All of the story lines leading up to the 2015 MotoGP season boil down to one: who has the stones, and the bike, and the team, and the vision to take the title away from Marc Marquez? Is it only Marquez himself, some suddenly reckless version way different from the 2013 and 2014 champion, who crashes early and often and digs himself a hole that Jorge Lorenzo or Valentino Rossi or maybe Dani Pedrosa or possibly one of the Andreas from the factory Ducati team rushes to fill…
It is, again this year, Marquez against the field, led by the Yamahas, with Pedrosa battling Andrea Dovizioso and Andrea Iannone for the fourth Alien spot. (If you’re not top four, you’re not an Alien.) I have a strong feeling that Dovizioso on the new GP15 with concessions could overtake Pedrosa for fourth place in the standings; Dovi doesn’t crash very often and manages his tires. Iannone, too, will finish on the podium a few times this year. Gigi Dall’Igna is getting stuff done quickly for Ducati, and his bikes are competitive again. On their way to no longer needing concessions. Which would be great.
Suzuki appears to have come out about as expected, with Maverick Vinales looking quick early. Aleix Espargaro is all over the place.
Riders who will finish the year stronger than they started: Cal Crutchlow, Vinales, Scott Redding and Jack Miller.
Riders most likely not to finish the season: Mike di Meglia, Marco Melandri, Alex de Angelis.
Rider most likely to retire after the season: Nicky Hayden.
Rider most likely to return to WSBK after the season: Melandri.
Riders most likely to lose their seats in 2016: Loris Baz, Alvaro Bautista and Hector Barbera.
Can Marc Marquez and Honda Racing Corporation maintain the edge they’ve enjoyed over the past two years to win their third title in three years?
Having introduced the fully seamless transmission during Sepang II, has Yamaha finally caught up with Honda, leveling the field sufficiently to allow Lorenzo, or perhaps the reverse-aging Rossi, to outduel Marquez for the title in 2015?
Has Pedrosa, who turns 30 in September and is old for his age, officially peaked, staring at a 5th place finish in 2015, heading for second-rate equipment at the end of his current two year contract? Will one of the Ducati Italians take over his spot as the fourth Alien? (Assuming Alex Marquez were to take Pedrosa’s seat in 2017, a Repsol Honda team of Marquez & Marquez could dominate the sport for the next decade. Little brother faster than big brother?) And does Pedrosa want to continue having titanium pins inserted in what used to be his collarbones while learning how to ride the Michelin tire in 2016 and beyond?
Three Rounds to Sort Things Out
Many of these will be answered during the first three rounds of the season – Losail on March 29, COTA on April 12, and Rio Hondo on April 19. A Yamaha track to start the season in the desert under the lights, then two in a row at the Honda-centric COTA and Rio Hondo circuits. Heading into Round 4 at Jerez, it would be surprising if Marquez weren’t near the top with Lorenzo, Rossi, Dovizioso and Pedrosa lurking. Lorenzo really needs to do well at Losail, erase the memory of last year’s debacle, and snag 25 points before conceding Texas and Argentina.
If Marquez wins the season opener he could easily take the first five races heading into Mugello, where Ducati can be expected to compete hard for space on the podium. The wild card, as always, will be injuries. With six or seven bikes at the top of the division, anyone losing significant time to injuries will quickly fade from contention. If Marquez falls, what’s left is pretty much a dead heat between Lorenzo and Rossi, with Pedrosa and Ducati nosing around the backboard looking for easy rebounds. Everyone is faster this year. Perhaps Pedrosa steps into the vacuum and wins a few…
For the Aliens, falls are ruinous. In practice they’re not great. On race day they’re devastating. It takes about six podium finishes in a row to make up for a single DNF at the top level of this sport. Need to keep the shiny side up and get it across the line, a lesson Scott Redding has learned and Cal Crutchlow hasn’t. (In 2014 Redding scored points in 16 races, Crutchlow nine.) A lesson Marc Marquez has clearly learned.
