In 2011, Moto2 had a lot to live up to. The debut season for the 600cc intermediate class produced nine different winners and no shortage of thrills and spills. The destiny of the championship wasn't quite as unpredictable as the racing itself with Toni Elias winning it three races early, leading the standings for all but the opening two events.
The Spaniard wasn't sticking around the defend his crown though as the lure of a MotoGP return proved too strong but in fairness, Moto2 had done its job, providing someone with the springboard to start (or restart) their MotoGP career. The question now, was who would succeed him as champion?
Gresini Racing brought in Yuki Takahashi and Michele Pirro to spearhead their title defence but many of the other 2010 frontrunners were gearing themselves up for a title challenge. Julian Simon, Andrea Iannone and Thomas Luthi were all hoping it would be second time lucky while Stefan Bradl and Alex de Angelis were looking to turn occasional victories into a sustained championship bid.
After an eventful debut year in Moto2, British teenager Scott Redding was also tipped by many to join the elite group but he wouldn't be flying the flag alone as 125cc star Bradley Smith made the graduation from the junior class with Tech 3. Scotsman Kev Coghlan had also signed a deal with Aeroport de Castello to give home supporters three names to look out for.
Despite Simon's runner-up finish in 2010, all Spanish eyes were on the 18 year old Marc Marquez, widely touted as the brightest young talent in Grand Prix racing. The reigning 125cc World Champion had the might of Spanish bank La Caixa and oil company Repsol supporting his efforts and despite his tender years and relative inexperience, many expected him to figure strongly in the title battle. Former rival Pol Espargaro followed him out of 125s while brother Aleix moved in the other direction.
The dominant force in pre-season was unquestionably Stefan Bradl with the Kalex showing an impressive turn of pace. The German headed to Qatar as favourite but with Moto2 rarely adhering to the form book, question marks surrounded the season opener under the Losail floodlights.
Opening practice quickly set the tone as Bradl and Marquez set the pace comfortably. The two would carry their advantage into qualifying too with the German claiming pole. Luthi, Takahashi and Simon were lurking just behind, as was the ever-entertaining Jules Cluzel.
The stage was set for a duel between the favourite and the electrifying rookie but Marquez decided to exit stage left after just four laps, crashing spectacularly. Bradl's only serious threat was eliminated and the Kiefer rider waltzed to victory ahead of Iannone who rampaged through the field from 16th on the grid. Luthi beat Alex de Angelis to third while Bradley Smith finished an excellent ninth. Scott Redding's race went downhill on the very first lap and he ended up down in 31st.
The scale of Bradl's dominance left many concerned that the title would be decided in double quick time. The early indications in Jerez did little to ease those fears as the German sealed pole position again. Marquez should've been on the front row but crashed again, allowing Luthi and Takahashi to sneak in front of him.
The chasing pack received some divine intervention on race day as rain fell from the Spanish skies giving Bradl, not renowned as a wet weather specialist, a major challenge. It should've been inevitable that a British rider would thrive in the slippery conditions and Bradley Smith stepped up, rising from fifth on the grid to first at the end of the opening lap.
Despite starting 18th, Ioda Racing's Simone Corsi stormed into the lap by the end of lap three but Moto2's original comeback kid was at it again. By the standards of Qatar, Andrea Iannone had started in a relatively lofty 11th before overcoming Corsi and mid-race leader Luthi to claim a superb victory. Bradl lost out to the impressive Smith in the battle for fourth but Marquez drew another blank, this time through no fault of his own as Jules Cluzel skittled him out of the race. Redding's early struggles continued down in 22nd but Kev Coghlan claimed a career best result in eighth.
Yuki Takahashi crashed out of a podium position at Jerez but that paled into insignificance given the events taking place in his homeland. The nation had already been devastated by the earthquake and tsunami which had put back the Japanese GP until October but Yuki then had to cope with the death of brother Koki in a car accident.
Bravely, the Gresini rider chose to compete at Estoril, the venue for round three, and qualified seventh. Pole position went toâ€¦ guess who? Stefan Bradl of course. Luthi's 100% record of starting on the front row continued and Julian Simon showed the pace expected of him in pre-season to knock Marquez off the front row. Neither had won a Moto2 race before and both would come closer than ever.
