The five that will bubble?

The end of January, a new season looms large on the horizon – and with it, a variety of possible sub-plots that have already been ‘in the making’ this winter. We cast an eye over potential battles and rivalries that promise to light up the 19-round calendar that lies ahead.

A Marquez-Dovizioso repeat

Noted, the vast majority of team presentations are littered with optimism. But Ducati’s opulent ‘do’ at Philip Morris International HQ in Switzerland wasn’t just an opportunity to witness the tobacco giant’s bewildering new approach to marketing. There was a chance to listen in on Andrea Dovizioso’s thoughts on the year ahead. “I feel better than last year,” said the 32-year old. “[With] More confidence.” Looking ahead, it’s hard to disagree. In the season’s second half, he outscored a rampant Marc Marquez by 157 points to 156. The Desmosedici’s base now works well everywhere. Gigi Dall’Igna’s unique innovations were in evidence at Jerez, with altered seat units and radical linkage system. New team-mate Danilo Petrucci is prepared to work according to the needs of Ducati’s lead rider. And for the first time since 2014, Marquez enters the season facing physical uncertainty. A healing left shoulder could yet disrupt an approach so dependent on total aggression. Dovizioso has enjoyed two years challenging. Now 2019 offers a best chance at claiming the overall crown.

Battle for superiority in HRC’s ‘Dream Team’

A ‘dream team’ operating within Repsol colours is no new thing. Marquez has labelled his own band of dedicated disciples just that as he powered a way to five of the past six championships. But Jorge Lorenzo’s arrival has strengthened the belief that internal friction could complicate the reigning champion’s approach. Beyond the fact that the grid’s two most talented riders, with a combined 138 race wins and 267 podiums between them, operate from the same garage, there comes a matter of personality. Marquez and Lorenzo have had their moments in the past. Two of Lorenzo’s most recent public outbursts came after innocuous incidents (Misano, 2016 and Aragon ’17). And the Majorcan’s demanding presence can rub some up the wrong way. When did we last see the considered figure of Dovizioso throwing the pettiest of barbs across the garage, for example? This hasn’t been billed as a potential Senna-Prost rivalry without reason.

Yamaha to get it right?

History has a habit of repeating itself. To which anyone overseeing Yamaha’s recent fortunes could attest. There was a whiff of déjà vu last November. At a post-season outing at Jerez the tune called by factory runners Maverick Viñales and Valentino Rossi wasn’t entirely harmonious. On Yamaha’s updated engine, aimed at ironing out the failures of its predecessor, the Catalan delivered a resounding verdict: “this bike can win the title.” Rossi, on the other hand, aired caution. “At the moment it’s a fourth place bike … if someone ahead retires!” Fundamentally, they are in agreement as to where is most in need of improvement. Both, for example, agreed on the engine direction needed for next year. Yet it’s whether Viñales can maintain this recent momentum, making his voice heard over his more experienced companion, and ignore Rossi’s attempts at disrupting his flow that represents the biggest challenge of his career to date. If Yamaha finally gets it right, sparks will fly.

The fight for Ducati’s second seat

The only factory rider on the grid not in possession of a two-year deal, Petrucci knows he must make good on previous promise if he wishes to maintain his current status. Knowing Pramac’s Jack Miller and Francesco Bagnaia have eyes on the seat for 2020, speculation regarding his position will be rife should he begin the year quietly. He acknowledged as much recently: “Jack and Pecco want my bike, it’s not a secret!” Miller’s aim will be much the same: prove himself a consistent podium contender. Equipped with Ducati’s GP19, he’ll likely have the machinery to do it. “I believe if we can do a really good job next year we should be in line for a factory seat somewhere,” said the Australian last November. “Here at Ducati. If not, we’ll see where the cards fall.” Then add Bagnaia into the equation, just 0.1s off Miller’s best time in only his second MotoGP test. This has the potential to escalate.

Bagnaia, Mir to lead the battle of the rookies

Were it not for the wealth, the fame and the fact their days consist of riding the world’s fastest motorcycles, you’d almost feel sympathy for a rookie entering the MotoGP fold. Marquez raised the expectations bar considerably in 2013 by winning the title first time out. Four years on and Johann Zarco went as far as leading the first lap of the first race. So to Bagnaia, Mir, Oliveira and Quartararo: no pressure. Granted, the premier class is closer than it’s ever been. But for Bagnaia to be so competitive at his two tests to date (0.6s off Viñales at Valencia, 0.4s back at Jerez) indicates he will be challenging for top sixes before too long. Yet with contemporaries as strong as these, winning the coveted ‘Rookie of the Year’ title will be no easy thing. Not least as Joan Mir has appeared so at home on Suzuki’s ever-improving MotoGP machine from the start (he passed through Jerez’s fearsome double right T11-12 with elbow down on the first morning of November’s test). Team manager Davide Brivio expects Mir’s progress to be on a par with Alex Rins’ debut year in 2017. If, so he’ll be alongside Bagnaia on the fringes of the top six.

Were it not for the wealth, the fame and the fact their days consist of riding the world’s fastest motorcycles, you’d almost feel sympathy for a rookie entering the MotoGP fold. Marquez raised the expectations bar considerably in 2013 by winning the title first time out. Four years on and Johann Zarco went as far as leading the first lap of the first race. So to Bagnaia, Mir, Oliveira and Quartararo: no pressure. Granted, the premier class is closer than it’s ever been. But for Bagnaia to be so competitive at his two tests to date (0.6s off Viñales at Valencia, 0.4s back at Jerez) indicates he will be challenging for top sixes before too long. Yet with contemporaries as strong as these, winning the coveted ‘Rookie of the Year’ title will be no easy thing. Not least as Joan Mir has appeared so at home on Suzuki’s ever-improving MotoGP machine from the start (he passed through Jerez’s fearsome double right T11-12 with elbow down on the first morning of November’s test). Team manager Davide Brivio expects Mir’s progress to be on a par with Alex Rins’ debut year in 2017. If, so he’ll be alongside Bagnaia on the fringes of the top six.

By Neil Morrison @neilmorrison87

Photos by CormacGP @cormacgp

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