Opinion: Five MotoGP riders who need a big 2017

A new MotoGP season provides the chance to start again for riders up and down the field, but there are some who cannot afford for 2017 to go awry. Jamie Klein picks five competitors who are most in need of a big year.

Opinion: Five MotoGP riders who need a big 2017

Scott Redding (Pramac Ducati)

What a difference 12 months makes. This time last year, Redding was turning heads with his pre-season testing pace on the Pramac Ducati, and looked like a contender – even if only an outside one – for a works ride with the Italian marque in 2017.

But when it came to the crunch, the Gloucestershire-born rider just couldn’t quite convert that testing promise into hard results frequently enough, at least in the dry. Third in the wet at Assen and fourth at the Sachsenring on a drying track turned out to be the highlights of a tough year, the former result coming after four consecutive races out of the points.

Unfortunately for Redding, Pramac’s internal championship-within-a-championship only started after his two best results of the year, spanning the final eight races from Brno onwards. In the first three of those, he posted a 15th, followed by a 17th and a 15th, and by the time rival Danilo Petrucci took him out at the start of the Aragon race, the writing was on the wall.

Redding was awarded back his ‘points’ for that clash, but a solid run to seventh at Phillip Island was as good as it got thereafter, and Petrucci duly scooped the fully-up-to-date GP17 bike for the following season. The GP16 is still a handy bit of kit, as evidenced by Andreas Dovizioso and Iannone last year, but being a spec behind Petrucci is still going to be a disadvantage in the battle for Pramac bragging rights.

For 2017, therefore, Redding’s sights should be set on trying to beat his fellow GP16-users, Alvaro Bautista (Aspar) and Hector Barbera (Avintia). The pressure will be on to do so, however, as Ducati has another Briton eager to try his hand at MotoGP waiting in the wings – perennial World Superbike frontrunner Chaz Davies – should Redding falter.

Scott Redding, Octo Pramac Racing
Scott Redding, Octo Pramac Racing

Photo by: Gold and Goose Photography

Alex Rins (Suzuki)

It might seem odd to include a factory rider with a two-year deal in his pocket on a list like this, but that doesn’t quite tell the full story. Moto2 graduate Rins is highly-rated, no doubt, but he still arrives in the premier class with something of a point to prove.

In Moto2 last year, the title battle for much of the season was fought between Rins and another man who makes his MotoGP debut this year, Johann Zarco. The pair were split by a single point after Aragon, but then the tables turned completely: crashes for Rins at Motegi and Phillip Island ruled him out of the title chase, and a subdued ride to 14th in Malaysia came as Zarco secured the title with a win.

It was said at the time that Rins had gone into self-preservation mode after his crashes, mindful of keeping himself in shape for Valencia post-season testing with Suzuki. Ironic, then, that he injured his back after crashing during his second day aboard the GSX-RR, and missed the subsequent Jerez test.

Sepang for Rins was therefore as much about getting his eye back in as anything, and ending up just under seven tenths off the pace was respectable enough. But, for a rider whose self-confessed goal is to make as big an impression as Maverick Vinales did at Suzuki, he’ll be needing to climb a fair way further up the timesheets before the season gets underway in earnest at Qatar.

Zarco had been linked with Rins’ Suzuki ride before ultimately ending up at Tech 3 Yamaha, and the Frenchman even tested out the GSX-RR in Japan before losing out on the vacant seat next to Andrea Iannone to his Moto2 rival. No doubt Suzuki will be keeping a close eye on Zarco's progress, then, and an ever closer one on Rins as he tries to justify the faith his employers have shown in him.

Alex Rins, Team Suzuki MotoGP
Alex Rins, Team Suzuki MotoGP

Photo by: Gold and Goose Photography

Bradley Smith (KTM)

The switch to Michelin tyres and spec electronics last year impacted some riders more than others, and along with Jorge Lorenzo and Dani Pedrosa, Smith was one of the worst-affected. While he comfortably saw off Tech 3 Yamaha stablemate Pol Espargaro in 2015, the boot was on the other foot last year, with the Spanish rider ending up with more than double Smith’s points tally.

