Preview: MotoGP ready to thrill again in 2018
The MotoGP World Championship is in the midst of a halcyon period.
For the last three years, as the beginning of a new campaign rolls around, the same lines are uttered by paddock folk: “This promises to be the most exciting season in Grand Prix history”, and it is not mere hyperbole.
It’s testament to the direction series promoter Dorna Sports has taken over the past five or so years, bringing in CRT and Open rules to boost dwindling grid numbers, introducing a spec electronics package to bring the field closer together, and bringing in concessions for new and struggling manufacturers to give them a leg up.
All of this has created the best racing we have ever seen, brought three manufacturers to the series in the forms of Suzuki, Aprilia and KTM, and allowed MotoGP to ascend the motorsport hierarchy.
After 2017's dramatic tale of Marc Marquez versus Andrea Dovizioso, it's hard to imagine MotoGP getting any better than that. Both ended the first run of races unfancied after numerous issues; both entered the summer break first and second in the standings with a brace of wins apiece; both came into the final round as the last men standing.
The result in the end was familiar, but unlike in other World Championship it was never a certainty. And, as the pre-season has proven this year, certainty looks once again to be an alien concept in MotoGP.
The question on everyone's lips coming into the new campaign is this: can Dovizioso challenge again?
The Italian was never a realistic prospect for many as the main threat to Marquez's crown last year. By that point he had only just won his second premier class race, seven years after his first, and was yet to achieve the feat in the dry. And with Jorge Lorenzo stepping into his backyard, the ‘number two’ marker hung above Dovizioso.
You got the impression from Dovizioso that he was almost resigned to his fate as not ever becoming a MotoGP title contender prior to his Malaysia success. But the Ducati rider was confident his Sepang '16 win was the start of something big, and over the winter he looked within, working with a mental coach in a bid to improve himself.
As '17 unfolded Dovizioso emerged as the most consistent, bagging wins where he thought the Ducati had no excuses not to, while using his head at races where out and out performance was not a factor.
Oozing confidence and hailing his winter as “perfect” as the '18 Ducati looks to be corner-friendly, Dovizioso has set his sights high from the off.
“This year we're title contenders from the beginning [of the season],” Dovizioso stated. “Last year it wasn't like this. We've worked well in the tests until now, normally it's difficult to test everything you need to, but we've done everything perfectly. I'm happy with everything Ducati has brought over the winter.”
Marquez is more than aware of the threat posed by Dovizioso. After Friday's running in Qatar, the Honda rider said he was “six or seven tenths” down on the Ducati rider's long run pace. This is something of an exaggeration, as both managed fairly consistent runs in the low 1:55s bracket – albeit on separate days.
But the 2018 pre-season has shown Dovizioso should be more than a little worried about the Honda challenge. With no radical changes being made to the RC213V this time around, HRC was able to introduce a new engine without any problems trying to get the electronics to work with it, as they did in 2017.
This new engine has given Marquez, team-mate Dani Pedrosa and LCR's factory-contracted Cal Crutchlow power to match the Desmosedici, and Marquez's fears of the motor perhaps being more aggressive than he would like look to have been largely unfounded in Qatar.
Honda has also proven to have the most consistent package, as evidenced by all three of the above mentioned topping the times in Thailand, while hovering around the sharp end in Malaysia and at Losail.
With Marquez riding a bike that looks to be working in a variety of conditions, prying away the crown he successfully defended last year will prove hard.
While Maverick Vinales had all eyes on him ahead of the start of the '17 campaign, the attention has shifted as Yamaha continues to suffer with the electronics issues which added to its woes last season.
Vinales hailed the Thailand test as the “worst” of his Yamaha career, and felt the team wasted much of the Qatar outing trying to figure out the bike's set-up. Two session topping days from nine is a far cry from his testing clean sweep last year.
Tech3's Johann Zarco made a tsunami-sized splash in his debut season aboard the year-old M1, and has many tipping the Frenchman for title success, despite the fact he is now running a two-year-old chassis with a year-old engine!
