It seems safe to say we are living in a new Golden Age of MotoGP. The stomach-churning tension of 2015 was followed by an unimaginably wild 2016 season, the racing turned on its head by the combination of Michelin's first season back in MotoGP and the switch to fully spec Magneti Marelli electronics. 2017 saw the surprises keep on coming, with new and unexpected names such as Andrea Dovizioso and Johann Zarco becoming serious factors in the premier class. The field got deeper, the bikes more competitive, domination a thing of the past.
All the signs are that this trend is going to continue in 2018. Preseason testing has shown that there is now little to choose between four or maybe five of the six different manufacturers on the grid, while the sixth is not that far off being competitive as well. Where we once regarded having four riders capable of winning a race as a luxury, now there are ten or more potential winners lining up on a Sunday. This is going to be another thrilling season, with the title likely to go down to the wire once again.
Once upon a time, winning a championship meant being on a factory Honda or Yamaha. The balance between the two bikes shifted from year to year, as one of the two would find an incremental improvement the other couldn't match. One year, Honda would find more top speed which the Yamaha couldn't compensate for. The next, Yamaha would add stability on the brakes, which allow its riders to match the Honda going into the corner, then leave it for dead on the way out. It was a game of small steps, the championship swinging one way then the other.
You say you want a revolution
2016 changed all that. The Ducati grew ever more competitive, the Suzuki was a real weapon in the hands of Maverick Viñales. The Honda/Yamaha duopoly started to waver. 2017 inflicted further damage: Andrea Dovizioso found the tenth or two he had been missing inside himself to challenge Marc Márquez, the Ducati got even better, the Honda struggled with acceleration, Yamaha lost their way, caught between two frames. The differences were small, but now there were three manufacturers in the mix.
The 2018 preseason has shown that the battle between the manufacturers is even more finely balanced. The Honda is an all round better bike than it was last year, more power meaning it's riders don't have to rely solely on its phenomenal braking ability any longer. Yamaha have more power, but are still struggling with tire wear in the latter stages of a race, while the chassis situation remains as clear as mud. Ducati's two new chassis have improved the bike's willingness to turn again, addressing the Desmosedici's biggest weakness, though still only partially.
Suzuki have corrected the mistake they made with the engine last year, and have the power and drive to match the rest. Aprilia have fixed all the problems which Aleix Espargaro had complained about last year, at least on the chassis side. All they need now is for the new engine to be introduced at Qatar will have the torque off the bottom end which it has so sorely lacked. KTM's astounding progress continues apace, though each tenth of a second they seek to close the gap by grows exponentially more difficult.
Honda enters the Ducati lane
Where do the manufacturers start ahead of the season? In testing, the Honda RC213V has proved itself to be the overall strongest package. The bike now has the horsepower to (nearly) match the Ducatis on top speed, and the acceleration is improved. Honda have focused entirely on the engine and aerodynamics, the two areas in which development is frozen at the start of the year. The riders believe that the engine is good enough now to compete; they can spend the rest of the season working on the chassis, as there are no restrictions on that. The Hondas have looked strong in testing, but we can expect to see them get even stronger as the season progresses.
The Honda may be the strongest package, but the Ducati can give it a pretty close run for its money. The Ducati is a fraction faster than the Honda, and can match it on the brakes. The drive the Ducati has out of corners is imperious, leaving every other bike straggling in its wake. The revised 2018 chassis has fixed at least some of the turning problems the Desmosedici had, though the bike can want to run wide in long corners. Ducati have brought two new chassis to address this, and while the first version was a major improvement, the difference between the first and second frame was relatively minor.
Ducati have used their heavy investment in aerodynamics to try to alleviate this area. The aero fairings Ducati use help the bike with acceleration by preventing wheelie, just like all of the manufacturers' aero fairings do. But Ducati has worked especially on the new aero fairing providing more downforce while corner, digging the front wheel into the asphalt to help the bike pivot, and not run wide.
