As ever the sport will reinvent itself before the start of a new season and while the premier class has lost Casey Stoner to retirement it has gained reigning Moto2 champion Marc Marquez. The Spaniard has been sensational in testing and looks set to hit the ground running in Qatar. At Yamaha Valentino Rossi is back and we can expect to see a strong season for him following two harrowing seasons aboard the Ducati.
Jorge Lorenzo and Dani Pedrosa produced an exciting title fight last season but with Honda having started the season at a big disadvantage to Yamaha it was always going to be difficult for Pedrosa to win the title. With the chatter problems that affected the Honda in the first half of last season having been fixed Pedrosa should be able to fight from the outset.
Last year the Spaniard was victorious seven times and had his strongest season in the premier class. Prior to Casey Stoner’s retirement announcement speculation was rife that Marquez would replace Pedrosa in the factory squad. However with Stoner leaving and Pedrosa’s enjoying a career season his position within the team is much more secure.
The same can be said for Lorenzo. Even with Rossi returning to Yamaha it is clear that he is now joining “Lorenzo’s team” rather than returning to “his team” at the Japanese manufacturer. The past success enjoyed by Rossi will mean that the team are delighted to have him back in the fold but any suggestion that he will receive favourable treatment should be rejected out of hand. Lin Jarvis made it perfectly clear last year that while Rossi would be welcomed back to Yamaha he would only do so if Lorenzo was happy to have his rival back alongside him.
Having won a second premier class title Lorenzo’s self-confidence is such that he doesn’t have any issues with the nine times champion as a teammate. That speaks volumes for Lorenzo’s confidence in his ability but also that he feels that Rossi has fallen back to earth following two seasons on the underperforming Ducati. The garage wall won’t separate the two factory Yamaha’s in 2013 but the frosty relationship between the riders will be a key talking point throughout the season.
Ducati have hired another Italian world champion to replace Rossi. Andrea Dovizioso, a former 125cc champion, moves across from Tech 3 and he was given a baptism of fire on his testing debut at Sepang. Over two seconds off the pace Dovi posed as a frustrated and forlorn figure at the opening test but the team has made progress since then and have posted some decent times in the most recent test at Jerez.
Dovizioso left the satellite Tech3 Yamaha squad and it is likely that he will be racing with his former teammate, Cal Crutchlow, this season. The Englishman was fastest of all at the Jerez test and he is clearly frustrated at not being able to either land a factory ride or have more support from Yamaha. His combative and aggressive riding was superb in 2012 and he made a huge leap forward in terms of performance but without a factory ride his aggression is likely to be rewarded with podium finishes this year.
Seconds out for round two of Lorenzo and Pedrosa
Last year the title fight was between Lorenzo and Pedrosa and there is little reason to believe that 2013 will be any different. The Spaniard’s will start the season as firm favourites to fight for the title it could be argued that Pedrosa is the favourite.
The former 125cc and 250cc champion finished last year in style with a string of victories and were it not for his crash with Hector Barbera at Misano he could have added a premier class title to his haul. Last year Pedrosa arrived at the season opening race at full fitness but it was his machinery that let him down with Honda grappling with chatter problems.
This season the bike arrives in fine form but Dani is nursing a strained neck. With the minimum weight of the 1000cc bikes increased by 3kg it has been widely reported that this is the reason for Pedrosa’s injury but given his level of strength and fitness it is much more likely that he suffered the injury while riding the new bike as opposed to because of riding the new machine.
Dani showed last year an aggression on track that we hadn’t seen from him since the last season of the 990cc bikes. His battle with Lorenzo at Brno silenced his critics who said that he could only win from the front and that when he was involved in a hand to hand fight he would cede to his rivals. With Lorenzo his chief rival and Marquez, Rossi and Crutchlow in close company this aggressive riding will be needed regularly to win races.
