A new year is upon us, and with it, a new season of motorcycle racing, full of hope, opportunity and optimism. What will 2016 hold for motorcycle racing fans? With testing still weeks away for World Superbikes, and a month away for MotoGP, it is far, far too early to be making any predictions. But why let common sense stand in the way? Here are some wildly inaccurate predictions for 2016.
1. Doubling down: Honda falls into the horsepower trap again
2015 was a tough year for Honda. Despite proclaiming at the end of 2014 that their goal for the coming year was to build a more user-friendly engine, HRC found it impossible to resist the siren call of more horsepower. They built an engine that was even more aggressive than their already-difficult 2014 machine, and all the Honda riders struggled. By the end of the season, they just about had the situation under control, but it was far from ideal.
Surely, after a season like 2015, Honda will have learned their lesson? Apparently not. The latest version of the engine Honda tested at both Valencia and Jerez was still way too aggressive, though the engine was now aggressive in a different way, with more power off the bottom.
Making things worse was Honda's inability to get to grips with the new unified software. HRC technicians were finding it hard to control the RC213V engine using the new software, or create a predictable and comprehensible throttle response. Given that neither Yamaha nor Ducati had suffered the same problems, the issue was not with the software, but the way it was being used.
All the signs are that Honda's 2016 season will seem eerily familiar to Marc Márquez, Dani Pedrosa and Cal Crutchlow (newcomer Tito Rabat has little experience of the old bike). Unless HRC sorts out its problems early, at Sepang and Phillip Island, they will start the year fighting to control the bike, rather than fighting to win races. It may take more than just one lost championship for Honda to learn.
There is one exception to the Honda rule. Jack Miller is switching from the Open class Honda RC213V-RS, using the old, less sophisticated (and frankly pretty awful) version of the unified software. For the Australian, things can only get better. Keep an eye on Miller for 2016.
2. Same old same old: Rossi vs Lorenzo for the title again
There are a lot of reasons to expect the title chase to be a repeat of 2015. With Honda out of the equation, that leaves two of the four best riders in the world on the two best bikes. Marc Márquez and Dani Pedrosa will no doubt win races, but Honda have too much work to do to be a factor in the championship. The Ducati will be better than it was in 2015, though the improvements will be incremental. Whether Andrea Dovizioso or Andrea Iannone are capable of mounting a title challenge is still very much open to question, however. The Aprilia is an unknown quantity, as a brand new bike. And the Suzuki will be better, but again, will it be a match for the 2016 Yamaha M1, even with the genius of Maverick Viñales aboard? It seems unlikely.
The 2015 Yamaha M1 was already probably the best racing motorcycle ever built, doing almost everything sublimely. Its only weakness was a slight lack of top speed, but you had to pore over the lap charts to find the gap. The 2016 bike is different in only minor details, the fuel tank having been extended and moved partially to house the extra two liters of fuel Honda and Yamaha have for the coming season. A fantastic bike will remain just that.
So that leaves Valentino Rossi and Jorge Lorenzo to fight it out over the title again. Both have many reasons to fight even harder in 2016 than they did last year. Lorenzo wants to prove that he deserved his third MotoGP title, and will be working on eliminating the very few weaknesses he showed in 2015. Rossi still feels he was robbed of the title last year, and will seize the opportunity to challenge for another championship if it presents itself. He is out for revenge, not so much against his teammate, as against the forces which he feels deprived him of another championship. Rossi is just ten wins shy of Giacomo Agostini's total of 122 wins in all classes, and four wins off bumping his premier class total to 90. Rossi turns 37 in February, but still has the hunger to compete, and be competitive.
