Andrea Iannone

10 fearless predictions for the MotoGP season

Want to know what will happen on two wheels in 2018? We’ve peered into the crystal ball …

THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED ON REDBULL.COM

Testing? Done. Takeaways from testing? On record. The season start in Qatar? Merely days away. Which means it’s time. Time to stick our neck out and come up with 10 fearless predictions for the coming MotoGP season.

Who wins the title? Who has no chance? Who will spring a surprise for the right or wrong reasons? Which rookie will shine brightest? And is there anyone who can unseat Marc Marquez from his throne as the king of MotoGP?

We’ve dusted off the crystal ball and peered into the future to come up with our cast-iron guarantees (or, if you like, best educated guesses) for 2018. Deep breath, here goes.

1. Pedrosa is a title contender

Yes, we know he’s been in the premier class for 12 years and hasn’t finished third or better for five seasons. Yes, we’re aware three of his teammates (Nicky Hayden, Casey Stoner and Marquez – four times) have won the championship where he hasn’t managed it once. And yes, he’s 33 years old in September. But Dani Pedrosa’s pre-season pace has been eye-catching, and if you were going to choose someone to give Marquez a run to the title, what about the rider on the same bike on the other side of the same garage? Any Pedrosa predictions have to come, history tells us, with an asterisk for injury, but we’re backing him in.

2. More wins for Jorge, more points for Dovi

Jorge Lorenzo’s first year in Ducati red was underwhelming in the extreme, particularly when compared to that of teammate Andrea Dovizioso, who snared six victories to the Mallorcan’s zero to become Marquez’s major (and unlikely) rival for the title. The metronomic ‘Dovi’ crashes rarely and makes very few mistakes, and we’re predicting it’ll be that rather than outrageous speed that keeps the Italian in the title fight again. Can we see Lorenzo picking up a win or two more than his teammate? Absolutely. Will that be enough to be the highest-scoring Ducati rider over 19 races? We’re saying no.

3. Jack Miller will make podiums, plural

He’s stood on a MotoGP podium before, of course (who can forget Assen 2016 when the Aussie surveyed the view from the top step?), but that was a crazy race in crazy weather that owed itself to opportunism, sublime skill, a smattering of luck and a ‘what the hell’ approach. This year? Jack Miller’s pace in pre-season testing on a Ducati has been fierce and not at all fleeting – he’s been a top-10 constant in Malaysia, Thailand and Qatar – and you sense he can make the top three in races (plural) this year with or without inclement weather aiding his cause.

4. Johann Zarco will lead Yamaha’s charge

This is bold, but the Frenchman who adopts a ‘better the devil you know’ approach to his racing might just fly while the factory Yamaha squad flap about with aerodynamic tweaks, wondering which chassis to use and managing the expectations of Maverick Vinales and Valentino Rossi, who often want very different things from the same motorcycle. One thing we know: Zarco won’t want for wondering. What effect, we wonder, will Yamaha’s end-of-year divorce with Tech 3 have on his chances as the season progresses? (We’ll be using that as our asterisk, incidentally, if this one doesn’t come true).

5. Rossi will ride on

OK, so this one isn’t so bold. Indications suggest ‘The Doctor’ will keep making house calls on the MotoGP calendar for the next two seasons, which will take him into his 40s. For anyone else, signing a multi-year deal at that age and stage of a career would seem unlikely and lucky in equal measure – but the biggest drawcard in the sport (still) will be competitive for as long as he’s around. Let’s hope it’s for a good while yet.

6. The silly season won’t be very silly

Rossi likely to re-sign with Yamaha’s factory squad, Marquez already locked in at Repsol Honda, Vinales staying at Yamaha until 2020 … will there be much intrigue over this season as to who rides where next year? Other than what happens to Zarco when the Tech 3/Yamaha alliance ends, we might know more about next season before this one really gets underway, especially at the pointy end of the field.

7. Rins will rise

We never got to see the best of Suzuki rookie Alex Rins last year, one injury after another scuppering his chances of playing himself into the top flight alongside experienced Italian Andrea Iannone. But there were signs the 22-year-old was learning fast towards the end of the season, top 10 results in Japan, Australia and Valencia (where he finished a career-best fourth) giving cause for optimism, and he’s been the pick of Suzuki’s riders in testing, save for Iannone’s first two days at one of his strongest circuits in Qatar. Iannone can blow hot and cold, but the more consistent Rins will end up as the team’s primary charger.

