Given the way 2015 ended, the 2016 MotoGP season was as eagerly anticipated as any in the championship’s history. The previous campaign concluded against a backdrop of acrimony and anger amongst the fan-base of the sport’s most popular figure who had already written the script in their minds for 2016. It would be the year of Valentino Rossi’s revenge.
Most of the vitriol was being directed at Marc Marquez but MotoGP’s public enemy number one had enough to worry about within his own team as Repsol Honda limped towards the start line. With an overly-powerful engine that the now-mandatory ECU was struggling to tame and a team experimenting with development after development to remedy the problems, preparation for the two-time champion couldn’t have gone much worse.
All roads seemed to point towards the defending champion Jorge Lorenzo with Yamaha enjoying a trouble-free winter programme with their YZR-M1 and the Spaniard dominating the pre-season tests at Sepang and Losail. The new regulations promised to close the field up behind him though which was news to the ears of Ducati and Suzuki, who both boasted unchanged rider line-ups and much-improved machinery.
The grid included just the one rookie, in the shape of 2014 Moto2 champion Tito Rabat, but the newcomers under the most intense of spotlights heading into Qatar were Michelin who had replaced Bridgestone as tyre-suppliers. A high-speed failure for Loris Baz in Malaysia brought unwanted headlines for the French company but with most riders struggling to unlock the secrets to success on the 2016 tyres, Michelin provided the most exciting unknown heading into the Losail curtain raiser.
The more things change, as they say, the more things stay the same and sure enough, Lorenzo converted his testing performance into pole position ahead of the impressive Marquez and Maverick Vinales. Ducati can always be relied on to figure at the front in Qatar and Andrea Iannone did just that, leading until a crash on lap six, and although team-mate Andrea Dovizioso picked up the mantle, the Italian manufacturer’s winning drought continued courtesy of Lorenzo. ‘Dovi’ took second for the second year in a row while Marquez saw off Rossi for a morale-boosting podium.
With the exception of a fastest lap for Lorenzo on 20-lap-old rubber, Michelin’s return hadn’t shaken up the competitive order just yet but they were certainly in the centre of a storm when MotoGP arrived in Argentina. In Free Practice 4, Scott Redding suffered a high-speed delamination of his rear tyre, sending shockwaves up and down the pitlane with no immediate explanation available for the failure. With the durability of the tyres now in question, Race Direction opted to shorten the race distance and run the Grand Prix under flag-to-flag rules, including a mandatory mid-race bike change.
Such a race format would’ve brought back uncomfortable memories for Marc Marquez, given Honda’s calamitous error in Australia three years prior, but the Spaniard’s record at Termas de Rio Hondo is formidable and true to form, he led away from pole position in damp conditions. The wet patches certainly weren’t to Jorge Lorenzo’s liking, as he proved by crashing on one in the early stages, leaving Valentino Rossi to give a fruitless chase after the no.93.
The bike changes turned the race on its head as Rossi fell away dramatically, falling to fourth, but an extraordinary finish promoted him back into second. Andrea Dovizioso and Andrea Iannone looked set to secure a welcome double podium for Ducati but a botched overtaking move from Iannone, as crazy as it was ambitious, skittled both out of the race within sight of the flag. Dani Pedrosa inherited the last rostrum spot after Vinales had crashed ahead of him while Eugene Laverty navigated his way through all the chaos to steal fourth on the final lap.
Iannone went some way to redeeming himself with third next time out in Texas but dreadful luck continued to haunt Dovizioso who was wiped out by an out-of-control Pedrosa. At the front, Marquez did what he always does in America, win, to extend his record to two wins from three starts in 2016. Lorenzo bounced back to form with a comfortable, albeit distant second, but Yamaha were struggling to put together a clean weekend early in the year with Rossi the man to crash out this time.
Yamaha’s inconsistency meant Marquez arrived back in Europe with a 21 point cushion over Lorenzo with Rossi a further twelve back. The Doctor flexed his muscles at Jerez though with one his most comprehensive displays since returning to Yamaha, taking pole position and winning by a distance. To add to Yamaha’s relief, both factory M1 riders excelled this time with the Ducati-bound Lorenzo completing a 1-2 for the team but Marquez was beginning to put an impressively consistent run together, following them home in third.
