Qatari GP: Honda preview

For the third year in a row, the MotoGP World Championship gets started when the starting lights go out and the floodlights light up the Losail Circuit outside the Qatari capital of Doha, with Honda's six-strong MotoGP squad ready to duel in the...

For the third year in a row, the MotoGP World Championship gets started when the starting lights go out and the floodlights light up the Losail Circuit outside the Qatari capital of Doha, with Honda's six-strong MotoGP squad ready to duel in the desert.

The 2010 season-opener also marks the debut of the Moto2 class, which replaces the 250cc World Championship. The class's glorious 61-year history came to a fitting end last year when Hiroshi Aoyama won the final title for Honda. That gave the marque an even 20 crowns, most in class. The Moto2 machines bring a new concept to world championship racing. The chassis and suspension specifications are wide open, and a fierce competition has emerged among chassis builders, but there will be no variation in the engine or tyres: The 40-strong field will be powered by control Honda CBR600RR engines and run on control Dunlop tyres.

Honda's MotoGP lineup is a mixture of experience and youth, with two rookies joining the team, which now includes four world champions. Dani Pedrosa is back for his fifth year in the premier class, again joined by third year rising star Andrea Dovizioso on the second factory Repsol Honda. Randy De Puniet is the only other returning Honda rider, the Frenchman returning on the LCR Honda for his third year after equaling his career best championship finish in 2009. Fausto Gresini revamped his San Carlo Honda Gresini squad by bringing back Marco Melandri, the veteran whose greatest success came on a Gresini Honda, while adding the slender bushy-haired former 250cc World Champion Marco Simoncelli.

Pedrosa is hoping that a change in number will bring a change in fortune. The 24-year-old from Sabadell, outside of Barcelona, will run the number 26, the same number he ran for his first two years in the premier class. Pedrosa has won two races each of his four seasons in the senior class, and finished second in the championship in 2007. The next step is consistency over the length of the season, which is what Pedrosa is concentrating on for 2010.

A year after a series of injuries cut into his off-season testing program, the Spaniard was in full fitness to make the most of the limited track time allowed under the new testing rules. In the final pre-season test, here at the 16-turn, 5.38k Losail Circuit, Pedrosa and his team had to work through a new chassis, swingarm, and suspension package that he hopes will improve corner entry. But just as he was beginning to make the most of it late in the night, moisture in the air and on the track halted his progress. Now that the engineers have had a few weeks to analyse the data, a fit Pedrosa returns, optimistic that he will benefit from their analysis.

Andrea Dovizioso earned one of the most nail-biting wins of the 2009 campaign when he brilliantly steered clear of trouble in the treacherous conditions of the final British Grand Prix at Donington Park. On a gloomy day, and on an irregular track surface that brought down many of the sport's best, the young Italian took full advantage by earning his maiden MotoGP victory.

The Repsol Honda rider's mastery of the Honda RC212V continued through winter testing. He was the fastest Honda rider at the end of every test. Though that was encouraging, he knows that he'll have to step up his game, and continue improving the RC212V, if he's to be considered a serious championship threat.

Randy de Puniet starts his fifth season in MotoGP and third with the LCR Honda team of former racer Lucio Cecchinello, the LC in LCR Honda. De Puniet took encouragement from an off-season testing regimen that had the Frenchman improving his finishing position in each of the three 2010 tests. His best was eighth fastest, and second fastest Honda, in the final pre-season test in Qatar. The time wasn't a one-off special, but one of several fast laps in the middle of a race simulation. And his time might have been even more impressive had he not encountered slower riders when he did fit the softer rear tire option late in the night.

The Marcos, Melandri and Simoncelli, give the San Carlo Honda Gresini team an all-new look on a familiar machine. Backed again by the Italian snack giant San Carlo, the team expects to be more competitive with Melandri in the short term, while grooming Simoncelli for future greatness.

