In a season which has been rammed to the rafters with drama, it is entirely appropriate that the final round of the year should be just as dramatic. It was partly to be expected, of course, with a championship at stake. Sure, Marc Márquez entered the weekend with a nigh insurmountable 21-point lead. But he still had to finish at least eleventh or else hope that Andrea Dovizioso did not win the race.
Things were looking good after qualifying: Márquez would be starting from pole, while Dovizioso would have to line up on the third row of the grid. Between the two, a host of fast rivals capable of getting in the way of Dovizioso's charge to the front, and perhaps even depriving him of the race win by taking victory in their own right.
By the time the checkered flag fell at the end of the race, enough had happened to fill a Greek epic. Team orders and betrayal, crashes and near crashes, deceit and disguise, secret swapping of bikes, and a bunch or people finishing much higher than any had a right to expect. An intriguing winner, a rider deprived of victory, and at last, a champion crowned. If the 17 races before Valencia had generated plenty to talk about, the final race of the year topped it all.
Strategy vs tactics
In a way, a gap of 21 points made the race a little more complicated than it might have been otherwise. Strategy would be vital, both for Marc Márquez, chasing his fourth MotoGP title, and for Ducati, looking to win their first championship since 2007. Should Márquez try to push early and hard to chase the win, taking risks in the hope of maintaining focus? Should he play it safe and try to cruise around inside the top ten, but risk losing concentration and making a costly mistake? Was it better to be out front and risk crashing, or to hang with the top five and put yourself in harm's way with a feisty front group including Andrea Iannone and Johann Zarco?
The decisions were no easier for Ducati. The first order of business was to get Dovizioso near enough to the front that he could launch an assault on the lead. But with his Ducati teammate Jorge Lorenzo starting ahead of him, would it be better for Lorenzo to try to get to the front and put himself in a position to get out of Dovizioso's way if the Italian made it to the leaders? Should Lorenzo get in front of Dovizioso and offer him a wheel, towing him as far up the field as possible? Or should the Spaniard merely stand aside as quickly as possible and leave Dovizioso to his own devices?
Then there were the others. Dani Pedrosa could help his Repsol Honda teammate by trying to win the race, or at the very least finishing ahead of Andrea Dovizioso. Johann Zarco was chasing his first win, Andrea Iannone a first podium with Suzuki, but neither were keen to get caught up in controversy around the title battle.
All of these strategies and more were discussed by the factories and teams involved. Contingency plans were drawn up, team bosses talked to riders, riders talked to teams, riders and teams agreed on what information to show on pit boards, factories decided on dashboard messages, and told riders how such messages should be involved.
In the end, though, no matter what strategy you draw up, it is up to the riders to act on it. Riders may choose to ignore a pit board or dashboard message, or like Jorge Lorenzo at Malaysia, not see it if conditions are bad enough. Or perhaps ignore it, and then claim not to have seen it.
Break the resistance
When the lights went out, Marc Márquez' chosen strategy appeared to be to try to make a break at the front. The Spaniard shot off the line and into the lead, but not as fast as his Repsol Honda teammate from the second row of the grid. The two swerved towards each other as they headed into Turn 1, narrowly averting early disaster as Pedrosa just missed Márquez' rear wheel.
Andrea Iannone followed the two Hondas, leading from Jorge Lorenzo and Johann Zarco. But Zarco had his eyes on the prize, and by the time they hit Turn 11, Zarco was already up to third position, having slid gracefully through underneath Andrea Iannone.
Behind Iannone, Jorge Lorenzo was coming, and with him Ducati teammate Andrea Dovizioso. Dovizioso had got the start he needed, firing up into sixth off the start and latching onto the back wheel of his teammate. Lorenzo got past Iannone on the second lap, Dovizioso following suit a couple of corners later. The front five – the Repsol Honda and Factory Ducati teams, along with Johann Zarco of Tech 3 – would slowly edge away. This was the group that would settle the race between them, and with the race, the championship.
If Márquez' plan had been to break away at the front, Johann Zarco was in no mood to go along with it. Zarco had quickly made his way past Dani Pedrosa, then spent the next two laps hunting down Márquez. The Frenchman got past on the way into Turn 6, and immediately started to pull a gap. He never really got clear of Márquez, but his advantage was enough that he could ride without fear of attack.
Zarco and Márquez inched away from Pedrosa, while behind the Repsol Honda rider, the Factory Ducati riders gathered. Lorenzo chased Pedrosa, but an increasingly impatient looking Andrea Dovizioso was hovering on the tail of his teammate. The Italian closed up in the first half of the track, but then had to let him go a little in the second half of the track, never really getting close enough to launch an attack of his own at the first corner, the easiest and most obvious place to pass.
This went on for the first third of the race, and when Lorenzo started to lose touch with Pedrosa, the factory Ducati team could bear it no more. "Suggested Mapping: Mapping 8" appeared on Lorenzo's dashboard, the same message which had been shown at Sepang.
