Which MotoGP rider is dux of this year’s class? Who gets extra detention or has to write lines? Who deserves a gold star for encouragement? It’s time to name names …
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Disclaimer, before we start: it’s hard to come up with a MotoGP mid-season review that lands smack-bang in the middle of the 2018 season, with the 50 per cent point coming halfway around the 11th racing lap of the Brno circuit in the Czech Republic on Sunday August 5. So you’ll have to forgive us as we go a few laps early on what has become an annual tradition – the half-term grades for the good and great of two wheels this season. And in a season like 2018, there’s plenty of material to pore through.
We’ve had insanely close races (Qatar and Assen, the latter instantly – and appropriately – hailed as one of the greatest Grands Prix of all time), the customary annual Marc Marquez masterclasses in Austin and Germany, the absurdity of the start of the race in Argentina (hello to all Jack Miller fans), and the frankly bizarre sight of Jorge Lorenzo, who was nowhere early in the season, winning back-to-back races on a Ducati at Mugello and Catalunya, the latter reprising memories of his most dominant Yamaha days where he broke the spirit of his rivals with one devastatingly metronomic lap after another.
Nine races down, 10 to go – so near-enough to halfway. Who has stood out, for the right and wrong reasons? Who has exceeded expectations, and who has fallen short? Who needs to finish the second semester of the year strongly? And who might be getting extra detention if the travelling MotoGP paddock was a school classroom?
Here’s our take on who has earned what so far.
Dux of the class
He’s become a regular in this spot, so perhaps the better way to make a case for Marc Marquez is to give you time to think who should be here in his place. (Waiting). See, told you. His wins have gone from utterly dominant (COTA) to calculatingly brilliant (when he broke up the pursuing pack with two spectacular laps to end one of the bigger brawls for a win the sport has ever seen at Assen), but it’s two races he hasn’t won that show why, barring something unforeseen, he’s likely to become a five-time MotoGP champion in his first six seasons by the time November rolls around. One was his controversial ride in Argentina, where he was in a different league in practice before a sketchy track caught him out in qualifying, and then his race … well, that, and the contact with several riders (particularly Valentino Rossi) that sparked a war of words wasn’t his finest moment, but one that showed the pace he has over the rest when he’s pushing as hard as he can. The other was Barcelona, when he realised he couldn’t safely keep up with a blistering Lorenzo and settled for second when Andrea Dovizioso, who looked to be his primary title rival at the time, crashed out early in the race. There’ll be the odd race like Mugello, when he fell (and didn’t manage to save a slide for once) and couldn’t get back into the points, but his rivals are going to need a lot more of those if they’re to deny the Spaniard a high five at (or perhaps before) Valencia.
Honourable mentions: One for Lorenzo, for his Mugello/Catalunya double after being basically invisible on a red bike for a year and a bit beforehand. Watching such consistent excellence in a sport with so many variables lap by lap is mesmerising when it happens. And another for Johann Zarco, who (before his home GP in France) looked the Yamaha rider most likely to snap the manufacturer’s losing run (more of which later) with a series of searing performances.
Others have had flashes in a year where 10 different riders have already made the podium, but nobody has been as fast for as long as Marquez has this year, and it isn’t close.
Rossi deserves a reward ribbon here for his persistence, hauling a bike that isn’t at race-winning pace into podium contention time and time again with (typically) canny racecraft and decisive overtaking that overcomes his (alas, also typically) underwhelming qualifying efforts; he had a dramatic pole at home at Mugello and was on the front row at Assen, but he’s often having to fight recovery missions from the third row or further back.
Danilo Petrucci is worthy of a mention here as well, the Italian nabbing a podium at Le Mans and nabbing a factory Ducati seat for next year after Lorenzo’s shock defection to Honda to be Marquez’s teammate in 2018.
His Alma Pramac Ducati teammate Miller gets kudos too, finishing the first five Grands Prix of the year in the top 10, taking a big-balls pole with the lap of his life in Argentina, and riding an immaculate race in France, where fourth was arguably his most convincing big-bike result yet (even more so than his win at Assen 2016, as he conceded himself).
