The prospect of a new MotoGP season always leaves fans giddy with anticipation. Their appetites keenly whetted by winter testing, and speculation over the times set at those tests, they boldly predict that this season is going to be the best MotoGP season ever. Though the racing is often good, all too often, it never quite lives up to the preseason hype.
There is every reason to believe that this year, it will be different. The bikes, the riders, the teams, the motivation, it all points to 2015 being an exceptionally exciting season in MotoGP. At the last day of winter testing at Qatar just over a week ago, less than a second covered the top fourteen riders, and two seconds covered all but four of the MotoGP field. A similar pattern emerged at Sepang: with the exception of the occasional hot lap by Marc Márquez, there were ten or more riders within a second of each other. Things haven't been this close for a while.
The Fantastic Four
It has been a very long time – Estoril in 2006, to be precise – since a satellite rider has won a race in MotoGP. That is unlikely to change in 2015. The reasons for this are manifold, but perhaps the most important is the emergence of a group of exceptionally talented riders pushing each other on to greater heights. The arrival of Dani Pedrosa, Casey Stoner and Jorge Lorenzo posed a real threat to Valentino Rossi, and forced him to up his game to stay with them, and to beat them. When Stoner retired at the end of 2012, Marc Márquez took his place, keeping the squad of so-called Aliens at full strength.
This group – call them the Aliens, the Fantastic Four, the Factory Four, whatever moniker takes your fancy – will be hard to beat again in 2015. Márquez, Rossi, Lorenzo and Pedrosa have the best bikes on the grid, in the best teams, with the best crew chiefs. They are the most talented, and the most dedicated. They train hardest, and have the best support in terms of physical training and mental preparation. They all know that victory is won by the narrowest of margins, and attention to detail must be complete. These four are indeed fearsome, and favorites to boot.
First among equals is, of course, the reigning world champion Marc Márquez. He is as hungry as ever, as witnessed by the effort he put into being fastest at Sepang, and trying to beat the Ducatis at Qatar. He has the Honda RC213V more or less where he wants it, HRC having worked perfectly to schedule over the winter: bring a new design to the Valencia test, provide a choice of solutions at the first Sepang test, iron out any problems left from the selected option at the second Sepang test, and polish the bike ready for the start of the season at the Qatar test. The bike still has some room for improvement on corner exit, but it brakes harder, turns tighter, and accelerates stronger than last year's machine. It has been crafted in Márquez' image, and he is ready to do battle.
The rider, too, is improved. Another year of experience under his belt makes him stronger still, the most important lessons learned at the end of last year. In his first season in the class, he had to figure out how to race a MotoGP machine. In his second season, he had to figure out how to manage a championship, as well as a bike, and cope with both the hubris created by the invincible first half of 2014, and the inevitable fall during the second half. He has his nerves and his eagerness under tighter control, having learned the value of patience. Still only 22 years of age, he has become a very complete rider, and is reaching the peak of his powers.
He will face a much tougher challenge at the start of this season than he did last year, however. While Márquez pursues perfection, his rivals have recovered from the problems of the first part of last year, and are better prepared than ever.
Chief among the challengers will be Jorge Lorenzo, the Movistar Yamaha rider determined to make amends for 2014. Last year, he turned up at Sepang ill-prepared, having missed out on training after surgery. This year, he is fitter, lighter, and stronger than ever. He spent all winter training, under the watchful eye of Yamaha. His team manager Wilco Zeelenberg flew down to Spain to go training with Lorenzo twice over the winter, and to check up on his progress. He says he is 5kg lighter than he was last year, but after having seen him at the Sepang tests both this year and last, I would suggest that is a low estimate. The disastrous start of Lorenzo's 2014 season was down to poor preparation. He will not be making that mistake again.
He will have some help from his equipment as well. The Yamaha YZR-M1 was hampered by several factors at the start of the 2014 season. The reduction in fuel allowance to 20 liters made throttle response horribly jerky. The altered 2014 Bridgestone rear tire reduced feel on the edge of the tire. The M1 was also less stable on the brakes than the Honda. All these things plus his lack of fitness made it impossible for him to maintain the high corner speed style which won him two world championships and 33 races. He was beaten almost before he began.
