Valencia Moto2 & Moto3 Review: Neil Morrison Winners And Losers, At Cheste And In 2021

After a dramatic finale in Valencia, we look at the big winners and losers from the final race and indeed the 2021 season as a whole.

WINNERS

Aki Ajo

It’s quite the feat to manage two world champions in the same year. And quite another to have team-mates fighting for one of those gongs, as Aki Ajo did with Remy Gardner and Raul Fernandez in the Moto2 class. But it wasn’t just about the Finn’s eye for rider selection. Up to the final round, the battling team-mates remained respectful without tensions ever bubbling over.

During the final round, Fernandez attempted to unsettle his elder team-mate. He hovered around Gardner in free practice, passing, sitting up, watching from behind. Even in the race, the Spaniard slowed the pace to make the Australian’s life difficult, back in the pack.

For this, Ajo has to take great credit. As Massimo Branchini, Gardner’s crew chief testified, “Inside of the box we don’t want fighting. Aki’s so strong about this. We have two riders that use their heads, and don’t create tension. We go to eat together. Everything is shared. Both guys are very clever about this.”

This kind of atmosphere isn’t just created overnight; it’s the result of Ajo instilling his ideas and methods over a number of years. “You have to be prepared, and try to prepare the atmosphere, the working style, the team harmony inside,” he said back in July. “This is something you need to work on for years to be prepared. We are more like a family than maybe some other teams. We really try and teach our riders from the beginning to show them our way, how we are working and helping each other all the time.”

Even after the team’s triumph he was keen to play down his own role in this. “I was afraid of it but it was actually much easier than I expected. Maybe we got lucky or something! No problems at all, nothing. Both respected themselves in an incredible way in the box, on the track and outside, everywhere. Really something where we can also learn a lot for the future. An experience in my life where it went so well to the last second, the last moment.” Now that’s good management.

Remy Gardner

Gardner’s nervy tenth place wasn’t quite indicative of his performances over the season. The final race of 2021 was, he said, just a case of getting over the line and sealing the title, especially when he carried some painful scars from the previous week in Portugal (two broken ribs).

But overall, it was a season of multiple accomplishments. His world title was the first for an Aussie aboard either a 250cc or Moto2 machine since Kel Carruthers in 1969. In June, he was the first Australian to ever win three races on the bounce. And after father Wayne’s 500cc title in 1987, the Gardners are only the second family in history to have a father and son win grand prix championships.

And he did so despite being the heaviest rider on the grid. Weighing 72 kilos, around eight or nine more than his team-mate, a big disadvantage in a class designed for parity. As crew chief Branchini explained, ““With leathers and helmet he is 83kg. The average rider is 75-76kg. So that’s around 8kg more. You might think this means (the rider) loses speed. Not true. The biggest difference is the tyre life. Every braking and every acceleration, there is 8kg more, in every corner, on every lap. All race. Finally, the speed difference is 0.2kph. But tyre life is affected more. The full tank for one race puts 12kg. Remy has an extra of 8kg. The rider has an empty fuel tank and it’s like Remy’s is full!”

This was something the Australian was all too aware of in the past, something he overly dwelled on. Aki Ajo noticed as much in their early meetings in 2020 and made it clear he could no longer use this as an excuse. “I remember our face-to-face talks were quite intensive and tough and emotional,” said the Finn. “I would not say we were fighting but we had some different opinions and I was quite clear that I believed him and I liked his style but quite a lot would have to change with the attitude if we worked together. He had some doubts, whether he brought them himself or from people around him, in his head that he was too heavy and the bike is slow because of this-or-that. I was shooting everything down in the first moments.”

Overcoming this disadvantage, and not dwelling on it were to reasons why Gardner ended the year as champ.

KTM

By the autumn of the year, it was clear KTM’s Moto3 package was the bike to have. The Austrian factory would have wrapped up the Manufacturers’ title long before the final race had it not split its efforts with Husqvarna and GASGAS, essentially rebadged KTMs. It’s the first time, KTM has had such a clear advantage in the class since 2016. In the second half of the year, Leopard Honda were the only rival machines that could regularly keep up.

