The MotoGP World Championship is back, and so is our correspondent Bruce Allen to analyze the changes from the off-season and offer a look ahead to the 2014 season. Qatar kicks things off this weekend, so check back in this space for the full race recap.
The decision, announced on February 28, 2014, that the once-proud Ducati factory would compete the 2014 MotoGP season on the “Open” side of the tracks suggests that Dorna chieftain Carmelo Ezpeleta’s not-so-secret mission to dumb down the sport is working. As the season starts, 15 of the 23 bikes on the grid will be running in the Open class.
In 2012, Dorna introduced us to the CRT class of bikes, for which I was never able to come up with satisfactory filler for the acronym. While expanding the grid from the mid-teens to the mid-20’s, the move increased the number of bikes traveling at relatively slow speeds (BTRSS) without increasing competition at the top of the food chain (TFC) where only three riders won races in 2013 (MMXIII … Aw forget it.)
In the midst of last season, the two dominant MotoGP factory operators, Yamaha and Honda, announced they would be making equipment available to the Open teams in 2014. Yamaha announced its intent to lease, not sell, what are basically year old M1 engines and swingarms, while Honda would be selling, not leasing, entire bikes, in this case the RCV1000R, a tuned-down version of its RC213V, affectionately known as the Honda Production Racer.
NGM Forward racing, featuring Colin Edwards and Aleix Espargaro, jumped all over the Yamaha offer and slotted M1 engines in their FTR frames. Pretty much everyone else at all serious about actually competing in the premier class went with the Honda production bike, including Aspar with both Nicky Hayden and Hiro Aoyama onboard, and Fausto Gresini, who bought one for Scott Redding to learn on while #1 rider Alvaro Bautista gets to keep his RC213V for another year. Karel Abraham’s dad bought him one, finally dropping the Desmosedici.
The Avintia Blusens team plods on for another year with Hector Barbera and Mike Di Meglio on their Kawasaki powered FTRs, while Paul Byrd Motorsports continues with Paul designing his own frames for Aprilia powerplants with Broc Parkes and Michael Laverty. Ioda Racing, which had been planning another two-rider season with Aprilia, saw their main sponsor Came walk and now looks shaky as the season starts, putting the screws to Brit rider Leon Camier, whose premier class tenure appears to have lasted, um, less than one race. Whether the team, and Danilo Petrucci, finish the season together remains to be seen.
So, propulsion this season will come from four Ducati engines, six Yamahas and eight Hondas; Aprilia will power three riders and Kawasaki two. With most of the juice still residing in the two top factory teams, Repsol Honda and Movistar Yamaha (with one notable exception), the season opener, now less than a week away, brings with it a lot of unforced whining from some unexpected places. Actually, pretty much everyone but Aleix Espargaro is whining about something.
Defending world champion Marc Marquez is placidly copacetic about the leg he broke in training last week. This may portend something of a slow start for the super sophomore, or nothing at all. We tend to lean toward the latter. He’s not whining now, but if he gets off slowly this season, we’ll be waiting for it.
Repsol Honda teammate Dani Pedrosa, always good for a complaint or two, and with a few more microphones poked at him since Casey Stoner retired in 2012, was bitching about the lack of grip from the new Bridgestones, until the Phillip Island test, where he was the fastest guy on the track. (One way Dani could improve grip would be to put on a few pounds.) Dani is now on the back nine of his career, and fewer of us will be paying attention to his periodic rants as things wind down for him.
Double champion Jorge Lorenzo, put off by the new fuel limits and the tires, doubts he’ll be able to manage much better than second place this year.
Lorenzo’s Yamaha teammate, the legendary Valentino Rossi, whose last three seasons were utterly forgettable, has been laying down some very fast laps while holding his cards tightly to his chest and saying little of substance. Perhaps he and his new crew chief have something going on. Personally, I would love to see Rossi come back and challenge for wins again. The game needs another Alien.
Honda Satellite Teams
LCR Honda’s Stefan Bradl seems to spend a lot of time in fifth place. Just sayin’. He’s on the same bike as Marquez and Pedrosa.
Gresini Honda, sponsored again this year by GO&FUN, features chronic underachiever Alvaro Bautista on their #1 RC and recent Moto2 grad Scott Redding on their #2 RCV1000R. Bautista has tested in the top ten, Redding in the bottom ten. Redding will finish the season closer to Bautista than he has been during testing thus far.
