Mixed emotions greet the final race of most MotoGP seasons. There is sadness at the prospect of four months or more without racing. There is interest and expectation, as fans look past the race weekend to the test which immediately follows, when the bikes for next year appear and the riders switching teams get their first shot at a new ride. And there is excitement of course, at the prospect of a race to wrap up the season. But with the title usually already decided in advance, there is only pride at stake, and not much more to play for.
This year, it's different. Yes, the test on Monday is a big deal, with Cal Crutchlow's debut on the Ducati, the Honda production racer making its first appearance, with Nicky Hayden on board, and the Aleix Espargaro giving the Yamaha production racer its first run out. But for the first time since 2006, the Valencia race really matters, and will decide who gets to crown themselves champion. Just 13 points separate Marc Marquez from Jorge Lorenzo, and the two men who have dominated the season cannot afford to make a mistake. Both come determined to do whatever it takes to get the job done at Valencia.
On the face of it, Marc Marquez is the hot favorite to take the title at Valencia. The 20-year-old Repsol Honda man has had an astonishing season, by any measure, smashing record after record as he takes wins, podiums, and lap records. He was expected to do well at the start of the season, after all, he came into the most powerful team, with perhaps the most highly rated crew, and on what was generally regarded as the best bike. Most pundits saw him getting a handful of podiums, maybe taking a couple of wins, and fighting for third spot in the championship.
But Marquez had other ideas, taking a podium in his first race, a win in his second, and then never finishing off the podium when he finished a race. Only twice did he fail: once through an error of his own making, finding the limits of the front Bridgestone tire at Mugello as he set about hunting down Jorge Lorenzo, and once when his team misunderstood the hastily cobbled together pit stop rules at Phillip Island, and caused Marquez to be black flagged.
His strategy has been simple: to go out and try to win every race he can, not afraid to take risks in the process. His thought process has been tightly focused, streamlined even, thinking only of what happens on Sunday, the championship never on his mind. When asked, he replied he was merely a rookie, and that whatever happened, his season would judged a success. Only in the last few races has Marquez shown the first hints of pressure, the cheerful, smiling face showing very occasional signs of strain, his brows drawn down in a severe frown a couple of times. He has reached the point where he can no longer banish thoughts of the title from his mind.
The occasional darkening of Marquez' brow has not gone unnoticed by Jorge Lorenzo and his team. Since missing the race at the Sachsenring, Lorenzo has watched his championship defense slip further and further out of his grasp. At Silverstone, the Spaniard started to turn the tide with a brilliant win which took every last ounce of resourcefulness, bravery and skill, but which handed Lorenzo the momentum once again. Another win at Misano edged him closer once again, but at Aragon and Sepang Lorenzo finished behind Marquez once again, bleeding points to his rookie rival.
It all changed at Phillip Island, when Marquez threw away a certain podium, which would have ensured he could wrap up the title at Motegi. Lorenzo saw a glimmer of hope once again, and when the weather at Motegi played into his hands - the first day of practice lost to fog, the second badly disrupted by rain, and little time for set up work - he seized the opportunity, taking a convincing win to cut the gap to just 13 points. Under normal circumstances, that should be enough for Marquez to take the championship comfortably, by just following Lorenzo around and finishing directly behind him. That would be more than sufficient.
But those looks of concern on Marquez' face... Lorenzo has seen them alright, and they have brought him out like a shark smelling blood in the water. He is circling, looking for weakness, cranking up the pressure, seeing if he can make the rookie crack. He knows Marquez is formidable at Valencia - Marquez' Moto2 race last year at the circuit was a breathtaking demonstration of raw talent combined with calculated risk, winning from the back of the grid on extremely treacherous conditions - but he knows Marquez hasn't been in a situation like this before, with the weight of the world on his shoulders. Lorenzo knows what it is to win a MotoGP title (or two), and he knows how great the pressure is.
