2018 MotoGP Season Preview: Who Can Stop 93?

Marc Marquez - Photo Credit: MotoGP.com

It seemed impossible to top a 2016 season which featured an unprecedented nine different winners but last season, MotoGP managed it and then some. While it was never going to provide the same level of variety, last year saw thrilling action on track, electrifying rookies upsetting the establishment, the revival of one of the sport’s most famous manufacturers, and a tense title battle that kept us guessing all the way until the flag fell in Valencia.

The rivalry between Marc Marquez and Andrea Dovizioso had captivated us all season, from their nerve-jangling duel in Austria to the classic shootout in atrocious conditions at Motegi, but ultimately, Dovi’s gallant effort to dethrone the Spaniard came to an end in the turn eight gravel trap in Valencia, as Marc secured a sixth world crown.

With his combination of unrivalled qualifying pace, uncanny ability to save the kind of errors that would send any mere-mortal tumbling into the nearest gravel trap, remarkable speed of thought in flag-to-flag conditions, and relentless consistency, Marquez is the closest thing to the perfect MotoGP rider right now.

In recent years, the biggest weakness in the Marquez-Honda combination has been the latter of the two. The RC213V has had its flaws, particularly acceleration out of slower corners, as an overly aggressive engine has proven difficult to tame with MotoGP’s spec-electronics. Upgrades brought in after a test at Brno last summer seemingly went a long way to addressing those problems, and with Honda riders dominating the second pre-season test in Thailand, the 2018 machine already looks a significant step forward. With that in mind, it’s surely impossible to look past him for the 2018 title? Not so fast…

Without question, Marquez begins the campaign as the odds-on favourite, especially with the ever-reliable Dani Pedrosa alongside at Repsol Honda, but the premier class line-up has never been so competitive, and several riders will have the no.93 in their sights.

Top of the list will be the aforementioned Andrea Dovizioso who carried Ducati’s title bid on his shoulders last year. Backed by the technical genius of Gigi Dall’Igna, Dovizioso claimed six victories aboard the GP17, a tally only matched by Marquez, and took the eventual champion to the wire. Last year saw Andrea turn many critics into believers but some will still be wondering, was 2017 his one and only title shot? Or the arrival of a new-and-improved Dovi, ready to conquer the world? This season should provide the conclusive answer.

Can Dovizioso go one better in 2018? (Photo Credit: Ducati)

If anything, the major questions surround the other side of the Ducati garage. Despite having five world titles on his CV, Jorge Lorenzo has a lot to prove this season after trailing in Dovizioso’s slipstream for much of 2017. Three podiums in 18 races didn’t exactly justify the faith, or finances, that Ducati put behind their new signing and they will surely expect victories, at the very least, this time. Testing couldn’t have started any better for Lorenzo who smashed the lap record on his way to topping the Sepang test, but the Spaniard was nowhere in Thailand, before improving again in Qatar at a circuit notoriously Ducati-friendly. Which Jorge will turn up at the opening round remains anyone’s guess.

The great conundrum of 2017 was what on earth happened to Movistar Yamaha’s title challenge. After seeming nigh-on unbeatable in the early rounds, Maverick Vinales went winless from Mugello onwards as the YZR-M1 failed to adapt to low-grip track surfaces while wearing out its tyres late in Grands Prix. The pre-season favourite faded to third overall while team-mate Valentino Rossi lost any faint hopes of a tenth title when a training crash ruled him out of Misano with a broken leg. It all added up to a deeply unsatisfactory season for the boys in blue so will 2018 be any different?

The evidence from winter testing has been inconclusive with the team throwing developments at the YZR-M1, while also bringing back parts from previously successful machines. The factory Yamahas have looked spectacularly fast at some moments (Sepang day two, Qatar day one), but anonymous at others (virtually the entire Thailand test) which suggests that the problems that plagued them through the second half of last season aren’t completely behind them yet.

In all likelihood, the world champion will come from those three factory teams, but that doesn’t mean that threats don’t lie elsewhere. Johann Zarco’s astonishing rookie campaign was one of the stories of the season with the Frenchman taking Tech 3 closer to a MotoGP victory than anyone else before. This year will be the French squad’s last in collaboration with Yamaha and Zarco will be determined to give them at least one victory as a parting gift. Quite frankly, it would be a surprise if he didn’t.

