Month: January 2018

6 MotoGP storylines we’re predicting for 2018

Want to know what will happen in MotoGP this season? We’ve gazed into the crystal ball …

THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED ON REDBULL.COM

That sound you hear, rumbling away in the distance? It’s the sound of MotoGP testing for 2018, which is set to get underway in Malaysia in a little over two weeks’ time. So while the world’s best two-wheel riders sun themselves on beaches in between clocking up the kilometres using pedal power rather than horsepower to stay fit, we’ve dusted off the crystal ball and peered into the season before us.

It’s a season where plenty of the familiar names at the sharp end will stay with their existing teams before what will surely be a very silly silly season (all but three riders are out of contract at the end of 2018), but one where riders in the mid-grid squads like Scott Redding, Tito Rabat and our own Jack Miller look to make their mark in new colours.

There’s an extra race to extend the calendar to 19 Grands Prix as Thailand comes on stream in October, while a test at the Chang International Circuit in Buriram (sadly, for fans who like to see MotoGP machinery at Phillip Island when the weather is actually good) replaces Australia on the pre-season schedule in February.

We can’t guarantee what MotoGP can serve up in 2018 after a gripping head-to-head battle between Marc Marquez and Andrea Dovizioso last year that followed a cracking 2016 campaign where nine different riders won races. But we’re more than happy to stick our necks out to predict a six-pack of storylines we’re expecting to see this season.

1. Rossi will ride on

No athlete is bigger than the sport they participate in, but there are some whose achievements (and fame because of them) place them on an entirely different level. In modern-day sport, Usain Bolt for athletics and Roger Federer for tennis come to mind. But do even those two giants cast as large of a shadow over their sporting universe as Valentino Rossi? At almost every round of the world championship, not just the ones in his native Italy, Rossi is the number one drawcard, and has been for the best part of two decades. It’s almost impossible to imagine MotoGP without him.

Rossi has seen off generations – plural – of rivals, and changed his off-track training and way of life to cope with the fast new breed of youngsters who have whipped through MotoGP like a tornado in recent times. But the fact remains ‘The Doctor’ will turn 39 before the 2018 season starts, and last year was his least successful campaign on a Yamaha in 12 years, which, at least in part, could be put down to the manufacturer’s fading competitiveness as the season went on, and the broken leg Rossi suffered in a training crash that saw him miss his true ‘home’ race at Misano.

Contracted to the end of 2018, Rossi has repeatedly said he’ll make a decision on his future based on how competitive the Yamaha package is straight out of the box in testing, and how he fares in the opening few races relative to the opposition. He’s still training like a demon, and on his day when the bike is up to it, he’s as formidable as ever – witness Phillip Island last year, three races before the end of the season, where he was in a manic seven-bike fight for the win up to his elbows.

Rossi doesn’t need the money, has nothing to prove, and wouldn’t tarnish his status one bit should he choose to walk away. But we’re predicting another season, perhaps even two, for the nine-time world champion that will take him well into his 40s. Series organisers Dorna will certainly be hoping so.

2. Miller + Ducati = podium

It’s the great outlier on Miller’s 48-race three-season MotoGP CV to date, his win for Marc VDS Honda in atrocious conditions at Assen in 2016 that was as unexpected as any victory we’ve seen in motorsport anywhere in recent times. His two next-best results in the premier class came in equally rubbish weather at Assen and Misano last year, where he hauled his bike to sixth. But 2018 shapes as the year the Townsville tyro, who turns 23 this week, moves forwards in all conditions, not just ones where umbrellas aren’t optional extras.

Miller made a promising start to life with Pramac Ducati when he lapped faster on the GP17 machine on his first day of testing at Valencia last November than he managed on the final race weekend of the season on his satellite Honda, and the characteristics of the Ducati – searing straight-line speed and a bike that doesn’t mind being manhandled into corners – should suit his attacking instincts down to the ground. He’ll be on the bike new teammate Danilo Petrucci took to the podium four times last season (three times in the wet), and while we’re expecting ‘Jackass’ to be stronger in all conditions this year, watch him go when the heavens open.

