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 tire supplier of the MotoGP class, presenting an all-new challenge for riders and the factories to overcome.
Adapting to the French rubber has progressed well after initial concerns about the front tire, riders able to increase their confidence at each test and push for fast laps.
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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 10th 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 is still hunting a return to the top step, its last win coming over half a decade 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 honors. 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 tires. 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, March 20.
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.
With the nine riders within a second of each other at the Qatar Test and the number of technical changes, the 2016 MotoGP World Championship is building towards another fiery year. 18 races across 15 countries will decide the 2016 MotoGP World Champion, but who will wear the crown come Valencia is anybody’s guess…
Practice begins on Thursday, March 17 at 6 p.m. Local Time. But before that, the first Press Conference of the year begins at 5 p.m. Local Time on Wednesday.
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