Maverick Vinales

10 fearless predictions for the MotoGP season

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

THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED ON REDBULL.COM

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

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

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

1. Pedrosa is a title contender

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

2. More wins for Jorge, more points for Dovi

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

3. Jack Miller will make podiums, plural

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

4. Johann Zarco will lead Yamaha’s charge

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

5. Rossi will ride on

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

6. The silly season won’t be very silly

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

7. Rins will rise

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

8. Taka takes a turn in the top three

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

9. Thailand will be the GP of the year

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

10. The Marquez masterclass will roll on

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

Advertisements

What do we know about the 2018 MotoGP season?

Testing is over – and with the countdown on to the Qatar season-opener, here’s five pointers about the year to come.

THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED ON REDBULL.COM

We’ve reached the finish of the start – the end of pre-season testing for MotoGP before the 2018 season roars into life in Qatar on March 18. Over nine days of testing between Sepang in Malaysia, a first look at the Buriram circuit in Thailand and Losail in Qatar, riders and teams have fine-tuned machines, tried and tested (and discarded) new aerodynamic directions, and blown the cobwebs away from the post-season ahead of this year’s 19-race campaign.

So what do we know as the build-up starts to Qatar in less than a fortnight’s time? Do we trust the timesheets? Do we place more stock on history and pedigree than form and momentum? And will the real story only start to emerge after a handful of races on more traditional tracks back in Europe, given Losail counts as neither?

Here’s some of what we can deduce from testing – and a few pointers of what to look out for when the lights go out for real on the season proper.

Qatar won’t tell us everything

Qatar pays a lot (really, a LOT) of money to host MotoGP’s season-opener, held in a desert at night with very few people watching trackside. If you’re looking for atmosphere, this isn’t the race. And if you’re looking for a pointer of what’s to follow, Qatar probably isn’t the race either.

We saw some of that in pre-season testing, where a rider like Suzuki’s Andrea Iannone, nowhere in the preceding tests in Malaysia and Thailand, suddenly vaulted to the top three on the timesheets on the first two days at Losail before missing the final day with illness. Is there a world in which Iannone challenges for the podium in Qatar in two weeks’ time? Absolutely. Are there a majority who’ll guarantee he’ll finish ahead of fast-rising teammate Alex Rins in the standings over the course of the season? Not really.

The location, circuit layout, time of day and other peculiarities of the Losail track making drawing conclusions from one race difficult and unwise at the same time. It’s just one chapter in a 19-race story.

Yamaha found more questions than answers

If you’ve made any sense of Yamaha’s pre-season, you’re smarter than us – and possibly Yamaha, after the comments of their riders in Qatar. Consider this sequence of numbers: 14-1-18-11-4-12-1-7-5 – they’re the finishing positions of Maverick Vinales on the timesheets on the nine days of testing across three very different tracks, a steep rollercoaster that left the Spaniard perplexed.

On the final day of the Qatar test, with Vinales commenting that he was riding at “50 per cent” before the last hour because he had no confidence the bike would stay on the track, Yamaha elected to revert back the base setting of the bike he’d tried three days prior – and he immediately leapt into the top five.

“We finished with the same bike that I started with on the first day … (and) I did the lap time without trusting the front,” he told the assembled media afterwards.

“It’s quite strange for me,” he said. “Now it looks like we lost one day, one-and-a-half days to try other things. We have to pay a lot of attention to the things we changed. Because nothing changed on the bike, it’s just the same bike as the first day. The second day we tried other things and we lost the way. So my feeling was that I could not push. Even now I feel like I can push more, I still can’t give my best.”

Vinales’ teammate Valentino Rossi, who finished the Qatar test strongly, wasn’t getting carried away with his second-fastest time, either.

“There have been too many ups and downs this winter,” Rossi told the Italian press. “This means that from one track to another, the difference between the bikes will change a lot, and we have to avoid that we suffer too much at our worst tracks.”

Johann Zarco, the Tech3 Yamaha rider who narrowly missed shattering Jorge Lorenzo’s decade-old pole record with a 1min 54.029sec lap on the final day, is running Yamaha’s 2016 chassis this year, and his single-lap pace was a massive quarter of a second faster than anyone else. Which is all very well until you consider his race pace, given the Qatar GP is held over 22 laps, was nowhere near as strong. “When I tried to find the race pace, I was a bit slow,” he admitted.

Could we see a Yamaha or two on the podium for the season-opener? Yes. But it wouldn’t surprise anyone if Rossi, Vinales and Zarco didn’t make the top five in a fortnight’s time. Their guess is only slightly better than yours.

