2017 sees arguably the strongest group of rookies to enter the MotoGP class in a very long time. Perhaps only 2006 was stronger, when Casey Stoner and Dani Pedrosa moved up to MotoGP, along with Randy De Puniet and Chris Vermeulen. There have been plenty of promising riders (some of whom have lived up to that promise) moved up in the past, but it has been a while since so many of them, all equally strong, entered MotoGP at the same time.
Will Alex Rins, Johann Zarco, Jonas Folger, or Sam Lowes match the achievements of Stoner or Pedrosa, Márquez or Lorenzo? It is far too early to tell. But testing has only confirmed the pedigree of the four newcomers. They were all fast in Moto2, racking up a total of 25 wins between them, and they have been quick during the preseason. There is no doubt these four are an exciting addition to the MotoGP grid.
Johann Zarco & Jonas Folger
In the middle of the 2016 season, Monster Tech 3 Yamaha team boss Hervé Poncharal was expressing his concern. His two riders, Bradley Smith and Pol Espargaro, were leaving, meaning he would have to recruit two rookies. With the MotoGP field getting stronger, and more factories getting competitive, how would he be able to find riders good enough to replace the departing pair? How would he be able to sell his project to his sponsors, when just scoring points could be a huge challenge?
When Poncharal announced he would be signing Jonas Folger, he was met with a wall of puzzlement. Why, people asked, would he sign the young German, a rider with a maddeningly inconsistent record? Sure, Folger had a handful of wins, including three in Moto3, but he was just as likely to finish outside the points as he was on the top step of the podium.
Poncharal's other signing made more sense. Having Johann Zarco at Tech 3 was a logical choice. By winning two Moto2 titles, Zarco had proved he was a genuine champion. As a Frenchman, he would fit in well with the rest of the Tech 3 team, most of whom are also French. Zarco's precise and smooth style was an obvious fit with the Yamaha M1, which needs exactly that to go fast.
Testing has removed any question marks over the decisions Poncharal made to sign his 2017 riders. At Valencia, both Folger and Zarco were quick enough. At the private Sepang test, they made further progress, though Zarco crashed, and took a big knock in his confidence. At Sepang, Zarco went out on a drying track on wet tires, and used the extra margin the tires gave to learn to understand the Yamaha M1 again. It paid off: Zarco finished well ahead of many MotoGP regulars, and posted an impressive race run.
In Australia and Qatar, it was Folger's turn to shine. The German was consistently quick, and quickly consistent, both his fast time and his race pace impressive to behold. Zarco, too, was very strong in his race runs, managing good pace over a long series of laps. Both Tech 3 riders start the season as promising prospects capable of throwing up a surprise or two throughout the season.
The two men arrived at their results from very different directions. Unsurprisingly, given that they are both very different characters. Folger is a very laid back character, and is perhaps more naturally talented. But he needs the right environment around him to succeed. With help from the team and from his management, it looks like that is what he has found in Tech 3. Zarco, on the other hand, is an intense and rather introverted personality. His strength is his ability to focus, and work methodically towards reaching his goal. It is an intriguing combination, which promises much.
Alex Rins, Suzuki
Alex Rins took the place of Maverick Viñales in the Pons Moto2 team when the Spanish youngster left to join Suzuki in MotoGP, and now Rins takes Viñales' place at Suzuki now that he has departed for Movistar Yamaha. There was a lot of hype around Rins when he joined Moto3 – hype I was guilty of partaking in – and he lived up to that by nearly winning the title, losing out to his teammate Alex Márquez among rumors of shenanigans by team manager Emilio Alzamora.
Rins was good in Moto2, but not as strong as Viñales had been. He won races, but not as quickly, nor as convincingly as the man he replaced. A poor second half to last season raised some question marks over just how good he was.
Those questions grew louder after he moved up to MotoGP. At the first test, Rins looked pretty terrible on the bike, stiff, uncomfortable, and above all, slow. A big crash on the second day, in which he suffered fractured vertebrae, caused even more concerns. Would Rins be a washout in the premier class?
