It is tempting before each season to say that this is going to be the best season ever. It is a phrase that oscillates somewhere between hope and expectation, though more often than not, it is hope which has the upper hand. The 2019 MotoGP season promises to swing the balance back toward expectation, as the sport goes from strength to strength.
The reason MotoGP went from having 17 bikes on the grid in 2010 and the races decided virtually by qualifying position is simple. Thanks to a mixture of coaxing and cajoling, bribing and bullying, Dorna managed to get most of the rule changes they wanted. First, a switch back to 1000cc, bore limited to impose a theoretical rev limit (which has remained theoretical, as revs soar back above 18,000). Next, the adoption of spec electronics, forced through with the threat of CRT bikes, along with a promise by the factories to supply bikes at an affordable price.
Then the introduction of the more user-friendly Michelin tires. The concession system, whereby successful factories have engine designs frozen, giving less successful factories a chance to catch up. And finally, an influx of talent to fill a field of closely competitive bikes.
Close as you like
The fruits of these changes have produced some fantastic racing in recent years, and there is good reason to suspect this year will be even better than ever. Preseason testing saw times closer than ever. At Sepang, the first 12 riders were all within a second of the fastest rider, Danilo Petrucci (and something of a surprise to see Petrucci being fastest in a test). At Qatar, that group had grown to encompass 15 riders.
Even better, rookies finished second at both tests. In Sepang, it was Pecco Bagnaia who blew the rest of the field away. At Losail, it was the turn of Fabio Quartararo to find a turn of speed and nab second spot.
Then there are the factories. With Alex Rins impressing at both preseason tests, Suzuki looks to have joined the trio of Honda, Yamaha, and Ducati, which has dominated MotoGP for the past 15 years. At the Sepang test, Aleix Espargaro finished seventh quickest. In Qatar, it was the turn of Pol Espargaro to take eighth spot, meaning that all six MotoGP manufacturers have finished inside the top ten at a winter test.
Those six manufacturers were represented by nine different teams. Only the Red Bull KTM Tech3 and Reale Avintia Ducati teams didn't make it into the top ten in testing.
In short: the field has never been this close, nor this wide open. It's going to be a good year.
The man to beat
As reigning champion, Marc Márquez remains the man to beat, though the times during the test did not necessarily show that. Then again, he is still coming off shoulder surgery which was far more invasive than he had expected. That limited him to only riding for part of the day at Sepang, though by the Qatar test he was already in much better shape. He even crashed, got back on the bike, and came away from the experience with more confidence that his shoulder is strong enough to survive.
If there is an obstacle to Márquez' supremacy, it is in the shape of the Honda itself. The goal for 2019 was to produce a bike with more horsepower and better power delivery, and HRC have managed that. Bitten by two major engine changes in a row, Honda have focused almost entirely on the engine over the winter. Getting that right is crucial, as once the season starts, it can't be changed.
The changes have come at the price of the chassis, and feeling from the front end. In previous years, that has been the Honda's strength. "We know the Honda has a good front end," Cal Crutchlow explained. "We crash all the time with the front, but as I've said many times it's not that we have a bad front end, it's that we have such a good front end that we take advantage of it too much and that was our weapon."
But that is gone. "I don't think I have the front feeling that I had last year, " Crutchlow continued, echoing comments from Márquez and Jorge Lorenzo.
Can that be fixed? Honda's plan was always to get the engine right first - "What we have gained is speed," said Crutchlow, "the engine is very, very good. HRC have done an amazing job with regards to that," - as the chassis can be fixed during the season. Qatar could see HRC bring the first of a series of updates. "Honda will bring something here for Marc and for me," Jorge Lorenzo said, "and also specifically some little details for me also. Unfortunately not everything, but some of them, so for sure we will improve in some areas."
Where will Jorge Lorenzo fit in to Honda's objectives? First, he has to recover from the scaphoid he fractured in a training accident. The Spaniard complained of some pain in his wrist in some corners, and that pain will remain for the first few races. But the parts which Honda have given Lorenzo to relieve some of the physical stresses of riding the bike should make his life easier, and therefore more competitive.
