2018 MotoGP Season Review: Seven Up

by Louis Suddaby

In years to come, the 2018 MotoGP season may be inked into the history books as another routine Marc Marquez march to the world title, and to a certain extent, it was. That assessment wouldn’t do the season justice, after another campaign of thrills, spills, shocks and controversy. MotoGP continues to make a convincing case to have the greatest motorsport series on the planet, while its premier rider has an increasingly convincing case to be the greatest of all time.

Amongst the big hitters, there were precious changes from the 2017 season although another quality crop of rookies graduated from Moto2, led by its champion Franco Morbidelli. The Italian was partnered by his season-long rival in 2017 in Thomas Luthi as Marc VDS fielded an all-rookie line-up. Takaaki Nakagami and Xavier Simeon completed a quartet of newcomers, or so we thought, until illness forced Jonas Folger to vacate his seat at Tech 3, opening the door for Malaysia’s Hafizh Syahrin.

The story of 2017 was undoubtedly the titanic tussle between Marquez and Andrea Dovizioso as the Italian enjoyed a breakthrough season, taking the title fight all the way to the wire. MotoGP fans the world over will have been delighted with the outcome of the season opener in Qatar, as the pair put on another dazzling display under the lights at Losail.

Despite strong showings from polesitter Johann Zarco and Yamaha’s factory team leader Valentino Rossi, the two heavyweights from the previous season fought out a battle which wouldn’t be settled until the very last bend. Much like their earlier encounters in Austria and Japan, Dovi was a step ahead of the reigning champion, handing Ducati a winning start.

The season opener had certainly delivered in terms of tension, but the second round in Argentina had enough drama and controversy to last an entire MotoGP season. Saturday saw a sensational piece of bravery pay off handsomely for Jack Miller who used slicks on a drying track to grab pole position, but his decision to fit slicks on the grid prior to the start didn’t get remotely what it deserved. With the rest of the field realising wet tyres were a mistake and vacating the grid, the start was aborted to render Miller’s correct choice meaningless. In a desperate attempt to offer the Australian some reward for being the only rider to read the conditions correctly, Miller was handed an impromptu 50 metre head start for the re-run.

The pre-race chaos wasn’t finished as Marquez stalled his Honda while forming up on the grid. Despite regulations stating he must leave the grid, Marc bump-started his machine before retaking his spot, an action which would land him a ride-through penalty. This would trigger a chain of events which got the whole world talking. Riding under an apparent red mist, Marquez carved through the field with Aleix Espargaro almost taken out of the race while ceding position to the Honda rider. The rider holding sixth place was wiped out though by an out-of-control Marquez, and of all the people to hit, Marc had managed to tangle with arch-rival Valentino Rossi, reigniting MotoGP’s bitterest feud.

The fallout between the pair overshadowed a fascinating fight for victory between a quartet of MotoGP underdogs, with Cal Crutchlow outlasting Zarco, Suzuki’s Alex Rins and Miller to take his third career win. The victory handed him the championship lead after two rounds with an off-colour Dovizioso inheriting sixth once Marquez was thrown out of the points by race direction.

After a weekend where he was subjected to criticism from all angles, Marquez could not have asked for a better venue for round three than the Circuit of the Americas, a place he had never been beaten in either qualifying or the race. His sixth visit saw that record remain intact, although a qualifying incident which saw him impede Maverick Vinales forced him to start off pole for the first time ever in Texas. This didn’t prevent him easing to a first win of 2018 though, with Vinales and Suzuki’s Andrea Iannone the best of the rest, opening their podium account for the year. Dovizioso could only manage fifth behind Rossi as his Qatar momentum faded away, while Crutchlow’s spell on top of the championship was all-too brief due to a crash.

The British number one may have lost the series lead but he continued to display class-leading pace at Jerez, grabbing pole position ahead of Dani Pedrosa and Zarco. The race itself saw Cal fall by the wayside once again though, while a dramatic incident elsewhere tipped the championship balance heavily in Marc Marquez’s favour. With the world champion escaping to a second straight victory, the two factory Ducati riders fought against each other in an attempt to give chase, only for their in-fighting to collide with Pedrosa, quite literally, as all three riders were wiped out on the spot. As a consequence, Marquez took the overall points lead for the first time, 12 points clear of Zarco who inherited second in Spain, with Dovizioso now 24 points in arrears.

