Defending titles is not easy. In the last twenty years, only Mick Doohan and Valentino Rossi have managed to win successive championships, despite both Jorge Lorenzo and Casey Stoner winning twice. Why is it so hard? A lot of reasons. Nothing motivates a rider, a team or a factory like losing. Winning a championship requires a lot of hard work and talent, but also a smattering of luck, and at some point, luck runs out. Winning a title means always looking forward, eyes on the prize, while defending a title means looking back, at everyone out to get you. All these things combine to make winning the second title in a row much, much harder than winning the first one.
Jorge Lorenzo found this out the hard way in 2011, when he faced an unleashed Casey Stoner on the Honda RC212V. And now, after his second title in 2012, he's learning exactly the same lesson again, this time at the hands of Dani Pedrosa and Marc Marquez on the Honda RC213V. At Le Mans, all of the above factors came together, working against Lorenzo to drop him down the field, and move him from just four points to seventeen points adrift of the new championship leader, Dani Pedrosa.
What happened? First and foremost, the Hondas happened. Dani Pedrosa rode a brilliant race to take his second win in a row. It was arguably one of the best races of his career: getting a fantastic start, managing the wet conditions brilliantly, and putting in a number of hard, precise attacks to gain positions. His pass at Garage Vert to take the lead for the final time was one of particular beauty: jamming the bike precisely inside Dovizioso on the first of the double right handers, holding the tighter line, then taking a clear lead through the second. From that point he was gone. Since the Sachsenring last year, Pedrosa has won nine of the last fifteen races, a strike rate of sixty percent. That's the kind of batting average you need to win a title.
The Honda itself is better, now arguably the best machine on the grid. Where HRC struggled at the start of the 2012 season to deal with the extra weight and modified tires, the RC213V has been strong right out of the gate in 2013. With more time to adapt the bike to the weight increase from 157kg to 160kg, and tires remaining more or less unchanged from last season, the Honda is now right on the money. And with the right man in charge, when HRC build a racing motorcycle, they play for keeps, and HRC Vice President Shuhei Nakamoto has proven time and time again to be the right man in charge.
Then there's the factor luck. The 2012 season went almost perfectly for Lorenzo, rarely off the front row of the grid, never finishing worse than second, and making only a single mistake, at Valencia once the title was already secured. Lorenzo's luck failed him only once, when he was torpedoed by Alvaro Bautista at Assen, taken out of the race and losing a brand new engine into the bargain. 2013 has not gone quite as swimmingly: a superb win in the first race; a surprisingly strong performance in the second, though he finished only third; trouble managing tires and a rude awakening in the last corner at Jerez to take another third spot. And now Le Mans, where he was strong all weekend, only to suffer a mysterious lack of grip in the race which effectively put him out of contention. He dropped like a stone in the early laps, clawing his way back later to cross the line in seventh. It was his worst finish since the last race of 2008.
What was the problem? Jorge Lorenzo believes that his rear tire was defective, an issue which had affected Valentino Rossi on Saturday morning in France. Bridgestone, unsurprisingly, disagrees. At his press debrief, Lorenzo told the Spanish press, "I don't think we got the set up wrong. It was practically the same as we used in the warm up. There was less water on the track in the warm up, but it was going better all the time. With more water [during the race], and slightly softer rear suspension, the [tire] behaved totally differently." The only explanation he could think of for the loss of performance was a problem with the tire, though he admitted he was 'not a tire engineer'. Every time he entered the corner, he felt like he was going to crash, and he was losing a lot of time.
A Bridgestone spokesperson later reported that both Yamaha and Bridgestone had examined the tire, and that neither party had found a problem. Bridgestone engineers had looked carefully at the tire, and found nothing wrong.
Could there have been a problem with Lorenzo's tire? It is possible, as the tire used by Rossi on Saturday morning demonstrates. Rossi received a replacement tire on that occasion, the tire being replaced without losing one from his allocation, as Bridgestone is obliged to do, though it is up to the tire company to ascertain whether there is a genuine problem with the tire or not. Unsurprisingly, Bridgestone rarely finds a problem with a tire, but in truth, the number of quality control issues with tires is negligible. We asked Cal Crutchlow last year whether there were problems with quality control of the Bridgestone tires, and he almost laughed. Yes, he had had one, maybe two duff tires in his time in MotoGP, but that was all. It was nothing like his time in World Superbikes, where the feel would be almost comically inconsistent between supposedly identical tires.
