On Tuesday, November 15th, the 2017 season starts in earnest. The biannual session of bike swapping commences two days after the final MotoGP round at Valencia, as riders, crew chiefs, mechanics, press officers and many others swap garages to join their 2017 teams. It is often something of a disappointment, with only a few riders moving from team to team, but the coming season sees some big names switching bikes, as well as an important new arrival in the shape of KTM. So to help you keep track, here is who will be testing what at Valencia on Tuesday.
All eyes will of course be on the factory Ducati garage, where Jorge Lorenzo is due to get his first outing on the Desmosedici. The Bologna factory has been working flat out on getting their 2017 bike ready, Michele Pirro giving the GP17 its first test after Aragon. The test was so important that Pirro was unable to fly to Motegi to replace the still recovering Andrea Iannone.
How will Lorenzo fare? We will have some idea on Tuesday. That is, if it doesn't rain, which the (notoriously inaccurate) long-range forecasts show it might. More important, perhaps, than his first test on the bike may be the relationship he establishes with new crew chief Cristian Gabarrini. The Italian worked previously with Casey Stoner, and so is used to working with complex characters. Tuesday and Wednesday is the day Lorenzo and Gabarrini get their first chance to get a feel for one another.
Andrea Dovizioso might be a better gauge of how big a difference the GP17 itself makes. This will be the fifth iteration of the Desmosedici the Italian has ridden (a case could be made that it is actually the seventh different bike, the GP14 having undergone serious change throughout the 2014 season), so he has a good understanding of the Ducati, and its design philosophy. The GP17 will need to brake a little better and be a little smoother in the middle of the corner than the GP16.
The Ducati riders will have to be extra cautious on their first contact with the bike, however. They will only have one GP17 each at their disposal, along with a GP16 as a second bike.
If Jorge Lorenzo to Ducati is the biggest story of the 2017 season, Maverick Viñales to Yamaha runs it a close second. Viñales has made massive progress in 2016, his biggest step coming in winning a dry race at Silverstone. The Spaniard is expected to immediately be quick on the Yamaha M1, though he may find it a lot more difficult to turn than the agile and sweet-handling Suzuki GSX-RR. It will at least drive out of corners, however, which was his biggest complaint in 2016. Viñales takes over all of Lorenzo's crew, except for one mechanic who will be leaving with the five-time champion for Ducati.
Valentino Rossi remains in the Yamaha garage, of course, and one question will be how the relationship between the Italian veteran and Viñales develops. They are currently on extremely friendly terms, though that may not last once they are direct competitors in the same team. It is not yet certain whether Yamaha will run their 2017 bike at Valencia, though Valentino Rossi told reporters during the flyaways that he hoped that would be the case. If the bike isn't quite ready for Valencia, then the team will get their first taste of the bike at a private test at Sepang later in the month. There, Rossi and Viñales will also be joined by the Monster Tech 3 Yamaha rookies Johann Zarco and Jonas Folger.
Suzuki is one of three factories which sees a complete change in its line up for 2017. Andrea Iannone joins the Japanese factory from Ducati, while Alex Rins moves up from Moto2 to replace the departing Maverick Viñales. Iannone is expected to be immediately quick, and the Suzuki GSX-RR is a good deal less physical to ride than the Ducati Desmosedici. The Italian should also be highly motivated, as he has been left embittered by Ducati's decision to drop him and keep Andrea Dovizioso, to make room for Jorge Lorenzo. Iannone brings his crew chief Marco Rigamonti with him from Ducati.
Alex Rins also makes his highly anticipated debut on a MotoGP bike. The Spaniard is highly regarded and highly rated, but he has had something of a disappointing Moto2 campaign. He has shown he is capable of winning races in Moto2, and did so very quickly, a key sign he is capable of adapting. But after a draining 2016 Moto2 season, he may not be immediately up to speed on a MotoGP machine.
Aprilia also has an all-new line up, and there is no better time to be joining the factory. Aleix Espargaro is moving over from Suzuki, after being let go in favor of Andrea Iannone. Espargaro has a lot of experience on a wide range of bikes, which should be an asset to the Noale factory.
Espargaro will be joined by Sam Lowes, who moves up after a difficult year in Moto2. The Englishman looked capable of fighting for the title in the intermediate class, but crashed out too often to be consistently competitive. He will need to approach MotoGP a little cautiously, especially as he also has Michelin tires to learn. This will not be as hard as it has been in the past, especially as Michelin are bringing their new and much improved 2017-spec front tire to Valencia. This tire provides much better feedback, and should prevent some of the many front end crashes which have marred 2016.
Lowes and Espargaro will be riding the 2016 Aprilia RS-GP, as the 2017 bike will not be ready until Sepang next year. But the current iteration of the bike is already vastly improved, and should provide a good basis for the new Aprilia pairing to get an idea of the machine.
If you had to rank the interest about the upcoming bike changes at the test among fans, Jorge Lorenzo's move to Ducati would almost certainly come out on top. If you were to poll a group of paddock insiders, the entry (or is it a return?) of KTM into MotoGP would probably push Lorenzo's switch into second place. Riders – even great riders of Jorge Lorenzo's stature – come and go, but new manufacturers enter only once in a blue moon.