It is far beyond what Marquez could have imagined: it is impossible to read a sports paper, or a motorcycle magazine, or a website, without someone telling him he has the title in the bag, yet Marquez knows that the smallest error can mean disaster. A technical problem, a missed braking point, entering a corner 1 km/h faster than the lap before, and his chances are gone. It is a dark, growing knot at the pit of Marquez' stomach, always there, despite his best attempts to ignore it.
Jorge Lorenzo is intent on exploiting that, cranking up the pressure as much as he can. He knows that he has to win the race, and he knows that he will either need help from at least three other riders, or he will have to force Marquez into a mistake. Given the gaping chasm which has generally yawned between the podium runners and the battle for fourth, Lorenzo has no illusions of the others coming to his aid, however much Valentino Rossi and Cal Crutchlow would like to. Lorenzo's only hope is to pile on the pressure so much that Marquez cracks under the strain.
And so Jorge Lorenzo talks of not having any pressure. He says in interview after interview that he has nothing to lose and everything to gain at Valencia. He is free to ride as he pleases, he says, attempting to place the responsibility for securing the title on Marquez. Since Aragon, this has been the team's explicit aim: take the title chase to the last race of the year, and see how it turns out. 'Anything can happen,' is the mantra repeated by everyone in Lorenzo's team, goading on that knot of doubt that sits heavily on Marquez' stomach, gnawing away at his self confidence. He will need a calm head indeed to just sit quietly in the race and not panic.
So what will Lorenzo's strategy be on Sunday? The first objective will come on Saturday, trying to intimidate Marquez with a scorching pole time. In the race, Lorenzo may eschew his normal tactic of putting his head down and trying to make a break, instead choosing to hold up Marquez and try to get some traffic backed up behind them. If Lorenzo can rattle Marquez into worrying what is behind him, instead of concentrating on Lorenzo's back wheel, the Repsol Honda rookie may make a mistake, and run wide or drop a place. One mistake begets another, especially in this situation, and pushing too hard to correct a previous error can end up spelling disaster.
Just ask Valentino Rossi. The multiple world champion came to Valencia in 2006 with a comfortable lead and needing only to stay in touch with Nicky Hayden. But he got roughed up at the start, caught up in traffic, and eventually crashed while trying to make up lost ground. Though he got back on and finished the race, Rossi had allowed himself to be flustered, and when he got flustered, he threw it all away.
Will Marquez make the same mistake? He has shown very few signs of having trouble dealing with pressure during his career. The preternatural calmness with which he dealt with a warm up lap crash at Estoril in 2010 was typical of Marquez' resolve. Starting from the back of the grid, he was at the front of the race within a few corners, going on to win at Portugal, before clinching the title at the last race at Valencia. That could be a precedent for this weekend, but the competition Marquez faced was far less formidable. If he keeps his head and stays with Lorenzo, he is champion. If he loses his head, something Lorenzo will be doing all he can to encourage, then he could toss it all away with a costly mistake.
Will Marc Marquez get any help from his teammate? Given the history between the two, Dani Pedrosa is extremely unlikely to want to go out of his way to assist his rookie teammate take the championship, something which has eluded Pedrosa throughout his eight seasons in the premier class. Pedrosa's latest title chances foundered at Aragon, when he was lightly clipped by Marquez, but that contact ended up severing a sensor wire, confusing the electronics of Pedrosa's Honda RC213V, which then threw him off viciously. Marquez' victory and Lorenzo's podium opened up a gap too big for him to close.
Yet Pedrosa may still be willing to come to the aid of Marquez, if that involves beating Lorenzo. Pedrosa will be keen to win the last race of the year at Valencia, and given his record at the circuit - he is the only rider to have won races in all three classes at Valencia - there is every reason to believe he is capable of doing so. Pedrosa's way of helping Marquez will be going all out to win the race, finishing ahead of Lorenzo and robbing him of valuable points. If Lorenzo wins the race, Marquez needs to finish in the top four. If Pedrosa can get in front of Lorenzo, then Marquez only needs to finish in the top eight. That would give him much more leeway for mistakes.
