With one or two contracts signed over the past couple of weeks, it's time to update what we know of the 2018 MotoGP rider line up. A single question mark behind the name of a rider indicates a very strong rumor. Three question marks indicates a complete unknown.
Press releases from the teams and Michelin after the German Grand Prix:
Eighth Sachsenring win for Marquez, Pedrosa third for fourth Repsol Honda Team double-podium this season
Marc Marquez took his second win of 2017 and his eighth in a row at the Sachsenring after starting from pole position, with teammate Dani Pedrosa joining him on the podium to complete the fourth double-podium finish (Austin, Jerez, Catalunya, Sachsenring) for Repsol Honda in nine races.
There are few certainties in life. Death, sure, at some point all of us will die. Taxes, well try as you might (and the number of riders, teams, and managers based in tiny principalities and sovereign island nations known primarily for their tax codes is surprisingly large), the tax man always gets a cut, if not through direct taxation, then at the very least through indirect taxes based on sales. Oh, and Marc Márquez taking pole at the Sachsenring. That also seems to happen with a sense of inevitability.
For the past seven years, Marc Márquez has taken pole at the Sachsenring. He did it in the 125 class, in 2010. He did it in both his years in Moto2. And he has done it in MotoGP for the past four seasons, all of his time in the premier class. Bearing in mind Márquez is only 24 years of age, and took his first pole at the German circuit at the tender age of 17, that is a truly remarkable achievement.
But 2017 is different. The winds of change are blowing through MotoGP. Or perhaps it would be better to say that the winds of unpredictability are blowing, with already five different winners from eight races, as well as nine different riders with a podium finish. The championship, too, has been up and down: three races ago, Marc Márquez trailed the then championship leader Maverick Viñales by 37 points. Going into Sunday's race in Germany, Márquez trails the new championship leader Andrea Dovizioso by just 11 points. In 2017, nothing is a given.
From Assen to Sachsenring, 700 kilometers in 7 days. One of the shorter hauls between back-to-back races, but a tight schedule nonetheless. Sachsenring's weird split paddock was full of tired looking faces on Thursday, as truck drivers and hospitality staff rushed to tear the entire paddock down in Drenthe, then build it all up again in Saxony.
It is hard to think of a greater contrast in circuits, too. Assen is flat, fast, and sweeping, the Sachsenring tight, slow, and with massive changes in elevation. There are similarities too: the bikes spend a lot of time on the edge of the tire at both tracks. At Assen, it's especially the right side of the tire, as riders sweep through the succession of right handers from Mandeveen all the way to the Ramshoek. At the Sachsenring, it's all left-hand side of the tire which takes the punishment, as the bikes come out of the Omegakurve, pitch into Turn 4, then hustle their way all the way down and then up and over the hill before Turn 11.
Turn 11 is a vicious beast, laying in wait for the unwary, its voracious gravel trap waiting to claim anyone who flicks the bike just a little too enthusiastically right after spending so much time on the left-hand side of the tire. The opposite right-hand side has had 40 seconds to cool off, while the right-hand side of the tire takes all the punishment. The transition from left to right, from scorching hot to cool rubber, from one of the hardest tire compounds of the year to one of the softest, is tricky. Switching between two very different feeling rubbers catches plenty of riders out, in both MotoGP and Moto2.
Press releases from the teams and Michelin after a scintillating race at Assen:
Rossi Rallies to an Astonishing Win in Assen
There are days when being a MotoGP journalist can be hard work. You spend hours each day trying to wheedle tidbits of information from unwilling conversation partners, then hours chasing round after riders. You top it off with hours trying to spin a day's worth of platitudes into something vaguely readable and semi-interesting, before hopping into bed for five hours' sleep, only to do it all over again. There were years when writing race reports containing any entertainment value was a hard slog through tiny details, as for much of the Bridgestone years, the riders would pretty much finish in the order in which they qualified. You keep doing it from a deep love of the sport, and the hope of better days.
You keep doing it for days like today. Sunday at Assen saw not one, but three breathtaking races. Each race was packed with a season's worth of drama, and combined spectacular passing, raw, undiluted speed, tricky weather conditions and surprise results from the first race through to the last. It was a reminder that majestic tracks produce phenomenal racing. A reminder that we are living through a new golden age of Grand Prix racing, with the outcome of any of the three races completely up in the air on any given weekend.
