2017 MotoGP Preview: Part 1 - The Five Aliens

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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Total votes: 196
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Comments

At the risk of sounding like a curmudgon, I'll suggest that the term Alien be retired. There really is only one anymore, and that is Marquez. Pedrosa, Lorenzo and Rossi are all too flawed to be considered for that title. Vinales? Sorry but he still has to show us he can be consistently fast off the start, and fast at the end of a race.

Total votes: 168

The rules have gradually allowed the field to close up, the depth of rider quality and the varied bikes have created more interest BUT all of this won't get near Formula One of course as its marketing blitzkreig is promising excitement like never before with more speed (?) wider cars (that'll help passing..) and far from a one horse race. I can hardly wait...

...For MotoGP 

Total votes: 129

I am wondering if Rossi will be a consistent  3rd place finisher with only a win or two this year. I think that Marquez and Vinales will be totally focused on one another. I think it will be a brutal back and forth between them with tempers flairing (I hope).

 I am a Rossi fan but somehow I think that this is the writing on the wall for the GOAT. A young much faster teammate coupled with the deepest/closest field in recent times. I would love to see Rossi win one more championship and retire in style. I just don't see it coming with an uber fast Vinales, very fast Folger and Zarco.

My top ten picks for the Year:

  1. Vinales
  2. Marquez
  3. Rossi*
  4. Lorenzo
  5. Pedrosa
  6. Dovi
  7. Iannone
  8. Crutchlow
  9. Zarco
  10. Bautista
Total votes: 130

Marquez , as has been duly noted has added maturity to his bag and brings that along with his preturnatural quickness and everpresent competitiveness and work ethic.... I see Rossi as first or third. If it isnt Marquez, it is Rossi, or Maverick besting a possibly shot Rossi for 2nd to  Marquez...Rossi could well be primed for one last shot of dominance, or simply be a consistent 3rd step fixture...which might be enough to sneak in the back door if Vinales and Marquez eat each other....One thing is for sure, there will come a day, if it hasn't already, where Rossi is simply not able to do it at the top level anymore. Happens to everyone. Will absolutely happen to Marc Marquez one day. If he is lucky , it will be still lining up in Moto GP twenty years from now...which thinking about makes it clear how special it is that we can still see a competitive Rossi and what an acheivement of good genes, luck and dedicated skill and ultra competitiveness....

Total votes: 140

Thank you David as always very good read. Some points(not really objections) to your observations
MV v. MM v. DP : i too think that Dani seems in a very good place. He is the quiet one but getting there. And i think that barring awful injuries he might well be the one taking serious points from the title contenders (title contender himself? It would not be the first thing that come to my mind but why not? Never say never). Now what if Dani takes away precious points from MM? I don't think it's too farfetched... but will they let him? Also I'm not totally buying in the now common narrative of a very mature MM. I really don't. Rather, i see n 93 in full red mist mode if Dani and/or Maverick start seriously challenging him. It's one thing to barge into Rossi or Cal knowing that they will probably stay on their 2 wheels and another to treat with the same careless hard moves Dani or Maverick. I don't think he'll get many free passes. When you think about it the only serious challenge he had was Rossi beat him a certain number of times and i don't think he responded too well to that. Given the history with Maverick and the fact that Dani was never a threat in his mind i wouldn't be surprised to see some bad reactions if any of both start posing a challenge.
JL and Ducati and Dovi. I won't comment on JL comments in the spanish media (very unkind to dovi and yamaha garage) but the minimum expected should be a win in Qatar! And if in 2017 he cannot fare better than the results of Ducati in 2016 and always well in front of Dovi then i think that thw mood in panigale will be very dark. And Dovi may surprise us... in which case i wonder if they're gonna cut some JL paycheck and transfer it to n 4....
Last but not least : VR. I'm not as optimistic as you are. And it deeply pains me to say it. Yes yes yes never write him off. But....he did not even attempt a race simulation.... when was the last time he seemed so downbeat and worried? I would say those sad ducati years. I think he means it when he says he needs a miracle. I think so too. What i fail to understand is why. 10 people unable to find a setup? Wrong tyres? Did he lose his mojo? Can that happen over a couple of months? I would love to find some answers.
Still if nobody gets injured this season might be truly brilliant.

