A new calendar, riders, and new technical and disciplinary regulations… it’s time to warm up the engines and get ready for the 2016 grand prix season. Of all the changes, however, the introduction of the unified ECU software (to reduce costs and level the playing field) has shuffled the cards. The 2016 season starts with many unsure, especially around how the new electronics will work toward the final part of the race. Also, the switch to Michelin tires is another big challenge for the manufacturers, but most of all for the riders who need to adapt their riding styles. No doubt that the show will benefit. So, first mission accomplished. But, here are the top ten things you need to know to follow the 2016 MotoGP season that kicks off at the Losail circuit in Qatar, on March 20.
1. New Technical Regulations
The biggest technical rule change is the switch to the unified software developed by Magneti Marelli with input from Honda, Yamaha, and Ducati. These three manufacturers will play an important role throughout the season, because together unanimously they can request modifications, and Magneti Marelli will have to implement the functionality of the software according to the request. The second key change, is the new spec-tire supplier for the MotoGP class. After seven seasons with Bridgestone, Michelin returns as the sole supplier. The feedback from the riders during preseason testing has been consistent regarding the rear tires, with a very positive reaction, but the fronts have been blamed for too many crashes due to slower warm-up time compared to the Japanese rubber. Other changes concern fuel, all bikes on the grid will be allowed a maximum of 22 liters (no more “Open-class machines,” see #2 below), while the minimum weight requirement has been reduced by 2.2 pounds to 346.
2. Single MotoGP Class
The Open class has been abolished but there are still some concessions being made to support new manufacturers entering the series, and those that have not yet had sufficient success. All the machines will be allowed the same amount of fuel, the same tire allocation, and will use the same electronics. The concessions relate only to testing and to engine development. Honda, Yamaha, and Ducati will be subjected to a total allocation of seven engines per season, a freeze on engine development, and five days of testing with their contracted riders in addition to the official test sessions organized by IRTA. Suzuki, Aprilia, and KTM (when they join the series in 2017), will be allowed nine engines, unrestricted engine development, and an unlimited number of private tests.
3. Penalty Points
In the past, a rider who accumulated between four to seven penalty points on their license had to start from the back of the grid. This is what happened to Valentino Rossi at the Valencia GP last year after he was sanctioned for the incident with Marc Marquez during the Malaysian Grand Prix. The system of penalty points changes in 2016, with the disqualification from an event, which will happen when a rider accumulates 10 penalty points. The interim penalties previously triggered after accumulating four or seven points, no longer apply. Penalty points will be tallied on the record of the rider for 365 days. However, when a rider has accumulated 10 or more points and suffered a disqualification they will start from scratch again.
4. Race Direction
The composition of Race Direction remains unchanged with three primary members: Mike Webb (Race Director), Franco Uncini (FIM), and Javier Alonso (representing Dorna), plus Graham Webber as Deputy Race Director. But following the incident between Rossi and Marquez at the 2015 Malaysian GP, a new panel of independent stewards was created. Regarding sanctions, Race Direction will be responsible for giving penalties for offences that are considered indisputable matters of fact (pit-lane speeding, passing under yellow flags, etc). All other issues requiring further analysis of actions, including any incidences of dangerous riding, will be reviewed by a panel of three stewards that will include the Race Director and two other members appointed by the FIM.
The calendar maintains eighteen races. The Red Bull Grand Prix of the Americas is scheduled on April 10th at Austin, Texas, but the United States loses one round, with the new entry of the Austrian GP on August 14, that replaces the slot previously held by the legendary Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The Red Bull Ring is located in the town of Spielberg in Austria. The circuit was originally built 1969 and was known as the Osterreichring. In 1996, it was completely rebuilt with a new 2.67-mile layout and renamed the A1 Ring. The track was originally closed after the 2004 season as it was in need of refurbishment. After three years of inaction, Red Bull began a $70 million reconstruction of the circuit in 2008, and it was finally inaugurated as the Red Bull Ring and re-opened in 2011. MotoGP returns to Austria for the first time since 1997.
