In a week's time, the first race of the 2012 MotoGP season will be wrapped up and finished, and with a full preseason of testing behind us, it's time to take a look at the upcoming year. A lot is expected of the new season, and there's a lot to talk about, with a return to 1000cc MotoGP bikes, a brand new Ducati GP12, the advent of the CRT bikes, and much, much more. Time to make some predictions for the 2012 season.
Predicted Final 2012 MotoGP Championship Standings:
- Casey Stoner, Repsol Honda
- Jorge Lorenzo, Factory Yamaha Racing
- Dani Pedrosa, Repsol Honda
This can hardly come as a surprise. Buoyed by the #1 plate and a strong winter of testing behind him, Casey Stoner is the man to beat. The Australian is without question the fastest man in MotoGP at the moment, and on a well-sorted Honda, he will not be denied the title. Jorge Lorenzo won't give up without a fight, though, and this year he has the weapon to do it with. The gap between the Honda and the Yamaha has been closed - the Honda still has the edge on power, but the Yamaha is not far behind, and probably handles marginally better - and so Lorenzo will take the fight to Stoner all the way to the end. Stoner should have the edge to once again wrap up the title in front of his home crowd at the penultimate round. Pedrosa is and will remain the best of the rest, though Ben Spies and perhaps Andrea Dovizioso will push him hard.
Predicting Stoner, Lorenzo and Pedrosa for the top three slots in MotoGP hardly counts as the most courageous call in the world, but when Stoner and Lorenzo are clearly the two best riders in the world, with Pedrosa a close third, then anything else would be folly.
Predictied Final 2012 Moto2 Championship Standings:
- Marc Marquez, CatalunyaCaixa Repsol, Suter
- Thomas Luthi, Interwetten Paddock, Suter
- Scott Redding, Marc VDS Racing, Kalex
The only thing that stood between Marc Marquez - Moto2's own alien - and the 2011 championship was a pool of water that went unnoticed by the marshals at Sepang, causing the Spaniard to crash and be ruled out of the last two races. Only a similar occurrence can keep Marquez from the 2012 title - his decision to stay in Moto2 had prompted a number of team managers to share their disappointment with me as they saw their rider's shot at the title disappear. Marquez learns fast, and an extra year of maturity may calm him down sufficiently to stop being the danger to himself and, occasionally, others which he showed flashes of last season.
Best of the rest is Thomas Luthi, the Randy Mamola of Moto2, and a rider destined to be ever the bridesmaid. Luthi has shown a touch more speed and a touch more aggression during testing, and that, added to his already mature and balanced approach, should get him as close to Marquez as any mere mortal is likely to get.
The race for third in the championship looks like being the most interesting, with lots of fast-but-flaky riders challenging often. Though Andrea Iannone will win more races, and Pol Espargaro, Claudio Corti, Toni Elias and Julian Simon will push him hard, Scott Redding should have the sheer speed and consistency to bag third. The Kalex is the bike to have in Moto2 this season, but in the end, it will come down to the rider, and Marquez' brilliance and Luthi's maturity will beat Redding's speed.
Predicted Final 2012 Moto Championship3 Standings:
- Maverick Viñales, Blusens Avintia, FTR Honda
- Danny Kent, Red Bull Ajo, KTM
- Sandro Cortese, Red Bull Ajo, KTM
Moto3 is the hardest category to call, with a whole new set of bikes and a young crew of riders to boot. At Jerez, the bikes were already on the pace of the 125cc machines, and the switch to four-stroke engines has made the bikes a little easier to ride, though the sound remains, well, a little odd. The KTMs dominated preseason testing, until Jerez, when the Hondas got the latest kit parts from Geo Tech. Maverick Viñales, who ended third in his rookie season last year, is clearly the cream of the crop in Moto3, and was besting the KTMs despite having a slight horsepower disadvantage. With a solid structure behind him, Viñales is the hot favorite for the title.
Best of the KTMs looks like being Danny Kent, the young Briton coming up through the Red Bull Rookies and showing a lot of natural speed. Kent finds himself on an excellent bike and in arguably the best team in the Moto3 paddock, and so has every chance to shine. Viñales is in a league of his own, but Kent will not be intimidated by the Spaniard. Sandro Cortese will continue to be fast, and win the occasional race, but a championship seems as far away as it ever was.
