The 5 best MotoGP riders of 2016

Who shone the brightest on two wheels in 2016, and why?

THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED ON REDBULL.COM.AU

It’s been the season to trump all seasons in the MotoGP world championship – 25 winners across all three world championship categories, with an unheard-of nine winners in the premier class alone. Decades-long droughts were broken, rising stars emerged, order was restored at the top of the standings, and a host of rider changes after the season finale in Valencia already have us licking our lips for 2017.

That’s for the future, but what about the past? Who were the five best riders in MotoGP this year, and why? We’ve looked at the grid statistically, chronologically and analytically, with the riders themselves weighing in on their seasons. Let’s count them down from five to one.

5. Cal Crutchlow

The stats
Points/championship position: 141, seventh
Wins: 2 (Czech Republic, Australia)
Podiums: 4
Poles: 1
Fastest laps: 3
Head-to-head vs teammate in qualifying/race: N/A (LCR Honda had only one bike on the 2016 grid)

The summary
Crutchlow’s 2016 started and ended with a whimper – he had just five points after the opening five races, and he crashed out of the last two Grands Prix in Malaysia and Valencia. But between the misery came occasional mastery – his wins at Brno and Phillip Island were from the top shelf – while from Germany in round nine to Australia in round 16, the Brit scored 121 points; only Marc Marquez (128) managed more in that same span. His victory at Brno – the first for a British rider since Barry Sheene in 1981 – was his day of days. While Crutchlow finished behind Andrea Dovizioso and Dani Pedrosa in the standings, it’s hard to argue he didn’t have higher points than both.

The quote
“There have been a lot of races this year where I’ve been able to battle with the other factory guys. Looking at the other satellite bikes, they haven’t battled with their factory guys. So we have to take credit for that on a package that I don’t believe is good as the other satellite teams.”
– Crutchlow after the season

The expert: Chris Vermeulen
“Both ends of the season were about the same for Crutchlow, but the middle of it was really strong. To my mind he was the biggest improver of the year. At the start of the year, he was inconsistent and not quick, but he got things together after he started to do some testing, at the Red Bull Ring for Honda and a tyre test at Sepang and got to try some different chassis. To be first independent team rider, he had a good year.”
Grand Prix winner Chris Vermeulen is a TV analyst for Fox Sports in Australia

4. Jorge Lorenzo

The stats
Points/championship position: 233, third
Wins: 4 (Qatar, France, Italy, Valencia)
Podiums: 10
Poles: 4
Fastest laps: 2
Head-to-head vs teammate in qualifying: Lorenzo 9, Rossi 9
Head-to-head vs teammate in race: Lorenzo 8, Rossi 9 (neither finished in Japan)
Points compared to teammate: Lorenzo 233, Rossi 249

The summary
Three wins in the first six races had Lorenzo’s title defence on track, but the cold and rainy European summer exposed his greatest weakness – a lack of confidence in the wet brought on by too many painful memories of painful crashes, and an inability to find the edge grip with Michelin’s tyres that makes him, on his day, untouchable. Tenth at Assen and a depressing 15th at the Sachsenring (where he finished 77 seconds behind race-winner Marquez and admitted he “didn’t feel safe”) were the low points, while crashing in Japan officially ended his title quest. He signed off on nine years in Yamaha blue with a signature lights-to-flag win at Valencia, where no-one could get near him. The challenge of dragging Ducati back to the summit, where the Italian manufacturer hasn’t been since Casey Stoner in 2007, is next.

The quote
“During the race you spend 45 minutes completely focused on what you are doing to dominate this bike, so when you cross the line you aren’t very emotional yet and you don’t think too much. After two or three minutes I started remembering the best moments in my career and also the hard moments, and in parc ferme it was very emotional with my team.”
– Lorenzo after his final race for Yamaha in Valencia

The expert: Chris Vermeulen
“It was more than just the rain with Lorenzo at Assen, Sachsenring and Brno, it was the cold as well. It’s all about temperature in the tyres for him. When it got cold and wet and they lost temperature out of the tyres, Lorenzo just couldn’t use his riding style. When he has that edge grip and the temperature is higher, he’s just so consistent, look at the last race at Valencia. When he has everything to his liking, he’s very, very hard to beat.”

3. Valentino Rossi

The stats
Points/championship position: 249, second
Wins: 2 (Spain, Catalunya)
Podiums: 10
Poles: 3
Fastest laps: 2
Head-to-head vs teammate in qualifying: Rossi 9, Lorenzo 9
Head-to-head vs teammate in race: Rossi 9, Lorenzo 8 (neither finished in Japan)
Points compared to teammate: Rossi 249, Lorenzo 233

The summary
A third straight year as the bridesmaid rather than the bride for ‘The Doctor’, as he was championship runner-up again, that 10th world title remaining agonisingly out of reach. Four non-finishes, three of them from self-inflicted crashes in Austin, Assen and Japan, were very uncharacteristic of the super-consistent Italian, but it was his engine blow-up at Mugello where a win looked very likely that saw him fall more than a race win’s worth of points from the series lead, and he was on the back foot thereafter. While Rossi bounced back from his home heartbreak to win next time out at Catalunya, Yamaha managed just one more victory (Lorenzo in the season finale at Valencia) in the final 11 races, and 249 points was Rossi’s lowest haul since 2013.