Lorenzo will not face those issues in 2015. Yamaha moved mountains last year to adapt to racing with a liter less fuel, managing to improve both throttle response and top end power by the end of the season. A modified chassis and the advent – finally – of a fully seamless gearbox (that is, in both upshifts and downshifts) have vastly improved the braking stability of the bike. Even Bridgestone are helping, if only a little. The new front tire the Japanese firm are bringing to Qatar is a fraction softer, giving a little more feedback on the edge of the tire.
The real reason to fear Jorge Lorenzo, though, is his motivation. The Spaniard still smarts from the humiliation of the early part of 2014, and is hell bent on clearing his name. The mistakes he made last year weigh heavy on him, and he wants to atone for those sins by showing what the real Jorge Lorenzo is capable of. The race simulations he ran at Sepang showed he was capable of maintaining a fearsome pace. At his very best, he is as unbeatable as Márquez. He has done everything he can to ensure he can be at his very best week in, week out.
Being beaten by his teammate did not sit well with Lorenzo either. Valentino Rossi underwent a real revival last year, with talk of a possible retirement at the start of the season quickly falling silent, replaced by the end of the year by speculation over his chances of securing a tenth title. Now, it is not his age named as the major obstacle, but rather the caliber of the riders he must beat to secure it.
How did that revival come about? Like Lorenzo, he was helped by the improvement of the Yamaha, but most of it came from within. He took longer than expected to adapt back to the Yamaha, the two years at Ducati taking a heavy toll on his riding. A new crew chief in Silvano Galbusera meant more motivation and fresh inspiration, and by the end of the year, everything was falling into place again. His victory at Misano was the old Rossi again, the master who can control a race and force his rivals to make mistakes. Expect to see more of that Rossi again in 2015.
His weakness remains qualifying, Rossi still not particularly enamored of the new QP format. Pushing at the very limit from the moment you exit the pits is something he still needs to work on, the Italian finding himself stuck behind slower traffic on the grid at most races last year. Rossi's pace in testing was good, if not exactly devastating, but he has always kept some reserve during practice and testing. Valentino Rossi is a racer pur sang, responding to the pressure and the thrill of racing with another couple of tenths off his lap time. At the end of 2014, Galbusera said Rossi's aim for 2015 was to do better than the season just passed. Rossi finished second in the championship, his crew chief pointed out, meaning there was only one place left to go.
And what of Dani Pedrosa? The Repsol Honda rider had a rather colorless 2014, spending most of the year at odds with his team and Honda over race strategy. They were working on making Pedrosa faster at the end of the race, having identified that as his greatest weakness. The trouble is that fixing that weakness came at a heavy cost to his strength, his speed off the line and the strength of his starts. Pedrosa was often the fastest man on the track during the races last year, but his results rarely showed it. Setting the fastest lap is all very well, but if you do it while you are circulating in fourth, you gain little.
The pendulum has swung back again in 2015, Pedrosa and his new crew chief – Ramon Aurin replacing the departing Mike Leitner – working again on the start of the race, and being fast during qualifying. But they will still be aiming to improve pace at the end of the race as well, though without sacrificing that early speed.
It is easy to write Pedrosa off as a title candidate, as so many seem so eager to do. Yet the Spaniard's statistics are impressive: more premier class victories than Kevin Schwantz, Wayne Rainey, and Kenny Roberts. More second place finishes than anyone bar Valentino Rossi and Jorge Lorenzo. Holder of the lap record at six of the eighteen circuits MotoGP races at. Championship runner up three times, coming very close to winning it in 2012. Pedrosa has not been the stand out performer during winter testing, but once the racing starts, you can be certain he will be there.
The Red Menace
The best way of measuring the progress of Ducati in recent years has been by measuring Andrea Dovizioso's mood. In 2013, his first year with the factory Ducati team, he was despondent as progress failed to come. In 2014, he was optimistic, as the Desmosedici got slowly better, and improved in every area except for the understeer. Since the arrival of the GP15, he has been almost joyous, smiling, cheerful, and with an impish gleam in his eye.
He has every right to be so positive. Gigi Dall'Igna has exceeded the expectations of riders and fans, and delivered a motorcycle which is truly competitive. The understeer is gone at last, the bike still has the horsepower, and it will turn on a dime. It is physically smaller, more comfortable, and easier to ride. When asked to sum up the bike in one word, Dovizioso answered "Fast". Yet the word he most often uses to describe the Desmosedici GP15 is "Normal". "Now, the bike is working more normal," he told the press conference at Qatar. Normal is not usually seen as a compliment, but in this case, it is the highest form of praise that could be heaped upon the Desmosedici.
