After the resounding success of the Superprestigio indoor dirt track event back in January this year, the race is to return. On 13th December, the Sant Jordi stadium on Montjuic, the hill south of Barcelona, will host the second running of the Superprestigio, featuring the cream of motorcycle road racing taking on some of superstars of American flat track racing.
Though testing for the MotoGP class has finished, motorcycle racers in other series still have plenty of work ahead of them. Both the World Superbike series and the Grand Prix support classes have been hard at work, ahead of a busy schedule of testing. The Ducati and Kawasaki World Superbike teams have been testing at the Motorland Aragon circuit, while Moto2 and Moto3 are back at Valencia.
It was a fitting finale to one of the best season in years. The arrival of Marc Marquez in MotoGP has given the series in a boost in the arm. Not just in the premier class, the influence of Marquez reaches into Moto2 and Moto3 as well. Tito Rabat's move to the Marc VDS team completed his transformation from a fast rider to a champion, but the schooling and support he received from the Marquez brothers at their dirt track oval in Rufea made him even stronger. And Marc's younger brother Alex brought both talent and Maturity to Moto3.
It made for great racing at Valencia. The Moto3 race featured the typical mayhem, but with extra edge because there was a title on the line. Tito Rabat tried to win the Moto2 race from the front, as he has done all year, but found himself up against an unrelenting Thomas Luthi. And in MotoGP, Marc Marquez set a new record of thirteen race wins in a single season, despite being throw a curve ball by the weather.
The last race of the season is always a little bit special. They are even more special when riders are still scrapping over the spoils, battling for titles, for positions, for honor. There is much at stake at Valencia: a Moto3 title, second place in the MotoGP and Moto2 championships, and the team championship in MotoGP. Above all, though, there is victory, the glory of joining the elite band of Grand Prix winners. At the end of the day, that is what motivates motorcycle racers most on any given Sunday.
Top billing at Valencia is the race which is first, but with the most at stake. On Sunday, Jack Miller and Alex Marquez will slug it out for the 2014 Moto3 World Championship. The race at Sepang set up a fantastic season finale, with Miller riding an intimidating race to cut Marquez' championship lead. Just 11 points separate the two men, putting Marquez easily within reach of the Australian. But Miller will need help: it is not enough for him to win, he also needs to put a few riders between himself and the Estrella Galicia Honda of Marquez. As Miller found out at Sepang, that risks letting someone else slip ahead of him, making his quest even more difficult.
How big a deal is MotoGP in Asia, and especially in Malaysia? There were officially 81,896 spectators at the Sepang International Circuit on Sunday for the races. That is a lot. To put it in perspective, it is the seventh highest attendance of the year, more than either of the US rounds of MotoGP, more than Silverstone, more than either of the Italian rounds. There were 4,400 more spectators at Sepang than at Mugello. That is quite a turnaround: in 2000, the second year MotoGP was held at the circuit, only 32,375 people attended the race, spread over all three days. The three-day total is now close to 131,000.
It is testament to both the growing wealth of the region and the growing popularity of the sport. In the podium press conference, Valentino Rossi reflected on the change. "For a long period, we have no people on Sunday," he said. Little by little attendance had grown, until now, it is a race with an atmosphere all of its own. "Now it is full, the atmosphere on the main straight is like Barcelona or Mugello. The guys are crazy for MotoGP." It was a great victory for the sport, he said. Given that those 82,000 people are mostly sitting outside, in tropical temperatures of 36°C and humidity of over 50%, those guys (and gals) must indeed be 'crazy for MotoGP'.
Their efforts were amply rewarded on Sunday, with three superb races. They saw records equaled in MotoGP, a richly-deserved title tied up in Moto2, and an exhilarating and incident-packed battle in Moto3, which sets up a grand finale for the Moto3 title at Valencia. Reason enough to come back again in force in 2015, with the added benefit of seeing the circuit fielding its own team in Moto3 next year.
Fancy a challenge? Try finding a MotoGP fan who is surprised that Marc Marquez claimed pole position at Sepang on Saturday. It was the Repsol Honda man's thirteenth pole of the season, setting a new record for the most poles in a season. It was a blistering lap, making him the first rider to set an officially timed lap under the two-minute mark, the clock finally stopping at 1'59.791. That time has been bettered only a couple of times during the winter tests at Sepang, when cooler temperatures make for a faster track. But to do it now, when ground temperatures got close to 60°C, making the already slippery surface of Sepang even more greasy, is astonishing. Those kinds of track temperatures are almost, but not quite, enough to cook an egg1.
