2017 season wrap

With the 2017 season finally consigned to the history books, let’s take a look at how things played out.

With last year’s moto3 world champion, Brad Binder, flying the flag for South Africa in his rookie season in Moto 2, this is where most of the interest lay for many of us.

It was a very difficult baptism of fire for Brad, as he was not only recovering from a badly broken arm, but his machine was brand new, which meant that he would be starting with absolutely no data to draw from. As such, I warned his followers before the season began not to have unrealistic expectations as the deck was stacked against him. To make matters worse, he reinjured his arm, and that, together with his relatively poor qualifying results due to his and his teams inexperience at finding a working set up, meant that in the first half of the year he was starting from the middle of the grid. Nevertheless, there was a ray of sunshine in that, more often than not, he was able to battle his way forward through the field once the lights turned green.

At the Sachsenring, however, Brad finally started fitting all the pieces together, and as the season drew to a close, he started getting the sort of results we all knew he was capable of.  With podium finishes in the final three Grand Prixs, Brad emerged from a very difficult, and character building season, with flying colors.

The other component in the equation, KTM, also showed their pedigree, as their second and more experienced Moto 2 rider, Miguel Oliveira, scored three sensational wins in the final three events, making the Austrian factory the early favourites for the 2018 title chase.

There is an old saying in this sport, that the first and most important man to beat is your teammate. Understanding that, let’s examine how Brad stacks up and what conclusions we can reach after watching them in their first season together in moto2.

Brad must have been acutely aware of the fact that in order to advance his career within KTM, he had to establish himself as the top man in the team, but despite this, at no point this season did he panic and start throwing his bike at the scenery while trying to do what he knew he wasn’t yet ready for. With the same mindset which gave him his world title last year, Brad adopted a very sensible step by step approach this year in order to put himself in a position to challenge, not only for the 2018 title, but also for the number 1 spot in his team. While there is no doubting Oliveira’s ability, with the natural progression which I am sure Brad will make next year, I am very confident that he will prove to be more than a match for his team mate. While I feel the Portuguese’s learning curve has flattened out, Brad’s is still climbing sharply, and I fully expect him to have Oliveira’s measure by the time the halfway point of the season is reached. Am I saying I think he can take the title in 2018? Hell, yes. Brad Binder is special, and as any dairy farmer knows, the cream will always rise to the top.

One of the most impressive things this season has been KTM’s remarkable achievements, not only in moto2, but more particularly in the MGP class. I honestly thought they had gone a bridge too far with their ambitious project, but they have confounded even the most skeptical observers by being super competitive in both classes. Their all new MGP machine has been amazing from the get go, and they will be aiming to build on their success next season. If I have a criticism, it was in their choice of riders, with, in my opinion, both Bradley Smith and Pol Espargaro lacking the necessary experience needed to develop a new bike from scratch. I think they would have been better served by someone with an older and wiser head who could have assisted the engineers with the sort of feed-back required to point them in the right direction. Having said that, they did retain the services of the very experienced Mika Kallio to do the testing, which might have tipped the scales in their favour.

There is already talk of the sensational Frenchman, Johann Zarco, joining the team in 2019, but somehow I remain skeptical. With Rossi very likely to hang up his helmet at the end of next season, Zarco will be the favourite contender for the empty seat at Yamaha, and unless KTM can show winning form before Zarco decides in which direction he is headed, he looks most likely to remain with the blue bikes.

While he has yet to win a GP in the big class, I personally rate Zarco as one of the most exceptional talents to emerge since Marc Marquez burst onto the scene. While his two back to back moto2 world titles were highly impressive, what was most striking was the manner in which he accomplished the feat, totally dominating a very strong field and dismissing them with contemptuous ease. I hate to be a, “I told you so” kinda guy, but I told everyone who cared to listen that he would be the next big thing, and I’m sticking to that claim.

Getting back to the here and now, I think many racing enthusiasts will agree that Marc Marquez stepped into rarified air this year when winning his 4th MGP title. What a truly fantastic achievement. How can anyone do anything but love this guy? He doesn’t know the meaning of conservative riding, and every lap he does looks as if he’s trying to set a new lap record. What amazes me though is his resilience and ability to have the most enormous crashes without hurting himself. It’s almost as if he is constructed out of hard rubber as he keeps coming back for more. To crash a total of 27 times in a season must be some kind of record, but to do it without picking up a serious injury puts him in the extremely fortunate  category. Having said that though, I still think the right man won the title. As I predicted, the Hondas came on really strongly in the second half of the year, and while I expected the Yamahas to tail off slightly, I was surprised by the extent to which their season seemed to quite literally fall apart as both Rossi and Vinales faded out the back door.

I thought Ducati were sensational. They have improved out of all recognition since Gigi  Dall’Igna took over the reins, and probably the only mistake he made was employing Jorge Lorenzo. The money the Italian firm plowed into the Spaniard could have been spent far more wisely in other areas, but fortunately for them,  Dovi was there to save the day as he won six GPs to Lorenzo’s nil, as well as surprisingly finishing in the runner up position in the championship. I’ve never regarded the rider I call Mr Nice Guy as anything more than a good journeyman, but he made a believer out of me this year with some really solid rides, and his win in the Austrian GP on the beautiful Red Bull Ring was the highlight of the year as far as I am concerned.

Of the others, Aprilia made giant strides, with the very underrated Aleix Espargaro doing heroic things before a late season injury.

Unfortunately, Suzuki seemed to lose their way after a very promising first season, but it appears they made some poor technical decisions and they spent most of the year on the back foot.  If their resurgence in the final race of the season in Valencia is anything to go by, they have corrected their mistakes, and Alex Rins’ promising 4th place finish should give them renewed hope of turning things around in 2018.

All in all 2017 was one of the best I’ve ever been privileged to witness, with brilliant racing in all three classes, despite the fact that only one of the championships was still up for grabs going into the last round.

In closing, I want to make special mention of the Moto3 world champion, Joan Mir. Any rider who dominates in this day and age, where all the bikes and riders are so evenly matched, needs to be recognized as a very special talent. Could it be that in five or six years’ time, our very own Brad Binder and Joan Mir will be slugging it out at the front of the MGP field? What a mouth-watering prospect that would be.

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