Hindsight is a wonderful thing but we really should have seen this coming. 2016 saw a stellar crop of rookies impress as Nicolo Bulega, Fabio Di Giannantonio, Aron Canet and Khairul Idham Pawi all served notice that they would be a serious part of Grand Prix racing’s future. They were all beaten to the Rookie of the Year crown though by the quiet, unassuming Spaniard Joan Mir and with a year’s experience behind him, a monster would be awakened in 2017.
The lightweight class was expected to be wide open this year with reigning champion Brad Binder departing for Moto2 along with Francesco Bagnaia, Jorge Navarro and Pawi, but Mir asserted his dominance immediately with victories in each of the opening two races in Qatar and Argentina. British Talent Team’s John McPhee led the chase in both of the opening races, kicking off his campaign with two second-places, while Jorge Martin was beginning to show his class having swapped Aspar’s Mahindra for Gresini’s Honda, taking back-to-back rostrums.
Of all the 2016 rookies, Aron Canet was surely the one to fall short of expectations but the Estrella Galicia rider was a changed rider second time around. The Circuit of the Americas was where he really stepped for the fore as he dominated free practice and qualifying, often lapping a second per lap faster than anyone else in the field. Victory seemed to be a formality, but the bad boy of Moto3 was about to hand him a bloody nose.
Romano Fenati’s Grand Prix career was at something of a crossroad midway through 2016 when he was unceremoniously fired by Sky VR46 following a much-publicised fallout. However, the Italian had been handed another chance by Marinelli Rivacold Snipers and at COTA, Romano justified that faith in magnificent fashion, forcing Canet into a race-ending error before waltzing clear to victory, his first for almost a year.
After the biggest disappointment of his career to-date, Canet’s response at Jerez was impressive to say the least. Running third approaching the notorious Lorenzo corner, the Spaniard produced a sensational last-gasp overtake to outbrake Fenati and Mir, snatching a maiden victory within sight of the flag. The trio had been forced to fend off a new challenger throughout the Spanish GP as Marcos Ramirez announced himself on the scene with a stunning fourth for Platinum Bay Real Estate.
The breakout star of the junior class would match his Jerez result with another fourth at Le Mans but the French Grand Prix would be remembered for an extraordinary beginning. After tangling with three other riders on lap one, Adam Norrodin dropped fluids from his Honda around the rest of the circuit starting at La Chapelle. What followed bordered on farcical as the pack, powerless to stay upright as they hit the danger zone, tumbled into the gravel trap one-by-one. Over a third of the field were wiped out and the race was understandably red flagged. The restarted race passed off mercifully without a repeat, although Fenati suffered a costly crash while battling for the victory with Mir. The championship leader was unchallenged from there.
Mugello saw a different kind of chaos but this time, Moto3 provided the perfect showcase of lightweight motorcycle racing as no fewer than 21 riders disputed the victory in a slipstream-fest for the ages. Ten different riders led the race at one stage during the Grand Prix with three men left on the final lap chasing a maiden victory. In the end, Andrea Migno pipped Fabio Di Giannantonio in an all-Italian photo finish while Juanfran Guevara took his first podium, only 0.166s behind. Remarkably, this would be the only KTM win of the season.
Mir had been rather lost in the shuffle at Mugello with the Leopard rider salvaging seventh but the summer months would see him truly take control of the title race. In Barcelona, Joan left it until the penultimate corner to deny perennial polesitter Jorge Martin and although a late error ruled him out of contention at Assen, the victory going to Canet, Mir rebounded with a hat-trick of victories either side of the summer break.
Just as he had at Catalunya, Mir played his tactics to perfection with a final lap manoeuvre on Fenati, a race also notable for Ramirez’s first podium finish. Brno brought another game of cat and mouse between the two championship frontrunners as Mir proved too slick for Fenati once again but in Austria, nobody could hold a candle to the dominant champion-elect. After grabbing the lead from early leader Bo Bendsneyder, Joan stormed clear from the field in a fashion rarely seen in Moto3, ultimately winning by over three seconds from Philipp Oettl in a career-best second. Fenati’s title hopes faded yet further after toiling his way to thirteenth, leaving him 64 points adrift.
