Press releases from the MotoGP teams after Sunday's season opener at Qatar:
It seems safe to say we are living in a new Golden Age of MotoGP. The stomach-churning tension of 2015 was followed by an unimaginably wild 2016 season, the racing turned on its head by the combination of Michelin's first season back in MotoGP and the switch to fully spec Magneti Marelli electronics. 2017 saw the surprises keep on coming, with new and unexpected names such as Andrea Dovizioso and Johann Zarco becoming serious factors in the premier class. The field got deeper, the bikes more competitive, domination a thing of the past.
All the signs are that this trend is going to continue in 2018. Preseason testing has shown that there is now little to choose between four or maybe five of the six different manufacturers on the grid, while the sixth is not that far off being competitive as well. Where we once regarded having four riders capable of winning a race as a luxury, now there are ten or more potential winners lining up on a Sunday. This is going to be another thrilling season, with the title likely to go down to the wire once again.
Once upon a time, winning a championship meant being on a factory Honda or Yamaha. The balance between the two bikes shifted from year to year, as one of the two would find an incremental improvement the other couldn't match. One year, Honda would find more top speed which the Yamaha couldn't compensate for. The next, Yamaha would add stability on the brakes, which allow its riders to match the Honda going into the corner, then leave it for dead on the way out. It was a game of small steps, the championship swinging one way then the other.
At the start of this year, I made three predictions for the 2018 MotoGP season: that Marc Márquez would win more races this year on his way to the title than he did last year; that Valentino Rossi would sign a new contract with Yamaha; and that this year's Silly Season would be a disappointingly tame affair, with most riders staying where they are.
Three months into the year, and it looks like one of those predictions will be right, as Rossi is already close to signing a new contract already. It's too early to judge the Márquez prediction, with racing still to start, though the Repsol Honda rider has looked very strong in preseason testing.
But I am starting to believe that my final prediction, that Silly Season would turn out to be something of a dud, will be proved completely wrong. After three MotoGP tests and a whole lot of talking, the rumor mill is running at full tilt. And what it is saying is that this could be the season where the grid is turned upside down. Though at this stage, much is still just gossip and rumor, it looks like the only factory team to remain unchanged will be the Movistar Yamaha team.
The phony war is finally over. The last MotoGP test has finished, with riders completing their final day of testing at Qatar. The next time the MotoGP grid assembles, it will be for something of real value: race wins, and world championship points.
Did the last day of the test offer any clear indications as to what might happen in two weeks' time? Plenty, though they were as confusing as all of testing has been this year. Johann Zarco managed to be both blisteringly fast and worryingly slow simultaneously. Danilo Petrucci managed to do exactly the same, though in a diametrically opposite manner. Valentino Rossi managed to impress both in terms of race pace and a single fast lap, but he was still worried whether his pace would last race distance. Maverick Viñales was terrible for the first six hours of the test, then brilliant in the last forty minutes, after basically wasting a day and a half.
Underneath the surface drama, the two biggest winners of the preseason just got on with their work. Their headline times were great but not breathtaking, but the race pace of Andrea Dovizioso and Marc Márquez was impressive. They reinforced their status as the title favorites going into the first race of the season through sheer consistency. While others raced up and down the timesheets like hyperactive kittens from day to day and hour to hour, Márquez and Dovizioso were always there or thereabouts, just getting on with business.
There were others, too. Cal Crutchlow has been repaying HRC's faith, especially with a phenomenal long run on Saturday. Alex Rins has shown every sign of growing into the rider we thought he could be. Rins' Suzuki teammate Andrea Iannone (absent due to illness on Saturday) may have been quicker, but Rins has shown the kind of consistency that puts him in the top five just about everywhere he goes.
Have we emerged any the wiser after three days of testing at the Chang International Circuit in Buriram, Thailand by the MotoGP field? That is hard to say. The test was more for the benefit of Michelin than for the teams, and the French tire maker brought some 2000 tires for the 24 riders who took part in the test. The track itself was not particularly challenging or instructive in terms of understanding how well bike development was going. "This track is also not so easy or so difficult, it's intermediate," is how Monster Tech 3 Yamaha replacement Hafizh Syahrin summed it up.
Is it possible to draw conclusions about how the 2018 championship might play out on the basis of the Buriram test? "No, impossible," Ducati's Andrea Dovizioso said, before proceeding to do just that in some detail. "I can see Marc in a better shape than at the beginning of last year," Dovizioso said. "I can see Dani in a good shape, I can see Zarco with a little bit more experience, so a little bit better for the championship than last year."
It was harder to judge the Movistar Yamahas, Dovizioso said. "It's very difficult to understand the two factory Yamahas, because they will be fast in the race, on race weekends, for sure. But when you look at the riders and the teams from outside, it's impossible to know the details, so I don't know. I can see the Pramac riders are fast, they are happy with the bike, so I think they will be quite fast during the season."
