Crash.net weighs up the prospects of the established MotoGP 'Factory' teams and riders and analyses the premier class newcomers ahead of this weekend's opening round of the 2015 MotoGP World Championship in Qatar...
Repsol Honda Team: #93 Marc Marquez, #26 Dani Pedrosa
The reigning world champions reacted accordingly to Yamaha's surge in the second half of 2014 by bringing ten RCV213Vs to the first Sepang test. Neither Marquez nor Pedrosa were impressed with the '15 machine at Valencia in November but since then Honda has put all its might into securing a third straight premier class crown. Its cause was helped by both riders settling on a single chassis to develop for the second test and, braking issues on day one aside, Marquez's pace was there for all to see. His scintillating time of 1min 58.867secs at Sepang I and his race simulation on the final day of Sepang II have given the others plenty of food for thought.
Pedrosa meanwhile has enjoyed a steady off-season without setting the timesheets alight. Still adapting to an internal reshuffle that sees Ramon Aurin step up to the role of crew chief, the 29-year old has been inside the top-seven at all three tests. The likes of Schwantz and Doohan were less than complimentary to the Spaniard over the winter months but Rossi expressed caution at Pedrosa's championship hopes. “I'm a little scared of him,” he said in January. Knowing the restorative powers of shuffling your crew all too well, the Italian's warning should be heeded. With some improvements on race strategy and early race pace Pedrosa is still capable of winning several races in 2015.
The verdict: Marquez starts the year as undoubted favourite while Pedrosa remains a regular podium, and at times, race winning threat.
Movistar Yamaha MotoGP: #99 Jorge Lorenzo, #46 Valentino Rossi
Yamaha's current line up boasts thirteen world titles but both riders know that should they beat Marquez in 2015 the feat would rank amongst their finest achievements. In Lorenzo's words the #93 “gave us a beating in 2014” and a winters worth of training has gone into ensuring that, unlike a year ago, the M1 – and its riders - hits the ground running this time out. Along with serious electronic improvements, Yamaha now boasts a gearbox that can manoeuvre seamless shifts in downshifts as well as up, giving the bike greater stability under braking. A new shorter exhaust has improved their top-end output too.
Initial signs were very promising. Lorenzo said he hadn't felt as good on a bike in years on the second day of the first Sepang test. Rossi was also impressed. But only the former could live with Marquez at Sepang II suggesting the Majorcan is best placed to prevent a third-consecutive crown going to Cervera. Both gave strong showings in Qatar and there is no doubt Yamaha is better placed than this time a year ago. For Rossi their progress might not be enough. “I think more or less the gap [to Marquez] is the same,” he said at Sepang II. Maximising their potential at tracks suited to the M1 along with strong showings in the opening three rounds will be crucial to a championship challenge.
The verdict: Both riders need to be at the top of their game from round one to challenge Marquez. By the year's end you would fancy both riders to finish in the top three.
Ducati Team: #4 Andrea Dovizioso, #29 Andrea Iannone
Perhaps the most fascinating of the preseason subplots was the unveiling of Ducati's GP15 and its leap forward in development. Suddenly the Japanese factories are casting nervous glances in its direction. The first racer fully designed by noted engineer Gigi Dall'Igna for the factory arrived one test late in late February. Not to worry. The age-old problem of chronic understeer was remedied, much to the relief of the two Andreas, Dovizioso and Iannone.
The new engine continues as a 90 degree V-four but is narrower and has been rolled back significantly. The frame is smaller too and the shorter wheelbase has helped with turning. Crucially, Dall'Igna has the factory and race departments pulling in the same direction, a trait that undermined past progress.
While the pair's times at Sepang II suggested a step forward, their performances in Qatar were sensational. Dovizioso was under Stoner's race lap record while Iannone placed third. Neither used the super-soft compound tyres available to them. Qatar testing has a habit of producing an anomaly or two – see Forward Yamaha in '14 – but Marquez and Rossi believe the bike is already good enough to win.
Those two aside, Dovizioso was arguably the most impressive rider in '14, squeezing everything he could and running Pedrosa close on occasions. Surely he'll be a podium contender. Iannone's ability to consistently perform at the highest level remains in question. At times erratic, at times brilliantly fast – as his five front row starts in '14 show – consistent top six finishes will be expected of him in his third year in the class.
The verdict: Expect Ducati to consistently qualify towards the front while consistently challenging for the podium should be possible.
Team Suzuki Ecstar: #41 Aleix Espargaro, #25 Maverick Viñales
Suzuki's competitive return to the MotoGP class for the first time in three years was less than stellar. Test rider Randy de Puniet endured several reliability issues that limited the GSX-RR to just twelve race laps at the final race of '14. The factory has since taken several strides with the motor and a highly promising line-up of Aleix Espargaro and Maverick Viñales seem capable of causing the occasional upset.
Both riders were delighted with the chassis and front-end feel from the first test. Engineers continued to eke out several extra horsepower from the engine but the overall power is still down on its competitors. The change in electronics (from Mitsubishi to Magneti Marelli) has taken some time to perfect but the riders were pleased with the progress made with traction control and a new fairing helped with aerodynamics.
