The wait for MotoGP fans around the world will finally end on Thursday when the first round of the 2011 season commences under the floodlights of the Losail International Circuit with the Commercialbank Grand Prix of Qatar. With the pre-season done and dusted the 17 premier class riders will step back on track at the venue just three days after completing the final pre-season Test there, as the business of racing gets underway.
Defending World Champion Jorge Lorenzo is the man whose crown the remainder of the MotoGP field will be targeting, and a range of suitors have put their names forward as title candidates for 2011 during pre-season.
The Repsol Honda trio of Casey Stoner, Dani Pedrosa and Andrea Dovizioso have all been strong in testing in the lead up to the new campaign, with the RC212V having been the fastest machine across the two Tests at Sepang and the Qatar meeting just passed. Stoner has a fearsome record at Losail having won for three years consecutively from 2007-2009, including on his Ducati debut, a feat he will be eager to repeat on the Honda and having topped the timesheet in the final pre-season Test there on Monday. Pedrosa has been fast and, importantly, fit in pre-season and will aim for a first podium finish at Losail since 2008, whilst Dovizioso opened his campaign last year with a closely fought third place at the track.
Lorenzo himself has never finished off the rostrum when riding at Losail in the premier class, and took an impressive second place last season despite carrying a hand injury. The Factory Yamaha Racing rider’s new team-mate Ben Spies will be another man expecting to fight at the front in what promises to be a thrilling curtain raiser.
No doubt a great deal of attention will centre around Valentino Rossi, whose pre-season travails have added to the anticipation surrounding his race debut on the Ducati Desmosedici. The Italian was victorious in Qatar last season but in the lead up to 2011 a recovering shoulder and continuous efforts to get comfortable on the GP11 have made his adaptation to the machine a subject of much interest, with team-mate Nicky Hayden heading into his third season on board with the factory Ducati team.
San Carlo Honda Gresini pair Marco Simoncelli and Hiroshi Aoyama have enjoyed promising pre-season tests and will hope to convert those into results at the first round as they both enter their second season in the premier class. Other riders embarking on their sophomore MotoGP campaigns will be Álvaro Bautista, the sole rider for Rizla Suzuki this year, and Héctor Barberá (Mapfre Aspar Team).
Monster Yamaha Tech 3’s Colin Edwards has been in good form on the M1 whilst on the Desmosedici Randy de Puniet and Loris Capirossi commence new phases in their premier class tenures with the Pramac Racing team.
Toni Elías’ return to the MotoGP class will see the Moto2 World Champion tackling the 800cc RC212V of the LCR Honda team, and for MotoGP rookies Karel Abraham (Cardion AB Motoracing) and Cal Crutchlow (Monster Yamaha Tech 3) an exciting new chapter in their respective careers begins. The latter will go into the opening round nursing a finger injury on his left hand however, which he picked up in a crash on the final day of the Test on Monday.
After a thrilling inaugural season in 2010 the Moto2 category revs up for its second year in the World Championship in 2011, and on Thursday evening 38 ambitious riders will line up for the opening practice session.
Round 1 of the 2011 campaign commences just ten days after the conclusion of the final pre-season Test which took place at Jerez, and where the 600cc Honda engines were in full symphony for the first, and only, time prior to Qatar. The leading figures at the three-day meeting were Stefan Bradl (Viessmann Kiefer Racing), 2010 125 World Champion Marc Márquez (Team CatalunyaCaixa Repsol), Simone Corsi (Ioda Racing Project), Yuki Takahashi (Gresini Racing) and Thomas Lüthi (Interwetten Paddock Moto2), who were the highest placing riders on the timesheet. The quintet will all be keen to carry that form into the opening round, but a host of other candidates will also be intent on making strong starts to 2011.
