Motorsport Thoughts

Thursday, November 04, 2004

125cc MotoGP season review

125cc 2004 review

The 2004 125cc GP season saw the usual high-speed action and hectic racing that has been characteristic of the championship for many years. Once again there were superb overtaking battles throughout the year between a mixture of talented youngsters eager to prove that their talent should take their career further, and wily veterans keen to prove that they’re not ready for retirement just yet.

As the season started the championship was arguably wide open, with 2003 victor Dani Pedrosa having headed up to the 250cc class with his Telefonica Honda squad. Therefore the Honda baton was passed to one of the revelations of 2003, Andrea Dovizioso who had finished last year in 5th place overall and now deservedly enjoyed some degree of factory backing with the Kopron Team Scot outfit. Aprilia’s main challengers were Hector Barbera, who had moved from the Master-Aspar squad to the Seedorf Racing team (who were now one of Aprilia’s favoured teams), and Pablo Nieto who stayed with the Aspar squad. Steve Jenker, Gino Borsoi, Youichi Ui and Mirko Giansanti, who have all enjoyed success in recent times, were also likely to feature for the Italian marque.

Some transfer moves during the off-season also provided much interest. 2000 World Champion Roberto Locatelli, the only champion remaining in the class, had switched from a fruitless season with KTM back to an Aprilia for the LCR team. Meanwhile, in the opposite direction went Casey Stoner, the young Aussie joining up with Mika Kallio. Stefano Perugini, fourth in 2003, had switched from Abruzzo Aprilia to the Gilera squad to link up with Jorge Lorenzo who had tasted his debut victory in 2003 and rode the identical Derbi once again. Hungarian Gabor Talmacsi signed for the Malaguti team, who were contesting their second season. It would be fascinating to see how the moves panned out.

The season began in Welkom with a four-way tussle for the lead towards the end of the race. Locatelli showed he still had the speed to match the young guns, but was passed at the final corner by Dovizioso for the Honda rider’s first-ever win. Stoner and Nieto were close behind, with the Globet Aprilias of Mike di Meglio and Gino Borsoi taking 5th and 6th. The surprise was seeing Ui, Lorenzo and Perugini well down in 15th,16th and 17th. A soaked Jerez hosted round two, and there was another first-time winner – Marco Simoncelli for the Rauch Bravo team, who took a 1-2 as Jenkner was 2nd (which turned out to be the only podium of the year for both riders). Last year’s Philip Island winner Andrea Ballerini took a season’s best 6th to again show his wet-weather ability.

Round 3 at Le Mans saw a repeat of Welkom, with Dovizioso again stealing victory from Locatelli at the final turn. Lorenzo, Giansanti and Barbera were close behind, with Mika Kallio winning a titanic battle for 6th. The Mugello race was won in dramatic and emotional style by Roberto Locatelli, as the first six riders across the line were covered by less that a second. Youichi Ui endured a miserable day once again, as his bike broke down at the final turn and he eventually pushed it over the line in a despondent 22nd place. Catalunya saw another great race for round 5, with Hector Barbera eventually triumphing as again the first six were only separated by the proverbial cigarette paper with Bautista in 6th only 0.7s back of his victorious team-mate.

Jorge Lorenzo took a brilliant victory at Assen after some truly fearless riding on the last lap to beat Locatelli, Stoner and Dovizioso. The Hungarian rider Imre Toth took a surprise 10th on both the grid and in the race – his only points finish of the year. Barbera took victory in Rio after last year’s winner Lorenzo fell. Stoner, Dovizioso, Locatelli, and Giansanti were right behind at the finish. Czech girl Marketa Janakova was knocked out in a nasty crash – she had replaced Mattia Angeloni on a Honda earlier in the season. Locatelli took the win in another incredibly close race at the Sachsenring, with the first eight all within 1.5s. Barbera and Nieto completed the podium, but Casey Stoner was injured in practice, putting an end to a great run of results so far and ruining his season once again.

The Donington race saw a dramatic opening with Barbera, Nieto and rookie Mattia Pasini all falling on the run through the Craner Curves to the Old Hairpin. Dovizioso took the win ahead of Bautista who enjoyed his first ever podium and fastest lap, and Lorenzo just beating Kallio for third. Ui and Perugini were again well back in 7th and 11th; Ui departed after this event, while erstwhile race winner Simone Sanna was embarrassingly beaten by wild-card Christian Elkin in 22nd place. The Brno race was won by Jorge Lorenzo after another epic tussle on the final circuit, the brave Derbi teenager again getting the better of seven close rivals within a second-and-a-half including Nieto and Locatelli who had charged up from 25th and 26th on the grid. The Ajo Honda team enjoyed a good weekend, with Robbin Harms taking his only points of the season in 11th and the impressive Lukas Pesek looking well capable of challenging for the win before falling midway through the race.

The Portugese race at Estoril was unique amongst the 2004 races – Andrea Dovizioso did not finish in the top 4. In fact, the dominant Italian didn’t finish at all, being halted by a puncture when well in front. The puncture was caused by Casey Stoner’s exhaust breaking, causing Simone Corsi to fall after running into the back of the slowing KTM, and a nail from Corsi’s bike was left on the track. Barbera just took the race from Kallio, with Lorenzo third ahead of a good battle including seasonal bests for Talmacsi and Pesek in 7th and 8th. The Japanese round at Motegi (after Suzuka was dropped, following Daijiro Kato’s fatal MotoGP accident in 2003) was dominantly won by the Championship leader Dovizioso on Honda home soil. The podium was all-Italian, with Fabrizio Lai’s Gilera gaining a fighting second despite clearly being down on power along the straights and Simone Corsi was third – debut podiums for both. Roberto Locatelli crashed on the final lap but remounted to take 14th, two places behind Elit Grand Prix’s Thomas Luthi who scored his first points of the year following an injury-hit campaign. Two Japanese wildcards also reached the top ten in a race which had been restarted after an accident left debris on the track.

