Moving MotoGP's goal posts


And here come the players, out of the tunnel and into the stadium; just 15 minutes to go before the opening game of the 2014 World Cup, and the noise and the tension in Rio de Janeiro’s Maracana stadium are almost unbearable…

Wait, hang on a moment. There’s something very strange going on at the end of the pitch to my left. There’s a group of FIFA officials and they’re digging up the goalposts! I can’t believe it: they’re moving the goalposts! And there’s more FIFA people doing the same thing at the other end of the pitch, moving those goalposts five metres to the right…

It wouldn’t happen, would it?

But it has happened in MotoGP. Just two days (!) before the first race of 2014, new technical rules were approved in reaction to Ducati’s decision to take the Open option. If Dorna had been even daring to think they were even beginning to win their war with the Japanese factories, their red-faced Factory 2 retreat must’ve been something of a shock. And then a few days later, their counter-attack: that MotoGP will become a control software series in 2016, a year ahead of the scheduled change.

Anyway, enough of that fiasco, what about the racing?

It’s surely going to be all about Marc Márquez and Jorge Lorenzo again. If they keep at it long enough, their rivalry may just turn out to be era-defining, like Roberts versus Spencer, Rainey versus Schwantz and Rossi versus Biaggi.

Which way will the championship go? I don’t know and I don’t care. Title predictions suck; much better to enjoy the action, race by race, and let the season entertain you as it unfolds through each and every twist and unexpected turn, rather than worrying if your prophecies will be fulfilled.

Few had Márquez down as favourite last year and most people thought Casey Stoner would retain the title in 2012, which just goes to prove the futility of trying to predict the future. So, without making any prophesies, this is how I see it…

Honda’s RC213V is the best bike out there and is getting better still. And 2014’s most significant rule changes – reduced fuel capacity and fewer engines – should help Honda because HRC are the best at getting horsepower from an engine while making that engine last longest.

Thus, in theory, it looks good for Marc Márquez. The reigning champ has a full year’s MotoGP experience behind him and he has the best bike, but he also has a broken leg. Although last month’s dirt-track accident wasn’t his fault – Márquez hit a barrier after another rider fell in front of him – his injury tells us that he isn’t any better at bouncing than the rest of us.

In fact it probably won’t affect him too much – he broke the smaller fibula bone, not the larger tibia – so although he may be hobbling around the Qatar paddock on crutches, he’s unlikely to suffer too much once he’s on the bike.

The odds don’t look great for Lorenzo, especially as he struggles to adapt his YZR-M1 to suit Bridgestone’s stronger 2014 rear slick, which may deprive him of his greatest weapon: corner speed. But even if Yamaha fail to dial in their settings in time for the opening race, Bridgestone say they will introduce a revised tyre by round five.

And if Lorenzo can continue his lightning getaways that were the foundation of most of his 2013 victories, he may yet halt the Honda steamroller, especially at faster, flowing tracks.

Márquez’s Repsol Honda team-mate Dani Pedrosa will probably be in there too, if his body and good luck hold out long enough. And Lorenzo’s team-mate Valentino Rossi seems to be rejuvenated. The 2014 YZR-M1 seems to work better for him, the latest tyres too, plus he can speak Italian with his crew chief, potentially a crucial help in sorting out the finer details.

Realistically, no one else is in with a chance of a win, which is MotoGP’s main problem and why Dorna implemented the Open rules, to give the better privateer teams a chance of hassling the factories.

Aleix Espargaró

Qatar may just be the perfect start for Open bikes; most of all Aleix Espargaró’s Forward YZR-M1. Track temperatures at Losail are lower than average, so the softer Open rear tyre will favour him, if he can run it. Also, Losail is a high fuel-consumption track (remember Rossi running out of fuel on the slowdown lap a few years ago), so the Open bike’s extra fuel could be big advantage.

Finally, the Yamaha loves Losail – M1s have won three of the last four races at the track – so it would be no great surprise to see the older Espargaró on the podium, especially following his stunningly fast race simulation during recent preseason tests at the track.

People ask why Honda’s Open-spec RCV1000R is so slow compared to Yamaha’s Open YZR-M1. That’s the wrong question. Honda did exactly what Dorna asked when they built the RCV1000R: two bikes available for sale that can be maintained by a well-equipped privateer team at a cost that won’t bankrupt them.

The correct question is why Yamaha’s Open-spec M1 is so fast. It’s fast because it’s not what an Open bike is supposed to be. Almost the entire machine is leased from the factory, with the pneumatic valve-spring engines maintained by the factory. In effect, it’s a Tech 3 bike, with extra fuel and a Dorna ECU. No wonder Honda have been so mad at Dorna. They did what they were asked – probably at considerable expense to themselves – and as a result their bike seems slow.

Ducati had no real option but to step out of line and upset the Japanese factories by converting to Open. Last week the factory’s MotoGP project director Paolo Ciabatti told me that to go racing without the opportunity to develop their engine (the main reason Ducati took the Open road) “we could race for a whole season for nothing”.

Ducati have a long way to catch up – Andrea Dovizioso was 1.7 seconds a lap off the pace at last November’s Valencia GP – so it’s going to take them time to even get close to Honda and Yamaha. Despite some promising steps forward over the winter, Dovi keeps telling us that he doesn’t want to be too optimistic. And newcomer Cal Crutchlow will have no idea where they really are until the racing kicks off on Sunday night.

In fact, no one really does, and that’s the joy of it.

More from Mat Oxley
Why the door was left Open for Ducati
The death of bike racing in the US?
Open season on the factory teams

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