MotoGP Season Victories: Casey Stoner 8, Jorge Lorenzo 6, Dani Pedrosa 2, Ben Spies 2
Casey Stoner will not get the runaway championship victory that we saw in 2011, but the Australian will still take the majority of the spoils. Stoner should take Qatar, Phillip Island, and Aragon, while Lorenzo is hot favorite to win at Jerez, Laguna Seca, and my instinct says he will win a thriller at Barcelona, the race decided on the last lap. Dani Pedrosa and Ben Spies will pick up the crumbs when Stoner and Lorenzo fall short, or hold each other up. The level of the current top flight means that even in the case of rain, the very best riders will pick up the wins, leaving satellite riders with only the podium to hope for.
Valentino Rossi Will Score More Podiums But No Wins in 2012
To state that the Ducati Desmosedici GP12 is radically revised from its previous incarnation is an understatement. The only thing that is unchanged is the angle of the engine - though there are even those who suspect that Ducati have ditched the 90° angle between the cylinders - and the bike now responds to setup changes and gives the riders some feel from the front end.
But not enough. The bike still wants to run wide in corners, and lacks traction in the rear. Rossi can now at least brake into corners the way he wants to, though getting it to turn is a little bit trickier. The nine-time World Champion will be much closer to the front this year, close enough to see regular visits to the podium. But not close enough to beat Stoner and Lorenzo, nor to beat Pedrosa and Spies when the two title contenders fall short.
The good news for Ducati is that with an improved front end and a bigger bike, Nicky Hayden should start to bag the odd podium too. Laguna Seca and Indianapolis have to be favorite for the American to get his boots on the box, but he could surprise a few people this season.
Randy De Puniet Will Score At Least One Top 6 Finish
The new CRT machines have been either impressive or disastrous, depending on which end of the results you look at. Most impressive of all have been the Aprilia ART bikes, a revised version of the WSBK-spec RSV4 with a heavily modified chassis, especially with Randy de Puniet at the helm. De Puniet is out to prove a point, and the Aprilia gives him at least some of the tools he needs to do so, and with development expected as the season progresses, he will creep ever closer to the satellite bikes and start to shake a few of them up at the slower tracks. So strong is the Aprilia, and so motivated is De Puniet, that in the right conditions - a flowing track where setup is more important than top speed, such as Assen, and a smattering of rain to shake up proceedings - that the top 6 is within the Frenchman's reach. He will need some luck, mechanical or otherwise, from a couple of the riders in front of him, but there's always at least one race like that all year.
There Will Be Plenty of Complaining About, But No Claiming of CRT Bikes
The Claiming Rule Teams are going to take center stage in MotoGP in more ways than one this season. The slower riders - particularly the underdeveloped bikes such as the Avintia FTR Kawasakis of Ivan Silva and Yonny Hernandez - are the kind of pace that will see them getting lapped with a few laps to go. All of the riders will be given very strict instructions on getting out of the way in time, but at some point, lapped riders are going to play a role in the outcome of at least one race.
That, however, is not necessarily a bad thing. As long as the lapped riders know to stay out of the way as safely as possible and obey the blue flags, the art of picking the lapped rider could be reinstated in all its glory. At Jerez, Ben Spies told Dennis Noyes and I a story about winning the AMA Superbike championship against Mat Mladin, with a carefully timed pick heading up towards the Corkscrew. We could see some of that this season.
Most of the ire of the factory prototype teams will be aimed at the Aprilias, however. Already at Jerez, the factory teams were insinuating that the ART machines were really factory Aprilias in disguise. Though the plethora of ART shirts in the Aspar garage gave some credence to their concerns, the fact is that Jorge Martinez will own those bikes at the end of the year, unlike, say Monster Tech 3 boss Herve Poncharal, who will pack up his Yamaha M1s and hand them back to Yamaha after the Valencia race in November. Despite their complaints, however, not one of them will claim an engine, as the factories are allowed to do. The loss of face implied - that a factory with a specialized racing department capable of building prototype engines suitable solely for racing could learn something by examining the internals of an engine that is basically a hopped-up version of a production bike - will prevent Honda, Yamaha and Ducati from taking that step.
