Maverick Vinales

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.

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The 5 best MotoGP riders of 2017

Who shone the brightest on two wheels? Who was the surprise packet? And who underdelivered in MotoGP this season?

THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED ON REDBULL.COM

MotoGP in 2017 might not have had the sheer quantity of the season that preceded it; nine race winners a year ago was, after all, a high-water mark in the history of the sport. But in 2017, was had quality – top-shelf quality – at nearly every turn. Multiple last-lap thrillers, races turned upside down by topsy-turvy weather, a frantic race at Phillip Island that left most observers (and participants) breathless – there was much to like.

That’s the season in a nutshell, but what of the riders who made it what it was? Some 31 riders took to the grid in 18 races across nearly eight months, but who were the elite of the elite? We’ve scanned up and down the field while looking at their stats, their impact and the gravity of their achievements to come up with our five riders of the year. Let’s count them down.

5. Valentino Rossi

The stats

Points/championship position: 208, fifth

Wins: 1 (Assen)

Podiums: 6

Poles: 0

Fastest laps: 0

Head-to-head vs teammate in qualifying: Rossi 6, Maverick Vinales 11 (Rossi missed Misano with injury)

Head-to-head vs teammate in races: Rossi 6, Vinales 11

Points compared to teammate: Rossi 208, Vinales 230

The summary
This list isn’t measuring popularity; if it was, the seemingly ageless 38-year-old would be in pole position by the length of the straight, a remarkable feat given he’s eight years removed from the last of his seven premier-class titles, and 22 years from his world championship debut on a 125cc Aprilia in 1996. A broken leg suffered in a motocross training accident before the Misano round makes it difficult to clearly judge 2017 for ‘The Doctor’, but the stats show his points total (208) was his lowest in 12 Yamaha seasons across two stints, and the lowest in his career other than the lost years at Ducati in 2011-12. That’s the downside; the positives were his thrilling win at Assen where he edged compatriot Danilo Petrucci by 0.063secs, while qualifying third at Aragon just 23 days after busting his leg was something quite extraordinary. His appetite for the fight remains undiminished – he was right in the thick of the race-long brawl at Phillip Island and gave as good as he got – and while he’s out of contract at the end of 2018, don’t be surprised if he continues into his 40s if Yamaha’s bike proves to be competitive. The sport’s fans (and organisers) will be crossing their fingers that he does.

The quote
“Realistically speaking, even if I didn’t break the leg, I couldn’t fight for the championship because I was not strong enough. I was never able to do two good races in a row.” – Rossi after Malaysia

4. Johann Zarco

The stats

Points/championship position: 174, sixth

Wins: 0

Podiums: 3

Poles: 2

Fastest laps: 4

Head-to-head vs teammates in qualifying: 15-3

Head-to-head vs teammates in races: 13-4

Points compared to teammates: 174-84

NB: Zarco had four different teammates for the season: Jonas Folger (13 races, 84 points), Michael van der Mark (2 races, 0 points), Kohta Nozane and Broc Parkes (1 race each, 0 points). Folger qualified but did not race at the British GP.

The summary
Zarco arrived in MotoGP this year on a satellite Yamaha as a back-to-back Moto2 champion, but nobody expected he’d make his mark in the top flight as rapidly as he did; from fourth on the grid at the season-opener in Qatar, the Frenchman muscled his way to the front and led for the first third of the race before crashing out. He learned fast (Qatar was his only DNF of the year) and rode faster, finishing second in just his fifth race at home at Le Mans, qualifying on pole for his eighth race at Assen, and finishing the year with consecutive podiums in Malaysia and Valencia, Dani Pedrosa denying him a maiden win at the death in the latter. What’s more, Zarco showed no mercy when engaged in wheel-to-wheel battles with some of the sport’s biggest names, and gave absolutely no quarter in fights with Rossi (Austin) and Jorge Lorenzo (Japan), with Lorenzo slamming Zarco’s “PlayStation” riding. If and when Rossi decides he’s had enough, the factory Yamaha squad has his replacement ready to roll.