It may be fast and nimble, but there is still room for improvement. The bike still lacks some stability in braking, and it needs some work in the middle of the corner as well. Some stability may have been sacrificed when Dall'Igna rid the bike of its understeer, but a lot of it can be regained using set up. This is a brand new bike – it has spent just five days on track in the hands of the factory Ducati riders – so for it to be so competitive already is a very promising sign indeed. The Desmosedici dominated the Qatar test, with only Marc Márquez getting in among the two factory Andreas. The big question mark is over how consistent the bike can be over the course of the race, and whether it can maintain its pace towards the end. That was the issue with the GP14, but now that set up adjustments actually make a major difference to the GP15, they should be able to find solutions to that as well.
There is no doubt that Ducati is aided by the rules. The concessions granted for engine development were particularly effective, allowing Ducati to experiment with engine positioning and modified internals in pursuit of improvement. The real bugbear is the softer tire which Ducati is allowed, along with other new manufacturers and the Open class bikes. In terms of the race, the difference is not great, but in qualifying, the softer rear tire has turned out to be a real weapon. The GP14 was already a threat in practice with the extra soft tire. The GP15 was faster than the rest on the normal tire. What that bike is going to be like once they slip in a soft tire for qualifying is anyone's guess.
This raises an interesting dilemma. Ducati only lose the softer tire if they win three races in the dry. Given the level of competition at the front, that is going to be hard. But in the meantime, they look like blowing everyone away during qualifying. It is not beyond the realm of possibility that Andrea Dovizioso and Andrea Iannone keep sweeping qualifying, putting the two Ducatis on the front row. That would put a very hungry cat among the pigeons at the start of a race, and provide some serious obstacles to the anointed favorites. If the Ducati is good enough to last the race as well, there could be some real friction. That will almost certainly lead to calls from the other factories to have the soft tire taken away from them, but to do that, they will have to change the rules.
Could Ducati win three races in the dry? It would be tough to beat the Fantastic Four three times before the end of the year. Yet the two Andreas provide the ideal one-two punch needed to pull it off. Dovizioso is highly motivated, very smart, and fast enough to hold his own with the best. He is a far better rider now than he was when he was with the Repsol Honda team, more focused and hungrier. Andrea Iannone has bags of raw talent and natural aggression, and a wildness that can help cause a few upsets. Iannone may take a win through sheer aggression, or Dovizioso might take advantage of the chaos Iannone causes among the top riders. Whatever your view of the advantages Ducati have enjoyed under the 'Factory-with-concessions' regulations, it will certainly be good for the show.
The Young Upstarts
While Ducati are on the verge of breaking the Honda-Yamaha duopoly, Suzuki still have some way to go. Yet the Japanese factory has surprised many with the pace of the GSX-RR, helped in no small part by its riders, Aleix Espargaro and Maverick Viñales. Suzuki has a long history of building bikes which are not quite good enough to compete, and many followers feared this pattern was being repeated. But the latest iteration of their MotoGP machine is a very strong candidate to break that cycle of failure. The bike has exceptional handling, is outstanding on the brakes, and is easy to ride.
Its major shortcoming is a lack of horsepower, currently the main aim of Suzuki's engineers. They had hoped to work on that over the winter, but reliability problems which emerged at Valencia meant they had more pressing problems. With those issues fixed by the first Sepang test, Suzuki have switched focus once again, working on electronics and exhaust to ramp up the power output of the GSX-RR. There is still plenty of room for improvement, but the chances of Suzuki getting there are remarkably bright.
They also have two riders capable of creating a surprise. Aleix Espargaro is a factory rider at last, and keen to prove his mettle. He has totally dominated the Open and CRT classes, a strong rider needing only a competitive machine to start challenging at the front. He is once again saddled with a bike with less power than the top riders, but the difference is smaller and there is hope for improvement. Espargaro looks totally focused, and highly motivated. He won't be appearing on the podium any time soon, but with a bit of help from Suzuki, he should be battling it out for fifth position relatively soon.
As for Maverick Viñales, the Spanish youngster has made an outstanding debut. He has done what is required of a rookie, learn quickly and get faster every time he goes out on the bike. The year in Moto2 taught him some valuable lessons, and his rapid progress in that class showed his potential. His attitude has been extremely impressive: gone is the petulance which he showed a couple of years ago, though he remains a fiery character. Viñales faces a learning year, but a rider as talented as him is fine addition to MotoGP.
