It was a fitting finale to one of the best season in years. The arrival of Marc Marquez in MotoGP has given the series in a boost in the arm. Not just in the premier class, the influence of Marquez reaches into Moto2 and Moto3 as well. Tito Rabat's move to the Marc VDS team completed his transformation from a fast rider to a champion, but the schooling and support he received from the Marquez brothers at their dirt track oval in Rufea made him even stronger. And Marc's younger brother Alex brought both talent and Maturity to Moto3.
It made for great racing at Valencia. The Moto3 race featured the typical mayhem, but with extra edge because there was a title on the line. Tito Rabat tried to win the Moto2 race from the front, as he has done all year, but found himself up against an unrelenting Thomas Luthi. And in MotoGP, Marc Marquez set a new record of thirteen race wins in a single season, despite being throw a curve ball by the weather.
Marquez was the first to downplay his taking the record of most wins in a season from Mick Doohan. "Doohan won more than me," Marquez said. "He won twelve from fifteen races. Thirteen is a new record, but not so important." Though it is admirable that Marquez can put his own achievement into perspective when comparing it to Doohan's, that is not the full context. Doohan actually twelve of the first thirteen races in 1997, making his win rate even bigger. Then again, Doohan had to beat Tady Okada, Nobu Aoki and Alex Criville, while Marquez has had to fend off Valentino Rossi, Jorge Lorenzo and Dani Pedrosa.
Even Doohan's win rate pales in comparison with those of John Surtees and Giacomo Agostini, who both had perfect seasons in 1959 and 1968 respectively. But the 1959 season had only seven races, and the 1968 ten races, a good deal less than the current total of eighteen.
What this really highlights is the futility of comparing records: different eras saw very different riders facing very different competitors on very different bikes. Trying to compare one with another requires the use of so many correcting factors as to render such comparison meaningless. Each rider is stuck with the races, the bikes and the competitors of his own era. Marquez' record of thirteen wins is impressive whichever way you look at it.
The way Marquez took that thirteenth win was exemplary for his entire season. After a modest start, he fought his way through to the front, then upped the pace beyond that of his challengers to follow. He mastered treacherous conditions to open a gap on Valentino Rossi and Dani Pedrosa, and then motored home to victory.
But he did not have it all his own way: Andrea Iannone had taken off like a scalded cat, leading the race from the start. While his tires were still fresh, the Pramac Ducati rider held a commanding lead. Once the first signs of wear started to appear, he was caught by Marquez and Rossi, and then passed by both. He did not roll over easily, though, putting up an exhilarating and fierce defense, passing straight back when Marquez got by, always ready to counter attack. The Ducati riders had all warned that tire performance dropped drastically after ten laps, and on lap eleven, Iannone was forced to concede, first to Marquez, then to Rossi and Pedrosa, before starting to drop quickly down the field. Iannone's race was effectively over when he followed Jorge Lorenzo into the pits to swap bikes, a gamble which failed spectacularly to pay off for Lorenzo, and left Iannone circulating at the back after following the Spaniard's lead.
Lorenzo took the decision to pit when the rain started getting heavier after the halfway mark. The race had started dry, but the white flag came out when the first few spots of rain started to appear after the first lap had been completed. The threat of rain had hung in the air all morning, but the first real drops appeared during the race. The north end of the circuit, the end of the straight and the first corner remained dry throughout, the rain falling more at the other end, in Turn 8 and the final corner. Judging conditions became tricky, grip changing almost lap by lap.
The aftermath of Lorenzo's huge Assen crash last year still weighs heavily on his mind. At the Dutch track this year, he rode a miserable race, lacking confidence in the half-wet, half-dry conditions. Valencia was similar, the already slick surface rendered even more greasy by the rain. Lorenzo's confidence once again went out the window, and after fighting his way forward from getting pushed wide at the start, he took a gamble on entering the pits to swap bikes once the rain got heavier. That gamble had paid off handsomely at Aragon, the rain getting progressively worse making wet tires the best choice. At Valencia, the rain let up again, leaving Lorenzo lapping ten seconds slower than the rest. On lap 25, he gave up, pulling into the pits and retiring before he could be lapped.
