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22 days ago

The dark horse: Lüthi closes in on Zarco

Swiss contender for the Moto2™ title just won’t stop gaining ground

The 2016 Moto2™ season has been an exercise in expecting the unexpected. With the early leaders caught and passed by a fight back from reigning Champion Johann Zarco (Ajo Motorsport) by mid-season, it was then Alex Rins (Paginas Amarillas HP40) with the best traction – closing to within a point of the Frenchman’s lead. As the paddock heads for Malaysia, there’s a new man in P2: Tom Lüthi (Garage Plus Interwetten).

Zarco makes it 8 wins for the season

In 2015, there was a race-long duel for the race win in Moto2™ at Sepang: between Lüthi and Zarco. Mentioning the memory after taking the win in Motegi ahead of the Frenchman, the Garage Plus Interwetten rider both remembers the result and has shown he’s learned from it – unaffected by the pressure in Japan, and then taking another victory under pressure in Phillip Island. The dark horse of the Moto2™ Championship is on a roll, and after pole last year at Sepang, a lesson in tactics and then two victories in the last two races, he heads for Malaysia as the man on the move – as Zarco and Rins try to get back in gear.

Zarco last took a full house of pole, win and fastest lap at the Austrian GP, and since the Frenchman has only had one podium finish – in Motegi. After a winning run that saw him reel in the victories following the Catalan GP, the drought is a tough one. On the other side of the coin, Alex Rins had taken over 30 points out of the Frenchman and headed into the flyaways only one point down, but then gave his rivals some breathing space back after the Spaniard crashed out in Motegi after injuring his shoulder on the Friday - and then a little more as he had a DNF in Phillip Island. But what Zarco gained on one rival, he lost to another.

Highlights: Luthi steals victory at the last in Australia

Phillip Island was the first time Tom Lüthi has taken back-to-back wins in not just the intermediate class, but in his career. The 2005 125 World Champion has been a consistent race winner and frontrunner, but had never achieved what he did in Australia. He held his nerve once again as he took an amazing photo finish win from Franco Morbidelli (Estrella Galicia 0,0 Marc VDS) in a tactical masterclass, a week after doing similar in Japan in front of Zarco. With two rounds to go, the Swiss veteran is now the closest challenger to the Frenchman – despite missing out on the Czech GP after a highside in qualifying – and has none of the pressure that has been raining down on Zarco and Rins.

Since being sidelined, Lüthi has won three out of five and gained 53 points on the French Championship leader – an average of around eleven per race. With two remaining and a deficit of 22 points, the crown is by no means out of reach.

Fourth placed Franco Morbidelli is the only other man mathematically still in play for the crown – but with a gap of 49 points to P1, the Italian would need to win both races, have Zarco not score in both – and gain big chunks of points on both Lüthi and Rins. Although the title is a long, almost impossible shot, Morbidelli had an incredible Phillip Island so close to the win and is on an amazing run of podium form. Maybe he won’t be Champion, but he could have a big effect on who is crowned, as could all those in Moto2™ who fight for the podium in one of the most competitive grids for years.

Hafizh Syahrin (Petronas Raceline Malaysia) is a local on that competitive grid in Sepang, who will be pushing to take on the usual frontrunners - and could prove another dark horse after having previous podium form at home. Ramdan Rosli wil also be flying the Malaysian flag with Petronas AHM Malaysia, and will wild card the event.

Sepang International Circuit makes for great racing, and that's what Moto2™ is all about as the season finale approaches. Zarco can take the crown with a race win, but the hurdles in front of the Frenchman seem to keep growing. A repeat of 2015 would be enough – but then the Frenchman had already won the crown. There is now much more to lose - and for Lüthi and Rins, a lot less.

#MalaysianGP Teaser: The battle rages on