Throughout the first season of Moto2, there was much smugness among the diehard curmudgeons who had bemoaned the loss of the two-stroke 250s at the fact that the 600cc four strokes were considerably slower than the old 250s were. The old guard treated the Moto2 machines with disdain, regarding them as little more than jumped-up sportsbikes, bearing little relation to true Grand Prix Machinery.
There was some merit in their argument: The 250cc two-cylinder two strokes were jewels of engineering, beautifully constructed, lightweight, powerful and precise as a surgeon's scalpel. The Moto2 bikes were bigger, bulkier, and in part thanks to the rudimentary electronics and slipper clutch, much more out of shape into and out of corners. If 250 races were like a fight to the death by olympic fencing champions, Moto2 races were like a barroom brawl after the bar had been drunk dry.
Some of that smugness will have to go now, though. On the last day of the Jerez Moto2 test, first Marc Marquez and then later Stefan Bradl smashed through the 1'43 barrier, with Bradl beating the former 250cc lap record set back in 2005 by Dani Pedrosa. Marquez fell a tenth of a second short of Pedrosa's 250 mark, but Bradl took nearly two tenths of a second off the former 250 champion's 2005 pole record. The Moto2 bikes have now officially caught up.
Bradl's best time was also a second and a half faster than the Moto2 times set back in May last year, at the first Moto2 race held at Jerez. The Moto2 machines have made big steps forward, in part due to an extra year of chassis development, and in part due to a year's worth of setup data for the four-stroke 600s. Most of all, though, the improvement is down to a factor the teams themselves have little or no control over: The tires.
Dunlop brought a new soft compound to the Jerez test, and that new tire immediately took several tenths off a lap time. The riders were pretty happy with it, but any expectations that race times might start falling drastically is excessively optimistic: it was clear even from the limited number of laps the teams could put on the tire under the circumstances (riders diving in and out of the pitlane as drops of rain spotted the circuit, then disappeared as fast as they arrived), that the new soft compound Dunlop is not going to last race distance. The description by one team mechanic of the state of the tire after a few laps was as hilarious as it was unprintable.
The other thing the Moto2 teams were complaining most bitterly about was the weather, and the impact that the decision to test only in Europe had had on testing. Implemented as part of the cost-cutting measures which permeate every level of MotoGP, the decision not to fly to Sepang or Qatar and test there came in for some trenchant criticism. The toll so far? A cold, but usable test at Valencia, freezing (private) tests at Barcelona and Aragon, a completely washed-out test at Estoril, and a sum total of maybe two usable days of testing at Jerez from a three-day test, cool temperatures and the constant threat of rain - which then frustratingly never really arrived - made working through a carefully planned testing schedule an impossibility. "Flying to Portugal to sit in a garage and watch the rain fall is not saving us any money," one team spokesman told me. "Flying to Sepang would have cost us more, but at least we could have got some work done."
Despite the relative lack of track time, the battle lines are becoming clear in both the Moto2 and the 125cc classes. In Moto2, it is Marc Marquez who is clearly the star of the show. After a crash on Friday - where Marquez dived into a non-existent gap underneath Kenan Sofuoglu, a brave move given the fearsome and fiery reputation of the Turkish Technomag CIP rider - the Spaniard went on to post the second fastest time behind Bradl. Despite being a rookie in the class - and a newcomer to four-strokes - Marquez is very highly rated in the paddock. One paddock veteran, out watching at trackside, even dubbed Marquez "the next Alien" applying the much-bandied-about term to describe MotoGP's Fantastic Four (Rossi, Stoner, Lorenzo, Pedrosa) to the young Spaniard. With the backing of Repsol, and under the tutelage of former 125cc champion Emilio Alzamora, there is no doubt that Marquez faces a dazzling future.
The other names surrounding Marquez are less of a surprise, with perhaps one exception. Thomas Luthi, Julian Simon, Yuki Takahashi, Scott Redding and Simone Corsi were all regular contenders in 2010, and former MotoGP rider Aleix Espargaro was highly rated as a 250 rider, despite struggling on the satellite Ducati. Stefan Bradl's scorching time raised the most eyebrows, but the young German's time is perhaps typical of the career of the former German GP star Helmut. Last year, Bradl was either brilliant or nowhere, winning the race at Estoril while also finishing in the tail end of the points just as often. It's clear the Kalex chassis is well-sorted - as the strong results of Espargaro and newcomer Randy Krummenacher will attest - but the one thing that Bradl needs to find is consistency, rather than anything else.