Rossi vs Lorenzo in 2016 could be even better than it was in 2015. Two major factors have changed, the Bridgestones swapped for Michelins, and everyone on the same spec software. Lorenzo's advantage with the edge-treated Bridgestones is gone, but the extra feeling from the rear suits the Spaniard's riding style. Rossi spent the first half of his MotoGP career on Michelins, and though the tires have changed a lot since then, their "DNA", as he calls it, remains the same. Lorenzo's corner-speed focused style is aided by a smooth throttle response, which the unified software is lacking at the moment. Then again, Lorenzo is exceptionally able to adapt his riding, no matter what the bike set up. Rossi's experience with lower-spec electronics may also help him.
In the end, this will once again come down to desire. Both Lorenzo and Rossi have that in spades. Will the title come down to Valencia again? I would not be surprised if it did.
3. New tires vs new electronics – rubber matters more than bits
The coming season sees two major changes to the technical regulations. Michelin takes over from Bridgestone as the official tire supplier to MotoGP, and everyone will now be racing on the same ECU software, the unified software built by Magneti Marelli under the guidance of Honda, Yamaha, Ducati and Dorna.
Normally, changing two things at the same time is a bad idea, but Dorna had little choice. Bridgestone announced early in 2014 that they would not be seeking to renew their contract as official tire supplier at the end of that year, but it would have been impossible to find a replacement at such short notice. Bridgestone agreed to stay on for an extra year to give their successor (and former rival) Michelin a year to prepare their return to MotoGP.
Which is going to have the bigger impact on the series? The riders will complain loudest about the electronics, as they find themselves with a lot more work to do. Less anti-wheelie, and more importantly, much less sophisticated engine braking strategies will mean the bike will have to be controlled more with the right wrist and rear brake. We won't see a return to the glory days of the 990s, but the bikes will definitely be more physical to ride.
The electronics won't be the biggest factor, though. The switch to Michelins will have a much bigger impact on every aspect of MotoGP, on who succeeds and who struggles, who is fast and who isn't. The reason for this is simple: tires are the most important component on a motorcycle, dictating the limits of traction. Horsepower is useless if you can't convert it into forward motion. Likewise, corner speed is dictated by the limits of grip at high lean angles. Trail braking loads front tires, how they respond defining the terms of corner entry. Carcass stiffness and design controls how a tire deforms under load, how it behaves while deformed, how it transmits that information to the rest of the bike.
All this together controls the behavior and feel of the bike. Michelin's design philosophy is very different to that of Bridgestone, concentrating far more on extracting maximum performance from the rear tire. The tires are now mounted on 17-inch wheels, rather than 16.5-inch wheels, changing the profile of the tires. The riders will have a lot to get their heads around, and will have to change their approach and riding styles. The Michelins do not allow the same amount of trail braking into the corners, but they do provide a lot more grip on corner exit. The riders who figure this out best will be at an advantage.
So will we see a big shake up in the ranks, and big names demoted to back marker status? Not at the front, that much is certain. Dani Pedrosa, Jorge Lorenzo, Marc Márquez and Valentino Rossi are the four best riders in the world, in the best teams. They achieved the status they have by being the best at adapting and getting the last ounce of performance of every bike they have had under them. There are riders coming who may challenge them, but right now, those four men would dominate the series whatever the technical regulations.
Further back, there could be a few surprises. Andrea Iannone and Scott Redding got on very well with the Michelins, and Maverick Viñales was also enthusiastic. Pol Espargaro has been raving about the tires all year, but he did not make a massive step forward during the Valencia test. This is where the shake up will come.
4. Rossi vs Márquez will rumble on
Any MotoGP fan who doesn't know every single detail of the vendetta between Valentino Rossi and Marc Márquez must have been living in the very depths of the IceCube Neutrino Observatory, two and a half kilometers under the South Pole. To summarize for the Cherenkov radiation chasers: At Sepang, Rossi accused Márquez of working to help Jorge Lorenzo win the title during the race at Phillip Island. Rossi and Márquez collided during the Sepang race, Márquez ending on the floor, Rossi being penalized, and starting from the back of the grid at Valencia. Márquez followed Lorenzo at Valencia, but could not (sic Márquez) or would not (sic Rossi) pass him, making Lorenzo champion, and costing Rossi the title.