The quote
“He reminds me a little bit of me when I arrived in MotoGP. Really aggressive, pushing on the limit and nearly crashing, but in the end it is the way to learn.” – Marquez on Zarco

3. Maverick Vinales

The stats

Points/championship position: 230, third

Wins: 3 (Qatar, Argentina, France)

Podiums: 7

Poles: 5

Fastest laps: 4

Head-to-head vs teammate in qualifying: Vinales 11, Rossi 6 (Rossi missed Misano with injury)

Head-to-head vs teammate in races: Vinales 11, Rossi 6

Points compared to teammate: Vinales 230, Rossi 208

The summary
Pause this year’s championship after five of the 18 rounds, and Vinales would be an undisputed number one on this list in year one as Rossi’s teammate at the factory Yamaha squad. The Spaniard translated his pre-season pace dominance into the early part of the year, and wins in Qatar, Argentina and France, the latter coming after Rossi had made a rare last-lap error and crashed as the teammates fought for victory, saw the 22-year-old take a handy championship lead. From there? Just four more podiums, only one in the final six races when he was a brilliant third in Australia, and a 68-point deficit to Marquez by the end of the year. Yamaha tinkering with different chassis through the year hurt his confidence, and the bike was nowhere in the rain, which didn’t help as 2017 featured an abnormally-high number of wet races. Give Vinales a bike that can change direction and where he can get on the throttle quickly, and he looks the class of the field. Without that? Next year might look disappointingly similar to the end of this one.

The quote
“We started better than we expected … then we had some up and downs, and this confused us a lot with the chassis set-up and many things. It was important to do these mistakes so we don’t do them next year.” – Vinales at Phillip Island

2. Andrea Dovizioso

The stats

Points/championship position: 261, second

Wins: 6 (Italy, Catalunya, Austria, Great Britain, Japan, Malaysia)

Podiums: 8

Poles: 0

Fastest laps: 2

Head-to-head vs teammate in qualifying: Dovizioso 10, Jorge Lorenzo 8

Head-to-head vs teammate in races: Dovizioso 14, Lorenzo 2 (neither rider finished in Argentina and Valencia)

Points compared to teammate: Dovizioso 261, Lorenzo 137

The summary
If you’d asked for a show of hands to nominate who would emerge as Marc Marquez’s main rival for the championship this season, even Andrea Dovizioso’s would have probably stayed down. After all, this was a rider who was the wrong side of 30, had never finished better than third overall in nine previous MotoGP seasons, and whose second career win at Sepang in the penultimate race of 2016 was seen to be more as a curiosity (he was the ninth and final rider to win a race last year) than a launchpad for a tilt at the ’17 title. But that was the old ‘Dovi’; while his customary late braking and self-effacing nature didn’t go anywhere this year, his results – and the belief they generated – made him a new man. Who would have thought he’d take on and beat Marquez twice in head-to-head last-lap battles in Austria and Japan? Who saw him winning six races and nearly scoring double the points of his higher-profile new teammate, Lorenzo? One bad weekend in Australia – coupled with Marquez’s brilliance at Phillip Island – did for his championship chances, but the response he received after crashing out of the final race at Valencia to ensure Marquez would win the title showed the esteem he’s held in across the sport, and the respect he’d earned for a season few saw coming.

The quote
“This year, when people were asking me which opponent is the most dangerous, I was always saying Maverick, Dani (Pedrosa), Valentino, maybe Lorenzo, but I never said ‘Dovi’. It’s something I learned this year, that you need to try to pay attention to everybody. In the end the most constant, the most complete guy to fight for the title was Dovi.” – Marquez on Dovizioso after Valencia

1. Marc Marquez

The stats

Points/championship position: 298, first

Wins: 6 (USA, Germany, Czech Republic, San Marino, Aragon, Australia)

Podiums: 12

Poles: 8

Fastest laps: 3

Head-to-head vs teammate in qualifying: Marquez 14, Dani Pedrosa 4

Head-to-head vs teammate in races: Marquez 13, Pedrosa 4 (neither rider finished in Argentina).

Points compared to teammate: Marquez 298, Pedrosa 210

The summary
The ever-present smile and willingness to laugh were still there, but Marquez was worried at the start of the season when Vinales won the first two Grands Prix. After Catalunya in round seven, his body was showing the signs of stress. “After Montmelo (Barcelona) I was with my hairdresser, and she says, ‘what is going on, what happened? You are losing the hair’,” he recalled. Marquez vowed to manage his anxiety levels better, and after Honda made changes to its bike following a revelatory mid-season test at Brno, the results started to come. The result of that was a fourth MotoGP crown in five years, a six-win season that mixed the expected (he won in Austin for the fifth year in a row, and took victory at the Sachsenring for the eighth consecutive time) with the signs his mind is becoming as powerful a weapon as his sheer talent, his last-lap win at Misano and calculated controlling of Australia races won with brain as much as brawn. Add to the skills and smarts his incredible propensity to recover from slips that would leave most riders picking gravel out of their teeth, and you have the best rider in the world. Can Marquez get better? Why not? Remember, he’s just 24 years of age – and has proven that, with either the best bike on the MotoGP grid or without it, he’s the benchmark of a golden age for the sport.