Jack is legit

Jack Miller has almost been counting the days down until the first race in Qatar from the moment he stepped onto a Ducati Desmosedici GP17 for the first time in Valencia last November, and comes into the 2018 campaign in great shape, his confidence sky-high and his expectations for the season needing to be recalibrated.

Remarkably, the first day in Qatar (when he was 12th overall) was the only day he didn’t feature inside the top 10 across nine days of testing, while his long-run pace came relatively easily, leaving him in no doubt that there’s more to come. He’s been right on the pace (and sometimes faster than) Alma Pramac Racing teammate Danilo Petrucci too, remembering that the Italian is on the updated Ducati GP18 that will be campaigned by Lorenzo and Andrea Dovizioso in the factory squad.

Miller’s best qualifying and race results at Losail came last year (started 16th, finished eighth) – and it’ll be a huge disappointment and something of a surprise if he’s not able to eclipse that in two weeks.

‘Dovi’ knows he can do it

There’s a big difference between thinking you can do something big and knowing you can, and that’s why Dovizioso’s pre-season makes for such interesting analysis. After his belated breakout season in 2017, when the 31-year-old won six races in one season where the previous nine years had yielded just two victories, there’s a sense of calm around the Italian these days, and he approaches his craft with a minimum of fuss – no headline times in testing (he never led a day across the nine), few crashes or runs wide into gravel traps or onto tarmac escape roads, and no big proclamations of what’s to follow. Consistent and methodical lap times while understanding why he’s fast (as opposed to just being fast) was the aim, and those boxes were ticked.

After day two in Qatar, ‘Dovi’ pulled back the curtain – ever so slightly – to reveal the inner confidence that will surely see him stay a title contender this year. “My best time I set in a mini long-run of 12 laps which I did this evening, and I have to admit that the times came quite easily …,” he said.

“We are in a better situation then we had last year, so I’m really happy about that.”

Marquez is favourite, but …

Miller gave the media a first-hand insight into Marquez’s brilliance at Qatar, after he followed the reigning world champion on track during the second day of running and watched the Repsol Honda rider push to – and beyond – the limits reserved for mere mortals.

“I watched him lose the front I think six times in the space of two laps,” Miller said, shaking his head.

“I thought ‘he’s down, he’s down’, and then he stood it up and kept going again! But I followed him the lap before through the fast three corners, and he lost the front each time.

“It was amazing to watch from behind, there was smoke and stuff coming off him …”

Marquez’s ability to manhandle a bike that isn’t quite where he wants it in conditions that aren’t quite the optimum means, yet again, the Spaniard will be the man to beat this year. We might not get a repeat of the nine race winners that made the 2016 season one of the more memorable in the sport’s history, but we could see an increase on the number of riders to make the podium this year, if testing is any guide.

It’ll be a tall order for anyone to unseat Marquez, but the number of contenders nipping at his heels looks set to rise – which can only be a good thing.

Thai takeaways: what the riders thought of MotoGP’s new track

Marquez, Rossi, Pedrosa, Miller and more weigh in on the newest circuit to join the MotoGP calendar in Buriram.

THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED ON REDBULL.COM

It’s been a while since we had a completely new circuit join the MotoGP calendar – the Red Bull Ring in Austria re-joined the world championship in 2016, while the Termas de Rio Hondo circuit in Argentina came on stream two years earlier.

So it was with much anticipation (and plenty of cold water) that MotoGP arrived in steaming hot Thailand last week for a three-day test at the Chang International Circuit, located at Buriram, a little over 400 kilometres northeast of the country’s capital, Bangkok.

The 4.6km track, which has played host to World Superbikes for the past three years, will hold its first world championship Grands Prix in October this year, meaning riders and teams were keen to bank as much knowledge as they could over three days of running, and to familiarise themselves with the 12-turn layout. “I’ve adapted to it pretty quickly, and the circuit itself is very fast,” said Alma Pramac Ducati’s Jack Miller after the second day of the test, adding “it’s a little bit like Austria, minus the elevation changes.” We’re presuming he meant minus snow-capped mountains, lush green fields and a giant bull statue, as well …

The comparisons between Austria and Buriram are valid – the Thailand circuit is 300m longer, has two more corners and is just as wide (12m) as the Red Bull Ring – but while Austria has been Ducati territory for the past two seasons, Buriram was all about Honda, factory rider Dani Pedrosa setting the fastest time of the test (a lap of 1min 29.781secs on the final day), and becoming the third Honda to top the timesheets after Cal Crutchlow led day one, and Pedrosa’s teammate and reigning world champion Marc Marquez set the day two benchmark.