Luthi hit the front on the fourth lap but wouldn't see the start of the fifth, crashing at the Parabolica, while Simon would finish a tenth of a second behind the winner. That man should've been Iannone who produced another comeback ride to lead from 14th on the grid but four laps from a second straight win, the Italian slid out at the chicane, handing 25 points and the championship lead back to Bradl. Despite his win, Takahashi's ride to third was the most impressive feat of all and the Japanese rider took a picture of his late brother with him to the podium, sparking emotional scenes in parc ferme.
Marc Marquez's Portuguese GP ended the same way as the two that preceded it, in crushing disappointment. The teenager had fallen to eighth and crashed out in his attempts to regain lost ground, taking Scott Redding with him. Two of the season's pre-season favourites were still stuck in the starting blocks three races in and both were under the microscope heading to Le Mans.
Both made a recovery of sorts by qualifying on the second row, with Bradl on pole for the fourth race in succession, but their fortunes couldn't have differed more in the race. Redding's race pace never materialised, dropping him out of the points, but Marquez was inspired as he chased a maiden Moto2 victory.
Bradl had a fight on his hands before Marquez arrived on the scene as Takahashi, Luthi and Simon staked their claim but Marquez picked them off, one by one, with maturity beyond his year to open his account in wonderful style. Takahashi beat Bradl to second but with Iannone crashing on lap one, his title position had been strengthened.
Seldom is a Moto2 race predictable but Saturday afternoons were heading that way as Bradl took his pole tally to five. Aleix Espargaro and Yuki Takahashi joined him on the front row but the greatest challenge should've come from Bradley Smith who was second fastest before sliding off the track midway through the session.
The Briton endured a tough start as well, losing several places on the opening lap, but followed that disappointment with successive fastest laps which brought him up to eighth. Ahead of him were Luthi and Takahashi who had also made poor starts and a crash between the two forced him off track, losing him nine positions.
With several big hitters out of contention, the two Technomag-CIP Suters of Dominique Aegerter and Kenan Sofuoglu took their opportunity to battle for a podium place, with Espargaro and Julian Simon also in the mix. The French team's prospects went downhill in a hurry though with Aegerter sliding out of fourth while Sofuoglu, the 2010 World Supersport Champion, tailgated Simon a few corners later. Both were out on the spot and Simon's season was put on hold with multiple fractures sustained to his right leg.
It came as little surprise that Stefan Bradl had steered well clear of the chaos. The simple fact was he was already miles up the road. A fourth win out of five was never in doubt but Marc Marquez was continuing to silence those who doubted his consistency, finishing a solid second after reeling in Espargaro.
After a pointless return from the home trio, British supporters were ready to give their young chargers a timely boost at Silverstone. It certainly seemed to help Redding who qualified a sensational second but Smith had a nightmare with constant electrical problems leaving him 28th on the grid, four places behind Kev Coghlan, but redemption would come in the form of a torrential rain storm.
Conditions were horrendous on race day but while many saw it as a hindrance, Smith saw it as a golden opportunity. By the end of lap one, he was already up to 13th and within six laps, he was pressing Redding for third. On lap eight, Bradley fought his way through and an error from second placed Sofuoglu gave him a dream second place. At one stage, a victory even seemed possible but Bradl was untouchable again, showing that he was a man for all seasons. He didn't even need pole to do it this time, with that honour going to Marquez but the Spaniard's erratic ways returned, following a crash in warm-up with another in the race.
Smith wasn't the only man to stand on a Moto2 podium for the first time as Michele Pirro claimed third for Gresini ahead of Jules Cluzel and a relieved Redding who finally picked up his first points of the year. Kev Coghlan also scored, bringing his FTR home in 13th to send the crowd home happy.
With six rounds completed, the title race was fast becoming a procession with Bradl holding a 62 point lead over Simone Corsi whose consistent points scoring had lifted him nine points clear of Takahashi on third. After his lightning start, Iannone was a mammoth 78 points off the lead with Moto2 rookies Smith and Marquez snapping at his heels.