Lorenzo's explanation was simple. His goal was to secure second overall in the championship, which meant trying to win the race. He needed a strong start, and a few decent opening laps if he wanted to have a shot at victory. Losing ground at the start had put him in a difficult position, and seeing Marquez pull away made the task nigh on impossible. He gambled on the bike swap, and once he saw that had failed, he gave up. Lacking confidence to push on slicks, and feeling again the sense of unease from Assen, he pulled into the pits. Just how the Movistar Yamaha bosses felt about such an easy capitulation is unclear. Certainly, Lorenzo's objective for the race was beyond reach. Whether that justifies just giving up altogether is another question.
Lorenzo's failure handed Valentino Rossi second place in the championship on a plate. Frankly, though, Rossi did not need much help from his teammate. The Italian's remarkable revival meant he could hold on to second place in the race, giving him second in the championship by right. In the conditions, second was the better position to be in: he could see where Marquez was struggling, and knew that if the Repsol Honda made the corner, then he too should be able to make it through. The conditions were terrible, Rossi said. "The worst for a rider. You can crash at every corner." Having Marquez ahead had made his job that little bit easier. "From behind, you have a small advantage, because you think, if he does not crash, I can go at the same speed."
Rossi had been challenged by Dani Pedrosa for a while, but once the rain started to get heavier, Pedrosa too lost some confidence, quickly dropping back several seconds. But after crashes at Sepang and Aragon, and being taken out at Phillip Island, Pedrosa knew he had to finish the race. Comfortably in third, Pedrosa accepted rolling home in third, and taking a podium. He had at least had a slightly stronger start, and been able to compete a little better from the start, a problem he has suffered with all season. With a new crew chief starting from Monday, and several new mechanics, Pedrosa will be hoping his 2015 season is much better than this year.
Behind the podium, several fierce battles raged. At the head of them, the two factory Ducatis of Andrea Dovizioso and Cal Crutchlow. The two men were taking very few prisoners, passing each other multiple times a lap on the last few laps. In the end, it was Dovizioso who prevailed, holding off Crutchlow to take fourth. Both men praised a hard but enjoyable battle, fought all the way to the line. Dovizioso was pleased to have made a strong recovery after struggling in qualifying and practice, while Cal Crutchlow was glad to have scored a solid result, topping off a very strong charge in the last five races. It was a reversal of the first half of a difficult year, Crutchlow regaining the confidence and mental fortitude he had lost after his bad crash at Austin. Ending his time at Ducati on a high was crucial, to be able to start testing on Monday with the LCR Honda team, and try to be competitive from the start.
Behind the Ducatis, the Espargaro brothers were battling it out for sixth. They had had the company of Bradley Smith, but an error put him in the gravel at Turn 8, then an obstructive marshal prevented him from taking a shortcut through to Turn 13, forcing him to turn around and then tip over again. That saw him lose over thirty seconds, and rejoin way down the order. It was a costly situation, Smith losing seventh in the championship, and the accompanying bonus.
That came as a godsend for Aleix Espargaro, who had already been forced to kiss goodbye to a big bonus he had been promised for finishing sixth when he was punted off two races in a row. Smith's misfortune meant he could recover some of the cash for a seventh place, though he could not finish ahead of his brother. Pol Espargaro's sixth place in the championship is an impressive debut for the Spaniard, securing him the title of Rookie of the Year.
Though he was happy with his title, his finishing position and his bonus, Pol Espargaro was less pleased with the way the race went. Espargaro had been very strong in both practice and qualifying, and was second fastest in the morning warm up, just 0.059 behind Marc Marquez. The problem, he said, was that every time he was strong in practice, something happened with the weather, making conditions on the track difficult and grip levels uncertain. This, Espargaro said, was his biggest weakness, riding in the wet, but even more so, riding in half-dry, half-wet conditions, where grip was difficult to judge. It was what he needed to work on most, and with rain predicted for Tuesday, the second day of the post-race test, he was determined to get as many laps in the poor weather as he could.
