Jorge Lorenzo

The MotoGP 2018 mid-term report

Which MotoGP rider is dux of this year’s class? Who gets extra detention or has to write lines? Who deserves a gold star for encouragement? It’s time to name names …

THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED ON REDBULL.COM

Disclaimer, before we start: it’s hard to come up with a MotoGP mid-season review that lands smack-bang in the middle of the 2018 season, with the 50 per cent point coming halfway around the 11th racing lap of the Brno circuit in the Czech Republic on Sunday August 5. So you’ll have to forgive us as we go a few laps early on what has become an annual tradition – the half-term grades for the good and great of two wheels this season. And in a season like 2018, there’s plenty of material to pore through.

We’ve had insanely close races (Qatar and Assen, the latter instantly – and appropriately – hailed as one of the greatest Grands Prix of all time), the customary annual Marc Marquez masterclasses in Austin and Germany, the absurdity of the start of the race in Argentina (hello to all Jack Miller fans), and the frankly bizarre sight of Jorge Lorenzo, who was nowhere early in the season, winning back-to-back races on a Ducati at Mugello and Catalunya, the latter reprising memories of his most dominant Yamaha days where he broke the spirit of his rivals with one devastatingly metronomic lap after another.

Nine races down, 10 to go – so near-enough to halfway. Who has stood out, for the right and wrong reasons? Who has exceeded expectations, and who has fallen short? Who needs to finish the second semester of the year strongly? And who might be getting extra detention if the travelling MotoGP paddock was a school classroom?

Here’s our take on who has earned what so far.

Dux of the class

He’s become a regular in this spot, so perhaps the better way to make a case for Marc Marquez is to give you time to think who should be here in his place. (Waiting). See, told you. His wins have gone from utterly dominant (COTA) to calculatingly brilliant (when he broke up the pursuing pack with two spectacular laps to end one of the bigger brawls for a win the sport has ever seen at Assen), but it’s two races he hasn’t won that show why, barring something unforeseen, he’s likely to become a five-time MotoGP champion in his first six seasons by the time November rolls around. One was his controversial ride in Argentina, where he was in a different league in practice before a sketchy track caught him out in qualifying, and then his race … well, that, and the contact with several riders (particularly Valentino Rossi) that sparked a war of words wasn’t his finest moment, but one that showed the pace he has over the rest when he’s pushing as hard as he can. The other was Barcelona, when he realised he couldn’t safely keep up with a blistering Lorenzo and settled for second when Andrea Dovizioso, who looked to be his primary title rival at the time, crashed out early in the race. There’ll be the odd race like Mugello, when he fell (and didn’t manage to save a slide for once) and couldn’t get back into the points, but his rivals are going to need a lot more of those if they’re to deny the Spaniard a high five at (or perhaps before) Valencia.

Honourable mentions: One for Lorenzo, for his Mugello/Catalunya double after being basically invisible on a red bike for a year and a bit beforehand. Watching such consistent excellence in a sport with so many variables lap by lap is mesmerising when it happens. And another for Johann Zarco, who (before his home GP in France) looked the Yamaha rider most likely to snap the manufacturer’s losing run (more of which later) with a series of searing performances.

Others have had flashes in a year where 10 different riders have already made the podium, but nobody has been as fast for as long as Marquez has this year, and it isn’t close.

Encouragement award

Rossi deserves a reward ribbon here for his persistence, hauling a bike that isn’t at race-winning pace into podium contention time and time again with (typically) canny racecraft and decisive overtaking that overcomes his (alas, also typically) underwhelming qualifying efforts; he had a dramatic pole at home at Mugello and was on the front row at Assen, but he’s often having to fight recovery missions from the third row or further back.

Danilo Petrucci is worthy of a mention here as well, the Italian nabbing a podium at Le Mans and nabbing a factory Ducati seat for next year after Lorenzo’s shock defection to Honda to be Marquez’s teammate in 2018.