6. More Tires, More Show
With the elimination of the Open category, tire allocation and compounds will be the same for everyone. Compared to 2015, there will be one more tire available: 10 front and 12 rear slicks for the weekend. The number of rain tires remains the same, while additionally, Michelin will bring three sets of intermediates per weekend for semi-wet conditions. The wheel sizes have also changed to 17-inch wheels (instead of 16.5-inch), while the riders and teams will have to choose between two compounds that Michelin will bring to each race meeting.
7. Engines and Seamless Gearbox
Honda has led the way with seamless-transmission technology in its RC213V. One by one, the other manufacturers have followed suit, and at the start of the 2016 season all the factory bikes will be equipped with a seamless gearbox. Suzuki was the last manufacturer to introduce a full (up and downshift) seamless on the GSX-RR. Regarding engines, the latest prototype to debut is Aprilia with its RS-GP powered by a narrow angle V4. Honda and Ducati are equipped with 90-degree V4s, while Yamaha and Suzuki have opted for inline-fours. The general philosophy behind these choices is that the V4 configuration promotes aerodynamics at the expense of possible swingarm length, while the inline-fours favor nimble handling chassis.
8. A Starting Grid of Champions
Out of the 21 riders who are scheduled to compete in the MotoGP class, there are 10 world champions who’ve won a total of 27 titles. Rossi is the most successful with nine crowns, followed by Jorge Lorenzo (five), Marc Marquez (four) and Dani Pedrosa (three). The only rookie lining up is the 2014 Moto2 World Champion Tito Rabat on a Honda riding for the Marc VDS Team. For the first time in ages there won’t be an American rider in the MotoGP class, which sees only eight nations represented. Spain dominates with nine riders, and Italy is second with four. As a matter of fact, the American flag is completely missing from the entire paddock, with no Yanks lining up with the 30 other riders in the Moto2 class, or with the 31 in Moto3. Sad times for U.S. fans watching MotoGP.
9. The Man to Beat
With five titles under his belt (three in the premiere class), the reigning MotoGP World Champion is unquestionably the man to beat. Lorenzo impressed at Sepang and Phillip Island, and once again led the field on the final day in Qatar. He was the lone rider down into the 1:54s at the end of the final three-day test and over half a second faster than his closest rivals. Not only was Lorenzo’s one-lap pace nearly untouchable, his race simulation was strong with the majority of laps in the low 1:56s and several in the 1:55s, even towards the end of longer runs. Despite being disappointed with the soft front tire he tested at Qatar, he has adapted well to the new Michelin tires, and his Yamaha M1 appears to be the most balanced bike on the grid.
10. Riders: Favorites and Those with Question Marks
The first race will answer our initial questions, but after nine days of winter testing we have a pretty good idea which riders appear to be contenders and which still have some work to do. Together with Lorenzo, the riders who appear to be clear favorites based on winter testing are: Rossi, who was always able to stay toward the front; Maverick Vinales, the most promising rider who–thanks to a more powerful Suzuki equipped with the fully seamless gearbox–was able to show his potential; Andrea Iannone, who is hungry for victories and whose style fits the Ducati very well; Andrea Dovizioso, who is more consistent on the race pace, and Scott Redding, who has adapted well to the Ducati GP15, and has returned to enjoying his riding after two seasons on a not-so-competitive Honda. The injured Danilo Petrucci proved at Sepang and Australia that the podium he claimed at the British GP in 2015 was not by chance. Among the riders who head into Losail with a few questions are the factory Honda duo of Marquez and Pedrosa who have struggled more than expected on their RC213Vs; Aleix Espargaro hasn’t adapted to the new Suzuki as well as his teammate Vinales; the Aprilia duo of Stefan Bradl and Alvaro Bautista, are busy developing the new prototype. Perhaps the premature jump from Moto3 to the premiere class without passing through at least one year of experience in the Moto2 doesn’t seem to have helped Jack Miller: the Aussie struggled in winter testing, finishing 19th at the Qatar test (same position that he got in the 2015 world standing) back 2.2 seconds behind Lorenzo’s quickest time. But let’s be honest here, the entire field of MotoGP regulars was only covered by 2.5 seconds at Qatar, which means that on a good day anyone one of these riders could surprise us with a strong performance. On paper at least, it looks like 2016 could prove to be a banner year in terms of competition.