In 2017, MotoGP had quite the act to follow. Fresh from one of its greatest ever seasons which saw nine different winners, a series of classic races, and more Marc Marquez brilliance, how on earth was 2017 going to match that? If anything, this year may well have topped it.
Marquez stayed put at Repsol Honda alongside Dani Pedrosa but all the other factory teams had undergone significant changes. 2016 runner-up Valentino Rossi continued his quest for a tenth title with Yamaha but his greatest challenge looked set to come from his new team-mate Maverick Vinales who had swept the board in winter testing. His long-time rival Jorge Lorenzo had left for a new challenge at Ducati, partnering Andrea Dovizioso, and was expected to lead the Bologna squad in their efforts to re-join the title fray.
Andrea Iannone had been left out in the cold but the enigmatic Italian had found a new home at Suzuki, joining forces with Moto2 graduate Alex Rins, while Aleix Espargaro had moved to front the Aprilia operation. He also had a rookie alongside him in the form of Britain’s Sam Lowes. Perhaps the greatest intrigue though came in the form of MotoGP newcomers KTM who arrived with Pol Espargaro and Bradley Smith on their roster and serious intent.
All eyes were on the Movistar Yamaha newcomer in Qatar after his dominance of pre-season testing, especially with Vinales starting from pole, but a newcomer to the class had the whole world talking on opening night. Two-time Moto2 champion Johann Zarco had quietly impressed over the winter but nobody was expecting the Frenchman to storm from the second row into a first lap lead, a lead he would extend over the next few laps. All hopes of a debut victory evaporated on lap seven though when the front end of his Yamaha folded away at turn two but Johann had made his point in any case. MotoGP had been put on notice.
After the startling start, the race ultimately produced the result most had expected with Vinales edging out the Ducati of Dovizioso who finished second at Losail for the third straight year. Rossi salvaged third despite a disastrous winter and free practice which had seen him struggle desperately for pace and confidence while Marquez trailed home a distant fourth, bemoaning his Honda’s lack of punch onto the 1km main straight.
History indicated that the next two venues were much more Honda-friendly, or more specifically Marquez-friendly, as proven when the reigning champion took a comfortable pole in Argentina. It was pretty clear that the customer Ducatis were at home around Termas de Rio Honda too with Karel Abraham qualifying a spectacular second for Aspar before watching his team-mate Alvaro Bautista finish a season-high fourth in the race.
For the second race in succession, an early race leader would throw away a likely victory but precious few expected Marquez to be the guilty party this time. With a certain 25 points within his grasp, Marc lost control of his RC213V at turn two and the victory would fall into the grateful hands of Vinales. Rossi maintained his surprisingly promising start with second while Cal Crutchlow ensured at least one Honda rider would stand on the rostrum, beating Bautista to third.
Even at such an early stage in the season, the Grand Prix of the Americas had a crucial feel to it with Marquez aiming to keep his undefeated COTA streak intact and given that he already trailed Vinales by 37 points, he really needed to. As it was, all of the ground lost in Argentina was clawed back as Maverick made a critical error this time, crashing out in the early going. Marquez duly converted pole into a fifth consecutive victory in Austin but neither Spaniard would return to Europe leading the championship. Incredibly, that honour would go to Rossi after another second-place, achieved despite a near-collision with Zarco as the rookie continued to make an impression.
Jerez marked the start of the European swing and the treacherously low-grip track surface would expose a pivotal flaw in Yamaha’s 2017 YZR-M1. Once track conditions deteriorated, the class-leading motorcycle was transformed into an ill-handling machine, sending Maverick Vinales and Valentino Rossi plummeting down the order, to sixth and tenth respectively. In contrast, the Hondas performed beautifully, allowing Dani Pedrosa to lead home a comfortable Repsol Honda 1-2. The final spot on the podium saw a relieved Jorge Lorenzo who, after an underwhelming start to life at Ducati, finally unlocked some of his potential aboard the GP17, taking a morale-boosting third.
