Sun down, lights out: battle commences in Qatar

12 March 2018

Ten years have passed since the desert oasis of Losail International Circuit hosted the first floodlit MotoGP™ race. In that time, much has changed but the core of the sport has remained the same. Foundations laid then and since have created one of the most spectacular eras of Grand Prix motorcycle racing since the Championship began in 1949 and, lucky us, another season of that rollercoaster is about to begin. Who’s your money on?
On the face of it, it’s hard to bet against reigning Champion Marc Marquez (Repsol Honda Team). The rider from Cervera is now a six-time World Champion and he’s taken four premier class crowns in five years. Qatar is usually a more difficult venue for Marquez and Honda, and although both will want to begin another title defence on the offensive and at the front, it may be a case of good things come to those who wait for the number 93 and teammate Dani Pedrosa, who makes his 200th premier class start – as well as for HRC test rider and Independent Team challenger Cal Crutchlow (LCR Honda Castrol).
Ducati begin the season with the statistics stacked the opposite way. Losail is a venue that suits the red machines, and Andrea Dovizioso has proven that with a good number of podiums in recent Qatar GPs. But that was then, and this is now. ‘DesmoDovi’ is a contender from the start in 2018, and it’s not just the podium that Borgo Panigale have in their sights – it’s the top step. That would make for a big opening statement from the Italian on the Italian machine. His teammate Jorge Lorenzo will be looking for similar headlines in his second year in red, too – and it’s his pole record that still stands from 2008 when he was a rookie in the premier class. With three wins to his name at the venue in MotoGP™, Lorenzo is the second most successful rider at the track on the premier class grid this year – added to another three wins in the lower classes.
Who’s the first? The ‘Doctor’. Movistar Yamaha MotoGP’s Valentino Rossi has four MotoGP™ wins at Losail to Lorenzo’s three, and the rider from Tavullia always has some serious form for race day pace in the desert. But it’s been a difficult preseason and latter part of 2017 for the Iwata marque and questions remain – can Rossi answer them? And what of teammate Maverick Viñales? After an awesome preseason ahead of 2017 and two wins to begin the year, the battle became more uphill. Has that been turned around?
Turnaround is an apt phrase for Team Suzuki Ecstar. Preseason in 2017 saw the Hamamatsu factory make some mistakes in direction, but they’re confident they’re rectified for this season. And testing form showed that may well be true – with Alex Rins a constant top presence and Andrea Iannone a dead cert as a player in the Qatar battle. They may well be joined in that fight by Aleix Espargaro (Aprilia Racing Team Gresini) as the Noale factory took their equal best ever result with the Spaniard in the desert last year, and Red Bull KTM Factory Racing will have their sights set on Aprilia and Suzuki as they enter their sophomore season. The Austrian factory leaped rather than stepped forward last season, and they don’t plan on slowing up on their incredible progress. In addition, Pol Espargaro should be back on better form after injury – and he’ll be grabbing the bull by the horns.
But MotoGP™ isn’t a tale penned solely by the hands of factory teams. Independent runners, who are now also competing for their own new Teams’ and Riders’ crowns from 2018, are integral to the sport, the competition and the show. The dark horses, the outsiders – and in many cases, the frontrunning contenders. One such competitor is Johann Zarco: the 2017 Rookie of the Year, the top Independent Team rider last season, the multiple-time podium finisher…and the fastest man in the Qatar test.
Marc Marquez, predicting his biggest rivals this season, picked Andrea Dovizioso and Johann Zarco. So can the Frenchman challenge for the title in an Independent Team? The one thing we can be sure of is that he’ll do anything to make that a yes. Fast, aggressive, consistent and with few crashes, Zarco is both hot property and hotly-tipped for glory.
Crutchlow’s two premier class race wins chalk in the Brit as key competition for the Independent Rider crown, however, and former teammate Jack Miller – now on a GP17 at Alma Pramac Racing – has hit the ground running this year. His stablemate Danilo Petrucci took multiple podiums in 2017, too – including some incredible fights for the win – and the ranks are full of those capable of spoiling the party.
Will any of those men be the rookies? It was reigning Moto2™ Champion Franco Morbidelli (EG 0,0 Marc VDS) who left Qatar as the fastest debutant, but Takaaki Nakagami (LCR Honda Idemitsu) had kept that honour for much of preseason previously. Hafizh Syahrin (Monster Yamaha Tech 3) was second rookie in the Qatar test, too – an incredible feat after joining the ranks since Buriram – and he could be one to watch as he settles in. Meanwhile Tom Lüthi (EG 0,0 Marc VDS) and Xavier Simeon (Reale Avintia Racing) will be looking to close in on their rivals for Rookie of the Year – knowing the points are only given out on Sunday.
Favourites, dark horses; thrills and spills and twists and turns: this is 2018. Get ready to be surprised.
MotoGP™ FP1 begins at 14:45 local time (GMT +3) on Friday. Then when the sun goes down on Sunday, the lights go out at 19:00.

