For the second part of this preview for the MotoGP Grand Prix of Qatar, we will look at Honda, who enjoyed a fantastic preseason, the contrast in Ducati, Aprilia’s promise, Suzuki’s resurgence and the continued rise of KTM.
The same cannot be said for Honda, who had an almost perfect preseason. Apart from a few, somewhat expected, crashes from Marc Marquez, and a few
from Dani Pedrosa (including two in one day in Qatar), the nine days of preseason testing were pretty much dream-like for HRC. Reigning World Champion Marquez was as fast as ever, especially in Sepang and Buriram, and his pace was backed up by Repsol teammate Pedrosa, who was fastest at the end of the Thailand test, and the third factory Honda of LCR’s Cal Crutchlow. Furthermore, rookie Takaaki Nakagami and Franco Morbidelli both had extremely impressive preseasons, particularly the Japanese. And Tom Luthi looked good too, especially considering he missed the Valencia test and a chunk of the winter thanks to the injury which cost him the Moto2 championship he sustained on Saturday at the 2017 Malaysian Grand Prix.
All this points to the increased rideability of the 2018 RC213V compared to its predecessors, and this makes the prospect of beating Marquez to this year’s championship all the more daunting for his rivals. However, even the Honda had a bit of a struggle in Qatar, as has been traditional since 2015, with Marquez claiming the Losail International Circuit to be one of the more challenging for HRC. This is positive for the competition, as it shows there will be weak points through the season for everyone – Yamaha struggled in Thailand (at least, more than at the other circuits), Ducati too (at least in comparison to Sepang and Qatar), and Honda had a more difficult time in Losail.
With this in mind, it is perhaps time to say something which was the case last season from Mugello onwards – the Ducati is the best bike, or, at least the best all-rounder, especially with Andrea Dovizioso twisting the throttle. The Italian is without doubt in the best phase of his career, and it is worth remembering that last season his championship challenge only started in Mugello – this year it will begin in Qatar. Dovizioso is without doubt the biggest and most likely challenger to the crown of Marquez, and is probably the favourite for the win in Qatar, considering previous form as well as his pace in testing. In addition, it is hard to find a rider in the world who is happier with their life on and off track at the moment than Dovi, and that should make for a pretty lethal combination.
In contrast, Jorge Lorenzo’s preseason went from a lap record in Sepang to a plethora of unanswered questions in Qatar, via technical issues in Thailand. By no means is Lorenzo in the kind of hole he inhabited at the beginning of last season, but equally he is not completely comfortable with the GP18, particularly over a race distance. Still, the Spaniard remains sure that the GP18 is a step forward from last year, and that it is a matter of dialling the setup to his style to allow his to fight for victories.
The situation is slightly critical for Lorenzo, because of Danilo Petrucci’s form. The Italian came into 2018 knowing that in order to win he needed to adjust his style to better conserve the tyre, and so far in preseason it looks like he is doing that to some success. Petrucci is one of three satellite team riders who have a real chance of majorly upsetting the factories this season, along with Crutchlow and Zarco. His form in the second half of last season was stellar, and a continuation of that into this year will put him in the frame for victories. The reason this is a little bit alarming for Jorge is that it is Danilo who is trying to claim his seat in the factory Ducati squad. Although, it must be said that Ducati seem quite keen to retain their current line-up for 2019.
Of course, if Petrucci’s efforts to take the second Ducati for next season are in vein, the destination for the Italian will likely be Aprilia. The Noale manufacturer have a new engine arriving for this race, and the hope is that it will rectify to a large extent the RSGP’s biggest current flaw: acceleration. Both Aleix Espargaro and Scott Redding have been full of praise for the Aprilia’s chassis, but the complaints are the same as last season – that the bike does not have enough power low down, and is sluggish on corner exit. Last year, though, the Aprilia shone in Qatar, with spectacular tyre life, as Espargaro finished in sixth place just a few tenths behind Dani Pedrosa on the factory Honda. A repeat this season would be a welcome beginning for Aprilia, especially so soon after the death of Ivano Beggio, the man who gave the like of Rossi and Max Biaggi their chances, and also Ralf Waldmann, who won his last race – the incredible 250cc Grand Prix at Donington in 2000 – aboard an Aprilia.
Perhaps the biggest surprise of the preseason, in a good way, has been the speed of Suzuki. They arrived in Thailand with a new fairing, and since then both Alex Rins and Andrea Iannone have had a good speed. Also, Iannone’s speed at last year’s Qatar round, before he crashed at least, was extremely good, and he qualified second on the grid (with debatable legitimacy). Whilst this could be a good sign for this year’s race, there are concerns from the riders, especially Iannone, about the GSX-RR’s race pace. They have four free practice sessions to sort out their problems, and if they can, they could be in the fight for the top positions this weekend.
Finally, KTM. Their preseason was interrupted by Pol Espargaro’s crash in Sepang which caused him to miss all of the Thailand test and the first day of the Qatar test. Even still, they managed to test a bunch of new parts, particularly with the chassis, and rectify the corner entry issues that arose in Sepang. Their signing of Tech 3 as a satellite team for 2019 puts them in a secure position with respect to the future, and so the factory can firmly focus on the development of the RC16 for this season, and continuing their progress towards the front. Remember Qatar last year? KTM were over thirty seconds off the win. Going into this season’s race in Losail, it would be surprising if they were further away than ten seconds, and it would not be a surprise to see at least one of the Austrian bikes was inside the top ten.
2018 is set to be an incredible season of MotoGP, and it all gets underway this weekend in Qatar – and it should be a thriller. Oh, and it might rain.