With just days to go for the opening round of the 2019 MotoGP Season in Qatar (8-10 March), the adrenalin levels are already soaring. The questions are aplenty — how will the rivalry between Honda and Ducati play out? Who is likely to be Marc Marquez's biggest challenger this season? In this piece, we round up the salient changes in terms of constructors, teams and drivers for this season.
Overall changes on the grid
There will be two bikes less on the grid this season with the total grid size being 22 bikes, following a team management crisis that affected Honda customer outfit Marc VDS. Another major change is Tech 3 switching to KTM machines, ending their two-decade-long relationship with Yamaha. In addition, we have a new team on the grid — the Sepang International Circuit team (SIC) which previously only took part in Moto2 and Moto3.
The team takes over as the official Yamaha Independent Team from the departing Tech 3 squad. 2017 Moto2 World Champion Franco Morbidelli leads the attack for SIC. The MotoGP grid also welcomes four very talented rookies this season — Francesco Bagnaia (Alma Pramac Racing), Miguel Oliveira (Tech 3 Racing KTM), Joan Mir (Team Suzuki Ecstar) and Fabio Quartararo (Petronas Yamaha SIC).
All eyes are on the all-star line-up of Jorge Lorenzo (who moves to Honda this season from Ducati) and Marc Marquez. With 12 world championships between them, they are arguably the strongest pairing on the grid, at least on paper. Notably, Lorenzo finds a seat at Honda after Dani Pedrosa retired from MotoGP after racing for the team for 13 years. What remains to be seen is how the duo gel in reality.
Lorenzo has a track record of being quite a firebrand teammate which led to strained relationships with Andrea Dovizioso at Ducati and Valentino Rossi at Yamaha. His relationship with Rossi had deteriorated to an extent that an actual wall was built in the middle of the team's garage to keep the two rivals' crew separate.
Lorenzo comes from Ducati after two dismal seasons where he finished 7th (2017, no wins) and 9th (2018, 3 wins & 4 DNS) — his worst career finishes in MotoGP. Lorenzo will be feeling the pressure to prove himself and also place himself at the sharper end of the grid once more. And of course, given the misery he faced at Ducati over the last two seasons, Lorenzo would have heaved a sigh of relief at the prospect of signing up for the reigning World Champion team.
Conversely, Marquez has dominated the sport over the past seasons, winning five championships in the last six seasons (interestingly, the only season he has not won was won by Lorenzo). Last season, Marquez finished 76 points ahead of his nearest rival (points equivalent to three race wins) Andrea Dovisiozo.
Will Lorenzo's challenge spark Marquez to push himself more than ever before? The competition between Lorenzo and Marquez will be fascinating for spectators to watch. At the same time, the team will be eager to ensure that their rivalry remains healthy and personal gains do not come in the way of the team's overall success. Honda would be expected to be the fastest team in race conditions. It remains to be seen which team is able to challenge their continued supremacy in MotoGP.
Italian constructor Ducati, who finished second in the championship last year, would be looking to 2019 with optimism. Despite a strong early season showing in 2018, Ducati ended up with only seven wins out of a possible 19 and ended up losing their way in their battle with Honda. The Italian team initiated working on their 2019 campaign much earlier — the results of which were evident during the testing where the Ducati GP19 looked the furthest along in terms of development.
At the same time, it remains to be seen how the new regulation on aero fairings impacts Ducati, given that aero has always been a competitive advantage for them. Ducati's sole MotoGP championship was over a decade ago in 2007.
Will 2019 be the season when Ducati rise to the top once again? The team's charge is led by Andrea Dovizioso, who is in his seventh season with the team. He finished second in the last two seasons and the question now is — can he win his first MotoGP title win and deliver to Ducati's more than a decade-long title drought? With Lorenzo leaving for Honda, Dovizioso will be teaming up with compatriot Danilo Petrucci, in his seventh season in MotoGP. Given the volatile relationship between Dovizioso and Lorenzo last season, Ducati would be hoping for peace and stability this time around.
