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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 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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2017 Qatar MotoGP Test Saturday Notes: A Glimpse Of The Future

As veteran MotoGP journalist Dennis Noyes pointed out on Twitter late on Saturday night, on Sunday, we will start to see some of the real truth of where everyone stands. Sunday is the last chance for the MotoGP field to do a full race simulation, putting together everything they have learned during winter testing. The last day of the test at Qatar will serve as a dress rehearsal for the race.

But Saturday gave us a quick peek at everyone's hands. The work now is more about refinement than revolution, and genuine speed is coming to the fore. The final timesheets from Saturday do not tell the whole story, but a general picture is starting to form. It is looking increasingly like the 2017 MotoGP championship is going to be fought out between Maverick Viñales and Marc Márquez. And while they focus on each other – which they are doing more and more – other riders, primarily Valentino Rossi, are waiting in the wings to strike.

Ducati show their hand

There was a little bit of revolution on display at Qatar on Saturday, however. Ducati finally rolled out their new aerodynamic solution. It is different yet again from the other four manufacturers who have shown off their winglet replacements. The top half of the fairing has been remodeled, to create a very slim nose section and a pair of large ducts, one either side. The shape and position of the ducts (see below) appear to create a very large aerodynamic surface, providing plenty of downforce.

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2017 Qatar MotoGP Friday Notes: A Treacherous Track, and HRC's Bulges

At Sepang, after losing so much time to the weather during the shakedown test ahead of the official test, Ducati boss Gigi Dall'Igna said that there was no point using Sepang as a test circuit, if the surface was not going to dry. "Maybe we have to test somewhere else," he said.

Now MotoGP is somewhere else. At Qatar, where the rain is never a concern (well, almost never), and the teams don't have to worry about the track not drying up. But arguably, the teams get even less track time at Qatar than they do at Sepang, even when it rains. The test starts at 4pm, with the fierce Arabian sun still beating down on the track. Sunset is two hours later, and it takes a while for the track to cool to the normal temperatures which will be found at the race.

Track temperatures are fine after dark, at least for a few hours. Around 10pm, an hour before the track closes, the dew starts to form. The time at which it starts tends to vary, depending on temperature and humidity, but it is very rarely before 11pm. Invisible damp patches on the track mean riders start to crash without warning. The sensible riders wait for the unlucky riders to crash, then take that as a signal to scurry back to their garages and call it a day.

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2017 Qatar MotoGP Test Preview: Last Chance Saloon

The testing season is nearly done. The MotoGP grid assembles in Qatar for three final days of testing, in preparation for the season ahead. Much has already been done, but there is still a lot of work to get through. Every factory, every team, every rider has things they want to try, in the hope of improving their chances in 2017. In most cases, those are just minor details, the nuances and finesses which will give hundredths of a second, not tenths.

But not always. There are always a couple of last-minute gambles to take, big ticket items which need one last decision. At Qatar this year, it is Honda's turn to make a big decision, on which spec of engine to use for the season. They tested one spec at Valencia, then another one at Sepang and Phillip Island, and at a one-day private test at Jerez.

It looks like they have made their decision, to go with the revised big bang engine tested for the first time at Sepang. But the cool air and hard acceleration of Qatar will be the deciding factor. To double check, they will be bringing an extra engine to give to Jack Miller, the Marc VDS Honda rider, who has so far only used the Valencia engine. If the Repsol riders, LCR's Cal Crutchlow, and Jack Miller all agree, then HRC will pull the trigger on their latest engine, and race with it in 2017.

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2017 Jerez IRTA Test Preview: Full Moto2 & Moto3 Grids Assemble For First Time

As the start of the MotoGP season draws near, this is a big week for motorcycle racing. On Wednesday, the Moto2 and Moto3 teams meet for the first official test of the season at Jerez, lasting until Friday. Early Friday morning, European time, the second round of the WorldSBK championship kicks off at the Chang International Circuit in Thailand. Then on Friday afternoon, the MotoGP teams start the final test of preseason at the Losail circuit in Qatar.

But the first place to see action is Jerez. After several private tests scattered around Spanish tracks, it is the first chance to see the entire Moto2 and Moto3 grid on track together. Or most of the grid: injury leaves at least one rider sidelined, Stefano Manzi being out with a knee injury. The three-day test is split into sessions, with the Moto2 and Moto3 classes each going out separately.

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Aprilia Launch 2017 MotoGP Campaign In Noale

The last factory to launch their 2017 bike have done so at last. Today, at their factory in Noale, Aprilia unveiled the colors they will be flying in their assault on the 2017 MotoGP championship. The livery, a design by Aldo Drudi, is based on the Italian tricolor of red, white and green, complete with a blue pane dedicated to sponsor Sky's online TV service Now TV. 

The 2017 version of the Aprilia RS-GP uses a revised weight distribution, with the center of mass having been moved slightly, Aprilia Corse boss Romano Albesiano told the press at the launch. The bike on display used a conventional fairing, one of two different options the factory will use at various tracks. The other fairing Aprilia will use is the aerodynamic package debuted at Phillip Island.

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Hector Barbera Breaks Collarbone In Training Accident

Hector Barbera has broken his left collarbone in a training accident, the Avintia Ducati team announced via their Instagram account. The 30-year-old Spaniard was training with a 600cc sports bike at the Valencia circuit when he crashed, fracturing his collarbone.

Barbera is due to undergo surgery at the Dexeus Institute in Barcelona on Thursday, where Dr Mir will put a plate on his collarbone to correct the problem. 

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Repsol Honda Private Test: Marquez Dislocates Shoulder During Single Day of Testing

The Repsol Honda team did not have a great deal of luck during their private test at Jerez. The test, scheduled for two days, was meant to help Marc Marquez and Dani Pedrosa make a final decision on which engine to use in their Honda RC213V for the rest of the season.

With engines due to be sealed at Qatar, the Jerez test was crucial. The tight nature of the Andalusian circuit brings out the worst in the characteristics of the Honda engine, so testing there would provide the best data on whether the new engine was an improvement or not. 

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Subscriber Feature: Honda's Private Jerez MotoGP Test - Why It Matters

Dani Pedrosa and Marc Márquez are to head to Jerez for a private, two-day test on 24th and 25th of February, or Friday and Saturday of this week. The Repsol Honda team announced the test on Twitter, confirming earlier news stories which had broken after the official MotoGP test at Phillip Island last week.

This two-day test is a sign that Márquez and Pedrosa are getting close to making a decision on which version of the engine they will be racing in 2017. They need one final test comparing the various possibilities before heading to Qatar.

The fact that they are now heading to Jerez is emblematic of just how important this choice is. This Jerez test replaces HRC's original plan, which was to retest the big bang engine rolled out at Valencia, verifying results from its original roll out at Valencia, then refine it for Sepang. But Repsol Honda called off that test at the request of the riders, giving the engine to Jack Miller to test in November of last year.

That change of plans was an indication that all was not well with the new engine. Both Márquez and Pedrosa were downbeat about the new engine at Valencia, Márquez emphasizing just how much work Honda still had to do with the new motor. "We must work much more," he said. "Honda needs to work much more this winter to give me something more in Malaysia."

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