by Michael Scott
I only met Mr Honda once, not long before the great man’s death. But I have never forgotten his response, when asked to predict the outcome of next day’s GP.
“If we knew the result, it would not be necessary to have the race.”
The same applies to the 71st year of the motorcycle world championships – 19 races and eight months long. It starts on March 10 under floodlights at Qatar, and finishes in the autumn chill of Valencia on November 17.
In between it visits 16 countries (Spain three times and Italy twice), and both hemispheres. Assen is the northernmost race, the Australian GP the southernmost; while Argentina and Japan span west to east. We’re going back to Thailand for a second time, where the new race was IRTA’s 2018 “GP of the Year”; and hopefully also to England, if Silverstone’s resurfacing goes ahead.
Quite a journey.
The travelling companions comprise the world’s top 22 MotoGP riders, along with 32 middle-class students on the new Triumph Moto2 bikes and 29 Moto3 kindergarten kids. By and large, they are a familiar crowd, but with some significant shifts of position and loyalty, and some important new faces.
The most important turncoat is Jorge Lorenzo, the only rider to interrupt Marc Marquez’s run of premier-class titles since 2013. Now they’re team-mates in a formidably strong factory Repsol Honda squad.
Jorge is fresh from turning round his fortunes in two Ducati years, demonstrating application and adaptability as well as talent. His first tests on the dominant Honda RC213V had him fast and glowing, with a smaller bike much better suited to his size and style than the Desmosedici. Then he broke his left scaphoid in a dirt-bike crash mid-January, missing the first Sepang tests, and unlikely to be fully fit until the third or fourth race. Even so, he was sixth-fastest at the final tests.
Marquez is similarly below par. He finally had surgery for his oft-dislocated left shoulder in December, and while he was able to ride at the tests, and to be quick, he was still shrugging off pain and weakness, and only by the very end able to ride in his normal cavalier style.
Also injured, top independent-team rider Cal Crutchlow; while his LCR team-mate Taka Nakagami has last year’s bike.
This off-camber start for MotoGP’s top manufacturer can only encourage its rivals. Most of them need all the confidence boosters they can get.
This applies massively to Yamaha, struggling to regain momentum, and only slightly less so to Suzuki, promisingly stronger, but still lacking certainty.
Only Ducati can hope for equal footing with Honda. Possibly half a step ahead … reinforced at Sepang test, where Ducatis snaffled the top four positions: at least for single banzai laps.
Famously, testing is not racing, and head factory rider Andrea Dovizioso did allow they still needed to address long-standing mid-corner problems. At the same time, he and his fellows were happy enough that the bike had improved from last year (when it won seven races), and that development was in the right direction.
Typically, Ducati had several special ideas at the tests. Most obvious was new aero bodywork … no less than six box-kite winglets, three per side; most intriguing a mysterious lever atop the triple clamp … probably a “hole-shot device”, holding suspension compressed to the first corner; plus at Losail a scoop under the swing-arm, probably for tyre cooling; and enigmatic side plates below the front axle. With trade-mark mystery chief engineer Gigi Dall’Igna declined to give details. As with the still unrevealed details of the underseat “sandwich box”.
More readily understood was a drag link to the rear brake caliper, discouraging hop on corner entry.
Ducati have a strong hand, Danilo Petrucci having joined Dovi in the factory team, and Jack Miller’s strong debut Desmo year rewarded with a factory-spec bike in the satellite Pramac team. Rookie team-mate Pecco Bagnaia, fresh from winning Moto2, made a stunning 2019 start at Sepang, placing a close second on a GP18 in a batch of circuit-record times.
Plus two Reale Avintia riders – the redoubtable Tito Rabat and Karel Abraham – also on GP 18s.
Yamaha need a comeback after two fallow years, (Maverick Vinales’s lone but convincing 2018 Australian victory ended a record 25-race losing streak), and testing signs were somewhat encouraging
The nadir had been a public apology led by project leader Kouji Tsuya in Austria. Tsuya has now gone and the management was restructured to give the Italian part of Yamaha Racing more sway; while the test-session comments from both Vinales and veteran superstar team-mate Valentino Rossi were carefully optimistic.