Was it a gentle reminder to switch engine mapping, now that the first part of the race had taken the fresh edge off the tires? Lorenzo's failure to move aside and let Dovizioso through suggested that this might well be the case. But when it appeared again on the dashboard five laps later, the pretense was dropped. Another lap later and Lorenzo's pit board had an instruction to drop one place, allowing Dovizioso through. Ducati simply could not have made it any clearer.
Whether in code on the dashboard, or in plain language on the pit board, the messages failed to have their intended effect. Jorge Lorenzo did not move aside and let Dovizioso through, but stayed ahead of him. He had by now upped his pace, and was closing on Pedrosa again, dragging Dovizioso along in his wake. The messages kept coming, on both dashboard and pit board, but Lorenzo kept ignoring them. Yet despite that, Dovizioso was moving into his best position of the race, looking over the shoulder of his teammate at Pedrosa ahead, and Zarco and Márquez just in front of them.
That situation would cause the media to explode with discussions on team orders, and just how badly Ducati wanted Lorenzo to follow them. But all that would come after the flag had fallen. First, the race had a surprise or two up its sleeve. Things were about to get even more interesting than they had been.
As the race approached two-thirds distance, Dani Pedrosa started creeping closer to Márquez and Zarco. Taking this as his cue, Márquez considered his options. The Spaniard felt he had better pace than Zarco, and sitting behind him was causing his focus to lapse. "When I was behind him, I was able to be much faster," Márquez said after the race. "I was even losing the concentration. I was doing some stupid mistakes because I was not riding on my way. Then he did a mistake and I overtook, but I saw that he was aggressive."
Márquez and Zarco had swapped places earlier, but the Frenchman is from the same school of racing as Marc Márquez and Valentino Rossi: if someone passes you, you must pass straight back. The Honda and the Yamaha danced round each other between Turn 2 and Turn 4, Zarco taking back the lead from Márquez with a fierce pass back underneath. Márquez' distraction was evident: after that pass, he sat up and looked back, fretting about where Dovizioso might be.
Four laps later, after snapping at Zarco's back wheel, Márquez saw his chance. The Frenchman entered the final corner a fraction wide, opening the door for Márquez to slip through. In previous years, the Honda would not have stood a chance against a Yamaha out of Turn 14, but the big bang engine proved its worth. Márquez crossed the line ahead of Zarco, but he could hear the Frenchman coming. The sound of Zarco's rapidly approaching M1 did nothing to soothe Márquez' nerves.
"When I passed him in the last corner I was scared, because I feel like his bike was close. I tried to brake later for try to avoid a critical moment, but I put myself to a critical moment." That critical moment was, as Márquez himself put it after the race, 'Márquez style'. He lost the front going into Turn 1, the front wheel closing at full left lock. Márquez balanced the bike on his knee and his elbow, holding on in the hope the front would come back to him as smoke poured off the front tire. The rear finally gripped and he could flip the bike back up again as he headed to the edge of the hard standing on the outside of Turn 1. With something resembling control, he ran off the track and through the gravel, rejoining behind the Ducatis and several seconds behind.
Márquez analyzed the crash after the race. "First of all, I arrive in the end of the straight and I feel like some bike was very close to me and then I brake too late. This was the first mistake," he explained. "Then I go in too fast and suddenly I had a small chatter that we struggle with during all weekend. Then I lost the front. Since I lost the front, I just say, okay, I will be with my bike until the end. I don't know if we will finish in the gravel or in the wall, but I will be with her."
Hanging on to the bike, Márquez sensed that all was not yet lost. "I saw that I lost the front, but the rear was there. So, when I lost the front but the rear still is there, then I’m able to save with elbow. Then when I saw that, I just start to push with elbow, knee 100%." If the stress he was feeling during the final weekend had caused the crash, it also allowed him to save it. "I think the main reason because I save the crash is because the tension of the race. I was too stiff on the bike. At the same time, I was really sensitive all the time. Then when I pull up, maybe was able to lean again the bike and stay on the asphalt, but I prefer to go in the gravel and finish the race in fifth."
The (nearly) impossible
Márquez' near crash was just the prelude to a dramatic finale. With the Repsol Honda back on track, Dovizioso's chances of the title had improved a little. If Márquez stayed fifth, a win would still not be enough, but it was his only option. "I was completely finished at that time, and when I saw Marc make a mistake I thought I don’t care about the podium and I want to try to win. I didn’t have that pace but at that time I tried everything."
Jorge Lorenzo had already upped the pace and caught Dani Pedrosa ahead. Dovizioso chased behind, now left to fend for himself. But the pace and the pressure was starting to tell. Lorenzo had caught Pedrosa and was starting to push, perhaps aware that he could help Dovizioso by getting ahead of the leaders and holding them up, or perhaps that he threatened to go winless for an entire season for the first time since 2005.