His Alma Pramac Ducati teammate Miller gets kudos too, finishing the first five Grands Prix of the year in the top 10, taking a big-balls pole with the lap of his life in Argentina, and riding an immaculate race in France, where fourth was arguably his most convincing big-bike result yet (even more so than his win at Assen 2016, as he conceded himself).

Elsewhere, Alex Rins has been fast when he’s stayed on the bike long enough; in the first nine GPs of the year, the Spaniard had two podiums (second at Assen and third in Argentina) and a fifth place in Italy, but five race-ending crashes. And Rins’ compatriot Tito Rabat has nearly scored as many points already (30) as he has in his best MotoGP full season (35 last year), turning his career trajectory around on a satellite Ducati after leaving Marc VDS Honda behind at the end of ‘17.

Could do better

Maverick Vinales was expected, along with Dovizioso, to be Marquez’s main roadblock to the title this season, but the Spaniard has been up and down in temperament as well as results, a pole in Austin (after Marquez was penalised) and just three podiums in the first nine races seeing him sit third in the title chase through persistence more than any real pace, and with his frustration mounting by the race. Rossi has done marginally better on the same equipment, but perception is everything – and the sight of Vinales getting swamped in the early laps of races on cold tyres and with a full fuel tank has been depressingly common in 2018.

Dovizioso winds up here too, if only for the strange way his season has shaken out – so, so consistent when he challenged Marquez for the title all the way to the line last year, he’s already crashed out three times in 2018 to make his chance of the crown the longest of long shots by the halfway mark.

Dovi’s compatriot, Andrea Iannone, completes our trio here, the Suzuki man showing why he should be pictured under ‘mercurial’ in the dictionary given how hot (back-to-back podiums in Austin and Jerez) and cold he can blow. In his sixth season (and his last one with Ducati before moving to Aprilia for next year), he’s nothing if not consistently inconsistent …

Needs a strong second semester

Vinales, for his own state of mind and Yamaha’s future given Rossi, 40 next February, won’t be (dare we contemplate) around forever. Dovizioso, who simply can’t afford to be out-scored by Lorenzo before the Spaniard splits for Honda, particularly as he had a 40-point lead over his teammate after four races. Miller, who will be hoping to rekindle the form from his first five races as he prepares to step up to become his team’s leader next year when Petrucci moves up and Moto2 front-runner Pecco Bagnaia moves in. And Alvaro Bautista, the Spanish veteran who sits 13th in the championship, who must prove his worth if he’s to be picked up by anyone for 2019 after the Angel Nieto Ducati satellite entry sold its grid slots to the Petronas Yamaha MotoGP team, to be run by the Sepang International Circuit. Which brings us to …

Extra detention

Dani Pedrosa’s body of work over a 13-year stint in the premier class didn’t deserve to end up like this, nor in this category. The Spaniard announced ahead of the German GP that 2018 would be his last lap, finally putting an end to persistent rumours that he’d switch to the aforementioned Malaysian-backed Yamaha project after spending his entire career riding for Honda. Once he puts a full stop on his career in Valencia, he’ll surely be remembered as the best rider never to have won a premier-class world title, and you wouldn’t bet against him riding with more freedom than he’s had so far this year and snaring another win before he leaves, extending his remarkable run of at least one victory in all of his MotoGP campaigns.

It’s testament to the esteem Pedrosa is held in that we’d even contemplate another victory after how underwhelming 2018 has been to date; on the same bike as the championship leader, remember, Pedrosa has a best result of fifth, has missed Q2 twice and is 116 points behind Marquez. Ten different riders have made the podium this season, yet nine races in, the 32-year-old isn’t one of them. Pedrosa’s legacy remains intact no matter what happens from here, but this isn’t the end we envisaged for one of the sport’s front-runners for over a decade.

