Precisely five months after the conclusion of the 2011 season in Valencia, the 2012 MotoGP World Championship kicks off in Qatar this weekend under the Losail Circuit floodlights…
With pre-season testing out of the way and the racing finally set to get underway, we look through the three world championship categories and predict the riders who'll be making waves in Round One.
Let's start with the obvious – reigning World Champion Casey Stoner. He dominated 2011, has been fastest in each of the three 2012 pre-season tests, and he has a phenomenal record at Losail where he's won the opening race of the season in four of the past five years. Factor in his enthusiasm for increasing the engine size from 800cc to 1000cc and he will take some stopping under the floodlights.
Yahama's pre-season display suggests that Honda's dominance (the RC212V won 13 of last year's 17 races) could be challenged. Last year's runner-up Jorge Lorenzo believes the M1 will be competitive in 2012. Never one to shy away from saying what he really thought of last year's bike, the Spaniard's claims suggest a close title fight. Lorenzo is still in search of a first MotoGP win in Qatar but hasn't finished off the podium there in four seasons and is the best bet to push Stoner for victory in Round One, with Dani Pedrosa hot on the heels of both.
Watch out, too, for the Ducati pairing of Valentino Rossi and Nicky Hayden. They were off the pace last season and made radical changes from one grand prix to another. But the bike has been completely redesigned for 2012. Testing hinted that they still have a long way to go before troubling their rivals, but the Rossi factor makes it all the more intriguing.
The increase in power to 1000cc is not the only regulation change in 2012 – the new CRT machines make their debut too. Brought in as a cost-effective way of increasing the number of bikes on the grid, the CRTs will compete among themselves for the most part and testing has thrown up some interesting results. Randy de Puniet was the fastest of CRT riders in the final test at Jerez and is likely to top the bunch, but also impressive was newcomer Danilo Petrucci. At just 21 he looks a decent prospect.
Regularly referred to as a punch-up in a phonebox, Moto2 rarely disappoints and this year is certain to be another enthralling season. There are five 125cc world champions and one Moto2 title-winner in the category, plus a number of others capable of pushing for race victories. It will be tight in Qatar but there is something about Swiss rider Thomas Lüthi's pre-season showing, alongside the fact he got his first Moto2 win at the end of the 2011 season, that makes him a strong candidate.
Marc Márquez's stunning debut in Moto2 last year has made him favourite to win the championship. His title-charge in 2011 was only ended by a crash in Malaysia that ruled him out of the final two races. The Spaniard has spent pre-season recovering from the vision problems he picked up in that fall and had just a quick run in Albacete before taking part in the final test at Jerez. He was on the pace immediately.
Márquez will be one of the most closely watched riders in Qatar, as a feverish Spanish press watch to see just how full their rider's recovery has been. He crashed out in his Moto2 debut in Qatar last year.
"These have been difficult months, but once we arrive in Qatar there is no looking back and we must try to enjoy ourselves" – Marquez
Here's what Marquez had to say: “The entire team has worked very hard this winter to be ready for this moment and I only have words of thanks for them and the sponsors. The injury is less and less of an issue now, something that is a very positive sign for the start of the world championship. These have been difficult months, but once we arrive in Qatar there is no looking back and we must try to enjoy ourselves. The Losail track is one that I like: It’s fast, very unique and a place where I hope that the Suter can give maximum performance.”
Two more riders worth paying attention to are Mika Kallio and Takaaki Nakagami. Finland's Kallio had a rough 2011 season but ended with a podium-finish in Valencia and was impressive in testing. Nakagami has also shown plenty of promise pre-season. The pair will be eager to hit the ground running at Losail.
The Moto3 bikes replace the 125s in 2012 and it is likely to be last season's standout rider Maverick Viñales who stands atop the podium in Qatar. The Spaniard was a revelation in his debut season last year and will take some beating in 2012 too. The 17-year-old was way ahead of the pack during the final test at Jerez.
Red Bull KTM Ajo riders Danny Kent and Sandro Cortese will lead the chasing pack. Cortese has finished on the podium in Qatar twice in the last three years, and Kent's progress last year and new factory machinery this season will combine to give the Brit a push.
As the introductory class, this is where talent springs from and there are 11 rookies in 2012. Two Italians caught the eye in pre-season – Romano Fenati and Niccolò Antonelli – and the pair are great hopes for one of the sport's great source nations.
Of the 32 Moto3 riders, an amazing 18 of them will be powered around the circuit by Honda engines.
- Watch Stoner and Pedrosa preparing for the 2012 MotoGP season
- News from Jerez
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