It has been a long and confusing wait for the 2014 MotoGP season to begin. An awful lot has happened since the MotoGP bikes were rolled into their packing crates after the Valencia test and shipped back to the factories and workshops from whence they came. There have been shock announcements, shock testing results, and shock training crashes. There have been last-minute rule changes, made in an attempt to keep all of the different factions in the paddock from rebelling. The final rules for the premier class were only announced on Monday, and even then, they still contain sufficient ambiguity to confuse.
But this confusion and chaos cannot disguise the fact that 2014 looks set to be the most intriguing championship in years. Gone are the reviled CRT machines – unjustly reviled; though slow, they were still jewels of engineering prowess – and in their place is a new class of machinery, the Open entries. A simpler demarcation has been made, between factories running their own software on the spec Magneti Marelli ECU, and the Open teams using the championship software supplied and controlled by Dorna. The latest rule change adds a twist, allowing underperforming Ducati all the benefits of the Open class – 24 liters of fuel instead of 20, 12 engines per season instead of 5, unlimited testing and a softer tire – until they start winning races. But the 2014 grid looks much more like a single coherent class than the pack of racing motorcycles that lined up last year.
There are many questions which will be answered during the 2014 season, but the first, and most important, is whether Marc Marquez can retain his title. The Repsol Honda rider had a record-breaking rookie season, which ended with him taking the title at the first attempt, and becoming the youngest ever premier class champion. At the first test of 2014 in Sepang, he was a cut above the rest, leaving the other riders gasping for breath. A training crash saw him break his fibula, and he arrives in Qatar just five days after he started putting weight on the leg again, and having missed the last two preseason tests.
He may start the season with the disadvantage of not having ridden, but that is unlikely to have any long-term consequences. A podium at Qatar would be a solid start to the season, but despite Marquez playing down his chances, it would be no real surprise if he were to kick off his defense with a win. The talent of the young Spaniard is beyond question, but 2014 sees Honda start with a couple of major advantages.
First and foremost, there is the fuel. The Factory Option (for that is what we must now call what we called prototypes last year) machines have lost a liter, cut from 21 to 20. The Honda RC213V has always been very good with fuel, and during testing, the bike was performing without a hitch. For the Yamaha M1, a liter less fuel is a tough call. Jorge Lorenzo has struggled during preseason testing with throttle response, and Valentino Rossi, though having posted fast single lap times, is in even worse condition being heavier and taller. When asked about the fuel reduction at the press conference, Lorenzo joked that he liked the Yamaha just fine with 21 liters. Sadly, he doesn't have that much fuel at his disposal.
Then there's the tires. Bridgestone have brought a new construction rear tire for 2014, stiffer to cope with greater temperature loads. That has killed the edge grip for the Yamaha M1, which the bike needs to exploit its advantage in corner speed. At the same time, it has offered more support to the point-and-shoot style of the Honda, which needs to be picked up as quickly as possible and then hammered out of the corner. A new tire is expected later in the year, but for now, Yamaha have to make do with what they have.
At a fuel heavy track, with a tire that suits his bike, even a Marquez back from injury will be hard to beat. With a good start at the first race, and heading to two more tracks that suit the Honda – Austin and Argentina – Marquez should get his season off to a strong start. If he builds up too much of a gap early in the season, it will get harder and harder to catch him. Seen from Qatar, it is hard to see the season going down to Valencia like it did last year.
Marquez' worst enemy is the Spaniard himself. The fact that he starts the season recovering from a broken leg is symptomatic of his inability to contain his ambition. Every time he climbs on a bike, he is searching for the limits, and that includes when he is training. Marquez had a number of big crashes last year, but walked away relatively unscathed after each one. Breaking his leg during training was a warning, one which he escapes with no real harm done to his title defense. If he does the same during the season, it could have much more serious consequences for the rest of the year.
There must be some small part of Jorge Lorenzo's mind where he is hoping that this might happen. No competitor ever wishes injury on his rivals, and Lorenzo is absolutely no exception, preferring a deserved victory over a win taken by default. But an injury to Marquez is his only hope at the moment. Lorenzo has had a very bad preseason so far, struggling with less fuel and the new Bridgestones. Both changes have affected his style, the lack of edge grip combining with a rougher throttle response to make the Yamaha a much more difficult bike to ride. The Japanese factory will have to throw everything at fixing the problem, first of edge grip, then of fuel consumption, if they are to give Lorenzo the tools he needs to get the job done.
