Whenever I have the pleasure of running across MotoGP's official statistician and number cruncher Dr Martin Raines, he likes to point out to me exactly why we are living through a golden age of racing. His arguments are backed with a battery of indisputable facts and figures, which boil down to a single fact: the races have never been closer. Not in terms of gap between the podium finishers, not in terms of gap between first and last, nor between all points finishers. This is an era of truly great racing.
As if to underline his point, the Barcelona Grand Prix served up a veritable smorgasbord of fantastic races: a strong win and thrilling podium battle in Moto3, a surprisingly hard-fought Moto2 race, and to top it off, perhaps the most exciting MotoGP race we have had since 2006, with four riders slugging it out and swapping places right to the final lap. The winner of the MotoGP race may have been predictable – any bet against Marc Marquez looks more and more foolish each week – but in Barcelona, Marquez' victory looked in doubt all the way to the final couple of corners. At half a second, his margin of victory is overstated. If things had run a little bit differently, Marquez winning streak – now up to seven in a row – could have ended along with his string of poles.
It was a scintillating race indeed. Four men swapped the lead frequently. Dani Pedrosa got the holeshot, changes to weight distribution having given him back his lightning start. Jorge Lorenzo took off after him, taking the lead with an outrageous 'porfuera' pass around the outside of Turn 1, lining him up for Turn 2. Lorenzo then tried to pull a gap, but that simply wasn't happening, Movistar Yamaha teammate Valentino Rossi took over the lead after three laps, getting past his teammate after a brutal exchange of passes in the first part of the lap. Marc Marquez followed, exploiting Lorenzo's moment of weakness to follow Rossi through, before latching onto the Italian's tail. There he found his teammate Dani Pedrosa stalking him, jabbing and probing, seeking a way past. The two exchanged blows for six laps, before Marquez finally escaped from Pedrosa's clutches and started snapping at Rossi's heels. Marquez took over at the front with six laps to go, holding off attacks from both Rossi and Pedrosa, swapping the lead with Pedrosa, before the final do-or-die lap, where he countered Pedrosa's final attack and held on for the win. Any opportunity to pass was seized, all four men just as aggressive in their passing as each other.
Though it was Marc Marquez who came out on top in the end, making it seven wins from races this season, it was by no means a foregone conclusion. As so often this year, when he rolled the dice, they came out in his favor. He attacked Valentino Rossi, and just as Rossi was about to counterattack, Pedrosa slid under Rossi to thwart the Italian's plan. Pedrosa sniped away at Marquez throughout the last couple of laps, but some tough defensive riding and holding a tight line saw Pedrosa run into the back of Marquez, clip his back wheel and nearly take them both out. Instead, Pedrosa ran wide, Marquez lost the rear but managed to save it, and Rossi was not close enough to exploit the situation.
The race made even more exciting by an incident on lap 19. Marquez had just passed Rossi into Turn 1, a move which also allowed Pedrosa to follow. But Marquez found he had passed the Italian just as the marshals were busy clearing away the bike of Mike Di Meglio, while yellow flags were being waved. Marquez spotted the flags out of the corner of his eye, realized he would be penalized if he continued, so put his hand up and slowed to allow Rossi back. Pedrosa followed suit, and once Rossi was back in the lead, hostilities resumed. The move caused a great deal of confusion for all except Marquez and Pedrosa, as nobody else – including Rossi – had seen the yellow flags. As the race had started with a massive black cloud hanging over the circuit, it was feared that the hands were because rain had started to fall. The incident even confused the teams in pit lane, who immediately started warming up the spare bikes.
The result left Marquez jubilant with his seventh win in a row, Pedrosa happy despite only coming third, and Rossi masking his disappointment at finishing second. Marquez said this was the hardest battle of the season, and perhaps the most rewarding. Pedrosa was delighted that his arm was now strong enough to fight all the way to the end, as well as with the changes made to the bike. The Spaniard had suffered in the early races with a change in strategy forced upon him by the team, which had shifted focus from the start of the races to make the bike better in the second half of the race. That shift had left him floundering in the first half, but a modification at Barcelona saw Pedrosa get his usual great start, and allowed him to maintain his pace in the early laps. His goal, Pedrosa told the press conference, was first to get a good start, and when that succeeded, it gave him confidence to push in the early laps. So much confidence, in fact, that this was the most aggressive we have seen Dani Pedrosa in a very long time, perhaps even since his races in 250s. It was an inspired sight, and gave the lie to the old complaint that Pedrosa is unwilling to fight for a place. Not only will he fight, but he's prepared to do whatever it takes to attempt the win. That realization, perhaps above all, is why Pedrosa was so happy.
For Rossi, the outcome had the opposite effect. He may have secured a second place for the fourth time this year, and matched his podium haul for the entire 2013 season in just seven races, but the smile he displayed in the press conference resembled a grimace with gritted teeth far more than a smile of real joy. Rossi has been competitive all year, and this time, he said, he could taste victory. It is a sweet, sweet taste, but becomes very bitter if snatched away before you actually cross the line in first. Rossi knows he is close to grabbing his 81st premier class win, and his ambition is leaving him ever more frustrated when it doesn't succeed.