New at number three
If testing is any indication, then Suzuki has passed Yamaha to become the third best bike on the grid, and there is not much of a gap to Honda and Ducati. The 2018 engine is a massive improvement, Suzuki benefiting in a way from their failure in 2017. The factory knew they got the crankshaft inertia of their engine wrong as soon as the racing started last year. The upside to this was they had all year to figure out how to fix it, and the riders judged the first prototype of the 2018 powerplant tested at Aragon last year to be a massive improvement. The GSX-RR's chassis is still perhaps the sweetest handling on the grid, and improvements have been made to help with braking. Suzuki have followed the aerodynamics path set out by Ducati, and are now in pretty good shape to start the year.
Yamaha find themselves in something of a quandary. Development of the M1 has gotten stuck, torn in two different directions by Valentino Rossi and Maverick Viñales. The two seem to be continually at odds, suffering diametrically opposed problems whenever Yamaha make changes. If they find something which gives Valentino Rossi greater confidence in the front end, Viñales complains that he can't get the bike to turn. If they find something to give Viñales better rear grip in braking, Rossi complains the bike is spinning the rear tire on corner exit.
Then there's the issue of tire wear. The Yamaha is pretty good on fresh rubber, but managing the drop off after half race distance is a real challenge. They have fixed a lot of this with electronics, but it needs to be addressed with either setup or changes to swing arm or suspension. Rossi found something on the final day of the final preseason test, improving both in outright time and in overall pace. But whether that will be enough when the racing starts, only time will tell.
Ironically, the only Yamaha rider who is not complaining too much is Johann Zarco. The Frenchman tried both the 2017 and 2016 chassis at the Sepang test, and immediately went back to the older frame. Since then, he has been both fast overall and competitive enough in terms of race pace. His secret? Trying to ride the bike like Jorge Lorenzo, carrying as much corner speed and lean angle as he dares. If the Movistar riders can find the same skillset, or Yamaha can move the bike a little further away from Lorenzo's iconic style, it may make the bike competitive again.
At the moment, the Aprilia is probably the fifth best bike on the grid, the new chassis a big improvement on last year's bike, as Aprilia Corse boss Romano Albesiano has made the bike better on the brakes and better in turning. But the engine remains the bike's Achilles heel: the power delivery is a little too much like a two stroke, an artifact perhaps of Aprilia's two-stroke heritage. If the new engine to be brought to Qatar has more torque in midrange, then the bike could prove to be rather competitive. If not, then Aprilia are at least fortunate enough to have the concessions available to manufacturers without a podium, and can try to bring uprated engines through the season.
KTM are the most interesting of the manufacturers in terms of development, though that is mainly because they are still behind. They slashed the gap drastically the first year in MotoGP, going from three seconds a lap slower at Qatar to a handful of tenths at the final race of 2017 at Valencia. What KTM need mainly is refinement: better, smoother electronics to tame the power of the RC16, tweaks to the chassis to help the bike turn, work with suspension and the rear of the bike to be a little gentler with the rear tire over race distance. Pol Espargaro was knocking on the door of the top ten by the end of last year. If they can start to trouble the top five by the end of 2018, they will be a force to be reckoned with.
It takes two to tango
Where does that leave the riders? We start the 2018 season with two main contenders for the MotoGP crown, the same two who fought for the title last year. Marc Márquez has been exceptional in every way during testing, quick on a single lap, imperious on long race runs, and putting in the hard yards to make progress. Nobody did more laps during testing than Márquez, and he went about the process with maturity. Gone are the days when he focused solely on getting his name at the top of the timesheets each day, sacrificing short-term glory for a chance at long-term success.
Márquez seemed also to have more control of the process, something made possible by the departure of Livio Suppo and the arrival of Alberto Puig. With Suppo gone, and Puig still feeling his way into the job as Repsol Honda team boss, Márquez was able to communicate more directly with the HRC engineers. This has paid off throughout testing, and Márquez has established himself as the clear favorite for the title. He has for some time been the most talented rider on the grid, and with more maturity and more confidence in his role as leader of the project, and a significantly better bike, he is going to be a hard man to beat.