Would Pedrosa be willing to step aside for Marquez, and allow him to pass if need be, if Lorenzo were leading and Pedrosa found himself circulating ahead of Marquez in fourth? That is a less likely scenario, Pedrosa feeling no loyalty to the young upstart who has already ruined his season. Honda have already said they are philosophically opposed to giving team orders (beyond 'don't knock your teammate off', that is), and so Pedrosa will feel he has a right to try to beat Marquez. As Pedrosa has a contract for 2014, and there are few obvious candidates to take his place at Repsol Honda in the seasons following that, he will not fear repercussions.
Can Valentino Rossi do for Jorge Lorenzo what Dani Pedrosa is unwilling to do for Marc Marquez? Rossi would be delighted to help Lorenzo if he can. Mainly because it would mean he was once again running at the front, rather than five seconds or more off the back of the leaders with no way of getting in among them. At a track like Mugello or Phillip Island, he might have stood a chance, but Valencia is a circuit which has not been kind to Rossi over the years. It is a race where he has all too often ended in the gravel, or off the podium, or otherwise out of contention. When Valentino Rossi lists his favorite circuits, Valencia is never among them.
Lorenzo needs help from more than Rossi, of course. Cal Crutchlow would dearly like to get back on the podium, to say farewell to the Monster Tech 3 Yamaha team in style, the team which has been like a family to him. Crutchlow is frustrated he hasn't been able to give the team the win which he feels they deserve, despite coming tantalizingly close a couple of times. At least the Valencia track gives him a chance: tight, twisty, with a couple of sections of acceleration and braking where they lose out to the Hondas, but a couple of other spots where they can make up ground thanks to the more maneuverable M1. It won't be easy, but it's not impossible.
Then there's the satellite Hondas, with Stefan Bradl and Alvaro Bautista both having shown good form throughout the year. Bradl has had an even worse time at Valencia than Valentino Rossi, the German never managing to finish a race at the circuit. The LCR Honda rider will be wanting things to turn out differently this year, but a run like that can get into a rider's mind. There is more hope for Alvaro Bautista, the Spaniard having strung together a good run in the second half of the season. The Showa suspension is showing real progress, and Bautista is taking advantage by getting close to the podium. That could be within reach on Sunday, though that would be much to Honda's chagrin if it interfered with Marquez' title hopes. If anything, Bautista could be more susceptible to pressure from Honda than Dani Pedrosa has. After all, as a satellite rider who looks set to lose his seat at the end of 2014, he may decide that a good result is more important than keeping Honda happy.
The chances of the Ducati riders getting involved at the front are very slim indeed, the Desmosedici continuing to limp through the season towards a fresh start. Though some progress has been made - the bike enters corners better, is more stable, and less aggressive on the throttle - it is still a second a lap or more off the pace of the leading trio. The chances of Andrea Dovizioso or Nicky Hayden mixing it up at the front are very slim indeed. The two will be much more concerned with the post-race test than with the race itself. Nicky Hayden will swing his leg over Honda's production racer for the first time with the Aspar team at the test, and he, along with the rest of us, will get the first real sense of how good that bike will be. While Dovizioso will have only a few minor parts to test from Monday, though the focus of the factory will shift toward 2014, and Gigi Dall'Igna will make his first appearance.
But Nicky Hayden knows better than most just what the last race of the season can bring. In 2006, it brought him a world championship, just a week after it looked like he had lost it in a crash with his teammate - one Dani Pedrosa - at Estoril. In 2011, with big things to test on the Tuesday after Valencia, Hayden found himself taken out in a first-corner, multi-bike pilot, an incident in which he damaged his hand too badly to ride. Anything can happen, as Lorenzo keeps saying, and that's why they line up on Sunday, as Hayden keeps explaining. And that's why we keep watching, because you never know when the fireworks will start, and how it will all turn out. This will be the biggest Sunday in motorcycle racing for a very long time. It will be a real thrill to watch.