In just two races, Jorge Lorenzo’s championship lead had been slashed from 23 to 13 points. From nearly a win, to a fourth place finish. Lorenzo was using his consistency – apart from Assen, he had never finished in anything other than first or second place – to grind out a path to the championship. But Pedrosa was clearly closing; Lorenzo’s Spanish rival had momentum behind him, and had become the favorite in every race he lined up at.
That pattern looked set to be repeated at Misano, with Pedrosa showing outstanding speed – once the track had dried up sufficiently to make it worth the riders’ time to actually go out – during qualifying, though Lorenzo was close behind. But the second Italian race would prove to be yet another turning point in the championship, this time through a series of bizarre incidents which started with a leaking clutch cylinder.
The red lights had already come on ready to start the race at Misano, when Karel Abraham suddenly raised his hand after his Cardion AB Ducati stalled on the grid, the leaking clutch cylinder making his clutch ineffective. The start was aborted, but the chaos which ensued left the teams wondering exactly what was going on.
They all rushed back out onto the grid to prepare the bikes for another wait, and in the pandemonium, a tire warmer stuck to Dani Pedrosa’s carbon disk brake. When the mechanic charged with removing the tire warmer found the front wheel locked solid, the team wheeled Pedrosa’s bike off the grid and into pit lane to try to fix the problem.
Once in pit lane, the front wheel unblocked itself, and Pedrosa started the warm up lap from pit lane. That meant he would have to start the race from the back of the grid, forfeiting the pole position he had worked so hard for. A great start saw him quickly work his way forward, but his progress would be stymied by Hector Barbera, making the same kind of unthinking move on Pedrosa that Alvaro Bautista had made on Lorenzo at Assen. Down they both went, and Pedrosa’s chances of points were gone, along with any realistic shot at the title. With Lorenzo winning the race, the Yamaha man now had a 38-point lead in the championship.
All Pedrosa could try to do was win every race left on the calendar, a task he set about with some verve. At Aragon, Motegi and Sepang, the races followed the same pattern: Lorenzo took the lead early, with Pedrosa sitting on his tail until the halfway mark, before passing the Yamaha man with ease and opening up an unstoppable gap. Even in the downpour in Malaysia, there was no holding Pedrosa, the Honda man taking the first rain victory of his entire racing career, slaying a bogey man which had haunted him throughout his racing life.
Pedrosa’s problem remained unchanged, however: the spirit-sapping, grinding consistency of Jorge Lorenzo. Lorenzo may have understood that winning against Pedrosa now that Honda had the chatter problems under control was almost impossible, he also knew that taking 2nd at every race would be good enough to become champion. And that’s what he did, everywhere, with no one to challenge him for the position.
Pedrosa’s hope lay with his teammate. Casey Stoner had returned to action at Motegi, his damaged ankle still nowhere near healed enough to be truly competitive, but determined to get some miles under his belt ahead of his home Grand Prix at Phillip Island. Stoner’s ankle had slowed him at Motegi, the heavy braking and many right-hand corners taking their toll on his ankle, and his arms were suffering in an attempt to compensate.
At Sepang, it was the rain which had initially spooked Stoner, the Australian fearing that another crash could leave him with permanent damage. Once he got into his rhythm, he started to close on Jorge Lorenzo, chasing him down as the rain started to fall ever more heavily. He caught the Spaniard too late to be of any help to Pedrosa: Race Direction had already red-flagged the race once Stoner reached Lorenzo’s tail. The Australian would take no points off the championship leader in aid of Pedrosa’s title bid.
The MotoGP circus headed to Australia for the final leg of the flyaway triple header, and the penultimate round of the series. Pedrosa’s wins had seen him cut Lorenzo’s lead from 38 to 23 points, and with 50 points still in play, Pedrosa still had a shot at the title, at least in theory. He now really needed help from his teammate, though he neither expected nor requested such assistance. Casey Stoner had come to Phillip Island with one goal only, to win the last MotoGP race he would ever compete in on his favorite circuit, and in front of his home crowd.
As if to underline the expectations for the weekend, on Thursday, the circuit held a ceremony to rename Turn 3 “Stoner Corner”. All through practice, Stoner lived up to those expectations, no one getting within half a second of the Australian’s times. If Pedrosa wanted to take extra points from Lorenzo, he was going to have to do it all himself.