8. Taka takes a turn in the top three

Ten of the riders on this year’s grid have never stood on a MotoGP podium, and based on the above, Rins looks best placed to get there first. But keep an eye on Takaaki Nagakami, the Japanese rookie who has stepped up from Moto2 to partner Cal Crutchlow at LCR Honda this season. A surprise in the top 10 at the Thailand test, the 26-year-old has impressed the battle-hardened Crutchlow already, the Briton telling reporters in Buriram that “he’s a good kid and he’s got a big future ahead in MotoGP”. If you’re looking for a smoky to make a top three this year, Taka’s top of the list.

9. Thailand will be the GP of the year

Argentina will be manic, Mugello magic. Assen will be, well, Assen, and Phillip Island will probably produce the race of the year, if recent Australian Grands Prix are any indication. But the event of 2018? Let’s give the ‘trophy’ to Thailand now, shall we? A nation obsessed by bikes, desperate to see the world’s best riders ply their trade and a debut world championship race in Buriram? If the crowds at pre-season testing were any indication, look out in October when MotoGP returns for real.

10. The Marquez masterclass will roll on

Can four titles in five years become five in six? Let’s answer one question with another: who or what stops him?

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What do we know about the 2018 MotoGP season?

Testing is over – and with the countdown on to the Qatar season-opener, here’s five pointers about the year to come.

THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED ON REDBULL.COM

We’ve reached the finish of the start – the end of pre-season testing for MotoGP before the 2018 season roars into life in Qatar on March 18. Over nine days of testing between Sepang in Malaysia, a first look at the Buriram circuit in Thailand and Losail in Qatar, riders and teams have fine-tuned machines, tried and tested (and discarded) new aerodynamic directions, and blown the cobwebs away from the post-season ahead of this year’s 19-race campaign.

So what do we know as the build-up starts to Qatar in less than a fortnight’s time? Do we trust the timesheets? Do we place more stock on history and pedigree than form and momentum? And will the real story only start to emerge after a handful of races on more traditional tracks back in Europe, given Losail counts as neither?

Here’s some of what we can deduce from testing – and a few pointers of what to look out for when the lights go out for real on the season proper.

Qatar won’t tell us everything

Qatar pays a lot (really, a LOT) of money to host MotoGP’s season-opener, held in a desert at night with very few people watching trackside. If you’re looking for atmosphere, this isn’t the race. And if you’re looking for a pointer of what’s to follow, Qatar probably isn’t the race either.

We saw some of that in pre-season testing, where a rider like Suzuki’s Andrea Iannone, nowhere in the preceding tests in Malaysia and Thailand, suddenly vaulted to the top three on the timesheets on the first two days at Losail before missing the final day with illness. Is there a world in which Iannone challenges for the podium in Qatar in two weeks’ time? Absolutely. Are there a majority who’ll guarantee he’ll finish ahead of fast-rising teammate Alex Rins in the standings over the course of the season? Not really.

The location, circuit layout, time of day and other peculiarities of the Losail track making drawing conclusions from one race difficult and unwise at the same time. It’s just one chapter in a 19-race story.

Yamaha found more questions than answers

If you’ve made any sense of Yamaha’s pre-season, you’re smarter than us – and possibly Yamaha, after the comments of their riders in Qatar. Consider this sequence of numbers: 14-1-18-11-4-12-1-7-5 – they’re the finishing positions of Maverick Vinales on the timesheets on the nine days of testing across three very different tracks, a steep rollercoaster that left the Spaniard perplexed.

On the final day of the Qatar test, with Vinales commenting that he was riding at “50 per cent” before the last hour because he had no confidence the bike would stay on the track, Yamaha elected to revert back the base setting of the bike he’d tried three days prior – and he immediately leapt into the top five.

“We finished with the same bike that I started with on the first day … (and) I did the lap time without trusting the front,” he told the assembled media afterwards.

“It’s quite strange for me,” he said. “Now it looks like we lost one day, one-and-a-half days to try other things. We have to pay a lot of attention to the things we changed. Because nothing changed on the bike, it’s just the same bike as the first day. The second day we tried other things and we lost the way. So my feeling was that I could not push. Even now I feel like I can push more, I still can’t give my best.”

Vinales’ teammate Valentino Rossi, who finished the Qatar test strongly, wasn’t getting carried away with his second-fastest time, either.

“There have been too many ups and downs this winter,” Rossi told the Italian press. “This means that from one track to another, the difference between the bikes will change a lot, and we have to avoid that we suffer too much at our worst tracks.”