The quote
“I feel really proud, I feel really happy … I’m in a dream. But I know where is the ground. I will be the world champion until December 31. When I go in on January, I will be another rider, another opponent, and hope to fight again for the title.” – Marquez after Valencia

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.

5 things to watch at the Australian MotoGP

A tense title fight will take centre-stage at Phillip Island, but there’s storylines to follow wherever you look as MotoGP roars onto our shores.

THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED ON REDBULL.COM

Andrea Dovizioso’s last-lap pass of Marc Marquez to win the Japanese Motorcycle Grand Prix last Sunday at Motegi was, by itself, something special – so special that it’s already in the conversation for best final lap of all-time. But it wasn’t just the Ducati man’s defeat of Honda’s reigning and three-time world champion that gave Australian two-wheel fans something to shout about; the points ‘Dovi’ picked up for downing the modern-day master of MotoGP means Marquez’s lead atop the riders’ standings now sits at just 11 points with three races left.

The next of those races? This weekend at Phillip Island, a special track at any time, but one that’s elevated to an even higher stratosphere when there’s a genuine world title fight on the line.

The Australian GP won’t decide who wins the 2017 world title – the points table is too tight for that – but it will go a long way towards deciding who’ll become world champion as the series moves on to Malaysia before its final stop at Valencia in Spain on November 12.

Can ‘Dovi’ do it again? What does Marquez have left in reserve? Who else can muscle in at the front at this most particular of tracks? And what role will local hopeful Jack Miller, just three weeks after breaking his leg, play at his home GP, one held on a circuit where he’s typically shone?

Here’s our top five storylines to watch ahead of the action at the Island, which kicks off with two free practice sessions on Friday October 20.

1. And then there were two …

That Marquez and Dovizioso come to Australia separated by just the afore-mentioned 11 points is testament to the adage that there’s more than one way to win a title.

Marquez’s approach is one we know well; since 2013, when he won the crown in his rookie year, he’s been routinely on the ragged edge, taking risks few others would contemplate, and coming up with all manner of ways to save what would be certain crashes for others by using his elbows, knees or both.

The Dovizioso of 2017? An entirely different animal. The Italian has always been known as the last of the late brakers, and his pass of Marquez that won him the race in Japan – downhill into the 90-Degree Corner in the pouring rain with tyres that were shot to bits – was something few could have pulled off. But there’s a more aggressive approach to his riding in head-to-head battles this season, and winning bare-knuckle last-lap brawls with Marquez in Japan as well as Austria back in August is something that would have been hard to contemplate before this season.

Like his main rival, Marquez also has five wins in 2017, but his one-lap pace – he has six poles to Dovizioso’s zero – and 10 podiums in 15 races proves means he has a combination of speed and consistency that sets him apart. In the past nine races, Silverstone – when the Spaniard suffered a rarer than rare Honda engine failure – is the only time has hasn’t been on the rostrum. By contrast, Dovizioso has just one DNF (back in round two in Argentina) on his stats sheet, and has finished eighth or better in every race since.

The other wildcard for this weekend is the Island itself, and upon examination of their records in Australia, this round shapes as one where Dovizioso will be relatively content if he doesn’t haemorrhage too many points to Marquez. The Italian’s stats in Australia make for short and not particularly inspiring reading; he has just one podium (2011) here in nine premier-class outings, and admitted last year that Phillip Island was “not one of my favourite circuits because of its characteristics”.

On the other hand, Marquez has visited Australia four times on MotoGP machinery, and should have arguably won all four. In 2013, he was disqualified for failing to pit within the mandatory 10-lap limit to change bikes and tyres imposed on the field for safety reasons after a calamitous miscalculation by his team, while the following year, he was leading comfortably but fell victim to the plummeting track temperatures and crashed after starting from pole. In 2015, he careered away to win from pole, while pole last year ended in pain again when he crashed – again from the lead – at Turn 4 on lap 10. When it comes to pace Down Under, Marquez is indisputably on top.

