The days and weeks preceding the opening race of a Grand Prix season are normally filled with excitement, expectation and unpredictability but ahead of the final 125cc World Championship before Moto3's introduction, most two-wheel experts were in no doubt as to the destiny of the title.
Had it not been for a mid-season injury and the stunning form of Marc Marquez, Nicolas Terol may well have been the 2010 champion and after deciding to stick around in the junior class for one more year, it seemed the Alcoy youngster had a clear run to his first world crown. But the 125cc category has never failed to produce future stars and the class of 2011 would keep Terol on his toes all the way until the final showdown in Valencia.
Pre-season testing seemed to suggest that the greatest threat to the Bankia Aspar rider would come from within. Hector Faubel, back after an unsuccessful stint in Moto2, had taken up the second seat with the Aprilia squad and topped the timesheets at Jerez. The German duo of Sandro Cortese and Jonas Folger, each chasing their first victories in the upcoming season, were third and fourth.
A pair of 16 year olds were also turning heads in testing with CEV Buckler Spanish Championship challengers Maverick Vinales and Miguel Oliveira carrying their rivalry onto the world stage. Both finished testing in the top six but the serious business was still to come.
125 stalwart Danny Webb was charged with the task of leading Mahindra in their debut Grand Prix season while Danny Kent, Harry Stafford and Taylor Mackenzie all lined up for their debut season, completing the British contingent.
As the sun set in Qatar on March 17th 2011, the glorious sound of two-stroke motorcycles kicked off the 2011 season and immediately, many forecasters saw their worst fears realised as Terol lapped a second quicker than the rest of the field in opening practice. To everyone's relief, Sandro Cortese established some respectability in qualifying, getting within a tenth of a second, but Terol still had enough for pole with Derbi rider Efren Vazquez joining them on the front row.
All eyes may have been on Terol when the lights went out on race day but nobody saw him for dust, with 7.7seconds the winning margin. Cortese was a comfortable second but Vazquez lost his grip on third as the experience of Sergio Gadea prevailed. Gadea, another Moto2 refugee, was fully aware of the need to establish superiority over his impressive new teammate Vinales and the mission was certainly accomplished in round one, with Vinales down in ninth.
The British quartet had a tough start with Danny Kent the only to score points in 13th although Taylor Mackenzie might have joined him but for a late off-track excursion. Both had shown their talent though and some familiar weather presented them with a golden opportunity two weeks later.
Round two saw the first of four Spanish showdowns but the conditions were more akin to a winter weekend at Silverstone. Strong winds throughout qualifying allowed Cortese to claim a shock pole position but Terol took over when the rain arrived on race day.
Teammate Faubel stepped forward to challenge him, keen to atone for a poor 11th place in Qatar, and looked poised to attack Terol on the final lap before crashing out, leaving him in 11th once again. Jonas Folger and Johann Zarco were the main beneficiaries, claiming second and third, but their delight was nothing compared to Kent and Mackenzie, who finished higher than ever before in fourth and fifth respectively.
The unfortunate postponement of the Japanese GP gave the riders a month off before regrouping for round three in Portugal, but the four week layoff had done little to slow Terol. After seeing his 2010 championship hopes all but extinguished on the same piece of tarmac, the series leader was on a mission from the moment the pitlane opened on Friday morning. The fastest man in FP1, FP2, FP3, Qualifying and the warm-up, Terol duly completed a clean sweep by beating Cortese to victory by 3.5 seconds. The German was the only man remotely capable of keeping him in sight while Zarco's emergence as a legitimate threat continued with third, although he needed a photo finish to see of Vinales. Like the Blusens rider, Miguel Oliveira's stock was rising with every passing weekend. Although he couldn't do better than seventh on home soil, the AndalucÃa Banca Civica youngster had already put himself on the map by qualifying on the front row. The newcomers had put the established cast on notice, and another giantkilling act would follow in France.
Terol and Faubel comfortably headed the grid but Vinales' presence on the front row drew plenty of attention. Not only did he start next to Terol though, but Vinales actually stayed with him in the race. Lap after lap ticked by with onlookers waiting for the inevitable acceleration from the elder Spaniard. Vinales matched him corner for corner until just two remained, pressing Terol into an error at the double-apex right hander at the end of the final lap. For the first time in four perfect races, Nico cracked and at the age of 16 years and 123 days, Maverick Vinales was a Grand Prix winner, the third youngest in history.
