MotoGP is certainly in rude health at the moment. A reigning champion at the top of his game, an all-time legend still chasing a tenth title, its most competitive era ever with nine different winners in a single season and five manufacturers going toe-to-toe with factory teams. You would be forgiven for thinking that the only way from there in 2017 is down. Think again.
For 2017, the bar is being raised still further with a number of big names switching teams, the strongest crop of premier class rookies for four years, and a sixth manufacturer joining the fray in the form of Moto3 champions KTM. There are so many storylines to follow in the run-up to the new campaign and from whichever angle you look, MotoGP looks set to thrill us once again.
The man to beat is Marc Marquez after the Spaniard produced one of MotoGP’s greatest ever title-winning campaigns. The record books may not reflect that but if truth be told, the 24 year old won the championship in spite of his Honda RC213V, rather than because of it. Despite an overly-aggressive engine that the spec-electronics struggled to tame, Marc won five rounds before clinching the title with three races to spare, seeing off a pair of Yamaha riders who spent much of 2016 tripping themselves up. Marc will defend the title alongside Dani Pedrosa who embarks on his twelfth consecutive season with Repsol Honda but they are the only manufacturer squad to name an unchanged rider line-up.
Jorge Lorenzo’s nine-year love affair with Yamaha finally came to an end in 2016 and although he signed off with victory in Valencia, the Spaniard was beaten to the runner-up spot by Valentino Rossi in their final year as team-mates. His tenth premier class campaign sees the start of a new challenge though and significantly, a challenge that even Rossi found too tough to overcome, the task of turning Ducati into title winners again. Andrea Dovizioso, fresh from his second career win at Sepang last October, is sure to keep Lorenzo honest in the Bologna outfit.
Andrea Iannone was ultimately frozen out in the Ducati reshuffle after a succession of high-profile blunders which eroded any trust the team had in him last year. Thankfully, the undoubtedly talented Italian has found a new home at Suzuki, replacing Aleix Espargaro who has moved to spearhead Aprilia’s factory effort. Aleix’s former team-mate is also on the move, and his switch may prove to be the most significant of them all.
With some serious shoes to fill after the departure of Lorenzo, Yamaha have signed arguably the sport’s finest young talent, perhaps the only man in a position to take on the might of Marquez over the next decade, particularly when Rossi eventually retires. It seems like a daunting challenge but the early indications are that Maverick Vinales is ready to pass with flying colours.
Four pre-season tests have taken place since the flag dropped in Valencia across three continents and four very different types of circuit, but one constant has remained throughout. Whether it was the tight twisty Valencia, the sweltering Sepang, the high-speed thrill-ride at Phillip Island or the technical Losail, Vinales has emerged the fastest at all four of them. Those that predicted a year in Rossi’s shadow for Maverick to learn the ropes are already looking a little silly. The 22 year old has picked up the baton from the nine-time champion and sprinted off into the distance with it.
The Doctor’s struggles have arguably been as big a story in testing as Vinales’ staggering dominance. Rossi has only been the fastest Yamaha rider on one day all winter with the Italian struggling to unlock the ultimate potential of the YZR-M1 which, by common consensus, is the finest machine on the grid. How quickly he figures it out could decide where this year’s title ends up.
The top prize is a long way away for MotoGP’s newest manufacturer but the sport is unquestionably healthier with KTM’s arrival in the premier class. The Austrian outfit have tested across the globe for well over a year in preparation for this season and, in Pol Espargaro and Bradley Smith, have two of MotoGP’s leading satellite riders over the last three years, two men who have earned factory status. To their credit, KTM have shown promising pace to be within two seconds of Vinales in Qatar. Unfortunately for them, two seconds off in MotoGP today may amount to last place, but they are sure to improve as the year unfolds.
As well as a brand new manufacturer, MotoGP also welcomes a five-star group of rookies to the fold with four of last year’s Moto2 title challengers stepping up. Monster Yamaha Tech 3 have taken on two of them, plugging the gaps left by Espargaro and Smith with Jonas Folger and two-time Moto2 champion Johann Zarco, while Gresini have promoted Sam Lowes from the intermediate class to their factory-Aprilia team. Completing the rookie quartet is Alex Rins, arguably the most talented of the lot, and with a factory Suzuki underneath him, the 21 year old is well placed to light up the premier class.
Cal Crutchlow certainly did that last season, claiming two memorable victories, and the Briton is sure to take some stepping in the battle for independent honours. Tech 3’s rookie duo will run him close while Jack Miller and Tito Rabat complete the Honda roster at Estrella Galicia 0,0 Marc VDS. Scott Redding and Danilo Petrucci are retained at Pramac although only the latter will have a 2017 Ducati at his disposal. Aspar have an all-new pairing of Alvaro Bautista and the returning Karel Abraham and completing the grid, Avintia stick with Hector Barbera and Loris Baz.
MotoGP may well have assembled the most star-studded line-up in its history but the paddock consensus appears to have narrowed the list of title contenders down to two. Valentino Rossi will certainly think otherwise but testing form appears to suggest a straight fight between Marquez and Vinales will run throughout the season, and with both in their early-twenties, this is a rivalry that could keep us on the edge of our seats for the next decade with much more than Spanish pride at stake. A childhood rivalry which now centres around motorcycle racing’s ultimate prize.
Rarely has a season started with so many questions hanging in the air. Will Marquez fend off the challenge of the hungry Vinales? Will Rossi rise above them both to claim his holy grail of a tenth world title? Will Lorenzo bring the glory days back to Bologna? Can Suzuki go again after losing their prize asset to Yamaha? Will last year’s record of nine winners be replicated? All tantalising questions and the floodlights of Losail will soon start to shed light on it all.