Total votes: 134

Why won't you comment on the comments Jorge made in the spanish media. They may be unkind (I for myself haven't read them), but that's the kind of stuff that is interesting before the season starts. Especially, why is Jorge making such comments about Dovi - one of the "good" guys in MotoGP? I haven't found those comments on the internet, so maybe you will share them nonetheless?

Total votes: 114

With 9 different winners in 2016, can we expect that 2017 will see such a diverse group of race winners in 2017?  As much as I'd like to think so, I can't imagine the same confluence of factors this year.  The teams have a full year under their belts of toying with the electronics package and Michellein too have data which they can build on to reign in those events like a blowout on Reddings Ducati.  Yet Mother Nature doesn't seem to be getting any less erratic and certainly could create Sundays where even the title favorites are battling with the likes of Zarco or Bautista for the top step.  

I can't wait!

Total votes: 120

Chance of rain Sunday...The doctor will see u now

Total votes: 105

Briefly...the term alien as applied to a GP rider, is directly due to the late Franco Villani (one of the grestest photographers in the 500cc days) who, upon seeing Kenny Roberts for the first time in the World Championship, called him a Martian.  

That stuck, expecially when Franco explained why he called Kenny that:  "He is small, dressed all in yellow and clearly comes from another planet"

After that, which he, an Italian, explained to a Spanish reporter (Vic Monllau), the Spanish press began referring to KR as an "extraterrestre" and "Alien" after the 1979 Ridley Scott movie. When the movie E.T. came along in June of 82, I rememember both Spanish and Italian journalists starting to use both "extraterrestre" and also "Alien" which some British journos had used on occasion, following the Spanish and Italian trend. 

Then in 1983 Freddie Spencer became "The Second Alien." In Spain it meant "fuera de serie" or "superdotado"...or someone of exceptional ability. I like the term as it was applied to Roberts, "small, dressed all in yellow and obviously from another planet."

Now it is  applied across the board to anybody who is fast. If we look at original usage,  I´d have to agree that Valentino, also dressed all in yellow, deserved the term when he broke on the scene in 2000...and Lorenzo had a great impact (in more ways that one) in his debut season. Márquez, from the red planet, also fits the bill...and here comes Viñales! 

Dani never had that big an original impact, but he´s a great rider. 

So if being great is enough to make you an Alien, then Dani´s in the club. 

Headline stuff. I am hoping for some originality from the journalists this year. 1978 was a long time ago.

 

 

 

 

Total votes: 140

Nice to hear from you...Still think you n Toby were the bees knees

Total votes: 131

It was fun. Toby showed up strong on basic motorsports moxie but green as Ireland about bikes and he really got it fast. I have worked in the booth with a lot of good lead commentators (that is "lead" from the verb, not from the element): Valentín Rquena, Luismi Lopez, Manel Arroyo (yes, that Manel Arroyo) Oscar del Castillo, Keko Ochoa, Peter Clifford, Ernest Rivera, Marc Martin, Marco Roche and Nico Abad. And Toby was right there at the top....plus he is British and, therefore, talks funny!  We had some great laughs. One day I went blank in English (actually happened a couple of times) and called a crankshaft "a swan." (Cigüeñal is crankshat and cigüeña is swan...so it could happen to anybody.) But the funniest day was the morning Toby didn´t show up on time from 125cc free Friday practice somewhere and I got lonesome and brought in a Hungarian comedian (passed on, a great guy) who did "language immitations"of GP coverage in any language i threw at him...Arabic, Portugese, Russian, French, Dutch....it was wonderful...all these sounds that sounded like a language but weren´t with names like Doohan, Crivillé and Doohan thrown in. The guys in Europsort Paris monitoring the traffic that morning thought they had crossed wires. It was wonderful. Another morning when Toby stepped out to check on some data I sang "Danville Town" (which is the only song I sing) and then when Paris asked what the hell that was, I said I didn´t know and Toby really didn´t. 

Total votes: 131

Shanghai & Laguna were true moonshots.

Total votes: 118

5 hours to go

I'm really excited about the whole Marquez Vinales thing

VR will never get old

I really want Dani to extend his year on year streak

I'd love Cal to nick one

It's a shame they all can't win

Total votes: 116