Marc Marquez

6 things we learned from the Malaysia MotoGP test

Ducati dominated the top of the timesheets, but Honda kept its powder dry as the riders sweltered across three sizzling days at Sepang.

THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED ON REDBULL.COM

First days back at “school” don’t get much tougher than last week’s first MotoGP pre-season test for 2019 in Malaysia, where the riders and teams sweltered at a baking Sepang circuit where the track temperatures topped out at nearly 60 degrees – no misprint – on all three eight-hour days.

While we got an early read on the off-season developments of the teams and manufacturers over the break since Valencia last November, the brutality of the conditions also gave us some instant feedback on who had spent the off-season training hard to whip themselves into shape, and which riders didn’t quite manage to get the gym/nightclub balance just right …

All 11 teams and 21 riders – Repsol Honda star recruit Jorge Lorenzo sat out as he continued to recover after fracturing his left wrist in a January training accident – took to the circuit across the three days, with a raft of new aerodynamic parts sprouting from almost every machine, and the usual pre-season games of secrecy (closed garage doors) and subterfuge by teams taking place to throw their rivals (and the media) off as everyone tries to work out where they stand in the pecking order.

With three different manufacturers (Honda, Yamaha and Ducati) topping the timesheets after the three days, the pre-season picture remained murky as the clouds gathered over Sepang on the final day of testing, the heavens finally opening after a long week an hour after action wrapped up on Friday evening.

Who’s fast? Who has problems to solve? Who can be optimistic? Who will wish there was more time available before the 2019 season roars into life in Qatar on March 10? Analysing what really happened at Sepang requires more nuance and context than simply scanning the timesheets, so here’s six things we learned from Malaysia that might give us a sign of what’s to follow.

1. It’s wide open, but …

Reigning world champion Marc Marquez sat atop the timesheets on day one, while fellow Spaniard Maverick Vinales had Yamaha flying highest on the second day. On the final day, Danilo Petrucci led a Ducati domination at the sharp end as the test wound down. What can we read from that mixed bag? A little, with a lot of asterisks.

A little over two months removed from left shoulder surgery, Marquez wasn’t his usual gravity-defying self in Malaysia, but still managed to lead the way on the first day. Trackside, it was evident that building strength and stability in his left shoulder remains a work in progress, and he was more cautious than usual in some of Sepang’s sweeping switchback sequences, not daring to risk a crash that would set him back. Of course, because he’s Marquez, he was plenty fast enough, but he wrapped up each day early after 30-odd laps, choosing to focus on recovery while his rivals were churning out 70-plus laps a day in the scorching heat. “Of course, I would have liked to ride more but we had to take it a bit easy,” he said. “I’m happy because I was riding easy, not in my riding style, but I was able to ride more.”

Vinales was in an upbeat mood after Yamaha, which won just one race last season, looked to have started 2019 closer to the front than the equivalent test last year. “I made some laps behind our rivals, so I could compare how our bike is working, and it’s not bad,” he said. “There are just some small details left and that’s the most important. Last year they were some steps ahead, and now we are closer.”

The final morning of the test started under the shade of some rare cloud cover, and with track conditions more suited to a qualifying simulation run than tyre preservation in the baking heat, an impromptu ‘happy hour’ exploded into life, and Ducati made quite an impression. Six riders went beneath Lorenzo’s circuit-best time of 1min 58.830secs set at the Malaysia test last year, and four of them – the first four – were Ducatis, Petrucci’s 1:58.239 standing as the best time of the test.

Alma Pramac Racing rookie Francesco Bagnaia was a head-turning second, just six-hundredths of a second adrift, while his teammate Jack Miller (+0.127secs) and Petrucci’s stablemate Andrea Dovizioso (+0.299) rounded out the quickest quartet. As much as Dovizioso tried to play down Ducati’s pace afterwards with the usual disclaimers about it only being testing and so on, it was quite the statement of intent for the manufacturer that has finished runner-up the last two seasons.

Another reason for Dovi’s discretion was that we never saw Honda’s true pace, what with Lorenzo not in Malaysia, Marquez not at full power, and Cal Crutchlow taking his own (literal) tentative steps back from injury after snapping his ankle horrifically in practice at last year’s Australian Grand Prix weekend. Takaaki Nakagami, Crutchlow’s teammate, finished the test inside the top 10, but the Japanese was riding a 2018-spec RC213V, not the new model to be raced by Marquez and co. in Qatar in four weeks’ time.

2. Yamaha are on the way back

Vinales was the fastest Yamaha (fifth overall), and while factory teammate Valentino Rossi was five places and half a second behind at the end of the three days, the two sides of the garage were largely in harmony about the team’s engine direction for 2019, and the ground it has gained over the northern hemisphere winter.

“It’s good, because it’s the first test and we improved some things, but we have a lot of work to do,” Rossi said, calling Vinales’ day two time (1:58.897) “unattainable”.

“The gap is quite big, so we need time. I’m happy about the atmosphere and especially about the ideas inside the garage; it looks like Yamaha are very much concentrated on improving, so this is important.”

Rossi, who turns 40 on February 16, shows no sign of slowing down nor tiring of the constant attention he faces as the star attraction in MotoGP 19 years after his debut in the premier class. The off-season training is harder, but he’s right up for it. That said, the Malaysian heat was a wake-up call. “I used the used tyre a lot, but I didn’t make a long run because, f**k, it’s hot!” he laughed after the second day, when he turned 51 laps (more than two-and-a-half race distances at Sepang) before retreating into the air-conditioning.

3. Jack’s ready to make a splash

Miller looked fit and ready to fire in Malaysia, getting around the hotel on the day before the test in a replica singlet of NBA sharpshooter Steph Curry, perhaps a signal that he intends to be equally on target this season. The Aussie left his family Christmas celebrations early in Townsville to head to California for a month of tough training, where he indulged in his new favourite off-track sporting pursuit, cycling.

“The guys I ride with … they’re all strong, so some days you can go out there and feel on top of everything, and then another day they’ll push to a new level and you feel completely s**t,” he said. “It humbles you. They challenge you to be better.”

