By: Lee Towers
Follow Lee Towers on Twitter @On_The_Throttle
Throughout the winter off season following the conclusion of second ever Moto 2 World Championship in November 2011, the off track talk was dominated by Marc Marquez and the eye injury he picked up on that tragic weekend in Malaysia at the back end of the year. The Spaniard crashed at the same corner as Bradley Smith in first practice on a greasy track, with questions behind raised at the time of the marshals behaviour, banged his head and sustained some damage to one of the four nerves that control his eye, causing him to see double when staring up or down.
The doctors prognosis was the injury would heal but could take up to 4 months, with Marquez having surgery on the eye in January. There were whispers around as the first official tests approached that all was not well with Marquez, these whispers perhaps gaining credibility when he was absent from the test at Valencia and then the first test at Jerez. Come the end of March however and the final pre-season test, also at Jerez, Marquez was back aboard his Suter and back on the pace, ending up fifth, under half a second away from the fastest time set by Claudio Corti after five months off the bike. With seemingly no health concerns to worry about, the 2012 Moto 2 season would be a cakewalk for the Cervera born teenager wouldn’t it?
The opening round of the World Championship was the night race in Qatar, previous Moto 2 winners at the venue being the late Shoya Tomizawa and 2012 Moto GP graduate Stefan Bradl. Thomas Luthi proved the man to beat all weekend, being fastest in all three practice sessions and then taking pole position, while Marquez was in the top 10 across all three practice sessions and qualified second, only 0.072 behind the Swiss. Raceday saw a close six way fight for the lead develop between Luthi, Marquez, Andrea Iannone, Simone Corsi and Sito Pons entered pair Pol Espargaro and Titi Rabat.
The racing proved frenetic, before the cream rose to the top, leaving Luthi, Marquez and Iannone as the front 3 having opened up a gap back to the Pons entered Kalex’s of Espargaro and Rabat. As the front three headed into the final lap, the Swiss at the head of the pack, Marquez launched his assault on the run down to turn 1. Luthi could be forgiven for taking the word assault literally, as Marquez edged past down the home straight before ruthlessly chopping back in front of the Swiss, right across the front of his Suter, forcing Luthi out onto the kerb and to run wide, past the astroturf at turn one and to fall back behind Iannone as well as team-mates Espargaro and Rabat. The drama did not end here however, as the move Marquez pulled enabled Iannone to close right up to the exhaust pipe of the Spaniard’s Suter. The Italian harassed Marquez throughout the final lap and made a brave pass to take the lead with just two corners to go. Marquez kept his cool thereafter and slipstreamed Iannone out of the final corner on the run on to the huge final straight, too easily some thought, to win the opening race of the season by just sixty one thousandths of a second.
The usually calm Luthi felt this move was out of order, the chop across the Interwetten rider’s bows after Marquez had made the pass which forced him up the kerb and out wide at turn 1 upsetting him enough to warrant a reaction on the warm down lap, in the shape of a forceful shove on the teenagers arm. The stewards deemed no further action was necessary, setting the Spanish/Marquez/Repsol conspiracy theorists off again. This decision at least set a line in the sand early in 2012 and signalled what was deemed fair and what wasn’t when in came to on track action. Marquez scored the 25 points, Iannone set the tone for his year with a consistent run to 2nd, whilst perhaps the surprise packet Pol Espargaro signalled his intentions to run up front this year with 3rd, intentions he has followed up throughout the first half of the season.
Next stop on the calendar was one of the season highlights – the Spanish Grand Prix at the fabulous Jerez track in front of over 100,000 fans. The Spanish Moto 2 race was shortened due to rain after 17 laps, Pol Espargaro taking a perhaps fortunate win after losing the lead to Marquez, only for the red flags to come out, stopping the race. The result was declared from the order at the end of the last completed lap, which left Espargaro to take his maiden win in the Moto 2 class, ahead of the unlucky Marquez and Luthi. The other front runner from Qatar, Andrea Iannone limped home for just two points in 14th. Espargaro, Marquez and Luthi looked the three standout riders at after two races, with Scott Redding and predictably Andrea Iannone looking dangerous too.
