Qatar GP: Season-opener preview – MotoGP, Moto2, Moto3
Photo: Karl Fritz Glänzel – www.racepixs.de
Since 2008 each season of the MotoGP™ World Championship has begun under the brilliant floodlights of the Qatar circuit, the only night race on the calendar. 2016 will be no different as the Commercial Bank Grand Prix of Qatar starts what is set to be an incredible year in the premier class of motorcycle racing. The intrigue and drama of the 2015 season still lingers in the minds of many but all riders now have a plethora of new challenges and hurdles to focus on overcoming.
The 2016 season sees the most radical regulation changes since MotoGP™ entered the four-stroke era in 2002. A spec ECU and software package supplied by Magneti Marelli looks set to level the playing field and increase the importance of a rider’s right wrist, especially towards the end of a race with adaptive strategies removed. Michelin also step in as the official tyre supplier of the MotoGP™ class, presenting an all-new challenge for riders and the factories to overcome.
Michelin, the new MotoGP™ tyre supplier, will bring the soft and medium option rear tyres to the first round along with soft, medium and hard fronts.
Of all the riders it seems reigning MotoGP™ World Champion Jorge Lorenzo has adapted the quickest to the new MotoGP™ landscape. The five-time champion led both the Sepang and Qatar Tests by over half a second, stamping his authority and intent to retain his crown. Lorenzo is yet to take back-to-back championships in the premier class and will be aiming to avoid the difficulties that plagued him in Losail in 2014 and 2015. Aside from those years, Lorenzo had always finished on the Qatar podium in MotoGP™, winning in 2012 and 2013 from pole.
One of the biggest revelations of testing has been Maverick Viñales, the Team Suzuki Ecstar rider leading the Phillip Island Test and finishing third in Qatar. After a solid rookie season, Viñales and Suzuki are aiming for podiums and top six finishes throughout 2016. Suzuki has continued to develop the GSX-RR, introducing an improved engine, chassis and a seamless gearbox. With all these factors combined, many are expecting Viñales to hit the ground running in 2016 and challenge from the first round. It was not as smooth a transition for Team Suzuki Ecstar teammate Aleix Espargaro who has struggled with front-end confidence on his bike throughout testing.
After a hard fought title battle that went down to the final race of the year, Valentino Rossi remains as hungry as ever for his tenth title. Three times ‘The Doctor’ has won in Qatar, including his thrilling 2015 victory where he bested fellow Italian Andrea Iannone and Andrea Dovizioso after a race long brawl. AS the oldest and most successful rider on the grid, Rossi has little left to prove but continues to line up with as much passion and burning desire as in 1996 when he made his Grand Prix debut.
Unfortunately for the Repsol Honda Team, 2015 proved a difficult year for Marc Marquez. The double MotoGP™ World Champion crashed six times as he attempted to override his RC213V, an overly aggressive engine haunting him throughout the year. Testing ahead of the 2016 season also proved difficult for Marquez who crashed multiple times and was unable to find a comfortable setting with his bike, Honda continue to work behind the scenes but 2016 looks set to start with an uphill battle. Their quest to improve the engine was hindered by the new standard electronics, HRC no longer having comprehensive control and infinite adjustments at their fingertips. It proved an even more difficult time for Dani Pedrosa, the second factory rider having a torrid time during testing and unable to get near his goals.
Aside from Maverick Viñales, Scott Redding has also shown well throughout the testing period and ended the final test as the leading Ducati. His GP15 is showing no signs of aging and after a confidence sapping year in 2015, Redding is back to having fun on a motorcycle and has shown the speed to mix in with the established order and challenge for podiums. The Brit’s lone MotoGP™ podium came in Misano in 2015, but both he and the Octo Pramac Yakhnich squad are confident of adding a couple to that number in 2016. Danilo Petrucci, Scott Redding’s teammate, suffered a severely broken hand after falling at Turn 8 in Phillip Island. The Italian was forced to miss the Qatar Test, undergoing an operation to repair the damage and is hopeful of competing in the Qatar GP.
