by Simoncelli's Gresini team, his parents and his family. A few riders revved their engines, but the sound was soon rendered inaudible by the deafening thunder of Valencian fireworks, loud enough to set off most of the car alarms in nearby Cheste.
It was a fitting tribute, truly a celebration of a man's life, as large and as loud as Marco Simoncelli was, rather than the quiet grieving over a man's death. In a society which seems so afraid of dying that it lacks the courage to sample life to the full, it was a poignant and powerful reminder of the fact that nothing can be achieved without risk, and that a passion as large as Marco Simoncelli's, or any other motorcycle racer's, will very occasionally demand the ultimate sacrifice. If the contestants are willing to pay the price - the fact that 16 men lined up on the MotoGP grid, and Marc Marquez only finally gave up on the Moto2 title on Saturday afternoon, his double vision stubbornly preventing him from racing, was testament to the fact that so many believe the goal is worth the risk they know they run - then who are we to stop them? The fullness of Marco Simoncelli's life is his triumph; his death was a tragedy, but it pales in comparison to the life he led, and the passion he leaves those who watched him over the years.
The final 125cc race was not a classic, but it set the tone. The script sent out by Dorna for the awards ceremony this evening already assumed that Nico Terol would take the title, and the Spaniard did not disappoint. Johann Zarco's determination was admirable, but it led him to push too hard, crashing out in the early laps as he chased the leading group. With Zarco taken out of the equation, Terol finally seemed to relax and start racing as he can. A victory was not on the cards - Maverick Vinales was too strong for that - but Terol got close, and a podium meant wrapping the last ever 125cc title in style.
Vinales on the podium meant more exposure for the media celebrity (whatever that means) Paris Hilton, leading to a predictable wave of criticism from the motorcycle racing snobs. After the race, Hilton tweeted that she was pleased here rider Maverick Vinales had won at the "MotoGP grand finals", unleashing the usual comments that she had no idea what she was talking about. That is as maybe, but she did tweet that to over five million followers, and though the vast majority of those people have no interest in motorcycle racing, nor any interest in finding out about it, even a tiny percentage of five million is a massive number. MotoGP's biggest Twitter name is Jorge Lorenzo, but his 300,000 followers are just a pale shadow in comparison with Paris Hilton's five million. Laugh at her all you want, but she has probably brought MotoGP to the attention of more people with a casual comment than the massed ranks of the MotoGP media have managed in years of coverage.
The Moto2 race turned into an emotional rollercoaster, with the Gresini team taking center stage once again. Yuki Takahashi ran away with the race early, before crashing massively on lap 6, landing on his head after a huge highside, then tumbling horrifically through the gravel clearly unconscious. Though it looked awful, Takahashi came away relatively unhurt, being sent to a Valencian hospital for checkups after being given the all clear by the Medical Center.
The Japanese rider's crash handed the lead to Michele Pirro, who went on to take a very comfortable win over Mika Kallio, but the win proved almost too much for Fausto Gresini to bear. Gresini wept openly as Pirro crossed the line, the Italian's victory all too reminiscent of Sete Gibernau's win at Welkom in South Africa, at the race after Daijiro Kato - another Gresini MotoGP rider, and another personal friend of Fausto Gresini's - died from the injuries he suffered at Suzuka. Gresini almost retired after Kato's death, and was said to be considering the same after the death of Marco Simoncelli, but the Italian took the victories as a sign that it was not yet the time to shut up shop.
The final race of the 800cc era started off looking a lot like a classic 800 MotoGP race, with Casey Stoner taking off at the start and leaving the rest of the field for dead. Things got a lot more interesting after that, though, the race eventually being decided by the smallest ever margin in the 800cc era.
Despite Stoner's obscene lead in the first 25 laps of the race, there was plenty of interest further down the field, with battles raging over the secondary honors. Dani Pedrosa and Andrea Dovizioso slugged it out over 3rd in the championship, Pedrosa only giving up once the rain began to fall in earnest. Behind the fight for the podium, Cal Crutchlow and Karel Abraham had a no-holds-barred scrap for Rookie of the Year, that battle only settled when Abraham ran into the back of Crutchlow, after Crutchlow had put a backyard move on the Czech rider to take over the chase for Pedrosa.
The rain that dropped Pedrosa down to 5th also spiced things up at the front. Stoner's lead dropped from 10 seconds to under 2 in the space of just three laps, Ben Spies taking over the lead once he had caught the Australian napping. The acceleration of the Honda saved Stoner's bacon on the very last lap, the Australian getting "perfect" drive onto the front straight to sneak ahead of Spies to take victory. Stoner looked happier than he had since winning the championship (pleased to have won on the last lap for the first time, rather than being on the receiving end which had happened so often in the past).
Andrea Dovizioso took 3rd, and 3rd in the championship, finishing ahead of Dani Pedrosa both in the race and in the standings. The Italian was delighted with both, his best result in the championship since entering MotoGP. He leaves Honda with his head held high, and with the added pleasure of rubbing in his position to Dani Pedrosa, Repsol Honda's former golden boy.
There was plenty more drama in the MotoGP race, starting off with a first-corner pile up caused when Alvaro Bautista clipped the rear wheel of Andrea Dovizioso and went down, taking out the Marlboro Ducatis of Valentino Rossi and Nicky Hayden, and the Pramac Ducati of Randy de Puniet. Rossi afterward was livid, the Italian canceling his usual press debrief and staying in his motorhome instead. Rossi had had high hopes of a decent result, and had been aiming for a podium to honor his dead friend Marco Simoncelli. It was not to be, and Rossi capped his worst ever Grand Prix season - his first ever to go winless, and just a single podium at Le Mans to his name in 2011 - with a dismal result. The marketing marriage made in heaven remains one of convenience, rather than true love.
Barely had the flag fallen on the race than the speculation started about 2012. Suzuki will be testing their 800 on Tuesday and Wednesday, though serious doubts remain over whether they will be in the championship next year. Team members have been given permission to look for jobs elsewhere, veteran crew chief Tom O'Kane heading to the Monster Tech 3 garage to work with Andrea Dovizioso. So though Alvaro Bautista will be riding the bike on Tuesday and Wednesday, his future at Suzuki is far from ensured, as is the continuing participation for the Hamamatsu manufacturer.
Stefan Bradl looked to be happy staying in Moto2 for another year, but some last-minute bargaining may shake up his 2012 MotoGP season. The German was seen locked in serious negotiations with Livio Suppo of Honda, giving rise to speculation that Bradl could join the San Carlo Gresini or LCR Honda squads, though Bradl has repeatedly said he cannot find more than the 2.5 million euros his sponsors bring to the sport. With LCR chronically short of cash, an injection of liquidity may be just what Lucio Cecchinello's team needs.
There are plenty more pieces of the puzzle to slot into place, but the MotoGP silly season seems to have slotted into high gear. With Iannone likely to test the Gresini Honda on Tuesday alongside Bradl, those are two names looking good for MotoGP. Then there's the CRT teams, but beyond Yonny Hernandez looking set to test the BQR Kawasaki, even there everything is still up in the air. It promises to be an incredibly hectic few days, with everyone keen to secure their deals before testing is done on Wednesday. We may be waving goodbye to the 2011 season, but we are only doing so to welcome the 2012 season.