The Long Slog At Noale
While optimism is riding high at both Ducati and Suzuki, there is a long slog ahead at Aprilia. MotoGP's fifth manufacturer made the decision to enter the class very late, and a year ahead of schedule. They face a year of collecting data, ready for their new MotoGP machine, due to make its debut in 2016. So far, Alvaro Bautista and Marco Melandri have found themselves towards the rear of the field, and a long way off the pace of the front runners.
Both Bautista and Melandri have known this from the beginning, but the Spaniard has taken the situation much better. Bautista is happy to be back in a factory team, where his input will be used to improve the bike. Melandri, however, is finding it hard to make the mental switch from challenging for a championship in World Superbikes to developing a bike in MotoGP without regard to race results. Motivation is such a key part of motorcycle racing that it could be a very long year for Melandri.
Progress for Aprilia will be measured not in championship points, but in the shrinking time difference to the front. They start the year with the bike tested at Valencia, with uprated electronics. The original version of the 2015 bike has now been abandoned, neither Bautista nor Melandri liking the new chassis. Instead, work will continue with the bike they have, and data collected for 2016.
A Constellation of Satellites
With the factory field so strong, who among the satellite riders can try to fight for the podium? A tough question, and an even greater challenge. Prime candidates must be Cal Crutchlow on the LCR Honda and Pol Espargaro on the Tech 3 Yamaha. Espargaro enters his second year in MotoGP, after showing a lot of promise in his rookie season, finishing sixth behind the factory Hondas and Yamahas, and the Ducati of Andrea Dovizioso. Espargaro must target consistency, his talent not being in question. He has had a very mixed time during winter testing, very fast at the first test, but losing his way during the second Sepang test and at Qatar.
It will not be easy for Espargaro: the bikes at Tech 3 are basically the Yamahas used by Jorge Lorenzo and Valentino Rossi at Valencia last year. The gearbox is seamless on upshifts only, and though the new bike is better in braking than the one the Tech 3 team raced last year, it is still a significant step behind the factory Yamahas of Rossi and Lorenzo. That will make scoring podiums very hard.
Cal Crutchlow does not have it that much easier. Like the Tech 3 team, the satellite Honda teams are a step behind the factories as well. The Honda RC213V which Crutchlow has at his disposal in the LCR Honda team lacks the refinement of the Repsol bike, the rear not offering the grip which the factory machines have. Crutchlow also faces the challenge of adapting to his third different bike in three years, after jumping from the Tech 3 Yamaha to the factory Ducati, and now to the LCR Honda. The process of adaptation was slow at first, Crutchlow surprised by how hard it was to ride the bike. But the second Sepang test especially saw Crutchlow make good progress, and he is starting to get in the right ballpark. It will take him a couple more races to shake out the final details with the team, but he should be trying to fight at the front in the first half of the season.
The season has not had the ideal start, though. News emerged today that CWM, the LCR team's sponsor, is under investigation for fraud by the Financial Conduct Authority, the British body charged with oversight of the financial industry. Though that could create some tension in the team, the financial situation of the squad is not believed to be in peril. CWM has paid a large part of its sponsorship up front, and the team is believed to have enough money to make the end of the season.
Bradley Smith faces a make-or-break year, but that is something he is now well used to. The Englishman has shown speed in the past, but lacked consistency. That was something he worked on during testing, and there were signs of improvement. But the proof of the pudding will very much be in the eating. Whether he really has made progress will only be measured once race day comes.
Scott Redding is the biggest enigma among the satellite riders. The Marc VDS team moved up to MotoGP, made common cause with the Monlau team and obtained support from Spanish beer brand Estrella Galicia. Redding was reunited with his team, and Jonathan Rea's crew chief Chris Pike was brought in to assist the Englishman. But putting everything together has proved hard for the team: there is so much to learn that getting the team to work as a unit, and finding the right chemistry between Redding and his crew has taken time. The fact that the Honda RC213V proved to be a much more difficult bike to ride than Redding had anticipated added an extra complication.
All this meant that Redding has yet to show much of his potential during the winter tests. But his times have hidden his progress: on the one hand, he has consistently been the slowest of the satellite riders. On the other, he has slashed the gap to the front runners by an enormous amount. The first few races are going to be tough for Redding, but he will only get better as the year goes on. He has a lot of work ahead of him.