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