Lorenzo has made consistency a key point of his success in MotoGP. The wild riding of his 125cc and 250cc career are a thing of the past and for the last three years Lorenzo has been painfully consistent. Hitting the same braking point and apexes lap after lap is an art form of its own and Jorge does this better than any other rider on the grid. However with the 1000cc bikes allowing for more variation than the 800s matching aggression with consistency is now crucial.
In races last year we saw the riders lines evolve around the track as their tyres wore and fuel went down, Mugello was a case in point with Lorenzo winning. That day I was standing at Casanova, the fast downhill left leading into right, and from the start of the race until the end you could see just how much Lorenzo adapted to the condition of his bike. He started taking wider lines as the tyre wore to allow him to “swoop” into the apex and then flow downhill towards the next corner.
It wasn’t a significantly different line, it was a subtle difference but Jorge was making the same minute changes to his lines throughout the rest of the lap. His performance at Mugello was an example of his metronomic consistency and allowed him to open a 19 point lead at the top of the standings at the half way point of the season.
Finding a way to beat Jorge will be difficult. With Stoner now retired there is little to choose between the top riders in terms of outright speed. As a result consistency will be key and that could play strongly into Lorenzo’s favour.
Focus will be on Rossi and Marquez
It’s remarkable that Lorenzo and Pedrosa are not the main headline makers within Yamaha and Honda. Instead their teammates will be where most of the attention is focused upon this weekend. With Rossi returning to Yamaha it will be fascinating to see how Rossi fares against Lorenzo.
The legendary Italian is clearly returning to Yamaha with his tail firmly between his legs. Remarkably after all of his successes-nine titles and 105 victories-there are question marks hanging over the number 46. The biggest question is can he win again? Testing showed that he is making progress with the Yamaha and Jerez indicates that he is now happy with the bike and as a result he should be a contender again.
Winning races looks like a formality for Rossi once again but winning the title is a much bigger doubt. To do so he will have to match the consistency of Lorenzo and Pedrosa. Three years ago Rossi blamed a shoulder injury on his inability to match Lorenzo but there will be no hiding place this season and if Lorenzo beats him it will be a clear passing of the torch. Valentino is more motivated than ever to avoid this and show that he is still the best rider in the world. He will have to wring ever ounce of performance from the M1 to win the title but Rossi is impossible to write off.
Repsol Honda has replaced Stoner with the reigning Moto2 champion, Marc Marquez. The Spaniard, who has just turned 20, could become the youngest premier class race winner if he wins early in the season and given his testing form it is far from unthinkable that Marquez could even be a rookie title challenger.
His speed at the Austin test was unbelievable and armed with Casey Stoner’s old crew he will be able to call upon their vast experience to get the bike just as he wants it. In testing Marquez shocked everybody with his riding style and gravity defying lean angles but beyond that his speed is what is most impressive.
Marquez admitted that he still needs to find the right balance to be consistent but that will come with experience. The Spaniard is the most exciting rookie to come into the big class since Lorenzo and anything less than victories will rankle the intensely competitive Marquez. Winning as a rookie is expected of him but Marquez will expect to win races early.
He’ll have his knocks as he gets used to the premier class bikes, we saw in both his 125cc and Moto2 rookie seasons a spate of early season crashes, but his talent level is so high that he will start the season priced as the third title favourite and with short odds for a debut victory at Qatar.
Ducati showing signs of improvement
The excitement of Rossi’s move to Ducati was quickly replaced by an admission that the bike wasn’t good enough and Rossi wasn’t able to ride it comfortably. With Ducati having been bought by the VW-Audi group there is a feeling that the team will turn things around in the future but losing Rossi is likely to be a positive for the Bologna manufacturer.
Instead of having the lens of photographers fixed on their garage they can look to develop the bike in a much more relaxed environment and one where they can make step by step progress. The hiring of Dovizioso is a good move but bringing Michele Pirro in as their test rider is arguably the bigger move.