Andrea Iannone will be hoping to stop Redding’s charge and usurp him as the top Ducati throughout the year. Testing got off to a slow start for the Ducati Team rider, gradually improving the 2016 Desmosedici GP and working on the longer term development of the bike as opposed to one flying lap. Ducati are still hunting a return to the top step, their last win coming over half a century ago at the 2010 Australian GP. Teammate Andrea Dovizioso has also been focused only development work, putting in lap after lap to gather data for the engineers back in Italy. 2015 saw ‘Desmo Dovi’ produce one of his most spirited rides since joining Ducati and with the Bologna factory making continual steps forward, he’ll be aiming to go one better than in 2015.
Staying with the same team for the first time in three years, Cal Crutchlow showed well in all three tests and consistently challenged for top Honda honours. The Qatar Test ended in a vicious crash for the LCR Honda man but in true Crutchlow style, he was joking about the crash soon after and is fired up for the season and eager to help Honda improve the RC213V.
Crutchlow and Redding were not the only satellite riders to show well during testing, both Loris Baz and Hector Barbera produced commendable results. After his incredible crash in Sepang, Baz returned to go faster and faster and although he was down in 14th during the Qatar Test, his race pace was solid and the tall Frenchman is another who may surprise under the floodlights. His Avintia Racing teammate, Hector Barbera, was another to challenge the factory riders and his ability to produce a flying lap may upset many come qualifying time in Qatar.
It will be a big year for both Pol Espargaro and Bradley Smith with the majority of factory seats open at the end of the year, both Monster Yamaha Tech 3 riders will be hungry to land a much sought after factory contract. If Bradley Smith can replicate his near faultless 2015 season, he may very well open several doors. The Brit proved as hard working as ever during testing, despite a lack of preferred tyres. On the other side of the garage, Espargaro looks to turn his speed into consistency after an up and down 2015. Of all the riders, Espargaro was perhaps the most excited to switch to Michelin as he felt they would suit his riding style better. All will be revealed come Sunday the 20th of March.
Still recovering from his broken leg, Jack Miller struggled somewhat during the Qatar Test and is hoping that with intensive physiotherapy between events he will be more competitive come the Grand Prix. His Estrella Galicia 0,0 Marc VDS teammate, Tito Rabat, also had a difficult test with three crashes as he was unable to get any feedback from the difficult to tame Honda.
The first three rounds look set to be extended test sessions for Aprilia Racing Team Gresini who debuted the brand new 2016 RS-GP at the Qatar Test. While pleased with the early results, all involved are aware that they are nowhere near their maximum and much more track time is needed. With both Stefan Bradl and Alvaro Bautista at the helm, Aprilia are sure to make continuing progress throughout the year.
Both Yonny Hernandez and Eugene Laverty progressed well throughout testing, Laverty recovering much of the confidence he lost as a result of crashing in Jerez and Sepang and now comfortable with his GP14.2. Hernandez meanwhile worked on improving his relationship and workflow with the Aspar team
Practice begins on Thursday the 17th of March at 18:00 Local Time.
After two successful official tests, the Moto2™ World Championship venture to Qatar looking to dethrone Johann Zarco.
A dominant 2015 season saw Ajo Motorsport’s Johann Zarco claim the Moto2™ title at the Japanese Grand Prix, he now aims to become the first Moto2™ rider to reclaim his crown. It will not be an easy title defence however, a number of veterans have remained in the class and are ready for their moment in the spotlight. Furthermore, no reigning Moto2™ World Champion has ever won the opening race of the year.
Having completed hundreds of laps over the off-season and leading the way at the Qatar Test, Sam Lowes (Federal Oil Gresini Moto2) heads into 2016 looking stronger than ever. Now mounted on a Kalex, the former World SuperSport champion looks every bit a title contender working alongside the Gresini squad, who won the first Moto2™ World Championship with Toni Elias. Lowes started from pole at the Commercial Bank Grand Prix of Qatar in 2015 and was in contention for the race win till he crashed while battling with Zarco.
