Nine races down, nine to go. Who has shone – and who has bombed – in 2016?
THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED ON REDBULL.COM.AU
For MotoGP, school is officially out. Nine races in the books, the mid-season test at the Red Bull Ring in Austria ahead of the next Grand Prix done, and nine races remaining. As the paddock, riders and fans catch their collective breaths over the next few weeks, the pause gives us cause for reflection – and a chance to run the rule over the field.
Marc Marquez has re-asserted himself as the MotoGP benchmark this season, but in a markedly different way than the swift Spaniard usually goes about his business. The Repsol Honda rider is the headline act, but what of the rest of the grid?
With the season in recess, let’s run through a report card of the year that has been – and get some pointers of what might come next as we grade the field.
Dux of the class
Marquez takes a 48-point championship lead into the summer break – the equivalent of almost two race wins – and should he convert that into a third premier-class title, it’ll be one earned by consistency and risk management as much as outright pace. Hands up who saw that sentence being written 12 months ago? Marquez’s win it or bin it approach bit him hard last year – his five victories were second only to eventual world champion Jorge Lorenzo, but six DNFs were more than any other rider in the top 10 in the standings – and saw him finish a whopping 88 points off Lorenzo’s points tally when the season came to a close. Marquez has three wins to the mid-season break, the most recent coming in his happiest hunting ground of the Sachsenring last time out – but it’s his approach when he can’t win that has been an eye-opener, second-place finishes at Catalunya (to Valentino Rossi) and Assen (to Jack Miller) prompting celebrations usually reserved for wins, especially at Assen when title rivals Rossi (DNF) and Lorenzo (10th) were nowhere. Eight podiums in the first nine races and a 100 per cent finishing record means that surely the only man who can stop Marquez from here is Marquez himself.
There’s four candidates here, four riders at very different ages and stages of their careers, but all with plenty to be optimistic about at the halfway stage.
Maverick Vinales sits fifth in the standings after nine races, and after letting a golden opportunity for a maiden podium slip in Argentina in round two, he bounced back three races later at Le Mans to finish third, and has two front-row starts to his credit. Inking a contract with the factory Yamaha squad to partner Rossi from next season onwards overshadows anything he’s done on track, impressive as that has been. There’s still a tendency for Vinales to get pushed around on the opening lap of races, but in the dry, he and Suzuki have been strong.
Hector Barbera has more points than any other Ducati rider at the halfway stage of the season, which is as much a comment about the Spaniard’s consistency as it is an indictment of the other riders to ply their trade for the Italian marque. Barbera, on a two-year-old GP14, sits seventh in the title race, and with 65 points, he’s almost doubled his tally from the entire 2015 season already. A MotoGP-best second on the grid in Germany – in his 112th start – was the highlight.
Speaking of consistency, Eugene Laverty is one of just three riders (Marquez and Barbera are the others) to have finished every race, and the Northern Irishman sits 10th in the championship with 53 points; by contrast, his Aspar Ducati teammate Yonny Hernandez has three. Laverty hasn’t qualified better than the 14th on the grid he managed in the Qatar season-opener, but he’s always there to take whatever points are on offer, his fourth in Argentina on a day plenty of other riders lost their heads his standout result.
The last man in this category might have made the biggest turnaround of all – Miller. The Australian had an injury-compromised pre-season after a motocross accident, and a big off in practice in Austin saw him miss that race altogether. The season was looking pretty miserable until Catalunya, with a 10th-place result there a testament to his growing maturity and control, where he pushed the bike to its limits but no further. Assen was his crowning glory, a spectacular ride in dreadful conditions seeing him break through for his maiden MotoGP victory, and he backed that up with a strong display at the Sachsenring in similarly inclement weather, running inside the top five for much of the race before his lack of experience in flag-to-flag races saw him pit too late for a bike with dry tyres, dropping him to seventh at the flag.
With his battered leg healing, his confidence rising and the pressure removed from his shoulders, Miller will only get better from here.
Could do better
The theory – and the fear for Rossi fans – was that 2015 was his best and perhaps final chance to snare that elusive 10th world title that he’s been chasing since 2009 – and the first half of this season hasn’t done anything to dispel that. Rossi sits third in the title chase with 111 points and took superb wins at Jerez and Catalunya, but three non-finishes have left him with 68 points fewer than the halfway mark of last season, and with a mountain to climb. A mechanical DNF at Mugello was cruel, but self-inflicted crashes at Austin and later at Assen when he was second in the rain might have slammed the door on his championship quest.
Rossi’s teammate – at least for the rest of this year – is in similar strife. Lorenzo is second to Marquez in the standings, and his season has come unglued in the past three races, after he was taken out by Andrea Iannone in Catalunya, and was nowhere in the rain at Assen and the Sachsenring. His careful ride to 15th and one championship point in Germany after a weekend of crashes was almost painful to watch, and it was jarring to see the reigning world champion look so busy on the bike – when he’s in his element, pounding out lap after lap with precision that nobody else on the grid can match, it looks like he’s barely trying.
Dani Pedrosa re-signed with Repsol Honda until the end of 2018 in May, but went into the mid-season break with just two podiums, one of them a gift in Argentina when Iannone and Andrea Dovizioso combined for a Ducati disaster on the final lap. By contrast, he had six top-three finishes last year despite missing three of the 18 races with injury. Failing a dramatic turnaround, Pedrosa looks set for a third straight fourth-place championship finish – as in being the ‘other’ guy from the two powerhouse teams yet again.
Room for improvement
Dovizioso took pole at Assen and has five other starts on the front two rows of the grid, but has just 59 points to be ninth in the standings at the summer break. The Italian never seems to have any luck, but as the Andrea within the factory Ducati squad staying to partner Lorenzo next season, he’ll have wanted better.
For Cal Crutchlow, it was great that second in Germany came with 20 world championship points – and not-so great that those 20 points doubled his tally from the opening eight races before the Sachsenring. Four non-finishes in nine races ties with Dovizioso, Iannone and Hernandez as the most on the grid.
Crutchlow’s compatriot Bradley Smith is off to KTM next season, but isn’t exactly leaving the Tech 3 Yamaha squad with a bang; the Briton has 35 points after nine races compared to 87 at the same stage last year, and has out-qualified teammate Pol Espargaro just twice in nine races. If he maintains his 16th place in the standings, it’ll be by far the worst of his four MotoGP campaigns.
Meanwhile, Tito Rabat’s debut MotoGP season has been a nightmare; the 2014 Moto2 champion has qualified in the bottom three on the grid in every race, and added injury to insult when he broke his left collarbone at Mugello and missed the Italian GP altogether.
The MotoGP naughty corner could almost be named after Iannone, who has spent much of his final year in Ducati red in the bad books before he heads to Suzuki next season. Taking out teammate Dovizioso in Argentina on the last lap as they were in podium contention was bad enough, but harpooning Lorenzo in Barcelona earned him a demotion to the back of the grid for the next race at Assen. Mixed in with the madness have been podiums in Austin and at Mugello, and the fastest lap of the race in Italy, where he and the Ducati absolutely flew, touching 354.9km/h on the straight to set a new MotoGP top speed record. The word ‘enigma’ may have been invented with Iannone in mind; that said, you wouldn’t be surprised in the slightest that if a Ducati was to a win a race this season, ‘The Maniac’ would be the rider spraying the champagne of victory.