Here is the one thing which everybody has wrong about Valencia: the 2015 MotoGP championship isn't over by a very long chalk. Whether Lorenzo qualifies on pole or the front row, whether Valentino Rossi starts from his qualifying position or the back of the grid, the championship won't be done until the last rider gets the checkered flag. Everything is still to play for.
Why is the championship still wide open? Because Valencia is a fickle mistress, with a record of throwing up more than one surprise. Both Valentino Rossi and Jorge Lorenzo have won here, and both men have lost championships here. Both men have dominated, and both men have crashed out. Races at Valencia are rarely straightforward, throwing up startling results more often than not. Throw in a spot of unpredictable weather, and anything can truly happen.
The cause of those surprises? Running a race at the beginning of November in Valencia means the weather is always a gamble. Even when it is dry and sunny, as it is expected to be this weekend, the cold mornings and strong winds can cause tires to cool, turning Valencia's right-hand corners – few and far between – into treacherous affairs. If it rains or is damp, the wind means a dry line forms quickly, turning tire choice into a gamble.
You don't need to look back too far in the past to see just how strange the races at Valencia can be. In 2012, Dani Pedrosa took a gamble to change to his dry bike after the warm up lap, having spotted that a dry line was forming. He started from pit lane, well behind the roaring pack, nearly highsiding himself off in the process. But as others struggled with wet tires going off, Pedrosa's slicks got better and better, the Repsol Honda rider going on to take victory.
Last year saw another half-wet, half-dry race, with riders gambling on tires. Though the championship had been sewn up by Marc Márquez several races previously, the race for second in the championship was still wide open, between Valentino Rossi and Jorge Lorenzo. Lorenzo tried to attack, but in the difficult conditions he could find no confidence. In the end, he gave up, pulled into the pits and retired.
In 2011, Casey Stoner looked like he was running away with the race, until scattered showers started to make conditions difficult. The enormous lead he had built up disappeared, Ben Spies catching and then passing the Australian, only to have Stoner pull off a miracle pass into the final corner and snatch victory at the last moment. Yamaha replacement rider Katsuyuki Nakasuga, standing in for the injured Lorenzo, joined Spies on the podium, an emotional moment on a weekend his first child was born.
Stoner was involved in another of the weird moments at Valencia, crashing out on the warm up lap of the 2009 race, after having taken a dominant pole at the track. That crash was one of many that year that would cause Bridgestone to alter its tire construction, building them to warm up faster and put an end to the cold tire highsides that plagued the series at the time.
An unhappy lesson from history
Perhaps the most famous race at Valencia was the title decider in 2006. Valentino Rossi came to the circuit with a points lead for the first time that season, after Nicky Hayden had been wiped out by an unfortunate mistake by his rookie teammate Dani Pedrosa at the previous race in Estoril. Rossi started from the front row, but quickly went backwards, eventually crashing all on his own, and limping home to finish thirteenth. Hayden rode a brilliant race to take third and an emotionally charged MotoGP title, behind two Ducatis. He celebrated his championship engulfed in clouds of yellow smoke, the organizers having gambled on a different outcome. Winner that day was Troy Bayliss, back for a one-off wildcard ride after leaving the series a year earlier. It was vindication for the Australian, dominating the weekend after being allowed to bring his own crew chief in from World Superbikes to tackle the last MotoGP race of the 990 era.
Does all this mean that we cannot take any lessons from the season for the race at Valencia? Only that we should treat current form with a pinch of salt, and not draw too many premature conclusions from practice and qualifying. Nor should we focus solely on the two riders battling for the championship. There will be twenty four other riders out there on the grid, and they will play a crucial role in the outcome, wherever the two Movistar Yamahas start from.
The two main obstacles will be the two Repsol Hondas. And above all, the #26 bike of Dani Pedrosa. Pedrosa's record around Valencia is second to none, as a table drawn up by World Superbikes commentator Steve Day so plainly demonstrates. Of the thirteen times Pedrosa has started a race at Valencia, he has been first across the line in six of them, a win rate of nearly half. He has been on the podium ten times in total, missing out three times in the MotoGP class. Pedrosa is not a man to write off lightly.
Especially not after the run of form he has had in the last few races. At Aragon, Pedrosa proved to the world, but perhaps most of all, to himself, that he was now fully recovered from the arm pump surgery he had after Qatar. His battle with Rossi at Aragon put him on the podium, and he has gone on to win two of the last three races, taking dominant victories at both Motegi and Sepang. Pedrosa is fired up, and intent on showing what he is still capable of. He may not be the bookies' favorite, but if I had to put my money on a winner, it would be him.
His main rival will likely be his teammate Marc Márquez. The Spaniard is still seething after Sepang, and out to make a point. He would like nothing more than to prove the world wrong, and to reassert his authority in the MotoGP class. Victory at Valencia would bring him equal with Jorge Lorenzo's win tally, a reminder, to Márquez' mind, of just what the reigning world champion is capable of. Whatever happens on Sunday, he loses his crown that day, and a new champion takes over. Márquez will want to make a statement of intent for the man who takes the crown from him.
The irony is that if Márquez had been a little more conservative in the early rounds, he may still have been in with a shot at the title. But the Spaniard's refusal to accept he could not be competitive with the 2015 Honda RC213V led him to push beyond the limits of what the bike was capable of, crashing out of five races of his own accord, four of which were simply from trying too hard and asking too much of the front tire. The last time that happened was at Aragon, where Márquez tried to catch an escaping Jorge Lorenzo, but was caught out by a full tank and his own eagerness to catch the Movistar Yamaha man. That risk will be all too evident at Valencia, if he cannot get ahead of his teammate in the early laps.