Disaster for Ducati as Dovizioso attempts to rejoin…on Lorenzo’s damaged GP18 (Photo Credit: MotoGP.com)

Zarco’s emergence as the nearest championship challenger to Marquez came just in time for the Frenchman’s home Grand Prix at Le Mans. With thousands of his compatriots cheering him on, Johann delivered a memorable pole position although the joy turned to despair within 24 hours as the home favourite crashed out of second place. With Dovizioso also crashing out of the same race, moments after taking the lead himself, the title race was fast-becoming a one-horse race with Marquez grabbing another unchallenged win ahead of Pramac’s Danilo Petrucci.

Valentino Rossi rounded out the Le Mans podium in third but it was a disappointing reflection on Movistar Yamaha’s season that it matched his best result of 2018 so far. Mugello did bring one of the season’s highlights for the Doctor who smashed the circuit record on his way to a crowd-pleasing pole position, but the race itself saw a return to form for one of the Italian’s greatest rivals.

25 races in the red of Ducati had brought only three podium finishes for Jorge Lorenzo but, aided by a new user-friendly fuel tank, it all came together for the five-times champion who rediscovered his best form. Nobody could match the Spaniard on the day, not even team-mate Andrea Dovizioso who trailed home a distant second, while Rossi claimed third. Mugello’s reputation as a weak circuit for Marc Marquez and Honda continued, with Marc crashing out in the early stages, but the world champion still took a 23-point lead to Barcelona with Rossi now leading the chase.

It was at this stage of the season that Jorge Lorenzo’s future became the talk of the paddock with news of his switch from Ducati to Honda becoming official. The irony wasn’t lost on many MotoGP observers that the moment Bologna lost faith in Lorenzo, the Spaniard suddenly couldn’t stop winning. Catalunya saw another metronomic demonstration as Jorge notched back-to-back wins, but the day proved bittersweet for Ducati who watched Dovizioso tumble for the third time in four races, allowing second-placed Marquez to regain the 20 points he had lost to Dovi at Mugello.

One of motorcycle racing’s classic venues came next and an all-time classic ensued with no less than seven riders disputing victory. In a thrilling 26 laps, we saw Valentino Rossi ride straight into the rear of Jorge Lorenzo and miraculously stay aboard, we saw the inter-team rivalry at Ducati spill onto the track once again, and we saw Alex Rins produce another remarkable ride to finish second ahead of Maverick Vinales, but through it all came Marc Marquez to claim his fourth win of the season. This extended his lead to 41 points with another of the great Marquez banker-rounds, the Sachsenring up next.

The German Grand Prix did indeed go to form with Marquez notching a ninth straight Sachsenring win across all classes, while Valentino Rossi continued to flatter the factory Yamaha by taking second, keeping himself in touch with the championship leader entering the summer break. The Doctor trailed his arch rival by 46 points with Vinales ten further back in third. As for Dovizioso, he had a 77-point deficit to make up once MotoGP resumed at Brno.

The Bologna squad meant business though as the second half of the season began, embarking on a three-race winning streak. The first of those came in the Czech Republic but the two Ducati riders fought all the way to the finish in a thrilling three-way tussle with Marquez. Dovizioso had begun the weekend with a rare pole position and despite some daring overtaking moves from Lorenzo, the Italian headed the second scarlet 1-2 of the season. Marquez followed just a couple of tenths behind in one of MotoGP’s closest rostrums in recent history.

It says a lot about the consistency of Marquez that even in a spell where his opposition clearly had the stronger package, his championship position only seemed to strengthen. This came largely due to an inability for either Ducati rider to establish superiority over the other with Dovizioso unable to keep pace with Lorenzo in Austria. What followed was another dramatic Spielberg shootout with Lorenzo upholding Ducati honour against Marquez, much as Dovi had 12 months earlier, and yet again, Marc would finish an agonisingly close second, maintaining the Red Bull Ring’s record as the only circuit he had raced at, but never won.

