Sun down, lights out: battle commences in Qatar
Posted on Mar 13, 2018 by MotoGP™
It's what we've all been waiting for and it's nearly here - 2018 is about to hit the rev limiter for round one
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.