ED: Bruce Allen’s 2018 MotoGP season preview continues with a look at what we can expect from each team and their riders. If you missed it, here’s Part 1.
An odd subhead for a glance at the teams, the haves and have nots, those with title aspirations, and those barely aspirating at all. And, just to be clear, Jimi Hendrix’s cover kicked the crap out of Dylan’s original.
Angel Nieto (Aspar Ducati) Team
Karel Abraham and Alvaro Bautista
Have Nots. Always the flower girls, never a bridesmaid. This lot should find itself more or less where it ended last year, Bautista 12th and Abraham 20th. Both riders, now officially “journeymen,” on second-hand Ducatis, on a team that is usually under-financed. Only a true cynic would suggest Aspar re-named the team in order to attract more Spanish sponsorship money. Tranche-wise, a three and a four.
Aprilia Factory Racing
Aleix Espargaro and Scott Redding
Have Nots. Scientists tell us there are entire planets in faraway galaxies whose inhabitants worship the image of Aleix Espargaro putting Aprilia on Earth’s MotoGP podium. He came close a few times last year, turned some fast laps in qualifying, but the bike does not yet appear to be there. Not enough grunt, too many mechanicals. In an effort to add grunt, the team signed the full-sized Scott Redding, who promptly found the bottom quartile of the timesheets at both Valencia and Sepang.
Redding and Espargaro finished 14th and 15th respectively last year, with Redding on the Ducati GP16. The expectation here is that Espargaro improves marginally and Redding continues his decline. The new Brit will be an improvement over Sad Sam Lowes, but expect the whining to commence at any moment. Aleix could be a two. Redding, who last year alternated between a three and a four, will likely drop a notch, alternating between a four and a five. Butt ugly.
Ducati Factory Team
Andrea Dovizioso and Jorge Lorenzo
Two Haves. JLo appeared to find his lost mojo at Sepang, only to lose it again at Buriram. Dovi ran 4th at Sepang, not seeming to break a sweat, and 7th at Buriram. There have always been tracks that were difficult for the Ducati, but Dovizioso figured most of them out last year. Should Lorenzo figure them out this year, Gigi Dall’Igna and company could have two fast packages to throw at Marc Marquez and Honda in 2018. I just have this feeling that JLo has lost something. Jorge is a man in need of a comeback.
Ducati Corse seems to continue devoting vast resources to this long-term project (code name: Project Leanangle) to get the Desmosedici to turn and has been doing so since the time Rossi was there. Gigi may, in fact, be finally leading them to The Promised Land. Tranche One may get crowded this season.
KTM Factory Team
Bradley Smith and Pol Espargaro
Have Nots. So, the conventional wisdom is that KTM is, in its inexorable Teutonic fashion, preparing to conquer the MotoGP world. It is in the process of striking a deal to become the KTM satellite team. KTM wants, at the corporate level, to stick one in the eye of Honda Racing, going to far as to mimic Repsol colors in its livery.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t appear to be happening with the current tandem of Smith and Espargaro. KTM is grooming a stable of riders in Moto2 and Moto3, some of whom may eventually ride for them in MotoGP. Last year, the current pair finished 17th and 21st, the Spaniard taking team honors and little else. Due to a number of circumstances the team ended up with the same pair for 2018. So, it looks like another year to collect data, to work on the bike, all in preparation for some major rider contracts on offer later this year. Sadly, I expect both riders to hang out around tranches three and four. Espargaro may be slowed early in the season by a back injury sustained at the Sepang test.
Takaaki Nakagami and Cal Crutchlow
One Have Not and a Maybe. LCR takes a step up the food chain as Honda buys a second rider, agreeable Moto2 grad and underachiever Taka Nakagami, to join up with the historically disgruntled Cal Crutchlow in a tandem readers of Richard Scarry’s children’s books will recognize as Pig Will and Pig Won’t. Crutchlow had a disappointing 2017 after closing 2016 with a couple of wins in 7th place, only to finish winless in 9th place last year. Some writers would say, “Told you so, mate.”
Nakagami had to be encouraged with 15th in Sepang, while Cal was cruising to a top three finish there. Life, in winter, is good. One would expect Cal to have a better season this year were it not for names like Miller and Rins and Zarco, never mind the factory Honda and Yamaha outfits. Outlook: Tranche 2 for Crutchlow, Tranche 4 for Nakagami.