His impending switch to Bologna was the talk of the paddock at Le Mans but Lorenzo was far from distracted in France, proving every bit as dominant as Rossi had in Spain. The defending champion turned the tables on his teammate with Yamaha claiming maximum points once again and this time, it was Marquez’s turn to suffer a hiccup. The championship leader was battling Rossi for second when the front end of his Honda washed away at La Musée, and although he remounted to score points in thirteenth, his early head-start in the title race had disappeared.
It wasn’t just Marquez who fell with the luckless Dovizioso crashing at exactly the same moment, continuing his disastrous start to 2016. With Iannone also tumbling out of the podium fight, Maverick Vinales stepped forward to take the first podium of his MotoGP career and Suzuki’s first since returning to the series. This all came against the backdrop of intense speculation that he would fill the vacancy left by Lorenzo at Yamaha, speculation that would be proven correct before the next round in Barcelona.
Sadly though, any silly season speculation would be put into perspective by a moment of tragedy on Friday afternoon in Montmeló as Luis Salom lost his life in a Moto2 practice crash. The paddock was united in its grief but divided on the circuit changes implemented to ensure the event would continue. Turn twelve, the corner where Salom lost control, was replaced by the Formula One chicane while that tweak forced a change to turn ten, also reflecting the four wheel layout.
Marquez had taken pole position with the Yamaha riders particularly outspoken about the reconfiguration, a change which didn’t appear to favour the YZR-M1, but Rossi rebounded on race day to engage in a thrilling head-to-head with his arch-rival. The two swapped places repeatedly before the Italian ultimately prevailed to take Yamaha’s winning streak to four. Little did we know, they wouldn’t win again until the season finale.
For Jorge Lorenzo, his slump out of championship contention started here with Andrea Iannone sending his stock within Ducati to an all-time low by punting their 2017 signing out of fifth place. Bologna could still take solace in the reliability of Andrea Dovizioso though and at long last, his luck was starting to turn as shown with a superb run to pole position at Assen.
This had taken place in wet conditions and the weather hardly improved by race day. Few on Ducati machinery were complaining though with Yonny Hernandez storming into a shock early lead while Rossi was surrounded by riders from the factory and Pramac Ducati squads in the chasing group. As Hernandez succumbed to the pressure twelve laps in, this became a scrap for the lead but with the rain now reaching monsoon levels, the race was red flagged in the interest of safety.
Once the rain relented, a twelve lap sprint for victory ensued but even over such a short distance, the Dutch TT descended into a race of attrition. Cal Crutchlow and Dovizioso both slid out of the leading group before Rossi crashed from the very front of it, handing the lead to Marquez who could barely believe his luck. With Lorenzo anonymous in his least favourite conditions, Marc moved into championship mode and wasn’t prepared to risk an accident if an aggressive rider with nothing to lose came after him. That challenge duly arrived, extraordinarily, in the form of 1000/1 shot Jack Miller who showed remarkable skill and maturity to claim his first MotoGP victory for Marc VDS, ending a ten year wait for an independent winner. Scott Redding also shone to pip Pol Espargaro to third while Lorenzo was relieved simply to stay upright, crawling home in ninth.
To make matters worse for the defending champion, the German Grand Prix took place in very similar conditions. The end-result was once of Lorenzo’s worst races as a MotoGP rider as his demons struck again, leaving him down in twelfth place. On the other side of the garage, Rossi wasn’t finding confidence an issue but executing a mistake-free race was proving beyond him. With a podium in his grasp, at the very least, Rossi repeated his Misano 2015 error by ignoring his pit-board imploring him to switch bikes in drying conditions. Having recognised his mistake far too late, ‘The Doctor’ tumbled to eighth.