That win is coming, however. The Barcelona weekend had all the hallmarks of Rossi's best years. The Italian was fast during practice, but missed just a little bit of speed. The team improved the bike all weekend, and on Sunday morning, found the missing piece of the puzzle. That allowed him to fight for the win, but in the end he came up short. Rossi's explanation was that the Honda does not stress the rear tire as much as the Yamaha does, giving them an advantage as the race progresses. The set up improvement Rossi's crew chief Silvano Galbusera found allowed him to keep lapping in the 1'42.8s, but he was slowly losing grip, and with it, was losing braking.
What Barcelona does demonstrate is that Rossi is still as competitive as he ever was. I, like many commentators, had written Rossi off because of his age, but he has proved me wrong. He still has the hunger and the ability to win races, and surely those wins will come. His problem is he faces two men in Pedrosa and Lorenzo at least at the same level as him, and Marc Marquez, who seems capable of superhuman feats. The final chapter is yet to be written in Valentino Rossi's racing history, but it will be very hard fought indeed.
After a superb race in Mugello, Jorge Lorenzo could not quite stay with the leaders at Barcelona. Many factors were to blame, above all a lack of grip and the bumps on the track. That made it hard for Lorenzo to ride as smoothly as he likes and conserve energy, needing more effort to calm the bike over the many bumps there were at Barcelona. His biggest problem was losing time in acceleration, the price the Yamaha pays for the improvement in braking. Both Lorenzo and Rossi can brake later, harder and deeper, but at the cost of more movement in the rear under acceleration. The rear end pumps and moves when they get on the gas, and so far, the solution has been to cut power to try to keep the bike stable. The downside of cutting power is so obvious I won't even point it out, but Lorenzo reckoned it was costing him three to four tenths a lap. The problem wasn't so bad with the grip the new tire offered, but as his tire dropped in performance, so did his ability to stay with the Hondas. It was a common problem, Pol Espargaro suffering exactly the same trouble.
The scintillating battle at the front meant a couple of strong performances went relatively unremarked. Stefan Bradl took a solid fifth place, after battling with the leaders for the first quarter of the race. Behind him, Aleix Espargaro proved his mettle by ending in sixth, best Open bike once again. The sight of the elder Espargaro in parc ferme still feels unnecessary, especially when Aleix is beating almost everyone but the four aliens on the factory machines, with only Bradl ahead of him.
For the other factory, the news was good and bad as ever. The good news for Ducati was that Andrea Dovizioso once again cut his gap to the leaders in half. Last year, the Italian finished 32 seconds behind the winner Jorge Lorenzo. This year, he was just 16 seconds slower than the winner, with Andrea Iannone a couple of seconds slower.
The bad news came from the other factory Ducati garage. Cal Crutchlow's bike was struck down by gremlins once again, this time the electronics playing up and then dying. In the early laps, his bike was producing the wrong amount of power in the wrong corners, Crutchlow said. In some of the tighter corners, he had full power, in others not enough. He switched engine maps thinking it was just a question of set up, but that killed the power altogether. His problems lasted nine laps. Before the bike died completely on lap 10, lots of warning lights flashing and the engine going completely. Neither Crutchlow nor his team had any idea what caused the problem, leaving both parties baffled and frustrated. The gremlins which plagued Ben Spies during his second year in the factory Yamaha team appear to have found a new home. Crutchlow will be less than pleased.
If the MotoGP race was a scorcher, the Moto2 race was settled by a much more comfortable margin. Tito Rabat won once again, increasing his lead in the championship, but this win did not come as easy as earlier victories. Maverick Viñales gave Rabat a run for his money in the first half of the race, Rabat only able to shake him off after the halfway mark. Mika Kallio looked like losing out badly to his teammate, but a string of crashes by the riders who had passed him meant Kallio salvaged fourth, limited the damage to Rabat.
In Moto3, a streak came to an end. Alex Marquez impressive victory on the Estrella Galicia Honda stopped the run of 32 KTM-powered wins in a row. Marquez won using strategy and intelligence, the Spaniard managing to make a break in the early laps and defend it all the way home. Marquez was helped by the epic battle behind, with Efren Vazquez playing a key role in slowing up the chasing pack. Vazquez seems determined to stay at the front of the group he is riding in, whether it makes any sense or not. His constant battling for the right to chase Marquez meant that the Estrella Galicia rider managed to get away.
The most impressive ride of the day went to Enea Bastianini. The young Italian is in his first season in Moto3, moving up from the Red Bull Rookies. Bastianini looked set for his first podium at Mugello, but he was taken out by Jack Miller on the final lap. At Barcelona, he finally got the reward he deserved. To come in and outperform the highly regarded Karel Hanika is impressive. To grab a podium in just his seventh Grand Prix is absolutely outstanding. With Bastianini, Pecco Bagnaia and Romano Fenati, the future is looking up for Italian racing.
Fenati did not fare as well as his younger compatriots. The Italian rode a brilliant race, getting an outstanding start from 16th on the grid, and battling for the podium for most of the race. He lost out on the crucial last lap, dropping from third down to fifth, with Jack Miller making moves when it counted to retain his lead in the championship. The rumors concerning his future appear to be getting to Miller, the arguments over whether he is committed to Marc VDS by contract or not continuing. Miller struggled all race, but when it came down to it, the Red Bull KTM rider realized he had to get down to business. Fourth place is not where he wants to finish, but he got himself ahead of title rival Romano Fenati, so he got the job done when he had to. The problem for Miller is that he needs to attack early, not late. No doubt once his manager – Aki Ajo, also his team manager – has sorted out his future, Miller will once again be able to concentrate on winning, rather than worrying about whether he'll be in Moto2 or perhaps even MotoGP in 2015.