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.
The math is relatively simple. Those 11 points would be enough for Miller to take the title, the Australian already having more wins than the younger Marquez. That means finishing ahead of the Estrella Galicia Honda, but above all, keeping him off the podium. A 3rd place finish would be enough for Marquez to lift the title, even if Miller were to win the race. Things get more difficult if Miller doesn't win: if he finishes second, then 6th will do for Marquez; if Miller ends in 3rd, then 11th will be sufficient for the Spaniard. If Miller doesn't get a top five finish, then his title ambitions are gone.
For Alex Marquez, the goal is clear. At the special press conference held on Thursday, where the two protagonists from Moto3 sat uneasily together, Marquez junior kept repeating his sole aim: finish on the podium. Though honor dictates that he attempts to win, a podium would be more than enough. Underlining the awkward situation between the two, Marquez also insisted that his goal was to become champion "with fair play."
For his part, Miller emphasized his respect for Marquez, but made it plain that he did nothing wrong at Sepang. All he had done was to use motocross-style block passes, Miller kept repeating, contact only coming when Marquez tried to turn in on him. When asked if the racing was anything like Marco Melandri's desperate and increasingly unsporting attempts to beat Emilio Alzamora at Argentina in 1999, Miller dismissed it completely. "I never put my wheel in his side, contact was only ever fairing to fairing."
Asked if he feared racing in front of an amphitheater packed with Spanish fans cheering for Marquez, Miller said he hoped a few thousand would be cheering for him as well. He had received a lot of support from Spanish fans via social media, he said, helped by the fact that he now lives in Spain. He also had the support of Maverick Viñales, his friend and reigning Moto3 champion, racing this year in Moto2. It was Viñales' title they were fighting over, Miller said, and he had been given some good advice by Viñales. The pair are sharing a motorhome, as they will both be moving up to MotoGP next season, and have been allowed to have a motorhome in the paddock this weekend.
It is Honda that Miller will be joining to race in MotoGP. But it is a Honda rider that Miller will be trying to wrest the championship from on Sunday. Did that leave him a conflict of interest? Had Honda put pressure on him about the outcome of the race? "I told them I'm going to do my best to beat them ever since we started talking," Miller said. If there was ever one rider you would not expect to obey team orders, it is Jack Miller.
Will team orders come into play? They are almost impossible to put into effect in Moto3, said both Miller and Marquez. There are too many riders running at the front and capable of winning. Any attempt to enforce team orders was more likely to result in complete disaster than actually make a difference. When five to ten riders all cross the line within a few tenths, giving up a position is a very hard thing to do. The list of riders who were capable of interfering was long, said both Marquez and Miller: Marquez' teammate Alex Rins, Efren Vazquez, Danny Kent, Romano Fenati, John McPhee, Enea Bastianini, Alexis Masbou, Isaac Viñales, Miguel Oliveira, Brad Binder, Jakub Kornfeil... With that many riders capable of mixing it at the front, organizing riders into positions was impossible.
That many fast riders does mean that Miller's job is a fraction easier. He has to be careful to win, but if he can keep a large group together, there will be plenty of candidates to put themselves between him and Marquez. Ensuring that he doesn't lose out was harder. Escaping at the front is possible for either Miller or Marquez, as the track only has the one straight where riders can use the slipstream. If you can break the two round the twisty part of the circuit, you stood a chance, several Moto3 riders said when asked. The factor playing into Miller's hands was the fact that there are much more left-hand corners than rights. That meant that the tires tended to slide around in the right handers, suiting Miller's dirt track background. But Marquez, too, has ridden plenty of dirt track, training with his brother Marc and Moto2 world champion Tito Rabat at the track at Rufea, near Lleida in Spain. It could be a very open contest.
With the titles settled in both Moto2 and MotoGP, the battle there is mainly for second. In Moto2, Mika Kallio has a 15 point advantage over Maverick Viñales, and is close to wrapping up a Marc VDS Racing one-two with Tito Rabat. Though Viñales has been getting stronger as the season nears its close, Kallio still has the wherewithal to keep his grip on second. A 5th place will be sufficient to secure the runner up spot for the Finnish veteran. Given Viñales recent run of form, the Spaniard has to be favorite for victory, though he may have to contend with Tito Rabat again, now that the pressure of securing a title has eased.