Ducati to go one better?
What of the Ducatis? Neither Andrea Iannone nor Andrea Dovizioso have a stellar record at the track, sharing three visits to the podium between them, only one of which came in the MotoGP class. Yet things could be very different this year: Iannone is in fantastic form, the raw talent he showed in previous years finally starting to be channeled into consistent success. A hard-fought podium at Phillip Island showed what he was capable of, and the Ducati of this year is a much more competitive bike than the GP14.2 which contested the race in November last year.
Even that bike was pretty handy round the Circuito Ricardo Tormo at Cheste. Last year, the factory Ducatis of Dovizioso and Cal Crutchlow took fourth and fifth place respectively, and the Valencia track should play to the strengths of the bike. Strong acceleration out of slow corners is important, something the GP15 has in spades. The ability to hold a line through some of the longer corners, another trick the GP15 is now capable of. And having two extra liters of gasoline to burn, an important advantage at a track which is so fuel hungry, could make them very tough opponents indeed.
On paper, the Suzukis could also pose a threat, but Maverick Viñales and Aleix Espargaro are likely to find that the GSX-RR is losing too much down the straight and out of slow corners. Acceleration off the bottom is the weak point of the Suzuki, and the tight left at the start of the front straight means they lose ground right at the very start. Add in the slow corners of Turn 2, Turn 6 and Turn 11, and it leaves them with a mountain to climb. They will make up a lot of ground round the more flowing parts, and should be spectacular along the everlasting left of Turn 13. But matching the other three factory bikes, or even the satellite Hondas and Yamahas will be tough.
Cal Crutchlow will be keen to end his first year on the LCR Honda on a high. The RC213V has proved to be much tougher to ride than he expected, and the Englishman has often struggled, and crashed more than he wanted. A good result at a track where he has already ridden the bike should surely help.
Finishing ahead of his countryman Bradley Smith could prove to be a big ask. The Tech 3 Yamaha rider is having his best ever season in MotoGP, and his best season in Grand Prix racing since his 125 years. With promises of more equal kit for next year, Smith will want to beat his teammate Pol Espargaro – the man with the Yamaha contract – one last time, just for good measure. His sixth spot in the championship looks pretty safe, and given his results this season, he should end the year on a high.
If the factory Ducatis could cause problems for the two Movistar Yamahas, the rest of the Ducatis will be no pushover either. Danilo Petrucci has turned into an extremely competitive rider this year, and being handed a GP14.2 has made him even quicker. The GP14.2 was fast enough round Valencia in the hands of the factory men last year, so the Pramac boys should be able to put up plenty of fight. Then there's the factory test rider Michele Pirro, still exceptionally competitive this season, keeping his skills finely honed by racing in the Italian championship. His last wildcard appearance of the year will be a chance for him to shine once again. Pirro could prove to be a much tougher nut to crack than many expect.
Where does all this leave the championship race? Wherever Valentino Rossi has to start from, pending the outcome of his hearing at the Court of Arbitration for Sport, he will not have it easy. Yet there is plenty of reason for him to be hopeful of wrapping up his tenth Grand Prix title, and eighth premier class crown. If the two Repsol Hondas disappear, then Lorenzo's best hope is to finish in third. That would mean Rossi would need to get into the top six, something that is not beyond the realms of possibility, even from the back of the grid. Should Lorenzo finish off the podium, then a top nine finish would be good enough, and that looks like a dead cert. To help with all of the various possibilities, freelance motorcycle journalist and host of Front End Chatter podcast Simon Hargreaves put together a very useful chart which he posted on Twitter.
Can we make assumptions on the basis of the past? As MotoMatters.com's star photographer Scott Jones pointed out to me after a chat with his brother-in-law, if you take the relative positions in which Rossi and Lorenzo finished in the seventeen races held so far this season, then Rossi holds the clear advantage. If they were to replicate their results from either Qatar, Austin, Argentina, Le Mans, Barcelona, Assen, Sachsenring, Indianapolis, Silverstone, Misano, Motegi and Sepang, then Rossi would be champion. If they finished in the same order as at Jerez, Mugello, Brno, Aragon or Sepang, then Lorenzo would be champion. This isn't over by a long way.
There is one more championship to be decided at Valencia, but this one is a lot more clear cut. Danny Kent goes into the final Moto3 race of the year with a lead over Miguel Oliveira of twenty-four points. All Kent has to do to wrap up the title at long last is to finish in fourteenth place or better, and he will be champion regardless of where Oliveira finishes. But Kent should have got the job done a couple of races ago, the pressure to actually seal the deal making it tough on Kent to concentrate on a single race. He has one last shot to run a sensible race at Valencia, and finally end the season as champion. If he lifts the crown, then no one will remember where he finished, only that he was the first British rider to win a world championship since Barry Sheene in 1977.
Even so, defending is not easy, especially in the insanity which is Moto3. Miguel Oliveira's job is much easier, as he literally has nothing to lose. If he wins the race and Kent takes the title, it will have been an incredible year for the Portuguese rider. If he doesn't win the race, then Kent automatically takes the title, but Oliveira's year will still be regarded with much admiration. If he crashes trying to win the race, then he will be lauded for his courage. It is a good deal easier to attack than it is to defend when it comes to motorcycle racing.
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