Can 2017 be a worthy encore to the compellingly crazy 2016 season? We say yes.
THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED ON REDBULL.COM.AU
MotoGP has plenty of work to do in 2017. How can next year match the one we’ve just witnessed, with nine different race winners, four first-time victors, all-out brawls at the front of the field and plenty more drama besides?
Fortunately, a chaotic rider market has helped to set expectations for 2017 sky-high. More than half of the 23 names on the 2017 entry list will be in new teams (or new to the category altogether) next year, and against the backdrop of a fairly stable calendar and sequence of races, it’s the familiar faces in new places that will be the source of much of the intrigue for the season ahead.
Looking for a reason or five to get excited about 2017? Read on.
A triple treat
Marc Marquez, Valentino Rossi, Jorge Lorenzo. The three riders who have finished 1-2-3 (in various orders) in the championship for the past three years. You’d get short odds on this terrific trio doing likewise again in 2017, but this time it promises to be different, with Lorenzo’s move to Ducati meaning the sport’s three alpha dogs are riding for three different manufacturers. Can Marquez tame the Honda RC213V and curb his natural daredevil style once more to repeat the championship he regained last season? Will Rossi thrive without Lorenzo on the sister Yamaha and be a legitimate title contender again at age 38? And can Lorenzo drag Ducati towards the pointy end on a more regular basis than the retained Andrea Dovizioso has or the departed Andrea Iannone could? The three kingpins of the sport in three different teams with three different philosophies of how to win races and championships? It promises to be the story of the season.
The stats: 35 races, no wins, just three podiums and a best placing of sixth in the championship. You can be sure Lorenzo has Rossi’s numbers from two barren years at Ducati in 2011-12 burned into his brain, and while ‘The Doctor’ became a title contender again once he bolted back to Yamaha, his ex-teammate will be massively motivated to make his own stint in Ducati red far more successful. Lorenzo’s legacy is intact whatever he does for the Italian manufacturer – the three-time MotoGP world champion has finished third or better in the championship a remarkable eight times in nine premier-class campaigns – but if he could go to Ducati and do what Rossi couldn’t – as in restore the red team to its glory days of Casey Stoner in 2007 – he’d surely be considered one of the best to ever do it. The Spaniard turns 30 in May, has time, class and resources on his side, and is clearly raring to go, if his regular tweets counting down the days to the start of the season are any indication. We can’t wait either.
Vinales is ready
If Lorenzo is chomping at the bit to get started, his replacement at the factory Yamaha outfit, Maverick Vinales, was ready five weeks ago, when he topped the timesheets on his first test for his new team in the post-race hit-out at Valencia the week after the final Grand Prix of 2016. Expect Vinales to take all of five minutes to settle in at Yamaha and be a potential race-winner from day one in Qatar in late March. Will he fare better compared to Rossi than Dovizioso against Lorenzo or Dani Pedrosa trying to halt the Marquez juggernaut? Almost certainly. Will the so-far amicable relationship between Vinales and Rossi stand the test of time? Based on previous evidence, it’d have to be a long shot. After all, remember Marquez admitting he had posters of Rossi on his bedroom wall growing up, and then how things went in Malaysia in 2015? Regardless, ‘The Mack’ on full attack on a Yamaha will be a sight to see.
A quick Moto2 quartet steps up to the main game this season, and will all be worth watching for different reasons as they vie for what should be a very competitive rookie of the year prize (unlike last season, when Tito Rabat beat precisely nobody to take the debutant gong – the Spaniard was the only first-year rider in 2016). Johann Zarco makes the leap to MotoGP at 26 and as the only two-time Moto2 champion in the category’s history, while his Tech 3 Yamaha teammate is Jonas Folger, who won three races in three Moto2 seasons but never seemed to completely deliver on his obvious potential. Alex Rins has big shoes to fill as Vinales’ replacement at Suzuki, but has won races in the lower categories in four of his five world championship campaigns and has class written all over him. And at Aprilia, Sam Lowes steps in alongside ex-Suzuki man Aleix Espargaro and will be hoping to bring the good (two wins last year) to the top flight while leaving the bad (a seemingly endless stream of crashes late in the season – he managed four laps total in the Japan-Australia-Malaysia flyaways) back in the intermediate category. Picking a ‘winner’ of this race within a race is too close to call.
It’s Miller time
Well, it has to be, doesn’t it? The coming season will be the third and final year of Jack Miller’s HRC contract, and he’s staying with Marc VDS for a second season. The progress Miller made last season – from 19th in the 2015 championship to 18th 12 months later – doesn’t look like much on paper, but the Aussie was barely fit last year, a pre-season motocross accident, a practice off at Austin and a heavy Sunday warm-up fall in Austria seeing him compete in just 13 of the 18 races, and many of those under major physical duress. Those 13 races featured five top-10 finishes, the first five of his career, and of course that maiden spectacular success at the Dutch TT. Off-season surgery to get some metal out of his right leg is done, and it’s time for Miller to get healthy, become consistent and benefit from the continuity of being in the same team for a second season as he looks to shape his future. As with anything the 21-year-old does, 2017 will be compulsory viewing.