From a seemingly untouchable position, Terol's judgement and temperament under pressure was coming into question. Johann Zarco was the latest to ruffle his feathers as the two went head-to-head and ultimately elbow-to-elbow in their pursuit of victory in Catalunya.
A race which started in drying conditions culminated in a final lap contest between the two and Zarco looked to have grabbed the advantage as he dived up the inside into the final corner. His desperation to win his first GP was clearly evident as he elbowed Terol onto the grass, before triumphantly leading him over the line. The Frenchman's joy lasted all of two minutes though as race direction gave him a 20 second penalty on his way to parc ferme. Terol thus inherited the win, extending his lead in the championship to 48 points over Cortese who could only manage fourth.
Fortunes for Britain's finest were fluctuating with Barcelona certainly ranking among the low points. Danny Webb and Harry Stafford, still chasing their first points of the year, came together on the opening lap while a tyre gamble backfired for Mackenzie, dropping him out of the points to an eventual 28th. Danny Kent scored points in 11th but all four would have welcomed a journey home, and round six at Silverstone provided the required morale boost.
Northamptonshire also provided a torrential rainstorm which threw the race wide open, leading to a second debut victory of the year. Agonisingly, Zarco would come up short in his quest for victory with Jonas Folger taking the honours. Terol's wet weather prowess deserted him on this occasion but with Cortese only taking seventh, one place ahead of him, his title lead was safely intact.
The passionate (and sodden) home supporters were rewarded by four points finishers. Danny Kent returned to the top ten for the first time since Jerez with Danny Webb scoring his first points in the silver of Mahindra. 12th brought four more points for Taylor Mackenzie while a special cheer was reserved for John McPhee. The Scottish teenager capitalised on a wildcard entry by overtaking Niklas Ajo on the final lap to score a point in 15th.
The 125s switched the home of British motorsport to the “Cathedral of Motorcycling”, the spectacular Assen circuit in the Netherlands. Home favourite Jasper Iwema wouldn't have shared that opinion after a weekend of mixed emotions. On Friday, the heavens opened five minutes into qualifying, leaving the Dutchman on provisional pole and praying for further rain. His dream wouldn't come true though as he dropped to 33rd on a drying track, with Maverick Vinales bagging pole position.
Iwema scythed his way through the field in similarly tricky conditions during the race but a collision with Bankia Aspar's third hotshot Adrian Martin took him out altogether, infuriating the 21 year old. At least he got to race on home soil though, as a crash on Friday morning took out the championship leader. Terol slid out of final practice, fracturing the little finger on his right hand before doing further damage with a fall late in qualifying. Somehow, he'd still managed to qualify eighth but the injuries caused him to sit the race out.
With the main man out of action, the rest of the field provided an absolute thriller with as many as ten riders joining in the battle for victory. Luis Salom, in particular, made a name for himself with some sensational overtaking moves while Efren Vazquez and Johann Zarco took the concept of teamwork and threw it out of the window.
The lead changed on over a dozen occasions but Vinales was in the right place when the music stopped, or more to the point, when the rain started, and claimed his second career win. Salom's aggression paid dividends with second place while Sergio Gadea scored a much needed podium in third. Danny Kent joined in the fun at the front late in proceedings which saw him claim a superb sixth with Danny Webb scoring again in 13th.
Although the season was now well into the summer, mixed weather was becoming something of a recurring theme in 2011. For the fourth GP in succession, rain would have a major say in the result, this time in qualifying. As in Assen, drizzle would fall early in the session but this time it wouldn't cease, handing Zarco his maiden pole position ahead of Salom and Gadea with the recovered Terol back on the second row.
24 hours later and another pattern of the year was on display, Johann Zarco's misfortune. An assured ride despite pressure from Terol put him in prime position to win his first Grand Prix but once again, he would be denied in heart-breaking circumstances. The Avant-AirAsia-Ajo Derbi was unable to keep up with the Aspar Aprilia down the long pit straight and Terol simply waited until the end of the last lap before breezing past for his fifth win of the year. The margin of victory was a mere 0.167s and as Zarco would discover in Germany, 125cc racing was getting closer and closer.
With Terol languishing back in fourth, the stage was set for Zarco to finally claim that elusive victory although Maverick Vinales and Hector Faubel also had their eyes on the prize. As the trio descended from the Sachsenring's famous 'waterfall' section, Faubel had the edge but Zarco attacked exiting the final bend and official timing gave him first position at the end of the final lap with Faubel second. Closer inspection of the timing screens revealed that the gap between the two was measured as 0.000s and for the first time in history, Grand Prix racing had seen a dead heat.
