May you live in interesting times, runs an apocryphal Chinese curse. The first Grand Prix of 2016 certainly provided us with plenty of events which might be termed interesting, in both the common sense of the word and the apocryphal curse. The three races at Qatar were thrilling, tense, intriguing, and mind-bogglingly bizarre.
Practice, like testing, doesn't really count for much, riders will tell you. When you talk to the afterwards, they will tell you that they didn't set a really fast lap because they were working on set up, or trying to figure out which tire will be best in the race, or working on race pace rather than one lap pace. Maybe they were saving tires, or maybe they ran into traffic, or maybe there wasn't enough time left in the session to go for a fast lap. Even the rider who is fastest will tell you they were surprised, they were not really pushing for a time, but it just came naturally.
So the first shoe has dropped. Valentino Rossi is to remain at Yamaha for two more seasons after this, signing on to compete for 2017 and 2018. The signing of Rossi will have major repercussions for the rest of the MotoGP rider market, and has made it all a little more unpredictable.
If the second day of practice for the 2016 MotoGP season taught us anything, it taught us that everything is still wide open. Yesterday, the Movistar Yamahas were clearly a cut above the rest during FP1. During the two free practice sessions on Friday, the top of the timesheets looked a little different. In FP2, it was a wild mixture of Ducatis, Hondas and Maverick Viñales on the Suzuki GSX-RR. In FP3, when the stakes were raised with direct entry to Q2 on the table, Jorge Lorenzo put his Yamaha M1 back into contention, but his previous clear superiority from Thursday was gone.
Bikes are on track, and the roar of racing four strokes is filling the desert skies in Qatar. We can check our moral compasses at the door, sit back and once again revel in the glory of Grand Prix racing. The fog of testing is lifting, exposing the reality which lies beneath. We don't need speculation any longer. We have actual timesheets.
There is good news and bad news for MotoGP fans. The good news is that the 2016 season is just a few hours away from kicking off, with the Moto3 bikes the first to go out at 6pm, shortly after the sun sets in Qatar. The good news is that the season opener takes place at the Losail International Circuit, a first class facility featuring a fantastic track, with a good mixture of fast and slow curves, and a serious test of both rider and machine.
The 2015 MotoGP season will go down in history as one of the best and most memorable of all time. The title was tightly contested between two of the best motorcycle racers of all time, while two more of the best motorcycle racers of all time won races and helped make the championship exciting. It saw a resurgence of Ducati, bringing the grand total of competitive manufacturers back up to three, along with a solid return to the fold of Suzuki. It saw rising young stars join the class, showing promise of becoming possible future greats.
While the eyes of the world will be on Yamaha, Honda, and Ducati as far as MotoGP's Silly Season is concerned, the three remaining manufacturers in MotoGP will play an integral part in how this all plays out. What happens at Suzuki and KTM is crucial to how things play out at Honda and Ducati, especially, while Aprilia will also have a role to play, albeit a lesser one. As I wrote in part one of this Silly Season primer, this year's set of contract negotiations look a lot more like musical chairs than anything else.
The second round of the World Superbike Championship will take place this weekend in Thailand, and while Jonathan Rea has started the year in terrific form there's plenty of reason for optimism along the pit lane. Thailand will offer a true indication of what to expect this year in WorldSBK, and while it's unlikely we'll see the same number of bikes fighting for the win, it's likely that the scrap at the front will be just as competitive.
Rea still the man to beat in WorldSBK
Though much of the attention during this year's Silly Season will be on the Yamaha and Honda garages, which we wrote about yesterday, the more interesting stories are to be found in the rest of pit lane. With Yamaha and Honda looking likely to remain virtually unchanged, the other factories in MotoGP could see a lot more changes.