Fangs are bared for MotoGP, as Rossi swears for revenge on Marquez, the youngster steps forward to accept the villain’s role, and a sneering Jorge Lorenzo strives to rise above it all.
Teeth are showing elsewhere, in smiles of anticipation. A raft of technical changes and an across-the-board leveling out offers intriguing shifts in the ground rules.
Which riders and which bikes will adapt quickest to the new Michelin tires? At the same time, Michelin is likewise still learning after an absence of seven years.
And which technicians will be able to make the most of the dumbed-down supplied electronics? New for this year is relatively low-level Magneti Marelli software, to go with the already-standard M-M hardware, plus, an agreement that factories should share all development ideas for the electrickery.
2016 is year 48 for the World Championships, and as we approach its half-centenary, so too has Dorna chief Carmelo Ezpeleta’s plans matured—to reign in the factory bikes, and give private teams more chance. From next year, even more control will come, along with a redistribution of the finances.
But it’s the racing we care about, not the fortunes of the private teams. Will the taming of the factories make it better?
Early tests suggest, yes, with some reservations, and surprise names setting fast times, like Danilo Petrucci heading the factory Ducatis on a satellite bike; Maverick Vinales scorching the Phillip Island and almost the final Qatar tests on a second-year Suzuki that is no longer an automatic underdog.
The unwritten rules are simple, though: the best riders always win. Drawn from a small elect.
Will 2016 make that a bigger group?
We have 18 races in which to find out.
As usual, the season starts in Qatar (March 20) and finishes at Valencia (November 11).
Some minor reshuffles aside, the only major chance is the return of the Austrian GP, at the Red Bull Ring on August 14. This is at the expense of the Indianapolis GP, leaving only the April 10 date at CoTA in Texas for US fans.
In a break with a tradition going back to long before the World Championships, the Dutch TT at Assen will take place on Sunday rather than Saturday, on June 26.
MOTOGP — THE CLASS OF KINGS
The oldest candidate for the champion’s crown is Rossi at 37; the youngest (Vinales and Miller), just 21. In between are another 18 riders of various grades… and all but the elite hoping to benefit from the new level-playing-field regulations.
Dorna’s long-standing rule-fiddling has one clearer positive: the number of different makes—five. Ducatis are the most numerous, and also illustrate the way things play out, when factory and satellite bikes are built to the same regulations. The official riders Dovizioso and Iannone get the latest evo GP16. The rest are of varying vintages, and at least notionally therefore inferior.
Same with the five Hondas and four Yamahas. Aprilia and Suzuki have just two bikes apiece, fully factory backed.
So where should the smart money go, for a year ahead that is quite a lot less predictable than usual?
THE USUAL SUSPECTS
As last year (as always, it seems) the factory Honda and Yamaha pairings can be predicted to fight over the top four places.
Marquez is 23 this year. He’s always been merciless on track. Now he’s a harder man off the track compared with his choirboy past. This has been forced somewhat by Rossi’s attack last year: as though the title battle had been between them.
He has made big steps since rather awkward first tests of the 2016 bike, adapting both machine and his riding style: his race averages and final lap time at the last Qatar outing fully competitive.
The same can’t be said for his Repsol Honda teammate, still struggling to find the key. It will be hard for it finally to fall right for veteran bridesmaid Dani Pedrosa.
Valentino Rossi turned his wrath on Marquez last year, but his real (and successful) title rival was Movistar Yamaha teammate Lorenzo. Jorge recovered from a few mishaps for an almost perfect season of speed and precision. There’s every chance the new Michelins, with good side-grip, could play in favour of his smooth, sweeping style. He emerged leading the final Qatar tests by a full half second, the rest packed up close.
And Valentino? He’s the old guy, at 37. It would be easy to rule him out. But he’s also Valentino. We’ve learned over the years never to do that.
No easy ride for the dominant quartet: Most to be feared must be Andrea Iannone on the factory Duke. Last season, his first with the team, he outranked veteran teammate Dovi in the Desmosedici’s come-back year. Strong, hard, fast, and gaining experience.
Ecstar Suzuki youngster Maverick Vinales’s challenge has plenty of talent behind it, but does the 2016 top rookie have enough motorbike? It’s possible: he led one day of the Qatar tests as well.
Cal Crutchlow is the senior satellite Honda man, the second-year LCR Honda rider first in line for factory hand-me-downs. Another determined sort.