For the Dutch TT at Assen, the Grand Prix paddock welcomed its first female entrant in eight years with Elena Rosell filling the void left by the injured Julian Simon at Mapfre Aspar. To describe her debut as a baptism of fire would be an understatement though as a series of accidents left her without a motorcycle fit to race on, forcing her to sit out the race.
Stefan Bradl took his place on the grid and for the sixth time in seven races, at the very front, but Assen saw the first chink in his armour as the championship leader slid out in changeable conditions. In his absence, Marc Marquez took the spoils but only after a race-long dice with Kenan Sofuoglu and Bradley Smith who joined him on the podium. Bradl's lead still stood at a healthy 57 points but his frustration at crashing indicated a potential turning point in the championship. Mugello would be fascinating.
Sadly it wouldn't involve Kev Coghlan as the Aeroport de Castello team unceremoniously dumped him, despite scoring points on two occasions. For Italy, the underwhelming replacement came in the form of Italian national rider Tommaso Lorenzetti. His stint at the team would last all of three races before Americans JD Beach and Jake Gagne were given a race each. Experienced Spaniard Joan Olive would inherit the ride for the final six races without scoring a point but Coghlan wouldn't see a Moto2 bike for the rest of the year, a cruel fate for the Scotsman.
After adverse weather had affected the last two races, Bradl would've hoped for a return of the settled conditions which he exploited so well in the early races, his wish wouldn't be granted though. Heavy rain fell before and during qualifying which set the stage for a desperate scramble in the dying seconds with a rapidly drying track. Alex de Angelis looked to have timed his run to perfection but Marquez pipped him on his final attempt, sending a clear message to Bradl who languished back in seventh behind the likes of Xavier Simeon and Randy Krummenacher who produced career best performances.
Bradley Smith's wet weather prowess was on show once again as the Tech 3 rider qualified on the front row for the first time in the intermediate class but race day proved that he was a legitimate contender in the dry too, giving the title favourites a serious run for their money. With a handful of laps remaining, the race could've gone any one of three ways with Marquez leading from Smith and the recovering Bradl. The Spaniard's superior straight-line speed made all the difference as he took the chequered flag 0.071s ahead of Bradl who sneaked past Smith on the final lap. The Oxford youngster was visibly ecstatic despite coming within 0.419s of winning and left the world in no doubt that he was a force to be reckoned with in Moto2 going forward.
After his dominant start, the German Grand Prix at the Sachsenring should've been a triumphant homecoming for Stefan Bradl but as the season reached its halfway stage, the air of invincibility had disappeared. Instead, Marquez was looking like the unstoppable force and proved it with a third pole in four races. Other notable performances came from the returning Julian Simon in fifth while Xavier Simeon upstaged Tech 3 teammate Bradley Smith by clinching seventh, two places ahead of the Brit.
All three would be in the thick of the action immediately but not in the way thaw would've hoped. Smith made a scorching start from the third row and found himself up in third when he arrived at turn one, but that was for a reason. Bradley had left his braking far too late and speared off into the gravel trap while just behind him, Simeon tripped over Simon to eliminate the pair of them from proceedings.
Marquez and Bradl would dispute the victory amongst themselves but not even the capacity crowd could power Stefan to victory as Marquez overpowered him. De Angelis stayed in touch to take third while Scott Redding made a welcome return to form in seventh.
The four week summer break had probably come at the perfect time for Bradl as Marquez's momentum was halted but the teenager simply resumed his relentless chase of the German at Brno, extending his streak of pole positions. The two were expected to fight it out in the race too but a familiar face returned to show everyone what he was made of.
Since his win in the second race of 2011, Andrea Iannone had scored a grand total of 21 points, a tally Bradl and Marquez had completely eclipsed, and the Italian was out of championship contention. But Brno saw the rebirth of “Crazy Joe”, pulling off the kind of passing manoeuvres that only he can to claim a magnificent victory. Having monopolised the top step of the podium for seven straight races, Marquez and Bradl were forced to settle for second and third but crucially, Marc had the edge once again and continued to chip away at the championship deficit, now 43 points.
