Could the first half of the 2015 MotoGP season be in sharper contrast to 2014? Last year, it was Marc Marquez producing a one-man band of pyrotechnics and raw speed that left the others making up the numbers, but just 12 months later the dynamics have changed considerably — and with it one of the most enthralling seasons in years.
Marquez, of course, is still in the ensemble cast on his Repsol Honda, but the difference is that Movistar Yamaha teammates Valentino Rossi and Jorge Lorenzo have now lifted their games considerably. It's a dynamic cocktail: the metronomic Lorenzo who rarely puts a foot wrong, the exquisite skill of Marquez, and the doggedness, race smarts and sheer determination of elder statesman Rossi.
On top of that, the return of a Suzuki factory team (Aleix Espargaro and Maverick Vinales) has been as positive one — the team's 1-2 qualifying performance at Catalunya was breathtaking —while Aussie Jack Miller's debut in the MotoGP ranks for WCM LCR Honda has probably lived up to 'expectations': he's crashed four times, had the same number of point-scoring finishes (with a best of 11th), and has regularly been the fastest Open class rider on track. Miller has also become the first person to ride a MotoGP bike on salt flats, which he did as a pre-race promotion for the world title round in Argentina. "It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience to go up that high into the mountains and discover a big salt flat like that. It was pretty cool."
After nine races, 36-year-old Rossi is yet to finish off the podium, with three of those performances producing victories. That's helped him carve out a 13pt lead over Lorenzo, who is the only rider to have won more than one race in a row — and he went above and beyond by unleashing a withering four-race golden run from rounds 4-7 after some bad luck to start the season.
Rossi's third place at Sachsenring behind Marquez and Dani Pedrosa (Repsol Honda) was particularly pivotal, especially as he finished ahead of Lorenzo heading into the summer recess.
"Today's third place is crucial because it was a very important to arrive in front of Jorge here," Rossi said. "Now I need two weeks off, because I have worked very hard for this championship. I haven't had a holiday since the beginning of February. It's been all work; going to the gym, ride the motorbike, train. Now it's time to relax."
Lorenzo's only managed one other podium outside his winning form, while Marquez had four podiums (for two wins) and three DNFs in first half of the season — the non-finishes really biting hard with Rossi and Lorenzo continuing to pull in the big points.
In fact, Marquez is only fourth in the standings behind Italy's Andrea Iannone, who alongside Rossi and three other riders — Bradley Smith (Monster Yamaha Tech 3), Vinales and Danilo Petrucci (Pramac Racing Ducati) — are the only ones to have scored points in all nine races.
Marquez and Rossi have been involved in two notable incidences this season, with the latter coming out the better both times. First up was in Argentina, where Marquez clipped the back of Rossi and went down, and the other one caused a meltdown in social media: the last corner battle at Assen. Marquez came roaring up the inside at the last chicane, but Rossi remained committed as well, with the two approaches not compatible: they touched, but Rossi kept powering his way to the finish line while Marquez slowed. It was deemed a 'racing incident', so no further action was taken.
However, Marquez has the chocolates for the best single lap of the season: his pole-sitting qualifying lap in Austin, which came after his first bike broke down and he had to run back to the pits to get his second RC213V. He only had enough time for one flyer — and that it was, showcasing his ability to squeeze every inch out of a MotoGP machine. It was breathtaking riding: no-one else could have done that.
And now that he's got his RC213V really humming again — he's reverted to some 2014 chassis components to solve some traction issues — he's going to be a much stronger force in the second half of the year, which is something that Rossi and Lorenzo are acutely aware of.
Meanwhile, the season started badly for Pedrosa, who realised his chronic arm pump issue wasn't going to remedy itself without surgery. He promptly went under the knife, with Aussie Casey Stoner then putting his hand up to replace his great mate. But it was no cigar for the two-time MotoGP world champion, with HRC instead handing the gig to Hiroshi Aoyama for three races.
Another rider who has had a roller-coaster season is Andrea Dovizioso (Ducati), who was only a few points adrift of Rossi after three rounds. But since then things have unravelled for the Italian with a few mechanical issues and a couple of crashes, the last at Sachsenring. He now clings onto fifth in the championship on a countback from the impressive Smith, who is 21pts ahead of Cal Crutchlow (WCM LCR Honda) as the leading satellite rider.
Crutchlow is the only other top runner to score a podium in 2015, which he did in Argentina, but the Briton has otherwise been quite inconsistent. Crutchlow is sixth in the title, behind Pedrosa, and in front of Pol Espargarò (Monster Yamaha Tech 3) and the rookie of the year, Maverick VInales (Ecstar Suzuki).
Vinales would have been disappointed with failing to at least capitalise on his front row start in Catalunya, but the Spaniard will definitely be one to watch in 2016 as Suzuki continues to develop its machine — and with the standard ECU and new tyre supplier coming on board next year, it's going to test everyone's developmental smarts.
To no-one's great surprise, the start of Miller's MotoGP schooling on the 'Open' class rider RC213V-RS has been unpredictable, just like Casey Stoner in his first year with the same team back in 2006. At his best though, Miller has easily trumped quality opposition like 2006 world champion and fellow Honda rider Nicky Hayden.
While's Miller's pace has been impressive in bursts, his starts have been nothing short of sensational, regularly making up seven to eight positions in the opening laps of most GPs. He hasn't always finished the races upright, but there's no doubting his aggression and raw speed.
Miller saw out the first half of the season with a 15th place finish at Sachsenring, and this is how he saw it: "We are definitely improving each week. We’ve had some good results and some bad results, today could have been a really good result but it wasn’t to be. Anyway, I’m quite happy with my first half-season in MotoGP; it’s been difficult but it’s also been a lot of fun.”
In the Moto2 and Moto3 classes, Johann Zarco (Ajo Motorsport) and Danny Kent (Leopard Racing Honda) have been the dominant riders, and hold 65- and 66pt leads respectively. Zarco has only been off the podium once after he started the season slowly in Qatar, and since then he's been on fire. He was then able to increase his lead even further at Sachsenring after world champion Tito Rabat (EG 0,0 Marc VDS) was taken out with only a few corners remaining while in third position and riding with an injured collarbone.
Rabat is second in the Moto2 standings, ahead of Sam Lowes (Speed Up Racing), rookie Alex Rins (Paginas Amarillas HP 40) and Thomas Luthi (Derendinger Racing Interwetten). All of the top five have won races except for Rins, while others to greet the chequered flag in 2015 have been Xavier Simeon (Federal Oil Gresini ) — after six years in the class — and Jonas Folger (AGR Team), who's been a boom or bust merchant all year.
Aussie Anthony West (QMMF Racing) is 19th in the Moto2 standings.
Kent has set all sorts of record in his searing Moto3 campaign, including becoming the first Briton to win back-to-back races in the smallest world championship class since the late Barry Sheene in 1971.
Italian Enea Bastianini (Gresini Racing Honda) is second from Miguel Oliveira (Red Bull KTM Ajo), Romano Fenati (SKY Racing Team VR46 KTM), Efren Vazquez (Leopard Racing Honda) and Brad Binder (Red Bull KTM Ajo). Kent has five of the wins, from Oliveira (two), Fenati (one) and Alexis Masbou (Saxoprint RTG Honda, one).
Aussie teenager Remy Gardner (CIP Mahindra) is yet to score a point, although the differential in lap times between him and the leaders continues to drop.
The season recommences in Indianapolis from August 7-9.