Qatar plays host to round one of MotoGP 2011

The winter wait is almost over and on Sunday the Losail International Circuit will play host to round one of the MotoGP season.

The Losail International Circuit

Qatar held its first MotoGP in 2004 and since then it has become a permanent fixture on the calendar. While the circuit has failed to win the hearts of local fans, attendance was a paltry 7,302 in 2010; the organisers have been able to win over Dorna with large cheques and the unique spectacle of night racing.

The circuit measures 5.38km but in all that length there are very few true tests for riders. The majority of the lap is spent short shifting from second to third gear as riders drive out of one bland corner into another. The challenge therefore is find a setup that allows the rider to get on the power smoothly and keep tyre wear to a minimum.

The main overtaking points are at the end of kilometre long front straight into the second gear first corner. There are also genuine opportunities to pass into the double apex right hander at turn four and five. The other opportune overtaking area is into the slowest corner of the track, turn six.

MotoGP contenders

When you think of Qatar and MotoGP one man stands out above all others: Casey Stoner. The 2007 world champion absolutely loves the Losail circuit and a cursory glance at his results shows why. The Australian is a four time winner at the circuit, with three coming in the MotoGP class. He also took his first premier class pole position at the track in his rookie season of 2006. Stoner has never qualified off the front row in Qatar and judging by his dominant testing form he stands a great chance of opening his victory account with Repsol Honda this weekend.

While Casey has been the dominant rider at the track he will still have to banish the demons from last season’s crash while leading the race and looking set for a comfortable win. That race set the tone for his season. From that point on he suffered arguably his worst season. Crashes became a regular occurrence in the opening races and while he sprinkled his year with some dominant victories there can be no doubt that his failure to win the season opener had a dramatic effect on his confidence and his title challenge.

Stoner will face some stiff competition in the form of his teammate, Dani Pedrosa. The diminutive Spaniard looked sharp at the final preseason test, held earlier this week in Qatar. Last year showed that Dani is ready to add consistency to his undoubted speed but it is crucial that he can assert some authority over Stoner during the early races or else the focus of the Repsol team could easily shift towards the Australian.

In the past there were questions asked about Pedrosa’s mental strength but last year’s successes will have removed much of the doubt in relation to his perceived weakness. The only thing that Dani will have to prove this year is how he handles himself against a teammate who is just as fast as him. Throughout his career in the junior ranks, with the exception of his rookie 125cc season, Dani was the sole focus of his teams.

In his Telefonica backed 125 and 250cc days Pedrosa never faced a challenge from his teammates and was able to drive the team forward in the direction that he desired. Even when he came to MotoGP it was a similar story for Pedrosa. Honda had designated him as their lead rider and Nicky Hayden and Andrea Dovizioso played second fiddle to Dani. With Stoner coming into the team this year it is arguable that this is the last chance for Pedrosa to win the title for HRC. If he fails this year the team’s balance of power could easily shift to Stoner for the next few years.

It is strange to say but reigning world champion Jorge Lorenzo will start the year behind Stoner in the pecking order. Last year Lorenzo penned one of the most consistent seasons in memory and was a thoroughly deserving champion. The Spaniard married his incredible speed with new found maturity and the huge crashes that blighted his first two MotoGP seasons became a thing of the past.

His past performances at Qatar have been second to none; he has always stood on the podium and like Stoner he has never started off the front row of the grid. Taking three wins at the circuit and starting from pole position on his MotoGP debut shows his speed at Losail but last year’s race showed his courage. Racing with a badly injured right hand, following a minibike crash, Lorenzo battled from third on the grid to finish second, just one second behind Valentino Rossi, and get his title winning season off to a great start. Before the race Lorenzo was barely able to shake hands with people but once on the bike he produced, arguably, the bravest ride of his career.

There will be no needs for such bravery this year but the Spaniard will face a gargantuan struggle to compete with the Hondas. The Yamaha, as ever, is lacking top speed and Stoner and Pedrosa look primed and ready to battle for the win. The one thing that Lorenzo has on his side is that his race craft always sees him get faster at the end of races. He maintains tyre life better than anyone on the grid and depending on the conditions during the race that could be the ace up his sleeve.

Valentino Rossi has looked all at sea in testing. The Italian has struggled to set competitive lap times aboard his new Ducati but it is worth noting that he has had to ride at less than 100% throughout testing. This weekend will be the first time that we see Valentino riding at his maximum and it will be very interesting to see how he fares. It has always been foolish to write Rossi and Jeremy Burgees off and if they can get their bike at anywhere approaching a competitive position then you still have to believe that Valentino can make the difference.

Ben Spies, on the other hand, should have a perfect bike throughout the weekend. The American has moved to the factory Yamaha squad as teammate to Lorenzo. He should be very quick this weekend and while a win would be asking too much of him challenging for the podium looks to be a realistic target for Spies.

Behind the leading lights this should be an illuminating race for the likes Andrea Dovizioso and Marco Simoncelli. Both are factory Honda riders but if testing is anything to go by their careers are heading on different paths. Simoncelli flew in testing and has garnered a lot of support from the Japanese manufacturer while Dovizioso had to fight tooth and nail for his contract to be honoured by Honda for the coming season.