The historic surroundings of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway played host to round 11. The 'motorsport capital of the world' is the kind of venue where the greats stand up and show their class and Marquez was clearly up for the challenge, so was Simone Corsi. The FTR rider, who threatened a title bid earlier in the season, was on top throughout qualifying but missed out by the tiniest of margins, Marquez pipping him by one thousandth of a second.
The race was much more straightforward as the no.93 disappeared at the front but all eyes were on Bradl who had mountain to climb. The under-pressure German had qualified in an unthinkable 22nd place and despite a sensational recovery ride, could only salvage sixth. It was a memorable day for the Spaniards with Marquez closing the gap to 28 points while Pol Espargaro and Esteve Rabat stood on a Moto2 podium for the first time in their rookie season.
If Assen was a turning point in the championship, Indy was unquestionably another. From a seemingly irretrievable 82 points behind after six races, Marquez now entered the final six with the destiny of the title in his own hands. Should he win all the remaining Grands Prix, Marc would be the man.
Stefan struck back at Misano with a brilliant pole position, bringing Marquez's undefeated Saturday streak to a halt, while both Brits followed up top six finishes in the States with a place on the second row. Scott Redding would put in arguably his strongest performance of the year to finish fifth in the race, one place ahead of Smith, and even led for a large spell. There were no prizes for guessing who did take the victory though, with Marquez overtaking Andrea Iannone six laps from home. Crucially, Bradl managed to beat the Italian on the final lap to secure second and limit the damage to his championship lead.
The momentum remained with Marquez though and the CatalunyaCaixa Repsol rider had home advantage for the next Grand Prix at Aragon, if the riders ever made it onto the circuit that is. On Friday afternoon, Motorland was struck by a power cut which caused the cancellation of second practice.
Whenever the bikes did take to the track, the power was all with Marquez, aided by an updated Suter chassis. In the fiercely competitive class, pole position by anything over a tenth of a second is impressive but Marquez was a full six tenths clear of Julian Simon and Scott Redding who both edged out Bradl. Surely no-one could stop him in the race? In the end, they couldn't but not before providing one the all-time Moto2 classics.
Redding, Marquez and Bradl squabbled over the lead early on but the constant position changes brought Andrea Iannone, Simone Corsi and Alex de Angelis onto their tails. Corsi and Iannone each took turns at the front before Marquez decided he'd had enough. With five laps to go, he retook the lead and promptly cleared off, leaving Iannone to hold off Corsi for second but Bradl was in all sorts of trouble with fading tyres. Alex De Angelis, Aleix Espargaro, Bradley Smith and Thomas Luthi all sped past him, leaving him in a terrible eighth. He still led the championship ahead of the rescheduled Japanese GP but Marquez was now within touching distance of him.
For seven consecutive races, Bradl's lead had been constantly eroded and qualifying at Motegi did nothing to ease his fears. Marquez was on pole yet again ahead of Luthi, Iannone and Smith while Stefan had to make do with eighth. Seeing the title slipping away, Bradl rode like a champion in the race, battling his way past Simone Corsi on the last lap to finish fourth and better news was to come ahead, as Iannone beat Marquez to victory. This was something of a consolation for Bradl, albeit a small one as he now found himself a point behind Marquez for the first time all year.
Perhaps the Viessman Kiefer squad were banking on Marquez losing his composure amid the tension of a championship run-in. After all, their hopes were quickly receding. But in opening practice for the Australian Grand Prix at Phillip Island, they received a huge boost in unusual fashion.
Marquez began his weekend with an innocuous crash and re-joined the circuit in the closing minutes, keen to make up for lost time. Unfortunately for Marc, the session was only 45 minutes long but he hadn't seemed to notice and pushed on despite taking the chequered flag. As you would expect, everybody else was cruising back to the pits and Thai rider Ratthapark Wilairot found himself directly in the path of a rampant Marquez who ludicrously piled into the back of him. Mercifully, Wilairot escaped serious injury but Marquez's act deserved heavy punishment. The FIM chose to add a minute onto his qualifying time, ruling that Marquez had ridden in “an irresponsible manner, causing danger to Wilairot”, effectively moving him to the back of the grid.