Johann Zarco, the Tech3 Yamaha rider who narrowly missed shattering Jorge Lorenzo’s decade-old pole record with a 1min 54.029sec lap on the final day, is running Yamaha’s 2016 chassis this year, and his single-lap pace was a massive quarter of a second faster than anyone else. Which is all very well until you consider his race pace, given the Qatar GP is held over 22 laps, was nowhere near as strong. “When I tried to find the race pace, I was a bit slow,” he admitted.

Could we see a Yamaha or two on the podium for the season-opener? Yes. But it wouldn’t surprise anyone if Rossi, Vinales and Zarco didn’t make the top five in a fortnight’s time. Their guess is only slightly better than yours.

Jack is legit

Jack Miller has almost been counting the days down until the first race in Qatar from the moment he stepped onto a Ducati Desmosedici GP17 for the first time in Valencia last November, and comes into the 2018 campaign in great shape, his confidence sky-high and his expectations for the season needing to be recalibrated.

Remarkably, the first day in Qatar (when he was 12th overall) was the only day he didn’t feature inside the top 10 across nine days of testing, while his long-run pace came relatively easily, leaving him in no doubt that there’s more to come. He’s been right on the pace (and sometimes faster than) Alma Pramac Racing teammate Danilo Petrucci too, remembering that the Italian is on the updated Ducati GP18 that will be campaigned by Lorenzo and Andrea Dovizioso in the factory squad.

Miller’s best qualifying and race results at Losail came last year (started 16th, finished eighth) – and it’ll be a huge disappointment and something of a surprise if he’s not able to eclipse that in two weeks.

‘Dovi’ knows he can do it

There’s a big difference between thinking you can do something big and knowing you can, and that’s why Dovizioso’s pre-season makes for such interesting analysis. After his belated breakout season in 2017, when the 31-year-old won six races in one season where the previous nine years had yielded just two victories, there’s a sense of calm around the Italian these days, and he approaches his craft with a minimum of fuss – no headline times in testing (he never led a day across the nine), few crashes or runs wide into gravel traps or onto tarmac escape roads, and no big proclamations of what’s to follow. Consistent and methodical lap times while understanding why he’s fast (as opposed to just being fast) was the aim, and those boxes were ticked.

After day two in Qatar, ‘Dovi’ pulled back the curtain – ever so slightly – to reveal the inner confidence that will surely see him stay a title contender this year. “My best time I set in a mini long-run of 12 laps which I did this evening, and I have to admit that the times came quite easily …,” he said.

“We are in a better situation then we had last year, so I’m really happy about that.”

Marquez is favourite, but …

Miller gave the media a first-hand insight into Marquez’s brilliance at Qatar, after he followed the reigning world champion on track during the second day of running and watched the Repsol Honda rider push to – and beyond – the limits reserved for mere mortals.

“I watched him lose the front I think six times in the space of two laps,” Miller said, shaking his head.

“I thought ‘he’s down, he’s down’, and then he stood it up and kept going again! But I followed him the lap before through the fast three corners, and he lost the front each time.

“It was amazing to watch from behind, there was smoke and stuff coming off him …”

Marquez’s ability to manhandle a bike that isn’t quite where he wants it in conditions that aren’t quite the optimum means, yet again, the Spaniard will be the man to beat this year. We might not get a repeat of the nine race winners that made the 2016 season one of the more memorable in the sport’s history, but we could see an increase on the number of riders to make the podium this year, if testing is any guide.

It’ll be a tall order for anyone to unseat Marquez, but the number of contenders nipping at his heels looks set to rise – which can only be a good thing.

The MotoGP mid-term report

Who has flown, who has flopped, and who has plenty to do at the halfway mark of the 2017 MotoGP season?

THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED ON REDBULL.COM

It was never going to be easy for MotoGP 2017 to out-do the season that preceded it; after all, nine different winners, four first-time victors and too many memorable races to list makes 2016 hard to top. But so far, ’17 has upheld its part of the bargain, and as the campaign takes a month-long pause for the mid-season break, it could be argued that this year is even more gripping than last.

With nine races down and nine races to go, we’ve already had five different riders wins Grands Prix, 10 different men stand on the podium, and four riders – Marc Marquez, Maverick Vinales, Andrea Dovizioso and Valentino Rossi – separated by just 10 points at the head of the table.

Undoubtedly the biggest winners of 2017 so far? The fans. But with ‘school’ out for the summer break before the Czech Republic Grand Prix signals the resumption of term on August 6, picking winners and losers from the 27 riders to have started a race this season isn’t as clear-cut. Which is where our annual mid-season report card comes in. Release the grades …

Dux of the class
When we ran the rule over the two-wheel field this time last year, Marc Marquez was a runaway winner in this category, going to the summer break with a 48-point lead – nearly two race wins – with nine down and nine to go. While the reigning and three-time MotoGP champ heads our class report so far this year, his lead over second-placed Vinales – just five points – is next to nothing, and he’s led the championship precisely once, after taking his second victory of 2017 last time out in Germany. But dig through the numbers, and it’s hard to argue Marquez isn’t the man of the year so far.

