Well, this is it. The end of 2016 has arrived.
After 17 races, 9 winners in MotoGP, 25 winners across all three classes, with thousands of miles travelled, tyres rubbered in and cups of coffee drank (just me?), the season is at it’s Grand Finale. Which means only one thing, it’s time for Valencia.
The last race normally means there’s at least one Championship still to be decided, but for the first time since 2012 all three World Champions have been crowned already, although the fact that it’s been at least 14 years since the title winners have each won the final race of the year might not please them that much.
The Ricardo Tormo track itself (named after the double 50cc World Champion) is a fan favourite, even if not all the riders feel the same. It has a stadium atmosphere to it as you can see the entire track from the stands, giving fans a virtually uninterrupted view of the action.
For the riders, it can be challenging, largely because of the 9 left-hand corners which create a lot of tyre stress, especially on the rear after the last corner due to the amount of time the riders spend leant over on the side. Rear spinning is another concern so keeping the stability even when the rear is slipping in the corners will be vital, as will the agility of the bike, with stability and grip in the fast corners the main opportunities for riders to gain time.
In terms of hard-braking, there aren’t really very many at Valencia, although according to Brembo data it’s second only to Motegi in terms of how much time the riders spend on the brakes. Turn 1 is unsurprisingly the hardest braking point on the track after the home straight, while turn 2 is also an important section, Ramon Aurin, Dani Pedrosa’s crew chief, explained that although it’s not a high-speed corner the bike is loaded heavily on the rear so getting the bike balanced again is the main objective in this braking point. The other main area of braking interest is turn 12, which is where the riders position themselves for the long sweep of turn 13 before the last corner. Aurin also noted that it’s because of these sweeping corners, that create a more “linked” circuit, that the gearing for Valencia is normally very short.
For overtaking, turn 1 is again the chief suspect as the riders come into the 90 degrees left-hander, while the following turn 2 allows them to experiment with different lines on the brakes. Turn 6 follows a sweep from turn 5 which again gives some room for testing new lines before the run down to turn 7. Turn 14 is, unsurprisingly, the last option for the riders to beat the person in front as they battle onto the front straight when it all comes down to acceleration and slipstream.
As I’ve already mentioned, tyres will be under stress at Valencia, and Michelin has come prepared for that with both the front and rear slicks being asymmetric with a harder left side. The front slicks will be available in medium and hard compounds, with soft and medium the rear choices. Although rain looks unlikely (over the race weekend at least) wets in extra-soft, soft and medium are ready to go, along with intermediates. The slicks are not only designed to cope with the higher number of lefts, they’re also constructed to handle the cooler mornings which can cause so many problems at this time of year in Cheste, while still being more than capable of enduring the warmer afternoons when grip levels will rise.
Valencia is always a strange race for everyone, because while they’re all still fully committed to a good race on Sunday, anyone who tells you they haven’t got one eye on the tests next week is probably not being entirely truthful. But there’s still a job to do, including for World Champion Marc Marquez. He might have wrapped up his title in Japan, but Honda still needs to secure the Manufacturer’s trophy and they’re relying on their new Champion to get the job done, with the help of his returning team-mate Dani Pedrosa (whose condition remains to be seen). The Japanese factory have a 21 point lead in those standings, so 12th or better will mean they secure the title for the 22nd year, and while to most the constructor’s race might seem secondary, it’s incredibly important to the factories themselves; it’s about pride.
The other championship, which is the team title, is currently in the hands of the Movistar Yamaha garage, who are looking to retain it after 2015. They have a 10 point lead over Repsol so they’ll be hoping to ensure they get at least one piece of silverware this season, especially considering they still haven’t won a race since Barcelona.
It’s in the factory Yamaha box that one of the biggest changes will take place after the race on Sunday, as Jorge Lorenzo packs up his blue bags and moves down the pitlane to the red of Ducati. “Valencia is going to be a very special race for me because after 9 years with the Yamaha family I have to say goodbye and it won’t be easy.” It’s an important weekend for the Spaniard and he’s set his sights firmly on victory to end his time with Yamaha and secure third place in the standings, where he is under threat from his replacement Maverick Vinales. Tuesday will see him on the GP17 for the first (and only time before next year), but almost more important will be the time he spends with his new crew chief Cristian Gabbarini; the relationship they’re able to build early on will be key for his success next season, especially as he is leaving all but one mechanic at Yamaha.
The Ducati team he moves to, arrives in Valencia full of motivation as they’re still enjoying Andrea Dovizioso’s win in Sepang. Dovi is still hoping to secure 5th in the championship as Pedrosa is just 7 points behind him at the moment. The Malaysian win took some pressure off the Italian and he’s ready to race; “It was a really special feeling for me to win in Sepang, because it was important to win a race this season, and now I can go to Valencia with this off my mind and fully aware of my worth.”
