2017 MotoGP pre-season forecast

For the last 3-4 years, MotoGP pre-season crystal balls have been relatively simple affairs: the big guns - Valentino Rossi, Jorge Lorenzo, Marc Marquez and Dani Pedrosa fighting over the major spoils  – and then the rest fighting over the odd podium and even rarer victories.

However, the forces are certainly about to change, and without a doubt the man most likely to break down the established order is Spaniard Maverick Vinales.

In all reality, the 22-year-old is already a star after powering to his first MotoGP win on the Ecstar Suzuki at Silverstone in 2016, but the way he has adapted to the factory Movistar Yamaha is, quite frankly, enough to send shivers through his opponents.

Long  runs, short runs – it hasn't mattered this pre-season as Vinales has consistently been at the top of the timesheets, and at Sepang and Phillip Island that meant at the very summit.

And the key part of that equation – very much a-la Casey Stoner during his first MotoGP title in 2007 – is that he hasn't relied on a flying lap at the end of a test session to catapult up the order: he's been thereabouts from the start. 

There's nothing artificial about that, which is why Vinales and reigning world champion Marquez (Repsol Honda) are locked in as the early favourites to battle it out for the 18-round 2017 MotoGP title – and the countrymen aren't great buddies either, so there'll be no favours given at any level. Nor will they be expecting it.

The biggest X factor will be how Vinales copes with the constant pressure of being a bona-fide championship contender, as Marquez – as well as Rossi (Movistar Yamaha) and Lorenzo (Ducati Team) – absorb and deal with pressure in the only way champions can. It is what has set them apart from the others during long and stressful seasons.

Even if he title comes down to a Marquez and Vinales race, the first round in Qatar on March 26 is not as clearcut.

Ducati, for one, has always been a strong performer at the floodlit desert circuit, which may be a positive omen for Lorenzo to make the grandest statement of all in his first outing on the Italian equipment.

Lorenzo was victorious on the Movistar Yamaha in Qatar last year, ahead of Dovizioso, Marquez and Rossi, and during a recent interview MotoGP rookie Alex Lowes (Aprilia Racing Team Gresini) believes Lorenzo will do it again in 2017 – despite a pre-season that has had its challenges.

If not Lorenzo, it may be his teammate Andrea Dovizioso's time to shine. 'Dovi' was one of nine riders to win a MotoGP race in 2016, alongside Marquez, Rossi, Vinales, Lorenzo, Dani Pedrosa (Repsol Honda), Cal Crutchlow (LCR Honda), Aussie Jack Miller (Estrella Galicia 0,0 Marc  VDS Honda) and Andrea Iannone.

Other than Vinales, Iannone (Ecstar Suzuki) is the only other rider in that nine to swap teams in 2017, but 'The Maniac' has also adapted to his new steed so he cannot be discounted to greet the chequered flag again.

Meanwhile Rossi, the wily veteran, hasn't set the world alight in pre-season – but everyone knows he will in the mix come round one. And if Marquez and/or Vinales slip up during the year, he will be ready to pounce.

It's also an important year for Miller as he plays out the final season of a three-year contract with Honda Racing Corporation. Now fully fit, the Queenslander says he's "now in charge of his bike" and not the other way around . That's a major breakthrough for Miller as he looks to rack up some consistent point-scoring finishes – and maybe another win or two if the weather turns, which would add to his success at Assen in 2016 when he became the first non-factory rider since 2006 to win a MotoGP race.

And when it rains, riders can only use wet (or slick) tyres in 2017, as intermediates have been banned. The loss of intermediates has been compensated by a bigger choice of slick tyres.

As well as Lowes, the other rookies in 2017 are Jonas Folger, Johann Zarco (both Monster Yamaha Tech 3) and Alex Rins (Ecstar Suzuki), while the new team is KTM with experienced pair Bradley Smith and Pol Espargaro at the helm.

The mercurial Folger has adapted brilliantly to the Yamaha and could well be the fastest rookie out of the box in Qatar, but Zarco isn't a dual Moto2 world champion because he lacks smarts and raw aggression. As Zarco becomes  more comfortable he will lift his work rate.

Tito Rabat (Estrella Galicia 0,0 Marc  VDS Honda), Aleix Espargaro (Aprilia Racing Team Gresini) and three independent Ducati teams (Octo Pramac Racing's Danilo Petrucci and Scott Redding, Pull&Bear Aspar's Alvaro Bautista and Karel Abraham, and Reale Avintia Racing's Hector Barbera and Loris Baz) complete the 2017 field.

Petrucci has a 2017 model Ducati at his disposal, but Bautista has enjoyed a new lease of life in pre-season after two years at Aprilia, and already has two top 10 MotoGP championship finishes to his credit.

The battle is about to begin!

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