2017 MotoGP Season Preview

Bruce Allen
by Bruce Allen

Six factories set to battle for motorcycle racing's biggest prize

Photos by Getty Images; Lead photo by: Honda

With the start of the 2017 MotoGP season only weeks away, we turn to our trusted MotoGP Correspondent, Bruce Allen, still foolishly bucking for promotion, for a look ahead at what will be on offer for racing fans this year. The racing begins on March 26 in Qatar.

MotoGP is the fastest-growing motorsports flavor on earth. That it has virtually no presence or accessibility in the U.S. is a poor joke. It appears the safety-conscious American parents of today are reluctant to let their kids, most of them, anyway, learn to ride ATVs and motorbikes when they’re young. Series organizer Dorna has recognized that a country wishing to develop world-class riders needs to have a formal development program, one of which was implemented in Great Britain just this year. (Probably because of Cal Crutchlow, the Great English-As-A-First-Language Hope.) Such leagues have existed in Spain and Italy for decades.

The fact is that the U.S., for its size, with expensive national marketing costs, doesn’t sell a lot of imported motorcycles, and it’s doubtful that showing more MotoGP races would change that. So most of us Americans miss out. Meanwhile the Aussies and Kiwis are all over this stuff, along with Europe and much of Asia. No more giving up calendar dates in favor of F1; MotoGP has MoMentum. No more five weeks off in the middle of the summer, either.

Countries from Thailand and Indonesia to Hungary and Finland are clamoring to host races; pressure on the calendar, with four rounds still in Spain (quietly drumming my fingertips on the tabletop), is intense. Even money says the calendar goes to 20 dates within five years. And get rid of Aragon. Or Argentina.

Ducati’s Andrea Dovizioso and Yamaha’s Valentino Rossi and the rest of the MotoGP grid took part in a test a few weeks ago at Australia’s Phillip Island circuit.

Overall, 2017 has the look of a great season. The Big Three factory teams of Yamaha, Honda and Ducati will dominate much of the action, as they are home to the Aliens, those riders whose balance and instincts are a step above the rest of the field – Marc Marquez, Valentino Rossi, Jorge Lorenzo and new Alien on the block Maverick Vinales.

Keeping them honest will be the likes of Lorenzo’s teammate and wingman Andrea Dovizioso, Cal Crutchlow on the LCR Honda, and Andrea Iannone on the factory Suzuki. Alex Rins, on the second factory Suzuki, and Johann Zarco on a Tech 3 satellite Yamaha, are the Moto2 grads most likely to podium this year, with Rins looking, to me anyway, like the rookie of the year for 2017. Another Alien in the making.

Due to last year’s amazing series of races which culminated in nine different riders standing on the top step of the podium, hope springs eternal for the riders and teams in the lower tranches. Pramac, Aspar and Reale Esponsorama get new old hardware, which could improve prospects for Hectic Hector Barbera and Alvaro Bautista. It would take another Assen-type miracle for either of the Marc VDS riders, Jack Miller and Tito Rabat, to win this year. (There are also rumblings that the team is planning to fold up its tent in the next year or two, possibly freeing up slots for a satellite Suzuki team.)

Let’s just look at this thing team by team, in alphabetical order. We will wait until after the season opener to assign tranches to the various riders.

Aprilia Racing Team Gresini

Sam Lowes
Aleix Espargaro

Sam and Aleix need to be prepared for a long season. Hard luck Espargaro, having lost out at Suzuki to Iannone and Rins, takes a step down to join the Aprilia factory effort, on the upswing but still learning their way around. The Aprilia and KTM projects are likely to be relatively underfunded for the foreseeable future, slowing their development, and reducing their prospects to those of satellite teams. For Lowes, somehow promoted from Moto2 despite world-class inconsistency, there will be a lot of badly scuffed leathers. Espargaro seems to be getting the hang of things more quickly.

For Fausto Gresini, for whom the allure of the premier class is almost irresistible, 2017 will be like shooting 108 on the golf course – enough good shots to keep you coming back, but a vast majority of poor to terrible swings. Two unfamiliar riders and not-quite-competitive bike. Bring a book.

