With one or two contracts signed over the past couple of weeks, it's time to update what we know of the 2018 MotoGP rider line up. A single question mark behind the name of a rider indicates a very strong rumor. Three question marks indicates a complete unknown.
Latest MotoGP News
Another piece in the 2018 rider puzzle has fallen into place. On Monday, the Aspar Team announced that Alvaro Bautista has extended his contract to stay on with the team for another season, and will be riding for them in 2018.
The MotoGP bikes have fallen silent for over a week now, the teams and riders dispersed to the four winds, nominally for "vacation". And while riders relaxed on a beach somewhere for a week before returning to their training for the second half of the season, teams and rider managers have been anything but dormant. There has been a hive of activity in preparation for the latter half of the season, and for some of the satellite teams, for 2018 as well.
For the Silly Season That Wasn't Supposed To Be has stepped up a gear. The summer break has so far seen extensive negotiations going on over the MotoGP seats which will be free in 2018, and in some cases, whether a seat will become available or not. Phone calls to team staff start with pleasantries about vacation time, but quickly reveal that vacation consists of at best a day or two taken in between meetings and preparations for the remainder of the year.
The first shoe to drop in the summer edition of MotoGP's 2018 Silly Season is the revelation by Motorsport.com that Jack Miller will be joining Danilo Petrucci at Pramac Ducati for next season. After losing his direct contract with HRC – that contract going to Cal Crutchlow instead – the Australian had been in talks with the Marc VDS squad about a contract directly with the team. However, a failure to agree terms over money, and a better offer from Ducati, pushed Miller towards Pramac.
The world of motorcycle racing is undergoing a major change behind the scenes. Increasingly, teams are working on creating a path for bringing on young and talented riders. Where once individual teams would merely scour the classes below the one they competed in for talent, and engage in bidding wars for the most promising riders, now, they take a very different tack. Talent scouting starts at the very lowest level, and a path created all the way from Pre-Moto3 to MotoGP.
One of the first examples of teams creating such a pathway came about when Marc VDS teamed up with Monlau for the 2015 season. Monlau had an existing racing structure in Spain, reaching down to regional championships, as well as a technical academy for budding race engineers. Marc VDS had a successful Moto2 team which could take over from the Monlau operation, and a newly created MotoGP operation. Suddenly, the team had a complete package they could offer riders, with sponsorship and consistent support starting in Pre-Moto3 and carrying on through the FIM CEV, Moto3, Moto2, and MotoGP. All with the backing of Spanish beer giant Estrella Galicia.
Of the nine MotoGP races held so far, the teams and riders were clear about the two with the worst levels of grip. At both Jerez and Barcelona, the riders and teams complained bitterly about the lack of grip at the circuit. At Barcelona, those complaints also encompassed excessive tire wear caused by the old asphalt, which extensive use by cars had rendered extremely abrasive to motorcycle tires.
The MotoGP Safety Commission, the informal body in which riders talk to Dorna and the FIM about safety issues, made it very clear: unless the two Spanish tracks were resurfaced, it would not be possible to return there for 2018. In the case of Barcelona, there was also the question of the new chicane which replaced Turn 12, the corner where Luis Salom tragically lost his life in 2016.
It now looks like both circuits will make a reappearance on the MotoGP calendar in 2018 and beyond. Both Jerez and Barcelona are to be resurfaced ahead of next year, which should mean they will be ready to host MotoGP in the coming season.
Every race weekend, there are dozens of things I either miss, or don't have time to write about. Here's what I missed from the German Grand Prix at the Sachsenring:
About those chassis
Since the Barcelona test, the paddock has been awash with gossip about Yamaha chassis. Valentino Rossi was particularly enamored of one of the chassis tested at Barcelona, though his teammate Maverick Viñales appeared to be a lot less enthralled by it. At Assen and the Sachsenring, both riders had one each of the "new" chassis and one of the "old" chassis. (The new chassis is said to be a development of the chassis used last year – some even say last year's chassis – which was itself a slight revision of the 2015 chassis. The "old" chassis was a new chassis based on the chassis used last year, meant to save the rear tire, but sacrificing corner entry as a result.)
