If the two MotoGP races so far this year have had the kind of internal logic more commonly associated with a painting by Hieronymus Bosch, the Moto2 and Moto3 classes have been rational seas of serenity. Which, come to think of it, also makes them more than a little like the more pious parts of a painting by Hieronymus Bosch. These are topsy turvy times indeed.
When Moto2 first started, it brought the most harrowing and raucous parts of Bosch' work to mind, voracious insanity unleashed on two wheels, which sensible people feared to look at. (Fortunately, motorcycle racing fans are anything but sensible. It is one of their better traits.) But those days are now long gone, and the intermediate class has become processional, races decided almost before they are begun.
A nostalgia for the madness of the past keeps us watching, hoping to see a revival of the old ways. From time to time, the series livens up again, and we start to dream that our prayers have been answered, though such thoughts are usually dashed as soon as they arise. The Moto2 race in Argentina was very much a case in point. It started out processional, then grew tense, then the tension frayed, then renewed, only to end with bang. Literally, in the case of Alex Márquez, who ended a long way up in the air before coming down to earth with a solid thump.
The new master
Franco Morbidelli won the second race of his career, and his second race in a row, once again affirming his dominion over the Moto2 class. Yet in Argentina, he had to fight for it, his Marc VDS teammate Alex Márquez battling him almost all the way to the line, before throwing it away on the final lap. Morbidelli is clearly the strongest rider in the class at the moment, and though Márquez challenged him, Morbidelli never wavered. It may only be two races in, yet the Italian is already looking like the solid favorite for the title this year.
Alex Márquez managed to have at once both the most promising Moto2 race of his career, while at the same time confirming all the prejudices which are held against him. The Spaniard rode an outstanding race for 22½ laps, matching the pace of his teammate and managing his tires, then closing in for the kill on the final lap. But he tried just a little too hard too early, was too greedy with the gas as he closed on Morbidelli's tail, and threw away his first chance of a podium since Aragon last year. It is clear that the younger Márquez has the kind of riding talent that runs in the family. What he appears to lack is his brother's sang froid, and the mental toughness to get the job done.
Márquez' mistake was Miguel Oliveira's gain, the Portuguese rider putting the KTM Moto2 machine on the podium at only the second attempt. Oliveira came close at Qatar, but saw he was just a little too far behind Taka Nakagami on the last lap to put in a desperate lunge. Oliveira chose to bide his time at Qatar, opting for points on the board over a bike in the gravel. The Portuguese rider has mental toughness and the self discipline which Alex Márquez lacks, and his first visit to the Moto2 podium will surely not be his last.
With the KTM already on the podium, and signs that the bike is competitive with the Kalex in only its second race, it raises the question of how bike designers will view the concept of a steel trellis frame. One senior figure from a rival MotoGP manufacturer privately expressed the opinion to me that KTM will be forced to abandon steel tubing in favor of an aluminum box frame in MotoGP, just as every other manufacturer has in the past. Yet Oliveira's results in Moto2 so far will surely encourage KTM to do the opposite, and confirm their belief that it is a viable proposition.
Comparisons with other non-traditional frames are arguably not valid. The trellis frames used in Moto2 before were designed and built by very small outfits with limited resources, two descriptions which do not apply in any way to KTM. The steel trellis frame used by Ducati in MotoGP was an entirely different concept: a steel trellis which used the engine casing as a stressed member, whereas the KTM is a full frame from headstock to swing arm mount, the engine mounted inside the frame. This is a story which will continue to run through years to come, and worth keeping an eye on.
Third man on the podium in Argentina was Tom Luthi, though it was clear from his reaction that he too regarded it more as luck than anything else. Luthi remains the yardstick by which other Moto2 riders are measured, and fulfilled that role perfectly at Termas De Rio Hondo.
While all eyes were on Oliveira, his KTM teammate performed far above the call of duty. Brad Binder has been struggling with a broken left arm all winter after falling off while testing in November. That fracture has never healed properly, and on Saturday, Binder went to the Clinica Mobile to have another check up. There, they found that the plate inserted to keep the bone together had released at one point, and the bone had rebroken. Binder raced anyway, despite excruciating pain. He came ninth, in the group battling for fifth. All rights to question Binder's toughness are hereby rescinded.
