Welcome, everyone, to the 2017 presentation of MotoGP, The Greatest Show on Earth now that the circus has folded. The first year of six manufacturers, three of which have an honest shot at the title. And the year fans will likely remember not for the debut of an upstart KTM team, but for the introduction of Yamaha’s Apparent Next Great Modern Rider, Maverick Viñales, to polite society.
Of course, it is way early to lay this title on him. Call me a frontrunner. Viñales completed his demolition of the off-season tests by casually finishing first in Qatar. He, Andrea Dovizioso and, surprisingly, Dani Pedrosa have been the only contenders not having visible or audible (read: complaining) problems adjusting to this year’s machines. Seems I may have been premature suggesting Dani Pedrosa is vectoring down, if one ignores the fact that he gets hurt every year. Honda’s decision to develop their new big bang engine has coincided with Viñales’ sudden arrival on the M1, putting defending champion Marc Marquez’s title in jeopardy. Marquez crashed three times on Sunday in the final Qatar test meanwhile Pedrosa (and Cal Crutchlow) seem to be adjusting just fine.
Then there’s €46 Valentino Rossi, reminiscent of Mario Andretti in his later years at the Indy 500, “slowing down” in the back straight. He is not a contender right now, entering the 2017 season. But Rossi defines the expression “a guy who shows up on Sunday.” He will contend, as the season grinds away, unless he gets overly aggressive early in the year and gives away points sliding through the kitty litter.
Former teammate Jorge Lorenzo’s switch to Ducati has been predictably difficult, but, like Rossi, he’s an Alien, capable of wondrous things on two wheels. Some people will take offense when I point out that Rossi has been seeking his 10th world championship since 2010. He would probably do better on a one year contract – now or never. Win or bin. Etc.
In 2015, defending champ Marc Marquez failed to repeat. In 2016, defending champ Jorge Lorenzo failed to repeat. If Marquez is destined to lose his title this season, most people assume it will be to Viñales. As a fan, I am looking forward to those two giving us a show every time out. With four years in the saddle, I like Marquez to repeat. He will ride an inferior bike to the title over Viñales because young Maverick is going to get overly excited. Just like rookie Lorenzo in 2008. You and I know what happens when that occurs.
Keeping them honest, you’ve got your Crutchlow, your Dovizioso, your Iannone, your Bautista (?!), and this Jonas Folger fella, who, alongside teammate Johann Zarco, have set themselves up as the top Moto2 grads thus far, on the Monster Tech 3 Yamaha team. I wish Folger well and drop the phrase “flash in the pan” only for its descriptive value. Alex Rins, I feel, belongs in the top ten. The rest of the field will all find something to brag about. “Hey, so we ran 10th at San Marino, y’know, which isn’t so terribly bad for a brand-new team.” Kidding, kidding. (All the Aliens must have crashed out.)
Recent History at Losail
Back in 2014, everyone was all whooped up about Marc Marquez, who, as a rookie in 2013, had imposed his will upon the field, taken advantage of injuries to Jorge Lorenzo and Dani Pedrosa, and stormed to the title in front of a delirious crowd at Valencia in November. Among the records he would establish in 2014 were most wins in a season, youngest rider to repeat as world champion, and the most poles.
A mere six weeks after breaking his leg in the pre-season, Marquez barely held off a resurgent Rossi for the season-opening win, with Pedrosa sneaking onto the podium in third place. Double world champion Lorenzo, who had been singing the blues for months, crashed out of the lead on Lap 1 and subsequently faced an uphill struggle the entire season.
In his 313th grand prix start, Rossi delivered a vintage performance in the 2015 season opener, going knives-in-a-phone booth with factory Ducati #1 Andrea Dovizioso all night before punking his compatriot by 17/100ths of a second to take the lead in the title chase for the first time since, well, 2010. Marquez got pushed way wide into the gravel on Lap 1, ultimately finishing fifth.
Both factory Ducatis ended up on the all-Italian podium, leading to grossly overinflated expectations for Maniac Joe Iannone and a persistent golden halo resting upon the brow of one Gigi Dall’Igna. Here’s my favorite bit from the 2015 post mortem: “(Cal) had taken time out of his busy schedule, during a TV interview, to flame Mike di Meglio of Avintia Racing for getting in his way during, like, FP1. Cal has morphed from one of the charming, likable hard-luck guys on the grid to another mid-level clanging gong, and needs to take a nap.” Lorenzo finished a disappointing fourth that night.
Yamaha must have known 2016 would be Jorge Lorenzo’s last year with the team. Coming off his third world championship in 2015, he had won that year’s opener, enhancing the swagger amongst his declining number of fans, who believed a fourth title might be in the offing in 2016.
Last year’s Commercial Bank Grand Prix of Qatar marked the beginning of the newest era in MotoGP, that of Michelin tires and a standard ECU across the grid. In the run-up to the race, hopes that some new faces would emerge from the pack and find their way to the podium had been building. Under the lights of Losail, however, defending champion Lorenzo held serve for Yamaha against a strong challenge from Andrea Dovizioso and Marc Marquez; the Usual Suspects once again asserted their dominance. At the time, the wager that nine different riders would ultimately win races that year would have seemed deranged.
And So Here We Are
At the dawn of another testosterone-pumping MotoGP season, there is optimism everywhere. The first formal practices of the year loom under the eerie spotlights in the desert. For all three classes. Moto3 and Moto2 both promise tons of effervescent wheel-to-wheel stuff, the numbers and aggressiveness of the riders well above the relatively staid comportment, and smaller grids, of the premier class.
With four of its top riders having graduated to the majors, Moto2 appears to be wide open, with the likes of veteran Thomas Luthi and… gasp… Alex Marquez having encouraging off-seasons. There is a surfeit of fast young Italian riders out there, some affiliated with Rossi’s SKY Racing Team VR46, some not. Malaysians are getting very excited about the prospects for their boy Hafizh Syahrin, who managed a respectable ninth place finish last season and has podium ambitions. (This is a shout out to the Malaysian National Board of Tourism, which paid for my junket to Sepang in 2014, and for whom I failed to produce the somewhat flowery article requested, in exchange, by The Government.)
Moto3 is simply too much for me. I love to watch the races but am so unfamiliar with the riders I can’t generate sufficient comedic material to obscure my lack of insight. Since 2008 I’ve picked up enough about the premier class to more or less keep up, but Moto3 reminds me of the Rat Races they used to hold every year at an American Legion hall in Covington, Kentucky, where you could hardly tell one little racer from another, them piling on top of one another in the corners, occasionally heading the wrong way and such. Lots of yelling, parimutuel-style betting and heavy drinking, all for a good cause. Moto3 is great fun, but I’m mostly just a spectator.
Sounds like it should be dragsters. At Losail, more than any other race of the season, practice sessions and qualifying runs are closely watched and competed, bikes being raced in real anger for the first time since November. In conditions resembling a moonscape, with two-wheeled missiles between their legs, these guys will go at it for real. Again. Qualifying will tell much of the story. I am unwilling to try to predict a race winner, as Qatar has become a true outlier. Over the past four seasons, only one race winner here has won the title – Marquez in 2014.
I am willing to predict that, as the red lights go out, the front row will consist of Marquez, Viñales, and Dovizioso, in whatever order you like.
OK. Viñales, by less than two seconds over Marquez.
FINE – Crutchlow third. Just don’t bet on it. The race goes off at 2 pm EST Sunday. We will post results and analysis as soon as humanly possible. Let’s start this party.