It’s bad news for the handful of men who have the chance to lay claim to being the world’s fastest roadracer, but it’s good news for us, the fans. MotoGP in 2016 is going to be less predictable. Surprises are certain.
The biggest changes that take effect this season are invisible or nearly so, but that makes them no less important. With motorcycles about to take to Losail International Circuit in Qatar this weekend, here’s a look at what to expect. First, the changes, and then, a brand-by-brand breakdown.
The two major changes are the switch to standard software that all of the race bikes must use, and the change from 16.5-inch Bridgestone tires to 17-inch Michelin tires.
Having all teams use the same Magneti Marelli software was a way to pause the nuclear arms race among the richest teams, who were developing ever more sophisticated engine management software. When teams are developing software that not only controls wheelies and tire spin, but also adjusts to the condition of the tires as the race goes on, some wondered whether the competition among coders would outweigh the competition among riders.
A byproduct of using standard software is that the two-class system of Factory and Open machines is history. Everyone has the same amount of fuel and number of tires, though the newer teams do get some concessions on testing and the number of engines they can use.
The switch to Michelin could be the deciding factor in the championship. Riders have had to change their styles, as the Michelin front tire works quite differently from the Bridgestone. In early testing, several riders crashed when the front gave way without warning, but as riders adjusted and Michelin improved, the problems greatly diminished.
Still, the Michelin tires will inject more uncertainty into this season. A lot has changed since Michelin was last involved in MotoGP in 2007. Inevitably, the tires will work better on some motorcycles than others, for some riders than others, and at some tracks than others. We’ve already seen that in pre-season tests at Sepang, Phillip Island and Qatar.
So brand by brand, here’s how the season looks.
With the 2015 world champion and the most popular motorcycle racer in history, the Yamaha factory team has an almost vexing level of talent. The end of last season, with Jorge Lorenzo winning the title due to Valentino Rossi’s penalty, has spilled over into frosty relations this year between two very ambitious and competitive men.
There may be no safe bet in 2016, but the closest thing to one is to pick Lorenzo to repeat as champion. It’s not that simple, however. At the Sepang test, Lorenzo looked dominant. At Phillip Island, he was neither the fastest outright (what it takes to win a pole) nor able to pound out the highest number of fast laps (what it takes to win a race). Lorenzo’s preferred style involves carrying high corner speeds, but that requires confidence in the front tire. The Michelin front may work well for him at some tracks and not at others.
Will Rossi be able to remain competitive for one more year? The answer has far-reaching ramifications, not just for the popularity of the sport, but also for the rest of the paddock. The contracts of almost all the riders end this year, ensuring an early and active silly season. Nearly everyone would love to have Rossi's ride.
Rossi has said he’ll decide after several races whether he will retire at year’s end. The availability (or not) of his seat on the Yamaha M1 will have a ripple effect on everyone else’s plans for 2017.
Things look less bright for the usually strong Tech 3 satellite team. Pol Espargaró, in particular, has been critical of Yamaha and is sounding like a rider who expects to be employed elsewhere next year. Bradley Smith has also been further down the timesheets than is usual for the Tech 3 team.
Marc Márquez and Dani Pedrosa on the Repsol Honda team, along with other riders on satellite teams, suffered in 2015 with a motorcycle that made a lot of power but was hard to ride, because of the aggressive way it delivered that power. For 2016, Honda seems to have repeated the same mistake, at least to some degree.
Again, there is no consistency to the story. Honda looked lost at Sepang, strong at Phillip Island and came on strong at the end of the test in Qatar. Márquez said the Honda still has trouble accelerating out of slow corners, like the ones at Sepang, but did better on the faster, flowing corners of Phillip Island. Pedrosa finished pre-season testing decidedly less cheerful than his teammate. Cal Crutchlow has been the other fast rider on the RC213V, and lapped faster than Pedrosa at Qatar.
There are more Ducatis in the field than anything else, and several have been near the top of the timesheets at pre-season tests. But not the factory Ducatis of Andrea Dovizioso and Andrea Ianonne, as you'd expect. Pramac Ducati rider Scott Redding, riding last year’s Ducati, was second-fastest at Qatar, behind only Lorenzo, and seems thrilled to be riding a Ducati, instead of a Honda, even if it’s a year old. His teammate, Danilo Petrucci, was fastest during wet conditions on one day of the Phillip Island test, but then crashed later and suffered fractures. When he'll be back to full fitness is unknown. On the last day of the Phillip Island test, Avintia Ducati riders Héctor Bárbera and Loris Baz were the fastest Ducati riders, despite riding two-year-old models.
Conventional wisdom about Maverick Viñales right now centers on two things: Many believe he has the best shot to become the next “alien,” one of the riders with abilities that seem beyond human, and he is going to be a very hot commodity this year. He set the fastest time one day of the Phillip Island test and ended near the top at Qatar. Viñales is one of the few riders whose contract does not end this year, but he has an option to leave. So if the Suzuki is not yet competitive and he gets a better offer, he could end up elsewhere in 2017.
There are still many unknowns with the team. Up until the last minute, Suzuki was still working on its seamless gearbox, which Viñales and Aleix Espargaró only had available at the end of testing. There is a lot of potential in the Suzuki team, especially with Viñales, but it’s hard to estimate how much potential, based on what we’ve seen so far.
After using a makeshift, modified superbike last year, Aprilia has introduced its RS-GP prototype for 2016 with Álvaro Bautista and Stefan Bradl as riders. It’s no surprise Aprilia has a lot of work to do. Both riders were two seconds off the pace at Qatar. Next year, it will be KTM’s turn to be the new kid on the MotoGP block.
Yamaha riders have a sweet bike, but at some point a Michelin tire will surprise them, and perhaps bite them. Honda riders better be fit, to wrestle with a dragon of a motorcycle for the length of a grand prix. First Ducati is up for grabs, and Viñales could surprise on the Suzuki. And something — or a few somethings — will happen that will only look obvious in hindsight and make us wonder, why didn’t we see that coming?
It should be a fun year to watch.