I knew it was going to be a big day at Valencia when I found myself taking two hours to get into the circuit on Sunday morning instead of twenty minutes. After years of relatively light traffic on the back roads, I took a wrong turning and found myself on the main motorway going from Valencia to Madrid, which was packed with cars and motorcycles heading to the circuit near Cheste. The sun was shining, two titles were to be decided between five Spaniards, and that had brought the fans out in force. I was stuck in the middle of them, reminding myself once again that the best way - the only way - to visit a motorcycle race is on a motorcycle. These were big, big crowds who had come to see a show.
And what a show they got. The Moto3 race took a while to come alight, but once it did it was explosive. The first casualty was Luis Salom, the championship leader falling shortly after the halfway mark. It was his second unforced error in consecutive races, surprising given that Salom is the oldest and most experienced of the three men in the running for the Moto3 title. That left Alex Rins and Maverick Viñales, and with four laps to go, the battle started hotting up in earnest. Viñales was pushing, getting past Rins only to run wide and let the Estrella Galicia rider back through. He looked wild, off line, barely in control, and liable to crash out at any time. But he didn't, he held on, diving past Rins in the final corner to take the lead and leaving him nowhere to go. At Saturday's qualifying press conference, Rins predicted the Moto3 title would be decided in the last corner. He was right, though he had probably hoped that it would be him deciding it in his favor.
Viñales was the first deserved winner of the day, and the first title to be settled. Despite having the fewest wins of the three title contenders, the Team Calvo rider held his nerve, profited from the mistakes of Salom and Rins, and when it counted, pushed home his advantage. Before Motegi, he had given up on winning the Moto3 title, he said after the race. But when Salom and Rins crashed out, he believed it was possible. He had complained about his bike all season, that it didn't have enough power and he couldn't keep up with his two main rivals. At Valencia, his team had given him the best bike of the year, and Viñales had repaid them with a win and a title. After Viñales tantrums at the end of 2012, when he refused to race and walked out of his then team, he had looked to be more trouble than he was worth. But team manager Pablo Nieto had decided he was worth a second chance. At Valencia, Nieto's faith was repaid with interest.
It was an excellent day for the Calvo Team all round. Teammate Ana Carrasco rode a brilliant race to finish 8th, becoming the first female rider to score a top ten finish in 18 years. Carrasco came close to finishing even higher, battling for 6th for much of the race, but she was beaten back into 8th at the end of the race by Alexis Masbou and Isaac Viñales, two young men who have been regular front runners this season. Carrasco may well be aboard a KTM, but unlike her teammate, she is riding the production version, lower spec and less powerful than the factory bike of her teammate Maverick Viñales.
It was both a good day and a bad day for female racers. Carrasco may have scored a top ten, but because her teammate won the championship, Maria Herrera will not now move up to the world championship. If Alex Rins had taken the Moto3 title, then Herrera would have taken the slot in the Estrella Galica team vacated when Rins moved up to Moto2. Now, Herrera will have to wait another season.
In the Moto2 class, Pol Espargaro managed to end his own dominance of the weekend by the simple expedient of crashing out from the lead. Espargaro's eagerness to celebrate the title he secured in Japan seduced him into pushing too hard, and paying the price. Taking Espargaro's spot on the top step was Nico Terol, a worthy winner now starting to reap the rewards of a successful diagnosis and treatment of lactose intolerance. Like Casey Stoner before him, it is a hidden disease, not visible, and poor results are easy to blame on other causes. But like electricity, just because you can't see it doesn't mean it doesn't exist.
As entertaining as they were, for most fans, the Moto3 and Moto2 races were just a sideshow. MotoGP was the real draw, and with so much at stake, both hopes and fears were high. A title on the line in the last race of the year meant that there were more riders with more to prove: Jorge Lorenzo wanted to find a way to beat Marc Marquez to the title; Dani Pedrosa wanted to make up for his failed titled bid, which stumbled through a combination of injury and being taken out by his Respol Honda teammate Marquez at Aragon; Marquez was torn between riding like the wild man of MotoGP that he is, and focusing on the title; Valentino Rossi was desperate to put the string of fourth places behind him; Cal Crutchlow was keen to give his team a podium to celebrate as a leaving gift. The race had every possibility of being a classic, but there was just as much chance of it turning into a snoozer, as Jorge Lorenzo had already told the press that his only hope lay in trying to get away at the front and win the race, and hope for something to happen further back.
A broken engine in qualifying put a premature end to that idea. Before the warm up on Sunday morning, Jorge Lorenzo was extremely worried, having lost his best engine during qualifying on Saturday. After qualifying, Lorenzo told the media they expected it to be fixed for Sunday, but that turned out to be a little white lie - one of a couple Lorenzo would tell over the weekend. Putting one of his older, slower engines in for warm up, Lorenzo found he was still capable of running a good pace. That gave him extra options, and he and his team hatched a plan.