The great contenders: a full Moto2™ field ready for action

Who’s your title favourite? Heading into 2018, there are more than a few

Moto2™ is a notoriously difficult and competitive class of Grand Prix racing. And 2018, with a long list of riders who are expected title contenders, race winners and podium finishers, is going to be an incredible year. Reigning Champion Franco Morbidelli has moved up, title-contending stalwart Tom Lüthi too, and there are a host of challengers aiming to fill that power vacuum.

Miguel Oliveira (Red Bull KTM Ajo) is one such candidate. After a stunning run of three wins in a row to conclude 2017, the Portuguese rider will want to begin the year where he left off – as will KTM in their second year in the intermediate class. Not right at the top in testing but a solid presence nevertheless, has Oliveira showed his hand? His teammate, 2016 Moto3™ World Champion Brad Binder, is another threat on Austrian machinery, getting his first Moto2™ podiums as Oliveira took to the top step. After a season that began with some serious injury struggles, Binder on full-power and fully healthy was a force to be reckoned with. And testing went well for the South African.

As well as Oliveira, another multiple race winner from last season has his sights set high: Alex Marquez (EG 0,0 Marc VDS). The 2014 Moto3™ World Champion was uncatchably fast at Jerez and Catalunya, and played his hand to perfection for a tactical win in Motegi. Mid-season injury affected his season, but if the rider from Cervera can unleash the pace of Jerez all year, it could prove a problem for his competitors. And Marquez is on a Kalex, a headliner in an interesting battle of the chassis manufacturers.
So, too, is 2017 Rookie of the Year Francesco Bagnaia (Sky Racing Team VR46). Bagnaia took his first podium on the day Marquez took his first win at Jerez, and the Italian arrived to the intermediate class with a bang. The two have been key players in preseason – and Bagnaia has made some headlines off track, too. Now signed up to move to MotoGP™ in 2019, this is ‘Pecco’’s second and final Moto2™ campaign and he’ll want to head up wearing the crown.

Another key player at the front this season is another KTM, however. Sam Lowes (Swiss Innovative Investors) returns to Moto2™ following a year in the premier class, and is a proven race winner and contender in the category. A change of team and the bike to have won three in a row last year are good omens, and Lowes topped the third and final preseason test at Jerez after some time under the radar. His goal is loud and clear: the Moto2™ World Championship.

Of course, racing is never as simple as track records picked out of a hat to make predictions. There is more to it than numbers and favourites – there are always dark horses, surprises, riders who want to flip the form book – and rookies looking to make a point.

A dark horse candidate this season could be Mattia Pasini (Italtrans Racing Team), who took a stunning win at Mugello last year and was often at the front. Lorenzo Baldassarri (Pons HP 40) has also won before, and Sky Racing Team VR46 newcomer Luca Marini had good pace in preseason. Danny Kent (Speed Up Racing) is back and now Fabio Quartararo on the other side of the garage, and Malaysian Zulfahmi Khairuddin returns to the Moto2™ ranks at Petronas Sprinta Racing. Xavi Vierge and Marcel Schrötter gun for glory at Intact Dynavolt GP, and another familiar name will be on the grid: Hector Barbera (Pons HP 40).

Barbera is back in the intermediate class after some impressive years in MotoGP™ – and despite being a former 250 title challenger, times have changed and the Spaniard has never ridden a Moto2™ bike before. How will he adapt? Will his incredible wealth of experience be a help or a hindrance?

