The 'Big 3' of British Superbikes, World Superbikes and MotoGP all reconvene over the next six weeks or so and at least one of those series has the potential to be the very best season in a number of years, which after the excitement of recent years, is going to be some achievement. The other two series, or more to the point certain teams within them, have their own hurdles to jump before we see the absolute cut and thrust of racing return along with all the regulation celebratory pomp and back-slapping. Or is that stabbing? Who knows, it's motorcycle racing so there's always liberal doses of both in almost equal measure.
While WorldSBK undergoes changes in its rules with regards to rev limits, the teams are doing all they can to try and close the gap to the pretty much all conquering KRT squad. The first real look at the riders and teams at the recent test was the first time we've seen all WorldSBK protagonists on track together and there are no surprises on seeing who was fastest. Triple and reigning WorldSBK Champion Jonathan Rea topped the timesheets at the end of the final pre-season test at Phillip Island ahead of this weekend's season opener at the Gateway to Hypothermia, once again asserting his dominance on the field.
As I'll touch on later (I may be here for a while...) testing is testing, it's hard to gauge the true pace of man and machine and no matter how many race simulations they do, you can't replicate racing without, well, racing! Every year the unique nature of Phillip Island provides close testing times and sometimes even closer racing so it's tough to get a true perspective on the strengths of the teams battling Kawasaki for honours this year. There are the obvious ones, namely Ducati and Yamaha, that will constantly push for podiums and race wins however it's the ones who have not shown their full potential in recent seasons that may make the biggest progress. Milwaukee Aprilia finished the Test in positive form as did Barni Ducati while wholesale changes at Red Bull Honda saw visible progress in to the top ten. With the uniqueness of PI and the challenges of Buriram and the damage limitation required at both, I suspect it won't be until the circus reaches Europe that the true story of WorldSBK 2018 will unfold.
MotoGP testing has been in full swing these last four weeks with a sack-load of stories winding their way out of both Sepang and the Chang circuit at Buriram, Thailand. For almost every Factory team Sepang, as is the law these days, was the first chance to get to grips with the 2018 machinery with their full-time riders after the final tests of last year and it was the contrast of Factory fortunes that really made the bulk of the headlines. Tip of the hat to the new boys of Morbidelli, Luthi, Syahrin and Nakagaami, who all made solid progress throughout testing.
Honda, Yamaha and Ducati were the main focus of attention as you'd expect and the fortunes could not have been more different. The HRC Holy Trinity of Marquez, Pedrosa and Crutchlow looked to have the consistency over the six days of Far East testing as they looked to refine the latest incarnation of HRC engine along with revised aero packages, that subject explored by pretty much everyone and with varying degrees of aesthetic pleasure.
Marquez wasn't always the fastest of the trio, that honour was shared between the triumvirate, however his race runs were somewhat ominous. This developing, maturing-thinking Marc Marquez will be a concern for the rest of the field, no longer a pure Pole hound, no longer a man chasing the fastest time, he's a man working in the same way we saw last season. Points per round is the target. And points make prizes.
Yamaha are in trouble. There are no two ways about it. As I said before, testing is testing however there are glaringly obvious issues when a Factory team of Yamaha's standing are so far off the pace on Day 1 and Day 3 at Sepang but 1 and 2 on Day 2. Confused? So are Vinales and Rossi! According to Rossi in Buriram the problem is obvious but difficult to fix whereas after Buriram Vinales was almost at a loss as to what to say to the waiting Journos. It may well be a difficult start to 2018 for Movistar Yamaha, the only positive in the early rounds being a contract extension for the grid's fluorescent yellow-clad elder statesman. Which will keep a few bums on seats in the stands for another season, at least.
At Ducati things are also not as they may have appeared to be after the Buriram test. A stunning lap of Sepang on the final day saw Jorge Lorenzo take the fastest ever lap of the Malaysian circuit. It was a suitable end to the test after both he and team-mate Andrea Dovizioso had, apart from an 8th position on Day 2 for the Italian, consistently run well inside the top 5 over the three sweltering days. If Sepang was a triumph then Chang was a tragedy for the Mallorcan, even out-paced on the final day by Tech3 new boy Hafizh Syahrin. Dovi fared somewhat better, the story of last season all over again, by posting top ten times on all three days of the test. With just the Qatar test to go before it all gets serious, there are some searching questions that need answering amongst the MotoGP elite.
The Bennett's British Superbike Championship is building up to the start of the season with various teams cutting laps around the circuits of Spain where many are gearing up for the Pro-test at Cartagena at the beginning of March ahead of the annual Test Day at Donington Park on 20th March. So far as comparisons in times go, there aren't any apart from Honda and JG Speedfit Kawasaki who attended a WSB Test at Jerez.
So what do we know ahead of the 2018 Season? The usual suspects will all be a force, that's a given. Reigning champ Shane Byrne along with Josh Brookes and Leon Haslam will be strong from the first lights-out, there's not a doubt about that. The Honda duo of O'Halloran and Linfoot finished the season on the front foot and they'll be looking to continue that trend from Round 1 after the difficult start to 2017. The Tyco BMW duo of Christian Iddon and a returning Michael Laverty will have a firm eye on podium positions as will Luke Mossey and Glenn Irwin. James Ellison, in what will be his final year in BSB, will be as keen as ever to put a strong, consistent season together aboard the Anvil TAG Yamaha vacated by Josh Brookes as he in turn takes the McAMS seat from Ellison.
Youth will play a big part in the series this year. Expect to see BSB race winner Jake Dixon to carry on his form of last year on the RAF Regular & Reserves Kawasaki and Brad Ray to make his mark fully on the top ten on the Buildbase Suzuki alongside Richard Cooper after his impressive showings last season. Alongside Brookes will be former British Supersport Champion Tarran Mackenzie, returning from a torrid time in Moto2, who I suspect will challenge for top ten honours before mid-season, lining up on the grid alongside his Moto Rapido Ducati-mounted brother Taylor. Team WD-40 have put their faith in their STK1000 rider of last year, Mason Law and the youth emphasis continues with Kyle Ryde joining the ranks from WSS along with Northern Irishman Carl Phillips who steps up from STK1000.
After plying his trade on the European and World stage, Gino Rea will make his BSB debut this year aboard the OMG Racing Suzuki as will Sylvain Barrier, the twice European STK1000 Champion joins the multifaceted Peter Hickman at Smith's BMW. FS-3 Kawasaki have signed STK1000 Champion Danny Buchan for 2018, after two previous attempts it could be third time lucky for Buchan to get to grips with a Superbike and finally transfer that obvious talent to the big class and Tommy Bridewell returns to the bosom of Martin Halsall and the team which brought the Wiltshire rider much of his BSB success.
I suspect the top six places of the Showdown will be the most hotly contested (good English? Not sure) positions since the format's inception back in 2010. Byrne & Irwin, Brookes, Haslam & Mossey, O'Halloran & Linfoot, Hickman, Iddon & Laverty, Ellison, Dixon and Brad Ray all stood on the podium in 2017 and quite possibly will all do so again across the forthcoming season. If a Rookie can score a Top Ten this year he'll certainly have earned it as the competition for points is stronger than I can ever remember. As for who will win it, I'm not brave enough to predict, however, on last season's form alone it's difficult to see past a Haslam/Brookes/Byrne title fight once again come October. There are a lot of laps and a lot of stories to unfold before then and as Larry Carter regularly reminds us, we should expect the unexpected once again.
In true Motopod style, this could be "the best season ever", well in BSB, at least.
Thanks for reading.