The new MotoGP season promises to be compelling, but what are the stories we can’t wait to see play out in 2019?
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We’re around a month away from MotoGP testing beginning in earnest for the upcoming season in Malaysia, but the turn of the calendar to 2019 only heightened the anticipation for what’s ahead. It’s a 19-race campaign where the schedule mirrors the one that preceded it, but elsewhere, it’s all-change as the world’s premier two-wheel category gets set for what’s sure to be a compelling season.
Everywhere you look, there’s storylines we can’t wait to watch play out. With just two teams retaining the same rider line-ups year on year, it’ll take some time get accustomed to familiar names in unfamiliar colours, while several riders face career-defining (or perhaps career-breaking) seasons, and there’s a host of exciting new talents set to strut their stuff in the big-time for the first time.
But what are the most compelling storylines for 2019? What really moves the needle on the excitement meter, and what has us intrigued? There’s plenty to choose from, but we’ve picked out a top six. Let’s count them down.
6. Who’ll be the rookie to turn heads?
Last year’s battle for the best of the new boys was close (for the record, Honda’s Franco Morbidelli edged Yamaha’s Hafizh Syahrin by four points for the rookie of the year title after 19 races), but not enormously compelling, given Morbidelli won it with 50 points for the season and a best race result of eighth place. This year? There’s four gun graduates from Moto2 set to step up, and there’s legitimate reasons to think each will have their time to shine.
Spaniard Joan Mir makes the move to the top flight after just one intermediate-class season and looks set to be on the best bike after replacing Andrea Iannone at the factory Suzuki squad, while Pecco Bagnaia’s progress at the Alma Pramac Ducati team will be watched closely on Australian shores, as last year’s Moto2 champion rides a Ducati alongside Townsville tearaway Jack Miller.
Elsewhere, a pair of new riders for ‘new’ teams will surely make their mark; Fabio Quartararo had a pre-world championship career so glittering that he was spoken of as the next Marc Marquez, and after breaking through for his maiden Moto2 win last year, joins Morbidelli in an all-new line-up for the start-up Petronas Yamaha SRT squad. Also in a ‘new’ team, of sorts; perennial Moto2 front-runner Miguel Oliveira, who’ll ride for Tech3 as the French team switches from Yamaha to KTM machinery alongside Syahrin.
You’d back Mir to be the best debutant if you were down to your last dollar, but not with any great conviction – which points to an intriguing battle within a battle on the 2019 grid.
5. 2019 has to be Miller time
No MotoGP season is a small one for any rider, but 2019 shapes as a very big one for Miller, who goes into his fifth MotoGP campaign with a lengthy to-do list to check off. Item one is to see off Bagnaia, who’ll be riding a GP18 machine while Miller gets his first taste of current-spec Ducati machinery, riding the 2019 bike that will be campaigned by factory riders Andrea Dovizioso and Danilo Petrucci. Two is to stay injury-free and on the bike more often, as Miller’s four years to date have seen momentum regularly interrupted by crashes that have led to squandered points or broken bones. Item three? Impress Ducati’s top brass to the extent that he’s considered for a promotion for 2020. Miller, who turns 24 later this month, isn’t the new kid on the block anymore, and while his speed isn’t in question, a top-10 championship finish has remained elusive so far. Can things change this season? Speaking of which …
4. Ducati’s big decision
What we know about Ducati’s factory team – Dovizioso is, quite appropriately, the Italian manufacturer’s main weapon in the fight against Honda and Yamaha, and the 32-year-old comes into 2019 off back-to-back runner-up finishes in the championship and 10 wins across the past two years. But with Jorge Lorenzo’s jump to Honda (more of which later), who is the best-placed rider to ride shotgun with ‘Dovi’ long-term? Is it Petrucci, who has a one-year deal with the team and is, as he said himself, betting on himself to earn a more lucrative payday by declining an option for 2020? Is it Miller, who has a race win (Assen 2016) and a pole position (Argentina last year) to his credit while not showing Petrucci’s consistency in their season together in 2018? Is it Bagnaia, who, at 21, won a world title in the lead-up to his premier-class career, something neither Petrucci nor Miller could manage? Or is it someone else entirely?
3. Which horse does Yamaha back?
Yamaha had, by its usual lofty standards, a tough 2018, where Maverick Vinales’ win in the Australian Grand Prix at Phillip Island was the only victory for the team all season. Yes, Valentino Rossi (third) and Vinales (fourth) featured prominently in the standings by season’s end, but their finishing positions were earned more through consistency and stealth in a campaign where Honda took 10 wins and Ducati seven to Yamaha’s sole success. Which means Yamaha needs to catch up – but how?
The past exploits of Rossi, who turns 40 in February, means he’s a legend of the sport. Vinales, 24 this month, is a junior-class champion who represents the future. On the basis of their post-season testing comments, both riders agree the bike needs improving to match it with the likes of Honda and Ducati, but have differing opinions on how; Vinales was happy with the consistency of the new 2019 engine, while Rossi felt the bike struggled to maintain pace as tyre wear became a factor, among other things.
Which rider will the team listen to most? Can Yamaha appease both while skewing its development direction more from one rider’s feedback than the other? Can whatever direction taken vault the team back into the fight for race wins and titles, rather than sporadic visits to the podium? There’ll be a lot of eyes on the blue-hued team in 2019.
2. Is Marquez beatable?
With five titles in six MotoGP seasons to date, Marquez casts an imposing shadow over the rest of the MotoGP grid. Qualifying speed, race craft, ability in flag-to-flag races, an appetite for the fight, gravity-defying saves … the Spaniard has the lot, and a consistency that means that, even on his off-days, he’s likely to finish on the podium. Yes, he crashes (Marquez fell 23 times last year, more than any other rider), but he rarely bites the dust in races; his first DNF last season came in round 17 in Australia, the race after he’d won the title in Japan a week earlier. Can anyone topple the 25-year-old from the summit?
1. Can Lorenzo beat Marquez?
If anyone can, could Lorenzo? After all, he’s on the same bike as MotoGP’s unstoppable force, ditching Ducati after a stuttering season last year where he barely scored points in the opening batch of races, rattled off three race wins and beating Marquez in a breathtaking head-to-head fight in Austria, and then spent most of the season half of the year absent or compromised with injury after huge offs in Aragon and Thailand. Lorenzo concedes he isn’t sure if can win a fourth MotoGP title in his first year on a Honda alongside Marquez, but you know he won’t be intimidated by the enormity of the task at hand, given he’s the only other rider to lift the championship trophy in the Marquez era after he won in 2015.
Season 2019 is Lorenzo’s biggest challenge yet, and his partnership with Marquez is, by some distance, THE storyline to watch.