The New Year has officially started, the real world of contracts finally lining up with the world of motorcycle racing. Riders who swapped factories are now free of their old contracts, their new contracts having commenced as the world greeted 2017. That also leaves them free to post about the new season on social media again. Aleix Espargaro was so keen to do so that he posted right on the stroke of midnight.
If the riders are excited, that gives fans reason to be excited too. Here are 10 reasons to look forward to 2017.
1. Six factories
For the first time since 2004, MotoGP has six different manufacturers* competing again. Unlike 2004, however, the level at which those manufacturers are competing is much more equal. In 2004, only Yamaha and Honda won races, though Ducati were regular visitors to the podium, and would win more consistently in 2005 and 2006. In 2016, four different manufacturers won races in the dry – Honda, Yamaha, Suzuki, and Ducati – and all four were consistent podium threats.
In 2017, Suzuki and Ducati will be even more competitive, while Aprilia's progress last year promises an outside shot at a podium in 2017. Newcomer KTM's record in other classes makes clear that they enter intending to win. While that is unlikely this year, progress will be rapid. Winning the triple crown – rider, team, and manufacturers championship – is no longer an easy task.
2. Lorenzo at Ducati
Whatever the reasons for Jorge Lorenzo to join Ducati – and no doubt they have something to do with the tensions inside the Movistar Yamaha garage – there is no doubting his motivation. The Spaniard has a point to prove, and judging by his preliminary outing at Valencia, he looks more than capable of making it.
Can Lorenzo tame the Desmosedici GP17, and succeed where his great rival Valentino Rossi failed? First and foremost, the current Ducati is a very different beast to the truculent monster Rossi inherited from Casey Stoner. That said, the signs so far are good, his pace at Valencia looking strong. The question mark hanging over Lorenzo is not so much the bike as the tires, the Spaniard struggling at times last year to get the Michelins to work. When things worked, he was unbeatable, when they didn't he was painful to watch.
Given his record at Losail, you can pencil his name in for the win at Qatar. But it is after Qatar that the real challenge starts. If 2016 is anything to go by, it promises to be a year of highs and lows, of drama and glory for both Ducati and Lorenzo.
3. Maverick Viñales – Alien status confirmed?
Maverick Viñales has all the ingredients that make up a MotoGP Alien: multiple wins in his first year in Grand Prix, wins in his first year of Moto2, and wins in every class he has competed in. His first season in MotoGP was the only aberration, the only year he didn't win a race in Grand Prix.
Part of that was clearly down to Suzuki, Viñales' rookie year also being Suzuki's first season back in MotoGP. He made up for it in his second year, finally winning a race and bagging a couple of podiums. Yet he was still not a consistent threat for the podium or the win. Was that the bike or had Viñales finally hit the ceiling?
We get the answer to that question in 2017. Viñales takes the place vacated by Jorge Lorenzo in the Movistar Yamaha team, and a bike which racked up six wins last year. He showed his pace at Valencia, and, rumor has it, at Yamaha's private test in Sepang. Viñales moved to Yamaha to try to win a championship, but first he has to beat the second most successful motorcycle racer of all time, and a man with a reputation for crushing teammates when they grow too successful. Maverick Viñales alongside Valentino Rossi promises to be a year of drama on track, and who knows what off track.
4. Can Rossi make it 10?
It is truly remarkable that Valentino Rossi, at the age of (nearly) 38, starts his 22nd season as one of the top favorites to take the title. It would be impressive enough at any time in the past, but you can make a very good case for this being the toughest MotoGP field ever to headto the grid. Not only does Rossi have to remain competitive after all these years, he also has to be better than he ever has been to win it all.
Rossi's hunger for victory remains insatiable. He keeps a keen edge on that hunger by training with the young Italian riders coming up through the VR46 Riders Academy. He may be doing Italy a favor by bringing on more young Italian talent, but he his also helping himself, by driving himself to ever greater heights.
He will need all the help he can get. He faces a motivated Jorge Lorenzo wanting to rub his nose in it at Ducati, perhaps the most talented rider to swing a leg over a bike in Marc Márquez, and a deeply talented upstart teammate who has come to Yamaha to beat him. It will be an incredibly tough challenge. But you don't win nine Grand Prix world championships by walking away from challenges. You can't write him off for title number ten.
5. Who can stop Márquez?
Marc Márquez' first two MotoGP titles demonstrated beyond doubt that the Spaniard possesses a truly exceptional talent at riding a motorcycle. He routinely demonstrates that talent by saving motorcycles that are so outrageously far beyond the limits of crashing that he leaves you wondering if there isn't some trickery or sleight of hand at work.
But he didn't always save them, and ended in the gravel just a fraction too often. That cost him the championship in 2015, and made him determined not to make the same mistake again in 2016. He didn't, and it was a more mature Marc Márquez who took the title last year. From exceptional rider, he become an extraordinary racer.
He will start 2017 looking invincible, but there are still cracks in his armor. If someone can put him under pressure, get him to push to keep up, they can lure the Repsol Honda man into a mistake. Given the breadth and depth of talent he faces, there is no question the pressure will come.
6. Could Iannone be the next Schwantz?
Andrea Iannone had been hoping to finally enjoy the fruits of all the hard work he had put in at Ducati riding uncompetitive bikes. Instead, he was cast aside to make way for Jorge Lorenzo.
He could still benefit, albeit from the hard work of others. Aleix Espargaro and Maverick Viñales have left a clearly competitive Suzuki GSX-RR for Iannone to inherit, the gap to the Yamaha, Honda, and Ducati closing almost race by race.