No-one seemed to have told Zarco though who celebrated by proudly waving the tricolour on his way back to the pits. MotoGP regulations however determined that the winner would be decided by the man with the faster race lap and on a tiebreak, Faubel was given a first win in 58 races.
The 27-year-old's success was a welcome boost for Aspar team boss Jorge Martinez 'Aspar' who had seen Terol fail to challenge the leaders and Martin crash into Harry Stafford. The Briton was well placed to score his first championship points until their final corner collision but his wait wouldn't go on much longer, with 13th place bringing him some deserved reward next time out in Brno.
The Czech Republic would also see title race blown wide open with Terol's Aspar Aprilia suffering a rare breakdown. Surely Zarco would win this time then? Well, not quite. The nearly man of 2011 came up short yet again as he lost out to, arguably, the only man with a greater desire to win his first GP.
After his impressive start, Sandro Cortese's season had plateaued with a run of six races without a podium. The German had slipped from being Terol's closest challenger to a distant fifth in the series, 60 points off the pace. But the vital breakthrough finally came after a thrilling duel with Zarco which culminated in contact two corners from home. A furious Zarco was second again although Terol's retirement allowed him to close the gap in the title chase to just 12 points.
Brno also saw the emergence of yet more future stars. Alberto Moncayo, who had seen teammate Oliveira steal the headlines earlier in the season, made a name for himself with his first ever podium, the Portuguese youngster having crashed out at the last bend. Home favourite Jakub Kornfeil also shone with seventh while Malaysian teenager Zulfahmi Khairuddin claimed a career-best result in ninth. Danny Kent could, and arguably should, have been up there too but for a reliability problem on his Aprilia.
The bike in question wasn't the RSW that he's been racing with earlier in the year though, with Jonas Folger's illness giving him the opportunity to ride the higher-spec RSA model. Kent would keep the factory bike for the next two races and further demonstrate his undoubted potential.
With the 125 skipping Laguna Seca, Indianapolis would play host to the championship's sole race in the States. Despite coming one week after his nightmare at Brno, Terol was in devastating form, reminiscent of the performances in the Spring which established him as the man to beat.
Pole position and victory by over three seconds were the perfect answers to those who'd doubted him and it was the turn of Zarco to face difficulties. The previously bulletproof Derbi started to leave trails of smoke in the sweltering Indiana heat and forced Johann to make do with fifth, surrendering the initiative which he had taken in the championship fight. Misano on the first weekend of September presented a chance to strike back, only for another win to slip through his fingers. This time though, he could only have himself to blame.
Several of the battles between Terol and Zarco had been tactical, at times even physical, but this time mind games came into play. Zarco led the race into the closing stages and took the unusual approach of turning his head on the back straight to apparently stare down the Spaniard. Even when Terol dived through at the penultimate corner, Zarco held the lead but entering the home straight, it would all go wrong.
Instead of putting his head down and charging towards the finish line, Johann looked behind for the second time, seemingly to intimidate Terol again. It later transpired that he was making a point and demonstrating the Derbi's apparent inadequacies in a straight-line but either way, the upshot of it all was that Terol beat him to the chequered flag by 0.022s, striking a critical blow over the Frenchman.
The Terol-Zarco rivalry was rightly hogging the headlines but Misano saw the value of wildcard entrants as a Czech teenager introduced himself in fine style. Plenty can be said about the concept of wildcards with many riding for one race only without making any impression but by the same token, others have used their opportunity to build a reputation. John McPhee's point-scoring display at Silverstone did the trick, as did Toni Finsterbusch's efforts in Germany which yielded 12th place, and in San Marino, Miroslav Popov stuck his Ellegi Racing Aprilia on the second row in just his third GP. For a rider younger even than Maverick Vinales, this was a sensational achievement and has surely cemented his name in the future of Grand Prix racing.
Five races remained and Terol knew he'd have home field advantage in two of them starting at Motorland Aragon. Zarco meanwhile was engaged in a feud with another Aspar rider, with Hector Faubel less than impressed with Zarco's riding in Misano. The pair had collided twice on the opening lap as Zarco defended pole position and ahead of round 13, the oldest rider in the field had left Zarco in no doubt that he wouldn't stand for it again.