Out of the front-running four we mentioned earlier, the Repsol Honda rider is by far the best qualifier – he has six front-row starts in nine races and an average qualifying position of 2.7 (Vinales is next-best at 5.1), while five podiums sees him equal with teammate Dani Pedrosa for the most on the grid. Two costly DNFs – particularly when he was leading in Argentina – are negatives, but his wins in Austin (for the fifth year in a row) and the Sachsenring (for a remarkable eighth-straight time going back to his time in the feeder classes) show that when he’s on it, Marquez remains the benchmark, particularly as it could be argued that he’s on the worst bike of the top four.

Vinales started his Yamaha tenure like a train but has struggled more recently, averaging a fourth-row start in the last three races before the break, and recording just one podium in the past four races after winning three of the opening five. Dovizioso’s back-to-back wins at Mugello and Catalunya were all class, and he’s made Ducati look more convincing as a front-running bike than anyone since the Casey Stoner era. And Rossi, all of 38 years young, wound back the clock with a brilliant win in very difficult conditions at Assen for his first triumph in over 12 months. But to our mind, Marquez stands alone here.

Bizarrely, Marquez and Vinales haven’t been on the same podium together yet despite being first and second in the championship and separated by such a miniscule margin. You figure that when they meet on track in the final nine races – and they surely will – fireworks will ensue.

Encouragement award
Rossi and Dovizioso have cause to be considered here too for reasons we’ve already mentioned, but it’s impossible to split Tech 3 Yamaha’s duo of crack rookies, Johann Zarco and Jonas Folger.

Zarco has hogged the majority of the headlines, as he should have after leading in Qatar on debut and snagging a sublime pole at Assen, and the two-time Moto2 champion has shown absolutely no hesitation in ruffling the feathers of the MotoGP top-liners, which has to be commended. Folger, while going about his business more subtly, loses little by comparison, and rounded out a strong first half with his best performance of the season at home in Germany, where he made Sachsenring master Marquez sweat for most of the 30-lap distance before the Repsol Honda man (inevitably) stretched away.

Thanks to Zarco and Folger, Tech 3 has arguably been the star team of the season – last year, with experienced pair Pol Espargaro and Bradley Smith on board, the French team had scored 107 points at the season recess; this season, its rookie duo have managed 155 to both sit inside the top seven in the standings.

A gold star here must go to Pramac Ducati’s Danilo Petrucci, who managed three front-row starts in a row before the break, and came within inches of a breakthrough first win before being denied at the line by good friend Rossi at Assen. Two podiums already for the Italian has doubled his tally from his first five MotoGP seasons combined.

Could do better
We could say Scott Redding here, who, while admittedly on an inferior machine to teammate Petrucci, has struggled this season and looks set to lose his ride for 2018, We could equally vouch for Redding’s compatriot Sam Lowes, who has endured a wretched run of luck with his Aprilia but hasn’t been particularly quick when the bike has actually worked, and has managed two points – the worst of any full-time rider in the series – so far.

But no, we’ll opt for Jorge Lorenzo, who has found the switch to Ducati to be more problematic than even he would have feared. One podium total (a third at Jerez) looks pretty underwhelming for the three-time champion compared to two wins for teammate Dovizioso, and while both riders have finished eight of the nine races, the Italian has come close to doubling the Spaniard’s points tally (123-65).

Having to re-train his brain to remember he’s not riding a Yamaha after nine seasons was always going to take time for Lorenzo, and he’ll be hoping for fine weather for the rest of the season after his wet-weather demons resurfaced again at Assen, where he laboured to the worst qualifying result of his MotoGP career in 21st, and his worst effort on a Saturday since his 125cc days 14 years ago (Jerez 2003). Things will get surely better for Ducati’s star signing, but they need to, and fast.

Needs a strong second semester
It may seem harsh to have Jack Miller in this spot, but when you come into the final year of a three-year contract with HRC with a MotoGP race win under your belt, expectations were always going to be raised in 2017. The Australian has largely delivered – he has one championship point fewer at the mid-year break this season compared to last after the unexpected Assen success in 2016 – but with all sorts of rumours swirling about his future as the paddock packed up in Germany, he needs more, and he knows it.

