In what is sure to be one of the most overused statistics of the week there will be enough lights illuminating the Losail International Circuit this weekend to light a road from Doha to Moscow but the spotlight will shine brightest on a man from a small Australian town.
Casey Stoner will start his defence of his MotoGP crown this weekend with the floodlit Qatar Grand Prix opening the new season. The 2012 season sees tremendous changes sweep through the paddock but most expect a familiar result at the end of the season with Stoner claiming a third title.
A change will you do good….
The MotoGP class will feature a raft of new technical regulations and the introduction of production based bikes to the premier class. The biggest change sees the unloved 800cc era come to an end with one litre power plants set to liven up proceedings once again.
The expectation is that riders will now be able to use more of the track rather than the single, narrow racing line that had become the norm.
With more power riders should be able to square off corners by getting on the power and this should allow different riding styles to once again come to the fore. Riders such as Nicky Hayden lost the ability to brake deep into the corner and try and square off the apex but the American should be much more at home to the new machinery. Likewise the clockwork consistency that has been rewarded so well in recent years with riders having to hit the same braking point lap after lap and therefore making it very difficult to overtake a rival should be replaced with a more traditional style of racing.
The introduction of the Claiming Rule Teams bikes sees production based engines mated with customer chassis in a bid to reduce costs and bolster what had become very sparse grids.
Throughout testing the performance of the CRT bikes has been one of the main topics of conversation. The speed of the bikes has ranged from very impressive to terrible.
Randy de Puniet has impressed everyone with the speed of his ART, in effect a factory Aprilia bike, and has flown in testing and the Frenchman. The ethos of the CRT rules was to add more bikes to the grid but in effect the addition of the ART machine harks back to the days when the field was made up of customer Yamaha machines.
It is certain that the ART will be the pacesetter of the new bikes but the question ahead of the new season is whether de Puniet will be able to challenge the satellite Ducati bikes. For de Puniet testing proved one thing; catching the back end of the MotoGP bikes won’t be the challenge-getting past will be:
“Overtaking will be difficult because of their acceleration,” commented the Frenchman. “What I will need to do is keep following them really closely and hope to push them into a mistake.”
But the main interest of the race leaders is sure to be just how off the pace the tail enders will be and how easy they will be to lap.
Outside of the premier class the biggest story of the weekend is that after 63 years the 125cc has reached retirement age and will be replaced by the Moto3 class. The hope and expectation is that the smallest class will replicate the success of Moto2 and see thrilling racing with numerous riders challenging for wins. The recent seasons of Aspar and Ajo domination are hoped to be cast aside with the class becoming a more equal landscape where financial resources and equipment are less important.
Moto2 will see no changes in the coming year but after two thrilling seasons for the intermediate class that will be just fine!
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 has generally been considerably below 10,000; 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.
For Bridgestone, the control tyre supplier,Qatarprovides a very unique challenge:
“The first race of the season atQatarpresents a unique technical challenge for Bridgestone,” commented Shinji Aoki. “Apart from being the only race on the calendar to be run at night-time which brings with it low track temperatures, the fine desert sand can coat the track surface in a highly abrasive coating. To enable riders to adapt to these variable track conditions, for the first time we are bringing three front tyre compounds toQatar; soft, medium and hard. The softer compounds work well in the cooler conditions giving riders excellent warm-up performance, while the harder option gives greater durability when the track conditions improve, while also providing greater stability under hard braking.
With the Losail circuit featuring a number of high-speed right hand turns, we have also
made available an asymmetric rear tyre. This development sees harder, more durable
rubber on the right shoulder of the tyre and softer rubber on the left shoulder to
keep the tyre in its optimal operating temperature range and to provide riders
with the best combination of grip and durability.”
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.
What to expect in MotoGP
As ever inQatar, Casey Stoner will start the week as the firm favorite to claim his sixth victory the desert. The reigning world champion has been victorious atQatarfour of the last five years; the only exception being two years ago when he crashed while leading comfortably.
There is little to suggest that Stoner’s dominance will end this weekend with Honda providing him once again with a very fast bike. Last season it was clear that the Repsol rider enjoyed a significant mechanical advantage over Jorge Lorenzo and Yamaha and while the margin has closed considerably it hasn’t been by enough to trouble Stoner in his desert playground.
The rest of the season looks like shaping up to be very competitive but anything other than an opening victory by Casey would be a shock. Within the Repsol Honda squad however it is clear that Dani Pedrosa eager to once again reassert himself as a dominant force in the class.
With Pedrosa arriving in theMiddle Eastfresh from his controversial arrest for cheating on a yachtsman exam it is clear that he needs some positive news this weekend. After a year spent being overshadowed by Stoner the Spaniard showed promising form during the winter and a lot of “smart money” is being wagered on him to have a more competitive season.
