Doubling Up…

 

Johann Zarco took his first steps towards a life filled with racing when he began competing on minibikes in Italy, finishing second overall in 2005 and 2006. He then joined the Red Bull Rookies Cup during its inaugural year in 2007 and became their first champion, with four victories and seven podiums in eight races. Two years later, the pilot from Cannes, France made his debut in the 125 World Championship with the WTR San Marino Team, where he ended the year in 20th position – improving to 11th the following year.

In 2011 the Frenchman evolved, jumping to the Avant AirAsia Ajo Derbi team. The new combination conquered ten podiums together, pushing for the 125 title until the end. In Motegi, just four races from the season finale, Zarco took a career first victory – but finished second to Spaniard Nico Terol in the Championship. His solid performance earned him 262 championship points and also got him a ride in the Moto2™ World Championship with Team JiR in 2012.

It was not an easy rookie season for Zarco aboard the MotoBi, but he was near the podium on several occasions, including the Portugese GP. He ended the year with 95 points; inside the top ten. 2013 saw him join the Came Iodaracing Project mounted on the more competitive Suter frame and that saw Zarco deliver on his potential with two podiums – a third in both Mugello and Valencia. Again, the Frenchman became a rider to watch.

For 2014 Zarco joined the new Caterham squad, riding a revised Suter frame. It was a mixed season with four podiums and several crashes, especially during the early part of the year. Then in 2015 came the turning point, as Zarco rejoined Aki Ajo under the Ajo Motorsport banner in the Finn’s newly formed Moto2™ team – on much-desired Kalex machinery. Aside from Qatar, 2015 was a year without fault and at round three in Argentina, Zarco took his first win in the class. He took the Championship lead, and it subsequently grew with each round. Repeated triumphs were repeatedly celebrated with a trademark backflip, with a highlight of the season proving his run of three wins from the Czech GP to the San Marino GP. It was in Motegi, where he took his first victory back in 2011 on the 125cc Derbi, that Zarco was crowned the 2015 Moto2™ World Champion.

2016 has been less straightforward. It was Garage Plus Interwetten’s Tom Luthi who kicked off the year in charge of the Moto2™ title standings, as the Swiss rider took victory in Qatar – but Zarco was quick to reassert his position as reigning Champion as he took the win next time out. Alex Rins (Paginas Amarillas HP 40) was the man with the toughest start to the year off the podium– but Texas saw the Spaniard rule the Circuit of the Americas to take his first victory of the year, and the fight was on.

Zarco went on an incredible winning spree throughout four of the fives races from the Catalan GP onwards, and after his win in the Austrian GP, was 34 points clear at the top of the Championship – but then the dominoes began to fall. Brno saw the Frenchman on pole in the dry but struggling on race day in difficult conditions, before a battle with Sam Lowes (Federal Oil Gresini Moto2) for the podium at Silverstone sent both off towards the gravel trap. Lowes fell, Zarco rejoined, and the Frenchman was given a 30-second time penalty for the incident, which classified him in P22 – one place behind re-mounted Lowes with neither scoring.

Zarco had a good race at Misano, finishing the race in P4 from pole, but the Aragon GP the following weekend was a difficult one for the reigning Champion; qualifying in P5 and finishing the race eighth. It was another small gain for Rins in the title fight, leaving the two rivals only one point apart at the top and seemingly confirming a two horse race as the flyaways approached.

Zarco was then back on the podium at the Twin Ring Motegi as late-charging Championship challenger Tom Luthi took victory, before the Frenchman had a difficult weekend in Phillip Island outside the top ten and Luthi was the key rival once again, taking a stunning photo-finish win. Zarco then had a new rival in second in the title fight, with the Frenchman 22 points clear of Luthi as the paddock headed for Sepang.