What’s more, their decision to withdraw from the Moto2 as chassis suppliers at the end of 2019 hasn’t affected their supply to MotoGP. Aki Ajo’s team runs Kalex chassis, but also still runs KTM stickers on the side of the bike. And news in Valencia that Aspar’s Moto2 squad will now be known as the GASGAS set-up (even if they are, like Ajo, using Kalex frames) will provide another opportunity to push that brand, and house some young prospects that could eventually graduate to the premier class. A clever strategy.

Augusto Fernandez

Considering the extent of his struggles early in the year, the Majorcan’s fifth place in the championship seems like something of an achievement. Augusto swapped frames during the first two GPs and was miles off the class’ leading names. He then crashed in three consecutive races – Jerez, Le Mans and Mugello – when podium potential was there. But from there, he didn’t buck. Quite the contrary, he picked up six podiums from the final ten races, suggesting he has re-found his level from 2019. “I’m happy to finish the season in this way. The second part of the season was so good. we got back on our level finally and I was fast and consistent. The shame is I didn’t get the win,” he said at Valencia. It’s understandable he feels the season’s climax came at the wrong moment. “I don’t want to go on holidays. I want to keep going!” Now under Aki Ajo’s wing for 2022, Augusto should be a championship player once more.

LOSERS

Raul Fernandez

The final Moto2 race of 2019 was just further proof of what we’ve seen all year: Raul Fernandez, proving himself to be perhaps the fastest Moto2 rider of the year. The 20-year old became the first rookie in intermediate class history to rack up eight wins, a feat that was beyond former greats Freddie Spencer, John Kocinski, Dani Pedrosa and Marc Marquez.

But such was his dominance here, Fernandez could even try and dictate the pace and nature of the race early on. Locked in a tight fight with Fabio Di Giannantonio and namesake Augusto, Raul deliberately slowed his speed “to create more chaos behind me. If I had one opportunity it was to do that.” Ultimately Di Giannantonio’s decision to break clear meant Fernandez had little option but follow. His fastest lap the final time around spoke of his superiority.

So why does he find himself at this end of the list? Well, the peculiar outburst in the days that followed didn’t win him any new fans. Claiming the Ajo team had conspired to work against him, Fernandez said he was the “moral winner” of the year. The 20-year old also had a sly dig at his team-mate. “He wasn’t the most intelligent one, he was the one that had fewer things put in his path,” he told Motorsport.com’s German Garcia Casanova.

This not only sounded like sour grapes. It also gave the impression – yet again – that Fernandez is not entirely happy with the path ahead of him. Most riders would barely be able to contain their excitement on the eve of their first MotoGP test. But the Spaniard’s body language suggested he was anything but. As brilliant as he’s been on the track in 2021, Fernandez has also been no stranger to controversy.

And considering how KTM has bowed to his wishes – handing him a MotoGP contract when Yamaha was interested, finding brother Adrian a good Moto3 seat in 2022 – it is puzzling that Raul still carries the air of someone that has been slighted.

Leopard Honda

It was another spirited year for Leopard Honda in Moto3. The manner in which the squad honed Dennis Foggia from erratic, inconsistent talent into a fast title contender was one of the year’s big storylines. But their reaction to the outcome of the Algarve GP wasn’t great. It’s understandable waving away Darryn Binder – the man who tagged Foggia’s back wheel, bringing him down – ten minutes after the event as emotions run high. But Team Principal Christian Lundberg’s comments at Valencia were anything to go by, there was a sniff of conspiracy in the air. What were we meant to read into his belief that Binder not only purposely took down Foggia on the Algarve, but slowed his pace in the final laps of the Emilia Romagna GP to let Pedro Acosta by for third place was absurd. Foggia’s taking down of Acosta in the final race looked like a mistake.