Leaving aside the veracity or otherwise of Rossi's accusations, the affair has utterly soured the relationship between the two. That is something of a reversal; when Márquez first entered the MotoGP class, Rossi treated Márquez more like a protégé than a rival, reveling in his successes, and relishing the battles the two had. That friendship continued through 2014, though a rivalry grew alongside it, as Rossi's results improved in his second year back at Yamaha. Things started going south in the early part of 2015. First with the clash at Argentina, where Márquez managed to make dismissing their collision there as a racing incident sound like an accusation of Rossi deviating from his line. Then at Assen, Rossi outwitted Márquez again, Márquez' move in the final GT chicane not coming off as planned, Rossi coming away with the win. The events of Sepang onwards were an inevitable result of the two biggest egos in the paddock clashing.
Have things calmed down since the end of the season? Valentino Rossi dropping the appeal against his three-point penalty at Sepang was universally acclaimed as a step in the right direction. Marc Márquez called it "a good decision for MotoGP," and said he hoped that he and Rossi could be friends again once things had cooled down a little during the coming season. At the Monza Rally Show, Rossi carefully skirted around the issue in an interview with the British newspaper MCN. He and his best friend Uccio Salucci both merely referred to Rossi being a little down after Valencia, but being much more relaxed after winning at Monza.
Rossi will have had time to digest the situation over the winter, and start looking forward to 2016. Márquez, likewise, is more focused on the season ahead than the season just gone. That ability is crucial for racers, lingering on past errors and injustices makes you slower, looking forward with hope and optimism is what brings progress and victory. No doubt Dorna will put the two together in the pre-event press conference at Qatar, where they will face a barrage of questions about their relationship. They will keep up the appearance of an entirely cordial and professional relationship, and gloss over the events of 2015.
But motorcycle racers have memories like elephants. They may choose to ignore the past when it suits them, but they never forget a slight, real or imagined. As long as they are not competing directly, they will remain cordial. But if they clash on track, for whatever reason, then the knives will come out again. The fires of this rivalry have merely been tamped down. Beneath the dark layer of ash, it smolders on keenly. The merest whiff of oxygen, and it will blaze white hot again.
5. The wildest Silly Season in years, with Rins and Viñales as the hottest tickets
Every year, the ritual of paddock rumor, idle gossip and wild speculation concerning who will go where and when flares up after the first few races of the year. The intensity of the speculation and the wildness of the rumors varies from year to year, depending on which riders are out of contract, and which seats are available. In 2015, there were a few murmurings, but it was a rather tepid affair. The year before, 2014, speculation had been a little more intense, given the number of contracts up.
If the number of potentially open seats at the end of a season powers the whirlwind of speculation, then 2016 looks set to be a category five hurricane of gossip and rumor. Whose contract is up at the end of this year? Everybody's, just about. All ten factory riders are out of contract at the end of 2016 (bar a few options), as well as most of the satellite riders. KTM intend to enter MotoGP with a strong factory team in 2017, bringing the total of available factory seats to twelve.
With nearly every seat open, many a journalist will take the easy option of simply linking every rider with every seat. The mathematically large number of possible combinations mean they can file twenty, thirty, fifty, a hundred stories containing rumor and speculation. This also has the happy side effect of allowing them to point to the predictions which turned out to be correct once the contracts are settled, studiously ignoring the ones they got wrong.
So who will go where? The most likely outcome is that the Repsol Honda and Movistar Yamaha teams remain unchanged for 2017. The two least certain seats belong to Dani Pedrosa and Valentino Rossi. Honda may want to bring in a young rider (either Maverick Viñales or Alex Rins) to replace Pedrosa, and Yamaha may have to fill the seat vacated by Rossi, should he choose to retire. We will get an early indication of what is to happen once Jorge Lorenzo makes up his mind about his future. If he stays with Yamaha, then the amount of shuffling will be limited. If he decides to jump ship to Ducati, then chaos will ensue.