“I would have liked to have been inside the top 10 in the standings, but we’ve had a couple of little mistakes here and there that cost us,” Miller said about the season’s first half.

“We’ve shown we’ve really improved this year, and I’m looking forward to making another, let’s say 60 points, in the rest of the season. That’d be nice.”

Reaching the ton for the season – and getting to the end of it in decent physical shape after an injury-ravaged conclusion to 2016 – would be a pass mark for the Aussie before he gets set for his next adventure in ’17.

Extra detention
We’re not picking on Andrea Iannone despite having him in this same category this time last year, but a change of hue from red to blue has done little to change our mind about the maddeningly inconsistent but very rapid Italian. It’s been a tough campaign for Suzuki after losing Vinales and Aleix Espargaro last year, and while Alex Rins’ rookie campaign has barely got started after breaking his left wrist in practice at Austin and missing five races, Iannone has been the blue team’s ever-present, yet has been close to invisible for much of the year.

He’s managed just 28 points in nine races, has failed to finish three times, and has made Q2 just once in the past five races. Former Suzuki legend Kevin Schwantz, speaking to Italian newspaper Gazzetta dello Sport in Germany, let Iannone have it.

“I know by experience that if things are wrong, there is only one thing to do; get out there and work – and try,” the 1993 500cc champion said.

“You have to do more than all the others to try to recover. Iannone is lost, because it seems like he wants the Suzuki to behave like the Ducati. But this bike will never be a Ducati. He should try to take advantage of its strengths.

“Speaking to him, it seems that the bike has no strengths. I don’t understand Italian, but his body language is as bad as it can be.”

What MotoGP testing told us about 2017

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.

What we learned from the Malaysian MotoGP test

An old champion still has what it takes, while a young pretender makes a big statement at Sepang.

THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED ON REDBULL.COM.AU

The 2017 MotoGP season kicked off in earnest this week with the first of three pre-season tests taking place at the Sepang circuit in Kuala Lumpur, home to the Malaysian Grand Prix in October this year. That’ll be the penultimate race of the 2017 campaign, but what did this first test tell us about what might happen between now and then?

One thing we know for sure is that Malaysia’s weather, like gravity and Father Time, remains undefeated. Three days of testing in summer means three days of rain, and with the re-surfaced Sepang circuit taking an age to dry in the constant humidity, track time was at a premium, meaning every lap counted.

Here’s five things we learned after three days of the 2017 pre-season, with familiar faces in new places, some surprises towards the top of the timesheets, and one rider in particular who makes us wonder what might have been …

1. The Mack is on full attack
Anyone who thought Maverick Vinales might take a while to play himself in at Yamaha as Valentino Rossi’s teammate after coming across from Suzuki can think again. Yes, it’s pre-season testing and timesheets need to be digested with some caution, but ‘The Mack’ was fastest on the third and final day, quickest of all across the three days, and left KL with a smile on his dial. “At the moment it is difficult to say which aspect of the bike surprised me most,” Vinales said, and when you factor in his comments that Yamaha was more focused on race pace than nailing the optimum lap time, that’s a scary proposition for the rest. Testing pace at Sepang isn’t the be all and end all – Yamaha aced testing there last year only for Honda to win the championship with Marc Marquez, and Honda were the heroes of Malaysia a year earlier before Yamaha’s Jorge Lorenzo took that year’s crown. But as starts to new jobs go, Vinales could hardly have wished for better.

2. The Maniac is crazy fast
Andrea Iannone’s self-appointed nickname has always been entirely appropriate – Ducati bosses still shake their heads at the memory of the Italian taking himself and teammate Andrea Dovizioso out of podium places on the final lap of last year’s Argentina GP – but has a switch to Suzuki blue done the unthinkable and matured Ianonne without stifling his speed? Second only to Vinales on the overall timesheets, Iannone looked right at home on the GSX-RR, save for a third-day fall that left him further down the timesheets than he should have been. The smooth-handling Suzuki may not have the same straight-line grunt Iannone was accustomed to from Ducati for the past four years, but he’s very quickly found a sweet spot with his new mount.

3. Winglets by any other name
The winglets that characterised the 2016 MotoGP machines were banned at the end of last season, but you just knew the major factories would come up with something to replicate the downforce the unsightly appendages produced last year for this one. Yamaha turned heads on the second day in Malaysia with a series of vanes contained within a second external fairing skin to control air flow. It’s a neat solution to what became an ugly addition to MotoGP bikes last year, and we can expect plenty of other factories to show their aerodynamic hands at the final two tests at Phillip Island and Losail ahead of the March 26 season-opener in Qatar.