Though Tito Rabat had already wrapped up the Moto2 title at Sepang, he came to Valencia with a point to prove. Rabat had been riding conservatively at the last couple of races, as he closed in on his first ever world title, settling for podiums where previously he had been going all out for wins. With the title in the bag, he could go all out for victory. Rabat took off at the start, as he had done so many times on his way to victory, but he found himself up against a relentless Tom Luthi. The Swiss rider chased Rabat all race long, hounding him all the way to the line.
It looked like Rabat had finally shaken off Luthi in the last half of the final lap, but as the Spaniard drove out of the final corner towards the line, his front wheel appeared to lift, then his bike slowed dramatically, before surging forward again. That allowed Luthi to catch and pass Rabat and take his second win of the season. Rabat shook his head in disbelief, but celebrated his title in front of his home fans nonetheless.
What happened? The team said after the race it had been a fuel starvation problem causing the bike to surge, then slow. To the untrained eye, it looked like a failed wheelie went wrong. We have no reason to expect the team to cover up a mistake by Rabat, but without access to the data, we cannot be 100% certain. It is easiest to accept their explanation and move on.
Valencia was much less successful for Rabat's teammate Mika Kallio. The Finn was aiming to secure second in the championship, making it a Moto2 1-2 for the Marc VDS Racing team. Kallio achieved his objective, but in the cruelest possible way. Kallio was taken out by Maverick Viñales on the first lap, the Spaniard putting both of them out of the race. With both men failing to score points, Kallio held on to second by default, as Viñales was the only man capable of taking second from him.
Luthi's victory at Valencia provided the final irony of the 2014 Moto2 season. It brought the total number of wins for the Swiss manufacturer to three, with two of them coming in the last four races. In total, there were five Suters in the top ten, and only two Kalexes. Despite that, there will be only one Suter on the grid next season, the rest of the teams having switched to Kalex. It is a testament to the blinkered, short-sighted conservatism of the Grand Prix paddock that they should all opt for the same solution, despite demonstrable success by other manufacturers. A strong team with a top rider could gamble on using a Suter, ensuring strong support from the Swiss chassis maker. Now, they most throw in their luck with the Kalex hordes, and hope to find other areas to shine in.
Once again, though, Moto3 was the race of the day. The race turned out to be as fierce as expected, with the 2014 Moto3 title at stake. All Alex Marquez had to do was get a podium to be champion, though that in itself is a massive challenge in a field as tight. Jack Miller faced a bigger challenge. Not only did he have to win the race, he had to find a way to ensure that Marquez ended up off the podium.
Both men gave it all they had, Miller trying to use fellow KTM riders Niccolo Antonelli, Isaac Viñales, Karel Hanika and Husqvarna man Danny Kent to put some riders between him and Marquez. Viñales looked like straying from helping to hindering by leading the race, giving Miller work to do to catch him. But in the end, it was the massed ranks of the Hondas which won the day. Alex Rins tangled with Miller and held him up, though that only temporarily delayed Miller. At the end, Miller took the race win, while Alex Marquez held his nerve and finished third, a last ditch attack by Danny Kent failing when his rear wheel slid in Turn 12, allowing Marquez to escape.
The rides by both Miller and Marquez were impressive. The pressure was all on Marquez, as it was his race to lose. He never faltered, despite getting caught up in the occasional rough and tumble of Moto3, and having to pick his way forward. His concentration and ability to stay focused throughout the race, and indeed the weekend, was what made the difference in the end. Alex Marquez came to Valencia with a job to do, and he did it.
So did Jack Miller, though he could only control where he finished, not where his rivals did. He gave it his best shot, but when it was clear he had to switch his attention to winning the race, he did just that. The way he picked up his pace to close down Isaac Viñales was extraordinary, passing three riders and closing a gap of nearly two seconds in just three laps. Like Marquez, Miller rode like a champion at Valencia, but unlike Marquez, Miller had already squandered his shot at the title.