Perhaps his plan was to get as far away from the Derbi as possible as Faubel stormed to pole position while Vinales and Terol separated him from Zarco on row two. Vinales was effectively the sole hope for the Blusens squad with Sergio Gadea leaving to take up a ride in Moto2. While Josep Rodriguez was drafted in as a replacement, his relative inexperience prevented him from troubling the frontrunners.
Another rider change would take place at AndalucÃa Banca Civica as the unfortunate issue of finance in motorsport reared its head. With sponsorship money drying up, Miguel Oliveira's rookie season was brought to an early end. South African Brad Binder would fill in for the remainder of the year.
With Aragon featuring one of the longest straights of the year, the smart money had to be on the Aspar riders and Terol promptly left the field for dead, leaving Zarco and Faubel to renew hostilities in the battle for second. Zarco was becoming rather familiar with final corner showdowns and was embroiled in another only this time, he came out on top as Faubel's aggressive attempt to aid his teammate sent him into the gravel trap, with Zarco emerging unscathed. The consistent Vinales finished third while Danny Kent took sixth, although this wasn't enough to keep him on the factory Aprilia. The RSA would return to Folger for the remaining four races, starting in Japan.
After the natural disaster earlier in the year, MotoGP made a welcome return to Motegi at the beginning of October. The stage was set for Zarco vs. Faubel – Round 3 as the two locked out the top two positions in qualifying but Terol loomed ominously behind them in third. As in Aragon, a runaway victory was the result but this time, Zarco was the dominant force. There were no mind games, no last lap histrionics, just a triumphant salute to signify his first Grand Prix victory. For once, Terol had to settle for a distant second with his title advantage standing at 31 points with three races remaining.
Mathematically, the Australian Grand Prix presented the first opportunity for Terol to clinch the championship, although he needed Zarco to finish lower than he had in any race this year. Zarco was clearly buoyed by his debut win though and outpaced Cortese and Folger to take pole, despite crashing late in qualifying. Terol was back in fourth.
The notoriously changeable Melbourne weather threw another variable into the mix on Sunday morning, leaving the riders with a horrible decision to make. Patience was one of the many virtues needed as Zarco and Terol tumbled down the order early on due to their choice of slick tyres. Wet-shod runners like Alexis Masbou and Adrian Martin leaped to the top of the order on lap one.
Their joy only lasted as far as one-quarter distance as Cortese moved into the lead having coped best among the dry-tyre riders. He cruised to his second win of the season with Luis Salom taking a fine second while Zarco made superb progress to recover up to third. Terol also put in a fine recovery ride but having lost 11 places on the opening lap, he could only make it as high as sixth. The championship lead still stood at 25 points though, meaning he only had to finish in front of Zarco in Malaysia to wrap up the title.
When qualifying came to a conclusion, that task seemed a mere formality. Minutes into the session, Zarco lost the front end of the Derbi and with just one flying lap completed, he soon found himself bottom of the timesheets. To make matters worse, the bike broke down when he finally made it back out and it wasn't until the final ten minutes that Zarco re-joined. On his last attempt, Zarco finally climbed up to 15th but Terol was busy taking pole at this stage, giving him a 14 place head start ahead the hottest race of the year.
Securing the championship looked a formality but that feeling lasted all of three miles with Zarco slicing his way through the field, moving up to fifth at the end of lap one. Almost unthinkably, the title protagonists were nose-to-tail by lap eight with Vinales and Cortese leading the way. The two would dispute the victory amongst themselves as Terol turned his attentions to keeping Zarco at bay.
Just one lap from home, the advantage still lied with the Spaniard but with heat exhaustion causing him difficulty, Terol slipped off the road at turn five, causing the title to slip through his fingers. Although he salvaged fifth, third for Zarco kept him in the hunt ahead of the season finale in Valencia.
The atmosphere was understandably sombre at the Ricardo Tormo circuit with Marco Simoncelli's tragic death in the Malaysian MotoGP race fresh in everybody's mind. What the paddock was desperately looking for was a good news story and the final ever 125cc qualifying session delivered in sensational style.
Rain on Saturday morning provided a sodden race track for the start of qualifying and Australian teenager Jack Miller was among those to shine. With less than ten minutes to go, three riders decided to roll the dice and chance it on slick tyres.
Alexis Masbou was the first to gamble with fourth on the grid his reward with fellow countryman Louis Rossi taking a stunning second, but Danny Webb would grab the headlines with an expertly timed run. With Mahindra's top brass watching on from the garage, the Briton clinched his and the team's maiden pole position along with a place in history as the final 125 polesitter.