Zarco's 1:54.029s lap on the final day of Qatar sent shivers down many spines, while his race runs throughout were consistent, even if he felt they lacked race-winning pace.
At Suzuki, Alex Rins has done nothing but impress on his GSX-RR; a new engine and chassis have delivered the Spaniard the “perfect package” to take the world by storm in his sophomore campaign, after a rookie year blunted by injury.
Pramac's Jack Miller, while unlikely to be a championship challenger, looks to at least alter the course of this year's title fight. Happier than he ever has been on a MotoGP bike on the GP17, the one-time premier class race winner is threatening to be a consistent podium contender.
The pressure mounts
All of this will only prove to conspire against Yamaha. At the moment, Ducati, Honda and Suzuki have built bikes with wide operating windows – crucial, as the competitive landscape from race to race looks set to fluctuate just as it did in '17.
“You make one day, everything is good. You arrive the next day, you have another feeling,” Valentino Rossi said in Thailand. “But, after, you have to wait until the third day because maybe is better. But, also track-by-track the feeling changes a lot.”
As with last year, Yamaha’s M1 appears to operate in a much narrower condition range than its rivals. On the days where both Rossi and Vinales struggled last year, holding onto the top 10 was difficult enough. With more competitive bikes around them, simply remaining in the points would be a weekend highlight.
At the moment, both riders are suffering with the electronics – something Rossi claims Yamaha has always battled with since the switch to the single-spec software. Vinales can't find any grip, while Rossi can't get any punch out of the turns. To make matters worse for the Italian, he continues to suffer with tyre life.
At least, for the time being anyway, his former team-mate and causer of much aggravation Lorenzo doesn't look in shape to challenge for the championship this season either.
After a pretty convincing test at Sepang, where he set an unofficial lap record and declared the GP18 as “more suited to my riding style”, Lorenzo's fortunes have taken a dismal turn. Struggling for pace and feeling all through the Thailand test, the Spaniard resorted to trying the '17 bike in a bid to discover what was going wrong.
Stating that the new bike had “more potential”, he refocused his efforts on it in Qatar. But the feeling that had come in Malaysia never returned at Losail, and Lorenzo has been left with the problem he thought cured in January.
“I still don't feel this bike is natural for me, I still don't feel that it is really my bike,” he said. “It is a matter of understanding what is the best setting, the best combination for my riding and when it happens I will be fighting for the top, fighting for victories and good results.”
The Yamaha duo and Lorenzo's Sundays could be made even more difficult by the emergence of KTM and Aprilia, both of whom showed flashes of promise in '17, leading to higher expectations this time around.
The RC16, in the hands of Pol Espargaro, proved to be a consistent top 10 challenger by the end of last year, as KTM reduced its pace disadvantage down from over three seconds to eight-tenths in the space of 18 races.
But, as they have found in testing, chasing that final chunk will be the hardest part. And with Aprilia keen for redemption after conceding too many strong results through reliability, slipping behind debutants KTM in the standings in the process, KTM's mettle will be tested this year.
The greatest season ever?
While testing has offered us clues, just how the '18 championship will unfold remains a mystery – which is what makes MotoGP so enticing in the first place. Ducati – or at least half of the factory – and Honda look the strongest, but Suzuki is primed to pounce, while the satellite threat from the likes of Zarco, Crutchlow and the Pramac duo of Miller and Danilo Petrucci remains ever-present.
Where Yamaha fits into the fold is hard to gauge. Undoubtedly, when the conditions are just right, Rossi and Vinales will be frontrunners. But how often will that be?
So, will this year continue MotoGP's trend of becoming the greatest season in history? Whatever happens, one thing is clear: Marquez has got his work cut out if he wants a fifth premier class crown.
“It's difficult to understand where we are, but looks like will be a very competitive season, especially this first race because we test before, so everything will be closer,” Marquez said. “But anyway, it's like you saw in the pre-season: Zarco, Ducati, especially Dovizioso, even here Petrucci was very fast, my team-mate, both Yamaha riders looks like struggling but now at the end of the day go in front. So it will be tough.”