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By Matthew Birt

The #SepangTest: MotoGP™ is BACK!

MotoGP™ commentator Matthew Birt previews the #SepangTest for the factories and riders that make up the class of 2018

MotoGP™ is back! The three words we’ve all been waiting to hear now the winter break is behind us and we can look forward to what promises to be another fantastic year of racing. Preparations for 2018 kick off this weekend in Sepang and there is plenty to whet your appetite in advance of a mouthwatering season opener in Qatar on March 18.

Right now, I’d say Honda are in position A.

HRC was the only factory to roll out its full blown 2018 prototype in Valencia and over three tests in November, Marc Marquez, Dani Pedrosa, Cal Crutchlow and test team duo Hiroshi Aoyama and Takumi Takahashi put in hundreds of crucial development laps. Armed with a skip load of data, Honda have had the winter testing ban to further refine and tweak the RC213V for Sepang, so I think technically they’ve stolen a march on the competition, who won’t turn a wheel in anger on their 2018-spec machinery until Sunday.

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#2018StartsNow: The wait is over as MotoGP™ testing begins

Marquez, Pedrosa and Crutchlow will also be riding an RC213V they are familiar with. The entire pre-season in 2017, and a large part of the opening half of the World Championship, was spent getting accustomed to a new Big Bang engine. Marquez won just once in the opening eight races last season but then won half of the last 10 once he and his crew had fathomed out how to master the different characteristics of the Big Bang engine compared to its Screamer predecessor. If Honda are dishing out late Christmas presents, then I’m sure Marquez will be hoping for a calmer and more neutral RC213V that keeps him out of a danger zone he seemed permanently in during 2017.

Marquez crashed 27 times last season. That’s one more than the total of his first two years in MotoGP™ and only three less than his combined tally for 2015 and 2016. Crutchlow jumped off his LCR Honda only three times less than Marquez did, so an RC213V that is less on a knife edge will be just what the Doctor ordered.

Speaking of The Doctor, the factory I’m most curious to see where they are at is Yamaha, with Valentino Rossi and Maverick Vinales. I doubt any engineering group in the paddock has burnt more midnight oil than those in Iwata. Last season was almost a mirror image of 2016 for the YZR-M1: it started super-strong but faded like a pair of cheap curtains as the year wore on, and it was hindered by a multitude of sins.

It struggled badly for grip in scorching hot conditions and in the wet. Tyre life remained a major bugbear of both Rossi and Vinales and there’s a sense from within the camp that Yamaha still haven’t extracted the best potential out of the controlled Magneti Marelli electronics like their counterparts at Honda and Ducati have done. Yamaha will be fully aware that it must deliver a more competitive YZR-M1 to convince and motivate Rossi to race on in 2019. A fascinating sub-plot in 2018 will be the avalanche of gossip, rumour and speculation that will be whipped up by the fact that all 12 factory rider contracts are up for renewal this year.

Rossi will undoubtedly be a key player in the transfer market, and I don’t think there’s any doubt he will race on as long as Yamaha can compete. So, over to you Yamaha.

Rossi and Vinales will also have to be wary of the enemy from within in the form of last year’s rookie revelation, Johann Zarco. Zarco was immediately enamored with the much-maligned 2017 YZR-M1 when he rode it in Valencia last November. And with the experience of his frequent giant-killing acts in 2017, I wouldn’t be surprised to see him become the first rider to win for Tech 3 in MotoGP™. What a welcome boost that would be to a team that’s experienced a pre-season of turmoil after Jonas Folger took the bold decision to miss the entire 2018 campaign to overcome the health issues that blighted the end of his promising debut season.

The Sepang showdown is all about one thing for Ducati. Have they finally found an answer to solve the mid-corning turning issue that has been an unwelcome part of the Desmosedici’s DNA for as long as anyone can recall? The Ducati is lauded for its great braking stability and with horsepower to burn, acceleration on corner exit and top speed has never been a flaw. They just need to hit the sweet spot when the bike is cranked over on its side and it seems chassis flex and geometry have been key areas of winter development.

Andrea Dovizioso will still be riding high off the back of his coming of age season in 2017 when he took Marquez all the way to a nail-biting last race decider. He doesn’t need convincing that he is a serious title challenger and his cool, calm and collected character means he won’t fazed for one second with the extra pressure and scrutiny he will inevitably be under this season.

One man who will be praying Ducati has fixed its mid-corner turning issue is Jorge Lorenzo.

Ducati’s big limitation was like kryptonite to his famed smooth riding style, which relies heavily on unrivalled speed in the middle of the corner. I expect Lorenzo to pose a more formidable threat in his second season at Ducati and can easily see him winning races. But to go from three podiums in 2017 to World Champion in 2018 is a big ask even for a rider of his phenomenal talent.

Suzuki, Aprilia and KTM will all have brand new bikes in Sepang that they hope will bring them closer to contention. Of the six on the GSX-RR, RS-GP and RC16, I’m most intrigued to see how Alex Rins fares. If he stays fit I can see him possibly picking up a couple of podiums because he came on strong at the end of 2017 once free from injury.

We’re privileged to be witnessing a golden era for MotoGP™ right now and I can see 2018 being another classic.

Have a great year!