The Kalex chassis seemed to be the weapon of choice at this point, Espargaro scoring the most spectacular results on one, whilst the Marc VDS Racing pair of Scott Redding & Mika Kallio had scored consistent finishes. Only Luthi and Marquez seemed to be able to get the Suter working, the latter no doubt helped by being the Swiss manufacturer’s “chosen one” – remember he was only rider to get the 2012 spec Suter part way through last year. Riders of the calibre of Toni Elias and Alex Di Angelis, both riding for race winning teams in the class, could surprisingly not get their Suter’s up to speed, neither getting anywhere near the podium across the first two races.
The best an FTR had managed was an 8th for Simone Corsi at Qatar, whilst 2010 Championship runner up Julian Simon had swapped his FTR for a Suter for the Jerez round. Iannone was fighting the corner for Speed Up almost single-handedly, although Mike De Meglio did score a solid 7th on one in Qatar. Rookie Johann Zarco was performing admirably on the lone Motobi, being a debutant in the class without any data to share with a team mate, or any other bike even, surely a big challenge. Indeed Zarco was out-performing the man who he ran close for the 2011 125cc World Championship Nico Terol, who was riding a Suter for Jorge Martinez’ crack Aspar team.
Bradley Smith led the Tech 3 charge, managing a 9th and an 11th over the first two rounds, but with the bike sadly devoid of major sponsorship and funds not exactly forthcoming, it could be an uphill struggle for the Oxford born man this season. The less said about Moriwaki the better, the Qatari back team had Anthony West on one, who in the wet would still prove a threat, whilst Gino Rea and Ratthapark Wilairot were struggling on their Gresini backed machines.
A week later the circus made the short trip across the Iberian Peninsula to the Estoril circuit in Portugal, for what is most likely the last time for the foreseeable future. The Portuguese economy is in such a dire state it almost rivals Spain’s, questions were even raised over the 2012 race at Estoril even, with the Portuguese track struggling to get the money together to pay the sanctioning fee. The 2012 race went ahead however, and we were treated to a last lap thriller between the two Spanish kids – Marquez and Espargaro. Earlier in the race Thomas Luthi had taken the lead and led most of the way, followed by the Spanish pair and impressive rookie Johann Zarco, who held second for a short time. These four were briefly joined by Kalex mounted Scott Redding and wild man Andrea Iannone, but the Brit soon faded and the Italian ran off track on lap 11 and drop back to 7th, losing touch with the leaders.
Four then became three at the halfway mark as Zarco dropped back, leaving the familiar three of Luthi, Marquez and Espargaro at the front. On Lap 20 both Spaniards fought past Luthi and quickly put a few bike lengths into him, despite fighting hard amongst themselves, before an elbows out last lap battle ensued. Marquez led across the line as the final lap began, but Espargaro made a pass into turn 1, only to run slightly wide, enabling Marquez to re-pass on the exit of the corner. A thrilling duel then developed, Espargaro passing Marquez three more times, only to lose the initiative each time, and with just four corners to go ran wide at the chicane, the Kalex bucking and weaving from the strain Espargaro was putting it under upon corner entry, allowing Marquez through to take his second win of the season. Luthi maintained third whilst Zarco’s impressive run was rewarded with 4th place, ahead of Iannone and Alex De Angelis, making some progress on his Forward Racing Suter.