With this news made public on Friday night, Bradl had an open goal in front of him going into qualifying but the weather would throw everything up into the air. As in Mugello, the track dried quickly in the latter stages putting Scott Redding's provisional pole up for grabs. Ioda Racing's Mattia Pasini was the first to stake a claim before being usurped by Kenan Sofuoglu but the man in the right place at the right time was Alex de Angelis, although Bradley Smith's Tech 3 teammate Mike Di Meglio ran him mighty close.
Bradl was only eight quickest, negating his advantage over Marquez, but with the opportunity to regain the championship lead he surged through the pack to take the fight to De Angelis. Stefan led entering the final lap but De Angelis dived past him at turn one, claiming the lead despite making contact with the Kalex. Marquez had scythed his way up to third with an inspired piece of riding, although Claudio Corti on the Italtrans Suter chased him all the way in pursuit of his first podium. Third wasn't enough to hold onto the championship lead but this time Marquez had struck a psychological blow with Bradl failing to win again.
A head-to-head showdown in the final two races looked like a mouth-watering prospect, with three points separating the two but for the second race running, events on Friday morning would prove critical. Again it involved Marquez but this time he was blameless. FP1 at Sepang in Malaysia was barely a minute old when the gravel trap at turn 11 became increasingly populated.
Rain was falling at that part of the circuit although there were no signs of any oil flags to warn the riders. Jules Cluzel was the first to go down and before the Frenchman had had chance to walk away, Marquez's Suter came cartwheeling towards him with the Spaniard thrown from his machine. That wasn't all as Bradley Smith slid off too with the Briton's body crashing into the debris, breaking his collarbone. Smith was out of the race altogether and Marquez's participation was doubtful at best.
Bradl had been presented with another golden opportunity but he hadn't bargained for a determined Thomas Luthi who pipped him to pole, his first in Moto2. Marquez did at least take part in qualifying, ending up in 36th, but simply to give himself time to recover as he was clearly short of fitness. The morning of the race gave us the news we all feared, he was out. Suddenly from a championship point of view, it was Match Point Bradl, if he won the race the title was his.
As in qualifying though, Luthi gave as good as he got, shadowing Bradl lap after lap. With three laps remaining of the 19-lapper, the Swiss rider made his move at the final hairpin, surging into the lead and moments later, he was greeted by a red flag, stopping the race. The cause was an accident involving Axel Pons who crashed before being struck by Kenny Noyes' FTR which was following him. A result was declared after 17 laps, meaning Bradl only needed to hang on for one more corner to be crowned champion. As it was, he would be forced to sweat it out in Valencia.
Events in Kuala Lumpur remained fresh in everybody's mind as the paddock convened for the season finale. In the MotoGP race which followed Luthi's maiden win, Marco Simoncelli was tragically killed in a horrendous accident. The mood was understandably sombre two weeks on but the Gresini team, who ran Marco in the premier class, bravely chose to race on.
The events of qualifying did much to put a smile on the faces of those involved with the Italian team as rain fell ten minutes in. That wouldn't cheer anyone up but Michele Pirro and Yuki Takahashi were first and second at the time, giving the team their first pole of the year. Marco's rain dance had clearly worked.
As in Malaysia, there was a sideshow taking place in the pits as everybody waited to see if Marc Marquez would take part. If he didn't qualify for the race, Bradl would be champion by default but the CatalunyaCaixa team were prepared to wait until the last possible moment. Marc was still suffering from double vision and the sight of him in his civvies during qualifying told us, and Stefan Bradl, all we needed to know. The championship was over. Bradl visited the Spaniard's garage during the qualifying session to offer his congratulations at the end of a fascinating season. Emilio Alzamora and the team responded with a warm round of applause to their season-long rival.
Bradl clearly wasn't bothered at qualifying fourth and didn't shine in the race either, crashing early on. With the two main men both out of action, the door was wide open for someone to claim a rare victory. Yuki Takahashi picked up the baton early on but a spectacular crash handed it over to teammate Pirro. The cold, drizzly weather conditions made life horrendously difficult but in Pirro's own words, “Marco did the rest from on high. He was with me throughout the race”. In the circumstances, there could have been no more fitting a winner for the Valencian GP and Pirro's victorious moment prompted team manager Fausto Gresini to burst into tears. He wasn't the only one. Mika Kallio rounded off a largely disappointing season with second while Dominique Aegerter claimed his first podium in third, receiving an impromptu hair cut from the Technomag team as a result.
