As 2014 draws to a close and 2015 approaches, it is time to take a look back at the 2014 season. Over the next few days, we'll be reviewing the performances of the top 10 riders in the 2014 MotoGP championship, commenting on notable riders outside the top 10, and discussing the cream of Moto2 and Moto3. First, the top 10 MotoGP men, starting with with the 2014 champion:
1st - 362 points - Marc Márquez
By the end of 2013, Marc Márquez had convinced just about everyone that he was the real deal. The doubters who remained held on to a single argument: first, let's see if he can repeat. Winning a championship may be incredibly hard, defending it is doubly so. In the past twenty years, only Mick Doohan and Valentino Rossi have done so.
Things started inauspiciously, Márquez breaking a leg while training at the dirt track oval in Rufea, near where he lives. With five weeks to recover before the first race at Qatar, and forced to miss testing at Sepang and Phillip Island, this was far from ideal preparation. It did not matter, though: Márquez held off a resurgent Valentino Rossi while others crashed out, and won an exciting first race of the season. As his injured leg recovered, so Márquez got better, winning by comfortable margins at Austin, Argentina, Jerez and Le Mans. The fans and media talked of records, by Doohan and Agostini, and the prospect of a perfect season – winning all eighteen races – started to be discussed.
The very first signs of weakness appeared at Mugello. After making it six poles from six races, Márquez fought a tough battle to hold off Jorge Lorenzo for the win. Another tough race followed at Barcelona, while Márquez took advantage of the conditions to win at Assen and the Sachsenring. But missing out on pole position at Barcelona and Assen started to stifle talk of a perfect season, despite Márquez still having a 100% win record.
After the summer break, Márquez carried on as he had left off: with pole and a win at Indianapolis, making it ten wins in a row from the start of the season, and equaling the record held by Mick Doohan. But his perfect season ended at Brno, where he struggled with grip and finished off the podium for the first time since he entered the premier class. Afterwards, he went out of his way to not blame the tires, so much so that we journalists listening to him were left with no doubt that he felt the tires were to blame.
Though Márquez won again from pole at Silverstone, his domination of the series was over. After winning the first ten races, he won just three of the last eight. Making things worse, he crashed out of three races, including two in a row, at Misano and Aragon. Aragon was supposed to be the race he wrapped up the title at, but it would have to wait until Motegi, where a more cautious Márquez took a safe second place to win his second world championship, in front of some very happy Honda bosses.
What changed between the dominant first half of the season and a difficult second half? There were a number of factors at play. Márquez first few races were marked by an incredible consistency: the Repsol Honda rider was immediately up to speed at every new track, the Honda RC213V suited his riding style, and he was hungry, ambitious, and focused. Luck was flowing his way, and everything he touched turned to gold.
But he had help from his rivals. Firstly, as predicted, the reduced fuel allowance had made the Yamaha M1 a much harder bike to ride, robbing it of the smoothness its corner speed style required. Added to that, Bridgestone had changed the rear tire, adding a heat-resistant layer to prevent the tires from shedding rubber in high temperatures, as they had on occasion in previous years. That removed edge grip, again removing corner speed. Both factory Yamaha men struggled, Jorge Lorenzo far more than Valentino Rossi.
It wasn't just the Yamahas which were struggling, neither Márquez' Repsol Honda teammate Dani Pedrosa nor the satellite bikes could give him a run for his money. The RC213V may have suited Márquez to a tee, but it had become more difficult to ride for the others. Pedrosa struggled with another factor, a change of strategy to focus on the end of the race rather than the beginning. That left him caught up trying to fight his way past the Ducatis off the line, and incapable of capitalizing on his strength, raw speed in the first half of the race.
By the second half of 2014, Yamaha had solved most of their throttle response issues, making the bike more competitive, and Jorge Lorenzo, especially, had come to terms with the new tires, helped a little by Bridgestone, who were now using a slightly softer rubber on the edge of the tire. Pedrosa and his crew had found a better compromise, though it was still far from perfect.
But by that time, the championship was practically over. It was not just that Márquez had won, the others had consistently failed. Jorge Lorenzo managed just three podiums in the first half of the season; Valentino Rossi lost a lot of points in Texas and finished off the podium in Argentina, Holland and Germany; Dani Pedrosa, though the best of the rest, could not mount a sustained challenge. It was not just Márquez putting points on everyone at each round, it was his rivals taking points off each other as well.
Was there perhaps also some pressure, or even a sense of ennui, of finding it all too easy? There was certainly pressure, with Márquez doing all he could to wrap up the title as quickly as possible. His crashes at Misano, Aragon and Phillip Island were all the result of misjudgment, pushing too hard to win when it was not possible at Misano, then pushing too hard in changing conditions at Aragon and Phillip Island. You got the feeling that Márquez had lost his focus just a fraction, and that fraction was the difference between dominating and just missing out.
He still finished the season with a record thirteen wins, a second world championship and a fistful of new records. Having defended his title successfully, his critics have one less argument to use to question his achievements. Yet for those who fear a new reign of terror akin to the Doohan era, there were signs of hope. With a competitive M1, the Yamaha riders were capable of challenging Márquez at most tracks. Honda's main focus for 2015 will be to make the bike easier to ride, which should allow Pedrosa, Cal Crutchlow and Scott Redding to get closer to him. Pedrosa is changing crew chiefs, which should create calm in the garage, and make him more competitive. And there is a new Ducati on the horizon, one which might just finally be a match for the Japanese factories. At the beginning of 2014, it was hard to see who could beat Marc Márquez. At the end of 2014, it looks like we could have a real fight on our hands.
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