Can part two of the (melo)drama which is the 2017 MotoGP season live up to part one? It has been a wild ride so far, but like any great fairground ride, we have ended up more or less back where we started. Just five points separate Marc Márquez and Maverick Viñales at the top of the championship, and Valentino Rossi in fourth is only ten points behind Márquez, with Andrea Dovizioso in between a point behind Viñales. If Márquez does not win the Czech Grand Prix at Brno on Sunday, there is every chance the championship will have a new leader. If there is, it would be the fifth time the title lead had changed hands so far this year. It has been a wild ride indeed.
So how did we get here? Through a mixture of rider swaps, tire changes, weird weather, and changing track conditions. Add in a healthy dose of spec electronics, the loss of winglets for this season, and a brace of astonishing rookies, and you have an explosive mixture. At Mugello, perhaps the nearest thing we have had to a normal MotoGP weekend this year, the gap from the winner, Andrea Dovizioso, to Jack Miller in fifteenth was 30.7 seconds, with 50 seconds covering all 20 finishers. In 2015, 30 seconds covered just the first eight riders. In 2013, only five other bikes finished within half a minute of the winner. Those kinds of gaps have been the rule for most of the modern era. But the old rules no longer apply.
Michelin can take much of the credit, or shoulder much of the blame, depending on your perspective. In their second year back in MotoGP, the French tire manufacturer have been a much more stable force in the series, the tires changing less this year than in 2016. But that has not stemmed the complaints: there have been a string of riders muttering that the Michelins are not up to scratch, that they change too much from one race to the next, and even from one day to the next. Are their concerns valid? Michelin deny it, of course, and give a long list of entirely plausible reasons for the tires to react differently from day to day.
What we know for sure is that the rubber laid down by the Moto2 race on Sunday changes track grip, especially in the opening laps of the race. That was the case when Bridgestone supplied the tires, and it is still true today. What's different is that Bridgestone brought fewer tire choices on a race weekend. Everyone knew before the weekend started that the soft rear would be the race tire, and so teams would focus on that. Front tire choices were also much simpler, leaving the teams with less set up work to do. This year, almost every tire Michelin have brought to each round has been raced. Most riders could race two different front and two different rears, and sometimes could even use all three fronts. That's a lot more set up time being used just for tire choice, rather than refining bike geometry and electronics. That's bad for the riders – on Sunday, the bike is never anywhere near the perfect set up – but it's been great for spectators.
Conditions have also played a major part so far. Almost every weekend has faced disruption by rain, meaning one or more sessions lost to the weather. Chasing set up was already tough enough, with so many tires to choose from. One wet session means finding a dry set up becomes almost impossible. Two wet sessions leaves the teams falling back on last year's data, then taking an educated guess (or in some cases, a wild stab) at what will be needed for Sunday.
Beware the boys in blue
Most of all, though, the level of machinery on the grid is much more equal. Yamaha took two steps forward and one step back with their 2017 chassis, leaving the 2016 bike not far behind. That has basically meant there are four competitive M1s on the grid, as demonstrated by the fact that the two factory riders have already won races this year, while the two Tech 3 boys have both ended up on the podium. Maverick Viñales has turned out to be the Alien we all suspected he might be, winning three of his first nine races on the Yamaha, including his first two since switching from Suzuki. But the Spanish youngster has also faltered, having severe problems when track conditions offer no grip. That has left him frustrated, and the way he handled those situations has been cause for some concern.
Teammate Valentino Rossi has also won one race and nearly won another, crashing out just a couple of corners before the end of the French Grand Prix at Le Mans. His sheer doggedness and determination at the ripe old age of 38 is proof enough that he is still competitive, and he is showing no real signs of decline just yet. The crash in France, in particular, was a sign of just how much he was willing to risk in pursuit of victory. But it may yet come back to haunt him: if Rossi had settled for second, he would now be leading the championship by ten points, rather than trailing by ten points.
