Top FIVE motorcycle racing championship showdowns!

Top FIVE motorcycle racing championship showdowns!

Motorcycle racing has seen some incredible and tense races over the years, and there is no scenario with higher tension than a final-race title showdown. 

A year of racing, and all the years of work that go into reaching the point where a racer can compete for a title, coming down to one final race is rarely not memorable, but there are a few that stand out. 

5 – 2013 Moto3 World Championship

Maverick Vinales came into the 2013 Moto3 World Championship season facing what was essentially a ‘must win’ campaign. That seems a lot of pressure for an 18-year-old, but having burst onto the scene in 2011 and winning Grands Prix against what was a dominant Nico Terol that year, Vinales’ failure to win the inaugural Moto3 title in 2012 became a disappointment, especially with how the year ended for the young Spaniard. 

But, although Vinales started the season well, winning back-to-back races in Spain and France, he was generally out-raced by his compatriots, Luis Salom and Alex Rins, in what was a year of pure KTM domination. 

Salom and Rins traded victories from the Italian Grand Prix – which began a three-race win streak for Salom – until the Japanese Grand Prix, the penultimate round of the season. A collision between the two, who by now looked to be the only two capable of winning the title, saw neither score points in Motegi, re-opening the door for Vinales. 

Although it was Alex Marquez who won in Japan – a first career win for the now-two-time World Champion – Vinales’ second place meant only five points covered the top three in the championship, and therefore the finale in Valencia was essentially ‘winner takes all’.

The race began as many of the previous 17 had, with Salom, Rins, and Vinales all together at the front, but an uncharacteristic mistake from Salom saw him crash out of contention. 

That left Vinales and Rins to decide the title between themselves, and the battle went down to the final corner. 

Vinales led, but Rins was close enough for a lunge, and he tried it. Vinales, sensing the incoming Estrella Galicia KTM, prepared the exit, and out-dragged his compatriot to the line, taking his first and so far only world title. 

It was also an historic moment for the Calvo KTM team, who featured a barcode on the side of their 2014 bikes which corresponded to Vinales’ 2013 results that won him the title. 

Not necessarily the tension of a big bike showdown with the pressure of manufacturer pride and so on, but a last corner duel for a world title is hard to beat. 

Images courtesy of Gold and Goose.

4 – 2022 AMA Pro Motocross Championship, 450MX

For a motocross series to go to the final round is a rarity. Injuries generally prevent it, as well as top class riders forging an advantage for a crucial part of the season which puts them out of reach of everyone else. 

The 2022 AMA 450 class was not the first to go all the way. Back in 2001, for example, the AMA Pro Motocross 125cc championship went down to the final race between Mike Brown and Grant Langston, and more recently the 2021 MXGP World Championship was decided at the final race between Jeffrey Herlings and Romain Febvre. 

But the 2022 450MX series had a particularly special flavour to it because of the way the two riders pushed each other throughout the series, and how they distinguished themselves as definitively the two best motocross racers in the world for that year.

Eli Tomac won three 450MX titles with Kawasaki in 2017, 2018, and 2019, but 2020 and 2021 did not go to plan outdoors for the famous #3, despite winning the 2020 AMA Supercross 450SX title. 

A move to Yamaha for 2022 was required for Tomac to refresh his career, which had stalled out at a Kawasaki team which had become too restrictive for a rider of Tomac’s experience. 

Indoors, the move worked, and Tomac reclaimed the Supercross crown he lost to Cooper Webb in 2021, winning Yamaha’s first title since James Stewart in 2009. 

Outdoors, however, remained a question mark, especially after Tomac ended the Supercross season with a knee injury that saw him unable to ride at his full potential for the final three races of the season.

Adding to the complications for Tomac was Chase Sexton, who had spent the second half of the 2022 Supercross season as the sole focus of HRC’s premier class efforts after Ken Roczen pulled out of the series after Daytona. Other than Jason Anderson – who before 2022 had not won an overall in AMA Pro Motocross – Sexton was the strongest rider in the final part of the Supercross season. 

The #23 opened the Pro Motocross season in fine style, winning with a perfect 1-1 score at the first round in Pala, while Tomac struggled with bike setup.

As the season drew on, Tomac gained back the ground lost at the season opener and eventually claimed the championship leader’s red plate, but the two were a match for each other. Not only that, but they pushed each other to new levels, winning races by margins of over 30 seconds compared to the rest of the field. 

Only mistakes would make the difference between the two, and unfortunately for Sexton he was the rider more prone to making them. 

Nowhere was the distinction between the two riders more evident than at the season finale, back in Pala. Once again, they were much faster than the field, by seconds per lap, but mistakes from Sexton saw him constantly fighting, while Tomac was relatively constant out at the front. 

In the end, Tomac came out on top, winning his second title of 2022, his fourth 450MX title, and sixth 450 AMA National title overall, indoors and out.

