A champion will need to dig deep, Qatar might not be a sign of what’s to come, and a rider of the future is ready to win now.
THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED ON REDBULL.COM
Valencia, Sepang, Phillip Island and Losail – you couldn’t get four more different venues for MotoGP pre-season testing ahead of the 2017 campaign, and while there were some similarities to what happened at that quartet of tracks, we’re set to head into the season-opener in Qatar in less than a fortnight with plenty of unanswered questions about the world’s premier two-wheel road-racing category – which, for us fans, is a good thing.
Can a Yamaha newcomer really upstage his vastly more experienced teammate? Can Ducati take the fight to the rest at every track, not just those that feature straights akin to freeways? Who can topple Honda? And can the other three factories in MotoGP this season – Aprilia, Suzuki and KTM – occasionally muscle in on the trio who have typically been at the front in recent times?
The final three-day test for the off-season wrapped up in Qatar last weekend; here’s what we learned before the lights go out on the 2017 season at the same venue on March 26.
Qatar might not tell us much …
Holding the final test of the off-season at the same venue where the real thing starts less than a fortnight later is practical from a freight and logistics point of view, but perhaps not the best preparation. The Qatar GP is a night event, while testing runs from 4-11pm local time. The baking heat of the desert means track temperatures until the sun goes down bear no relevance to what the riders will experience on race weekend, while the desert dew that settles on the circuit surface after 10pm soon turns the track into an ice rink, with riders electing to stay in the garage rather than inexplicably crashing at a corner that was gripped up a lap earlier. About half the day – at best – is useful for the riders and teams.
It’s not just the conditions at the Qatar test that aren’t representative of what’s to come. The 5.3km Losail circuit features a mammoth 1.1km start-finish straight, where the bikes can nudge 350km/h – which is great news if you’re riding a Ducati. The top seven riders on the timesheet at the end of the test? One Honda, two Yamahas, and four on Ducatis. A sign of what might happen for the first race of the season? Definitely. A pecking order translatable to the other 17 circuits on the calendar? Not so much
… except for the man at the front
Tight and twisty Valencia, the sweeps of Sepang, the high-speed balls-out Phillip Island and the desert dragstrip of Qatar; whatever the weather, track conditions or other variables this off-season, Maverick Vinales has been the benchmark. Coming across from Suzuki to the factory Yamaha squad as Valentino Rossi’s teammate, Vinales could barely have been more impressive through testing, the Spaniard topping the timesheets at all four. From one-lap qualifying simulations to long race-length runs, ‘The Mack’ seems to have everything covered. He’s so confident – and rightly so – that he didn’t even bother playing the usual pre-season game of hosing down expectations, Vinales admitting his pace was “incredible” after night three in Qatar. He later stopped short of assuming outright favouritism for the 2017 crown – “there are many riders who can be the favourite for the championship, at least the ones from Ducati, from Yamaha, from Honda can be the champions” – but after an off-season that couldn’t have gone better, expect Vinales to add to his sole MotoGP success to date (at last year’s British Grand Prix) sooner rather than later.
It’s not easy to know who’s fast
The final day of pre-season testing, especially given the location, is usually a chance for fans (and the other teams) to gauge the race pace of the various bikes and riders over distances closer to the 22-lap/118.4km race length for the opening Grand Prix of the year. The problem this time? Not all of the theoretical front-runners showed their hand.
The list of 11 riders who never completed 10 or more laps in a row on the final day featured reigning world champion Marc Marquez, his Repsol Honda teammate Dani Pedrosa, Rossi, the Italian’s former teammate and now Ducati top dog Jorge Lorenzo, and Suzuki newcomer Andrea Iannone, all podium finishers from Grands Prix in 2016 who would be expected to be near the front again this season. Of those who did manage a race simulation, Ducati’s Andrea Dovizioso (a 14-lap run that averaged 1min 55.666secs) was fastest, but Vinales’ 20-lap run was just 0.035secs slower on average – and featured three ‘slow’ laps where the Spaniard held back to avoid encountering slower traffic.
How do the likes of Marquez, Pedrosa, Rossi and Lorenzo compare to that? We’ll have to wait until next weekend to find out.
The aero war takes a new turn
With winglets banned in MotoGP this season, you knew the teams would come up with some innovative aerodynamic solutions to recapture the downforce the wings of 2016 provided – and Ducati took things to a new extreme on the second day of the test when it unveiled a bulbous front fairing on Dovizioso’s bike that was quickly christened the ‘hammerhead’. Paddock reaction, as you might have guessed, ranged from intrigued to horrified to amused …
Dovizioso said the downforce generated by the new fairing was “not the same, but very close” to the winglets pioneered by Ducati over the past few seasons. Whether it will be raced in Qatar and from then on remains to be seen. Regardless, you can bet fans will be talking about it between now and then.
What’s the form guide?
Vinales is indisputably quick, and justifiably confident. And according to Dovizioso, he’s a clear championship favourite. “I think at this point Vinales is really fast in every condition, which is really bad for us and everybody else,” the Italian said after the second night in Qatar. “Anything can happen during the championship and last year with Marc, it showed the reality. But in this moment, 100 per cent for everything – his talent, he is young and the bike he has.”
Marquez fell three times on the final day, never completed a race simulation run and was just 11th on the overall timesheets, but downplaying the championship chances of a rider who has won three titles in four MotoGP seasons would be foolish. Pedrosa was the more convincing of the factory Honda riders at Losail, but is he really ready to shed the ‘nearly-man’ tag that has come with more than a decade in MotoGP without winning the crown? What about Ducati and Lorenzo? For all the Spaniard’s talent and the team’s ambition, not yet.
Which leaves Rossi, who always races better than he tests and even qualifies. Beating Vinales in Qatar looks a bridge too far, but if the new-for-2017 Yamaha is really as good as the Spaniard has shown so far, expect ‘The Doctor’ to haul himself into the championship fight with a rider 16 years his junior, and perhaps one or two others.