Marc VDS Honda
Thomas Luthi and Franco Morbidelli
Have Nots. Two rookie Moto2 grads, one a journeyman, one a savant. Sadly, it will take more than a savant to get many top ten results on the satellite Honda. The Marc VDS MotoGP Racing Team is distinguished, as dad used to say, only by its utter lack of distinction. Their riders finished 11th and 19th last year with the former, Jack Miller, having thoroughly worn out his welcome with HRC in the process. Tito Rabat, who moved to the Reale Avintia Ducati team this year, is trying desperately to avoid the “Bust” tag being crafted for him, a 2012 Moto2 world champion.
Morbidelli, with two Moto2 championships in hand, must be hoping the team abandons Honda and joins up with Suzuki next year, a change which would brighten his future without much of a change of scenery. Luthi, one suspects, is simply happy to be here. Being a utility player in the big leagues beats the crap out of being an all-star in Triple A. As March approaches, Frankie looks like a three/four, Luthi a four/five.
Monster Yamaha Tech3
Johann Zarco and Hafizh Syahrin
One Have, one Maybe. With Jonas Folger out for 2018, I was jocking Johnny Rea to get an opportunity. (I would argue he’s faster than anyone currently available. Contract-wise it was probably impossible.) So, unemployed Colombian Jonny Hernandez was called upon for the Sepang test and said, “Sure.” He did pretty well, never having been on a Yamaha before.
In a raging upset, Malaysian idol and Moto2 veteran Hafizh Syahrin was selected to saddle up next to Zarco this year, the first of his countrymen ever to do so. Syahrin is fearsome in the rain, but faces a steep, and likely painful, learning curve. We wish him well. He turned in a credible performance during his debut in Thailand, and another in Qatar. A podium in the rain could actually be in his future later in the season.
Even with Zarco reverting to the 2016 M1 chassis, the visions of sugarplums dancing in Poncharal’s head vanished once it was determined that Folger would miss the entire season. Recall how Fausto Gresini ended up with the despicable Spaniard Alvaro Bautista in 2011 when he lost his #1 guy at Sepang. Hopefully Herve’s luck is better today than Gresini’s was back then. The serenely competent French sophomore looks ready to carry the load for the Monster team this season in Tranche Two; he may make a few appearances in the top tier. Although he is expected back next year, there is no guarantee that Jonas Folger will ever race again.
MoviStar Yamaha (Factory)
Valentino Rossi and Maverick Viñales
Two Maxima Haves. Yamaha suits are saying the 2018 M1 is built on a 2016-style chassis. They’ve already signed Viñales for 2019-2020, and Rossi is said to be weighing an offer of a new contract as this goes to press. Were he an American football player they would describe his condition as “year-to-year.” In the most recent photograph I’ve seen of him, he looked old, tired and worn out. But, in the words of Nick Harris, “Count Rossi out at your peril.”
Sepang was a puzzle for both riders, as they topped the timesheets on Day 2, changed nothing, and couldn’t get out of their own way on Day 3. The same thing happened in Thailand. Apparently this occurred several times last season as well. The gremlins in the Yamaha garage may have been sussed out in the last testing weekend. Both riders will sit in Tranche One on March 17.
Alma Pramac (Ducati) Racing
Danilo Petrucci and Jack Miller
Knock me over with a feather. I need a new slot for these two: Kinda Maybes.
Although I generally ignore the Valencia testing, riders shaking hands with new bikes, I couldn’t help but notice that on the combined sheets Miller sat in 7th place, 6/10ths behind Marquez. On his first two days on a satellite Ducati. Fine. But then he shows up at Sepang and is eerily fast and consistent all three days. On a bike that is, according to Jorge Lorenzo, difficult to learn how to ride. Fine. Sepang is a Ducati layout; three of the top five times were recorded by Italian machines.
I’m already appalled at the volume of “Told you so, mate” comments heading my way from Down Under, with Kiwis piling on not simply because they share the accent; doing so reminds them, as does everything, of rugby.
Petrucci shows up in Sepang having lost 10 pounds from last year. Danilo needs to fish or cut bait this season. Riding essentially the same bike as Dovizioso and Lorenzo, he recorded two podiums and five DNFs in 2017. If he ever wants to toil for a factory team, any factory team, he needs to reverse those numbers. As my old boss used to say, right now would be fine.
One of these two is going to spend most of the season in Tranche Two, the other in Three. Miller may finally demonstrate on the Ducati the potential he never showed on the Honda. Okay, he won a race. So did Chris Vermeulen.
