The MotoGP Season No One Expected
Could the 2017 MotoGP contest have been better? Hate to carp, but a couple of prime contenders were knocked out in the second half of the year, with Yamaha’s puzzling miss-hit.
Even so, it left one of the best title fights in memory—two polar-opposites locked in combat until the last of 18 races.
All the better for being so unexpected.
The Champion Cometh
Marc Marquez, who quite rightly eventually prevailed, was obvious. But he’d started off badly on a once-again much-revised Repsol Honda, with an all-new big-bang engine. A third of the way through, after Mugello’s Italian GP, he was 37 points adrift of leader Maverick Vinales and feeling much detuned when “my hairdresser told me I was losing my hair. I said: ‘Impossible. I am only 24. My father, my grandfather, they have hair’.”
His doctor confirmed the barber’s diagnosis of excess tension. He told Marc he had to change his approach.
More encouraging were the words of crew chief Santi Hernandez, running the long-standing crew he calls “my other family in the paddock”. He told the triple MotoGP-winning defender: “By the summer break, you will be leading on points.” That was in three races time. Marquez was second, third, and first—his second win of the year at a second anti-clockwise track (Sachsenring), the dirt-track-loving superstar’s favorite way of riding.
He left Germany five points ahead and returned to the post-holiday Brno round to take a third win, with a brilliant tactical move. On a drying track, he risked slicks a lap or three before anybody else and slammed them all.
Marquez had a typical season of surreal adventure: 27 crashes as he found the limit the way he knows best—by exceeding it. He also accomplished a number of epic saves, picking up the RC213V when any other rider would have given up.
It was a sixth title (counting 125 and Moto2, and four in MotoGP), and one with special meaning, beyond the prevention of premature hair loss.
“Last year I had an early lead and I had to defend it,” he said. “This year I had to attack until the end.” He had 27 crashes in the process, all but one in practice or qualifying.
The Italian Stallion Charges Home
Mugello had been a turning point for the rider who emerged as his greatest rival.
Ducati’s Andrea Dovizioso had won only two races in nine years of trying, both in the wet.
But this year marked five years of patient development, focused on lead rider Dovi, the last four with clever-clogs engineer and strategist Gigi Dall’Igna, poached from Aprilia to rescue Ducati from the post-Rossi slump. (Rossi’s return to Yamaha, ironically, had scotched Dovizioso’s expectations of going there after a strong 2012 on the independent Tech3 Yamaha).
A change to front tire spec (riders voted for a harder-construction Michelin after the first five races) along with a new revised-flex chassis gave the 31-year-old a dream ticket for his home GP, with a brilliant first dry win. He followed it with a back-to-back next time out at Catalunya, and his challenge was up and running.
Dovi would equal Marquez with six wins in 2017. Two were truly memorable. In the dry in Austria and in streaming wet at Motegi the pair duked it out, and, at the last corner, Marquez made a mad lunge up the inside. The Dovi of old would probably have let him go and settled for second. But working with cult Italian psychologist Amedeo Maffei had taught him something new—not to race against other riders, but to concentrate on achieving his own best. Dovi cleverly let him go and cut back on the exit to lead over the line.
In the end, it wasn’t enough. A dismal 13th at Phillip Island was his worst finish of the year, at a crucial time.
Then again, at that point, Marquez was gaining strength. But for dropping a valve at Silverstone—Honda’s first race blow-up since Nicky Hayden’s at Phillip Island in 2007—he’d have tied up the title one race early.
Yamaha’s Never Ending MotoGP Jigsaw Puzzle
The Yamaha puzzle didn’t just affect the fans and pundits, pretty much all of whom had elected the new Movistar teamster Maverick Vinales as title winner even before he won three of the first five races.
He’d quite dominated all the MotoGP preseason tests and kicked off Qatar flying, and again in Argentina. Fourth at Jerez didn’t seem overly important when he won again at Le Mans, pressuring Rossi into a last-lap blunder. But the writing was on the wall, and he would not win again.
One turning point affected all—a new harder-construction front Michelin, arriving from round six, and voted in by all but two riders (understood to be Vinales and Lorenzo). This reversed the pre-season vote, allowing braking deeper into the corner. Vinales’s style is different, to get the braking done then take a high corner speed. He was still fast on the new tire, but his advantage had gone.
But it was more complex than that: the 2017 Yamaha seemed to have lost its way: his teammate Valentino (one of the prime movers for the harder front) had been suffering different difficulties; but both had serious trouble in low-grip situations, whether in the wet or on polished old surfaces like Jerez, where Rossi was 10th. That was his worst finish; Maverick’s was a disheartened 12th at the last round in Valencia.
Rossi was fifth there and lost fourth in the championship to race winner Pedrosa by two points—his worst position since he was sixth in 2012 on the Ducati.
Rossi famously had other problems: two dirt-bike crashes, each before a home race. He came to Mugello below par with chest injuries and missed Misano altogether after a right double lower leg fracture. He came back in 23 days—a new record—at Aragon, and opined later in the year that, “the Yamaha problems cost me more for the championship than breaking my leg”.
Johann Zarco and His Stellar Season
Nebulous though the factory Yamaha problems were, they were vividly highlighted by the prowess of wonder-rookie Johann Zarco, on a 2016 Yamaha YZR-M1 for the satellite Monster Yamaha team.