Whatever the rationale, it was not sufficient to keep him upright: Lorenzo pushed too hard into Turn 5, lost the front as he tried to turn the bike, and crashed out. Unlike Marc Márquez, there was no saving the sliding front for Lorenzo.
Into the gravel
That was not because he hadn't tried, however. "When we started losing grip the front started closing," Lorenzo explained. "To choose the hard option didn't help. The 070 [the front construction used since Mugello - DE] is already harder on the sides than the old tire but the harder one is even harder. In the last five laps, on the right corners, I was losing the front a lot. I was saving the crash, saving the crash and the last time I didn't save it. I saw Dani and Zarco very close so I risked a bit more and it was too much."
Lorenzo wasn't the only Ducati rider to be pushing over the limit. Three corners later, as he attempted to close the gap on Pedrosa, Andrea Dovizioso couldn't get the bike stopped on the way into Turn 8, ran straight on into the gravel, and tumbled over at slow speed. The championship was over. Dovizioso remounted his bike, and cruised back to the Ducati garage, where he received a hero's welcome. Andrea Dovizioso knows that he is beloved of Ducati. And rightly so.
Though Dovizioso had given his all during the race, he had feared from the start that his attempt to win the title was ultimately doomed. "After five laps we push 100 percent from the beginning until the end," Dovizioso said. "We had the same pace as the leaders but we were pushing over the limit all of the race. That’s why Jorge crashed and I crashed. We didn’t have that pace. We were not so far. We’re speaking about two tenths, but when you’re pushing so hard two tenths can be big."
Help to be smooth
At first, Dovizioso explained, Lorenzo had held him up a little, but after five laps, Lorenzo upped his pace and Dovizioso could ride more smoothly by following his teammate. But the Italian had looked ragged and rough, visibly trying to force his Ducati GP17 to bend to his will. It cost him too much energy. "Just because Jorge tried to help me to be more smooth than the weekend doesn’t mean that I was smooth," Dovizioso said. "I used a lot of energy and the tires. I was completely finished because I couldn’t ride smooth enough. I was able to stay in the first group until the crash."
In the end, he had run out of both front tire and physical strength. "I braked very hard at turn eight because it was my good point on the track. But the tire dropped enough to mean I couldn’t stop the bike like five laps before. I was too long. I couldn’t stop the bike, the rear was sliding. I went wide, on the white line and out of the track. I was completely over the limit for a long time. I could stay there but it was like this."
Honda vs Yamaha
The championship may have been over, but the race was far from done. Dani Pedrosa had closed up onto the back of Johann Zarco, and was ready to pounce. He tried once into Turn 14, but that attempt was a little too ambitious, ending up a fraction wide and allowing Zarco back up the inside, the Tech 3 Yamaha using its drive out of the final corner to open up a gap along the front straight.
But Pedrosa wasn't done yet. With four laps left, he chased the Frenchman down, clearly quicker than Zarco, and just biding his time. But Zarco was not going to just roll over: if Pedrosa wanted the lead, he would have to step up and take it.
Pedrosa seized his opportunity at the start of the final lap. He was close enough behind Zarco to use the slipstream of the Frenchman to launch himself out of the draft along the straight faster than he had managed all weekend. He was close enough to grab the inside line as he drew level with Zarco, holding him off on the brakes. Pedrosa held the perfect line for entering the corner, forcing Zarco wide on entry and opening the slimmest of leads.
It was sufficient. Zarco was almost close enough at Turn 2 when Pedrosa got a fraction off line, but Pedrosa had him covered. The Repsol Honda rider pushed hard on the final lap, holding Zarco at bay and never allowing him to get close enough to even consider an attack. He crossed the line to take a superb victory, his second of the season, and scoring enough points to secure the team championship for Repsol Honda.
A modest greatness
It is characteristic of Pedrosa's victory that it is likely to go largely unnoticed, despite its historical significance. With that win, Pedrosa drew level with Eddie Lawson for the number of premier class victories with 31, and with Mick Doohan for the total number of victories in all classes with 54 (though Doohan's total came solely in 500s). Doohan is now the only rider from the Golden Era of 1988-1993 still among the top four of the current crop. Valentino Rossi, Jorge Lorenzo, Marc Márquez, and now Dani Pedrosa have all surpassed Rainey, Schwantz, Lawson. Only Doohan is left.
Pedrosa will remain an underappreciated genius, the only rider who has consistently throughout his career been able to beat Valentino Rossi, Marc Márquez, Jorge Lorenzo, Casey Stoner. Fans will point at the fact that he has not won a MotoGP title, ignoring the fact that he has 31 premier class victories to his name against four of the greatest riders every to throw a leg over a motorcycle. The list of MotoGP riders who have failed to win a title is very, very long. The list of riders who have consistently beaten the other MotoGP Aliens is very short indeed.
