Motorcycle News - 2018 MotoGP Midseason Report Card
In the words of numerous shell-shocked generals throughout history, immediately after losing great battles, as we make the turn in MotoGP 2018, we must ask, “What happened?”
How could a year which held the promise of a serious four- or five-man competition all the way to Valencia – supported by the breathtaking finish at Losail – arrive at its midpoint in such a competitive shambles? Repsol Honda’s young, virtually invincible Marc Marquez sits, in midseason and at the peak of his prodigious skills, in complete command of the championship. Toying with those fools.
A reader suggested we remove Marquez and his 165 points from the picture, figuratively speaking, whence the standings would be:
This is close to what I expected, with MM sitting at the top with, say, 133 points. As The Beach Boys (including two of the originals) sang the other night, under the stars, “Oh wouldn’t it be nice…” But Marquez, with his crushing 165 points, has taken the air out of the place. I never want to see a rider injured. But I suspect I’m not alone enjoying the vision of Marquez receiving a two-round suspension for throwing down and getting K.O’d in a Czech gravel trap by someone like Andrea Iannone.
Here in realityland, we’re looking at the season from Round 1 through Round 9 to understand how the results at Losail — Andrea Dovizioso beating Marquez to the line by the width of a wheel – enhanced our collective, overly-optimistic belief, now dashed, that the season would go down to the wire. In Qatar, Dovizioso and Marquez had their own war over the last three laps; earlier, the front group had consisted of nine riders. Rossi podiumed. Things looked tight – the top six riders all finished within four seconds of one another. After the race I posted the following:
Tranche 1: Marquez, Dovizioso, Rossi, Petrucci, Crutchlow. (In my excitement about the race, I forgot my mantra: Losail is an outlier.)
On to Argentina, where the wettish start of the race was a memorable fustercluck, with Jack Miller on pole getting hosed by the rules. Marquez stalls at the start and jumpstarts his bike, turns around and re-takes his place, having gone mental. Penalized, furious, but lucky that he wasn’t black-flagged, he went on to bump and grind with a number of riders, lizard brain in control, before finishing 18th. After two rounds, he sat in fifth place, trailing Cal Crutchlow 38-20. Dovizioso, Johann Zarco and Maverick Viñales were also in his way, Zarco having finished second at Rio Hondo behind Crutchlow.
It looked, as the expression goes, like we had us a horse race. But in truth Marquez had great race pace all weekend in Argentina and could have easily podiumed had he not stalled his bike, a once-in-a-career screw-up. The standings after Round 2 were misleading. Yamaha fans actually believed their guys could be competitive all year without actually winning races. Ducati fans, still basking in the afterglow of Qatar, could overlook the fact that Jorge Lorenzo sat in 15th place after two rounds.
Round 3, at the Circuit of the Americas in Austin, became, for Marquez, his 12th win on American soil; he has never not won a MotoGP race in the U.S. (and if you include the Moto2 and 125cc classes, he’s undefeated since 2010). Although he won easily, as expected, those following him – Viñales, Iannone, Rossi, Dovi and Zarco – generated a top five, after three rounds, separated by eight points, with Marquez still trailing Dovi by a point. Tight, as we said back then, as tree bark. Tranche 1 included Marquez, Dovizioso and Viñales. The series returned to Europe and civilization slavering at the prospect of running at Jerez.
Back in Spain, Jorge Lorenzo first adopted his current habit of running the softest tires available, being able to lead the first half of races before fading to 7th place at the end. A reader sent the following note, a conversation he allegedly overheard outside the Ducati garage at Jerez:
“Gigi, I want the soft tire! I will win the first half of the race, and then the championship!”
“You don’t get points for the first half, Jorge.”
“Give it to me, the soft!”
“We put the softest tire we have on it, Jorge. They don’t make them any softer.”
“Then marinate it in the mantequilla and leave it out in the sun! It must be softer! The Spartan commands it!”
Unsurprisingly, Lorenzo led the early part of the race until Marquez ate his lunch on Lap 8 at the new Jorge Lorenzo corner lol. Marquez was leading the race on Lap 20 when a decisive 2018 moment occurred, as Lorenzo, Dovizioso and Dani Pedrosa got tangled up, Pedrosa going airborne, ending up in a heap in the gravel, bikes and riders everywhere. A racing incident in which either Lorenzo or Pedrosa was the “procuring cause.” No penalties were assessed, but Lorenzo and Pedrosa saw their faint title hopes go up in smoke and ash. Dovizioso’s would go up later in the year.
Marquez found himself with clear sailing late in the day. This is what is meant by the expression, “Katie bar the door.” It was after Jerez that we awarded the 2018 championship to Marquez, Tranche 1 looking like this: Marquez, Zarco, and Dovizioso, with the latter two hanging by a thread. Viñales, Rossi, Crutchlow, Pedrosa and Miller made up Tranche 2 at this point, with The Great Australian Hope Jack Miller, especially, looking much stronger than expected.