The Repsol Honda man gave it his best shot from the start. Lorenzo led away from the line, wanting to wrap up his second MotoGP title in style, but Pedrosa was in no mood to hang around. At the Honda hairpin, Pedrosa stuffed his RC213V inside Lorenzo’s Yamaha to take the lead, and started to push as hard as he could for a gap. As they crossed the line at the end of the first lap, Stoner sliced past Lorenzo to put himself exactly where Pedrosa wanted him: between the two Spaniards, potentially taking another four valuable points from Lorenzo.
But Pedrosa was having to push hard to keep Stoner behind him, and it quickly became apparent just how hard. Pedrosa ran about a foot wide going into the Honda Hairpin for the second time, just enough to end up on a piece of old, damaged tarmac with less grip than the rest. He slid out of the race, taking any hope he still had of the 2012 MotoGP title with him.
It was Dani Pedrosa’s only mistake of the season, but it was a costly one. Though Casey Stoner went on to dominate the race in the same way he had dominated practice, Jorge Lorenzo once again came home in 2nd, the tenth time he finished there this season, and more than enough to wrap up his second MotoGP title. He celebrated in style, liberated, but it had been a very long and very hard slog.
“This year has been even tougher than the first time I won the world title in 2010,” Lorenzo told reporters afterwards. “I knew the competitors were stronger and more constant this year, so I had to be stronger and more constant than them. It was not easy, because I had to be very strong, very fast, and take a lot of risks but I didn’t make a mistake. Also, Yamaha offered me a much better bike than last year. For this reason we are the best in 2012.”
“I feel liberated, freed of the weight,” Lorenzo had said, and it was apparent at Valencia. Stoner’s win at Phillip Island meant that the three men who had tyrannized the 2012 MotoGP championship headed into the last race of the year nearly equal, on wins at least. Jorge Lorenzo had taken his six victories early in the season, while Dani Pedrosa’s six wins had all come in the second half of the year. Casey Stoner’s five wins had come at various stages throughout the years.
The final race of the year was a matter of honor, for bragging rights for the rider with the most wins of the year. If Pedrosa won, he would at least have the consolation of having won more races than the man who took the championship from him. A win for Stoner would bring him level on victories with his two main title rivals. For Lorenzo, a victory would be a fitting end to his second world title, a crown on his season.
The difficult conditions – a wet track with a single dry line – caused everyone problems, though once again, Lorenzo and his team made the smartest choice on the grid. After the sighting lap, Lorenzo realized he would be able to run slicks, not wet tires, a change he promptly made on the grid. During the warm up lap, Dani Pedrosa followed Lorenzo around, saw his tires, and came to the same conclusion. Pedrosa came into the pits, jumped onto his dry-weather bike, and started from pit lane. Once the racing line dried out properly, Lorenzo started to push forward, leaving Andrea Dovizioso, Aleix Espargaro, Jorge Lorenzo and Casey Stoner behind him.
As riders who had started on wet tires started returning to the pits for slicks, Lorenzo’s smart decision started to work against him. The Spaniard quickly began to come up against traffic, as he lapped riders who had lost time in the pits. Behind him, Pedrosa was closing rapidly, the Repsol Honda man suffering less with traffic than Lorenzo had. Determined to win, and with nothing to lose, Lorenzo closed quickly on James Ellison, the next rider ahead of him.
He misjudged his closing speed and was forced to take a wider line through Turn 10, running off the dry line and onto the still wet surface. It was too much to ask of his tires, and he highsided out of the race, one of the more spectacular crashes of his career though without any serious effect. Pedrosa went on to win the race comfortably, scoring the best win tally of his career and earning bragging rights as the rider with the most wins of 2012.
Lorenzo’s crash was, in an odd way, illustrative of his entire season. His team had put together a brilliant strategy, adapting to the situation quickly and cleverly. Lorenzo saw a possible advantage, and immediately tried to exploit it.
But in the previous 17 races, Lorenzo had been forced to exercise restraint, to keep one eye always on the title chase. Now he had the title already wrapped up, he could give free rein to his ambition. With less at stake, he could afford to err on the side of boldness, and take risks that might not pay off. He made a mistake, his first of the season, though in typical racer fashion he tried to lay the blame elsewhere, on Ellison in this case. At Valencia, he finally allowed himself the freedom to take a chance and make a mistake. That he did had no real bearing on his season, other than some fairly costly repair bills for Yamaha.
There were many elements that went into Lorenzo’s second MotoGP World Championship. The YZR-M1 Yamaha had given him was clearly a better bike than the 800cc machine he had campaigned in 2011, meaning he could be competitive right from the very start. The bike never showed any of the chatter which had so badly plagued the Hondas, the Yamaha’s chassis clearly better adapted to both the old and the new Bridgestone tires.