Silly Season 2013: All Three Factory Line Ups Will Remain Unchanged For 2013
Despite the fact that all six of the factory riders in MotoGP - Valentino Rossi and Nicky Hayden at Ducati, Casey Stoner and Dani Pedrosa at Honda, and Jorge Lorenzo and Ben Spies at Yamaha - see their contracts end on December 31st, 2012, leaving them free to go elsewhere if they wish, none of them will. In contrast to the last time the contracts all ended at the same time - at the end of 2010 - either the motivation or the option to move to another team will be lacking for all six factory men.
At Honda, Casey Stoner is happy following in the footsteps of his hero Mick Doohan, who he resembles more every day - untouchable, and always wanting the bikes to be more difficult to ride, as his unshakeable faith in his own ability makes him believe that will be to his advantage - and the Australian is not going anywhere. Stoner will end his career with HRC - probably at the end of 2014, with a handful of titles under his belt - once he has sated his ambition and had another child.
As for Dani Pedrosa, he is still good enough to deserve the second seat at Repsol Honda, and until Marc Marquez has served his apprenticeship with a "satellite" team, his seat is safe. He will not get another two-year contract with Repsol, though, as HRC and the Spanish petroleum giant clear the way for rising star Marquez.
At Yamaha, Jorge Lorenzo has staked his claim as the Japanese factory's hope for the future, and at the moment, he is the only rider capable of giving Casey Stoner a run for his money. Lorenzo is the rider that Yamaha risked losing Valentino Rossi for, and given his efficacy at promoting the brand in Yamaha's key Asian markets, he will happily sign up for another two years.
The second seat at Yamaha is a more precarious one, with Andrea Dovizioso having Ben Spies bikes firmly in his sights. But Spies will do enough - just - to hang on to his ride, while Dovizioso might be granted a little bit of extra help for another year at Tech 3.
At Ducati, all eyes are on Valentino Rossi, and a large section of his fans are hoping he will abandon the - so far failed - adventure at Ducati. But Rossi is caught between a rock and a hard place; the nine-time World Champion is all too keenly aware of his place in history, and his reputation as a magical rider who can both win on a less capable machine, and help develop such a bike into something that anyone can win on. Indeed, this was one of the reasons Ducati gave for signing him. If he leaves Ducati without doing just that, his reputation will be forever diminished.
And it is not just himself that Rossi would be damaging by going to another manufacturer - if there is one who would be willing to sign him. When Rossi left Yamaha, he took Jeremy Burgess and almost all of his crew with him, just as he had when he swapped Honda for Yamaha. Burgess, too, has established an immense reputation for turning racing motorcycles around and transforming rough old dogs into race thoroughbreds. If Rossi dumps Ducati without having won on the bike - and preferably ensured that other Ducatis are closer to the front as well - then it is not just his own reputation he will have damaged, he will also have left Burgess having lost a good deal of his magic, and at Burgess' age, the veteran Australian has little enthusiasm for another risky adventure. Rossi is fiercely loyal to his crew, and will want to make his move to Ducati into a success, no matter how long it takes. Leaving is not an option.
On the other side of the Ducati garage, Nicky Hayden's contract is also up for renewal. The American is a lot more comfortable on the bigger bikes than he was on the 800s, and he feels that the GP12 is the best Ducati he has ever ridden. With Hayden being a PR dream and working hard to help successfully sell large numbers of Ducatis in the US, staying within sight of his teammate will be enough to secure his job for 2013 and beyond.
Though Hayden makes a strong case for staying with Ducati on his merits alone, there are other reasons to suspect his seat is safe. Valentino Rossi's disastrous first year at Ducati has made the bike an unappetizing prospect to top-flight riders, and so finding a replacement as good as Hayden could well turn out to be nigh-on impossible.
Just how accurate this prediction turns out to be should be settled fairly quickly. Both Jorge Lorenzo and Casey Stoner have already signaled their intention to stay where they are, and contracts are likely to be signed early rather than late in the season.
Riders To Watch In 2012
MotoGP: Danilo Petrucci, Ioda Racing
It's a major step up, from the FIM Superstock 1000 Cup to MotoGP, but Petrucci's debut so far has been impressive. Petrucci ended the IRTA test at Jerez less than three tenths behind Aleix Espargaro, a rider who has experience on MotoGP machines. What's more, the IODA chassis he was using for the Aprilia engine was only on its third test, unlike the Aprilia ART which has been under development since the end of last year.
