As we approach the start of the 2016 MotoGP World Championship, we find ourselves in unfamiliar territory. After two years of Honda domination, Yamaha is back on top. After two years of Marc Marquez’s youthful exuberance beating out the old guard, the veteran and rival Spaniard Jorge Lorenzo is the reigning world champion. Unlike previous seasons where the rules have only been tweaked, we have wholesale changes to the rules governing electronic rider aids. Unlike previous seasons where Bridgestone had brought the teams a sense of consistency, Michelin is now bringing a very different approach to tire research and design. Unlike previous years where MotoGP has graced American soil two or even three times, the U.S. is down to just one grand prix. While in years past grand prix bikes were forbidden from racing at Assen on Sunday to allow for the sound of church bells, their toll will be joined this year by the echoes of cross-plane crankshafts. This will indeed be a different season. The championship may not be determined by outright talent or pace, but rather by adaptation MotoGP’s new environment. Grand prix motorcycle racing has always represented the evolutionary edge of the sport. What happens when evolution stops its gradual progression, slams on the brakes, throws itself into a corner, and whacks the throttle open mid-apex? The answer is: We shall find out.
Unlike World Superbike, MotoGP has only one scheduling change for the 2016 season. Sadly, it is one that has left many American fans disgruntled. Despite having been a fixture on the calendar since 2008, there will not be an Indianapolis Motorcycle Grand Prix this year. The lone American round will be held at Texas’ Circuit of the Americas on April 8-10. Yours truly will be covering the event for the Two Wheel Power Hour Motorcycle Show. In place of the beloved Indy event will be the first Austrian Motorcycle Grand Prix since 1997. It will also be the first at Austria’s Red Bull Ring (formerly known as the A1-Ring) since it was rebuilt by Red Bull tycoon and motorsports supporter Dietrich Mateschitz. While the circuit has only nine turns, it features several long straights and lots of elevation changes. Look for a team like Honda or Ducati who favor horsepower over handling to perform well at the Red Bull Ring.
MotoGP will also see the introduction to several major rules changes that may have a mild or drastic impact on the series. The first of these is the switch from long-time control tire supplier Bridgestone to Michelin. The Bridgestone tires, though using a very soft compound that provided exceptional grip at MotoGP’s extreme lean angles, were also known to use a very hard carcass. This in part is what has lead to the high cornerspeed nature of riding a MotoGP bike. Michelin, which was last involved in the MotoGP World Championship in 2008, uses a very different approach to its involvement in professional motorsports. After leaving Formula 1 in 2006, Michelin has adopted a high return on investment strategy with its motorsports efforts. While Michelin has courted Formula 1 about returning as a tire supplier, it has demanded the use of 18-inch rims in place of Formula 1’s current 13-inch rims. Michelin’s argument is the larger rim is consistent with modern road-going cars. That similarity would allow it to apply what it learned from developing and testing Formula 1 tires in its consumer products. For MotoGP, Michelin is adopting the same approach and is moving MotoGP from 16.5-inch rims to 17-inch rims. The 16.5-inch rims allow for the incredible lean angles MotoGP machines exhibit. However, modern sportbikes and naked bikes almost universally use 17-inch rims. It will be interesting to see not only how much it will affect MotoGP riders and lap times, but also if it will affect the visual beauty of the on-track product.
The other major rule change for the 2016 MotoGP season will be the introduction of a standardized electronic control unit (ECU) and associated systems. This is something the factory teams, particularly Honda, have fought against for years. The goal of this rule change is to cut costs and allow the newer factory teams (Aprilia and Suzuki) and the non-factory teams to be more competitive against the big three (Honda, Yamaha, and Ducati). This is similar to the approach Formula 1 used when it banned traction control in 2009. However, unlike the Formula 1 approach, where an outside vendor (Microsoft) was engaged and partnered with only one team, MotoGP ECU partner Magneti Marelli has worked with all three of the big factory teams to design the ECU software. Fans have lamented for years the very in-line nature of MotoGP racing since the advent of modern electronic rider aids. Many MotoGP fans may recall the tire-smoking days of the 990cc engines from 2002 to 2006. Valentino Rossi has reportedly stated that the new electronics package has taken electronic rider aids back to 2008 levels. It will be interesting to see whether the non-factory and newer factory teams will be able to make up ground over the next 2-3 seasons, as well as if there are any teething problems with the new system under the intensity of race conditions. For a more detailed discussion of the new electronics systems, see: (https://motomatters.com/analysis/2015/09/08/everything_you_wanted_to_know_about_moto.html). In short, the bikes will be more difficult to ride because the electronic aids will not be able to help the riders control their bike’s power delivery.