Amid the euphoria, Zarco had managed to wrestle his Derbi to third on the grid, six places ahead of Terol who simply needed to finish in the top 11 to mark his home GP with the championship. Zarco's task was simple – win or bust.
Sadly for the Frenchman, the latter would come to pass with his extraordinary run of top-six results ending at the worst possible moment. Having dropped to fifth at the start, Johann needed to make progress, and fast, but his exuberance cost him dearly with the Derbi finally escaping his control hallway around lap three.
The tense decider everyone had hoped for was out of the question but as it happened, Terol kept his end of the bargain anyway. In the closing stages, it looked as though he might even win the race but Maverick Vinales had other ideas and rounded the most successful rookie season ever with a fourth victory, pipping Sandro Cortese to third overall in the process.
Danny Webb's dream weekend turned sour with a crash in the race with none of the other Brits able to round off impressive rookie campaigns with points finishes. John McPhee made a welcome return though and capped another wildcard appearance with a career best 14th.
The last 125cc World Championship in history will go down as one of the all-time classics. Despite being billed in pre-season as a forgone conclusion, we saw wheel-to-wheel, shoulder-to-shoulder competition as well as final lap thrillers (and the occasional dead heat!) but in the end, the final 125cc champion was deserving of his crown.
As Nicolas Terol brought his Aspar Aprilia back into the Valencia pitlane, a gold number one replaced his regular no.18. The message was clear and undeniable, Nico was the gold standard in 2011.
2011 125cc Riders' Championship (Final Standings)
|1 (C)||Nicolas Terol||Aprilia||Bankia Aspar Team 125cc||8||7||5||302|
|3||Maverick Vinales||Aprilia||Blusens by Paris Hilton Racing||4||3||3||248|
|4||Sandro Cortese||Aprilia||Intact-Racing Team Germany||2||1||2||225|
|5||Hector Faubel||Aprilia||Bankia Aspar Team 125cc||1||1||2||177|
|6||Jonas Folger||Aprilia||Red Bull Ajo MotorSport||1||0||0||161|
|8||Luis Salom||Aprilia||RW Racing GP||0||0||0||116|
|9||Sergio Gadea||Aprilia||Blusens by Paris Hilton Racing||0||0||0||103|
|10||Alberto Moncayo||Aprilia||AndalucÃa Banca Civica||0||0||0||94|
|11||Danny Kent||Aprilia||Red Bull Ajo MotorSport||0||0||0||82|
|13||Adrian Martin||Aprilia||Bankia Aspar Team 125cc||0||0||1||45|
|14||Miguel Oliveira||Aprilia||AndalucÃa Banca Civica||0||0||0||44|
|15||Marcel Schrotter||Mahindra||Mahindra Racing||0||0||0||36|
|16||Simone Grotzkyj||Aprilia||Phonica Racing||0||0||0||32|
|17||Louis Rossi||Aprilia||Matteoni Racing||0||0||0||31|
|19||Danny Webb||Mahindra||Mahindra Racing||0||1||0||24|
|20||Luigi Morciano||Aprilia||Team Italia FMI||0||0||0||23|
|21||Niklas Ajo||Aprilia||TT Motion Events Racing||0||0||0||19|
|22||Alexis Masbou||KTM||Caretta Technology||0||0||0||18|
|24||Taylor Mackenzie||Aprilia||Phonica Racing||0||0||0||15|
|25||Alessandro Tonucci||Aprilia||Team Italia FMI||0||0||0||12|
|26||Hiroki Ono||KTM||Caretta Technology||0||0||0||8|
|27||Manuel Tatasciore||Aprilia||Phonica Racing||0||0||0||5|
|29||Toni Finsterbusch||KTM||Freudenberg Racing Team||0||0||0||4|
|30||Miroslav Popov||Aprilia||Ellegi Racing||0||0||0||3|
|31||John McPhee||Aprilia||Racing Steps Foundation KRP||0||0||0||3|
|32||Josep Rodriguez||Aprilia||Blusens by Paris Hilton Racing||0||0||0||3|
|33||Giulian Pedone||Aprilia||Phonica Racing||0||0||0||1|
|34||Sturla Fagerhaug||Aprilia||WTR-Ten10 Racing||0||0||0||1|
Tomorrow… 2011 Moto2 Season Review