Ducati Factory Team

Jorge Lorenzo
Andrea Dovizioso

Going into 2017, the factory Ducati team is the most interesting group on the lot. The Italians expect plenty, and soon, from their brand-new triple world champion. Jorge Lorenzo, in turn, suggested that the first real day of testing at Sepang was a bit terrifying, but with the help of Casey Stoner and Michele Pirro is adapting to the Desmosedici GP17. No more getting blitzed in the straights, but he needs to re-learn cornering if he is to avoid “pulling a Rossi” on the Ducati, which seems unlikely unless he finds himself unable to keep the bike upright. A win in Qatar would do a lot to build his confidence, although the same could be said for every rider on the grid. Nice writing.

Consistent Andrea Dovizioso has been flying under the radar during the offseason, allowing the cameras to focus on Lorenzo while he plots his strategy to win the title himself. The latest iteration of the Desmosedici will probably be a great bike, and Dovi has four years in with the factory. Personally, I would love to see him fighting for a title with Vinales and Marquez. It could happen. I think the odds favor him to finish ahead of Lorenzo this season.

A recently-filed patent provides clues that the bulge under the tail may hide a variable exhaust nozzle that resembles ones used on jet engines.

The Bologna bunch has recently received a patent for a new jet exhaust valve; don’t know what that’s for unless they’re interested in watching Lorenzo leaving Earth’s orbit. It has also installed what is said to be an anti-chatter box behind the rider and bent the exhaust pipes and stuff around it. They are keeping their 2017 fairing secret, but I expect it to resemble the new Yamaha innovation, with the interior wings in a laughable “bulge,” which is expressly forbidden under the rules yet permitted by some guy named Danny. “Y’see, it’s not so much of a “bulge” as it is a continuation of the radius… An’ that’s why they’ve blokes like me, to keep things strite, y’know. Yeah.”

For me, the most interesting question is whether the big red bikes are to be housed in Lorenzo’s Land or Gigi’s Garage.

LCR Honda

Perpetually carrying a chip on his shoulder, Cal Crutchlow finally came through last year with a pair of race wins.

Cal Crutchlow

My personal favorite rider. To disparage, mock, call out and, ultimately, have to eat crow over. Crashlow won his first two premier class races in 2016 after years of making excuses and broadcasting blame for not having won earlier. He has burned bridges with Yamaha and Ducati, although he seems to be a fair-haired child for Honda as of late. Complaining a month ago that “Honda are on it’s back foot,” or some other foolish British verb conjugation, it seems the litany has resumed. With Vinales added to the mix at the top, I don’t expect Cal to win two races again this season.

Marc VDS Racing Team NFL (Not For Long)

Jack Miller
Tito Rabat

The struggling #3 Honda team, at the end of the Sepang test in January, had neither rider fit to ride. Tito Rabat was a great rider in Moto2 but is proving to be a bust in MotoGP. Miller, tagged by HRC for greatness at a young age, is proving to be unable to keep the RC213V upright, piling up more serious injuries than The Black Night in the Monty Python classic, not to mention creating acres of shredded, brightly painted fiberglass.

This team could be out of existence in a year or two, providing an opportunity for the moon, the sun and the stars to align in such a way that, as Dani Pedrosa’s contract on the factory Honda team expires, young Miller is standing at the door, kindly showing him the way out. A national day of celebration will follow in Australia, one in which Livio Suppo, team boss at Repsol Honda, having been out-voted by marketing folks seeking an Australian Alien, may not be participating.

Monster Yamaha Tech 3

Johann Zarco
Jonas Folger

Hmmm. Two freshmen on the satellite Yamaha team. Herve Poncharal, team boss, has a thing for Folger; perhaps he likes the cut of his jib, but I haven’t seen much in the way of dominating performances in Moto2 to justify a promotion. Zarco arrived on the strength of having become the only rider in Moto2 to title twice, consecutively, and is probably disappointed at not having a factory bike of some kind at his disposal.

Both riders will be on steep learning curves this year, although Zarco fared surprisingly well at the Malaysia test. He and Alex Rins figure to battle it out for rookie of the year honors.

MoviStar Yamaha Factory Team

Valentino Rossi
Maverick Vinales

Lin Jarvis’ factory Yamaha team enters the season with GOAT candidate Valentino Rossi and the heir apparent, the aptly-named Maverick Vinales, recently graduated from a two-year riding academy with the factory Suzuki team. During those two years, he figured out how to win (Silverstone 2016) on a relatively slow bike. Now that he has earned arguably the fastest complete bike on the grid, great expectations abound.

His “win” at the Sepang test in January affirms those who expect him to title in his first Yamaha season. Marc Marquez, reigning and triple world champion, has been encouraging this thinking, talking publicly about how concerned he is with Vinales. Intentionally adding to the pressure, getting inside Vinales’ head. Rossi-like.

