2017 MotoGP Season Preview


Introduction 

Usually when I am writing a MotoGP season preview, I am talking about two or three riders who are expected to dominate the championship, and everyone else is about a mile behind the leaders. Usually I am writing about how MotoGP’s reliance of laboratory bikes makes for less exciting racing than World Superbike. Usually, I am writing about the “aliens” of MotoGP (Lorenzo, Marquez, Pedrosa, and Rossi) returning for another year of domination at the front. However, 2016 was anything but the usual in MotoGP. 2016 may be the year we look back at as the year MotoGP was redefined. 2016 could also end up being an aberration that those of us fortunate enough to enjoy it will look back on fondly. In either case, MotoGP’s anything-but-ordinary 2016 season gave its fans something more gripping that even World Superbike has delivered in years past. It rejuvenated a series that had become too lopsided. In 2015, the defining moment of the MotoGP season was not a ballsy pass or the emergence of a new rising star. Rather it was a poor-quality soap opera-like drama show, where the immaturity of one star and another star’s short fuse resulted in the championship being decided by the stewards. The 2014 season was a year of Marquez domination, with Marquez’s championship-winning debut season in 2013 being the series’ last re-defining season.

Despite Marquez’s enormous impact on MotoGP, from his aggressive riding and elbow dragging to his soured relationship with Rossi, 2016 was a far more important season to MotoGP’s future than 2013 every could be. Yes, Marquez is an immensely talented rider who may one day be arguably the greatest grand prix motorcycle racer of all time. However, domination is not the underpinning of commercial success in motorsports: close competition is. 2016 was the godsend MotoGP knew it needed but, despite its best efforts, had failed to produce artificially.

2016 was witness to something far more important to top-level professional motorsports than greatness: hope. In years past, only a select few riders, teams, and manufacturers won races. While Marquez picked up his third top-class title in 2016, it was far from a dominating season. From the start of the 2007 season to the end of the 2015 season, five riders (Rossi, Lorenzo, Pedrosa, Marquez, and Stoner) won all but four grands prix. Ben Spies was the last “other” winner (Assen, 2011). Other than Casey Stoner’s wins for Ducati from 2007 to 2010, the only non-Honda or Yamaha-mounted riders to win races were Loris Capirossi (Ducati, Japan, 2007), and Chris Vermeulen (Suzuki, Le Mans [wet race], 2007).

In 2016, nine different riders (Marquez, Lorenzo, Rossi, Pedrosa, Crutchlow, Vinales, Miller, Dovizioso, and Iannone) won grands prix for six different teams (Honda, Yamaha, Ducati and Suzuki factory teams, LCR Honda, and MarcVDS Honda) representing four different manufacturers (Honda, Yamaha, Suzuki, Ducati). Crutchlow won two grands prix. It may be no coincidence that the greater parity in on-track success suddenly appeared when MotoGP transitioned to spec electronic control units (ECUs) for 2016. In any event, the 2016 MotoGP season was more than something different from past seasons. It has given the teams who used to be seconds behind the two big teams the hope that they can be at the front too. 2016 was more than just an aberration: it is blood in the water. In 2017, we should expect to see a rejuvenated paddock that will attack the championship with a ferocity that we have not seen in previous years.

 

Series Changes

The only major rules change for the 2017 MotoGP season concerns “winglets.” While we usually think of wings and downforce in the context of auto racing, MotoGP teams have gradually been integrating winglets into their bodywork designs. Ducati was one of the first to use the noticeable winglets to help prevent wheelieing in the early 2010s. Last season, winglets took on some extreme iterations, notably the factory Ducati and Yamaha squads.

This year’s schedule remains essentially unchanged. Brno (Czech Republic) and the Red Bull Ring (Austria) have swapped their order on the schedule. Otherwise, MotoGP will visit all of the same tracks they visited in 2016. Unlike previous seasons when the U.S. enjoyed hosting as many as three grands prix, the only U.S. race will be at Circuit of the Americas in April. The 2017 MotoGP calendar can be viewed here: http://www.motogp.com/en/calendar/

 

Teams 

Repsol Honda Team

Bike: Honda RC213V

Riders: Marc Marquez(#93) / Dani Pedrosa (#26)

This team needs no introduction. Marquez is now a three-time and reigning MotoGP world champion, having won his first championship in his rookie season and has won three of the last four MotoGP crowns. The elbow dragger had two strong tests at Valencia and Jerez, but ended up 10th fastest at the last test in Qatar. Marquez went on the record saying he feels better going into 2017 than he did going into 2016. As always, with the engineering prowess of Honda and his sheer talent, Marquez will be a definite threat to repeat as world champion in 2017.

