The 2017 racing season gets fully underway this weekend under the lights, in the desert at the Losail Circuit in Qatar, at the first of 18 scheduled MotoGP rounds. After a crazy 2016 season with an unprecedented nine race winners, attention at the top tier of motorcycle racing is steadily building.
In fact, the overall support for the Grand Prix tour might be at an all-time peak, since Valentino Rossi is still racing, and certainly won’t be for much longer. The current success of the series and the performance of Rossi are the two biggest items of interest heading into round 1. At 38, Rossi is very old for a top-line motorcycle racer, and in recent years many have worried that his eventual retirement will take all the energy and attention out of the series. Now the question people are asking is “Does Valentino still have the outright pace?”
Will Rossi have the pace to run up front this year?
Last year, tire and electronic rules changes might have helped force the level of completion at the front, but there was no question Rossi was energized, happy and competitive. For 2017, The Doctor no longer has pesky perfectionist Jorge Lorenzo to deal with as a teammate… and yet, things seem far worse. Rossi’s new teammate at Movistar Yamaha is Maverick Vinales, the centre of much speculation last summer as he considered leaving the works Suzuki GSX-RR program. Since the opening 2016 post-season test, Vinales has set the pace in the premier class, and is considered the preseason favourite in Europe.
Maverick Vinales, new teammate to Rossi, has been fast all off-season and the talk of the class in recent months.
Recently, riders such as Rossi and now-retired Casey Stoner had big, breakthrough seasons, and that has changed the whole make-up at the front of the pack. This level of excellence is expected from the 22-year-old Vinales in his third season in the 1,000 cc feature division. Of course, nobody knows how Vinales will respond to racing regularly at the very front with the established stars, not to mention dealing with the greatly increased fan and media interest.
In preseason testing a year ago, insiders suspected that the current top gun in the top class, Marc Marquez, was in big trouble with the factory Repsol Honda RC213V. Rules changes had hobbled the Honda, so the theory goes, and Marquez would struggle in 2016. However, while Marquez didn’t have things all his own way, he was still impressive in his approach, style and result, and clinched the World Championship with three races to spare, at Honda’s home track of Twin Ring Motegi.
Can Marquez, winner of three championships in his four-year career, defend his championship yet again in 2017?
This off season has been similarly troubled for the 24-year-old Marquez, with the added issue that his veteran teammate Dani Pedrosa is now fully up to speed after almost retiring with arm issues a year ago. But Marquez has won the title three times in his four-season MotoGP career, and I think it would be crazy to bet against the power of the dynamic duo of The Big H and Marvellous Marc.
I expect that the resurgent Pedrosa will win a race or two too now that the 2017-spec Michelin slicks are more to his liking; Rossi, on the other hand, has so far not been able to get the most from the latest generation of the French slicks.
Cal Crutchlow and LCR Honda look to improve on the two wins earned in 2016.
While there are several satellite teams in MotoGP, Honda seems to offer the best overall support, as demonstrated by the LCR squad of Cal Crutchlow, winner of two races last season. The most successful Brit since Barry Sheene, Crutchlow is certainly an all-out, fan favourite type of charger, and his wet win was no shock – but the second triumph in the dry in Australia last year was an even better effort. You also can’t beat Crutchlow for a crazy, off-the-wall comment during the typically bland media sessions.
Marc VDS Honda rider Jack Miller of Australia also took a wet win of his own in the Netherlands, but so far Miller is even more crash-prone that the oft-injured Crutchlow. It is hard to imagine Honda will have much patience with the former Moto3 hero if he doesn’t run up front regularly soon.
Suzuki had a breakthrough season in 2016, but will likely struggle with two new riders this season. Wild child Andrea Iannone should have some very strong performances, but continues to deal with focus and consistency issues. Moto2 ace Alex Rins will struggle due to a fast teammate, not much big bike experience and a need to make an impression to keep his gig.
KTM is going to have a hard time in its official debut in MotoGP, give or take their abortive efforts with the Roberts team back in 2005. The issue isn’t the quality of the Austrian racers, since they have great success in many other racing divisions. The issue is the ultra-intense level of competition in the modern era of MotoGP. Bradley Smith and Pol Espargaro are good choices to run the Red Bull-backed, tube-framed RC16, and I expect KTM to make solid progress over the course of the season. But a win is unlikely, except maybe if it rains. Don’t forget, MotoGP doesn’t stop action when it rains, but instead runs a hot pit lane and allows riders to swap bikes.
Bradley Smith (pictured) and Pol Espargaro will front the attack from the new KTM factory squad.
Last, but not least, is the most exciting and controversy-generating MotoGP squad, the works Flex-Box Ducati team. Long a centre of attention for their poor pace and consistency in their post-Stoner era, Ducati won twice in 2016. As well, Ducati attracted attention with their prodigious top speed and crazy, often multi-winged aero treatment. The team has kept former favourite HRC development rider Andrea Dovizioso and added Lorenzo, perhaps the most consistent rider of the current era. Their wings have been clipped, but Ducati has already shown a fairing with internal ducting to replicate their aero edge. The ‘non-wing’ story will be big this year, since fans can see the items under dispute, which can't be said for the recent spec ECU rules changes.
Even so, Ducati tested with a mysterious ‘balance box’ of unknown purpose in the tail section of its bikes, and is certainly the team for entertaining and head-scratching developments. Dovizioso and especially Lorenzo will win races, but will the bike be consistent enough to win the World Championship? If the Desmosedici GP17 is a pace-setter, Lorenzo certainly has the ability to challenge Marquez and Vinales at the front of the very busy 2017 MotoGP field.