The fourth round of season took the paddock to a rainy Le Mans in France. The Bugatti circuit the Grand Prix runs on is not a popular one, with it’s mainly character-less surroundings and stop start nature devoid of character, save for the fast run around turn 1. The 2012 race was run in cold, wet conditions, with the aforementioned characteristics of the venue doing little to un-dampen spirits. Come race day Thomas Luthi’s spirits were sky high however, the Suter mounted Swiss rider claiming a dominant, classy win, whilst fellow championship protagonists Marc Marquez and Pol Espargaro had weekends to forget. Marquez failed to finish after having a quick off at the Chemin aux Boeufs esses, whilst Espargaro finished 6th after leading up until lap 8 before being passed by Luthi. The 2005 125cc World Champion seemed unfazed by the inclement conditions and splashed his way to a comfortable win after passing Espargaro.
The action behind was mainly provided by home favourite Johann Zarco. The French crowd had seen Louis Rossi win the Moto3 race earlier in the afternoon and dared to dream of a double French win as Zarco made progress through the pack, including a rough pass on Gino Rea, who found himself in 5th early on after a storming start on his Gresini entered Moriwaki. Rea’s race was abruptly ended by Zarco however, who went for a gap which was just about open but soon closed as he pulled alongside the Londoner, which resulted in the inevitable contact, sending Rea sprawling into the gravel at high speed on the outside of turn 1. A few exuberant hand gestures from Rea toward Zarco provided some comic relief. After working his way up to 2nd Zarco throw his Motobi at the scenery with five laps to go and could not retrieve the bike to try and get back on to rescue some points – a sad end to a promising race again from the Frenchman. This promoted a steady riding Claudio Corti into second, and Scott Redding into 3rd, ahead of Iannone, Kallio and the aforementioned Espargaro. The Spaniard now had the championship lead by one point from Marquez, with Luthi now only 3 behind him. Marquez cruise to the Moto 2 title was not going as planned.
A Moto 2 World Championship had never been so close after the first 4 rounds as the 2012 series headed to Spain for a second time and Catalunya. In the race however the two home favourites had to play second fiddle to the other erstwhile 2012 front runners Tom Luthi and Andrea Iannone. The Spaniards may have played second fiddle when it came to podium celebrations, but all the post race talk was about Espargaro and particularly Marquez, who controversy seems to have a nasty habit of following around. Whilst the Swiss and the Italian battled it out at the front, Iannone coming out on top in a close battle by under a tenth of a second, but in truth always looking the most likely victor, the real fireworks happened behind.
With three laps to go the order was Iannone, Luthi & Marquez, before the Spaniard had a huge slide and ran wide at turn 10 whilst right on the back of Iannone and Luthi, doing well to not go down the road, and pulled the Repsol backed Suter back to the inside of the track for the second apex of the turn. Turn 10 opens up at Catalunya, the second apex is more just a flat out kink as the riders get on the power out of the first part of the corner. Espargaro was following the front three into turn, albeit a few bike lengths behind, saw Marquez run wide and aimed his Kalex and the apex of the second turn, the normal line, not expecting a Suter to run into the side of him aiming at the same piece of tarmac as it came back onto the racing line. The collision sent Espargaro over the handlebars in an awkward fall, John Kocinski’s prophecy of “If you are going to have hit someone else’s bike, you’d better have your footpegs ahead of theirs if you want to avoid crashing yourself” coming to fruition.
To this writer it looked like a plain racing incident, two equally determined young riders aiming for the same piece of track, neither willing to concede, in front of their home fans to boot. One has to remember however that Marquez had been reprimanded in Qatar earlier in the year for this antics with Luthi, in essence a “yellow card”, so an after race penalty was more than a distinct possibility. More noise from the Marquez/Repsol/Spanish conspiracy theorists was more than a distinct possibility. Race direction felt Marquez was sufficiently at fault to be awarded a one minute penalty for his actions. This was sadly not the end of the fiasco however. Marquez’ Team CatalunyaCaixa Repsol team appealed the decision, as any team would I’m sure, and the FIM Stewards sided with them and then rescinded Race Directions Penalty, meaning Marquez was classified third, pocketing 16 world championship points. Understandably Espargaro’s Pons 40 HP Tuenti then appealed this decision, but the verdict was upheld and the FIM Stewards’ decision stood. The way Espargaro’s team dealt with this in their professional press release after the debacle and on track at the next race at Silverstone spoke volumes.