The bigger problem for Lorenzo will be that lack of front end feel. Nobody carries corner speed quite like Jorge Lorenzo, but to do that, he first has to believe that his front tire isn't about to betray him. Lorenzo and HRC will have to share the burden in fixing this: Lorenzo will need more time on the bike to understand the RC213V. Honda will have to work to find a way of regaining some of the front end feel they lost. If they both succeed, Lorenzo could be a real threat.
If Lorenzo does become as big a threat as many believe, then that puts the can among the pigeons inside the Repsol Honda team. Can Marc Márquez and Jorge Lorenzo play nice when the going gets tough? Lorenzo is known for loudly complaining when other riders get too close. Márquez is known for not being a great respecter of personal space. The two are on a collision course – literally, most likely – and at some point, sparks will fly. That will be half the fun of that team.
The LCR Honda team will be just as fun to watch, but for other reasons. Cal Crutchlow is being drawn in closer to HRC's embrace, effectively a third factory rider (though clearly his status is below the riders in Repsol Honda. The Spanish oil giant doesn't pay all that money to be shown up by satellite riders.) A carbon swing arm has turned up on Crutchlow's bike at Qatar, and he will be hoping to get back to winning ways.
On the other side of the garage, Takaaki Nakagami has impressed on the 2018 spec bike which he now has at his disposal. "When I jumped on that bike it was more than I expected," he said. "I know that last year during the season I always compared to Cal’s data and I can see clearly the different potential but this is the data and you cannot imagine it when you jump on the new bike. After the last race in Valencia on that Tuesday when I swapped with the ’18 bike I immediately felt much more potential on that bike." Nakagami was fastest at the Jerez test in November, a warning that he might just surprise a few people in 2019.
Ducati doubles down
In the past two seasons, it has been Andrea Dovizioso standing between Marc Márquez and the MotoGP title. There is no reason to suspect 2019 will be any different, albeit Dovizioso's life may get a little more complicated for other reasons. The factory Ducati rider has been quietly fast all through testing, never dominating the timesheets, but often with strong underlying pace. The goal for a rider is always to win the championship, but you get the strong impression that in 2019, Dovizioso and Ducati are going all in on the Italian.
To that end, Ducati have put every means at his disposal. Teammate Danilo Petrucci has moved house to live closer to Dovizioso, and the two train together. Dovizioso has also sent Petrucci to the team of specialists who he works with, including his personal trainer, nutritional expert, and sports psychologist. The goal is to improve Petrucci as a rider, so he will be a better teammate for Dovizioso.
That plan might just backfire, however. Petrucci has grown in confidence and stature all through the preseason, getting quicker and improving the aspects of his riding where he was weakest. His race pace has been strong, as has his work ethic, and Petrucci is developing into a challenger in his own right. He stands taller, is more relaxed, more confident. You can see that in his heart, he believes he can really do this.
"This year I arrived at a point where I have nothing to lose," Petrucci said. "It can be my best season in MotoGP, or not, but I really gave my best this winter and this makes me more confident." All the help Dovizioso and Ducati have given Petrucci might just come back to bite them.
Pretenders to the throne
Then there's the Pramac team, and two predators laying in wait to seize any opening in the factory squad. Jack Miller finally has a Ducati Desmosedici GP19 at his disposal, the same bike as the factory riders. But Miller has also taken on the role previously played by Petrucci, which is testing set up and ideas for the factory squad – or rather, for Andrea Dovizioso. Miller's talent is undeniable, but his patience will be tested in his new role. He wants to win, but Ducati's focus lies elsewhere.
It might even lie on the opposite side of the garage. Pecco Bagnaia is hotly tipped by just about everyone. No matter who you talk to – other riders, rival team managers, crew chiefs and engineers from other teams – they all point to Bagnaia as the rider set to shake up MotoGP. He still has work to do – when he was second quickest at Sepang, his crew chief, Cristian Gabarrini, pointed out that while being fast over a single lap is impressive, being fast over race distance is a different kettle of fish – but nobody doubts he will get there.
Bagnaia's path to the factory team, and potentially, the MotoGP title, has already been roughly sketched out. All it needs is for the young Italian to fill in the blanks, and claim what many believe is his. The reason Danilo Petrucci says that he has nothing to lose is because he knows that Ducati Corse are eyeing Bagnaia and planning his future as a factory rider.