If Andrea Dovizioso is to beat Márquez, he will have to do it the same way he tried last year. The Italian's focus was remarkable in 2017, the mental training and life changes he made the previous year starting to pay off. He has also benefited from his loyalty to Ducati, the Desmosedici GP18 being very much the fruits of the development he has put in, helped in no small part by Ducati's workhorse super tester Michele Pirro. Dovizioso knows the GP18 like the back of his hand, knows how to get the best out of it. He knows the secrets needed to unlock its potential.
The one thing standing between Dovizioso and the title last year was consistency. The Italian was amazingly consistent at most tracks, racking up wins and podiums. But when things went wrong, they went badly wrong, Dovizioso finishing outside the top ten a couple of times. "The key will be to try to be consistent and in the top five every race," Marc Márquez said at the Qatar test. That is where Dovizioso failed in 2017, and what he will have to fix in 2018.
Satellite riders are not supposed to win titles, as witnessed by the fact that it has never happened since the distinction between factory and satellite became meaningful. But there is a realistic chance that exactly that could happen in 2018. Johann Zarco was a revelation last year, making his intentions plain by leading the first six laps of his very first MotoGP race. He went on to take three podiums, including two second places, though his first win managed to elude him.
There is every chance of Zarco changing that in 2018, as the Frenchman has been very strong and very consistent throughout testing. The lessons learned in his first season should give him the edge he needs, he believes. "One year of experience is fantastic, I understand very well the Yamaha, the electronics," the Frenchman said after the final test. "I can give feedback on so many things to my team, and I'm happy for that."
Beating Dovizioso would be difficult enough, beating Márquez looks nigh on impossible. Beating them on a satellite Yamaha would need something close to a miracle. That miracle may have to come in the form of help from Yamaha, but that is incredibly complex. It would mean being seen as favoring Zarco over the factory team, perhaps, something which would not sit well with the two men Yamaha are paying millions of euros to win them a title. It would also mean helping the Monster Tech3 squad, who have loudly and proudly proclaimed they are leaving Yamaha at the end of the year for a much better offer from KTM.
There are signs that Yamaha might be disposed to help Zarco despite the difficulties. Zarco is rumored to have 500 more revs than he did last year, cutting the disparity between the satellite and factory bikes in half. If Zarco can cause trouble for Márquez and Dovizioso, Yamaha might turn up the wick even further. After all, the only thing worse for Yamaha than being beaten by a satellite bike is being beaten by a Honda, a Ducati, and a satellite bike.
In the mix
Of course, beating Valentino Rossi and Maverick Viñales is no simple feat. Though Rossi hasn't signed a new contract yet – or at least, not as I write this on the way to Qatar – there is every sign that he will add another two years to his already incredible career. Though some fans feel that Rossi has outlived his welcome, and should make way for young talent, these calls are simply not borne out by his results: Rossi is as fast as ever, as competitive as ever, as hungry as ever. He won a race last year at Assen, and there is no reason to believe he will fare any worse in 2018.
If anything, his prospects are better for this year than for last. Jerez and Barcelona, two tracks where Yamaha once dominated until the surface lost any semblance of grip, have been resurfaced, which should allow both Yamaha riders to use the corner speed of the M1. They are tracks which Rossi loves, and with grip, should be able to be competitive at. He almost won at Le Mans last year, crashing out in the final sector in a do-or-die attempt at defeating his teammate.
Most importantly, Rossi has retained his equanimity, remaining calm despite the problems in testing. He has trusted the process, placing his faith in the engineers to fix the problems, and his own ability to remain competitive. A tenth title for Rossi looks like a very distant possibility indeed. But not so improbable that you would it off entirely.
Dazed and confused
Rossi's teammate faces a much tougher season in 2018. Viñales came to Yamaha with the intention of winning a championship, but the main thing eating away at his chances of taking a title is his own infinitely ravenous ambition. So firmly has he sunk his teeth into the prospect of a title that he is no longer able to see beyond the end of his nose towards the longer term.
Throughout testing, Viñales has appeared lost. That is understandable: one day, Viñales is comfortably fastest. The next day, at the same track, with the same bike and the same tires, Viñales is outside the top ten. Baffled and bewildered by what is happening to him, Viñales seems to be thrashing around looking for answers, rather than striking out in a particular direction and hoping it is the right one.
