A new year brings new opportunities, and a chance to start again with a blank slate. The future is unknown, and so now is a time for predictions, some wild and baseless, some canny educated guesses. That we do not know which category our predictions will fall into is half the fun of making them, of course.
2018 looks like being another outstanding year for motorcycle racing. There is much reason for optimism: the racing in MotoGP has never been as close as it is now, the field is deep in talent and the bikes are close in performance; there are fresh young faces coming up through Moto2 and Moto3, ready to push aside the old guard; and new rules in WorldSBK may help to address the disparity between the championship front runners and those who pursue them.
Will the new season play out as we hope? Anything can happen in racing, but here are three predictions for 2018, and factors to watch in the coming year:
1. Marc Márquez wins more on his way to title number seven
"I'm happy," Marc Márquez told us at the Valencia test after trying the 2018 Honda RC213V for the first time. "I'm happy because it's the first time that with such a new engine I feel inside the parameters, you know?"
Compare and contrast that with his comments at the 2016 test: "At the moment, still we need to adjust the electronics to this engine ... Because all the torque map, all the engine brake map is made for the 2016 engine. But we need to readjust everything, now they have a lot of jobs to do and today was for me a long day."
How about 2015, and the new engine Honda brought for 2016? "It’s difficult to say much about the engine character, because with the electronics we are far. We must take care because it’s still a little bit aggressive. We are trying to fix it by electronics. Already last year’s engine was a little bit aggressive but with Magneti Marelli it was even more aggressive."
In 2016 and 2017, Marc Márquez started out with an engine which had undergone major changes – first reversing the direction of crankshaft rotation, a year later switching from screamer to big bang – and took a lot of work to get competitive. He still took the title those years, despite a rocky start to both seasons. He won five races in 2016, and six in 2017, vastly outscoring anyone else on a Honda.
Fast forward to Valencia in November of 2017. Márquez gets off the bike feeling that the RC213V is a lot nearer ready than it has been in recent years, thanks perhaps to the fact that HRC have two years' worth of data with the Magneti Marelli electronics, and definitely to the fact that last year, they hired another engineer who had previously worked for the Italian ECU manufacturer. Michelin has found a consistent direction with its tires for 2018, and so little is set to change.
Márquez starts off 2018 with far fewer blanks to be filled in on this year's bike, and with fewer questions left to be answered. That doesn't mean that the RC213V is anywhere near perfect, of course, but the focus is shifting from the engine to the chassis, a shift that is well overdue. But with a strong bike and fewer issues to confront from the start of the season, Márquez is going to be a hard man to beat. He's going to win a lot of races in 2018 – my best guess would be eight or nine of the nineteen – and the way you win championships is by winning races.
2. Valentino Rossi will sign another contract with Yamaha
There are a lot of reasons to admire what Valentino Rossi has achieved over the years, but his longevity is probably his greatest, and his most undervalued achievement. Only a few riders have managed to still be competitive at age 38, and none have managed it for such a long and extended period of time. His first victory came at Brno, in 1996, on an Aprilia 125. His most recent victory came in 2017, at Assen, aboard a Yamaha MotoGP bike, 20 years, 10 months, and 7 days later. Four months later, he stood on the podium once again, having finished second at Phillip Island.
Rossi will be 39 at the start of the 2018 season, well past the age at which most racers have been forced to retire. Naturally, he will constantly be asked the same question all throughout the year: is he going to retire at the end of 2018?
The answer he has consistently given through 2017 is the same answer he gave in 2015 and 2016, when he was asked the same question. If he is competitive, he will keep racing for at least another year. So to answer the question of whether he will retire at the end of 2018, we need only look back to the sixteenth race of the 2017 season, where he finished on the podium. If he got on the box two races ago, there is no reason to believe he won't be able to do the same in 2018. And if he can podium in 2018, he can probably win in 2018. And if he can win in 2018, he can probably be competitive in 2019.
Much will depend on the YZR M1 which Yamaha will bring for the coming year. 2017 was their worst season in recent history, with just four wins from eighteen races. Maverick Viñales finished third in the championship, the first time a Yamaha has been out of the top two since 2007. Rossi finished fifth, his worst championship finish since returning to Yamaha in 2013. Yamaha cannot afford to make the same mistake again, and with Viñales in his second year with the Japanese factory, integrating the feedback of the two factory Yamaha riders should be easier, and choosing a direction for development simpler.
Officially, Valentino Rossi will wait until the first few races have passed to make a decision on extending his contract with Yamaha. But it is likely that Rossi will have made up his mind after the Sepang test at the end of January. If he can be competitive with Márquez and Viñales there, then he will be confident of being in the hunt for 2018, and beyond. The announcement probably won't come until later in the season, but there is no doubt in my mind that Rossi will sign on for another year. My guess is that he will sign a one-year deal with an option to extend for a year after that.