Vinales pronounced the newly Monster-sponsored bike more predictable after setting fastest time on day two in Malaysia, and also managing impressive race runs. Since it was in Malaysian heat, in conditions where the bike suffered last year, this was encouraging.
Even more so, the Spaniard’s results at subsequent Qatar tests, when he ended up fastest. Rossi was a close fifth overall, and guardedly optimistic; but the bike’s big step forward was underlined by another impressive rookie, with Petronas satellite team new boy Fabio Quartararo an amazing second fastest, and team-mate Franco Morbidelli seventh.
Yamaha now also has an European test team, with rider Jonas Folger.
Suzuki’s challenge looks technically as strong as Yamaha’s, with the sweet-handling GSX-RR bringing the benefit of a year of free development and the rapidly growing strength of Alex Rins, in his third MotoGP season. Rins made five podiums last year, including three second places, and is ready to start winning. Team-mate Joan Mir is a rookie with plenty of pressure.
KTM has doubled its efforts, with strength up to four, and heavy hitter Johann Zarco now heading Pol Espargaro on the factory team. Zarco had a few mis-hits last year after a blazing debut, and has yet to win a race, but is a fast and thoughtful rider who might mesh well with the studious and well-financed Austrian team. But KTM, in its third year, has plenty still to learn. The arrival of the experienced Tech 3 as satellite team, with rookie Miguel Oliveira and Hafizh Syahrin, will help the intense development programme regain momentum after an injury-blighted 2018.
Finally, Aprilia has a re-enthused Aleix Espargaro (seventh at Sepang) backed by the erratic raw talent of Andrea Iannone on a seemingly reinvigorated bike.
The rules are much as before, except that no aerodynamic fiddling is allowed this year, although one upgrade is still allowed per rider.
Electronically, things have been levelled off also, with a control IMU (inertial platform) for all.
The rest is up to the riders.
Marc Marquez – Repsol Honda
It takes a brave man to challenge Marquez on the track, and the same (although with less physical risk) to bet against a sixth title in seven years. He starts the year still hurt, but with new maturity and legendary skill, he’ll soon put that behind him.
Jorge Lorenzo – Repsol Honda
Lorenzo’s achievement on the Ducati was as impressive as his three titles on a Yamaha. Not just what he did, but the steady level of effort it took adapting to the Honda should be easier. He might easily win it.
Runner up for the past two years, Dovi’s challenge has been a slow burn, and he’s not one to try to exceed the possibilities of his bike. But if the Duke’s good enough, he’s certainly consistent enough.
Maverick Vinales – Monster Yamaha
On his day, Vinales is implacably wonderful … but he needs to have everything lined up, or he can get sulky and slow. A new crew chief (from his Moto3 title year) and an improved bike need to make the difference.
Valentino Rossi – Monster Yamaha
Seems strange to put the eternal superstar in this secondary category, but he’s just turned 40, and is not getting any faster. On the other hand, only an idiot would ever rule Valentino out. Because he is incredible.
Alex Rins – Ecstar Suzuki
Nicknamed “Giraffe”, the slender Spaniard’s history is sound, and his improving form last year (thrice second) highly suggestive. He also has a measured approach that fits well with the GSX-RR. Definitely ready to win.
Danilo Petrucci – Ducati
The jolly Italian has worked deceptively hard (including several years of punishing dieting) to earn his factory ride with Ducati. He’s pledged to support team-mate Dovi, but that will apply only as long as he’s not able to beat him.
Cal Crutchlow – LCR Honda
Had to elbow Jack Miller out of the fourth dark-horse slot, but Cal Crutchlow has a better record and probably a better chance of adding to his win tally. Injury in Australia lingers on, but Cal is brave enough to ignore it.
Pecco Bagnaia – Pramac Ducati
After an immaculate Moto2 title, the Rossi protégé made a blazing start to his MotoGP career, underlined by second-fastest time at Sepang tests. Pecco is another thinking rider. More importantly, consistently fast.
Miguel Oliveira – Red Bull KTM Tech 3
Portugal’s bright hope is the first example of a rider shepherded all the way through from the Red Bull Rookies series to the same sponsor’s MotoGP team (but for an interlude with Mahindra). Intelligent and dedicated.
