Valencia is supposed to be an emotionally charged race. The last round of the season, the grand finale. The last chance for riders to lay it all on the line, in pursuit of glory. The bowl in which the Ricardo Tormo circuit is set focuses and amplifies the cheers of the crowd, carrying the racing to new levels of intensity.
There was an extra layer of emotion at Valencia this year. The excitement is tinged with the bittersweet taste of parting. There is the largest group of riders moving from one garage to another that I can remember in a very long time. Riders and their crew become very close, a tight unit that works intensely together. They celebrate success together, and share their despair during the bad times. These men and women have been through a lot together, forging bonds that are not easily broken. Riders may only be moving a couple of garages away, the parting is no less painful for that.
Those departing felt compelled to put on a good show for the people they leave behind, and they did not disappoint. In Moto3 and Moto2, the departing champions put on brave fights to reprise their title-winning ways, with supporting stars offering fierce opposition to add some luster to their victories. In the MotoGP class, all the factory riders switching garages dug a little deeper inside themselves, and pulled some outstanding performances out of the bag. The extra emotion of the final weekend of the season produced three great races at Valencia, with three truly deserving winners.
Jorge Lorenzo had come to Valencia to thank his team, and Yamaha, with a victory. Throughout practice, we saw the Lorenzo of old, the rider who had dominated at Le Mans, who had easily held off every challenge from Marc Márquez. Lorenzo was smooth, confident, and blisteringly fast. His pace through practice was searing, only Marc Márquez capable of getting close. In qualifying, he was unbeatable, smashing the existing pole record and putting nearly three quarters of a second between himself and his teammate. Valencia was Lorenzo's to lose.
In warm up, a possible chink in his armor appeared. All of a sudden, Lorenzo tumbled down the timesheets, ending up in seventh spot behind a host of faster riders. The gap to the front was not vast – just over a third of a second – but it was big enough to offer a significant obstacle. Why was Lorenzo so far back in warm up, when he had dominated practice? Two reasons: firstly, it was much colder in the morning than it had been all weekend, light cloud preventing the sun from dispelling the November chill from the air.
Secondly, and more significantly, Lorenzo's time in warm up was deceptive. Yes, his fastest lap was three tenths slower than Márquez' quickest, but when you examined the pace he had over nine full laps, it was impressively consistent. Six of his nine laps were within a couple of tenths of his fastest lap. Only Marc Márquez was knocking out laps with such startling regularity. Other riders, while quicker over a single lap, varies their pace too much.
The proof of the pudding
What was Lorenzo's real pace? The proof of the pudding was in the eating, as the cliché has it. Under sunny skies, the track heated up to where it had been during qualifying. That heat was what Lorenzo needed to make his tires work, and work they did, right off the line. Lorenzo led into the first corner, and disappeared. The Spaniard led by four tenths at the end of the first lap. He nearly doubled it the next lap, then opened up a gap of over a second by the third lap. By lap six, the gap was nearly two seconds. By lap nine, it was up to three seconds. Two laps later, it was over four seconds. With just over a third of the race gone, Jorge Lorenzo had opened a massive advantage over the chasing group.
The Movistar Yamaha rider had not built that lead entirely alone. As fast as Lorenzo was getting away, he was being helped by a huge scrap developing over the right to chase the Spaniard. Andrea Iannone was leading the charge, but he was riding inconsistently, and coming under constant attack from behind. Valentino Rossi was snapping at Iannone's heels, while himself being pursued by Marc Márquez and Maverick Viñales, with Andrea Dovizioso bringing up the rear of the group.
Passing isn't always as hard at Valencia as some people think
That fight would turn into the most entertaining scrap of the race. The prospect of the remaining two podium spots whetted appetites for battle. Iannone led the group, but Rossi sensed the Italian was vulnerable. The Movistar Yamaha rider attacked first, sliding through under the Ducati at Turn 11. But Rossi's lead would only last onto the front straight, when Iannone unleashed the rocket-like acceleration of the Desmosedici GP, powering back past Rossi purely on top speed.
It was to become a familiar pattern, Rossi probing and passing at a range of corners. Turn 11 was his favorite, though Turn 6 and Turn 8 were also spots he tried. Iannone usually just relied on the horsepower of the Ducati, but also proved he was no one trick pony by outbraking the Yamaha back into Turn 12, then leading onto the long left hander of Turn 13.
The passes were hard, though Rossi gave as good as he would get. "Sincerely speaking, it was a hard fight, but we never touched," Rossi said. "I think he was very aggressive with me, but also I was very aggressive with him." It was a battle 'all' ultimo sangue', Rossi said, an Italian expression for which he had no ready translation, but which can be rendered as 'until the last drop of blood'.
