And then there were five. Should that statement have a question mark after it? On the evidence of preseason testing, definitely not. Maverick Viñales earned the right to add his name to last year's list, dominating testing and finishing fastest in all four. Marc Márquez demonstrated why he is reigning world champion, and why his rivals have reason to fear him even more this year. Dani Pedrosa finished fifth at Valencia and Sepang, then third at Phillip Island and Qatar.
Jorge Lorenzo found the process of adapting to the Ducati tougher than expected, but was third quickest on his first day on the bike, and fourth fastest at Qatar. And the man with the worst preseason results of the lot, Valentino Rossi is, well, Valentino Rossi. You only ever write off Valentino Rossi after the final race at Valencia is done and dusted. And not a millisecond before.
So we head into the first race in Qatar with five Aliens, all of whom are likely to win at least one race this year. Some, like Viñales, will win a lot more this year than they have in the past. Others, like Lorenzo, will win far fewer, but will surely end up on the top step at one race, at the very least.
Challenging the champ
Favorite among the bookies and pundits is surely Marc Márquez. The reigning champion came off a year in which he showed he had learned how to win a title through patience as well as speed, sacrificing a risky shot at a win for a safe spot on, or just outside the podium. Márquez has shown an incredible work ethic throughout testing. He has been at or near the top of the list of riders with the most laps on most days of the preseason, ending Phillip Island with his hands a great mass of blisters.
Márquez' hard work has been focused on getting the engine right. After three seasons of ever more aggressive engines, despite assurances to the contrary from HRC, this time he wanted to be sure. And Honda have done their best: at Valencia, they brought a new, radically revised engine with a big bang firing interval. When that proved not to be the advance they had hoped for, they brought another new engine, the firing interval revised again, this time more subtly. The decision went down to the wire, all five Honda riders preferring the new engine at Qatar.
The engine hasn't solved all of Honda's woes, however. The RC213V still struggles in acceleration, the bike's traditional weakness alleviated, but not solved. This leaves riders trying to make up ground where the bike is strongest, under braking and on corner entry. Try a little too hard, and you end up on your face in the gravel, as Márquez did five times in Qatar. Though the bike has been quick during testing, only once racing gets underway will we know where it truly stands.
Márquez, meanwhile, has been working on race pace. Successfully, as it turns out, as his race simulations when charted have looked as flat as the desert road to Losail. Márquez still has the toxic taste of defeat in his mouth after the disaster of 2015, and is working to avoid it. He was the man to beat going into preseason testing, and emerges in very much the same position.
Alien #5 – or maybe #1
The difference, after eleven days of official testing and a couple of days in private, is that now we have someone deemed capable of taking on Márquez and beating him. As I wrote elsewhere in much more detail, Maverick Viñales has spent all winter with just one goal on his mind: winning his first world championship. To do that, he must beat Marc Márquez, and he has worked methodically to achieve that objective. First, he sought outright speed. Then he worked on preserving his tires and maintaining that speed to the very end of the race.
Are we surprised that Viñales got where he is? Not really. Throughout his career he has proved he is something special. He won straight away on entering the 125cc class. He won on a woefully underpowered FTR Honda against the mighty KTMs in Moto3. The next year, he won a title aboard the KTM. When he moved to Moto2, he won his second race in the bigger class. He won a race and bagged three more podiums on the Suzuki, while his teammate Aleix Espargaro – a talented rider, without question, could do no better than fourth.
Now, Viñales gets a chance on a bike which is proven to be competitive. Switching from the Suzuki to the Yamaha is an advantage for him: at Suzuki, his style was to brake hard and early, then throw the bike into the corner and carry corner speed all the way through. That is similar to the way Jorge Lorenzo rode the bike, though Viñales brakes later and harder, more like teammate Valentino Rossi than Lorenzo. The bike is set up to work for Viñales' style. Now, all he has to do is beat Marc Márquez. He did it when racing as a youngster (read Mat Oxley's profile of their rivalry though the ages), and believes he can do that now.
The forgotten man
There are those who say that Dani Pedrosa should be dropped from MotoGP's Alien pantheon. They point to his lack of a MotoGP title as justification, failing where other teammates – first Nicky Hayden, later Casey Stoner and Marc Márquez – succeeded. They conveniently overlook the fact that Pedrosa has more premier class wins than Kevin Schwantz, Wayne Rainey, Kenny Roberts, Freddie Spencer, and Barry Sheene. They forget he has won at least one race every season he has been in MotoGP. They ignore how close he came to beating Jorge Lorenzo in 2012.
While all the focus is on Marc Márquez and Maverick Viñales over the winter, Pedrosa has undergone a quiet revolution. Paired with a new crew chief, Giacomo Guidotti, and with assistance from his friend Sete Gibernau, Pedrosa is simplifying his approach. "Going back to basics," Pedrosa called it in an interview with Spanish journalist Manuel Pecino. The aim is to focus on himself, get on with riding the bike, and worry less about distractions outside his control.