In the midfield, Andrea Iannone and Alex de Angelis raced to the wire with third in the championship the prize. Iannone got the better of the JIR rider to finish 11th in the race but the bronze medal was his. De Angelis ended the year in fourth while Luthi's late win gave him fifth ahead of Simone Corsi.
The season came to a rather underwhelming finish for the Brits as Bradley Smith and Scott Redding both crashed out in Valencia. Smith showed his potential with a stunning run of podiums mid-season to claim seventh overall while Scott will see 2011 as a missed opportunity and will look to bounce back in 2012.
Stefan Bradl will follow in the footsteps of the championship's only other champion, in fact he's taking Elias' job at LCR Honda MotoGP, while Marquez will be back to try and clinch the title that evaded him this year.
It already leaves us eagerly anticipating another year of Moto2 and the category has already built an identity within two years. Packed grids and thrilling action are guaranteed. It also gives us a glimpse into MotoGP's future. As far as Marc Marquez is concerned, the future looks very bright but this year, it was his inexperience that cost him when it mattered most.
It's a shame that an injury eventually decided it but there can be no doubt that Stefan Bradl is a deserving champion. He was consistent, quick and calculating and always kept himself out of trouble. In 2011, he was indeed the last man standing.
2011 Moto2 Riders' Championship (Final Standings)
|1||Stefan Bradl||Kalex||Viessman Kiefer Racing||4||7||3||274|
|2||Marc Marquez||Suter||Team CatalunyaCaixa Repsol||7||7||2||251|
|3||Andrea Iannone||Suter||Speed Master||3||0||7||177|
|4||Alex de Angelis||Motobi||JIR Moto2||1||1||2||174|
|5||Thomas Luthi||Suter||Interwetten Paddock Moto2||1||1||0||151|
|6||Simone Corsi||FTR||Ioda Racing Project||0||0||0||127|
|7||Bradley Smith||Tech 3||Tech 3 Racing||0||0||1||121|
|9||Michele Pirro||Moriwaki||Gresini Racing Moto2||1||1||0||84|
|11||Yuki Takahashi||Moriwaki||Gresini Racing Moto2||0||0||0||77|
|12||Aleix Espargaro||Pons Kalex||Pons HP 40||0||0||0||76|
|13||Pol Espargaro||FTR||HP Tuenti Speed Up||0||0||1||75|
|14||Julian Simon||Suter||Mapfre Aspar Team Moto2||0||0||0||68|
|15||Scott Redding||Suter||Marc VDS Racing Team||0||0||0||63|
|16||Mika Kallio||Suter||Marc VDS Racing Team||0||0||0||61|
|18||R. Krummenacher||Kalex||GP Team Switzerland Kiefer||0||0||0||52|
|20||Max Neukirchner||MZ-RE Honda||MZ Racing Team||0||0||0||42|
|21||Jules Cluzel||Suter||NGM Forward Racing||0||0||0||41|
|22||Anthony West||MZ-RE Honda||MZ Racing Team||0||0||0||40|
|23||Mike Di Meglio||Tech 3||Tech 3 Racing||0||0||0||30|
|24||Mattia Pasini||FTR||Ioda Racing Project||0||0||0||28|
|25||Claudio Corti||Suter||Italtrans Racing Team||0||0||0||23|
|26||Xavier Simeon||Tech 3||Tech 3 B||0||0||0||23|
|27||Alex Baldolini||Pons Kalex||Pons HP 40||0||0||0||18|
|29||Kev Coghlan||FTR||Aeroport de Castello||0||0||0||11|
|30||Ratthapark Wilairot||FTR||Thai Honda Singha SAG||0||0||0||4|
|31||Ricard Cardus||Moriwaki||QMMF Racing Team||0||0||0||2|
|32||Axel Pons||Pons Kalex||Pons HP 40||0||0||0||1|