The late-to-racing son of 250cc World Championship runner-up Helmut Bradl had been hand-picked by Alberto Puig for the prestigious Red Bull MotoGP Academy. Being chosen for the intensive course is like winning the lottery, a one-in-a-million chance that doesn’t guarantee success — but it does make people sit up and take notice.
Unlike most of the riders in the academy, Stefan Bradl hadn’t made a life of racing. He’d led a relatively normal childhood. It wasn’t until he watched his father race in a German national at Hockenheim as a 12-year-old that he began to pursue the racing life. And now he was being cloistered with fellow teenagers all with an eye towards MotoGP.
And yet he was miserable. He was miserable about sharing a small apartment with a young Japanese rider. He was miserable that he had no internet access, no mobile phone, that he was away from his friends and family for an extended stretch, and that his father wasn’t allowed in the garage or at the tests.
“This was not my style and I didn’t feel good. I was not able to enjoy riding,” the 21-year-old German said about his opting out of the academy at the Valencia test. He was convinced his career was over before it had even started.
The experience of Marc Marquez was different. Marquez is from Cervera, northwest of Barcelona in the motorcycle hotbed of Spain. The hardship of the academy would be far less. The language and food would be familiar; his family wasn’t far away. And he was a product of the Spanish system of nurturing young riders, even before the academy, which he hasn’t forgotten. The Spanish federation, more than any other national governing body, supports and nurtures young talent. And the class structure in the CEV Buckler Spanish championship mimics MotoGP with 125cc, Moto2, and big-bore classes.
When Marquez started, his family didn’t have a lot of money, “but the Spanish federation, the Catalan federation helps the fathers and makes a cup, so it’s cheaper for everyone,” the 18-year-old said in a rush of improving English. “And you can start there and there the teams find the riders, because I think it’s where everyone can ride and everyone can show his talent and his level. And then this is the most important for sure. In my case, I was very lucky, because one team, when I was nine years old, see me, and then everything was free. If that team doesn’t come to me and take me, for sure, maybe I stay in motocross or something similar.”
The young German and the younger Spaniard took slightly different paths to the 2011 Moto2 World Championship series, but now they’ve arrived. Now they’re fighting for a championship, and the battle is riveting in a class that’s markedly different one year after its inception.
The first year of the Moto2 class was a study in controlled chaos. Too many bikes, too little power, too tight a grid added up to first lap excitement that scared the riders as much as the spectators. Inconsistency among the winners meant that getting a true read on the ascendant talent was difficult. Toni Elias, the former MotoGP rider and class ringer, clinched the title with a fourth place finish in Malaysia. The Spaniard won seven races while never being truly comfortable in the class. With his return to MotoGP in 2011 with the LCR Honda team, a more truthful read on the class talent could be made.
Italian Andrea Iannone came strong out of the gate this year, finishing second in Qatar and winning in Jerez before regressing to his inconsistent ways. Former 125 star Julian Simon started slowly before climbing the podium in Portugal, round three. Two races later, in Catalunya, he broke his tibia and fibula, his season over.
Marquez was lightning fast in testing, surprising everyone with his ability to adapt to the heavier four-stroke. When the first test of the winter ended in Valencia in mid-February, Marquez tied for the fastest time with Brit Scott Redding. And when the final test in Jerez ended, Marquez was an impressive second.
Bradl was the fastest rider of the testing season. He’d been a sleeper in 2010 with an extremely erratic scorecard. There were flashes of consistency in the final seven races, including a win in Portugal, but nothing that would have forecast his 2011 season.
Marquez had a rocky start to his rookie Moto2 season, crashing in the first two races before finally finishing a race in the third round in Portugal…in 21st. Then came his first win in Le Mans, followed by a second in Catalunya, the second of four home races; another DNF, then two more wins. By the end of the Italian Grand Prix in Mugello, Marquez was second to Bradl and closing; third place was held by young Brit Bradley Smith, another Red Bull MotoGP Academy alumnus.
Bradl didn’t take the usual path to Grand Prix racing. He didn’t have the desire to race as a three- or four-year-old, like many of his peers. When he watched his father at Hockenheim he thought, “Maybe I could try it.”