Why MotoGP has two different bodies who can administer and overturn penalties this writer is at a loss to explain. If the FIM Stewards can overturn any penalties race direction deem fit to apportion, it means they have the final say on the matter – this being the case, why let Race Direction apply any penalties in the first place, can the FIM Stewards not govern penalties themselves, which if are appealed are again dealt with by the same organisation? This would prevent any sorry and confusion episodes like this happening again, whereby one bodies’ authority is completely undermined.
Two weeks passed before the on track action resumed at Silverstone. Whilst the trusty British weather did it’s best to spoil Friday’s first practice session, by Friday afternoon the rain had relinquished and we were remarkably treated to dry conditions for the remainder of the weekend, much to Anthony West’s disappointment I’m sure. After the clash and subsequent fallout Pol Espargaro had been through post-Catalunya, he could be forgiven for coming to Silverstone resembling a Spanish bull in a China shop, wanting to beat Marquez to a pulp and riding on the edge all weekend to do so – despite being in GP’s since 2006, the Barcelona man had only celebrated his 21st birthday the weekend between Catalunya and Silverstone remember.
Under the guidance of Sito Pons and his team however, a much more mature, measured approach was adopted by Espargaro – to devastating affect. Pol was fastest in every practice session, across wet and dry conditions, set pole position and won the race by 1.5 seconds from battling home favourite Scott Redding in dominant fashion. Marquez meanwhile was beaten up by Redding around Vale and Club on the final lap to end up third. Iannone finished 4th, 1.3 seconds back of Marquez, whilst Thomas Luthi came home a disappointing 8th after qualifying 7th, the fastest lap he set of little consolation.
The championship table at this point saw Marquez atop on 102 points, Espargaro and Luthi tied for second on 96, with Iannone fourth on 84 – the 14th place the Italian achieved in Spain really hurting him – he had not finished outside the top 5 otherwise. Scott Redding sat fifth on 70 points, before a sizeable gap emerged back to his team mate Mika Kallio in sixth on 46 points, having pocketed finishes of 10th, 7th, 9th, 5th, 9th and 10th in his sophomore Moto 2 season. Behind the Finn were Claudio Corti, massively helped by his run to second at Le Mans, the consistent Bradley Smith, Titi Rabat, who missed the podium by one place only in Qatar and Catalunya, and 10th place Simone Corsi, who managed strong runs to 5th at both Catalunya and Silverstone.
With the British GP ticked off for another year round 7 saw the paddock relocate to Assen two weeks later at the end of June. Whilst this writer had nothing but praise for Espargaro after his Silverstone showing, his display at Assen was a paradox in comparison. As Andrea Iannone will testify, riders aiming to become World Champion cannot afford to come away from a weekend pointless, but that is exactly what Espargaro ended up doing after completing only one racing lap in Holland after achieving a front row qualifying position. The Pons rider pushed his way to the front by passing the fast starting Swiss Dominique Aegerter on the first lap and began pushing hard looking to eek out a gap between himself and the chasing pack, which Marquez and Iannone were in the thick of. Disaster then struck for Espargaro as he tumbled out of the lead in spectacular fashion at Ruskenhoek, both bike and rider ending up tumbling through the gravel at high speed, machine thankfully clear of man as it dug in and flipped end over end, reducing itself to a pile of written off Kalex. The Spaniard was thankfully unhurt.
Iannone was left at the front, having passed Aegerter and the ever impressive Scott Redding, who gives away so much in performance due to his weight caused by his six foot frame in a class with no minimum weight limit. Iannone soon began to pull away, threatening to repeat one of his famous run-away victories from 2010, increasing the gap to 4 seconds over the rest of the pack, which Marquez was in, albeit still behind Redding and Aegerter. Those who have followed MotoGP over the last few seasons know never to write Marquez off though, after disposing of Redding and Aegerter the Spaniard began to reel Iannone in by the tune of one second a lap, by lap 20 of 24 he was right on the Speed Up’s exhaust pipe.