Loyalty to Honda could have been one reason for Pedrosa not finishing his career on a Yamaha, but Yamaha’s wretched recent record could have been another, which is why they’ve also ended up in our mid-season naughty corner. Yamaha’s last win came when Rossi saluted at Assen last year, 19 races ago, and the most recent round at the Sachsenring represented an unwanted record for the manufacturer, as the drought became its biggest ever (Yamaha previously went 18 races without a win between Malaysia 2002 and South Africa 2004, Rossi’s first race with the marque). Three riders in the top five of the standings is one thing, but entirely another when they have zero wins between them …

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10 fearless predictions for the MotoGP season

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

THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED ON REDBULL.COM

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

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

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

1. Pedrosa is a title contender

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

2. More wins for Jorge, more points for Dovi

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

3. Jack Miller will make podiums, plural

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

4. Johann Zarco will lead Yamaha’s charge

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

5. Rossi will ride on

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

6. The silly season won’t be very silly

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

7. Rins will rise

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

8. Taka takes a turn in the top three

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

9. Thailand will be the GP of the year

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

10. The Marquez masterclass will roll on

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

What we learned from the Malaysia MotoGP test

The 2018 Ducati is a rocket, Honda is lurking, Miller’s pace is real, and other takeaways from three sweltering days in Kuala Lumpur.

THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED ON REDBULL.COM

MotoGP, oh how we’ve missed you. The months (well, month and a bit) of silence as 2017 became 2018 were finally broken when Yamaha’s Johann Zarco became the first man to hit the track at Sepang in Kuala Lumpur last week to start the first official pre-season test of the year, and that sweet sound of 260-horsepower MotoGP engines soon filled the air as we quickly forgot about last year.

We have 19 races ahead of us between now and November, but there’s plenty that can be learned – and plenty of head-scratching as we try to decipher what’s real from what isn’t – from three days of testing at one of the world’s toughest tracks for man and machinery.

Riders sweltered, new parts were tried and tweaked, timesheets were scrutinised and conclusions were arrived at – so to that end, what did we really learn from the initial sparring that is the ‘phoney war’ of testing?

Plenty, but there were as many questions as answers as MotoGP packed up to head to Thailand for pre-season test number two from February 16-18.

1. Who looks good?

Assessing pre-season testing pace isn’t as simple as scanning a timesheet to see who’s on top and who’s not; unless you’re on the inside of a team, judging such variables as fuel loads, tyre age, how much a rider is really pushing and how much they’re leaving in the tank and a million other variables becomes a matter of joining the dots without ever knowing the full story.

The timesheets, for what they’re worth, showed us that Ducati are plenty fast – so fast in fact that Jorge Lorenzo’s final-day session-topping lap time (1min 58.830secs) was the fastest-ever lap of Sepang on two wheels, and over two-tenths of a second faster than Dani Pedrosa’s circuit-best lap on a Honda set in 2015. The long straights of Sepang play perfectly to the Ducati’s preference for tracks where straight-line grunt gets the greatest reward, and while Lorenzo was quick to temper any commentary with the usual caveat of “it’s only testing”, he couldn’t hide his delight after suffering through a winless campaign in his first year in Ducati red last season.

“The bike turns better and I can open the throttle before (earlier),” he told reporters after the final day.

“If the bike itself turns better and you can open the throttle better, you can be faster. Let’s say that during the last year, I made 80 per cent (of the difference), and now during this winter to this test, as I predicted, Ducati made the difference this time.”

What of the other manufacturers? Pedrosa topped the timesheets on day one and was just 0.179secs adrift of Lorenzo on the final day as Honda appeared to be both fast and reliable, and while Repsol Honda teammate Marc Marquez finished seventh overall on all three days, don’t expect the four-time and reigning world champion to be anywhere near that spot once the racing starts for real in Qatar in March, especially with LCR Honda’s Cal Crutchlow doing so much donkey work testing new parts for the factory.

