When the MotoGP fraternity jumped on the plane to Qatar for the opening round of the 2011 World Championship, one man across all three classes was seen as the overwhelming favourite to end the year as champion.
Despite taking three wins and finishing 14 of last year's 17 races on the podium, Nicolas Terol missed out on the 2010 crown, but with eventual champion Marc Marquez graduating to Moto2, the path seemed clear for the 22 year old to romp, unchallenged to his first world title. The opening weekend did little to change that perception as Terol took pole position before winning over seven seconds, despite easing off in the closing stages.
But round two at Jerez saw the emergence of a surprise challenger in Sandro Cortese. The German stunned the champion-elect by beating him to pole, but the weather gods would swing the balance of power back towards the Spaniard on race day. The riders awoke on Sunday morning to heavy rain which unsettled Cortese who slid off on his way to sixth, with Terol fending off teammate Hector Faubel to claim maximum points.
The quartet of British youngsters were also making their presence felt although their fortunes differed early on. Danny Kent and Taylor Mackenzie kept their heads in Spain to finish fourth and fifth respectively but Danny Webb missed the chance to join them in the top six after crashing out. Harry Stafford finished 18th as he eased his way in to Grand Prix racing.
The likes of Kent and Mackenzie were demonstrating the 125cc class' ability to develop future stars, but they weren't alone. Miguel Oliveira and Maverick Vinales went toe-to-toe for the Spanish title in 2010 and were already putting the world's best on notice.
Oliveira crashed out of a potential podium in Jerez while his Spanish rival threatened to take third himself later on before a collision with Efren Vazquez forced him into retirement. Their potential was on full display next time out at Estoril too, as Oliveira promptly stuck his Aprilia on the front row for his home Grand Prix behind Terol and Cortese.
Terol led every lap to maintain his 100% record with Cortese following him home to consolidate second in the championship, but the battle for the final podium position was intense to say the least. Oliveira faded after a bright start leaving Vinales to fight it out with Johann Zarco. The duel went all the way to the wire with the Frenchman edging an elbow-to-elbow sprint to the line by 0.002s. Last-lap drama would follow Zarco as the year unfolded with both men emerging as serious contenders at the front.
Round four took the riders to Le Mans and it was Vinales' turn to muscle in on the action at the front of the grid. Terol and Faubel secured a Bankia Aspar 1-2 in qualifying but Vinales was the star of the show in third. A podium looked a genuine possibility for the 16 year old but no-one could foresee what actually took place.
Terol led away from pole position but the Blusens rider matched him lap by lap. Certain that his fellow countryman would wilt under the pressure, Terol even chose to follow the rookie but he still refused to blink. Instead, it was the experienced Spaniard that cracked, sliding wide at the final corner and losing the chance to win on his 100th GP start, allowing Vinales to do so at just the fourth attempt.
Terol had no reason to be too disappointed though. With Cortese only managing seventh, his lead was 36 points, and growing. Cortese qualified for the Catalunya GP down in sixth while Terol, Faubel and Vinales locked out the front row again, but an overnight rain shower caused havoc early in the race. British duo Danny Webb and Harry Stafford collided at turn one as the riders searched for grip on their dry-weather tyres. Unsurprisingly, Terol seemed unaffected but the spirited Zarco joined him at the front.
The conclusion of the race saw one of the season's controversial moments as the Derbi rider dived up the inside of the final bend, reminiscent of Valentino Rossi's race-winning manoeuvre in 2009. However, race direction took a dim view of Zarco's move, in particular his use of the elbow, and docked him 20 seconds. Terol duly inherited the win ahead of Vinales with Jonas Folger inheriting a podium finish in third.
Folger would break the Spanish domination at Silverstone though as torrential rain played perfectly into his hands. Vinales had added a first pole position to his extraordinary list of achievements 24 hours earlier but he couldn't walk on water, and crashed out of third place in the race. With Cortese and Terol down in seventh and eighth respectively, Folger and Zarco were left to battle it out for their maiden victory with the German prevailing to move into second overall. British fans were sent home happy as Danny Webb finally bagged his first points for Mahindra with wildcard rider John McPhee also scored in 15th.