After a weekend of challenging track conditions in Malaysia, Zarco took his second crown. Beginning the race from a pole position that had seen him over two seconds clear of his closest rival in qualifying – Franco Morbidelli (Estrella Galicia 0,0 Marc VDS) – Zarco started the rain soaked race cautiously before choosing his moment to pounce for the lead. Once ahead and on clear track, the Frenchman simply disappeared – taking another victory to cap off the twists and turns of the 2016 title fight in amazing style. Crossing the line with a wheelie despite the wet, the Frenchman and a body double celebrated with two trackside backflips to mark the Ajo Motorsport rider’s record second title. And a record result it is, as Zarco becomes the first Frenchman in history to win more than one world title in Grand Prix racing, the first man to defend the Moto2™ title since its introduction in 2010, and the first man since 3-time MotoGP™ Champion Jorge Lorenzo (Movistar Yamaha MotoGP) to retain the intermediate class crown – 10 years after the Mallorcan’s first 250 title in 2006.

Six wins and another crown: the 2016 Moto2™ World Champion is Johann Zarco – with the Frenchman now gearing up to move into the premier class with Monster Yamaha Tech 3 in 2017.

 

Kiko Giles @MotoGPKiko

Pasini’s Last Win. A True Battle with SuperSic

Back in 2009, we saw one of the most incredible 250cc championships, where Marco Simoncelli and Hiroshi Aoyama go to Valencia, which resulted in the Japanese sensation winning the final quarter-litre class championship. However, I want to draw your attention to a race that happened earlier in the season, which included Mattia Pasini and Marco Simoncelli, who went head to head in what can only be described as one of the best 250cc battles of all time.

In pouring rain, with the crowd cheering and the 250cc two-strokes screaming, the scene was set for a Mugello classic. The chaotic way of life in beautiful Italy would soon be reflected onto one of the most picturesque circuits in the world. The fifth race of the season was about to burst into life, and explode like a volcano.

After an eventful first part of the race which saw Simoncelli reeled in by Bautista, it was soon a three-man battle for the lead. When Simoncelli attempted to get back through he then collided with Bautista at the Casanova-Savelli downhill plunge, handing the lead to Pasini, whilst home hero Simoncelli and title challenger Bautista re-joined the race in 2nd and 3rd respectively.

With just one lap to go, Simoncelli went for it and hunted down Pasini – who was sporting a special “Ladies night” livery for his local club – and passed him at San Donato. The two then went side by side through Luco, Poggio Secco, Materassi and Borgo San Lorenzo, where Super Sic grabbed the advantage. Pasini tried a Rossi-style move at Casanova-Savelli and almost wiped the pair of them out.

Arrabiata1 was next and Pasini went straight back through, but Simoncelli had a better line as they exited Arrabiatta2 and took the lead once again on the approach to Scarperia. The flick left into Palagio saw Pasini snatch the lead back but a huge moment on the exit saw Simoncelli have a look up the inside into Correntaio but he couldn’t make it work. That was that. Pasini held off the ambush and intimidation from the reigning champion to win the Italian Grand Prix.

Although neither Pasini or Simoncelli went on to win the championship, both treated us to one of the most momentous Grand Prix of all time. Both wanting to win their home Grand Prix. Both eager to give their respected Italian manufactures a win too. It has been enshrined into the history books as one of those titanic scraps between two greats. An honour to witness, an honour to cheer, an honour to recap right here.

Kiko Giles @MotoGPKiko

Have the Aliens been Alienated?

In 2016, MotoGP has seen 11 race leaders, 9 race winners, 5 pole-sitters and 10 podium finishers. The competition level has never been so high, yet for some reason, everybody is winning. Now, it was only last year when we saw four winners, all from the factory Honda or Yamaha teams, and in years before, it had been even fewer. So, with that in mind, the question quite simply is: Do the ‘Aliens’ still exist?

My own personal definition of an ‘alien’ isn’t quite what some people tend to think of it as. I believe that alien status is fluid, and that just because you have won so many titles, you’re not necessarily one of the big four. An alien is someone who can challenge for a podium in every race. Whether that be wet or dry, flag to flag or tyre change, the cream will always rise. But in 2016. It hasn’t always been that way.