Given that each rider receives twenty slick tires and eight rain tires each race weekend, and there are eighteen races in a season, along with various tests both in and outside the season, the failure rate is incredibly low. There have been many complaints about Bridgestone tires in MotoGP - too hard, too stiff, don't warm up quickly enough - but almost none of them have been about quality control. The only exception was Assen in 2012, where a number of tires lost large chunks of rubber from the carcass. Even then, Bridgestone were not willing to accept that the problem was with the manufacturing process, pointing to other riders not suffering any problems at all.
Whether it was a tire quality control issue, or a problem with his set up, Lorenzo's luck clearly ran out at Le Mans. This was compounded by another factor, the joker in the 2013 MotoGP pack, and a man who has already ruined one race for Lorenzo this year. In 2012, events conspired so that Lorenzo only had to deal with either one Honda rider or the other. Casey Stoner was strong in the first half of the year, until he lost focus and then injured himself at Indianapolis. In the second half of the year, Dani Pedrosa found the winning groove, the groove he remains in to this day.
In 2013, Marc Marquez has joined the fray, and he is double-teaming with Dani Pedrosa to steamroller Lorenzo. At three of the four races this season, both Marquez and Pedrosa have finished ahead of Lorenzo. That Marquez is already up to speed is fairly remarkable - for the progress a rookie is supposed to make, see Bradley Smith, who is improving along the same path set out by Stefan Bradl in 2012, and Marco Simoncelli in 2010 - but the speed at which he is learning is truly phenomenal. His podium at Le Mans makes it four podiums from four races, the best start in the premier class since Max Biaggi in 1998. He has already entered the history books as the youngest rider ever to win a premier class race, and is in with a good chance of becoming the youngest ever champion as well.
The Le Mans race showed very clearly just how exceptional Marquez is, though to see it, you have to dig into the detail. Marquez' start clearly was far from exceptional: starting from pole, he was down in 9th after just a few corners, and losing ground all the time. The Repsol Honda rookie had barely ridden a MotoGP bike in the wet, having had only a few laps in the rain at Sepang, and a few laps on a damp track at Valencia. He had a lot to learn, and twenty eight laps to learn it in.
He only needed four laps. After a poor start and first lap, which saw him lose four seconds, he lost another five and a half seconds over the course of laps two, three and four. On lap four, he was 1.5 seconds slower than his teammate Dani Pedrosa. On lap five, he was 0.1 seconds faster than Pedrosa, and one of the fastest men on track. He then proceeded to reel in the front runners by just under half a second a lap, until a mistake saw him throw away over a second of the time he had gained. He soon recovered, and hunted down Jorge Lorenzo, Stefan Bradl, Nicky Hayden and Andrea Dovizioso, to get on the podium. If the race had been any longer, he joked, he could have had Cal Crutchlow as well.
His pace was remarkable, in just his fourth MotoGP race and his first ever race in the wet. Eight riders posted a total of 69 laps under 1'45. Alvaro Bautista and Stefan Bradl posted 5 a piece. Valentino Rossi racked up 6. Nicky Hayden set 8, while Ducati teammate Andrea Dovizoso - who led the race superbly for a long time - had 9. Cal Crutchlow posted 10 laps under 1'45, and impressive performance for a man with a fractured tibia and blood on his lungs. But both Marc Marquez and Dani Pedrosa racked up 13 fast laps apiece, a positively scorching pace in the wet. One of those men is a seasoned, seven-year veteran of MotoGP, and in the form of his life. The other is a rookie, in his fourth race in the class.
If it hadn't been for his poor start and those early laps … but that is of course nonsense. Ifs and buts mean little in life, and even less in professional sports. The truth is, he was slow in those early laps, and lost a lot of ground. What was impressive was the way he made it up later, and chased down the leaders.
