When former US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld made his comments about "known knowns and unknown unknowns" in 2002, he was widely ridiculed for producing what seemed like incomprehensible gibberish. Yet since his appearance at a press conference on Iraq and weapons of mass destruction, the phrases he coined that day have demonstrated their usefulness, being employed in an ever greater array of contexts.
Rumsfeld's phrase fits remarkably well with the 2017 MotoGP grid as well. The three categories apply just as well to different groups of riders on the grid. We have the "known knowns" of the Aliens, riders who are guaranteed to win races. We have the "known unknowns", the wildcards such as Cal Crutchlow and Andrea Dovizioso who could easily stage a surprise.
Then you have the "unknown unknowns", a group of riders for whom any result would be imaginable. Given the events of last year, any one of them could end up on the podium, or even winning a race. But they are just as likely to finish outside the points, or anywhere in between. There is no way of knowing on Thursday night where any of these riders might finish on Sunday.
The least unknown of these unknowns is surely Aleix Espargaro. The Spaniard was strong on the Suzuki in 2016, and has taken to the Aprilia like a fish to water. When he heard the criticism Andrea Iannone had made of the way the Suzuki needed to be ridden, he proclaimed that he had been saying exactly the same thing all along.
The Aprilia suits his style far better. A rider who needs confidence in the front end, the Aprilia RS-GP has that in spades, especially with the revised 2017 chassis and the new, much lighter engine. Espargaro can brake deep into the corners like he wants to, and still turn the bike. He has been helped on corner exit by some work on the electronics, and especially the traction control.
When Espargaro arrived at Aprilia, he complained that the bike felt flat. Over the winter, Aprilia found a couple of horses, but more importantly, they turned the traction control back down again, after having turned it up last year for Alvaro Bautista and Stefan Bradl. That made a huge difference for Espargaro, giving him a lot more punch out of corners.
Espargaro still has considerable hurdles to climb. But the progress made by Aprilia put him back where he was last year, always in with a chance of a podium, though it will never come easy.
This is a make-or-break year for Jack Miller, and he seems all too aware of it. He proved last year that he deserves to be in MotoGP by winning the race in a downpour at Assen, taking advantage of the circumstances and using that to shine. Miller was fast several more times in 2016, benefiting as he worked on his fitness and preparation, taken under the wing of Cal Crutchlow, and with Alberto Puig keeping a watchful eye on him.
There are signs that HRC are starting to show some faith in Miller in the last year of his deal. The Australian was given the task of evaluating the first version of Honda's big bang engine at Jerez, and then received the second version at Phillip Island, after Marc Márquez, Dani Pedrosa and Cal Crutchlow had tested it at Sepang. It helped him go fast at his home track, but he slipped down the order again at the final test in Qatar.
What is Jack Miller capable of? On his day, Miller is one of the fastest riders in the world. His problem is that his day doesn't seem to come round fast enough. That will be the problem he will have to fix in 2017.
It has been a tough old winter for Scott Redding. The Englishman first had to swallow the fact that his Pramac Ducati teammate Danilo Petrucci would be getting his hands on a GP17, while Redding was stuck with a GP16. After a good first day at Valencia, he slipped down the order on the second day, and then further into oblivion at the Sepang test after the winter break. Redding finished in nineteenth place at Sepang, five places behind his teammate.
Phillip Island was the low point for Redding. He had no confidence in the bike, and couldn't get it to turn. He ended the test in twentieth place, over 1.4 seconds off the fastest man Maverick Viñales. At Qatar, he finally got his season back on track, a switch to front forks he ran last year transforming his feel with the bike. It gave him real confidence going into the first race at Qatar, freeing up his mind and allowing him to think about other things, such as electronics.
Redding has been on the verge of a breakthrough for a couple of seasons. The switch to Ducati has done him good, adding a second podium at Assen to his previous podium at Misano. Redding's situation is not quite as pressing as Jack Miller's, but only because he does not have a factory contract like the Australian's. Still, this is the year he has to perform.
Danilo Petrucci won the Pramac Ducati competition in the second half of last year, when Ducati announced they would be making a third GP17 available for the rider who finished highest at the end of 2016. So far, it has not brought the Italian much joy, however, Petrucci not really making that much of an impact on the bike.
