2016 season preview: 450 Class

Every year the field of 450 Class riders contesting the Lucas Oil Pro Motocross Championship always seems to be touted as the "deepest" its been in recent memory. All too often, though, one rider ends up separating from the rest of the pack and staking a clear claim on a championship.

But this year, there is reason to believe that this could be one of the wildest, most unpredictable seasons we've seen in some time. The field is loaded with veterans who have, at one point or another over the course of their careers, demonstrated championship-caliber talent racing in the outdoor series. There are also younger riders who could potentially make "the leap" with another year of 450 racing under their belts.

Most importantly, the majority of the top riders appear to be entering the series healthy, which isn't always the case.

The 2016 season will kick off on Saturday, May 21 with the GoPro Hangtown Motocross Classic. (Don't forget: You can watch all four motos live on ProMotocross.com!) Once the gate drops for the first time, questions will start to be answered, but in the meantime, here's an early preview of the 450 Class.


Ryan Dungey laying into a turn on Press Day at Hangtown in preperation for the 2016 Lucas Oil Pro Motocross Championship. (Photo: George Crosland)

 

THE TOP TITLE CONTENDERS

We start with the leading group of title contenders. While it's not out of the realm of possibility that someone from outside this section could step up and challenge for the championship (more on that later), these are the three riders that would be given the greatest odds by Vegas standards.

#1 Ryan Dungey (Red Bull KTM): Dungey is the one rider in the field with no question marks. You already know what you're going to get with the three-time 450MX champion: extreme consistency. Last year, Dungey finished inside the top two in 22 of 24 motos en route to the Lucas Oil Pro Motocross title, and the field was far from diluted. He kept the momentum going into 2016, winning his second straight supercross title, so there's no reason not to expect him to be a frontrunner this year.

#3 Eli Tomac (Monster Energy Kawasaki): It's easy to forget just how dominant Tomac was at the first three rounds of the 2015 motocross season before he suffered a season-ending crash. He won the first five motos of the season, including one where he crossed the finish line 91 seconds ahead of Dungey at Hangtown. Behind the scenes, Tomac's dominance reportedly left Dungey very frustrated and desperate to make bike changes. Tomac does have a big change this year, though. After riding for GEICO Honda last year, he signed with Monster Energy Kawasaki in the offseason. The factory Kawasaki effort has already proven capable of winning a championship (remember Ryan Villopoto?), and judging from his string of podium finishes to close out the supercross season, Tomac seems to be comfortable on the bike. Already one of the fastest outdoor riders there is, he may also be getting hot again at the right time.

#94 Ken Roczen (RCH Suzuki): Roczen edged out Ryan Dungey to secure a hard-fought championship in 2014, but last year was a far cry from that performance. Dealing with a painful back injury, Roczen nearly sat out the season opener at Hangtown. He gritted it out for a full season, chalking up 16 moto podium finishes en route to finishing second in 450MX points. Whether you want to chalk his relatively low win total in 2015 (3 motos, 1 overall) up to the back injury or first-year growing pains with his new RCH Suzuki team, those issues seem to be in the rear-view mirror now. Roczen is healthy and caught fire late in the supercross season after winning two of the final three races.


Ken Roczen rode the Hangtown track at Press Day, preparing to retake his motocross title from 2014. (Photo: George Crosland)

 

THE QUESTION MARKS

This next group of riders have shown the speed and talent to win races and titles throughout their careers, but enter the 2016 season with something to prove.

#51 Justin Barcia (Autotrader/Monster Energy/Yamaha): It would be easy to knock Barcia down a peg after his disappointing, injury-plagued supercross campaign (one top ten finish in eight rounds raced), but for several weeks last summer, he was just as good -- if not better -- than Ryan Dungey. Barcia entered the 2015 season under similar conditions and got off to a bit of a slow start, something he attributed to injuries keeping him off the bike and preventing him from fine-tuning his Yamaha in the lead-up to the season. Once Barcia got the bike dialed in, he was consistently ripping off holeshots (he had seven in a row at one point) and finishing in the top two. In total, he won three motos and two overalls. Will Barcia enter this season ready to challenge for wins right away? Or, could this year's injuries hinder his early-season results once again?

#41 Trey Canard (Honda HRC): Canard was sidelined for the first eight rounds of the 2016 season due to a broken arm. In the eight motos he raced, he never finished worse than ninth, but never better than third. If you think back to 2014, you may recall Canard's impressive end-of-season stretch, where he won three of the final four motos after making some pivotal changes to his bike setup. If that version of Canard shows up at Hangtown, he could make some noise in the championship hunt this year. However, if Canard more closely resembles the version of himself from the 2016 supercross campaign (ninth in points, zero podiums), it will be hard to keep pace with the likes of Dungey, Tomac and Roczen. Canard does not yet have a deal lined up for 2017, which should only add to the incentive to perform well.

#7 James Stewart (Yoshimura Suzuki): If everything goes right, Stewart is talented enough to win races and be a contender. However, that's a major if. First, there is the question of his health. Stewart missed 11 of 17 rounds during the supercross season due to various ailments, and when he did compete his best result was 14th. Then there's the question of how all the time off the bike may have impacted the ability to do testing and improve his fitness in preparation for the outdoor season. Stewart missed the entire 2015 Lucas Oil Pro Motocross season because of an FIM-imposed suspension, but did have some solid performances when we last saw him outdoors in 2014.


Following a year off from outdoors and a rough season in supercross, James Stewart was on the bike and at it again for Hangtown Press Day. (Photo: George Crosland)

 

THE "LEAP-YEAR" CANDIDATES

Several riders emerged as podium contenders in 2015 and will be looking to make the jump to the next level -- winning races. The potential is there, but can they crack the next tier?