Marquez’s teammate Dani Pedrosa is also well-known to Americans, though for less-than-memorable reasons. Pedrosa is entering his eleventh season with the factory Honda squad. His rookie season miscue where he took out eventual championship-winner and then-teammate Nicky Hayden at Estoril seems like a distant memory now. In his first eight seasons with Repsol Honda, Pedrosa has finished second or third in the riders’ championship seven times. However, since 2014, Pedrosa has finished no higher than fourth in the championship. Honda appears to be holding onto Pedrosa as its reliable #2 rider. Pedrosa has scored at least one win every season in MotoGP, the team’s Spanish petroleum sponsor Repsol would probably like to see the team feature two Spanish riders whenever possible. Pedrosa will likely be near the front again, but his consistent slide in performance makes one wonder how many more seasons Pedrosa will be able to hang onto one of the most coveted rides in the MotoGP paddock.

Honda was the most outspoken team on the issue of electronics the last several seasons. They were reported as being ready to quit the sport on more than one occasion if they were not allowed to use their own electronic rider aide package. Well, for Honda, that came to fruition last season, and they are still in the paddock. Honda did still take second in the constructors’ championship in 2016, 28 points behind Yamaha.

 

Moviestar Yamaha MotoGP

Bike: Yamaha YZR-M1

Riders:  Vinales (#25) / Rossi (#46)

The 2016 constructors’ champion is entering 2017 with more steam than they probably expected at the end of 2016. Most would have likely thought having to replace Jorge Lorenzo, who won three world championships in his nine years riding for the team, would be a tall order. While the 37 year-old Valentino Rossi actually led the team in points in 2016, Lorenzo’s past success and pace on the Yamaha were thought to be nearly impossible to replace. Then along came Maverick Vinales. Vinales, who is a former Moto3 world champion and the 2015 MotoGP Rookie of the Year, has showed immediate pace on the factory Yamaha machine. Vinales was the fastest overall rider in all three winter tests and won a race on the factory Suzuki last season. Look for Vinales to be at the front all season long in 2017. It remains to see how well Vinales will handle the pressure of a one of MotoGP’s most coveted rides. However, his past championship success in Moto3, success in his one season in Moto2 and young age (22) means we likely have not even seen Vinales’ full potential yet.

While Vinales may be one of MotoGP’s stars of the future, Vinales’ teammate remains the unequivocal face of MotoGP. Valentino Rossi, despite being the elder statesman of the MotoGP grid, is coming off a very strong season in 2016. The Doctor has shown that age does not feed on speed nor consistency. Rossi has finished the last three MotoGP seasons second in the riders’ championship, and likely had a legitimate shot at the 2015 title before his incident with Marquez at the Malaysian Grand Prix. However, off-season testing was not kind to Rossi. The Doctor was in the middle of the pack for most of the off-season testing sessions. Rossi finished the Valencia test seventh-fastest, Jerez fifth-fastest, and Qatar eleventh-fastest. At the Qatar test, Rossi was almost one second off of teammate Vinales’ pace. The Doctor has had a career of success by adjustment. But like an old clutch cable, could Rossi be coming to the end of range of adjustment? Rossi will likely still be at the front this season, but may not be there consistently for the early part of the season. It may be a matter of how quickly the Doctor’s team can master the new M1, as well as how much pace some of the other factory teams like Ducati have picked up over the offseason.

 

Ducati Team

Bike: Ducati Desmosedici GP17

Riders: Jorge Lorenzo (#99) / Andrea Dovizioso (#04)

But for Maverick Vinales’ unexpected pace at Yamaha, Jorge Lorenzo’s move to Ducati would likely be taking all of the MotoGP headlines. After nine years and three world championships with the factory Yamaha squad, Lorenzo is attempting to do what Rossi failed to do during the 2011 and 2012 seasons: Win on a Ducati. The Ducati team is in much better shape now that it was during Rossi’s short tenure, as it is coming off of its highest team points total since 2008 and won races for the first time since the Stoner era in 2010. Testing started slow for Lorenzo in Valencia, as the Ducati is a very different bike from the Yamaha. Lorenzo finished eighth-fastest in Valencia, ninth-fastest in Jerez, and fourth-fastest in Qatar. Lorenzo’s raw talent may allow him to be a consistent threat for podiums, but there is likely to be a bit of a learning curve on the Duc.