Miller was visibly angry and disappointed after the race at Valencia, shaking Alex Marquez' hand, but rejecting the hand of Alex Rins, who had run Miller wide and helped his Honda teammate to the title. He complained in Parc Ferme that the incident at Aragon where Marquez had knocked him off had cost him the title, and on the podium, where he was being presented with the trophy for winning the race, had a face like a child who has just been told that Christmas has been canceled for the foreseeable future.
In the press conference some twenty minutes later, Miller had calmed down a little, though he still managed a jab at Marquez, saying that he thought the tough passes throughout the race were just part of racing, and that he wasn't going to complain "because I'm not a b***h." He was more frank about his own mistakes, saying that his error at Assen had cost him just as much as what happened at Aragon. He had also fouled up at Mugello, but by taking Marquez out at the same time, that left the pair even.
Miller's behavior certainly made him look like a sore loser, but arguably, that is what riders are supposed to be at the very highest level of the sport. Elite athletes of any sort hate losing – often, they hate losing more than they love winning – and this is what drives them to achieve what they do. Many is the rider's wife, girlfriend or partner who has tales to tell of Monopoly pieces, X-Box controllers, and Snakes and Ladders counters which have been smashed and flung around their houses, after a rider lost what was supposed to be a fun game among friends. That is not how top athletes operate. Of course, the smarter champions find a way to smile in public, then get their revenge in secret, often in rather small and quite pathetic ways.
While all champions are sore losers, they need to be fast if they expect the public to accept their complaints. A rider who is genuinely quick can get away with moaning when they lose, as long as they back their complaints up with plenty of wins. Riders who only ever finish tenth, or fifteenth, or twenty third, need to always put a brave face on things. Miller has demonstrated he is capable of winning races, and at Sepang and Valencia, capable of controlling them completely, and so a few nasty comments may well be allowed to slip under the radar.
At least Miller is not afraid to show his emotions, nor is he willing to stick to the script handed out to him by the PR spokesperson. His honesty is refreshing – though sometimes also grating – and makes a welcome change from the bland corporate newspeak regurgitated by too many riders. Miller can play either Hero or Villain, but he does both with flair. He will add a welcome touch of spice to MotoGP next year.
In the end, Miller succumbed to Marquez' maturity, both in the race and during the season. Speaking to Israeli commentator Tammy Gorali after the race, Estrella Galicia 0,0 team boss Emilio Alzamora said that it was Marquez' belief in the Honda project that had made the difference. Alex Marquez had kept faith with the NSF250RW project even at the beginning of the season, when the engine was still badly down on power. Marquez' faith was rewarded when the Honda came good. It was astonishing to see how much progress HRC's engineers had made with the engine in the space of just one year, Alzamora said. Marquez had believed in the project from the beginning, and had taken advantage when the bike began to come good.
So the 2014 season is at an end, all scores settled, and the spoils distributed among the winners. 2015 begins on Monday, after most of the riders have had a lie in to recover from their exertions throughout the year. Alex Marquez and Alex Rins move up to Moto2 to become rivals, Marquez going to Marc VDS and Rins heading to Pons. Jack Miller skips straight to MotoGP, where he will test the production Honda alongside Cal Crutchlow, who will racing a factory RC213V. Karel Abraham and Nicky Hayden will try the new production bike, the RC213V-RS for the first time. And Maverick Viñales and Aleix Espargaro will give the Suzuki a public outing at Valencia. After two years of testing by Randy De Puniet, the bike will be put into the hands of two fast young riders, to see what they can do with it. The GSX-RR still has teething problems, as witnessed by the engine blow ups and gearshift problems which beset the bike all weekend. But we should have a much clearer idea of who is fast and who is not once the test wraps up on Wednesday. There is no rest for the wicked, or for the fast.