Miller was sore at Sepang, courtesy of a thigh haematoma from a motocross spill while out riding with Aussie dirt-bike star Chad Reed, but was very quick, finishing third on the second and third days of the test, and third overall. Things came in threes for the 24-year-old; he had a spill on each of the three days, the last one in the final laps of a race simulation on the last afternoon, but was happy to escape unscathed, and to see the easy speed he’s been able to unlock from the GP19 machine so far.

“I’m 24 now, have done the hard yards, have the experience and all of that,” he said of the season to come. “I think it’s going to be a good year, and I’m really looking forward to it.”

4. KTM doesn’t lack for ambition

Seemingly the busiest factory outfit at Sepang was KTM, the third-year team throwing a vast array of parts to test at 2018 returnee Pol Espargaro, new recruit Johann Zarco, and the team’s test rider Mika Kallio across the three days. Returns on the stopwatch were modest – Zarco was the best-placed of the trio in 17th overall – but Sepang was more about the Frenchman getting accustomed to the brutal acceleration of the KTM compared to the buttery-smooth satellite year-old Yamaha he’s been riding for the past two seasons.

Where Espargaro’s nature is to take whatever he’s given and quickly try to find its limits, Zarco is a more analytical rider, one who wants to understand what he has beneath him before unleashing his searing speed. It’s a contrast of approaches in order to achieve the same goal, and the camaraderie in the team, and the open relationship between the teammates, makes this look like a combination that can work.

Zarco has a two-year deal with KTM and feels the team will be in contention for bigger things in 2020, but he’s not backing away from a surge up the grid this season.

“I think it would be good to be around the top 10 in every race; this can be a possible target,” he said.

5. Rins is ready for the top step

Testing times can mask a lot; Alex Rins’ position on the overall timesheets (12th, 0.941secs off Petrucci’s best time) doesn’t look all that impressive until you dig a little deeper. The budding Spanish star, who finished the final six races of 2018 inside the top six to end up fifth in the championship, sounds and looks (courtesy of his blown-out hairdo) like a new man this season, and his race pace on old tyres on the second day – where he described his rhythm on tyres that had done 20-25 laps as “incredible” – raised eyebrows up and down the pit lane.

The Spaniard has mastered the Lorenzo-like quality of being fast without looking all that quick; trackside, it never really appeared he was pushing that hard until you checked the stopwatch, where he was routinely churning out 1min 59sec laps for fun in his race simulation.

Suzuki was one of two factories (KTM being the other) not to have a rider inside the top 10 after three days, but don’t expect that to last for long – and from Qatar, Rins should be in any conversation about potential race-winners at every Grand Prix.

6. MotoGP riders are a different breed

OK, we know this already, but the toughness of the 21 riders in such difficult conditions across three days has to be applauded, even for the riders who arrived in Malaysia fully fit.

Watching Marquez scurry from the Honda garage to debriefs and back trying to avoid over-enthusiastic fans from patting him on his tender left shoulder showed you the discomfort he must be in, while Crutchlow’s mangled right ankle looked red-raw at the end of each day, his first laps since breaking it at the Island quite the ordeal. “I feel like I’ve been hit by a bus every morning I wake up,” he said, adding: “when I’m on the bike I’m alright, it’s when I get off …”.

Ducati’s Tito Rabat, coming back to action after breaking his leg at the British GP last August, could barely walk before he got on the bike each day … and still did 175 laps across three days in conditions that weren’t exactly akin to a Spanish winter’s day in February. Yes, a different breed indeed.

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6 storylines to watch in MotoGP for 2019

The new MotoGP season promises to be compelling, but what are the stories we can’t wait to see play out in 2019?

THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED ON REDBULL.COM

We’re around a month away from MotoGP testing beginning in earnest for the upcoming season in Malaysia, but the turn of the calendar to 2019 only heightened the anticipation for what’s ahead. It’s a 19-race campaign where the schedule mirrors the one that preceded it, but elsewhere, it’s all-change as the world’s premier two-wheel category gets set for what’s sure to be a compelling season.

Everywhere you look, there’s storylines we can’t wait to watch play out. With just two teams retaining the same rider line-ups year on year, it’ll take some time get accustomed to familiar names in unfamiliar colours, while several riders face career-defining (or perhaps career-breaking) seasons, and there’s a host of exciting new talents set to strut their stuff in the big-time for the first time.

But what are the most compelling storylines for 2019? What really moves the needle on the excitement meter, and what has us intrigued? There’s plenty to choose from, but we’ve picked out a top six. Let’s count them down.

6. Who’ll be the rookie to turn heads?

Last year’s battle for the best of the new boys was close (for the record, Honda’s Franco Morbidelli edged Yamaha’s Hafizh Syahrin by four points for the rookie of the year title after 19 races), but not enormously compelling, given Morbidelli won it with 50 points for the season and a best race result of eighth place. This year? There’s four gun graduates from Moto2 set to step up, and there’s legitimate reasons to think each will have their time to shine.

Spaniard Joan Mir makes the move to the top flight after just one intermediate-class season and looks set to be on the best bike after replacing Andrea Iannone at the factory Suzuki squad, while Pecco Bagnaia’s progress at the Alma Pramac Ducati team will be watched closely on Australian shores, as last year’s Moto2 champion rides a Ducati alongside Townsville tearaway Jack Miller.

Elsewhere, a pair of new riders for ‘new’ teams will surely make their mark; Fabio Quartararo had a pre-world championship career so glittering that he was spoken of as the next Marc Marquez, and after breaking through for his maiden Moto2 win last year, joins Morbidelli in an all-new line-up for the start-up Petronas Yamaha SRT squad. Also in a ‘new’ team, of sorts; perennial Moto2 front-runner Miguel Oliveira, who’ll ride for Tech3 as the French team switches from Yamaha to KTM machinery alongside Syahrin.

You’d back Mir to be the best debutant if you were down to your last dollar, but not with any great conviction – which points to an intriguing battle within a battle on the 2019 grid.

