Watson's Mid-Season MotoGP Review
Incredibly, we have reached the halfway point of the season—nine races—and have seen just one winner.
Marc Marquez, the 21-year-old Catalan superstar, has dominated the headlines, scoring a maximum 225 points along the way.
A brief scan of the results would hint at a MotoGP series reminiscent of the Formula One era of the 2000s—a procession of vehicles with a rare bit of action to get excited about (maybe I am being harsh on F1, but that is when I fell out of love). In fact, this season has been far from that and, despite resulting in the same outcome every time as far as the No. 1 position goes, has actually had a bit of everything.
From gaffes on the grid to heated last-lap battles to a pit-lane start-line pileup to an "Open Class" pole position to a Ducati finishing less than seven seconds behind the race winner, 2014 has had its fair share of action already.
While the title is more or less wrapped up in favour of Marquez, let's not forget the Moto2 and particularly the Moto3 classes, which are still wide open.
Here is a quick run through some of the main areas that have proved hot or not in the first nine races of 2014.
It is the most obvious point imaginable even if you have only half-watched the championship, but it is a point that needs making nonetheless.
Marc Marquez—at the age of just 21—has, as the idiom goes, set the MotoGP world alight.
After taking advantage of unfortunate injuries to Dani Pedrosa and Jorge Lorenzo in 2013 to storm to the World Championship title, he has yet to look back—surging to an incredible nine straight victories.
What has been most impressive is that they have rarely been straightforward.
Take the opening race in Qatar, for example. Barely a month after breaking his leg and still limping around the paddock, he found himself taking a pole position and win double, ready for a trip to America with 25 points in the bag.
Add that to victories after running flag-to-flag in dodgy conditions, starting from the pits, working his way through the field after dropping to seventh (Argentina), engaging in an epic battle with Jorge Lorenzo and overcoming the pressure of winning two home races so far, and you soon realise that it is not just luck, or simply starting at the front and staying there, that sees the youngster where he is.
Amazingly, he is in just his second season as a premier-class rider. After two successful years in Moto2 and a World Championship-winning 125 campaign prior to that, he has every reason to be riding the wave of confidence that he is at the moment.
He looks well on the way to winning his second championship in a row. The question is, Can he continue this dominance to propel to him to the level of the greats?
There has been nothing in his short career so far to suggest that he won't join the likes of Valentino Rossi, Mick Doohan, Mike Hailwood and Giacomo Agostini in MotoGP folklore.
The way he has made previously supercompetitive rivals Lorenzo, Pedrosa and Rossi look like second-rate riders is nothing short of uncanny. While every result has been the same for the top step of the podium, I can't say that I have been anything other than thoroughly entertained by the Spaniard.
On that note, Marquez's dominance has been helped by less-than-perfect performances from his main rivals.
In 2013, before injuries hampered the seasons of Dani Pedrosa and Jorge Lorenzo, they looked set to scrap out a title fight before Marquez took full advantage and pulled the rug from under their feet.
This year—despite extending his Repsol Honda contract until 2016—Pedrosa has proved he is not as good as his teammate.
He and maybe Alvaro Bautista and Stefan Bradl on other "Factory Class" Honda bikes are the only riders we can truly compare to Marquez. Whilst Pedrosa has shown he can set lap times comparable to Marquez, his world champion teammate has looked comfortable keeping a near 1.5-second gap between the pair on numerous occasions this season. Pedrosa has failed to get close to Marquez and has been forced to accept lower-ranked podium finishes as a result.
As for Lorenzo, it would seem that a lack of composure and an inferior Yamaha have contributed to his lack of challenge for every race, bar one, this time round. His jump start at the Circuit of the Americas was inexcusable for a professional motor racer, and the rest of his performances other than the Mugello race just have not been the Lorenzo we usually expect.
It would be fair to say that since Rossi broke his leg in 2010, Lorenzo has overtaken him in the ability to ride a bike a quickly.
This may be an unpopular opinion, but the fact that Rossi in the twilight of his career has finished ahead of Lorenzo five times in races they have both finished—as opposed to two last season (and he had a broken collarbone in one of those)—shows just how big a step backward Lorenzo has taken this season.
As for Rossi, the fact he seems genuinely happy with just finishing on the podium these days shows exactly where his career is. Does any more need to be said?
A Generally Unimpressive "Open Class"
So, there were concerns that an "Open Class" bike might win a race at the start of the season—albeit a panicked reaction to Ducati's switch to the class that if they won a race, they would lose certain benefits the "Open Class" rules brought them.
Is it OK to laugh at that idea now?
The closest an "Open Class" bike in real terms has come to a victory was Andrea Dovizioso's effort in Assen—a full 6.714 seconds behind Marc Marquez in a race where the dodgy weather conditions played a big part.
A front-row start from Dovizioso at Le Mans and a pole position at Assen from Aleix Espargaro have been the best the class has had to offer on a one-lap basis as well, proving that it has not quite been the leveler that some feared, or hoped, it would be after Espargaro's highly impressive pre-season tests.