Lorenzo will team with returning Ducati rider Andrea “Dovi” Dovizioso. Dovi scored one of Ducati’s two wins in 2016, and got his first career MotoGP win all the way back in 2009 during his short tenure as a factory Honda rider. Dovi has shown consistent pace on the Honda, satellite Tech 3 Yamaha, and Ducati, relative to each machine’s potential. As the rider who had input into the development into the GP17, Dovi will be a threat for wins at tracks that suit the Ducati (Austria, Sepang), and will be a barometer that Lorenzo’s ability to adapt to the Italian machine will be measured by.

 

Aprilia Racing Team Gresini

Bike: Aprilia RS-GP

Riders: Alex Espargaro (#41) / Sam Lowes (#22)

Aprilia’s return to MotoGP as a full participant has been a bit dismal. The Gresini-Aprilia pairing has scored only 111 points over their two seasons together, and are already on their fifth and sixth different riders. Despite Gresini’s past success in several classes of grand prix racing, and Aprilia’s success in World Superbike, the RS-GP has failed to live up to the hype so far. For 2017, the RS-GPs will be piloted by riders Sam Lowes and Aleix Espargaro. Lowes is the 2013 World Supersport champion who has had some success in his three Moto2 seasons. Lowes scored two wins last season in Moto2, and finished fifth in that championship before being promoted to Gresini’s top-class squad. Espargaro is coming off of a disappointing season with the factory Suzuki team. He was comprehensively outperformed by them-teammate Maverick Vinales, finishing the season with 93 points compared to Vinales’ 202. In preseason testing, Espargaro was often mid-pack, while Lowes found himself near the bottom of the time sheets. While incremental improvements in performance are possible in 2017, preseason testing seems to indicate Aprilia have not taken the steps they needed to in the off-season to become a real threat in MotoGP.

 

Red Bull KTM Factory Racing

Bike: KTM RC16

Riders: Bradley Smith (#38) / Pol Espargaro (#44)

KTM is entering its very first season in MotoGP. Despite its success in the lower classes of grand prix racing and in the off-road competition, first seasons in top-class grand prix racing are usually disappointing. It appears KTM may be following that trend. KTM have opted to use a trellis steel frame for their machines. The remainder of MotoGP teams use aluminum perimeter frames. Ducati was the last team to use the steel trellis design before it moved over to carbon fiber in the late 2000s. It remains to be seen whether KTM has something in mind that Ducati did not, or whether this may be a short stint in MotoGP for KTM.

One thing KTM did very well was put quality talent on their machines. The team signed both Tech 3 riders from last season (Bradley Smith and Pol Espargaro). Smith is known for being among the most intelligent riders in the MotoGP paddock, and Espargaro is coming off a relatively strong season where he was the second-highest finishing non-factory rider behind Crutchlow. KTM’s performance in winter testing reflected their rookie status, with all test riders consistently finishing near the bottom of the time sheets. Though not much is to be expected from the Austrian squad, this will be a pivotal year for the team. How they respond to what they learn this year may well dictate the mark’s future fortunes in MotoGP.

 

Team Suzuki Ecstar

Bike: Suzuki GSX-RR

Riders: Andrea Iannone (#29) / Alex Rins (#42)

The relatively young factory Suzuki squad is coming off an unexpectedly positive 2016 season. While the team’s fastest rider (Maverick Vinales) has moved on to the Yamaha factory effort, the team scored its first win since 2007 and had its most successful season since it ended its two-year hiatus from grand prix racing in 2014. The team signed two new riders for 2017. Andrea Iannone moves over to Suzuki from the factory Ducati outfit after a successful yet forgettable 2016 season. Iannone’s success in achieving Ducati’s first win since 2010 at the Red Bull Ring last season was overshadowed by his submarine move on then-teammate Andrea Dovizioso in the closing stages of the Argentine Grand Prix, erasing a sure double-podium for Ducati. Iannone will be teamed with MotoGP rookie Alex Rins. Rins was the runner-up in the 2013 Moto3 championship, and has finished second or third in the last three Moto2 championships. Rins and Iannone were very close in the last two preseason tests. Look for Suzuki to continue to build on its success last season with its recent experience, past success in grand prix racing, and young talent. While wins may be a stretch for the team without the tremendously fast Vinales behind the bars, Suzuki will likely see at least one of their riders consistently in the top five. Podiums are possible depending on what happens with the frontrunners.