Sexton, on the other hand, left the 2022 Pro Motocross Championship as the hottest property in dirt bike racing, having taken Tomac all the way in only his third full season of premier class Pro Motocross. 

What made the season even more special was that, a few weeks later, Tomac and Sexton would team up, together with Justin Cooper, to win Team USA’s first Motocross of Nations gold medal since 2011 at Redbud in Michigan.

2022 seemed as though it would be Tomac’s final season of Pro Motocross. He will be back in January for the 2023 AMA Supercross campaign where he will attempt to retain his title but an outdoor season seems unlikely. 

That will make Sexton the absolute favourite for the title, a position he has never had going into a season.

Images courtesy of Yamaha.

3 – 2006 MotoGP World Championship

2006 was the final year of the 990cc MotoGP bikes, which of course kicked off the MotoGP four-stroke era in 2002. 

From their inception until 2005, Valentino Rossi had been essentially untouchable in the 990 era of MotoGP, but in 2006 a combination of unreliability and a general lack of pace on occasions meant the title would be the closest-fought of Rossi’s career. 

His rival was HRC’s Nicky Hayden, who had arrived in Portugal for the penultimate round of the World Championship with a 12-point lead over Rossi. 

An error from Dani Pedrosa, Hayden’s HRC rookie teammate, in the race at Estoril seemed to end Hayden’s chances almost on the spot as the Spaniard took both himself and Honda’s title hopeful out of the race. 

Rossi, unable to win in Estoril thanks to an exceptional Toni Elias, went to the season finale at Valencia with an eight-point advantage over Hayden, which was generally regarded as a cushion big enough for the Italian to manage.

However, Rossi made a mistake, one that modern MotoGP fans will be all-too aware of after it was brought up over and over again during the 2022 finale, and crashed out at turn two. 

That meant Hayden’s podium finish in third place was more than enough to clinch the title, and with Rossi down the order having remounted after his crash there was little doubt in the closing stages.

Hayden’s celebrations are of course unforgettable, and his achievement of World Championship glory being taken against a rider who, coming into the season, was seen essentially as unbeatable, surely only increased the emotions. 

It was also an historic race for Rossi, as it came at a time when a Formula One move seemed a genuine possibility. As it went, Rossi stayed in MotoGP, but only to relive the pain of a final-race title loss once again nine years later. 

Images courtesy of Gold and Goose.

2 – 2012 Superbike World Championship

WorldSBK has gone through its peaks and troughs since its inception in 1989, but 2012 was certainly a year placed within something of a ‘golden era’ for the series. 

The season pitted three-time 250cc World Champion and 2010 WorldSBK Champion Max Biaggi up against Tom Sykes, who had to that point won one race in WorldSBK, which was also his only podium in the championship. 

Coming into the season, considering the relative lack of success in the previous years for Sykes and Kawasaki, it might have been reasonable to predict a repeat of 2011, which saw Ducati’s Carlos Checa go up against Biaggi and come out on top. 

However, Checa struggled for consistency, despite winning three of the first four races, and finishing on the podium in four of the first five races. 

Marco Meldandri was also a title threat, even though he had moved to the winless BMW for 2012 after Yamaha quit at the end of 2011. Melandri ended the season with the most wins, points in only one of the last six races cost him a genuine shot at the title.

As it turned out, Sykes would be the closest challenger to Biaggi, and until the penultimate round in Portimao they were mostly inseparable. Both had many good results, and also many races where they were not on the podium, but a retirement for Sykes in the second race in the Algarve seemed to spell the end of his title hopes.

However, Biaggi crashed in the first race at the soaking season finale at Magny-Cours, the Italian locking the front wheel under straight-line braking. That opened the door for Sykes again, but he still needed results to go his way in the final race. 

A top five would do for Biaggi, while Sykes essentially needed to win. Unfortunately for the Brit, while he completed his task, Biaggi also fulfilled his requirements, finishing fifth to win the title by half-a-point. 

It would also be Biaggi’s final race as a full-time motorcycle racer, as he would retire for 2013 and be replaced by Sylvain Guintoli in the factory Aprilia team. In the end it was Guintoli’s teammate, Eugene Laverty, who would be Sykes’ closest challenger in 2013, but this time the Kawasaki rider came out on top, clinching his first and only world title.

Biaggi, meanwhile, would come back to race in 2015 on an Aprilia in Malaysia. Aprilia had pulled out officially at the end of 2014 to focus on MotoGP, prompting Sylvain Guintoli, who won the title in Aprilia’s last year, to move to Ten Kate Honda. As it turned out, the Red Devils Roma team took the factory RSV4s for 2015 and won the first race of the season with Leon Haslam, who had been Biaggi’s closest rival in 2010. 

Losing out on a world title by just half-a-point must be a truly excruciating experience, but there seems little doubt that it helped to build a stronger Sykes for 2013, when he truly hit his peak.