5. 2019 has to be Miller time

No MotoGP season is a small one for any rider, but 2019 shapes as a very big one for Miller, who goes into his fifth MotoGP campaign with a lengthy to-do list to check off. Item one is to see off Bagnaia, who’ll be riding a GP18 machine while Miller gets his first taste of current-spec Ducati machinery, riding the 2019 bike that will be campaigned by factory riders Andrea Dovizioso and Danilo Petrucci. Two is to stay injury-free and on the bike more often, as Miller’s four years to date have seen momentum regularly interrupted by crashes that have led to squandered points or broken bones. Item three? Impress Ducati’s top brass to the extent that he’s considered for a promotion for 2020. Miller, who turns 24 later this month, isn’t the new kid on the block anymore, and while his speed isn’t in question, a top-10 championship finish has remained elusive so far. Can things change this season? Speaking of which …

4. Ducati’s big decision

What we know about Ducati’s factory team – Dovizioso is, quite appropriately, the Italian manufacturer’s main weapon in the fight against Honda and Yamaha, and the 32-year-old comes into 2019 off back-to-back runner-up finishes in the championship and 10 wins across the past two years. But with Jorge Lorenzo’s jump to Honda (more of which later), who is the best-placed rider to ride shotgun with ‘Dovi’ long-term? Is it Petrucci, who has a one-year deal with the team and is, as he said himself, betting on himself to earn a more lucrative payday by declining an option for 2020? Is it Miller, who has a race win (Assen 2016) and a pole position (Argentina last year) to his credit while not showing Petrucci’s consistency in their season together in 2018? Is it Bagnaia, who, at 21, won a world title in the lead-up to his premier-class career, something neither Petrucci nor Miller could manage? Or is it someone else entirely?

3. Which horse does Yamaha back?

Yamaha had, by its usual lofty standards, a tough 2018, where Maverick Vinales’ win in the Australian Grand Prix at Phillip Island was the only victory for the team all season. Yes, Valentino Rossi (third) and Vinales (fourth) featured prominently in the standings by season’s end, but their finishing positions were earned more through consistency and stealth in a campaign where Honda took 10 wins and Ducati seven to Yamaha’s sole success. Which means Yamaha needs to catch up – but how?

The past exploits of Rossi, who turns 40 in February, means he’s a legend of the sport. Vinales, 24 this month, is a junior-class champion who represents the future. On the basis of their post-season testing comments, both riders agree the bike needs improving to match it with the likes of Honda and Ducati, but have differing opinions on how; Vinales was happy with the consistency of the new 2019 engine, while Rossi felt the bike struggled to maintain pace as tyre wear became a factor, among other things.

Which rider will the team listen to most? Can Yamaha appease both while skewing its development direction more from one rider’s feedback than the other? Can whatever direction taken vault the team back into the fight for race wins and titles, rather than sporadic visits to the podium? There’ll be a lot of eyes on the blue-hued team in 2019.

2. Is Marquez beatable?

With five titles in six MotoGP seasons to date, Marquez casts an imposing shadow over the rest of the MotoGP grid. Qualifying speed, race craft, ability in flag-to-flag races, an appetite for the fight, gravity-defying saves … the Spaniard has the lot, and a consistency that means that, even on his off-days, he’s likely to finish on the podium. Yes, he crashes (Marquez fell 23 times last year, more than any other rider), but he rarely bites the dust in races; his first DNF last season came in round 17 in Australia, the race after he’d won the title in Japan a week earlier. Can anyone topple the 25-year-old from the summit?

1. Can Lorenzo beat Marquez?

If anyone can, could Lorenzo? After all, he’s on the same bike as MotoGP’s unstoppable force, ditching Ducati after a stuttering season last year where he barely scored points in the opening batch of races, rattled off three race wins and beating Marquez in a breathtaking head-to-head fight in Austria, and then spent most of the season half of the year absent or compromised with injury after huge offs in Aragon and Thailand. Lorenzo concedes he isn’t sure if can win a fourth MotoGP title in his first year on a Honda alongside Marquez, but you know he won’t be intimidated by the enormity of the task at hand, given he’s the only other rider to lift the championship trophy in the Marquez era after he won in 2015.

Season 2019 is Lorenzo’s biggest challenge yet, and his partnership with Marquez is, by some distance, THE storyline to watch.

Who won the MotoGP teammate battles in 2018?

Who ended up as the alpha dog in all 12 MotoGP garages this year? We’ve crunched the numbers.

THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED ON REDBULL.COM

Some pairings of MotoGP teammates just work; each rider knows their place, they share information to make the bike better and their teams more competitive, and they operate for the greater good rather than individual glory. And some ‘teammates’ are that in name only, vying for the attention of their manufacturer, angling for a technical direction they prefer with their machinery, and doing anything they can to finish ahead of their stablemate with the same equipment.

There was evidence of both extremes in the MotoGP paddock this year (and you can come to your own conclusions as to who fits where), but while the approaches taken to tackle the season can vary, the stats (usually) show one clear outcome.

We’ve run the numbers for all 12 teams and 24 regular riders (not considering wildcards, one-offs or injury replacements) to work out who was top dog in each MotoGP garage over 18 races, and who will need to rebuild their reputations as we enter the 2019 campaign, where (remarkably) just two of the squads below will retain the same riders year-on-year.

In teams’ championship order, let’s go.

Repsol Honda Team

Dani Pedrosa spent six years as teammate to Marc Marquez at Honda’s factory squad before retiring at the end of the season, and while there were some high points (he won nine races in that time), 2018 wasn’t one of them. Marquez won his fifth world title in six seasons this year, but the size of the gap to his compatriot was bigger than ever; in the five previous years, Marquez out-scored Pedrosa by an average of 83 points a season, while this year, the gap was 204 points and 10 spots in the riders’ standings. Few pairings were more one-sided than this high-profile duo.

Qualifying H2H: Marquez 17, Pedrosa 2
Race H2H (both finished): Marquez 12, Pedrosa 0
Best result: Marquez 1st (nine times), Pedrosa 5th (four times)
Points: Marquez 321 (1st), Pedrosa 117 (11th)
Podiums: Marquez 14, Pedrosa 0
Avg. grid position: Marquez 3rd, Pedrosa 10th
Avg. race finish: Marquez 3rd, Pedrosa 7th

Ducati Team

Remember we said the numbers don’t always tell the story? Context is everything when trying to separate Andrea Dovizioso and Jorge Lorenzo at Ducati, the Spaniard’s final season in red before heading to Honda as Pedrosa’s replacement. Lorenzo’s two years alongside Dovizioso were tricky to manage, and the stats are just as hard to analyse. Lorenzo’s high points were arguably higher, but from the mid-point of the season, where he was either injured, compromised or absent altogether, meaningful comparisons between the two are impossible. It’s only fitting that a complicated fit between these two comes with a set of numbers that could be read both ways. Neither of them would be wrong.