4. Stoner is still an enigma
There were several test riders in action for the factory teams in Sepang, but none had the profile of two-time MotoGP world champion Casey Stoner, as the Australian turned laps for Ducati. And turned them quickly too, topping the timesheets after the first day while shaking down Ducati’s 2017 machine for regular riders Dovizioso and high-profile signing Lorenzo, who started slowly but finished the test ninth-fastest overall. “He’s very fast, yes. It’s very good that he don’t race,” grinned old rival Rossi, and for Stoner, being a test rider is the perfect gig – he gets to ride the latest-spec MotoGP machinery, test whether he’s still got it (and he has), and not have to talk to the press afterwards, always a pet hate. Asked in one of his rare media meetings whether he had any plans to race this year, the 31-year-old was blunt. “No,” came the answer, before a more thorough response. “People said I was retiring just because I’d lost my speed, and that wasn’t the truth,” he continued. “I didn’t retire because I wasn’t fast enough. I’m not interested in going back to racing. I see you all for short periods, and we get to enjoy each other’s company, and then I get to go home, so it’s great.” Sigh if you wish he was on the grid with Rossi, Vinales, Marquez, Lorenzo and the rest in ’17 …

5. Bautista, Zarco turn heads
Behind the headlines made by the factory teams and the ‘Aliens’ who hog the limelight came two very noteworthy performances by a category veteran and a MotoGP newbie. Alvaro Bautista was sixth overall and the fastest satellite rider on the Pull & Bear Aspar Ducati, and the 32-year-old, who has previously ridden for Aprilia, Honda and Suzuki in the premier class, trailed only Dovizioso (third) of the Ducati riders on the combined timesheets. At the other end of the MotoGP experience scale, two-time Moto2 champion Johann Zarco got plenty of laps in when the circuit was its wettest on the opening day, and the confidence gleaned from that paid dividends in the dry, the Frenchman ending up as the fastest rookie in 10th overall and a lap time inside the magical 120-second barrier at Sepang (1m 59.772secs).

5 moments that made MotoGP in 2016

What we’ll always remember most from the 2016 MotoGP season, and why.

THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED ON REDBULL.COM.AU

How good was MotoGP in 2016? So good that in coming up with the five moments we’ll always remember from the season past, you could argue that an alternative five could easily fit the bill. In a season where we had nine different race winners, four first-time victors and more drama than we usually pack into five years, choosing what to leave out was no small task.

Our quest? To come up with the moments of the year that live longest in the memory once we turn the page on 2016. What memorable rides will we never forget? What clashes set tongues wagging and social media alight? Who delivered a performance that was truly from the top shelf?

Some of the shortlisted that didn’t make the cut? Andrea Iannone breaking a near six-year victory drought for Ducati in Austria. Iannone taking out his teammate Andrea Dovizioso on the final lap when both were certain podium finishers in Argentina. The epic last-lap stoush between Jorge Lorenzo and Marc Marquez at Mugello. Maverick Vinales winning his maiden MotoGP race at Silverstone. Dovizioso winning for the first time in seven years and becoming the ninth different victor in 2016 at Sepang.

All worthy inclusions in any other year, but 2016 was clearly no ordinary season. The best of the best moments? These.

1. Miller’s masterpiece

Full disclosure: yes, us Aussies got a little bit excited about this one. Jack Miller’s chances of winning the Dutch TT in June were 1000 to 1 because, well, the bookies had to give the Queenslander and every other rider who had next to no chance of winning at Assen something … Qualifying 18th on Saturday was no great shakes for the 21-year-old, but when the rain came down on race day, he was off like a shot, making up six places on the first lap and sitting in eighth place when the red flag was thrown after 15 of the scheduled 26 laps when the conditions became unrideable. “Tenth was the best I’d done in MotoGP before,” he said afterwards, “and to improve on that in such tricky conditions and considering how far back I’d started, I was pretty content.” Better was to come when the race re-started, Miller storming to fourth on the first lap, seeing Valentino Rossi crash in front of him, and then scything past Marquez into the lead of a MotoGP race for the first time – and with the longest eight laps of his life to negotiate to take the chequered flag ahead of the best in the world.

After he managed that to become Australia’s first race-winner since Casey Stoner won his home GP in 2012, his post-race interview (“I’m not an idiot, this sort of makes it clear I do know how to ride a motorbike”), podium shoey celebration and candour in the press conference (“If I went past myself, I would have said ‘that dickhead is going to crash in two minutes'”) endeared him to MotoGP fans the world over, not just those looking for footwear to pour drinks into in the wee hours Down Under. It’s hard to imagine a less likely victory.

