CIRCUIT RICARDO TORMO, Valencia, Spain – The 2017 Moto GP season got underway this month with a two-day test, just a couple of days after the final race of the 2016 session.
Many more riders than usual are changing seats and were getting their first chance to ride with their new teams, while those staying put were mostly getting their first look at engine and frame modifications for next year.
Given all that, the times are pretty meaningless, but it didn’t stop everyone from watching to see who’s fast and who isn’t. It was, after all, the first chance to start speculating about what will happen in the upcoming season, especially after the dramatic one we’ve just been through: there were nine different winners in Moto GP in 18 races, which hasn’t happened since (I believe) the early 1950s.
A big part of the close racing this year was due to two big technical changes, starting with it being Michelin’s first year as tire supplier after a decade of Bridgestone. All the riders on the grid had a massive education job as the French tires work a lot differently than the Japanese ones — in fact, only Valentino Rossi has been around long enough to remember racing on them. Particularly at the front, many riders had great trouble getting the necessary confidence to push hard, and there were a lot of front-end washouts all season.
The other big change was the so-called “unified software” introduced as mandatory for 2016. The idea was to wipe out the huge advantage (not to mention investment!) that Honda and Yamaha had over everyone else in their engine, transmission, and chassis management software. The big factories, of course, still have a lot more staff on hand to tweak the system – in fact, Ducati was expected to have a huge edge because its system was originally based on the simplified system mandated last year – but everyone was basically starting from scratch. Honda in particular seemed to have a lot of trouble, particularly in acceleration mode and controlling wheelies.
Michelin has learned a lot over the season, of course, and everyone now has had a year on its rubber. The teams also now have a year on the software, with several months yet to fiddle before the first 2017 race, so those two wild variables will be somewhat reduced.
Still, it’d be hard to bet against the usual crowd up front: Honda’s Marc Marquez, Yamaha’s Rossi, and Ducati’s new hire Jorge Lorenzo are always dangerous, and depending on the day, the weather, and the luck of the draw, Ducati’s Andrea Dovizioso, Suzuki’s new guy Andrea Iannone, LCR Honda privateer Cal Crutchlow, and (in my opinion, above all) Yamaha’s new guy Maverick Vinales could always be right there.
In fact, I’ll be surprised if Vinales isn’t in with a serious shout at next year’s title. Here’s hoping the journalist/commentator curse isn’t paying attention.
Having said all that, here’s a quick run-down on what happened in the two-day test after the final race at Valencia.
Aprilia: After a learning year, Aprilia hopes to get serious in 2017 with new hires Aleix Espargaro (from Suzuki) and Sam Lowes (from Moto 2). Espargaro was surprised by how good the bike felt, saying “it is already very competitive,” especially praising the handling. Sam Lowes had a tough time, crashing and hurting himself enough – although not seriously – that he sat out most of the test.
Ducati: The big thing here, of course, was Lorenzo’s first run on a Ducati: it’ll also be his last until the New Year, as Yamaha has barred him from further testing (team contracts typically run January 1-December 31, and testing for other teams after the racing is over is really just a gentleman’s agreement). Ducati’s racing boss Gigi Dall’Igna brought the new bike, the GP17, and had both Lorenzo and Andrea Dovizioso running that and this year’s GP16 for comparison. He seemed cautiously optimistic, while still saying there was a lot of work for Ducati and Lorenzo to adapt to one another in spite of Lorenzo putting in times comparable to his race pace on the factory Yamaha.
Honda: Marc Marquez and Dani Pedrosa are returning to the Repsol Honda team, and their work at Valencia was mostly trying out the new engine. It sounds much different, obviously using a “big-bang” vs a “screamer” configuration, but neither rider seemed overly impressed with it and avoided questions.
KTM: The new factory entry, with riders Pol Espargaro and Bradley Smith both transferring over from Tech 3 Yamaha, looked good if not yet up to speed. Test rider Mika Kallio had been running just out of the points in a wild-card entry in the last race, which was the team’s goal.
After their first runs, Smith said, “Walking into the KTM garage and seeing just how serious they are about this program and the number of people working together is very impressive.” He liked the chassis, and said he and Espargaro both had similar feelings about the engine and chassis direction, so is very excited about their possibilities.
Suzuki: Suzuki had a rough couple of days with their two new riders, Andrea Ianonne coming from Ducati and Spaniard Alex Rins from a somewhat uninspiring Moto 2 year. Both crashed heavily on the second day of the test, and while Iannone was lucky not to reinjure his still-healing back, Rins ended up in the hospital with two cracked vertebrae and will miss the only other test available before the December test ban.
Still, Iannone seemed pleased with his new ride, saying that, “I think the bike has a very good base.”
Yamaha: Lorenzo set pole and a new lap record before the race with a 1.29.401 lap time. The only riders to break into the 1.29s during the test were Yamaha’s new boy Vinales and triple world champion Marquez. Vinales’ result is clearly an ominous indicator for the rest of the field in 2017, including his famous team-mate Valentino Rossi, who said “I think it was a great debut for him.”
Rossi, on the other hand, spent most of his time working with a new engine spec and didn’t seem particularly enamoured of the new engine, saying that it still lacked acceleration, particularly when compared to the Ducatis.
LCR Honda: Two-time 2016 winner Cal Crutchlow spent most of his time comparing times between the old and new engines, apparently not finding a lot to choose between, while the team also worked on software strategies. He’s using a new-for-2016 frame that the factory boys didn’t like, says it’s night and day for him, and thinks that Marquez and Pedrosa should have another look at it.
Estrella-Galicia Honda: For the first time, both Jack Miller and Tito Rabat tried the frame Crutchlow was using, and were amazed by how much better it was for them.
Tech 3 Yamaha: New Moto 2 hires Jonas Folger and Johann Zarco were delighted with their introduction to Moto GP on the 2016 factory Yamahas they’ll have next year. Both were within a second of Vinales’ fast time, meeting their fondest hopes. Two-time Moto 2 champ Zarco said, “I was happy that [after] changing little things on the bike, I could ride the Yamaha bike, I could ride the bike better and also relax myself, because to be relaxed is also very important. In the end, we understood many things and I understood good things for the next test with Yamaha.”
Most of the teams are off to Jerez, also in Spain, next week, while Yamaha jets off to Sepang in Malaysia for a private test. Then all the busy work goes back into the workshops until the New Year while the annual testing ban is in place.