So the 2012 MotoGP season is over, and someone with a great deal of courage and a little bit of money to wager could have ended the year rich beyond their wildest dreams. If you could have found someone to take your bet seriously, you would have got a very, very good return on one race being won from the back of the grid, and the other from a rider starting from pit lane. Just one of those events is highly unusual, having both of the happen on the same day is unheard of.
The odds on Marc Marquez winning from the back of the grid were probably disappointingly short. By now, every bookmaker in the world will have seen the onboard clip of Marc Marquez after stalling his bike on the grid at Motegi, and the way he disposed of twenty Moto2 competitors in the space of half a lap. The first lap at Valencia is likely to create as much of a sensation - or at least it would, if Dorna would either resist the temptation to take down Youtube videos before they go viral to keep their TV rights holders happy, or make the videos available free of charge on the MotoGP.com website so that they can go viral while retaining control - as Marquez passed another twenty riders in the space of five corners.
From onboard, the Motegi and Valencia laps look like a video capture from a computer game. When the footage was shown in the media center, cries of "Playstation!" were heard from around the room. That is almost a fair assessment: the ease with which Marquez makes those passes is impressive, but they are almost worryingly courageous. The Spanish teenager knows neither fear nor doubt, putting his bike exactly where it needs to be at exactly the right time, and predicting (or perhaps guessing) where gaps will open and diving into them before they close. His awareness of what is going on around him is sensational, though it also displays a certain disregard for what his competitors may choose to do. His style, his aggressiveness, his willingness to gamble and the frequency with which those gambles pay off remind many observers of a young Valentino Rossi, especially as their careers in the sport have so many parallels - a year to learn, and then a title, in each of the support classes. It was a comparison Rossi himself was prepared to make: "I don't think that the people saying he is the new Rossi are exaggerating," he told the Italian media.
There has been much made of a perceived unfair advantage in machinery which Marquez is alleged to have, but the ease with which the Spaniard disposed of the competition on a damp track showed that his speed had more to do with his talent and mental ability rather than any skullduggery. Even his critics have been forced to concede that it is Marquez who makes the difference. One paddock insider who has in the past cast aspersions on the Spaniard's advantage came up to me over the weekend to admit that he had now changed his mind, and seen that any advantages were all completely legal, and the result of hard work, ingenuity, and a willingness (and ability) to spend the money to figure it all out. The fact that other Moto2 teams are already following Marquez and Monlau Competicion's lead makes it clear that they were on the right track.
If Marc Marquez' achievement was impressive, it was matched by that of his new teammate, Dani Pedrosa. Following Jorge Lorenzo round on the warm up lap, Pedrosa realized immediately that the dry line that had formed around the track during the Moto2 race was now dry enough for slicks. In the very last corner of the warm up lap, Pedrosa followed his instincts and dived into the pits to swap bikes, getting off of the bike with the wet setup and jumping onto his slick-shod Honda RC213V. It was a gamble, but one which would pay off handsomely in the end. First, he had to get out of pit lane, though: there may have been a dry line on the track, but pit lane was still cold and damp, too wet to start smoothly with slicks, and Pedrosa just hung on as his bike tried to buck him off once he dropped the clutch.
Once on track, things were much better, but the dry line was very narrow in places, and everyone on slicks faced the same problem. Though they were much quicker than the guys on rain tires, it was very hard to get past without going out onto the wet part of the track, a treacherous place to be. Moving up the order in the early laps was relatively simple, as the riders on wet tires headed into the pits for slicks. But that put both Jorge Lorenzo, who led the race, and Dani Pedrosa, who was in the process of chasing him down, in a difficult position. They were coming up rapidly on slower riders, and those riders were showing little inclination to move aside. "Only Valentino [Rossi] go outside the line," Lorenzo told reporters. The others seemed not to be aware of riders coming from behind, despite the blue flags being waved.
This would eventually prove fatal to Lorenzo's chances of winning the race, though the Spaniard must bear some part of the blame himself. With Pedrosa closing on his tail, Lorenzo started to push on, and after losing 1.5 seconds to Karel Abraham as he struggled to lap the Czech rider, the Yamaha man started to get nervous. A mistake by Pedrosa - missing a gear and going into neutral - gave him some breathing space, and Lorenzo ran up behind James Ellison very quickly, perhaps more quickly than he expected, especially as he was keen to press home the advantage he had gained from Pedrosa's mistake.
