Here we are again, nosing around the garage area and the vicinity of the start/finish line, anticipating a full new season of MotoGP. Everyone is optimistic. Everyone is putting their best foot forward. The power brokers, the likes of Yamaha’s Lin Jarvis and Honda’s Livio Suppo, are maintaining low profiles, keeping their powder dry in case – this probably of more concern to Suppo than Jarvis – their 2016 project turns out to be a dumpster fire.
How have things shaped up as the season started in years past?
2013: Heading into the season, with Casey Stoner gone and Marc Marquez arriving, defending world champion Jorge Lorenzo looked ready, willing and able to repeat, with chase coming from Dani Pedrosa, Valentino Rossi and Marquez. Rossi would take most of the year to get comfortable on the Yamaha in his first year back from Ducati purgatory. Pedrosa and Lorenzo got hurt in the Netherlands and Germany. Marquez made it look easy, snatching his first world championship as a rookie and assaulting the record books across the board. Crutchlow, Bautista and Bradl were expected to make some noise at some point. They mostly didn’t.
2014: Defending champion Marquez started by reeling off 10 straight, then coasted to an effortless championship followed by Rossi, Lorenzo and Pedrosa, about as expected.
2015: Last year, it turned out, was not the three-peat envisioned by most Marquez fans. He crashed out of several races early, conceded the early lead to Lorenzo, conceded more to Rossi, and watched helplessly as the title devolved into a Rossi/Lorenzo scrap. He mixed it up with Rossi on several occasions, the Italian getting the better of all of them. Rossi and Lorenzo headed into Valencia essentially tied for the lead but Rossi, having been severely punished for events in Sepang, resulting in him starting last on the grid, ultimately finished fourth with Lorenzo cruising to both the win and the championship, Marquez at his wing.
What Have We Learned During All This Winter Testing?
Several things. Lorenzo appears to be the man to beat. Maverick Vinales intends to stick his nose in some podium contests and appears to have sufficient machine beneath him to do so. Rossi, Marquez and Andrea Iannone appear destined to battle Vinales for second and third. Scott Redding may have found the right bike at the right time to propel him into a consistent top six performer. (Remember him during his last season in Moto2 when he would ride the wheels off in the turns then get eaten alive in the straights.) Pedrosa needs to stay upright all season long if he wants to finish in the top four, otherwise he is destined for a second division seeding along with:
- Andrea Dovisiozo
- Cal Crutchlow
- Aleix Espargaro
- Pol Espargaro
- Hector Barbera
- Bradley Smith
Danilo Petrucci would have been in this group had he not broken his hand, and still might end up here. Michelle Pirro will sub for DP in Qatar.
Those Aiming for Points Alone
The third tier looking to make it into the top 15, will include Eugene Laverty, Loris Baz, Yonny Hernandez, Stefan Bradl, Alvaro Bautista, Jack Miller and Tito Rabat. Bradl sounds confident, but it smells of baloney. Rabat says his goal is top ten finishes – he has his work cut out for him.
Winning at Losail – What Does it Mean?
Only three of the last eight winners at Losail went on to title in their respective years – Stoner in 2011, Lorenzo in 2012 and Marquez in 2014. Since they are also three of the last five, it’s clear to me that past performance has little to do with future performance. Recent performance, however, might well have something to do with performance this year.
Let’s just say this: if young Mr. Vinales challenges for the win in Doha, that is significant. The track is built nicely for the Ducs and Yamahas, but the Suzuki has not enjoyed a great deal of success in the desert. A second place finish would put pressure on the Aliens behind him, as well on teammate Aleix Espargaro, who is not getting nearly as much from his identical ride.
I also think there is room in this championship for a second division rider to compete toward the top of the timesheets. I’m thinking here of someone like a Hector Barbera (or a Redding) for whom the standard ECU is an improvement. Perhaps Barbera’s practice times in Australia were more indicative of what he’s able to produce now that the electronics are mostly equal.
And, let it not go unsaid that whichever teams get accustomed to the Michelins the quickest will end up doing the best. This is what separates the factory Yamaha and Honda teams from the rest, the skill of their teams at finding settings that work over race distances. On whatever rubber you got. The Ducatis seem not to mind the Michelins.
Clearly, with 13 crashes in Australia, most of which were blamed on tires, Michelin has plenty to do as well. Riders will need to beware on cold morning outlaps in the northern latitudes.