Zarco also experienced misfortune during the 2015 race, a mechanical issue demoting him to eighth. The 2015 champion has had two quiet tests, going about his business without making a major impact. Despite not setting the time sheets alight, it is almost certain that the experienced combination of Zarco and the Ajo team will lead to strong results in 2016.
The stand out rookie of 2015 was without doubt Alex Rins (Paginas Amarillas HP 40), the Spaniard continuing to show well in both official pre-season tests. With a year’s experience under his belt few doubt his ability to challenge for the title, even with limited private testing compared to his rivals.
2015 Qatar GP race winner, Jonas Folger (Dynavolt Intact GP) ended the Qatar Test in third. The 2016 season sees the German join the Dynavolt Intact GP team as he searches for more consistency over a season. Both he and Tom Luthi (Garage Plus Interwetten) have classically gone well in Qatar, Luthi having finished on the Moto2™ podium there in 2011, 2014 and 2015.
Moto3™ World Champion Danny Kent (Leopard Racing) and Moto3™ runner-up Miguel Oliveira (Leopard Racing) join forces as Leopard Racing step up into the intermediate class. This marks a return to Moto2™ for Kent who had a difficult 2013 season aboard the Tech 3 bike. Both riders will be on the newest Kalex machinery for 2016.
Of the 30 riders on the Moto2™ grid in 2016, 24 are on Kalex bikes with three Speed Ups, two Tech 3s and a lone Suter.
After multiple private tests and two official tests, the Moto3™ World Championship are ready for their first outing of 2016.
With one of the longest straights on the calendar, the Commercial Bank Grand Prix of Qatar always produces stunning racing in the lightweight class. The slipstream to the line is vital and a good strategy can be the difference between first and fifth. 2015 saw the first nine riders in the Moto3™ race covered by 0.909s, the smallest ever margin to cover the top nine. As the first race of the year there are still many unknowns, but testing has given a rough idea of who may be at the front come race day.
Niccolo Antonelli (Ongetta-Rivacold) ended the three-day Qatar Test as the fastest rider ahead of Livio Loi (RW Racing GP) and Fabio Quartararo (Leopard Racing). All three had mixed years in 2015 and are looking to take a step forward with their consistency in 2016. For the last seven years of the lightweight class, that year’s eventual world champion has always finished on the podium in the opening race at Qatar. Leopard Racing have switched from Honda to KTM machinery and have an all new rider line up in 2016 as they look to become the first back-to-back lightweight champions in the Moto3™ World Championship.
With the top two riders from 2015’s World Championship gone, Enea Bastianini (Gresini Racing Moto3) will be many people’s favourite for the title this season after finishing third in 2015. However it has not been a perfect off-season for the young Italian who struggled to crack the top ten while testing in Qatar. The Italian missed victory at the Qatar GP by just 0.027s in 2015 having come from 21st on the grid, but with a record like that almost anything is possible.
Having shown well throughout testing, both Brad Binder (Red Bull KTM Ajo) and Romano Fenati (Sky Racing Team VR46) will be looking to convert their experience in the lightweight class into a title challenge. The pair of riders have started all 70 Moto3™ World Championship races since the class was introduced in 2012. Binder is yet to take a win while Fenati has six victories to his name.
At the other end of the spectrum, rookies Nicolo Bulega (Sky Racing Team VR46), Joan Mir (Leopard Racing) and Aron Canet (Estrella Galicia 0,0) will be out to make a strong impression during their debut year. The trio battled for the Moto3™ Junior World Championship throughout all of 2015, producing a number of stunning battles with Bulega coming out on top. There are many new tracks for them and their fellow rookies to learn in 2016, but the Moto3™ Junior World Championship has a proven track record of producing strong riders who have been able to challenge from round one.
Free Practice 1 begins at 18:00 Local Time on Thursday the 17th of March before racing begins in earnest on Sunday the 20th of March.