2017 MotoGP Season Preview

A look at some of the rider changes and team additions for the 2017 MotoGP World Championship to see how the competition stacks up going into the season opener in Qatar on March 26.

2017 MotoGP season preview
There’s plenty to talk about going into the 2017 MotoGP season opener, but actions speak louder than words… Who will fire the first shot in Qatar?Photo: MotoGP

The 2016 MotoGP Championship will be a hard act to follow. With nine different winners and 18 races full of surprises last season, the question is: will 2017 measure up? But that's not the only question... How will Jorge Lorenzo fare on the Ducati? Can Valentino Rossi get title number 10? And is Maverick Viñales really the heir apparent?

Defending MotoGP world champion Marc Marquez
Defending MotoGP Champion Marc Marquez looks to defend his title with a good result in the desert.Photo: MotoGP

With so many rider changes in the new year and an increase to six factory teams in 2017, there are a lot of unknowns. Also, the grid for 2017 is stacked, with a record 10 World Champions and a total of 29 titles amongst them. Add to that the circle of competitive factory teams is expanding with continued progress from the new manufacturers on the block – first and foremost Suzuki, but Aprilia has made gains and everyone is curious to see how quickly KTM can catch up in its debut season – there could be even more surprises in the new year.

Perennial Aliens
There have been four guys that have consistently stayed at the top of the sport in recent memory: Marc Marquez, Valentino Rossi, Jorge Lorenzo and Dani Pedrosa. These four have been able to keep their elite status as "Aliens" in spite of the highs and lows of racing in the premier road race championship in the World.

Valentino Rossi, Movistar Yamaha team
Can Valentino Rossi score his 10th title in 2017?Photo: MotoGP

Although the “Aliens” label for the sport’s elite came before Marquez arrived to the scene, the Repsol Honda rider leads the lot going into 2017 as the reigning World Champion and the winningest rider in recent memory with three MotoGP championships in just four years of competition. Marquez showed a growth in maturity last season, foregoing his usual first-or-last approach to racing and taking the best points haul possible. It was that change in mentality that earned his 2017 title early, even though the Honda RC213V was struggling more than its counterparts in the early days of a spec-ECU.

Jorge Lorenzo on Ducati
The biggest question mark heading into the new season is how will Jorge Lorenzo fare on the Ducati?Photo: MotoGP

Next up is Lorenzo, who is also a three-time MotoGP Champion and the only rider not named Marquez to clinch the title since the 24-year-old from Cervera hit the scene in 2013. But while Lorenzo’s pedigree still precedes himself in the modern era, the Spaniard is perhaps the biggest wild card. It has yet to be seen how Lorenzo will adapt to the Factory Ducati Desmosedici. Traditionally a corner speed rider, if Lorenzo can make a smooth transition to the Duc, perhaps the only one who can beat Lorenzo is Lorenzo himself.

The Ducati has quickly become a powerful weapon and Lorenzo when he’s on form is tough to beat. Everyone is waiting to see if it will be a match made in heaven, or if Lorenzo, like his former Movistar Yamaha teammate Rossi, will wish he hadn’t sought greener pastures and stuck with Yamaha YZ-M1.

Speaking of a perennial… There is one guy that tops that list – Movistar Yamaha’s Rossi. With nine World Championships to his credit, the 38-year-old Italian continues to be a force to be reckoned with. But as he approaches 40, many feel that 2017 is Rossi’s last shot at title number 10. To be fair, everyone thought Rossi was washed up several times before and “the Doctor” shows no signs of slowing down yet. Still, time is running out and number four-six is looking for a perfect 10 before he hangs up his hat in the World Championship.

Repsol Honda's Dani Pedrosa
Although Dani Pedrosa had a rough 2016, the Spaniard looks to be in much better form with the latest version of the RC213V.Photo: MotoGP

Completing the foursome is Pedrosa. Although he’s the only one of the four to not have a MotoGP Championship, he’s long been in the hunt for one. Last year was probably one of his most difficult seasons on record as Pedrosa really struggled on the RC213V, but he never gave up and eventually scored a win of his own at round 13 in Misano. This year going into the season opener the Repsol Honda machine is in a much better place and as such, don’t rule Pedrosa out of the mix or pulling off the upset.

Aliens In The Making
Topping this list is the young Phenom – Maverick Viñales. New to the Movistar Yamaha squad in 2017, Viñales goes into his third season of MotoGP with a win under his belt and a perfect score in testing. But while Viñales was the man to top the charts in testing, everyone is waiting to see if that will translate to the race track. So although he has his critics until he can turn those fast times into race wins, it's hard not to see him as a favorite to challenge for the title, especially on the Yamaha.

Maverick Viñales, Movistar Yamaha
Maverick Viñales has been the rider to beat in winter testing, but everyone’s waiting to see if the young Spaniard to can translate those fast test times to race results.Photo: MotoGP
Andrea Dovizioso, Ducati Team
While all the talk has surrounded Lorenzo, his teammate Andrea Dovizioso has a lot of time on the Desmosedici and has been there for its development. The Italian could very well surprise everyone and have a shot at the title if he can raise his game in 2017.Photo: MotoGP
Ducati Team's Dovi
Andrea Dovizioso, Ducati TeamPhoto: MotoGP

It’s sort of weird to dub a veteran like Andrea Dovizioso as an “Alien in the making,” as he’s dipped his toe in that pool many times before. Unfortunately for the Italian, moving around to different teams, getting shuffled down in the order and eventually landing a development role for the Ducati Desmosedici hasn’t allowed him to cement that status. But patience is a virtue and because Dovizioso has been the guy to develop Ducati’s new weapon, it’s now “Dovi’s” opportunity to shine. The question is will the Italian be able to put the pieces together and step up his game to score his first MotoGP title.

Another Andrea that has dipped his toe in the “Alien” pool is Team Suzuki Ecstar’s Andrea Iannone. Dovizioso’s former teammate has dipped his toe in, but has also (metaphorically speaking) firmly inserted his foot in his mouth out on the racetrack, punting fellow riders off of the racetrack. While those actions made him less than popular with his compatriots, Iannone is still a contender and a proven race winner. Although he is now outside of the manufacturer circle’s top three, Suzuki is catching up. So don't count “the Maniac” out.

Wild Cards
There are a host of Wild Cards in the mix, on both factory spots and independent teams, but best to start with proven winners like LCR Honda's Cal Crutchlow and Team EG 0,0 Marc VDS' Jack Miller. The weather is always an equalizer, but if the RC213V has truly upped its game in 2017, perhaps we will see more from Crutchlow and the young Miller.

There are also some rookies out there poised to turn some heads, but so far it has been the Monster Yamaha Tech 3 duo that has stood out – Jonas Folger and back-to-back Moto2 Champion Johann Zarco. Iannone’s teammate Alex Rins could also surprise if the rookie continues to hit his stride.

The biggest unknown factors are Aprilia Racing Team Gresini and the Red Bull KTM Factory Racing team as they play catch up to the other factories. Aprilia made great strides last season and has veteran Aleix Espargaro (who is no stranger to the bike development game coming from Suzuki) and rookie Sam Lowes. Although the expectations aren’t high for the fledgling KTM squad with Pol Espargaro and Bradley Smith, there could be surprises there as well.

At the end of the day, you can look at past results, testing results and line something up on paper. Thankfully racing’s not performed on paper. We’ll have to wait for the real results when the lights go out in Qatar on Sunday, March 26.