2012 may not be seen by the majority as a classic year for MotoGP as far as the on-track action was concerned. We’d all have loved to see overtaking and close fights at the front on a more regular basis but when it comes to the world’s finest riders and constructors excelling themselves, showing us exactly what makes them great, 2012 raised the bar once more. In the process, a two-time champion was crowned and another bid farewell to the sport, ensuring it will go down as another unforgettable year.
After ripping up the record books in 2011, all eyes were on Casey Stoner in the build-up to Qatar but the pressure was on the chasing pack to push him much further in the new season. Testing gave the impression that Yamaha were in a much better position to challenge, not just with factory riders Jorge Lorenzo and Ben Spies, but with the satellite machines from Tech 3 as Cal Crutchlow and Andrea Dovizioso showed promise.
Bologna’s finest were struggling though with Ducati’s second crack at providing Valentino Rossi with a winning bike seeming to go no better than their first. The GP12 was being comfortably outpaced by Yamaha’s YZR-M1 and Honda’s RC213V and was finding itself uncomfortably close in the pecking order to the new CRT machines. The new class, aimed to increase grid numbers, was being led by the Aspar team thanks to support from Aprilia and the inter-team CRT battle would prove to be one of the stories of the season.
From a British point of view, the first story unfolded on Saturday night in Qatar as Cal Crutchlow announced himself as a credible MotoGP frontrunner. The Coventry rider stuck his Tech 3 Yamaha on the front row for the first of seven times in 2012 with only the two most recent world champions ahead of him. The good news kept on coming for Yamaha as Lorenzo saw off Stoner in the battle for pole.
No matter how high you qualify though, there’s nothing you can do about the lightning starts of Dani Pedrosa who shot of his seventh place grid slot to take turn one in second. Stoner soon regained superiority at Repsol Honda before taking a two second lead over Lorenzo. Unfortunately for him, arm pump set in in the closing stages and Lorenzo would hand Yamaha a dream start to the year, beating Pedrosa by 0.8s. Stoner was powerless to do better than third but the top three were well clear of the Tech 3 teammates who’d run nose-to-tail throughout, Crutchlow pipping Dovizioso to fourth. Further back, Colin Edwards demonstrated the value of experience by taking the first ever CRT victory for Forward Racing but class rookie Stefan Bradl’s performance argued otherwise with the Moto2 champion finishing a fine eighth.
Ducati’s worst fears were realised as Nicky Hayden came home half a minute behind in sixth while Valentino Rossi trailed home tenth after a dust-up with Hector Barbera. The back-to-back trips to Spain and Portugal didn’t lift the gloom hanging over the Italian squad either with neither rider able to get near the top six.
On Spanish soil for round two, the country’s finest fought out a private battle for pole at Jerez, settled in favour of Lorenzo, but the pair were upstaged by Stoner on race day as the world champion put a nightmare qualifying session and continued arm pump behind him to beat Lorenzo to victory. Just a second separated the pair after 27 gripping laps with Pedrosa denying the impressive Crutchlow a first podium by an even smaller margin. Cal would only have a week to dwell on his latest close call as Estoril beckoned for the first back-to-back race of the year.
For the second weekend running, preparations were hampered by rain on Friday and the man who suffered the most was Lorenzo. Not only was he outpaced by both Repsol Hondas in qualifying, but Crutchlow pulled off another giantkilling act on the satellite YZR-M1 to take third ahead of the no.99. Cal would be forced into another Tech 3 scrap with teammate Dovizioso on race day, losing fourth to the Italian on this occasion, as the big three locked out the podium places. Pedrosa’s victory bid was hurt by a near highside at turn one but Honda clearly had the quickest package in Portugal, allowing Stoner to win his second race in a week, making history in the process. Estoril had been the only circuit on the calendar he’d yet to win at, but another supreme display put that to bed. Casey would be involved in another historic event next time the MotoGP circus convened.
On Thursday 13th May, 24 hours before the French Grand Prix weekend at Le Mans got underway, the reigning champion made the following announcement that stunned the motorsport world.
“After so many years of doing this sport which I love, and which myself and my family made so many sacrifices for, after so many years of trying to get to where we have gotten to at this point, this sport has changed a lot and it has changed to the point where I am not enjoying it. I don’t have the passion for it and so at this time it’s better if I retire now.”
“There are a lot of things that have disappointed me, and also a lot of things I have loved about this sport, but unfortunately the balance has gone in the wrong direction. And so, basically, we won’t be continuing any more. It would be nice if I could say I would stay one more year, but then where does it stop? So we decided to finish everything as we are now.”