MotoGP entered a brave new world with the first ever major motor race in the Middle East, the Grand Prix of Qatar and the new Losail circuit. The circuit was competently designed, but suffered from a lack of character and was covered in a lot of dust which made side-by-side racing difficult. There was also little in the way of a crowd. Performance of the day arguably came from Alvaro Bautista, who raced up from outside the top ten on the grid into the lead and looked set for a win until he developed minor engine trouble and dropped to third. Stoner and Locatelli again suffered miserable races, with the former breaking down and the latter slumping to 20th. Also unique to the race was a dead-heat on time for the result – Lorenzo pipping Dovizioso after careful inspection of a photo-finish image! Sepang hosted round 14 where KTM finally scored their first circuit racing victory with Casey Stoner taking a well-deserved victory ahead of the ever-present Dovizioso. Bautista was again third in a race notable for many fallers. Seasonal bests were also scored by the consistent Julian Simon (Angaia Honda) and rookie of the year Mattia Pasini (LCR Aprilia) in 6th and 7th respectively.

We next journeyed to the fantastic Philip Island circuit for the penultimate round with Dovizioso now confirmed as a worthy champion. However he kept up his remarkable record – surpassing all previous others in the class for consistency – by winning the race, marginally ahead of Lorenzo and Stoner, the latter bitterly disappointed to miss out on a home win. Pablo Nieto was a surprisingly low 15th after coming off worst in a massive midfield battle, while Stefano Perugini put an end to his Gilera team-mate Lai’s very impressive run of results when the two collided into MG hairpin, and the luckless Derbi rider Angel Rodriguez fell off his bike yet again.

The end-of-season party at Valencia also proved to be a celebration for the Seedorf Racing squad, with Barbera and Bautista taking first and third sandwiching the World Champion. Sergio Gadea put in a great weekend for a close fifth place, while Locatelli and Borsoi signed off from the 125cc class with 6th and 7th. Other enforced leavers - due to the age limit for 2005 - Jenkner (10th), Giansanti (12th), Sabbatani, Perugini and Ballerini (all retired) were less lucky as they look set for pastures new in 2005.

So once again we enjoyed a great season of 125cc racing, with all the right ingredients in place: big well-sponsored grids (34 regular riders plus wildcards), incredibly close racing, lots of overtaking, tightly matched machinery, and of course plenty of talented riders eager to make a name for themselves. We got a very deserving World Champion in Andrea Dovizioso, who despite the remarkable level of competition finished as the winner or within one second of the winner in all but two events (one was wet, his bike broke down in the other). 13 riders reached the podium and several more were capable of obtaining top-six results. The season also passed without any serious injuries, although a few bones were broken!

There are a couple of minor flaws with the class, the primary one being the over-eagerness of Dorna to transform the class into one solely for the youngsters. This has meant that this year, several of the class’s long-serving riders have been unceremoniously shoved out by the introduction of a maximum age limit for riders. While of course it is necessary to bring as many new riders into the class as possible and avoid it becoming stale, this writer feels it rather silly to force seven of the series’ leading riders out all at once. When combined with many of the young guns moving up to the 250cc class, there is currently a large gap on the grid for next year that will need to be filled and it has created an unnecessary degree of uncertainty. It would have been much more appropriate to allow those remaining over the age limit to stay until they retire and enforce the age limit for new riders. That way maybe one or two of the veterans would disappear per year creating a much smoother change. Of course, all these concerns will be academic if the 125cc class lines up with 34 riders again next season. The rule does however look towards improving the 250cc class with a greater emphasis on progression up through the classes, which is of course to be applauded.

The other concern is the absence of much of a Japanese presence in the class this year. In the past, Noboru Ueda, Masao Azuma and of course Youichi Ui have been front-runners, but with Ui’s departure midway through this campaign there were no Japanese riders in the category. Japan is the primary manufacturer of racing motorcycles in the world, and it would surely encourage 125cc sales and development to have some Japanese riders on some of the Hondas in the class. Who knows, it may even tempt Yamaha or Suzuki back to the class which they have been absent from in recent years to ensure continued success of the category.

One final slight worry is simply that of TV and media promotion of the class – an observation is that BBC have the rights to MotoGP (which I would assume includes 250cc and 125cc), yet they do not show it! It seems totally illogical to not show the most exciting motorsport out there. The 125cc class deserves to have a fuss made about it – it is truly edge-of-the-seat stuff. In a world where motorsport in general receives criticism from those who do not follow it for being processional with no overtaking, this series can prove them all totally wrong. Someone just needs to get out there and show people it.

However, despite the minor criticisms, we enjoyed a spectacular season’s racing in the 125cc class. With many of the top runners off to 250 for next year, there are sure to be an incredible number of equally promising newcomers arriving to take their place, all eager to prove their speed around the Grand Prix circuits of the world, and we will be crowning a new World Champion.

Bring on 2005!

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