Tech triumphs, sponsorship lows
Ducati Corse boss Gigi Dall'Igna has been busy over the winter, mostly playing with the heads of his rivals. A plethora of highly visible new parts have appeared on the GP19 over the winter: a torque arm, an aerodynamic seat, new triple-decker wings, a mysterious key operating what we believe is a holeshot device, something to help the bike get off the line better, brake disc covers with an aerodynamic function, a larger 'salad box' at the back of the bike for more electronics, or perhaps a different mass damper. We have been kept guessing.
Dall'Igna is perfectly happy to keep it that way. Notoriously secretive, Dall'Igna, like all great MotoGP engineers, has mastered the art of talking for a long time without imparting any actual information, at least not to the media. How his rival engineers feel is hard to imagine.
The one fly in Ducati's ointment is the doubts over the future of the title sponsorship of the factory Ducati team. Mission Winnow – Philip Morris' thinly-veiled project to wean smokers off burning cigarettes and onto electric cigarettes, which heat tobacco sufficiently to vaporize the nicotine without igniting the dried leaves – has already run into trouble in Australia, were they are also the title sponsor of the Ferrari F1 team. There are reports that they are running into problems in Italy as well. There is a non-zero chance that Mission Winnow is gone from the livery before the season is out.
But then again, that will have a host of journalists writing about Mission Winnow, explaining what the project entails, and why it was banned. That's the kind of free publicity which money can't buy. Or rather, it can, if it's clever enough.
Yamaha are perhaps the embodiment of living between hope and expectation. Both factory riders were happy with the new engines Yamaha brought to the winter tests, eventually settling on the right choice at the end of the Jerez test. The engine improves braking, and appears to be kinder to the tires. Chassis updates and major progress on electronics have helped there.
The trouble is that though the Yamaha M1 is now a much better bike, Yamaha's rivals have made a similar step forward, or perhaps even more. The Yamaha is down on top speed (though that has been the case since 2004, Valentino Rossi said recently), and will have to make up their lap time elsewhere. Horsepower is free lap time, runs the old racing adage. The Yamaha riders will have to make up their lap time elsewhere. And that will mean working a lot harder.
The differing feedback from Maverick Viñales and Valentino Rossi has made it hard to see where the Yamaha actually stands. Viñales has been fast, both over a single lap and in race pace, and has been happy all throughout the season, not least because he feels that Yamaha are finally starting to listen to his feedback and developing the bike in the direction which he wants.
Valentino Rossi, on the other hand, has been merely respectable, not troubling the top of the timesheets to the same extent as his teammate. Rossi has been far more cautious in his pronouncements on prospects for 2019. Of course, how much is his honest appraisal, and how much an attempt to keep up the pressure on Japan after they failed him so badly for the past couple of years is hard to say.
Nobody knows anything
Where does Yamaha stand? "At this moment I don’t know!" Rossi said. "It's difficult also for us to understand because if you have the full day, different riders can work in different ways, use the tires. Maybe we can have a better idea this weekend, but maybe after five or six races because also last year for example we were strong in some races but we suffered in others." Rossi fears the false dawns which have come before.
"Under some points of view the bike has improved, but I think that we still have something to improve for sure," he said. "It's true also that on the last day of the test there were a lot of Yamahas in the top five or six, so I think we are strong with the new tires but after we need to see what happens in the race during 22 laps."
Rossi also has a point. The first three races are not very representative of the season as a whole. Qatar is a unique track, raced in unique conditions, but fast and open. Argentina is a circuit which doesn't see much use, so is invariably dirty when MotoGP turns up, and is fast and flowing in a way which is more akin to Phillip Island than the average European circuit, where the bulk of the races are hosted. Austin is unique in every conceivable way, from the insane uphill braking for Turn 1, to the endless series of turns which follow Turn 2 all the way to Turn 10, to the hairpin at Turn 11 and the hard braking for Turn 12, and so much more.
So we will only really know where the Monster Energy Yamaha riders stand once we return to Europe. We have seen this before, Yamahas being strong at the start of the season, before tailing off once the series returns to Europe. We will know what the future holds for Maverick Viñales and Valentino Rossi by the summer break.
Rossi may have passed his fortieth birthday, but he shows no signs of slowing down. The Italian is as motivated as ever, showing no inclination of being happy just to be making up the numbers. A tenth title remains the goal, though it grows ever more difficult each year he is in the championship. Not least because the level of competition is so incredibly high. Rossi's ambition drives his willingness to learn, to adapt, to find a way to win. Whether he can find a way to win in 2019 is the question on everyone's lips.
