In less than two weeks the 2011 MotoGP season officially starts with the first test at Sepang in Malaysia.
The 2011 MotoGP season carries significance for a number of reasons. First, it will be the premiere class’ final 800cc title before the allowable engine capacity goes to 1000cc in 2012.
Secondly, after many years of wondering about the proposition, we have Italian Valentino Rossi riding the Italian icon, Ducati. Fans, especially Italians, couldn’t be more excited.
Thirdly, the MotoGP field is shaping up to be one of the toughest in years. Given the performances of last season there are some new names creeping into the equation of who will no doubt be looking to shine.
Riding the momentum of a stellar 2010 season is the current World Champion, Jorge Lorenzo aboard the M1 Yamaha. The Majorcan has acquired a calm that only total self-assuredness and confidence can produce.
Even in the heat of battle Lorenzo displayed incredible maturity, regardless of who was breathing down his neck. The man finished on the podium 16 times in the 18 round series last year. Naturally, Lorenzo is the man to be beat.
While Lorenzo stays situated in his now familiar Team Yamaha MotoGP pit with his proven team of techs, his two main threats, Casey Stoner and Rossi have made the switch to new teams.
Stoner impressed his first time on the Honda at seasons’ end, posting the fastest time at the final test of 2010. Rossi will be aboard the mighty Ducati Desmosedici, teamed with American Nicky Hayden (the two were MotoGP teammates on Honda several years back so there may actually be some harmony in the red pit).
Despite the speculation of how difficult the Ducati is to ride, you can never rule Rossi out. Vale has the ability to ride around problems and limitations and adapts extremely quickly. Perhaps most interesting will be how Ducati responds to the king of MotoGP’s requests for changes on the bike.
Stoner is back with HRC Honda and proved his comfort level on the RC212V by posting the fastest time at last year’s Valencia test. Stoner unquestionably has the speed and credentials. He now has the machine under him that he is actually more comfortable with then he was with the Ducati MotoGP machine.
Dani Pedrosa comes into 2011 with the benefit of remaining with Team Honda (for the sixth year). The Repsol rider, one of the "aliens," consistently runs well so long as he can avoid injury. He is perhaps Lornezo’s biggest concern. Look for these two to fight, with Pedrosa carrying the added motivation to win his first premiere class title.
Perhaps the most overlooked MotoGP rider of 2010 was Andrea Dovizioso. The 24-year-old Italian consistently ran up front and gave the usual suspects a real go for it. Dovi (as he is known) returns to the familiarity of the Honda garage. It was interesting to see how even the TV commentators tended to overlook Dovi even when he was in the midst of the front runners.
Of course all eyes are on American Ben Spies. "Elbows" transitions from the Tech3 Yamaha to the full factory M1. Spies is unquestionably the biggest expectation on the MotoGP grid for 2011. As a rookie in 2010 he proved his ability to learn tracks quickly and ran at the front.
The Texan is a technician and carefully calculates every aspect of track, machine, tires, and most importantly, his MotoGP competition. Given the added bonus of being aboard the factory Yamaha adds an enormous amount of validity to a firm shot at the title.
One of the other three Americans, Nicky Hayden, gets back on the Ducati for 2011. The 2006 World Champion is determined to bring the title home again. The Kentuckian seems to have made changes to the Desmosedici to better suit his riding style.
Colin Edwards, now one of the senior riders along with Italian Loris Capirossi (making the switch to a Desmosedici on the Pramac Racing MotoGP Team) will stay with familiar surroundings of the Tech3 Yamaha squad.
The Texas Tornado still has incredible speed and has the ability to run at the front. Don’t count him out, especially since there is strong speculation that Edwards may make this his final year in racing.
Slowly adapting to the premiere class is Italian Marco Simoncelli. His results on the San Carlo/Gresini Honda have steadily improved, putting him into the mix on several occasions with the MotoGP regulars the last two seasons.
Randy de Puniet, the lone Frenchman in the MotoGP class, moves to the Pramac Team and will campaign the satellite Desmosedici. De Puniet has proven himself to be a consistent front runner and only needs his luck to improve to be a contender.
Add to all this the unpredictable equations of Hector Barbera, Alvara Bautista and Hiroshi Aoyama (all who moved up from the 250cc class two seasons ago and are slowly adapting to the bigger bikes), and the very serious threat of WSBK powerhouse Cal Crutchlow (Monster Tech3 Yamaha) and 2010 Moto2 World Champion Toni Elias, and the 2011 MotoGP season is shaping up as one of the most competitive in years.
We’ll get our first taste of things to come at the Feb. 1-3 test in Sepang. And while the time sheets don’t always tell the whole tale, it usually provides a pretty good platform for placing bets and getting back to the armchair predictions we just can’t seem to avoid. And after that, we can only wait for the lights to go out in Losail, March 20.