The old “catching someone is one thing, passing them is another” adage once again proved true for Marquez who had three attempts at pass his rival before making a move stick around the outside at the end of the front straight. Iannone was done yet however, and took a leaf out of Troy Bayliss’ book by fighting back as soon as possible, forcing his machine under Marquez at Stekkenwal. The move proved slightly over-optimistic however as Iannone ran wide on the corner exit, enabling Marquez to zip though and power on to the win. This was a devastating ride by Marquez, a less that subtle reminder to those who felt Espargaro had been the star of the Moto 2 season thus far, that he was numero uno in the class. Never before in Moto 2 had Iannone been pegged back in such a way after establishing a gap to his pursuers, but never before had Marquez been the single pursuer.
With Espargaro in the gravel and Luthi not scoring either after getting tangled up with Ratthapark Wilairot at the Strubben hairpin early on, it was a profitable afternoon indeed for Marquez Championship-wise. The two non scorers were leapfrogged by Iannone in the championship, who moved into second on 104 points, 23 back of Marquez, whilst Espargaro and Luthi were tied for third with 96 points apiece. Scott Redding scored his third podium in four races with a strong run to third at Assen, leaving him fifth in the overall standings, only ten back of the aforementioned Spaniard and Swiss. Titi Rabat finished 4th for the third time in 2012, providing some light relief for the Pons team. Aegerter fell back to finish 7th.
East Germany was the location of round 8 of the 2012 Moto 2 World Championship and the Sachsenring circuit. The 14 turn track near Chemnitz is one of this blogger’s favourites, despite its slow average speed, it proves the exception to the “fast tracks make good racing” rule, as it always throws up a good race. The circuit also possesses the spectacular waterfall corner, a super quick blind downhill right hander, which comes after five consecutive left hand turns, making it a magnet for cold tyre special crashes, such as Randy De Puniet’s get off from an LCR Honda in the 2009 MotoGP race.
However I digress, the 2012 Moto2 event saw a wet qualifying session which left the front row as Marquez, Julian Simon and Mika Kallio. Simon was a welcome returnee to the front of the field, the 2009 125cc World Champion having endured an injury nightmare since the Catalan Grand Prix last year, where he suffered a broken leg after clashing with Kenan Sofuoglu, indeed some pictures on his Twitter feed (@JulianSimon_60) were particularly gruesome. Of the other 2012 race winners and championship protagonists, Luthi qualified 6th, Iannone, never a qualifying specialist, 10th and Pol Espargaro a disappointing 17th, the weather working against the Kalex mounted rider.
On Sunday Marquez led a three man breakaway group at the front of the race, joined by fellow front row starter Mika Kallio and a charging Andrea Iannone, up from 10th on the grid. The Marc VDS team were having a good time of things with Kallio, but the same could not be said of their other rider Scott Redding, who’s race lasted less than a lap after he slid out whilst trying in vein to make up ground after qualifying a unsatisfactory 26th. Iannone then moved past Kallio and began to hunt Marquez, roles reversed from the previous week’s dust up at Assen, pushing past on lap 8, only to be quickly re-passed by the Spaniard into turn 1 on the next lap. Iannone continued to push, only to lose the front end of the Speed-Up in a pathetically slow crash, although he was able to pick the bike up and continue, only to finish 16th, missing the points paying positions by just one place.
Up front Marquez was unable to break away from Kallio, and the front two were joined by Alex De Angelis on his Forward Racing FTR. The Sammarinese had dumped the Suter’s he started the season on and switched to the British built FTR bike between Silverstone and Assen, immediately posting his best result of the season at the Dutch venue with 5th. Motorcycle Grand Prix races are always more entertaining with De Angelis around, here’s hoping the chassis switch will enable to compete at the sharp end on a regular basis throughout the second half of 2012.