The Italian comes with experience of the CRT machinery and he will spend the year pounding around tracks giving the team data. It cannot be stressed enough just how important a competent test rider is to a team and having one that can get close to the limit is the key. We have seen numerous Japanese and Ducati testers clock up the mileage around various test tracks but because they are not able to push the bike as hard as the regular riders their data is largely meaningless. Pirro should be able to push the bike much harder than the previous Ducati testers and as a result his data will prove much more useful to the team’s riders….or at least that’s the theory!
The other move made by Ducati that should help it is that they have decided to upgrade the Pramac squad to a full factory supported role. Having data from four riders at each race weekend will help the team improve faster and with Ben Spies and Andrea Iannone riding for Pramac there are no questions about the ability of the rider line-up for Ducati.
Nicky Hayden will line up for his fifth season with Ducati and the likeable American was riding as well as ever last season but the difficulties of the Ducati meant that his good days were rewarded with points finishes rather than podiums. The former champion however is happy at Ducati and his ability as a tester will be key to the bikes progress.
Over the last two years Ducati took their development cues from Rossi and they tried so many permutations of setups and parts that their development went around in circles. Now they will focus on using the data from all four riders to find out exactly what needs to be changed and improved. Pirro will then get the new parts and the team can see if they are making improvements much easier.
At Jerez Iannone was within a second of the fastest time and that is indicative of what the team should expect in the opening races. They will be off the pace again this season but their progress should be easier to mark than in the last two seasons. By mid-season I would expect the team to be able to fight for the top five and if they can reduce the deficit to the leaders to 0.5s by the summer break they will have had a very successful start to the season.
Satellite riders out to show they aren’t second rate
Cal Crutchlow’s headline grabbing fastest time of the Jerez test showed again just how much the Englishman has improved in the last 12 months. As a rookie I questioned his ability to ride a MotoGP bike effectively but throughout last season Crutchlow consistently surprised me and his aggressive style was rewarded with front row starts and podiums.
It also put him on the radar of factory teams and a move to Ducati seemed set to be completed before he was beaten to the contract by Dovizioso. Throughout the winter Cal has said on numerous occasions how unhappy he is to be using a satellite bike that has seen few upgrades over the last year. An angry and motivated Crutchlow is a very dangerous proposition for the rest of the grid. His riding is flowing and precise now, much more akin to Lorenzo than anyone could have imagine after his rookie season, and the third year veteran looks certain to be a strong contender this season.
His qualifying performances last season were a highlight but he lacked the consistency and tyre management skills of Dovizioso. If Crutchlow can improve in this regard he will add more podiums to his name and keep him in consideration for factory machinery in 2014.
Alvaro Bautista and Stefan Bradl will once again race on factory supported Honda’s. Bautista’s Gresini squad will continue to persist with the Showa suspension whereas Bradl will have the same Ohlins unit as the factory riders. Last season Bautista finished the season fifth in riders’ standings, with a first premier class pole position and two podiums, and he improved as the season progressed and the team tried new settings with the suspension.
Bautista will expect to hit the ground running this term and while the team have said that they understand the Showa suspension to a much greater degree than 12 months ago it is still a handicap for Bautista as he is the only rider in MotoGP supplying data to the Japanese manufacturer.
Bradl, a former Moto2 champion, had a very promising rookie campaign last year and his riding style was very reminiscent of Stoner’s. Making the next step from promising rookie to established veteran is a difficult one for any rider but Bradl has a very level head and his progression through his rookie season shows that he looks to make incremental progress rather than finding a huge lump of performance in one go.
This methodical approach will be beneficial for Bradl in the long terms and his testing showed again that he has made a step forward over the winter. At the Jerez test Bradl looked very fit and focused and that can only bode well for the coming season. Podiums will be expected in 2013 for the German and he will be under a lot of pressure from Honda to perform.
Bradl will also have to deal with Marquez. Having beaten the Spaniard to the Moto2 crown in 2011 and then producing a strong rookie campaign last year it would be natural for Bradl to feel envious of his rival moving straight to the full factory team. As a result Bradl will be exceptionally motivated this season.
