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Loris Baz

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The 2018 WorldSBK season is just around the corner, and Asphalt & Rubber has you covered for the latest within the paddock. After a winter of change for the WorldSBK paddock, normality will resume with the opening round of the season.

The biggest technical shake-up in series history should ensure closer competition throughout the field and the goal is to ensure that Jonathan Rea and Kawasaki are given a stern test throughout the campaign.

With rev limits imposed on a manufacturer by manufacturer basis, the performance weighting of each bike can be adjusted throughout the season.

The changes have been criticised by some Kawasaki brass recently, but for Rea the changes are a source of motivation.

With the holiday season receding into the rear view mirror, that means that we are getting closer to seeing bikes on tracks.

Testing starts this week for both the MotoGP and WorldSBK paddocks, and before testing, the Movistar Yamaha team will present their 2018 livery later on this week as well.

The action starts on Tuesday in Jerez, where virtually the entire WorldSBK paddock is gathered for a two-day test.

The Andalusian track will see the first real test of the 2018 WorldSBK machines, with the teams all having had the winter break to develop their bikes under the new technical regulations – new rev limits, and better access to cheaper parts.

All eyes will once again be on triple and reigning WorldSBK champion Jonathan Rea, the man who dominated at Jerez in November.

Aprilia has today confirmed another of the worst-kept secrets in the paddock, announcing that they have signed Scott Redding to replace Sam Lowes in the Gresini Aprilia MotoGP team for the 2018 season.

The news came as no surprise, after it became apparent that Aprilia had decide to break Lowes’ contract at the end of this season.

Lowes had been contracted for two seasons in MotoGP, but Aprilia decided to invoke an escape clause, after the Englishman had struggled at the start of the season. For the full background to the story, read the Friday MotoGP round up from Austria.

All the old certainties about MotoGP are gone. A few short years ago, MotoGP had a consistent, simple internal logic that made it easy to explain. All that is now gone.

The things we believed were universal truths about racing have turned out to be mere mirages, disguising an ever-shifting reality. And that has made racing mind-bogglingly good.

A case in point. The Red Bull Ring at Spielberg in Austria has a pretty simple layout. Straight, corner, straight, corner, straight, corner, long loop which comes back on itself, straight, corner, short straight, corner, and we’re back at the beginning.

The track is all about horsepower and the ability to accelerate hard, then brake hard. The racing here should be rubbish. The rider with the fastest bike should be able to escape and cruise to victory by tens rather than tenths of seconds.

Yet on Sunday, we saw three gripping races, where the results were long in doubt. The winner of the Moto3 race may have been well clear, but the freight train behind it scrapping over second made for compulsive watching.

Moto2 cooked up another cracker – the fourth in a row, a sign the class is changing – which only really settled in the last four laps. And the MotoGP race became an instant classic, one which make any collection of top ten races of any era.

It truly had everything: a large group battling for the lead, then a smaller group slugging it out, three abreast heading towards a corner. There were hard passes, missed passes, and a wild last-corner lunge to attempt to snatch victory.

It looks set to be a quiet year on the rider market for World Superbike, with the leading seats already filled for 2018, but there will still be some significant deals announced in the coming weeks and months.

Jonathan Rea, Tom Sykes, Chaz Davies, and Marco Melandri are all secure in their seats for next year, but Sykes had been linked with a move away from Kawasaki earlier this summer.

Prior to winning two races before the summer break, the 2013 World Champion had been touted as a potential target of Yamaha, but with wins in the bag it looks highly unlikely that he will make a switch.

For Ducati there is little reason to change their status quo, and the only change in their ranks could be the addition of a second bike to the Barni squad.

The Italian entry has thrived with Xavi Fores in the last year, and came close to adding a second machine for this year. If there is a fourth Ducati on the grid it will likely have a rider bringing money to the table for Barni.

The MotoGP bikes have fallen silent for over a week now, the teams and riders dispersed to the four winds, nominally for “vacation”.

And while riders relaxed on a beach somewhere for a week, before returning to their training for the second-half of the season, teams and rider managers have been anything but dormant. There has been a hive of activity in preparation for the latter half of the season, and for some of the satellite teams, for 2018 as well.

For the Silly Season That Wasn’t Supposed To Be has stepped up a gear. The summer break has so far seen extensive negotiations going on over the MotoGP seats which will be free in 2018, and in some cases, whether a seat will become available or not.

Phone calls to team staff start with pleasantries about vacation time, but quickly reveal that vacation consists of at best a day or two taken in between meetings and preparations for the remainder of the year.

The first shoe to drop in the summer edition of MotoGP’s 2018 Silly Season is the revelation by Motorsport.com that Jack Miller will be joining Danilo Petrucci at Pramac Ducati for next season.

After losing his direct contract with HRC – that contract going to Cal Crutchlow instead – the Australian had been in talks with the Marc VDS squad about a contract directly with the team. However, a failure to agree terms over money, and a better offer from Ducati, pushed Miller towards Pramac.