Fabio Quartararo – Petronas Yamaha
The Frenchman was let into Moto3 under age after two CEV titles – but perhaps it was too soon. Only last year in Moto2, did he start to realise all that promise. Now he’s with Yamaha, in the right place for a big future.
Joan Mir – Ecstar Suzuki
After a dominant Moto3 title in 2017, Mir made a strong Moto2 debut, though failing to emulate forebear compatriots Marquez, Vinales and Rins with a first-season win. Like Vinales, his aim was to go straight through to MotoGP. And here he is.
MOTO2 – ALL NEW, ALL SINGING
Only one thing is certain about the all-new Moto2 class. The 756cc Triumph engines will sing a much more sweetly than the shrill 600cc Honda fours that they replace.
For fans and riders alike, the rest is open to speculation. And expectation. Which is running high.
There are good reasons. The new-generation mid-class bikes are much closer to full-race spec than before. They have the beginnings of MotoGP-style electronics … no traction control, but engine braking, and a certain degree of tunability. They also have close-ratio gears, with a high-ratio first gear instead of one suited to stop-start city driving.
Most importantly, they have a handsome increase in torque. Where the gutless Hondas (detuned compared with 600 Supersport machines) dictated one-line cornering – sideways under braking, fast at the apex; the Triumphs will give the riders more choice, and better overtaking opportunities.
To the benefit of all.
That’s the theory, anyway. Now we need to see if the Triumphs live up to the Hondas’ greatest strong point – bullet-proof reliability.
The chassis mix is little changed: out of 32 entries there are 17 Kalexes, nine KTMs, then two each of the Japanese NTS, Speed Up and the all-new MVs.
The changes make predictions harder, but with the top-two in the championship gone to MotoGP, the way should be open to their 2018 understudies.
Top of the list must be South African Brad Binder, who deferred to Red Bull KTM team-mate Oliveira several times last year in the interests of the latter’s title hopes. He still too three wins. Now he is unfettered.
But his greatest challenge will likely come from Rossi’s half-brother Luca Marini, who played a similar role shadowing SKY VR46 team-mate and title winner Bagnaia. Like Binder the year before, Marini came back from injury to a blazing season finish.
There is plenty more talent.
In the Kalex camp, race winners Lorenzo Baldassarri, Tom Luthi (back from his MotoGP misadventure), Sam Lowes and Alex Marquez. Marcel Schrotter is another name, along with Xavi Vierge.
Remy Gardner is another notable Kalex recruit, after a hard year on the uncompetitive Tech 3, and ready to turn all that hard graft into results.
Plus interesting rookies from Moto3: Nico Bulega and Enea Bastianini.
KTM has a less star-studded line-up, but adds the promising Iker Lecuona and American Joe Roberts; plus high-level rookies Philipp Oettl, Marco Bezzecchi and champion Jorge Martin up from Moto3.
Another Moto3 graduate of extreme interest is Fabio Di Giannantonio (Speed Up).
And finally, the return of MV – with hot-head Stefano Manzi and old hand Domi Aegerter on board.
Cue the orchestra …
Brad Binder – Red Bull KTM
Binder won a dominant Moto3 title in 2016, battled injury in his move to Moto2. Last year, it came good: would have won more than three races had he not been loyally supporting his team-mate. But have circumstances left it too late?
Luca Marini – SKY VR46 Kalex
The bloodline is impeccable. As Rossi’s half-brother, Marini also had a useful leg up in the big star’s own team. After his own injury woes, he finished off the year with a first win, and like Binder gave away more to his team-mate Bagnaia.
Lorenzo Baldassarri – Pons HP40 Kalex
Balda seems to attract bad luck, including flat tyres and other mechanical maladies. But when everything keeps going, he’s regularly up at the sharp end. A bit of good fortune, and he could win lots of races.
Sam Lowes – Federal Oils Gresini Kalex
Sam is often blindingly fast, but has suffered a lot of crashes in recent years. In his mind, they’ve been down to machine or team problems. Now he’s back with the Gresini team, and ready to prove his opinion was right.