The Spaniard returned with a vengeance at Sepang. He quickly gained confidence and was adapting to riding a bigger bike. He was a fast learner, and a fast rider. Finishing twelfth overall in Sepang, he astounded observers at Phillip Island, where he left the test as sixth fastest overall. The final test at Qatar did not go quite as well, Rins unable to make a real impression.
What can we expect from Rins in 2017? He was brought in to replace Maverick Viñales, but Viñales has shown this preseason just how good he is, and how hard he will be to replace. Rins has been very good, and a very quick learner, and Suzuki's strategy, of having a young rider they can groom alongside an experienced rider who will develop the bike, looks like paying off. Rins will impress many in his first season.
Sam Lowes, Aprilia
Sam Lowes has been largely overlooked during preseason testing. That is perhaps understandable: Lowes has consistently been at or near to the bottom of the timesheets throughout preseason testing. But to write him off just for those results is a little premature: though Lowes himself would never want to use it as an excuse, he has been on a much less competitive bike than his fellow rookies. For a start, the Aprilia RS-GP is still very much a work in progress, and a step behind both the Yamaha and the Suzuki. And for most of the preseason, Lowes has been riding the 2016 bike, which is a distinctly inferior package to the new, lighter, more powerful 2017 machine.
Lowes first got his hands on a 2017 Aprilia at the Qatar test. It made a difference, Lowes gaining confidence, despite crashing on the final day. His team found a setting he felt much more comfortable with on the bike, and he enters the season with a little more confidence than he started testing with.
It would be unreasonable to expect Lowes to immediately start challenging for podiums, or even top tens. But that is not what he has been brought in to do in 2017. This season is a learning year for the Englishman, who has another year on his contract to go in 2018. His goal will be to first match his teammate, and then take it from there.
KTM: the rookiest of them all
The final rookie in MotoGP has the toughest job of all. KTM have entered MotoGP for their first serious attempt at the title, and clearly still have a lot of learning left to do. But KTM do not enter racing classes with any other goal than to succeed, and win a championship. MotoGP is the toughest class of all to achieve that objective: with the highest public profile, there is the most at stake for the factories. But it is a challenge KTM have taken on willingly.
Their approach has been fascinating. First, they assembled a core group of proven engineering talent, drawn from both inside KTM, and from the MotoGP paddock, led by Mike Leitner. Then, they attracted a highly competent group of mechanics and track staff, to ensure that their race team was run as efficiently as possible. Finally, they looked for riders with proven ability and an analytical bent.
They got the latter in Bradley Smith and Pol Espargaro. The pair have spent the last two years racing together in the Monster Tech 3 Yamaha team, and so know each other very well, and know each other's data very well. They both have the same frame of reference, making it easier for KTM to understand their comments and feedback.
But they also have very different characters, which also helps push development. Pol Espargaro pushes at the limit from the moment he gets on the bike, but has less patience in developing the bike. Bradley Smith takes his time to fast, but is deeply analytical, and excellent at communicating what is going on with the bike. That alone makes them a very good pairing.
The pace of development is also helped by the seriousness with which KTM approaches the project. Since joining the team, KTM have brought four different frames to the project, as well as at least three different engine specs. Short lines of communication with the race team means they can turn around new material very quickly indeed. Both Smith and Espargaro, though frustrated with their position on the timesheets, have been blown away by the pace at which KTM are pushing forward the project.
If KTM succeed, they could pave the way to seeing a little more technical diversity in the MotoGP paddock. Though the engine is relatively conventional – a 90°V4, with a screamer firing interval, for the moment at least – the chassis is different to the rest of the bikes. The RC16 uses a tubular steel frame, which wraps around the engine similarly to an aluminum beam frame. KTM are also the only factory not to use Ohlins suspension, as WP Suspension is a wholly owned subsidiary.
The other factories are watching what KTM do very closely. At one event, I spoke to a senior figure inside a rival manufacturer, who declared that he believed the steel trellis frame would not be a success. He was convinced that they too would end up with an aluminum beam chassis, like the rest of the factories. KTM have a lot of pride at stake to prove him wrong.
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