Title photo: Cal Crutchlow/Facebook
This Sunday, on March 10, the 2019 MotoGP season gets officially underway, with the first race of the season running, as always, under the lights of Qatar’s Losail International Circuit.
Given the forces at play here – big money, incredibly talented riders, potentially lethal speed – the GP season is always thrilling, and full of unknowns. Here are some of our biggest questions heading into this year’s race season.
Can Marc Marquez continue his domination?
Honda factory rider and 2018 champ Marc Marquez just turned 26. In the past few years, he’s dominated the sport more than any other rider. Honda has built its team around him, and understandably so. He’s proven a ruthless, talented winner, with a 125 cc world title, a Moto2 title, and five MotoGP championships. But how long can it last?
The answer is probably no change for now unless one of two things happens.
First, the competition seems to grow increasingly happy over Marquez’s penchant for barging into them, then calling it a racing incident. It’s possible to imagine an incident where the penalty for such a tangle could result in a big chunk of missed races for Marquez, costing him the title. But as he’s the Golden Boy of the series, it would have to be particularly egregious for Race Direction to take that action, and it’s hard to imagine a competitor muscling Marquez around in a race to the point of wrecking him. Such a move would be bad for everybody involved.
The other possibility, and much more likely, is that Marquez will suffer another injury, possibly another shoulder separation, and miss enough races that the competition passes him. All it took was a pat on the back to dislocate his shoulder after the 2018 Japanese GP. Seriously.
However, even in seasons where he’s missed time, Marquez has shown he’s capable of winning the title, so again, this isn’t a guarantee to cost him the title, unless his new teammate steps up his game. Speaking of which …
Can Jorge Lorenzo win at Honda?
Perhaps the biggest contract shocker from last year was when Jorge Lorenzo signed with the Honda factory team, taking Dani Pedrosa’s #2 spot on the squad. While Lorenzo was scary-fast when he raced for Yamaha’s factory team, he’d had a pretty poor start to 2018 on the Ducati factory team. Everyone seemed ready to write him off. Then, after a few mid-season tweaks to the bike, he was suddenly blazing through the pack again, and went from having no future with Ducati to landing a seat on the top MotoGP team.
The Honda team has focused its effort on winning via Marquez for several years now. While Pedrosa was an all-time great rider, he wasn’t the big shot on the team, and when he was in a position to challenge for the championship, he invariably found a way to screw it up by falling off a bike and breaking bones. In other words, Marquez has been challenged by other teams, but not really from within his own.
That’s going to change this year. Lorenzo has a completely different style than Marquez, but he’s capable of beating him. In 2015, he became the only racer to ever beat out Marquez to win a MotoGP championship. Lorenzo missed the Sepang test with a scaphoid fracture, and he’s realistic enough to know he’s not a favourite to win this year. But providing things don’t turn into an immediate disaster, this could become one of the most interesting teammate battles we’ve seen in years, if Lorenzo can find speed on the Honda.
Is Valentino Rossi a cyborg?
Valentino Rossi just turned 40, and he’s still got another year on his contract at the Yamaha factory team. Does that mean he’s too old for MotoGP?
Nope! He finished third overall in 2018, a step up from fifth overall in 2017. The Doctor might not have taken a championship for 10 years, but the desire to win is still burning strong. (So strong, in fact, that he was once again moaning in the news about missed opportunities to win titles in 2006 and 2015. Sure, Vale, you might have been shafted in the past, but don’t you think it’s time to move on?).
Anyway, we’ll be watching Rossi with lots of interest in 2019. He might not have the same speed as the other podium contenders, but his racecraft is still amazing. If his body holds together for another year, we’ll be wondering — is it really a man we’re watching, or something out of Blade Runner or the Terminator films? Rossi is speculating about signing yet another contract when this one’s over at the end of the 2020 season, so you can bet he’ll be pressing as hard as he can this year, despite allegedly being past his best-before date.
Can KTM back up its smack talk?
When Honda released Dani Pedrosa at his retirement, instead of keeping him on as a test rider, KTM snapped up the experienced racer. A sensible move, right? But the follow-up is bizarre, with KTM boss Stefan Pierer turning the signing into a reality-TV-worthy move, trash-talking Honda’s team.
Here’s what Pierer said at the KTM factory team’s 2019 launch: “Unlike the Japanese … We stand by our people in good times and bad times. When a rider gets hurt, you stand by him.
“You have to imagine that Dani Pedrosa was released overnight after 14 years with Honda. How narrow-minded can you be? … And why does he come to us? Because he saw … that here, people stand together. What others do with money, I try to achieve with the family.”
Bold words indeed, for a team that only put one rider on the podium last year! And with a pretty decent budget, too. Can Team Orange back up its boss’s smack talk with a win this year? We’ll see. But we have a suspicion Pierer was just feeling his oats after once again stomping all over Honda at Dakar, and he may have to eat humble pie when Big Red once again shows just how it’s done in MotoGP.
Will we see a new challenger this season?
For the past few years, there have been hints that one rider or another could become the next big thing, usually some hotshot from Moto2 that the factories hope will rise to challenge Marquez.
So far, it hasn’t happened. From what we’ve seen so far, we’re not betting on it happening this year either.
However, there is always the chance we might see a rider rise from the middle of the pack thanks to a mysterious mind-meld with an improved motorcycle. Danilo Petrucci set a lap record at the Sepang test — maybe he’s going to startle everyone this year aboard the Ducati? What about the Suzuki team, which has restructured itself into a new entity similar to the Honda Racing Corporation? With funding less of an issue, might Alex Rins take advantage of the Suzook’s improved engine and aerodynamics? What about Maverick Vinales, who was disappointed with his 2018 results? Maybe Yamaha will have sorted out the bike issues that held him back?
Marquez may be a roadracing alien, but if any other factory riders really click with their bikes from the start, we could see a fantastic season-long battle, instead of the usual press toward the season’s end when a motorcycle is better configured for an individual racer.
What sneaky tech is coming in 2019?
One of the most interesting rumours this year is that Ducati is building a device that immobilizes a bike’s front suspension to make it easier to grab a holeshot, by limiting wheelie action. This sort of thing has been in offroad racing for a while, and has indeed been tried out in other roadracing series. Could the Ducati innovation destroy the competition in earlier races, until the other factories adopt similar tech (or more likely, complain and have it banned)? Or are we going to go back to arguing over winglets? Stay tuned …
Is this the end of Andrea Iannone’s career?
Andrea Iannone has scads of raw talent, but his win-it-or-bin-it approach now finds him on the weak Aprilia factory squad. Not a sign of a promising career, for sure. But to make things even more interesting, Iannone missed a bunch of the Sepang test over what were allegedly complications from surgery. Not surgery for a race injury, though — plastic surgery.
While the official line was that it was some sort of tooth infection, the consensus is that Iannone went to get his face altered again (he’s been doing this for a while now) and that complications meant he couldn’t complete the test. A bizarre situation indeed, with some MotoGP fans throwing all sorts of shade at Iannone, and other fans saying they should be pitying him, as they claim he’s mentally ill, or desperately trying to get his ex-girlfriend back by changing his face. Seriously, that’s one of the allegations.
Who’s to say what’s really true? All we know is, if the rumour is true, then expect Iannone’s team to be seriously thinking about cutting him loose, if he doesn’t rack up some serious points this year. Bradley Smith was quick to replace him at Sepang, and put down decent numbers. Iannone, meanwhile, managed to crash four times in pre-season testing, the most of any rider, despite less seat time. Who’d you rather have on your team: a perennial disappointment, or a hard-working Johnny-on-the spot?