2018 Moto2 Season Preview: Kalex vs KTM

KTM and Kalex look closely matched this year (Photo Credit: MotoGP.com)

For the last five years, the formula for success in Moto2 has been largely simple. If you want a shot at the championship, get yourself a Kalex. Ever since Marc Marquez departed the intermediate class as Suter’s last world champion in 2012, the Bavarian company have enjoyed a virtual monopoly of Moto2, but the winds of change look to be blowing.

From the start of 2013, Kalex’s record stood at 77 victories from a possible 86, a record which took us all the way to Motegi 2017. Seven days after Alex Marquez’s victory in Japan, a new competitor emphatically announced their arrival in the intermediate class with a dominant 1-2, a result they repeated a week later in Malaysia, before rounding off their debut season with a 1-3 in Valencia. There were no doubts about it. KTM had changed the game.

It wasn’t just the fact that Miguel Oliveira closed the season with three consecutive victories, nor the fact that Brad Binder joined him on the rostrum on all three occasions. What really made the paddock take notice was the manner of those victories. Oliveira was in a class of his own in Australia and Malaysia before outclassing newly crowned champion Franco Morbidelli in the season finale at Valencia. It was the kind of performance that led many to immediately install him as 2018 championship favourite and led several others to put a KTM chassis at the top of their shopping list.

As a result, this season will see the KTM contingent grow from two to five, with Ajo’s Oliveira and Binder joined by Kiefer Racing’s Dominique Aegerter, while the Swiss Innovative Investors squad have also purchased a pair of the Austrian machines. Spanish youngster Iker Lecuona stays with the team and will be partnered by former Moto2 race winner Sam Lowes, the Briton with unfinished business in the MotoGP paddock after his brutal treatment by Aprilia.

Lowes will be expecting a title challenge this year (Photo Credit: MotoGP.com)

Lowes’ return to the class highlights another source of genuine intrigue heading into the 2018 season. Four of last season’s championship top ten have moved up into MotoGP and as a result, many of the frontrunning teams look drastically different this time. The class has a refreshed look about it in 2018, especially amongst the leading Kalex teams, with a number of star names either moving up a level, or in the case of Lowes, down a level to ply their trade.

After eight seasons in MotoGP, Hector Barbera has joined the Briton in climbing down the Grand Prix ladder. The Ultra-experienced Spaniard has over 250 GP starts to his name including four middleweight victories, but curiously, this will actually be Barbera’s Moto2 debut having spent five years racing in the now defunct 250cc class. Barbera will race for 2013 title winners Pons HP40, forming an all-new rider pairing with Lorenzo Baldassarri.

Estrella Galicia 0,0 Marc VDS were left with the biggest hole to fill having moved Franco Morbidelli into their MotoGP team, but the Belgian squad have replaced one title-winner with another, signing Moto3 champion Joan Mir. The 20-year-old joins with a glowing reputation but nobody, not even Marc Marquez, can say they have conquered Moto2 at the first attempt, illustrating the scale of the challenge facing the Spanish sensation. With that in mind, Marc VDS’ championship hopes may well rest on the shoulders of another Marquez, with younger brother Alex sticking around for a fourth year with the team.

No-one pushed Mir closer last year than Romano Fenati and the Italian finally makes his long-awaited move into Moto2 after six years in the lightweight class, doing so with his existing Marinelli Snipers team. Elsewhere, Romano’s 2017 team-mate Jules Danilo steps up with SAG while Dutchman Bo Bendsneyder also graduates with Tech 3 in what might prove to be the last hurrah for the French-built Mistral 610.

2017’s class-leading rookie Francesco Bagnaia will now embark on his second Moto2 campaign, already fresh in the knowledge that he will be joining the elite of MotoGP next season with Pramac Ducati. The young Italian was fifth overall last year with four podium finishes and race victories are surely in his future this year, at the very least. Compatriot Mattia Pasini topped the podium in spectacular fashion at Mugello in 2017 and is sure to threaten the leaders again this time. Whether he will do so regularly enough to mount a championship push remains to be seen.

With Triumph set to take over from Honda as official Moto2 engine supplier, chassis manufacturers will be evaluating their own programmes this season to determine whether they remain involved. Tech 3’s Herve Poncharal has already dropped hints that they may not continue into the Triumph-era with concerns over whether their involvement justifies the expense but in total, six chassis suppliers line up on the grid this year.

With Kalex and KTM likely to contend for the championship, Suter and Speed Up look set to be in a battle with Tech 3 for best of the rest with each running a single team. Suter, who originally announced their intentions to withdraw last winter, have joined forces with Forward Racing who will run European Moto2 champion Eric Granado alongside Stefan Manzi. Speed Up’s rider pairing looks exciting on paper with former Moto3 champion Danny Kent returning to lead the team, joining French hotshot Fabio Quartararo who fared much better as a rookie last year than his results may suggest. As Sam Lowes has shown in the past, the Speed Up chassis can be a real weapon on its day, the onus is now on Kent and Quartararo to deliver.

Can Quartararo unlock his undoubted talent with Speed Up? (Photo Credit: MotoGP.com)

The great unknown comes in the form of NTS who are making their world championship debut with the Dutch RW Racing squad. Former European champion Steven Odendaal is expected to lead the team having raced the chassis on Spanish soil last year while Joe Roberts has earned a regular ride with the team after impressive substitute outings last term, restoring American involvement to the paddock.

Testing has provided a mixed picture with few concrete conclusions to draw from the running in Jerez and Valencia. Wet weather has drastically reduced the running although the championship favourites have all staked a claim, Marquez going fastest at Jerez in February before Lowes led a KTM 1-2-3 at the same circuit a month later. Both key chassis suppliers appear in good shape and a close title fight could well be shaped by whichever of the two emerges as the strongest.

Moto2 is set to embark on a bold new era with Triumph in 2019 but the 32 riders on this year’s grid have only one triumph on their mind, the world title which could well open the door for a MotoGP opportunity next season. From the likes of Lowes and Pasini who have sampled the big league and are desperate for a return, to the likes of Oliveira, Marquez and Bagnaia who are surely MotoGP riders in waiting, this season has all the ingredients to keep spectators on the edge of their seats all the way to Valencia. Throw in the rapid rookies in Mir and Fenati, and 2019 should not disappoint.

The last step on the road to MotoGP awaits. Which rider will step forward to take it?