This is truly a golden age of motorcycle racing. The Silverstone race was proof of that. A stunning contest, with positions fiercely fought over. A new winner added to MotoGP's pantheon. Five riders doing battle over second place, including some of the greatest riders of their respective generations. Bikes from four different factories in the top six.
And Silverstone is hardly unique this season. 2016 has seen two different satellite riders win races. It has seen seven different winners this season, and the last seven races each won by a different rider. It has seen relative newcomers win, and seasoned veterans win. 2016 is the culmination of a long period of rich results, with four riders all capable of winning on any given day over the past four or five years. Margins of victory have never been tighter, nor has the gap between the front and the back of the grid.
This cornucopia is not just in the premier class. Racing is returning to Moto2, after a drought of processional contests. Moto3 is overflowing with young talent, with rookies quickly challenging the older guard, who are in turn off to fatten the field in Moto2 next year. At Silverstone, the Moto2 race was hard fought between a small group of riders, with incidents that had serious long-term effects on the championship. The Moto3 class produced a customary thriller, Silverstone's long straights and high winds making escape impossible, but making staying out of trouble imperative.
Off to a bad start
Silverstone was an advertisement for motorcycle racing, showcasing the depth of the field and the talent at the top. The MotoGP race started badly, with a horrific high-speed crash at Maggotts on the opening lap. Loris Baz and Pol Espargaro hurtled towards the second corner side by side, in the middle of a hectic pack. Just ahead of them, Danilo Petrucci braked earlier than they were expecting, and Baz moved right to avoid slamming into the back of the Pramac Ducati. In doing so, he clipped Espargaro, and the two men hit the floor at very high speed, their bikes tumbling end over end across the grass and tarmac.
Their bikes were destroyed – "I don't think there is a single part of the bike left undamaged," one Tech 3 source said – but both Baz and Espargaro walked away relatively unhurt. Baz had briefly lost consciousness, so will have a brain scan in Switzerland on Monday. Espargaro never lost consciousness, but took a whole-body beating, his legs bearing the worst of it. But there were no broken bones, only bruises, and a lot of pain.
The race had been red flagged to allow the marshalls to clear up the mess, and the medical staff to tend to Baz while he came round. A red flag meant a quick restart procedure: 60 seconds to leave pit lane once it is opened, one mechanic on the grid, no tire warmers, and the warm up lap starting 30 seconds after the safety car reaches the back of the grid. At Mugello, the quick restart procedure had played havoc in the Moto2 race. The MotoGP teams had learned from that, and the restart went off without a hitch.
Restart winners and losers
The restart had been hard on Eugene Laverty. The Irishman was up to second from sixth on the grid when the red flags waved. The second start was not so kind to the Aspar Ducati rider, getting swamped off the line and caught up in traffic.
The second start was also less kind on Maverick Viñales. The Suzuki rider had led into the first corner during the first start, and was already starting to open a gap when the first race was red flagged. His second start was not so strong, ending up behind Cal Crutchlow and Valentino Rossi. But the first start was a harbinger of Viñales' form. The Suzuki rider quickly disposed first of Rossi, then of Crutchlow, and was leading the race before the end of the first lap.
That would be the last the rest of the field would see of the Spanish youngster. The pace Viñales set was simply too much for the others to follow. The interrupted first race had given him confidence: when he looked behind him after he saw the red flags being waved, he was surprised at the gap he had already opened. "When I saw the red flag I looked behind and they were so far," he told us after the race." I said, I can’t believe that already I have this gap. Honestly in the second race I start third but I know I could push."
Do Aliens exist?
How he pushed was what impressed most of all. There has been a long-standing suspicion that Viñales was something very special, but a single podium at Le Mans under unusual circumstances still left room for doubt. Winning a dry race at Silverstone, after a strong showing in practice, and with a full field chasing removed any question marks that may have lingered over his head. Maverick Viñales is the next Alien.
Or is he? Does the concept of "The Aliens" even make sense any more, as WorldSBK commentator Stephen English remarked to us in the media center. He has a point: The field is currently both very strong and much more level than before. Spec electronics have removed the major disparity between larger and smaller factories, and the tires Michelin now bring to the track – a less conservative selection than Bridgestone used to offer – means that riders have a real choice of rubber.
The best riders still keep winning, and are battling for the top of the championship. But when conditions are right, non-factory riders can win races, or in the case of Cal Crutchlow, battle for podium places. A rider like Viñales can use the strengths of the Suzuki to full effect, and in the cold, when the GSX-RR has rear grip, can win races.
Look upon my works, ye mighty
Alien or not, Viñales has now proved he belongs among the elite of MotoGP. Sure, the cold helped the bike, but the Spaniard has threatened the podium in previous races, and looked strong during practice. After practice, he declared himself "the king of Friday", pointing out the futility of such a title. But after this race, the rest of the MotoGP grid has much to fear.
