The answers to the questions we have been asking ourselves since the midway point of last year will begin to be revealed, when the 2013 MotoGP season gets underway beneath the floodlights at the majestic Losail circuit in Qatar.
Few if any of those questions concerned the CRT riders and their machines. But I suppose some mention of them is compulsory in any MotoGP season preview, so we'll get that out of the way now.
They are not competitive, and they are not going to be competitive.
According to Frank Melling at MotorcycleUSA.com, the Power Electronics Aspar Aprilia team achieved their success (they finished 12th and 13th, ahead of the Cardion AB Ducati satellite team) because their bikes are in reality the factory Aprilias that were banned from World Superbike.
So, barring any unforeseeable events, they will finish atop the CRT field in every race. Granted, this creates a small measure of intrigue regarding which of the two teammates—Aleix Espargaro or Randy DePuniet—will finish ahead of the other, but the only way either one of them is going to place inside the top ten is if two or three of the factory or satellite bikes are no longer on the track.
The CRT experiment has created two different races taking place at the same time on the same track. It is a travesty. The purported rule changes for 2014 could profoundly alter things for the better, but it's not 2014 yet.
As for the prototype teams, there is intrigue on several fronts.
Earlier this year, Ducati announced that they were changing the development strategy for their notoriously finicky Desmosedici by equipping both the factory and satellite Pramac teams with identical GP 13 machinery.
This means—at least in theory—that Pramac team riders Andrea Iannone and Ben Spies will be at no disadvantage to their factory counterparts. However, it is fair to doubt the longevity of that status quo if Spies or Iannone (or both) regularly finish ahead of either factory-team rider.
Iannone—who finished third in each of the last three Moto2 seasons—is in his first year of premier-class competition, and has already shown a surprising aptitude with the difficult Desmo.
Rain has always served as an equalizer for the Ducati, so naturally all of the Desmo riders had their best performances of the preseason during the intermittently rain-soaked three-day test at Jerez—but Iannone impressed most of all.
Overall, he finished the test in eighth position with a best lap of 1:40.331, just .01 seconds behind Andrea Dovizioso of the factory Ducati team.
Iannone's Pramac teammate, Ben Spies, didn't fare as well.
The Texan is coming off of a wretchedly ineffective 2012 campaign with the factory Yamaha team in which everything that could go wrong did. From mechanical failures of every stripe to inexplicable crashes to food poisoning, Ben Spies had a lifetime's worth of bad luck in just six months.
His 2013 preseason has started off without any of last year's bad ju-ju, and he has finally declared himself fit after a lengthy recovery process from offseason shoulder surgery that stretched into the first two preseason tests of 2013.
The up-and-comer-turned-disappointment has a lot to prove, and he's going to have to do it on a bike that not even a seven-time premier class world champion could ride competitively in dry conditions over the last two years. But if he can be successful, it is going to be one hell of a story.
Cal Crutchlow returns to the Yamaha Tech 3 team after an impressive 2012 campaign that saw him earn two podium finishes and 150 points.The British rider was able to parlay his successful sophomore season into a new contract with the satellite team.
Crutchlow has looked to be in good form in the preseason, having finished with the fastest overall time (1:39.511 seconds) at the recent test in Jerez. Granted, things probably would have looked different if there had been more dry track time, but Crutchlow has been right at the heels of the top four factory bikes all preseason long.
Showing some of the frustration that goes along with being the neglected stepchild of a manufacturer's Grand Prix racing effort, Crutchlow told MotorcycleNews.com's Matthew Birt:
I want a strong start and then see what we can get from Yamaha over the year because that will play a big factor with how big the gap can be to the factory guys . . . On old machinery I am very happy with how the testing has gone but if we get some upgrades it will be even better again
While Crutchlow is not on a bike that will allow him to compete for the championship, he is close enough to slide past one or two of the top four riders and onto the podium, should they make a mistake.
Like Iannone, Bradley Smith is also in his first year of premier-class competition. However, Smith did not come close to matching the success of his Italian counterpart in Moto2.
His three podium finishes in 2011 were good enough to earn him a respectable seventh-place finish, but the following year he regressed, finishing only ninth in the overall standings without ever standing on the box.
He was therefore a surprising choice to fill the Monster Energy Yamaha Tech 3 seat vacated by Andrea Dovizioso.
He finished the final preseason test a disappointing 13th-fastest behind De Puniet's Aspar CRT and factory Ducati test rider Michele Pirro.
Young Smith has his work cut out for him if he is going to prove worthy of the ride he was given.
Go & Fun Honda Gresini's Alvaro Bautista had a solid if unspectacular preseason. He finished no better than sixth-fastest overall at any of the tests, but his fifth-fastest finish (only .51 seconds behind the leader) in the second session of the final Sepang test showed that he is capable of a competitive pace.