Pre-season testing times should be taken with a grain of salt – who would have thought Ducati’s Jorge Lorenzo would struggle so much after dominating the Malaysian test just two weeks previously? – but the timesheets can tell us that Johann Zarco is plainly the fastest man on a Yamaha, factory Yamaha riders Valentino Rossi and Maverick Vinales have a lot of head-scratching to do between now and the final test in Qatar in a fortnight’s time, and Miller and Ducati appear to be the perfect marriage, the Aussie backing up his strong showing at Sepang by finishing sixth overall – and the fastest Ducati rider – in Buriram.

That’s what the stopwatch says, but what did the riders themselves think of the new circuit? Here’s what they had to say, and where they finished after three days of sweltering action in front of grandstands that were routinely packed, the locals showing their love for all things two wheels before racing starts in earnest in eight months’ time.

Dani Pedrosa
Repsol Honda Team (1:29.781, 1st overall)
“The circuit is quite narrow, so it’s important to use the right lines and carry speed. We’re working to find the best balance in order to be quick in both the fast sectors and the more twisty ones.”

Marc Marquez
Repsol Honda Team (+0.188secs, 3rd)
“Regarding the track layout, it seemed quite fast to me when I lapped it on a scooter yesterday, but today riding my bike, I realised it was slower that I was expecting, with many second- or third-gear corners. Still, there are some hard acceleration and braking points, and it will probably be challenging to manage tyre life, so we’ll work on that as well.”

Jack Miller
Alma Pramac Racing (+0.404secs, 6th)
“The layout of the circuit is fascinating. I expected it to be more dirty, especially in the morning, but I had the feeling of having a good grip right away. It’s a fast track and it’s nice to race here. To do the best lap time you have to be patient and you have to give up a bit in braking to get the acceleration, especially on the Ducati. I’m still trying to wrap my head around that at the moment. But being patient isn’t one of my strong points …”

Andrea Dovizioso
Ducati Team (+0.411secs, 7th)
“The Buriram track is very unusual and it wasn’t easy to get used to its layout. There are three corners which are virtually hairpins and then the rest is quite a pretty straightforward run. It’s quite a slow track for our bike, but it’s always interesting to try new circuits.”

Maverick Vinales
Movistar Yamaha MotoGP (+0.493secs, 8th)
“I like the track a lot, it fits my riding style quite well with these flowing corners.”

Danilo Petrucci
Alma Pramac Racing (+0.586secs, 9th)
“I liked the track right away. We were expecting to find a circuit with a lot of aggressive braking but many curves turned out to be fast.”

Tito Rabat
Reale Avintia Racing (+0.695secs, 11th)
“I like the circuit and I had a lot of fun. It has several parts that reminded me of Qatar, others of Texas… it has some long straights and the asphalt is okay, although at the beginning of the day it was a little bit dirty. But the first impression was very good.”

Valentino Rossi
Movistar Yamaha MotoGP (+0.730secs, 12th)
“First of all, the feeling with the track is not too bad, I expect worse, but first of all the track is in a good condition. It’s clean and the asphalt has good grip. This is very important. And also the layout. I remembered [this track to be] more similar to Austria, so I was very worried. But when you ride maybe it is more similar to Argentina. It’s good to ride, you have a good feeling, you enjoy. The track is not very difficult but anyway it’s fun. Technically it’s quite easy, but it’s not boring.”

Aleix Espargaro
Aprilia Racing Team Gresini (+0.920secs, 14th)
“To be honest, the track surprised me. I had more fun than I thought I would. The first part is not particularly interesting with all the straights connected by braking sections, but overall it is a nice track.”

Alvaro Bautista
Angel Nieto Team (+1.102secs, 17th)
“It’s a track that has a couple of good points like Turn 4, where you go into it very fast and you have to go down a couple of gears and enter quickly. The circuit reminds me a little of Austria; it’s varied and fun. I thought it looked easier, on paper, but riding a MotoGP bike complicates everything a bit more. The last two sectors are critical; they are narrow and you have to clearly choose the line because otherwise you can lose a lot of time.”

What we learned from the Malaysia MotoGP test

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

THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED ON REDBULL.COM

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

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

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

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

1. Who looks good?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. Is Jack Miller’s pace real?

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

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

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

4. Can you push too far in testing?

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

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

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

5. Is Sepang a useful testing venue?

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

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

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

6 MotoGP storylines we’re predicting for 2018

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

THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED ON REDBULL.COM

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

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

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

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

1. Rossi will ride on

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

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

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

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

2. Miller + Ducati = podium

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

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

3. Zarco will win races …

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

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

4. But what of his future?

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

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

5. The same top dog at Ducati

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

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

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

6. Marquez will make it a high five

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

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.