Qualifying H2H: Lorenzo 8, Dovizioso 7
Race H2H (both finished): Dovizioso 6, Lorenzo 3
Best result: Dovizioso 1st (four times), Lorenzo 1st (three times)
Points: Dovizioso 245 (2nd), Lorenzo 134 (9th)
Podiums: Dovizioso 9, Lorenzo 4
Avg grid position: Dovizioso 4th, Lorenzo 6th
Avg. race finish: Dovizioso 4th, Lorenzo 6th

Movistar Yamaha MotoGP

Speaking of complicated … how do you split Valentino Rossi and Maverick Vinales? Rossi finished higher in the standings, but Vinales took Yamaha’s only win for the year in a disappointing season. Vinales had the one-lap advantage, but Rossi had unerring consistency. Both had the same number of podiums. Rossi seemingly always moved forwards in races, Vinales had to fight back after routinely dropping back in the early laps. At gunpoint, you’d say Rossi … just.

Qualifying H2H: Vinales 12, Rossi 7
Races H2H (both finished): Rossi 9, Vinales 7
Best result: Vinales 1st, Rossi 2nd
Points: Rossi 198 (3rd), Vinales 193 (4th)
Podiums: Rossi 5, Vinales 5
Avg. grid position: Vinales 7th, Rossi 8th
Avg. race finish: Vinales 6th, Rossi 7th

Team Suzuki Ecstar

If races were held over one lap, this head-to-head belongs to Andrea Iannone, and it wouldn’t be close. At the mid-point of the season, the Italian held sway at Suzuki, even against the backdrop of his departure to Aprilia for 2019. But Alex Rins finished the season with a rush, ending it with three podiums in the final four Grands Prix. Rins still falls off too much – five non-finishes were as many as Rossi, Marquez and Dovizioso combined – but the Spaniard’s Sunday scorecard against Iannone says plenty.

Qualifying H2H: Iannone 13, Rins 6
Race H2H (both finished): Rins 5, Iannone 4
Best result: Rins 2nd (three times), Iannone 2nd
Points: Rins 169 (5th), Iannone 133 (10th)
Podiums: Rins 5, Iannone 4
Avg. grid position: Iannone 7th, Rins 9th
Avg. race finish: Rins 5th, Iannone 8th

Alma Pramac Racing

Jack Miller himself will tell you he should have scored more points this season, with several strong qualifying showings in the back-half of the year going to waste with early-race crashes on Sundays. Danilo Petrucci scored more points, had a better best race result and started closer to the front on average than his Australian teammate, but how much of that was down to the rider and not what the riders rode, given Miller was on a 2017-spec Ducati while Petrucci rode a full factory ’18 bike for 18 races? Miller’s stronger second half narrowed the gap, but not by enough.

Qualifying H2H: Petrucci 14, Miller 5
Race H2H (both finished): Petrucci 9, Miller 4
Best result: Petrucci 2nd, Miller 4th (twice)
Points: Petrucci 144 (8th), Miller 91 (13th)
Podiums: Petrucci 1, Miller 0
Avg. grid position: Petrucci 7th, Miller 10th
Avg. race finish: Petrucci 8th, Miller 10th

Monster Yamaha Tech 3

This wasn’t supposed to be close, and wasn’t – Johann Zarco came into 2018 as one of the sport’s rising stars and delivered on that promise in the early part of the season, while Hafizh Syahrin was a rookie who came in late after 2017 Tech 3 rider Jonas Folger had to withdraw with illness. Zarco’s reputation as a demon qualifier produced an enormous gap between two riders at very different stages of their careers; the Malaysian was one of three riders never to beat their teammate on a Saturday, and one of four not to finish ahead of the rider on the other side of their garage on race day.

Qualifying H2H: Zarco 19, Syahrin 0
Race H2H (both finished): Zarco 14, Syahrin 0
Best result: Zarco 2nd (twice), Syahrin 9th
Points: Zarco 158 (6th), Syahrin 46 (16th)
Podiums: Zarco 3, Syahrin 0
Avg. grid position: Zarco 6th, Syahrin 18th
Avg. race finish: Zarco 7th, Syahrin 13th

LCR Honda

This pairing will go around again in 2019 (as will Rossi and Vinales at the factory Yamaha squad), and while the numbers predictably have Cal Crutchlow well ahead of Takaaki Nakagami, there’s reasons to be optimistic for both. Crutchlow would have been on for a second top-five championship finish were it not for injury on his factory 2018 RC213V, while satellite bike-riding rookie Nakagami saved his best to last with a sixth-place finish in the Valencia finale, and then led the timesheets on the final day of testing for the season at Jerez. With good respect between the two, this is as close to an ideal pairing at a satellite squad as you can get.

Qualifying H2H: Crutchlow 16, Nakagami 0
Race H2H (both finished): Crutchlow 10, Nakagami 1
Best result: Crutchlow 1st, Nakagami 6th
Points: Crutchlow 148 (7th), Nakagami 33 (20th)
Podiums: Crutchlow 1, Nakagami 0
Avg. grid position: Crutchlow 6th, Nakagami 16th
Avg. race finish: Crutchlow 6th, Nakagami 15th

Angel Nieto Team

Karel Abraham never beat teammate Alvaro Bautista in a race where both riders finished. Abraham never managed a top-10 result all season; Bautista had 11 of them, including a season-best fourth filling in for the absent Lorenzo at Ducati’s factory outfit in Australia. Abraham will still be on the grid, albeit at the lowly Reale Avintia Ducati team, in 2019, while Bautista found all avenues closed for him and jumped to World Superbikes after his best season for five years. Funding, as ever from the middle of the grid backwards, can prolong a career, or curtail one in an instant.