More favourable conditions at Le Mans brought Yamaha back into contention, setting the stage for one of the season’s most dramatic finishes. Having shadowed his team-mate throughout, Rossi looked to have defeated Vinales in their first real head-to-head after passing him four laps from the end but a last-gasp sting in the tail saw The Doctor slide wide halfway around the final lap to let Vinales through before crashing out altogether within sight of the flag. Victory and the championship lead had slipped agonisingly through his fingers. The capacity crowd still travelled home happy courtesy of a career-best second for their new hero Johann Zarco but Marc Marquez’s season was continuing to stutter, the world champion crashing for the second time in five races.
With the Italian Grand Prix next up, the mood across MotoGP should’ve been universally buoyant but the sport had been rocked by tragedy, with 2006 world champion Nicky Hayden losing his life in a road traffic accident in Rimini. Tributes poured in for the hugely popular Kentucky Kid and the mood at Mugello for round six was understandably sombre.
There was also an air of relief for the hoards of Valentino Rossi fans after their hero had suffered rib injuries in a training accident following Le Mans. At one stage, it seemed touch and go whether the home favourite would compete in the Italian Grand Prix at all but the Doctor duly showed up, and qualified a superb second behind Vinales.
A stiffer front tyre had been introduced by Michelin for the Italian GP and the demands it placed on rider and machine transformed the action. Tyre management was now a crucial component of a rider’s race strategy and the smartest minds were likely to emerge victorious. Step forward Andrea Dovizioso who managed his Michelins in the latter stages of the race in a way the Yamaha riders simply couldn’t, allowing him to claim a third career victory ahead of Vinales. Ducati couldn’t believe their luck as Danilo Petrucci rode a magnificent race to third, denying the pain-stricken Rossi a home podium. As for Honda, a total failure to understand the new rubber limited Marquez to sixth.
By Catalunya though, it was a very different story as far as HRC were concerned with Pedrosa back on pole position and Marquez returning to the rostrum, pipping his team-mate to second spot. Remarkably one other thing hadn’t changed, the winner, as Dovizioso cruised to back-to-back victories in another race defined by tyre wear and low grip. Those two factors spelled bad news for Movistar Yamaha with Rossi and Vinales marooned in the midfield, finishing eighth and tenth, and the fortunes of the factory were resting on the shoulders of their rookie satellite riders. The young duo were doing them proud though with Zarco fifth and Jonas Folger setting the fastest lap on his way to sixth.
Along with the emergence of Dovizioso, Monster Yamaha Tech 3 were proving to be one of the season’s great success stories and the momentum continued over the next two races, starting at Assen where Zarco grabbed his maiden MotoGP pole. A four-way fight for victory followed with the Frenchman right in the thick of it before a late-race shower convinced him to switch bikes under flag-to-flag rules, a decision which proved to be a mistake.
In the end, just two remained at the front with Danilo Petrucci chasing a first premier class win. The Pramac rider would fall agonisingly short though as Assen master Valentino Rossi opened his winning account for the season, edging out his compatriot by just a tenth of a second. Yamaha fortunes were mixed though with Vinales suffering a strange crash at the Timmer chicane, a mishap which handed the series lead to, of all people, Dovizioso after the Ducati man claimed fifth. Marquez had snatched a podium in a last lap scrap with Cal Crutchlow and as a result, was right back in the title shake-up himself.
Marc’s return to form came just in time for one of his strongest circuits on the calendar. If COTA is Marquez’s no.1, the Sachsenring can’t be far behind. True to form, the world champion took victory in Germany to reclaim the championship lead but the Spaniard was pushed harder than in any of his previous seven successes here. The rider giving chase was the inspired Jonas Folger who added to the catalogue of Tech 3 giant-killings by beating Dani Pedrosa to second, much to the delight of his home crowd. The Yamahas of Vinales and Rossi were fourth and fifth after dreadful qualifying displays, the pair discovering that their machine’s inadequacies in low-grip conditions also included the rain.
Rain was the order of the day at Brno too, providing Marquez with a chance to unleash another of his extraordinary talents. In flag-to-flag races, the Honda rider is simply in a class of his own and the Czech GP brought yet more proof. Marc had started on a soft wet tyre which began to fall apart within moments of the start as conditions improved, and as early as the second lap, he dived into the pits to switch motorcycles, not before he had let several of his rivals past to throw them off the scent. By the time the whole field were on slicks, Marquez was 22 seconds clear and assured of victory with his team-mate Pedrosa well-placed to take second. Yamaha and Ducati had botched their bike swaps terribly and paid the price with Vinales, Rossi and Dovizioso third, fourth and sixth respectively.
