MotoGP heads to the Twin Ring Circuit in Motegi, Japan this weekend. David gives us a look at the headlines we expect to see at the Japanese GP.
You would think that after a tough weekend of racing in punishing conditions, the riders would find it very hard to spend eight hours on a MotoGP bike, pushing as close to race pace as possible, testing new parts and setup.
Not according to Andrea Dovizioso. “No, for me it’s very easy, and it’s the easiest way to do that. If there is a break, it’s worse,” he told us at the end of Monday’s test at Brno.
There was a pretty full cast of MotoGP characters present, with one or two notable exceptions. The Reale Avintia and Angel Nieto Team Ducati teams were both absent, because they had nothing to test except setup, and testing is expensive.
Pol Espargaro was in the hospital waiting for scans on his broken collarbone and his back, which confirmed that luckily only his collarbone was fractured, and it won’t need to be plated (though he will definitely miss KTM’s home race at the Red Bull Ring in Austria).
HRC test rider Stefan Bradl was also absent, after stretching ligaments in his right shoulder in a crash he caused on the first lap. A crash in which he also took out Maverick Viñales, who also suffered a minor shoulder injury, and decided not to test.
Given the massive tension in Viñales’ garage at the moment between him and his crew, skipping the test may have been the best option anyway.
The tale of the TT Circuit at Assen is really the tale of Grand Prix motorcycle racing.
That is hardly surprising, given that the race has featured on the calendar since Grand Prix racing was born, or rather, since the FIM Motorcycle Grand Prix Road Racing World Championship was established, back in 1949. And like Grand Prix racing, it has roots which go back a long way before that.
The first race took place in 1925, a year after the Dutch government passed a law permitting racing on public roads. It ran over cobbled roads and sand tracks between three villages to the east of Assen: Rolde, Borger, and Schoonlo.
The next year it moved south of Assen, again over public roads, between De Haar, Oude Tol, Hooghalen, Laaghalen, and Laaghalerveen. It stayed there until 1955, when the first sections of what would become the modern circuit were built.
The roads were closed and the circuit was separated from the world, an isolated loop of tarmac, where racing was safer, easier to organize, and, not coincidentally, easier to monetize.
The inaugural Grand Prix season in 1949 took place mainly on circuits set out using public roads, which made for long tracks taken at high speed (Bremgarten in Switzerland and Monza in Italy were the two purpose-built circuits on the calendar, but Bremgarten, in particular, was a spectacularly dangerous circuit which wound through a forest).
Joan Mir is to move up to MotoGP next year, and will be racing in the factory ECSTAR Suzuki team, for at least the next two seasons.
The signing had been widely expected, as the name of Mir had been linked to Suzuki for the past month or so.
The Spanish youngster is highly rated throughout the MotoGP paddock, and been pursued by Honda and Ducati, as well as Suzuki, according to his manager.
Mir has been chosen over both current rider Andrea Iannone and veterans Jorge Lorenzo and Dani Pedrosa. Lorenzo had been linked to the ride since early this year, but in the end, Suzuki bosses back in Hamamatsu, Japan preferred to go with youthful potential over an established star.
Breaking up with Suzuki before he could be dumped, Andrea Iannone has already made it clear that he would not be returning to the ECSTAR Suzuki team for the 2019 MotoGP Championship season, but now the break up is official.
Issuing a press release today, Suzuki Motor Corporation announced that the Japanese factory and the Italian rider would not be collaborating further, into 2019.
Though Suzuki won’t mention it, it is widely held that Joan Mir will be taking Iannone’s seat at ECSTAR Suzuki, and as such he will partner Alex Rins inside the factory team next year.
In its press release, Suzuki thanked Iannone for his help and positive results during their time together, but the reality is that Iannone never gelled with the team, with considerable friction existing between him and the Suzuki squad.
Secrets are hard to keep in the MotoGP paddock. When it comes to contracts, usually someone around a rider or team has let something slip to a friendly journalist – more often than not, the manager of another rider who was hoping to get a particular seat, but lost out. It is not often that real bombshells drop in MotoGP. So the report by Italian sports daily La Gazzetta dello Sport that Repsol Honda were in talks to sign Jorge Lorenzo came as a huge shock. The assumptions that almost everyone in the paddock had been making – that Lorenzo would be riding a full factory Yamaha M1 in a Petronas-funded satellite team operated by the Sepang International circuit – turned out to have been nothing more than a useful smokescreen.
