January 2012. A new year and a new start for all, although the MotoGP World Championship isn't moving forward just yet. A testing ban is still in place and 2011 is still more recent than the coming season is close.
We can, however, learn from the past and use it to make predictions for the future. Thus, following in the footsteps of Eurosport F1 expert Will Gray, the next few weeks before the Sepang test will be dedicated to putting the class of 2011 under the microscope. We start at the back and move our way forward, like a rider on slicks taking on a wet-but-drying track...
Few expected a fairytale 'homecoming' to Ducati for Loris Capirossi, but there was still that glimmer of hope that the veteran would have a respectable sign-off from MotoGP when he made the switch from the underpowered Suzuki factory team to the Pramac Ducati satellite outfit. Instead, the Italian became the latest rider to wonder just what he had let himself in for in joining the second Ducati team, taking his lowest-ever points total in the premier class (43, one less than in 2010) and contemplating retirement aloud as early as Mugello. Many tears were shed when the official announcement was made at Misano, but there were few calls for Capirex to reconsider.
Along with the four injury-induced non-appearances and a further five retirements which meant that he completed under half of the races in 2011, there was only one highlight of sorts: in his recent role as an example of longevity rather than race-winning capability, he became the first rider to reach 300 grand prix appearances.
What happens now?
After hanging up his leathers and enjoying a respite from the hectic schedule of a racer, Capirossi will be back in 2012. He will do so in a natural progression from his position on the Grand Prix Safety Commission, operating in an advisory capacity on all matters of rider safety. Good on Loris.
Randy de Puniet
Many a rider has seen their profile lowered by a Pramac Ducati over the past few years. For some, it is the next step towards the back door of the World Championship. Just ask Niccolo Canepa, Aleix Espargaro, Sylvain Guintoli, Alex Hoffman... the list goes on. Randy de Puniet's experience was similar to those who had gone before him: Good previous season with another team/decent testing times + Desmosedici = 49 points.
The Frenchman seemed to be on to a winner with LCR Honda, but was shuffled out inorder to make way for Toni Elias. Fast and exciting on a bike, marketable off one, with a supermodel girlfriend and never knowingly fully clothed in a pit box camera shot, there should have been more interest in RDP for 2012. Amazing, then, that he should almost have found himself out in the cold.
What happens now?
Jorge Martinez 'Aspar' has come in to save the day for De Puniet, who will ride for their CRT squad in the premier class. Don't hold your breath for a factory team to come knocking for 2013, nor for any finishes higher than the lower end of the top 10, but early signs are that the Aprilia is better suited to his riding than the troublesome Ducati.
All things considered, it is a minor miracle that not only did Toni Elias finish the 2011 season, but he did so ahead of De Puniet and Capirossi. Criticism of the inconsistent Spaniard began very early on in the season and had gathered momentum before you could say "but he won a race in 2006". A lack of points and times sometimes closer to those of Moto2 than MotoGP painted a bleak picture for LCR Honda, who depend more than most on the performances of their rider; team mastermind Lucio Cecchinello has pioneered a sponsorship strategy that works on a single-race basis, which has potential during strong periods on track but leaves the satellite team in a precarious spot when results are not forthcoming.
You could almost predict with 100 per cent certainty that Elias would not transfer his Moto2 form to MotoGP after so many false dawns, but Dorna were very keen to have their first champion of the 600cc class make the step up. A typical late charge took him ahead of the Pramac Ducatis, although it wasn't enough to save him from the chop at the end of 2011.
What happens now?
Elias goes back to Moto2 for 2012, with his pride dented but his determination to prove his worth intact. He will be one of the favourites for a title that will be harder to win than in 2010, as times have changed and lap-times have come crashing down since the class's inception. Will he return to MotoGP in 2013, or will he spearhead a return to the days of lower cylinder category specialists, like his fellow countryman and MotoGP legend Angel Nieto?