3. Zarco will win races …

Flying Frenchman Johann Zarco arguably shouldn’t be on this list – he probably should have saluted in Valencia last year after leading most of the final race of the season before being pipped by Dani Pedrosa – but after a rookie season that was as impressive as any we’ve seen for riders not named Marquez in recent times, we think the 27-year-old is ready to take victories – plural – this season. He’s fast, uncompromising in wheel-to-wheel battles, cares not a jot for what his rivals think of him and has tyre management smarts that belie his lack of experience on MotoGP machinery.

The final four races of Zarco’s rookie season featured a pole in Japan before finishes of fourth (Australia), third (Malaysia) and the aforementioned second in Valencia; while we’re not suggesting that sequence points immediately towards a win in the Qatar season-opener on March 18, it wouldn’t surprise us if he wins one of the opening handful of races this year, and adds another one or two later on. He’s probably not ready for a genuine title tilt – yet – but this surely is the year Zarco salutes from the top step of a premier-class rostrum for the first time. It won’t be the last, either.

4. But what of his future?

Let’s marry points one and three above. If Rossi stays at the factory Yamaha squad, and given teammate Maverick Vinales is surely going nowhere, then a move from the Tech 3 Yamaha satellite squad for Zarco isn’t happening. The factory Honda and Ducati line-ups probably won’t be changing for 2019 either. So if Zarco is hell-bent on a factory ride (he should be) and has the talent to secure one (he does), then does his future have an orange hue, as in the colours of KTM?

The Austrian manufacturer was miles off the pace at the beginning of its first MotoGP campaign last year, but progressed at a rapid rate, a seemingly endless array of chassis updates propelling a bike that couldn’t see the front of the field with binoculars in Qatar to one that was inside the top 10 and 16 seconds off the race win in Australia in the hands of Pol Espargaro. KTM already look to have left other factory outfits (Aprilia, Suzuki) behind, and with another year of development under its belt, could be a very coveted bike for the 2019 season. If doors close for Zarco at Yamaha (and we suspect they will), a move to KTM would be entirely logical.

5. The same top dog at Ducati

The surprise storyline of 2017 was the emergence of Dovizioso as genuine title threat – after all, the Italian came into last season as a very respectable MotoGP rider with a reputation as one of the best late-brakers in the business, but one who had won all of two premier-class races in nine previous seasons. Six victories and a fight with Marquez that went to the wire changed all of that, and the 31-year-old’s career year – particularly when contrasted to the struggles three-time MotoGP champion Jorge Lorenzo endured as Dovizioso’s new teammate – was one story we didn’t see coming 12 months ago.

The very characteristics of the Ducati that Dovizioso tamed last year, and should so suit Miller this year, didn’t play into the hands of Lorenzo’s silky-smooth riding style honed from years of riding Yamaha machinery that was untouchable in high-speed corners, allowing the metronomic Mallorcan to churn out near-identical laps one after another as he broke his opposition mentally as much as physically. Seeing Lorenzo look ragged last season after years of stroking the Yamaha to win after win was quite jarring.

Can Dovizioso hit the same heights as last year as the disappointment of coming so close to the summit lingers? Or can Lorenzo put into place the lessons he learned from riding a completely different beast last year into practice and assume his customary position near the top of the standings? We’re not expecting Dovizioso’s advantage of last year over Lorenzo (124 more points, six wins to zero, eight podiums to three) to be as dramatic this time, but we’re still banking on ‘Dovi’ to be Ducati’s top dog again.

6. Marquez will make it a high five

Rossi will be occasionally brilliant and always in the headlines, Vinales will win races, Dovizioso will (probably) head Ducati’s charge and Zarco will ruffle feathers. But can any of that quartet – or anyone else – supplant Marquez as MotoGP champion? It’s hard to make a case for anyone else stopping the Spaniard’s quest for five MotoGP crowns in his first six premier-class seasons, especially as he’s shown he can win in every which way – from dominant season starts (2014, when he won the opening 10 races of the year) to tense last-race deciders (2013 and last year). His initial comments after testing Honda’s 2018 machine in Valencia last year suggested the new bike has left him with fewer unanswered questions than the two that came before it, and if he can win titles with a bike that arguably isn’t the best on the grid, imagine what he’ll do if the RC213V is the benchmark of the field? The odds on anyone else loosening Marquez’s stranglehold on MotoGP will be very long indeed.