This victory, too, will probably be largely forgotten, reduced to a MotoGP trivia question once we look back at a momentous season and a controversy-packed race. After the race, few people were talking about Pedrosa's win. The mostly heated conversations were all about team orders, Jorge Lorenzo refusing to help Andrea Dovizioso, Marc Márquez saving the front end, and much more. But Dani Pedrosa won't particularly care. He won, and now he is off to go windsurfing. Pedrosa wins for personal satisfaction, not to garner public attention.
Overshadowing Pedrosa's victory is a wall of intrigue. First and foremost, the question of team orders. When Ducati showed the dashboard message "Suggested Mapping: Mapping 8" to Jorge Lorenzo at Sepang, it was possible to give them the benefit of the doubt. It was obvious that Ducati had issues team orders at Sepang, but it was hard to prove a direct link to the dashboard message.
When Ducati showed the same dashboard message to Lorenzo again the first time at Valencia, it was almost confirmation that this was a coded team orders. When they showed it multiple times – indeed, the message seems to have been displayed pretty much permanently on Lorenzo's dashboard from around the middle of the race – that removed any doubt. When Ducati followed it up with an instruction on Lorenzo's pit board to drop one place, the message simply could not be clearer. Ducati had team orders in place for the Valencia race, and ordered Jorge Lorenzo to drop one place.
More troubling for Ducati is the fact that Jorge Lorenzo ignored them. At no point did Lorenzo give up his position to Andrea Dovizioso, who was following him. He did not even make any pretense at giving up a place, especially during the first few laps, when Dovizioso was visibly quicker than Lorenzo.
Don't say you weren't warned
This should perhaps come as no surprise. On Saturday, when he was asked if he would help his teammate, Lorenzo was very specific about the conditions under which he would be willing to assist. "There's not so many things," Lorenzo said. "Dovi needs to be in the first group, and if he's in the first group and there's not so many riders there and he has a chance to win, that would be the ideal thing for him, knowing that Marc will make a mistake or have some problems. It's very difficult. He needs to win for sure, and Marc has to finish lower than 12th. It's not very easy that can happen, it's more easy that Marc has some failure of the engine or he crashes."
Lorenzo gave an obvious scenario in which he would be willing to help Dovizioso. "I need to try to be in the front, and if Dovi's there, and if Marc has some problems, and I see on the board or on the dashboard, then I will try to help." Those conditions never materialized, and so Lorenzo did not feel obliged to help.
The way the race played out put Ducati into urgent damage control mode. In the final laps of the race, when both riders were back in the garage, Lorenzo went over to Dovizioso to explain why he had done what he had done. The footage on TV showed Dovizioso accepting those explanations passively, but the look on his face was not one of great enthusiasm.
After the race, as the media all filed into what is euphemistically known as "The Sponsor's Hospitality" to listen to what the riders had to say, it was clear that an official message had been decided on, and the protagonists were being briefed. Journalists saw Ducati boss Paolo Ciabatti handing down the corporate line to team boss Davide Tardozzi. By the time we got to speak to Ciabatti, the message had been instilled throughout the ranks.
The key to Ducati's company line revolved around the word "Suggested" in the dashboard message sent to Lorenzo. "This is what we suggest to the rider based on what we can see from the pit box," Ciabatti explained. "And the rider knows because he can see the other riders, so in this case, I think if you also speak to Dovi, and he will tell you he thought that at the beginning he was faster in a few corners and slower in other corners, but at a certain point, with his clean lines was helping Dovi to ride in a very relaxed way. So he said it helped me up to a point to catch Pedrosa, and then he said, unfortunately we were both at the limit, and Jorge said, yes, if he had seen that Márquez had a problem, then obviously once we catch the leading group, then I would let him pass. But we needed first to catch the leading group and try to be first and second, and then see what happens."
What you can't see
Ciabatti warned against judging the situation based on TV footage. "I think honestly, you can never really judge perfectly from what you see on TV, and if a rider knows that he has the pace to close the gap to the front, and other riders following him, and gaining an advantage from following some clean lines, I think it's fine. We're not upset. We would be upset if Marc crashed and Lorenzo wins, and Dovi is second. But this is not the case."
"As I said," he continued, "sometimes you judge by what you see, but the rider is on the bike, he knows if he can push, if he has some margin, if is able to close the gap to the front and help his teammate. So I think there was never I think a situation where he was passing and the other one was closing, and so on. So the best answer is what Dovi said, and he said it because he thinks it, that in the end he is not upset at all, just he was able to actually relax a little bit without having to push so much."
Despite this, Ducati had kept on trying to communicate with Lorenzo. "Yes, because in our opinion, in some areas he was slowing Dovi down," Ciabatti told us. "But then again, if it was like this, Dovi would come into the garage and be quite upset, but he's not. So I think we must really give credit to professional riders that they know what they are doing. And it's our suggestion because we think, OK, let him go. We think, let him pass. But then at a certain point, you saw also Dovi was losing a little bit and then gaining again."