If the 2017 MotoGP season has been anything, it has been entirely unpredictable. After two races, we were declaring the season over, and penciling Maverick Viñales' name on the trophy. A race later, and we were conceding that Valentino Rossi had taken over the lead of the championship, and that meant that whoever won the title would be riding a Yamaha. After four races the top four were within ten points, and we gave up on there being a favorite, only to change our minds again after Le Mans, where Valentino Rossi crashed out trying to beat his teammate, and Viñales took a 17-point lead again.
After Mugello, when Andrea Dovizioso won his first dry MotoGP race, Viñales led by 26 points, and was ahead of reigning champion Marc Márquez by 37 points. We had our favorite once again. Three races and two changes in the championship lead later, and we have given up again. The top four are back within ten points of each other again, and making predictions is looking increasingly foolish.
There was one certainty we could cling to, and would not allow ourselves to let go: At the Sachsenring, Marc Márquez takes pole, and then goes on to win the race. It has happened the last seven years Márquez has raced at the Sachsenring, from 125s to Moto2 to MotoGP. Surely he would repeat that again? Surely, Marc Márquez would break the unpredictability of MotoGP in 2017?
There are few certainties in life. Death, sure, at some point all of us will die. Taxes, well try as you might (and the number of riders, teams, and managers based in tiny principalities and sovereign island nations known primarily for their tax codes is surprisingly large), the tax man always gets a cut, if not through direct taxation, then at the very least through indirect taxes based on sales. Oh, and Marc Márquez taking pole at the Sachsenring. That also seems to happen with a sense of inevitability.
For the past seven years, Marc Márquez has taken pole at the Sachsenring. He did it in the 125 class, in 2010. He did it in both his years in Moto2. And he has done it in MotoGP for the past four seasons, all of his time in the premier class. Bearing in mind Márquez is only 24 years of age, and took his first pole at the German circuit at the tender age of 17, that is a truly remarkable achievement.
But 2017 is different. The winds of change are blowing through MotoGP. Or perhaps it would be better to say that the winds of unpredictability are blowing, with already five different winners from eight races, as well as nine different riders with a podium finish. The championship, too, has been up and down: three races ago, Marc Márquez trailed the then championship leader Maverick Viñales by 37 points. Going into Sunday's race in Germany, Márquez trails the new championship leader Andrea Dovizioso by just 11 points. In 2017, nothing is a given.
Another domino has fallen in the MotoGP satellite team Silly Season. Danilo Petrucci has signed on to remain with the Pramac Ducati squad for the 2018 season. Petrucci had been courted by Aprilia, but Petrucci has elected to stay with the team and the factory with which he has scored his most recent successes.
Well, we knew the weather was going to be a factor at the Sachsenring, and we weren't disappointed. (Or perhaps we were, depending on your point of view.) The MotoGP riders started off on a bone dry track in the morning, spent an extended 55 minutes on slick tires, then suffered through a couple of full on rain showers in the afternoon. They had time on a dry track, and time on a wet track, and time on a track with a dry line forming. It was the perfect preparation for what promises to be a weekend of mixed weather. The chances of making it all the way to the race on Sunday without another wet session are very small. But they are also not zero.
Riding in both weather conditions gave the riders a chance to assess the grip of the new surface. The response was overwhelmingly positive. Aleix Espargaro summed up the general impressions, and entirely in character, he also summed it up with the most enthusiasm. "It's unbelievable," the Aprilia rider said. "They did a super job, a fantastic job. The tarmac has zero bumps, nowhere. The grip is super high. Actually, I think we finished five seconds from the dry times, which is very very very fast. So, German style, they did a great job!"
The grip was generally judged to be good in the dry, but absolutely phenomenal in the wet. "Honestly, in the wet you can’t believe it," Cal Crutchlow told us. "I left the pit lane. I was late because we were messing around in the garage. Marc had done three laps. I saw the blue flags, sit up and I looked down and Marc’s got his elbow on the floor! When I see someone’s got their elbow on the floor it means you’ve got to push."
From Assen to Sachsenring, 700 kilometers in 7 days. One of the shorter hauls between back-to-back races, but a tight schedule nonetheless. Sachsenring's weird split paddock was full of tired looking faces on Thursday, as truck drivers and hospitality staff rushed to tear the entire paddock down in Drenthe, then build it all up again in Saxony.