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Six great unknowns about the 2018 F1 season

What are the big questions that need answers as the clock ticks towards Melbourne in March?

THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED ON REDBULL.COM

It’s merely 10 weeks until the 2018 Formula One season roars into life in Melbourne for the Australian Grand Prix, but there’s plenty we already know about the 21-race calendar for this year.

A starting point? Mercedes will, by virtue of their recent dominance and a relatively stable set of rules between seasons after last year’s dramatic visual overhaul, will start firm favourites again. What else should stay the same? Kimi Raikkonen’s retention by Ferrari should almost guarantee the Prancing Horse’s constructors’ championship drought stretches to a decade by season’s end, while Williams, by virtue of running second-year teenager Lance Stroll with (likely) Russian rookie Sergey Sirotkin this season, should ensure what has now become a midfield team has the biggest repair bill on the 2018 grid …

To get all Donald Rumsfeld for a second, they’re all known knowns, but what don’t we know about the season ahead? Gloriously, for those who love the theatre and drama of sport, plenty – so here’s a holiday season six-pack to digest.

1. Can Hamilton keep the hunger?

Lewis Hamilton has always gone to great lengths to have a life outside of F1 (even if we won’t know about it anymore after the recent purging of his social media accounts). Committed to his craft as he is, you always suspect F1 isn’t his sole focus like, say, Michael Schumacher before him, and Sebastian Vettel beside him. Which begs the question: how much winning will Hamilton want to do before he’s had enough?

Leaving McLaren to join Mercedes looked, at the time, to be a mistake for the now 33-year-old given the relative performances of the two teams, but after a so-so 2013 campaign, Hamilton has been mostly masterful since. In the 79 races since F1 changed gears to the V6 turbo hybrid era in 2014, Hamilton has won 40 of them – more than half – and double the number of victories recorded by the next-most successful driver of those four years, the now-retired Nico Rosberg.

Winning may not define Hamilton, but does it drive him? After losing out to Rosberg in 2016 amid a poisonous atmosphere at Mercedes, you sense the Briton relished the chance to take on Vettel in a true head-to-head contest last year and emerge triumphant. After trailing the Ferrari driver for the first half of the year in the standings, Hamilton rattled off five wins in six races after the mid-year break to stitch up his fourth world title with two Grands Prix remaining, showing the extra gear he has that few in history can match.

Hamilton is out of contract at the end of 2018, but expect him to go nowhere while the current set of regulations stay relatively stable for another three seasons, and while Mercedes should be at or near the top for the foreseeable future. He’s averaged 10 wins a year for four years – and Schumacher’s all-time win total of 91 is 29 away from Hamilton’s 62. Might the chance of being known as the best of all-time extend his F1 tenure before life takes a turn? It’s a very big carrot.

2. Has Ferrari learned its lesson?

Based on its re-signing of the 38-year-old Raikkonen for yet another season, five years and counting after he last won a Grand Prix, it appears not. But Vettel showed enough last year to suggest this one will be a closer fight with Mercedes for the whole season provided he can iron out the occasionally calamitous emotional spikes that can tarnish his otherwise superb driving (think Mexico 2016, Azerbaijan 2017, Singapore last year), and if Ferrari can improve its reliability after the Asian swing of races last year saw its title hopes turn to dust. Both big ifs, we know, but if the past four years of Mercedes dominance have taught us anything, it’s that the Silver Arrows won’t beat themselves – you’ll have to dethrone them.

Vettel’s first half of 2017, Azerbaijan road rage incident aside, was exemplary – and getting 2018 off to a similar start by winning in Australia and putting Mercedes under pressure is a must. Going on with it in the second half of the year when the races come thick and fast in a 21-race campaign that’s equal to the longest in the sport’s history simply has to happen if Ferrari is to snap a drivers’ championship drought that goes back to Raikkonen’s title in 2007, when Hamilton was a rookie at McLaren.

3. Are Renault up to it?

Red Bull Racing finished 2017 in no-man’s land, very rarely a chance to beat Mercedes and Ferrari in a straight fight on pace, and very rarely under pressure from Force India and the rest in the rear-view mirror. While Max Verstappen and Daniel Ricciardo won three races between them, Red Bull finished 154 points behind Ferrari (and a massive 300 behind Mercedes) in third in the constructors’ championship, and nearly 200 points clear of Force India in fourth. ‘Best of the rest’ was a common refrain.