Then there is the issue of Xavi Artigas, a debut race winner at Valencia. The Catalan endured a rookie campaign filled with ups and downs. He caused crashes for other riders in his first two races and retired from a total of six outings (as well as missing two because of contracting COVID-19). But in the last part of the season, he was a regular front runner. Artigas was taken out of the victory fight by Acosta in Aragon. He had race-winning potential on his first visit to CotA but jumped the start. And he won the season finale brilliantly, robbing Sergio Garcia at the very last corner for a thrilling victory. Letting him slip away after doing so much work to develop him and bring him from the FIM Junior World Championship is a decision they may come to regret.

Deniz Öncü

One juicy storyline in Moto3 was the return of Deniz Öncü. The Turkish teenager was made an example of after swerving on the back straight of the Grand Prix of the Americas, causing a horrific three-rider crash. The majority of the paddock felt his two-race suspension was entirely justified. Manager Kenan Sofuoglu, however, was the exception stating high levels of aggression are necessary to succeed in the junior class.

So would the Turkish rider return here a reformed character? Well, not quite. Öncü was certainly fast. He was arguably the quickest of the lot as he charged through from 13th on the grid to lead by lap eleven. But the 18-year old looked ragged and was riding each lap as though his title depended on it. A Long Lap Penalty was a consequence of him repeatedly exceeding track limits. “He rode like a demon,” said team boss Hervé Poncharal. And he did. But Öncü still has a few rough edges to straighten out if he wishes to fight for the title next year, and avoid further controversies with his rivals.

Lorenzo Baldassarri

This was a sad send-off for a rider who was once the coming man of the Moto2 class. Lorenzo Baldassarri’s final outing in the intermediate category was just two turns old when he collided with Marco Bezzecchi’s fallen machine. A cruel outcome, but one in keeping with how the lanky Italian’s fortunes have gone in recent years. Just two and a half seasons before, Baldassarri found himself at the top of the Moto2 World Championship. When he stepped up to the premier class was a matter of ‘when’, not ‘if’.

But Dunlop’s front tyre change from the 2019 Spanish Grand Prix onward was one from which he never really recovered. Baldassarri switched from Pons Kalex to Forward Racing MV Agusta in 2021, but an upturn in results wasn’t forthcoming. He had scored just three points before he cracked the second metacarpal of his left hand. Recovery was complicated, meaning he missed the Dutch, Austrian and Aragon GPs. He bowed out of Moto2 31st in the championship and without a ride for 2022 – a sad conclusion for a rider who once had the world at his feet.


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Comments

Wayne and Remy Gardner are actually the third father/son champions.

Dutchman Egbert Streuer was triple sidecar world champion (1984,'85 and '86 with Bernard Schnieders). His son Bennie Streuer was the 2015 sidecar world champion together with Geert Koerts.

The Raul Fernandez attitude and open struggle with KTM about desiring to NOT be placed in Herve's garage is an interesting case. A bit complex. I can see why he has that wish. He is quite focused, and has a very high belief/confidence in himself. A bit Jorge Lorenzo like? This is both a good and bad thing. 

It is reflective of his drive for excellence. And, unlikeable. He is breaking some Rookie norms. A Japanese team is not likely to smile upon this, it may bite his butt. Then again, he may well express Zarco esque dissatisfaction and get his butt into another seat?! Maverick just did too. They don't have forever here to establish themselves. Pecco was an exception, Lecuona is more the rule. Acosta is behind. D.Binder leapfrogged already. Outstanding youth is king right now (Dovi, again, an exception). Even Dovi was in open challenge with his brass at Red and punched his way onto a good seat the rough way.

The polite era on track ended with Moto2 style riding displacing the 250GP tidyness. Right now (and for a couple of yrs?) the polite era off track has ended. What did it get, say, Honda riders? And it isn't just MotoGP. Beautista, Redding et al. Heck, not just motorcycles. Or even racing. We are in a time of great change culturally re norms of regard for your job and employer, acceptance of tradition. I moved to independent clinic work, and the generation behind me I am seeing take that steps even further. My patients 20 to 30 yrs younger are NOT minding the norms much. Home buying, full time job with an established employer, offices, staying in one place, heck even monogamy. Ramble? Maybe. Raul Fernandez and Orange related? You be the judge.