The quote
“2016 brought a lot of positive things; second place in the championship, a lot of podiums and front row starts. Next year I want to try to win more races, more than two, but we are always competitive. Unfortunately I made some mistakes and I was a bit unlucky with the engine in Mugello so I was a bit too far behind in the championship, but anyway it was a good season.”
– Rossi after Valencia

The expert: Mick Doohan
“I haven’t seen him this enthusiastic about going racing since I first saw him come into MotoGP – he’s not getting any younger, but he’s not getting any slower. I’ve got no idea why he’s that keen to be pushing himself this far after 20 years at the top end of the sport, but whatever it is, it’s good for the sport. He’s certainly why everyone turns on the television or shows up at the gate to buy a ticket.”
Mick Doohan is a five-time 500cc world champion and winner of 54 Grands Prix

2. Maverick Vinales

The stats
Points/championship position: 202, fourth
Wins: 1 (Great Britain)
Podiums: 4
Poles: 0
Fastest laps: 2
Head-to-head vs teammate in qualifying: Vinales 13, Aleix Espargaro 5
Head-to-head vs teammate in race: Vinales 16, Espargaro 2
Points compared to teammate: Vinales 202, Espargaro 93

The summary
Vinales ahead of Rossi and Lorenzo? The second-best rider in a season where he won one race? We say yes, and yes. Vinales had never stepped onto a MotoGP podium before this season, finishing 12th in the 2015 standings as he cut his premier-class teeth while Suzuki found its feet on its return to the top flight. But this year, his star shone. Vinales was set to take a maiden MotoGP podium in round two in Argentina but crashed, but third in round five at Le Mans quickly fixed that. He absolutely annihilated teammate Espargaro on the same bike (only once, at Jerez, did the older Spaniard beat the younger one in a race where Vinales finished), and his win at the British GP seemed a long time coming, a strange thing to say about a rider who was making his 30th MotoGP start at Silverstone. Vinales standing atop a MotoGP podium just looked normal, and like something we’ll see many times in years to come. It’ll be fascinating how the 21-year-old gets on with new teammate Rossi when he takes the Yamaha ride vacated by Lorenzo for next season.

The quote
“Overall, think I have grown up a lot as a rider. And also, the first year was really difficult, really tough and hard for me. But this year, we could demonstrate that we improve the level a lot, I improve a lot as a rider. Not only on the bike, but also in the box, working harder. Being fourth in the championship, we did really well.”
– Vinales after Valencia

The expert: Kevin Schwantz
“To put the Suzuki up front was a major accomplishment for him, but when he gets to Yamaha, he’s going to be expected to be at the front. It’s going to be more pressure on him, and I think being in the garage next to Valentino is always going to be something that could intimidate you. But it’ll be interesting to see, because I think Maverick is a huge talent. I wish he would have stayed at Suzuki, but it’ll be interesting to see if he can make everything work at Yamaha.”
– Kevin Schwantz is the 1993 500cc world champion

1. Marc Marquez

The stats
Points/championship position: 298, first
Wins: 5 (Argentina, USA, Germany, Aragon, Japan)
Podiums: 12
Poles: 7
Fastest laps: 4
Head-to-head vs teammate in qualifying: Marquez 17, Dani Pedrosa/Hiroshi Aoyama/Nicky Hayden 1
Head-to-head vs teammate in race: Marquez 15, Pedrosa/Aoyama/Hayden 3
Points compared to teammate: Marquez 298, Pedrosa/Aoyama/Hayden 156

The summary
You’d have got better odds of being hit by a meteorite than Marquez winning the 2016 title with consistency rather than sheer speed, or winning it at all after Honda struggled big-time in pre-season testing. But the 2016 version of Marquez wasn’t the one who would win it or bin it the year before, when six non-finishes scuppered his title defence. Victories in Argentina in round two and next time out at Austin (he’s a perfect eight-for-eight for wins in MotoGP races in the US) gave him a championship lead he barely relinquished, and he dropped the hammer on the rest at the Sachsenring, judging the switch to slick tyres on a drying track to perfection and making the rest of the field look second-rate as stormed to a 48-point championship lead at the mid-year break. From there it was a matter of when, not if, he’d win his third MotoGP title in his first four seasons, but it surprised everyone, not least Marquez himself, when Rossi and Lorenzo both crashed in Japan to gift him the crown on Honda’s home soil.

The quote
“It’s been a great year. You always have weak points that you can improve, but if I have to give myself a grade I would say 9.5. The half-point off might be because of Le Mans, I made a mistake where I should’ve avoided it. Another mistake was to push too much where I shouldn’t have, like at Silverstone, even if I managed to save it and finished fourth. This year has been really good!”
– Marquez after winning the title in Japan

The expert: Mitchell Adam
“Title number three was very different to Marquez’s second in 2014, when he got the ball rolling with 10 straight wins. He set the title up with a big points haul in the mixed-weather Assen, Sachsenring and Brno races where his rivals came unstuck, and turned on devastating speed when he wanted to after that to have things wrapped up by the time he headed to Phillip Island.”
– Mitchell Adam covers MotoGP for Autosport

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