Lorenzo has the tools. Ability, speed, determination, he has all of these in abundance. But the Yamaha needs to be ridden in a particular way to get the best out of it, and the current Yamaha – with 20 liters of fuel and a hard rear tire – is not yet up to the task. The Open class has a clear appeal, so much so that Lorenzo asked Yamaha to be able to test the M1 under Open regulations. Yamaha refused his request, pointing out that there would be no point, as they are unable to switch for this season anyway. With the contracts of nearly all the factory and satellite riders ending in 2014, if Lorenzo is still not able to be competitive by the halfway mark, Lorenzo may up the pressure on Yamaha for 2015. If not, there is a lucrative contract waiting at Honda for the Spaniard.
While all the focus is on Marquez and Lorenzo, the third member of the Iberian triumvirate which dominated last year is being overlooked by many. Dani Pedrosa has had a very subdued preseason, seldom fastest, but his race pace has always been in the right ballpark to be competing for wins. Pedrosa enters his eighth season with the Repsol Honda team, and though many believed that 2013 was his best hope of winning the MotoGP title which has so far eluded him, 2014 could offer him just as much chance.
Pedrosa is happy with the Honda, happy with the fuel allowance, and happy with the new tire. He grows more relaxed each season, taking the media circus which he despises almost as much as his former teammate Casey Stoner did less and less seriously each year. The growing weight of the MotoGP bikes – 160kg for the past two years – is a disadvantage, the tiny Spaniard finding it tough to apply his weight to get the best out of the Honda. That penalty can be doubly harsh at Qatar, where the track surface becomes slippery with the dust thrown up by the desert and the massive construction sites which flank the circuit. But if the track is still clean from the test held here a week ago, Pedrosa could get his season off to a flying start.
If there are long faces on Jorge Lorenzo's side of the Yamaha garage, the atmosphere is very different for Valentino Rossi. Some major changes over the winter are starting to pay dividends for the Italian veteran. The gamble to drop long-time crew chief Jeremy Burgess is paying off, however unhappily handled that situation may have been. Communication between Rossi and new crew chief Silvano Galbusera is better, and the much greater role played by electronics engineer Matteo Flamigni is also a key factor. The very fact that Rossi was prepared to make such a ruthless change speaks of his motivation. Despite the fact that he is now 35, he starts his nineteenth MotoGP season as motivated as ever.
Whether he can match the pace of the three Spaniards remains to be seen. Rossi has changed his style over the winter, and that too has brought him closer to the front. In terms of raw speed over a single lap, Rossi is right there with Lorenzo and Pedrosa. The question marks hang over whether he can maintain that speed over race distance. So far, his race simulations have been a little off the pace of the Spanish trio, but much closer than last year. He is no longer the automatic champion that he was ten years ago. But the fight and the ability is still there.
If the favorites to run at the front are predictable, what happens behind them is not. There are a host of reasons for this: big steps forward by both Alvaro Bautista and Stefan Bradl on the satellite Hondas; a stunning debut by Pol Espargaro, and a big improvement by Bradley Smith at Tech 3 Yamaha; major progress at Ducati, and the relaxation of the rules for the Italian factory for Andrea Dovizioso and Cal Crutchlow. Most of all, it has been the breathtaking speed of the Forward Yamaha in the hands of Aleix Espargaro which has put the cat among the pigeons, the Spaniard scaring the living daylights out of both HRC and factory Yamaha.
The M1 with 24 liters of fuel, softer tires and the less sophisticated championship software (the simpler, 2013 version, that is) turn out to be a perfect platform to go fast. Very fast indeed. With its main weakness eliminated – its poor fuel consumption – the Yamaha turns out to be a fantastic machine. Aleix' style (for with two Espargaros on the grid, we must perforce refer to them by their first names, rather than their last) suits the Open class M1 down to a tee. He can exploit the extra fuel, stand the bike up and take advantage of the different compounds available to the Open teams. With the super soft tire being basically a qualifying tire, Espargaro is likely to surprise as much during qualifying as he does during the race, where the harder of the Open class tires looks strong enough to last a race without degrading too much. Last year, Espargaro was in Parc Ferme a lot as best CRT machine. That distinction has now been abolished – there will only be three bikes in Parc Ferme in 2014, for both qualifying and the race – but there is every reason to believe that Aleix will still make plenty of appearances in Parc Ferme anyway.