Espargaro has still to recover from a damaged left knee sustained in a training accident in December at the end of February, claiming it isn't 100 percent recovered. Meanwhile Viñales has consistently been the fastest rookie. His proximity to his team-mate may be of some concern for the elder Espargaro brother.
The verdict: Testing times suggest both riders should be regular point scorers with Espargaro consistently challenging the top ten.
Aprilia Racing Team Gresini: #19 Alvaro Bautista, #33 Marco Melandri
Having initially planned to return to MotoGP in 2016 Aprilia moved the date forward a year, in part because of their displeasure at new World Superbike regulations, in part to clock as much development work as possible. Management and riders are under no illusion that 2015 will serve as a development year.
With that in mind Alvaro Bautista's testing performances have been steady. Three seconds behind Marquez at Sepang I, he cut that margin by a second three weeks later. The Spaniard was content with new electronics that enabled a smoother power delivery but the new 'RS-GP' chassis wasn't popular with either rider. The new pneumatic valved engine has proved reliable and Bautista was able to maintain a steady race pace in the soaring Malaysian heat at the end of February.
Marco Melandri on the other hand has suffered a woeful off-season. His body language did little to suggest he came to MotoGP through his own choice and his times have lagged some way behind the rest. Seeing Leon Haslam and Jordi Torres running at the front of the World Superbike Championship will hardly ease his pains. A man who has taken five premier class wins looks to be in danger of repeating his annus horribilis from 2008.
The verdict: The factory is some way off its Japanese counterparts. Gaining consistency and fighting for points is a sound objective.
CWM LCR Honda: #35 Cal Crutchlow, #43 Jack Miller
2015 will be the third time in as many years that Cal Crutchlow lines up on a different manufacturer. With different machinery comes a different style and technique and the winter has been one of adaption for the 29-year old. Initial progress was slow as he got accustomed to the RC213V's physicality. “Physically it's 30% more per lap than the other two bikes I've ridden,” he told BT Sport.
By Sepang II Crutchlow was third fastest and had the race pace, in his eyes, to be in and around the top five. Hector Barbera aside, the Englishman was the biggest improver between the tests. And that was despite suffering from braking issues that weren't too dissimilar from Marquez.
Of all the MotoGP rookies Miller's learning curve is the steepest. Tasked with taming a bike that has close to 160 horsepower more than his Moto3 machine of six months ago, the Australian has looked a little ragged in places during testing. Some, like five-time champion Doohan, have questioned whether HRC was right to place him on an 'Open' machine in his first year but Miller's pre-season times were steady. Securing a three-year HRC contract should be key. A great deal isn't expected of him this year. Shuhei Nakamoto's aims for 2015 are achievable. “When he enters points I'm already very happy,” he said in November. Whether Miller will be content with such results remains to be seen.
The verdict: As his adaption continues apace Crutchlow could be in line to replicate his form of 2013 while Miller should be competing for points as his adaption continues.
Monster Yamaha Tech 3: #38 Bradley Smith, #44 Pol Espargaro
Signed to a one-year contract extension, Bradley Smith knows 2015 is a big one. “This is the biggest year of my career,” he told MotoGP's official website on the week of the '15 curtain raiser. Likewise Pol Espargaro is looking to close the gap on the front four after a fast, but occasionally wayward, rookie year.
The Tech 3 line-up has benefited from receiving the '14 'Factory' gearbox, which has seamless upshifts from first gear to sixth (the previous version had upshifts from second to sixth). Espargaro believes he and Smith are yet to see its true benefits as Sepang contains just one first gear corner.
The two Malaysian tests saw contrasting results and emotions for both riders. Espargaro was delighted with his rhythm and improvements in lap time at the first while Smith, recovering from a motocross accident that damaged ankle ligaments, was lacking in confidence. Roles were reversed at the end of February. Two crashes and set up woes limited Espargaro to the eleventh fastest time while Smith was content with a lap that was 0.05secs slower than Rossi's best.
The pace of the 'Factory' Ducatis will have both satellite Yamaha riders concerned as their aims primarily revolve around being the best of the rest – that is, the best of those not fortunate enough to have a 'Factory' Honda or Yamaha.
The verdict: The inter-team rivalry will be more interesting than most in Tech 3. Don't be surprised to see Espargaro and Smith challenge for podiums on occasion. The bridge to the top four may be a step too far.
Estrella Galicia 0,0 Marc VDS Honda: #45 Scott Redding
Passing Alvaro Bautista's Aprilia along the start-finish straight was the one moment of happiness for Scott Redding at the Valencia shakedown in November. “I thought I had bitten off more than I could chew,” was his damning self-assessment of his factory Honda debut. Naturally, it took time to gel with his new crew and a bike with some 50 added horsepower than his '14 'Open' Honda.
Since then Redding's mature, methodical approach has resulted in steady progress. 2.3 seconds from Marquez at Sepang I, he got within a second and a half three weeks later. The 22-year old was insistent that he wasn't looking for a time, instead focussing on adapting to a new brakes and suspension package and massively different electronics. “I'm riding with a smile because I know I'm still not close to my limit,” he told Crash.net at his team launch in Madrid. His aim for 2015 is to stand on the podium at a handful of races while he believes he can run in the top six at Qatar.
The verdict: Redding's aim of claiming two podiums in '15 is a sound one. The occasional podium challenge and consistent top six-eight finishes will represent sound progress.