"Maverick looks very down but at the end he is fifth, so it's because he wants to stay in first position by one second every day!" Rossi summed up Viñales' situation at Qatar. Viñales appears to be the polar opposite of Rossi in everything except outrageous talent. And that might just be the root of the problem.
Super Cal is most elastic
If one satellite rider having a shot at the title seems improbable, two of them seems like utter insanity. And yet Cal Crutchlow could do just that. The LCR Honda rider has been instrumental in pushing development of the RC213V, grinding out the laps and helping push the bike in the right direction. Fatherhood and age sit well with Crutchlow, taking the remaining rough edges off his talent and honing them to a fine point.
During testing, Crutchlow was always near the top of the timesheets, but more importantly his pace was among the very best. The improvements to the Honda should also help the Englishman address his cardinal sin, the tendency to crash. With less pressure on getting the maximum out of the braking zone, Crutchlow may push the front a fraction less during the race, and cut his crash total from 24 a season to something a little more reasonable. If he can manage that, he becomes a serious contender, not just for wins, but perhaps even for the title.
Crutchlow could find himself embroiled in an intra-brand rivalry with Repsol Honda's Dani Pedrosa. The veteran Spaniard was the better of the pair in 2017, winning races at Jerez and Valencia. But Pedrosa has been one of the losers since the switch to Michelins, along with Alvaro Bautista. In hot conditions, getting the rear Michelin inside its very sensitive operating window is no real problem, but when it's cold – in the mornings at Silverstone, Aragon, or Valencia for example – or when it rains becomes almost impossible.
Misano last year was the prime example: it took Pedrosa half the race or so, but once the track started to dry, he dropped his lap time by nearly six seconds. There is little Pedrosa can do about that, except hope that Michelin's tire allocation is a little more favorable for him this year, and that the weather gods decide to treat him a little more kindly.
New star on the horizon?
The most interesting prospect of 2018 is surely Alex Rins. The Spaniard had a nightmare start to his MotoGP career, injuring himself in the first test at Valencia, then again in a motocross accident after the season started. He missed five races in all, a setback which took him until the flyaways to figure out.
It was only at Phillip Island that he finally worked out how to be fast in MotoGP. "I remember in Australia, I think that was the race that I learned the most from in all my career," he told me recently. "I remember that I was behind Miller, and I was really smooth with the gas, with the throttle, and I was fast. So I was thinking, why am I faster with less gas than with more gas? It was really satisfying to finish the race and learn all these things."
Rins has been impressive in testing, outperforming his veteran teammate and regularly featuring at the front. Rins has all the makings of a special talent. He has been on the podium every year in Grand Prix except for last year, and has had victories every season except his debut year in Moto3 and his disastrous 2017. Rins is a rider to keep a very close eye on in 2018.
Eyes on the prize
The depth of talent means there are plenty more riders who could easily win a race. Danilo Petrucci came frustratingly close last year, first at Mugello, then again at Assen, and once more at Misano. Those results made Petrucci realize just what his potential could be, and he has shown a new sense of dedication during testing. He turned up a much slimmer version of himself at Sepang, having dropped some eight kg in weight over the winter. He has a Ducati GP18 at his disposal, and the prospect of elevation into the factory team, should Jorge Lorenzo vacate the second seat. Petrucci is fearless, and will be out for victory wherever he can.
He finds himself with a teammate capable of pushing him hard for the win. The GP17 has come as a revelation for Jack Miller since he joined the Alma Pramac squad. He no longer has to wrestle the bike as he had to the Honda RC213V, and he has shown throughout testing he can be quick both over a single lap and in terms of race pace. The Australian has taken an unconventional route to MotoGP, being promoted by Honda straight from Moto3. That caused him more than a few complications, but he appears to have found his feet on the Ducati Desmosedici. The GP17 may be a year old, but it is still fast enough to mix it at the front.