Ducati used Petrucci as something of a test donkey over the winter, giving him parts that needed to be tested, but which the factory riders felt were not the highest priority. His input has proved valuable, but Petrucci's results have been nothing to write home about. All too often, he has finished behind riders on supposedly lesser bikes.
And yet Petrucci has been sublime from time to time, especially in the wet. That is the rider Ducati entrusted with the third GP17. He will have to show the same kind of speed early in the season. Ducati are notoriously impatient with riders who do not perform as they expect.
Hector Barbera has been a surprise package since first jumped on a Ducati for the Avintia team. In 2016, he was particularly strong, scoring a couple of top six finishes. Throughout last season, he was the dark horse of the pack, always capable of throwing up a surprise.
So far in 2017, we have not seen much of that side of Hector Barbera. Through the first three tests of the winter, Barbera has been largely faceless, running in around fifteenth place. As he is the rider with the GP16 in the Avintia squad, and has been finishing a long way behind Alvaro Bautista, who has the same bike in the Aspar team, that has been cause for concern.
Barbera missed the final test of 2017, after breaking a collarbone in a training accident. He may come to rue that injury, as it cost him valuable time on the bike. Though Barbera is a favorite of the team (and helps bring money in to pay the bills), more is expected of him than just clinging on to the final points.
There are downsides as well as upsides to having a rich father. Every time Karel Abraham switches teams, there is the usual cacophony of voices claiming he only got the ride because his rich daddy is paying for it. They forget, of course, that Abraham is a Grand Prix winner, having won a Moto2 race. And they also forget that throughout his career, wherever he has ridden, he has clearly earned his ride. He may not have set the world on fire, but Karel Abraham is plainly good enough to be in MotoGP.
After a brief year in WorldSBK, where he struggled to get to grips with both a recalcitrant BMW and the very different Pirelli tires, Karel Abraham is back in MotoGP. The usual complaints that he only got a ride because of his father were put to bed on the first day at the Qatar test, when Abraham finished as fourth fastest. Indeed, the Czech rider has consistently finished in decent positions, ahead of riders who fans rate more highly than him.
His performance is all the more praiseworthy seeing as he is on a two-year-old bike. Abraham is stuck with the Ducati GP15, though it is proving to be surprisingly competitive, despite being designed around the Bridgestone rather than Michelin tires. Nobody expects much from Abraham, but that just makes it all the more likely he will surprise a few fans.
The likable Frenchman has had two decent seasons in MotoGP, proving to be well adapted to the Ducati. In 2017, he finds himself in the same boat as Karel Abraham, stuck with a GP15 while his teammate has a more modern GP16.
Loris Baz has not set the world alight with his preseason form, though he has been a steady performer. He is often criticized for his size, but the Ducati at least minimizes that disadvantage. When conditions are right, he can take advantage, as he showed at Brno last year, where he finished fourth. He will probably need similar conditions if he is to equal that result. But with Baz, you never know.
2016 was a very rude awakening for Tito Rabat. After winning the Moto2 title in 2014, then contending for it again in 2015, Rabat had hoped for much better things when he moved up to MotoGP. But the switch has been nothing short of disastrous, Rabat a constant fixture at the back of the pack.
The Spaniard is only partly to blame for his lack of results. He has always been a slow learner, achieving results through incredible graft and sheer hard work. When he was in Moto2, he could take the Kalex he owned and learn his way around a Moto2 machine by putting in endless laps every day at the Almeria circuit. Now he is in MotoGP, he does not have a Honda RC213V at his disposal to grind out the laps with.
But Rabat's failure is also a failure of HRC. Honda's MotoGP bike is notoriously difficult to ride, probably the toughest bike on the grid. It is not a machine which instills confidence, so for a rookie moving up – especially one who is a slow learner – jumping on an RC213V can be a shocking experience. What Rabat needs is a lot of time on the bike. But the rules of MotoGP, and the limits on testing, preclude exactly that.
Rabat's best hope is probably to return to Moto2 at the end of the season, back in a class where he can serve as the benchmark, the yardstick fast riders need to beat if they are to prove themselves worthy of making the move up. But Rabat's failure raises the question of just how long Marc van der Straten is willing to bankroll the MotoGP project. Should Franco Morbidelli win the Moto2 title this year, he would be the obvious candidate to take Rabat's place. The question is, given the results of the man he is replacing, would he want to?
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