Round 5 in France: Homeboy Johann Zarco became the first Frenchman to start from pole in The French Grand Prix since The Norman Conquest; sadly, he crashed out early in the race while running third. At what had generally been a Yamaha track, Marquez put the fear of God in the field. After Zarco, then Dovizioso, crashed out in front of him, Marquez found himself in the lead, beating Danilo Petrucci and Rossi to the flag, and stoking his margin over Viñales for the season to 95-59. Zarco and Rossi were crowding Viñales at this point, the three separated by three points.
Marquez had taken 95 of a possible 125 points for the season and could have easily had another 20 in Argentina but for his mental meltdown.
It was Round 6 at Mugello where he had the grace to slide out on Lap 5, allowing Lorenzo the unexpected privilege of winning a MotoGP race for the first time since Valencia 2016 while the series leader remounted and finished out of the points in 16th. Lorenzo, Dovizioso and Rossi stepped up to fill the surprising vacuum and breathed a little life into the series. Marquez’ margin over Viñales was cut to 23, the pack bunched up behind them through Crutchlow in eighth.
Jorge Lorenzo gave us another vivid reminder of who he used to be at Catalunya where he won again, this time after being pursued by Marquez, who didn’t have enough that day. Following these two were Rossi, Crutchlow and Pedrosa, who pimped Viñales at the wire. Although relatively insignificant in the big picture, Marquez added four points to his season lead and, more importantly, reduced the total number of 2018 points available to his pursuers by one round. The Yamahas and Ducatis will never catch him treading water like this. With two rounds left until the summer break, everyone knew it was “Anyone but Marquez” time heading to Assen. Marquez could effectively break the field with wins in The Netherlands and Germany.
Round 8 at Assen provided us with one of the great races of all time, a record total of 175 overtakes from start to finish. Roughly six different riders led at one time or another. Marquez ultimately took the win. Alex Rins, finally showing some of the massive potential he possesses, stole second place from Viñales at the flag. Viñales, in turn, punked Dovizioso, who punked Rossi, trailed closely by Crutchlow and Lorenzo. Seven riders within five seconds of the winner. It was a huge win for Marquez, and a huge letdown for every other Alien and pretender. It was surely starting to look like one of those Marquez years again. Plus, the next stop was The Sachsenring, where Marquez had been incandescent for almost a decade.
On July 15, Marquez headed out at The Sachsenring and just brutalized the field. Says afterwards he had more pace if he had needed it. Oozing confidence after his ninth consecutive win at this track, back to when he was a teenager. He became the fifth rider this season to break a track record, joining Cal Crutchlow, Jorge Lorenzo, Valentino Rossi and Johann Zarco in that luminous group. The championship feels like a foregone conclusion.
Valencia, it appears, is screwed, which is probably also true for Sepang and, perhaps, Phillip Island. I suppose it’s mathematically possible for Marquez to clinch at Buriram, which would send the locals straight into madness. At this point we’re guessing Australia.
The Lambs and the Goats from the First Half
Repsol Honda Team: Marquez be Marquez, while Dani Pedrosa, dealing with the erosion of his skills and desire, more titanium screw holes in him than Swiss cheese, announcd his decision to retire at the end of the year rather than ride a non-competitive bike, i.e., a satellite Yamaha for the next two years. Before Pedrosa announced his decision, HRC signed Jorge Lorenzo to replace him and join Marquez for 2019-2020.
Movistar Yamaha Team: Running second and third to Marquez most of the season, Rossi and Viñales must feel like Beaver Cleaver when Eddie Haskell would come over and mess up his hair and call him a punk. Rossi hasn’t won since Assen last year, while Viñales’ last win was at Le Mans also in 2017. Johann Zarco has been more impressive on his two-year old sled. Yamaha engineers need to read the book “Good to Great.”
Factory Ducati Team: Andrea Dovizioso, who seriously challenged Marquez for the title in 2017, has been this year’s single biggest disappointment, having scored 35 fewer points this season than at this time last year. Jorge Lorenzo, last year’s biggest disappointment, pulled rabbits out of his hat twice this year to regain a little of his lost swagger. He is also defecting to Honda, his seat being taken by the deserving Danilo Petrucci.
Suzuki Ecstar Team: Consistently inconsistent since Round 1.
In but three of nine rounds have both riders finished the race. Alex Rins has shown flashes of brilliance, while Iannone, no longer the Maniac, appears content to finish races, making hay seemingly only when misfortune strikes other riders. The team has dismissed Iannone and signed wonderkid Joan Mir from Moto2 for two years beginning in 2019. Rins, once he finds the limit of the Suzuki, will be a baller. For this year, both riders are disappointments. Iannone takes a step down to the factory Aprilia program for the next two seasons.