If the Yamaha isn't competitive, could Rossi decide to leave and go elsewhere? The answer to that is a resounding no. Ducati would not welcome him back after the debacle in 2011 and 2012, though almost everyone involved with that deal has moved on. Rossi is still persona non grata at Honda, who still haven't forgiven him for abandoning them at the end of 2003. And Rossi is not at the stage where he would be willing to gamble on KTM, or Aprilia, or Suzuki. So much of Rossi's post-racing career is tied in with Yamaha – the VR46 Riders Academy is backed by Yamaha, and the Sky VR46 team is lined up to get Yamaha M1 MotoGP bikes once they move up to the premier class – that he has nothing to gain by switching brands. Rossi and Yamaha are tied together indefinitely, especially after he retires. But that won't be any time soon.
3. The Silly Season will not live up to its name
There is already a heady sense of excitement building around the coming Silly Season in MotoGP, with everyone bar Cal Crutchlow, Franco Morbidelli, and Xavier Simeon out of contract at the end of 2018. All of the factory seats are open, and the prospect of a massive bidding war between the manufacturers has the racing media licking its collective lips in anticipation.
I fear that the Silly Season will not live up to expectations. Indeed, it probably won't even live up to its name. The most likely outcome of the contract shenanigans coming this year is that most people stay where they are for 2019. The MotoGP Silly Season looks like being eminently sensible.
Why should this be? The contract merry-go-round always revolves around a number of key players. For 2019, those players have little motivation to move on. Marc Márquez is happy to stay on at Honda, as long as the bike is competitive. More importantly, he wants his crew around him – working with that team, which truly is a group of friends, is crucial for Márquez, and the basis of his success. Factories are increasingly unwilling to take on a whole new crew along with a rider, as the incoming engineers and mechanics have no experience with the new bike, and one way or another, they lose the experience of the team members being moved out to make way for the new rider's crew.
At Yamaha, Valentino Rossi will want to stay on for another year, and Maverick Viñales came to Yamaha because he believed he could win a championship there. If he wins races early in 2018, he has no incentive to switch. At Ducati, Andrea Dovizioso proved he is worth far more than he is currently paid, and his only real option outside of the Italian factory would be at Honda. Jorge Lorenzo showed he could be competitive in the second half of 2017, and with a year under his belt (and the wings on his GP18), he should be back to winning ways in 2018.
Dani Pedrosa's seat at Honda is safe too (unless HRC sign Dovizioso), as he is still the best available option. Perhaps the most underrated rider in recent history, Pedrosa is the only rider who has won at least one race for 16 straight seasons, is the eighth most successful premier class rider of all time, and has more wins than Kevin Schwantz, Wayne Rainey, and Kenny Roberts, and is equal with Eddie Lawson. If the 2018 Honda is better, he will win again, so why replace someone who is competitive and still only 32 years of age.
What about Suzuki or Aprilia? Suzuki's big mistake was changing both riders at the start of the 2017 season, leaving them without a reference point. That meant that Alex Rins and Andrea Iannoe chose the wrong engine before the season started, and left them unable to change it during the season. They won't make that mistake again. Aprilia are building on the work of Aleix Espargaro from 2017, but their problems won't be solved by new riders. First they need to build a better bike.
The big moves are likely to come at KTM. First, Johann Zarco is as good as certain to take one of the two seats at the factory. Zarco has been the revelation of 2017, and has proved he is something special. Though Pol Espargaro and Bradley Smith have been instrumental in developing the RC16 (though Smith spent a little too much time in development mode, and not enough in race mode), neither look like being capable of winning a championship in the long term. Comparing the two men in their first year at the Tech 3 team to Zarco, the Frenchman massively outscored them, in a much more competitive field. Zarco comes in, and Smith, in all likelihood, is out.
The real interest in Silly Season is not so much the riders as the bikes. KTM are likely to want a satellite team in 2019, and somewhere to put Miguel Oliveira and Brad Binder. Who could that be? LCR has a long-term commitment to Honda, with Cal Crutchlow signed through 2019 on an HRC contract. Marc VDS has Franco Morbidelli on the books for 2019, and so potentially only a single seat available for someone KTM might want to bring through.
The most likely candidate would be Aspar – or rather, the Ángel Nieto Team, as it is now to be called. Jorge Martinez already runs KTMs in Moto3, so switching to the Austrian manufacturer in MotoGP would be a natural extension of that relationship.
The big changes in the MotoGP field will have to wait for another year or two, once the fresh young blood from Moto3 and Moto2 starts to make its way through to MotoGP. The key to future movements in MotoGP will revolve around Joan Mir. After his astonishing year in Moto3, all eyes are on how he develops in Moto2. If he lives up to the remarkable expectations he set in 2017, the next bidding war will be for where the Spaniard will land.
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