Reale Avintia (Ducati) Racing
Tito Rabat and Xavier Simeon
The oddest couple on the block. Rabat, whose career appears to have peaked in 2012 with his Moto2 title, and now Simeon, curiously promoted from Moto2 after having accomplished virtually nothing. Rabat, circling the bowl, trying to rescue his career on the Ducati, along with this second guy. Someone needs to explain to me the thinking behind signing Simeon. Eight years in Moto2, never finished higher than seventh, one win. Turns 29 this year. WTF.
His daddy must own a large chain of liquor stores.
Repsol Honda (Factory)
Marc Marquez and Dani Pedrosa
Two Maximum Haves. Last year, Marquez started the season in Tranche One; by season’s end, he was the only occupant therein. Dani Pedrosa, whose boy Alberto Puig has taken Livio Suppo’s seat as Chief Cheddar of the Repsol racing effort, looked strong in Sepang and again at Buriram. Pedrosa must realize it’s now or never. He needs to stay out of the hospital.
Marc Marquez, with four premier class titles in five years, looks formidable again this year. There will be more contenders than any in recent memory; to that extent, he will have to do more close work in the turns than he might prefer, but so it goes. His strategy last year was to hold on by his fingernails early in the season while some fast mover – Viñales, as it turned out – made a scalded-cat-type start in the early rounds, return to Europe and apply pressure, aiming to make the turn into the summer break in the lead. He then proceeded to blow away his competitors throughout the second half, finally breaking Dovizioso in Australia.
This would appear to be a sound strategy again in 2018.
Dani Pedrosa can no longer simply be Marquez’s wingman. Dani Pedrosa needs to fight for the championship this year, which promises to be his last credible opportunity to do so. Should he fail, HRC appears ready, willing and able to sign another rider in his place, for the first time in over a decade. Speculation as to whom that rider may be will occupy much of the season. This is true even with his Svengali and sponsor Puig at the reins.
Not to mention that Pedrosa might be an attractive candidate for KTM, Aprilia or Suzuki in 2019, his skills at sussing out performance issues and generating useable data second to none. Say what you will, Dani Pedrosa has forgotten more about grand prix racing than many of the fast movers in Moto2 and Moto3 have ever known. He could be an effective mentor, kind of a player/coach, for one of the younger teams.
Suzuki (Factory) Ecstar
Andrea Iannone and Alex Rins
Have Nots, but not for long. Concessions again. I keep reading that the top end speed is still insufficient, that they’re spending their money on the wrong stuff. Then I read that they’ve more power this year and could very well lose their concessions again. Rins seems pretty happy and should be vastly improved this season; his sixth-place work at Sepang did not go un-noticed. Iannone, as usual, is impossible to predict.
I will happily predict that Rins will finish ahead of Iannone this season. Rins had mad skills in Moto3 and Moto2, comparable to Viñales. For him, 2017 was a learning experience: Good judgment comes from experience, and experience comes from bad judgment. Alex Rins is a Tranche Two guy; Iannone a Three. As last year vividly illustrated, Suzuki needs a satellite team in MotoGP to generate enough data to effectively play catch-up with the big boys.
Your 2018 Forecast
You need rocks in your head to bet against Marc Marquez taking his fifth premier class title in 2018. He is, head and shoulders, the best rider out there. I suspect Dani Pedrosa (assuming he doesn’t break a collarbone or two) may prove that he is back by chasing Marquez to the end of the season, winning two or three races along the way. Third place appears to belong to Maverick Viñales, who needs a more competitive/consistent ride under him than was the case last year. I believe Andrea Dovizioso will end up fourth, and Valentino Rossi fifth. Dovi is everyone’s dark horse this year.
Riders six through ten could include Jorge Lorenzo, Cal Crutchlow, Johann Zarco, Jack Miller and Alex Rins. If Zarco and Pedrosa trade places, it wouldn’t surprise that many fans. That would be a handing of the baton.
Riders 11 through 15 could include Danilo Petrucci, Franco Morbidelli, Aleix Espargaro, Alvaro Bautista and Andrea Iannone.
Riders 16 through 24 will float between Tranches Four and Five: Nakagami, Rabat, Simeon, Redding, Pol Espargaro, Tom Luthi, Abraham, and Smith. Syahrin could end up in Tranche Four, with a potential look at Three by the end of the season.
So let the games begin. We will have a preview of each round, beginning with Qatar, on the Tuesday before the race, with race results and analysis posted as quickly as possible by a group of editors not accustomed to working on weekends. If you need more – yeah, I know – MotoGP, please visit my Facebook page. Naturally, none of you would think of doing so before having visited the Motorcycle.com page on FB.