That Aleix' speed is as much about his talent as his bike is made plain by the results of veteran teammate Colin Edwards. The 40-year-old Texan is languishing a long way off the pace, down with the vastly underpowered Honda RCV1000Rs of Nicky Hayden and Scott Redding. Edwards complains that the M1 chassis does not suit his style, and has placed all his hopes on the FTR chassis which is supposed to be coming. Given the ongoing financial difficulties between Forward and FTR, it looks unlikely that the frames rumored to be sat in the chassis builder's Buckingham workshop will ever find their way to a racetrack. The fact that the team's entry was changed from FTR Yamaha to Forward Yamaha suggests that Edwards' hope will be forlorn.
Then there's Ducati. The horse trading which went on until just a few days before the season was due to start has ended up giving Ducati everything they wanted. No longer will they compete in the Open category, which they had chosen to do to avoid the engine development freeze, and gain the freedom to test. Instead, performance-balancing concessions have been offered to factories which have not won a race in the dry in 2013. This leaves them with all of the advantages of the Open class, plus the freedom to run their own software. At the same time, it frees the rest of the Open class teams from the burden of having to run the 2014 version of the championship software, which was too complex for most of them to manage. The surprising thing is that this proposal came from the MSMA itself, suggesting that neither Honda nor Yamaha fear the performance of Ducati.
They may come to regret that. The Ducati has already made major steps forward, now being much stronger on corner entry and corner exit. The understeer remains, but with the freedom to change the engine – and just as important, the freedom to test with Crutchlow and Dovizioso, rather than test riders – means that Gigi Dall'Igna is in with a fighting chance to actually solve the problem. The extra fuel granted to Ducati is a benefit, but not as much as you might expect. The Ducati is already struggling to get the power it develops down on the track, and having fuel to burn will only make this problem worse. However, it does mean that Ducati will not have to worry about fuel at tracks where consumption is a problem. Qatar is just one such track.
With a softer tire and an improved bike, Andrea Dovizioso could throw up a few surprises in qualifying. The Italian is now in his second season with Ducati, and has adapted reasonably well to the machine, especially the uprated 2014 version. He is able to lay down a proper scorching lap, and will force a few people further down the grid than they had been hoping. Front row appearances are a definite possibility, though with the Desmosedici in its current state, it cannot maintain that pace for the full duration of a race. Still coming to terms with the bike, Cal Crutchlow has yet to figure out how to throw down a fast lap on the Ducati. That will come with time, but a front row is not on the cards in the first few races.
Qualifying is one thing, but the race is another, and what will happen as the season progresses is the more intriguing prospect. Ducati Corse boss Gigi Dall'Igna has said he needs more data before he starts making serious changes to the bike. Minor updates are likely at the Jerez test, with bigger changes to come at Barcelona, and then Brno. Ducati will not be measured on what they achieve in the first half of the season, but rather on what they do later on. This with a penchant for gambling may wish to wager a little cash on a podium or two by the end of the year. Right now, they'd get pretty good odds. I'd wager those odds will shorten considerably as the season goes on.
The advantages granted to Ducati and the Open Yamaha of Aleix Espargaro are a real thorn in the side of the satellite riders. Stefan Bradl has targeted podiums for this season, the LCR Honda rider now having two seasons under his belt. The German has made solid progress, especially since the switch from Nissin brakes to Brembo. In his third year, he expects to get on the podium regularly, now that his learning process is complete. And it is not just Bradl himself who expects this. Team manager Lucio Cecchinello, Bradl's sponsors including Red Bull, and HRC boss Shuhei Nakamoto share those expectations. If he is thwarted in his ambitions by Open Yamahas and Ducatis with concessions with technical advantages, Bradl may lose out despite his results.
Alvaro Bautista finds himself in a similar situation. Bautista knows that he will lose his seat on the RC213V to Scott Redding at the end of the season, and is riding for a new job in 2015. Fortunately for the Spaniard, Showa have made major progress with the suspension, especially at the rear, bringing him much closer to the front. Podiums are probably a little too much of a stretch for Bautista, but he will expect to be within sight of the podium at most races this year.