In MotoGP, the race for second is a little closer. Valentino Rossi leads his teammate Jorge Lorenzo by 12 points, meaning that Lorenzo has to win with Rossi finishing off the podium if the Spaniard is to take second from the Italian. That is not impossible, given that both Marc Marquez and Dani Pedrosa are traditionally strong here. Making it even more feasible is the fact that Lorenzo dominated the race here in 2013, when he put on a brave final stand trying to prevent Marquez from taking his first title. Rossi himself has often struggled here: his last win at the circuit dates from 2004, while his last podium was back in 2010.
Yet a win for Lorenzo is far from a foregone conclusion. The Yamaha man still has to beat Marc Marquez. The reigning world champion now has 12 wins this season, and can secure a record-breaking 13th victory by winning at Valencia. Though a win would put him ahead of Mick Doohan, the man he is currently tied with, comparing the two seasons is difficult. Doohan won 12 races out of a fifteen-race season, whereas Marquez has had 18 races in which to win 13. Then again, Doohan was racing Alex Criville and Sete Gibernau, while Marquez has to do battle with Valentino Rossi, Jorge Lorenzo and Dani Pedrosa, all of whom have far more wins and championships between them. Different eras, different bikes, different competitions make comparisons relatively meaningless.
The situation in Moto3, and the World Superbike championship decider at Qatar last weekend had everyone talking about the value and the validity of issuing team orders. As elsewhere opinion was split: Jorge Lorenzo was most adamant, saying that factories invest a lot of money to go racing, and so when a rider from a factory can win a title, then it is the duty of his teammate to help. But, acknowledging a popular point, this was difficult for motorcycle racers, for when push came to shove, they are all out for themselves. Jack Miller pointed out the most difficult part for the teams: "I don't have a radio on my bike," he said.
Others were a little more ambiguous, accepting that factories who invested a lot of money going racing had a right to ask something in return from their riders. But, Valentino Rossi pointed out, it helped if there was some kind of financial incentive, and especially if the rider was still contracted for next year. In the case of Loris Baz, being pushed aside at Kawasaki to make way for Jonathan Rea made him much less likely to pay any heed to team orders. Stefan Bradl pointed out that if such orders were to be issued, they needed to be discussed ahead of time, not just made up on the spot as a race was underway.
In the end, a rider's relationship with his teammate would be the deciding factor, was the general consensus, but even then, it was not a good feeling. If you liked your teammate, you were much more likely to help him. If you have a bad relationship, as was the case between Tom Sykes and Loris Baz, then it is almost impossible to call in favors. Bradley Smith admitted that he had only once given up a position to help his teammate. It felt terrible, he told us, and that in itself was enough to discourage him from doing it again. Perhaps the most important point was that there was never any mention of team orders in contracts, Smith said. When riders are hired, they are expected to beat their teammate first and foremost, not allow him to finish ahead.
Valencia also sees the return of Suzuki to MotoGP, first as a wildcard during the race, then full time on Monday when the test begins. Randy De Puniet makes his return to MotoGP at Valencia, but he was quick to downplay any expectations of results. He had spent his time only working as a test rider, and did not have any race rhythm, the Frenchman said. Valencia was his first race of the season, while the rest of the field had a full season of racing under their belts. Given the gap to the front runners during testing, it could be a tough weekend for Suzuki and De Puniet. From Monday, however, a new era beckons, with two young riders. Aleix Espargaro and Maverick Viñales begin work at the test.
Another bike is to make its debut at Valencia. Hiroshi Aoyama is to race the Honda RC213V-RS at the final round of the year, rather than the RCV1000R he has ridden all season. It is part of Aoyama's new role as test rider for Honda, which he will take on for next season. It will also allow HRC to give the new bike, which replaces the RCV1000R production racer in the Open category in 2015, a proper shakedown at a race weekend. From Monday, Aoyama will hand the bike over to Nicky Hayden and Karel Abraham, who will share the machine during the test. Newcomers Jack Miller and Eugene Laverty can get acquainted with MotoGP on the old production racer, the new bike only being available for all of the riders at Sepang.
That means Valencia will be the first time we will be able to evaluate the bike which is to replace Honda's production racer. The RC213V-RS is basically the factory RC213V bike, but without the seamless gearbox and with the Open class spec electronics. With Aoyama on the new bike, we will get a good idea of just how much improvement the faster bike will mean for the Open class Honda riders. Hayden, Laverty, Abraham and Jack Miller will all be hoping it is quick enough to get close to the satellite machines. By Friday, we will have a much clearer picture of the future of MotoGP.