The resulting highside - one of the most spectacular since Lorenzo's Shanghai crash in 2008, though thankfully he walked away from this one unhurt - put an end to Lorenzo's race, and his chances of capping the title with a win. Though Ellison did not move over, the combination of Lorenzo's impatience and the difference in pace between the two riders meant that Lorenzo found himself trying to pass Ellison at a tricky point in the track. Lorenzo's manager Wilco Zeelenberg said afterwards he did not think that Lorenzo had even intended to pass Ellison there, but he had almost been forced into it because he had closed the gap so quickly. "Jorge didn't really want to do anything there, but he was forced to make a choice. Maybe he underestimated just how fast he was closing on Ellison," Zeelenberg said. The team manager did not want to assign blame, however: "I'm not going to point fingers at anyone. It's a shame Ellison didn't stay on the right side of the outside of the track, but he didn't. But nothing has changed since Saturday: we're still world champions."
Lorenzo himself felt that more could be done to make slower riders aware of people getting ready to lap them. He had already spoken to Javier Alonso, Dorna's representative in Race Direction, about the need for a different way of signaling. Lorenzo had suggested dashboard lights, or as in Formula One, large light arrays at the side of the track to signal to the riders. Alonso had told Lorenzo that this was something they were already looking at, though it was still too early to make any concrete changes to the system. The most important thing, said Lorenzo, was for the series to learn from his crash, to try to avoid it in the future.
The mistake was doubly harsh on the Spaniard, as it had been Lorenzo who had taken the decision to start the race on slicks. His crew chief Ramon Forcada had sent Lorenzo out early, so that he could do two sighting laps if the track was dry enough. Lorenzo had followed Valentino Rossi round on his first sighting lap, and immediately realized that the track was dry enough for slicks. He dived straight back into the pits to swap bikes, to the surprise of his team. The view from pit lane suggested that the track was still far too wet for slicks, and they had to rush to get Lorenzo on the second bike.
The gamble paid off handsomely for both Yamaha riders, as Kats Nakasuga followed Lorenzo's lead and went out on slicks. But where Lorenzo crashed out, Nakasuga took a podium, his first, the first for a Japanese rider since Shinya Nakano in 2006, and the first of the season for a Japanese rider in any of the three GP classes this season, keeping a streak alive that has been going since 1985. Lorenzo was delighted for Nakasuga - the Japanese rider himself was in tears, his second child having been born earlier that day - saying that it was just reward for all the hard work Nakasuga had put in in testing and developing the bike.
Lorenzo himself was glad that he had wrapped up the title at Phillip Island, as to have lost the title in this crash at Valencia would have been very hard indeed. But Pedrosa was a little more philosophical. "This is the mistake I have been waiting for all season," Pedrosa half-joked in the press conference. It had just come a race too late, and that was perhaps why it had happened. "Maybe because the pressure is off it is easier to make mistakes."
Though Pedrosa's win has no effect on the championship order, it does make the standings a little more interesting. Dani Pedrosa has now won 7 races to Jorge Lorenzo's 6, but more importantly, he has won 6 of the last 8 races, and all 7 of his wins have come in the second half of the season. Where Lorenzo controlled the early part of the year, winning when he could, settling for second when he couldn't, Pedrosa dominated the second half of the year. With the exception of Brno, the races followed a familiar pattern, Pedrosa stalking Lorenzo for the first half of the race, before pouncing and disappearing into the distance. If Honda ever get the chatter in the RC213V sorted, Lorenzo could be in real trouble in 2013.
Valencia also saw the end of two massive chapters in MotoGP, two stories which are intimately intertwined, though radically different in almost every conceivable way. The end of Casey Stoner's career in MotoGP and Valentino Rossi's time at Ducati - both having fitting ends, Stoner on the podium and Rossi circulating invisibly in mid-pack - need much, much more space and time devoted to them than I have right now. Once the dust of the first MotoGP test of the year, which starts on Tuesday, has settled, it will be time to look back.