Coupled with an uncompetitive eighth back in Germany, Dovizioso’s title challenge looked to be fading but a circuit almost tailor-made for the Ducati was next up on the calendar. The Bologna squad had ended their six-year winning drought in Spielberg a year ago and in 2017, the Austrian hills were the setting for a significant moment as Dovi went toe-to-toe with the best rider on the planet, and came out the victor. The two swapped places constantly over the closing laps as the Ducati’s straight-line speed competed the Honda’s superiority on the brakes and ultimately, a final corner lunge from Marquez missed the target. Dovizioso out-manoeuvred his rival to take the win, giving Marc a dismissive wave on the way past, and the message was clear. Dovi and Ducati were here for the long haul.
That was abundantly clear once the dust had settled at Silverstone with another tense Grand Prix going Andrea’s way. The Yamahas were back in the mix in Britain after a disastrous showing at the Red Bull Ring with tyre wear crippling Vinales and Rossi, and the Doctor would lead for much of the race at Silverstone before being chased down by his compatriot in red. Vinales would split the Italian pair to claim a much-needed twenty points for second but Marquez saw a hat-full of points disappear in a cloud of smoke. 2017 had already provided several surprising sights but this might have been the most shocking of them all, a Honda RC213V blowing its engine at the end of Hangar Straight.
Realistically, the championship still had four legitimate contenders heading into the final third of the season but that would shrink to three ahead of Misano. With his home round just days away, Valentino Rossi suffered his second training accident of the season but this time the injuries were much more severe. A broken tibia and fibula would rule him out of the San Marino Grand Prix, a cruel blow at any stage of the season, but with a 26 point deficit to Dovizioso only likely to increase, any hopes of a tenth title would have to be put on hold for another year.
Yamaha’s hopes rested entirely on the shoulders of Maverick Vinales and the Spaniard responded by taking pole position at Misano with both of his title rivals joining him on the front row. Unfortunately for Yamaha, more wet weather was forecast for race day and the YZR-M1 had no answer for Honda or Ducati, leaving Marquez and Dovizioso to fight it out at the front, with one uninvited guest. Danilo Petrucci has always punched above his weight in wet conditions and Misano was no exception, the Pramac rider relegating his Ducati colleague to third and it took a blistering final lap from Marquez to deny him victory. Danilo couldn’t hide his disappointment at finishing second yet again, while Dovizioso had reason to be disappointed too. His nine-point lead had been wiped out and with five races remaining, we were all square.
With the disappointment of Silverstone now well out of his system, Marquez was beginning to wrestle back control of the title fight, even if he was having a little trouble staying upright in qualifying. A crash in Q2 at Misano had arguably cost him pole position and the world champion would repeat the feat at Aragon, allowing Vinales the fit-again Rossi to demote him. All in all, Marquez would suffer 27 crashes over the course of the 2017 season although crucially, none of those would come on race day in the remaining five GPs.
The race in Aragon followed the Marquez script beautifully as the 24-year-old led the third Repsol Honda 1-2 of the season. If that didn’t make HRC happy enough, the Ducati rider standing next to them on the rostrum wasn’t Dovizioso, who endured a torrid afternoon on his way to eighth, but Jorge Lorenzo who was finally starting to fulfil his potential after a trying campaign. The five-time champion had led on several occasions throughout the year, including at Misano when a crash robbed him of what seemed a certain victory, but the confidence was visibly growing for the no.99.
The Asia-Pacific triple-header commenced at Motegi with yet more torrential rain interfering with the action, so much so that Michelin’s dry tyres weren’t used at any stage over the weekend. Given the conditions, it should have come as no surprise that the top three was identical to Misano, although the order they finished in wouldn’t be settled until a thrilling final lap.