Ducks in a row
There was more to just allowing Dovizioso to pass, of course. For Dovizioso to have any chance of wrapping up the title, much more had to happen. "At least to try to pass the first two, you have to catch them," Ciabatti explained. "If you don't catch them, then there's no point. And I think it worked quite fine until they both crashed, because they were closing the gap on the first two. But anyway, seeing that Marc was able to save that almost crash, he would finish fifth, fourth, and it would be unfortunately pointless for us. The only way is if he would crash. But when he went into the gravel, there was a high chance of him not being able to pick up the bike and start again. But in the end it didn't happen, and we have not so much to regret."
Ciabatti was clear that Ducati did not feel unjustly robbed of a championship. "Honestly, Márquez deserves his title, because he rode a fantastic season, and I think being able to come to the last round, still fighting with Márquez and Honda, is an achievement," the Ducati boss said.
"Obviously I can't say we're totally happy, we regret Brno, we regret Phillip Island, we regret the crash in Argentina, where we had no fault. If we came here in a better position, and Phillip Island, and we had the eleven points we lost in Argentina, it would be different story. You have maybe only five, six points to gain. You can use a different strategy, and Márquez would have more pressure and so on, but this is racing. Then he blew the engine in Silverstone, so you know, and if that didn't happen maybe he would be on the podium there." Ciabatti was painfully aware of the contingencies of racing. If ifs and buts were candy and nuts, every day would be Christmas.
"It's a good job he is a gentleman"
Dovizioso was his usual magnanimous self in defeat. "I didn’t know about the message," he said. "At the beginning I was a little bit faster in some parts of the track but in the last part of the track I was so slow. During the weekend I take a minimum of three tenths per lap from Jorge. In the race I was better – much better – but still I was slower." He emphasized that Lorenzo had helped him save his energy, by allowing him to ride a little more smoothly. All throughout the race, Dovizioso did not look like himself, wrestling the bike around. Following Lorenzo had made that a fraction easier.
Dovizioso looked to take positives from the final race and from the season. "I was able to stay in the first group until the crash. I want to take the positive things also from that because we are more competitive than last year. I’m more competitive than last year in Valencia so I’m really happy about that. But the result confirms that it was not enough. But we’re not too far. It’s not enough. For sure the point we have to improve is the turning and we have to be smooth on the riding on the bike."
The third degree
While Dovizioso was treated gently by the press – and given a massive round of applause when he sat down for his debrief – Jorge Lorenzo was cut no slack. During his debrief with the Italian media, one journalist started almost picking a fight with the Spaniard over his refusal to stand aside for Dovizioso. Lorenzo grew so irritated that he stopped responding in Italian and switched to Spanish. "You're not asking a question," he said. "I'm not going to answer you if you're not asking a question."
With less at stake, Lorenzo was less combative with the English-speaking press, though he was given a grilling over what happened. He laid out his stall, from which the Ducati corporate line had been constructed. "In respect of Dovi being behind me you could see that he didn't have the rhythm all weekend and suffered a lot," Lorenzo explained. "It was a shame to be at one of the circuits that is not one of his strongest in the championship; if it was another then he would have been a lot quicker. Instead I was quick all weekend and had a speed similar to Márquez. The front group were a few tenths away and I saw the messages about Dovi but thought it was best for all – Ducati, my interests and Dovi - that I kept pushing until the end and with my wheel close it would help find that last tenths."
He acknowledged he had seen the messages. "I saw the messages but even looking at this suggestion I kept pushing until the end," Lorenzo said. "My feeling was the truth because I helped Dovi to improve this one or two tenths of pace to be closer to the first group. My intention was to arrive to the first group – like I did because I was behind Pedrosa – and if Dovizioso was on my wheel and had the option to win I would let him pass. Unfortunately was not like that. If I saw that Márquez had crashed I would let him go."
Decisions made on the fly
Lorenzo's exasperation was plain to see. "What more can I do? I tried to make my best for the team, for me and for Dovi. Maybe in some corners Dovi was close and I slowed down a little bit to give him some space but in general terms over thirty laps having my Ducati bike in front of him made him improve."
The Spaniard was not concerned how the situation looked to the fans watching at home, he told us. "Firstly I am a person – at this moment in time – that does not care about what people think. I do what I think is right and I want the best for the team. This time it was the same. I don't know why we keep talking about that. It is already difficult for a team to understand so imagine for people who are not in this business; it is ten times more difficult."
When he had returned to the pits, Ducati Corse boss Gigi Dall'Igna came over to Lorenzo to ask him if he had seen the messages, Lorenzo told us. "Gigi asked me if I saw the messages and I told him that, for me, it was the best thing to do. He talked with Dovi and he would say my wheel helped him to arrive. I went also to Dovi to explain why I kept pushing and he said 'I did not have anything more'."