One smaller rule change will see the end of the Open class in MotoGP. All bikes will now be governed by the same rules regarding fuel allocation and electronic rider aids. The only remaining rules disparity will be regarding engines. The big three will be limited to seven engines for the 2016 season (for 18 rounds) and will have their engine development frozen at the start of the season. The remaining teams will have use of 12 engines and will be allowed to continue engine development throughout the season. This could be huge for a newer factory team like Aprilia and especially Suzuki, which was down on top-end power throughout its 2015 campaign.
Moviestar Yamaha MotoGP – Jorge Lorenzo (#99), Valentino Rossi (#46): The reigning world champion rider and team return as the preseason favorite to repeat their 2015 triumphs. In testing at the Sepang Circuit in Malaysia, Lorenzo was around one second faster than his teammate and 9-time world champion Rossi. Despite the level of electronic sophistication being seriously curtailed and Lorenzo spending more time on the edge of the tire than most other MotoGP riders, Lorenzo has shown an early ability to adapt to the new technological environment. While Rossi was off of Lorenzo’s pace, he was still among the fastest riders in testing. Yamaha may in itself have a major advantage heading into the 2016 season as well. While the other factory teams have favored top-end power and speed down a straightaway as the path to long-term road racing success, Yamaha has historically favored a bike with strong handling characteristics and speed through corners. This approach may make the Yamaha less susceptible to the reduced ability of the ECU to manage the engine’s power delivery. However, Yamaha’s dependency on good handling may be adversely affected by the new Michelin tires. The last time Michelin was in MotoGP, Rossi demanded Yamaha allow him to race Bridgestone tires instead of the Michelins that the Yamaha team had used in previous seasons. For the 2008 season, rookie Lorenzo was relegated to the Michelin tires while Rossi went on to claim his eighth world championship. Keep an eye on how Rossi and Lorenzo adapt to the Michelins and how well they are able to maintain their race pace at tight, twisty circuits like Assen, Misano, and Valencia.
Repsol Honda – Marc Marquez (#93), Dani Pedrosa (#26): Honda had a lackluster 2015 season, where its star and two-time world champion Marquez had to revert to using Honda’s 2014 chassis with its 2015-spec engine. With the same rider line-up returning and having learned from its 2015 failures, look for Honda to have a bounce-back season. However, the new spec electronics package may put a damper on that. While Honda will likely solve its handling problems, Honda also furiously fought against Dorna with regard to any regulation of electronic rider aids. Honda’s ferocity may be an indication of its reliance on electronics for its pace. If Honda engineers cannot master the new system before engine development is frozen, Honda may have to wait another year for a return to dominance.
Another story that will be interesting to follow will be how Marquez responds to the off-season discussion of his infamous incident with Rossi at the Sepang round last season. More than one MotoGP rider accused Marquez of riding dangerously and intentionally trying to slow down Rossi at Phillip Island and Sepang. Marquez has been known as an aggressive rider, in much the same way as the late Marco Simoncelli was when he broke into MotoGP in 2010. It will be interesting to see if this is the year Marquez begins to tone down his aggression on the track, or if his agitation towards Rossi carries into 2016.
Ducati Racing Team – Andrea Dovizioso (#4), Andrea Iannone (#29): The iconic Italian mark returns its all-Italian rider line-up for the 2016 campaign. Having not won a grand prix in 2013, 2014, or 2015, Ducati will be able to continue its engine development throughout the 2016 season. Iannone finished fifth in the 2015 championship, and was the highest finishing rider behind the Honda and Yamaha factory riders. Look for Ducati to continue to make inroads against the two big Japanese teams under the leadership of Team Principal Gigi Dall’Igna. After taking the Aprilia World Superbike to two championships in 2010 and 2012 despite having only re-entered superbike racing in 2009 with a completely new machine, Dall’Igna will look to continue working similar magic with a team that has not been able to perform without rider Casey Stoner. Also noteworthy is Stoner’s return to the Bologna-Panigale outfit after spending the last three seasons as a test rider for Honda. Despite both current riders’ Italian heritage, it will be interesting to see what affect Stoner has both on the bike and the team in his return. Stoner left grand prix motorcycle racing at the peak of his career because of his disdain for the job’s many corporate engagements. It remains to be seen whether Ducati will use Stoner as a racer in select rounds this season, or as a full-time rider in 2017.