Qualifying H2H: Bautista 13, Abraham 5
Race H2H (both finished): Bautista 9, Abraham 0
Best result: Bautista 5th* (twice), Abraham 11th
Points: Bautista 92 (12th), Abraham 12 (23rd)
Avg. grid position: Bautista 15th, Abraham 20th
Avg. race finish: Bautista 9th, Abraham 17th
(* Note: Bautista finished fourth riding Lorenzo’s bike in Australia)

Red Bull KTM Factory Racing

Bradley Smith and Pol Espargaro spent more than 2018 as teammates; the former Moto2 rivals were together at Tech 3 Yamaha from Espargaro’s rookie premier-class season in 2014, where Smith was already entrenched, and moved together to KTM for the Austrian manufacturer’s debut MotoGP season in 2017. It took until the last race of their five years together for either (Espargaro) to make the podium (third in Valencia), and while both struggled with injury this year, the Spaniard’s top-three finish specifically and his Sunday ascendancy generally gives him the nod.

Qualifying H2H: Espargaro 8, Smith 8
Race H2H (both finished): Espargaro 6, Smith 2
Best result: Espargaro 3rd, Smith 8th
Points: Espargaro 51 (14th), Smith 38 (18th)
Podiums: Espargaro 1, Smith 0
Avg. grid position: Espargaro 17th, Smith 17th
Avg. race finish: Espargaro 10th, Smith 14th

Aprilia Racing Team Gresini

Don’t let the finishing positions of Aleix Espargaro (17th in the standings) and Scott Redding (21st) fool you into thinking the battle at Aprilia was tight this year. The Spaniard had double the DNF’s of his British teammate (six to three) but still scored more than twice the number of points, one-quarter of Redding’s tally coming in the final rain-affected race in Valencia. Summing up Redding’s final MotoGP season; the only GP where he out-qualified Espargaro was his home race at Silverstone … the race that never happened after rain caused its cancellation.

Qualifying H2H: Espargaro 18, Redding 1
Race H2H (both finished): Espargaro 9, Redding 0
Best result: Espargaro 6th, Redding 11th
Points: Espargaro 44 (17th), Redding 20 (21st)
Avg. grid position: Espargaro 15th, Redding 21st
Avg. race finish: Espargaro 12th, Redding 16th

EG 0,0 Marc VDS

Both Franco Morbidelli and Thomas Luthi came into 2018 as MotoGP rookies, but that’s where the comparisons end. Morbidelli, the 2017 Moto2 champion, adapted well to the bigger bikes and scored 50 points to be named rookie of the year. Luthi, beaten by his 2018 MotoGP teammate to the 2017 intermediate-class crown, was the only full-time rider not to score a point this year, although he couldn’t have come much closer given his best results (note: plural).

Qualifying H2H: Morbidelli 15, Luthi 2
Race H2H (both finished): Morbidelli 12, Luthi 1
Best result: Morbidelli 8th, Luthi 16th (five times)
Points: Morbidelli 50 (15th), Luthi 0 (29th)
Avg. grid position: Morbidelli 16th, Luthi 20th
Avg. race finish: Morbidelli 13th, Luthi 18th

Reale Avintia Racing

The Ducati satellite squad fell from 10th in the teams’ standings at the halfway stage of 2018 to last at year’s end, which has everything to do with Tito Rabat’s season ending after 11 races when the Spaniard was hit by Morbidelli’s crashed Honda in British GP qualifying and suffered a horrendous triple fracture to his right leg. Teammate Xavier Simeon was nowhere near Rabat’s pace when they lined up together (although, in reality, far apart) on the grid, but at least the Belgian didn’t suffer Luthi’s fate, scoring his sole point for the season by coming 15th in Australia.

Qualifying head-to-head: Rabat 11, Simeon 0
Races head-to-head: Rabat 6, Simeon 0
Best result: Rabat 7th, Simeon 15th
Points: Rabat 35 (19th), Simeon 1 (27th)
Average grid position: Rabat 12th, Simeon 21st
Average race finish: Rabat 12th, Simeon 18th

MotoGP 2018: Who was best in class?

Who shone and who stumbled? Who exceeded expectations or underwhelmed? It’s time for our top 10 riders of the MotoGP season.

THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED ON REDBULL.COM

Change, the saying goes, is as good as a holiday – but why should you have to choose one or the other? While the MotoGP riders and teams take a well-earned off-season holiday after a packed 19-round schedule for 2018, we’re going to change how we rank their seasons here at redbull.com. Last year in this space, we ran the rule over the grid to come up with our top five riders of 2017. This year, at the halfway mark (or as close to as we could), we donned our school headmaster’s hat and handed out the mid-term grades. This time? Something different again.

A cast of 24 riders (in their ‘school’ photo above; nice hat, Jack …) began the 2018 season under lights at Losail in Qatar, and by season’s end in Valencia (counting wildcards and injury replacements), 33 riders appeared on the entry list and 32 of them raced (Loris Baz, drafted in as an injury replacement for Pol Espargaro at the Red Bull KTM Factory Racing outfit for Silverstone, never got the chance to race after that GP was washed out). But, with respect to 23 others, we’re whittling things down to a top 10 for the season that wrapped up earlier this month.

In conquering the tough task to come up with a top 10, we considered the expectations for each rider before and during the season, the competitiveness of the equipment they were riding, how they performed relative to their teammates or riders on the same machinery at other teams, and (of course) the points standings.

Three who didn’t make the cut: Honda’s Dani Pedrosa, who, in his final year of a glittering top-flight career, couldn’t finish on the podium once where teammate Marc Marquez was the world champion, and ended 18 races 204 points behind his compatriot on the same bike.

Aussie Jack Miller, who had searing qualifying speed at times (five top-six starts and a brilliant pole in Argentina), but finished 13th overall after several costly crashes he admitted cost him “probably 40 points” in races, also misses. As does his Alma Pramac Ducati teammate Danilo Petrucci, who was the toughest omission; eighth in the championship for a second year running, Petrucci’s podium tally dwindled (four in 2017, just one this season), and riders who finished behind the Italian had higher high points.

From 10 to 1, let’s count them down – the best riders in MotoGP in 2018, and why.

10. Alvaro Bautista

2018 summary
12th in world championship (105 points), best result 4th (Australia), 15 finishes in 18 races.

The verdict
Bautista’s qualifying efforts were fairly blah – he made Q2 just seven times all season – but the Spanish veteran knew that points were paid on Sundays, and he mostly delivered on race days relative to riders on the same-spec GP17 Ducati; he finished 14 points and one place ahead of Miller, for example. A ride deputising for the injured Jorge Lorenzo at the factory Ducati team in Australia was a reward for effort, and Bautista took his best result for the season at Phillip Island on a bike he barely knew, a strong way to sign off on a nine-year MotoGP stint before heading to World Superbikes.