Rule changes prohibit the protruding winglets frequently seen on bikes last year. Yamaha’s solution is to move its downforce-generating surfaces inside the fairing.

Rossi maintains his Alien status, but it will be tested again this year. (Dani Pedrosa is now an Alien Emeritus.) He still has the passion and the conditioning and the experience. But does he have the reflexes and balance he did when he was 28? I think not. I think he is also less of a risk taker now than he was a decade ago. He will undoubtedly win some races this year, but may lose the season contest with his teammate, effectively ending their friendship for all time. The intra-team competition could tighten significantly, however, if Vinales finds himself cartwheeling through a lot of gravel traps this spring.

Octo Pramac Yakhnich Ducati

Danilo Petrucci (GP17)
Cheesed Off Scott Redding (GP16)

The #2 Ducati team. Danilo Petrucci, the burly ex-cop, may find himself in the mix once in a while (probably in the rain) this season onboard the GP17 he won fair and square in the intra-team competition with Scott Redding last year. Redding, sadly, will not be in the mix on his GP16, as he seems unable to get over the hump in the premier class after a glittering (?) run in Moto2. With three name sponsors, it seems likely the team will have plenty of frames and fairings to replace for Redding as he goes bumping around the tracks of the world, muttering about how it just isn’t fair.

Pull & Bear Aspar Team Ducati

Alvaro Bautista GP16
Karel Abraham GP15

A satellite Ducati team with upset potential. Alvaro Bautista, like Barbera, has been a consistent underachiever in the premier class. His own high-water mark occurred in 2008, when he finished second in the 250cc class behind a guy named Simoncelli. In 2012 and 2013 he flogged Fausto Gresini’s close-to-factory-spec Honda to 5th and 6th place finishes, respectively. Meanwhile, enter Karel Abraham, previously employed by his dad before serving a one-year sentence in WSB last year. He’s back, for whatever reason, this time on a GP15.

Bautista has, over the years, shown moments of great skill and moments of sheer stupidity. This year, again mimicking Barbera, he has a chance to peek at a podium or two after two grinding years with Aprilia. This may also be the best bike he has ever ridden, although the Honda back in 2012-2013 was badass.

We will stick our necks out here and predict zero podiums for the Aspar team in 2017.

Reale Esponsorama Racing (formerly Avintia)

Hector Barbera (GP16)
Too-Tall Loris Baz (GP15)

Another second-string Ducati team that could surprise, 2017 features Barbera on a GP16 and Baz on a GP15. Hectic Hector’s career saw its high-water mark in the 250cc class in 2009 when he finished second to Hiro Aoyama. Once he arrived in MotoGP, never having been the beneficiary of first-class equipment, his career has leveled off. He has battled slow bikes, injury, and a low racing IQ to a series of undistinguished finishes. Last year he showed some improvement which, if it continues this year, could actually make him a consistent top-10 finisher. He’ll have to overcome the initial setback of a broken collarbone, suffered last week in training. Barbera is expected to miss this weekend’s final test at Qatar in order to be ready for the March 26 season opener.

The long-of-limb Loris Baz is a rarity in MotoGP these days.

Meanwhile, young Frenchman Loris Baz, who is, like, 6-foot-3-inches tall, had an up and down second MotoGP season. Three distinct episodes of “start slowly, improve, then crash” marked his year, including a fourth-place finish at Brno and a fifth at Sepang. Riding a Ducati at his lofty height suggests he’ll prefer the long flowing circuits over the tight squinchy ones. He will need to learn to keep the bike upright if he is to continue in MotoGP.

Red Bull KTM Factory Racing

Bradley Smith
Pol Espargaro

Teammates on the Tech 3 Yamaha for the past two seasons, these two get factory rides with the rookie KTM factory team. The Austrians have enjoyed decades of success elsewhere and feel it is but a matter of time before they start winning in MotoGP. Years, perhaps many, in my opinion, but what do I know?

Of the two riders, I prefer Espargaro, a year younger, with a title under his belt in Moto2. Smith seems like a nice guy, but appears snake bit. It’s always something with Bradley – an injury, a mechanical issue, a head cold. Whatever. I will gladly back Espargaro this year in the intra-team rivalry, the only competition that will mean much of anything to this group.

Not his first rodeo, Pol Espargaro is ready to ride this (Red) Bull.

