Features

2017 Qatar Friday MotoGP Round Up: Wild Weather, Viñales Crashing, Real Race Pace, And Decoding Lorenzo

A growing sense of, not panic, perhaps, but certainly concern is enveloping the MotoGP paddock in Qatar. The ever unstable weather is forcing the series organizers to make contingency plans for every possible scenario the conditions in the desert may throw up. Heavy rains which have been sweeping across the peninsula have made it uncertain how and when the race is to be held. It could be Sunday night in the wet, it could be Sunday afternoon, it could even be Monday.

Despite the bizarre weather – hailstones fell in the afternoon, then a downpour flooded the country in the night – practice has been pretty much unaffected. The advantage of rain in the desert is that it dries up pretty quickly when it stops. The track was a little dirtier when the MotoGP bikes took to the track for FP2 at 6pm, but it was still dry when FP3 ended, nearly four hours later.

The downpour only started at 1am, and stopped an hour later. Which suggests that the weather is weird enough for all of the emergency planning being made to be in vain, and qualifying and the race will take place as planned, in the dry, with no disruption. Still, not preparing for the possibility is a sure-fire guarantee that it will rain.

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2017 MotoGP Preview: Part 4 - The Five Rookies, Folger, Zarco, Rins, Lowes ... And KTM

2017 sees arguably the strongest group of rookies to enter the MotoGP class in a very long time. Perhaps only 2006 was stronger, when Casey Stoner and Dani Pedrosa moved up to MotoGP, along with Randy De Puniet and Chris Vermeulen. There have been plenty of promising riders (some of whom have lived up to that promise) moved up in the past, but it has been a while since so many of them, all equally strong, entered MotoGP at the same time.

Will Alex Rins, Johann Zarco, Jonas Folger, or Sam Lowes match the achievements of Stoner or Pedrosa, Márquez or Lorenzo? It is far too early to tell. But testing has only confirmed the pedigree of the four newcomers. They were all fast in Moto2, racking up a total of 25 wins between them, and they have been quick during the preseason. There is no doubt these four are an exciting addition to the MotoGP grid.

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2017 MotoGP Preview: Part 3 - The Unknown Unknowns

When former US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld made his comments about "known knowns and unknown unknowns" in 2002, he was widely ridiculed for producing what seemed like incomprehensible gibberish. Yet since his appearance at a press conference on Iraq and weapons of mass destruction, the phrases he coined that day have demonstrated their usefulness, being employed in an ever greater array of contexts.

Rumsfeld's phrase fits remarkably well with the 2017 MotoGP grid as well. The three categories apply just as well to different groups of riders on the grid. We have the "known knowns" of the Aliens, riders who are guaranteed to win races. We have the "known unknowns", the wildcards such as Cal Crutchlow and Andrea Dovizioso who could easily stage a surprise.

Then you have the "unknown unknowns", a group of riders for whom any result would be imaginable. Given the events of last year, any one of them could end up on the podium, or even winning a race. But they are just as likely to finish outside the points, or anywhere in between. There is no way of knowing on Thursday night where any of these riders might finish on Sunday.

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2017 MotoGP Preview: Part 2, Nearly Alien - Dovizioso, Iannone, Crutchlow, Bautista

There is some resistance to talk of there being "Aliens" in MotoGP. Why, fans ask, should we regard these riders as so very different from the other riders on the grid? In previous years, the answer to that objection was simple. Of the 143 MotoGP races held between 2008 and 2015, only two had been won by someone other other than the riders regarded as MotoGP Aliens. In 2009, Andrea Dovizioso won the British Grand Prix at Donington Park. And in 2011, Ben Spies won the Dutch TT at Assen. At both races, the weather conditions were a factor.

2016 put an end to that objection. Last season, there were a record-breaking nine winners in eighteen races. Andrea Dovizioso won his second race (and nearly won a third). Cal Crutchlow won two in the same season, one in the wet, one in the dry. Does that mean there are now more Aliens? Or does it invalidate the term altogether?

2017 is going to muddy the waters on the term Alien even further. Yes, there are five riders who can be expected to win a race every time they turn up at a track. But there are three or four others who are just as likely to spring a surprise and win a race this season. Nobody would expect them to win six or seven races, but neither would anyone be surprised if they were to win one race each. If they are not quite Aliens, what then shall we call them? MotoGP's astronauts?

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2017 MotoGP Preview: Part 1 - The Five Aliens

And then there were five. Should that statement have a question mark after it? On the evidence of preseason testing, definitely not. Maverick Viñales earned the right to add his name to last year's list, dominating testing and finishing fastest in all four. Marc Márquez demonstrated why he is reigning world champion, and why his rivals have reason to fear him even more this year. Dani Pedrosa finished fifth at Valencia and Sepang, then third at Phillip Island and Qatar.

Jorge Lorenzo found the process of adapting to the Ducati tougher than expected, but was third quickest on his first day on the bike, and fourth fastest at Qatar. And the man with the worst preseason results of the lot, Valentino Rossi is, well, Valentino Rossi. You only ever write off Valentino Rossi after the final race at Valencia is done and dusted. And not a millisecond before.