Dovizioso finished third last year and a repeat performance by the Italian would be quite surprising. This is a pivotal season for the former 125cc champion and it is crucial to get it off on the right note. His compatriot on the other hand can bed himself into his factory role with a solid top six finish and look to improve throughout the season. Simoncelli will be blisteringly quick at some races this season but it would be surprising if he took the fight to Stoner and Pedrosa this weekend; the Repsol duo just look too dominant right now.

Moto2 challengers

The Moto2 class is incredibly competitive and this race should be the best of the weekend. There is much to be intrigued by the intermediate class and this weekend we will get our initial answers as to who will be competitive and who has their work cut out for them in 2011.

Much of the attention will be centred on Marc Marquez. The 18 year old Spaniard won the 125cc championship last season and moves up to the class with a huge expectation from his homeland. Can he follow in the footsteps of Dani Pedrosa and win first time out on his “middle class” debut? It would be asking a lot of Marquez and a top five finish would be a great start to his season. Marquez has looked very fast in testing and as a result it would be surprising if he does not qualify at the sharp end of the grid.

The racing in Moto2 is exceptionally close and for Marquez and the other rookies it will be an eye opening experience. Pol Espargaro though should be right at home in the class. The young Spaniard is one of the most aggressive riders in the paddock and throughout the weekend it would be wise to keep one eye on him.

Andrea Iannone though should start the race as the favourite to take the chequered flag, even though he struggled in the desert last year finished over 30 seconds adrift of the race winner. The Italian though developed through the year into a genuine contender and was the main competition Toni Elias faced on a race-by-race basis. Iannone will race for a new team in 2011 but he should be able to maintain his startling form from last year. He was the only man to break away from the pack and win races last season and a similar disappearing act should not be discounted for this weekend.

Julian Simon will look to keep Iannone in check and the Spaniard, racing for Aspar, will be a championship contender. After starting 2010 hampered by a poor RSV chassis Simon grew in confidence throughout the year to such an extent that the former 125cc champion will be very confident of adding another world title to his trophy cabinet. He has struggled at Qatar in the past but it would be surprising to see him open the season with anything less than a podium finish.

Scott Redding will also be expected to maintain his form from testing and the second half of 2010. The Englishman has looked in great form over the course of the winter and he should be a contender this weekend. Redding, the youngest ever GP winner, is yet to add to his solitary 125cc win but it seems like only a matter of time until he corrects that stat and wins in Moto2. He made his GP debut in Qatar in 2008, and started from the front row of the grid. A similar starting position on Sunday would leave the lanky 18 year old in prime position to challenge for the win.

Apart from Ionone, Simon and Redding the other riders likely to contend for the honours on Sunday are Kenan Sofuoglu, Thomas Luthi and maybe a surprise contender like Jules Cluzel.

Terol starts as favourite in 125s

The racing on Sunday will be opened by the 125cc class and in this there is little doubt that Nico Terol will start the race as the firm favourite. The Spaniard, vice champion in 2010, starts the season as overwhelming title favourite and it would be quite a shock if he does not open the season with a repeat of his opening race success of last year.

The smallest capacity class is in a period of transition in almost every conceivable way. From a machinery standpoint the 125’s will be replaced by 250cc four-strokes next year and on track most of the leading riders, except Terol, have made the move to Moto2. This means that the path has been cleared for riders like Efren Vazquez and Sandro Cortese to challenge for race wins and the championship.

Both riders are fast but prone to inconsistencies. Vazquez finished on the podium last year and a repeat performance would be deemed a very successful start to his campaign. He will however face stiff competition from former Moto2 racer Hector Faubel. The 27 year old Spaniard has won seven races in the 125cc class since making his debut 11 years ago and he should offer a stern test to all riders in the class. It will be interesting to see how he adapts in his return to the 125cc class after three years in 250cc and Moto2.

Jonas Folger is a rider to keep an eye on this weekend. In his rookie season, 2009, the young German stared throughout the season and could easily have won a race but last year saw him hampered by an uncompetitive bike. This year he will be racing for Ajo motorsport so there can be no doubt about the machinery underneath him. Folger could spring a surprise this weekend and contend for the win.

Predictions for the Qatar Grand Prix

Season opening races are always exceptionally difficult to predict….but here goes!

In the 125cc class Terol will take the second pole position of his career and win the race ahead of Hector Faubel with Jonas Folger the third man on the rostrum. Sandro Cortese and Efren Vazquez will both challenge in the early stages before wilting towards the chequered flag.

Experience should tell in the Moto2 race Andrea Iannone will add to his three 2010 victories by winning ahead of Scott Redding and Julian Simon with Marc Marquez finishing his debut Moto2 race in sixth.

The MotoGP race will be dominated by Honda with Casey Stoner beating teammate Dani Pedrosa after pulling away in the second half of the race. World champion Jorge Lorenzo will open his title defence with a podium finish. Valentino Rossi will finish in eighth with Marco Simoncelli opening the year by holding off Ben Spies for fourth.

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