Yamaha? Maverick Vinales led the standings after day two, and while he and factory teammate Valentino Rossi felt the 2018 version of the TZR-M1 was better than the 2017 model that proved hard to fathom, both riders knew they had plenty to do in the coming tests. One Yamaha rider who has already set out his stall for 2018 is Tech 3’s Zarco, the Frenchman confirming he’ll continue to race the 2016 Yamaha he performed on so superbly during his rookie campaign last year, opting for the greater grip offered by the ’16 bike than the extra feedback he gleaned from the ’17 model.

The other manufacturers (Suzuki, Aprilia, KTM) still look some way off the top three, but what order that top three find themselves in after the first test (and will do after the first race) remains something of a mystery.

What is more clear? The award for the hardest-working rider in Sepang, which was Red Bull KTM Factory Racing’s Bradley Smith. The Briton logged 77 laps on the final day alone – the equivalent of nearly four race distances – and produced his best lap of the day on the 71st of them. A big tick to his off-season fitness regimen, then.

2. There’s no going back for noses, is there?

It appears not, if some of the aerodynamic devices fitted onto the front of various bikes over the three days are any indication …

Ugly? Perhaps. But as any engineer or rider will tell you, the only truly beautiful bike is a fast one …

3. Is Jack Miller’s pace real?

It certainly appears to be. The Aussie made the switch from Marc VDS Honda to the newly-named Alma Pramac Racing squad to ride a Ducati GP17 this season, and while teammate Danilo Petrucci rode a full-factory GP18 machine to provide technical back-up for Ducati factory riders Lorenzo and Andrea Dovizioso at Sepang, Miller flew on the ‘old’ machine, finishing inside the top five on all three days and producing his first-ever sub two-minute lap of the circuit on day two (1:59.509), a time he lowered by another 0.163 seconds on the last day.

He had a small tip-off early on the final day, but just went faster and faster. “When we put a new tyre in I’m able to improve more and more, taking a few risks here and there but still feeling pretty much in control,” ‘Jackass’ said after the test wrapped up.

“The more I ride the bike, the more I understand it and get the feel for it.” Exciting times for the Aussie, who turned 23 in the lead-up to the test.

4. Can you push too far in testing?

Absolutely yes. There’s an old adage that you’ll never know where the limit is unless you push past it from time to time, but KTM’s Pol Espargaro might have taken that a little too far with a crash on day two that saw him rendered a spectator for the final day, leaving test rider Mika Kallio to do much of the heavy lifting for the Austrian squad. Still, to hear the Spaniard describe his off, it could have been much, much worse …

“Honestly I feel lucky … I crashed before T4 (Turn 4) under braking and hit the outside wall with plus-250km/h. Seems nothing is broken, but I feel pain,” he said.

Little wonder. The good news? He’ll be back for Thailand in a fortnight’s time, and thanking his lucky stars …

5. Is Sepang a useful testing venue?

On balance, you’d have to say yes – after all, there’s not too many circuits in chilly late-winter Europe in late January/early February that could provide track temperatures of 54 degrees …

Pre-season venues are always a compromise for teams – one of the criticisms, if you could call it that, of using Phillip Island the past two pre-seasons was that its balls-out fast and flowing layout was so atypical to the rest of the tracks on the calendar that teams left Australia wondering whether their bikes could get stopped and power out of slow-speed corners, of which the Island has precisely two.

Sepang, with its long straights leading into hairpins at the first and final corners, and its twisty middle sector where a nimble bike can make up huge slabs of time, is as good of a compromise as it gets. Even if the weather can turn upside-down in an instant.

6 MotoGP storylines we’re predicting for 2018

Want to know what will happen in MotoGP this season? We’ve gazed into the crystal ball …

THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED ON REDBULL.COM

That sound you hear, rumbling away in the distance? It’s the sound of MotoGP testing for 2018, which is set to get underway in Malaysia in a little over two weeks’ time. So while the world’s best two-wheel riders sun themselves on beaches in between clocking up the kilometres using pedal power rather than horsepower to stay fit, we’ve dusted off the crystal ball and peered into the season before us.