Silly Season Silliness
With almost all the primary riders in contract years in 2016, rumors are already flying about who’s gonna sign where and when. Jorge Lorenzo seems to be giving ground to his masters at Yamaha, first insisting he needed a deal in hand prior to the start of the season and now, suddenly, agreeable to some mid-season negotiations. Rossi is saying two years or nothing from here; Yamaha has not leaped into his arms as of this writing.
Herve Poncharal has delivered an ultimatum to his pair of Bradley Smith and Pol Espargaro: The future is now. If you cannot deliver podiums on a regular basis I will need to find riders who can. As boss, Herve has the right to express his opinion. My opinion is that both factory Yamahas, Marquez, a couple of the Ducatis and maybe Vinales are better than either Smith or Espargaro. Asking the Tech 3 riders to produce consistent podiums is asking a lot. Perhaps Poncharal is thinking more in terms of creating vacancies for Vinales or Alex Rins/Johann Zarco/Jonas Folger.
Vinales and young Alex Rins in Moto2 are in the wind, pretty much everyone’s best guess as to Aliens-in-Waiting. An aging Dani Pedrosa (dearly coveted by KTM for 2017) at Repsol Honda, a seriously aging Rossi at Yamaha; at some point the suits are gonna pull some plugs. Plus, it’s impossible not to wonder when Casey Stoner, watching riders he considers barely his equal go flying over the handlebars trying to get it on with the Michelins, says “lol” and climbs back onboard for a wildcard at Phillip Island. The Australian could throw a spanner into the works of more than one rider at that point in the season. Easier to envision if doing so were to provide him an opportunity to interrupt a Yamaha or a Honda on its way to the title. Stoner could easily add some extra testosterone to the mix.
And what about Marquez? It’s easy to see him spending his career at Honda, assuming he wants to. What if the RC213V remains un-rideable for the next three years? What if Yamaha or Ducati establish some genuine dominance in the category? Is it so hard to visualize young Marquez in Yamaha blue or Ducati red? Not for me.
Ducati, with eight riders flogging Desmosedicis this year, has some keepers and some others. Iannone, Petrucci, Redding and Baz appear to be capable of top ten finishes. My pick as the next Ducati shining star is Iannone, but he needs to make something happen this year. With KTM joining the fray next season interested in poaching high profile riders, and several riders talking about moving from World Superbike (Johnny Rea) and Moto2 (Zarco, Rins) there could be new faces on any number of the Ducati teams. Especially now that it’s not viewed as a career killer.
So I expect Honda to make a spirited run at Marquez and Yamaha to do the same with Lorenzo. Beyond that, teams may wait and see, or look to strike pre-emptively and roll the dice on a Vinales or a Rins or a Smith or Pol Espargaro, someone capable of giving them regular looks at podia on the right bike, and with plenty of upside.
The bottom line is that Qatar is anyone’s race and 2016 is anyone’s season, most especially Jorge Lorenzo. Will Marquez and Rossi find themselves drawn to one another, magnetically, Rossi spoiling to continue the 2015 vendetta? Do Marquez, Vinales and Iannone have enough to challenge Lorenzo on a regular basis? Is this Rossi’s “one season too many?” Does Ducati push Honda out of #2 in the builder’s competition? Is the Suzuki under Vinales for real? Is Pedrosa still relevant to the title conversation?
My only prediction is that due to the tires and the ECU, we won’t see very many processions, and we won’t have someone, other than perhaps Lorenzo if everything goes perfectly for him, run away with the title in the first third of the season. My annual hope, for no parades and a tight title fight, looks pretty good right about now.
My second only prediction is that the top four will be comprised of Lorenzo, Marquez, Vinales and Iannone, perhaps in that order, with Rossi and Redding or Smith fighting for fifth place. In retrospect, my pre-season predictions – 2013 predicting Lorenzo, 2014 and 2015 Marquez – are usually poor. One for three among the current lot.
There will be plenty of video and plenty to discuss in 2016. We look forward to enjoying your comments posts if, as Jim Rome used to insist, you have a take, and you don’t suck. Profanity is never welcome, but contrasting points of view, especially those that are well-written, are always appreciated. As I’ve discovered over the years, MO has a pretty serious readership when it comes to the finer points of this stuff. So, watch the race, bring your comments, and let’s share… lol…
The race goes off Sunday at 2:00 pm EDT. We’ll have results, analysis and commentary right here late Sunday or Monday morning.