However, Petrucci's best finish in the championship is a lowly eighth, cranking up the pressure on him to perform this season. Although several fans would wish for a Casey Stoner comeback, there's good reason to believe that a young rider from Ducati's satellite team (Pramac Ducati) would be handed a promotion in case Petrucci doesn't deliver.
Petrucci is EVOLUTION
— MotoGP™ 🇶🇦 (@MotoGP) March 5, 2019
MotoGP's living legend Valentino Rossi is the number one driver at Yamaha — in his 10th season with the team and his 18th year in the sport. Riding alongside him is teammate Maverick Vinales. Last season, Rossi finished third in the championship while Vinales finished fourth, separated by only six points. However, it was Vinales who scored Yamaha's sole victory in Australia last year. Will Vinales be faster this season to beat his teammate?
Given the rivalry between Ducati and Yamaha for championship positions, expect to also see a battle between their number one riders Dovizioso (Ducati) and Rossi (Yamaha). Pre-season testing reports suggest that Yamaha is the team potentially looking for the biggest improvements (among the top teams) with both Rossi and Vinales seemingly wanting to pursue different development directions.
Interestingly, Rossi has been critical of Yamaha's ability to not be able to match the development pace shown by Honda. Yamaha's "inline 4" configuration is now seemingly slower than the "V4" of Honda and Ducati. 2018 was a Ducati vs Honda battle and Yamaha would be hoping to make it a threeway fight in 2019.
Even though Rossi is a joy to watch, on and off the bike, is he lethal enough to challenge for the championship in 2019? Let's remember, his last victory was in 2017 (at the 2017 Dutch TT) and managed a handful of podiums in 2018. At 40 years of age, he is the oldest rider of the pack and is under contract with Yamaha till 2020. Let's hope Yamaha have plans for 'who after Rossi' as the legendary Italian rider attempts to add a 10th World Championship to his name.
Since their return to MotoGP with a factory team in 2015, Suzuki have struggled to find a stable footing and bring in consistently strong performances. 2016 was a bright year as they grabbed some strong results, including a race win. After a disappointing 2017, they managed to finish on the podium a few times — albeit without winning any race. In fact, they saw the year out on quite a high with four consecutive podiums in the last four races of the season, and a sustained strong show over the winter.
For Suzuki, 2019 is about leapfrogging to the front of the field as a constructor to be reckoned with and break the Japanese duopoly of Yamaha and Honda. Alex Rins continues with the team and functions as their lead rider with rookie Joan Mir (the 2017 Moto3 World Champion) joining the team after Andrea Iannone left to go to Aprilia.
The biggest news in the KTM camp in the build-up to the 2019 season has been the switch of Tech3 from Yamaha to KTM, which doubles their firepower on the grid. Johann Zarco (Moto2's first double world champion) rides for Tech3 alongside Pol Espargaro. Zarco has shown to be fast, tactical and has impressed with his controlled aggression. KTM have shown good racing DNA and Tech3 have been as good as the factory Yamaha team for the past few seasons so it would be interesting to see how their marriage evolves.
Aprilia made a big move through the signing of Andrea Iannone — an impressive rider who has also been crash-prone. Interestingly, it is Iannone's third team change in four seasons, which is extremely high in the context of the grid. But he has shown already that he can switch bikes and still be fast! He's known to adapt fast and well to changing environments (team and bike-wise) so it is only wise to expect him to deliver well with Aprilia. The team had a dismal 2018, recording only four top ten finishes all season and finishing only 10th in the championship overall. They would be hoping that Iannone's arrival brings them fresh fortunes.
Starting a week before Formula 1, the 2019 MotoGP season promises to be a real cracker with team-rider changes hoping to deliver new rivalries and the new regulatory changes aiming to bring the grid closer together and intensify competition. Interestingly, Formula 1 World Champion Lewis Hamilton confirmed that he will be attending the MotoGP season opener as a guest, saying that he has always been in love with bikes. Well, haven't we all!
(With inputs from Kunal Ghate)
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Updated Date: Mar 06, 2019 17:54:10 IST