With, in his own words, a weight lifted from his shoulders, Stoner concentrated on extending his one-point championship lead over Lorenzo. Qualifying was a good start with Casey second to his teammate while Tech 3 excelled again on home turf, Dovizioso this time beating Lorenzo to the final front row slot. The one thing Stoner could’ve done without was rain but that was exactly what he got.
Conversely, Ducati’s prayers had been answered as the wet conditions masked the deficiencies of the GP12. With Lorenzo cruising to an unchallenged victory and Honda struggling in the wet, Valentino Rossi came alive, renewing a classic MotoGP rivalry. As the race neared his conclusion, Rossi chased down the RC213V of Stoner before diving through at the Dunlop chicane on the 28th and final lap, securing Ducati’s best result in 21 races. Cal Crutchlow’s podium hunt continued after crashing while following Rossi but British fans did have success to celebrate in the CRT class with James Ellison the first of the new breed of bikes home in eleventh, a tremendous result for the Paul Bird team in their fourth GP.
Catalunya played host to the second of four Spanish showdowns and Honda were beginning to take a stranglehold on qualifying with Stoner on top again but the new-for-2012 1000cc machines were still proving problematic for the defending champions. The buzzword of the year was chatter and having complained about it through pre-season testing and on various occasions afterwards, the problem returned with a vengeance in Barcelona. Dani Pedrosa was more at ease on the sister bike and took the fight to Lorenzo but Yamaha’s number one was too strong, claiming another win.
Meanwhile, Yamaha’s second factory rider Ben Spies had been largely anonymous through the opening quarter of 2012 and Catalunya brought the latest in a long line of disappointments. After a lightning start, Spies challenged Pedrosa for the early lead but outbraked himself while doing so before falling over in the gravel trap. The continued success of the satellite riders wasn’t doing Ben any favours either with Dovizioso taking his Tech 3 machine to the podium, beating the chattering Honda of Stoner into fourth.
Another talking point in the Barcelona paddock was the future of Jorge Lorenzo with Honda chasing his services in place of the departing Stoner. But as Jorge said himself, Yamaha was “his family” and with the British Grand Prix days away, the Spaniard confirmed a two-year extension to his contract. One problem facing Honda, given the rule preventing rookies from riding factory bikes, was the absence of a ready-made successor to Stoner in the satellite teams. The rule would later be changed, opening the door for Moto2 champion-elect Marc Marquez, but five races into 2012, Honda’s 2013 line-up was surrounded in questions.
Stefan Bradl was impressing in the LCR team but San Carlo Honda Gresini were yet to see the best of Alvaro Bautista. The ex-Suzuki rider had joined the team in regrettable circumstances following Marco Simoncelli’s tragic death and a trio of sixth-places was all he had to show for so far, with Bradl catching the eye instead. Silverstone saw the arrival of Alvaro though, although he received a little help from the great British weather.
Eight minutes from the end of qualifying, Gresini’s no.19 grabbed top spot from Ben Spies and before any of the big hitters had a chance to respond, the rain intervened, securing a first career pole for Bautista. To prove it wasn’t a fluke, Alvaro translated pole into an excellent fourth on Sunday but once again, the podium places were taken care of by the big three. Lorenzo took advantage of a lack of front grip on Bridgestone’s new front tyre for the Repsol Hondas to win his third race in a row, leaving Stoner and Pedrosa to settle for the lower steps on the rostrum.
The thousands of British fans who’d packed the grandstands were put through the wringer as Cal Crutchlow hit trouble for the second year running. 12 months after failing to take the start, Crutchlow put himself in danger of a repeat with a crash at Chapel in Saturday Practice, spraining his ankle. After missing qualifying, Crutchlow bravely started from the back of the grid and delighted his supporters with a sensational ride to sixth, overtaking Nicky Hayden halfway around the final lap.
After being one of the stars of Silverstone, Alvaro Bautista became the villain of Assen within the first few metres of the race. After a rapid start from the third row of the grid, Bautista took the fight to the riders ahead before setting his sights on the braking zone for turn one. By the time he’d hit the brakes it was too late though and a crash was inevitable. Fortunately for the Repsol Hondas which qualified first and second, they were clear but third placed Jorge Lorenzo was powerless to avoid being wiped out. Bautista would be punished by being forced to start the German Grand Prix from the back of the grid but Lorenzo suffered the biggest hit as Stoner erased his 25 point championship lead with victory, putting a forceful move on teammate Pedrosa in the process.