Melandri has struggled since leaving Gresini Honda at the end of the 2007 season and hopes to regain the magic that took him to five premier class wins in his second and third years with the Faenza-based team. The former 250cc World Champion showed flashes of brilliance last year, when very little was expected of him. More will be expected this year as the leader of the Gresini Honda team.

The shortened testing season-only six days in 2010-did no favors to Melandri or Simoncelli, both of whom were making significant career moves. The final test of the season at Losail didn't produce the results Melandri had hoped for, but he's confident that his race pace is more than competitive on a wide open track that he feels suits his riding style.

The move to the premier class has been difficult for Simoncelli, the 2008 250cc World Champion. "Super Sic" had his confidence dented by two severe crashes during the two tests in Malaysia. That added pressure for the final test in Qatar, where he spent the two nights continuing to adapt to the complex and sometimes frustrating world of MotoGP. Rather than going for one outright fast lap, Simoncelli and the team worked diligently to improve the rideability of the Gresini Honda RC212V. Having stood on the top step of the podium 14 times, 12 times in 250 and twice in 125, Simoncelli knows what it takes to win and it's only a matter of time before he adds to his tally.

Interwetten Honda MotoGP Team's Hiroshi Aoyama will make his MotoGP debut five months after securing the final 250cc World Championship for Honda. Like Simoncelli, Aoyama is facing a number of new challenges, including sophisticated electronics, Bridgestone tires, a vast array of set-up possibilities, all of which need to work in harmony. And also like Simoncelli, Aoyama had only six days of testing this year, which puts him at a disadvantage to his more experienced classmates. Still, the always positive Japanese rider is hopeful of scoring his first points in Qatar.

The MotoGP World Championship staked its foothold in the Arab-speaking world in 2004, when the ultra-modern Losail International Circuit made its debut on the MotoGP calendar. It was a good year for Honda, with the Gresini Honda squad finishing one-two.

Sitting 15 kms. outside the cosmopolitan city of Doha, and its million residents, the track was designed with motorcycles in mind, which means its one of the safest on the calendar. The track is fast, flowing, and wide open, with six lefts and ten rights spread out over its 5.38k length. With near constant high speeds and direction changes, the track rewards agility, while putting a premium on tire conservation.

The 1.068k front straightaway is one of the longest in racing, and it isn't uncommon for riders to overshoot the first turn early in the weekend before they adapt to the speed and hard braking from nearly 340kmh. With the finish line well down the straight, the possibility of a last minute draft-pass to the checkered flag makes for an exciting spectacle, and also showcases the more powerful motors: Last year, Repsol Honda's Dani Pedrosa topped the speed charts with a best of 338.6k in qualifying.

The first three years of the Qatar Grand Prix were run during the day, when temperatures routinely average 35C and track temperatures soar. That changed in 2007 when the lights were turned on. The novelty has somewhat worn off, but the challenges haven't. Despite being the largest permanent venue sports-lighting project in the world, lit by 3600 fixtures, the track surface looks different during the night and the nighttime humidity that affects traction is sometimes difficult to discern. It also makes depth perception difficult at speeds that can reach nearly 340 kph. With practice and qualifying run deep into the night, followed by debriefs with their crews, the riders have to adjust their body clocks not only to the time zone, but also to the extended hours. That leaves them free to recover on the plush beaches of Doha, near the high rise hotels that seem to sprout up overnight in this bustling Middle Eastern business center.

Another variable the riders have to conquer is sand. Artificial grass lines much of the track, but it isn't entirely successful in keeping blowing sand from the surface. Because of that, the sighting and warm-up laps are more critical here than at any other track.

And 2009 brought another surprise, torrential rains. A downpour brought the 125cc race to an end after only four full laps, with the 250cc race shortened to 13 laps after a delayed start to dry the track. Heavy rains began to fall just prior to the 11 p.m. MotoGP green light, which forced the event to be postponed. After consulting with riders and team principals, race officials moved the MotoGP race to 9:00 p.m. Monday evening.

