Andrea Iannone

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.

All eyes on Austria

Can Honda and Yamaha repel Ducati’s charge as MotoGP returns to the Red Bull Ring?

THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED ON REDBULL.COM.AU

MotoGP heads to its first new track since Argentina in 2014 this weekend, when the world championship roars back into life at the Red Bull Ring in Austria for round 10 of the season. But it’s not quite a ‘new’ track – the world championship visited the Red Bull Ring, then under a different name, as recently as 1997.

Most of the teams and riders have sampled the 4.3-kilometre layout this season, Repsol Honda duo Marc Marquez and Dani Pedrosa in early July, and the majority of the rest of the grid later last month on what was, for most riders, their initial laps in anger of the circuit at a two-day test.

The MotoGP mid-season report card: who shone, and who bombed?

What did we learn from that first taste of MotoGP machinery in Austria for nearly 20 years? And who hits the ground running as they try to start the second half of the season with a strong result? Here’s what we know.

There’s nowhere quite like it
The Red Bull Ring looks like nothing else on the MotoGP calendar. Sure, there’s other tracks with plenty of elevation – Austin, Mugello, Brno and Sachsenring come to mind – but there’s nowhere that has just nine turns, and nowhere that has (on paper at least) such a relatively simple layout. Does that make it easy? Far from it. “Compared to the other circuits it has a lot less corners,” says Yamaha’s Valentino Rossi. “At the end of the lap you have done only nine or 10, normally there are around 15.”

For Suzuki’s Maverick Vinales, the Red Bull Ring is unlike anything he’s encountered in his world championship career. “It is a very unusual track; it’s a typical ‘on/off track’, with hard accelerations, three long straights and hard braking,” the Spaniard says.

Over to you, Ducati
Those very circuit characteristics point to Ducati finally being able to snap a win drought that has – unfortunately for fans of the red bikes – almost reached historically barren levels. It’s been 99 races since Casey Stoner took Ducati’s last win at Phillip Island in 2010; can a Ducati stop that unwelcome run from reaching triple figures? Andrea Iannone set the fastest time of the two-day test (1min 23.240secs), with factory Ducati teammate Andrea Dovizioso, Stoner (in his role as a test rider for the team) and satellite Ducati rider Hector Barbera rounding out the top four. Fellow satellite riders Scott Redding (ninth) and Yonny Hernandez (10th) made it six Ducatis in the top 10, their sheer grunt advantage down the straights plainly obvious. “These were two days of very positive tests for us,” said a grinning Dovizioso afterwards. “We can exploit our potential to the maximum, and I believe that we can be really competitive in the race.”

Yamaha is in damage control
When you trail series leader Marquez by 48 points (Jorge Lorenzo) and 59 points (Rossi) respectively, Austria is the race you don’t want as the first one back after the mid-year break. While Honda struggled at the test without Marquez and Pedrosa present, Cal Crutchlow its fastest rider and 1.2 seconds off the pace, Yamaha didn’t do a lot better, Rossi 0.929secs off Iannone’s benchmark, and Lorenzo a couple of hundredths slower still. It doesn’t shape as a race where Lorenzo and Rossi can take a significant chunk out of Marquez’s advantage, and the Yamaha riders know it.

“It’s a very particular circuit because it is really, really fast and you spend a lot of time with the throttle fully open,” Rossi says. “For us, personally, it’s not the best circuit because usually we suffer a bit on top speed.”

Lorenzo, who comes into round 10 desperate for a good result after diabolical races at Assen and the Sachsenring, was even more pessimistic. “Some of our rivals are fast, it looks like the track is giving them a big advantage, especially in braking stability, acceleration and top speed,” he says. “They can put in all the power they have at this track, and the difference is huge.”

Miller’s ready for more
Jack Miller’s Assen win came from nowhere, but the Australian backed that up with another fine performance in the final race before the mid-year break at the Sachsenring, where he ran convincingly in the top five before finishing seventh. He’s one of the few riders to have experienced the Red Bull Ring before this year, racing at the circuit in the German 125cc championship in his early days in Europe in 2011, and Marc VDS team principal Michael Bartholemy expects the 21-year-old Australian to be “fired up” for this weekend. Miller is injury-free, confident and ready to go after racking up 151 laps across the two days last month. “This test was really important for us after missing so many tests at the start of the season,” he said afterwards. “It was great just to get a whole heap of dry laps in where I could just go out and ride the bike.” Another top-10 finish is definitely in play.

The hills are alive, and the walls are close
Expect the track – and its surrounds – to get plenty of air time this weekend. The picturesque setting is undoubtedly spectacular – “every direction you look is like a postcard, but the only way it gets this green is with a lot of rain,” joked Stoner at last month’s test – but it’s the scenery closer to the track that caused some consternation amongst the riders. “In terms of safety, I think there are a few spots with very little space and close to the walls,” Aprilia rider Alvaro Bautista said, echoing the thoughts of several of his colleagues. “Before the race it would be good to think about a few solutions, especially given the high speeds.”

When the MotoGP music stops …

Has the 2017 rider market silly season come to an end? Yes, and no.

THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED ON REDBULL.COM.AU

Blame it on Valentino Rossi. A day before the start of the 2016 MotoGP season in Qatar back in March, the nine-time world champion sent the sport into a spin by announcing that he’d stay with the factory Yamaha team for 2017-18. It was the first domino to fall in a frenzied rider market for next year that has, as we approach Sunday’s sixth Grand Prix of the season in Italy, largely overshadowed the on-track action this year. But a quartet of moves this week might finally see the dizzyingly fast game of musical chairs come to a halt.

But first, back to where it all started with ‘The Doctor’. It appeared untenable for Yamaha to keep their ‘dream team’ of Rossi and Jorge Lorenzo together after the Italian’s unexpectedly early announcement, and just before round four in Spain, the reigning world champion duly announced he’d be off to Ducati at the end of the year.

And then this week, four big players fell into place. Dani Pedrosa re-upped with the Repsol Honda team for two years, extending his stay at the only MotoGP outfit he’s ever known since his debut in 2006, while Andrea Dovizioso was re-signed by Ducati, also for the next two years. And then came the big moves. Maverick Vinales announced he’d be leaving Suzuki to join Rossi at Yamaha in place of Lorenzo from next season, with Andrea Iannone sliding across from Ducati to take his spot.

Let’s take a look at the key developments of this week, and what may be still to come.

Vinales sails from Suzuki
It’s been a big fortnight for the hottest young property in MotoGP, with the 21-year-old Spaniard taking a first career podium at Le Mans last time out, and then announcing on Thursday that he’d be partnering Rossi next season. Choosing to leave Suzuki would have caused Vinales plenty of sleepless nights; for one, he has no agent and is managing himself, using a lawyer only to wade through the legalese that is a necessary evil of any contract, and secondly because he had a chance to do something special for the manufacturer who brought him into MotoGP last season.

Rossi himself had an interesting perspective on Vinales’ conundrum when asked about the young Spaniard in France a fortnight ago. “For me, and I speak without knowing the contracts and the money, it’s an interesting decision,” Rossi said. “In the Suzuki there is something more romantic. He can remain on Suzuki on a bike with a good potential, and try and become like Kevin Schwantz. Yamaha is for sure a great bike, and that is another type of challenge. But it’s his choice what he wants to do.”

That choice – to attempt to win as soon as possible on a known commodity or be part of the development of something that may turn out to be great, but with no guarantees – was no easy one to make, and in Vinales, Yamaha has its succession plan set in stone for when Rossi eventually hangs up his leathers (which, incidentally, may not be after his 2018 deal ends if the veteran Italian keeps fighting for the title as he did last year and will this year). By that stage Vinales will be 23 years old, well accustomed to the life of being a MotoGP rider in a top team, and more than likely a multiple race-winner.

Pedrosa stays put
Times change quickly in MotoGP – just two weeks ago, reputable outlets in the Spanish press who rarely get things wrong had Pedrosa pegged as Rossi’s 2017 teammate at Yamaha, but on Monday came the news that the Spaniard would stay with the only manufacturer he’s ridden for since stepping out in the 125cc category in 2001 for another two years.

As he heads into his 250th GP start at Mugello this weekend, Pedrosa’s career is difficult to assess – he’s won 51 Grands Prix across all three classes, just three fewer than MotoGP legend Mick Doohan – and has finished second in the world championship three times and third another three times, without ever taking the ultimate prize. As impressive as his career stats are, the harsh reality is that three of his teammates – Nicky Hayden (2006), Casey Stoner (2011) and Marc Marquez (2013 and 2014) have been world champions on the sister bike.

Pedrosa is a known quantity, still quick enough to occasionally win races (he’s won multiple Grands Prix in nine of his 10 premier-class seasons), is perfect for the Spanish sponsors and adds an element of class that isn’t commonplace (his response to inadvertently taking out Dovizioso in Austin earlier this season was sportsmanship at its finest). But is anyone expecting that, at 31, he’ll be able to overcome Rossi, Marquez and Lorenzo in a season-long fight? That’s open for debate, but what isn’t is Marquez’s support of his teammate. “In the end he is a good rider; also he is important inside the team, after all of these years. For me, like I already said two years ago, Dani is a good teammate,” Marquez said in France.

A tale of two Andreas
Rossi staying, Lorenzo going. Pedrosa coming back, Vinales sliding over. And Dovizioso being the chosen Andrea to partner Lorenzo next year. Iannone may have stamped his ticket out of Ducati when he took out his 30-year-old teammate on the last lap of the second race of the year in Argentina when both red bikes were in podium positions, and after Iannone’s management made it known that the 26-year-old had been offered a contract from Suzuki even before Vinales announced he was leaving, and well before Ducati announced it would stick with Dovizioso earlier this week, it was only a matter of time before both moves were confirmed.

There’s still intrigue over some riders who are already on the MotoGP grid, and some who want to be. Who will give Moto2 star Alex Rins the chance to slide into the premier-class spotlight his talent demands? And are the likes of Pol Espargaro (who has waited patiently at Yamaha’s satellite Tech 3 squad for a chance to jump to the factory team when either Rossi or Lorenzo left, and has now been leapfrogged by Vinales) and Cal Crutchlow (who has scored just five points in five races this year for LCR Honda) stuck where they are for the time being?

It seems the music is finally beginning to slow down in the 2017 game of musical chairs after a quite crazy two months. Although there is one rider you may have heard of who hasn’t signed anywhere for ’17 – yet. His name? Marc Marquez …