What’s happened in MotoGP this season that reveals plenty about what’s about to?
THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED ON REDBULL.COM
Where did the MotoGP season go? It seems like only yesterday that the field lined up under lights at Losail to take the start of the Qatar Grand Prix; now, after the breathtaking race around the Red Bull Ring in Austria last Sunday, there’s just seven Grands Prix remaining before the chequered flag falls on the 2017 campaign in Valencia.
With 11 races in the books, what have we already learned that can paint a clearer picture of what’s to follow? We’ve scanned up and down the grid and found five storylines that could prove be a portent of what’s to follow between now and November.
1. Brno showed who’s boss
And we thought last year – nine different winners and four first-time victors – was gripping; at the halfway mark of this year’s world championship, the top four in the standings were separated by just 10 points, and all four – Marc Marquez, Andrea Dovizioso, Valentino Rossi and Maverick Vinales – had led the title chase at one stage or another. But it was the race immediately after the mid-season break in the Czech Republic that showed that one of that quartet remains ahead of the rest.
In sketchy half-wet, half-dry conditions at Brno, Marquez took the early gamble to switch from wet-weather tyres to dry – and simply took off, carving upwards of nine seconds per lap out of the rest of the field immediately after his bike change and doing as he pleased en route to a 12-second victory. Flag-to-flag races are Marquez’s domain – in five of the past six races where the field has been allowed to pit and swap bikes at the riders’ discretion (Assen 2014, Misano 2015, Argentina 2016, Sachsenring 2016 and Brno 2017), the Spaniard has won, often emphatically as he relentlessly pushes in difficult conditions where others can only survive rather than thrive.
It’s that ability to make the best of the worst that sees the Repsol Honda rider as the man most likely to win this year’s crown, which would be the fourth in five years since he joined the premier class in 2013. The table may be tight, but Marquez’s best is still a class above anyone else’s.
2. Marquez vs Maverick is about to get real
All season, and with apologies to Dovizioso, Vinales has looked the man most likely to stop Marquez’s march to a quartet of MotoGP titles. The Yamaha man was untouchable in pre-season testing, and after winning three of the first five races of the year to enjoy a 26-point championship lead after Mugello, Vinales looked in control. But since, one podium in five races has him being the chaser rather than being chased, as he’s faltered while Marquez has flown.
The two Spaniards – who have been rivals from way back in their pocket bike days 15 years ago – have largely circled one another all season without engaging in a head-to-head stoush for a race win; bizarrely, Brno, round 10 of the season, was the first time they’d even appeared on the same podium together.
Vinales and Yamaha will surely get it together after their mid-season slip, and Marquez – if the past four years are any guide – isn’t going anywhere. Expect more one-on-one duels between this duo than we’ve seen so far before the season is out.
3. ‘Dovi’ and Ducati are in for the long haul
Dovizioso’s win towards the tail-end of the 2016 season in Malaysia was a nice story – it snapped a seven-year drought for the likeable Italian – but not one most people expected to be sustainable in 2017, when most of the off-season chat about the Italian factory centred on the arrival of three-time world champion Jorge Lorenzo as Dovizioso’s teammate. But the 31-year-old is a new man this season, taking back-to-back wins at Mugello and Catalunya within a week in June, and then holding off Marquez in a frantic end to the Austrian Grand Prix, a race so fierce that it is already being considered one of the best of all time.
Vinales still looks to be the rider who can best match Marquez for sheer speed, but Dovizioso is always there, makes few mistakes, rarely beats himself and sits just 16 points behind Marquez with seven races remaining. Whether he can win the world championship is uncertain, but whether or not he’ll be there fighting for it right until the end is easier to ascertain.
4. Rossi’s chances aren’t up to Rossi
It says much for the (entirely appropriate) reverence Rossi is held in that he’s still being discussed as a championship threat despite being 33 points – more than a race win – off the lead with seven Grands Prix left. We’re right to hold ‘The Doctor’ in high esteem, but would we rate any other rider as having any chance whatsoever if they’d won one of the past 22 races, which is Rossi’s record after the Austrian GP?
The Italian’s victory at Assen in June was one from the top shelf, but with Ducati surging, the satellite Yamaha (Tech 3) and Ducati (Pramac) teams stealing occasional podiums, and greater depth at the front than ever, gone are the days when you can turn up on a factory Yamaha, be off the pace and still finish fourth at worst at the back of a two-team fight with the Repsol Hondas.
Rossi remains in the mix for now, but how long he stays there has as much to do with Marquez, Dovizioso, Vinales et al stumbling than simply his own results.
5. The ‘Samurai’ could play spoiler
Somewhat lost in the chat about the magnificence of Marquez, the instant success of Vinales on a factory Yamaha and Ducati’s emergence as a genuine threat has been the season of Dani Pedrosa, who already has more podium finishes to his name (seven) after 11 races than he managed in the whole of the 2015 and 2016 seasons. The ‘Baby Samurai’ is at the back of the five-rider group from which this year’s world champion will surely be crowned, and with three podium finishes on the bounce, is well placed for a charge across the final seven Grands Prix.
The Spaniard’s durability is always a question-mark – he’s not completed a full season in three years thanks to myriad injuries from crashes or recovery from surgery – and it’s hard to imagine that the rider who has been in Honda’s factory outfit for 11 previous seasons without winning title can flip that script this year. But could Pedrosa’s pace have a say in who does salute if he doesn’t? Absolutely yes.