Mission not accomplished
When Jorge Lorenzo came to Ducati, he came with the intention of winning a championship. The first half of his first year with the storied Italian marque was decidedly lackluster, the Spaniard struggling with a lack of feel from the front end. He only turned his season around at Brno, when Ducati brought a new fairing with a major aerodynamic upgrade, which pushed the front tire into the asphalt in corners and gave him the feedback he was chasing. Suddenly, he was on the podium again and chasing wins.
Though victory remained just out of his grasp in 2017, he should do better this year. With a year of experience on the Desmosedici, Lorenzo is far more comfortable on the bike than he was last year. But not completely at his ease: at Sepang, Lorenzo was easily fastest. Two weeks later in Thailand, the Spaniard sunk without trace, finishing sixteenth and exasperated at being so uncompetitive. He went back and forth between the GP17 and GP18 chassis, desperately in search of a fix. Another couple of weeks later at the Qatar test and Lorenzo finished ninth, behind Danilo Petrucci and three tenths off the pace of his teammate.
The lesson we can take from Lorenzo's preseason form is that he has an unpredictable season ahead. It is entirely conceivable that Lorenzo will win three, four, maybe even more races this year. But it is just as likely that he will finish outside the top ten in a handful of others. Lorenzo came to Ducati to win a championship. On the basis of testing, it looks like winning races is the best he can aim for. But he might win quite a few.
If Lorenzo's year looks unpredictable, Andrea Iannone's is positively mercurial. The Italian is unquestionably one of the most talented riders on the grid, but his character stands in the way of that talent bearing fruit. Case in point: at the Qatar test, he was third fastest on the first day, fastest on the second day, then missed the third day with a mystery illness after posting video of himself dancing on top of his rental car on social media.
Iannone was beaten by his teammate at Sepang and Buriram, but was a fraction faster than Rins at Qatar. He will obviously be a genuine threat at some tracks, but will be left in the shadow of his teammate at others. The atmosphere in the team will be a factor here as well. Rins is well liked in the Suzuki set up. Iannone, not so much.
The Other Factories
What to make of Aprilia and KTM? For Aprilia, much (if not all) will depend on the new engine. If it has the necessary torque, then Aleix Espargaro could be a significant factor at the sharp end of the grid. If it doesn't, then the Spaniard's patience will be sorely tested once again.
As for his teammate, Scott Redding is still fitting in to the role of a factory rider. The Englishman is suffering both with trying to emulate Espargaro's riding style, an ability to brake insanely deep into the corner, and with the lack of acceleration caused by the deadly combination of a lack of torque and his physical size. If Aprilia don't bring him some midrange soon, it could be a long year for Redding. So far in testing, he has found himself languishing at the rookie end of the grid. That is not where a rider starting his fifth season in MotoGP belongs.
For KTM, this year will be another one spent chasing development. This looks set to be a very tough year indeed, as the closer the factory gets to the front, the more difficult it gets to find the final tenth or two that is the difference between being in contention and chasing your tail. So far, Pol Espargaro has been the best of the two KTM riders, taking to the RC16 like a duck to water and consistently outperforming his teammate. Espargaro loves to push a bike hard, and the RC16 rewards that kind of punishment.
Bradley Smith faces a do-or-die season in 2018. Though he has played a key role in helping to get the RC16 where it is, he has spent too much time thinking like a test rider, and not enough showing the hunger of a competitor. He has struggled, both with the RC16 and with the Michelin tires, perhaps having spent too much time learning to be smooth on the Bridgestone-shod Yamaha. The loss of that utterly planted front has been hard on Smith, but if he is to stay in MotoGP, he will need to find a figure out both the KTM and the Michelin rubber.
2018 sees the arrival of a strong and fascinating crop of rookies. The cream of last year's Moto2 class made their way up to MotoGP in 2018 and offer an intriguing prospect.
So far, Takaaki Nakagami has ruled the rookie roost in testing, the Japanese rider showing the talent he clearly had in Moto2. He was fastest rookie at both Sepang and Buriram, even making it into the top ten in Thailand. The Japanese rider had a tougher time at Qatar, finishing well down the order and behind Franco Morbidelli.