2. ‘The Doctor’s’ ill fortune

There was a time where Rossi simply owned Mugello – the Italian won his home Grand Prix seven years running between 2002-08 – but the last of those seven straight successes was his most recent win in the Tuscan hills before the 37-year-old took pole at Mugello in May, sending the packed stands into meltdown and ensuring a bumper crowd for race day. More than 100,000 yellow-clad Rossi devotees went bananas when Rossi and bitter rival Lorenzo went blow for blow over the opening nine laps, but it was then that Rossi’s Yamaha engine cried ‘enough’, sending the home hero into a smoky retirement and causing an eerie hush to fall over the circuit. Rossi was desperately unlucky; Lorenzo’s engine had failed in Sunday morning warm-up, but with a new powerplant for the race, he was able to fend Marquez off for the win as Rossi and his legion of fans were forced to watch and went home unhappy. Six rounds into the season, Rossi was already 37 points adrift of the championship lead, and never really recovered.

3. A gift before glory

Marquez came to Japan with the 2016 championship a mathematical possibility, but with a 52-point lead over Rossi and a 66-point advantage over Lorenzo with 100 points to play for in the final four races, most expected the title fight to rumble on to Phillip Island the following weekend at the very least. Marquez needed to win and have Rossi finish 14th or lower – and Lorenzo finish off the podium – to clinch the crown on Honda’s home soil, a trio of events that seemed unlikely in the extreme. Marquez took the lead on lap four and cleared off, but behind him, things got downright weird. Rossi crashed on lap seven to kill off his title hopes, but Lorenzo looked set to finish second before binning it with five laps to go, making Marquez the champion-elect. “I read on my pit board that Lorenzo was out – on that same lap I made mistakes in four or five corners, as it was difficult to stay focused,” he admitted afterwards. The Spaniard regained his composure and brought it home for his third world title on a day few would have predicted – the last time both factory Yamahas had crashed out of the same race was the 2011 British Grand Prix, when neither Lorenzo nor Ben Spies made it to the end.

4. Cal can

His good mate Miller had won a race, while Iannone had stepped atop the podium for the first time at the Red Bull Ring for his former manufacturer, Ducati. But rather than lament his lot, Cal Crutchlow dug deep and ran rings around the rest of the field at Brno, taking the Czech Republic GP in difficult conditions to become the first British premier-class winner since Barry Sheene in 1981. The maiden win was in the 31-year-old’s 98th start, and Crutchlow came from 10th on the grid and made his pre-race hard tyre gamble pay the ultimate dividend when he crossed the line seven seconds ahead of Rossi. “To even to be mentioned in the same sentence as Barry Sheene is something really nice,” Crutchlow said afterwards. “I made the best tyre choice on the grid, I was playing with them (his rivals). I had so much grip compared to the other guys that had not had the same tyre choice as me. I was cruising around.” The win was not only Crutchlow’s first – it was the maiden success for the independent LCR Honda outfit and team boss Lucio Cecchinello.

5. Home and dry

If there was ever a year for Marquez’s dominance at the Sachsenring to come to an end, 2016 was it. The Spaniard had won every race in every class he’d competed in at the undulating German circuit since 2010, but rain in the minutes before this year’s race meant wet tyres were the only sensible choice – but would need to be discarded for dryer rubber as the skies inevitably cleared. Some riders pitted and went for intermediates, while Marquez nearly crashed on lap 11 and tumbled to eighth. He then rolled the dice on lap 17, pitting and going straight to slick tyres, aiming to stay within the thin dry line that was emerging around the Sachsenring sweeps. From 14th place with 13 laps left, Marquez immediately started hacking five seconds a lap off the race leaders, proof that he’d timed his switch to perfection. By lap 25 he was in the lead, and he ended up finishing nearly 10 seconds ahead of second-placed Crutchlow for his seventh straight Sachsenring success. With Rossi back in eighth and Lorenzo having a nightmare and finishing 15th, Marquez extended his series lead to 48 points at the mid-point of the year – and his third world title was as good as in the bag.

All eyes on the Island

Five things to watch as the MotoGP world championship explodes into life in Australia this weekend.

THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED ON REDBULL.COM.AU

The one downside to this weekend’s Australian Motorcycle Grand Prix at Phillip Island? That we don’t have a live championship fight on Aussie shores, after Marc Marquez took advantage of a rare double DNF for Yamaha teammates Valentino Rossi and Jorge Lorenzo to seal his third MotoGP world title at Motegi in Japan last Sunday. That’s one way of looking at it; another is that with the tension of a title fight released, the Island should be a no-holds-barred affair between the best riders in the world on one of the world’s great racetracks. Everyone wins.