Lorenzo’s final Ducati triumph, at the expense of his future team-mate (Photo Credit: MotoGP.com)

The Austrian Grand Prix was also notable for the scenes at Movistar Yamaha who endured a low-point in a season littered with disappointment. With their victory drought stretching over a year, the team watched Vinales and Rossi qualify 11th and 14th respectively, a result which prompted the Yamaha top brass to publicly apologise to their riders. Rossi rode heroically to salvage sixth in the race, giving his fans hope of an upturn in fortunes at Silverstone. Unfortunately though, no-one would walk out of that weekend as a winner.

The weekend took its first turn for the worse on Saturday afternoon with torrential rain leaving the Hangar Straight resembling a lake in FP4. This caught out several riders with only the quick thinking of Alex Rins preventing a catastrophe, but Tito Rabat would suffer a badly broken leg after being struck at high speed by Franco Morbidelli’s Honda as he sat in the gravel trap, an injury which ended his season.

With similar conditions predicted for race day, this created an obvious problem with riders unanimous that racing on the newly resurfaced track in heavy rain would be impossible, and above all dangerous. Despite multiple schedule changes and pit-lane summit meetings, the weather caused a total cancellation of the day’s racing. As a result, Jorge Lorenzo’s pole position was all for nought, and thousands of British supporters left without seeing a single racing lap, immediately seeking refunds.

In pursuit of normality, and some better weather, MotoGP headed to the Adriatic coast and Misano with Jorge Lorenzo picking up where he left off in Britain, by claiming pole position. Events in the closing laps of the race saw the Spaniard’s season start to unravel with a crash at turn eight while battling with Marquez triggering a run of six races without scoring a point. Both had been left trailing by Dovizioso in any case who produced an exquisite ride to take victory, moving him clear of Rossi into second place in the championship.

With only six races remaining, time was running out for Dovizioso to reel in Marquez in the title chase and to have any hope, he surely had to defeat his rival at Aragon, another traditional Marquez stronghold. The pair would go head-to-head once again, joined by the surprise packages of Andrea Iannone and Alex Rins aboard the two Suzukis, and another entertaining tussle ensued. Unlike all their previous duels, Marquez would finally get the better of his great rival, striking what felt like a decisive blow in the championship fight.

Marquez had earlier angered the other half of Ducati’s factory squad with an apparently over-aggressive move at the start of the race. This move had led to a dramatic Jorge Lorenzo high-side but worse was to come for the no.99 on MotoGP’s first visit to Thailand. A mechanical problem during free practice caused the GP18 to seize up under braking, vaulting Jorge skywards and causing injuries which he wouldn’t recover from until the season was at an end.

In his absence, Dovizioso continued to ride beautifully and together with Marquez, gave Thai MotoGP fans a magnificent spectacle to mark their first Grand Prix in Buriram. With nothing between them over 26 pulsating laps, it all boiled down to a battle on the brakes into the very last corner, a battle Marc would win by a whisker. The result brought him to within one more victory of the title, while a close third and fourth for Vinales and Rossi gave Yamaha some long overdue light at the end of the tunnel.

Their struggles through the summer had ruled Rossi out of mathematical contention, with Dovizioso the only man standing between Marquez and seventh heaven at Motegi. The two were a class above the rest of the field once again with Andrea trying everything in his efforts to prolong the championship chase to Australia but with a lap and a half remaining, the pressure finally told. Rounding turn ten, the front end of the Ducati gave way to hand Marquez his eighth win of 2018, securing him his seventh world crown.

Given how much he had put into the season, Marquez believed that Dovizioso deserved to stand beside him on the podium and it was difficult to argue. In reality though, that honour would go to Cal Crutchlow and Alex Rins with the Briton taking just his second rostrum since the Argentine win, the other being a third place inherited following Lorenzo’s Misano crash. A consistent run of top six results though had put him in pole position for the ‘Top Independent’ prize but a high-speed spill in practice at Phillip Island destroyed those chances due to a broken ankle.

Luck seemed to desert Honda riders in general in with Dani Pedrosa crashing out of his final Australian Grand Prix, moments after Marc Marquez was involved in a terrifying tangle with Johann Zarco who collided with the no.93 approaching Doohan’s corner. Miraculously, both escaped injury but their races were over on the spot, ruling two likely winners out of proceedings.

