Testing is over, engines are on and when the sun goes down, the lights go out. So who will seize the first win of the season?
After four months, two tests and time enough for a mountain of expectation to rise from preseason, the foreword is finally written and the first race of the year is about to begin. Losail International Circuit changes from test venue to shimmering, spectacular MotoGP™ oasis in the desert outside Doha, ready for the floodlights to light up its every curve and give us a first glimpse of what the season may have in store. Every epos begins with a single verse and a new odyssey is poised to get underway.
So where do we begin? Two of the biggest questions as we head for Qatar line up alongside each other at Repsol Honda. Reigning Champion Marc Marquez comes back from surgery to his shoulder and questions abound as to the race readiness of the now seven-time World Champion, although Losail is far from an ideal venue from which to make a judgement: he’s only won once at the track in the premier class, and that was in his all-conquering 2014 season. Can he go the distance? And what of the man who enters the stage with the best record at Losail; the man now on the other side of the garage? That’s Jorge Lorenzo, who has six wins in Qatar – three of which came in MotoGP™ – and they speak highly of the ‘Spartan’’s skill at the venue. But how will he come out the blocks this year as he continues his recovery from a broken scaphoid and adaptation to a whole new machine?
Meanwhile, at the Mission Winnow Ducati garage, it’s less adaptation and more fine-tuning for last year’s Qatar GP winner Andrea Dovizioso. Confident in testing but not to a fault, the Italian begins the season with the natural advantage of being fully fit. Add that to his 2018 success at the venue and solid reports from testing, there’s likely a good few bets been placed on ‘DesmoDovi’. For new teammate Danilo Petrucci, meanwhile, the odds are a little longer – but the new addition to the factory Ducati team has shone in testing and he can’t be counted out. There are few motivations bigger than the chance at a first victory.
A first victory to kick off the season would be just what the ‘Doctor’ ordered for Monster Energy Yamaha MotoGP after a more difficult season last year. In testing, however, it was Yamaha who locked out four of the top six on the final day in Qatar and 2017 winner Maverick Viñales who went top, so it looks promising. Can he replicate that on race day? Or will the experience and four previous MotoGP™ victories at the venue tip the scales in favour of teammate Valentino Rossi?
There could be another, newer name in the hunt for victory, too. Viñales may have gone quickest but Team Suzuki Ecstar’s Alex Rins spent the Qatar Test either right behind the Yamaha man or just ahead of him – sometimes literally. Confidence in their 2019 machine has shone out of Suzuki, and Rins is a man in form. A dark horse for the win? Or can that not be said of someone who threw down an impressive gauntlet on the timesheets already?
His rookie teammate, Joan Mir, also made a buzz in testing. But the rookie who took the limelight most at the Qatar Test was most definitely Fabio Quartararo (Petronas Yamaha SRT). First debutant and top Independent Team rider, the Frenchman finished the test in a stunning second place – and it wasn’t a fluke. Plenty of eyes will be on him, and the man who managed a similar feat in Sepang, Francesco Bagnaia (Alma Pramac Racing). The two could prove a headache for the Independent Team riders gunning for glory already, and the likes of Bagnaia’s teammate Jack Miller, Quartararo's teammate Franco Morbidelli, Cal Crutchlow (LCR Honda Castrol) and Aleix Espargaro (Aprilia Racing Team Gresini) will be aiming to stamp some authority on the new kids on the block.
Another big point of interest in Qatar will also be aiming to get well within that battle. Red Bull KTM Factory Racing’s Pol Espargaro finished the test inside the top ten and impressed once again, and he’ll want more than a couple of points to prove a point for the Austrian factory as they enter their third year in MotoGP™. And Johann Zarco, recent arrival to the other side of the garage, will have his sights set on his teammate and closing the gap – as well as gaining a little more fresh air between himself and impressive rookie Miguel Oliveira (Red Bull KTM Tech 3).
It’s a long time since the 2018 Valencia GP and the hour is finally upon us to go racing again. New faces, new colours and a mountain of expectation...get ready for another epic season of MotoGP™ and tune in for the VisitQatar Grand Prix from the 8th to 10th March as we see the first verse unfold.