9. Andrea Iannone

2018 summary
10th in world championship (133 points), best result 2nd (Australia), 4 podiums, 14 finishes in 18 races.

The verdict
Like your riders to be more mercurial than metronomic? Iannone’s your man; the combative Italian is just as likely to qualify nowhere as he is to pull off a spectacular result like Australia, where he finished second. Ahead of Suzuki teammate Alex Rins at the mid-point of the season, Iannone finished 36 points behind the Spaniard by year’s end, and Rins finished one fewer race. Next year is likely to be tougher for Iannone as he heads to Aprilia, his third manufacturer in seven MotoGP seasons.

8. Johann Zarco

2018 summary
6th in world championship (158 points), best result 2nd (Argentina, Spain), 2 poles, 3 podiums, 16 finishes in 18 races.

The verdict
If this list was being compiled on the Saturday of the French GP weekend, where he sent Le Mans into delirium after qualifying on pole, we might have had Zarco in the top three; in the opening five races, the Yamaha rider had two poles, a pair of podiums and 58 points to be the standout satellite rider in the championship. After that? Crashing from his home race seemed to knock the wind out of the Frenchman, and he managed just 100 more points and a single podium (Malaysia) the rest of the way, only winning the independent team rider title because Honda’s Cal Crutchlow missed the final three races with injury.

7. Cal Crutchlow

2018 summary
7th in world championship (148 points), 1 win (Argentina), 1 pole, 3 podiums, 12 finishes in 15 races.

The verdict
We agree with the final standings here for Crutchlow, the combative Briton who likely would have enjoyed a top-five championship finish for the second time in his career had he not crashed and smashed his right tibia and ankle in a high-speed off in practice at Phillip Island in October. The Honda rider missed the final three races of the year, but was ever-present when he was onboard, making Q2 in every race bar France, finishing in the top 10 in all but one of the races when he saw the chequered flag (USA), and winning the chaotic GP in Argentina, keeping his head when plenty who should have known better lost theirs. Just five riders won races in 2018, and he was one of them.

6. Alex Rins

2018 summary
5th in world championship (169 points), best result 2nd (Netherlands, Malaysia, Valencia), 5 podiums, 1 fastest lap, 13 finishes in 18 races.

The verdict
In our mid-season review, we hinted that there was nothing wrong with Rins’ speed; he just rarely stayed on his Suzuki long enough to show it, crashing out five times in the first nine races. From there on, the Spaniard was close to faultless, given what he was riding and who (Iannone) was on the other side the garage. Nine races, eight top-10 finishes and a pair of second places to round out the year in Malaysia and Valencia could arguably have him higher on this list, but those non-finishes and his qualifying speed (he beat Iannone on Saturday only six times in 19 attempts) have to be taken into account. It would surprise nobody if Rins wins a race, and soon, in 2019.

5. Valentino Rossi

2018 summary
3rd in world championship (198 points), best result 2nd (Germany), 1 pole, 5 podiums, 18 finishes in 18 races.

The verdict
Leaving a living legend in fifth place when he finished third overall? Hard to do, but easier to explain. It was Rossi’s first winless season since the dark Ducati days of 2011-12, and – remarkably – his first winless season ever on a Yamaha in 13 campaigns across two stints. That – and crashing out of the lead when a win looked in the bag in Malaysia – was the bad, but ‘The Doctor’ was the only rider to finish all 18 races, and his pole position at Mugello prompted the kind of spontaneous spectator joy only one rider at one Grand Prix could muster.

4. Maverick Vinales

2018 summary
4th in world championship (193 points), 1 win (Australia), 1 pole, 2 fastest laps, 5 podiums, 16 finishes in 18 races.

The verdict
Vinales fourth and Rossi fifth? Shouldn’t these places be swapped? Yes and perhaps; the Spaniard gets extra marks for snapping Yamaha’s historically barren run with an emotional victory in Australia, and having Rossi’s measure in qualifying more often than not. Too often, Vinales would squander those strong Saturdays with poor starts on Sundays as he struggled for grip with a full fuel load, and the vast majority of his top-10 results came from fighting rearguard missions where he came on strong the longer the races went. Watching what direction Yamaha takes with its bike for 2019 for two riders who typically want different things from their machinery will be, again, an intriguing subplot given the age and stage of their respective careers; Rossi turns 40 next February, a month after Vinales celebrates his 24th birthday.

3. Jorge Lorenzo

2018 summary
9th in world championship (134 points), 3 wins (Italy, Catalunya, Austria), 4 poles, 2 fastest laps, 4 podiums, 11 finishes in 14 races.

The verdict
Reading a graph of Lorenzo’s results in 2018 should come with a health warning; you could put your neck out coping with the peaks and troughs of the Spaniard’s results over 14 races. It was a year of extremes for the three-time world champion; he managed just 16 points in five miserable races to start the season to sit 14th in the championship after Le Mans, and then won three of the next six races, running rings around the rest of the field in Italy before staring down and beating Marquez in a straight fight at the Red Bull Ring. Forty points behind Ducati teammate Dovizioso in the standings after France, he was ahead following Austria … and then scored just four points across the final eight races of the season, missing four of them altogether after a brutal practice crash in Thailand left him with right ankle and left wrist injuries. Joining Honda as Marquez’s new teammate couldn’t be more difficult than 2018 was … could it?

2. Andrea Dovizioso

2018 summary
2nd in world championship (245 points), 4 wins (Qatar, Czech Republic, San Marino, Valencia), 2 poles, 5 fastest laps, 9 podiums, 15 finishes in 18 races.

The verdict
Dovizioso was the runner-up last year too, but this time, the gap between the Ducati man and world champion Marquez was seismic, peaking at 102 points when Marquez won the title in Japan with three races remaining. Dovizioso crashing out of contention at Motegi on the second-last lap when locked in a one-to-one fight with Marquez sums up the past two years in MotoGP; the Italian is the only rider who has been able to consistently go with the Spaniard, but even that has its limits. Four victories and 245 points were two and 16 fewer than 2017 in those respective categories, while three DNFs and that crash in Japan (where he remounted and finished a crestfallen 18th) were most unlike a rider whom, until the past two years, was known more for his consistency and late braking than his speed.