The new Honda suits him with more power giving him good feedback throughout testing. Even though it is often said that the larger bike will be more difficult for the diminutive Pedrosa to handle he adapted superbly to the 990cc bikes in his first year in the premier class and he should be very competitive this year.
Jorge Lorenzo the 2010 world champion has been very enthusiastic this week saying that his preparations ahead of the new season have been better than ever. Last year even though the Yamaha was completely outperformed by Honda Lorenzo still managed to win races and be Stoner’s closest challenger.
The change in regulations has given Yamaha a new lease on life and it’s clear that Lorenzo is eager to capitalise on that and even though a win in Qatar is probably asking too much, owing to Stoner’s confidence at the track, it is still very likely that come round two at Jerez that Lorenzo will show a turn of speed that will remind everyone of how fast he is.
This weekend however it is unlikely that he will be a match for Stoner. His fellow Yamaha riders Ben Spies and Andrea Dovizioso have tested well with the Italian adapting so well to the Yamaha that many are expecting a factory ride next season could be on the cards….possibly at the expense of Spies.
It is more likely that a factory supported ride with Tech 3 is what will occur but for Dovi is it imperative that he opens the season strongly.
Dovizioso’s teammate at Tech 3 this year will be Cal Crutchlow. The former World Supersport champion had a mixed campaign last year with large periods of mediocrity punctuated by showing an impressive turn of speed. It was clear that he suffered badly following his fractured collarbone at Silverstone but with Bradley Smith already signed for 2013 it is clear that Crutchlow will need to raise his game in the coming season. A top seven finish inQatarwould be a good start.
Race winners galore in Moto2
The intermediate class sees inaugural Moto2 champion Toni Elias return to Gresini in a bid to reclaim the crown that Stefan Bradl won last year.
Elias struggled in the premier class last year and he is hoping that a return to the class will reinvigorate his career. With Marc Marquez the firm title favourite it is clear that Elias will have his hands full throughout the season but he will also serve as a very accurate yardstick with which to measure the young Spaniards performance this year.
With severe concussion symptoms Marquez would have spent most of the winter in a dark room but at the most recent test he returned to ride and now fully rested and recovered he is sure to be back at his best forQatar.
Last year Thomas Luthi impressed with an aggression that we hadn’t seen from the Swiss star since his 125cc days and the former champ should be a handful for most of the year. Whether or not he will be able to claim a second title remains to be seen but with his qualifying speed having improved last year he should be in a good position most races.
Even though Moto2 has seen incredibly hard fought races in its two seasons qualifying at the front has been imperative to winning races on a consistent basis. This fact of life in the intermediate class shows no signs of abating in the coming year but for Marquez, a serial front row starter, there would seem to be little standing in his way…
As ever the intermediate class sees tremendous turn over with riders moving from the 125cc class or moving on to the MotoGP/WSBK paddock. This year is no exception with Nico Terol and Johann Zarco moving to the class following their demonization of the smaller class last year.
They are joined on the grid by former WSS racer Gino Rea who has shown promise in the last two years with his aggressive racing but it remains to be seen whether or not be can adjust to the vastly more competitive life on the Grand Prix scene.
Kenan Sofuoglu, one of the best WSS racers of recent years, has struggled to make the transition even though his speed has been in evidence from his debut inPortugaltwo years ago.
Testing has shown, once again, that Scott Redding should be a factor this weekend but after a mostly disappointing season last year it is clear that he needs to back up his winter form during the season.
Vinales starts as the favourite
The Moto3 class is impossible to predict because this is its first year but if form is anything to go by Maverick Vinales is surely the man to beat.
Last year the Spaniard claimed four race wins as a rookie and started from pole position on three occasions in one of the most impressive rookie campaigns since Marco Melandri. This year he is a known commodity and earmarked as the man to beat in the inaugural championship.
As ever with preseason it is easy to see one rider head and shoulders above every one else but challengers will present themselves to Vinales with Danny Kent probably the most likely. The Englishman was consistent last year for Ajo and when he had the chance to ride a factory Aprilia he was very competitive.
Jonas Folger,Kent’s teammate, won a rain sodden British Grand Prix last year and the pair look like claiming a host of podiums for the Ajo squad aboard the KTM bikes.
Having seen Vinales have such a successful season rookies are sure to be under increased scrutiny. Romano Fanati is arguably the most hyped of the rookies with the Italian champion showing a blistering turn of speed. Axel Rins is another rookie of whom much is expected.
Whether either of these can show the same initial turn of speed that marked a rider like Scott Redding as a future star; the Englishman started on the front row on his debut, remains to be seen but with the introductory class in a state of flux with the new regulations it is clear that nothing can be discounted for the opening race of the year!