But that belies the potential of both bike and rider. IODA Racing is the brainchild of ormer head of Aprilia racing Giampiero Sacchi, and Petrucci's garage is full of former Aprilia 250 and World Superbike staff, including Giovanni Sandi, Max Biaggi's former crew chief. The bike will improve rapidly, and Sacchi's legendary eye for picking young riders has seen him bring riders such as Valentino Rossi and Jorge Lorenzo through the ranks. Petrucci won't be winning any races, but he will be raising plenty of eyebrows.
Moto2: Takaaki Nakagami, Italtrans
Though just 20 years' old, Nakagami already has two full seasons of Grand Prix racing behind him, though with rather modest results aboard a 125. Since returning to the GP paddock aboard the Italtrans Kalex, he has run consistently at the front of testing, and will ruffle plenty of feathers in 2012. That this should be so is hardly surprising: Nakagami is a product of the MotoGP Academy, the precursor to the Red Bull Rookies Cup started by Alberto Puig.
Moto3: Niccolo Antonelli, San Carlo Gresini
A fast, furry Italian wearing San Carlo Gresini colors. Antonelli is a reminder of the late lamented Marco Simoncelli, and shows plenty of promise. The 16-year-old is the reigning Italian 125cc champion, and showed both speed and consistency to take the title in 2011. Fast since the start of testing, Antonelli should be a regular top 10 scorer from the off, and have a shot at a couple of podiums before the season is out.
The Italian Resurgence
After years of waning Italian influence in the Grand Prix paddock, Petrucci and Antonelli are just two names in a growing wave of strong Italian riders. Add European 125cc champion Romano Fenati to the mix, along with the usual suspects - Andrea Iannone, Alex de Angelis and Mattia Pasini - in the larger classes, and Italy is finally looking capable of providing some counterweight to the tidal wave of Spaniards washing through MotoGP. The FMI Italia Moto3 team is a start, but there is surely more to come. And with no sign as yet of an end to Valentino Rossi's travails, strong Italian challengers are desperately needed to keep Italian interest in the series up.
The 2013 Rules - No War, But a Rev Limit And a Price Cap on Leasing
Since the contract between the MSMA and Dorna giving the factories a monopoly over the technical regulations lapsed on the last day of 2011, the two sides have been engaged in a delicate and sometimes forceful tango around the rulebook for the 2013 season and beyond. Both sides have been at such pains to assert that the atmosphere in the talks has been cordial and positive that it is hard not to believe that they do protest just a little too much. Proposals and and counterproposals have been put forward by both sides, and the rule book should be just about settled by the end of June.
After the dust settles, the two main proposals to make it into the rulebook for 2013 are likely to be a rev limit - and probably a low one, around 15,000 RPM - and a price cap on the cost of leasing a satellite machine. Both decisions will be good for the private teams in particular; the rev limit will make the CRT machines more competitive, though still inferior to the factory prototypes, and the price cap will make satellite bikes affordable once again, cutting the price in half, or by two thirds, in the case of the Hondas. Tech 3 has apparently already put its CRT project on hold, hoping to fulfill the second year of their leasing contract with Yamaha, instead of building their own bikes.
Though initially, the factories put up a fight over a potential rev limit, they will able to live with it if it is sold as a safety measure. Concerns have already been raised over the bikes reaching 360 km/h at some tracks, and a rev limit would limit top speed simply but effectively. What's more, it would be very easy to police. In exchange, the factories will demand that Dorna drop any suggestions of limiting the role of electronics, or imposing a spec ECU. Dorna will be able to accept the continued extensive use of electronics, for as long as the CRT bikes are competitive with the satellite machines.
With the season set to kick off in just a few days, my predictions will be tested on track soon enough. We'll return to these predictions after the season is ended, and see how close I got. I like to think that my crystal ball is pretty good, but until it starts producing winning lottery numbers, I'm not betting the entire farm on it, just the occasional barn.
Have any predictions of your own? Add them below in the comments, and we'll revisit them at the end of the season.