Now that the first test for the MotoGP is done and dusted, we could perhaps look back at what were the key reflections from Sepang in the context of the upcoming battle for the top honours in 2017. Indeed, we are looking at a very interesting one.
For one, the challenge of Movistar Yamaha new recruit, Maverick Vinales – the 2013 Moto3 world champion - is very real. The Spaniard’s impressive first outing at last season’s post-season test in Valencia was not a one wonder performance. Two months after setting the fastest time in Valencia to close 2016, Vinales was again topping the timesheet at the opening 2017 calendar at Sepang International Circuit, which will again host the penultimate round of the season in October.
Who would then have the fastest bike?
But, while we anxiously wait for the real battle to start in Qatar in March, the young Spaniard has already sent a clear message to his more celebrated rivals – The Maverick is ready to challenge for his second world crown. That would effectively mean that Valentino Rossi, who parted with Jorge Lorenzo last season, will again have another Spanish title contender sharing his Movistar Yamaha garage.
Could we see the dividing wall erected again to separate the factory Yamaha team-mates? Only time will tell? Time will also tell whether The Doctor would still be smiling together and sharing lights moments with his new race partner.
Winner of the MotoGP Rookie of The Year award last season, Vinales – who was also Moto3 Rookie of The Year in 2013 and Moto2 Rookie of The Year in 2014, had a sensational season last year; given that the young Spaniard was riding in a Suzuki, which was just coming back to compete in the premier class. He contributed to the record-breaking feat of nine different winners in 2016; by topping the British Grand Prix to give Suzuki their first win in the premier class since 2007.
That speaks huge volume in the capabilities of the 22-year old Spaniard, who finished 4th overall in his second season in MotoGP with 202 points.
As reflected in the strained ties with Lorenzo, partnering the legendary Valentino Rossi will have its unique challenges especially if both were on track to be challenging for the world crown this season. A small unintentional mistake of clipping the rear wheel at the first turn at the opening race in Qatar can just be the spark required to start a fiery feud throughout the season. What if both team-mates collide against each other like what happened to the Ducati riders in Argentina last season?
Rossi’s times at the Sepang test showed that the nine-time world champion will remain as a strong factor in the 2017 championship battle. While Vinales ended the three-day session with 1m 59.368s around the 5543-meter track on his new YZR-M1 machine, Rossi had 1m 59.589s, which he recorded on the final day of testing.
Rossi, however, is more recognised for his supreme skills at actual races rather than at test sessions. Even at 38, Rossi is always hungry and ever as determined to win races and perhaps, complete a collection of 10 world titles.
Andrea Iannone, who took over Vinales seat at Team Suzuki Ecstar, was superb with his new team; setting the second fastest in Sepang on his GSX-RR with a time of 1m 59.452s. The Italian finished ahead of defending champion Marc Marquez of Repsol Honda Team, who chalked 1m 59.506s on RC213V machine on Day 3. Ducati’s Andrea Dovizioso was fourth fastest with time of 1m 59.553s; followed by Dani Pedrosa in fifth overall with a time of 1m 59.578s. The new Ducati man, Jorge Lorenzo was 10th in the combined best time with a best lap time of 1m 59.767s on his Desmosedici GP17 machine.
Looking at the lap times in Sepang, and as rightly commented by Rossi himself, the 2017 championship battle looks set to be “a very tough fight” with six of the top riders lapping the Sepang track within 0.26s of Viñales' fastest time in Sepang. The list of six riders exclude three-time MotoGP champion, Lorenzo, who was clearly still mastering his new Ducati machine in Sepang.
While it is unlikely to see a repeat of last season’s sensational record of nine different winners, the test in Sepang confirmed that the leading four manufacturers – Yamaha, Honda, Ducati and Suzuki will be contending for wins throughout the season. Honda and reigning champion Marc Marquez, however, will naturally be the hot favourite for the 2017 world crown.
With three MotoGP titles, Marquez will be considered as the veteran; despite only being two years older than Vinales, who now takes the role of his compatriot when Marquez first started to compete in the premier class in 2013.
A ‘Vinales vs Marquez’ contest? Sounds strange? Let’s see if Maverick can send a stronger message at the second test in Phillip Island.