Dani Pedrosa’s alien status is the most controversial. Yes, he is a super talented rider; yes, he is a three-time champion; yes, he became an 8th different winner this season but one thing Dani hasn’t been this season is an alien. His first season in a few years that he was starting injury free, Dani was back on beloved Michelin tyres and many, including myself, thought that it could be Dani’s year. Three podiums have shown that it has far from been one of them. Dani was an alien once, but sadly, I believe he isn’t anymore. He didn’t launch a decent title challenge for 2016 and it took him up until San Marino to win. The Spaniard has mega talent and that could be rediscovered in the future, but for now, Dani doesn’t quite match with the requirements to be an alien. Once upon a time in the Stoner days, most certainly, but this year has been a season to forget. Can he come back and prove me wrong and reaffirm his place as an alien next season? One can only imagine at this moment.

Valentino Rossi, 9 world championships to that star-studded name but even he went through a part of his career when he wasn’t an alien. The Ducati years were arguably the worst for Rossi. No win and just three podiums, but I still heard people refer to him as an alien. Personally, I think Rossi had been alienated. As a die-hard fan of Valentino’s, it was horrible to watch but the truth is that he wasn’t an alien in 2011 or 2012. Valentino came back to Yamaha and immediately got on well, confirming his presence as an alien. But in 2016, The Doctor has endured a tumultuous season. 3 crashes and one blown engine has put Valentino’s tenth title yet another season away. However, it isn’t just the crashes, it’s his race results too. 4th in the curtain raiser, 8th in Germany, 4th again in Austria and a lucky 3rd in Great Britain have meant that Rossi has been far from consistent, which is what an alien needs. I am not saying for one moment that The GOAT isn’t an alien, but I’m saying more to the point of, ‘who is?’.

There has been only one alien this season in MotoGP. He is the only rider to have finished all but one race so far, the only rider to win multiple times and get podiums whilst title rivals were crashing all around him. Marc Marquez alienated himself as the only alien in MotoGP this year. Taking points when he couldn’t win and winning when the opportunity fell at the right moment, the 23-year-old Spaniard has been a weapon on a Repsol Honda that quite simply shouldn’t be anywhere near the top three. A superhuman effort from Marquez has seen him become champion, but it has also been the failings of others that have allowed this. Motegi for example, the most unlikely scenario to become champion (Rossi is 14th or lower and Lorenzo off the podium) comes true. The inconsistency of two other aliens has been a massive factor in deciding the championship. Marc made himself standout this year by being subtle. He took the biggest wins in 5th places, because had he gone for the big 25 points, he probably would have crashed the tenacious and difficult Honda.

The point I am making is that in the modern era of MotoGP, even the aliens aren’t aliens. The competition level is of such sheer quality and skill, that there is little difference between the likes of Andrea Iannone and Dani Pedrosa. The only difference is that one is more consistent at finishing races than the other, and we all know which one that is! Look at Maverick Vinales, he is putting the Suzuki on the podium and at Silverstone, he was numero uno. I agree, on paper there is a huge difference and of course, Valentino Rossi, Marc Marquez and Jorge Lorenzo are still your heavyweights of the sport, but they’re not aliens. You can beat them, it’s no longer impossible. It doesn’t have to be wet, nor does it have to be a flag to flag. Andrea Iannone won in Austria because Ducati worked out the best set up to their bike. Vinales won in Silverstone because he and the Suzuki gelled with a cooler air temperature and because of Maverick’s supreme talent and Cal Crutchlow won in Australia by risking everything he could and by pressuring riders ahead into a mistake.

Gone are the days of needing to be on Factory bikes to get on the podium. Now, thanks to Dorna reigning in the big Japanese manufacturers expenditure, the MotoGP class is much more of a level playing field, which has highlighted that Yamaha, Honda, Suzuki and Ducati can all win once again. Nobody is saying that if BMW or Bimota came into MotoGP, they’d win. However, what is being said is that with development of the right kind and with management of the right kind, you can be up there and your bike can become faster.