He suffered a fall in the wet during the second session of the Jerez test, and the resultant finger fractures forced him to sit out the final session.
Still, when healthy and confident, expect Bautista to challenge Crutchlow and Stefan Bradl for fifth place and even the occasional podium. He is, after all, on a factory-supported Honda.
Stefan Bradl, the 2011 Moto2 champ, looks primed for a breakout MotoGP campaign.
2013 will be Bradl's second season on the LCR Honda, and his 2012 success (eighth overall in the championship) has earned him additional factory support for the upcoming season.
After finishing fifth overall at the Jerez test, LCR Honda boss Lucio Cecchinello had this to say about what he anticipates from his rider in the upcoming season (per MotorcycleNews.com):
Historically in MotoGP there is a learning process. With Casey (Stoner) for example in MotoGP he did quite good when he arrived with us and then definitely the second year he was much better. I expect an improvement form Stefan. A couple of times last year he missed the podium and this year he needs to be more constant and get some podiums.
Bradl has given no reason to think Cecchinello's expectations are too lofty; he will be one to watch in 2013.
The factory Ducati duo of Nicky Hayden and Andrea Dovizioso will continue the manufacturer's years-long struggle for a return to Grand Prix relevance.
Not since Casey Stoner's 2007 world championship aboard the red-liveried Italian machine has Ducati's Desmosedici come close to competing with Honda and Yamaha for MotoGP supremacy.
Dovizioso is the new guy. Fresh off of an impressive 2012 campaign aboard a Tech 3 Yamaha on which he scored six podium finishes on his way to fourth place in the overall championship, he will try to succeed where Valentino Rossi so publicly failed.
Hayden is, well, Nicky Hayden. No matter how dire and miserable the situation at Ducati may be, you can count on Hayden to let you know he's not satisfied, yes, but also looking forward to making the bike better and being more competitive.
That he is still able to sustain this mostly sunny disposition after struggling with the Desmosedici for four years is a testament to the strength of his character. And the fact that he was able to maintain his streak of consecutive seasons with a podium finish through three of those four years testifies with equal force to his skill as a rider.
With Audi now in control of Ducati Corse (their racing division), Hayden and Dovizioso will have the best chances of anyone since Casey Stoner to put the Desmosedici back on top of the podium. But it won't be easy for the Germans to figure out the answers to the questions that plagued the Italians for five years.
Success, if it is to come at all in 2013, certainly won't happen in the early part of the season.
An old rivalry will be renewed inside the factory Yamaha garage in 2013, as Valentino Rossi will once again ride the same machine as Jorge Lorenzo, with whom he shared a tempestuous relationship in 2010.
Rossi returned to the M1 amid questions about his ability to compete with the younger crop of riders, after two disastrous years aboard Ducati's Desmosedici.
He answered those questions emphatically with the third-fastest overall time at the first 2013 preseason test in Sepang, accomplished while riding a bike that had undergone many changes since the last time he swung a leg over it.
Mechanical gremlins caused his second Sepang test to end in disappointment, but he rebounded nicely by posting the second-fastest time during the third and final preseason test, even though conditions in that test were less than ideal.
Rossi is back and ready to challenge for MotoGP supremacy in 2013.
Jorge Lorenzo will look to defend his 2012 championship aboard a machine that was tailor-made for him. The silky smoothness of the Yamaha's performance compliments perfectly Lorenzo's own fluid, flawless style.
The defense of his crown will not be easy: Rossi is back on a competitive machine, and the most highly touted rookie since Lorenzo himself sits atop the best bike on the grid.
Marc Marquez is an answer to the prayers of those fans who have complained about a lack of excitement in the premier class.
Marquez is young, brash and—some would argue—reckless. He is also immensely talented.
In the initial preseason test—his first dry time aboard the RC213V—the rookie finished with the third-fastest time, showing a level of comfort that few expected.
He then went on to utterly dominate all sessions of the private C.O.T.A. test in Austin, Texas.
The kid is for real, and—thanks to a seamless-shift gearbox and an advantage in power—he will put his talents to use aboard the best bike on the grid.
But he is still an overly aggressive rookie. Look for Marquez to challenge for race wins when he is able to stay on the bike all the way to the end.
That the Honda is the strongest bike surely aided Dani Pedrosa in the latter half of the 2012 season, but no one wins six of the last eight races without some serious talent of their own to help propel them.
After years of immense potential but disappointing results, Pedrosa finally came into his own in 2012.
He continued his newfound form by finishing fastest in each of the first four preseason test sessions—a spot which he quickly reclaimed in the sixth session.
One of the four factory Honda and Yamaha riders is going to claim the 2013 championship. Despite Lorenzo's victory last year, Dani Pedrosa's new form and the fact that he rides the fastest bike on the grid combine to make him the one to beat.