MotoGP Qatar Preview: Arabian Nights

It. Is. Back. MotoGP returns this weekend for round one of the championship, coming from the Arab Gulf State of Qatar. The Losail International circuit has been a permanent feature on the ever-expanding MotoGP calendar for 13 years now and since 2007, it has hosted the first race of the year. The only race to be held under floodlights, the Qatari Grand Prix looks set to be yet another cracker, with rider and team changes abundant.

Reigning champion Marc Marquez hasn’t won at Losail since 2014, starting what would be a run of 11 Grand Prix victories for the five-time champion. A 3rd place in the race last year was a solid platform for his title challenge and nothing less than a podium will suffice again. Looking for his 56th win and Honda’s 3rd at the track, Marc will want to kick off his season just as a reigning world champion should. However, the 24-year-old has experienced some struggles in testing, only shadowing Maverick Vinales at the Phillip Island test. A war of words has begun between the two, suggesting that 2017 will not be without it’s intense rivalries. Will Marc deliver on Sunday? Only two wins suggest not, however, he’s only been off the podium four times at Losail in his illustrious career. Just what will happen come race day?

Runner up in the championship for the past three seasons, Valentino Rossi still hasn’t given up the dream of title number 10. He arrives at Losail off the back of a pretty tricky pre-season test, although as we all know, The GOAT is a Sunday man. Four victories at Losail see Valentino as one of the favourites to win at the weekend, although it was only 4th for the Italian in the race last year. He has never won from pole at the Qatari Grand Prix and his last pole came in 2007, when he finished 2nd. Rossi hasn’t started two consecutive seasons with 4th place finishes in his whole career and that stat could all change when the chequered flag drops on Sunday evening. There are also new factors in the Yamaha team, such as Maverick Vinales, the wing ban and the absence of Jorge Lorenzo. Could the change suit Rossi? After all, he has a reputation for reinventing himself each year. Don’t discount The Doctor in Doha just yet.

Jorge Lorenzo joins Ducati for 2017 and whilst the team haven’t won at the Losail circuit since 2009, – with Casey Stoner – Jorge Lorenzo has won six times at the venue throughout his career, with three of them coming in MotoGP. The Spaniard could be set to update the records too: having won the last race of 2016 with Yamaha, if he wins the Qatari GP on the Ducati, he will replicate Valentino Rossi’s record breaking achievement with Honda and Yamaha in 2003 and 2004 – and nothing would get the GOAT’s goat more than Jorge pinching one more achievement. Lorenzo is the only rider on the grid to win at the track in all three classes and will want to join Casey Stoner as the 2nd rider to win there on two different makes of bike. Can Jorge kick-start his championship challenge in the same way as last year or will he and the Bologna Bullet bite the Arabian dirt under the night sky? Time will most certainly tell.

Maverick Vinales took 4th place in the championship last season, with four podiums – including one win at Silverstone. Sixth in the race last season, Vinales will be looking to start the Yamaha chapter of his career in the finest style, meaning nothing less than a win will do. Just one win throughout his career at the track – 2012 in Moto3 – mean that he may not have the race form but he has the pace from testing to counter that. Topping all four tests on the Yamaha, including the Losail test earlier in the month, Vinales must be one of the favourites. His youthful exuberance will be exploiting the Yamaha to the maximum, potentially firing him into the distance in the points standings or into the distance in the gravel. One thing is for sure, Vinales will be there on Sunday. His pre-season form indicates he’s ready and it might be a situation that the only person that will beat Maverick is Maverick himself. Will he be Yamaha’s new Top Gun in Qatar?

Andrea Iannone always goes well at Qatar. But of course, we’ve only seen him on the Ducati in the premier class. How about the Suzuki? Will the combination of an Italian who rides with his heart on his sleeve and a bike that allows you to take liberties with it work under the artificial lighting? Form suggests that Suzuki as a manufacturer will not enjoy the Qatari Grand Prix, having never had a podium at Losail. But Iannone at least has pace around the tight and twisty venue. He got to 4th before crashing in 2014, he took a third in 2015 and crashed out of 2nd in the race last year, not to mention a win in 2009 in the 125cc class and two other podiums in Moto2. Iannone’s form is slightly woeful however, with just 49 points collected in the 2nd half of last year (injury was a major factor in that). Will a change of surroundings help or hinder the seagull-hating Italian? Personally, I think we have another title challenger. But what do I know?…