A bad look for all
Was Lorenzo's decision the right one? Or should he be punished for ignoring team orders? Whatever the outcome, neither Ducati nor Jorge Lorenzo come out smelling of roses. The drama which has been created around the situation makes all parties (all parties bar Andrea Dovizioso, that is) look terrible. Ducati look bad for trying to force their rider to obey team orders. They look worse for pretending that they weren't issuing team orders via dashboard messages in the first place. They look terrible because Jorge Lorenzo completely ignored them.
Jorge Lorenzo looks awful too. Whether he was doing the right thing or the wrong thing, the team orders make it look like he was hanging his teammate out to dry. Not just any teammate: Andrea Dovizioso was the likable plucky underdog going up against the overwhelming might of Marc Márquez, widely acknowledged as the best rider in the world. Even if he was helping Dovizioso more by staying in front of him than letting him through, the optics of that decision are just awful. Lorenzo already has a public image problem. This will only make things worse.
Perhaps the worst thing about the whole situation is that it really didn't make any difference whatever happened. Andrea Dovizioso didn't have the speed at Valencia to win the race, whether Lorenzo towed him forward or let him past. Marc Márquez may have been uncharacteristically nervous, and making a lot of mistakes, but finishing much worse than fifth was out of the question. Nor was Dovizioso immune from the stress and tension: he looked awful on the bike, wrestling the thing into every corner, his body taut as a longbow, all that pent up energy slowing him down.
What would have happened if Lorenzo had let Dovizioso past? The Italian would still probably have crashed, though he would likely have gone down much earlier trying to catch the leaders. Dovizioso was slower than Lorenzo in the latter stages of the race, so he would have left Lorenzo out of touch of the leaders and incapable of scoring a result.
Right, wrong, or immaterial?
Did Lorenzo do the wrong thing? Not really. His behavior had no material effect on the outcome of the championship. His case, that he could help Dovizioso catch the leaders, is plausible, though in a case like this, cast iron proof would be preferable. You could argue, as he has, that he could help Ducati soften the loss of the championship by trying to win the race. All valid points. But the optics remain absolutely terrible.
From a PR perspective, the best course of action would have been for Ducati to impress on Lorenzo to let Dovizioso through at the first opportunity, and for Lorenzo to do as he was told. Sending repeated dashboard messages looks bad for Ducati. Putting them in code looks worse. Lorenzo ignoring them looks bad for both Ducati and Lorenzo.
You can't blame Ducati for doing everything they can to try to win the 2017 MotoGP championship. They did what they could, and came up just short. It is unfortunate and rather sad that this debate is overshadowing what has been the biggest, and frankly, most heartwarming story of 2017: the rise of Andrea Dovizioso to greatness, and his battle with the man rapidly establishing a claim to be the greatest rider of all time.
Greatness in the making
Make no mistake, 2017 has cemented Marc Márquez' claims to the title of greatest of all time. His rides throughout the season proved it time and again. He found new ways of winning when it was needed, whether it by tactics, strategy, or just plain, unparalleled speed. His ability and talent is unquestioned, the numerous frankly ridiculous saves almost rubbing his talent in our collective faces. At the tender age of 24, Márquez has six world titles, four in the premier class, and becomes the youngest to achieve both of those milestones. He starts every MotoGP season as favorite for the title, and every race as favorite to win.
He won this championship with consistency. Sure, he won a lot – Márquez and Dovizioso won six races apiece – but he made sure of the title by the points he scored when he couldn't win. He had six podiums to Dovizioso's two, and his worst finish was sixth at Mugello. He had two more fourth places, the only other times he finished off the podium.
That consistency is what helped him overcome the three DNFs which marred his season. Two of those were his own fault, pushing too hard when the conditions weren't up to it. But the third was on Honda, an engine failure at Silverstone. Without the engine failure, this all would have been wrapped up a lot earlier.
Andrea Dovizioso, on the other hand, sometimes struggled badly when he couldn't win. He finished outside the top five a total of four times, including a thirteenth place finish at Phillip Island. But he also defeated Márquez in direct duels in the last corner, coming out on top at Austria and Motegi. There is no shame in Dovizioso's loss.
No easy victories
Just how hard Márquez had had to work for this title was apparent one day at his hairdresser, Márquez said in the championship press conference. After Barcelona, Márquez had gone to get his hair cut, and his hairdresser had asked him what was wrong. "After Montmelo I was with my hairdresser and she said, 'what’s going on? What’s happening?' I said, 'why?' 'You are losing the hair.' I said, I’m 24. It’s impossible. My grandfather, my father, have hair. Then I went directly to the hospital and he said, you need to change the approach of the races or something because your stress inside your body too much. Then realize I’m always smiling, always be happy, but inside of me, we are humans and the tension is there."
