Jorge Lorenzo and His Magic 11

Even though motorcycle journalists prefer not to count certain MotoGP riders out when the battle for the title comes into discussion, the first 3 rounds of the current season have already shown that this year, things look like they could settle far earlier than the Valencia race.
While the battle for the title used to be a 4-rider affair, with Marquez, Lorenzo, Pedrosa and Rossi constantly skirmishing each time they had the occasion to get one step ahead of their respective direct competitors, the new Open class allows one more new kid on the block: Aleix Espargaro, riding his Yamaha M1-powered Forward machine.

Still, what could have turned into a 5-way fray on the tracks around the world is looking more and more like a 4 versus 1 battle. And with all due respect to the other riders on the grid, the rest are of a rather smaller importance when it comes to the podium fight. Of course, at times when one of the top riders gets “caught” in the back of the pack, the fights are helping the leader, who can open up an even bigger gap while one or more rivals are struggling to streak through to the front, but this is only happening once is a while.

With Marquez winning all three rounds until now and in a truly great shape, it’s hard to believe that he will all of a sudden start to ride worse. In fact, I’d say his style will improve and he will become even faster and more focused and determined, because you see – he’s the new guy. This is barely his second season in the premiere class, so he still has an awful lot to learn, but it appears like he’s really enjoying it.

So we could safely guess that as the 2014 season unfolds and Marquez gets better acquainted to the tracks, to his team and his bike, they will be even harder to beat. And this leaves me with the question, who could beat Marquez? I mean, who has real chances of clawing the crown from a rider who is already fast, exceptionally bold and who is now learning how to defend his title by also being cunning?

Some say that his team mate Dani Medrosa is the man. He’s got a ton of experience, he rides a bike that’s just as good as Marquez’ and even more, he’s very determined, because he’s never won the world title. While all of the above are nevertheless true, it looks like Pedrosa is still missing that “je ne sais quoi” to allow him to steer clear through his opponents and win back-to-back races and start doing this two weeks later.

Determination and excellent speed are things Pedrosa shows each race weekend, but it looks like they are not enough. His starts are still weak at times and in certain situations he seems unable to find that magic line to get him ahead of Marquez. We’ve seen Pedrosa chasing and gunning down all the top riders so he’s definitely a force to be reckoned with, but honestly, I don’t believe he could ever steal the crown.

Then it’s The Doctor, the living legend of motorcycle racing. With 9 world titles to his name, we could say that Rossi saw pretty much everything there was to be seen in MotoGP, including the 2-year-long frustration under the red Ducati banner, trying to understand a bike which was obviously too different from him.

Back in the Yamaha paddock, he was thought to be a favorite for the 2013 title, once reunited with his M1. But his M1 was no longer his, as Yamaha had tailored the bike to Lorenzo’s demands, so the Doctor had a less than stellar comeback season. Finally, he understood that things were no longer the way they were back in the day, and he began to work his way around the problems.
He decided to part with his long-time team principal (and friend) Jeremy Burgess and brought Silvano Galbusera to change the whole paradigm. Results started to show, as Rossi looks more focused on the track in this second year with Yamaha. Still no victory for him so far, just one podium, pretty much like the last year.

Even though the COTA race is one Rossi is most likely trying to forget, and the tires nulled all his efforts and excellent pace which would definitely have had him on the podium, he still misses the explosive speed and intuition he once had. Despite his efforts, Rossi is still the guy just outside the podium finish, and the moments of breathtaking clarity seem now fewer and fewer.

If anything, he is more than qualified to finish the season on the podium, rides a very good machine and if he has a bit of luck with setups and the tires (which seem to be his nemesis this year), and probably knows the MotoGP better than half of the other riders combined. Could he become world champion for the 10th time? If it wasn’t for Marquez, maybe he could. But even so, to beat the number one rider, one still has to deal with number 2, and Pedrosa is anything but an easy defeatable guy. Frankly, Dani seems much more stubborn than Vale, and this is not helping the Italian at all.

Well, it’s time for the new guy. The elder of the Espargaro brothers, Aleix knows the taste of victory, even though it was the CRT crown he wore last year. No lesser a world champion, this year the “best of the rest” rides the meanest machine he ever did: a Forward-build motorcycle with the heard of the 2013 Yamaha M1.