It’s a season where plenty of the familiar names at the sharp end will stay with their existing teams before what will surely be a very silly silly season (all but three riders are out of contract at the end of 2018), but one where riders in the mid-grid squads like Scott Redding, Tito Rabat and our own Jack Miller look to make their mark in new colours.

There’s an extra race to extend the calendar to 19 Grands Prix as Thailand comes on stream in October, while a test at the Chang International Circuit in Buriram (sadly, for fans who like to see MotoGP machinery at Phillip Island when the weather is actually good) replaces Australia on the pre-season schedule in February.

We can’t guarantee what MotoGP can serve up in 2018 after a gripping head-to-head battle between Marc Marquez and Andrea Dovizioso last year that followed a cracking 2016 campaign where nine different riders won races. But we’re more than happy to stick our necks out to predict a six-pack of storylines we’re expecting to see this season.

1. Rossi will ride on

No athlete is bigger than the sport they participate in, but there are some whose achievements (and fame because of them) place them on an entirely different level. In modern-day sport, Usain Bolt for athletics and Roger Federer for tennis come to mind. But do even those two giants cast as large of a shadow over their sporting universe as Valentino Rossi? At almost every round of the world championship, not just the ones in his native Italy, Rossi is the number one drawcard, and has been for the best part of two decades. It’s almost impossible to imagine MotoGP without him.

Rossi has seen off generations – plural – of rivals, and changed his off-track training and way of life to cope with the fast new breed of youngsters who have whipped through MotoGP like a tornado in recent times. But the fact remains ‘The Doctor’ will turn 39 before the 2018 season starts, and last year was his least successful campaign on a Yamaha in 12 years, which, at least in part, could be put down to the manufacturer’s fading competitiveness as the season went on, and the broken leg Rossi suffered in a training crash that saw him miss his true ‘home’ race at Misano.

Contracted to the end of 2018, Rossi has repeatedly said he’ll make a decision on his future based on how competitive the Yamaha package is straight out of the box in testing, and how he fares in the opening few races relative to the opposition. He’s still training like a demon, and on his day when the bike is up to it, he’s as formidable as ever – witness Phillip Island last year, three races before the end of the season, where he was in a manic seven-bike fight for the win up to his elbows.

Rossi doesn’t need the money, has nothing to prove, and wouldn’t tarnish his status one bit should he choose to walk away. But we’re predicting another season, perhaps even two, for the nine-time world champion that will take him well into his 40s. Series organisers Dorna will certainly be hoping so.

2. Miller + Ducati = podium

It’s the great outlier on Miller’s 48-race three-season MotoGP CV to date, his win for Marc VDS Honda in atrocious conditions at Assen in 2016 that was as unexpected as any victory we’ve seen in motorsport anywhere in recent times. His two next-best results in the premier class came in equally rubbish weather at Assen and Misano last year, where he hauled his bike to sixth. But 2018 shapes as the year the Townsville tyro, who turns 23 this week, moves forwards in all conditions, not just ones where umbrellas aren’t optional extras.

Miller made a promising start to life with Pramac Ducati when he lapped faster on the GP17 machine on his first day of testing at Valencia last November than he managed on the final race weekend of the season on his satellite Honda, and the characteristics of the Ducati – searing straight-line speed and a bike that doesn’t mind being manhandled into corners – should suit his attacking instincts down to the ground. He’ll be on the bike new teammate Danilo Petrucci took to the podium four times last season (three times in the wet), and while we’re expecting ‘Jackass’ to be stronger in all conditions this year, watch him go when the heavens open.

3. Zarco will win races …

Flying Frenchman Johann Zarco arguably shouldn’t be on this list – he probably should have saluted in Valencia last year after leading most of the final race of the season before being pipped by Dani Pedrosa – but after a rookie season that was as impressive as any we’ve seen for riders not named Marquez in recent times, we think the 27-year-old is ready to take victories – plural – this season. He’s fast, uncompromising in wheel-to-wheel battles, cares not a jot for what his rivals think of him and has tyre management smarts that belie his lack of experience on MotoGP machinery.