While Bautista’s fate was already sealed, the rest of the field had to survive all sorts of conditions before securing a grid slot at the Sachsenring. A torrential storm earlier in the afternoon set the scene for mayhem with the track getting drier and drier throughout and after eleven changes of polesitter in the closing minutes, Casey Stoner secured pole from Spies and Pedrosa with Lorenzo getting lost in the shuffle and qualifying fifth.
A powerful performance from Repsol Honda in the race threatened to deprive Lorenzo of the championship lead he’d held since Le Mans but lady luck was wearing Yamaha blue in Germany. Keen to bounce back from his humbling in Holland, Dani Pedrosa took the fight to Stoner and led entering the final lap, showing no signs of budging under intense pressure. Instead it was Casey who cracked, sliding into the gravel trap and throwing away a certain 20 points in pursuit of 25. Pedrosa’s side of the garage weren’t complaining as the Spaniard finally secured his first win of the year but Lorenzo was even happier with a bonus second place. The final podium spot was inherited by Dovizioso, setting him off on a three-race podium streak, with Ben Spies fourth ahead of Stefan Bradl who took a career-best fifth on home soil.
Pedrosa’s reward for his well-earned victory was a renewed contract with Repsol Honda with Marc Marquez finally confirmed as Stoner’s replacement and Dani kept up the momentum with pole position at Mugello as Spain locked out the entire front row for the first time ever. Pedrosa and Lorenzo were expected but few had forecast third place on the grid for Pramac’s Hector Barbera, a stunning result. Equally strange was the lack of pace shown by Stoner who qualified fifth behind Nicky Hayden and race day didn’t go any better as the no.1 ended up eighth after a scruffy afternoon.
With Casey out of contention, victory was always going to be decided between Pedrosa and Lorenzo but in truth, the race was settled as a contest from the moment Jorge took the lead at turn one. The final podium spot went to Dovizioso again but not without a fight from Stefan Bradl who went one better than his Sachsenring effort.
Mugello would prove to be a turning point in the power struggle between Yamaha and Honda with Pedrosa and Stoner getting their hands on 2013-spec machinery in the post-race test. A successful outing saw the new parts remain on the motorcycle for Laguna Seca and but for some CRT traffic in qualifying, Stoner might have taken it to pole. Instead Lorenzo headed the grid by seven hundredths of a second.
Stoner would strike back in the race as his brave decision to start on soft tyres, against the common consensus in the pitlane, paid dividends. Lorenzo limited the damage to his championship lead to just five points by finishing second, giving him 32 points over Stoner heading into the summer break. Pedrosa’s consistency had given him a nine point lead over his teammate while the top three had separated themselves from the all-Tech 3 fight for fourth, led by 15 points by Dovizioso.
Laguna Seca wasn’t a race where the CRT bikes covered themselves in glory as all to reach the finish did so a lap down. In fact, they were lapped with a third of the race still to run. As far as their mini-championship was concerned, Aspar duo Randy de Puniet and Aleix Espargaro were locked together on 33 points, twice as many as their nearest challenger, Michele Pirro on the Gresini-run FTR-Honda.
The three-week summer break was anything but quiet as the future of Valentino Rossi came into question. Audi’s takeover of Ducati boosted their hopes of retaining the Italian but the feeling of victory was clearly being missed strongly by Valentino. The nine-time world champion had only accrued 82 points in ten races and a crash at the Corkscrew at Laguna was clearly the final straw. The Doctor had decided to return home and announced his decision to return to Yamaha in 2013.
With Rossi coming in, Ben Spies was looking elsewhere for a 2013 ride and a season which started poorly was showing no signs of improving for the luckless Texan. Despite a heavy fall in qualifying, Ben looked on course for a superb fourth at Laguna before an inexplicable swingarm failure at the Corkscrew put paid to that. Indianapolis also showed plenty of promise with Spies running second to a dominant Pedrosa only to see his engine go pop six laps into the race. Nothing was going right for Yamaha’s no.11.
Qualifying wasn’t without his problems either with Ben suffering an almighty highside which launched him upside down into the air. He wasn’t the only one though with the rear Bridgestone tyre struggling to cope with the heat, as well as the strain of the turn 13/14 left hander. Nicky Hayden was knocked out in a crash that would rule him out of the race at Indy, plus the following weekend at Brno, but the biggest blow of all struck Casey Stoner. The Australian was thrown from his bike with the landing causing a fractured left ankle. Somehow he raced the next day, bravely finishing fourth, but the damage forced him onto the sidelines and he wouldn’t be seen again for six weeks, missing three races in the process and effectively relinquishing his world crown.
