This is part 1 of a new series entitled 'Under the Radar'. In it, we will be looking at stories we believe will have a major impact on MotoGP and World Superbikes in the next season, but which are not currently receiving much attention. While everyone expects Marc Marquez in MotoGP to be a big story, or Valentino Rossi's return to Yamaha, these are the stories which you won't hear much about by the start of the season, but which could end up playing a major role in 2013.
Everyone can guess the big names that are likely to make an impact in MotoGP in 2013: Marc Marquez will clearly be an exciting rookie to watch, Valentino Rossi should be competitive on a Yamaha, Pol Espargaro looks set to dominate Moto2, and Maverick Viñales and Luis Salom will be major players in Moto3. But look beyond the obvious candidates, and there are a number of candidates who could cause a surprise in 2013. Here are some of the riders to watch this season.
The Red Bull Rookie Invasion
The Red Bull Rookie Cup was set up to give young riders from around the world a shot at getting into MotoGP. The subtext has always been to avoid having a single nation or championship (i.e. the Spanish CEV championship) being the only viable route for anyone with aspirations of riding in MotoGP. In that, it has been remarkably successful, with its record improving with every year.
The crop of 2012 looks like being one of the best yet. The good news for MotoGP fans is that some of the cream of 2012 will be moving into Moto3 in 2013. German teenagers Philipp Oettl and Florian Alt have both been regular front runners in the Rookies Cup for the past couple of years, Alt winning the title in 2012. Both young men have won races, with Alt showing the consistency to carry off a title at the end of the season, and both should make a positive transition into World Championship racing. Both join strong teams, Oettl heading to the Paddock TT squad, while Alt will be riding for the Kiefer squad in Moto3, and both men will be on competitive Kalex KTM bikes.
Also on a Kalex KTM will be Livio Loi, a young Belgian rider who had an outstanding first year in the Red Bull Rookies. Loi impressed most of all with the speed with which he learned, starting off the 2012 season with a string of rather modest results, but finding his feet halfway through the year. Once he got going, he looked pretty much unstoppable, winning at Brno and being robbed of victory at Aragon by a last-lap electrical problem. I was sceptical of Loi's ability in the first half of the season, but by the end, he had made me a convert. Loi will be riding for the well-funded and extremely well-organized Marc VDS Racing team, and is on a two-year contract, taking much of the pressure off him to perform straight away.
There is still more to come from the Rookies: 2012 runner-up Scott Deroue will be remaining in the series for 2013, while Karel Hanika, tipped by many paddock outsiders as a truly exceptional talent, will have another year to develop. With Deroue coming from Holland and Hanika from the Czech Republic, the mix of nationalities in the Red Bull Rookies is looking very strong.
The CEV is still a strong source of riders, however. Young Italian Francesco Bagnaia tore up a couple of Spanish CEV Moto3 rounds, beating highly tipped riders such as Alex Marquez and Luca Amato. Bagnaia joins another Italian sensation, Romano Fenati, in the Team Italia squad, backed by the Italian motorcycling federation as part of their plan to raise the level of Italian racing again, in attempt to regain some of the dominance they used to have over the series. Those who have seen Bagnaia race are full of praise, and on a well-supported FTR Honda, the Italian could cause a few surprises in 2013.
Of those already in the series, there are two names worth keeping an eye on, one almost a veteran of the championship, the other a rider entering his second year. Danny Webb switches from Mahindra to the Ambrogio Racing squad for 2013, and though Ambrogio have only secured relatively modest results in past years, 2013 should be different. The team finances have been strengthened for this season, and obtaining Suter Hondas will give the team a better shot at some strong results. Webb has not often had decent machinery under him, his best results coming with the Andalucia Cajasol team in 2010. At 21 years of age, Webb needs a good season to get a shot at Moto2. 2013 could be his chance.
While Webb has been in the MotoGP paddock since 2007, Jack Miller only joined Moto3 at the start of 2012. The young Australian's results in 2012 were not that much to write home about, but his potential is obvious. Miller contested last season aboard what was basically a bog standard Honda NSF250R, but despite that, regularly finished ahead of the competition on superior machinery. Miller's main problem has been his maturity; speed he has plenty of, but concentration has sometimes been lacking. To assist him in this area, he has experienced endurance racer Damian Cudlin, who has been a calming and motivating influence on the Australian. Miller could be a real surprise package in 2013.
The Men of Moto2
While it is hard to see Pol Espargaro missing out on the 2013 Moto2 title - though he will have a fight on his hands from Tom Luthi and Scott Redding, and maybe Simone Corsi, Alex de Angelis and Mattia Pasini as well - that does not mean that Moto2 will be predictable this year. Two men could shake things up nicely in Moto2 in 2013.
The first name is perhaps less surprising than it may at first seem. Julian Simon was widely tipped as a championship candidate in 2011, after finishing runner up in the first year of Moto2 in 2010. But a collision with Kenan Sofuoglu at Barcelona destroyed both his leg and his season in 2011, seeing him lose his place in the Aspar squad at the end of that year. His first outings with the FTR Moto2 bike in 2012 were far from impressive, but his fortunes did not improve much once he persuaded the BQR team to switch to Suter.
Simon's started to see some improvement towards the end of the year, but the big change came with the news he had signed for the Italtrans squad for 2013. There, he will be riding a Kalex, and Simon was fast on board that bike as soon as he swung his leg over it. Simon ended the Valencia test just a tenth of a second behind Pol Espargaro, and looked smooth and fast every time he went out. Simon looks to be very much back in business for 2013.
The final man to watch for 2013 is another familiar face, and a rider who personifies the journeyman ethic of Australian motorcycle racers. Ant West has ridden almost every kind of motorcycle conceivable: 250cc two-strokes in the KTM, Honda and Aprilia flavors; 600cc Supersport machines, both Yamaha and Honda; Kawasaki's 800cc ZX-RR MotoGP machine; and MZ, FTR, Moriwaki and Speed Up Moto2 bikes. His move to the QMMF squad at the beginning of 2012 did not bode well; the team had seen little success in 2011 and the Moriwaki appeared to be going backwards in terms of development.
Like Simon, West's fortunes barely improved once the QMMF team dropped their original chassis and switched to the Speed Up bike. But as the year progressed, West started to figure the new bike out. During the three overseas rounds in Japan, Malaysia and Australia, West suddenly started to fly. The vital ingredient - confidence - which West had been missing for so long was back, and West stopped looking like a man with a Moriwaki and started looking like a man who had found his mojo.
My own abiding memory of Ant West is of his few appearances on Yamaha's World Supersport R6 in 2007. His race at Silverstone in an utter downpour was almost other-worldly, leaving the rest of the field for dead. This was Ant West with confidence, comfortable with the bike and believing in himself. At the end of 2012, West started to show glimpses of that same form. If we see any more glimpses - and if he can be a little more careful about his choice of health supplements - West could finally live up to his potential in 2013.