Defending world champion Marc Marquez will have a fight on his hand to retain his title during the 2018 MotoGP season, as this year's campaign could be one of the most competitive in recent memory, if pre-season testing is any indication.
Ducati, Honda and Yamaha matched pace during the tests, and several unheralded riders impressed on a consistent basis. Whereas previous campaigns were dominated by the same four or five riders, there could realistically be eight or nine fighting it out for each race win in 2018.
Marquez remains the favourite to win the title―he has taken four of the last five championships after all―but Maverick Vinales, Valentino Rossi and Dani Pedrosa will have similar aspirations, with Jorge Lorenzo, Cal Crutchlow, Andrea Iannone, Andrea Dovizioso, Johann Zarco and Alex Rins also expected to make some noise.
The full race calendar, complete with start times and locations, can be found here. The season will start in Qatar, location of the final official test, on March 18. The final race will be on November 18, in the Spanish city of Valencia. A total of 19 races will take place.
Here's a look back at the final official test in Qatar:
The opening race of the 2018 season could spring a surprise or two, with several riders and teams finding unexpected pace at the Losail International Circuit. Suzuki's Iannone in particular was a lot faster in the desert than in previous tests and could challenge for the race win―even if team-mate Rins is expected to have the better of him the rest of the year.
Rins has been touted as one of the sport's rising stars after he finished third in the 2016 Moto2 championship. Injuries slowed him down significantly last year, but he could have a breakout season in 2018.
He's not the only outsider worth keeping an eye on. The 22-year-old was beaten to the 2016 Moto2 title by Zarco, who made the step up to MotoGP last year and grabbed three podium finishes. Now 27, he's been excellent in pre-season testing, finishing with the best time in Qatar.
Marquez remains the man to beat, winning his last two titles on a bike that was slower than that of his rivals. The 2018 Honda has been much better in pre-season testing, giving the Spaniard a huge advantage.
Yamaha had a hot start in 2017 before faltering as the season wore on. If they can reverse that trend, Vinales' raw talent could be enough to see him past Marquez. Team-mate Rossi will likely pick his spots to chase race wins but could steal valuable points from Marquez in the process.
Dovizioso showed a lot of improvements last year, and his chances of winning the championship will come down to whether or not Ducati can match Honda this year.
He had the pace in Qatar in testing, per MotoGP on BT Sport:
Per Matthew Clayton of Redbull.com, Zarco's single-lap pace was impressive, but his race pace was not. Yamaha's overall pace remains a major question mark heading into the opening race.