Crazy yet predictable
If Moto2 is borderline monotonous, Moto3 retains the same sense of edge-of-the-seat thrills the junior class has always had. Just as in Qatar, the race produced another exhilarating battle that gave the viewer the feeling that anyone could win. And yet the podium in Argentina was a carbon copy of Qatar, with Joan Mir coming out on top, ahead of John McPhee and Jorge Martin, or JM Cubed, as we should perhaps start calling it.
Yet there were subtle differences from Qatar as well as deep similarities. The unchanging element in Moto3 so far has been the sublime riding of Joan Mir, who never seems to be in distress, even in the midst of Moto3 madness. The confidence with which he was riding was on display during practice, when he was putting the Leopard Honda exactly where he wanted to and making it look effortless. That effortlessness is echoed in the race, Mir somehow always managing to be in the top three or four, no matter how hectic his surroundings.
Perhaps more impressive than all of this is the patience on display from the nineteen-year-old. Paradoxically, patience is one of the most important character traits a motorcycle can possess. Veins flooded with adrenaline and things moving around them at warp speed, riders must make split second decisions. At their most hot blooded, they must choose when to strike and when to hold back, but with pulses racing and hearts in mouths, the easiest thing to do is to try to win the race in every corner of every lap. That is a strategy doomed to failure, opening the rider using it to too many counter attacks, too many chances to make a mistake.
Patience, dear boy
Motorcycle racers need to have the patience of a leopard. Knowing they have a short burst of maximum speed, leopards spend more time stalking and laying in wait than they do bringing down their prey. They have one shot, and so much use it wisely, or go hungry. Joan Mir has taken the strategy of his sponsor's namesake to heart. This bodes very well for his future.
What also bodes well for John McPhee's future was the Scotsman's disgust at coming home second in Argentina. When he finished second in Qatar, McPhee was delighted more than anything, finally getting confirmation that his form over winter testing was real. In Argentina, McPhee knew what he was capable of, and what he believed he was capable of was winning the race. When he didn't, he was disgusted. As he should be: success at the elite level of any sport is driven far more by fear of failure than by hunger for success. Real champions hate losing far, far more than they could ever savor the taste of victory.
Jorge Martin came home in third, just as he had in Qatar, and just as at Qatar he was close, but not quite close enough. Yet Martin is a steady hand on the Gresini Moto3 bike, and proving that calmness leads to consistency, outperforming his highly rated teammate Fabio Di Giannantonio for the second race in a row. Not that Di Giannantonio could do all that much about it, having been punted by Nicolo Bulega at the halfway mark.
The other side of the garage
While Bulega came into the season as a highly tipped favorite, the Italian has been a disappointment so far, falling far short of expectations. His teammate, on the other hand, has been solid. Andrea Migno added a fifth place in Argentina to his sixth place in Qatar, and battled for victory all the way to the line. Migno is being quietly impressive, and is currently fourth in the championship, and close to the front week in, week out.
Philipp Oettl has been similarly impressive, finishing in fourth in Argentina, and making recompense for the mistake he made in Qatar. Oettl is another rider who is maturing this year, after showing flashes of talent in the past. At 21, he is finally starting to make good on the promise he showed in his earlier years.
A question of character
Speaking of talent, we must say a word or two about Romano Fenati. That the young Italian has talent is beyond question. His failings have always been a matter of character, and it seems that he has failed to learn from his time away from racing after being fired by the Sky VR46 Racing Team last year in Austria. He finished seventh in Argentina, seven seconds adrift of the field, and it did not sit well with him.
After the race, two members of the paddock reported independently that Fenati was throwing the kind of tantrum that got him sacked last season. That Fenati should want to win is admirable, and being upset at losing is exactly what should happen for riders with aspirations of the title. But having hissy fits with your mechanics will not motivate them to help you, will not get them on your side. As long as Fenati continues in that frame of mind, he will be helpless in the face of the cold, calculating calm of Joan Mir and the other front runners. Fenati has talent oozing from his every pore, but talent alone does not a champion make. It needs discipline, focus, calmness, patience, and an ability to use every microjoule of energy on the task at hand, not waste it on temper tantrums.
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