Honda looks strong and consistent. Yamaha less consistent. Half the Ducati garage has the calm of an aviator professionally ticking the pre-flight checklist (and with wings to match).
The 2018 MotoGP season launches this weekend at Losail International Circuit in Qatar and will be the longest ever, with 19 races, thanks to the addition of Thailand to the schedule. One thing we've learned from preseason testing is that in this new age of MotoGP parity and Michelin tires, finding the right setup requires more precision than ever. The confident and conquering hero at one track may look lost and befuddled at the next. In testing, nobody personified that more than Ducati's Jorge Lorenzo. At the test in Malaysia in January he was fastest, setting an unofficial lap record. A few weeks later in Thailand his best lap put him 22nd of 24 riders.
What this means for us fans is, most likely, multiple winners and another unpredictable season. Still, there are obvious favorites, and the place to start is with the two men who finished first and second last year.
Tier one: Márquez and Dovizioso
While others have been up and down the time sheets in testing, Repsol Honda's Marc Márquez has been consistently close to the front in his times. Often, it's easy to be distracted by the single fastest lap turned in by each rider during a test, but that's not necessarily indicative of who's going to win the race. Being able to string together fast laps in a race simulation without suffering debilitating tire wear is the real sign of strength, and Márquez has shown solid race pace.
From the moment he moved up to the MotoGP class, Márquez began proving that he deserves to be the automatic favorite, with his superhuman ability to turn crashes into unbelievable saves and to squeeze the fastest lap times out of motorcycles that are not set up optimally. In recent years, Honda has made major changes to the RC213V, such as reversing the direction of the crankshaft's rotation and altering the firing order to change the engine from a "screamer" to a "big-bang" configuration. This year, with more subtle changes to the bike, Márquez and Repsol Honda teammate Dani Pedrosa have a more familiar starting point and they already look strong.
There's a quiet confidence coming from Andrea Dovizioso's side of the Ducati Team garage, as well. He didn't put in the fastest lap, but at all three tests this year he was easily within half a second of the best time. Dovizioso left the Qatar test saying it was one of his best test sessions ever and he felt he was in a stronger position than a year ago. His next challenge was not to grow complacent, he said.
When your main concern is overconfidence, that's an enviable place to be.
Tier two: Contenders and spoilers
If Dovizioso looks solid, his teammate looks merely unpredictable. It's almost a cliché at this point to say that when the motorcycle provides Lorenzo with the feel and feedback he wants, his precision and consistency make him nearly unbeatable, but when he lacks that feel, he suddenly becomes a mid-pack MotoGP racer. Nothing we have seen so far in 2018, however, serves to disprove that well worn refrain.
Pedrosa is another rider overshadowed by his teammate, but like Lorenzo he has been on top in testing. The senior Repsol Honda rider was fastest at the test in Thailand, showing that when conditions are right, he is still a threat to win.
Meanwhile, the Movistar Yamaha factory team's performance looks a little shaky, with moments of brilliance and doubts beneath the surface. Valentino Rossi turned in the second-fastest lap at Qatar and was able to maintain a decent race pace, too, but was less happy in Malaysia and Thailand, leaving him worried that the Yamaha M1 will not be consistent from one track to the next. Maverick Viñales was even less consistent. At Qatar, he was off the pace until the end of the test, when he was able to put in a string of good laps, but considering how Viñales went from pre-season favorite to looking a bit lost in 2017, this pre-season probably hasn't helped his confidence.
If the 2018 champ is almost certain to be one of the riders already mentioned, there are others poised to break through for their first wins or perhaps shake up the results with some surprises. First among them is Monster Yamaha Tech 3 rider Johann Zarco, still looking for a MotoGP victory. Zarco posted the second-fastest time in Thailand and the fastest single lap in Qatar, though he has yet to show the best race pace. LCR Honda rider Cal Crutchlow finished in the top four on the time sheets at all three tests. Suzuki factory rider Alex Rins showed similar consistency, finishing in the top seven in all three tests as he begins his second year in MotoGP.
The typically strong Monster Yamaha Tech 3 team was the source of the biggest off-season news. First, Jonas Folger announced he would not be racing in 2018 as he tries to recover from a genetic disorder called Gilbert's Syndrome. That opened a lot of speculation about who would get one of the most desirable non-factory rides in MotoGP. The team's other news was that it would drop its long partnership with Yamaha and begin using KTMs in 2019.
The switch from Yamaha to KTM may look like a gamble, but Tech 3 Team Manager Hervé Poncharal is widely considered a pretty savvy guy. Given the increasing parity among the marques, and his frustration with getting last year's leftovers from Yamaha instead of current-year bikes, Poncharal may have more to gain than to lose by partnering with KTM.
The selection of Hafizh Syahrin, who was winless in the Moto2 class, to replace Folger is another choice that may not seem obvious on the surface. But Poncharal has a keen eye for talent and Syahrin's times in testing have been comparable to the other rookies' times, despite not getting to participate in the first test in Malaysia. At Qatar, he was the second-fastest rookie, only behind reigning Moto2 champion Franco Morbidelli, who is riding a Honda for the EG 0,0 Marc VDS team. Given the importance of the Asian market to the motorcycle industry, Syahrin's breakthrough as the first full-time Malaysian rider in MotoGP is important to a lot of people both in and beyond motorcycling, too. Even the prime minister of Malaysia tweeted the news of Syahrin's promotion.
Tahniah Hafizh Syahrin, pelumba Malaysia pertama menyertai MotoGP musim penuh! pic.twitter.com/bIiP2bFfXt— Mohd Najib Tun Razak (@NajibRazak) February 21, 2018
Others moving up from Moto2 are Thomas Luthi, also riding for Marc VDS, Takaaki Nakagami, riding for LCR Honda, and Xavier Simeon, riding a Ducati for Reale Avintia Racing. Morbidelli has to be considered the favorite to finish the year as the top rookie, but Syahrin may be the one most likely to surprise. Like other Malaysian riders, he's experienced and fast in the rain — his nickname is "pescao," or fish — and he has a proven bike, a solid team and a fast teammate to learn from. It will rain sometime this season, and it will be interesting to see what Syahrin can do.
With a record nine different race winners in 2016 and five different winners in 2017, the era of dominance in MotoGP by three or four "aliens" has ended, giving way to a period of less predictability. Teams will start over each weekend, because what worked in last week's conditions may be the wrong direction at the next round. As the late Nicky Hayden used to say, you never know what's going to happen and that's why we line up on Sunday. Starting this weekend.