An Open class entry this year, as well, Aleix has shown excellent consistency, both in the Free Practice sessions, Qualifying and in the races. He’s much better than he was last year and is really chasing the big 4, with well-founded claims for podium positions. Fourth in Qatar (9th on the grid), 9th at COTA and 15th at Termas de Rio Hondo on Sunday, he is doing better.

He could and he will do better as he will accumulate more experience this season. He may be the 2013 CRT champion, but this year he’s riding a bike which is almost on par with the top ones, and this is not exactly child’s play. He is fast, he is intuitive and he knows he can do great things, but it’s his first year on a really competitive bike.

Chances for a podium position in 2014? Rather zero, but he can definitely battle for any position in the 4-6 range even though currently that zone belongs to Ducati. He knows he can be faster than even the satellite Yamaha bikes and if he keeps on doing so, we could see him on an even better machine in 2015.

Speaking of the Ducati riders, they’re far better off in the open-factory-you-name-it class, and Dovizioso has just brought them the first podium in quite a long time. Cruchlow, even before his accident at the COTA, only proved that Gigi Dall’Igna’s words were true: Ducati is in a transition period, it is striving to find another winning recipe for their Desmosedici machines. They are far better than the GP13 and the softer tire, extra engines and fuel are also helping. But save for some occasional podiums, none of the Borgo Panigale machines will be up for a fight at the top of the score sheets.

So this leaves us with Mr. Cobra. The Mallorcan, Jorge Lorenzo. If anything, he seems to be the only rider strong enough to give Marquez a ride for his money this season. He had more victories than Marquez in 2013 (8, compared to 6), but was far less lucky than him when it comes to injuries.

Marquez crashed more and crashed harder, but was not injured as seriously as his fellow-Spaniard. This was, in a way, compensated by the Italian round and the disqualifying at Phillip Island, so the title was decided in the final round in Valencia. Still the gap was large enough to allow Marquez to concentrate and avoid crashing. Lorenzo did a full-on race and claimed victory in the final race of 2013, but Marquez’ 3rd position was more than enough to make him the youngest MotoGP champion of all times.

Still, 2013 has showed that these two are the ones which will do battle for at least several seasons. Separated by merely 4 points, the two had a solid lead, Pedrosa was third, 34 points adrift from Marquez and 30 from Lorenzo, while Rossi, in the 4th position, was almost 100 points down.

Taking a look at the world standing, Marquez now has 75 points and leads Lorenzo by 53. The Mallorcan seems to have found his pace once more, and we’re eager to see what the next round (Jerez) will bring from him. A slightly too optimistic scenario would see Lorenzo winning at least 11 of the remaining 15 rounds and Marquez finishing in the second place to cover for this gap alone, but his is going to be extremely hard.

It’s still too early to say that Lorenzo has lost any real chances to fight for the title, as things are still doable. But remember what I told you in the beginning of this piece: Marquez is like a sponge, he’s absorbing experience and knowledge and is getting more and more familiar with the bike and the way tracks look and feel from that bike’s seat. This is obviously not enough to bring him the second title, but it is one of the few things which can compensate for Lorenzo’s nerve and determination. Which in turn, are not enough to nullify Marquez’ boldness and speed.

Lorenzo has made two huge mistakes in the first two races of the year, crashing out of the race in Qatar and jumping the start (because of mosquitos) in the US. Should he not have made these errors, the top of the score sheets would’ve been different, but in the end, it’s the number of points which matters.

Seeing Lorenzo winning 11 races this year sounds a bit too good to be true, but it is not impossible. And in case Marquez falls lower in certain races, say position 3 or even further outside the podium, this will help Lorenzo reduce the massive gap. Still, the same goes for himself, as each race he doesn’t win takes the 2014 out of his grasp.

Some might say Lorenzo’s chances are purely mathematical, and it may very well be so, but I’d rather not be as dramatic from this early stage of the season. Taking things to the extreme, we could not rule out 100% crashing out of the race or injuries for the guys at the top, simply because such things do happen, but they are really hard to anticipate.

Even more, I went for the 5-point gap resulting from Lorenzo and Marquez’ hypothetical placements only because this is one of the scenarios with almost decent odds of coming true. And if nothing bad happens to Marquez, and Lorenzo keeps on coming back to his 2013 pace, the rest of the guys have little chances to beat them. They could, of course, mess up things and calculations, but, hey, that’s why it’s called racing, isn’t it?

See you in Jerez, next Sunday.
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