The Dutch TT at Assen saw one of the most chaotic races in recent memory, as well as a turning point in the 2011 season. Vinales became the youngest rider ever to take back-to-back poles but Terol was unable to deny him victory after two crashes earlier in the weekend forced him to sit it out with a finger injury.
Steady drizzle made life tricky for the riders as up to a dozen men ran nose-to-tail at the front, including Danny Kent who took a superb sixth. Sergio Gadea and Efren Vazquez all took turns in the lead but Vinales was in prime position when the music stopped, as a late red flag handed him the win. Luis Salom's fearless overtaking moves paid dividends as he took his first podium with Gadea settling for third.
Terol returned to action at Mugello with his championship lead still intact as a result of Folger's inability to do better than ninth, but Zarco was now stepping forward as the main threat, pole position in Italy proving the point. Terol put him firmly in his place on Sunday though as he breezed past the Derbi on the exit of the final corner, with no contact necessary this time.
The German Grand Prix would also be decided in the final few metres in scarcely believable circumstances. 27 laps of racing boiled down to a three way battle between Vinales, Zarco and Hector Faubel. The 27 year old overtook both of his younger rivals to all but secure victory but Zarco wasn't finished and scythed past Vinales before lining up the Aprilia entering the final corner.
As the two crossed the finish line it looked like Zarco had slipstreamed past but the timing screens revealed that they had passed the chequered flag at exactly the same time. For the first time ever, a grand prix had finished in a tie but Faubel was awarded a first win in three and a half years by virtue of setting a faster lap during the race.
Zarco was cruelly denied a first victory once again but he trails Terol by just 32 points as the season takes its' summer break. Terol's pre-season status as favourite has so far been justified but the young guns have been whittling away at his advantage, and with injuries already forcing Terol to miss a race, could accidents cost him the tile for the second year running?
Moto3 awaits in 2012 so Terol, Zarco and Vinales will all be desperate to go down in history as the final 125cc World Champion. Only one will earn that distinction but either way, the future of Grand Prix racing looks to be in safe hands.
Riders Championship (After Round 9: Germany)
|1||Nicolas Terol||SPA||Aprilia||Bankia Aspar Team||5||166|
|3||Maverick Vinales||SPA||Aprilia||Blusens by Paris Hilton Racing||2||122|
|4||Jonas Folger||GER||Aprilia||Red Bull Ajo MotorSport||1||110|
|5||Sandro Cortese||GER||Aprilia||Intact-Racing Team Germany||106|
|6||Hector Faubel||SPA||Aprilia||Bankia Aspar Team||1||90|
|8||Luis Salom||SPA||Aprilia||RW Racing GP||76|
|9||Sergio Gadea||SPA||Aprilia||Blusens by Paris Hilton Racing||71|
|10||Danny Kent||GBR||Aprilia||Red Bull Ajo MotorSport||46|
|12||Adrian Martin||SPA||Aprilia||Bankia Aspar Team||30|
|13||Miguel Oliveira||POR||Aprilia||AndalucÃa Banca Civica||30|
|14||Alberto Moncayo||SPA||Aprilia||AndalucÃa Banca Civica||28|
|15||Simone Grotzkyj||ITA||Aprilia||Phonica Racing||19|
|16||Taylor Mackenzie||GBR||Aprilia||Phonica Racing||15|
|17||Marcel Schrotter||GER||Mahindra||Mahindra Racing||15|
|19||Louis Rossi||FRA||Aprilia||Matteoni Racing||13|
|20||Niklas Ajo||FIN||Aprilia||TT Motion Events Racing||11|
|21||Danny Webb||GBR||Mahindra||Mahindra Racing||10|
|22||Alexis Masbou||FRA||KTM||Caretta Technology||10|
|23||Hiroki Ono||JAP||KTM||Caretta Technology||8|
|25||Toni Finsterbusch||GER||KTM||Freudenberg Racing Team||4|
|25||John McPhee||GBR||Aprilia||Racing Steps Foundation KRP||1|