Teammate Maverick Viñales' hunger is driven by the fact that he is yet to win a MotoGP title. There have been major changes inside the team for 2019 – crew chief Ramon Forcada has been set aside, making way for Esteban Garcia – while Julian Simon has been brought in as rider coach, to replace the departing Wilco Zeelenberg. Viñales has been more cheerful and more relaxed since the change, and more positive about Yamaha, and the changes made inside the organization. A happy Maverick is a fast Maverick. Whether he will be fast enough, and stay happy, remains to be seen.
Yamaha have additional help from the Petronas SRT team in 2019. With the departure of Tech3 to KTM, Petronas have stepped in as a new team, under the watchful gaze of team manager Wilco Zeelenberg. The Dutchman has assembled a highly competent team around him, and with strong financial backing from Petronas, and two exceptionally talented young riders, have a lot speaking in their favor.
Franco Morbidelli impressed at the Sepang test, and was not a million miles off at Qatar. The Italian has a full 2019 factory spec machine – Petronas has the budget, so Yamaha had the bikes – and has had a significant role in providing feedback to the factory. He was impressive when he won the Moto2 title, and should do well on the Yamaha, a much easier bike to ride than the customer Honda RC213V from last year.
Teammate Fabio Quartararo is something of an anomaly. Coming into Moto3 as FIM CEV champion, and making a big impression in his first few races in the world championship, he seemed to lose his way after a while. Still only 19, his fortunes have waxed and waned with the support he received from the teams he has ridden in. It is clear that Quartararo needs the right environment to thrive, and second at the Qatar test suggests that this is exactly what he has found at Petronas.
Rins and repeat
Suzuki has been the revelation of testing, Alex Rins showing a consistently fast race pace, both at Sepang and in Qatar. The 2018 Suzuki GSX-RR was already a very good bike, and the 2019 version has addressed most of its weaknesses. The bike accelerates, is much better on braking and turn in, and retains its sweet handling. The only thing missing is a bit of top speed, but even that is not insurmountable. Look at the lap times, and you wouldn't think it was a problem. The role of test rider Sylvain Guintoli should not be underestimated.
Rins, too, has made a step forward. The departure of Andrea Iannone to Aprilia, and the arrival of rookie Joan Mir to replace him as teammate has left Rins as the clear leader in the team. It is a role which has given Rins the room he needed to grow, the Spaniard exuding confidence and calm in equal measure. Rins already has the aura of a winner about him. But can he translate that into results on the track?
Teammate Mir is highly rated, but has been mostly invisible during testing. A couple of fast times, together with periods when he was much further down the timesheets has shown both that Mir has potential, but also a lot still to learn. Being a rookie in a factory team is more complicated than going to a satellite squad. There is not just the bike to learn and understand, there is also the workload of testing to be done.
"Even as a rookie, when you are in a factory team you have to try many things and that takes away a bit of time for yourself to take confidence," Mir said. "It’s not like it’s a satellite bike from the previous year that has already been well developed and you just have to turn laps. It’s a bit more complicated, but I like the bike and I feel comfortable."
Being comfortable is a good start. But Mir should go on to greater heights in 2019. Pecco Bagnaia starts off the year as the favorite to win Rookie of the Year. But Mir may start to give him a run for his money as the season progresses.
Back and forth
Aprilia have taken one step back to take two steps forward, dropping the failed experiment of the 2018 RS-GP in favor of a new design using the 2017 bike as a starting point. The improvement has been immediate, Aleix Espargaro praising the braking stability and feeling of the bike again. The power delivery has been improved, and peak power has also been brought closer to its rivals. The 2019 bike is a pretty good starting point from which to develop.
Organizational changes have also played into this. Ex-Ferrari manager Massimo Rivola has been brought in to run the operational side of the racing team, leaving the technical side to Romano Albesiano. The benefits of that are clear, Albesiano having more time to work with his engineers on improving the bike. Things are slowly being slotted into place, engineers assigned to the right areas, for progress to be made.