Images courtesy of Gold and Goose.

1 – 2011 British Superbike Championship

There is probably nothing greater in racing than two rivals going head-to-head with little-to-no outside interference, and that is essentially what we got with BSB in 2011. 

Tommy Hill and John Hopkins arrived in the final race of the season at Brands Hatch in the ultimate ‘winner takes all’ scenario, and did not let each other out of their sights for the whole race. 

It is easy to forget that the race itself was won by Shane Byrne, but a few seconds behind him the punches were being thrown with an incredible frequency between Hill and Hopkins, neither willing to give best. 

Brands Hatch’s final corner is not especially well known for its last lap dices. Clearways is a complicated corner with a fast entry which is preceded by only quite a short period of straight-line braking, making it difficult to out-brake a rider in front. However, the line choice through the curved exit and through Clark Curve itself means there is always a chance of some drama. 

That certainly happened in 2011, as Hopkins fired his Suzuki underneath Hill’s Yamaha on the way into Clearways for the final time. The American ran slightly wide, and Hill squared him off, only to be squared off himself by Hopkins through Clark. 

Had it not been the final lap, Hopkins would have been in a perfect position to make a pass into Paddock Hill Bend. As it was, he came up just short of second place at the line, and therefore of the BSB title, too.

Hill’s triumph was also the beginning of the end of his career. 2012 saw a decline in results for the 2011 champion as Shane Byrne clinched his third BSB crown, and for 2013 Hill was gone in a racing capacity.

Hopkins, meanwhile, headed back to WorldSBK for 2012, where injuries disrupted his campaign as they had so often done before. A few more seasons of BSB followed, but another title challenge never materialised.

Images courtesy of Gold and Goose.

Honourable mentions

Undoubtedly, the favourite race of many of the readers of this article will have been missed off, and they might also be missed here. But, here are a few of the races that have made the list, but just not quite.

First, there is the 1990 125cc World Championship, decided at the final race of the season in Phillip Island between Loris Capirossi and Hans Span.

The defence of the Italian by his compatriots angered Dutchman Span to the extent that he tried to punch Fausto Gresini between the Southern Loop and what is now Stoner’s Corner. As Keith Huewen pointed out in the commentary, it must have taken a particularly intense emotion on the part of Span to take his throttle hand off a 125 in the middle of the flat out section. 

Capirossi won out in the end, becoming the youngest ever Motorcycle Grand Prix World Champion; a statistic that remains today, since the geriatric Pedro Acosta was one-day older (at 17 years and 166 days) when he won the Moto3 world title in 2021 than Capirossi was at Phillip Island in 1990.

Ben Wilson, Alistair Seeley, 2011 Brands Hatch British Supersport finale. – Gold and Goose

The same year as Hopkins and Hill battled for the BSB crown, the British Supersport title was decided between Alistair Seeley and Ben Wilson. Like the big bike class, the race came down to the final lap, but this time the Suzuki rider, Seeley, came out on top.

Two years later, Seeley would be teammates with Wilson at Gearlink Kawasaki, but he himself would lose out to Mar-Train Yamaha’s Stuart Easton for the 2013 British Supersport crown. 

The same day, the BSB title was decided by Shane Byrne and Alex Lowes. Byrne was a three-time champion by now, while Lowes was in his first and only season at Honda UK. 

It all seemed to be over on lap one of the second race of the weekend, when Lowes crashed at Druids in what were horrendously wet conditions. Fortunately for the Honda rider, Byrne crashed at the same corner a few laps later, and the title would be decided in the final race of the season. (A note, too, for Lee Costello, who scored his first and only BSB podium in that second race.)

That, too, was a soaker, and like in 2013 the two title contenders were fighting between themselves seconds behind the race leader, who on this occasion was Josh Brookes. Lowes was eventually able to make himself a small gap back to Byrne, and finished second to win the title by seven points. 

Jeffrey Herlings, 2021 MXGP of Citta di Mantova. – Ray Archer/KTM Media

As already mentioned in the 2022 450MX title section, having a motocross season go down to the wire is always a rarity, so when the 2021 MXGP World Championship went down to the final moto between Romain Febvre and Jeffrey Herlings it was both surprising and exciting. 

Herlings won the first moto at the final GP (which, oddly, was held on a Wednesday) to mean the two went into the final race level on points. That final moto was also won by Herlings, while a crash for Febvre meant he finished third behind Tim Gajser, and lost the championship by five points. 

Oddly, neither Herlings nor Febvre played a part in the 2022 MXGP world title fight, which never really materialised in any case thanks to the dominance of Tim Gajser. Instead, Febvre ruled himself out of most of the 2022 season by injuring himself at the Paris Supercross in November 2021, and Herlings fractured his heel in the beginning of 2022 which saw him out for the entire season.

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