Meanwhile, Marquez couldn’t put a foot wrong having timed his bike swap to absolute perfection. The Repsol Honda man transformed a top six spot to a dominant victory with his exquisite timing and sensational skill on slick tyres, leading home a revitalised Crutchlow by ten seconds. Yamaha’s self-destruction had serious championship ramifications with Marquez 48 points clear of Lorenzo and 59 ahead of Rossi heading into the summer break.
The season resumed with a return to the Red Bull Ring in Austria and the championship battle would take a back seat on a circuit which appeared tailor-made for Ducati. The long straights and tight corners played perfectly to the Desmosedici GP’s strengths and this was one own goal the Italian manufacturer wouldn’t miss, ending its victory drought with a 1-2. The honour of ending those six years of hurt would ironically go the rider they had deemed surplus to requirements at the end of the year, Iannone edging out Dovizioso to take his first win in a moment of redemption for the much-criticised Italian.
Lorenzo edged out Rossi and Marquez for third in Spielberg but his return to form was quickly nipped in the bud by at Brno by a return of the wet weather which caused him such difficulty in the two rounds prior. Although the pace was much improved, Jorge destroyed his tyres in a race where conditions gradually improved, forcing him into the pits and out of the points.
The fight for victory was a fascinating tactical game of cat and mouse as the Ducatis bolted out in front early on softer wet Michelins, anticipating a mid-race bike change for slicks. Cal Crutchlow had plummeted to the tail-end of the points positions early on after picking the harder compound but when the bike-swaps never came and tyre wear became a major factor, the Briton picked off his rivals at will. The reward for the LCR rider’s tactical masterstroke couldn’t have been greater as he became the first British premier class winner since Barry Sheene, leading home Rossi who for once had made the right call in changing conditions and also picked the harder tyre. Marquez, true to form, rode a calm and calculated race to third.
Crutchlow’s breakthrough victory couldn’t have come at a better time with the British GP next on the schedule. Bradley Smith wouldn’t be there to fly the flag though after breaking his leg on Yamaha EWC duty, adding injury to the insult of a disastrous season, giving Alex Lowes the chance to step in for his MotoGP debut on home turf. Not to be outdone by Assen, the Sachsenring or Brno, Silverstone got in on the act with torrential rain for qualifying and the British number one was the bravest of the brave, Crutchlow claiming a stunning pole position ahead of Rossi and Vinales.
After the initial start was aborted following a horror crash involving Pol Espargaro and Loris Baz, Vinales was fastest out of the blocks when the race finally got underway. The Suzuki star gapped the field immediately as the likes of Rossi and Marquez squabbled with Crutchlow in the chase group, only they weren’t giving chase. No matter who fought their way into second, nobody could match Maverick’s pace out in front as the gap grew and grew. Once Andrea Iannone, the only man with an answer to Vinales’ pace, crashed moments after taking second himself, victory was in the bag and MotoGP’s future was suddenly very much it’s present, Vinales joining the ranks of debut winners in 2016 with home favourite Crutchlow in second.
Rossi was now the nearest championship challenger to Marquez and after a late mistake from the Spaniard at Stowe, he pipped him to third. Despite that, Valentino returned to Misano fifty points in arrears and in desperate need of a home victory. Once he had seen off the early threat from Lorenzo, doing so with a manoeuvre that riled his team-mate in the post-race press conference, Rossi looked on course to claim maximum points but an eighth different winner in as many races was about to emerge from the shadows.
Save for a couple of distant podium finishes in Argentina and Catalunya, MotoGP hadn’t seen the best of Dani Pedrosa but the 30 year old was inspired, overhauling his team-mate before proceeding to do him the biggest of favours by relentlessly chasing down the Yamaha duo. Lorenzo and Rossi were powerless to prevent Pedrosa from powering past in the closing stages as he claimed his first win of the year, reducing Rossi and Lorenzo’s points haul into the bargain, minimizing the damage to fourth-placed Marquez’s championship advantage.
Marc’s lead stood at 43 points heading into Aragon and it soon became clear that the cautious Marquez who had chosen to bank the points in recent rounds hadn’t shown up to Motorland. The championship leader was back to his aggressive best, taking a dominant pole position before overcoming a shaky start to beat both Yamaha men. Lorenzo was also starting to resemble his old self again, beating Rossi to second, but with the three Asia-Pacific flyaways coming up, both riders knew their next mistake would ultimately prove decisive.