Whilst the podium positions looked settled save for any crashes, fourth place was the carrot Pol Espargaro was left to chase in his charge up from 17th on the grid. The Spaniard had taken only 7 laps to move up into 7th place, only to suffer a high moment at the super quick turn 11 waterfall. The generous tarmac run off did Espargaro a favour as his Kalex exited stage right with legs flailing at high speed. He did remarkably well to gather it all together again and continue, although he waved goodbye to any hopes of a podium at this point, he rode brilliantly to move back up and salvage 13 world championship points and 4th place.
With five laps to go Marquez pulled the pin, setting lap times neither Kallio or De Angelis could match to open out an unassailable two second gap, ultimately winning the race fairly comfortably. Kallio was far from comfortable with De Angelis on his tail (who would be?) but rebuffed a last corner challenge from De Angelis to hold on to 2nd position, his first Grand Prix podium since Valencia last year. As mentioned Espargaro rode brilliantly to 4th and he was followed across the line by Thomas Luthi. Marquez won his second Grand Prix in a row and began to look a strong championship favourite as his points lead now sat at 43 points over Espargaro, 45 over Luthi and 48 over Iannone.
The next stop on the 2012 Moto Grand Prix world tour was the jewel in the crown of the series as far as I’m concerned – The Italian Grand Prix at Mugello. The circuit near Florence, nestled in amongst the stunning Tuscan hills, provides fast and exciting racing every time we visit, it’s layout consisting of quick chicanes and undulating open corners enticing fantastic racing. After qualifying the front row had a familiar feel to it, Espargaro lining up on pole position, with Marquez and Iannone alongside him. Luthi was close too, setting fifth fastest time on Saturday afternoon. The lightweight Marquez took command of the race from the start. Any thoughts the Spaniard had of a Sunday afternoon tour to victory through the Italian hillsides were rudely interrupted by first time front runner Takaaki Nakagami on his Italtrans Racing Team entered Kalex.
The Japanese had pushed passed Iannone and Luthi before doing likewise with Marquez on lap 6. Pol Espargaro was battling slightly further back in the pack, dicing with Dominique Aegerter, before finally disposing of the Swiss and moving up to catch the leading group. This lead group shortly was a six man affair, led by Luthi, ahead of Nakagami, Marquez, Iannone, Espargaro and Tech 3′s Bradley Smith. Espargaro made short work of the six man group, moving to the head of it after some close battling with Luthi around the Luco and Poggio Seco sections of the track, and began to pull a gap, leaving the Swiss to deal with Iannone and Bradley Smith. Slightly further back sat Marquez, who had lost the front end of his Suter and gathered it all back together in dramatic fashion earlier.
The slightly disappointingly sized crowd, for Mugello at least, then saw their home man Iannone begin to make progress. The Speed-Up rider moved past Luthi and began to hunt down Espargaro, Luthi unable to go with him. As the race entered it’s final lap Iannone, looking to have more left in his tyres, moved past Espargaro down the home straight and held him off through San Donato. Predictably the Spaniard did not give up, and despite a moment at the Scarperia chicane managed to cling on to the back of Iannone throughout the final lap, positioning himself threateningly coming off the final corner. Espargaro could not get enough drive off the final bend however, and crossed the line less than one tenth of a second behind Iannone. Luthi held on onto third, less than a second behind the race winner, whilst Bradley Smith had an impressive run to fourth, 1.025 seconds back from Iannone. Marquez finished a subdued 5th, the first time he had been off the podium in a race he had finished all year, on the same weekend the announcement was made that he was graduating to MotoGP next year with Repsol Honda.
Championship wise, Marquez had his lead cut by 9 points by Espargaro and 14 by Iannone, but it still stood at a healthy looking 34 points. The Spaniard and the Italian had 129 points each, whilst Luthi was five points behind the top two from Mugello on 123.