At the beginning of the year, I predicted on MotoMatters that MotoGP’s Silly Season this year would change the face of the MotoGP grid beyond recognition.
The revolution I predicted looks like it is coming to pass, but as with every prediction, the changes happening are beyond even what I had expected.
Young talent is coming into the series – Joan Mir, Miguel Oliveira – big names are changing bikes – Johann Zarco, Andrea Iannone – and a couple of major names face being left without a ride altogether.
A lot has happened in the past couple of weeks. Contracts have been signed with Andrea Dovizioso, Johann Zarco, Aleix Espargaro, Alex Rins, Miguel Oliveira, and Pol Espargaro, adding to the contracts signed earlier in the year with Valentino Rossi, Maverick Viñales, Marc Marquez, and Pecco Bagnaia.
With Cal Crutchlow, Franco Morbidelli, and Xavier Simeon already having a contract, there are thirteen seats officially taken for next year. Ducati have an option on Jack Miller – and look certain to exercise it – making it fourteen riders in a strong position.
And Taka Nakagami looks very likely to keep his seat at LCR Honda.
But the big news is what happens at Suzuki, Ducati, and Repsol Honda. Rumors that Joan Mir would sign for Suzuki grew very strong at Le Mans, as I wrote on Friday, and now appear to be taking shape.
The reliable Spanish journalist Mela Chercoles is reporting in sports daily AS that Joan Mir has signed a two-year deal with Suzuki, which will see him line up alongside Alex Rins for the next two years.
Alex Rins has signed a new contract with the factory Suzuki Ecstar team for 2019 and 2020.
The young Spaniard will stay with the team for two more seasons, as he continues to show the growth expected of him, after a difficult rookie season marred by injury. Rins is now the twelfth rider to be confirmed for the 2019 season, and leaves one less factory seat to fill.
The re-signing of Rins had been widely expected. The Spaniard had spoken at Austin of positive progress being made, and the final details were hammered out at Jerez.
Rins’ first podium in MotoGP helped, taking third place in Argentina, but the fact that he has crashed out of the other three races held so far is a concern. Yet he has consistently shown he has the pace to compete at the front.
With Rins signed, Suzuki will now switch their attention to the second seat. It looks like a decision on who will ride the second Suzuki may yet take some time.
With the MotoGP paddock back in Europe and heading to Jerez, the first round of contract announcements is upon us, with the second wave not far behind.
First domino to fall for the moment is Pol Espargaro, who will be staying at KTM for the 2019 and 2020 seasons. Ahead of his first home grand prix of 2018, KTM today officially announced that they will be retaining the services of the Spaniard for the next two years.
Espargaro’s signing had been broadly expected. The Spaniard has outperformed his teammate Bradley Smith, and with the Austrian factory’s MotoGP project moving from the development phase to the point where they need to start producing results, Espargaro has been favored over Smith.
The Tech3 team’s decision to switch from Yamaha to KTM is having major consequences. With the Yamaha satellite bikes available, and with Suzuki ready to step up and supply a satellite team with bikes, teams are having to make choices they have never considered before. This luxury is indicative of the current health of the MotoGP grid: once upon a time, a satellite Yamaha or Honda team would never even consider switching to another manufacturer. Now, there are four competitive satellite-bike suppliers to choose from. So who will end up with the satellite Yamahas for 2019 and beyond, and where does that leave Suzuki? Speaking to some of the protagonists involved in the situation, it seems that although nothing is settled as of this moment, a decision is likely to be taken soon.
It seems safe to say we are living in a new Golden Age of MotoGP. The stomach-churning tension of 2015 was followed by an unimaginably wild 2016 season, the racing turned on its head by the combination of Michelin’s first season back in MotoGP and the switch to fully spec Magneti Marelli electronics.
2017 saw the surprises keep on coming, with new and unexpected names such as Andrea Dovizioso and Johann Zarco becoming serious factors in the premier class. The field got deeper, the bikes more competitive, domination a thing of the past. All the signs are that this trend is going to continue in 2018.
Preseason testing has shown that there is now little to choose between four or maybe five of the six different manufacturers on the grid, while the sixth is not that far off being competitive as well.
Where we once regarded having four riders capable of winning a race as a luxury, now there ten or more potential winners lining up on a Sunday. This is going to be another thrilling season, with the title likely to go down to the wire once again.