In the Tech 3 squad, Johann Zarco made a sensational start, leading the first few laps of his very first MotoGP race. Since then, his learning process has been extremely rapid, bagging a podium at his home Grand Prix, and dicing regularly at the front. Teammate Jonas Folger got off to a slower start, but viewed outside the context of his teammate, the German has also been deeply impressive. The way he pushed Marc Márquez pretty much to the line at the Sachsenring demonstrates that Folger, too, is pretty special.
A difficult cocktail
HRC may have switched the firing order for the RC213V, but the Honda remains a tough bike to ride. Both Repsol men have won races, and Cal Crutchlow has also taken a podium on the LCR bike, but there have been plenty of crashes to go along with the wins. Some of those crashes have been put down to tires, and specifically the Michelin front. At races like Qatar and Argentina, Honda riders have complained that the compounds being brought are too soft. This was exacerbated by the carcass chosen during winter testing, a choice which was reversed once the season got underway. Reverting to the slightly stiffer 2016 casing (with the new 2017 profile) brought some relief, but Honda riders were still complaining of the tires overheating under braking, and a general lack of support.
Was this Honda's fault, or Michelin's fault? Perhaps a bit of both. Michelin are charged with designing a tire which every bike on the grid can use, but that makes it tough on outliers. The RC213V is still struggling in the acceleration phase – the bike either spins the rear, or wheelies when the rear hooks up – and the riders are trying to make up the ground lost there under braking.
In many ways, the Honda is still designed around the Bridgestone tires, the front being incredibly stiff and stable under braking, allowing the bike to be turned in at will. That behavior taxes the more pliant Michelins very heavily, causing them to overheat. A mark of just how braking-focused the chassis is, is evident in the brake discs the Hondas use. Where most other bikes are using the 340mm Brembo discs, Honda are using the smaller 320mm discs. They also run brake shrouds to keep the heat in much more often than the other manufacturers.
A new chassis tested at Brno during the summer break should bring improvement, or at least mitigate the worst of the Honda's behavior. The race weekend will be the first chance to see just how much better that chassis really is. Marc Márquez, Dani Pedrosa, and Cal Crutchlow all tried the new chassis at the Brno test, and with Crutchlow on an HRC contract for 2018, it seems fair to presume that he will have access to that chassis sooner rather than later.
Honda riders have saved their harshest words for Michelin's asymmetric front tires, though. Both Marc Márquez and Cal Crutchlow – the most notorious abusers of the front brake and front tire – say the joint between the two compounds creates a tire which feels weaker, and so collapses more quickly under braking when hot.
Whatever the merits of Márquez' complaints about the front Michelins, he is still leading the championship. That is not something you would have put your money on after Argentina, when he trailed Maverick Viñales by 37 points after crashing out of the lead. When that happened, we wondered if Márquez had regressed to the 2015 version of himself. It took him a few races, but he has turned the season around again, with three podiums in the last three races.
Dani Pedrosa has been among the riders who have benefited most from Michelin stabilizing their tire development. The Spanish veteran has had much better luck getting heat into the rear tire this season, and his results have benefited. A win at Jerez and four other podiums leave him in fifth, an ironic 26 points behind his teammate. The deficit is a result of DNFs, Pedrosa crashing out at both Argentina and Mugello.
Pedrosa is far from alone in crashing out of races, though. Márquez, Pedrosa, and Viñales all have two DNFs to their name. Andrea Dovizioso and Valentino Rossi both have one DNF. In fact, there is not a single rider in 2017 who has finished every race they have started in, with everyone having crashed out at some point or other. The only riders with clean sheets are the replacement or wildcard riders, Sylvain Guintoli finishing all three races when he replaced Alex Rins, and Michele Pirro, Takuya Tsuda, and Mika Kallio all having taken the checkered flag in the races they started.
Bologna rolls the dice
Ducati have been a mixed bag in 2017, with both highs and lows. The Desmosedici has suffered most from the banning of the wings, with Ducati still struggling to find a replacement for the anti-wheelie effect which gave them extra drive last year. But that hasn't stopped Andrea Dovizioso from winning two races already, and Jorge Lorenzo and Danilo Petrucci from also putting the GP17 on the podium.