MOTO3: THE MICE WILL PLAY
With the top four of last year’s championship gone to greater things, Moto3 is as wide open as you like. A few old hands are up against some striking sophomores and a playpen full of raging rookies. Anything can happen.
And in Moto3, as the old cliché goes, it usually does.
Often, rather surprisingly, that means the closest racing imaginable, but along with runaway winners.
At the factory level, the battle between Honda and KTM is as fierce as ever. Honda have prevailed for the past two years (Mir and Martin), largely because KTM’s attention has been diverted by Moto2 and MotoGP. But it didn’t hurt any less, and by the end of last season the Austrian bikes had significantly improved.
KTM narrowly leads on numbers, with 15 entries to Honda’s 14; and has some names to conjure with.
One is Aron Canet, who has defected from Honda after a disappointing 2018. Now he will lead the new Max Racing Team, headed by multiple champion Max Biaggi.
Another is Can Oncu, the Turkish boy wonder who earned an entry at the final round at Valencia after winning the Red Bull Rookies cup. And only went and won the wet race at his first attempt.
Oncu rides for Red Bull again, replacing Darren Binder, who had a dire season with the official KTM team last year, only to find a small adjustment to make a huge difference at the end. He has moved to the CIP Green Power team this year, still on a KTM.
Celestino Vietti is another Rossi protégé, who made the podium in Australia as a substitute rider. Now he is full-time, the only SKY VR46 rider.
Beware also of Andrea Migno, Kazuki Masaki and the blazing Jaume Massia. Among others of the KTM brigade.
Honda has lost star named to MotoGP, but gained Gabriel Rodrigo and John McPhee from KTM. The successful Leopard team is down to one rider, race winner Lorenzo Dalla Porta, who was fifth last year.
Plus likely lad Tony Arbolino and the fast but erratic Nico Antonelli.
The biggest surprise … the return of Romano Fenati, on a Team O Honda. In disgrace last year for his Moto2 attack on Manzi at Misano (grabbing his brake), he said he would quit while his licence was suspended. But all is forgiven, which his talent (if not his temperament) deserves.
Aron Canet – Max Racing Team KTM
After three wins and third overall in 2017, much was expected of Canet last year, in the flagship EG Honda team. Four second places weren’t enough to make up for crashes and errors. Now he’s joined Biaggi’s KTM team for a second chance.
Lorenzo Dall Porta – Leopard Honda
Dalla Porta came out of the shadows last year, backing up a single win with three second places in the last five races. Still with the same Leopard Honda team, the sole rider, he has enviable support, and strong chances.
Darren Binder – CIP Green Power KTM
It’s hard when your older brother has dominated the class, and maybe that’s why Darren Binder – when he finally found the key to going fast last year – had a lot of crashes. He was also very unlucky, often not at fault.
Can Oncu – Red Bull KTM
They changed the rules for Oncu to win his first GP at 15, the youngest ever, and the first novice winner since Nobbie Ueda in 1991. Based on that, he should win at least one more race in his first full season, and maybe more than that.
SIDEBAR: SPARKS FLY IN GREEN GALA
MotoGP’s effort to establish green credentials against a background of whooping exhaust noise gets under way in 2019, with a six-race championship for 18 riders, run alongside five GPs.
The final round at Misano has two races; preceded by one each at the Spanish GP at Jerez, the French at Le Mans, the German at the Sachsenring and the penultimate round at the Austrian GP.
The bikes will run out of a dedicated E-paddock, complete with solar chargers, and the ten teams will all be provided with identical machines – race-modified Energica Ego bikes, made in Italy. A battery capacity of some 20 Kw/h gives around 160 horsepower and maximum speeds up to 270 km/h.
The race-kitted bikes run Brembo brakes, Ohlins suspension and Marchesini wheels, just like most of the other bikes in all classes.
Most interesting is the list of riders. They range from veteran MotoGP race winner Sete Gibernau, making a come-back at 46 to the only female on any GP grid, former Moto3 rider Maria Herrera.
Other come-back riders include former 125 champions Nico Terol and Mike di Meglio, Xavier Simeon, Alex de Angelis, Bradley Smith and Randy de Puniet; Australia is represented by Josh Hook.
Will the fans have as much fun as the riders? We will just have to wait and see. Nice and quietly now.