Valentino Rossi already knew this, and was starting to ponder having Viñales as his teammate for next season. "I’m very worried for next year with Maverick," Rossi told the press conference. "But not from today. I already know his potential because today he won and a lot of people will speak about this victory but all the people that work in MotoGP already know from a long time his talent. I know from the moment that the sign for Yamaha is not easy. I cannot be relax. "
History is made
Viñales made history another way at Silverstone. With his win, the Spaniard became the first rider to win a race in the Moto3, Moto2 and MotoGP classes. That statistic is only possible because of the shifting regulations, as other riders have obviously won in all three Grand Prix classes. But becoming one of that elite group cements the Spaniard's reputation. He is clearly special.
Viñales' win was important for Suzuki too. It was their first victory since their return at the beginning of 2015, of course, but it was historic for more than that. The first Suzuki victory since Chris Vermeulen won at a drenched Le Mans in 2007. Viñales' victory was only Suzuki's second win in the four-stroke era: the previous victory dates back to 2001, when Sete Gibernau won at Valencia aboard the 500cc V4 two stroke. That was also their last win in the dry, the switch to four strokes marking the end of competitiveness for Suzuki.
The win was a vindication for Suzuki boss Davide Brivio as well. "I'm very happy, also because it's a clear and clean win," the Italian told me. "Everybody was there, it was dry. Our bike here was very good, and of course Maverick was fantastic in riding. I'm very happy for Suzuki, the factory. We worked very hard and I think is a big award for everybody, for us and in Japan." Had the spec electronics helped to level the playing field? "For sure we have the common ECU, for sure this balance the competitiveness in terms of electronics. But then there is a bike as well, an engine, a chassis, so I think we did a good job on that. It's only our second season, so we're very happy."
Viñales' victory puts Suzuki on course to have their concessions removed, though they are not quite there yet. With his third place at Le Mans and win at Silverstone, Viñales has now racked up four "concession points" for Suzuki. Two more – a win, or a second place, or two third places – and they lose the right to test freely, and would be subject to the engine freeze and have their engine allocation lowered. With Viñales in his current form, and tracks like Phillip Island and Valencia coming up, you have to believe that is possible.
Entertainment is further back
If there can be any criticism of Viñales' victory, it would only be that it was not entertaining. The Spaniard controlled the race, opening a gap and never really threatened. Fortunately for the fans, the entertainment was happening behind Viñales, where Cal Crutchlow, Valentino Rossi, Marc Márquez, Andrea Iannone and Dani Pedrosa battled hard over second place. So hard, in fact, that there was paint being swapped just about every lap.
Adding extra spice to the contest was the fact that Marc Márquez and Valentino Rossi were engaged in direct combat. What that battle made clear is that the handshake at Barcelona and the resumption of cordial relations was nothing more than a front. Márquez and Rossi still hate each other with a passion, and want nothing more than to beat each other, almost to the detriment of everything else. Hard passes were made on both sides, the battle seemingly decided in Márquez' favor with two laps to go. But Márquez' choice of the soft front proved to be the wrong one, and he made a mistake trying to pass Crutchlow into Stowe. He ran wide, and was left stuck behind Rossi.
After the race, there were questions over why Márquez had not been penalized for running off the track at Becketts, while Aleix Espargaro had been handed a 1 second penalty for doing the same thing. There was a difference, however: Márquez held his hand up, cruised across the tarmac, and rejoined safely in the same position behind Rossi. No advantage gained, and no time gained by the maneuver. On lap 15, the lap Márquez ran on at Becketts, Márquez did a 2:03.5. That was faster than the previous lap, but slower than the lap which followed.
When Aleix Espargaro cut the track at Becketts, he posted his fastest lap of the race. On lap 6, Espargaro did a 2:03.7. On lap 7, when he cut the track, he did a 2:02.7. A 1-second penalty for Espargaro seemed entirely apt. Márquez, on the other hand, had gained nothing, and so a penalty would have been rather arbitrary.
Confidence rules racing
Cal Crutchlow had been confident of parrying Márquez' attack, even if he had not run wide at Stowe. The LCR Honda rider had used the harder front tire, and that had given him some margin of comfort over the opposition. He was confident that he would be able to repass Márquez if the Repsol Honda rider had gotten by. Things may have been different if Márquez had also chose the hard front, Crutchlow said, but he didn't, and Crutchlow delivered a podium at his home race.
That brought out a feeling of intense pride for the Englishman. All of the British riders had felt intense support from the crowd, and standing on the podium at his home round had been important for Crutchlow. What was perhaps more important was that he was able to battle with Rossi, with Márquez, with Pedrosa on equal terms.
