The crucible of closed circuit racing is rarely a forgiving mistress. Despite the constant evolution of safety features - motorcycle friendly air fencing, suit based air bags and advanced composite helmet design to name just a few - the risk of critical, even fatal injury remains. During last season's Malaysian Gran Prix the paddock held a memorial to Marco Simoncelli, the most recent to join the list of fallen riders in the elite class and a sobering reminder of the risks that each man takes when he steps onto the grid. Yet despite the risk, the knowledge that the next minor error in judgement could deprive them of something that no amount of fame or money can ever bring back, they return to the grid season after season with new blood to replenish the fallen.
The factory Yamaha team returns for 2013 stronger in person, but perhaps a touch weaker in spirit. They are the only team that will field two world champions from the elite class this year. Yet while the combination brings the opportunity for strength, the atmosphere is rife for the kind of interpersonal competitiveness that can cripple a team.
Jorge Lorenzo is set to defend his 2012 championship win - not with a wild and Spanish ferocity but a cold and calculated precision that is the envy of virtually every rider on the paddock. He had a tough battle in 2012 to capture his second world GP championship, and all indications from post season testing indicate that the new season will be more of the same. In addition to the usual suspects from 2012, new competitors will take to the field not the least of which will be Repsol Honda's own Marc Marquez. Lorenzo's greatest strength will remain his clinical ability to string lap times together within hundredths of a second of each other. Few have the concentration to needed to match what he does, a simple fact borne out in the results over the years. He'll be looking to put an exclamation point on his dominance at Qatar, starting his championship defense where his championship win ended.
On the other side of the garage wall will be Valentino Rossi. Having run afoul of the Honda media machine, the GP great defected to Yamaha where he formed a legendary partnership with Massimo Furusawa. The trifecta of legends - Furusawa at the board, Burgess with the wrench and Rossi at the helm - turned the M1's fortunes around. Yet after nearly a decade of partnership Rossi's place with Yamaha soured. Furusawa announced his imminent retirement from active participation, and an upstart rival on the team threatened his personal standing. With Burgess in tow Rossi jumped ship again to the team that had courted him for years. Yet the dream Italian mating of Rossi and Ducati proved to be a nightmare of unprecedented proportions. Rossi's injury, once attributed to his lack of pace, would eventually heal but his confidence in the GPx would not. Two years of competition would yield no wins, and precious few podiums that were few and very far between. The ultimate reasons would vary depending on who was asking the question, however a recurring theme will always be Ducati's inability to match the development budget and pace of their rivals. Yet that chapter of his career is over and in 2013 Rossi returns to the M1, but it is hardly the machine that he left behind. For the first in a very long time Rossi is not the lead rider on his team, not by a long shot. The M1 is now Lorenzo's bike, and if Rossi has any hope of recapturing a modicum of his past glory he will need to adapt to the changes while fending off one of the strongest fields that he has ever faced.
The Competition Dani Pedrosa, Lorenzo's biggest rival for the past two years and into the new until proven otherwise, has matured as a person and rider both. For the first time in their rivalry he came dangerously close to capturing the title last year and seems to be in peak form. When teammate Casey Stoner faltered he was able to step up, challenge and evolve. He remained a consistent and legitimate threat for the championship all season long until one final mistake in the closing rounds turned the title over to Lorenzo. With such a depth of talent to the field his job is not getting easier. In fact, if you take Rossi out of the equation, Pedrosa becomes one of the old men of the paddock. He is a seasoned vet, one of the few to remember the 990 monsters in the new 1000cc era. With each passing year, his probability of capturing the championship grows progressively smaller, while his position within the garage is rumored to grow progressively more tenuous. His riding has taken on an urgency that it was lacking before but with Lorenzo on point, Rossi back on a Yamaha that he gels with and another strong rookie as a teammate it remains to be seen whether it is all too little too late.
That rookie teammate has been not so quietly setting the media world on fire. By the end of his very first test his lap times put him in the upper echelons of GP competition. Despite all of the words written about the large gap between the 600cc based Moto2 and the full on 1000cc prototypes of MotoGP, Marc Marquez took little time to acclimate before hitting the top spots of the time sheets. He has remained there for every session, every test. However, to his detriment, he is hardly the first. It was not so long that another superstar rider was elevated to the MotoGP class to such high acclaim. Marco Simoncelli was also a Repsol rider, and like Marquez he seemed to take to the RC like a duck to water. However he found the hard way that practice is one thing, full on competition another. Both riders built a career on brash, hard competition often to the detriment of their peers. It took two long seasons before Simoncelli was able to reconcile the ferocity of his competitive spirit with the finesse required to win at the highest levels. Proof of how quick a study Marquez can be will begin at Qatar.