Every year, about now, there is one phrase which you will hear over and over again. With MotoGP testing behind us, and the start of the season imminent, every race fan chants the same mantra: "This could be the best MotoGP season ever!" Reality tends to intervene rather quickly, and the races never seem to pan out the way race fans had been hoping. Intriguing? Yes. Entertaining? Often. Thrilling? Not nearly as often as hoped.
And yet there is a genuine chance that this year could be different. Events inside MotoGP have been converging to a point which promises to see a return to the thrills of a previous era in MotoGP, one in which epic battles were fought out on the old 990cc machines. Though the days of tire-smoking action are long gone - killed off forever by the insistence of the factories that electronics must continue to play a major role in premier class racing - the battles could be back.
The ingredients which will spice up MotoGP? Two men, well matched in talent and in equipment - though both would dispute the latter claim, saying the other bike holds the upper hand. A grand old champion, returning to a bike he understands and knows he can ride and keen to prove he has not lost his edge. A fast young upstart, a fearless - some would say reckless - challenger, brimming with self-belief, overflowing with talent, and spoiling to make his mark. A talented underdog, a bull terrier desperate to get his teeth into the front runners, and bristling with resentment at the lack of factory support he believes he deserves. A stricken factory, fallen from its former glory, and determined to make amends, starting on the long road to recovering what it believes is its rightful place at the front. And a gaggle of young riders - some younger than others - determined to claim their place in the spotlights, and preferably on the podium.
Champion and Challenger
What MotoGP has been missing most is a battle at the front. For one reason or another over the past few seasons, battles for the lead have been worryingly scarce. The situation picked up in 2012 with the return of the larger 1000cc capacity MotoGP machines, culminating in the breathtaking battle between Jorge Lorenzo and Dani Pedrosa at Brno. The Yamaha had been the stronger of the two bikes in the first half of the season, while the Honda struggled with chatter, unable to benefit from superior acceleration. At Brno their development trajectories collided, leading to an exhilarating battle which saw the lead change hands three times on the final lap. It would be the turning point of the season: from then on, Lorenzo would struggle to stay with Pedrosa, the Honda almost unbeatable once it was sorted, but the appetite for racing was whetted.
This season sees a rematch between Lorenzo and Pedrosa, though the two men start from different points compared with last year. The Honda - in the hands of both Dani Pedrosa and Marc Marquez - dominated at both Sepang tests and at the private test in Austin. The tables were turned at Jerez, with Yamahas topping all three days, in varying conditions and in the hands of three different riders. The Honda is clearly better in acceleration, aided in no small part by its seamless gearbox, while the Yamaha is faster through corners, the extra speed it carries meaning it does not lose out as much as it might. The pumping of the Yamaha's rear suspension has been largely tamed on corner exit, giving it excellent drive with which to counter the sheer horsepower of the Honda. Yamaha is working on a seamless gearbox of its own, but it is unlikely to see action until the second half of the year once it has been fully tested. Given how tightly contested the 2012 championship was, a single mechanical failure during a race could be the difference between winning and losing the title.
Jorge Lorenzo's 2012 season, which saw him crowned MotoGP World Champion for the second time in his career, was a case study in preparation, consistency and perfection. The factory Yamaha man permitted himself just a single mistake last year, and even that only came at the very last race, once the title was well and truly in the bag. Where Lorenzo benefited most was at the very start of the season, however. The Spaniard arrived at Sepang in outstanding physical condition, and then pounded out several race simulations to test how the bike would hold up, but more importantly, how he would hold up after 45 minutes of pushing a MotoGP machine to the limit. Bigger, heavier, more powerful bikes would place different demands on his body, Lorenzo calculated, and he and his team figured out what he would need to do to survive. It worked: the Spaniard dominated the series, winning five of the first nine races, while Dani Pedrosa and Casey Stoner fought chatter on their Honda RC213V, and each other. By the time Pedrosa started catching Lorenzo, it was too late.
Lorenzo's preparation for 2013 has been almost identical to last year. The Spaniard arrived at the tests in peak physical condition, and pushed himself and his machine mercilessly once there. At Sepang and Jerez, he put in race simulations of close to full race distance. Those simulations were run at full race pace, Lorenzo grinding out the laps at a punishing pace, and with a soul-destroying regularity. His pace is at once scorching and metronomic, sapping the spirits of his competitors. Lorenzo is as ready as he has ever been to defend his title, and he will not go down without a fight.
