Noyes' Notebook - Reality Check

Photo Credit: HRC

PROGRAMMING NOTE: The Red Bull will air LIVE on FOX Sports 1 on Sunday, August 18 in a four-hour programming block that starts at 11:00am ET.

Following nine races — the first half of the 2013 schedule — Repsol Honda’s 20-year-old rookie Marc Marquez, has won three races leads his seasoned teammate, Dani Pedrosa, by 16 points. He also holds a 26-point lead — one more than offered by a race win — over reigning defending champion Jorge Lorenzo on the factory Yamaha.

The last time a rookie made a serious run for the premier class championship was in 1998 when Italian Max Biaggi, a four-times 250 champion, who won in his 500cc debut in Japan, was leading the points table with only three races to go with a three-point lead over eventual champion Mick Doohan and a five-point lead over Alex Crivillé.

Going into the Grand Prix of Catalunya that year, Biaggi was on course to match Kenny Roberts’ 1978 feat and become only the second rookie ever to win the premier class title in his first season.

Then Max blew up. He was given a stop & go penalty for passing Alex Barros under a yellow flag. To make matters worse, Max refused to enter the pits and was black flagged and excluded from the results. Doohan won the final three and Biaggi only managed one fifth place from his final three rides.

Holding the points lead after nine rounds is significant. Statistically the leader after nine rounds has gone on to take the title in all but two occasions since the all-rounds-count points systems was introduced in 1977. The exceptions were in 1992 when Mick Doohan, badly injured in Assen at midseason, lost the lead and the title to Wayne Rainey, and in 2008 when Dani Pedrosa came into the German Grand Prix with a four-point lead but crashed in the rain while leading and then missed the subsequent USGP due to injuries sustained in Germany.

Marquez: “The win does not taste the same when Lorenzo and Pedrosa are injured”

Still, even Marquez himself points out that his last two wins, over Cal Crutchlow and Valentino Rossi in Germany, and over Stefan Bradl and Valentino Rossi in Laguna Seca, were less satisfactory because Lorenzo and Pedrosa were not at full strength. (Lorenzo was fifth at the Sachsenring riding just 36 hours after having eight screws and a titanium plate affixed to his broken left collarbone, and Pedrosa, who broke his left collarbone in Saturday free practice, did not start in Germany. At Laguna both his Spanish rivals were riding in pain from their injuries and finished fifth and sixth with Pedrosa beating Lorenzo.)

So, will the return of Lorenzo and Pedrosa restore order and put the upstart in his place? After all, this season was supposed to be a duel between #99 (Lorenzo) and #26 (Pedrosa) with Rossi and Marquez fighting with the likes of Cal Crutchlow, Stefan Bradl, and Alvaro Bautista for the third step on the podium.

In the seven races prior to Germany when Lorenzo and Pedrosa were uninjured, Marquez finished in front of each three times and behind each three times.

And, although Lorenzo and Pedrosa have paid in points and pain for their crashes, Marquez was fortunate not to have been injured in his high-speed crash at the end of the long Mugello straight. The Italian GP at Mugello was the rookie’s toughest weekend so far — four crashes, including the one that took him out of second place with five laps to go on race day, a crash that cost him 20 points.

When Rossi beat Marquez in Assen, the Spaniard was riding with a broken finger and was generally beaten up after a big crash in FP3. Marquez offered no excuses, but Rossi said, “Assen is a very good track for Yamaha.”

Many journalists and most fans now consider Marquez the favorite to win the championship. Of his three principal rivals, one, Rossi, has repeatedly said that he no longer believes he is a candidate for the title. His objective is to win another race or two and, in his own words after Laguna, “to beat Marc in a battle at a track where the Honda is not so strong.”

This was supposed to be a Lorenzo-Pedrosa rematch

Pedrosa, who hopes to be fully recovered this weekend at Indianapolis, was the fastest rider over the second half of the 2012 season, and lost to Lorenzo by 18 points. But a freak brake problem while sitting on the grid and waiting for a restart in Mugello led to him starting off the back row and crashing after being involved in contact with Hector Barberá on the first lap while fighting his way through the field.

But, long before that, at Assen, Lorenzo himself had been taken out in Turn 1 on lap one by Alvaro Bautista. Each rider also crashed once without “help” and took a zero: Pedrosa’s big mistake came in the penultimate race in Australia. After winning three in a row and five of the last six (the one he didn’t win was Misano, a Yamaha playground in recent years), Pedrosa led the opening lap but crashed at Honda Hairpin after being overtaken three corners before by Casey Stoner. Had Pedrosa accepted that Stoner was unbeatable at home (he won that year for the sixth straight year) and taken second, he would have closed the gap to 20 points — and then if the final race had gone as it did…but those are all “what ifs.”