Yamaha Satellite Team
The satellite Yamaha Tech 3 team, featuring Bradley Smith and injured rookie Pol Espargaro, seems to be having its own problems with tires and fuel mixture. However, they will be working with the new Yamaha seamless shift transmissions this season. Most of the interest in this duo will have to do with their intra-team competition, rather than their top-ten-but-never-contending-for-a-win performance during races. They will have a problem, however, if the Forward Racing team starts beating them on a regular basis, suggesting that engines, gas and development outweigh software and the sanctity of the “factory-made” label.
The Ducati Conundrum
The revelation that all four Ducati Desmosedicis will run in the Open class this season is big. Big, in that the new Powers that Be in Bologna have decided that, though the Dorna software is marginally inferior to Ducati’s own, having twice as many engines to break, more fuel, and the ability to continue development of the engine during the season, which Ducati desperately needs, far outweigh the loss of a couple of 10ths due to the software.
On the semi-factory “Factory” front, Andrea Dovizioso’s sentence has one more year to run, while Cal Crutchlow has now really put himself in it, having signed on for two years of Open class competition and second-rate results, but for a bigger paycheck.
Yonny Hernandez and Andrea Iannone will keep the wheels turning over at Pramac; “Crazy Joe” Iannone may challenge Crutchlow a few times this year, which will be great fun to watch. Crutchlow will also have to sit around next year as the factory Honda and Yamaha teams, with Suzuki making its return, go about the process of pushing wheelbarrows full of Benjamins at Marquez and Lorenzo, with Rossi and Pedrosa on hand to drive up the bidding.
Open Option Teams
Bear with me while I try to think of something positive to say about the Drive M7 duo of Nicky Hayden and Hiro Aoyama turning laps on their RCV1000Rs. OK, their livery looks minty fresh. There.
The team making the most positive noise during offseason testing, without question, is the Open team at NGM Forward Racing. Espargaro has been consistently running in the top three and appears to be loving his new Yamaha powerplant. With four extra litres of fuel, seven extra engines during the season, a softer rear tire and Yamaha power, it figures to be only a matter of time before Espargaro becomes the first Open class rider to win a race. My guess would be Assen or Sachsenring this year.
Funny, though, that HRC is whining in the media about how the NGM project is “outside the intent” of the new regulations. In my half-baked opinion, that would be true only if the new FIM regulations required Open teams to finish in the bottom third of the grid. I’ve checked – it’s not in there. And the NGM joke is that the ancient Colin Edwards is hanging around not to milk another mediocre season out of Aspar’s horde of sponsors, but to “mentor” Espargaro, who is running circles around him. My sides are splitting.
Life goes on at Avintia Blusens and Paul Byrd Motorsports, both of whom must have the best, most understanding, least demanding sponsors in motorsports. Two riders per team, with a Top Ten finish for one of the four once in a while.
Factory 2: Son of Factory?
The newest release of the “Dorna software” appears to be a sizeable step up, especially for Ducati. So sizeable that Dorna and FIM threw together a compromise between the Open and Factory classes, to which contestants running in the Open class will be dispatched if and when they start appearing on podiums on a regular basis. Bikes in this so-called “Factory 2” option (or Ducati, essentially) will still officially be considered “factory” and allowed to use its own ECU but get all the other benefits of Open teams including continuing engine development. If Ducati finds some success, it will give up some concessions, reducing fuel capacity or losing the option of the Open option softer tires. This cobbled-up class was apparently developed, on the back of a cocktail napkin, in response to the howls of protest emanating from the Yamaha and, especially, Honda camps concerning the unexpected competitiveness of some of the Open class bikes. Perhaps they should refer to it as The Espargaro Rule.
Until Marquez got hurt last month, it looked to be a no-brainer predicting the 2014 world champion, and it doesn’t really look much different today. Lorenzo and Pedrosa have had some issues during the offseason testing sessions, while Valentino Rossi looks strong again, and Aleix Espargaro looks like a factory rider. If Rossi has, indeed, regained the step he had obviously lost since 2010, and if Espargaro has the bike to remain in the top five on a regular basis, it promises to be a more interesting season than was 2013. Marquez, even with a tender start, looks to be dominant, and Pedrosa and Lorenzo will be fine. Issue Alien cards to Rossi and Espargaro, and it will be a fun season to watch.
As well as further evidence that Ezpeleta’s evil plot is working.