Lorenzo is up against the same man he held off last year. While many observers - myself among them - believed that Casey Stoner would be Honda's main candidate for the 2012 title, it was Dani Pedrosa who stepped up and took the title fight to Jorge Lorenzo. It was a different Pedrosa to the man of previous years who raced in 2012. He stood taller, more upright, seemed calmer, stronger. Entering the season without injury had boosted his confidence, but a changed approach helped here too, Pedrosa arriving at the track earlier and eliminating some of the stress generated by a race weekend. The change was visible in his results, Pedrosa winning seven of the eighteen races in 2012, having his best year in MotoGP.
Pedrosa arrives in Qatar this year in almost as good a shape as last year. Yet two question marks remain, issues which are perhaps related. The minimum weight of the MotoGP bikes has been increased once again, from 157kg to 160kg, and Pedrosa is suffering with sprained muscles in his neck, a problem he picked up at Austin. Was the neck sprain a result of the additional stresses placed on his body by the extra bike weight? Pedrosa, doubtless, would reject any such notion, but it is noteworthy that Jorge Lorenzo never appears to suffer such problems, arguably because of the intensity of his physical preparation.
Can Pedrosa take the fight to Lorenzo? Of that there is no doubt, despite concerns over his neck. The Honda is in exceptionally good shape, the chatter having been largely tuned out. Pedrosa is in form, as his speed at the Sepang test clearly illustrated. It will once again come down to Jorge Lorenzo trying to impose his will on Pedrosa, and grind out a pace which the Repsol Honda man simply cannot follow. As Pedrosa proved last year, that is going to be tough. Though there are still eighteen races to go before the title is awarded, the sensible money is on either Pedrosa or Lorenzo lifting the 2013 crown. For Lorenzo, a third title would put him into a very elite group indeed; for Pedrosa, this season is probably his best chance of becoming champion.
Something Old, Something New
Two men stand in the way of the two Spanish veterans' paths to the 2013 title: their respective teammates. Both Valentino Rossi and Marc Marquez are extremely disruptive riders, unafraid of risk and willing to stuff their bikes into a gap which may not exist. And the two men have nothing to lose this year, increasing their appetite for risk. After two long and unsuccessful years at Ducati, failing to cope with the fickle and intransigent Desmosedici, Rossi is determined to prove that he can still win. Now back at Yamaha, the brand with which he won so much previously, he has a chance to show that he still has it.
Early testing was a little disappointing, the Italian remaining stubbornly slower than his teammate, though the difference was limited to a couple of tenths. But at Jerez, a track which suits both Rossi and the Yamaha he finally brought hope to his many millions of long-suffering fans. At last, Rossi's name was back at the top of the timesheets, even if it was just for a single day. Has Valentino Rossi lost any of his pace at Ducati? Looking just at his times, he appears to be as fast as ever, and his body language of the bike is the same as the Rossi of old, rather than the stunt double who appeared to be wearing Rossi's leathers during his two years at Ducati. Rossi's problem is that while he was wasting his time at Ducati, Lorenzo and Pedrosa moved the game on, with the able assistance of Casey Stoner. Rossi needs not only to get back to his old level, he needs to find a little bit more as well.
And he will have to hurry, as he has Marc Marquez breathing down his neck. The young Spaniard faced much criticism in some circles, and claims his speed was solely down to cheating on the part of his team, or having access to the best bike and best support package, or even favoritism on the part of series organizer Dorna. Marquez' pace at Sepang shut up much of the accusations, and topping the timesheets at Austin silenced them altogether.
Marquez is the most talented rookie to enter the class in a very long time, and he comes into a perfect situation. He has been taken under the wing of Casey Stoner's former crew, with former crew chief Cristian Gabarrini now overseeing the whole operation, and Marquez retaining his crew chief from Moto2, Santi Hernandez. He is riding the factory Repsol Honda RC213V, a bike of fantastic pedigree, and clearly competitive. He has the chance to become the youngest winner of a premier class Grand Prix, if he wins a race before the circus hits Silverstone, taking the record from the legendary Freddie Spencer. He can also become the youngest rider to win a race in all three classes, taking the record from his teammate, and is even in with a chance to become the youngest world champion ever, deposing Spencer once again.
Given the magnitude of the task, it is a big ask, but there is every reason to believe that Marquez is up to it. The young Spaniard is a mixture of Spencer's raw speed and Kevin Schwantz' fearless riding, with a touch of Marco Simoncelli's aggression thrown in for good measure. He reminds me, most of all, of Valentino Rossi, when the Italian entered the class back in 2000. Talented, fearless, confident, and with a strong preference for taking a gamble, and seeing how things play out.
Shaken And Stirred
This personality trait, above all, could help change MotoGP for the better. The mixture of 800cc MotoGP machines, the overarching control of electronics and the stiff, unforgiving, but unbelievably grippy Bridgestone tires placed a premium on perfection. Dani Pedrosa, Jorge Lorenzo and Casey Stoner all learned to ride flawlessly, hitting the apexes within millimeters of the same spot for lap after lap, their concentration never flagging, their pace never dropping. That emphasis on perfection made attempting a pass you were not sure you could pull off too much to risk. It became imperative to play it safe, bide your time and wait for the right moment to strike. It meant that MotoGP went from pub brawl to hilltop sniper.