1. Marc Marquez

2018 summary
World champion (321 points), 9 wins (USA, Spain, France, Netherlands, Germany, Aragon, Thailand, Japan, Malaysia), 7 poles, 7 fastest laps, 14 podiums, 16 finishes in 18 races.

The verdict
It could hardly be anyone else, could it? (Virtual) forests have been felled in the reporting of Marquez’s fifth title in his six premier-class seasons to date, so we’ll hit you with three numbers of note. One, he didn’t fail to finish a race until Australia, after he’d secured the title. Two, he had as many podiums as second (Dovizioso) and third (Rossi) in the standings combined. And lastly, no MotoGP rider crashed more than Marquez (23 falls in 2018, not to mention the seemingly weekly saves that defied logic and gravity, Catalunya the best of them). It’s a proven formula; spend Friday and Saturday finding the limit, occasionally step over it, and then dance as close as you dare to that line on Sundays without crossing it. The numbers – and the optics of how Marquez achieves them – suggests that it’s working.

High-five for Marquez after mastering Island mist

THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED IN THE AGE NEWSPAPER

Unbeatable at Phillip Island? The coastal circuit’s capricious microclimate, which chose the very moment qualifying started for the Australian Motorcycle Grand Prix on Saturday to sprinkle intermittent rain onto one of the fastest and most challenging tracks in all of motorsport. And Marc Marquez, who took his fifth pole position in a row at the Island after finding the right mix of bravery and skill to assert himself when it mattered most.

Honda rider Marquez, who won his fifth MotoGP world title last weekend when he was victorious in the Japanese Grand Prix, made light of his relatively pedestrian practice pace to deliver a lap of 1min 29.199secs with six minutes remaining in Saturday afternoon’s 15-minute qualifying session, the Spaniard beating compatriot Maverick Vinales (Yamaha) by three-tenths of a second to take his 51st MotoGP pole position.

Frenchman Johann Zarco (Yamaha) rounded out the front row, while Australia’s Jack Miller pushed his Ducati to the very edge of its limits in “scary” conditions, nearly crashing at the final corner on his final lap of the session as the rain intensified to qualify sixth.

Marquez came into qualifying after setting just the sixth-fastest time in the opening three practice sessions, and after a scrappy opening day of practice on Friday when he fell at the treacherous downhill Turn 10 and ran off at Turn 6 as he attempted to find the limits of a skittish Honda. But he took control of qualifying after Suzuki’s Andrea Iannone made the early running, making the most of a lap on the limit where the drizzle briefly abated to take his sixth pole of 2018, and third in succession after topping qualifying in Thailand and Japan.

“On one lap it completely stopped raining and I give everything on that lap,” the 25-year-old said.

“We are nearly all the lap 200(km/h), and when you see small drops of rain on your visor, you don’t know where is the limit.”

Miller was comfortably the fastest of the eight Ducati bikes in the 24-bike field, out-qualifying the likes of Valentino Rossi (Yamaha, seventh) and fellow Ducati rider Andrea Dovizioso (ninth), who sits second behind Marquez in the championship standings.

The Australian, who typically revels in the type of half-wet, half-dry conditions seen at the Island on Saturday, attempted to reprise his shock pole in similar weather in Argentina earlier this year, but barely hung onto his GP17 machine as it thundered through the final corner at over 270km/h on his last lap, lifting his right leg skywards to regain his balance.

“As I went in there at full angle, it was a little bit slicker than I expected and I had to hold (the bike) up with my elbow,” Miller said.

“It was scary out there, heart-in-mouth stuff. There was a lot of mist, more mist than rain, sticking to your visor, so you didn’t really know how wet it was. You were going into the darkness. So to bring it home in sixth position, with how the conditions were, I’m just happy to be in one piece.”

Marquez, who rode in a pair of Mick Doohan-replica boots on Saturday in a nod to his fellow five-time MotoGP world champion, has a curious record at Phillip Island. Despite his qualifying dominance, Marquez has converted just two of those five pole positions into victories, winning in Australia in 2015 and again last year. He crashed from the lead in 2014 and again in 2016, races that both came one weekend after he’d won that year’s championship in Japan, as he did at the Motegi circuit last weekend.

“I won in 2014 in Motegi and I arrive here and I felt I could do everything, and I crash during the race,” he said.

“In 2016, I start to feel different, and then again I crash in the race. It’s something I need to control myself because it is a circuit that I love, but I feel more relaxed.”

As the sun finally broke through late on Saturday afternoon, Miller was similarly at ease with his prediction that he’d be in the fight for the podium earlier this week, and confident he could snap a barren run for Ducati at a fast, flowing circuit that doesn’t play to his bike’s strengths.

A rocket-ship on lengthy straights, of which Phillip island has none, the Ducati tends to perform best at tracks with hard braking and tighter-radius corners than the majority of those found on Phillip Island’s 12-turn layout. Since Casey Stoner won his fourth Australian Grand Prix in a row for Ducati in 2010, just one Ducati rider (Iannone in 2015) has finished inside the top three in Australia, but Miller feels well placed to aim for the rostrum after finishing two of the four practice sessions this weekend inside the top three.

After leading for the opening four laps last year before fading to seventh place, he’s expecting more of himself 12 months on.

“I don’t think it’ll be a crazy-fast race from the get-go, it’ll wind up with five or six laps to go,” Miller said.

“I think a podium (finish) is definitely within touching distance, so I’m looking to take my experience from last year and hopefully turn it into a better result this year.”

Left, right: can Marquez march to another Aussie win?

Marc Marquez is fast everywhere, but has a special affinity with Phillip Island, like every other anti-clockwise track …

THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED ON REDBULL.COM

It was a bit of light-hearted fun at the end of the pre-event press conference at this year’s Austrian Grand Prix, where a number of MotoGP riders were handed a sheet of paper and a marker to draw their ideal track. Jorge Lorenzo’s was simple, Valentino Rossi’s more elaborate, Andrea Dovizioso’s a mixture of both. Marc Marquez? The Spaniard drew an oval, added a directional arrow, and wrote five words: ‘Left corners and very slippery’. Those in attendance laughed, but as Marquez’s records show, the joke is on everyone else.