It was something he had discussed with his team earlier. "After Le Mans we were in the car going to the airport with Emilio and Jose and I told them, I’m not enjoying on the bike," Márquez said. "I’m just riding because I need to ride but I’m not enjoying. Then we changed the mentality and we said, first of all we need to find a way to enjoy it on the bike, then we will find the results. We go on that way. We just work hard on the test. We did more than 100 laps every test day. We find a way to enjoy it."
The change had come with a change of chassis, Márquez switching to use the same frame as the other Honda riders, abandoning the especially stiff frame he had used before. "After Le Mans we did the Montmelo test," he explained. "We changed there. We try a different chassis that was not a new chassis. Was another specification that was using Cal and the others. I was using a different one. I felt a little bit better. Step by step we tried a few different things. Step by step, I get the feeling." He was still not feeling entirely safe on the bike, which explained why he ended the year with 27 crashes, but he could at least be competitive, and had feeling with the bike again.
If Marc Márquez is the champion everyone expected, Johann Zarco has been the surprise of 2017. The Monster Tech 3 Yamaha rider won both the Rookie of the Year award and was the best independent rider. It is obvious he is very close to his first MotoGP win, but the pieces could not quite fall into place for him this season, nor at Valencia. He came within a third of a second at Valencia, beaten by a firm but clean pass into Turn 1 by Dani Pedrosa.
What has been remarkable is how Zarco has outperformed the factory Movistar Yamahas on numerous occasions. In the second half of the season, Zarco has finished ahead of both Valentino Rossi and Maverick Viñales on four of nine occasions. Valencia was much the same, the factory bikes playing second fiddle to Zarco.
That was despite the fact that the Movistar Yamaha team had taken a step back at the end of the season to reevaluate the 2016 chassis. Both Viñales and Rossi raced at Valencia with the 2016 frame, after giving up on the 2017 bike. The original plan had been to try the old frame at the test, but after a relatively poor qualifying, neither Rossi nor Viñales felt they had much to lose. Both were relatively happy with the switch: the old frame gave them the feeling they had been missing throughout the season. But with limited setup time, they could not hope to make the bike competitive enough to feature at the front of the race.
Setup time was particularly limited for Maverick Viñales: the Spanish youngster stacked the bike on his third flying lap, getting overconfident with the feeling he had. "Feeling with the chassis was great. Already in the first lap I did a 1'32 low, then on the second lap I was already one second faster. Something I hadn't been able to do all weekend. So already I was feeling great, and maybe I pushed too early and too much for the feeling, because I was feeling good."
That lack of setup hampered Viñales most of all. He had an issue with vibration in the rear tire, and struggled home in twelfth. Yet the feeling he had had left him optimistic for the test starting on Tuesday. As for 2017, he just wanted to put it all behind him. "I don't want to think about this season any more, I want to finish this season now, and try to start a new season and not make the same mistakes. Honestly, I don't want to think a lot, especially because the last races were quite difficult, quite crazy for us, so we want to finish those difficult times and start new ones."
Valentino Rossi was a little more forthcoming. "We did this choice because the program is try the bike Tuesday and Wednesday. So we say, why don’t we try today? Because at the end sometimes in a race you understand more than ten days of testing. So we do. Unfortunately is not that you put and come better. But I think we find some… we understand something interesting. But now it is not easy because for me we have to work in different areas for reduce the gap. Electronics side but also about the dynamic behaviour of the bike. So it will be an important period for sure. "
The big improvement for Rossi was that there was more feeling from the bike. "This bike is more easy to ride and you feel better in general. Sincerely, it is what I feel last year when I tried the new one! But it is also true that we are more in trouble with the rear tire. So at the end the result was similar. If I use my bike of yesterday more or less I can arrive in the same position."
Managing tire wear
The biggest downside of the 2016 chassis is in tire wear. The tire drops off at the end of the race, Rossi said, meaning it was difficult to be competitive in the final laps. Difficult, but not impossible, as Johann Zarco demonstrated by finishing a third of a second behind Dani Pedrosa.
Why is Zarco not suffering the same problems with the 2016 chassis that the factory riders reported? The difference is probably in Zarco's smoothness with the throttle. On Saturday night, Michelin boss Nicolas Goubert named Zarco as one of the riders who had surprised him most, especially his smoothness with the throttle. That may be a skill he learned in Moto2 racing the Kalex: that bike is fast in the earlier part of the race, but chews up the rear toward the end. Zarco learned to manage the tire in Moto2, and is applying that skill in MotoGP. Zarco can work the throttle to produce precisely the right slip rate in the rear tire, maximizing both life and performance.
Yamaha's decision to revert to the 2016 chassis as the starting point for 2018 is a startling admission of failure. (On a side note, it is also a salutary lesson in PR speak – aka lying – as throughout the season, whenever we asked Valentino Rossi about using the old frame, he claimed it was impossible, as the 2017 engine would not fit the 2016 frame. That has proven to be, shall we say, an erroneous misrepresentation, unrelated to the actual facts.)
