In part 1 of our review of the 2015 season for the MotoGP grid, we looked back at the season of the two men who fought for the championship, Movistar Yamaha teammates Jorge Lorenzo and Valentino Rossi. In part 2, we continue with third place in the championship and beyond. If the battle for the championship was thrilling and tense, what happened to the riders behind the leaders was even more intriguing.
A reminder: we review the performance of each rider below, giving them a mark out of ten for their ability to live up to or exceed expectations. As every year, we cover the riders in the order they finished in the championship.
Marc Márquez, Repsol Honda, 3rd, 242 points
This was Marc Márquez' worst season in Grand Prix racing since 2009. From 2010 onwards, in 125s, Moto2 or MotoGP, Márquez has finished as either champion or runner up. Not only did Márquez finish outside the top two for the first time since finishing eighth in 2009, but this was also his worst championship points total since that year. You could say this was a very bad year for the Repsol Honda rider.
Yet it was also undoubtedly the year in which Márquez learned the most in his Grand Prix career. This was the year in which Márquez changed his approach, and gained a deeper understanding of how to win a championship, rather than just races. Márquez crashed out six times in 2015, fully one third of the races. Four of those crashes were entirely on his own, and completely his own fault. The first, at Argentina, was also his own fault, though it came as a result of him misjudging his line after being passed by Valentino Rossi. The last crash, at Sepang, was also caused by Rossi, but this time, Márquez was not to blame.
Those crashes helped teach Márquez the value of third and fourth place, he said at the end of the year. Earlier in his MotoGP career, he was greedy for wins, his unbelievable physical skills allowing him to skate the razor's edge of disaster and come out on top nine times out of ten. The 2015 Honda RC213V – developed largely under his direction – made that impossible. An excessively aggressive engine and poor electronics meant the rear wheel span up out of corners until it gripped, at which point it started to wheelie. Going into the corners, the engine braking was unpredictable, meaning all of the Honda riders had to rely much more on the front brake than before. Front tires overheated, overloaded, and washed out.
The full extent of the problem became apparent in the first race at Qatar. Márquez missed the first corner when the bike didn't stop as he expected, brutally sideswiped Alvaro Bautista when he came back onto the track, then fought his way forward from the back of the grid up to fifth spot. Victory at Austin, a track he had dominated, put him back in contention, getting him within five points of championship leader Valentino Rossi. But the crash in Argentina left him 30 points down, and a big hill to climb.
Second place in Jerez clawed back a few points, but at Le Mans, the RC213V was struggling again. Dani Pedrosa, Scott Redding and Cal Crutchlow all crashed out, and Márquez spent all race wresting the Honda around, barely managing to hold off Andrea Iannone, who had badly injured his shoulder just a few days earlier. Márquez saw his championship slipping away, and tried to force the at Mugello and Barcelona, aiming for the win. Both times, he crashed out, the front letting go, increasing the pressure on Márquez even further. The more he tried to win, the more he crashed. The more he crashed, the further away any chance of a title slipped. That is the point at which Márquez understood that a season lasts eighteen races.
The turnaround started for Márquez after Barcelona, when he switched back to the chassis he had used in 2014. The main difference with the 2015 frame was in its stiffness, especially around the steering head. That frame, in combination with a swing arm introduced at Jerez, and a number of software updates, took the worst of the edge off RC213V's misbehavior, and made it manageable once more, for Márquez at least. He went from three crashes and a win in the first six races to three wins, two seconds and a single crash in the next six.
The end of Márquez' season was overshadowed by his clash with Valentino Rossi at Sepang. It started with his brilliant victory at Phillip Island, a race in which he was forced to manage an overheating front tire, then put in one of the most remarkable final laps in history to pass Andrea Iannone and Jorge Lorenzo. That feat of tire management was what set Rossi's accusations off, yet managing an overheating tire is not that uncommon an occurrence. As long as you don't push too hard for too long, the tire will come back, as Bradley Smith explained to us earlier in the year. But Rossi saw a conspiracy, attacked Márquez in Sepang, and Márquez' ego drove him into direct conflict with the Italian.
From that point on, Márquez was on a hiding to nothing. For him to do anything other than beat Lorenzo would be interpreted as collusion with his fellow Spaniard, despite the fact that if you had to choose a rider Márquez was most likely to want to beat, and least likely to help, Lorenzo's name would be at the very top of that list. Did Márquez let Lorenzo past at Sepang? It looked to a neutral observer like Lorenzo was pretty much unstoppable that weekend, Dani Pedrosa the only man better than him, and Márquez was never going to stand a chance.
Why did Márquez get so involved with Rossi? While you could also ask that question the other way around – Rossi passed Márquez just as often as Márquez passed Rossi – Race Direction felt that Márquez had raced Rossi harder than was sensible. He had done nothing they could sanction him for, but they certainly weren't happy with his behavior on the track. But it was Rossi who eventually lost his cool, and caused the Spaniard to crash.