Mr Morrison, REALLY enjoying you over the years. And on the gas. You are a treasure mate, Aliening. Thank you for your fantastic work, it is sticking out. Personally, resonating/agreeing with you particularly more than just about any other journo. Looks like Dorna agrees too! Congrats and please remember us here down the road. Hopefully MotoGP stuff as well as the mids and wees you've been focused on, your contributions are really good!

Raul is mighty full of himself. Thoroughly unlikeable in his approach but maybe fast enough to get away with it. I think he's going to miss a few races this year but if he stays on he'll be fast by end of season and I'll be wrong about him. I love how Remy gives as good as he gets, too. Bullshit being the proper term for whining about someone sabotaging your championship chances. If you hadn't DNFed you'd be champ. But you did and you're not. Get tf over it, ya big baby.

Culturally what you described sounds to me like a reprise of the Swinging 60's: a time of great change, youth shattering norms previously thought unassailable, the olds - "OK Boomer" (i.e. me) - just in the way. I welcome it. We all need to be freer in our thinking. We all need to stop and question everything we think we know for sure from time to time to ascertain whether it is factual or valuable or false. Too many have been oblivious to how they give their whole lives to a job just to maintain a minimal standard of living while a few get rich and launch themselves into space (and come back, dammit). Bring on the next incarnation of the 60s - Smash It Up!

From time to time David E has warned us not to assume we know the character of the riders, and many others have observed just how ruthless competition is at the MotpGP/2/3 level. But on the whole I think that the characteristics of the riders are generally better than most sportspeople and certainly the generous congratulations when someone achieves success really stands out. And David was emphatic in explaining how Mr Petrucci's contribution to the sport had transcended a lot of the day to day grind. So on the whole the riders impress me with respect and good grace - most of the time.

All of this though is a round about way of saying how gutted I am about Raul's comments. I have been amazed at the quality of Moto2 this year and was really enthusiastic about seeing Raul do well in the biggest league. Those comments about being robbed of the championship, the team working against him and being the moral winner, were, in my opinion, extremely unreasonable and perhaps worse than that. I think it's true that 'culture eats strategy for breakfast', and I have to wonder how well next year is going to pan out for Tech 3 on that front. It's about as bad a contribution to a new team environment that anyone could possibly make.

And I would like to echo Motoshrink's thanks for Mr Morrison's worh here - such detailed close up coverage has really enhanced my enjoyment of Moto2/3.

 

Young Mr. Fernandez has a bit of an ego problem, it would appear, and has had a humourectomy as well. Hope he loses the attitude without getting it knocked out of him. Probably couldn't do better than going to Herve's crowd.

Raul's 20 years old and therefore in some respects a bit of a dickhead like the rest of us at that age. He'll probably look back with regret at things like being the 'moral champion'...we have all been there. However, it is his ass on the bike riding it very very quickly and his ass paying the bill which matters the most when it's bouncing down the road. I've actually found the whole saga very refreshing. Young riders should do and say and act like....no f*** you, it's my life, this is what I want to do and I reckon I have what it takes to get it no matter what you feel, think or say. He's not hurting anybody really, only others peoples idea of what he should be in their opinion. Good on him. One thing is for sure, whatever he does or whatever he says, it will make zero difference to the sages criticism if and when he fails.

... a bit of a frankenstein mix of Lorenzo, Ianonne and Vinales.  Whether the good bits of those characters ends up ascendant will determine whether we're watching the emergence of a new breed of alien, or the makings of a cluster-.

I'm kind of in agreement with Wavey though, that although the character seems rather detestable it's kind of refreshing and will likely make for some interesting times both on and off the track next year.

Looking from the outside, Fernandez's inability to buy his way out of the KTM contract may have played a part in the words that came out of his mouth recently. Both scenarios have a similar storyline - those in control conspiring to work against what one is trying to achieve. But winning eight races in the Moto2 class in his rookie season speaks the truth. The rider/bike/team package clicked in 2021 and the guy was fast from the beginning of the season. Will be interesting to see how he progresses in Motogp next year and beyond.