Repsol Honda's Andrea Dovizioso said: "I'm really looking forward to the first race and after the long winter break and testing sessions it's a very good feeling to heading into a race weekend again. Me are the team are very motivated and happy with the work done in the pre-season. We have moved in the right direction and have seen a big improvement through testing, and this gives us a lot of confidence for the start of the season. On Friday we will start with the base setting from the last test session we had here in Qatar a few weeks ago and work on it further through the course of the race weekend. The gap from us to the fastest riders has come down, but we still need to work really hard because we're not close enough yet. The Qatar race is special and unique of course because it is at night. Having said that, once you get used to the floodlit circuit, it soon becomes "normal" to race in these conditions. The thing to consider carefully and to be careful about is the humidity, which is very high here at the time of the race. We're ready for Round One and I'm really excited to go racing again."

Repsol Honda's Dani Pedrosa said: "It's time for the first race of the season and we go back to Qatar this weekend ready to put in maximum effort to do as well as possible at the opening round. There's no need to get carried away with the nerves or expectations because this would be only detrimental for us. We will stay calm, be very focused and simply concentrate as hard as possible in the practice sessions in order to find a good setting for the race. Technically, this circuit requires very precise bike set-up, with good agility and good straight-line speed - these two factors are very important at Losail. Two years ago we made an incredible step forward between the test and the race weekend and we have to do it once again - we know it can happen. I'm starting the season without physical problems, which means that the situation is much better than in the past, so we will work hard and do the maximum to get the best result possible in Qatar. I fully trust in the team around me and I also believe in myself, so I'm feeling positive going into this weekend."

LCR Honda's Randy de Puniet said: "I'm happy and ready for practice to start. We made a big step forward at the Qatar test and I was able to set my fastest lap times on race tyres. I have a good feeling with this bike and we have a good base set up to start the weekend."

San Carlo Honda Gresini's Marco Melandri said: "The Losail circuit in Qatar is one I like and racing at night has its attraction. Testing didn't go particularly well but we still have some things to try and I am quite confident about my race pace. I think a lot of riders will struggle to match their pace from testing and if we can just improve a little and get a decent grid position then we can get involved in a group in the race that will allow me to take home a good result. I had a great race in Qatar in 2005, when I fought with Valentino until the final lap, attacking him for the lead with three corners to go but running wide and having to settle for second place as a result. I also had a good race on the 800 in 2007 even though the bike still wasn't up to scratch so I still believe we can have a good race this Sunday -- it wouldn't be the first time we have taken a good result after a difficult preseason. The track is well suited to my riding style so I'm keen to see how well we can do."

San Carlo Honda Gresini's Marco Simoncelli said: "I was hoping I'd be in better shape ahead of my MotoGP debut but testing hasn't gone in the best possible way, especially Sepang. We have work to do and since I last rode the bike we have re-jigged our ideas a little and come up with some ways to improve things. We also have faith in the work done by Honda in Japan and we're hopeful they can bring us something new that can help us. I'm obviously not going out to win the first race but I'm still travelling to Qatar in confident mood and I'm sure I can improve on my performance from the test. I don't dislike Losail and I am always comfortable riding there. I am a little worried about the fact we're racing at night because of the humidity that seems to settle at a certain point of the evening, especially in some of the right-handers, making them somewhat dangerous. Maybe bringing the race forward an hour would be a good solution. If not then we will just adapt to it and try to bring home the best result possible."

Interwetten Honda MotoGP Team's Hiroshi Aoyama said: "I am looking forward to start the new season in MotoGP class. Qatar is not my favorite track and the conditions are not always perfect, also riding in the dark is very unusual and I will see how I can cope with this new situation. We still need to find a good set up for the race conditions as what we have until now was for the testing and it was still not perfect. I need to gain more confidence with the new bike and learn a lot, but I hope we can have a good result in Qatar and maybe gain our first points in the MotoGP world championship 2010."

-source: honda

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About this article
Series MotoGP
Drivers Randy de Puniet , Marco Melandri , Andrea Dovizioso , Marco Simoncelli , Lucio Cecchinello , Hiroshi Aoyama , Dani Pedrosa