Huge pressure on Bradley Smith
Bradley Smith is another rider motivated to prove people wrong. The Englishman won three races in the 125cc class and had a decent rookie Moto2 season for Tech3 but he was very disappointing last season. As a result his elevation to the premier class will be highly scrutinised. Smith has had a good career but having ridden for Aspar in the 125cc class his three wins are a poor return for the equipment that he has had at his disposal.
Given that last year the Tech3 Moto2 bike was badly outgunned by other bikes a certain amount of his poor performance can be attributed to the bike…but it is still hard to argue that Smith has been elevated to the premier class too soon. His qualifying speed should be his strong suit again this year but his race craft has always been poor.
In the junior classes Smith showed that if can make a break at the start of a race he has the ability to set fast times on his own. This time-trialling ability has been his strong suit throughout his career and in the 125cc class he was one of the few riders capable of making a breakaway succeed. However, when Smith is involved in a wheel to wheel dice and racing in the pack he struggles.
Invariably when Bradley is found within a group of riders he struggles. Whereas riders like Marquez or Pol Espargaro are able to overtake riders without losing time we see Smith fall back to the pace of the riders around him. It will be interesting to see how he adapts to the premier class but his pace in testing was encouraging.
Smith has a lot of talent but for one reason or another he hasn’t been able to build on his impressive 2009 campaign. That year he finished runner up to Julian Simon in the 125cc championship. The following season he stayed in the class to try and win the title but at 5’11 he had outgrown the machinery and couldn’t mount a serious challenge. In the Moto2 class he was saddled with an underperforming Tech3 Mistral bike.
This is the most important season of Smith’s career. A solid performance will show reward the faith that Tech3 have in him but with a host of more deserving riders for a premier class seat the pressure will be intense for Smith.
Competitive field of CRT riders
Aleix Espargaro and Randy de Puniet will once again be the front runners of the CRT riders. The Aspar duo dominated 2012 to win the unofficial title of CRT world champion and there is little doubt that they will once again be the pace setters.
With Espargaro having been the victor in 2012 it is crucial for de Puniet that he beats his teammate this season. With Suzuki gearing up for a return to MotoGP next season this is a pivotal year for the likes of the Aspar riders, Hector Barbera and the rest of the CRT brigade. If they can separate themselves from the crowd they could be in line for a factory ride in 2014.
At the moment de Puniet is in the pound seats as far as Suzuki are concerned but the form that Espargaro showed last year, and also when he was on the Pramac Ducati, has shown that he has the speed and race craft to warrant a prototype bike again in the future. The Aspar team seems to have the best understanding and budget of the CRT bikes but with Barbera and Karel Abraham having moved to the lesser machinery after difficult times on the Ducati it is also clear that the CRT fight will not be an exclusively Aspar fight.
Barbera showed great form at times for Aspar and Pramac over the last two year; particularly his stunning front row qualifying berth at Mugello. The Spaniard was regularly the fastest Ducati in qualifying last season but he wasn’t able to maintain that speed over race distances. Even so he improved his standing within the paddock aboard the difficult Ducati and with Abraham saying that the CRT bike is a much better chassis than the Ducati we should expect to see some good performances from Barbera.
Abraham on the other hand is still an uncertainty. After two years in the premier class it is still difficult to judge the Czech rider. He has shown that he has talent, a Moto2 race winner, but last season was very difficult as injuries mounted and his confidence took a battering. The more docile CRT bike should suit him to a much greater degree and if he can build as the season progresses he could spring a few surprises, especially in the wet.
Paul Bird Motorsport will field two bikes this year with Yonny Hernandez moving to the team as teammate to Michael Laverty to form a potent line-up. Laverty’s adaptation to MotoGP machinery has been seamless and his speed has been a pleasant surprise. He does, however, start the season with a large chunk of his mileage having been completed in the wet. As a result his expectation for the start of the season should be simply to learn as much as possible and then as the year progresses if he can match Hernandez it will have been a successful debut season.