Taking a wrong turn
Where did Yamaha go wrong? The 2017 frame felt better over the course of winter testing, while Maverick Viñales was riding with the style picked up at Suzuki: braking very hard in a straight line before turning the bike in. Rossi was less happy with the bike: Viñales' style stressed the front tire enough to get the bike to turn in, but it was not the quickest way to ride a Yamaha. As they developed the bike – and especially after Michelin changed to a stiffer front tire casing – the direction of the M1 and the Michelins began to diverge, getting slowly worse at the season progressed.
And so Yamaha return to the 2016 chassis, which they will use as the basis for all their testing in Valencia and a week later in Sepang. The hope is that they can keep the feel with the front which the 2016 chassis gives, while fixing the issues with tire degradation they suffered through the year.
Valentino Rossi had finished in the second group, thirteen seconds behind the winner, in the company of a pair of Suzukis. Alex Rins finished fourth, his best result in MotoGP, just ahead of Rossi and Rins' Suzuki teammate Andrea Iannone. To an extent, the Suzukis benefited from the attrition of the factory Ducatis, but Rins and Iannone are making progress again, the Suzuki project starting to head in the right direction. A new engine for 2018 should fix the power issues the bike had: at a test after the race in Aragon, the bike was a second quicker than it had been in the race.
A few seconds behind the Suzukis, a pair of satellite Hondas crossed the line in seventh and eighth. Jack Miller just pipped Cal Crutchlow to the line, Miller closing his Honda account in solid style. Michele Pirro was the first Ducati across the line in ninth, while Tito Rabat made it five Hondas in the top ten, his best result of the season.
Miracles don't always happen
The support classes had provided plenty of entertainment before the final showdown for MotoGP. The day had kicked off with Moto3, and what looked like being Joan Mir's record-equalling eleventh win of the season. But Mir was forced off track when Gabriel Rodrigo crashed in front of him, leaving him nowhere to go. Mir blamed himself, saying he had been too close to Rodrigo, and left stuck on the outside of his back wheel.
Rodrigo and Mir had been chasing Jorge Martin at the time, the trio slowly breaking away from the front. Once the two behind him crashed, Martin opened up a gap and went on to take his first win unopposed. That victory has been a long time coming, and sets the scene for a strong 2018 campaign.
Mir eventually fought back to take second place, ahead of Marcos Ramirez. But what was most impressive was Mir's pace: he took the best part of 4 seconds out of Martin in the last fifteen laps.
The Moto2 race started off as a thriller, but Miguel Oliveira soon asserted his dominance, beating 2017 Moto2 champion Franco Morbidelli by over two seconds. Brad Binder made it the third KTM double podium in a row, taking third behind Morbidelli.
An orange future?
The KTM Moto2 project has made enormous progress in its first year, and is creating a stepping stone for the Austrian manufacturer to build on. On the Monday after the Valencia race, in an interview with the German-language publication Speedweek, KTM boss Stefan Pierer said that they were already planning for the 2019 season. Their first port of call was to replace Bradley Smith with Johann Zarco, he said, with talks already a long way advanced.
Signing Zarco makes sense for both KTM and the Frenchman: there is no room in the factory Movistar Yamaha team, for as long as both Viñales and Rossi are riding. Rossi is showing no signs of retiring: he is clearly still competitive – despite finishing fifth in the 2017 championship – as he won a race again this year. Viñales is the future of Yamaha, the Japanese factory has decided, and so is there for the long term.
Zarco has proven he is an exceptional talent, and his feedback is outstanding. Zarco is the rider KTM need to take them into championship contention. And as the very first Red Bull Rookie champion aboard a KTM 125, it would be a return to the place he started.
Part of KTM's plan is to have a satellite team, to be run as a junior team in much the same way as Pramac is for Ducati. Filling the seats in that team is straightforward: Miguel Oliveira and Brad Binder have proven they are quick, intelligent, competitive. Pierer was particularly impressed with Binder, saying he "brakes like a God." The pair will make the jump in 2019, with Marc VDS the likely candidate to act as a satellite squad.
A bright future
All that is in the future, however. Now, the 2017 season is behind us, leaving only memories behind. And what memories! 2017 proves many things: we are in a new golden era of racing, with some of the most prodigious talent ever to have graced a racing motorcycle. Races are close and dramatic, but the sport still has room for personalities. Under the new regulations, with less testing, a spec ECU, and standard rubber, intelligence has become a key factor. Races have to be managed, balancing tire and machine degradation against raw speed. You can't win if you are not blindingly fast, but speed alone is not enough. The sport is all the richer – metaphorically and literally – for these developments.
The best thing about 2017? We are in the middle of a golden era, and as yet, there is no end in sight. There is plenty of established talent, but there are phenomenal young riders like Franco Morbidelli, Miguel Oliveira, Brad Binder, Joan Mir, Jorge Martin all making their way through the ranks. The future is as bright as the present.
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