What of Aleix Espargaro's new teammate? Andrea Iannone is clearly one of the most talented riders on the grid, as his results attest. Unfortunately, he seems to lack direction when it comes to life. Prone to distraction, he missed most of the Sepang test due to a jaw infection. That jaw infection, paddock scuttlebutt said, was due to cosmetic surgery, though this was never confirmed. If Iannone could focus on racing, he would be a rider to be feared all of the time. At the moment, it depends on which Iannone turns up at the weekend.
In the KTM camp, they are ratcheting up their efforts to be competitive. The addition of the Tech3 team means the Austrian manufacturer will have twice as much data at each racetrack with which to try to figure out the right direction. They have brought back test rider Mika Kallio, and paired him with new signing Dani Pedrosa, though Pedrosa is still recovering from surgery on this collarbone. KTM cannot be accused of not trying.
They may have found a more successful structure for their efforts in 2019. Pol Espargaro stays in the factory team, a known quantity and a proven contender, having bagged KTM's first podium in the rain at Valencia last year. Espargaro has only a single speed – flat out – which is good for finding the limits, but is not always the most productive approach to testing.
Espargaro is paired this year with Johann Zarco, who is the polar opposite of Pol. Calm, focused, and methodical, he is prepared to work through a program, but only if he believes it makes sense. Zarco has brought a slower approach to testing, and KTM have benefited from working through things one at a time.
Zarco himself has struggled from time to time to get to grips with the KTM RC16, but when he finds the right setting which works for him, he can be competitive. But it is his approach, more than anything, which will help push KTM's project ahead.
Zarco has a useful counterpart in the Tech3 team. Miguel Oliveira has consistently been quicker than his teammate Hafizh Syahrin, and on occasion, been almost as fast as factory rider Espargaro. Like Zarco, Oliveira is thoughtful and deliberative, capable of keeping a clear head and working methodically toward improvement. Oliveira's chances of winning Rookie of the Year may be small, but that is mostly down to the fact he rides a KTM. But he is still worth keeping an eye on throughout the season, to see how he compares with the factory riders. You might be surprised.
New horizons for Moto2
MotoGP isn't the only reason to be watching Grand Prix racing this year. Moto2 goes through its most significant change since the inception of the four-stroke intermediate class. The arrival of a Triumph 765cc triple as spec engine is changing the way the riders ride. With bags more torque at lower revs, riders can pick the bike up earlier and try to get more drive. Spec electronics also mean more options for the Moto2 riders, with proper engine braking now available. Electronics are limited, but at least Moto2 has some, where before it has had none.
The picture in Moto2 testing has been of the Kalex chassis working best at every track, the cast of riders changing from test to test. Sam Lowes has been fast everywhere, Luca Marini has impressed early on, while returnee Tom Lüthi took a while to adapt back to riding a Moto2 bike. Lorenzo Baldassarri looks to start giving a return on all the talent he has, while Remy Gardner has also shown good pace. Gardner is being widely tipped as a strong favorite for the race at Qatar, or at least a podium. The Speed Up has also shown good pace, with Jorge Navarro impressing throughout testing.
The KTM, on the other hand, has been rather up and down. When conditions have been right – especially at Jerez, which suits the strengths of the KTM – Brad Binder has looked unstoppable, while rookie teammate Jorge Martin has been impressive. But at Qatar, a track which requires holding a lot of corner speed for a long time, the KTMs have struggled. There will be days where the KTMs are capable of dominating. But overall, the Kalex looks the better, more consistent package, allowing a wider range of riding styles.
KTM also look to be in a little bit of trouble in Moto3. Honda brought what is basically an entirely new bike for 2019, and that machine has proven to be capable everywhere. Hondas have consistently topped the timesheets throughout preseason testing, while KTMs have been much more up and down.
At Qatar, it was Romano Fenati who was miles ahead of the rest. The formerly banned Italian is back in the bosom of the Snipers Team, and is immediately at home, both on the bike and in the team. It would be a foolish gambler who bets against Fenati to win at Qatar on Sunday.
Fenati's teammate Tony Arbolino has been a close second. Lorenzo Dalla Porta, John McPhee, and Niccolo Antonelli have been at the front as well. For KTM, Jaume Masia looked dominant until he got injured, while Aron Canet, Andrea Migno, and Albert Arenas have been riders to keep an eye on.
If you needed a reason to watch Grand Prix racing this year, here are three: MotoGP, Moto2, and Moto3. It's going to be a good year.
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