2017 Moto2 Season Review: Franky Steps Up

by Louis Suddaby

On the face of it, the 2017 Moto2 world championship looked wide open. Three of last year’s top five had moved up to MotoGP with reigning champion Johann Zarco departing, taking multiple winners Alex Rins, Sam Lowes and Jonas Folger with him. For the first time in years, the intermediate class had undergone a refresh of talent, leaving one important question. Who would step up?

The championship-winning Ajo team had also received a makeover of sorts, welcoming KTM into the class along with their former Moto3 pairing of Miguel Oliveira and Brad Binder. Sky Racing Team VR46 were also represented in Moto2 for the first time with Francesco Bagnaia returning to the fold but a number of the established squads remained unchanged.

The chief among those was Estrella Galicia 0,0 Marc VDS with Alex Marquez and Franco Morbidelli retained but the rider they were all going to have to beat was Thomas Luthi. The 2016 championship runner-up was preparing to embark upon his eighth consecutive Moto2 season having stayed with Interwetten and surely lined up for the opener at Losail as title favourite.

The bizarre sight of rain in Qatar greeted the riders for qualifying, handing Morbidelli pole position after the grid was determined by free practice teams. On race day, the Italian enjoyed an equally trouble-free night as the Marc VDS rider cruised to his maiden victory, laying down a marker to Luthi who could only manage a distant second. KTM had enjoyed a strong start, Oliveira narrowly missing out on a rostrum to Takaaki Nakagami, but their intent was already clear.

If it wasn’t, it certainly was in Argentina as the Portuguese rider stormed to a stunning pole position at Termas de Rio Hondo. He couldn’t match the pace of the Marc VDS duo in the race, but late drama up ahead would see him claim second spot. Having seen Morbidelli take a first Moto2 win, Alex Marquez had intentions of doing the same but in his desperate attempts to challenge his team-mate on the final lap, the Spaniard high-sided, allowing Morbidelli to make it two out of two from Oliveira and Luthi.

Danny Kent had endured a steady start to the season with Kiefer Racing who were now using Suter chassis but midway through the COTA weekend, relations soured to the point that the Briton quit the team. It was the first in a serious of difficult moments for the team who would later see a victory stripped from them due to technical irregularities and their team boss Stefan Kiefer tragically pass away on the eve of the Malaysian GP.

For Morbidelli and Marc VDS, the season was going far better than they could’ve imagined, Morbidelli outclassing Luthi and Nakagami to win in Texas, and as the series arrived in Europe for the first time, both team and rider were unbeaten in 2017. At Jerez though, only one of those records would remain intact with Franco suffering a surprising crash while fighting Marquez for the lead. In a role reversal of Argentina, Alex would stay upright this time and a first intermediate class victory was his.

The Spanish Grand Prix was also notable for the first real breakthrough from one of the class’ rookies. Brad Binder had seen his season cruelly interrupted by a broken wrist but Francesco Bagnaia was impressing, taking second behind Marquez at Jerez. The Sky VR46 rider proved his performance was no flash in the pan by qualifying on the front row and matching his Jerez result at Le Mans. Victory wasn’t out of the question halfway around the final lap but the steely nerve of Morbidelli kept the rapid rookie at bay, Franco returning to winning ways.

Four wins out of five was handy preparation for Morbidelli’s home Grand Prix and Italian fans had every reason to believe a home win was on the cards once the championship leader took pole position. They were right, but it wouldn’t be home victor they were expecting. With one lap remaining and Franco floundering down in fourth, the hopes of the supporters rested on Mattia Pasini. Only Thomas Luthi and Alex Marquez stood in the way.

The Italtrans rider proceeded to produce one of the laps of the year, scything past Marquez at Savelli before outbraking Luthi into Arrabbiata. Two overtaking manoeuvres in two corners to secure a first victory in eight years, all of that in front of your home crowd. If Mattia had scripted the dream scenario for his return to the winner’s circle, it would have surely panned out a little like that.

Pasini ended his drought in style at Mugello (Photo Credit: MotoGP.com)

Pasini followed his fairy-tale victory with a solid second in Barcelona, only for technical irregularities to wipe him out of the result. The race itself was largely forgettable with Marquez taking his second Spanish victory of the season ahead of Luthi but Morbidelli was having something of a mid-season dip, trailing home in a lonely fifth.

Despite boasting four victories to Luthi’s zero, Morbidelli only enjoyed a seven-point lead as he arrived at Assen. The Cathedral rarely produces disappointing racing and this year’s instalment was no exception as five riders fought it out at the front but Morbidelli, in true champion’s fashion, responded to his recent disappointments by holding off Luthi and Nakagami with Pasini and Oliveira also in close attendance.