Though all eyes will be on Rossi, Lorenzo, Márquez and Pedrosa, the real excitement for the future is with Viñales and Rins. Viñales is widely regarded as the most exciting young talent in MotoGP, Rins as the must thrilling prospect in Moto2. If Suzuki don't bring a bike capable of getting close to the podium, Viñales will be tempted to move on. Rins is definitely going to move up to MotoGP in 2017, and Honda and Yamaha are leading the chase for the Spaniard's signature. Neither Jorge Lorenzo nor Marc Márquez would be thrilled with either Viñales or Rins as a teammate, seeing them as too much like competition. How they handle that could help decide their next moves as well.
Rins at Repsol Honda is a particularly intriguing prospect, for a lot of reasons. Rins may have lost the Moto3 championship to Alex Márquez, younger brother of Marc, but the younger Márquez' title is widely ascribed to direct interference by Emilio Alzamora, the man who manages both Márquez brothers, and who was managing Rins at the time. That was sufficient provocation for Rins to leave Alzamora, and strike out on his own. Since doing so, he has thoroughly outclassed Alex Márquez in Moto2, proving what many of us believed all along, that Rins was the better rider of the two. Rins has scores to settle with the Márquez family, and Marc Márquez will not appreciate having to deal with a young and exceptionally talented rider being brought in alongside him at the Repsol Honda team. There would be fireworks indeed.
6. World Superbikes stages a comeback. Or at least, part of a comeback
The World Superbike series has been on a downhill path for many years now. When did the rot set in? It became evident once the series was taken over by Dorna, but in reality, it had started earlier. Possibly since the Flammini brothers sold the series to InFront, at the end of 2008, which coincided with the retirement of World Superbikes last true star, Troy Bayliss. Arguably, since the retirement of Carl Fogarty, the man who managed to make WSBK more exciting and interesting than Grand Prix racing of the same era.
That is perhaps a bit of a stretch: the series was popular for a long time, and had some very high profile riders. James Toseland and Neil Hodgson kept UK fans flocking to the series through the early part of the century, while battling with Bayliss and enigmatic Japanese superstar Noriyuki Haga. Ben Spies and Cal Crutchlow brought more excitement to World Superbikes, while GP refugees Max Biaggi and Marco Melandri played the pantomime villain, Biaggi winning a couple of titles along the way.
Those names are emblematic of what is currently wrong with World Superbikes as a series. There is nothing wrong with the racing, closely contested races being decided by narrow margins. The bikes may have been tamed a little, but remain impressive beasts. The level of talent is beyond question, reigning champion Jonathan Rea arguably one of the ten best motorcycle racers on the planet today. Yet as talented as the field is, the series is perceived as lacking character, rightly or wrongly.
A couple of moves may help fix that. Despite a couple of pretty awful years, Nicky Hayden remains a genuine global superstar, and is as motivated as ever to succeed. Hayden is already generating interest among American fans, as well as the many fans around the world who followed him in MotoGP. Hayden will be joined by Josh Brookes, exactly the kind of brash, outspoken, and above all, fast rider which WSBK needs to raise its profile. Brookes gained something of a reputation in BSB for wild and sometimes downright dangerous riding. He would dispute being dangerous, but he is certainly no respecter of persons. There will be clashes, and there will be controversy, and fans will have a reason to pick sides again. A couple of high profile incidents, along with Hayden's down home charm, and interest in World Superbikes will start to tick up again. There is a very long way to go, but 2016 will be the season which sees WSBK turn the corner.
Is it fair that two riders who no one expects will be in contention for the title from the start of the season will be gaining all the attention, rather than the established talent at the front? Of course it isn't fair, but such are the vagaries of professional sport. Sport, as Barry Hearn put it so succinctly, is soap opera for men. It needs heroes and villains, someone for the fans to cheer for, and someone for the fans to hate. In an ideal world, they would choose their heroes on the basis of talent. But this is a long way from being an ideal world.
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