Winning four out of the first six Moto2 races in 2011 allowed Stefan Bradl to build up a huge 62-point lead, the largest lead after six races by any rider in the history of the World Championships.
Bradl’s speed early in the season was such that he was able to easily beat Marquez (left) and Pons HP 40’s Aleix Espargaro (right) at their home circuit in Catalunya.
The battle for the win was fierce at Mugello, but the win went to Marquez (93) after the young Spaniard cannily timed his draft move at the finish to perfection to beat Bradl (65) by 0.071 seconds.
Marquez (93) turned the tables on Bradl (65) at the German’s home circuit, winning the Sachsenring Moto2 race by 0.896 seconds despite Bradl’s determined efforts.
Three products of the Spanish rider farm system have been at the forefront of the 2011 Moto2 season: Marquez leads young Briton Bradley Smith (38), with Bradl lurking in the background.
Bradl’s Viessmann Kiefer Racing team switched to the German-made Kalex chassis in 2011, and while his results speak volumes, Bradl feels a riding style change is the main reason for his speed this year.
After becoming the youngest rider to win five consecutive races on his way to the 2010 125cc World Championship, Marquez has learned to live in the spotlight in a bike-mad nation hungry for its next MotoGP star.
Son of former 250cc Grand Prix standout Helmut Bradl, Stefan Bradl lived a more normal childhood and didn’t get into racing until he was 12 years old.
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.”
After finishing seventh in the Red Bull Rookies Cup in Germany on a 125cc KTM, Bradl moved up to the German 125cc class in 2004 where he finished fifth for the KTM Junior team, then winning the German championship the following year, earning himself a wildcard World Championship debut at Barcelona. In 2006 he continued with the KTM Junior team for a full-time World Championship 125cc campaign, but it didn’t go well. He didn’t score a point until the 11th round of the championship. A race later, his season was over: he was rammed from behind while practicing a start after warm-up for the Malaysian Grand Prix, breaking his tibia and fibula.
The Blusens team offered him an Aprilia RSW125 for the 2007 Spanish championship, which he promptly used to win the title — Marquez was ninth — resulting in Blusens putting him back on the World Championship trail, first with wild cards, then permanently in Estoril.
Bradl’s first podium came at Qatar in 2008 when he finished third on the Grizzly Gas Kiefer Racing Aprilia. His was a fairly consistent season, with a breakthrough win in the Czech Republic. In 2009 all of his finishes were in the top ten, but he had seven non-points-paying races.
Marquez began racing enduro and motocross as a six-year-old, moving to road racing in 2002 when he was nine. He won his first title on a 50 in 2003 and was the Catalunya 125cc champion in 2005 and 2006. In 2007 he moved to the CEV Spanish championship, winning the third round in Jerez, and a year later made his debut with Team KTM Repsol in the 125cc World Championship. It wasn’t until 2010 that the full depth of his talent was on display.
Riding a Derbi for Red Bull Ajo Motorsports, Marquez began a five-race winning streak at Mugello. When he was done, he’d surpassed Valentino Rossi as the youngest rider to win five races in a row. (He’s also the youngest to have four poles in a row and his 12 poles are the most ever in the 125cc class). One win followed in the next four races, then came a four-race win streak that gave him a 17-point lead heading into the Valencia season finale where he earned the title with a fourth-place finish. That earned him a promotion to Moto2 where much was expected and he didn’t disappoint…in testing. But once racing began he suddenly seemed mortal.
“On the test I’m alone, I have all the day to find the best setup and in one race weekend, you have just 45 minutes, in just three free practice and one qualifying,” Marquez began. “And then on the race you have many riders there, you have to pass many riders with a full tank. Also it’s a little bit difficult in the beginning, because 18-20 liters feels quite a lot and this is quite difficult.
“In the beginning the most difficult change is you come from two-stroke to four-stroke, it’s quite a big difference,” Marquez said. “The engine braking I think is the biggest difference and the most difficult also, but then the weight of the bike. This is not so difficult to get a good confidence, but the worst problem is the brake point, because there it’s where you have the engine brake and with the two-stroke you don’t have nothing, so it’s the biggest difference.”
Bradl didn’t find the engine braking a problem. “Yeah, you get used to it,” related the young German. “You need to make a lot of kilometers on the bike, but with the clutch you’re able to control it very well and for me the engine brake was not a big problem.” He does agree on the difficulty of racing with a full fuel tank; “Yeah, you feel it,” Bradl said. “You feel it more also the weight of the bike is a lot more than 125. But, yeah, this is the normal weight if you want to go MotoGP, I think you have to do this way. The exit of the corner is even more important than it is in 125 because you have a really big rear tire. You need to work the tires and is very important to accelerate. You can spin the tire, but not spin too much, because you need to go forward, not to spin too much and go sideways. You have to feel it. This is very funny riding Moto2 because everything is in the throttle hand. No electronics, nothing. This is why the riders make the difference.”
Marquez believes on a 125 it was easier to make passes. “You can pass maybe in every corner,” he said. But in Moto2 you need to be “very clever when you want to pass some rider. And also the biggest difference is in the beginning of the race. Because in Moto2 from the beginning to the end of the race, the bike changes quite a lot, the tires, the fuel tank, change everything, and you need to adapt your riding style to your bike and in 125 from the beginning to the end it’s completely the same. Every lap you can make what you want and you don’t need to change nothing of your riding style.”
A change in riding style that he can’t pinpoint is what transformed Bradl into a consistent pole threat and race winner. “I really don’t know, I just tried some different positions with my body and then I felt more comfortable on the bike and for me was easier to go fast,” he said. “I had too much the riding style from 125 and then some guys said to change your riding style, especially from the waist up, which is important. And I tried, I tried, and it was successful, but when I was under pressure, especially during the race, I all the time fell back in my old riding style. Then I needed some time to get into this riding style, but at the moment, I think the riding style is just fantastic.”
The results bear that out. Bradl was on pole for the first five races and six of the first eight. By winning the rain-sodden British GP at Silverstone he built up a massive 62-point lead, the biggest lead after six races by any rider in the history of the world championships.
The success has translated into greater exposure for Grand Prix racing in Germany, a country which hasn’t had a legitimate title contender for nearly 20 years. Series promoter Dorna relishes the renewed exposure for the German market, where Red Bull’s Sebastian Vettel is the reigning Formula One champion and the influence of Michael Schumacher is strong. The last German world champion was 125cc rider Dirk Raudies in 1993. Before that Anton Mang won the last of his five 250cc titles in 1987. No German has ever won a premier-class crown.
Bradl has been courted by Yamaha and Honda. Because of the rookie rule, he’d have to go to either the Monster Yamaha Tech 3 team or one of the Honda satellite teams. LCR Honda MotoGP has already had talks.
“We will see,” he said. “At the minute nothing is said or sure. Keep concentrated on my job right now and we will see. OK, we have some contact to some MotoGP teams and is normal, because I think the Germany market is also very important for them. OK, if we continue in such way, which we have now, then I want to go.” When asked about his talks with Yamaha race boss Lin Jarvis, he said, “Yeah, we spoke and, OK, yeah, for sure there are some interests, but I have to decide what is the best opportunity for me and what is the best way on my side and the important thing for me and then we will see. We will see, but first of all we have to make the job in Moto2.”
Marquez is in his first season in Moto2 and will certainly spend 2012 in the class as well. He’s been asked about MotoGP, but his answer is that “I never think about this. Just I want to concentrate in Moto2 and then if someday I have the level to go to MotoGP, for sure it’s one of my dreams,” he said. “But first I want to do my job in Moto2.” SR