Despite the loss of Stoner, Repsol Honda were on a roll and Pedrosa gave them more to celebrate in a thrilling Czech Republic Grand Prix. The three untouchables were now down to two and Dani and Jorge fought out a thrilling battle on the last lap before Pedrosa edged ahead at the very last corner, reducing the deficit in the title chase to thirteen points. Lorenzo himself paid tribute to his compatriot afterwards, admitting he’d been the “cleverer and braver” of the two. Brno also saw the long-awaited breakthrough for Cal Crutchlow who, fresh from extending his Tech 3 stay for another year, outraced Dovizioso for a well-deserved third place, becoming Britain’s first rostrum finisher in the premier class for twelve years.
With two thirds of the season completed, the title fight was a clear two-horse race between Lorenzo and Pedrosa with the two set for six more head-to-heads, the first coming at Misano. Repsol Honda were back to a full complement of riders in San Marino though with World Superbike frontrunner Jonathan Rea drafted in for his debut. He didn’t disgrace himself in his two outings either an eighth at Misano followed by a solid seventh in the next round at Aragon.
Having beaten Lorenzo to pole, Pedrosa sat on the grid eying up a hat-trick of MotoGP wins for the first time in his career but as so often in his career, ill-fortune would strike at the worst possible moment. After the start was aborted due to Karel Abraham’s problematic Ducati, the front wheel of the RC213V became locked due to a stuck tyre-warmer and the interference of his mechanics triggered a penalty, dropping him to the back of the grid. All wasn’t lost though as Dani sliced through the pack on lap one but at the Quercia bend, Hector Barbera slammed into the back of the Honda, eliminating him on the spot.
Lorenzo wasn’t going to pass up such a golden opportunity and eased to his sixth win of the year but Pedrosa’s plight opened up the other podium places. With neither Tech 3 rider filling the two other steps, up stepped Valentino Rossi on his final home appearance for Ducati to take his best result in red and white, a sensational second. The celebrations were matched by those at Gresini who had third place to celebrate courtesy of Alvaro Bautista, a fitting tribute to Marco Simoncelli at a circuit now bearing his name. Rossi was also quick to dedicate his result to Marco’s family.
Aragon brought another rain-affected weekend, a pattern throughout 2012, with qualifying the first dry session of the event. The disruption didn’t prevent Lorenzo and Pedrosa from taking first and second on the grid but Cal Crutchlow gave them a serious fright, missing out on a first GP pole by 0.172s. In the race, the Briton went into battle with his teammate once again, giving Herve Poncharal palpitations on the pitwall. Dovizioso’s edge under braking just about kept Crutchlow at bay by a margin smaller even than the gap from Cal to pole in qualifying. The fight between the top two was never as close with Pedrosa roaring past Lorenzo at the start of lap seven, going on to win by six seconds.
With the calamity at Misano, Pedrosa was now 33 points adrift despite his victory as Lorenzo concentrated on consistency but that ‘safety-first’ approach wasn’t without drama with the Yamaha nearly flicking him out of the seat moments after he lost the lead. Ducati’s Nicky Hayden wasn’t so lucky when he lost control of his motorcycle as a head-on collision with the tyre barrier threw him over the wall in sickening fashion.
The season was now into its final stretch with just the Asia triple header and the finale at Valencia remaining and Casey Stoner’s farewell tour kicked off at Motegi with his return to action. The Australian’s focus was understandably on his final home GP at Phillip Island and decided to give himself two races to get back up to speed. Seventh in qualifying and fifth in the race were decent results under the circumstances as the Spanish dominance continued.
While Lorenzo could afford to lose five points per race and still take the title, the races were following a worrying similar pattern. The Yamaha would strike the first blow in qualifying only to see the Honda motor past in the race, allowing Pedrosa to help himself to a fourth win in five races. As in Aragon, Jorge led the early stages but was powerless to prevent his fellow countryman from breezing past. Another Yamaha-Honda battle was raging for the final podium spot between Cal Crutchlow and Alvaro Bautista with both eying a second visit to the rostrum. In the end, Alvaro completed a Spanish clean sweep of the top three after Bautista edged past the Briton at turn nine before Cal was cruelly halted by an empty fuel tank.
An emotional weekend in Malaysia followed hot on the heels on Motegi as the teams assembled for the first Grand Prix at Sepang since the tragic events of October 2011. The paddock united on the Thursday of the event to place a plaque at turn eleven, the corner where Marco Simoncelli lost his life, and the likeable Italian was on the minds of everybody throughout the weekend.