Iannone is fast enough to win races, as he proved in 2016. The bike is good enough to win, more or less. Now, the Italian has to put it all together to make a run at the title in 2017. The question marks which remain are over his character, and whether he has the intelligence and application to take on the world and win. If he succeeds, he could take on the mantle of the new Kevin Schwantz.
7. Who will inherit the crown in Moto2?
The big names which have dominated Moto2 for the past couple of years are all gone, headed off to MotoGP where they face a baptism of fire. That leaves the Moto2 championship wide open, with seasoned veterans facing rising stars, along with a handful of talented rookies entering the class.
Tom Luthi is the veteran left holding the fort, and in pole position to win a Moto2 championship at last. To do so, he must face rising young talent like Lorenzo Baldassarri, Franco Morbidelli, Luca Marini and Miguel Oliveira, along with more established riders like Taka Nakagami and Dominique Aegerter. Then there are the rookies coming into the class: Pecco Bagnaia, Jorge Navarro, the enigmatic talent Fabio Quartararo, and Moto3 champion Brad Binder.
Then there are the talented riders who have come up short: can Danny Kent recover the form that saw him win Moto3 in 2015? Will Alex Márquez finally find the consistency to mount a title challenge? What of Sandro Cortese? Xavier Simeon? Mattia Pasini?
Add in the return of Suter and the debut of KTM as manufacturers and Moto2 has all the elements needed for a fascinating season.
8. KTM – will the path from Moto3 to MotoGP work?
With their entry into the Moto2 class, KTM becomes the first manufacturer to offer riders a path all the way from national championships through to MotoGP. From GPR 250 production racer, to RC250R in Moto3, the new Moto2 chassis making its debut in 2017, and the RC16 MotoGP bike, KTM is in a position to find young talent at the local level, and bring them on through the ranks, all the way to the top.
KTM's Moto2 team is clearly blazing the trail for this new system. Brad Binder was brought on by Aki Ajo and put in a position to win the Moto3 title. Miguel Oliveira came within a whisker of pulling off the same feat a year earlier. If they can succeed in Moto2, they will be first in line for a seat with KTM's MotoGP project, just as the contracts of Bradley Smith and Pol Espargaro are about to expire.
Much hangs on how good the KTM Moto2 bike is. The Austrian factory has already proven capable of building a winning chassis, but now in Moto2, they must wrap it around a Honda CBR600RR engine. KTM is committed to winning, so they will work until they get it right.
If KTM succeed, Ducati could be the next factory to follow in their footsteps. Ducati Corse boss Gigi Dall'Igna has admitted an interest in building a Moto3 bike at some point in the future. A Moto3 bike would be the first step on the path to providing a route for talent through the Grand Prix classes. Ducati will be keeping a very keen on eye on their Austrian rivals this season.
9. Will the Moto3 rookies mature?
2016 saw a bumper crop of rookies burst onto the scene in Moto3. Nicolo Bulega, Aron Canet, Joan Mir, and Fabio Di Giannantonio all made an immediate splash, scoring a handful of podiums and a win or two between them. These were obviously genuine talents, beating established names like Brad Binder, Romano Fenati, Niccolo Antonelli.
2017 sees them face real pressure to convert those strong debuts into championship chances. If their first season was a test of talent, their second year is a test of character. This is the season that champions are made.
They are not the only riders to face tests of character. After being sacked in the middle of last season, Fenati returns with vengeance in his heart, but he must learn to remain calm and focused if he is to win a title. Niccolo Antonelli's talent is plain for all to see, but he has to stop falling off to succeed. Can Aki Ajo turn him around as the Finn has done with so many other riders?
The racing in Moto3 is outstanding every single season. 2017 promises to be an even better year than usual.
10. Will Kawasaki's WorldSBK reign come to an end at last?
The WorldSBK series is sadly under-appreciated, fans saying that the racing has not lived up to expectations. It may seem that way looking at the results – Jonathan Rea, Tom Sykes, and Chaz Davies shared all but one of the 26 race wins between them – but the racing on the ground has often been better than the list of winners suggest.
2017 offers the chance of improvement. Though the Kawasakis enter the season as favorites, and Chaz Davies promises to be a factor at Ducati once again, the prospects for a much tougher championship are good. More competitive bikes and a tougher field should spice things up nicely.
First among the challengers is surely Marco Melandri. After a year of absence enforced when he skulked away from Aprilia, the Italian is back with Ducati, and he is fast. He showed his pace at preseason testing, having spent much of the time since signing his contract hooning around Italian tracks on a Panigale R. When everything is right, Melandri is a genuine threat. So far, the signs are good at Aruba.it Ducati.
Next, there is an Aprilia with much stronger factory support. The Milwaukee team switch from BMW to Aprilia, and do so with backing from Noale. Eugene Laverty returns to the Aprilia fold, and the last time the Irishman rode an RSV4, he came very close to lifting a title. Young talent Lorenzo Savadori starts alongside him, a rider obviously capable of competing at the front.
Then there's a new Honda Fireblade, and though initial impressions of the bike made it look like the update was nothing more than Bold New Graphics, there have been significant changes under the skin. More power, a lighter crank, better weight distribution and above all, a radical upgrade to the electronics should put the Honda CBR1000RR back in contention. Nicky Hayden and Michael van der Mark were surprisingly competitive on the old and slow bike, but Hayden and new teammate Stefan Bradl should be much closer to the sharp end in 2017.
Van der Mark has headed off to Yamaha, where he joins Alex Lowes. The Crescent team are in their second season with the YZF-R1, and should have most of the bugs ironed out. Van der Mark proved his mettle on the Honda, and Lowes showed he could be quick when things came together on the R1. The bike may still struggle with the Pirelli tires, but Yamaha are serious about succeeding.
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