As the countdown to the red lights going off in Qatar nears D-day, we sum up what’s happened in the off-season and what we can expect from the 2018 MotoGP season.
First off, let’s recap the off-season shuffle that’s happened in the 2018 MotoGP paddock, a quick look at who’s come into the top class, who’s changed teams and who’s moved on.
Moving up from Moto2 this year is last year’s champion Franco Morbidelli, who joins the Marc VDS Honda team along with his 2017 championship rival Thomas Luthi. Together they make up the all-new rider lineup for the Belgian team.
Takaaki Nakagami has also moved up and joined the LCR Honda team to be Cal Crutchlow’s new team mate. Xavier Simeon has joined the Avintia Ducati team along with Esteve Rabat, who leaves the Honda Marc VDS bike to ride a Ducati GP17 this year.
Moving off the Ducati is Scott Redding who joins his first factory team, Aprilia Gresini. Taking Scott’s place in the Pramac Ducati team is Jack Miller from the 2017 Marc VDS Honda team.
Leaving the premier class this year is Sam Lowes, who was released early from his contract with the Aprilia factory team. He has moved back to the Moto2 class for the 2018 season. Also moving back to the intermediate class is Hector Barbera, who leaves the Avintia Racing team after spending 8 fairly unremarkable years in the premier class.
Jonas Folger unfortunately had to pull out of the 2018 season to recover from an illness. This has allowed Hafizh Syahrin to join the Tech 3 Yamaha team. He will be the first Malaysian rider to ride in the premier class of motorcycle racing.
Off season testing
There were four official tests between the last race in November in Valencia and the first race that will happen on the 18th of March 2018. Tests were run at Valencia (Spain), Sepang (Malaysia), Buriram (Thailand) and Losail (Qatar) over the course of the off-season break. At these tests manufacturers and riders put to test new motorcycles, parts and electronics in preparation for the year ahead and also got a chance to see where they stack up against the competition. We’ll take a look at the main contenders and manufacturers and how they fared in these tests.
Things are looking good in the Honda camp. After regaining the crown in 2017, despite not running the best motorcycle at many tracks, Marc Marquez will be even happier for the 2018 season. Honda has made big steps in their electronics department and seem to have recovered much of the acceleration it was missing, with the addition of the new engine. This engine accelerates harder out of corners and the new RC213V posted the fastest lap timings at the Valencia and Buriram tests. Dani Pedrosa was also just 0.179 off Jorge Lorenzo’s exceptional lap record at the Sepang Circuit so they fared well in Malaysia too. The only track they still seem to have problems with is Losail, with Cal finishing 4th fastest while Marc and Dani finished in 6th and 11th.
With the Honda improving, Marc will now have to fend off fellow Honda riders Dani Pedrosa and Cal Crutchlow, who also have found the new Honda package very much to their liking. Marc seems to have learnt a new trick to keep his advantage - a way to save front-end washouts. While this was earlier chalked down to a ‘lucky’ save, more and more riders and experts are looking at Marc’s incredible front-end crash saves as a new skill he has learnt, rather than just luck or quick reactions, just by the number of times he has done it over the last year. While he gains no speed advantage when it happens, it does allow him to push right up to and over the limit of front-end traction without the consequence of a fall. It could also be the difference between 0 points or 16 points, as was the case in the title-deciding last round race at Valencia.
Yamaha had the most ups and downs in the 2017 season, with a YZR-M1 that lost a lot of performance after about ten laps or midway into a race. The Yamaha was just not able to make the control Michelins last a full race distance as well as the rest when track temperatures were high. In addition to race wins for both Rossi and Vinales they also suffered 10th and 12th place results when the Yamaha just didn’t work. So frustrating was the inconsistency from the 2017 chassis that Yamaha has chosen to develop the 2016 chassis into the new 2018 motorcycle and have scrapped the 2017 chassis development direction altogether. And Tech 3 Yamaha has also chosen to stay with the 2016 motorcycle with a new engine, rather than take the 2017 bike that would have been handed down to them.