At Tech 3, a most entertaining battle is promised. Bradley Smith and Pol Espargaro have been rivals all their careers, and there is no love lost between the two. Smith had a tough first year in the Tech 3 team, riding round on a wildly outdated Yamaha M1, while his teammate Cal Crutchlow had a machine very close to factory spec. For 2014, Smith has the same spec machinery as Pol, their bikes very close indeed to the factory M1s of Lorenzo and Rossi. They have the seamless gearbox, but only the 2013 version without the clutchless downshifts. It is still a significant step forward from 2013, however.
So who will come out on top? On paper, Bradley Smith should win every encounter, given Pol Espargaro's rookie status. But the younger of the Espargaro brothers has made an impressive debut, picking up the pace much more quickly that many expected. The pace of this brother Aleix suggests that there is no lack of talent in the family, but Pol still has plenty to learn. Starting the season with a newly plated collarbone is far from ideal, but the emphasis for him lies not at Qatar, but later on, in the latter half of the year.
And what of the other Open bikes? Nicky Hayden was far from sad to leave Ducati behind, after spending five years on the ailing Desmosedici. But when he discovered exactly how underpowered the RCV1000R is, his joy soon turned to dismay. Honda's bike for the Open class is literally what Dorna asked for: an affordable production racer (though with a price tag of €1 million a year, it is affordable only in comparison with the outrageous price of a satellite bike). That means it is built down to a price, and that shows in horsepower and acceleration. Hayden has made significant progress in braking, but without the ponies to push him out of the corner, he takes on the factory bikes with one hand tied behind his back.
Over at Gresini, Scott Redding struggles with a similar problem. Added to the lack of power, however, he also has to cope with the Nissin brakes and Showa suspension. The Showa has so far not been too much of a problem, but an issue with braking had seen Redding pushing for an early test of Brembos. That issue has been partially resolved, and Redding will continue along the path set out at the start of the season. The benefit of an Open bike is that he has the opportunity to learn and develop in the shade of the Open class, while his former Moto2 rival must work in the media spotlight of a satellite team.
While MotoGP looks set to be a mostly Spanish affair, Moto2 and Moto3 are looking a lot more international. A Spaniard is clear favorite in the Moto2 class, Tito Rabat having nailed his colors to the mast during testing. His weakness, like that of Marc Marquez, is that he likes to push hard whenever he gets on the bike, and he gets on a bike a lot. If he can learn not to risk injury every time he goes out, Rabat has a very good shot at the title.
First, though, he will have to face his teammate and a host of other non-Spaniards. Tom Luthi is the strongest challenger on the Interwetten Suter, while Takaaki Nakagami looks set to finally get the win he has been chasing for a very long time. Sandro Cortese had been strong in his second year in the series, and 2013 World Supersport champion Sam Lowes has made a very impressive debut in the class. Lowes could turn out to be a real dark horse, and surprise more than a few people.
Moto3 looks to be even more international in nature. Preseason testing has been dominated by the Jack Miller, the Australian now on a competitive bike, but benefiting from the experience of competing on inferior equipment. He faces challenges from all quarters. His teammate Karel Hanika has made a devastating impression as a rookie, showing speed he has no right to possess. Red Bull Rookies Cup boss Peter Clifford has labeled Hanika the most talented rider to come out of the feeder series, and judging by Hanika's performance so far, Clifford appears to be right.
Miller also faces Danny Kent on the Husqvarna. A rebadged KTM, Kent has risked dropping down a category to chase a title. It is a wise decision, and Kent clearly has the talent. Then there are the Italians, with Romano Fenati, Pecco Bagnaia, and Niccolo Antonelli all having made an impression. There are Spaniards too, with Isaac Viñales having pressured Miller throughout testing, and Efren Vazquez showing very strong form.
But the real threat comes form the Estrella Galicia Honda team, with the Alexes Rins and Marquez set to challenge for the title. The Honda NSF250RW has undergone major changes, and those changes have put Rins and Marquez on the back foot. At the last test in Jerez, they confirmed that the latest updates had made them competitive. They lack set up data, but that will come quickly once the racing gets underway.
And that is only hours away now. The preseason has been dominated by arguments over rules, over the spirit of the rules versus their literal interpretation. Over whether there would be two or three categories in MotoGP. Over whether Ducati were gaining an unfair advantage, or just interpreting the rules in their favor. All that talk ends in a few hours, once the bikes hit the track. Speculation ends, and guesses will be refuted or confirmed by the facts on the ground. Let's go racing and find out the naked truth.