Granted, it is a better option than the CRT class it replaced and poses as the best idea in a long time to offer competitive bikes up and down the field—although that probably is not something Scott Redding or Nicky Hayden would agree with right now.
A season-best finish between the pair of seventh, coming for Redding in the opening race of the season, shows that there is some serious work to do over not only the summer break but the next few years for the "Open Class" Hondas.
It says a lot when you have a pretty strong case to argue that John McPhee, who sits in 13th on 45 points in the Moto3 standings, has had the most successful season of any Brit involved.
And with the for in MotoGP—Redding, Bradley Smith, Michael Laverty and Cal Crutchlow—Sam Lowes and Gino Rea in Moto2 as well as Danny Kent, who actually has a point more than McPhee in Moto3, to choose from, it is not like we are picking from one or two.
As we touched on with Redding before, his Honda has not been performing.
After he finished runner-up in the Moto2 championship in 2013 and was offered a ride on an "Open Class" Honda Gresini, it was expected the Gloucestershire lad would at least be regularly competing in the top 10. As it is, he has struggled to do that. Sadly, it seems unless Honda improve their "Open Class" entries this is unlikely to change in 2015.
A quick glance at the championship standings tells you everything you need to know about Tech3 Yamaha rider Bradley Smith's season—11th in the table, 19 points behind his teammate who is in his rookie year and 29 points behind an "Open Class" Yamaha.
One too many races where an overeager Smith has thrown away valuable points by crashing out have dented his challenge for a potential top-six finish.
Will he still be in MotoGP next season? His performances in both Moto2 and MotoGP since signing a three-year contract have not been good enough to earn an extension.
Another glance at the championship standings also tells you everything you need to know about Crutchlow's season—a full 71 points behind teammate Dovizioso, even behind the struggling Honda pairing of Redding and Hayden. The fact there seems to be genuine talk about ending his contract a year early shows just how poor the first nine races have been for the man originally from Coventry.
He went to Ducati with a dream, and it has turned into a complete nightmare. Here's to hoping that Suzuki can offer some sort of resurrection to his career.
Esteve "Tito" Rabat has been the shining light of Moto2 so far this season, leading the way with an impressive 170 points while taking four wins along the way.
Unfortunately, for me, the fact that Rabat is leading by 19 points over teammate Mika Kallio and by 50 points over third-placed Maverick Vinales shows just how poor a championship Moto2 is this season.
Rabat was third best in 2013—and third best in a field that lacked the two highlights of 2012, Marquez and Andrea Iannone.
With reigning Moto3 champion—and arguably someone you would expect to one day challenge for a MotoGP title—Vinales being a bit of a slow burner, for the first time in a long time, no one looks fit to make the step up to MotoGP.
Rabat has committed to another season in Moto2, although he might deserve a chance in a higher class.
Should he get that chance, I see him being a Stefan Bradl-like character—a reliable rider who will regularly earn a team top eight or higher but rarely push for the podium places.
As for the rest of the field, Dominique Aegerter deserved his win in Germany just for sticking in there and being a regular consistent performer. Luis Salom has shown some real promise after finally making the step up from the class below.
Moto2 won't be the epic that we saw in 2012, though hopefully a few more emerging riders over the next few seasons will see it become one of the most entertaining classes of two-wheeled racing in the world.
I am absolutely loving the Moto3 class this season—I would say it is the best year of Moto3 since the major changes in 2012.
Jack Miller, who leads the championship by 19 points from Marc Marquez's younger brother Alex, is the talk of the paddock. Weirdly, that is partly for the right reasons and partly for the wrong reasons. If you have missed what is, or isn't, going on with his contract, here is a link to a statement made by Marc VDS, via Motorcycle News.
Now, per Matthew Birt of MCN, there are rumours that LCR Honda are interested in the young Aussie, presumably to replace Stefan Bradl, but he would be foolish to skip out the Moto2 class altogether in his rise to MotoGP.
If he is good enough for MotoGP, he will get there eventually, and, more so, if he actually is ignoring Marc VDS, why does he not want to go there?
Along with the Pons Racing team, they are the best in Moto2! He would have a fantastic opportunity to gain more valuable experience, to race at the front regularly and to win one or two world titles.
That said, how could you turn down an offer to ride in MotoGP?
Aside from Miller, the racing has been utter class in Moto3. Often with leading groups of nine riders or more, it is fantastic entertainment from start to finish.
It has the excitement that Moto2 had in 2012, building and building until with four laps to go it all fully goes off!
In the previous slide, I talked about the hope of more riders emerging in Moto2. Well, this class has them!
I'm looking at Miller, Alex Marquez, Alex Rins and Romano Fenati—and even Danny Kent or Miguel Oliveira if given the right bike—and expect another new name of the future to emerge before the end of the season. I don't know who yet, but there is so much talent in Moto3 that someone will take the bull by the horns and turn it up a gear (undecided on the intention of the pun).
As far as MotoGP meetings go, this is the series I am most looking forward to for the rest of the year.
Bring on Indianapolis!