The 2015 MotoGP season was one of the wildest ones to date. Both because of the intense on-track action, but maybe more so because of the shenanigans that happened away from it. I won’t bother explaining the drama, as you should already know what I’m talking about if you’re reading this (if you don’t, check out Bruce Allen’s season finale preview and his race recap to get caught up). Plus, the 2015 season is over, so there’s no point dwelling on the past. What we can do, however, is ramble about the future, and that’s the focus of this week’s Top 10. The antics that clouded the last couple races of 2015 will surely carry over into next season, but even without that, 2016 is bound to be an unpredictable MotoGP season. Here’s why.
Michelin is back in MotoGP as the sole tire supplier for the top class after Bridgestone called it quits in 2015. That means all the bikes have to be redesigned (or at least modified) to suit the characteristics of the French rubber. In a post-Valencia-test press release, Jorge Lorenzo revealed that the 2016 Yamaha M1 places its fuel differently than the 2015 bike to help adapt to the new tires. The big question, then, is who will be able to adapt the best? And what growing pains will Michelin experience as it tries to adapt to the new generation of MotoGP motorcycles. Already in pre-season testing, riders are praising rear grip but complaining of a lack of grip in the front, resulting in quite a few crashes. Either Michelin will cure the front grip problem, bikes will be tweaked to accommodate this new balance, or the riders will have to go slower to compensate. You really think the latter’s going to happen?
The other big shakeup for 2016 is the new electronics package imposed on the MotoGP class. Now, Magneti Marelli is providing both the hardware and software to all teams, whereas before the non-Open class teams were allowed to use whatever hardware they wanted and develop their own software. The change effectively gives all the bikes Open class levels of electronics that each team will have to optimize. As with the tire situation, the big question will be who is able to best manipulate the software to meet the needs of their bike and their rider? It’s logical to think the big-budget teams like Honda and Yamaha will figure it out the soonest, but who knows, an engineer on a team further down the pecking order might punch in a set of ones and zeros to give their bike and rider a surprise advantage.
8. No Americans
With Nicky Hayden moving to the Ten Kate Honda World Superbike team for 2016, this will be the first time since 1975 there won’t be a single American rider on the MotoGP grid. This seems strange considering the impact American riders have had on the series, especially in the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s, but it also goes to show the declining state of racing Stateside. Will worldwide audiences care about the lack of Americans on the grid? Probably not, but considering how big a motorcycle market the U.S. is, my guess is not to expect this drought to last for too long. Cameron Beaubier, 2015 AMA Superbike champ, we’re looking at you…
7. Best of the rest
One thing we can count on next season is the four aliens retaining their statuses at the front of the pack. After them, who’s going to be the best of the rest? Andrea Dovizioso looked strong at the beginning of the season, while his teammate Andrea Iannone showed flashes of brilliance later on. Then you have Cal Crutchlow, who’s always in the conversation, as well as the Tech 3 pairing of Bradley Smith and Pol Espargaro. Save for 2014 Moto2 champion, Tito Rabat, all the riders will have at least a year of MotoGP experience under their belts, so the battle for fifth place in the championship should be an interesting one.
Ducati surprised many last year at the season opener in Qatar when it was able to finish at the sharp end and bite at the heels of the factory Hondas and Yamahas. Unfortunately, as the season progressed, Ducati team boss, Gigi Dall’Igna, couldn’t improve the GP15 as quickly as his rivals could improve their machines, and the two Andreas only occasionally made a showing at the front. However, with an entire offseason to implement change – and the possibility of Casey Stoner returning to Ducati in a testing role – Dall’Igna’s 2016 Ducati could be the biggest wildcard of the season.
I’m going out on a limb with this one, but I predict Suzuki poses an even greater threat for wildcard status than Ducati next year. Regarded as one of the best handling motorcycles on the grid, it was clear Suzuki was just missing out on top-end power. From an engineering standpoint, power is relatively easy to make, whereas optimal handling is like black magic (just ask Ducati). Suzuki is clearly aware of its need to boost performance, and if it can deliver more horses without sacrificing its handling qualities, look for Suzuki to make a big splash next year.
With all due respect to the two Andreas, Bradley Smith, Cal Crutchlow, and the Espargaro brothers, I think Maverick Vinales is going to be the one to look out for in 2016. He was massively impressive in his rookie MotoGP season this year, occasionally out-qualifying his more seasoned teammate, Aleix Espargaro. He was also a big surprise during his sole Moto2 season the year before. Now with experience with the bike and the team under his belt, Maverick can feel free to attack the new season. He’s already showing his potential, too, having recorded the second best time of the 2016 pre-season test, only a tenth of a second off the fastest time.
Yep, MM93 only gets the third spot on this list. We all know he’s fast – heck, he topped the timesheets during the 2016 pre-season test – and he’s got to be a favorite for the MotoGP title next year, though snatching it from the hands of Lorenzo won’t be an easy task. What will be interesting to see is how he deals with the pressure: from Lorenzo, from Dani Pedrosa, from Valentino Rossi (should the two be anywhere near each other next year) and maybe even from his bike. The Repsol Honda was occasionally a difficult machine to ride this year, and Marquez threw away his title hopes overriding the bike in the pursuit of victory, only to end up on the ground. Honda famously values the machine over the rider (remember why VR46 left for Yamaha?), and if Marquez is left trying to tame yet another difficult RCV, could history repeat itself?
I admit I was one of the many who thought Dani Pedrosa was done after going through his third arm-pump surgery. However, I’m pleasantly surprised that the surgery really does appear to have healed the Spaniard, and his late season form was very impressive. If Maverick Vinales is my one to watch for Best of the Rest honors, I’m tipping number 26 as the one to watch to win it all. That is, of course, if he, like Marquez, gets a Honda that’s less aggressive, and he stays clear of any further injuries. With a renewed hunger to win his first MotoGP title, 2016 might be his best shot.
So many questions surround The Doctor. Does he still have it? Was 2015 his best shot at a 10th title? What was he thinking calling out Marquez like that? Valentino Rossi will be 37 years old when the 2016 MotoGP season starts, and I suppose we should simply be amazed that, after two decades in the grand prix paddock, Rossi is still relevant. That said, will next season be his swan song? He’ll no doubt want to seek revenge for losing the 2015 title in such an odd way, but the reality is he simply may not be fast enough anymore. Knowing that Father Time is closing in on him, what’s his game plan for next season? Come out, guns blazing, or fizzle away as a new generation takes over.