Moto GP development is done, riders signed, testing over – this weekend at the Middle Eastern Losail Circuit in Qatar ‘the game is afoot’, as Sherlock Holmes famously said to Dr. Watson. And despite the amazing 2016 season, which had a remarkable nine different winners, 2017 is shaping up to be perhaps even better.
Preseason testing times have generally been fairly close, with all the bikes (including the new entries of Aprilia and KTM) at least meeting their in-house targets. The quality of the riders is stunning; as Bikesportnews.com points out, there are 10 former world champions in Moto GP this season, with a total of 29 world titles among them. And nine of those have won at the Moto GP level.
Plus, there are four rookies up from Moto 2 – Jonas Folger and Johann Zarco (twice Moto 2 champ) for Tech 3 Yamaha, Alex Rins for Suzuki, and Sam Lowes for Aprilia. All have done well, Folger and Zarco in particular adapting incredibly quickly to their new rides, Folger and Zarco in the top 10 at the final test two weeks ago.
All four rookies have declared their hopes of being in the top 10 on race days, with Folger optimistically aiming for a top five at some point. With 22 riders on the grid, mostly with vastly more experience and many on factory bikes, that’s going to take some doing.
The big technical change for 2017 is the banning of the wings that sprouted on most machines last year. The ban is intended for safety reasons, the safety commission deeming that having sharp-edged bits of carbon-fibre aimed at the nearest riders was not a good idea. All the factories have come up with various work-arounds: Aprilia, Suzuki, and Yamaha with wider fairings that incorporate interior ducting and aero surfaces (“winglets”), Honda trying a couple of different riveted-on covers with winglets inside, and Ducati – which started the whole wing thing – showing up with a massively ugly fairing immediately dubbed “the hammerhead.” with a huge nostril flanking each side of the central air intake on the fairing.
The teams are allowed to homologate two fairings for the season (with the exception of Aprilia and KTM, which are still new enough not to suffer from the same restrictions as the bigger teams), so what they’ll end up running at the first race is still something of a mystery.
The tires have changed somewhat as well. Michelin’s first year back in Moto GP was a bit harrowing for the French company, particularly after a couple of early-season rear tire failures prompted the firm to move to harder compounds and stiffer constructions for safety. As they learned more during the season they were able to back off a bit on that, which helped riders like Jorge Lorenzo who relies a great deal on high corner speeds at maximum lean angles, or Andrea Iannone who likes to brake hard and deep while turning (he’s already suffered several testing crashes from losing the front, so clearly the new Michelin fronts still aren’t quite to his liking).
So, briefly by make, in no particular order:
Yamaha, with new signing Maverick Vinales (fastest at every pre-season test) and Valentino Rossi is looking strong, with no apparent problems to overcome.
Honda is still struggling with an overly-hard power delivery from closed throttle; Marc Marquez is still not too happy with the revised engine, but his team-mate Dani Pedrosa seems more content, especially with the new Michelin front – Pedrosa is by far the smallest and lightest rider on the grid and last year had terrible trouble getting enough heat into the front.
Ducati is looking as strong as it’s been since its only world title with Casey Stoner back in 2008. New signing Jorge Lorenzo is a proven quantity, but whether he can make the bike work for him is the question. Andrea Dovizioso is back for his fifth season and knows the bike well, won a race last year, and should be near the front. And there are a host of very fast riders on satellite Ducatis to back them up, including Alvaro Bautista (who’s been spectacular so far on last year’s bike), Danilo Petrucci on a current GP17 model, and Scott Redding and Loris Baz.
Suzuki has two new signings in Iannone and Rins. Both have had up and down pre-seasons (literally!) but the bike is now a proven winner (under Vinales last season) and is generally considered the best-handling machine of the lot.
Aprilia has rookie Sam Lowes, who’s been methodical about learning his way around the bike, and Aleix Espargaro, who’s a good development rider and is definitely nursing a grudge against Suzuki for letting him go. If he and the bike have a good day, he could be in the mix.
The biggest question mark, of course, is the brand-new KTM team with Bradley Smith and Pol Espargaro in the saddles. KTM has eventually dominated pretty much every class of racing it’s ever entered, and while Moto GP is a steep hill to climb, nobody doubts they’ve got the ability and resources (with Red Bull drink money behind them) to do well eventually.
And to top off the mysteries of this first race weekend, it seems quite possible that it’ll rain – yes, in the middle of the Qatari desert. Rain has disrupted several Moto 2 and 3 tests this week, and the forecast is iffy enough that Michelin is bringing rain tires just in case. They’ve never raced in the rain under the lights (the Qatar race is at night to avoid the daytime heat), so if it does rain it’ll add a whole new dimension to the start of the season.