Jorge Lorenzo

Who wins the MotoGP crown, and why?

It’s Marquez vs Dovizioso for the biggest prize in two-wheel motorsport – here’s five things you need to know before their final-round showdown in Valencia.

THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED ON REDBULL.COM

After nearly eight months, 17 Grands Prix, 399 racing laps, five race-winners and 10 different riders on the podium, the 2017 MotoGP season comes down to this – 30 laps in Valencia on Sunday to decide who will wear the crown as the king of two-wheel motorsport. Some 32 riders have taken to the grid for some or all of the 2017 campaign, but Valencia is all about just two.

For Marc Marquez, being in contention at the pointy end of the season is nothing new. In a whirlwind four MotoGP seasons before this one, the Repsol Honda man has won three titles, and leads this year’s championship by 21 points coming into Valencia.

Marquez knows what it’s like to be atop the table coming into the last race; in 2013, he led Yamaha’s Jorge Lorenzo by 13 points heading to Valencia, a third place as Lorenzo won the race seeing him win the crown by four points. Marquez has done it the easier way too; his 2014 title came in Japan with three races to go after he’d won the opening 10 Grands Prix of the season, while last season, he also secured the title at Motegi with three races remaining.

For Andrea Dovizioso, 2017 has been a breakout campaign for a rider who had managed just two premier-class victories in nine seasons before this one. Like Marquez, the Ducati rider has taken six victories so far in 2017, and no matter what happens in Valencia, he’ll top his previous-best championship finish of third, which he earned riding for Marquez’s current team back in 2011. It’s been 13 years since Dovizioso could call himself a world champion, which came when he won the 125cc title for Honda in 2004.

What are the mathematical implications of this weekend? What must Dovizioso do to pip Marquez at the post? Who’s hot and who isn’t? And what role could teammates Dani Pedrosa (Marquez) and Lorenzo (Dovizioso) play, let alone the likes of factory Yamaha pair Valentino Rossi and Maverick Vinales, among others? Here’s what to watch for, and why.

The maths

To say Marquez is in the box seat is an understatement. With a 21-point advantage over Dovizioso, the Spaniard need only finish 11th or better to win the title no matter what the Italian does. In 17 races so far this year, Marquez has finished 14 of them (he crashed in Argentina and France, and had an engine failure in Great Britain), and 11 of those finishes have been podiums. Sixth in Italy has been his worst result.

Dovizioso has been more dependable (he’s finished 16 times in 17 races, equal with Johann Zarco for the most finishes this year), and the one DNF wasn’t even his fault, taken out mid-race by Aprilia’s Aleix Espargaro in Argentina in round two. ‘Dovi’ has finished on the podium eight times, but picked a bad time for his worst result of the year last month at Phillip Island, when he finished just 13th as Marquez won the race to see an 11-point championship deficit balloon to 33.

The Valencia records

For all of his dominance elsewhere, Marquez has a surprisingly modest MotoGP record at Valencia, winning just once (2014) in four attempts. But before Ducati fans get too excited, it’s worth pointing out that Marquez made the podium on the other three visits – third in 2013, and second in 2015 and again last year.

Valencia is also home to perhaps Marquez’s most mesmerising world championship performance; in his final Moto2 race before graduating to the top flight in 2012, he was sent to the back of the grid for a practice infringement and started 33rd – and won anyway, his first lap that day one that still has seasoned onlookers shaking their heads in astonishment …

By contrast, Dovizioso has been super-consistent – he’s finished in the top 10 for nine consecutive years at Valencia – but has just one podium (third in 2011) on his CV. But that was the Dovizioso of old – who knows what this year’s re-booted version could achieve?

The recent form

Marquez has led the standings after eight races this season, Dovizioso two. More recently, over a snapshot of the past five races, it’s Marquez 108 points, Dovizioso 78. Included in that quintet of Grands Prix are three wins for Marquez (San Marino, Aragon and Australia), and two for Dovizioso (Japan and last time out in Malaysia, both of which came in wet conditions). In fact, the front-running duo have been so dominant that the last rider other than Marquez or Dovizioso to win a race this year was Rossi, way back in round eight at Assen in June. Since then, it really has been a two-horse race. Expect Dovizioso and Ducati to be doing a rain dance this week …

The teammates

What could Pedrosa or Lorenzo do to influence the title race? Lorenzo’s role in particular came under the microscope in Malaysia, when he led for much of the race before making a mistake at the final corner with five laps to go, Dovizioso steaming through to take the win. Afterwards, Lorenzo claimed he didn’t see a dashboard instruction from Ducati to let his teammate by to take the extra five world championship points that come with a victory, but added “I already knew, I didn’t need anyone to tell me what to do in this situation”.

