As the start of the MotoGP season draws near, this is a big week for motorcycle racing. On Wednesday, the Moto2 and Moto3 teams meet for the first official test of the season at Jerez, lasting until Friday. Early Friday morning, European time, the second round of the WorldSBK championship kicks off at the Chang International Circuit in Thailand. Then on Friday afternoon, the MotoGP teams start the final test of preseason at the Losail circuit in Qatar.
But the first place to see action is Jerez. After several private tests scattered around Spanish tracks, it is the first chance to see the entire Moto2 and Moto3 grid on track together. Or most of the grid: injury leaves at least one rider sidelined, Stefano Manzi being out with a knee injury. The three-day test is split into sessions, with the Moto2 and Moto3 classes each going out separately.
The chance to see a nearly full support grid going head to head is an enticing prospect. In the Moto2 class, it will be a chance to see if Taka Nakagami, who has consistently topped the timesheets in private testing, can continue his strong run of form. The two Forward riders have been strong too, with Luca Marini closing hot on the heels of Lorenzo Baldassarri. Franco Morbidelli has also been staking his claim to be a strong contender in 2017, while Tom Luthi, the runner up in last year's championship, has yet to show his real potential.
After years of total domination by Kalex, there will also be a chance to see how the rival chassis makers get on. Suter will be present with Danny Kent, Dominique Aegerter, Sandro Cortese, and Marcel Schrötter, while KTM will have both riders again, Brad Binder now back to full fitness after his arm injury, and joining Miguel Oliveira.
Though it is enticing to start drawing conclusions from lap times at the test, the Jerez Moto2 test is always particularly tricky. Firstly, the teams are free to run whatever engine they like, as they will not be issued with their official Moto2 engines until Friday night. As in the past, some teams will be running engines which are closer to Supersport spec than the Moto2 spec, which is roughly equivalent to Superstock.
Grip levels at the track can also be deceptive. Colder conditions in March mean that the track is usually much cooler, giving much more grip than during the race weekend in May. That can lure riders into a false sense of security: riders turn up at the race after having found a solid set up during testing, then struggle for rear grip as the track turns greasy due to the heat. The weather forecast is for higher temperatures than usual – as high as 25°C during the day – with sunshine, so conditions could be much closer to the race this year.
Things are a little easier for the Moto3 class, and the test could be even more tightly contested. Moto3 is looking to be a very tough class in 2017, with last year's crop of outstanding rookies now all having a year of experience under their belt, and the stronger riders who have not left for Moto2 having access to better bikes with better teams.
Nicolo Bulega was fastest at the last at Jerez, at the end of March, but it was a relatively close field. Phillip Oettl showed promise on the Schedl GP KTM, as did Jorge Martin and Romano Fenati, both on Hondas. All eyes will be on Fenati, the Italian making his return to the Grand Prix paddock after being sacked for repeated breaches of the Sky VR46 team's internal code of conduct last year.
The Red Bull KTM Ajo team will also be getting a lot of attention. Bo Bendsneyder has made solid steps forward over the winter, having worked on his braking technique, and was fastest at a private test at Valencia. New teammate Niccolo Antonelli has yet to live up to his promise, but the switch from Honda to KTM needs some adaptation, as Fabio Quartararo showed last year. Early reports are that the new KTM Moto3 bike is a step forward, but the Honda is as strong as ever.
Times should be a little more representative for Moto3 compared to Moto2. Firstly, there is no cheating with engines, as nobody is preparing special version of the already highly tuned Moto3 motors. Just as important is the fact that Moto3 bikes are less reliant on grip, especially in acceleration. That means that the times set during the test are a more realistic reflection for the Moto3 riders, and are likely to be be closer to the actual outcome of the race in May.
Testing starts at 10am on Wednesday, with the Moto2 riders the first to take to the track.
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