If the start of 2016 was about the rules, then 2017 begins with the riders.
While the regulations have stayed largely unchanged since last season, a number of riders took part in a grid shuffle after the season finale in Valencia.
The highest profile move was undoubtedly Jorge Lorenzo, cutting his ties to the blue of Yamaha and swapping them for the Italian red of Ducati. He got to grips with the 2016 bike without any real difficulties, but as the winter progressed his adaptation to the GP17 stalled slightly, particularly in Sepang where he had to relearn his corner entry braking strategy, something that is a lot easier said than done.
Since then, he’s made himself more at home on the Desmo and is much closer to where he expects to be, and although work still needs to be done on his race pace and tyre life he is feeling optimistic ahead of the season opener this weekend. The Losail circuit is one he likes and, perhaps more importantly, the track itself traditionally likes the Ducati, with the flowing layout made up of medium and high-speed corners combined with the long front straight allowing them to make the most of their top speed. The bikes suitability to this circuit means Lorenzo’s team-mate, Andrea Dovizioso, will definitely be one of the faces fighting at the front on Sunday.
Replacing Lorenzo at Yamaha is Maverick Vinales, who is almost universally accepted as future MotoGP champion (although in racing nothing is certain obviously). The Spaniard took to the M1 like a duck to water and he has topped all the pre-season tests in confident style. While his “straight out of the box” performance wasn’t necessarily a surprise, how well he has maintained and improved that initial form demonstrates his fierce focus ahead of the season.
Vinales isn’t under any illusions; all the riders know that testing can only tell you so much with everyone running their own schedules and trying different things, but testing definitely gave him the confidence boost needed when you move teams and he’s arrived in Qatar full of motivation and ready to start.
On the other side of the Yamaha garage, things have stayed the same, with Valentino Rossi again being tasked with a younger team-mate who will almost certainly beat him this year on more than one occasion. The winter testing didn’t go to plan for the Italian, as he’s been struggling to find the right feel with his bike; leaving him unable to capitalise on the new Yamaha engine and chassis as his team-mate has done.
Coming into this weekend, Rossi knows there is work to be done, saying “although we are not yet ok, we will work hard”. And that’s why his testing troubles aren’t a huge cause for concern just yet. If there’s one thing the Doctor and his team are known for, it’s finding that last-minute fix to turn things around in time for the race. The extra work might leave them a bit behind during practice, but on Sunday you’d be a fool to rule him out.
While this year’s preseason proved trying for Rossi, for the World Champion Marc Marquez he had the relief of a testing programme that definitely went better than last year had done. He’s happy that they’ve found a good base setup and rhythm, and while the new Honda engine, that has seen a number of developments since it was first unveiled in Valencia, doesn’t seem to have washed away all of their woes from 2016, the improvements will still be welcome.
The Losail circuit isn’t ideally suited to Marquez’s riding style but he still believes that the podium is a good possibility and if he can keep the 2016 mentality of bringing home the points from being crowded out by the excitement of racing again, expect a smart race from the Spaniard; a shiny trophy is better than ending up on a one-way floodlit trip into the gravel.
Joining Marquez in the Repsol Honda garage once again is Dani Pedrosa, who seems to have flown under the radar slightly over the winter. Aside from Vinales, Pedrosa is the only rider to have finished in the top five across all the tests and the Spanish rider says he feels confident ahead of this season, despite pointing out there are still areas he wants to improve upon. He’s been described as going “back to basics” this year, which with a new crew chief and the inclusion of Sete Gibernau into his team makes sense.
Despite never winning in Qatar, Pedrosa has achieved five MotoGP podiums in the desert and with his pre-season form, he’s almost certainly going to be fighting for another one this weekend.
Other movers and shakers over the winter included Andrea Iannone to Suzuki where he took on the vast bulk of the testing work to allow his team-mate and rookie Alex Rins time to adapt to the bike and the class after his Valencia test was cut short thanks to a nasty accident. Both feel there is a lot of potential in the Suzuki GSX-RR and will be working hard this weekend to build on that.
Joining Rins in the fight for Rookie of the Year will be Johann Zarco and Jonas Folger, both of whom have joined the Tech 3 Yamaha team and Sam Lowes who has paired up with Aleix Espargaro at Aprilia. Folger, in particular, put on an impressive display over the winter, with his new team-mate Zarco closing the gap to him in the Qatar test. For Lowes, he likes the Losail circuit and is confident he can improve on his testing performance, with Espargaro stating there is still room to improve on the Aprilia RS-GP.
Alongside the new faces, this year is the return of a familiar one, with Karel Abraham joining the Aspar team alongside Alvaro Bautista who has moved over from the Aprilia team. Bautista found a good base towards the end of the test in Qatar a couple of weeks ago and he feels confident in his aim for top five finishes this year.
With the rookies joining the grid, there are now 10 World Champions on the full-time entry list, with 29 championships between them, marking a new record for the premier class, along with there being 9 MotoGP race winners for the first time at the opening race of the season, sharing 197 race wins.
2016 was the year records were broken, then smashed a week later, before eventually the record book was just thrown out the window and rewritten. Can it be repeated this year? Plenty of the riders seem to think so; in normal conditions Vinales expects at least 8 of them to be in the position to win, a number which Rossi seemed happy to agree to, with Marquez putting his estimation slightly lower at 5 or 6.
One thing we won’t be seeing the return of in 2017 though are the wings that became a mainstay of MotoGP observation last season. There’ll be no more wondering if you’re imagining new wings appearing or if they really have added more since they last went out on track. The new rules mean that each rider will start with an approved fairing, with only one update being allowed during the season. In testing, we saw a couple of different ways the factories have aimed to combat the loss of the wings, with Yamaha running an internal wing inside a fairing “bump” and Ducati bringing a particularly odd front fairing that quickly got dubbed the “hammerhead“.
Most seem to think that it is unlikely they will be able to fully replicate the effect of the wings within the new constraints but aero-development definitely isn’t a thing of the past. The prevalence of the wings last year opened up new options for tackling other issues such as tyres or electronics.
Thanks to the track characteristics Qatar is an interesting testing ground for running wingless, it was the season opener that really upped the discussion around wings last year thanks to the way they disrupted the air around them. The grip levels change often, switching from abrasive but low, thanks to the sand, to covered in the evening dew in a matter of minutes. It also traditionally causes the teams an issue with preserving the rear tyre, with spinning at corners like turn 11 only adding to the woes.
With tyre life a constant concern, Michelin will be bringing an updated rear slick that should give more traction and “driveability”, partnered by a new profile front slick that has been slightly modified since its first use in Valencia last year. Their altered allocation for 2017 means the tyres for both front and back will be available in soft, medium and hard. While a good chance of rain this weekend has meant they’re bringing wets to Qatar for the first time.
The weather has the potential to really disrupt the first race of the year; the usual rule for Losail is that if it’s wet you can’t go out, but with so much rain predicted that’s been altered somewhat. Riders will now be able to head out onto track if they wish to do so and only if all of them agree will there be a race run in the wet (with rear red lights disabled due to glare).
With 3 days of practice to get underway before race-day there’s still plenty of room for improvement for those who need it, and if it rains everything becomes a bit of an unknown for Qatar anyway, but if we manage to get decent conditions the front group should look pretty similar to last season. Marquez and Pedrosa will both be in the podium fight, Lorenzo and Dovizioso have the potential to go for the win, as will Vinales, with Yamaha team-mate Rossi probably not too far behind, I expect podium potential at the very least.
When lights go out for the start of the 2017 season in the floodlit desert jewel of Losail, racing will be well and truly back in business and something tells me this is a season you won’t want to miss.