2. But wait, there’s another two

Between them, Marquez and Dovizioso have won the last seven races of the 2017 season – which makes it somewhat surprising that two other riders step onto the Island this week with their championship chances still alive.

Maverick Vinales must be shaking his head at how his season has unravelled; after five races, the Yamaha new boy had won three Grands Prix to have a handy 17-point championship advantage after Le Mans. He’s not won a race since, has visited the podium just three times, and comes to Australia after a nightmare weekend in Japan, where he had his worst qualifying (14th) and second-worst race result (ninth) of the season.

The Spaniard sits 41 points behind compatriot Marquez, and is hanging on by his fingernails. His record in Australia is good – Vinales finished third on his second premier-class start at the Island last year – but he needs to step up and hope Marquez and Dovizioso stumble if he’s to play much of a part in the riders’ standings after Malaysia.

The other rider in mathematical contention with three races left? Marquez’s Repsol Honda teammate Dani Pedrosa, but with a 74-point deficit to the top with a maximum of 75 available, it’s time for the diminutive Spaniard to turn his attentions realistically to next year, even if this year is still numerically alive.

3. The odd man out

The fifth of the five riders who broke clear at the top of the standings earlier in the season who we haven’t mentioned? Valentino Rossi, who was officially eliminated from title contention when he crashed out in Japan last weekend. More realistically, ‘The Doctor’s’ chances of the coveted 10th world championship that has eluded him since 2009 were over the moment he broke his right leg in a training accident ahead of Misano, and while he stunned the paddock with a front-row start and fifth-place finish on his return at Aragon after missing just one race, the tricky conditions at Motegi, allied to the Yamaha’s chronic lack of rear grip in colder conditions, proved a bridge too far.

Australia has been one of Rossi’s happier hunting grounds – he’s won here in the premier class six times, most recently and memorably in 2014 – and while the 38-year-old can now turn his attentions to being fully fit for the start of next season, he’ll want to overhaul the two-point deficit to Pedrosa in the standings for fourth place before Valencia is over. Fifth overall – where Rossi sits in the riders’ race with three Grands Prix left – would be his worst Yamaha campaign in 12 seasons.

4. Jack back on

Break your leg in a training accident, miss a race and then get back on the horse – that’s the model Rossi followed for Aragon, and one Miller will emulate this weekend as he rides at home after missing Motegi. The Australian insists he would have ridden this weekend no matter where the race was being held, but the fact it was at Phillip Island would have given him plenty of enthusiasm to attack his rehab over the past fortnight.

This season shapes to be the best of Miller’s three-year MotoGP tenure to date – two more points will see him overhaul last year’s 57-point tally – and his record at home is good, winning at the Island in Moto3 in 2014, and qualifying a premier-class best fifth here a year ago with what might have been his best single lap of the entire year under immense pressure.

The spotlight of riding at home can cause some to wilt, but ‘Jackass’ clearly thrives on the energy of his home fans and the masses of family who sit trackside clad in orange Miller merchandise (keep an eye peeled for Jack to acknowledge them as he rides through Turn 4 at the start of every on-track session).

In his third-last race for the Estrella Galicia 0,0 Marc VDS team before heading to Pramac Ducati for 2018, a home top-10 finish is absolutely in play, compromised preparation or not.

5. Don’t discount the defending champ

It’s been a season of few ups and plenty of downs for Miller’s good mate Cal Crutchlow in 2017, the LCR Honda rider enduring his worst campaign in three years. Other than fourth at Silverstone in August, the British rider has just four points to show from Austria to Motegi last weekend, where he managed to crash twice en route to a second-straight DNF.

It sounds like the beginning of an unwanted trend, but don’t expect that to continue at the Island, a circuit where Crutchlow generally thrives. The 2016 Australian race-winner has two of his 13 career podiums in Australia, has qualified on the front two rows for five successive years, and has to be considered a serious threat this weekend despite sitting ninth overall in the standings. A top-three finish would be a surprise, but only a mild one.

The MotoGP mid-term report

Who has flown, who has flopped, and who has plenty to do at the halfway mark of the 2017 MotoGP season?

THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED ON REDBULL.COM

It was never going to be easy for MotoGP 2017 to out-do the season that preceded it; after all, nine different winners, four first-time victors and too many memorable races to list makes 2016 hard to top. But so far, ’17 has upheld its part of the bargain, and as the campaign takes a month-long pause for the mid-season break, it could be argued that this year is even more gripping than last.

