The long winter is finally over, and this weekend the MotoGP paddock roars back into life for the annual night race to herald the start of the 2017 season.
Losail International Circuit, Doha, Qatar
Left Corners: 6
Right Corners: 10
Longest Straight: 1068 metres
Race Distance: 22 Laps / 73.5 miles
In daylight, there is nothing remarkable about the Losail circuit – other than its remarkable that someone thought it was a good idea to build a race track in the middle of the Qatari desert. However, the addition of a few hundred-plus floodlight pods in 2008 have transformed this place into, perhaps, the most formidable nocturnal race venue in the world.
Being the opening race of the season, there is extra anticipation from fans and teams alike – we’ll finally discover who is fast, and who was blagging all throughout winter testing.
Without doubt the biggest question that will be answered concerns Ducati and their new star signing, Jorge Lorenzo. The 3x World Champion has found it difficult this winter to adapt to a clearly more demanding bike to handle than any of his previous Yamaha machines. That is partly testament to the all round quality of the Japanese manufacturer, but also highlights that each bike presents different challenges to the riders. So it should – these are prototype machines after all.
The Ducati is built primarily for being a missile down the straights. In Qatar, the main straight is just over 1 kilometre in length, and as such will at least mean that both Lorenzo and teammate Andrea Dovizioso, should be highly competitive this weekend for the Bologna outfit.
Yamaha have emerged as pre-season favourites, with new signing Maverick Vinales blazing a trail throughout testing. So consistent have the the dark blue bikes been, that Vinales has topped the timesheets for seven of the nine days of testing. This included the outright lap record for the test at Philip Island last month.
This has been backed up by Valentino Rossi consistently finishing in the top ten at each test. Rossi has earned a reputation of focusing solely on race setups, and not chasing headline lap times – so the combination of both riders’ performances do reveal that Yamaha have a very strong package for the season ahead, and will always be difficult to beat.
As for Honda and Suzuki – they will be the ones to really keep an eye on. Aside from the final day of the Qatar test (Honda) and Malaysian test (Suzuki), neither team focused on trying to set the fastest lap.
Suzuki’s hopes – at least for the early part of the campaign – lie with new signing, Andrea Iannone. He’s shown consistency across pre-season testing, never failing to end each test inside the top ten. The team have, however, admitted that their machine currently has an understeer problem through the high speed corners. Despite this, the bike should come into its own through the medium and slow speed corners, which make up the Losail circuit as, by all accounts, it handles just as smoothly as last year’s competitor.
As for Honda, well nobody really is sure of where they stand in relation to the other main competitors. Marc Marquez will always be towards the sharp end of the field, due to his remarkable ability to ride any bike to its uttermost limit. His team-mate, Dani Pedrosa struggled so much in testing, that the factory outfit began to offer satellite rider, Cal Crutchlow, assistance and a raft of upgrades for his LCR-Honda machine. This was in part reward for the Brit’s sensational performance in the latter half of 2016, but also due to an urgent need for reliable data from more than one rider. Come the weekend, we’ll find out if the team will be fast, or relying on miracles from their young World Champion.
The Qatar Grand-Prix race is on Sunday 26th March, 1900BST.