Sepang Springboard

Neil conjures some thoughts & opinions based on the first MotoGP test

A new year brings with it new names, challenges and possibilities. No better time then to make some inexplicably inappropriate predictions based on the action we have seen thus far.

Variety will remain the spice of life…

Not only has diversity marked the past two seasons of racing – nine different riders won in 2016 – but the closeness of the competition was without precedent a year ago; top eights, tens and 15s were never as closely packed together at the chequered flag in 68 years of grand prix.

Indications in the early stages of ’18 suggest this will continue. 0.9s covered the first 14 riders in the second day of testing at Sepang, with all six factories present, showing potential. For the first time since its arrival in MotoGP, Ducati can boast of two title contenders within its ranks, while Valentino Rossi has already spoken of feeling better in the first handful of laps testing that through all of last year. Don’t expect Honda to go away anytime soon, especially with reigning champion Marc Marquez in its ranks.

Add to that the usual array of talent housed in the satellite teams, while Suzuki and KTM have shown a pragmatic willingness to carry their projects forward to the next step. Both should end the season with several top six finishes apiece, if not more. Expect at least seven victors – and racing that is at least the equal to what played out a year ago.

…yet the champion will remain unchanged

That being said, it’s hard to see the six-time world champion. Marquez carved out his own, inimitable path to the title in ’16 and ’17 when Honda had arrived at preseason testing with a radically different engine design which lagged well behind its rivals.

Now the ‘Big ‘H’ is exercising its ‘evolution’ rather than ‘revolution’ moniker, with comments suggesting a very promising term lies ahead. Both Marquez and team-mate Dani Pedrosa opted to sit out a private test at Jerez last November, such was their contentment at the engine straight out of the box. “Honda has done everything we asked them to,” said Crutchlow, referencing a smoother motor that boasts more torque.

Marquez was simply sublime in 2017’s second half, surging to new highs while regularly calling upon that supernatural anticipation and control. With Yamaha back in force, expect him to have to work like hell to achieve it. But, as the past two years have proven, Marquez rarely shies away from a challenge. Ducati and Yamaha had better be ready by Qatar.

Silly season could see riders falling out of favour before the first race

Bradley Smith called it right last November. The ’17 season had yet to draw to a close, and the Englishman was already fielding questions on contract extensions and signings – for 2019. “It’s crazy,” he exclaimed. Two months on and we’ve already learnt that Maverick Viñales has signed to stay at Yamaha until 2020, Ducati will try to sign both its riders before the first race, and Danilo Petrucci is more than likely out of Pramac, with Francesco Bagnaia coming in.

It was always going to be a crazy year of rumours and intrigue as all twelve factory riders (bar Viñales) are out of contract come December. Several names will be vying for a factory berth with possible seats opening up at Repsol Honda, Suzuki, Aprilia and KTM. If 2016, the year in which we witnessed the last silly season, is anything to go by, we could see team-mates clashing (Dovizioso-Iannone in Argentina comes to mind) and rider performances fading badly, knowing they will be out of a ride next year. Don’t be surprised to see early signings and the 2019 grid forming before the summer break.

Johann Zarco will notch up a first win…

The revelation of 2017 came within 0.3s of winning a first race in the top flight last time out. He began the new year with some fighting talk, too, opining that, “Maybe I can fight for a championship this year,” on the eve of the first test.

Journalists are quickly learning to avoid pressing him on bike spec specifics. “I don’t listen to all this bullshit,” he said on Sunday when asked which chassis he had ridden that day. For Zarco is very much his own man: staunch in his convictions, and unwilling to bend to any preconceived notions of what a certain chassis or engine may do, the Frenchman carries himself in a manner that suggests an elite level of self-belief exists behind that placid exterior.

Few were more impressive in ’17. And Zarco is out to prove that he is deserving of a factory seat. Victory challenges will come at Qatar, Le Mans and Assen, if not more.

…and Jack Miller will score podiums – in the dry

A dark horse for the year ahead? Look no further than Jack Miller, one of two former Honda men now enjoying the relative comfort of Ducati’s smooth, linear power and well-sorted electronics. The Australian was in the top six on the first two days at Sepang, suggesting the potential is there for podium finishes – and not just in the rain.

A fighting recovery from a leg break last September showed the spirit that will be key to the year ahead. “I’m able to really focus on my lines and get the same nearly every lap,” he said of Dovizioso’s ex-GP17 that he will ride through the year. “It feels very in control.”

Now in his fourth year as a premier class rider, Miller is clever enough to avoid making bold predictions. Could he push Zarco and Crutchlow for top ‘Satellite’ of the year? I think so.

Alex Rins may well cost team-mate Iannone a job

The dynamic within the Suzuki garage promises to be as intriguing as what is said and done behind Ducati and Yamaha’s closed doors. Spirits have rightly been high within the camp after a fine end to ’17 and Alex Rins has continued to go from strength to strength over the winter months. “He’s building his method, feeling what is happening on the bike, and transmitting to the team,” said crew chief Jose Manuel Cazeaux. “My feeling is that we can keep this momentum.”

Iannone has already had to contend with more scathing criticism from factory legend Kevin Schwantz over the winter months, and has yet to find an answer for Rins’ preseason pace. There were more than a few titters at Iannone’s assertion that Rins had been ‘lucky’ to inherit the bike he had developed at the end of ‘17, but his team-mate has been the more impressive in the three preseason tests.

Should Suzuki follow Schwantz’s advice, the factory would quietly consider the Spaniard as its leading man for the 19 races ahead.

Photos by CormacGP