This is the most delicious time on the racing calendar: a new year begins, and anything is possible. Well, almost anything.
It’s unlikely (for example) that the big prize will go to MotoGP’s oldest inhabitant (Andrea Dovizioso, turning 36, takes over from the departed Valentino Rossi); nor to one of the three rookies (Darryn Binder, Fabio Di Giannantonio and Marco Bezzecchi). The oldest premier-class champion, by the way, was decorated WW2 bomber pilot Les Graham, inaugural champion in 1949, aged 37; the oldest race winner 44-year-old Fergus Anderson, both British.
There has only been one true rookie title winner in 73 years of history: Kenny Roberts came in stone cold in 1978 from the USA, running at first in both 250 and 500 classes, seeking more time to learn his way round tracks he’d never seen before. By year’s end he was concentrating on the big bikes, and defeated reigning champion Barry Sheene by ten points. In 2013, new champion Marc Marquez was technically a rookie, a class rookie, but had behind him five grand prix years and two championships in the smaller classes. But nobody should rule out any surprises, and there have been several over the past two years. More should follow, with some notable changes to important aspects of the overall landscape.
Most importantly, after two years in which engine development was frozen during the pandemic, the 2022 MotoGP bikes will be proper new models. Ideas and experiments that have perforce been bottled up can now be set free. Pandora’s petrol-powered box.
This affects Honda the most. For 2019 and 2020, as well as the crucial absence of a fully fit Marc Marquez, racing’s most successful factory was doubly hampered by being unable to fiddle with the internals of their 90-degree V4. The remaining riders (and part of last year the returning Marc) complained of problems both into and out of corners. These were caused at least partly and possibly entirely by the engine character – the way it behaved both on and off the throttle. With electronics also frozen, changes could still be have been made by altering crankshaft mass as well as gas-flow characteristics… but Honda’s hands were tied.
The first tests of new bikes – still early prototypes – were held at Jerez shortly after the final race in Valencia in November. Honda riders came away smiling, reporting significantly improved behaviour. Margins are small in MotoGP, and little changes can make a big difference.
It’s not only machines, of course. How about Honda’s superstar rider? Marquez had proved fragile again. Having missed the first two races, he withdrew also from the last two: concussion in a training tumble caused the return of double-vision problems. These had threatened to end his career early in 2011, until delicate and potentially risky micro-surgical repair brought relief.
This time, surgery has so far been avoided, while a cautiously worded statement from Honda before Christmas revealed that he had resumed physical if not on-bike training, after “progress… has been deemed favourable” by his ophthalmologist. Stopping short of reporting complete recovery meant that his appearance at pre-season tests remains open to question, and left open the possibility of surgery. Marquez is a warrior supreme, but yet another setback will test his resolve still further.
The same chances to improve affect all the other entrants. Racing fans and rivals alike are agog to see what fresh innovations Ducati’s adventurous chief Gigi Dall’Igna might dream up. Over recent seasons Ducati have led the way with aerodynamics (including the controversial “tyre-cooling” scoop ahead of the rear wheel) as well as “shape-shifting” front and rear ride-height adjustments, operating semi-automatically into and out of corners. These cleverly circumvented the ban on active suspension units, but now all the bikes have versions of the same thing. Will Ducati have something new for 2022?
Yamaha riders, particularly new champion Fabio Quartararo, did not let up in their requests for more horsepower over the past two years. Will they at last get it? Or will the bike’s newly restored good balance again be enough to make up for a lack of outright grunt.
The first ever French champion faces another potential problem – ex-satellite-team colleague Franco Morbidelli joins him again in the factory squad, and the former Moto2 champion beat him last time they were on equal machines.
Ducati arguably lost the riders’ crown last year, with three different race winners (Bagnaia, Miller and Martin) taking points off one another. Quartararo was the only Yamaha rider to win. That is likely to change in 2022.
This leaves Suzuki, with 2020 champion Mir and team-mate Rins desperate for more horsepower; KTM’s race winners Binder and Oliveira wishing for more balanced performance; and Aprilia’s Aleix Espargaro hoping his new team-mate Maverick Vinales (himself intent on rescuing his career) will help continue the Italian marque’s recent improvements. Plus a raft of satellite team riders with plenty to prove. What could possibly go wrong?