Marquez will not have any of that. He is happy to risk a pass, confident in his talent to make up lost ground should it not work out, and with nothing to lose if he can't make it stick. Bigger bikes and softer, more compliant Bridgestone tires have helped, but most of all it is about attitude, something which the young Spaniard has in spades. He will have assistance from Valentino Rossi in this, the Italian also preferring to roll the dice.
The most interesting part of the 2013 season will be seeing how the perfectionists Jorge Lorenzo and Dani Pedrosa deal with such disruption. If Marquez and Rossi work together - or perhaps, more like sharks, loiter ready to strike should the other draw blood but not make the kill - the two title contenders are going to have to develop a fallback strategy. They, too, will have to mix it up. Given their histories in the smaller classes, it is a skill they once mastered, and will have to sharpen once again.
English Bull Terrier
That, in turn, should open up opportunities for those behind. Leading that chase will be Cal Crutchlow, the Monster Tech 3 Yamaha man having already proven his speed by topping the timesheets at the final MotoGP test at Jerez. Crutchlow was already impressive in 2012, making a huge step forward in his second season, but the Englishman looks even stronger this season. Standing at track side in Jerez, Crutchlow looked smoother, more in control, more comfortable than even last year, approaching Jorge Lorenzo's levels of smoothness.
Where has his speed come from? In part, from an extra year of experience, and a close analysis of what is needed to be fast. But perhaps even more from a dogged determination to prove his point. Crutchlow believes he deserves a factory ride - and given his performance last season, he has a case to make - and is annoyed that he is on a satellite bike for another year. Promises which he believes Yamaha made to him, of increased factory support, have not been delivered, and so Crutchlow wants to beat both Rossi and Lorenzo to drive his point home.
The question is, would Crutchlow be any faster on a factory bike? He would certainly have better equipment, worth a tenth or so a lap, but that might deprive him of the three tenths which his resentment, his anger, and his determination gives him. Crutchlow revels in the role of underdog; as top dog, would he still have the same fire in his belly?
The Proof of the Pudding
Two more men with points to prove will be chasing Crutchlow for the podium, both mounted on satellite Hondas. Stefan Bradl enters his second year of MotoGP with increased factory backing from Honda, and a bike that is close to that of the Repsol Honda riders. Alvaro Bautista also has strong support from Honda, but only in exchange for running Showa suspension and Nissin brakes. The Showas, in particular, have had their problems, performing well at some circuits, while being lost for set up data at others. Bautista still managed to secure the 5th spot in the championship last year, taking a pole and two podiums.
Compared to Bautista, Bradl is younger, and with more of a point to prove. The man who he beat to take the 2011 Moto2 championship has come into the factory Honda team, and has been faster in testing throughout. Bradl's talent is undisputed - they do not give out world championships with packets of breakfast cereal - but he is determined not to be overshadowed by Marc Marquez. He will have to step up his game if he is to take the fight to the young Spaniard.
Another man with something to prove is Bradley Smith, who faced loud criticism after securing the second Monster Tech 3 Yamaha seat in MotoGP. Smith's achievements in Moto2 had been rather modest, and many fans felt Smith had not done enough to deserve the ride. Those fans have pointed to Smith's times during preseason testing as evidence to back their argument, but the truth is that put in context, Smith's times have been extremely respectable. At each of the MotoGP tests, Smith has matched the gap which Stefan Bradl had to the leaders during his first batch of testing last year. Smith is right on course for what he is supposed to be doing: learning to ride a MotoGP bike, and gaining ground on the front runners at every outing.
That Bolognese Bike
But what of MotoGP's third factory - now very much a third factory, after two years of very public failure with Valentino Rossi? The truth is that 2013 is looking rather hopeful for Ducati, though that statement needs to be put into perspective. Ducati's two years with Rossi were spent frantically chasing solutions to the problems the Italian was reporting. In hindsight, they moved in too many directions at once, their sense of urgency creating chaos rather than order. There were certainly key improvements made, perhaps, but the pressure prevented any real progress from being obtained.
Free of the pressure of having a nine-time world champion in their pay, and with new owners Audi having put key personnel and working practices in place, development is now proceeding rather more methodically. From the outside, nothing radical has changed - the bike looks identical, with only telltale fins on the front of the tank showing the revised weight distribution now being used, with the gas moved much further under the seat, and the electronics hardware moved to the spot behind the headstock - but the small steps already made are harbingers of more to come. At the Jerez test, test rider Michele Pirro put in a lot of laps on the two "laboratory bikes" Ducati had brought, which featured a radically different exhaust, and what looked like a revised swingarm. The Ducati garage - and especially that of test rider Pirro - is a much quieter place in terms of media spotlight, but there is much, much more to see now.