Elsewhere, Alex Rins has been fast when he’s stayed on the bike long enough; in the first nine GPs of the year, the Spaniard had two podiums (second at Assen and third in Argentina) and a fifth place in Italy, but five race-ending crashes. And Rins’ compatriot Tito Rabat has nearly scored as many points already (30) as he has in his best MotoGP full season (35 last year), turning his career trajectory around on a satellite Ducati after leaving Marc VDS Honda behind at the end of ‘17.
Could do better
Maverick Vinales was expected, along with Dovizioso, to be Marquez’s main roadblock to the title this season, but the Spaniard has been up and down in temperament as well as results, a pole in Austin (after Marquez was penalised) and just three podiums in the first nine races seeing him sit third in the title chase through persistence more than any real pace, and with his frustration mounting by the race. Rossi has done marginally better on the same equipment, but perception is everything – and the sight of Vinales getting swamped in the early laps of races on cold tyres and with a full fuel tank has been depressingly common in 2018.
Dovizioso winds up here too, if only for the strange way his season has shaken out – so, so consistent when he challenged Marquez for the title all the way to the line last year, he’s already crashed out three times in 2018 to make his chance of the crown the longest of long shots by the halfway mark.
Dovi’s compatriot, Andrea Iannone, completes our trio here, the Suzuki man showing why he should be pictured under ‘mercurial’ in the dictionary given how hot (back-to-back podiums in Austin and Jerez) and cold he can blow. In his sixth season (and his last one with Ducati before moving to Aprilia for next year), he’s nothing if not consistently inconsistent …
Needs a strong second semester
Vinales, for his own state of mind and Yamaha’s future given Rossi, 40 next February, won’t be (dare we contemplate) around forever. Dovizioso, who simply can’t afford to be out-scored by Lorenzo before the Spaniard splits for Honda, particularly as he had a 40-point lead over his teammate after four races. Miller, who will be hoping to rekindle the form from his first five races as he prepares to step up to become his team’s leader next year when Petrucci moves up and Moto2 front-runner Pecco Bagnaia moves in. And Alvaro Bautista, the Spanish veteran who sits 13th in the championship, who must prove his worth if he’s to be picked up by anyone for 2019 after the Angel Nieto Ducati satellite entry sold its grid slots to the Petronas Yamaha MotoGP team, to be run by the Sepang International Circuit. Which brings us to …
Dani Pedrosa’s body of work over a 13-year stint in the premier class didn’t deserve to end up like this, nor in this category. The Spaniard announced ahead of the German GP that 2018 would be his last lap, finally putting an end to persistent rumours that he’d switch to the aforementioned Malaysian-backed Yamaha project after spending his entire career riding for Honda. Once he puts a full stop on his career in Valencia, he’ll surely be remembered as the best rider never to have won a premier-class world title, and you wouldn’t bet against him riding with more freedom than he’s had so far this year and snaring another win before he leaves, extending his remarkable run of at least one victory in all of his MotoGP campaigns.
It’s testament to the esteem Pedrosa is held in that we’d even contemplate another victory after how underwhelming 2018 has been to date; on the same bike as the championship leader, remember, Pedrosa has a best result of fifth, has missed Q2 twice and is 116 points behind Marquez. Ten different riders have made the podium this season, yet nine races in, the 32-year-old isn’t one of them. Pedrosa’s legacy remains intact no matter what happens from here, but this isn’t the end we envisaged for one of the sport’s front-runners for over a decade.
Loyalty to Honda could have been one reason for Pedrosa not finishing his career on a Yamaha, but Yamaha’s wretched recent record could have been another, which is why they’ve also ended up in our mid-season naughty corner. Yamaha’s last win came when Rossi saluted at Assen last year, 19 races ago, and the most recent round at the Sachsenring represented an unwanted record for the manufacturer, as the drought became its biggest ever (Yamaha previously went 18 races without a win between Malaysia 2002 and South Africa 2004, Rossi’s first race with the marque). Three riders in the top five of the standings is one thing, but entirely another when they have zero wins between them …