Nakagami has something of an advantage, however. Being in the LCR team, with backing from Honda and Japanese oil brand Idemitsu, he has the latest spec of RC213V at his disposal. That is clearly a much better bike than the 2017 bike which the Marc VDS riders have been given, making Nakagami's job that little bit easier. The challenge for the Japanese rider will be to translate his pace to being fast in the race, as that was always his weakness in Moto2.
Big things are expected of Franco Morbidelli, though he starts the season off on the back foot and a third-string Honda. The Italian reigned supreme in Moto2 last year, and his progress in testing has been solid. Nakagami may have beaten him by half a second at Sepang, at Buriram, Morbidelli had cut the gap to a couple of tenths, posting the thirteenth quickest time, and at Qatar he finished thirteenth once again, and fastest rookie.
Morbidelli has been studying Marc Márquez' data to further his cause, but it is a daunting course to follow. "I understood that with this bike, if you want to understand the limit, you have to crash. Marc is teaching us, and he taught us that crashing is the way," Morbidelli proclaimed solemnly at Qatar.
This may be one of the most daunting lessons facing Tom Luthi, too. The Swiss veteran was never a prolific crasher in Moto2, his strength being consistency rather than a willingness to constantly seek out the limits. Indeed, crashes in the last stages of the Moto2 season meant he missed the first test at Valencia, making his debut on the Marc VDS Honda at Sepang instead. Being one test behind is extra difficult for Luthi: the Swiss rider has raced in the Moto2 class since its inception in 2010, so his riding style is completely focused around a Moto2 machine. He is having to completely relearn how to ride a bike almost from scratch now he is in MotoGP.
The hopes of a nation
Hafizh Syahrin's birthdays all came at once around the time of the Sepang test. Meetings between top-level management at the Sepang International Circuit and Tech3 boss Hervé Poncharal saw the Malaysian rider named as permanent replacement to Jonas Folger, after the German chose to sit out the 2018 season. Though Syahrin starts two tests behind – he first got on the bike at Buriram in Thailand – he has performed admirably. At the Qatar test, he ended as sixteenth overall, 1.2 seconds behind his teammate Johann Zarco.
Syahrin's progress is assisted by the fact that the Yamaha M1 is the easiest bike for a rookie to jump on and go fast with. It does everything well, and gives excellent feedback along the way. Squeezing the last few tenths out of the bike is just as tough as on any other MotoGP bike, of course, but getting up to speed is a much easier experience. Syahrin's objective will be to prove he can be in the top ten regularly, and that he has earned his place in MotoGP. And if it rains, see where his uncanny wet-weather skills can take him. The Malaysian's Moto2 podiums have come in wet conditions so far, including one at home in Sepang. If it rains in November, when MotoGP is at Syahrin's home race, magic just might happen.
Xavier Simeon has the toughest job in MotoGP, along with his counterpart Ducati GP16 rider Karel Abraham. The Belgian comes into the premier class on the oldest bike on the grid, the GP16 being very much long in the tooth. Simeon is fortunate that he is on a two-year contract with Avintia, and can just focus on learning the bike in his first year, before seeing where his potential will take him in 2019.
Simeon's main target will be Karel Abraham, the other rider on a GP16. While for Abraham, he will have to contend with his Angel Nieto Team companion Alvaro Bautista, on a younger Ducati GP17. Bautista shone on more than one occasion in 2017, but like Dani Pedrosa, he suffered when he couldn't get heat into the tires. So far, Bautista has not excelled during testing, struggling to make it into the top fifteen. At Qatar, he finished just behind Abraham, which the machine advantage he has shouldn't allow.
There has never been a time when the racing has been so close, when the field has been so tight. The amount of talent on the grid is just plain ridiculous: thirteen world champions in various classes, and almost everyone on the grid has won a Grand Prix. Bikes from three, maybe four different manufacturers are capable of winning races. Riders from three different satellite teams could win a race or three as well. The only downside to all this is it makes predicting the outcome of each race and of the championship nigh on impossible. It is a small price to pay for this golden age of racing in which we find ourselves.
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