The race at Valencia made things infinitely worse for Márquez. Rossi needed Márquez' help if he was to win the championship; the title was only possible if both Repsol Hondas finished ahead of Lorenzo. Márquez' game plan was clear: his Honda could not match the Yamaha round most of the track, so he had to play the waiting game, exactly as he had in Indianapolis. This, too, was a new tactic Márquez had learned, having discovered to his cost that passing too early left him vulnerable to counter attack. The final corner was particularly troublesome for the Honda, Lorenzo leaving Márquez for dead onto the main straight every lap. Turn 6 was Márquez' only real opportunity, but it meant waiting until the final lap. Unfortunately for Márquez, his teammate appeared, and the two tangled, opening just enough of a gap to Lorenzo to make it almost impossible for Márquez to make a pass safely and cleanly.
Did Márquez really help Lorenzo? Only Márquez knows. His explanation for how he approached the race is plausible, but his problem is that the case for the prosecution is just as plausible. The race data and Márquez behavior in the race do not point clearly in one direction or the other. The situation was summed up by well by Neil Hodgson. "You could see that Márquez was on the limit for the whole race, but he could have passed Lorenzo several times at Turn 6." Hodgson believes Márquez let Lorenzo win, but there are an equal number of ex-racers who believe the opposite. They, like the fans, simply have to choose which side they wish to believe.
The abuse and opprobrium heaped upon Márquez after the race, with Valentino Rossi leading the charge, brought a tough year to the toughest ending possible. If champions are forged in the white heat of competition, then 2015 could well be the making of Márquez, or it could see him come apart. It was a year in which he grew enormously, most of all as a person. How he handles that, how he integrates that into his personality, will only become apparent in 2016.
Dani Pedrosa, Honda, 4th, 206 points
If you wanted the very definition of a roller coaster career, look no further than Dani Pedrosa. Three world championships in the junior classes, and one of the most successful riders in the premier class. He has never won a championship, but he has come within a whisker in 2012, winning more races than the eventual champion Jorge Lorenzo. Injury has dogged him, breaking most of the bones in his body, and fracturing his collarbone so often there is hardly a piece left intact.
His collarbone nearly ended his MotoGP career once, the plate fitted after his practice crash in Motegi in 2010 causing Thoracic Outlet Syndrome, causing numbness and weakness in his left arm, making it almost impossible to last a race. He suffered through 2011, until the removal of the plate on his collarbone fixed the problem. He was back with a vengeance in 2012, winning seven races and getting close to beating Jorge Lorenzo.
That experience stood him in good stead in 2015. Pedrosa had suffered with arm pump all through 2013, then had surgery to try to fix the problem in 2014. That had not succeeded – perhaps because of the strain of racing a Honda RC213V that was getting ever more difficult to ride – and Pedrosa had tried a range of non-invasive therapies over the winter, which he was confident would fix the problem. At Qatar, that proved not to be the case. Pedrosa finished the first race of the year in severe pain, and unable to be truly competitive. For the second time in his life, he faced the end of his MotoGP career.
Perhaps his previous experience stood him in good stead. Pedrosa took the incredibly brave decision to fly back to Spain and seek immediate treatment, abandoning any idea of racing until he was fit again. His courage – or perhaps we should say, his wisdom – continued during his recovery, Pedrosa resisting the temptation to come back early, choosing to miss his home race at Jerez in favor of an extra two weeks of rest.
His return was far from encouraging: a front-end crash forced him to remount and come back to sixteenth place. He fared a little better after that, finishing fourth at Mugello, then getting on the podium at his home race in Barcelona. His form sagged after another podium at the Sachsenring, but his fitness was improving, and Pedrosa was getting stronger as the year approached its climax.
Key to it all was a gain in confidence, his right arm feeling better and better after every race. The surgery had been drastic: normally, to fix arm pump, the surgeons open up the sheath that surrounds the muscles to make room for them to expand. Pedrosa had this sheath, the fascia, removed altogether, and it took a long time for the swelling after races to subside. As Pedrosa grew to understand his recovery, and his condition, he could focus more on racing, and less on worrying about the condition of his forearm. By the time he arrived at Aragon, his confidence was really starting to return.
Pedrosa's domination of Valentino Rossi in a straight dogfight was both surprising and impressive. In previous years, Pedrosa had never offered much resistance, but at Aragon, Pedrosa gave as good as he got. It was only for second place, but it was surely a sign of things to come. Victory at Motegi was resounding, and after a blip at Phillip Island, he repeated his Motegi performance with a display of superiority that was simply astounding. It was a shame that his win was overshadowed by the Clash of the Titans behind him. He deserved the acclaim, instead his victory was almost totally ignored.
Dani Pedrosa is unjustly disparaged by fans for his failure to win a MotoGP championship in his ten years aboard the Repsol Honda. Ask his fellow riders, and it is Pedrosa who amazes them most of all. Newcomer Maverick Viñales singled out Pedrosa as the most impressive rider to watch, and the one he felt he could learn most from. Cal Crutchlow has repeatedly said he believes that Pedrosa would have multiple titles if he had been on a bike that was not so physically demanding to ride.
When we look back at this New Golden Age of racing, Dani Pedrosa is the rider who is most likely to be overlooked. That is unfair, and unjust, for Pedrosa has shown wisdom, talent, fortitude and moral courage throughout his career. Dani Pedrosa is the toughest nut in Grand Prix motorcycle racing, and 2015 was yet another example of a truly exceptional racer.
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