With nine races down and nine races to go, we’ve already had five different riders wins Grands Prix, 10 different men stand on the podium, and four riders – Marc Marquez, Maverick Vinales, Andrea Dovizioso and Valentino Rossi – separated by just 10 points at the head of the table.

Undoubtedly the biggest winners of 2017 so far? The fans. But with ‘school’ out for the summer break before the Czech Republic Grand Prix signals the resumption of term on August 6, picking winners and losers from the 27 riders to have started a race this season isn’t as clear-cut. Which is where our annual mid-season report card comes in. Release the grades …

Dux of the class
When we ran the rule over the two-wheel field this time last year, Marc Marquez was a runaway winner in this category, going to the summer break with a 48-point lead – nearly two race wins – with nine down and nine to go. While the reigning and three-time MotoGP champ heads our class report so far this year, his lead over second-placed Vinales – just five points – is next to nothing, and he’s led the championship precisely once, after taking his second victory of 2017 last time out in Germany. But dig through the numbers, and it’s hard to argue Marquez isn’t the man of the year so far.

Out of the front-running four we mentioned earlier, the Repsol Honda rider is by far the best qualifier – he has six front-row starts in nine races and an average qualifying position of 2.7 (Vinales is next-best at 5.1), while five podiums sees him equal with teammate Dani Pedrosa for the most on the grid. Two costly DNFs – particularly when he was leading in Argentina – are negatives, but his wins in Austin (for the fifth year in a row) and the Sachsenring (for a remarkable eighth-straight time going back to his time in the feeder classes) show that when he’s on it, Marquez remains the benchmark, particularly as it could be argued that he’s on the worst bike of the top four.

Vinales started his Yamaha tenure like a train but has struggled more recently, averaging a fourth-row start in the last three races before the break, and recording just one podium in the past four races after winning three of the opening five. Dovizioso’s back-to-back wins at Mugello and Catalunya were all class, and he’s made Ducati look more convincing as a front-running bike than anyone since the Casey Stoner era. And Rossi, all of 38 years young, wound back the clock with a brilliant win in very difficult conditions at Assen for his first triumph in over 12 months. But to our mind, Marquez stands alone here.

Bizarrely, Marquez and Vinales haven’t been on the same podium together yet despite being first and second in the championship and separated by such a miniscule margin. You figure that when they meet on track in the final nine races – and they surely will – fireworks will ensue.

Encouragement award
Rossi and Dovizioso have cause to be considered here too for reasons we’ve already mentioned, but it’s impossible to split Tech 3 Yamaha’s duo of crack rookies, Johann Zarco and Jonas Folger.

Zarco has hogged the majority of the headlines, as he should have after leading in Qatar on debut and snagging a sublime pole at Assen, and the two-time Moto2 champion has shown absolutely no hesitation in ruffling the feathers of the MotoGP top-liners, which has to be commended. Folger, while going about his business more subtly, loses little by comparison, and rounded out a strong first half with his best performance of the season at home in Germany, where he made Sachsenring master Marquez sweat for most of the 30-lap distance before the Repsol Honda man (inevitably) stretched away.

Thanks to Zarco and Folger, Tech 3 has arguably been the star team of the season – last year, with experienced pair Pol Espargaro and Bradley Smith on board, the French team had scored 107 points at the season recess; this season, its rookie duo have managed 155 to both sit inside the top seven in the standings.

A gold star here must go to Pramac Ducati’s Danilo Petrucci, who managed three front-row starts in a row before the break, and came within inches of a breakthrough first win before being denied at the line by good friend Rossi at Assen. Two podiums already for the Italian has doubled his tally from his first five MotoGP seasons combined.

Could do better
We could say Scott Redding here, who, while admittedly on an inferior machine to teammate Petrucci, has struggled this season and looks set to lose his ride for 2018, We could equally vouch for Redding’s compatriot Sam Lowes, who has endured a wretched run of luck with his Aprilia but hasn’t been particularly quick when the bike has actually worked, and has managed two points – the worst of any full-time rider in the series – so far.

But no, we’ll opt for Jorge Lorenzo, who has found the switch to Ducati to be more problematic than even he would have feared. One podium total (a third at Jerez) looks pretty underwhelming for the three-time champion compared to two wins for teammate Dovizioso, and while both riders have finished eight of the nine races, the Italian has come close to doubling the Spaniard’s points tally (123-65).