The championship battle took a backseat at Silverstone with Canet returning to winning ways although the race ended in anti-climactic fashion after a collision between Bendsneyder and Guevara brought the red flags out a lap before the finish. The early stoppage handed Enea Bastianini his first rostrum of the season after his long-awaited switch to Estrella Galicia failed to reap the expected rewards. Mir and Fenati were fifth and seventh respectively after being denied the chance to make last lap progress.
After another sensational showcase of slipstreaming at Silverstone, Misano provided a very different challenge to the riders as the heavens opened on race day. Torrential rain throughout the Grand Prix led to a race of attrition as half of the field failed to reach the chequered flag but crucially, Fenati did complete the distance and a wet-weather masterclass saw him half a minute clear of Mir by the finish. It was a measure of Romano’s dominance that Mir was still the best of the rest, the Spaniard riding a masterfully mature race to limit the damage to his title prospects.
Aragon saw Joan demonstrate another of the strings to his bow as he chased the title, his ruthless edge coming to the fore on home soil. As expected, the race would boil down to the 1km drag race to the final corner with Mir leading Di Giannantonio and Bastianini but the championship leader would proceed to slalom his way down the back straight, attempting to break the tow. Without question, the multiple weaves were dangerous, but race direction chose to hand Joan a six-place grid penalty at Motegi rather than strip him of victory, a move which gave him a mathematical chance of wrapping it all up in Japan.
Grid penalty or not though, Mir never had a sniff of championship glory at Motegi, the weather gods would see to that. Persistent rain throughout the weekend ensured that the slick tyres weren’t used at all, the first time this had happened at a Grand Prix in recent memory. While Mir sank without trace, failing to score, the wet conditions tilted the balance in favour of Fenati who claimed victory to keep his slim title hopes alive. After a season littered with crashes, Niccolo Antonelli followed his compatriot home in second to hand Moto3’s serial winners Red Bull KTM Ajo their only podium finish of the entire campaign. Mahindra had also endured a lean spell in 2017 but the impressive rookie Marco Bezzecchi at least gave them one last rostrum to cheer before they bid Grand Prix racing farewell, taking an outstanding third.
Mir’s second chance at the championship crown came at one of motorcycle racing’s golden venues, Phillip Island. There would be no fluffing of his lines this time as he took his ninth win of 2017, the no.36 having matters totally under control when a rain shower halted proceedings. To complete a perfect day for the Leopard squad, Livio Loi completed the team’s first 1-2 since Germany 2015 after edging out Jorge Martin.
Two races remained and Sepang would bring another of the season’s quirky statistics, Joan Mir claiming his very first pole position of the season. Top spot on Saturdays was usually reserved for Martin in 2017 with the Gresini rider possessing a single-lap pace that nobody could match, but the former Red Bull Rookies champion was becoming a growing threat on race days, pushing Mir all the way in Malaysia. The new champion wouldn’t be denied though, taking his winning tally for the year to ten.
An eleventh victory at the season finale in Valencia would see Mir equal Valentino Rossi’s twenty-year-old record for the lightweight class but a badly timed crash for Gabriel Rodrigo put paid to those plans. Despite being relegated to nineteenth, Joan produced the ride of a champion to charge back up to second while a maiden victory went the way of Martin, the Gresini rider finally benefitting from some good fortune after a year of near-misses and untimely injuries.
Mir’s final margin of victory stood at 93 points over Fenati who ended his final year before following the champion up into Moto2 as a deserved runner-up. Canet claimed third and will surely begin 2018 as the title favourite with Martin and Di Giannantonio sure to challenge too after ending 2017 fourth and fifth respectively. Bastianini rose to sixth although his mid-season improvement came way too late for his own liking while John McPhee faded after his strong start, only standing on the podium once more and slipping to seventh. Marcos Ramirez closed the year a magnificent seventh and earned the honour of top KTM rider, narrowly outscoring Mugello winner Migno.
In many ways the beauty of Moto3 is the opportunity to see the future greats of Grand Prix racing before they make it to the premier class. There can be no doubt that in Joan Mir, we are witnessing such a talent. Next season, he will graduate into Moto2 with championship winners Marc VDS and MotoGP can’t be too far away for him either. One day, we will surely look back on 2017 as the year that Mir’s ascent to Grand Prix greatness truly began.
Moto3 Riders’ Championship (Final Standings)
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