And it is this parity that keeps millions of fans around the world on the edge of their seats, screaming and cheering at the TV. It is this parity that gives riders all the way down the field the hope of success and not just the thought of them ‘making up the numbers’. It allows for closer racing, which brings in the fans trackside, whilst bringing out bitter rivalries that not very many other sports can say they have. And just when you think you’ve seen it all, something new comes along. Aliens or not, MotoGP will continue to provide entertainment, off track and on.

Kiko Giles @MotoGPKiko

Can Germany Manufacture a Premier Class Grand Prix Winner?

When you think of Germany, you think of many things. A huge economy, mainly built on car manufacturers like Audi and Mercedes. A country built on history from unforgettable leaders to remarkable breakthroughs. A country with many a metropolis, yet quaint 1940s style villages. However, if you look back even further, it was the bikes of MZ and BMW that turned Germany into a constructor of all things two wheeled too.

Despite this, the first and so far, only German rider to win a premier class Grand Prix was Edmund Czihak in 1974 at the Nurburgring, when many of the top riders boycotted the event on safety grounds. So with this in mind, I pose the question: Where is Germany’s next premier class winner?

There have been so many top class German riders since the 1970s, with Helmut Bradl, Max Neukirchner, Alex Hoffmann, Jochen Schmid, Anton Mang and Reinhold Roth have all graced the world scene but believe it or not, not one of them has stepped on the top step of a premier class podium. This suggests to me that surely, a German winner isn’t far away, but who could it be?

The potential is there…

The first name that springs to mind is Jonas Folger. Born in Muhldorf, it feels like he has been around the GP paddock for ages. The truth is, that isn’t too far wrong. He first came into the GP circus back in 2008, at the Czech Grand Prix, although he retired. However, it was at a drenched Le Mans where the German picked up his first Grand Prix podium. Two years later, and he won in similar conditions at Silverstone, but in the 125cc class. He took his first Moto2 victory under the floodlights of Qatar in 2015, and is now signed to ride for the Tech 3 Yamaha team in 2017. This could be a massive opportunity for Jonas. With the way MotoGP is at the minute, it is no longer a necessity to have a Factory bike to win a race or score podiums, as Cal Crutchlow and Jack Miller have proven this season,

If Folger can make the transition early enough, then he may well just be the man to end Germany’s 42 year wait for a top-class winner. His ability in the rain is also faultless, so when the opportunity arises, Folger could be your man. Age is also on his side. At just 23, Folger has a good few years left in him yet to prove that he isn’t just capable in the smaller categories, but that he can also win at the top level of motorcycle racing.

Marcel Schrotter has come of age in 2016, showing his face more prominently at the sharp end of things on the AGR Kalex in Moto2. Although it may not seem his best season on paper, Marcel has been showing more pace in qualifying and has put in some pretty sturdy performances during the races. The competition level is also much higher this year than his previous best campaign of 2014 and, if that wasn’t enough, he has had to adapt to a brand-new machine, having left the Tech 3 Mistral behind last season.

Achieving his career best result of 5th at Silverstone, Schrotter could be a good shout for a few more podiums and perhaps even a win in 2017. He joins the Dynavolt Intact Kalex Team for next season, partnering former Moto3 champion Sandro Cortese. Marcel is in a tight battle for 11th in the championship, with just 13 points covering 15th to 11th. It could be a fiery end come Valencia!

Now, it isn’t often that you look to World Superbikes for someone to make a transition over to MotoGP, but there is a hidden gem amongst the Althea BMW camp. Yes, I am of course talking about Markus Reiterberger.

The young effervescent WSBK regular burst onto the scene and immediately impressed, particularly at the second round in Thailand, where he beat his teammate Jordi Torres and took a remarkable 5th place. The former double IDM champion has been quick throughout the rest of the WSBK season, with a best result since of 6th. Markus is just 22, meaning that he has plenty of time to make the switch over to the GP paddock.

Some people may say that he is stuck in the WSBK paddock, however, I think not. There is time on his side and if he can succeed at WSBK, then he has a fair chance of being snapped up by someone half decent in Grand Prix. Only time will tell.