New boy as fast as the old boy
The Italian battle royal had allowed Marc Márquez and Maverick Viñales to hang with Rossi and Iannone. Márquez had given himself a lot of work to do, after a massive wheelie off the line dropped him down several places. Viñales' start had been much better, the first rider to challenge Iannone. The Suzuki rider held on to Iannone's tail, showing once again that there is nothing wrong with the top speed of the GSX-RR. That would be validated by the speed charts, Viñales third fastest through the speed traps, inferior only to the two factory Ducatis, and with a 2 km/h advantage over the Honda of Marc Márquez.
Rossi would soon work his way past Viñales to take on Iannone, while Márquez followed through to stalk the two Italians. After twenty laps of watching Rossi and Iannone take it in turns to lead the group, Márquez finally managed to find a way past first Rossi, then Iannone. It had not been easy, he said. "I take a lot of time to overtake Valentino and Iannone, because like Valentino said yesterday, here is very, very difficult to overtake the other riders," Márquez explained.
When Márquez finally got past Iannone at Turn 2, the Ducati man once again put the horsepower to work to get him back again along the straight. Márquez tried again at Turn 14, but was once again put in his place along the front straight. Márquez finally managed to secure second place with a tough pass at Turn 2, which he had to hold on to through Turn 3, running Iannone a little wide as the Italian tried to hold on to his position. At last, Márquez could put his head down and charge.
It ain't over till it's over
Lorenzo's lead had appeared to be quite insuperable, but Márquez had other ideas altogether. The Yamaha had a lead of nearly five and a half seconds, with less than ten laps to go. But the Repsol Honda's pace was fearsome, while Lorenzo was starting to flag. "I struggle so much in the last ten laps," Lorenzo told the press conference. The front was starting to grain on the right side, but the biggest problem was with wear on the left, Lorenzo explained. "The left side of the rear tire was struggling so much," he said. "Especially in the last corner when I open the throttle the rear just slide so much and couldn’t drive the same as beginning of the race."
Márquez closed, taking big chunks out of Lorenzo every lap. By lap twenty three, he had cut the gap to four and a half seconds. Three laps later, and another second was gone. Márquez could see Lorenzo ahead of him, and was closing in every corner. But he would eventually run out of laps. Lorenzo's lead was just over a second when he crossed the line to take the win, with Márquez nearly half a second a lap faster. Two more laps and he could have done it, he opined, but there could be no excuses. "The race is 30 laps, and today Jorge did an incredible race," Márquez said.
Goodbye, and thanks for all the fish
Lorenzo's early break is what handed him victory. It was exactly what he had wanted, to leave Yamaha with a victory. For his team, to thank them for all their hard work over the years. For Yamaha, to thank them for believing in him, and signing him so early in his career – the deal was done at Laguna in 2006, against opposition from Rossi, though he would only move up to MotoGP in 2008.
Above all, though, the victory was for Lorenzo himself, to make amends for the last few races where he had been merely mediocre, to prove to himself that he was still capable of winning, and perhaps to remind Yamaha of just what they were losing in letting him go. In the press conference, Lorenzo twice mentioned the 2015 season, in which he had become champion but which had ended on a sour note. That had been the high point of his time with Yamaha, and also when he had performed best as a rider. His win was a potent symbol of just what Lorenzo can do when he is feeling confident with the tires – tires, more than the bike, are the ultimate factor in deciding Lorenzo's performance.
Behind Márquez, the war between Iannone and Rossi went down to the final laps, but the Ducati rider would come out on top. In the end, the Yamaha rider had not been able to use the front tire he wanted, and the soft front had not quite had the support he needed to make the difference. "I suffer a lot with the tire, especially the front. I don't have the right tire for me," Rossi said. "I want to try to race with the hard but unfortunately I didn’t have enough grip on the left. But today with a bit more temperature I suffer a bit with the soft." The temperature may have played perfectly into Jorge Lorenzo's hands, it was not quite warm enough to allow Rossi to run the stiffer hard front, and exploit his late-braking style.
The reason for leaving
Iannone, like Lorenzo, was delighted to leave Ducati with another podium. He had ridden an incredibly brave race, battling fiercely despite sharp and almost unbearable pain in his back. He had been rewarded with third place, ahead of his teammate Andrea Dovizioso again for the seventh time this season, despite missing four races through injury. He had proudly proved that he was worthy of being considered to remain with Ducati, rather than being moved on to make way for Lorenzo. But the fact that he took his teammate out in the penultimate corner at Argentina is why Ducati ultimately chose Dovizioso.
Maverick Viñales finished a very strong fifth, also beating his teammate in the dry once again, and showing signs of being a formidable opponent once he moves on from the Suzuki GSX-RR. He had been very strong in the first half of the race, the second half being a voyage into the unknown, as he had not put more than fifteen laps on a set of tires. Viñales had survived the first drop of the tires, but the second drop after twenty laps saw him lose touch with the battle for third. "I pushed and pushed, I made two or three mistakes that I nearly crashed," Viñales said. "Then I thought it's better that I bring the fifth place to the box than bring only zero points."