That is surely down to confidence. Though Crutchlow is never short of self-confidence, sometimes that is bolstered by bluster. Finally getting his first Grand Prix win at Brno and joining the legendary list of British premier class winners had made an impact on the LCR Honda rider. Crutchlow was as boisterous as ever this weekend, but behind it all was a quiet confidence. He had proved to the world that he could win a race in Brno, and that had helped change something inside him. The Honda RC213V is much changed since the beginning of the year, and with the upgrades received in recent races – new throttle bodies and a new chassis – it was good enough in the right conditions. Paired with Crutchlow's confidence, the bike is becoming a lethal weapon, despite the problems.
Title (almost) over?
Valentino Rossi may have been happy to take the final spot on the podium, but on Sunday, he mostly looked exasperated. Yes, he had a podium. Yes, he had beaten Marc Márquez. But he had only taken back three points from Márquez, cutting his deficit to 50 points. If anything, that had made his position in the championship worse, Rossi told the press conference. "50 points with one race less is worse than 53 points with one race more," he pointed out. Before Silverstone, Márquez needed two second places and the rest third places to secure the title. Now, he heeds just one second place, and five thirds. The championship pretty much belongs to Márquez.
If Rossi was exasperated, Jorge Lorenzo was positively fuming. By the time we got to talk to the Spaniard, he had resumed his normal, cagey self. Eighth place, nearly twenty seconds behind Viñales was not acceptable, but it had all been down to gamble. Lorenzo wanted help with the bike over the bumps at Silverstone, and a more stable bike. So he and his crew decided to take a risk an a set up they had not tried this year, but had worked in years past. That was with the Bridgestones, however, and they are a very different kettle of fish. With the Michelins, the bumps were just as bumpy and the bike was still moving, and they had sacrificed in other areas as well. Lorenzo struggled.
Lorenzo's deficit to Márquez is now 64 points, an almost unbridgeable gap. The championship is over for Lorenzo. He must find new motivation to try to move forward, and things he can take with him to Ducati next year. That is basically only a better feeling with the tires.
Race Direction tighten up the championship
The Moto2 race was not quite as scintillating as MotoGP, yet there is now some real excitement in the class again. Tom Luthi took a comfortable win in the end, after Sam Lowes found he could not break the others when he took the lead. But the real drama came when Zarco tried an impossible pass on Lowes and took the Englishman out. Lowes was left at the sidelines, while Zarco remounted to cross the line in seventh.
The championship leader would not hold on to that position. Race Direction rightly ruled that it had been a reckless move on the part of Zarco, and an action they would normally have given a ride through for. But it was too late in the race for a ride through, so instead, they handed him a time penalty of 30 seconds, equivalent to a ride through pit lane. That dropped Zarco from sixth to twenty-second, and out of the points.
Lowes was fuming with Zarco, but he felt that the penalty had at least been commensurate with the crime. "If I can't score any points, then he shouldn't be able to," he told us. The penalty does spice up the championship quite a lot: Zarco's advantage over Alex Rins was cut to just 10 points, with everything still to play for. The penalty was manna from heaven for Rins: the Spaniard had broken his collarbone in a training accident last week, and was still a little weak from it. The result of Silverstone keeps Rins in the title race.
The anointed one
If the title race has tightened in Moto2, the opposite has happened in Moto3. After a breathtaking race where a large group battled for the lead, title favorite Brad Binder took victory, and extended his lead. After a few crazy opening laps, Binder knew he had to be at the front of the battle, and he spent most of the race at the head of the group, controlling the race.
The race got tighter as they approached the flag, with a small group showing their hand was strongest. Leading that group was Binder's teammate, Bo Bendsneyder, who was having his strongest race of the season. Bendsneyder led in the final laps, before Binder used him as a slipstream to take over at the front as the finish line neared. Binder won a famous victory, with Pecco Bagnaia crossing the line in second, confirming his strong form.
More history made
Bendsneyder ended up third, a strong result in his rookie year. He also made history, ending a 22-year podium drought for Dutch riders. The last time a Dutch rider appeared on the podium was at Assen in 1994, when Loek Bodelier took third in the 125 class, and Wilco Zeelenberg ended up third in 250s. With Zeelenberg acting as an informal adviser to Bendsneyder on occasion ("He gives me tips sometimes," the Dutch youngster explained), there was a pleasant symmetry to it.
Was Zeelenberg annoyed to lose his place in history? "Absolutely not," the Yamaha team manager told me. "It's been too long already, it was about time someone took it from me."
Binder's victory gives him an 86 point lead over Jorge Navarro. Binder is being assisted by events, as Navarro was once again taken out of a race through no fault of his own. He found himself in the wrong place with Stefano Manzi, the Mahindra wildcard, and down he went.
Pecco Bagnaia looks like the latest challenger, the Italian moving to third in the championship, and trailing by 94 points. Second place is within reach, but Binder looks to be in a class of his own. The South African needs to extend his lead by 16 points by Aragon to clinch the title before the flyaways. Everything is possible in Moto3, but it looks very likely that Binder will wrap this one up sooner rather than later.