Who can forget last year’s epic MotoGP race at the Island that featured 52 overtakes between the top four of Marquez, Lorenzo, Andrea Iannone and Rossi and 13 changes of the lead? Australia 2015 is regarded by many of the sport’s insiders as one of the best races in world championship history, and there’s no reason to suggest that this year’s spectacle will be any different, if (and that’s a big if) Phillip Island’s notoriously fickle weather plays nice for a change.

What are the main talking points ahead of round 16 of the world championship this weekend? These.

1. Marquez will be unleashed

Eugene Laverty’s fall in the early stages of last weekend’s race at Motegi brought Marquez’s season into sharper focus; it meant the Repsol Honda man became the only rider to have finished every race this season, his championship owing as much to consistency as the speed that has become his calling card.

It’s a development that you would have thought unlikely after 2015, where the Spaniard’s title defence evaporated in a cloud of dust as he repeatedly tried and failed to wrestle his Honda into the podium places, crashing out of six races. Marquez learned his lessons, scaled his all-out style back a little bit, and reaped the ultimate reward. Not that he’s forgotten who he is or what he does, mind you. One comment in the post-championship euphoria in Japan last Sunday was revealing: “Now we can just enjoy it and go into the last three races with maybe a more ‘Marc Marquez’ style,” he said. That style plus Phillip Island and no championship pressure? Sounds like a recipe for an explosive performance to us.

2. Miller’s mind on home

Jack Miller has had this weekend circled for months; the proud Aussie loves his home Grand Prix at any time, but coming to the Island as a premier-class Grand Prix winner after his success at the Dutch TT earlier this year will be something special. Miller has been battered and bruised for most of 2016 – the one time he was relatively injury-free was before the Austrian GP, and he duly had a massive off in Sunday morning warm-up that left him with back, hand and wrist injuries and meant he missed four the next five races. Four falls across the Motegi weekend and an early bath last Sunday wasn’t the ideal preparation for his home race, but he couldn’t be more up for it. “The pressure of a home GP can do funny things to people, but I love it,” he says. “I mean, you’re in your own country, there’ll be more support than you get all year anywhere, you love the track – that all sounds pretty good to me.” He has good form at the Island too, winning the Moto3 race two years ago and finishing in the points and as the leading Open-class runner 12 months ago. He – and we – are expecting a big performance.

3. Best of frenemies

The tenuous Rossi/Lorenzo ‘partnership’ at Yamaha was always going to fray the longer the season went after Lorenzo announced he’d be leaving for Ducati in 2017 back in April; their press conference spat in Misano after Rossi made a strong passing move stick on his teammate early in that Grand Prix revealed the tension behind the scenes that has lingered since last year’s tense title run-in, which was sparked by the race here in Australia and exploded with the Marquez-Rossi on-track shenanigans a week later in Malaysia. With three races left as teammates and no title to chase, the inter-team rivalry could heat up significantly at a circuit where both riders have achieved success; Rossi has won the premier-class race in Australia five times and as recently as two years ago, while Lorenzo won the chaotic tyre lottery of a race in 2013, and was pipped at the post by Marquez 12 months ago.

4. Mack attack

Maverick Vinales loves the Island, and you can see why; the Suzuki rider put in one of the performances of last season when he finished just six seconds behind the all-out brawl at the front of the race in sixth place on a bike that had no business being in the same postcode. The Spaniard was fastest of all in February’s pre-season Island test, and comes to Australia fresh off his third career podium last weekend at Motegi, when he muscled past teammate Aleix Espargaro late in the race to snatch a rostrum spot.”When I come here, it’s like an extra motivation because I like the track, and as much as that, I understand how to go fast at this track, so I always feel very confident,” he told us back in February, and with a win in Moto2 back in 2014 to go with last year’s stellar performance, it’s easy to see why. Of the three races remaining in 2016 in Australia, Malaysia and Valencia, this is the one that represents Vinales’ best chance of a final Suzuki podium before moving on to Yamaha next year.

5. Wildlife winners

Iannone’s charge to the podium here last year was all the more meritorious given the Italian’s Ducati did most of the race with a seagull-sized hole in its front fairing, courtesy of ‘Crazy Joe’ cannoning into a slow-to-move seabird at the bottom of Lukey Heights in the early stages. Iannone took a heavy tumble in practice at Misano back in round 13 and hasn’t been able to race since with a back injury, meaning Avintia Ducati rider Hector Barbera will deputise for him at the Island this weekend – and the local seagulls can breathe a sigh of relief.