The final race before the summer break brought one of the season’s key moments. Luthi, who had barely put a foot wrong throughout the season as he kept pace with Morbidelli, crashed out the German Grand Prix while trying to do exactly that. Despite a late threat from a fast-closing Oliveira, Franco punished his Swiss rival to the full with 25 points for the victory, moving him 37 clear as the Moto2 season packed up for the summer.

If such an advantage had lulled Franco into a false sense of security, that quickly disappeared at Brno when a mid-race rain shower threw everything into chaos. Pasini was enjoying a narrow lead from Morbidelli but in the six lap sprint that followed in wet conditions, Luthi emerged from the pack to snatch his first win of the campaign. Marquez salvaged second for Marc VDS but Morbidelli ensured a miserable race once the wet tyres had been fitted, sinking all the way down to eighth.

Luthi finally opened his account at Brno (Photo Credit: MotoGP.com)

The battle was back on at the head of the championship and the two would find themselves in direct competition once again in Austria. Unfortunately for Luthi, the wet weather wouldn’t intervene this time and the race boiled down to a battle of tactics, and late braking. This tilted the balance back towards Morbidelli who judged the race to perfection, earning him win number seven, while Marquez completed a perfect afternoon for Marc VDS by beating Luthi to second.

A move to MotoGP was already official for the champion-elect but in the run up to Silverstone, Takaaki Nakagami also booked his spot in the premier class for 2018 having signed with LCR Honda. The Japanese rider marked his graduation in perfect style with a classy victory at Silverstone, his first for over a year, and one that was universally popular throughout the paddock. Pasini produced a late charge to grab second, his first rostrum since the victory at Mugello (or at least the first he was allowed to keep), with Morbidelli extending his lead still further after pipping Luthi to third.

Once again, the Marc VDS team leader seemed to have the championship under control but, following the pattern of the season, events next time out would bring Luthi right back in touch. Just as in Brno, the great leveller came in the form of torrential rain and although Dominique Aegerter would take the chequered flag for a long-overdue victory, an oil irregularity saw him disqualified from the race, handing a valuable 25 points to Luthi, especially valuable considering Morbidelli had crashed out of an unchallenged lead early in the Grand Prix.

Sadly for Thomas, his championship challenge rather peaked at Misano with Aragon the race where his hopes began to fade. Fourth in Aragon was nowhere near enough, especially with Morbidelli winning a fierce final-lap fight with Pasini for the victory, while the flyaway races brought more crushing disappointment. Heavy rain at Motegi didn’t bring the same good fortune as Misano, as Thomas struggled his way to eleventh, before a lighter shower in Phillip Island sent him spiralling down to tenth. An enormous high-side at Sepang brought his title challenge to an end once and for all due to a broken ankle, leaving the Swiss star to settle for second place once more, just as he had twelve months prior. A move to MotoGP with Marc VDS was hardly a bad consolation prize but after another terrific year, the intermediate class title had passed him by yet again.

Given Thomas’ troubles, Morbidelli’s eighth place at a rain-hit Motegi was actually a solid result in context. Marc VDS still won the race too, with Marquez bouncing back from a hip injury which forced him to throw in the towel at Aragon. The Japanese Grand Prix also saw two of Moto2’s unsung heroes rewarded with some well-deserved success as Xavi Vierge, the only rider in recent years able to make the Tech 3 Mistral work, finished a fine second while Hafizh Syahrin demonstrated his wet-weather prowess once again by rounding off the podium.

KTM had continued to impress throughout their debut campaign, even if they hadn’t necessarily hit the heights of Argentina back in April. This would all change in Phillip Island as a new giant of Moto2 was awoken. Armed with a full-strength rider pairing once again after Binder’s early season injuries, the Red Bull Ajo duo would go on to dominate the final three rounds, starting with Oliveira’s maiden win at Phillip Island.

KTM would end the year as the team to beat (Photo Credit: MotoGP.com)

The Portuguese youngster was unable to stop winning once he had broken his duck in Moto3 and the trend continued one class further up the ladder. Miguel was simply in a class of his own at Sepang as he led home Binder for the team’s second consecutive 1-2 while Morbidelli joined them on the podium, allowing him to celebrate the biggest achievement of his life in style. A combination of third place, and Luthi’s ill-timed injury, had seen him crowned 2017 Moto2 world champion.

Franco couldn’t quite sign off with victory in Valencia, the unstoppable Oliveira seeing to that, but no-one could argue that he wasn’t a worthy champion. Oliveira’s dominance of the final three races will surely cement his status as the runaway favourite for next season but 2017 will go down as Franco’s year, a year where a regular podium threat became the gold standard in the intermediate class.

Thomas Luthi, so often the measuring stick in Moto2, finally bows out of the class as runner-up, while Oliveira and Marquez ended the year third and fourth respectively, perhaps sowing the seeds for a title battle between the two next year. Francesco Bagnaia clinched a well-earned Rookie of the Year title in fifth ahead of Pasini and Nakagami while Binder took eighth despite missing three races early on.

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