The battle for sixth behind Viñales was as entertaining as the battle for second had been at one point. Andrea Dovizioso had dropped off the back of the leaders, falling back into the clutches of the Brothers Espargaro. Dani Pedrosa had crashed out before Dovizioso had started going backwards, and Cal Crutchlow had crashed trying to catch the Espargaros. The pair had joined up at the start of the race, Aleix Espargaro unable to pass his brother Pol.
Pol had struggled with the front tire in the early laps, preventing him from carrying corner speed, and Aleix had not been able to get past him with a reasonable level of risk. "[Pol] braked very very hard, but then he held the brakes on," Aleix explained. "The first four or five laps he held the brakes on for too much time, he was too careful, and I was a little bit more aggressive, and couldn't overtake him. Maybe I was too careful, because it was my last race with Suzuki and I had my brother in front."
It was not just his brother that he was concerned about. Aleix Espargaro – and brother Pol too – is leaving for pastures new at the end of the season. Aleix did not want to destroy the bike and hand it back to his mechanics just as he heads out of the door. "To finish seventh or eighth doesn't change anything," Aleix said. "I didn't want to crash, I wanted to bring the bike back to the garage today to say bye bye to Suzuki."
What he leaves behind
Aleix Espargaro was proud of the work he had done to bring the Suzuki to the level it is today. "They know I did my best every time I dressed in my blue leathers, I always gave my 100%. I helped them to build one of the best Suzukis in history in my opinion," he said. He had even named one of his dogs Suzuki, he said, as a demonstration of how committed he was to the project.
Aleix Espargaro would end the race in eighth, behind both brother Pol and Dovizioso. It was not the ending he had wanted, but he had done what he could. The bike was whole, he was in one piece, and he had another top ten finish.
Both Espargaro brothers are extremely emotional, and highly expressive, and they both also have deep-seated need to belong. Both have forged strong bonds with their teams, though Aleix is the rider who most needs to feel a family atmosphere around him. As we journalists waited between the Suzuki race trucks for the elder Espargaro to appear, we could hear the sounds of celebration and mutual admiration in the garage. The team chanted their appreciation of Espargaro, and he changed his in return.
More than just support
If the MotoGP race was a fitting, if not necessarily scintillating way to close out the 2016 MotoGP season, the two support races provided plenty of excitement. In Moto2, the five riders who have breathed life into this class in 2016 once again did battle, Johann Zarco holding off early challenges from Franco Morbidelli, Alex Rins, and Tom Luthi, while Sam Lowes closed up in the later stages of the race.
At the end, only Morbidelli could run with Johann Zarco, though even the Italian had eventually to admit defeat. Zarco went on to close out the season as befits a defending champion, winning the race in style and then going on to celebrate with yet another backflip. All season long, we in the media center have watched in trepidation as Zarco has climbed the tire wall, then launched into a backflip off the top of it. Every time, we have expected him to break an ankle, and perhaps put his championship at risk. Yet every time, he comes away unscathed. Perhaps he does know what he is doing after all.
The Moto3 race was also won by the newly crowned champion, but the way in which he did so was positively amazing. Brad Binder has clearly been the best rider in Moto3, and Valencia showed that once again he was head and shoulders above the rest. In the early laps, Binder had suffered a technical issue, which saw the power drop as he opened the gas on corner exit. The South African looked down at his bike before continuing, causing him to lose a massive amount of ground and drop down through the field to 22nd position.
Undaunted, Binder put his head down and clawed his way forward again. It was not easy, Binder said afterwards, despite the fact he had done something similar in Jerez earlier in the year. "Overtaking here is much harder than Jerez," Binder told us. Despite that, Binder's passes were clinical, sliding past other riders cleanly and leaving no room for comment. He eventually got all the way back to the front of the grid, and got into an epic battle with Joan Mir, Enea Bastianini, and Andrea Migno. It would be Bastianini who did not make it onto the podium, leaving Mir to take second, and be crowned rookie of the year in Moto3, and Migno to finish third. The three were separated by less than a tenth of a second.
And so 2016 comes to a close. It has been a truly vintage year in motorcycle racing, with all three Grand Prix classes putting on a show. After Dovizioso's win at Sepang, the total number of winners was 25 in all MotoGP rounds across all three classes. It is hard to argue with that. But 2017 starts on Tuesday, when the great bike swap begins. We are already eager to see how it will all pan out.
Gathering the background information for long articles such as these is an expensive and time-consuming operation. If you enjoyed this article, please consider supporting MotoMatters.com. You can help by either taking out a subscription, buying the beautiful MotoMatters.com 2016 racing calendar, by making a donation, or by contributing via our GoFundMe page.