The final four races of Zarco’s rookie season featured a pole in Japan before finishes of fourth (Australia), third (Malaysia) and the aforementioned second in Valencia; while we’re not suggesting that sequence points immediately towards a win in the Qatar season-opener on March 18, it wouldn’t surprise us if he wins one of the opening handful of races this year, and adds another one or two later on. He’s probably not ready for a genuine title tilt – yet – but this surely is the year Zarco salutes from the top step of a premier-class rostrum for the first time. It won’t be the last, either.

4. But what of his future?

Let’s marry points one and three above. If Rossi stays at the factory Yamaha squad, and given teammate Maverick Vinales is surely going nowhere, then a move from the Tech 3 Yamaha satellite squad for Zarco isn’t happening. The factory Honda and Ducati line-ups probably won’t be changing for 2019 either. So if Zarco is hell-bent on a factory ride (he should be) and has the talent to secure one (he does), then does his future have an orange hue, as in the colours of KTM?

The Austrian manufacturer was miles off the pace at the beginning of its first MotoGP campaign last year, but progressed at a rapid rate, a seemingly endless array of chassis updates propelling a bike that couldn’t see the front of the field with binoculars in Qatar to one that was inside the top 10 and 16 seconds off the race win in Australia in the hands of Pol Espargaro. KTM already look to have left other factory outfits (Aprilia, Suzuki) behind, and with another year of development under its belt, could be a very coveted bike for the 2019 season. If doors close for Zarco at Yamaha (and we suspect they will), a move to KTM would be entirely logical.

5. The same top dog at Ducati

The surprise storyline of 2017 was the emergence of Dovizioso as genuine title threat – after all, the Italian came into last season as a very respectable MotoGP rider with a reputation as one of the best late-brakers in the business, but one who had won all of two premier-class races in nine previous seasons. Six victories and a fight with Marquez that went to the wire changed all of that, and the 31-year-old’s career year – particularly when contrasted to the struggles three-time MotoGP champion Jorge Lorenzo endured as Dovizioso’s new teammate – was one story we didn’t see coming 12 months ago.

The very characteristics of the Ducati that Dovizioso tamed last year, and should so suit Miller this year, didn’t play into the hands of Lorenzo’s silky-smooth riding style honed from years of riding Yamaha machinery that was untouchable in high-speed corners, allowing the metronomic Mallorcan to churn out near-identical laps one after another as he broke his opposition mentally as much as physically. Seeing Lorenzo look ragged last season after years of stroking the Yamaha to win after win was quite jarring.

Can Dovizioso hit the same heights as last year as the disappointment of coming so close to the summit lingers? Or can Lorenzo put into place the lessons he learned from riding a completely different beast last year into practice and assume his customary position near the top of the standings? We’re not expecting Dovizioso’s advantage of last year over Lorenzo (124 more points, six wins to zero, eight podiums to three) to be as dramatic this time, but we’re still banking on ‘Dovi’ to be Ducati’s top dog again.

6. Marquez will make it a high five

Rossi will be occasionally brilliant and always in the headlines, Vinales will win races, Dovizioso will (probably) head Ducati’s charge and Zarco will ruffle feathers. But can any of that quartet – or anyone else – supplant Marquez as MotoGP champion? It’s hard to make a case for anyone else stopping the Spaniard’s quest for five MotoGP crowns in his first six premier-class seasons, especially as he’s shown he can win in every which way – from dominant season starts (2014, when he won the opening 10 races of the year) to tense last-race deciders (2013 and last year). His initial comments after testing Honda’s 2018 machine in Valencia last year suggested the new bike has left him with fewer unanswered questions than the two that came before it, and if he can win titles with a bike that arguably isn’t the best on the grid, imagine what he’ll do if the RC213V is the benchmark of the field? The odds on anyone else loosening Marquez’s stranglehold on MotoGP will be very long indeed.

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.

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?

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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.