Marquez began the final 4.8km ahead but a near high-side at turn eight brought Dovizioso right onto his tail approaching the all-important back straight. Demonstrating the kind of late braking normally associated with the Honda man, Andrea dived through into the lead two corners from home and in a carbon copy of Austria, Dovizioso swatted away a last-ditch attempt from Marquez to snatch back the lead. Victory number five for the season went the way of the Italian and surely his best to date.
Just eleven points separated the two remaining protagonists, with Vinales all-but eliminated from contention after finishing ninth in Japan, and Phillip Island had all the makings of a classic Marquez round. In fact, it simply had all the makings of a classic Grand Prix, and we got both. Sadly for Ducati, Dovizioso only had a bit-part role after a lap two error dropped him to the back of the field, and thirteenth at the finish represented a disastrous blow to his title prospects, depending on the fate of Marquez.
Marc hardly had things his own way up at the front with both factory Yamaha riders throwing everything at the championship leader, as did the electrifying Zarco and the rejuvenated Iannone who put a season of criticism behind him with fourth at Motegi. After 27 laps of no-holds-barred racing, Marquez finished with part of his rear seat missing after being tagged by Zarco, while the no.93 had left marks from his front Michelin on Valentino Rossi’s shoulder, but through it all came the world champion to claim a pivotal victory. Rossi and Vinales rounded out the rostrum, but both were mathematically out of the title chase.
It was win-or-bust for Ducati in Malaysia with Marquez arriving in Sepang knowing a top-two finish would secure the crown. Another Q2 crash and more wet weather on race day ensured his path to the title would still have complications in it and the Spaniard wisely opted for a cautious approach on Sunday afternoon, riding within himself to take thirteen valuable points for fourth.
Despite an early fright from the in-form Zarco, Ducati had the front of the race locked off with Jorge Lorenzo leading his team-mate for lap after lap. Dovizioso appeared to be biding his time but the question still remained as to whether team orders would pave the way for a sixth victory of the season. In the end, the infamous ‘Suggested Mapping 8’ instructions for Lorenzo were academic as a front-end fold at turn fifteen allowed Dovizioso through in any case. Ducati got the result they came for, and their slim hopes of the title would remain alive heading into the final round at Valencia.
The ‘Final Showdown’ would settle it all with Marquez requiring eleventh place or better to wrap up his sixth title, while Dovizioso required a minor-miracle, or in real-terms a victory coupled with some major Marquez misfortune. Despite qualifying eight places behind his rival, Dovizioso still forced his way into a five-man breakaway early in the race with Zarco leading Marquez and Pedrosa but Dovi still had his team-mate to overcome before having a crack at the Hondas.
With seven laps to go, Ducati prayers were very nearly answered as Marquez lost the front end of his Honda at over 100mph at turn one. However, Marc produced the latest in a string of miraculous saves which he has made to look routine, picking the bike up off his knee and shoulder before returning to the track in fifth despite a detour through the gravel. A glimmer of hope had emerged for Dovizioso but it took a crash for Lorenzo to finally promote him into the podium spots. No sooner had that happened though, Andrea tumbled himself at turn eight. It was a sad end to a gallant championship challenge but Dovizioso would be forced to settle for the runner-up spot.
Almost forgotten amid the title drama, Pedrosa closed the campaign with victory after a last-lap battle with Zarco with all eyes on the third-place finisher as Marc Marquez crossed the line to clinch his sixth world title and fourth in the premier class. Behind Dovizioso, Vinales ended the year in third with Pedrosa pipping Rossi to fourth courtesy of his Valencia victory.
Zarco was rewarded for his magnificent debut campaign with sixth overall, earning him the honours of top rookie and top satellite rider, with Lorenzo taking seventh overall ahead of Petrucci and Crutchlow. Jonas Folger completed the top ten although he was forced to watch the final four races from the sidelines due to illness.
In total, ten different riders stood on the rostrum in 2017 with five different winners but ultimately, two men stood head and shoulders above the rest of the pack. The fact that the Marquez-Dovizioso rivalry was conducted with class and respect from start-to-finish was a credit to both. It was a rivalry that painted the sport in the best possible light during a season which showcased the sport at its very best, in an era when it arguably hasn’t been better. The glory belonged to Marquez, but in 2017, we were all winners at having the joy of watching it.