Some Random Thoughts on the Approaching 2016 Season

So, we’re about a month away from the start of the 2016 championship season.  It promises to be a heller, with the return of four Aliens, the emergence of at least two wannabe Aliens–Iannone and Vinales–new tires, spec ECU, a slightly smaller grid, and tighter competition expected from top to bottom.  In no particular order, let’s take a fast look at:

  • TIRES.  Michelin, as is being said about pretty much everything and everyone other than the factory Yamaha team, is going to need some time to get things sorted out. Until Loris Baz’s explosive crash at Sepang, we were hearing that the rear tire was superior to the Bridgestone, but that the front, being more male, lacked “feeling.” Not as much negative talk after Sepang as there was at Valencia, which shows Michelin is listening and crunching the numbers.  Expect the shakedown at the French tire factory to last through the first third of the season.  Expect it to hurt the Hondas more than the others, given the RC213V is harder to ride than anything else out there.  Asterisk for Aprilia, which is kicking out all the jams just to have a rideable prototype available for Qatar next month.  Personally, if I’m Bautista or Bradl, I’m not crazy about climbing aboard a rocketbike on which the paint is not yet dry.
  • LORENZO AND ROSSI.  The two teammates, having patched up their formerly toxic relationship when Vale returned from Ducati, have once again returned to a state of mutual distrust.  Rossi says Lorenzo teamed up with Marquez to deny him the 2015 title; Lorenzo says the Yamaha brass favor Rossi over him.  Two intensely competitive guys with outsized egos.  Rossi says he will decide early this season whether to sign another two year deal with Yamaha.  Yamaha has not said if such a deal is on the table, slavering as they are over the likes of Alex Rins and Maverick Vinales.  It will be interesting to see if Rossi decides to re-up and Yamaha offers him a one year deal or no deal at all, making a play for Rins to team up with defending champion Lorenzo, who appears to be a mortal lock for his next contract.  Would Rossi accept a one year deal after publicly announcing a desire for a two year contract?  Nothing certain about that.
  • SPEC ECU.  Cal Crutchlow confirmed what I’ve suspected for some time–Ducati have the inside track on the spec ECU, having worked with Magneti Marelli for years, the relationship fired by, among other things, the rampant nationalism extant in Italy. For everyone else, I’m guessing the sensation of moving from their own electronic control unit to the unified ECU is comparable to going from a 12 speed bicycle to a 6 speed model.  While the top speed may be the same, getting there requires more effort.  Again, it appears Honda is struggling with the change more than Ducati, and more than Yamaha.  The expected benefit accruing to Suzuki over this item has not appeared as yet, the Hamamatsu factory seemingly needing more than just a more level playing field to run with the big dogs.
  • SHEER NUMBERS.  This year will feature four Yamahas, five Hondas, eight Ducatis, two Suzukis and two Aprilias.  It is fair to expect Ducati to have a very good year, moreso if 2016 turns out to be a wet season.  The Ducs are strong in the rain, and the Michelin rain tires are, at least now, an unknown quantity.  Suppose we find ourselves with a couple of flag-to-flag affairs in which each manufacturer sees one or two of its entries go down.  Ducati could conceivably place two bikes on such a podium due to the rapid improvements brought about by Gigi and the sheer number of bikes on track.  It wasn’t too long ago that Pramac Racing was a complete joke; those days are over.  When a Hector Barbera lights it up in preseason at Sepang, you have to feel somethin’s up.
  • IANNONE VS. DOVIZIOSO.  Sad to say, it appears Andrea Dovizioso’s career peaked in 2013 or 2014.  If there is anyone poised to join the Alien club this season, it is Iannone, who finished a mere 18 points behind Pedrosa last season despite crashing out/retiring from three of the last four races.  Up until then he appeared to have fourth place in the bag.  With the Hondas expected to get off to a slow start (read: crash out of several of the first half dozen races) I would be surprised if Iannone doesn’t finally get his Alien card in the mail.  It is also fair to expect Scott Redding to improve his game this year, with plenty of grunt underneath his hulking frame and Gigi pulling the strings.
  • SUZUKI NEEDS TO STEP UP.  Lest they lose one or both of their riders.  The good news–they have more horsepower under the hood this year.  The bad news–the spec ECU is not helping anything, and their seamless transmission is still one way only.  Someone is going to poach Vinales; he is rated #1 or #2 of the riders expected to join the factory Yamaha or Honda teams.  Espargaro, along with his brother Pol on the satellite Yamaha, continues to chafe about not being able to secure a top tier ride.  He turns 27 in July; the prospect of his ever becoming an Alien diminishes with each passing year.  By comparison, Rossi joined an Alien-class team at age 21; Lorenzo at 20, Pedrosa at 20 and Marquez at 20.  If it were going to happen for Aleix, it would have done so already.

We will have a full-scale season preview ready a week or so before the teams head for Losail.  With Austria on the calendar and Indianapolis now off, it seems fair to say that the calendar has turned a little more in favor of the Yamahas.  Marc Marquez needs to come to grips with the 2016 chassis, as I doubt management will continue to allow him to race the 2014 version he ended last year on.  Will he get his act together sufficiently to challenge Lorenzo and Rossi for the 2016 title?  In mid-February, with snow on the ground in Indiana, that appears to be a tall order.

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