With testing due to kick off in Sepang in just over a week, the latest episode of the Paddock Pass Podcast takes a look back at the highlights and lowlights of the 2017 MotoGP season. The PPP Posse™ - Steve English, Neil Morrison, and David Emmett - gathered at the Barcelona Superpresitigio to break down the year into five categories.
The difference in perspective between team managers and riders is always fascinating. Team bosses always have an eye to the big picture, to the coming year and beyond. Riders are usually looking no further ahead than the next session or the next race. Anything beyond that is out of their control, and not worth wasting valuable energy worrying about. The future is a bridge they will cross when they come to it.
That difference was all too evident at the Ducati launch in Bologna on Monday. While the people in charge of Ducati – Paolo Ciabatti, Davide Tardozzi, and Gigi Dall'Igna – were already thinking of managing rider signings and sponsorship deals for 2019 and beyond, Andrea Dovizioso and Jorge Lorenzo were mostly concerned about the Sepang test and about being competitive in the 2018 season. New contracts for 2019 were on their horizons, but compared to their bosses, it was little more than a blip. First, there is a championship to win.
Andrea Dovizioso had spent the winter relaxing, and preparing for the new season. He starts the year as one of the title favorites, not a position he has been accustomed to. "A great sensation, and one I had lost in the last few years" is how the Italian described it. He did not feel the pressure of that sensation, but rather saw it as a challenge. Sure, he was one of the favorites, but there were a lot of competitive bikes with riders capable of winning. "The level of competitiveness has become very high in MotoGP in the last three years," he said. "There are many riders who can win races. It wasn't like this in the past."
The 2018 season starts off with a nasty surprise for the Monster Tech 3 Yamaha team. Today, the team announced that Jonas Folger will not be racing in 2018, leaving them without a second rider for the coming season.
The reason Folger gave for pulling out of racing is to focus on recovery from the health issues he suffered at the end of 2017. The German was forced to pull out of the three Asian flyaways, after health problems later diagnosed as Gilbert's Syndrome, a genetic disorder of the liver which causes chronic fatigue. Folger still does not feel at 100% fitness, and decided to take a year out of racing to focus fully on his recovery.
Aprilia had an up-and-down 2017, so what does the Italian factory need to do to make Aleix Espargaró and Scott Redding competitive in MotoGP 2018?
Aprilia is MotoGP’s underdog; the factory with the smallest race department of them all.
Racing manager Romano Albesiano has 70 staff working with him at Noale, which is considerably less than most of his rivals. Suzuki probably has MotoGP’s second smallest race shop, although the company won’t reveal numbers.
MotoGP team launches are always the triumph of hope over experience. Each year, the bosses of every factory in the series tell the media that their objective is to win races and fight for the championship. Sometimes, they even believe it.
At last year's launch of the Ducati MotoGP team, Ducati Corse boss Gigi Dall'Igna said they hoped to be fighting for the championship. That, after all, is why they signed Jorge Lorenzo to what is reported to be a very lucrative contract. The assembled press were skeptical, despite the clear progress which Ducati had made in the past couple of seasons, their first wins coming in 2016.
Such skepticism was unwarranted, though you get the distinct feeling that even Ducati were surprised at how close Andrea Dovizioso came to clinching the 2017 MotoGP title. Ducati were delighted by the Italian's first win at Mugello, amazed at his victory in Barcelona a week later, and impressed by the way he beat Marc Márquez at Austria. By the end of the season, Ducati had come to expect to win races, and realized just how far they had come on their journey since the dark days of 2013, when they didn't score a single podium all year.
So on Monday, when Dall'Igna echoed the words of Ducati CEO Claudio Domenicali in Bologna, that Ducati's objective was to win races and challenge for the championship in MotoGP, they were deadly serious. There is no doubt that Ducati is capable of doing just that – Dovizioso's results and Lorenzo's improvement in 2017 demonstrate that – and though they are all too aware of the dangers of complacency, Ducati start the 2018 season with both a firm expectation and belief that they are candidates for the 2018 MotoGP title.
As I will be writing my MotoGP travel guides in the same order as the calendar, I will start it in the same place that MotoGP kicks off every year: in Qatar. Why does it start in the middle of the desert so very far away from the vast bulk of MotoGP fans? The answer is simple: money. Qatar pays a lot of money to be the first race of the MotoGP season (and the last race of the WorldSBK season). So if you want to see the MotoGP season opener, you have to travel out to a sandy peninsula in the Persian Gulf.
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Where is it?
The Losail International Circuit is located some 30 kilometers north of the center of Doha, the capital of Qatar. It is situated just off the Al Khor Coastal Road. It is clearly visible from the plane when you fly into Doha, and visible as you drive to the track because of the floodlight system, which appears after the bulbous blue-and-white Lusail Multipurpose Hall, a sports facility.
With the first MotoGP test in Sepang less than two weeks away, the factories are preparing by launching their bikes and introducing their liveries. So far, only two factories - Ducati and Yamaha - have announced dates, but more should follow soon.
First up is Ducati, who are launching their 2018 MotoGP campaign in the factory headquarters in Bologna, as they have done for the past five years. The launch starts at 10:30am CET on Monday, 15th January. It will be streamed live via internet, and you can find a link to the presentation on Ducati's Youtube channel. The link will also allow you to set a reminder.
Andrew Irwin will jump from the British Supersport championship to the world stage in 2018. It's a step into the unknown for the Northern Irishman, but he's latest in a long line of talent
“There's something in the water over there” was said a lot about Northern Ireland in 2017. Jonathan Rea headlined that success by romping to his third consecutive WorldSBK title, but with riders such as Keith Farmer, Andrew Irwin, and Alastair Seeley dominating British Supersport, there's a lot of depth. Irwin will be stepping onto the world stage this year and joining his compatriots Rea and Eugene Laverty in the WorldSBK paddock.
“I'm really excited about going into World Supersport. It's a complete unknown for me and it's a massive change coming from the British championship, where I've been racing for the past four years. I know the circuits and the paddock in Britain and now I'll be going to somewhere that it's all new. I'm going to be on the Honda with an established team [Simon Buckmaster's CIA Landlord Insurance – DE] that's shown they can do the job in World Supersport. Hopefully I can go and do the bike and the team justice.
After the departure of both Shuhei Nakamoto and Livio Suppo from HRC and the Repsol Honda team, Honda have announced that they will be making Alberto Puig Team Manager of the Repsol Honda team.
The appointment of Puig did not come as a surprise. Puig has a long and storied history with Honda, having raced for them in 500GPs, then moving on to a variety of management roles associated with Honda. Puig was instrumental in the Movistar Cup, the series from which a vast array of talent came, including Casey Stoner, Dani Pedrosa, Toni Elias, and much more. He went on to become Dani Pedrosa's personal manager, before moving on to run the Honda Asia Talent Cup and work with the British Talent Team in recent seasons.
But this appointment also marks a break with recent history. Alberto Puig is a very different character to Livio Suppo, who he nominally replaces. Suppo approached the role of team management very much from a marketing perspective. Puig is much more of an ex-racer, and is much closer to the Japanese engineers than to the marketing and media side of the operation.