#21 Jason Anderson (Rockstar Energy Husqvarna): By all accounts, Anderson exceeded expectations as a rookie in 2015. He finished inside the top five in 8 of 24 motos and even landed on the podium in four of those motos. He ended up sixth overall in the point standings, but that doesn't necessarily do justice to the fact that he emerged as a legitimate podium threat week in and week out. Judging by his supercross campaign, Anderson may have progressed even further in Year 2 on the big bike: He won the opening race, finished on the podium seven times and was arguably the second-best rider in the 450 Class for much of the season. He ended up third in points.

#4 Blake Baggett (Yoshimura Suzuki): Baggett was pretty steady in his rookie season on a 450, finishing fifth or better in exactly half of the season's 24 motos. He ended up third overall in the 450MX point standings and, like Anderson, was a legitimate podium contender throughout the season. His supercross campaign was disappointing (only ten rounds raced due to injuries, no podium finishes), but Baggett has always been a bigger threat for outdoors anyway.

#377 Christophe Pourcel (Rockstar Energy Husqvarna): Pourcel improved as the season wore on last year. Over the final 16 motos, he had nine top-five finishes and landed on the podium five times. His deal with the factory Husqvarna team came together just weeks before the start of the season. Now that he has a full year with the team under his belt expectations may be heightened. His supercross season wasn't notable, with injuries limiting him to 11 rounds. His season-best finish was just seventh, but, like Baggett, Pourcel has historically been better outdoors.

#14 Cole Seely (Honda HRC): Seely's specialty has always been supercross and he was solid in that series again this year, finishing sixth in 450SX points and landing on the podium four times. Last year's rookie season on the 450 in the Lucas Oil Pro Motocross Championship ended early due to a shoulder injury, but prior to that he was emerging as a consistent top-ten rider—he even had a couple top-five finishes sprinkled in. What will his results look like in his first full year outdoors in 450MX?


Marvin Musquin speeding his way around Hangtown and blurring photographers' frames on Press Day. (Photo: George Crosland)

 

THE NEWCOMERS

There are a few wild cards coming into the 450 Class who could potentially upset the balance of power.

#25 Marvin Musquin (Red Bull KTM): Ryan Dungey's long-time teammate and training partner at Aldon Baker's ranch has moved up to the premier class. Although Musquin never captured a 250MX championship, he has undoubtedly been one of the best riders in the 250 Class over the last few seasons. His transition to the big bike started with the supercross season, in which he looked pretty sharp. Musquin had a four-race podium streak in the middle of the season that included three runner-up finishes.

#19 Justin Bogle (GEICO Honda): Technically, Bogle isn’t a total "newcomer" to the premier class as he dipped his toes in the water late last season. His results in those races (10th or worse in five of six motos) don't accurately tell the story, though. Bogle looked fast and frequently found himself around the top five early in races before fading. GEICO Honda was able to hook Bogle up with a 450 this year but the one-year deal is up at the end of the season, meaning Bogle will hope to impress teams enough to secure a factory contract in 2017.

THE PODIUM HOPEFULS

The rest of field is full of riders who should be consistent forces within the top ten, with the ability to fight for podium finishes.

When you think of consistent top-ten finishes, you have to start with Broc Tickle (#20, RCH Suzuki). Last year en route to a seventh-place finish in points Tickle landed in the top ten in 19 of 24 motos.

The tandem of Weston Peick (#28) and Phil Nicoletti (#34) gives the Autotrader/Monster Energy/Yamaha two legit forces behind Justin Barcia. Both riders had a moto podium finish early in the 2015 season (Peick at Hangtown, Nicoletti at Glen Helen) and finished in the top ten in 450MX points.

With Wil Hahn injured, the Monster Energy Kawasaki squad tapped Josh Grant (#33) to take over his spot on the factory team. Grant won a moto at Glen Helen a few years ago, so you can never count him out.

BTO Sports KTM will field a three-rider team of Justin Brayton (#10), Andrew Short (#29) and Benny Bloss (#167). Brayton's season-high finish outdoors last year in a moto was eighth place. Short is in his final season of racing but missed the majority of the supercross season because of injuries. Bloss was the 2015 AMA Horizon Award winner at Loretta Lynn's last year and finished 15th overall in his pro debut at Ironman Raceway last season.

Fast Fredrik Noren (#43) got to ride a factory Honda in place of Trey Canard for much of 2015, and it translated to a 10th-place finish in the point standings. This year he will ride for the Rocky Mountain ATV/MC team alongside Kyle Chisholm (#11), who finished 11th in points last year.

 

WHO'S MISSING

#50 Malcolm Stewart (GEICO Honda): After winning the 250SX East championship, Stewart is sitting out the Lucas Oil Pro Motocross season in preparation for a full-time move up to the 450 Class in 2017. He has raced a 450 outdoors in several seasons, but has remained a 250 Class supercross rider.

#15 Dean Wilson (Red Bull KTM): Wilson tore his ACL during the supercross season and is still recovering. It's possible he will race a few rounds of Lucas Oil Pro Motocross later in the year.

#48 Wil Hahn (Monster Energy Kawasaki): Hahn suffered numerous injuries as a result of a crash during the supercross season and is not yet ready to return to racing.

#22 Chad Reed: The deal that Reed put together with Yamaha was for supercross only. He's not expected to race any rounds of the Nationals but will do a few MXGP races.

#18 Davi Millsaps: Millsaps will compete in the Canadian Nationals.

#800 Mike Alessi: Alessi will compete in the Canadian Nationals again this year.