The official factory rollout of the KTM entries in all three classes included words from the Chief Cheddar at KTM Itself, Stefan Pierer, announcing his intention to fight with Honda for a MotoGP world championship in the not-too-distant future.

Patience, grasshopper.

Repsol Honda Team

Dani Pedrosa
Marc Marquez

Along with the factory Yamaha and Ducati teams, HRC is royalty in the world of grand prix motorcycle racing. Repsol Hondas have been ridden by world champions Freddie Spencer, Eddie Lawson, Mick Doohan, Àlex Crivillé, Valentino Rossi, Nicky Hayden, Casey Stoner and Marc Marquez. Its prospects are decidedly mixed heading into 2017.

With several new engines to figure out, the Sepang test was a bit of a struggle, with Marquez working hard to finish second behind Vinales, but able to deliver several impressive 20-lap race simulations. Appears to be another year in which Marquez will have to manage an inferior bike to battle for the title with the other Aliens. He did it last year. I believe Vinales will collect a number of wins and an equal number of DNFs on the factory Yamaha, allowing a mature Marquez to slug it out with Jorge, Dovi and Vale again this year. With two new riders, Suzuki Ecstar will not threaten. Iannone? Dovizioso? I think not.

Marc Marquez reportedly dislocated his shoulder in a private test at Jerez but he is expected to be ready for the start of the season.

As for Dani Pedrosa, I look for him to finish seventh or eighth this season, as he has clearly lost a step since his prime in 2012. Whether he’s interested in serving as Marquez’ wingman in 2017 is problematic. If he slips out of the top 10, Honda may buy out his last year and bring Miller or, more likely, Crutchlow onto the factory team in 2018. Miller may blossom this year. Probably not.

Team Suzuki Ecstar

Andrea Iannone
Alex Rins

The second most interesting team on the grid, a rapidly improving Suzuki will have two new riders in 2017. Andrea Iannone worked himself out of a job on the factory Ducati last season and landed with Suzuki, which may be a piece of good luck for both parties. Thus far in his premier-class career, Iannone has been unable to harness his impossible speed, his temperament and aggressiveness often getting the better of him. It would be loads of fun to see him battle with the front group this season, and it could happen. Unless The Maniac is still, well, a maniac.

Alex Rins has had Alien written all over him since he was about 15. Although he never titled in the lower MotoGP classes, he recorded two seconds and two thirds in three Moto3 and two Moto2 seasons. The Rins and Marquez families do not exchange Christmas cards, setting up a new rivalry for the next few years while Rins earns his whiskers. He figures to become a problem for both Marquez and Vinales in that time. Definite Alien potential here.

Alex Rins is a strong candidate for rookie of the year honors.

I see a couple of podiums in store for Suzuki in 2017, perhaps a handful. Unless the bike is greatly improved they may not compete for a win, but the Suzuki program seems to be progressing nicely. Perhaps 2018 will be their year.

Phillip Island Test

Three productive days of testing at Phillip Island in early February taught us little we did not already know. Marquez and Vinales seem to be running in a league of their own. Dani Pedrosa still has some juice left in the tank. And rookie Jonas Folger can coax at least one fast lap per day out of his Tech 3 Yamaha.

Maverick Vinales topped the time sheets at Phillip Island.

Cal Crutchlow and rookie Alex Rins ran almost identical fast laps on Friday. Dovizioso and Lorenzo were running neck and neck for seventh and eighth places, respectively. Jack Miller, Aleix Espargaro and Alvaro Bautista finished ahead of Valentino Rossi, something you don’t get to report every day. And lots of disappointed Ducati riders (six of the bottom nine) muttering to themselves farther back in the dust. Not a great three days for Ducati Corse.

Vinales is making it hard not to envision him clutching a world championship trophy in his first premier-class season. If he can stay within himself and not get overly excited, it could happen this year. Then, when Rins joins the fray in 2019…

There you have it. Due to incessant demand, and for those of you interested in going into debt with your bookies, here’s my prediction for the Top 10 finishers, in order, for the 2017 season. Bookmark this article so you can rub it in my face in November. Expect a “404 Error Page Not Found” at that time, especially if I’m way off:

  • Marc Marquez
  • Maverick Vinales
  • Valentino Rossi
  • Andrea Dovizioso
  • Cal Crutchlow
  • Jorge Lorenzo
  • Dani Pedrosa
  • Alex Rins
  • Andrea Iannone
  • Alvaro Bautista
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