Marquez' chase came too late to catch Cal Crutchlow, giving the Monster Tech 3 rider his best finish in MotoGP. Crutchlow has been threatening to get on the podium for a while, showing bags of speed at almost every track. Despite a massive crash on Saturday - "that one really hurt," he said about it afterwards - Crutchlow had the speed and the tenacity to take second. His performance was notable not just for how fast he was, but also for how calculated it was, risking only that which was needed to pass the riders ahead. Each pass was lined up carefully, and, though he had a little help from a small mistake from Dovizioso, he got by without crashing out, as he did last year.
Crutchlow's podium also helped break up the monotony of the podiums this year, joining Valentino Rossi as the only non-Spaniard to get on the rostrum in MotoGP in 2013. The Spanish domination of Grand Prix racing had been shattered earlier in the day. After the Moto3 race, there had been a Spanish winner in every race in all three classes (a total of ten) this year, but the Moto2 race at Le Mans blew the doors off that record. Scott Redding finally got his long-awaited, and thoroughly deserved first win in Moto2, after a mature, calculated and careful race on a dry track, under a threatening sky. Redding had not been flustered by a poor start, and had picked his way carefully forward as the race progressed.
He was helped by errors by his competitors. First, Tito Rabat and Pol Espargaro crashed out, going down in almost synchronized fashion. Rabat had passed Espargaro earlier, and Espargaro was sat in his teammate's wheel. He was following Rabat around the track, and when Rabat made a mistake, Espargaro followed suit, hitting the same patch of treacherous tarmac which Rabat had fallen on. Four laps later, Takaaki Nakagami, who had pulled a huge gap, crashed in the same place, making a small mistake and suffering the consequences.
Redding did not make the same mistake, and once he had picked off the riders in front of him, he managed the gap nearly all the way home. A red flag two laps before the end brought a slightly premature end to proceedings, after the rain which had been threatening finally began to fall in earnest. The red flag was bad luck for Xavier Simeon, as the Belgian had just overtaken Mika Kallio for second place. Moving the race back one lap meant Simeon finished down in third, giving the Marc VDS Racing team a one-two in the Moto2 class.
Redding's victory and Simeon's podium broke a couple of long dry streaks for both Britain and Belgian. Redding's win was the first intermediate class victory for a British rider since Jeremy McWilliams in 2001, and the first British victory at Le Mans for thirty years. Simeon's podium was the first for a Belgian rider since Didier de Radigues in 1990, a podium drought of twenty three years. With a Brit, a Finn and a Belgian on the podium, it was the first podium of the year without a Spaniard on it. And as the Marc VDS Racing team is based in Belgium, the entire podium had a distinctly Belgian feel to it.
With Crutchlow's second place and Redding's victory, Yamaha's rumored decision to sign Pol Espargaro to race in the Tech 3 team is looking distinctly premature, and even mistaken, perhaps. Espargaro is in a very negative spiral at the moment, with internal warfare having broken out in the Pons Tuenti HP 40 team. Espargaro has accused Tito Rabat of being 'too aggressive' and has blamed the Jerez race winner for his own crash. Espargaro is lashing out at all sorts of external factors in his search for blame. Meanwhile, Redding leads the championship by 24 points, and is looking like a very complete racer: fast, mature, calculating, decisive. Redding is very much the hot property in Moto2 this year, and MotoGP teams should be beating a path to his door. If Yamaha are looking for a rider to take the place of Valentino Rossi once he decides to retire - and if they have decided that Cal Crutchlow will be too old to pick up that particular mantle, despite his outstanding results - then they really could do a lot worse than sign Scott Redding to take Crutchlow's place at Tech 3.
Le Mans always manages to produce intrigue, and the 2013 version was no different. Just four races in, it is too soon to speak of a turning point in either the MotoGP or Moto2 championships. But clearly a pattern is being formed. The Hondas are looking ominous in MotoGP, and it is getting harder to look beyond Redding in Moto2. Motorcycle racing is all about momentum, both literally and figuratively. The momentum is clearly there.