On the other side of the Yamaha garage, Valentino Rossi is firmly staying put, although the Italian expects a tricky weekend; “Usually on this track, I suffer a bit and it’s not good for me”. But while his motivation never dips he is looking towards 2017 ; “After the race, I will finally try the new M1. I’m very impatient to get to know next year’s bike!”
Rossi’s incoming team-mate Vinales is another rider hoping for a good end with their current team. Suzuki should be able to have another competitive race at Valencia and Maverick would like nothing more than to catch Lorenzo in the standings. Next year, he has one of the “easier” moves and I expect him to get up to speed quickly. He’ll need to adapt to a new crew as he will inherit Lorenzo’s team but he’ll be happy to discover a Yamaha with better corner exit drive than the Suzuki he leaves behind, although he might find it slightly less agile.
The Suzuki garage will have a completely new look next year with a rookie in the form of Alex Rins, who has had a tough end to 2016 in Moto2. He’ll need to take it slightly easier in the post-race test and just get acquainted with MotoGP before spending the winter getting ready for a long season ahead. His team-mate will be Andrea Iannone, who isn’t fully recovered yet and goes in the opposite colour direction to Lorenzo, as he swaps from red to blue. Like Vinales, Iannone should be able to get comfortable with his new bike quickly, especially as it will be a less physical ride than the Desmo, although he will have to resign himself to having less top speed. Luckily, the Italian is able to keep his crew chief as Marco Rigamonti makes the move with him.
As Iannone and Rins move into Suzuki, Aleix Espargaro follows Vinales in moving out as he heads to Aprilia, which considering their recent improvements could prove very interesting. Aleix brings the experience that the team will need, especially as he’ll be partnered by another rookie, with Sam Lowes moving up from Moto2. Lowes will need to temper his enthusiasm to start his MotoGP journey; he’s shown in Moto2 that he has the talent and the speed, but a few too many crashes have left him in the gravel when he could’ve been winning. Aprilia’s 2017 bike isn’t ready yet, which with two new riders isn’t necessarily a bad thing as they’ll be able to tailor it to the new blood, so they’ll run this year’s RS-GP.
Tech 3 are another team that will have an all-new line-up for 2017 with not one, but two rookies in the form of Moto2 World Champion Johann Zarco and Jonas Folger. The bikes currently ridden by Lorenzo and Rossi will be wheeled out from the Yamaha garage and into their new French home to be given a new black and green look before they head off to join the factory riders in Sepang at the end of the month.
The Repsol Honda team are, thankfully, staying unchanged with Marc Marquez and Dani Pedrosa, although the latter is having another crew chief change with Giacomo Guidotti moving from Pramac to join the Spaniard. The main focus for the Repsol riders in testing will be the new Honda engine, which they have already ridden in Aragon a couple of months ago. Overall, first impressions seem positive and the hope is that it will give them the acceleration boost they so badly need.
Further down the grid, Avintia will remain unchanged with Barbera and Baz, with the former getting an upgrade to the GP16, while the Frenchman moves up to a GP15. In the Aspar garage, it’s all change, with Alvaro Bautista moving from Aprilia to ride a GP16 and he’ll be joined by a returning Karel Abraham on the GP15.
The race for a GP17 in the Pramac garage is pretty much decided in Danilo Petrucci’s favour, but no matter who succeeds in the internal battle between him and Scott Redding, both will run the GP16 in the test next week, although the winner will probably have a few new pieces stuck on theirs.
It’s a great honour to be the one to compete with it for the first time… I’m not going to be at the back of the pack in this race… I can race without pressure and I believe I’ll be on fire when the lights go out.”
But the test won’t all be about new bikes and new riders, as Michelin will provide the first look at next year’s tyre specifications, including a new front that should give the riders more feedback and thereby reduce the number of crashes (hopefully). If it succeeds in this, there’ll be a few wishing they could’ve run it this weekend as front end crashes could be an issue in the right-handers, especially in the cooler mornings.
Finally, one of the biggest talking points of Valencia has to be KTM. The Austrian factory is fielding Mika Kallio as a wildcard entry this weekend on the RC16 as they prepare to join the premier class full-time next year. Kallio hasn’t raced in a while but he’s raring to go; “It’s a great honour to be the one to compete with it for the first time… I’m not going to be at the back of the pack in this race… I can race without pressure and I believe I’ll be on fire when the lights go out.”
When current Tech 3 riders Pol Espargaro and Bradley Smith move over to KTM next week they’ll have to adapt to a bike that will feel very different to the one they’re used to, particularly with a completely different chassis. Much of the initial testing in Valencia will have to fall to Pol, as Bradley isn’t fully recovered from his horrendous leg injury so will have to take it slightly easier.
But before the riders and teams can get to testing, they’ve got practice, qualifying and a race to get through first. With everyone fully motivated to end the season on a high, the 30 lap race (yes, you read that right 30 laps) promises to be a fantastic one, and while a 10th winner seems unlikely, the end to 2016 will be one you don’t want to miss.