Having to re-train his brain to remember he’s not riding a Yamaha after nine seasons was always going to take time for Lorenzo, and he’ll be hoping for fine weather for the rest of the season after his wet-weather demons resurfaced again at Assen, where he laboured to the worst qualifying result of his MotoGP career in 21st, and his worst effort on a Saturday since his 125cc days 14 years ago (Jerez 2003). Things will get surely better for Ducati’s star signing, but they need to, and fast.

Needs a strong second semester
It may seem harsh to have Jack Miller in this spot, but when you come into the final year of a three-year contract with HRC with a MotoGP race win under your belt, expectations were always going to be raised in 2017. The Australian has largely delivered – he has one championship point fewer at the mid-year break this season compared to last after the unexpected Assen success in 2016 – but with all sorts of rumours swirling about his future as the paddock packed up in Germany, he needs more, and he knows it.

“I would have liked to have been inside the top 10 in the standings, but we’ve had a couple of little mistakes here and there that cost us,” Miller said about the season’s first half.

“We’ve shown we’ve really improved this year, and I’m looking forward to making another, let’s say 60 points, in the rest of the season. That’d be nice.”

Reaching the ton for the season – and getting to the end of it in decent physical shape after an injury-ravaged conclusion to 2016 – would be a pass mark for the Aussie before he gets set for his next adventure in ’17.

Extra detention
We’re not picking on Andrea Iannone despite having him in this same category this time last year, but a change of hue from red to blue has done little to change our mind about the maddeningly inconsistent but very rapid Italian. It’s been a tough campaign for Suzuki after losing Vinales and Aleix Espargaro last year, and while Alex Rins’ rookie campaign has barely got started after breaking his left wrist in practice at Austin and missing five races, Iannone has been the blue team’s ever-present, yet has been close to invisible for much of the year.

He’s managed just 28 points in nine races, has failed to finish three times, and has made Q2 just once in the past five races. Former Suzuki legend Kevin Schwantz, speaking to Italian newspaper Gazzetta dello Sport in Germany, let Iannone have it.

“I know by experience that if things are wrong, there is only one thing to do; get out there and work – and try,” the 1993 500cc champion said.

“You have to do more than all the others to try to recover. Iannone is lost, because it seems like he wants the Suzuki to behave like the Ducati. But this bike will never be a Ducati. He should try to take advantage of its strengths.

“Speaking to him, it seems that the bike has no strengths. I don’t understand Italian, but his body language is as bad as it can be.”

What MotoGP testing told us about 2017

A champion will need to dig deep, Qatar might not be a sign of what’s to come, and a rider of the future is ready to win now.

THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED ON REDBULL.COM

Valencia, Sepang, Phillip Island and Losail – you couldn’t get four more different venues for MotoGP pre-season testing ahead of the 2017 campaign, and while there were some similarities to what happened at that quartet of tracks, we’re set to head into the season-opener in Qatar in less than a fortnight with plenty of unanswered questions about the world’s premier two-wheel road-racing category – which, for us fans, is a good thing.

Can a Yamaha newcomer really upstage his vastly more experienced teammate? Can Ducati take the fight to the rest at every track, not just those that feature straights akin to freeways? Who can topple Honda? And can the other three factories in MotoGP this season – Aprilia, Suzuki and KTM – occasionally muscle in on the trio who have typically been at the front in recent times?

The final three-day test for the off-season wrapped up in Qatar last weekend; here’s what we learned before the lights go out on the 2017 season at the same venue on March 26.

Qatar might not tell us much …
Holding the final test of the off-season at the same venue where the real thing starts less than a fortnight later is practical from a freight and logistics point of view, but perhaps not the best preparation. The Qatar GP is a night event, while testing runs from 4-11pm local time. The baking heat of the desert means track temperatures until the sun goes down bear no relevance to what the riders will experience on race weekend, while the desert dew that settles on the circuit surface after 10pm soon turns the track into an ice rink, with riders electing to stay in the garage rather than inexplicably crashing at a corner that was gripped up a lap earlier. About half the day – at best – is useful for the riders and teams.