It was fortunate therefore that Smith was signed by the new KTM squad on the eve of the 2016 season, with Espargaro being added to the Austrian marque’s line-up later in the year. It was rather symbolic of their fierce duel as Tech 3 teammates that both men ended up with identical best laptimes, albeit set on different days, during the recent Sepang tests.

Much like Rins, Smith is on the first of a two-year deal, and so his ride is not under any immediate threat. But, just as he secured his KTM seat on the strength of his 2015 results, there’s a good chance that this year’s campaign could play a major role in determining who goes where in 2019.

KTM, while clearly some way behind the other factories at the moment, has made clear progress since Mika Kallio’s wildcard appearance at Valencia last year, and could be an attractive destination for a number of riders two years from now, especially as all 12 of MotoGP’s factory riders’ contracts are due to expire at the same time.

There may only be room for one of Smith or Espargaro at KTM after 2018, and the Briton needs to have a better season than the one he just endured if he is to stand a good chance of being retained.

Bradley Smith, Red Bull KTM Factory Racing
Bradley Smith, Red Bull KTM Factory Racing

Photo by: Gold and Goose Photography

Tito Rabat (Marc VDS Honda)

After scooping the 2014 Moto2 crown, Rabat finally made his MotoGP bow last season for the Marc VDS Honda team – and took the Rookie of the Year prize against rather, er, limited competition. But that’s where the good news ends; while teammate Jack Miller scored 57 points (despite missing five races), Rabat mustered only 29, with a best finish of ninth at an attrition-heavy Argentina race.

Admittedly, in his first MotoGP campaign, the Spaniard was a solid and reliable finisher – a quality that allowed him to beat Yonny Hernandez and avoid the dubious honour of finishing last in the points among the full-time contingent. The trouble was that he was consistently slow; his best qualifying position was an underwhelming 18th, which he achieved four times.

Despite such an anonymous season, Rabat has been retained by Marc VDS, his case no doubt helped by the successes he delivered for the Belgian squad in Moto2. He's employed former 125cc champion Julian Simon as a coach in a bid to extract more performance from himself, but Sepang testing got off to a bad start, as Rabat injured his left knee and right wrist in a crash on day two.

In his Moto2 days, Rabat was famed for turning lap after lap of the Almeria circuit in Southern Spain on a 600cc Honda sports bike to hone his style, showing a steady progression from fringe top-10 performer to regular winner in a four-year span. But MotoGP isn’t as forgiving – and Rabat needs to dramatically up his game in 2017 to stand any chance of extending his career in the premier class.

Tito Rabat, Estrella Galicia 0,0 Marc VDS
Tito Rabat, Estrella Galicia 0,0 Marc VDS

Photo by: Gold and Goose Photography

Loris Baz (Avintia Ducati)

The 2016 season was a roller-coaster one for Baz, who missed four races through injury, but managed to bag two impressive top-five finishes in mixed conditions at Brno and Sepang. The first of these came shortly after the Avintia Ducati squad confirmed that Baz would be staying with the team in 2017.

Aprilia rider Stefan Bradl had been offered the seat, but turned it down in favour of a World Superbike switch with Honda, granting Baz a stay of execution that his results up to that point probably didn’t warrant. Teammate Hector Barbera and Eugene Laverty had demonstrated what sort of results could be achieved on the GP14.2, and without the help of inclement weather, Baz wasn’t getting them.

Like Redding, Baz faces the unenviable situation of having a teammate on a newer spec of bike, Barbera being handed a GP16 Ducati while the Frenchman makes do with a GP15. In effect, the only direct comparison for Baz this year is Aspar’s Karel Abraham, who also has a GP15 at his disposal.

It’s a bit of a lose-lose situation: Abraham clearly was signed more for his money than his talent, and so beating the Czech rider has to be a minimum requirement for Baz rather than a target in and of itself. And now that Zarco fulfills Dorna’s wish to have a French rider on the grid, it could well be that Baz finds himself surplus to requirements at year’s end unless he is able to make a bigger impression.

Loris Baz, Avintia Racing
Loris Baz, Avintia Racing

Photo by: Gold and Goose Photography

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