In the end, the opportunity was grabbed by a resurgent Maverick Vinales who put a season of misery behind him to snap Yamaha’s 25-race winless streak in fine style, breaking away to win by 1.5s from Andrea Iannone and Dovizioso. Arguably, the happiest man of all finished in fourth with Alvaro Bautista performing admirably in a substitute role at Ducati, delighting the manufacturer who he would be representing in WorldSBK next season.

Vinales made a welcome return to winning ways in Australia (Photo Credit: MotoGP.com)

For Yamaha, the Malaysian Grand Prix would provide a much truer test of their late-season revival, and the results were certainly encouraging, if ultimately heart-breaking. MotoGP neutrals were yearning for a Valentino Rossi win to round out the season and the 39-year-old so nearly delivered, leading for 16 laps before sliding out at turn one. To compound the agony, his bitter rival would pick up the pieces with Marquez snatching victory while Dovizioso took advantage to secure the championship runner-up spot, despite finishing a lowly sixth.

The season would end on a high for the silver-medallist though with a consolation triumph in dreadful conditions at Valencia. Pouring rain had accounted for several of the big names, including Marquez, Vinales and Rossi either side of a red flag stoppage, but Dovizioso didn’t put a wheel wrong to lead home Alex Rins who backed up second place in Sepang with an identical result in the season finale. The biggest celebrations were saved for KTM though who rounded off their second MotoGP season with a remarkable podium finish, courtesy of an emotional Pol Espargaro.

It was fitting that Dani Pedrosa brought the curtain down on his Grand Prix career by seeing the chequered flag in Valencia, battling through the conditions to finish fifth, and the paddock came together as one to honour a modern-day MotoGP legend. His team-mate can already lay claim to legendary status already, even at the age of 25, but with so many years ahead of him, Marc Marquez will surely have a claim to be the greatest of them all before he hangs up his helmet.

However many titles he goes on to secure though, title number seven in 2018 will certainly go down as one of the best.

 

2018 MotoGP Riders’ Championship (Final Standings)

 PosRiderConstructorTeamPolesWinsFLsPts
C193. MARC MARQUEZHONDAREPSOL HONDA TEAM797321
24. Andrea DoviziosoDucatiDucati Team245245
346. Valentino RossiYamahaMovistar Yamaha MotoGP1198
425. Maverick VinalesYamahaMovistar Yamaha MotoGP112193
542. Alex RinsSuzukiTeam Suzuki ECSTAR1169
65. Johann ZarcoYamahaMonster Yamaha Tech 31158
735. Cal CrutchlowHondaLCR Honda Castrol11148
89. Danilo PetrucciDucatiAlma Pramac Racing1144
999. Jorge LorenzoDucatiDucati Team432134
1029. Andrea IannoneSuzukiTeam Suzuki ECSTAR133
1126. Dani PedrosaHondaRepsol Honda Team117
1219. Alvaro BautistaDucatiDucati Team105
1343. Jack MillerDucatiAlma Pramac Racing191
1444. Pol EspargaroKTMRed Bull KTM Factory Racing51
1521. Franco MorbidelliHondaEG 0,0 Marc VDS50
1655. Hafizh SyahrinYamahaMonster Yamaha Tech 346
1741. Aleix EspargaroApriliaAprilia Racing Team Gresini44
1838. Bradley SmithKTMRed Bull KTM Factory Racing38
1953. Tito RabatDucatiReale Avintia Racing35
2030. Takaaki NakagamiHondaLCR Honda IDEMITSU33
2145. Scott ReddingApriliaAprilia Racing Team Gresini20
2251. Michele PirroDucatiDucati Team14
2317. Karel AbrahamDucatiAngel Nieto Team12
246. Stefan BradlHondaLCR Honda CASTROL10
2536. Mika KallioKTMRed Bull KTM Factory Racing6
2689. Katsuyuki NakasugaYamahaYamalube Yamaha Factory Racing2
2710. Xavier SimeonDucatiReale Avintia Racing1
2881. Jordi TorresDucatiReale Avintia Racing1

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