The first-ever double Moto2 champ started out all guns blazing, leading the first race in Qatar. He crashed, but at the last race in Valencia, he was second, repeating his home race Le Mans position, one of three times on the rostrum. Sixth overall behind Rossi, the 27-year-old Frenchman was easily the Rookie of the Year, top independent team rider, and several times beat the factory bikes.
The other point of interest was Jorge Lorenzo, aping Rossi’s 2011 move from Yamaha to Ducati, but timing it rather better. The huge differences in the bikes gave him a lot to learn, “like a new language”, and he wasn’t going to do it overnight. One new technique was extensive use of a thumb-operated rear brake, used with the throttle open to tighten cornering line or for wheelie control. He never needed that on the Yamaha.
Jorge led a number of races, growing significantly stronger as the year progressed, and was three times on the podium, with a best of second at Sepang. But it was his first year without a win since 2005, his 250cc debut year. He was seventh overall.
Independent-teamster Danilo Petrucci (Octo Pramac Ducati) produced several highlights, leading twice in the wet, denied each time in the last lap, and adding two more podiums. Only one (Mugello) was in the dry, and he was otherwise too often erratic, with a career-worst 13th at Valencia.
Honda’s Erratic Riders
Other independents had their ups and downs. Honda’s new big-bang firing intervals for their new-last-year reverse-crank engine was something of a handful. Cal Crutchlow managed just one podium after two wins last year and was ninth overall on the LCR bike.
Jack Miller missed 10th spot by only two points, after a colorful and varied last season on the VDS Honda—he goes to Pramac Ducati next year. He started out with a run of top 10s, survived a huge bash into the barriers at Le Mans, then had a patch of poor form before breaking his leg training at home.
Jack shaved another two days of Rossi’s return record for his home GP, led several early Phillip Island laps, and was still with the front guys for the first of three top-eight finishes at the end of the year.
Tenth went to class rookie Jonas Folger (Monster Yamaha), with a highlight second after leading his home German GP, but then missing the last four races with a hard-to-track liver condition.
KTM Surprises Everyone
Another high spot was the arrival of KTM, eventually stealing fifth in the constructor championship (behind Honda, Yamaha, Ducati and Suzuki) from Aprilia with a highly impressive first season, including top-10 finishes, cast-iron reliability, and an independent streak shown by their exclusive use of WP suspension and a steel-tube lattice chassis instead of the universal aluminum beam. But the better of the two riders, Pol Espargaro and Bradley Smith, was beaten in the championship by his older brother Aleix, who had some strong races, several blow-ups and lots of crashes on the Aprilia.
It leaves Suzuki, who had a bad year that finally got better after some hefty upgrades. It was far too late for new recruits Andrea Iannone (13th overall) and rookie Alex Rins (16th). The former was at sea trying to adapt his aggressive style to the smooth Suzuki; Rins suffered a hatful of early injuries, but by the last race beat his experienced teammate (and Rossi) for a fine fourth place.
Moto2 is generally rather dull, at least up front, right? Well, not so in 2017. For some reason—not least the departure of double-champ Zarco plus the arrival of a handful of fast rookies and the new KTM—it was a season of great tension and great racing.
The overall results don’t show it. Rossi protégé Franco Morbidelli (who had never won before) took the first three on the trot, then added five more.
Yet it wasn’t as dominant as it sounds, thanks to his spirited approach. He wanted to win even when he didn’t have to—when he’d been advised by his team to settle down and take the points. Thus, he crashed twice, opening the way for the much more consistent and sensible Tom Luthi (CarXpert Kalex) to close to within nine points after Misano, with just five races to go.
Luthi won only twice, the second time by promotion after Swiss compatriot Dominique Aegerter (Kiefer Suter) was disqualified from Misano for a technical transgression. But his hopes were dashed when, after downbeat rides in first two flyaways, he broke his ankle in practice for the third, out for the rest of the year.
Morbidelli’s teammate Alex Marquez took three wins, but crashed too often, losing third overall at the end to Miguel Oliveira on the new KTM, taking three majestic wins in a row in the last three races. Rookie teammate Brad Binder was second to him twice, and third the next time, so that if injury hadn’t spoiled the first half of his season, Pecco Bagnaia (SKY VR46 Kalex) might have had tough opposition for fifth overall, and top rookie.
KTM impressed in MotoGP and threatened strongly in Moto2, but took their eye off the ball in the smallest class, after winning three of the first five four-stroke crowns. The Austrian brand won only one race (Andrea Migno, Mugello); while Honda romped to a series of front-row and podium lock-outs, and ran away with the first seven championship positions.
And running away at the top of that, much-fancied 20-year-old Spaniard Joan Mir (Leopard Honda). In only his second full season, he outclassed even class record holder Marc Marquez, with 10 wins.
Since they came out of trademark massive brawls, they required not just speed but also a great tactical brain. Over and over again.
Mir got a record points tally of 341, almost 100 more than the next-best, Snipers Rivacold Honda veteran Romano Fenati.
Another Spaniard, Aron Canet (EG Honda) took two wins and finished third; but maybe the unluckiest was Jorge Martin (Gresini Honda), with a record nine pole starts, but a bad leg fracture mid-season, and a long wait until the final race for his maiden win.
Next year Mir moves to Moto2, and KTM will fight back.