So we head into the first race in Qatar with five Aliens, all of whom are likely to win at least one race this year. Some, like Viñales, will win a lot more this year than they have in the past. Others, like Lorenzo, will win far fewer, but will surely end up on the top step at one race, at the very least.

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Subscriber Feature: Marc vs Maverick - The Making Of A Rivalry

Two men have emerged from the 2017 preseason as favorites. In many ways, Marc Márquez and Maverick Viñales are alike. Both are young, handsome Spaniards with an aura about them. Both grew up racing, and were immediately fast on every new bike they swung a leg over. Both have a keen intelligence, especially about racing, and what matters.

But above all, both Márquez and Viñales are driven by their ambition. They enter each championship with the fixed intention of winning. They have talent to spare, but more than that, they both have a deep understanding of what it takes to win a world championship, and are prepared to put in the work, to make the sacrifices needed to achieve their goal. They are single minded, obsessed with winning.

They are two very different characters. Márquez is cheerful, gregarious, outgoing. Whenever you see him, he is always laughing or smiling, joking with the people around him. He loves company, and spends almost every waking minute of each race weekend in the garage with his crew. When he joined the Repsol Honda team, he was allowed to take most of his Moto2 team, and crew chief Santi Hernandez worked under the tutelage of Cristian Gabarrini. At the end of his first year, Márquez demanded that HRC brought the last two members of his former Moto2 team into the Repsol Honda garage, and Gabarrini was moved on to other duties, despite being regarded as perhaps the best crew chief in the business.

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2017 Chang World Superbikes Round Up: Far Too Early To Jump To Conclusions

It's early in the 2017 WorldSBK season but already plenty of people are crowning Jonathan Rea as a three time champion. To anyone thinking that with 22 races remaining that the championship has been sewn up, it would be wise not to count any chickens just yet.

Rea has most certainly been the class of the field so far in Australia and Thailand but they are two tracks that the Kawasaki rider had been heavily favored to win at. Phillip Island is a wide open race to open the year but Rea has traditionally been a force at the Australian circuit. Likewise in three years of visiting Thailand he has won five races. There's a lot that can be taken from the opening three rounds of the year but it will take a couple of European rounds before a clear picture truly emerges.

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2017 Qatar MotoGP Final Round Up: Aerodynamics, Other Factories, And Satellite Bikes

Many (though not all) questions were answered at the Qatar MotoGP test. One of the most frustrating questions of the 2017 preseason has been answered at last, however. For weeks, MotoGP pundits have been puzzling over what could be in the 'salad box' slung under the tail of the Ducati Desmosedici GP17. Was it a device to counter chatter (or 'jounce', as it is more properly known)? Was it something to do with Ducati's patent on a variable exhaust nozzle for providing thrust?

At Qatar, Motorcycle News reporter Simon Patterson finally got a straight – though unofficial – answer from Ducati. The 'salad box' contains a bunch of electronics moved from the front of the GP17 to allow Ducati to use their new aerodynamic fairing. That fairing has a much narrower nose, to allow for the large ducts and airfoil surfaces which Ducati have used to replace their winglets. The reduced space in the nose forced Ducati to relocate the components which had previously been on a mount behind the front section of the fairing.

This revelation has allowed me to feel a brief sense of smugness. Since the 'salad box' first made an appearance, I had suspected that the contents of the box had more to do with relocating components from elsewhere, rather than any active function itself. "The question may not necessarily be what is in the box," I wrote before the Qatar test, "but what did putting whatever is in the box in there allow the Desmosedici GP17's designers to move around elsewhere." As it turns out what Ducati's engineers were chasing was some empty space.

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2017 Qatar MotoGP Sunday Round Up: The Truth Will Out Soon Enough

Testing is over. Sunday was the last chance for the MotoGP field to work on preparing for the 2017 season, to tweak, refine, experiment. The next time bikes take to the track, in two weeks time, there will be much more at stake than pride and a little bit of psychological advantage. There will no longer be anywhere to hide.

The last day of the test meant a busy schedule, though that is a relative thing at the Losail International circuit. For the best part of two hours, nothing stirred on track bar the bored chatter of riders, mechanics and photographers as they waited for the sun to go down, and the track to cool off enough to go testing. Once testing started, riders started grinding out the laps. Temperatures stayed high enough to stave off the dew, and it was possible to ride until the track closed at 11pm without the risk of crashing on an invisible patch of moisture.

Crash course

Riders didn't need the excuse of moisture to crash, however. In five hours of usable track time, riders crashed fourteen times in total. Some seemed particularly prone, with Sam Lowes going down twice, and Marc Márquez managing to hit the deck three times in a single day. Márquez had a simple explanation for his crashes. "From the first to the last lap, I'm always on the limit," he said. "It try to be in 1'55s, but this is a risk." Márquez paid the price, though he put one crash down to testing a part which didn't work, though he did not specify what.

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