Yet Lorenzo has struggled far worse than expected, after signing a big-money contract with the Italian factory. He must radically reshape his riding style, learning to brake deep into the corners rather than let off early and then use corner speed and lean angle to make the lap time. Anyone watching from track side can see he is trying hard, but he has a long way still to go. Petrucci, meanwhile, has been liberated by his first podium, and is becoming a serious thorn in the side for the front runners.
Best of all, though, Andrea Dovizioso has finally transformed himself into a genuine title contender. Victory last year at Sepang confirmed the breakthrough both he and Ducati had made in the past couple of seasons. He started off the season taking second at Qatar, the third year in a row he has done so. After being taken out by Aleix Espargaro in Argentina, he consistently finished in the top six, before winning at Mugello, and then a week later in Barcelona. After Assen, Dovizioso was leading the championship.
Could Dovizioso win it all? He is perhaps an unlikely title candidate. Never considered a MotoGP Alien, his talent was rarely questioned, and widely considered the best of the rest. He has made a step forward in the first half of the year, but now he must hold on to that. His best chance of winning is undoubtedly through consistency, which has always been a strong point of the Italian.
Dovizioso's consistency has been helped by Ducati. The biggest step in the development of the Desmosedici came in the past couple of seasons. The GP15 took away the worst of the bike's understeer. Since then, the bike has been refined to make it easier to find a base set up, making it stronger at most tracks. There are very few circuits where the Desmosedici is uncompetitive now.
Steep learning curve
Dovizioso's performance is in stark contrast to his teammate. Jorge Lorenzo joined Ducati with great optimism that he could help the Italian factory win its first title since Casey Stoner left. Despite a good start and some strong results, that has not proved to be the case. A podium at Jerez gave Lorenzo hope, yet he still finished nearly 15 seconds behind the winner, at a track which he rates as one of his favorites. The rest of his results have been a very mixed bag, from fourth in Barcelona to fifteenth at Assen.
Lorenzo's season has been indicative of two things: firstly, he is having to radically change his style. On the Yamaha, Lorenzo would brake in a straight line before flinging the bike into the corner, using his unparalleled ability to carry corner speed to get drive on exit and make a fast lap. The Ducati doesn't work like that, however. The Desmosedici does not turn as eagerly, and has to be forced. Its strength is in braking and on corner entry, and so the way to ride it is to brake later, and carry the front brake to the apex while using the rear brake to help get the bike turned. That is a style which Lorenzo is learning – stand on the inside of any left-hand corner, and you can see him applying the thumb-operated rear brake – but it goes counter to his every instinct.
The bigger problem for Lorenzo is that he is still badly hampered when grip is unpredictable. It is not that the Spaniard cannot ride in the rain – he has more than a few wet victories to his name – but once conditions are changeable, he loses confidence, and he slows to a snail's pace. That defect hampered him through the first half of 2017, leaving him with poor results at Qatar and Assen, and poor qualifying at other races. That weakness may be masking the progression Lorenzo has actually made on the bike.
The most remarkable breakthrough has come for Danilo Petrucci, however. The Pramac rider is often criticized by other riders for a rather careless attitude to others. Petrucci's talent has been evident, however, and was rewarded first at Mugello. The overwhelming joy of that podium was truly memorable, and caused a change in the Italian. A second podium at Assen was met with much less enthusiasm. Victory had been close for Petrucci, and now he wanted it. He has proven his mettle in the first half of the season, and is a dark horse in the second half.
It's all about effort
If there is disappointment at Ducati with their big-money signing, there is absolute despair at Suzuki (though team management deny anything is wrong). Like Jorge Lorenzo at Ducati, Andrea Iannone has struggled to adapt his style to the Suzuki GSX-RR, results not coming as expected. Having ridden a Ducati since he entered the class, Iannone is having to radically alter his style to suit the Suzuki, though in the opposite direction to Lorenzo. Where he is used to entering the corner at an angle and with a lot of front brake on the Desmosedici, the GSX-RR needs to be braked in a straight line, before being pitched into the corner. Where Lorenzo is working hard to adapt, Iannone is complaining about a lack of development from the factory.