Beyond the top six – factory Honda, Yamaha and Ducati riders – the next runner may be Aleix Espargaro on the factory Suzuki. I believe he belongs in the second tranche, the 4th thru 7th group, rather than the third, which includes guys who won’t make a podium, but will occasionally chase third position: Stefan Bradl, Bradley Smith, Crutchlow, Pol Espargaro, Vinales, Redding, Danilo Petrucci, and Yonny Hernandez. Pol and Vinales will need more horsepower – go figure. Lots of other good stuff, though. This group may give us the best racing of the season.
Tranche four will include guys heading sideways or down, along with the teenage phenom jumping up from Moto3: Hayden, Barbera, Karel Abraham and Miller. A rookie making the jump straight from Moto3, Miller will probably end the season in Tranche 3.
Finally, Tranche 5 will gather up the rest, those such as Bautista, Baz, di Meglia, Eugene Laverty, Melandri, and de Angelis. For these teams, life is little more than blood, toil, tears and sweat. Everything has to go perfectly to finish 10th. Things rarely do. Sponsors are jumpy. These riders wish they had winning prospects, but still love the girls, the money, the sponsor credit cards, etc. that go along with MotoGP on the road. It’s hard to feel too sorry for them. Finishing a race, especially in the points, is a win.
Everything changes for real in 2016. New KTM factory team, a new tire manufacturer, new rules around electronics and a next-generation Aprilia. Still no Americans to get excited about; Nicky Hayden on the way down still charms us at every opportunity while Colin Edwards found himself a gig testing tires and one-liners. One thing unlikely to change: Marc Marquez looks ready to dominate the division for the next five years, with his crown taken eventually by his own brother, which would be almost Shakespearean, being teammates and such. Destroy the myth once and for all about team orders at the top of the food chain.
Losail: For the Record
In 2012 at Losail it was Lorenzo’s Yamaha trailed by Pedrosa and Stoner on Hondas. In 2013, it was Lorenzo again, trailed by Rossi and Marquez, with Pedrosa 4th. Last year it was Marquez, Rossi and Pedrosa after Lorenzo crashed out of the lead on Lap 1. Marquez and Lorenzo appear ready to slug it out in Round 1 of 2015. The question is whether 2013 or 2014 was the fluke.
First day results from the Qatar test shows both Ducati bikes pushing hard and leading. Aleix Espargaro on the Ecstar Suzuki slipped his machine into 4th position between the factory Hondas of Marquez and Pedrosa. Crutchlow, on the LCR practically-a-factory Honda slipped his own package between Lorenzo and Rossi, joining Aleix as one of the more macho contestants while I wear out the semi-suggestive imagery.
At the close of business on Sunday, Dovizioso and Iannone both showed they can turn a very hot lap. The question is, can they turn 20 of them?
If there is a redeeming value about MotoGP, it is that the sport is almost never decided by a bad call from an official. The rules come into play, as they should, but it is generally the faster rider on the better bike that wins. Better tire choice. Better set-up. Better something. It happens on the track in front of a million cameras. When there is contact between two riders it is generally treated as “let them play” which is the right call unless doing so rewards aggressive or dangerous tactics, or changes the standings in favor of the aggressor. But usually the better man wins.
The better man in 2015, all other things being equal, which they rarely are, is Marquez. He should win the title again in 2015. Whether he will or not is more in the hands of the racing gods and the competing riders than in Marquez’ own. If he fails to win due to injury perceived as having been caused by an opposing rider, (recall Pedrosa getting taken down by Simoncelli at Le Mans in 2011) the crowd will not take it well. We may have to watch for “Michael Jordan” treatment from Race Direction if Marquez gets bumped out of the lead more than once or twice early in the season. If and when it happens, who causes it and who benefits from it? The points system is no deterrent – there’s a disconnect in there somewhere.
I look forward to dragging you through the 2015 season. Even if you don’t enjoy this stuff all that much, reading it is probably good penance for you, and leaving a few comments lying around can be fun. (If only to be able to tell your other smart friends that you got into it with the MotoGP guy on Motorcycle.com and flamed him. For the well-informed fan, it’s not that hard, as long as you keep it civil.) There’s a few of you out there who like to bang on about how I don’t know a thing about riding. Bang on. Disqus will post your comments unless they’re too raw. And fact checkers are always welcomed.
“Hey, you guys wanna start your bikes and we’ll, like, get this thing lit off?”