Johann Zarco

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.”

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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).