Compatriot Bradley Smith might seem a surprise choice, but the Monster Yamaha rider is a diligent and steady learner and constant improver. Such attributes have brought much success in the past; while Smith was top satellite rider last year
Danilo Petrucci is another whose talent has shone on second-string bikes; but the Pramac Ducati rider spoiled his early season by breaking bones in his right hand in tests in Australia. He’d been fastest the day before.
Spare a thought for his long-serving Ducati rival Hector Barbera – also fast in tests; significantly he and Avintia teammate Loris Baz last year’s renaissance GP15s, while lesser teams have earlier hybrids, rooted in the marque’s less successful recent past.
THE MIDDLE CLASSES
Better to be the backbone of racing than a backmarker. The following quartet are not the latter – yet it’s hard to expect much more than we have seen already.
Andrea Dovizioso is formidably professional, very considered, and stays carefully within his limits, as a well-measured soon-to-be-30-year-old should. But that’s not how the factory Duke rider is going to beat Marquez and co.
Spain might disagree, but the Espargaro Brothers fall into this category. Both Aleix (Ecstar Suzuki) and the younger Pol (Monster Yamaha) can be blazingly fast, but consistency and race-craft are also required.
The same might be said of Yonny Hernandez, the spirited Columbian on a lower-grade Aspar Ducati.
If there’s to be a jack-in-the-box, it is not just hope that suggests it might be Jack Miller on the top of the spring. A year’s experience and a more equal machine are on his side: likewise his natural talent. Now in the Marc VDS squad, but still with redoubtable (ex-Stoner) crew chief Cristian Gabarrini. But he’s starting the year injured, with plenty left to learn.
This is Scott Redding’s third MotoGP season, but first on a Ducati, with the Octo-Pramac team. Eager to put a bad 2016 behind him; his aggressive style should suit the bike. He proved it in tests, ending up second overall at Qatar tests.
Look out for Loris “Too-Tall” Baz (Avintia Ducati). Also new to the bike, but looks like a fast learner.
UNKNOWNS: BOTH KNOWN AND UNKNOWN
Aprilia returns with a brand-new bike after a look-see season with a development hack. Much remains to be seen: the machine’s first real outing was only at the final round of tests, and not surprisingly they languished at the back. But Aprilia has two good riders on hand: former world champions Stefan Bradl and Alvaro Bautista; each one riding to try to keep his job.
Second Aspar Ducati rider Eugene Laverty struggled with injury and other problems on a Honda last year. Early tests suggest he might not find his new Ducati much easier.
Then there’s just one rookie: former Moto2 champion Tito Rabat, alongside Miller in the Estrella Galicia/Marc VDS team. Hard worker. We shall see.
MOTO2: THE CHAMPION RETURNS
Already condemned to the same fatty CBR600 engines, Moto2 continues its march towards being a pure one-make series, with all but the extremely eccentric bolting the low-tuned production Honda unit into a Kalex chassis.
All but eight of the 34 entries are thus equipped. Including all of a large gang of serious title contenders.
There are three each of the Italian Speed Up and now deeply unfashionable Suter chassis, and two of the independent French Tech 3 home-built bikes. And then a sea of near-identical Kalexes.
Like any one-make series, on paper Moto2 offers intense on-track variety. Precedent however suggests there is usually one player who stands head and shoulders above the rest.
In 2014 it was Tito Rabat, who became the first champion to stay on to defend his title. It went wrong. Instead it was Frenchman Johann Zarco who played Mr Perfect, for a dominant title win.
Zarco too is staying on; and with the same Ajo team that he credited with his success last year. Therefore he has to be favorite. A position that means a great big target on his back for a raft of likely rivals.
Foremost among them are two race-winners from last year – both earmarked for greater things, and anxious to make the most of their last Moto2 chances.
Sam Lowes ran an erratic 2016 season, with three poles and one win, plus several prangs. But the Englishman was at a disadvantage, on a Speed Up chassis, with limited development. Now he’s with the big-time Gresini team, on a proper Kalex. Lowes will also be testing for the MotoGP team, with a contract to move to the big class in 2017. Hopefully that will not be too distracting.
Alex Rins doesn’t have a formal contract, but is comfortably at the top of Yamaha’s MotoGP wish list, after his class rookie season yielded two wins. He’s with the same Paginas Amarillas HP40 team run by ex-champ Sito Pons. Expect the strongest of challenges to Zarco’s sang-froid.
