Qatar the stage for 2012 MotoGP™ opener
After months of anticipation MotoGP™ riders, teams, fans and spectators around the world will finally have their appetites for action satisfied, when the Commercialbank Grand Prix of Qatar gets the 2012 MotoGP™ World Championship off to a start on Thursday. The first practice sessions of the opening round of the new campaign will bring to an end a lengthy 152-day wait since the final race of the 2011 season in Valencia last November, after an intriguing pre-season which has added to the impatience for the racing to begin.
Two major developments in the premier class which have added to the excitement at the dawn of a new era in MotoGP™ are the introduction of a new 1000cc engine capacity limit, up from the previous 800cc cap, and the debut of the new Claiming Rule Teams, for whom nine of the 21 riders will compete.
Adding to the spectacle of the curtain raiser in Qatar will be the floodlit nature of the first race, and the standout rider in recent years at the Losail circuit has been Casey Stoner. The 2011 World Champion, who was fastest in the final Test at Jerez less than two weeks ago, has won the night-time GP for four of the past five seasons, including last year. His Repsol Honda team-mate Dani Pedrosa has also been in impressive form in pre-season, and between the pair they took the final four race victories of last season. A win for either, or any Honda rider for that matter, in Qatar would give the manufacturer its longest winning streak since 2003.
A large part of the buzz created in pre-season was due to the performance of the M1, and Yamaha Factory Racing duo Jorge Lorenzo and Ben Spies were both highly impressed with the progress of their prototype. 2010 Champion Lorenzo came second in last year's race in Qatar whilst Spies will be seeking his first podium at the track, as they look to turn a promising testing display into hard results.
The third factory set-up on the grid this season will be the Ducati Team, another which has worked tirelessly in the intervening five months to improve its package. Riders Valentino Rossi and Nicky Hayden will both be hopeful of vastly improved results in their respective 2012 campaigns, as they remain focused on the Italian manufacturer's project and challenging the other two factories.
With the six factory riders remaining with the teams they rode for last season, there have been changes elsewhere. Into the Monster Yamaha Tech 3 team comes Andrea Dovizioso, as the Italian begins a new chapter in his career, joining Brit Cal Crutchlow who embarks on his second season in the satellite structure. Crutchlow's pre-season showings in particular have laid the foundations for what promises to be a strong sophomore season.
Another switch comes in the shape of Álvaro Bautista, who has joined the San Carlo Honda Gresini team, and the Spaniard will be accompanied on the RC213V by premier-class debutant and 2011 Moto2 World Champion Stefan Bradl, who rides for LCR Honda in 2012. Remaining on Desmosedici machinery are Héctor Barberá (Pramac Racing) and Karel Abraham (Cardion AB Motoracing).
Much analysis has been made of the CRT project's development but the true measure will come in Qatar, where experienced heads and new faces will compete against one another. Randy de Puniet (Power Electronics Aspar) and Colin Edwards (NGM Mobile Forward Racing) have 15 seasons of MotoGP™ knowledge between them, and the Frenchman was the quickest CRT rider on his Aprilia machine at the Jerez Test in late March.
Aleix Espargaró joins De Puniet on the Power Electronics Aspar team as he returns to the premier class after a year in Moto2™, and another rider with previous MotoGP™ experience is British rider James Ellison, who rides for the Paul Bird Motorsport team after a five-year absence from the World Championship.
Three riders making their premier-class debuts as they graduate from Moto2™ will be Michele Pirro (San Carlo Honda Gresini), Mattia Pasini (Speed Master) and Yonny Hernández (Avintia Blusens), Pirro having won his last race in the intermediate category prior to making the step up.
Hernández's team-mate on the Avintia Blusens team will be Iván Silva, who has previous MotoGP™ experience, and Danilo Petrucci (Came Iodaracing Project) will make his World Championship debut in Qatar.
Prior to the action kicking off on track, Crutchlow and Barberá will participate in the official GP pre-event on Thursday afternoon, when they test out some jet-skis with the spectacular Doha skyline as the backdrop.
The Commercialbank Grand Prix of Qatar adopts a different format to the remainder of the 17 rounds this season, stretching across four days from April 5-8. The first MotoGP™ practice session starts at 7.55pm local time on Thursday, with the race scheduled to begin at 10pm local time on Sunday.