Team Suzuki Ecstar – Maverick Vinales (#25), Aleix Espargaro (#41): Having returned with a completely new bike that it spent the better part of two years developing, Suzuki’s 2015 season was solid but underwhelming. Returning riders Vinales and Espargaro regularly finished in the points, but struggled to consistently make the top 10 until later in the season. Suzuki is a much smaller factory than the likes of its Japanese brethren Honda and Yamaha, so progress may take more time than some fans expect. Both Vinales and Espargaro are proven riders at the Moto2 level, and Espargaro had a great run on the Forward-Yamaha package in 2014. One advantage Suzuki may have is experience with the new electronics package. Looking to the future, Suzuki ran Magneti Marelli electronics packages with both its MotoGP and World Superbike teams in 2015. While neither team performed very well with the systems, look for Suzuki to make steady progress in 2016 toward the mid-pack.
Aprilia Racing Team Gresini – Stefan Bradl (#6), Alvaro Bautista (#19): While struggling mightily in 2015, this team may be poised to make progress in 2016. With proven rider Stefan Bradl and the fast but inconsistent Alvaro Bautista at the helm of its machines, Aprilia’s 2016 challenger is reported to be a completely new design (not a derivative of its RSV4 superbike machine). Like Suzuki, look for Aprilia to make progress as the season progresses, but not move up the grid as much.
Monster Yamaha Tech 3 – Bradley Smith (#38), Pol Espargaro (#44): Perhaps the strongest of the satellite teams, Tech 3 returns its 2015 rider line-up of Brit Bradley Smith and Spaniard Pol Espargaro. Smith emerged last season as the team leader, consistently finishing in or near the top 5 while scoring a podium at the Misano round. Espargaro, the 2013 Moto2 Champion, was consistently in the top 10 but also retired from five of 18 grands prix. Look for Tech 3 to continue its recent history of being the cream of the satellite crop and even challenge for podiums if one of the Honda or Yamaha riders DNF’s.
LCR Honda – Cal Crutchlow (#35): As the official Honda Satellite team with the Gresini team taking on Aprilia factory equipment, the LCR ride is one of the most coveted in MotoGP. It is odd then that the seat belongs to the talented and entertaining but inconsistent Brit Cal Crutchlow. The 2009 World Supersport Champion, Crutchlow has bounced around MotoGP since entering the class in 2011. Crutchlow spent three seasons with Tech 3, constantly complaining about not having the same equipment as the factory Yamaha machines. Crutchlow rode for the Ducati factory team in 2014, before leaving for the satellite Honda ride at LCR in 2015. Crutchlow has shown he has speed on MotoGP machinery, which is something many former World Superbike riders (Ben Spies, James Toseland, Colin Edwards, and Troy Bayliss) have not historically shown on a consistent basis. Crutchlow has amassed eight podiums in 72 grands prix, while retiring from 26 of those races. It will be interesting to see what LCR does mid-season if Crutchlow remains inconsistent. Also, LCR dropped the second bike it ran in the 2015 season with Jack Miller, and will run a single bike in 2016.
MarcVDS Racing Team (Honda) – Jack Miller (#43), Tito Rabat (#53): While MarcVDS fielded its first entry in MotoGP last season, it is anything but new to racing. The team has been competing in sports car racing since the late 2000’s and the Moto2 class since 2010. Having run a single Honda satellite bike in 2015 with 2013 Moto2 runner-up Scott Redding, MacVDS will upgrade to a two bike effort for 2016 with 2014 Moto3 Champion Jack Miller and 2014 Moto2 Champion Tito Rabat as its riders. While inconsistently in the top 10 with Redding at the helm in 2015 (with one podium at Misano), look for this team to consistently be in the top 10 in 2016, but advancing beyond that will be difficult.
The three satellite Ducati teams below are not expected to make much of an impact in 2016. The one exception to this may be Danilio Petrucci. Petrucci scored a podium at the Silverstone race in 2015, and was consistently in or near the top 10. Petrucci’s teammate Redding may also challenge for the top 10 occasionally. However, all three of these teams are reported to be running 2014 or 2015-spec Ducati machines, which have not proven to be as consistently fast as the Honda and Yamaha satellite equipment. Also notable is the new partnership between Russian motorsports team Yakhnich and the Pramac team. Yakhnich won the 2013 World Supersport title with Sam Lowes in a factory-supported Yamaha, and was operating MV Agusta’s World Superbike and World Supersport efforts until mid-2014. Look for the Pramac squad to outperform the other Ducati satellite teams.
Octo Pracmac Yakhnich (Ducati) — Danilio Petrucci (#9), Scott Redding (#45)
Aspar MotoGP Team (Ducati) — Eugene Laverty (#50), Yonny Hernandez (#68)
Avintia Racing (Ducati) — Hector Barbera (#8), Loris Baz (#76)