It’s not just the conditions at the Qatar test that aren’t representative of what’s to come. The 5.3km Losail circuit features a mammoth 1.1km start-finish straight, where the bikes can nudge 350km/h – which is great news if you’re riding a Ducati. The top seven riders on the timesheet at the end of the test? One Honda, two Yamahas, and four on Ducatis. A sign of what might happen for the first race of the season? Definitely. A pecking order translatable to the other 17 circuits on the calendar? Not so much

… except for the man at the front
Tight and twisty Valencia, the sweeps of Sepang, the high-speed balls-out Phillip Island and the desert dragstrip of Qatar; whatever the weather, track conditions or other variables this off-season, Maverick Vinales has been the benchmark. Coming across from Suzuki to the factory Yamaha squad as Valentino Rossi’s teammate, Vinales could barely have been more impressive through testing, the Spaniard topping the timesheets at all four. From one-lap qualifying simulations to long race-length runs, ‘The Mack’ seems to have everything covered. He’s so confident – and rightly so – that he didn’t even bother playing the usual pre-season game of hosing down expectations, Vinales admitting his pace was “incredible” after night three in Qatar. He later stopped short of assuming outright favouritism for the 2017 crown – “there are many riders who can be the favourite for the championship, at least the ones from Ducati, from Yamaha, from Honda can be the champions” – but after an off-season that couldn’t have gone better, expect Vinales to add to his sole MotoGP success to date (at last year’s British Grand Prix) sooner rather than later.

It’s not easy to know who’s fast
The final day of pre-season testing, especially given the location, is usually a chance for fans (and the other teams) to gauge the race pace of the various bikes and riders over distances closer to the 22-lap/118.4km race length for the opening Grand Prix of the year. The problem this time? Not all of the theoretical front-runners showed their hand.

The list of 11 riders who never completed 10 or more laps in a row on the final day featured reigning world champion Marc Marquez, his Repsol Honda teammate Dani Pedrosa, Rossi, the Italian’s former teammate and now Ducati top dog Jorge Lorenzo, and Suzuki newcomer Andrea Iannone, all podium finishers from Grands Prix in 2016 who would be expected to be near the front again this season. Of those who did manage a race simulation, Ducati’s Andrea Dovizioso (a 14-lap run that averaged 1min 55.666secs) was fastest, but Vinales’ 20-lap run was just 0.035secs slower on average – and featured three ‘slow’ laps where the Spaniard held back to avoid encountering slower traffic.

How do the likes of Marquez, Pedrosa, Rossi and Lorenzo compare to that? We’ll have to wait until next weekend to find out.

The aero war takes a new turn
With winglets banned in MotoGP this season, you knew the teams would come up with some innovative aerodynamic solutions to recapture the downforce the wings of 2016 provided – and Ducati took things to a new extreme on the second day of the test when it unveiled a bulbous front fairing on Dovizioso’s bike that was quickly christened the ‘hammerhead’. Paddock reaction, as you might have guessed, ranged from intrigued to horrified to amused …

Dovizioso said the downforce generated by the new fairing was “not the same, but very close” to the winglets pioneered by Ducati over the past few seasons. Whether it will be raced in Qatar and from then on remains to be seen. Regardless, you can bet fans will be talking about it between now and then.

What’s the form guide?
Vinales is indisputably quick, and justifiably confident. And according to Dovizioso, he’s a clear championship favourite. “I think at this point Vinales is really fast in every condition, which is really bad for us and everybody else,” the Italian said after the second night in Qatar. “Anything can happen during the championship and last year with Marc, it showed the reality. But in this moment, 100 per cent for everything – his talent, he is young and the bike he has.”

Marquez fell three times on the final day, never completed a race simulation run and was just 11th on the overall timesheets, but downplaying the championship chances of a rider who has won three titles in four MotoGP seasons would be foolish. Pedrosa was the more convincing of the factory Honda riders at Losail, but is he really ready to shed the ‘nearly-man’ tag that has come with more than a decade in MotoGP without winning the crown? What about Ducati and Lorenzo? For all the Spaniard’s talent and the team’s ambition, not yet.

Which leaves Rossi, who always races better than he tests and even qualifies. Beating Vinales in Qatar looks a bridge too far, but if the new-for-2017 Yamaha is really as good as the Spaniard has shown so far, expect ‘The Doctor’ to haul himself into the championship fight with a rider 16 years his junior, and perhaps one or two others.

Lessons learned from the Australian MotoGP test

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

THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED ON REDBULL.COM

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

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

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

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

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

2. The niggle between Vinales and Marquez is real

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

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

3. Phillip Island is a particular track

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

4. Miller’s pace is genuine

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

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

5. Should Rossi fans be concerned?

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