Iannone's struggles have soured the atmosphere in the team. Key members are said to be unhappy, and Iannone has not made himself popular among the people he has to work with. This dynamic is arguably a greater issue than any technical problems faced by Suzuki, and needs to be addressed.
Suzuki aren't helped by the fact that their rookie signing Alex Rins has spent the first half of the year struggling with injury. A bad crash in pre-season testing lost him time and confidence, then a fractured wrist in Texas put him out for four races. For Rins, his 2017 season truly starts at Brno.
Don't look back in anger
Aleix Espargaro can only manage a wry smile when you ask him about Suzuki. He was still bitter at being dumped to make way for Iannone, but has seized the opportunity offered by Aprilia with both hands. The RS-GP has undoubtedly made serious steps forward, a new engine being part of a major weight loss program for the bike. Unfortunately for Espargaro, the new engine also contains a fatal flaw, a design error in the pneumatic valves wrecking an engine – and Espargaro's race – a number of times this season.
This has been doubly frustrating for the Spaniard. Several times, Espargaro has felt capable of finishing in the top five, only to see engine issues thwart his progress. Aprilia should have spent the summer working on a fix to that issue, and if it is solved, then Espargaro will be an interesting rider to watch.
The new engine could also be a lifeline for Espargaro's teammate, Sam Lowes. The Englishman has had a very disappointing first half of the season, though only part of the blame lies with him. Lowes has been handed inferior machinery to his teammate, Aprilia's focus being on using Espargaro to develop the bike. But Lowes himself was also slow to adapt to riding a MotoGP bike, taking a long time to learn to brake later, pick the bike up earlier, and get on the throttle. He was making progress as the summer break approached. We will have to see how much of that progress remains when the paddock reconvenes at Brno.
Lowes became the center of speculation over Silly Season in the run up to the summer. Aprilia boss Romano Albesiano made no secret of his desire to ditch Lowes, hoping to replace him with either Iannone or Alvaro Bautista, who has had an outstanding season on the Aspar Ducati. That speculation went cold over the summer, when it became apparent that Aprilia were having second thoughts. As of now, it looks like Lowes is safe at Aprilia, as Bautista has re-signed with Aspar, and Suzuki do not want to let Iannone out of his contract.
Bringing up the rear are the most intriguing factory in MotoGP. At first glance, KTM's results are deeply disappointing for a factory who came to the series intending to one day win a championship. Pol Espargaro and Bradley Smith have picked up a handful of points each in the first nine races, and have yet to break into the top ten.
But the Austrian factory did not come into MotoGP expecting immediate results. Both Espargaro and Smith have done exactly what was expected of them, pushing development of the bike forward quickly. At Qatar, the KTMs crossed the line alone at the back, only Sam Lowes behind them. By the Sachsenring, they were battling with the group chasing the top ten.
Will KTM being fighting for podiums in the second half of the season? Deeply unlikely, as there is still an awful lot of work left to do. The biggest problem, according to Pol Espargaro, is the engine, which needs a major alteration (Espargaro refused to specify exactly what) to make it competitive. That change is not expected until the 2018 season, suggesting it is rather significant.
Still, what KTM have done is bring new chassis and other cycle parts to the track, and make big steps forward with electronics. This is thanks in no small part to Mika Kallio, who has been tireless as a test rider for the Austrian factory. The biggest progress has been made on tire conservation late in the race, with that being down to electronics and suspension. The fact that KTM are running their own WP suspension rather than the industry-standard Öhlins is itself reason to cheer for them. WP is proving to be just as effective as Öhlins, which makes you wonder who will be the next team to take a gamble.
That was the first half of the season. The second half of the season starts on Sunday at Brno. The last nine races of 2017 promise to be just as wild a ride as the first nine. And the waiting is nearly over.
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