Last year’s Championship runner-up Julián Simón (Mapfre Aspar) and Andrea Iannone (Speed Master) who finished third will be amongst the expected challengers at the front, whilst Frenchman Jules Cluzel (Forward Racing) stood on the podium at Losail last year. Add to the mix names such as Mika Kallio (Marc VDS) and Aleix Espargaró (Pons Racing), both of whom have stepped down from MotoGP and will feel they have a point to prove, and riders who proved their progress last year in the category in Scott Redding (Marc VDS) and Alex de Angelis (JiR Moto2) and the first race promises another spectacular show.
Alongside the names of those who displayed their talents last year on a frequent basis will be those of some exciting newcomers to the stage on a full-time basis, when the field lines up for FP1 on Thursday. Kenan Sofuoglu gave a hint of his ability in the final two rounds last year when riding as a replacement for the Technomag-CIP team, and the Turkish rider is on board with the French squad in 2011. Michele Pirro (Gresini Racing) and Kev Coghlan (Team Aeroport de Castelló) will also embark on their debut Moto2 World Championship campaigns.
Also arriving in the Moto2 class as they graduate from the 125s are Pol Espargaró (HP Tuenti Speed Up), Bradley Smith (Tech 3), Randy Krummenacher (GP Team Switzerland Kiefer Racing) and Esteve Rabat (Blusens-STX), whilst the likes of Kenny Noyes (Avintia-STX), Anthony West (MZ Racing), Ratthapark Wilairot (Thai Honda Singha-SAG), Mike di Meglio (Tech 3), Claudio Corti (Italtrans) and Yonny Hernández (Blusens-STX) will all attempt to build on last season with a strong start in Qatar.
Mashel Al Naimi will provide a home interest for Qatari fans as he starts his second season in the World Championship, and will be joined by wildcard compatriot Nasser Al Malki on the QMMF Racing Team for this round.
The final season of the 125cc two-stroke category will also kick off as the pursuit of the title sees 31 riders pit their wits against one another. With 2010 Champion Marc Márquez departed for the Moto2 class, the chase for the vacated title will play out amongst a group of riders hungry to make the best possible start at Losail. One man brimming with confidence will be last year’s race winner and Championship runner-up Nico Terol, one of the main title favourites in 2011.
The Spaniard’s primary threat is likely to come from within the same garage however, with Bankia Aspar team-mate and compatriot Héctor Faubel also holding winning experience at the circuit having taken victory in the 125 class in 2007. Faubel was also fastest at the Jerez Test ten days ago, where he finalised his preparations for his return to the category by finishing just ahead of Terol on the timesheet.
German duo Sandro Cortese (Intact Racing Team Germany) and Jonas Folger (Red Bull Ajo Motorsport) have both enjoyed strong pre-seasons, the former now heading into his seventh campaign and with a Qatar podium from 2009 to his name, whilst other riders with enough experience to expect to challenge will be Ajo Motorsport pair Efrén Vázquez (who placed second in Qatar last year) and Johann Zarco. Sergio Gadea’s (PEV-Blusens-SMX Paris Hilton) readjustment to the class having returned from Moto2 has given the Spaniard some food for thought, but he will nevertheless be expectant at the opening round.
Aside from the more experienced heads there has also been a pre-season buzz surrounding the rookies who will initiate themselves on the World Championship scene this year. Spaniard Maverick Viñales (PEV-Blusens-SMX Paris Hilton) and Portuguese Miguel Oliveira (Team Andalucía Banca Cívica) have looked increasingly comfortable throughout the lead up to 2011, whilst Red Bull MotoGP Rookies Cup graduates Danny Kent (Red Bull Ajo Motorsport) and Taylor Mackenzie (Phonica Racing) have also adapted well. All will hope that their progress continues under the floodlights in Qatar.
Other riders to look out for in the opening round will be 2010 Rookie of the Year Alberto Moncayo (Team Andalucía Banca Cívica), Mahindra Racing duo Danny Webb and Marcel Schrötter as the Indian team makes its World Championship debut, and the first Indian rider to compete in the World Championship Sarath Kumar (WTR-Ten10 Racing).
The Commercialbank Grand Prix of Qatar takes place across four days, starting on Thursday March 17th. The first practice session will be for the 125 category, and is scheduled to take place at 6pm local time.
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