It is hard to think of a greater contrast in circuits, too. Assen is flat, fast, and sweeping, the Sachsenring tight, slow, and with massive changes in elevation. There are similarities too: the bikes spend a lot of time on the edge of the tire at both tracks. At Assen, it's especially the right side of the tire, as riders sweep through the succession of right handers from Mandeveen all the way to the Ramshoek. At the Sachsenring, it's all left-hand side of the tire which takes the punishment, as the bikes come out of the Omegakurve, pitch into Turn 4, then hustle their way all the way down and then up and over the hill before Turn 11.
Turn 11 is a vicious beast, laying in wait for the unwary, its voracious gravel trap waiting to claim anyone who flicks the bike just a little too enthusiastically right after spending so much time on the left-hand side of the tire. The opposite right-hand side has had 40 seconds to cool off, while the right-hand side of the tire takes all the punishment. The transition from left to right, from scorching hot to cool rubber, from one of the hardest tire compounds of the year to one of the softest, is tricky. Switching between two very different feeling rubbers catches plenty of riders out, in both MotoGP and Moto2.
On the eve of the German Grand Prix at the Sachsenring, the Grand Prix Commission, MotoGP's rule making body has allowed a system which was first mooted at the same race last year. In Assen, the GPC gathered to discuss various minor tweaks to the MotoGP rules, but among them was a major upgrade: permitting the use of dashboard messages by the teams from 2018.
Michelin are to bring an additional choice of front and rear tire specifications for the German round of MotoGP at the Sachsenring. The expanded allocation is Michelin's way of dealing with the extra grip they expect the track surface to have. To cover as many situations and conditions as possible, Michelin will offer a choice of four different front tires, and four different rear tires.
The reason Michelin has opted for this approach is because they were unable to test at the Sachsenring. The circuit's location, nestled up against the town of Hohenstein-Ernstthal, means noise restrictions placed on the track made testing impossible. The circuit only has a limited number of days on which it can run vehicles as loud as a MotoGP bike, and there was no way to expand that to add additional days to allow MotoGP to test for Michelin. Given the horsepower and lean angles MotoGP bikes are capable of generating, using Superbikes or standard road bikes to test tires would not have generated the same stresses in the Michelins.
"We tried everything to have a test," Michelin boss Nicolas Goubert said. "At the end it was not possible because of the noise regulations and so on. We agreed with Dorna that we could have one more specification of tire. One more front and one more rear to cover a wider range of situations. So that’s a way to cover wider conditions."
The Circuit of Wales, the track which was to be built near Ebbw Vale in South Wales, has been dealt what will likely be a fatal blow. Today, the Welsh Government rejected the request of the Heads of the Valleys Development Company to underwrite the debts incurred for the construction of the circuit.
The HOTDVC, the company which had been set up to build and run the project, had originally requested that the Welsh Government underwrite the full £280 million cost the project had been expected to cost. After years of negotiation, the estimated costs had risen to £433 million, and the Welsh Government refused the HOTVDC proposal to underwrite half that debt.
There are days when being a MotoGP journalist can be hard work. You spend hours each day trying to wheedle tidbits of information from unwilling conversation partners, then hours chasing round after riders. You top it off with hours trying to spin a day's worth of platitudes into something vaguely readable and semi-interesting, before hopping into bed for five hours' sleep, only to do it all over again. There were years when writing race reports containing any entertainment value was a hard slog through tiny details, as for much of the Bridgestone years, the riders would pretty much finish in the order in which they qualified. You keep doing it from a deep love of the sport, and the hope of better days.
You keep doing it for days like today. Sunday at Assen saw not one, but three breathtaking races. Each race was packed with a season's worth of drama, and combined spectacular passing, raw, undiluted speed, tricky weather conditions and surprise results from the first race through to the last. It was a reminder that majestic tracks produce phenomenal racing. A reminder that we are living through a new golden age of Grand Prix racing, with the outcome of any of the three races completely up in the air on any given weekend.
Above all, though, it was a reminder that we are watching giants of the sport at play. In twenty years' time, when MotoGP fans come to draw up their lists of the top ten racers of all time, at least half of the names they choose will have been on the grid on Sunday. Assen was a veritable cornucopia of racing greatness.