What brings Lorenzo into play here is that the Mallorcan has been the dominant force at Valencia in recent times, winning three of the past four races there to go with his other triumph at the tight Spanish track in 2010. He secured the 2015 title – the only one not won by Marquez since the Honda rider came into MotoGP – with victory from pole. Rain, hail or shine, Lorenzo shapes as a factor at Valencia, which could help his teammate.

Pedrosa also has success to draw upon at Valencia, but not recently; the last of his three wins there came in 2012, while last year, he crashed out on lap seven after qualifying a lowly eighth.

If either teammate is figure prominently in Valencia, it’s likely to be Lorenzo – and especially if it rains.

The sideshows

While it’s all about the top two in Valencia, there’s several other storylines worth keeping an eye on.

With 197 points in 16 of the 17 races (he missed Misano with a broken leg), 2017 is already guaranteed to be Rossi’s lowest-scoring season in five years since he’s been back at Yamaha. Worse could be yet to come – should Pedrosa outscore him by 13 points in the final race, ‘The Doctor’ would fall to fifth in the championship, his worst finish on a Yamaha in 12 seasons. The Italian hasn’t won at Valencia in 13 years, and has just one podium (second in 2014) in his past six starts.

For his old Yamaha teammate Lorenzo, 2017 shapes as the first season in his 10 MotoGP campaigns that he hasn’t won a race; second last time out in Malaysia was the best of his three podiums so far in red.

And for Aussie fans, keep an eye on Jack Miller, whose goals coming into the season were to stay healthy after an injury-ravaged 2016, and to finish inside the top 10 overall. He very nearly managed the former before a broken right leg saw him miss the round in Japan, but he’s bounced back since with strong top-10 runs at home in Australia and in Malaysia a fortnight ago. As for the latter: Miller sits 12th on 73 points coming into Valencia, two points behind Ducati’s Alvaro Bautista, and just 11 behind Yamaha’s Jonas Folger in 10th, with the German set to miss the season finale with illness.

Fifth – and topping his season-best to date of sixth at Assen and in Misano – would do it for Miller, depending on what Bautista can manage.

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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.

Lessons learned from the Australian MotoGP test

A Spanish rivalry hots up, an Aussie makes big strides, and ‘The Doctor’ is behind the eight ball.

THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED ON REDBULL.COM

Three down, one to go: three-quarters of MotoGP pre-season testing for 2017 is in the books after last week’s three-day hit-out at Phillip Island, and with only a pre-Qatar blast to come before the season starts at the Losail Circuit in late March, we now have a clearer picture of who’s on song – and who has plenty to ponder in the next five weeks.

As he did in Valencia at the end of 2016 and Malaysia in January, Maverick Vinales set the benchmark time across three days at the Victorian coastal circuit, but assessing testing is rarely as simple as going by what the stopwatch tells you. Several riders made striking progress as the Island test rolled on, while others headed back to Europe knowing they’re not yet on the pace, and – worryingly for some – not exactly knowing why either.

Here’s what we learned after the Australian test, which was (for Phillip Island standards) blessed by unusually stable and sunny weather, not something we often see in October when the MotoGP roadshow returns for the race proper.

1. Vinales is fastest, but Marquez is the front-runner

Vinales has made quite the impression at Yamaha since coming across from Suzuki, and his day three time of 1min 28.549secs (considerably faster than pole position at the Island last October, incidentally) showed how quickly he’s meshed with his new machine. Impressive, sure – but what might have been more ominous for the rest was what Marc Marquez was able to do on the Repsol Honda, particularly on day two when teammate Dani Pedrosa battled illness and didn’t ride a lot. Marquez did a mammoth 107 laps (“my hands are destroyed,” was his rueful comment afterwards), and 44 of those were beneath 90 seconds – a fearsomely consistent pace that put the others in the shade. Replicate that over 27 laps in October’s race here, and he’ll win by a country mile. The reigning and three-time world champion was second on the overall timesheets at the end of the test, but fellow Honda rider Cal Crutchlow knew better than to read too much into that. “Marc showed his hand a little bit,” the matter-of-fact Brit said, “but he has some (time) in his pocket, trust me.”