What could change their predicament in 2018? What would add plenty of spice to the championship as a whole would be a Renault power unit that could allow Red Bull, not to mention new client McLaren and even the Renault works team, to take the fight to the top two squads more regularly. Renault’s reliability woes last year were masked somewhat by Honda’s almost comical number of grid penalties for new engine components that left McLaren’s drivers starting at the very back more often than not, and with the number of engines per driver for the season being reduced (from four to three) with one more race than last year’s 20 Grands Prix, it doesn’t bode well.

But what if Renault could find some extra horsepower while improving reliability? You’d have Verstappen and Ricciardo up the front more often, and the tantalising prospect of an inspired Fernando Alonso hauling a strong McLaren chassis into places McLaren used to be in its good old days. Not to mention the likes of Nico Hulkenberg and Carlos Sainz, Renault’s excellent 2018 combination, scrapping for occasional podiums and giving the top three teams a hard time. Renault rising to the challenge could make the 2018 season an absolute cracker.

4. Is Verstappen ready to win a title?

He’s 20 years old, has already won three races, and is tethered to Red Bull for at least the next three seasons. By almost any measure, Verstappen is the most exciting driver to come into F1 since Hamilton first wowed the sport’s fans from the first corner of his first race in Australia 11 years ago, but does the Dutchman really have what it takes to launch a world title tilt if his machinery is up to the task?

There’s almost no doubt that he does, the one small red flag being his judgement in wheel-to-wheel combat, as his teammate discovered to his fury last year in Budapest. But Verstappen has time on his side, experience to draw upon, a laser-like focus when the visor snaps shut and a lightness out of the car that suggests he’ll handle the ups and downs of an F1 title fight better than most, should he be in position for one.

After last year’s Mexican Grand Prix, where Hamilton secured the 2017 title, the Mercedes driver was already looking ahead to his defence, and who might stand in his way. “Max is an exceptional driver,” Hamilton offered. “I hope (Red Bull) have a better engine next year and they are more in the fight, I think it would be great for the sport. You have a potential world champion in Max, and he is only going to get stronger with age because he has a lot of raw talent.”

5. What will Dan do?

Number five on our list, but perhaps number one in terms of the impact a Ricciardo move could make on the driver market. The Australian, beaten handily by Verstappen in qualifying last year while winning one race (Azerbaijan) to Verstappen’s two (Malaysia and Mexico), is out of contract at the end of the season, a year where two tantalising seats (Valtteri Bottas at Mercedes and Raikkonen at Ferrari) could become available for the following season.

The ever-smiling ‘Honey Badger’ turns 29 in July, and, as he wrote after the 2017 season, there’s a “lot at stake” in his next career move. Leaving the only F1 family he knows, the team he’s won five Grands Prix with and the outfit he’s become an F1 star with would be risky, but we said the same thing about Hamilton and McLaren in 2012, and look how that has ended up?

Ricciardo has repeatedly said performance is more important than his pay packet, and Red Bull’s pre-season testing pace – a real weakness in recent years – will play a big part in determining what impact the team makes on the early races, where his future will surely be a hot topic. Watch this space.

 6. How much will we be talking about the halo?

Oh, boy. We’ve all known the most dramatic aesthetic change to F1 machinery in, well, ever has been coming for some time now, but expect a social media tsunami when the new-for-2018 cars break cover for pre-season testing in Barcelona on February 26.

It’s an inelegant solution to a serious problem, that of cockpit protection for the drivers, and you’ll be hard-pressed to find too many fans in Melbourne, when the halo-hatted cars will race for the first time, that believe the new look is an upgrade on its predecessor. Engineers will hate it – the halo and all of its various brackets and mounting points add 15 kilograms or thereabouts to the chassis, compromising weight on other areas of the car and the amount of ballast than can be used to aid performance – and the fans will find it harder to spot their favourite driver by their signature helmet design.

How will the halo affect the racing? How will the fans react? Will the heavier drivers be unfairly penalised by the extra weight? All unknows we’ll be seeing answers to very, very soon.