Who remembers the last time the MotoGP World Championship went down to the wire? Of course you do, it was Valencia 2006, the last hurrah of the 990s and the greatest day of the MotoGP era so far. Valentino Rossi went into the race as sure-fire title favourite, eight points ahead of Nicky Hayden, who had lost the series lead at the previous race when team-mate Dani Pedrosa took him out.
Rossi and Hayden at Valencia, 2006
We all know what happened at Valencia that day: Hayden barged past Rossi on the way into the first corner and set off after the Ducatis, while Rossi got stuck in the pack and slid off at a 50mph hairpin. He rejoined the race but it was already game over.
This time series leader Marc Márquez has an extra five points to play with. So if Jorge Lorenzo wins at Valencia, Márquez ‘only’ needs to finish fourth to make history as the youngest-ever winner of the premier-class.
For someone who has never finished a MotoGP race off the podium, a fourth-place finish would seem like a mere formality. But Motegi’s Moto3 race – in which title leader Luis Salom was knocked down on the very first lap – reminded us (even if most of us didn’t need reminding) that there’s no such thing as a mere formality in bike racing.
Lorenzo’s 2013 form suggests that he will lead into the first corner and settle into metronomic mode, grinding out near-identical laps to take the flag a few seconds ahead of whoever’s next.
He has won seven races so far, and in six of those crushing victories he led each and every lap. I’m including Phillip Island in that list, because although Márquez led for two laps, he only did so because he stayed out too long before his compulsory pit stop.
But will Lorenzo really go for another start-to-finish at Valencia? He needs to win the race but he knows he needs more to win the title. I think he will want Márquez to be in the battle up front, with a bunch of riders jousting for the lead, because that’s when anything can happen.
Lorenzo told us that he considered using this tactic at Motegi – slowing the race down, building a bunch of brawling riders at the front and then hoping that fate may play out in his favour as they get involved in elbow-to-elbow fighting. Or perhaps Márquez will get a sniff of victory and find his instincts taking over, so that he starts taking huge risks in the hope that he can celebrate the title from the top step of the podium.
You can bet that his mentor Emilio Alzamora will right now be lecturing Márquez on the possibilities and making sure that he doesn’t fall for any funky tactics that Lorenzo might try. Alzamora knows more about this kind of thing than most. In 1999 he went into the final round of the 125 World Championship a few points ahead of Marco Melandri. In the closing stages of the race, Melandri seemed to do just about everything in his power to make Alzamora crash. Alzamora didn’t fall for Melandri’s dirty tactics and neither did he fall, so he was World Champion. Melandri meanwhile copped a fine of 10,000 Swiss Francs for riding in an ‘immoral’ manner.
Emilio Alzamora after clinching the 1999 125cc title
A month ago, many fans would have expected Márquez to go to Valencia in win-it-or-bin-it mode, because that’s what he does best, isn’t it? Well, Márquez may be a bit of a maniac, but he is also highly intelligent with brilliant tactical savvy. He knows when he needs to unleash his inner maniac and he knows when to keep it safely locked away.
At Sepang he passed Lorenzo for second, had a go at chasing down Pedrosa, then quickly realised that catching his team-mate would entail riding too far on the other side of the ragged edge. So he eased off and brought it home. At Motegi did the same. On several occasions he was inches away from leader Lorenzo, then he had a couple of major moments on the brakes and decided to settle for second, because he knew that would require him to score ‘only’ 13 points at Valencia. After Phillip Island, there’s no doubt that the team would have done their maths on this one.
The pivotal event at Motegi was Pedrosa running out of grip. If he hadn’t been held back by wheelspin, might he have completed a hat-trick of Japanese GP wins? Certainly that would have made life more complicated for Márquez at Valencia.
Pedrosa also played a pivotal role in which way the 2006 title went, first with his Estoril faux pas, when he was still in with a (super outsider’s) chance of the title, and then again at Valencia when he made amends and let his team-mate by.
This time his role will probably be less important. His slim championship hopes finally slipped away at Motegi and now he will be expected to do the right thing by his team-mate. Honda say they don’t do team orders but I suppose there’s a slim line between an order and a stern request with menaces. Rossi, of course, will be asked to help Lorenzo, but the evidence doesn’t suggest he’s got the speed to get involved in the outcome of the title.
There’s still any number of potential scenarios at Valencia, especially if it’s wet, or half wet, like last year. Márquez will be praying for a straightforward dry race and his number one priority will be to stay out of trouble. That’s maybe not how we’d like to see him win the world title, but he has nothing to gain and everything to lose if he doesn’t keep his inner maniac under lock and key.
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