There have been an awful lot of good Moto3 races this year. So many, in fact, that it's hard to pick out a single one for particular praise. But the final round at Valencia could very well be the best of the year. Moto3 riders are not known for riding conservatively or with undue caution at the best of times, but with the championship up for grabs at Valencia and the top three riders involved in a three-way winner-takes-all shootout for the title, this could be a real heart stopper. Cardiologists around the world will be rubbing their hands with glee at the amount of extra business they are about to generate.
The mathematics of the situation is simple. Just five points separate Luis Salom, who leads the championship, from Alex Rins, who is third, while Maverick Viñales is two points behind Salom and three ahead of Rins. If either Salom or Viñales win, they take the title with an outright points advantage; if Rins wins and Salom is second, the two men are tied on points and on the number of wins, but Rins is crowned champion based on the number of second place finishes he has scored. If none of the three men leading the championship win, then it all gets a lot more complicated - see the full breakdown here - but it comes down to the fact that the first of the three across the line will take the championship.
The chances of one of Luis Salom, Maverick Viñales or Alex Rins not winning is surprisingly slim. Between them, the three men who have dominated the Moto3 series in 2013 have won 16 of the 17 races, and occupying 39 of the 48 podium positions so far. Only three other men have joined the leading trio on the podium, with Alex Marquez, Jonas Folger and Miguel Oliviera the awkward interlopers. Marquez is the only rider to win a race, and even then, he was assisted by Rins and Salom taking themselves out of contention.
So who will win it on Sunday? All three men could not be more motivated. Salom and Viñales are certain to move up to Moto2, where - ironically - they will be teammates in Sito Pons' HP Tuenti team. They both want to cap their seasons off with a win and a title before they make the next step. They will be joined in Moto2 if Alex Rins wins the championship, the Estrella Galicia rider set to be promoted into the SAG Moto2 team with the backing of Monlau Competicion, the organization which ran Marc Marquez in Moto2 and now runs the Estrella Galicia Moto3 team. Salom and Viñales are going all out for pride, Rins is going for the win to gain promotion. If he doesn't become champion, he faces another season in Moto3.
Who is the favorite? Of the three, Luis Salom has been the smartest rider, benefiting from his greater experience. Salom has his game plan down pat: stay with the front runners for most of the race, taking care to stay out of the battle for the lead and so saving his tires. Salom has learned to pounce with just a couple of laps to go, using his tires to push hard enough to break the resistance behind him and take the win. It is a system which has worked so well all season that there is no reason for Salom not to use it again. If he wins, it will be a testament to his ability to keep his cool throughout the race, only taking risks when he needs to. In a class full of excitable teenagers who explode at the first sign of a battle, his age has been a boon.
More than just his age, though, Salom has been helped by being in the Red Bull KTM team run by Aki Ajo. The Finnish team manager has both a nose for talent and the ability to manage the personalities that come with it. Ajo has calmed Salom's volatile nature by directing that energy in the right direction, guiding it when needed to ensure it works for Salom, and not against him.
Maverick Viñales could use a similar guiding hand. The young Spaniard is an undoubted talent, but as his behavior last year at Sepang proved, he can be extremely volatile. In October 2012, Viñales flew to Malaysia, argued with his manager Ricard Jove - a relationship which has now ended - and refused to ride. He was back the next race on the advice of his lawyers, but secured a switch to KTM machinery for 2013, which has proven to be crucial to being competitive. Viñales has looked the rider most likely to crumble under pressure all year, losing out all too often, yet his consistency has been second to none. Only a lack of wins has prevented him from leading the championship, taking victory only twice, while mounting the podium in second and third another twelve times.
If anyone is to stop Salom from lifting the 2013 Moto3 crown, it is surely Alex Rins. The young Spaniard is arguably the rider with the most raw talent of the three, combining the maturity of Salom with the unfettered ability of Viñales. Rins is on a roll, his season really taking off in the second half of the year. In the first eight races of the season, Rins won only twice, but since the summer break, he has won four out of eight. A hiccup at Motegi - an unforced error with Salom already having crashed out - put his title challenge back a long way. That mistake was the first sign of pressure from the Estrella Galicia rider, throwing away a chance to lead the championship comfortably ahead of the last race.
The rider putting pressure on Rins was his teammate Alex Marquez. In his first full season of Moto3, the younger brother of Marc has grown enormously in stature in the second half of the year. He beat Viñales to the line at Motegi to take his first win, capping a period where he has shown great progression. If there is a dark horse at Valencia, it is surely Alex Marquez. The question is, just how firmly Emilio Alzamora will impress upon Marquez that he is not to hinder his teammate, and just how well Marquez will listen. At 17 years of age, there is reason to doubt that he will be inclined to follow orders unquestioningly, especially once the red mist descends in the heat of battle.
Is a KTM destined to win at Valencia? They have won every race this season, with Miguel Oliveira the only interloper on the Mahindra. In fact, either a KTM or a Kalex KTM has won the last twenty four races, the last non-KTM powered Moto3 winner being Maverick Viñales on the FTR Honda at Mugello in 2012. Yet Valencia is a track where the Hondas at least stand a chance, with the tight stadium section favoring a better handling chassis rather than outright horsepower. That will give Jack Miller and Alexis Masbou a better chance of being in the running with the FTR Hondas, while the Mahindras of Miguel Oliveira and Efren Vazquez could make use of their strong balance between power and handling. There could even be a surprise - Brad Binder, John McPhee, Romano Fenati, Niccolo Antonelli, all have proven themselves to be fast. But beating three of the best four or five riders on the grid on the three best bikes on the grid will be almost impossible.
That doesn't mean they won't try, and with the three leaders going all out for glory, and a host of others aiming for vindication before the season ends, the Moto3 race promises to be the best battle of the day. Though only one man will stand atop the podium on Sunday, and one will head to the Feria de Valencia to be officially awarded the trophy, there will still be 130,000 winners at the Circuit Ricardo Tormo. No prisoners will be taken, no quarter given, nor none asked. And that is exactly as it should be.