It was a plan the fans would be grateful for. For it meant trying to hold up Dani Pedrosa and Marc Marquez and allow the riders behind him to get involved. 'Winning was not enough today, so we decided to try to keep the group together for the first ten lap,' Lorenzo's team manager Wilco Zeelenberg told me. To that end, Lorenzo lapped a second slower than he had during practice, making his M1 as wide as the IVECO truck which brought it to the circuit. 'If you open the throttle a little bit later than normal, the rest have to wait as well,' Zeelenberg said.
The risk was that while he was trying to hold everyone up, either Pedrosa or Marquez would get by. Lorenzo's racecraft saved him, for every time Pedrosa passed him in the first ten laps, Lorenzo struck right back, either straight away or within a couple of corners. It was an impressive show of controlling the race, and spectacular to watch, Lorenzo and Pedrosa swapping places almost every lap. But Pedrosa was wise to Lorenzo's tricks, and changed the places he attacked, in an attempt to prevent Lorenzo striking back. Where previously Pedrosa had been forced to leave the door open when he passed Lorenzo, by choosing a different place to attack, Pedrosa could close the door and holding the Yamaha man off. It did not help, Lorenzo using physical force to get by, a departure from his user ultra-clean riding style. In the end, he pushed Pedrosa wide at turn 2, and the Repsol Honda man dropped three places back to fifth, his challenge for the lead at an end.
'It wasn't pretty,' Wilco Zeelenberg admitted, 'but Dani wasn't really a player in this game, it was between Jorge and Marc, and Jorge was trying to keep the group together.' Even Lorenzo responded almost with shame at his actions. 'In normal circumstances I want to be clean and race without touching, to be more respectful,' he said after the race. 'I had to race against my normal mentality.' That attitude earned him a trip to Race Direction, where he was spoken to firmly and told in no uncertain terms that they now have their eye on him. Handing points out would do no good - the points slate is wiped clean at the end of each season - but Lorenzo's card has been marked. If he decides the only way he can race against Marquez is by being more physical, Lorenzo may find himself paying the price next year.
While Pedrosa was rather upset with Lorenzo's behavior, Marquez, had no problem with the move. 'We are here to fight. Racing is like that,' he said.
Lorenzo's bullying tactics had no effect. 'It was right on the limit, but I thought it was a great show,' Wilco Zeelenberg said. 'Then again, it's not easy to hold up the two guys who are capable of winning, especially not by a second a lap. Unfortunately, there was nobody who had the balls to try to pass Dani and Marc, something I think was possible.' When Lorenzo looked behind him, he could see that Rossi and Bautista were too far back to be able to mix it with Pedrosa and Marquez, and Lorenzo resigned himself to signing off with style, in the knowledge that the title was Marquez' for the taking.
And take it he did. Marquez had struggled to suppress his natural instinct to get stuck in and join the battle when he saw Lorenzo and Pedrosa engaging in combat. 'It was hard to keep calm, as something inside me kept telling me I should be fighting as well,' Marquez said. He resisted that temptation, however, and was rewarded in the end with is first world title, becoming the youngest world champion ever in the process, taking the crown from Freddie Spencer and equaling Kenny Roberts' record as the only rider to win a premier class title in his first season. It has been a record breaking year for Marquez, as this press release from Honda illustrates, issued earlier. 'I speak a lot with Freddie [Spencer] and Kenny [Roberts],' Marquez said. It was great to have two such legends sing his praise, Marquez said.
How had Marquez won it? He won the championship by taking risks and learning quickly. The first half of the season had been one massive learning process, but he had adapted much better in the second half of the year, Marquez said. He had capitalized on the mistakes of others, scoring points after the Sachsenring when Lorenzo and Pedrosa were still suffering with injury. He had also learned quickly, getting quickly up to speed with the electronics on a MotoGP bike, learning enough that by the second half of the season he was comfortable giving input to his team, something which had seemed impossible after the first few races. Marquez' strongest points, Jorge Lorenzo told reporters, were his talent and his ambition. The strength of his will had been decisive, and allowed him to fight all year and come out on top.
That battle reminded Jorge Lorenzo of Jerez, where he had left the door open for Marquez, and Marquez had taken advantage, taking 2nd instead of 3rd. That was a difference of 4 points - the difference between 20 points for 2nd, and 16 points for 3rd. Nothing that Marquez could change now, his mind now looking towards 2014.
Valentino Rossi and Cal Crutchlow both felt that Marquez had deserved the title, though both also mentioned that the Yamaha was nowhere near the factory Hondas as a package. The difference between Rossi and Lorenzo was that Rossi was not able to ride the bike as he wants to. After yet another fourth place, Rossi said 'this is my potential now'. Until Yamaha can come up with a bike that is much more stable on the brakes, Rossi is set to languish in 4th, with little else he can do.
So now, we have three new world champions, Marc Marquez and Maverick Viñales joining Pol Espargaro for both the pictures on the grid. It has been a long and astonishing season, in all three classes. With Marquez having a new season under his belt, the top Moto3 men moving up to Moto2, and some of the most talented of the B group in Moto3 moving on to extremely fast motorcycles, this could be quite a year.