2. The niggle between Vinales and Marquez is real

An on-track moment inside the final two hours of the test on Friday suggested that Marquez sees Vinales – not Vinales’ Yamaha teammate Valentino Rossi or Ducati defector Jorge Lorenzo – as his main impediment to achieving four MotoGP titles in five years by the end of this season. With Vinales on a long race simulation run, Marquez emerged from the Phillip Island pits and shadowed his Spanish compatriot around the track for a few laps before Vinales pitted to shake him loose.

Coincidence, or not? Was Marquez trying to unsettle Vinales? The champ protested his innocence, as he might. “There was some gap, but I was able to recover this gap. Then I followed him two laps and it was interesting to see a different bike,” Marquez said afterwards. Vinales was a little more expansive. “The track is four kilometres – strange that he was there, where I was,” he mused. “It’s not normal. You are doing your race simulation. Someone pulls out … you cannot stop. After five laps that he was behind, finally I needed to abort the race simulation.” Watch this space with these two.

3. Phillip Island is a particular track

As a racing venue, the Island – with its succession of sweeping corners and stunning scenery – is one of the best on the calendar. As a testing venue that teams can learn from to tweak their bikes to most tracks? Not so much. There’s nowhere quite like the Australian circuit elsewhere across the 17 other Grands Prix venues, and with only two slow corners of note and an abrasive track surface that tortures the tyres (the hottest tyre temperatures all year are recorded through the final two turns of the track, the never-ending left-handers that lead the bikes back onto the start-finish straight), there’s not a lot you can learn in Australia that applies elsewhere. Honda often struggles with traction out of slow-speed corners, so to see three of them in the top five on the timesheets and four inside the top nine was no surprise given Phillip Island’s characteristics. Will that be replicated at the stop-start Losail layout in a month’s time? Doubtful.

4. Miller’s pace is genuine

The fourth of those Hondas inside the top nine was Jack Miller’s Estrella Galicia 0,0 Marc VDS entry, and the Australian could barely contain his enthusiasm after a three-day test where he carried the team’s workload by himself with Tito Rabat back in Europe recovering from injuries sustained at Sepang last month.

Miller was clean, didn’t fall once, was inside the top 10 on all three days and completed over 80 laps – more than three Grand Prix distances – on each day. “For the first time in a long time I feel like I’m in charge of the bike and not the other way round,” Miller joked on Friday, and he’s clearly benefitting from the work done behind the scenes with vastly experienced Spanish engineer Ramon Aurin, who teams up with the Aussie for the first time this season. After a solid showing in the Malaysia test, Australia was another step in the right direction for Miller, who is in arguably the best physical shape of his career as he starts a crucial contract year in 2017.

5. Should Rossi fans be concerned?

‘The Doctor’ celebrated his 38th birthday on day two of the test, and the celebratory cake might have been the best things got over three difficult days Down Under. He was under the weather for much of the test away from the bike, and when he was on it, things weren’t a lot better, according to the man himself. Yes, it’s ‘only’ testing, but 12th on the overall timesheets was cause for consternation. “I think the bike has good aspects, especially the engine, but for sure this test was more difficult for me than the one in Sepang, ” Rossi said after the final day. “I’m not very happy, and we need to try to do better.”

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).

Why MotoGP in 2017 will be mega

Can 2017 be a worthy encore to the compellingly crazy 2016 season? We say yes.

THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED ON REDBULL.COM.AU

MotoGP has plenty of work to do in 2017. How can next year match the one we’ve just witnessed, with nine different race winners, four first-time victors, all-out brawls at the front of the field and plenty more drama besides?

Fortunately, a chaotic rider market has helped to set expectations for 2017 sky-high. More than half of the 23 names on the 2017 entry list will be in new teams (or new to the category altogether) next year, and against the backdrop of a fairly stable calendar and sequence of races, it’s the familiar faces in new places that will be the source of much of the intrigue for the season ahead.

Looking for a reason or five to get excited about 2017? Read on.