There have been a few disappointments as well. 2010 runner up Julian Simon ended the three-day test in 7th, over eight tenths slower than Bradl's fastest lap. Hotly tipped double World Supersport champion Kenan Sofuoglu ended the test with the 14th fastest time, though Sofuoglu had to learn the notoriously tricky Jerez circuit, never having raced here before. This is a problem that Sofuoglu will face throughout the 2011 season, with Moto2 racing at Motegi, Catalunya, Le Mans, Mugello, the Sachsenring, Indianapolis and Sepang, all tracks that the Technomag rider has never raced on. If Sofuoglu is to sustain a championship challenge for 2011, he will have to learn to master tracks quickly.
Another surprise disappointment has been Andrea Iannone, the young Italian contending for the 2010 title nearly all year. At the end of the season, Iannone left the Speed Up team - run by former Aprilia factory team manager Luca Boscoscuro - to set up his own team, together with Alessio 'Uccio' Salucci, Valentino Rossi's famous best friend and companion. Uccio had long wanted to get into team management, and Iannone had wanted a team to himself, and after losing the 2010 championship had demanded to ride a Suter. As Uccio had been coaching Iannone for a while, it was a natural progression for the two to work together in a new team, especially once they inherited one of the WTR team's Moto2 grid slots as part of a financial settlement.
So far, that move has not proven as successful as they might have hoped: Iannone has been slower on the Suter than he was on the Speed Up (basically a slightly modified FTR), and Iannone is none too happy about the situation. Iannone has a reputation as a hothead, and the team seems to be fueled almost entirely by emotional intensity. Though there is no lack of talent or engineering skill in the Speed Master garage, what the team really needs is a calming influence, something to temper the almost bipolar atmosphere in the pit box. Iannone's talent is beyond question, as some of his soul-destroyingly dominant wins showed all too clearly in 2010. The Italian's temperament, however, may prove to be a liability.
In the 125cc class, a clear picture of the state of the grid is also starting to emerge. Last season's runner up Nico Terol has picked up where he left off, and looked like completing a clean sweep of testing for the 125 class. He was thwarted in this ambition by returnee Hector Faubel, the Spaniard who, after a mediocre year in Moto2 with the Marc VDS Racing squad, dropped back to the 125 class in an attempt to regain his mojo. After a difficult start, Faubel appears to have his mojo now firmly ensconced in, well, wherever it is that a 27-year-old Spaniard might store such an item, topping the timesheets at a very respectable pace. Joining Terol and Faubel at the front is once again the German (of Italian extraction) Sandro Cortese, the Racing Team Germany rider as competitive as he was last year.
The real interest in the 125cc class is in the newcomers, though. Two youngsters from the Spanish CEV championship - reigning 2010 champ Maverick Vinales and runner-up Miguel Oliveira - have joined a gaggle of talent emerging from the Red Bull Rookies Cup, with Jonas Folger and Johan Zarco showing the most promise. But Vinales is the rider the insiders are monitoring most closely: At just 16 years of age, Vinales showed maturity and buckets of pure speed to clinch the extremely competitive Spanish CEV 125 championship last year, adding a European 125 title along the way. Vinales has been a feature of every session so far during testing, and is clearly a factor to be reckoned with. The question mark hanging over his head in 2011, though, is how the youngster will fare once the championship leaves the Iberian peninsula, the place where Vinales has done most of his racing so far. Vinales has a lot to learn in 2011, but at 16, he's still young enough for that to be natural.
Just 11 days remain until the bikes take to the track in earnest at Qatar for the first round of the 2011 MotoGP season. It is going to be a fascinating year, not just in the MotoGP class, but also in 125s and Moto2 as well. Picking a favorite in either class at this stage is extremely difficult, and equally foolish, but if I were a betting man, I would have a quiet flutter on Marc Marquez and Nico Terol. But I wouldn't expect to start spending my winnings until after Valencia.