The other newcomers have different stories, with the biggest headline act moving into the class undoubtedly Joan Mir (EG 0,0 Marc VDS). The record-breaking reigning lightweight class Champion moves into the team who defend the crown and alongside a real contender – and he’ll want to hit the ground running as well as recover quickly from a mototcross injury that saw him miss the final preseason test. At that test, Romano Fenati (Marinelli Rivacold Snipers) was the quickest debutant – so will their rivalry re-ignite in the fight for Rookie of the Year? And can Bo Bendsneyder (Tech 3 Racing) get in that mix?

There is also NTS RW Racing GP, a new chassis manufacturer and two new faces. Although Steven Odendaal – the 2016 European Moto2™ Champion – has raced in the class before, the South African is now back and ready to attack. But his teammate Joe Roberts managed to stay a tenth ahead in testing, and that’s after the American rider had impressed hugely on his brief debut at Brno in the wet. What can Roberts do as NTS take on this new adventure?

Moto2™ is one of the toughest competitions on earth, and every competitor impresses. But now the pack has shuffled, who will emerge wearing the crown?

The eye of the slipstream: Moto3™ ready to rumble

The season opener is just around the corner, and the lightweight class always serve up a storm

It has been only a few short months since the final race of 2017, but everything is reset and reloaded and raring to race once more. This is 2018, and it’s new year – new Champion.

For all intents and purposes, the throne is vacant in Moto3™. As is oft or always the case, the old King has moved on to pastures new in Moto2™ and the new field of hopefuls are certain to provide us with a new name on the trophy. So ahead of the first 25 points towards that goal being dished out, what are we expecting this season?

One of the key men tipped for glory is Jorge Martin (Del Conca Gresini Moto3). The Spaniard set a stunning nine pole positions in 2017 – half the year – and finally took his maiden win in Valencia. He arrives as the latest victor, and he’ll want to leave Qatar as the same. On the podium last year, he’ll be tough to beat but his teammate will be one hoping to do that – with Fabio Di Giannantonio also taking a solid result last year at Losail as he came home in P8.

The man who won was Joan Mir, now an intermediate class rookie. In his place at Leopard Racing is another name expected to be a title contender – Enea Bastianini. With wins and podiums already and a good amount of experience, the ‘Beast’ will be pushing to make it his year. Hot on his heels in the final preseason test, however, was former teammate Aron Canet (Estrella Galicia 0,0) – a man who, like Martin, also showed top form at Qatar last year as he took P4. Race by race and points on the board is Canet’s approach – but will that change once the lights go out?

The Spaniard is now the veteran at Estrella Galicia 0,0 this season. Alongside him is Alonso Lopez, who left Jerez as fastest rookie and will be gunning for the title of Rookie of the Year come Valencia. But there are some interesting newcomers on the list – including former FIM CEV Repsol Moto3™ Junior World Championship contender Makar Yurchenko of Kazakhstan (CIP – Green Power). And reigning Red Bull Rookies Cup Champion Kazuki Masaki (RBA BOE Skull Rider) will have his sights set on the same prize, as will Jaume Masia (Bester Capital Dubai), and the man they’ll be looking to to beat is reigning FIM CEV Repsol Moto3™ Junior World Champion Dennis Foggia (Sky Racing Team VR46).

The rookies have a point to prove, but so does a deep field of veterans including Nicolo Bulega (Sky Racing Team VR46), Niccolo Antonelli (SIC58 Squadra Corse), Phillip Oettl (Südmetall Schedl GP Racing), Adam Norrodin (Petronas Sprinta Racing), John McPhee (CIP – Green Power), Darryn Binder (Red Bull KTM Ajo), Andrea Migno (Angel Nieto Team)…and the sophomore likes of Ayumu Sasaki (Petronas Sprinta Racing) and Marco Bezzechi (Pruestel GP). Soon the first wheels will turn in anger and it will be Moto3™ who rev 2018 into action, with FP1 at 12:50 (GMT +3) on Friday.

Then, come 16:00 local on Sunday, it’s straight into the eye of the slipstream storm down Qatar’s more-than-kilometer long main straight – and the first 25 points of the season will be given out.

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