There is some resistance to talk of there being "Aliens" in MotoGP. Why, fans ask, should we regard these riders as so very different from the other riders on the grid? In previous years, the answer to that objection was simple. Of the 143 MotoGP races held between 2008 and 2015, only two had been won by someone other other than the riders regarded as MotoGP Aliens. In 2009, Andrea Dovizioso won the British Grand Prix at Donington Park. And in 2011, Ben Spies won the Dutch TT at Assen. At both races, the weather conditions were a factor.
2016 put an end to that objection. Last season, there were a record-breaking nine winners in eighteen races. Andrea Dovizioso won his second race (and nearly won a third). Cal Crutchlow won two in the same season, one in the wet, one in the dry. Does that mean there are now more Aliens? Or does it invalidate the term altogether?
2017 is going to muddy the waters on the term Alien even further. Yes, there are five riders who can be expected to win a race every time they turn up at a track. But there are three or four others who are just as likely to spring a surprise and win a race this season. Nobody would expect them to win six or seven races, but neither would anyone be surprised if they were to win one race each. If they are not quite Aliens, what then shall we call them? MotoGP's astronauts?
Captaining the second wave assault on the championship is Andrea Dovizioso. The Italian is in the best position to chase race wins this season. Dovizioso finished fifth in the championship last year, and if it had not been for some bad luck – most notably, being taken out at two races in a row, by his former teammate Andrea Iannone in Argentina, then by Dani Pedrosa in Austin – would have had a legitimate shot at third. Another year spent unlocking the secrets of an ever improving Ducati means that much more experience to build on in 2017.
That the Ducati is fast is evident from testing. Dovizioso has only finished outside the top four once in the three tests. That was at Phillip Island, where both he and Jorge Lorenzo struggled to get the bike to turn in the long, sweeping corners. At the final test of the preseason, at Qatar, Dovizioso ended up in second place, less than a tenth of a second behind Maverick Viñales. The track may suit both the Desmosedici and Dovizioso, but the Italian is in very strong form.
It wasn't just outright speed, either. Dovizioso's race pace has been strong too. He lapped in the mid to high 1'55s during his race simulation at Qatar, his pace barely dropping towards the end. Dovizioso is well prepared, and he is confident, still carried along by his win at Sepang last year.
Wriggling through loopholes in the rules
Can the Ducati compete? Last year, the GP16 was helped by its winglets, the aerodynamic force generated helping the bike reduce wheelies out of corners. That allowed the bike to accelerate harder, and gave it the top speed at many tracks. This year, the winglets are gone, but they have been replaced by a remarkable "hammerhead" fairing, a pair of looped winglets on either side of a much more narrow front fairing. That fairing, Gigi Dall'Igna said, produced roughly 50% of the downforce of the winglets from last year.
That fairing answered the question of what was in the mysterious "salad box" under the tail of the Ducati. Michele Pirro had given it its jocular name, as he attempted to hide its real purpose from journalists the first time it made an appearance. When Ducati's new fairing made its debut, the truth was revealed: the various connections and electronics items which had taken up space in the front of the fairing had been moved to the back of the bike, to allow for the much slimmer nose piece and aerodynamic hoops.
The Ducati is now stronger than it was last year, and the factory has been working on tire life, a weakness of the bike in the past. Yet the bike remains hard to turn, especially in fast sweeping corners. It requires a lot of effort to help it through fast corners, and managing that effort can leave riders tired at the end. Yet the GP17 is undoubtedly a better bike than last year's Desmosedici GP16. The only question is whether the Ducati has kept pace with the competition, or improved even more.
Managing the Maniac
Andrea Iannone missed out on the improvements made by Ducati, as he got the short straw last spring in the race to partner Jorge Lorenzo. As a result, Iannone is off to Suzuki, and a bike which should really suit his style. The Italian got off to a flying start, ending the Valencia test in fourth, then second at Sepang. He wasn't just quick on a fast lap either: Iannone's race pace was excellent, fast enough to be within a few tenths of the untouchable duo of Márquez and Viñales, and consistent for lap after lap.
Iannone's situation went south at the same time as the MotoGP circus did. At Phillip Island, the Italian struggled with adapting to the new style demanded by the Suzuki GSX-RR. He explained that Viñales, when he was on the bike, braked hard and early in a straight line, released the brakes, then flung the bike on its ear to get round the corner. Iannone's style was different. Brake late, and hold the brakes deep into the corner towards the apex, Ducati style. That was loading the front tire too much, however, and Iannone was losing feel from the front end, unable to trust it.