That’s not all. On his day, German Jonas Folger is unbeatable. If only those days coincided with more than just a handful of races each year. He’s moved to a German-run team this year, which might help him settle. His Dynavolt teammate, ex-Moto3 champ Sandro Cortese, is another who seems not yet to have shown his best.
There are other more-than-likely lads. Rossi protégé Franco Morbidelli was coming on strong last year when off-track injury spoiled it all; now he joins the ever-maturing younger brother Alex Marquez in the big-time Estrella Galicia/VDS team, replacing the departed Rabat.
Old hand Thomas Luthi shouldn’t be ruled out, in his second year after switching from Suter to Kalex; new boy Lorenzo Baldassari made a strong showing last year. And at the official Jerez tests last week placed third overall behind surprise leader Axel Pons and Lowes, and ahead of Rins.
Interesting rookies, too – especially last year’s Moto3 title rivals Danny Kent and Miguel Oliveira. Winner Kent has moved up a class along with his German Leopard-sponsored team – which incorporates Moto2 experience after winning the 2011 title with Stefan Bradl.
Portugal’s Oliveira? He’ll don the same livery, to ride alongside the Englishman in the new team.
Family ties put the spotlight on two other rookies. Luca Marini is Valentino Rossi’s half-brother, and joins the class with the Forward team.
MOTO3: JUST HOLD YOUR BREATH
Moto3 is everything MotoGP might become: rival factories operating within strict technical restrictions, slinging mud and spanners at one another while blasting a hole through any notions of cost-savings. And laying on some of the best close racing ever seen.
The main factory contenders are KTM and Honda, and they mean it. KTM recently accused Honda of cheating on the 13,500rpm rev limit. There’s no love lost.
Mahindra is the third force, growing in strength, with money from India and a technical base in Italy. And a bit of badge-engineering: among their ten MGP3Os, two high-level bikes will run under the brand name of French scooter (and car) company Peugeot. The official factory squad will again be run by the Mapfre Aspar team, with two riders.
Honda has eleven bikes on the grid; KTM leads the 34-strong field with 13.
They were evenly matched at Jerez tests: KTM’s Romano Fenati fastest overall from Honda’s Niccolo Antonelli: and then the two makes alternating all the way down to Jorge Martin’s top Mahindra, in ninth.
With last year’s championship top two gone to Moto2, each marque has a good set of strong riders.
The erratically but brilliant “Feisty” Fenati and solid South African Brad Binder are both back on KTMs, each with the same top-level teams as last year (Fenati with Rossi’s SKY squad, Binder with Red Bull Ajo).
New to the Austrian machine is much-fancied Frenchman Fabio Quartararo, in last year under age for a blazing debut spoiled by mid-season injury. That was on a Honda: now he’s with last year’s winners Leopard Racing, who have themselves switched from Honda to KTM.
The sensation of Jerez tests was his successor as CVE Moto3 champion Nicolo Bulega, on the VR46 team. Winning the prestigious Spain-based title guarantees a MotoGP entry. On a familiar track, Bulega was fastest on two out of three days, and third overall.
Philipp Oettl stays KTM, and was picking up speed impressively towards the end of last season.
Honda have a triple fire-cracker response to lead their title defence; with a smoldering Spaniard and couple of fizz-bang Italians.
Antonelli learned how to convert sheer speed into race wins last year; he’s back on familiar ground with the Ongetta Rivacold team.
The same is true of Enea Bastianini, in every respect. He’s with the experienced Gresini squad.
And likewise Jorge Navarro, in the official Estrella Galicia Honda team. Twice second last year.
Mahindra have a handy duo in their factory line-up, both of whom ran with the leaders frequently last year. Francesco “Pecco” Bagnaia is another from the Rossi stable, on loan to the top-notch Aspar team; Jorge Martin, in a second season, is a former Red Bull Rookies champion.
Purring Peugeot pair are both ex-Honda, along with their German RTG squad: veteran Frenchman Alexis Masbou and Scottish hope John McPhee.
Plenty of other hot shots plus interesting rookies: notably Red Bull Rookies champ Bo Bendsneyder, who takes the usual privilege of the second slot in the Red Bull Ajo team.
He thus displaces another RBR champ Karel Hanika, somewhat of a disappointment, and now left to redeem his reputation on a customer-team Mahindra.
Roll on the racing, in reliably the closest and often the best class of every Sunday.
Photography by Gold & Goose