Phillip Oettl has been something of a revelation in 2016. Yes, we all knew of him last year, but not many people would have known about him. “What’s the difference?” I hear you cry. Well, to know of someone means to simply hear about them. But to know about someone means they must be prominent enough and important enough to warrant knowing. Yes, it’s all very confusing but what I’m getting at is the fact that Oettl has gone about his business this year incredibly maturely. He hasn’t got himself tangled up in any of that slipstream nonsense in qualifying and he has been in the battle for the win at certain tracks.

Now, with a 2nd full year on the KTM complete, it may be time for 2017 to be Oettl’s year. He’s quick and has everything in place, now he just needs results. Yet again with age on his side, there’s nothing to say that he couldn’t progress through the ranks and into MotoGP within the next six or seven years. He achieved his first pole position in 2016, could it be his first GP win in 2017, on the road to a long and successful career?

Who has missed the boat?

So, with the up and coming stars complete, now it is time to examine who has ‘missed the boat’ so to speak. From World Superbikes to MotoGP and all paddocks in between, who has missed a chance to hear the Deutschlandlied once more?

Max Neukirchner was for many years, considered the only German in either WSBK or MotoGP to become successful. In 2008, he picked up his first ever WSBK win, and going into the 2009 season, he was a favourite on his Dark Dog Suzuki, but a horrifying accident at Monza put that ambition on hold. He joined the Ten Kate Honda team for 2010 but nothing ever looked like the old Max Neukirchner of old. Ever since, he’s been way off the world scene. An unsuccessful try at Moto2 level was the last full time opportunity Max had, and he now rides in the IDM championship, where he finished 7th this season. Although his career is effectively over, let’s just remember Neukirchner for a moment as the man who nearly made it. The first chicane at Monza would be the last time Max ran with the leaders.

I almost hesitate to include him in this section, but it is fair to say Stefan Bradl well and truly missed the chance to be something big in MotoGP. The 2011 Moto2 champion stepped up to MotoGP a year later with the LCR and was immediately a top 10 regular. However, the next two seasons never developed into much special, with just one podium coming at Laguna Seca in 2013. Bradl left the team in 2015 to join the Forward Racing Yamaha team, which lasted just half a season. He then teamed up with Gresini Racing and the Aprilias, which is where he has remained ever since. He is off to World Superbikes next season, which could finally see the German win a race for the first time in six whole years. Nevertheless, you can’t help but think that Bradl hasn’t quite been given a fair bite of the cherry in Grand Prix.

At only 26, we are considering him as a has been. Maybe, if he had been on a Tech 3/Factory Yamaha then he could have won, or maybe even the present-day Ducati, especially considering they’re owned by German car company Audi. Stefan is a Grand Prix winner, and maybe he will come back a more complete rider, but for now at least, Bradl is being put into the ‘opportunity gone begging’ pile, which is quite sad.

Although still in Moto2, former Moto3 champion Sandro Cortese doesn’t look like he will be making his way out of the class anytime soon. Just three podiums from four years in the class is not something that particularly stands out, especially when riders like Maverick Vinales, Alex Rins and Pol Espargaro have all come through quicker. However, saying that, Cortese has had some of the most competitive riders around him, so maybe in 2017 we could see the former champion become a championship winner. Sandro, like many others, has struggled to make the transition from Moto3 to Moto2 and maybe he needs new surroundings too. It may relight the spark that has gone out from the German’s riding. The question is whether he will make it to the top class and be a threat to the podium. And in answer to that, I’m not 100% sure.

The premier class has a much different structure to it now than what it did when the likes of Rainey, Schwantz and Doohan were around. If you feel that we have missed anyone then feel free to tweet in @PitCrew_Online. You can also follow me personally @MotoGPKiko.

Photo credits to Focus Pollution, The AGR Team, Althea Racing, Honda Pro Racing, KTM and Dunlop Motorsport.

Kiko Giles @MotoGPKiko