Now if you fancy a dark horse for a victory at Losail, look no further than Andrea Dovizioso and his Factory Ducati. The partnership has seen two – 2nd place finishes in the last two seasons, with the huge kilometre long front straight working well for the rocket-ship Ducati. Dovizioso doesn’t just have race pace either, having taken pole in 2015 and finishing the first test day at Losail this season on top. With no bowling ball teammates in the shape of Andrea Iannone knocking him down this season, a solid start in Losail could be the start of some serious momentum from Dovi if previous years are to go by. I’ll have a fiver one him for a win on Sunday.

Away from the big six and you have Dani Pedrosa, who comes to a circuit he has never won at in any class of racing. In fact, there has been no pole for Pedrosa at the track and only a fastest lap in 2005’s 250cc is his race showings. But Pedrosa does have six podiums to his name at the venue but not one of them have come from the last two seasons. It may well be a tricky start to the year yet again for little Dani. However, big changes have happened on his side of the Repsol Honda garage. He has brought in former MotoGP championship contender and fellow Spaniard Sete Gibernau as a rider coach. This follows suit with other riders, such as Valentino Rossi hiring Luca Cadalora. The word is from inside Honda that Dani is reinvigorated for 2017 and that he has quietly gone about his business, potentially ready for a title scrap. It may well be his year if he can keep it all together.

Don’t forget LCR’s Cal Crutchlow either. The Brit has a best of 4th place at Losail, coming in 2012. The double race winner comes into the 2017 season off the back of a great 2016, although he failed to finish the last couple of races in Malaysia and Spain. Whether Cal can launch a serious title challenge is questionable but podiums are possible and Cal knows it. Will he bring Britain some much needed good news in Qatar?

Don’t discount Aleix Espargaro from springing a surprise either. The Aprilia rider was on form throughout testing and as the bike improves, he too becomes quicker and more accustomed and confident with his package for 2017.

The biggest shock could be set to come from Alvaro Bautista. The 32-year-old has been flying throughout pre-season testing onboard his GP16 Ducati. He has one win at Losail, which came in 2006 on his way to the 125cc title. He is one of only three riders on the grid to finish in the points for the last seven races of 2016 – the other two are Vinales and Dovizioso.

Don’t discount the Tech 3 Yamaha pairing either. Jonas Folger has been sublime through testing and outperformed reigning double Moto2 champion and teammate, Johann Zarco. Tech 3 are fielding a brand-new line up for 2017 and the first time they’ve ever fielded a line-up consisting of two rookies. Can they be a surprise in Losail. Crutchlow, Dovizioso, Edwards, Toseland and Spies are all former team riders who have glistened in Qatar.

Other mentions through the field include the other two rookies – Sam Lowes and Alex Rins. Lowes rides an Aprilia in 2017 but his form in Losail isn’t particularly great. A crash out of 2nd in 2015 and a jumpstart in 2016 mean he hasn’t had the best of relationships with the track. Alex Rins on the other hand joins Suzuki, who, like mentioned before haven’t had great successes at the track. But Rins has had a podium, in Moto3. He has also never finished lower than 10th at the track and he’ll be looking to keep that statistic going on Sunday.

KTM also return to the championship with Bradley Smith and Pol Espargaro piloting the Austrian machine. Both riders know this will be a development season but that’s not to say they won’t want points from the off in Qatar. Bradley Smith started from the front row back in 2014 and ran with the leaders until crashing out of 5th. Pol Espargaro has one win at the track, in 2013 on a Moto2 Kalex. His best finish has been 7th in the premier class at the track but that might be an end of season goal for the team more than a wishful thinking start.

Other riders making up the grid include 2016 revelation Hector Barbera and his teammate Loris Baz, who is yet to score points in Qatar. Esteve Rabat and Jack Miller on the Marc VDS Honda will want to get their season off and running, although Rabat is carrying an injury from the Sepang test in February. Karel Abraham returns from an appalling season in WSBK, partnering Bautista at Aspar Ducati, albeit on a GP15 Ducati. Pramac Ducati have an unchanged line up, with Danilo Petrucci on the factory GP17 whilst Scott Redding rides the GP16 model.

Kiko Giles @MotoGPKiko

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