Certainly Lorenzo would have ridden differently in Valencia if he had started with only a 20-point lead. As it was, he had already clinched the title and wanted to beat Pedrosa one last time after having ridden the second half of the season protecting his lead.

So, will the return of Lorenzo and Pedrosa at Indianapolis, put the rookie back in his place? Remember, Marquez´s winning race time at Laguna Seca was 15 seconds slower than last year’s win by Pedrosa. But temperatures were higher this year and riders complained of strong winds.

When I asked Marc why the race was that much slower and whether he could have gone faster, he said, “I didn’t ride in MotoGP last year so I can’t compare, but we were slower than last year’s times all weekend. Perhaps if I had been pushed more I could have done the race is maybe four seconds less, but not 15.”

Emilio Alzamora, 125 World Champion in 1999 and Marquez´s manager and constant companion, smiled when I put the same question to him. “I have no idea how fast Marc could have gone and I don’t think he does either. He always races whoever is fastest.”

Hmmm… So I looked at the 19 races (16 in Moto2 and three in MotoGP) that Marc has won in the last three years. Only once has he won a race by more than 2.4 seconds and nine on the 19 wins were by less than a second.

That one race that he won by a larger margin, by 5.8 seconds, was at Indianapolis last year in Moto2 over his archrival Pol Espargaró. That day Marc admits he wanted to send a message to his long-time adversary. (The two have been racing each other since they were pre-school kids in the extensive Spanish youth events.)

The last race that he won in Moto2 was by 1.2 seconds over former 125 World Champion Julian Simon of Spain, but he started 33rd and last on the grid after being penalized for knocking Italian Simone Corsi off in a free practice.

No one now seriously questions whether Marquez is the real thing. But how fast can he go? That may depend on how hard Lorenzo and Pedrosa push him.

Indy starts a string of three races on three consecutive weekends. After that a week off before the Grand Prix of San Marino at the Marco Simoncelli Circuit of Misano, then another one weekend break before Motorland, Aragón (Spain), another free weekend and the home stretch consisting in yet another string of three grueling “fly-away” races on three weekends (Malaysia, Australia and Japan), and, after a final free weekend, the season finale in the tight and twisty Valencia bullring.

There is a always a bit of luck involved and, in a sense, Pedrosa and Lorenzo, unlucky to break collarbones, were lucky that the long summer break came when it did, allowing both to get back into fighting form for the three-race stint that starts in Indianapolis.

Injuries and luck are always part of any MotoGP battle, but in statement made just prior to flying out to Indy, Dani Pedrosa said about the Indiana circuit: “This is a place where we go very well, but the circuit has its difficulties. There are three types of surface around the track and that makes set-up very difficult, but, as I said, this is track is not so bad for us.”

And “not so bad” in the language of the soft-spoken Catalan, means that he is quietly confident.

Jorge Lorenzo, who said the day before his big crash in Assen, that he was “riding the best I ever have in my life,” has been working to recover fitness and was pleased with his test of the Yamaha seamless gearbox at Brno (Czech Republic) last week, although the new gearbox, it seems, will only be fitted to the fifth and final engine of the five-engine allocation and probably will not go on track until Misano at the earliest.

Lin Jarvis, Managing Director of Yamaha Factory Racing, summed up Lorenzo’s first half of the season in an interview with “Jorge has won three races. He was in his role as leader and looking strong. I believe he is the most complete rider in the championship at this moment. But he injured his collarbone twice and that set him back. We believe that he will be back to form quickly.”

Marquez, constantly asked if he is surprised to be leading the series, said, “I was never expected to win the title this year. I thought I would spend the first half of the season learning and maybe fight for a podium or two before getting into the position of maybe fighting for a couple of wins in the second half. The riders who must be feeling the pressure are the ones who were expected to win.”

But is Marc feeling the pressure? “No. At the moment the objective, our mindset, is exactly as it was over the first half of the season. For sure I feel a little pressure because we are leading and because we have done some good races. That way you feel just enough pressure to keep your level of riding.”

So, will Marquez equal that, until now, unequaled feat of winning the premier class title as a rookie? Since Roberts beat two-times World Champions Barry Sheene to win first time out in 1978, the closest anyone has come was the run on Mick Doohan by Max Biaggi in 1998.

Pedrosa put it like this: “These next three races are going to define how the season will go. Up until now things have been pretty even.”

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