The first day of testing after the winter break is always tough, and often deceptive. Riders spend the day trying to get their heads around mind-warping speed which simply can't be replicated by time on an MX or Supermoto bike. They have to deal with cramp in muscles they had forgotten existed, and which are only taxed by the very specific task of wrangling a 157kg MotoGP around Sepang's serpentine tarmac at speeds of over 320 km/h. They have to do all this in tropical heat, temperatures in the mid 30s °C and humidity of over 70% or more. The fresh-faced youngsters who spoke to us the day before are looking about 20 years older at their debriefs.
So sure, we have a timesheet, with names ranked in order of fastest lap. But that ranking should be regarded with a certain amount of caution. The first day of the test is a day of acclimatizing to riding the fastest racing motorcycles in the world again, and preparing for what is to come before the season starts. "The target today is just ride," Andrea Iannone said on Sunday night. "Ride, recover the feeling and arrive ready for tomorrow to start the plan we have."
Some recover that feeling faster than others, of course, and some aim to put in a fast lap and establish themselves, while others prefer to focus on getting back into a race rhythm, and working on all that entails. But in the end, the results should be taken with a grain or two of salt, at the very least.
The Sepang MotoGP test is always a key moment in the MotoGP season. It is the first time the riders get a look at all the hard work that has gone on over the winter. It is the first time the engineers get to see if the ideas they extracted from the data from the November tests have any value, or were just wasted effort. The Sepang MotoGP test is the place where the dreams of riders and engineers careen headlong towards the iron wall of reality. It is where they learn if they will destroy the wall, or the wall will destroy them.
This year, the Sepang test is even more important. With so many riders out of contract this year, the outcome of the test will heavily influence any decision about their future. The lucky ones will get to make a decision on their own future based on their results, and the result of the bike. The unlucky ones – the reader should regard "unlucky" as a synonym for "slow" here – will end up having decisions made about them, whether the fault lies with them or elsewhere.
Why are the first three of nine full days of testing, and still months away from the first actual race, so important? Silly Season grows ever more precocious, starting earlier and earlier, factories now regarding it as normal to make a decision before the season proper has even got underway.
There were signs that the MotoGP Silly Season could be wrapped up early last week in Bologna, at the launch Ducati's MotoGP team. Ducati Sporting Director Paolo Ciabatti said he expected to sign the riders for the factory team 'quite early'. "Quite early probably means the second half of February or the first half of March," he clarified. So before the lights have gone out for the first race of the 2018 MotoGP season, Ducati hope to have two factory riders wrapped up, and they are unlikely to be the only factory to have done so.
It is apparent that the riders have taken note of this, and are adjusting their strategy accordingly. After Italian sports daily Gazzetta dello Sport ran a story suggesting that Ducati were about to sign Pecco Bagnaia to the Pramac team, Danilo Petrucci has told the same paper that 2018 will be his last year with Pramac. "[Team boss] Paolo Campinoti and I both know this. He pulled me out of the gutter, but we know this is our last year together. The cycle is complete."
Poetry aside, Petrucci's announcement is significant. The Italian has a contract with Ducati which promises him a seat in the factory team if one becomes available, in much the same way that Andrea Iannone did previously. But the question is, will there be a seat there for Petrucci to take?
After the departure of both Shuhei Nakamoto and Livio Suppo from HRC and the Repsol Honda team, Honda have announced that they will be making Alberto Puig Team Manager of the Repsol Honda team.
The appointment of Puig did not come as a surprise. Puig has a long and storied history with Honda, having raced for them in 500GPs, then moving on to a variety of management roles associated with Honda. Puig was instrumental in the Movistar Cup, the series from which a vast array of talent came, including Casey Stoner, Dani Pedrosa, Toni Elias, and much more. He went on to become Dani Pedrosa's personal manager, before moving on to run the Honda Asia Talent Cup and work with the British Talent Team in recent seasons.
But this appointment also marks a break with recent history. Alberto Puig is a very different character to Livio Suppo, who he nominally replaces. Suppo approached the role of team management very much from a marketing perspective. Puig is much more of an ex-racer, and is much closer to the Japanese engineers than to the marketing and media side of the operation.
Valentino Rossi's Peter Pan-like ability to remain competitive through his late thirties leaves fans and paddock insiders alike wondering if and when the nine-time world champion will retire. The subject comes up every two years or so, when Rossi's contract (and that of others) comes up.
Though it looks for now as if Rossi will continue, who to replace him with is an interesting question. Should Yamaha go for a veteran to partner Maverick Viñales? Or should they pick young talent for the second seat, and allow them to develop?
Last year, I spoke to three different factory bosses about how they viewed the issue, and how they go about developing talent for their own factories. The interview with Ducati boss Paolo Ciabatti was published last summer, but at the beginning of 2017, I spoke to Livio Suppo, then Repsol Honda team principal, about how his experiences of bringing on young talent, and the problem of finding a replacement for Valentino Rossi.