It has paid off. Pedrosa hasn't led a single test, but he has always been close, and is on an upward trend. He finished fifth at the Valencia test, and was far from happy. He was fifth again at Sepang, but ended third at both Phillip Island and Qatar. With the Michelins now more stable, an improved front, and a slightly softer rear, Pedrosa should be quicker. Nobody really expects him to come out and win the first few races. But equally, few would be surprised if, by the halfway mark of the season, Pedrosa is within a couple of points of the championship leader, and making them very nervous indeed.
What if he had never tried it (to borrow a phrase)?
Pedrosa is not the only rider to have his membership of the MotoGP Alien Club called into question. Jorge Lorenzo's decision to jump ship to Ducati has caused a lot of people to doubt whether he will be a factor in 2017. Will he come a cropper, just as Valentino Rossi did when he jumped from Yamaha to Ducati?
That is an unfair and rather pointless comparison. The Ducati Desmosedici GP17 is different in almost every conceivable way to the bike Rossi found himself on. Both Andrea Dovizioso and Andrea Iannone won a race on the bike last year, the former in the wet, the latter in the dry. Some of the bike's base character traits remain unchanged, however: the Ducati is still hard to turn, and has more horses than the Mongolian horde.
Lorenzo got off to a flying start. At Valencia, he was third fastest on the first day. More importantly, he looked exactly as comfortable as he had the day before. None of the stiffness which characterized so many recent Ducati arrivals was visible. It was still very much Jorge Lorenzo on the bike.
Things got tougher at Sepang. Lorenzo was much slower, and having to relearn the habits picked up on the Yamaha. He had to brake later, and carry the brakes much deeper into the corners, instead of braking early and then carrying corner speed. At the Sepang test, I stood in Turn 1 and watched him experiment, braking deeper and deeper, sometimes running wide, sometimes getting it right.
Phillip Island was even worse. The Ducati's unwillingness to turn left Lorenzo struggling to find a way to ride the bike through the many fast corners there. His only consolation was that he was within a tenth of his teammate Andrea Dovizioso.
It left him rather downbeat, and hoping for better at Qatar. That circuit is one where he has traditionally shone, and where the Ducati has historically gone well. Lorenzo got a real fillip at the test. Once again, he finished within a tenth of his teammate, but this time he was fourth rather than eighth.
Lorenzo's varying fortunes during testing are likely a template for his season. He has adapted to the Ducati, but it has been a slow process as the bike is so different from the Yamaha. It has gone well at some tracks, he has struggled at others. Does that leave Lorenzo out of the MotoGP Alien fold? Not if he can win a race on the bike, or score regular podiums. If he could win at Qatar – an entirely credible scenario – then he would wipe any doubt from people's minds.
Realistically, Lorenzo's 2017 season could look very much like 2016. There will be some tracks where he will be battling for the win – Qatar, Mugello, Austria – and others where he is floundering mid-pack. Ducati and Lorenzo have admitted they do not expect to win the title in 2017. But the Spaniard's progress through the rest of the year will be key. A championship may not be on the cards in 2017, but Lorenzo will be expected to make a very strong challenge in 2018. That, as the expression has it, is why they pay him the big bucks.
And the last shall be first?
The last – and arguably the first – of the Five MotoGP Aliens has also not had the best of winters. Valentino Rossi has been competitive throughout testing, but never really managed to put himself in the spotlight. Things started well at Valencia, Rossi ending the first day of testing in second, just 0.02 behind his brand new teammate Maverick Viñales.
But since then, the gap to his teammate has grown. Viñales was faster than Rossi at the private test in Sepang in November, at the first official test in Sepang in January, again in Phillip Island, and in the final test at Qatar. Rossi has finished ahead of his teammate only twice: on the first day at Sepang, and on the first day at Phillip Island.
Why has Rossi struggled when Viñales has looked so very comfortable on the bike? He is still having trouble getting comfortable on the bike, and finding a setting with the front tire to suit him. He thought he had had a breakthrough on the second day of testing in Australia, but that evaporated on the final day. Rossi, who prefers a harder, stiffer front tire to cope with his braking style, has been stuck with a softer front which Michelin are pursuing, while chasing extra grip.
But testing is testing, and Rossi is very much a Sunday man. The work he has done will stand him in good stead. He has concentrated on tire life, knowing as he does that races are win in the later laps, not the first laps. He has worked with his crew to find solutions to the front end, some of which work when conditions are on his side. Cooler temperatures and harder compounds may yet give him the edge.
Yamaha have helped him too, bringing a new engine which is a major upgrade on last year, and easily competitive with the Honda and Ducati, despite still being a fraction slower. They have a new chassis, which is better with tire life. And Yamaha were the first to debut their aerodynamics package, a clever system of movable vanes inside ducts stuck on the side of the fairing.
Looking back at testing, the logical conclusion is that the number of MotoGP Aliens has increased from four to five. On any given Sunday, there are five riders who line up knowing they can win. It doesn't mean they will win, but they have a reasonable expectation of doing so.
There is more to MotoGP than its Five Aliens, of course. There are eighteen other riders on the grid, all of whom believe they too can win. More on them tomorrow.
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