Qualifying in Motegi couldn’t have gone better as far as the no.46 camp were concerned, Rossi pipping Marquez to pole, but the Spaniard snatched the lead immediately, a move which forced Valentino into that decisive error. Running an increasingly distant second, Rossi lost the front end of his YZR-M1 and was out on the spot, not only of the race, but of mathematical championship contention too.
Lorenzo was now the only challenger left but the pain suffered in a practice crash was starting to tell and under pressure from Dovizioso and the two Suzukis, Jorge cracked as well. With both Yamaha riders out of play, Marquez waltzed to his fifth win of the year and remarkably, his fifth world title with three races to spare. The championship was vindication for the approach that had been taken by the ‘new Marc Marquez’, the man who wasn’t averse to exercising caution with the bigger picture in mind. With the title secure now though, the ‘old Marc Marquez’ was now being let off the leash for Australia.
Phillip Island’s old habits hadn’t changed though with its notoriously unpredictable weather wreaking havoc with the weekend. Yamaha were struggling to shake off their own bad habits as they made a complete hash of Saturday practice, forcing not one, but both riders into Q1. Lorenzo managed to sneak through in a session where track conditions changed rapidly, but Rossi was less fortunate and would have to start from fifteenth.
With the championship pressure lifted, Marquez was operating at a level no-one could get close to, taking pole position with ease, but this was the ‘old Marc Marquez’ we were dealing with and after walking the tightrope between genius and disaster, Marc finally came unstuck at the Honda hairpin on lap ten. Rossi had made impressive progress from his lowly grid slot but he couldn’t make it any higher than second. The reason for this was the brilliance of Cal Crutchlow who produced another world class display to become a two-time MotoGP winner, holding off Rossi and Vinales.
Sepang played host to the penultimate round of the season and much to everyone’s relief, the explosive controversy and poisonous atmosphere of twelve months prior wouldn’t be repeated. More wet weather shaped the Grand Prix weekend with Andrea Dovizioso beating both Yamaha riders to pole position before a five-way race of attrition in similar conditions on Sunday.
One by one, they fell by the wayside. First Cal Crutchlow tumbled at turn two, followed by Marquez shortly afterwards, before Andrea Iannone took himself out of another likely podium finish. This left Dovizioso and Rossi to battle it out at the front and much to everyone’s surprise, the prolific winner was the one to crack first, sliding wide at turn one. Dovizioso was wheel-perfect, ensuring that MotoGP would go into uncharted territory with a ninth different winner, Dovi taking his second premier class win some nine years after his first. Rossi could at least console himself knowing the championship runner-up spot was secure.
The mood for the season finale in Valencia was much more relaxed than usual with an end-of-term atmosphere combined with an eye for the future, with many riders preparing to switch teams once Sunday’s race had concluded. Jorge Lorenzo was the most high-profile of those names and with his success at Mugello the last time Yamaha had topped a rostrum, the outgoing champion was intent on giving his team a farewell victory.
His performance on Sunday was a welcome reminder of Lorenzo’s quality. The Spaniard was at his metronomic best as he pulled out a sizeable lead over Marquez, Rossi and Andrea Iannone. Although the new champion eventually broke clear of his Italian adversaries to give chase, the former champion was too strong in the end, giving him a first win since Mugello and a final win in Yamaha blue. Marquez took second while Iannone bested Rossi, giving him a celebratory farewell to Ducati.
Given the way 2015 concluded, 2016 was a welcome change, even if the title wasn’t on the line in the season closer. Perhaps the greatest reason the acrimony had subsided is that this year’s championship had been won as conclusively as it could’ve been. Even in a season of nine different winners, one man stood head and shoulders above the rest. MotoGP is unquestionably living in a golden era, but its golden boy is unquestionably Marc Marquez.
2016 MotoGP Riders’ Championship (Final Standings)
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