The front of the grid in MotoGP – and the front of the race – has been dominated by just a few “aliens” for quite some time. That changed last year as the premier class saw a remarkable nine different riders win races, an all-time record. Of course, in the end, one of the favorites won the title … Marc Marquez (Honda). What can we expect for 2017?
Based on pre-season testing, new Yamaha Factory rider Maverick Viñales has to be one of the favorites this year, if not the favorite. He has dominated testing since switching to Yamaha, on any track under any conditions. Even teammate Valentino Rossi has consistently been off the pace set by Viñales, who is not only fast over a single lap, but race distance as well. Viñales is the real deal this year, so don’t be surprised by his success.
Don’t count out the Repsol Honda duo of Marquez and Dani Pedrosa, however, as both riders feel they are starting 2017 with a bike that will perform well everywhere. Marquez, at times, has been the rider to run close to the pace set by Viñales in testing, but Pedrosa looked very strong during the final test at Qatar (also the site of this season’s opening race this weekend).
The Ducati Factory team poses some interesting questions. Able to draw multi-time champ Jorge Lorenzo away from Yamaha, Ducati would undoubtedly like to contend for the championship this year, but their bike has seemingly been brilliant at some tracks and troublesome at others. For his part, Lorenzo looks increasingly comfortable on his new Ducati, while teammate Andrea Dovizioso looks rock solid as a contender at many tracks, and it would not be a surprise to see both of these riders near the front at Qatar this weekend.
Having lost Viñales to Yamaha, Suzuki appears to have taken a bit of a step backwards during testing, as new team member Andrea Iannone has not shown the consistent speed and confidence he had on his Ducati last year. Iannone points to the Suzuki Factory bike being set up for a different corner entry style employed by Viñales, so Suzuki has some work to do with Iannone, as well as promising rookie Alex Rins.
The Aprilia Team has riders Aleix Espargaro and rookie Sam Lowes, both with talent and potential, but the incredibly fierce competition this year threatens to keep Aprilia outside the top ten. We will have to wait and see how Aprilia develops.
Perhaps the most interesting “satellite” team to watch is Monster Yamaha Tech 3. With two talented rookies, including Moto2 champ Johann Zarco and Jonas Folger, the easy-to-ride Yamaha has seen these two riders, particularly Folger, surprise with their speed and consistency during testing. More than once, Folger has displaced Valentino Rossi as the second quickest Yamaha in a test.
Of course, Austrian manufacturer KTM is entering its maiden season in the MotoGP category with former Yamaha riders Pol Espargaro and Bradley Smith. Still lingering near the back of the pack at pre-season tests, KTM has nevertheless substantially narrowed the gap to the front-runners, and is known to be feverishly engaged in development of their bike to move it forward. This is another interesting story to watch unfold in 2017.
Of course, part of the show this year includes new fairing designs intended to create down-force at the front of the bikes to control wheelies and firmly plant the front wheel while cornering. The fairing designs are in some cases quite wild looking (Ducati, for instance), and it appears teams will run a “standard” fairing at some tracks and employ the “down-force” fairing at others.
Predictions from MD? We like Yamaha’s Maverick Viñales for the championship in 2017. He has been consistently fast, and crashed very little during pre-season testing. Marquez is fast, as always, but he may have to “hang it out” more to run with Viñales, which means we may see a few DNFs from Marquez this year … perhaps a championship-killer loss of points.
Valentino Rossi always seems to be there, whether it is on the podium at races, or near the top in the championship points total. Is age finally catching up with Valentino?
Will the massive investment Ducati has made in Jorge Lorenzo pay off? Lorenzo has gradually gained speed on his new bike during testing, and may benefit from the “down-force” fairing at certain tracks where he has been lacking front-end grip and feel.
Other riders who might surprise us this year include Dani Pedrosa, who has seemed a bit steadier than teammate Marquez in some of the pre-season testing. One of the rookies, perhaps Folger or Zarco, could also grab podium finishes this year, and generally be in the mix near the front of the races. Stay tuned for reports from MD this weekend.
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