 

LCR Honda

Bike: Honda RC213V

Riders: Cal Crutchlow (#35)

2016 was a year of completely unexpected success for Crutchlow and LCR Honda. Crutchlow, who is the 2007 World Supersport champion and is entering his seventh season in MotoGP, has been known as a rider who has immense talent who does not always have the machinery underneath him to allow his full potential to be shown. While Crutchlow only moved up one place in the riders’ world championship between 2015 and 2016, last season saw Crutchlow take a pair of wins. For LCR, it was the team’s first two wins in its eleven year tenure in grand prix motorcycle racing’s top class. For 2017, Crutchlow returns to the team, and will again be paired with a factory-supported Honda RC213V. In preseason testing, Crutchlow showed consistent pace, but was still a little bit behind the frontrunners. He finished inside of the top 10, but outside of the top five, in all three preseason tests. While it may be difficult for Crutchlow to repeat his 2016 success, look for Crutchlow to challenge for podiums occasionally in 2017.

 

Monster Yamaha Tech 3

Bike: Yamaha YZR-M1

Riders: Johann Zarco (#5) / Jonas Folger (#94)

Yamaha’s French-based satellite team gets a complete makeover with its 2017 rider line-up. With both of its 2016 riders moving over to the new KTM factory team, Tech 3 secured the services of two-time and reigning Moto2 world champion Johann Zarco and Moto2 stand-out Jonas Folger for the 2017 season. Despite being bitter rivals in Moto2 for the last several seasons, they will share the Tech 3 garage and contest the 2017 top-class championship aboard year-old Yamaha YZF-M1s. Look for both riders to be mid-pack most of the season while they learn the ropes in MotoGP, much like both riders were in preseason testing. The two may reignite their fierce rivalry this season or in 2018 if and when it becomes clear that Rossi may hang up the leathers at the Yamaha factory team.

 

Other Teams 

The teams below are privateer or satellite teams who are not expected to be major contributors to the 2017 championship. The lone major participant in the 2016 championship from this group was Jack Miller. Miller grabbed a very unexpected win in mixed conditions at Assen last season. Miller was a standout in Moto3 before being promoted directly to the MotoGP class. Miller’s teammate Rabat, the 2014  Moto2 world champion, has yet to demonstrate his talent in the MotoGP class. Both riders will return to the team for 2017 aboard satellite Honda machinery. The three Ducati satellite teams will campaign several different iterations of past and present MotoGP chassis. The only rider to get current-year equipment is Danilo Petrucci, who has shown glimpses of speed, mostly in mixed or wet conditions. Petrucci’s teammate Redding, the 2013 Moto2 runner-up, has yet to show that same pace in the MotoGP class. He has slipped over the past couple of seasons, falling from 12th to 13th to 15th in the riders’ championship over his three seasons in MotoGP. Barring something unforeseen, none of the remaining riders are expected to make even occasional challenges for top fives or podiums in 2017.

 

EG 0,0 MarcVDS Racing

Bike: Honda RC213V

Riders: Jack Miller (#43) /  Tito Rabat (#53)

 

Octo Pramac Racing

Bike: Ducati Desmosedici GP17 / Ducati Desmosedici GP16

Riders: Danilo Petrucci (#9) / Scott Redding (#45)

 

Reale Avintina Racing

Bike: Ducati Desmosedici GP16 / Ducati Desmosedici GP15

Riders: Hector Barbera (#8) / Loris Baz (#76)

 

Pull&Bear Aspar Team

Bike: Ducati Desmosedici GP15 / Ducati Desmosedici GP16

Riders: Karel Abraham (#17) / Alvaro Bautista (#19)

 

 

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