The 25-year-old Spaniard has done plenty of winning in the premier class since joining MotoGP in 2013; his victory last time out in Japan secured a fifth world title in his first six seasons, the victory his 43rd in that span. They’re astonishing stats in themselves, but crunch the numbers a little further and you discover where he really makes his rivals pay. Because for Marquez, with his flat-track dirt-bike racing background, it’s right to go left.

Phillip Island, home of this Sunday’s Australian Motorcycle Grand Prix, is one of just five of the 19 circuits featured on the 2018 calendar that goes ‘left’, in that it has more left-hand corners than right-handers. And when a circuit runs anti-clockwise, time seems to be up on the chances of Marquez’s rivals, none of whom have been able to hold a candle to him.

Before the race in Aragon this year (a left-hand track, where Marquez won), cycleworld.com analysed his stats at all tracks, which make for scary reading for his rivals at the ‘left’ ones. Before Aragon, Marquez had won 39 per cent of his MotoGP starts, and 25 per cent of those on clockwise, right-handed circuits – a formidable set of numbers by themselves. On left-hand tracks, that goes up to 71 per cent – and pole position 84 per cent of the time.

Remarkably, Marquez has never been beaten in MotoGP in the USA between the Circuit of the Americas, Indianapolis and Laguna Seca; all left-hand tracks, where he’s a perfect 10-for-10. At the Sachsenring in Germany, the undulating, twisty track that features 10 lefts and just three rights, he’s taken pole and won in all six visits on MotoGP machinery, and won for the three years before that in the Moto2 and 125cc classes. At Aragon (10 lefts, 7 rights), he’s won four times in six years, crashing out the other two times. And at the season finale in Valencia (nine lefts, five rights), he’s been on the podium every year, won in 2014, and secured his 2013 and 2017 titles at the compact Spanish circuit.

How that does that shape his chances for Australia and Phillip Island, where seven of the 12 corners are left-handed? He won both no-holds-barred Australian GP classics in 2015 and 2017, crashed from the lead in 2014 and 2016, and was disqualified while leading in 2013 after being black-flagged for not changing tyres at half-distance of a race where pit stops on safety grounds were mandatory. He’s been on pole at the Island each of the past four years, set the fastest lap of the race twice, and has the circuit record lap of 1min 28.108secs in 2013.

All of which is why, with a fifth MotoGP championship in his pocket before he gets to Australia, he has to be considered the favourite for a track he holds in special esteem.

“It’s one of my favourite circuits, I’m always fast there and I’m enjoying a lot, it’s an incredible track,” Marquez says.

“It’s difficult because it’s very physical, with many hard and fast changes in direction, but I enjoy it a lot every year.”

When those changes of direction are more lefts than rights, it’s easy to see why …

This story was originally published on motogp.com.au and has been reproduced with permission.

Marquez vs Rossi – who comes out on top?

Comparing the first six MotoGP seasons of this pair of two-wheel giants makes for compelling reading.

THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED ON REDBULL.COM

Marc Marquez’s eighth win of the 2018 MotoGP season last Sunday at the Japanese Grand Prix was worth much, much more than the 25 points that came with it. For one, it secured the Spaniard his fifth premier-class world title and seventh world championship in all, some feat for a rider who only turned 25 years of age in February. And it made for compelling comparison with another of the all-time greats, who, like Marquez, will be in action at Phillip Island for the Michelin Australian Motorcycle Grand Prix.

Marquez joins Aussie legend Mick Doohan on five premier class titles, and is now one of just four riders along with Giacomo Agostini (eight premier class crowns) and Valentino Rossi (seven) to win five or more world championships in the top flight. And while Rossi and Marquez have had their differences – who will ever forget their controversial clash at the 2015 Malaysian Grand Prix? – the Italian veteran, now 39, knows the Spaniard is a good chance to overhaul his career achievements. “Marquez can beat my records, but it does not bother me,” Rossi said at a promotional appearance in the UK earlier this month.

The latter part of that statement may or may not be true, but comparing their first six seasons in the top flight of the world championship shows where Marquez sits in a historical context, and what he might achieve once his career is over, given Rossi is 14 years his senior and still a front-runner as he nears his 40th birthday.

Since his MotoGP debut in 2013, Marquez has won five titles in six years, the last three (2016-18) in succession, and has won 43 of the 105 races he’s started, all riding for Repsol Honda after inheriting Casey Stoner’s seat at the factory squad following the Australian’s 2012 retirement. He’s been on the podium 76 times, has taken 50 pole positions, and set the fastest lap of the race 44 times.

Rossi’s first six premier-class seasons were from 2000-05, the first two in the 500cc class before the advent of the MotoGP era in 2002. The first four of those seasons were for the same factory Honda squad Marquez calls home now, the next two the first of his initial seven-year stint with Yamaha from 2004-10. In that six-year span, ‘The Doctor’ claimed five titles in succession from 2001-05, won 53 of 97 races, took pole 30 times, recorded the fastest lap 45 times and finished 81 of those 97 races inside the top three. At the end of 2005, he was 26 years old, a year older than Marquez is now.

Rossi, of course, didn’t stop winning after those first six seasons, adding two more world titles for Yamaha in 2008-09, and a further 36 race wins to take his 500cc/MotoGP victory tally to 89.

In his first 100 races, Rossi’s 54 wins and 82 podiums stands out like a beacon in a comparison of what some of the all-time greats have achieved after a century of Grands Prix. Marquez’s marks of 40 wins and 71 podiums in 100 starts compares favourably to the likes of Stoner (33 wins, 59 podiums), Doohan (32 wins, 64 podiums) and Jorge Lorenzo (29 wins, 72 podiums) over the same span.

So which of these modern-day giants, Marquez and Rossi, comes out on top? Can Marquez continue his current rate of success, or is there a blip in his career still to come that’s reminiscent of Rossi’s two barren years at Ducati from 2011-12, where he failed to win a race and finished on the podium just three times? Can he keep winning titles past the age of 30, which was Rossi’s most recent crown in 2009?

Marquez’s rapid progress through the sport’s history books makes it a debate well worth having, and one that will rage for years to come.

This story was originally published on motogp.com.au and has been reproduced with permission.