Though Nicky Hayden and Andrea Dovizioso start the season with the old bike - or rather, the new version of the old bike with the revised weight distribution - more changes are in the pipeline. Paddock rumors suggest that Ducati will have a major upgrade at the Barcelona test in mid-June, with more to come before the end of the year. That should be a big step forward for the bike, with Dovizioso and Hayden closing the gap to the front.
But honestly speaking - as Dovizioso has told the press a number of times this year - things aren't as bad as they seem. The bike is better than Dovizioso had been expecting, and though the first test at Sepang was pretty dismal, since then, the Ducatis have been much closer to the front. Two seconds at Sepang 1 had been cut nearly in half by Sepang 2, while at Jerez (a shorter track, but still) the deficit was well under a second. Dovizioso's adaptation is proceeding apace, while Nicky Hayden continues to knuckle down and work, grinding out the hard laps needed to test the bike to its limit. Podiums look to be out of the question in the first half of the season, but by the second half, and if the changes currently being worked on pan out, the possibility will not seem so remote.
Ducati's joker is Andrea Iannone, the young Italian having impressed in Moto2, and adapted to MotoGP in typical style: sometimes fast, sometimes slow, but always interesting. Crazy Joe - a nickname he uses himself, not something imposed upon him - was particularly strong at Jerez, a surprise given that it has traditionally been Ducati's bogey track. The Italian got in among the factory riders, surprising many observers. He still has an awful lot to learn, however, despite having a relative wealth of experience (for a rookie) on the Ducati, having tested it a number of times last year.
While hopes are high for Iannone, they are matched by concern for his teammate Ben Spies. Spies had surgery on the cartilage in his shoulder at the end of last year, and he is still in the process of regaining his strength in the joint. Recovering from shoulder surgery, especially on ligaments and cartilage in the joint, is a painfully slow process, and it is going to be some time before Spies is even strong enough to try to ride the bike properly. On a machine like the Desmosedici, that weakness is something a rider can ill afford. The jury is still out on Ben Spies' move to Ducati, and it shows no sign of returning to the court any time soon.
To CRT, Or Not To CRT
Then there are the CRT machines, ill-fated bikes which have served their purpose as a stopgap measure, to fill the yawning void which threatened at the end of 2011. Honda have pledged to put five of their RC213V production racers on the grid in 2014, and Yamaha have committed to supplying four engines for lease, for teams to put in their own chassis - Kalex, FTR and Tech 3 have all been rumored to be involved, though at such an early stage it is hard to gauge the validity of the rumor - meaning that, with Suzuki expected to return to the grid, eleven of the twelve slots currently filled by CRT machines could be filled with machines more closely resembling prototypes - though still nowhere near as competitive as the prototypes.
So in what will likely be their final year - unless some teams decide that racing a 300,000 euro CRT machine is a damn sight more cost effective than racing a million euro production racer, with little difference in the results - the fight for CRT supremacy once again looks like coming down to a battle between the two Power Electronics Aspar riders. Last year it was Aleix Espargaro who got the upper hand, a situation which Randy de Puniet simply cannot let stand, especially if he is in the frame for a factory Suzuki ride next year. Espargaro has taken to the CRT class with great gusto, and his proximity to the prototypes will have some crew chiefs scratching their heads and worrying what to do about it.
While fans have only limited interest in the results of the CRT bikes, what is holding people's attention is the development of the new spec Magneti Marelli electronics. Though the teams using the spec system arrived at the Sepang test with a very basic working mapping - more emergency set up than something you could go racing with - they have spent all three tests getting the electronics to work. With no money for private testing, and lacking the high-end dyno needed to set the engines up properly with the new electronics, it is all being worked out at the racetrack. That is far from ideal, but the truth is that things have always been this way at the poor end of the paddock. There are many divides in racing, but the divide created by money is one of the most intractable to try to solve.
When The Flag Drops
So, looking forward to the 2013 MotoGP, will the fans' prayers finally be answered? Will the suggestion that this will be the best season ever survive beyond the first couple of races, or will it ebb slowly away, as it has done in the past. I am cautiously optimistic that the hope this time is not idle, and that things really are about to take a turn for the better. It's hard to believe that this will be the best MotoGP season ever, but it looks set to be the best season since the legendary battles of 2006. The stage is set for battles, the actors are primed and more than willing, and all of the pieces are in place to see the thrills return to MotoGP. Time to go racing and find out.