ED: With the pre-season testing now complete, Bruce Allen previews the 2018 MotoGP season. In this first part, Bruce presents his observations on the tests. Check back here next week for Bruce’s team-by-team analysis.
Here we go again. We, the fans, are fully amped on the glidepath to the start of another season of breathtaking, toe-curling two-wheeled racing. For a while after Valencia 2017 it was collect data, data and more data. In 2018, hot laps and consistent simulations became the targets. There was surprising Sepang, then that new Thai place Carmelo found one night, then the final official test at Qatar in early March, all pointed toward Round 1 under the lights, in the desert, as usual, at Losail on March 18. Optimism and jubilation reign; everyone, at this point, is undefeated.
The racing calendar extends from mid-March to mid-November, a full eight months. This, obviously, is too long. The momentum and drama of the title chase is diluted by the time spent during the summer standing around waiting for the next race. 2018 features 19 rounds, and it looks pretty clear 20 rounds will become the norm starting in 2019 when Finland goes on the calendar. The Dorna folks need to find a way to fit 20 rounds into seven months.
If you’re not familiar with MotoGP, most of what follows will not make much sense. If, however, you ARE familiar with MotoGP, most of what follows will not make ANY sense. But keep with it; it will grow on you, unless you’re hung up on things like, say, facts and accuracy. By the end of the season you’ll be all over DISQUS with the usual rabble, giving me a hard time about this and that, Valentino Rossi or my boy Cal Crutchlow.
Honda, according to people who actually know stuff, appears to be the favorite for the constructor’s trophy heading into the season. If Sepang weren’t an outlier as regards layout, temps, rain and so forth, one could argue that Ducati should be the favorite. Yamaha has been dealing with gremlins, and the three junior manufacturers are not yet a threat, although Suzuki may be ready to move up. Ducati, with eight bikes on track, and Honda with six will be the main contestants unless The Boys in Blue, Maverick Viñales and Rossi, are fighting one and two for the title. Which, in early March, seems unlikely. So does the prospect of having only two Yamahas on track in 2019.
While the Sepang test was a win for Ducati, the Buriram test in late February was a win for Honda. Crutchlow, Marc Marquez and Dani Pedrosa recorded the top times on the three days, Pedrosa looking especially strong. Meanwhile, the Yamaha and factory Ducati contingents faltered. Jorge Lorenzo followed up his sizzling performance in Malaysia with a complete dud in Thailand, finishing the combined timesheets in a dismal 16th place, dazed and confused. As in comparing Chang International Circuit to Red Bull Ring, where Ducatis dominate, there being few reasons to have to turn the Desmosedici GP18 at either venue.
On a personal note, it was good to have Ducati test pilot Casey Stoner back in January bitching about something. Seems he agrees with most of the planet that Sepang is a crappy place for winter testing. Or testing in any season, for that matter. But he has that gift for saying it in a way that just runs all over me.
Interlopers in Thailand included last year’s rookie of the year, Johann Zarco, on the Tech 3 Yamaha, circa 2016, leaving southeast Asia with a silver medal. He was joined in the top six by two suddenly hot properties, Alex Rins on the Ecstar Suzuki and Jack Miller on the Alma Pramac Ducati GP17. Both looked good in Malaysia, both looked very good in Buriram. The pair slipped slightly in Qatar – ain’t nobody care about that. Over the last ten years, the rider winning the opener at Losail has won the title only three times.
Yamaha found itself behind the eight ball after two testing weekends, it appearing that the 2018 machine is worse than the 2017, which was worse than the 2016. The worst part, of course, is that at both Sepang and Buriram the effective settings they employed on Day Two refused to work on Day Three. This is disconcerting. Viñales finished the combined Buriram sheets eighth, Rossi 12th. But at the Qatar test, the Yamahas got things turned around, with super soph Zarco leading the way on the combined sheets for the Tech3 team, trailed by Rossi, Andrea Dovisioso, Crutchlow and Viñales.
Why 2018 Could Be Spectacular
The organizers of MotoGP must be prancing about re the potential competitiveness of the upcoming season. By my count, there are perhaps ten riders capable of winning on any given Sunday. These would include Marquez and Pedrosa, Rossi and Viñales, Dovizioso and Lorenzo, Crutchlow, Zarco, Miller and Rins. Maybe Danilo Petrucci, too. Of these ten or so, at least four – Rossi, Viñales, Dovizioso and Pedrosa – are capable of challenging Marc Marquez for the 2018 title. As is true in any year, some things have to go well for your guy and some things have to go badly for the other guys. In the paddock there is no more grousing about the control ECU or Michelins; lap records appear set to fall like dominoes.
2006 stands as the year the MotoGP title winner scored the fewest points in the 21st century, Nicky Hayden with 252 points over 16 rounds. Pro-rate that to 19 rounds and that number grows to 299. Marc Marquez, in winning the last two world championships, compiled 298 points in each 18-round season. Pro-rate that up to 315. Meaning he could have been expected to add 17 points in an additional round.
Here’s the point. This year figures to be unusually clogged among the top ten riders. There will therefore be more competition for the big scores, the 25, 20 and 16-point days that come with appearing on the podium. The prediction here is that, despite having added an additional race, the 2018 winner will end up south of 300 points when the curtain falls.
The 2019 silly season has already started, with Viñales and Marquez standing pat, Rossi preparing to sign another two-year Yamaha contract, and Tech 3 just announced a three-year affiliation with KTM which will provide them with factory spec bikes, indistinguishable from those of the factory team. This news may be enough to entice Zarco to stay with Tech 3 for the next few years; he is, without question, the hottest non-factory property in the rider corral.
No mega-huge contracts for 2019-2020 for factory Ducati riders, just the normal run-of-the-mill wheelbarrows of cash. The GP18, according to management and test riders Stoner and Michele Pirro, is significantly improved over last year, with nothing having been made worse in the process. Therefore, no need going forward to, ahem, overpay for touchy, egocentric triple world champions.
Gigi Dall’Igna, the Grand Gouda of Ducati’s MotoGP effort, it is said, has a few more tricks up his sleeve for 2018. As for 2019, he was recently overheard boasting that the GP19 will be so strong that he could win the title with MO’s own elderly Californian John Burns as his #1 rider.
Formula 1 is doing all it can to drive fans to MotoGP. Rumors that Ferrari may drop out dominate the conversation, right below the outrage engendered eliminating “track girls” from race weekends. One might as well watch the races on television.
MotoGP 2018 is going to be great fun. Don’t miss Part Two of our season preview next week, in which we defame examine each of the twelve teams.