In the tests Johann Zarco from Tech 3 Yamaha was the most consistent of the Yamaha riders on both the 2017 and 2016 chassis, finishing above the factory riders in all but the Sepang test; and even at Sepang, Rossi was less than one-tenth faster. While Zarco led the charge in the preseason tests, you can never count the factory riders out. Rossi is always fast on Sunday, no matter what’s transpired on the other days of the week. He was even quite upbeat about the overall tests and his second fastest time on the final day of testing in Qatar could be quite telling about his comfort levels with the new M1. He still feels that Yamaha is lagging behind Ducati and Honda in the electronics department and there is lots of work still to be done to make the tyres work for the whole race. Vinales was not so upbeat and looked more frustrated with the consistency of the Yamaha than his more experienced teammate.
Ducati saw the most improvement in 2017. The Italian factory has managed to find a much more rideable balance between the horsepower that they had and the much needed handling that the riders needed from the machine. Dovizioso was a force to be reckoned with and his six wins (equaling Marc’s wins in 2017) are testament to his ability on the Ducati. At the tests he posted 15th, 4th, 7th and 3rd in the fastest lap shootouts but was still very content on the new GP18. Ducati has worked on getting its racebike to brake and turn into corners better and Dovizioso clearly felt the improvement in the new motorcycle and quickly switched to riding only the new 2018 bike. Jorge was not so sure and kept switching back and forth between the 2017 and the new 2018 chassis. His performance was a little up and down too. After a good showing in Valencia and a record-breaking lap in Sepang he dropped to 22 in Buriram and 9th in Qatar.
In the Pramac team, though, there is one happy chappy and his name is Jack Miller. After struggling on the RC213V in the Marc VDS team he’s taken to the GP17 like a duck to water. He was consistently in the top ten at all the tests, and on some of the test days was even riding as fast as the fastest riders. Teammate Danilo was also fairly consistent and fast and we expect them both to feature at the sharp end of the field fighting for the podium.
After a year of disappointing performances and finishes in 2017 Suzuki seems poised to bounce back in 2018. At least on the back of their testing performances, it seems that they are firmly in the middle of the pack just based on their outright speed. The Japanese manufacturer has had to take big steps to improve on the 2017 GSX-RR, with a new engine, chassis and new Ohlins forks being tested. According to Iannone and Rins all the changes have worked and they both are confident that they will be much further up the results sheets than the 13th and 16th positions they finished the 2017 season with.
The Austrian manufacturer made an excellent debut last year with great performances from the newly developed RC18. Pol Espargaro had a strong year with four top ten finishes, and his other finishes were also just off the top ten riders. Bradley Smith didn’t fare as well but did manage to finish in the top ten at Phillip Island. Over the winter break KTM has worked to make the RC18 turn into corners with less physical effort and in doing so they lost a little of the stability they had under braking. 2018 is only its second full season in competition and for the teams’ experience, it is doing good but there is still some way to go before it starts challenging for wins. One boost is that in the 2019 season there will be two more KTMs on the grid.
Aprilia is lagging a little behind in the MotoGP championship and while Aleix Espargaro managed some solid top-ten finishes last year, he had as many as eight DNFs. Sam Lowes had an even worse year, with just as many non-finishes and only two results in the points. The factory team is into its fourth year of racing and needs to make up some ground to show for its time in the class. Aprilia has a new engine for 2008 and the hope is that it will cure the RS-GP’s lack of acceleration while being more reliable as well, but Aleix and Scott Redding are yet to experience it. While it was expected for the last test in Qatar, it wasn’t ready in time and the riders will fire up the new engine for the first time at FP1 this Friday.
Reigning champion Marc Marquez is happy and confident with the improved Honda. If he can crash less than last year (25 crashes in 2017) and stay injury-free, it’s hard to see him not defending his title. Dovizioso has a renewed belief in his and the Ducati’s ability to win a championship and will be looking to better his six wins from last year with his maiden title in the premier class. If Maverick and Rossi can find some consistency from the Michelins, they both could be fighting for the championship and not for just a handful of race wins. Johann Zarco is still hunting that first win and once that monkey is off his back he is sure to push for more and he could have an outside chance at the title if the rest falter.
Jorge Lorenzo is still a bit of a question mark on the Ducati. While he showed us that he can work with the GP18 with that record-breaking lap in Sepang, his inconsistency over the tests means no one yet knows what he is truly capable of on the Ducati. Based on the performance from the tests and from the riders’ comments, one thing is clear: the competition is a lot closer, with more riders capable of race wins, and that only means better racing for us. It looks like it’s going to be another good year in MotoGP.