The deal is yet to be announced, and teams are refusing to confirm anything officially. With Miller commuting between Japan for the Suzuka 8-Hour race and his home in Townsville, the Australian has been hard to reach for comment. But an announcement is expected when MotoGP convenes again at Brno.

With all twelve factory riders on two-year contracts, there wasn’t supposed to be a MotoGP Silly Season in 2017, or at least, not much of one. That impression was further reinforced when the Monster Tech 3 Yamaha squad quickly tied up both Johann Zarco and Jonas Folger for an extra year, until the end of 2018.

As usual, reality intervened, of course. Though the factory seats were supposedly taken, there was plenty of interest in the satellite seats once the season got underway.

All eyes turned to the Moto2 class, and especially to the remarkable performances by Franco Morbidelli and Pecco Bagnaia. Alex Márquez, too, raised eyebrows. And so speculation started.

Then there were those factory seats. Yes, all twelve factory riders have two-year contracts, but all contracts have clauses that allow for either side to make an early escape.

Great managers make sure the escape clause benefits their rider. Great factory lawyers make sure the contract is in their favor. The measure of a rider manager is where they end up on that side of the equation.

When former US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld made his comments about “known knowns and unknown unknowns” in 2002, he was widely ridiculed for producing what seemed like incomprehensible gibberish.

Yet since his appearance at a press conference on Iraq and weapons of mass destruction, the phrases he coined that day have demonstrated their usefulness, being employed in an ever greater array of contexts.

Rumsfeld’s phrase fits remarkably well with the 2017 MotoGP grid as well. The three categories apply just as well to different groups of riders on the grid. We have the “known knowns” of the Aliens, riders who are guaranteed to win races.

We have the “known unknowns”, the wildcards such as Cal Crutchlow and Andrea Dovizioso who could easily stage a surprise.

Then you have the “unknown unknowns”, a group of riders for whom any result would be imaginable. Given the events of last year, any one of them could end up on the podium, or even winning a race.

But they are just as likely to finish outside the points, or anywhere in between. There is no way of knowing on Thursday night where any of these riders might finish on Sunday.

This is truly a golden age of motorcycle racing. The Silverstone race was proof of that. A stunning contest, with positions fiercely fought over. A new winner added to MotoGP’s pantheon.

Five riders doing battle over second place, including some of the greatest riders of their respective generations. Bikes from four different factories in the top six.

And Silverstone is hardly unique this season. 2016 has seen two different satellite riders win races. It has seen seven different winners this season, and the last seven races each won by a different rider.

It has seen relative newcomers win, and seasoned veterans win. 2016 is the culmination of a long period of rich results, with four riders all capable of winning on any given day over the past four or five years. Margins of victory have never been tighter, nor has the gap between the front and the back of the grid.

This cornucopia is not just in the premier class. Racing is returning to Moto2, after a drought of processional contests. Moto3 is overflowing with young talent, with rookies quickly challenging the older guard, who are in turn off to fatten the field in Moto2 next year.

At Silverstone, the Moto2 race was hard fought between a small group of riders, with incidents that had serious long-term effects on the championship. The Moto3 class produced a customary thriller, Silverstone’s long straights and high winds making escape impossible, but making staying out of trouble imperative.

New electronics was just one of the changes for 2016. The switch from Bridgestone to Michelin tires has been a much bigger story in the first half of this season.

The wildly different character of the tires has had a big impact on the championship, changing riding styles and rewarding some riders, and punishing others.

How should we appraise the first nine races with Michelin as official tire supplier? Their return has seen both ups and downs, highs and lows.

In a sense, you could say it has gone very much as you might expect it to go, in that there were always going to be surprises they hadn’t been taken into account. As Harold Macmillan once said when asked what he feared most, “events, dear boy, events”.

The biggest fear of the MotoGP riders after the Valencia test in November last year was Michelin’s front tire. A spate of crashes – over twenty in two days, with almost everyone hitting the floor – where riders lost the front inexplicably was a great cause for concern.

To its credit, Michelin worked to address that issue, bringing a much improved front to a private test at Jerez in November, and another iteration to Sepang. The front had grip again. It was no Bridgestone, but there was at least some predictability to it and some feedback from it.

MotoGP Silly Season is nearly at an end. With the confirmation that both Jack Miller and Cal Crutchlow will be staying in their seats for 2017, the list of possibly vacant grid slots grew much shorter.

Those that remain empty are growing ever closer to being filled, leaving only three seats open, and one seat still completely free. So, it is time to take a look at the current state of play.

With the announcement that Aleix Espargaro would be joining Aprilia for two years, the last of the factory seats was filled. The factory rides filled up quickly in 2016, starting with Valentino Rossi and Bradley Smith at Qatar, and culminating eight races later at Assen with the signing of Espargaro.

The timing of the Aleix Espargaro/Aprilia announcement was peculiar to say the least. Making a major announcement that a rider had been signed to a factory rider – a signing everyone already knew about – on the Sunday night after one of the most remarkable MotoGP races in recent memory was guaranteed to achieve the absolute minimum of media coverage.