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By Matthew Birt

Valencia, the season and 2017: the MotoGP™ future is bright

MotoGP™ commentator Matthew Birt looks ahead to the season finale, back at 2016 - and further forward to testing as 2017 looms

Tags MotoGP, 2016

With 21 years of experience reporting on MotoGP™, Matthew Birt knows the championship inside-out. For the 2016 season he remains with the team to bring you exclusive news and opinion from inside the paddock.

It might be the first time since 2012 that at least one World Championship is not up for grabs at the final round of the season in Valencia, but I don’t think this weekend has anything like a feel of anti-climax to it.

Firstly, there’s the prospect of a 10th different winner in MotoGP™, which seemed like a preposterous notion when Valentino Rossi, Jorge Lorenzo and Marc Marquez shared the first seven victories of 2016 between them.

In the 10 races since the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya we have witnessed six different winners in a sequence of results that can only really be described as freakish. In fact, the more you think about what has unfolded in the second half of this season then the more outlandish it becomes.

We’ve had as many different winners in the opening 17 races of this year than we had since 2007. Next, somebody will be telling me Star Wars, The Terminator and E.T were all based on true stories!

So I’m going to the last person on earth to say we won’t witness a record-breaking 10th different winner, though of the candidates left on the 2016 grid, none have ever won a MotoGP™ race.

Oh hang on, didn’t stop Jack Miller, Andrea Iannone, Cal Crutchlow or Maverick Vinales though did it?

This weekend too will give us the first insight into whether the future really is bright and if the future really is orange.

KTM’s ambition seems to know no bounds and confirmation of their status as an emerging superpower in the global motorcycle industry will come this weekend when the new RC16 makes its MotoGP™ debut as a wild card - in the hands of test rider Mika Kallio.

Make no mistake, KTM are not entering MotoGP™ to make up the numbers. Anybody that listened intently to senior management laying out their master plan for the new project at the Red Bull Ring in August will be under no illusions about the Austrian manufacturer’s desire to conquer the premier class.

Already restored as the brand to beat in Moto3™ in 2017, KTM is seriously ramping up its involvement in the World Championship paddock next year. The RC16 is its MotoGP™ contender, but KTM will also have its own chassis project in Moto2™ next season. But this weekend’s Valencia race will be far too early to draw any concrete conclusions about the potential of the RC16 and we are going to have to wait a while to gauge whether KTM’s ambition outweighs its talent.

However, insiders have been confident that the bike has been race ready since the summer after an exhaustive test program that has included input from the likes of Alex Hofmann, Randy de Puniet, Tom Luthi, Karel Abraham and Kallio.

Kallio is an experienced campaigner with an impressive CV that boasts 16 GP victories and 49 podium finishes, but in terms of race experience he is ring rusty in the extreme, having not tasted the thrill and adrenaline of cut throat competition since the Valencia Moto2™race one year ago.

Bradley Smith and Pol Espargaro will get their first crack on the RC16 at the traditional post race test in Valencia next week, but they will encounter a completely different beast to the Yamaha YZR-M1 they know so intimately they could ride it blindfolded with one hand tied behind their backs. Changing machinery is one thing, but Smith and Espargaro will have to embrace a whole new concept as well, with KTM racing a steel trellis chassis instead of the aluminium beam frame that has been considered the more conventional route to success in MotoGP.

KTM will also be on a steep learning curve when Smith and Espargaro climb on board the RC16. This is not belittling Kallio at all, but you would hope for the sake of the project that it shouldn’t be too long before Smith and Espargaro are able to better his pace.

That in itself will throw up a whole set of new challenges for KTM.  The behavior of a motorcycle can be drastically altered by improvements of just a few tenths-of-a-second. The RC16 might feel like a comfy old shoe to Kallio, but when Smith and Espargaro start to lap faster, they might find it as uncomfortable as walking on broken glass.

I know they have cherry picked some top talent to work in the team, who will bring proven winning pedigree and a winning mentality into the garage from the off.

And in Smith and Espargaro they have two fast and hungry men that are desperate to show they have what it takes to steer a major manufacturer to the front and keep them there - after being overlooked for a factory Yamaha seat. KTM is world renowned for its Adventure range and I wish them every success with this latest bold adventure into MotoGP™.

MotoGP™ has been so brilliantly unpredictable in 2016 that one last utterly magical twist would be Kallio becoming the 10th winner. The way 2016 has panned out so far I wouldn’t be entirely gob smacked to see him do it.

And we can’t go to Valencia without casting one eye on 2017 and the game of musical chairs that will take place on Sunday night.

Less than 48 hours after hostilities end in 2016, the first shots will be fired in the battle for supremacy in 2017.

The big box office draw will be Jorge Lorenzo’s Ducati debut. It promises to be an emotional departure from Yamaha after he spent his entire MotoGP™ career on board a YZR-M1 since 2008. It will be fascinating to see if Lorenzo and Gigi Dall’Igna can form the potent combination they did together when working for Aprilia in the 250 World Championship. And, intriguing to see if Lorenzo’s famed silky smooth riding style translates to the Desmosedici, which in its current guise certainly lacks the agility the Spaniard prefers.

Ducati has been burning the midnight oil in Bologna to get the 2017-spec Desmosedici ready for Lorenzo to assess as he tries to step out of the shadow of Rossi at Yamaha.

Stepping into the shadow but looking to hog some of the limelight at Yamaha will be Maverick Vinales. Rossi’s life certainly isn’t going to get an easier with Viñales around and now on a proven race-winning package, we won’t have to wait long to understand if the Spaniard can convert obvious potential into a serious title threat. I think he’s a plug in and play replacement for Lorenzo.

Lorenzo may feel he has a point to prove to win on machinery other than Yamaha, but one man definitely fired up will be Andrea Iannone. Suzuki welcomes ‘The Maniac’ next week and he will have taken great heart from the performances of Vinales and Aleix Espargrao in 2016. The nimbleness, braking stability and turning performance of the Suzuki GSX-RR should play into the hands of Iannone’s aggressive riding style, and he will be determined to show Ducati they picked the wrong Andrea for 2017.

Add an exciting quarter of new talent graduating from Moto2™, including Johann Zarco and Alex Rins, then some will feel the Valencia race is just the warm-up act for the main event of the test.

Lorenzo on a Ducati, Iannone on a Suzuki, and Viñales with Rossi on a factory Yamaha. I can feel the hair on the back of my neck sticking up already.

And we thought 2016 was good!