Marquez' record thirteenth pole also offers an insight into exactly what the secret of his success is. He not only holds the record for the most poles in a season, he is also the current leader in pole position frequency. Marquez has secured 50 poles from 113 qualifying session, giving him a strike rate of just over 44%. The only rider to get near to his domination of qualifying was Mick Doohan, who started from pole from 42.3% of his Grand Prix races. The nearest of Marquez' current rivals is Jorge Lorenzo, who has been on pole for 26.4% of his career in Grand Prix.
Why the emphasis on pole position? This is what Marquez does best: find the absolute limit of the performance envelope of his Honda RC213V, and balance right on the edge of it. Because he can do that for one lap, he perhaps has a better understanding of just where the limit lies over the distance of a race, and how much he has to risk when making a pass. This, perhaps, holds the key to why he currently has the best win rate in all classes of all of the current riders in MotoGP, just edging out Valentino Rossi by 38.4% to 34.8%. Then again, Rossi was racing before Marquez even started riding a motorcycle, and so has had more time to strike a run of bad luck. And of course, there were those two seasons at Ducati as well...
If you wanted a demonstration of just why the weather at Sepang can play such a decisive factor, you need look no further than MotoGP FP2. Fifteen minutes before the MotoGP bikes were set to take to the track, the Moto3 machines were finishing their second free practice session in sunshine and sweltering heat. But a couple of minutes before MotoGP FP2 was meant to start, the heavens opened, producing a deluge that had first-time visitors to Malaysia hunting around for gopher wood with which to build a boat.
The downpour covered the track in several centimeters of standing water, making it impossible to ride. The session was delayed for twenty five minutes, starting after the rain had nearly eased up completely. Once the session got underway, the weather cleared up completely, the last ten minutes taking place in glorious sunshine once again.
The changes in the weather had a dramatic effect on the state of the track. It went from being fully wet, with water everywhere, to having just a thin layer of rainwater on it at the halfway mark, to being dry at most of the corners around the track once the session ended. Full wets were essential at the start of the session, but forty five minutes later, slicks were starting to become a viable option.
Once again, a MotoGP race at Phillip Island is decided by tires. The tires Bridgestone brought to the Australian circuit were not up to the task, with riders crashing out all throughout the race. The front tires Bridgestone brought to the track were unable to cope with the conditions. The result was determined by tires, not by talent.
That, at least, is the narrative being heard around the internet after the bizarre yet fascinating MotoGP race at Phillip Island. It is an attractive narrative – a nice, simple explanation for what happened in Australia – but it is fundamentally flawed. The tire situation was complicated, certainly. Jorge Lorenzo's front tire showed very severe degradation, more than would normally be explained by the expected wear. Several riders crashed out on the asymmetric front tire Bridgestone brought. But to lay the blame entirely on Bridgestone is quite wrong.
The problems at Phillip Island are inherent to the track, and were exacerbated by changes made to suit European TV schedules. Phillip Island, like Assen, is a track which places peculiar demands on tires. It features a lot of very fast left-hand corners, with only a few right handers, two of which are the slowest corners on the track. It is located next to the Bass Strait, a freezing stretch of water connected to the globe-spanning Southern Ocean, which means the weather is highly changeable. Temperatures dropped during the race by as much as 9°C, probably a result of Dorna insisting on running the race at 4pm local time (the late afternoon) to hit a 7am TV slot in their main markets of Spain and Italy. That time will draw a bigger audience than the 5am slot a 2pm race start would fill. But to locals, racing at 4pm at this time of the year is madness.
The three men on pole for Sunday's Australian Grand Prix have a lot in common. One is already champion in MotoGP, another could become champion on Sunday, the other looks to have taken control of the Moto3 title chase in the past few races. The MotoGP and Moto3 pole sitters are brothers, and the man on pole for Moto2 is a good friend of the brothers. Most importantly, perhaps, all three train together.
The "Rufea Team", as they are known to the Spanish media and among themselves, spend long days pushing each other hard at the dirt track oval in Rufea, a small parish outside of Lleida in Spain. Moto2 championship leader Tito Rabat doesn't spend as much time there as the Marquez brothers Marc and Alex, as he is mainly based in Almeria, where he spends his days whittling away the circuit record. But when he does go, the three go all out for glory, even though they are only racing among themselves, and in front of a couple of friends, and maybe the Marquez brothers' father Julià.
Is it coincidence that the trio should find themselves leading their respective championships? Marc Marquez has already proved his talent, by wrapping up four world championships, including three in a row. Tito Rabat has grown enormously as a rider after switching to the Marc VDS Racing team, and stepping out of the shadow of Pol Espargaro at Pons. Alex Marquez already proved himself in the Spanish championship, got up to speed in Moto3 last year, and is proving to be the steadiest of the Moto3 riders.