Red Bull KTM Factory Team: Once again, despite fierce loyalty from KTM owners and fans, the Austrian MotoGP program has been a dud in 2018. Owners and fans see great things on the horizon. I see Pol Espargaro with 32 points and Bradley Smith with 13 points after nine rounds. I see test and wildcard rider Mika Kallio escape destruction by the thinnest of margins in his practice crash at The Sachsenring. KTM picked up a satellite team in Tech 3 Racing, with current Tech 3 racer Johann Zarco joining Espargaro on the factory team. Miguel Oliveira steps up from Moto2 to team up with Hafiz Syahrin on the Tech 3 team, which will ride full factory bikes. Syahrin is on his way to becoming very good rider on what is likely to become very good equipment and should feel very fortunate.
Factory Aprilia Team: Another year on the learning curve for the Italian team, as Aleix Espargaro has 16 and Scott Redding, on his way out in favor of Iannone, has 12. Aleix pushes the bike past the limit and has once again recently spent time in the hospital as a result. Redding, despite his brimming self-confidence, is too big to ride with these midgets. Aprilia will have to take the plunge on a satellite team at some point if they’re ever going to generate enough data to become competitive at this level.
Alma Pramac Ducati Team: Like a lot of B teams, this group seems to lose its best rider fairly often. After this year, Petrucci, who has been enjoying a very strong (84 vs. 66 in 2017) season, leaves to join the factory Ducati effort alongside Dovizioso. Miller, #2 on the team, is also having an improved year – 57-41 – over 2017. He will be joined next season by fast mover Peco Bagnaia, on his way up from Moto2. Bagnaia promises to be wild and wooly next year as the rookie learns to tangle with the beast that is the Ducati Desmosedici.
Monster Tech 3 Yamaha: With Johann Zarco and Jonas Folger slated to return from encouraging rookie seasons, Herve Poncharal had room to feel optimistic, until the day early this year when he learned Folger would not be returning. In quiet desperation, he turned to out-of-work Malaysian mudder Hafiz Syahrin, who has stepped in this year and done a workmanlike job of learning a big new bike on the fly. Teammate Zarco has not improved noticeably over last season and has struggled down the stretch through Sachsenring this year. The KTM deal must be a distraction. Whatever.
Team LCR: Both Cal Crutchlow on the Castrol version and Taka Nakagami on the Idemitsu version have provided marginal improvements to LCR’s fortunes compared to last year, when it was Cal only. Nakagami has disappointed badly with his measly 10 points, while Crutchlow is up 79-64 over last year. Both riders on this team insist the Honda is difficult to ride, a complaint you don’t hear very often from the factory riders. Cal is sticking around for next year, as is Nakagami, who has in the first year of a two-year HRC contract.
The rest of the teams I just have a hard time caring about these groups. Sure, there are some competitive riders in here – Rabat and Morbidelli come to mind – but overall it’s a big Who Cares?
On to the Second Half
Halfway through the round, sitting in the clubhouse, I am approaching the second half with an almost Nordic sense of existential dread, that this might turn into an Agostini-like s**tshow with 23 riders fighting for scraps. From what we’ve seen since 2013, with the exception of 2015 when the Honda chassis was unrideable, none of the current riders on the grid appears capable of staying with Marquez over the course of an entire season. Which, in turn, means that it will have to be one of the young guns who take him down. Remember when Lorenzo arrived in 2008, a very hot property, to join The Doctor, the undisputed god of MotoGP, and put a hurting on him only two years later.
For Marc Marquez, these are his salad days. Top of his game, in full command of all his prodigious skills. Nobody on the grid with the chops or the nuts to challenge him. Able to tame the unruly RC213V when other great riders can’t. Practices saving lowside crashes with his knees and elbows. You can see other riders and teams watching him and just shaking their heads.
This is Year Six of The Marquez Era, 2015 being the exception that makes the rule. He should, by my estimate, enjoy perhaps four more years before someone gives him a serious challenge. Starting in 2021 Rossi will be horse-whipping those young Italian Sky VR46 Yamaha riders, insulting their manhood until one of them wins a title. Guys like Maverick Viñales and Jack Miller will chase Marquez for most of their careers. Guys like Zarco and Dovi will flare up during certain years, shedding more light than heat in what will likely be futile attempts to put the squeeze on #93.
As for an actual report card on the riders, I think the tranches after Round 9 reflect the grading curve for the first semester:
MotoGP returns to Motorcycle.com on July 31st with the Brno preview. Enjoy the break, fools.
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July 25, 2018 at 04:52PM