There was plenty for Jorge Lorenzo to ponder as well with the Malaysian Grand Prix presenting his first championship point, although he needed to outscore Pedrosa by 23 points to do so. Jorge made the ideal start with pole position but he’d done that in the previous two races only to follow Pedrosa home. His chances seemed to have been boosted by a deluge of pre-race rain, conditions that had never favoured Dani in the past. This was a different Dani Pedrosa though and Repsol Honda’s new number one stormed to the hat-trick that eluded him at Misano, despite torrential rain which ended up bringing the race to an early end. Lorenzo was second again and dodged another bullet when his Yamaha aquaplaned under braking, somehow staying on board his motorcycle. The early stoppage was another stroke of luck for Jorge who looked set to be overhauled by a rejuvenated Stoner.
Lorenzo escaped from Kuala Lumpur still with a 23 point advantage and only two races left to hang on to it but he’d have to finish the year without regular teammate Ben Spies whose season was ended, without a single podium finish, by a separated shoulder, cracked rib and bruised lung sustained in a crash in the Malaysian rain. Test rider Katsuyuki Nakasuga would fill the void for the final two races.
For the locals, the Australian Grand Prix was all about one man, and not the one chasing a second world title. Before a wheel was turned, Casey Stoner was honoured with a corner named after him with turn three now called “Stoner bend”. As it turned out, Casey owned every inch of Phillip Island as he dominated from start to finish, at times lapping a second quicker than everybody else. A crushing victory was the perfect way to say goodbye.
The finishing order behind Stoner would be crucial to the championship battle with Lorenzo needing to outscore Pedrosa by three points to wrap it up. A potentially thrilling showdown came to a rather anti-climactic conclusion on lap two of the race when Pedrosa, mindful that he had to go for broke, slid out of the race while trying to keep his teammate behind him. Lorenzo now required just two points but cruised home in second to clinch a thoroughly deserved second world title. Cal Crutchlow put in the best ride of his career to finish a comfortable third, ensuring everyone on the podium was ecstatic with their achievements.
The title was still decided but there was still plenty to race for at Valencia, particularly the winner of the CRT class. Aleix Espargaro could still be mathematically caught by Randy de Puniet and the Frenchman sent out a warning that he wasn’t going to give up without a fight, especially if rain was going to mix the racing up, by topping Friday Practice in miserable conditions. A situation of relative normality was restored in qualifying as Pedrosa took pole from Lorenzo and Stoner but rain before the start threw everything up in the air. Pedrosa, Hayden, Crutchlow and Bautista all ended up starting from the pitlane on slicks with some going for wets and it was Espargaro, of all people, who led on lap one having taken that very gamble.
On a drying track, slicks were always going to the right choice and Lorenzo tiptoed around quickly enough to inherit the lead when the wet-shod runners pitted. Despite starting from the pit lane, Pedrosa shot up to second and when Lorenzo crashed while trying to lap James Ellison, he inherited a lead that extended to almost a minute by the finish. Having followed Pedrosa out of the pit lane, Cal Crutchlow looked set to follow him across the finish line as well but he also tumbled late on, handing a shock second to Nakasuga on the second factory Yamaha. Casey Stoner rounded off his career with a podium after chasing down Alvaro Bautista in the latter stages. After their amazing starts, the Aspar riders faded to eleventh and twelfth but that was more than enough for Espargaro to take the CRT honours overall. Michele Pirro secured third in class and had the honour of claiming the best single result for a CRT machine by taking a magnificent fifth in Valencia.
Lorenzo’s overall margin of victory was eighteen points over Pedrosa with Stoner 94 back thanks to his mid-season layoff. Andrea Dovizioso was an excellent fourth having scored points in seventeen of the eighteen races and will now fill the seat vacated by Valentino Rossi at Ducati. The Doctor was sixth overall behind Alvaro Bautista but ahead of Cal Crutchlow who will have Bradley Smith for company in 2013. Three DNFs in the final four races ultimately cost the Briton when fifth in the championship looked achievable.
A new era began in 2012 with 1000cc motorcycles taking over while CRT bikes offered a possible glimpse into the future but this season also saw the final chapter in a majestic career for Casey Stoner who bows out with 38 premier class victories and a brace of MotoGP world titles. He is now joined in the record books by as a double champion Jorge Lorenzo and few can say the 25 year old didn’t deserve the crown. He may not have won the most races but this world championship was contested over eighteen events, and champions aren’t crowned by fluke. Jorge’s relentless pace and unmatched consistency were too much for the very best Honda could throw at him and it will take an almighty effort to stop no.99 from becoming number one for a third time next season.
|2012 MotoGP Riders’ Championship (Final Standings)|
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