Above all, though, it was a reminder that we are watching giants of the sport at play. In twenty years' time, when MotoGP fans come to draw up their lists of the top ten racers of all time, at least half of the names they choose will have been on the grid on Sunday. Assen was a veritable cornucopia of racing greatness.
For the first ten years I spent writing previews for the Dutch TT at Assen, I would start have to start off on a tangent, with a brief summary of the schisms and splits of the Dutch Reformed Church. Without the background to the religious topology of The Netherlands, it is hard to explain why the race was held on Saturday. Last year, when the MotoGP race was held on a Sunday for the first time, I had to recap that, to explain why it was a big deal for the race to be held on Sunday, and to be moved from Saturday.
This year, 2017, I can leave aside the history of Dutch Protestantism and its aversion to any activity on the Sabbath. This will be the second time the race will be held on Sunday, and so the novelty of the change has worn off. It has fallen in line with the rest of the calendar, and so it is just another race weekend, same as any other. Although of course, being Assen, it is still something a bit special.
If anything, the switch from having a Saturday race to a Sunday race has been a positive boon. Though some feared the traditionalists would stay away, offended by change, visitor numbers were up last year, especially on Friday and Saturday. More people came for the race as well, despite taking place in an absolute downpour. Over 105,000 fans packed a flooded Assen, because being Assen, it is still something a bit special.
Diminished, but still glorious
Though the track has been neutered, the former glory of the North Loop removed to raise funds to improve facilities, three and a half of the circuit's four and a half kilometer length is still a unique and challenging layout. The banking and camber may be reduced, but the weird snaking layout and subtle dips and bumps make it a tough track to get absolutely perfect. It is still fast too, with corners like the Ruskenhoek, Meeuwenmeer, Hoge Heide and Ramshoek demanding both courage and skill. And it has one of the best final chicanes in the world, the GT Chicane or Geert Timmer Bocht offering the perfect final shot at a pass to win the race.
It is not often that journalists get to speak to team managers at length, but test days provide the perfect opportunity to do just that. So it was that a small group of journalists attending the tests sat down with Suzuki team boss Davide Brivio to discuss progress so far.
There was a lot to talk about. There have been rumors that Andrea Iannone is not fitting in well with the ECSTAR Suzuki team, and is currently engaged in talks with Aprilia about moving there for the 2018 season. Some of Iannone's issues are down to his problem adapting to the bike, and trying to fix his feeling with the front end.
Brivio spoke to us about Iannone's situation, and the development of the GSX-RR. He also talked about the benefits of a satellite team, what Suzuki is doing to improve the spec electronics package, the test program at Barcelona, and the return of Alex Rins for the test. It was a long discussion, but there was plenty to go over.
Question: How did you hear these rumors about Andrea talking with Aprilia and some people say that there is no very good climate in the garage? How is your reaction on this?
Davide Brivio: I heard through journalists and I read on a website. Of course, I heard this, but the situation is very simple and very clear. We have two years’ agreement with Andrea Iannone and I don’t think the atmosphere is strange at all. Of course, we are having a difficult moment, a difficult time because we don’t get results. We just keep working and try to follow Andrea, he has some, let’s say, requests. He has some problem riding this bike, which is not only Andrea, also Sylvain Guintoli in these races. He felt some problems, which is we should improve the rear grip. This looks like the same for everybody probably. It’s quite a common problem.
Three podiums at the first three races and none since. Rossi needs a miracle if he’s to win a 10th world title
“It was strange because I won without pushing 100 per cent and this has never happened to me before… I don’t know why we won the last two races,” said Andrea Dovizioso after his second win in a week. And when a rider says something like that, you know that something strange is afoot.
Dovizioso’s favourite phrase has always been “the reality is…” and the reality of Sunday was that while the sun burned down, you could’ve been forgiven for thinking it was drizzling. The riders weren’t riding to their own limits or to the limits of their bikes, they were riding to the limit of the asphalt and the tyres.
The once-great Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya is a horrible mess. The ancient asphalt is overused, bumpy, hellishly slippery and burns up tyres, which is why Michelin says it’s MotoGP’s most challenging track, even worse than Phillip Island. And when temperatures exceeded 50deg C during the weekend the tyres just couldn’t cope.