His struggles continued at Qatar, throughout the three days at the test. It was only resolved at the very end, on his very last exit. His team found a solution, and Iannone regained his confidence. Though he lacked the time to chase a fast lap, he left the test much happier than he had entered it. Iannone approaches the 2017 season with cautious optimism. But first, he must see results.
Could Iannone win on the Suzuki as he did on the Ducati? Iannone's victory in Austria came at a circuit that wildly favored the Ducatis. The Suzuki is a much better handling bike than the Desmosedici, and the Japanese factory added more power over the winter, while keeping it manageable. But there are no circuits where the Suzuki has the kind of overwhelming advantage that the Ducatis had in Austria. Iannone will have to dig deep inside himself, and adapt a little more to the Suzuki, if he is to take a second career win.
Cal Crutchlow, History Man
Cal Crutchlow already has a second win, having taken two victories in 2016, one in the wet, one in the dry. Unlike Iannone, Crutchlow is staying where he is for 2017. That is proving to be very beneficial for the Englishman. In his third season with the LCR Honda team, Crutchlow is morphing into something of informal third factory Honda rider (despite his protestations to the opposite).
That status does not translate into direct and open support, but Crutchlow has spent much of the winter functioning as a third test rider for HRC, providing a yardstick against to measure the feedback of the Repsol Honda team. Crutchlow is, as he puts it himself, a more average rider, unlike either Marc Márquez or Dani Pedrosa. Where the Repsol men are two freaks of nature – Márquez talented enough to ride around any problem he encounters, Pedrosa smaller and lighter than anyone else, and so forced to invent a way to ride the bike fast – Crutchlow is nearer the normal size and weight of most riders. To an extent, Honda need Crutchlow, if they are to have any hope of making the bike easier to understand and ride for Jack Miller or Tito Rabat.
So Crutchlow has spent the winter helping the Repsol riders figure out the new big bang engine. It is a clear upgrade on the old engine, though it remains a fierce beast to tame. It still wants to wheelie out of corners, it still wants to spin the rear, but it is a little easier to manage than last year's bike.
Can Crutchlow win another race? His form in testing has been solid. He has been on a par with the Repsol riders, though lacking the advantage of a garage full of HRC engineers. He has not done as many race simulations as other riders, but that is a common theme with the LCR man. His aim will be to get through the first few races in better shape than he did last year, where he failed to finish in three of the first five races, and failed to score points in the fourth. If he crashes less in the first part of the season, then he should be a real threat in the second half. It would be foolish to bet the farm on Crutchlow taking another win this season. But it would be equally foolish not to throw a little spare cash at a bookie offering odds that we will see him on the top step again.
Alvaro Bautista, surprise package
Washed up. That has been the general opinion of Alvaro Bautista for many both inside and outside the paddock. After losing his seat with Suzuki, the Spaniard has wandered from team to team, finding himself a temporary way station at Aprilia for the last two years. There were a few raised eyebrows that he snagged himself a seat in the Aspar Ducati team this year, after being nudged out at Aprilia to make way for Aleix Espargaro and Sam Lowes.
As so often, the conventional wisdom is proving to be worthless. If Alvaro Bautista is washed up, there are hundreds of riders who would give their right arms to be as washed up as this. Bautista has gelled with the Ducati GP16 almost since the moment he climbed aboard the bike. His performance at Valencia had been mediocre, but the pace he showed at Ducati's private test in Jerez a week later raised more than a few eyebrows.
Bautista's results continued after the winter test ban, the Spaniard usually ending up within a few hundredths of the factory Ducatis. What's more, his race pace was impressive, long runs proving that Bautista was more than capable of being competitive. Clearly, Bautista is a factor to be reckoned with.
Bautista's downfall will only come in the form of the bike he has been given to ride. His race pace has been strong indeed, but when you chart his lap times on a graph, you see the fatal flaw of the Ducati Desmosedici GP16: tire wear. Bautista's pace drops off quickly on used tires, an issue which the factory Ducatis struggled with last year. It will require all of the ingenuity of his crew to mitigate that issue, and hope that Ducati can help with new parts. Bautista's form this preseason has shown he definitely deserves it.
The one lesson of Alvaro Bautista is that when experts weigh in on the merits of a rider, their opinions are as likely to be as correct as flipping a coin.
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