Author: Oli Rushby Posted: 31 Jan 2016
The wait is almost over. The first MotoGP action of 2016 is set to get underway in Sepang tomorrow as the first of three official tests kicks off.
Unlike previous years, riders will test at Sepang just the once this season with the second test taking place at Phillip Island to allow new tyre supplier Michelin to evaluate the performance of their rubber at the notoriously abrasive circuit. The testing schedule will, as normal, conclude in Qatar two weeks before the opening round of the season.
This is a big year for MotoGP. New tyres, new electronics and perhaps more importantly almost every rider out of contract at the end of the year. Yamaha boss Lin Jarvis has remarked that the first quarter of the 2016 will be pivotal for riders in deciding where their future will lie. That includes his own men, Valentino Rossi and Jorge Lorenzo are both out of contract at the end of the year. Will Rossi continue past 2016? Will Lorenzo make the jump to Ducati that’s been rumoured for almost two years now?
How well each manufacturer performs this year will have more importance than ever.
It’s not been a good start to 2016 for Honda. Marquez and Pedrosa continued to complain of the problems, caused by an overly-aggressive engine, of 2015 after three tests on the 2016 RC213V. After a busy winter, HRC have two engine specifications for the factory duo to try out in Sepang and both will be hoping for an improvement. If Honda haven’t at least made some progress, it could be another difficult year.
It’s not all rosy at Yamaha either. Valentino Rossi has said the Iwata factory is behind schedule with development after so much resource and focus was placed on winning the championship towards the end of last season. Honda are at least two tests up on Yamaha and Rossi and Lorenzo were ruled out of Michelin tyre testing by Yamaha in the middle of last season.
While it won’t take them long to get back on track, there could be an early opportunity for another manufacturer to shine.
All eyes will be on Ducati for this mantle, with several pundits already tipping the Bologna factory to break their five-year winless streak as early as Qatar. They are in a good position to do so; Gigi Dall’Igna and his crew made gigantic strides forward with the GP15 last year and unlike Yamaha, Ducati could focus solely on development. The new spec-ECU system is based loosely on Ducati software, so this could also give the Italian marque an early advantage. Andrea Iannone came close to bridging the gap to the top four on a number of occasions last year and is definitely someone to watch.
Suzuki should also step things up this year, perhaps not to the level of Ducati but both Cal Crutchlow and Bradley Smith have said to keep an eye on Maverick Vinales this year. The young Spaniard’s impressive class debut last year somewhat slipped under the radar with all eyes on the tantalising battle at the front.
Should Ducati and Suzuki make further steps forward, the satellite teams will have to up their game. Bradley Smith told us last week that he knows it’s going to be tough with even more bikes at the front but he’s more determined than ever to make an impression.
It could be a tough start to the year for LCR Honda’s Cal Crutchlow, who won’t get his new bike until Honda have decided on the direction the 2016 RC213V will take. This could mean he’s riding last year’s machine come the opening round in Qatar. Despite this, Crutchlow is somewhat pragmatic; he knows what he needs to do and already has an option on the table with LCR for 2017.
Scott Redding knows he has to make a mark in 2016 and having signed for Pramac Ducati he’s looking good. He’ll benefit from that extra step Ducati have made and should be closer to the sharp end. One of few riders moving to a brand new bike, Redding can learn the new bike, tyres and electronics as a package as opposed to those riding the machines they are used to with drastic changes. Fastest in testing in Jerez late last year, don’t be surprised if the 23-year-old is at the sharp end of the timesheets this week.
Ducati have confirmed that Casey Stoner will complete his second day testing at some point this week, marking the first time the Aussie will ride on track with the MotoGP field since he retired at the end of the 2012 season. Early comments from Stoner’s first day’s testing yesterday suggest he soon familiarised himself with the Ducati, but it’s worth remembering he hasn’t ridden a MotoGP bike in a year. He will undoubtedly be rusty and perhaps won’t bother the fast boys but there’ll be a few heads turned.
Stoner’s being on track with the rest of the field makes a huge statement. There’s been talk of a wildcard ride since news of the Ducati deal first broke in Valencia and while nothing has been confirmed, this is a further step in the right direction. At the moment, Stoner is in no position to race. The only time he’s ridden a bike in the last 12 months was at Suzuka, and a jammed throttle saw him skyrocketed to the moon shortly after he stepped on the thing.
Realistically, if Stoner was to wildcard it’s likely he’d compete at Phillip Island, or in Italy at Ducati’s home round. Both of these rounds are some months away leaving him plenty of time to prepare.
If there’s ever a season with good reason to follow testing, it’s this year. If even just to see Casey Stoner on track with Marquez for the first time, or back on track with old rival Rossi. You can watch live on the BT Sport app or at MotoGP.com with a videopass.