Two story lines I'm following as the 2017 MotoGP season opens

Mar 22, 2017

It may be a long time before we see another MotoGP season like 2016, with its record nine different winners, but every season has its own stories to tell.

As we get ready for the first race of the season this weekend at the Losail International Circuit in Qatar, there are many subplots shaping up: With new riders, Suzuki is struggling to make it into the top tier of race winners with Honda, Yamaha and Ducati. Aprilia needs to make progress in its second year with a real prototype race bike, while KTM is already learning just how hard it is to compete at the top level, even for a company whose slogan is “ready to race.” Wings are gone, but aerodynamics are not forgotten, as teams shift to fairings with built-in wind tunnels to provide downforce.

Overshadowing those subplots, however, are the main story lines, the human dramas that are set to play out. Of course more will arise to surprise during the course of the season, but for now, here are the two plot lines I find most interesting as we wait for the lights of Losail to illuminate an amoeba-shaped trace of asphalt in the desert.

Maverick Viñales and Valentino Rossi
The most common expectation is that the cordial relationship between new Yamaha teammates Maverick Viñales and Valentino Rossi will last only until Viñales starts beating Rossi on the track regularly. Yamaha photo.

Is it Márquez versus Viñales?

That’s the conventional wisdom: This year’s title chase will be a two-man, all-Spanish battle. The Repsol media team asked 22 current and former riders, from rookie Johann Zarco to legend Ángel Nieto, to pick the top three finishers this year. All 22 chose either Marc Márquez or Maverick Viñales to finish first (with a few calling it a tossup and putting both names in the first and second positions).

For some time, Viñales has been expected to be the next great talent to emerge in MotoGP. For a longer time, the Yamaha M1 has been the bike to be riding. If not always the fastest, it has been the most forgiving and easiest to ride at the limit. This year, the two came together and results came immediately. Viñales finished with the fastest time at all four pre-season tests. More evidence of the Yamaha’s friendliness can be seen in the quick progress made by the two MotoGP rookies at the Tech 3 satellite team, Johann Zarco and Jonas Folger.

Setting the fastest lap time is the top priority only in qualifying, however. In testing, the focus is on learning how to get the most out of the machine and finding a base setup that lets the team get a quick start on each race weekend, instead of wasting time trying changes that don’t work. More revealing than the list of fastest laps, then, is the riders’ abilities to string together consistent times, especially during race-length simulations.

Viñales still looks fast by that measurement, too, but so does Márquez, especially in terms of being able to stamp out consistently fast laps, which is how you win a race. Other riders have been snooping around the top of the time sheets in some of the sessions: Andrea Dovizioso, Dani Pedrosa, Valentino Rossi, Cal Crutchlow and others. Some have surprised, such as Zarco and Folger, plus Álvaro Bautista. But Viñales and Márquez have consistently established themselves as the ones most capable of putting in lap after lap at times the rest can’t match.

That’s why they’re the favorites.

Jorge Lorenzo
Jorge Lorenzo is trying to ride fast enough to escape the shadow of Valentino Rossi. Ducati photo.

Can Lorenzo ride a Ducati fast enough to escape Rossi’s shadow?

Jorge Lorenzo’s perpetual frustration is that he came along just after the most popular motorcycle racer of all time — and then had to be his teammate, as well. That frustration peaked in 2015 when Lorenzo won the MotoGP championship but everyone was paying more attention to Rossi’s bizarre feud with Márquez. Lorenzo left the most desired seat in motorcycle racing to jump to Ducati, a company with a decade-long record of turning winning riders into mid-pack grid-fillers. That suggests how badly he wanted to get out of Rossi’s shadow and attempt to do what Rossi couldn’t do: win on a Ducati Desmosedici.

Historically, that’s been a tough task. Consider this partial list of world champions who couldn’t win a race on the Ducati MotoGP bike: Nicky Hayden, Neil Hodgson, Ben Spies, Marco Melandri, Carlos Checa, Sylvain Guintoli and, most notably of all, Rossi. Of course all of those rode the bike before Gigi Dall’Igna came in to run Ducati Corse and turned the program around. Lorenzo is betting his career that he’ll be able to adapt his riding style to the Ducati and do what Rossi couldn’t.

Lorenzo rides “like butter,” smoothly carrying high corner speed, choosing a soft front tire and making it last to the end of the race by not abusing it with hard braking. At least that’s what he did to great success with the sweet-handling Yamaha M1. Now, he’s on the Desmosedici, a bike not known for easy turning. Lorenzo’s progression in pre-season testing shows how he is gradually adapting, learning to brake harder and use more trail braking. In the early tests, he was well down the time sheets, but by the final test at Losail, he was fourth-fasted and within 0.2 seconds of Viñales.

Publicly, at least, Lorenzo is portraying the effort he must put in and the changes to his riding style to be worth it.

Of course even success will not really end Lorenzo’s frustration. If he wins, the yellow legions will dismiss it, saying Rossi could also win on the current Desmosedici, which is not the same as the one of a few years ago. And if he does not win, he’ll be yet one more world champion who saw his winning ways brought to a halt by a red bike.

One more thing. Remember those picks published by Repsol that I mentioned above? Of the 22 riders, only one — Carlos Checa — picked Lorenzo to finish in the top three. Twelve put Rossi in the top three. Even Lorenzo’s teammate, Andrea Dovizioso, was named twice. That’s the sort of snubbing that galls Lorenzo. And may serve to motivate him even more to prove everyone wrong.

Marc Márquez
In preseason testing, defending champ Marc Márquez has shown he is capable of pounding out a dozen laps in a row with only a fraction of a second in variation. Honda Racing photo.

Conclusion: Don’t jump to one

It’s natural to try to read too much into the results of pre-season testing, but none of that matters once the start lights go out at Losail. In the same way, it will be easy Monday morning to jump to conclusions about how the season will play out, based on the results of the race in Qatar. But Losail offers unique conditions and the race is the only one run at night. In the past, Ducati and Lorenzo have done well there (he holds the track record), and this time they’re together, so he has the potential to start 2017 strong.

We don’t know now, and we still won’t know on Monday, how the two plot lines mentioned above will be written in the end. And best of all, we don’t know what new and unexpected plot lines will emerge to surprise us as the season unfolds.