Frantic antics in the junior ranks

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Mat Oxley

MotoGP produced some great racing during 2014, with 12 of the 18 races decided by less than two seconds. But that’s a yawning chasm compared with the frantic antics in Moto3, in which 16 of the 18 races were won by less than three tenths.

Moto3 was created in 2012 to replace the 125 class, the last surviving category from the original world championship line-up, which rights holder Dorna decided to cleanse of two-strokes that had dominated since the 1970s.

Dorna first replaced the 500cc two-strokes with 1-litre four-strokes, then the 250 two-strokes with 600s and finally the 125 two-strokes with 250 singles. So now MotoGP is 100 per cent ‘diesel’ (two-stroke aficionados’ disdainful nickname for four-strokes).

However, four-strokes dramatically increased costs – by three to four times according to some team managers – so the technical rules for the Moto2 and Moto3 feeder classes were written to prohibit fabulously expensive engineering.

Thus the Moto3 regulations are a considerably longer read than the MotoGP rules, with Dorna effectively designing the engines. Bore size is limited to 81mm, magnesium crankcases and seamless-shift gearboxes aren’t allowed, revs are limited to 14,000rpm via the control ECU and so on.

The junior class has always been close (if only because it’s easier to engineer, set up and ride a lower-powered motorcycle), but Moto3 is the tightest category ever.

The two main manufacturers involved are Honda and Austrian marque KTM. Honda’s original vision was for manufacturers to sell bikes to teams, who then improve them with their own know-how, so it’s more of a contest between teams than factories. KTM had different ideas: they entered a full-factory team that won every race during 2013.

That enraged Honda. “Does KTM seriously believe it could defeat Honda if we had a proper factory team in Moto3?” said HRC vice-president Shuhei Nakamoto.

You can guess what happened next. Honda entered a works Moto3 team for 2014 and applied the brains of its best MotoGP engineer – Shinichi Kokubu – to the project. Honda’s favoured team would be a Spanish outfit, represented by riders Alex Rins and Alex Márquez (younger brother of you-know-who), run by former 125 world champion Emilio Alzamora, mentor to the Márquez brothers, and bankrolled by beer brand Estrella Galicia.

However, things weren’t going to be easy for the world’s largest motorcycle manufacturer. KTM’s 2013 domination had prompted another rules change for 2014, with manufacturers required to seal a year’s supply of engines at the first race, which are then randomly allocated to their riders during the season. In other words, no more one-off factory specials.

Honda only started work on its 2014 NSF250RW in September 2013, so had just six months of development before having to seal all its engines for six riders.

KTM continued to dominate in the early stages of 2014, but as Honda got the NSF sorted the racing got closer and madder.

KTM’s Aussie wild-man Jack ‘Jackass’ Miller led the way, playing to the crowd after each victory with his self-styled ‘goon’ riding and turning the air blue in post-race TV interviews.

But time was running out. Honda Racing Corporation engineers were tireless in their efforts, improving the NSF’s engine mapping and intake and exhaust systems, and pretty soon the bike was faster than KTM’s RC250GP.

From June’s Catalan race to October’s Malaysian GP, Honda won eight of 11 races and Alex Márquez assumed the title advantage.

The final few races were literally on-the-edge-of-your-seat events, with half a dozen riders disputing the lead at every corner, “using their bikes as truncheons of hate”, as one excited fan observed.

The top six finishers at Phillip Island – Miller chased by five Hondas – crossed the finish line separated by two tenths of a second. A week later at Sepang the first five were covered by eight tenths; once again Miller battling alone against the Honda pack. And when I say battle, I mean battle.

“Moto3 is always rough and tough and dirty and grimy,” said Miller who bumped into Márquez several times at Sepang. The Estrella team protested but Miller was absolved. As a recently retired MotoGP race director said, motorcycle racing is a contact sport.

Sepang set the scene for a winner-takes-all finale at Valencia. The race was another nerve-wracking affair with riders bumping and barging around the narrow Spanish track. Finally, Miller crossed the line in first place, but it wasn’t enough. Márquez finished third and took the title by two points.

Miller is a huge talent and knows no fear, which is why HRC has signed him to a three-year MotoGP deal. Honda has always loved the never-say-die Aussie attitude. Márquez is also on the way up and will contest the 2015 Moto2 series with 2014 title-winner Marc VDS. It can be only a matter of time before he joins big brother in the elite class.

As part of the Royal Automobile Club’s efforts to put the ‘auto’ back into its activities, the Torrens motorcycling trophy is now to be awarded annually. This year’s short list is 2014 TT dominator Michael Dunlop, 21 times TT winner John McGuinness, four-time British Superbike champion Shane Byrne and MotoGP rookie Scott Redding. The trophy will be awarded at the RAC in January. It honours motorcycling journalist Arthur Bourne, who wrote under the nom-de-plume of Torrens.