We will get a first look at the 2017 version of KTM's RC16 MotoGP machine during practice and the race, of course, with Mika Kallio entered as a wildcard at the Valencia round. But Kallio has not raced in a World Championship series for a year, and though he has been very busy testing, there is some question as to how race ready he will be.
Bradley Smith and Pol Espargaro will have to wait until Tuesday to try the bike. Just what Smith will be capable of doing is open to question, the Englishman is still recovering from a very serious leg injury picked up during practice for a World Endurance race at Oschersleben. Pol Espargaro should provide a better benchmark of its progress.
Measuring progress against other bikes could still be an issue, however. The steel trellis frame used by KTM provides a very different feeling to the aluminum beam chassis both Smith and Espargaro have used throughout their careers. In Austria, at the official launch of the KTM MotoGP bike, when I asked Mika Kallio if the steel chassis took some time to adapt to, he agreed that it did.
"Also for the rider, it was not easy to jump to this bike," Kallio replied. "It gives you a different feeling, this frame, and I needed to learn first how I felt with this bike, and then I needed to make a lot of laps to see exactly how to give the right comments on which way we need to go on the development. It has also been a big challenge for me, to learn the bike and this feeling that this frame gives." We should expect a similar period of adaptation for new arrivals Smith and Espargaro.
There may be the fewest personnel changes in the Honda line up – zero, to be precise – but there is still plenty of interest in what HRC will be bringing to Valencia. Honda have a new engine, rumored to have a very different character to the current version of the RC213V. It is said to use a different firing order (or more properly, firing interval) for the cylinders, to make the bike a little easier to manage.
Will the new RC213V use a big bang firing sequence? We will only find out for sure at the test – or perhaps on Monday evening, when Repsol Honda mechanics fire up the bike in pit lane in preparation for Tuesday's test. There will be a host of journalists and rival engineers in pit lane when they do, with sound recording equipment at the ready, to analyze the sound of the new bike.
Though the Honda riders have been careful not to comment about the 2017 bike, paddock gossip suggests it is a significant improvement. The changes are said to be mainly in the engine, with only a few minor modifications to the chassis. What Honda are seeking is a big improvement in acceleration. Given that Honda have won nine of the seventeen races held so far this year with a bike that is still hard to control under acceleration, an improvement could lead to massive gains.
In past years, only the Repsol Honda team have had the latest version of the bike at the Valencia test. Given that Cal Crutchlow has played such an important part in HRC's testing program, though, the LCR Honda rider may also get a new engine to test.
The Valencia test is always different for a satellite team. Where factory teams have new bikes to roll out and test, satellite teams are generally stuck with the bike they finished the season with. That seems likely to happen for the Marc VDS Racing team, for instance, though that does not mean there will be no changes. Jack Miller's current crew chief Cristian Gabarrini is moving to Ducati, and so he will have to get used to Ramon Aurin. Aurin is currently crew chief to Dani Pedrosa, but is due to be replaced by Giacomo Guidotti.
At the Monster Tech 3 Yamaha team, the mechanics will eagerly await both the 2016 factory Yamaha M1s, and the two rookies who are due to ride them. In terms of equipment, the story is always the same for the Tech 3 squad. The M1s used by the Movistar Yamaha riders for the last race at Valencia are rolled out of the factory garage and into Tech 3, where they stay virtually unaltered all season.
The bigger question mark for Tech 3 is with their riders. Double Moto2 champion Johann Zarco and Jonas Folger are both rookies, and will both have a lot to learn. Their times at the Valencia test will not tell us much. Their progress as the test goes on will be much more instructive.
Pramac, Avintia, and Aspar Ducati
If the situation at Honda and Yamaha is relatively straightforward, things are a little more complex for the Ducati satellite teams. That is in no small part due to the large number of satellite bikes Ducati puts on the grid, much to their credit. It is further complicated by the fact that each of the satellite teams will have two different bikes at their disposal for their two riders.
At the Valencia test, the Avintia and Aspar teams will have the bikes they will be using for the 2017 season. At Avintia, Hector Barbera will have a Ducati Desmosedici GP16, while Loris Baz will have a GP15. In the Aspar garage, new arrival Alvaro Bautista will have a GP16, while Karel Abraham will have a GP15.
Who gets what at Pramac is yet to be settled, although Danilo Petrucci currently leads Scott Redding by 16 points in their intra-team battle for the right to race a Ducati Desmosedici GP17 in 2017. The winner of that contest will be decided by the outcome of the Valencia race, though Redding will have to score a podium and have Petrucci not finish to take control. At the test, the losing rider will have a GP16, while the winning rider will have an evo version of the GP16, with some GP17 parts fitted.
Though we are all fascinated to see what will happen at the Valencia test, that is still over a week away. First, there is the small matter of the final MotoGP round of the season to get out of the way. The championship may be settled, but there is still plenty of pride to race for.
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