A triple treat

Marc Marquez, Valentino Rossi, Jorge Lorenzo. The three riders who have finished 1-2-3 (in various orders) in the championship for the past three years. You’d get short odds on this terrific trio doing likewise again in 2017, but this time it promises to be different, with Lorenzo’s move to Ducati meaning the sport’s three alpha dogs are riding for three different manufacturers. Can Marquez tame the Honda RC213V and curb his natural daredevil style once more to repeat the championship he regained last season? Will Rossi thrive without Lorenzo on the sister Yamaha and be a legitimate title contender again at age 38? And can Lorenzo drag Ducati towards the pointy end on a more regular basis than the retained Andrea Dovizioso has or the departed Andrea Iannone could? The three kingpins of the sport in three different teams with three different philosophies of how to win races and championships? It promises to be the story of the season.

Lorenzo’s legacy

The stats: 35 races, no wins, just three podiums and a best placing of sixth in the championship. You can be sure Lorenzo has Rossi’s numbers from two barren years at Ducati in 2011-12 burned into his brain, and while ‘The Doctor’ became a title contender again once he bolted back to Yamaha, his ex-teammate will be massively motivated to make his own stint in Ducati red far more successful. Lorenzo’s legacy is intact whatever he does for the Italian manufacturer – the three-time MotoGP world champion has finished third or better in the championship a remarkable eight times in nine premier-class campaigns – but if he could go to Ducati and do what Rossi couldn’t – as in restore the red team to its glory days of Casey Stoner in 2007 – he’d surely be considered one of the best to ever do it. The Spaniard turns 30 in May, has time, class and resources on his side, and is clearly raring to go, if his regular tweets counting down the days to the start of the season are any indication. We can’t wait either.

Vinales is ready

If Lorenzo is chomping at the bit to get started, his replacement at the factory Yamaha outfit, Maverick Vinales, was ready five weeks ago, when he topped the timesheets on his first test for his new team in the post-race hit-out at Valencia the week after the final Grand Prix of 2016. Expect Vinales to take all of five minutes to settle in at Yamaha and be a potential race-winner from day one in Qatar in late March. Will he fare better compared to Rossi than Dovizioso against Lorenzo or Dani Pedrosa trying to halt the Marquez juggernaut? Almost certainly. Will the so-far amicable relationship between Vinales and Rossi stand the test of time? Based on previous evidence, it’d have to be a long shot. After all, remember Marquez admitting he had posters of Rossi on his bedroom wall growing up, and then how things went in Malaysia in 2015? Regardless, ‘The Mack’ on full attack on a Yamaha will be a sight to see.

The graduates

A quick Moto2 quartet steps up to the main game this season, and will all be worth watching for different reasons as they vie for what should be a very competitive rookie of the year prize (unlike last season, when Tito Rabat beat precisely nobody to take the debutant gong – the Spaniard was the only first-year rider in 2016). Johann Zarco makes the leap to MotoGP at 26 and as the only two-time Moto2 champion in the category’s history, while his Tech 3 Yamaha teammate is Jonas Folger, who won three races in three Moto2 seasons but never seemed to completely deliver on his obvious potential. Alex Rins has big shoes to fill as Vinales’ replacement at Suzuki, but has won races in the lower categories in four of his five world championship campaigns and has class written all over him. And at Aprilia, Sam Lowes steps in alongside ex-Suzuki man Aleix Espargaro and will be hoping to bring the good (two wins last year) to the top flight while leaving the bad (a seemingly endless stream of crashes late in the season – he managed four laps total in the Japan-Australia-Malaysia flyaways) back in the intermediate category. Picking a ‘winner’ of this race within a race is too close to call.

It’s Miller time

Well, it has to be, doesn’t it? The coming season will be the third and final year of Jack Miller’s HRC contract, and he’s staying with Marc VDS for a second season. The progress Miller made last season – from 19th in the 2015 championship to 18th 12 months later – doesn’t look like much on paper, but the Aussie was barely fit last year, a pre-season motocross accident, a practice off at Austin and a heavy Sunday warm-up fall in Austria seeing him compete in just 13 of the 18 races, and many of those under major physical duress. Those 13 races featured five top-10 finishes, the first five of his career, and of course that maiden spectacular success at the Dutch TT. Off-season surgery to get some metal out of his right leg is done, and it’s time for Miller to get healthy, become consistent and benefit from the continuity of being in the same team for a second season as he looks to shape his future. As with anything the 21-year-old does, 2017 will be compulsory viewing.

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.