The bike was fast all year, though Honda caught up and eventually surpassed the Yamaha by the end of the season. Yamaha’s basic philosophy – make a bike which is as easy as possible to ride, helping the rider to feel comfortable while seeking out the limits of the machine – paid off once again. And the ease with which the bike both held its line and turned played into Lorenzo’s strength, rewarding the smoothness of his style.
But a good bike still needs to be set up properly to get the best out of it, and the staff in Lorenzo’s garage excelled themselves this year. Not once did Lorenzo start a race with a bike that was sub par. Not once did he have a bike with significant problems he had to ride around. Ramon Forcada, Takashi Moriyama, and the rest of the mechanics and engineers started each weekend with a bike that worked well enough for Lorenzo to focus on setting up a bike which would last the distance, not just get around the track in one piece.
Wilco Zeelenberg acted as the perfect liaison, watching Lorenzo from trackside, and steering his comments where necessary based on what he saw. The balance of maturity, wisdom and experience in his garage gave Lorenzo the tools he needed to get the best out of himself.
Most of all, though, it was Lorenzo himself who earned his second world championship the hard way. It was Lorenzo who understood that racing a 1000cc MotoGP bike would not be like racing an 800cc machine with more power. The demands were different, the physical strain greater, the effort required for braking and turning greater also. He put in the hard miles in the tropical heat to prepare himself for the season, and it paid off in the first half of the season.
With the maturity and experience of four seasons in MotoGP, he knew what it would take to win a championship, rather than a race. He won when he could, took second when he couldn’t, and was always strong enough to fight off any challenge for second. He did not make a mistake all season, only letting himself go when there was nothing more at stake. His focus, his discipline, was second to none. In 2012, Jorge Lorenzo was the best motorcycle racer in the world.
He was also a joy to watch. His style looked effortless, sweeping through corners imperiously like a Roman general leading his troops into battle against a band of disorganized marauders. He barely moved on the bike, and the bike barely moved underneath him, yet the pace he achieved was scintillating, too hot for anyone but Pedrosa and Stoner to follow. But the smoothness of Lorenzo’s style belied the effort which the Spaniard actually had to put into riding.
“His style only looks effortless,” Zeelenberg said. “It costs a huge amount of energy, but perhaps less than other riders. But because of this, he can find the limits more easily, can put in seven or eight laps and understand where the problems are. He does the same thing in the race, and that means he runs less risk of crashing.”
Can Lorenzo repeat the achievement again next year? It looks like being an awful lot harder in 2013. The Hondas are now better sorted than before, and the change in Dani Pedrosa is palpable. Pedrosa is calmer, more focused, but also braver, fiercer, more willing to push to the very limit and take on a battle. Buoyed by his performance in 2012, Pedrosa will be a tougher man to beat next year. And then there’s Marc Marquez: the rookie has been sensational in Moto2, and just gets better and better.
He was already quick on a MotoGP bike, the few laps he did get to put in, and should be up to podium pace from the very first race. He is also fearless, as fearless as Marco Simoncelli was, but with the talent of a young Valentino Rossi or Casey Stoner. Marquez has all the makings of a superstar, and will ruffle Lorenzo’s feathers a number of times in 2013. Lorenzo will need all the equanimity he can muster in the fact of that much aggression.
Last, but a very long way from least, there’s Valentino Rossi. The former champion returns to Yamaha humbled by his experience at Ducati, but with two years of stifled ambition bursting to get out. Whether Rossi is still fast enough to pose a serious challenge against Lorenzo is as yet to be seen, but it would be foolish indeed to bet against him trying. Rossi may or may not be able to challenge for the title, but he is certain to have his eyes on a few wins.
The old fox still has plenty of tricks up his sleeve, and will be pulling them all out throughout the year to try and beat Lorenzo, both on and off the track. First, beat your teammate, runs the old racing adage, and there is nothing that would give Rossi more pleasure than beating the man he regards as the Spanish usurper. The Yamaha hospitality was always a warm and welcoming place in 2012; in 2013, the temperature could get more heated at times, and positively icy at others.
No doubt Jorge Lorenzo is aware of these challenges, and will be ready to face them. Jorge Lorenzo was the best rider in the world in 2012, and will want to be the best again next year. He has the intelligence and maturity to go with his raw talent, that much he proved this season. He has the team surrounding him to defend his title successfully. But he also knows it will not be easy. If he thought 2012 was tough, just wait for 2013.
This article was originally published on MotoMatters, and is republished here on Asphalt & Rubber with permission by the author.