While Zarco has maintained his impressive 2017 form through the winter into this season, topping the Qatar test, a couple of other independent riders have arguably had even stronger pre-seasons. LCR’s Cal Crutchlow wasn’t outside the top four at any of the three winter tests and looks set to be the big beneficiary if Honda truly have made steps forward. Jack Miller, meanwhile, has swapped Honda machinery for a Ducati GP17 at Pramac and with the machine that won six races last year underneath him, the Australian already looks at home and could give team-mate Danilo Petrucci more than a few headaches.

Expectations won’t be quite as lofty at the newly-named Angel Nieto Team, previously known as Aspar, but Alvaro Bautista and Karel Abraham made a habit of causing upsets last campaign. A repeat of their front-row start and top four finish in Argentina looks unlikely, but the team will be determined to do their new identity proud.

Manufacturer competition in MotoGP has never been stronger and Suzuki will be looking to join the elite once again after a disappointing 2017 saw them fall behind the big three. The loss of Maverick Vinales hit them hard but the under-performing GSX-RR was perhaps a greater contributory factor to their dip, especially given they had lost the concessions which would have enabled them to rectify pre-season mistakes. Those concessions are back, more by accident than design after they failed to achieve a dry-weather rostrum in 2017, and the new machine already looks a far stronger proposition. Alex Rins looks a real dark horse, especially now the injuries of his rookie season are behind him and could spring a real surprise with a year’s experience under his belt. As for what we can expect from his enigmatic team-mate Andrea Iannone? Heaven only knows.

Many will be keeping a close eye on last season’s newcomers KTM who earned plaudits across the paddock with their relentless development throughout 2017, going from solid tail-enders in the spring to regular top-ten contenders by the season’s end. In many ways, the hard work starts now of the Austrian manufacturer with further gains likely to prove much harder to come by. A second level of interest comes in the form of their rider line-up. With Miguel Oliveira, Brad Binder and Sam Lowes all aboard KTM machines in Moto2 and all likely to covet a premier class seat in 2019, Pol Espargaro and Bradley Smith may well be riding for their MotoGP careers this season.

Will KTM’s rise continue in 2018? (Photo Credit: MotoGP.com)

KTM’s rise relegated Aprilia to the bottom of the Manufacturer’s Championship last season and the Noale-based outfit will have their work cut out as they look to fight back this time. Aleix Espargaro is sure to maximise whatever machinery he is provided with and in Scott Redding, the team has another rider with a point to prove. Avoiding the wooden spoon would be a major achievement for them though, especially given the strength of competition elsewhere.

Five rookies line up on the grid this season, all looking to emulate the outstanding Zarco, and the Frenchman’s successor as Moto2 champion, Franco Morbidelli will make his premier class debut with the Honda-backed Marc VDS squad, the same team which took him to the intermediate class crown. The Italian will be partnered by the man who pushed him closest last year, Switzerland’s Thomas Luthi, but injuries late last season have left the 31-year-old short on preparation.

Takaaki Nakagami will also make his debut on Honda machinery, joining Crutchlow at LCR, and the Japanese has arguably been the most impressive of the rookie quintet during winter testing. Xavier Simeon hasn’t hit the same heights on his 2016-spec Ducati although the Belgian, who partners Tito Rabat at Avintia, doesn’t look out of his depth as many had feared, while Malaysia’s Hafizh Syahrin has already exceeded expectations having been thrown in at the deep end with Tech 3 following Jonas Folger’s unfortunate withdrawal due to illness.

In total, the 24-rider line-up includes twelve Grand Prix world champions, while only three riders on this year’s grid are yet to win a GP in any class. With 461 race wins between them, we are set to watch the most star-studded collection of motorcycle racers do battle over the next eight months. From Assen to Aragon, from Mugello to Motegi, and from the floodlights of Qatar to the exciting new venue in Thailand, the stage is set for another thrilling adventure.

The greatest show on two wheels is almost upon us.