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Moto2™ is a notoriously difficult and competitive class of Grand Prix racing. And 2018, with a long list of riders who are expected title contenders, race winners and podium finishers, is going to be an incredible year. Reigning Champion Franco Morbidelli has moved up, title-contending stalwart Tom Lüthi too, and there are a host of challengers aiming to fill that power vacuum.
Miguel Oliveira (Red Bull KTM Ajo) is one such candidate. After a stunning run of three wins in a row to conclude 2017, the Portuguese rider will want to begin the year where he left off – as will KTM in their second year in the intermediate class. Not right at the top in testing but a solid presence nevertheless, has Oliveira showed his hand? His teammate, 2016 Moto3™ World Champion Brad Binder, is another threat on Austrian machinery, getting his first Moto2™ podiums as Oliveira took to the top step. After a season that began with some serious injury struggles, Binder on full-power and fully healthy was a force to be reckoned with. And testing went well for the South African.
As well as Oliveira, another multiple race winner from last season has his sights set high: Alex Marquez (EG 0,0 Marc VDS). The 2014 Moto3™ World Champion was uncatchably fast at Jerez and Catalunya, and played his hand to perfection for a tactical win in Motegi. Mid-season injury affected his season, but if the rider from Cervera can unleash the pace of Jerez all year, it could prove a problem for his competitors. And Marquez is on a Kalex, a headliner in an interesting battle of the chassis manufacturers.
So, too, is 2017 Rookie of the Year Francesco Bagnaia (Sky Racing Team VR46). Bagnaia took his first podium on the day Marquez took his first win at Jerez, and the Italian arrived to the intermediate class with a bang. The two have been key players in preseason – and Bagnaia has made some headlines off track, too. Now signed up to move to MotoGP™ in 2019, this is ‘Pecco’’s second and final Moto2™ campaign and he’ll want to head up wearing the crown.
Another key player at the front this season is another KTM, however. Sam Lowes (Swiss Innovative Investors) returns to Moto2™ following a year in the premier class, and is a proven race winner and contender in the category. A change of team and the bike to have won three in a row last year are good omens, and Lowes topped the third and final preseason test at Jerez after some time under the radar. His goal is loud and clear: the Moto2™ World Championship.
Of course, racing is never as simple as track records picked out of a hat to make predictions. There is more to it than numbers and favourites – there are always dark horses, surprises, riders who want to flip the form book – and rookies looking to make a point.
A dark horse candidate this season could be Mattia Pasini (Italtrans Racing Team), who took a stunning win at Mugello last year and was often at the front. Lorenzo Baldassarri (Pons HP 40) has also won before, and Sky Racing Team VR46 newcomer Luca Marini had good pace in preseason. Danny Kent (Speed Up Racing) is back and now Fabio Quartararo on the other side of the garage, and Malaysian Zulfahmi Khairuddin returns to the Moto2™ ranks at Petronas Sprinta Racing. Xavi Vierge and Marcel Schrötter gun for glory at Intact Dynavolt GP, and another familiar name will be on the grid: Hector Barbera (Pons HP 40).
Barbera is back in the intermediate class after some impressive years in MotoGP™ - and despite being a former 250 title challenger, times have changed and the Spaniard has never ridden a Moto2™ bike before. How will he adapt? Will his incredible wealth of experience be a help or a hindrance?
The other newcomers have different stories, with the biggest headline act moving into the class undoubtedly Joan Mir (EG 0,0 Marc VDS). The record-breaking reigning lightweight class Champion moves into the team who defend the crown and alongside a real contender – and he’ll want to hit the ground running as well as recover quickly from a mototcross injury that saw him miss the final preseason test. At that test, Romano Fenati (Marinelli Rivacold Snipers) was the quickest debutant – so will their rivalry re-ignite in the fight for Rookie of the Year? And can Bo Bendsneyder (Tech 3 Racing) get in that mix?
There is also NTS RW Racing GP, a new chassis manufacturer and two new faces. Although Steven Odendaal – the 2016 European Moto2™ Champion – has raced in the class before, the South African is now back and ready to attack. But his teammate Joe Roberts managed to stay a tenth ahead in testing, and that’s after the American rider had impressed hugely on his brief debut at Brno in the wet. What can Roberts do as NTS take on this new adventure?
Moto2™ is one of the toughest competitions on earth, and every competitor impresses. But now the pack has shuffled, who will emerge wearing the crown?