Moto Media
James Stewart

2011 MotoGP season starts at Qatar this weekend

Losail International Circuit is 15 kms. east of Doha. The 5.38k track, with ten right hand corners and six lefts, was designed primarily for motorcycles with vast run-off areas.  The layout has a variety of corners and a long front straight, with near constant high speeds and changes of direction. One of the downsides is the desert location. Gusty winds blow sand across the surface, which can catch a rider out if he’s not paying attention, and which can also wreak havoc on tyre life.

The 1.068k front straight is one of the longest on the calendar, with speeds reaching close to 330kph in qualifying and just less during the race. An occasional tailwind can catch riders out, causing them to overrun the first corner until they adapt to the speed.
What makes the front stretch compelling is that the finish line is towards the end of the straightaway, which lends itself to draft passing at the finish line, and graphically highlights the top speed discrepancies between the various machines.

The 2011 running of the race marks the fifth year that the MotoGP season kicks off at night, as a concession to the daytime temperatures that average 35C ambient and much higher on the asphalt.

For the first time in anyone’s memory, the grand prix weekend is spread out over four days, with practice beginning Thursday evening leading up to Sunday’s season-opener.

Honda MotoGP:

Honda riders excelled in the limited pre-season testing by finishing fastest in each of the eight sessions over three tests. The final test finished just days ago here at the Losail International Circuit east of Doha, the capital of Qatar, and when it did, Repsol Honda teammates were fighting for supremacy.

There was little between Casey Stoner (Repsol Honda RC212V) and Dani Pedrosa (Repsol Honda RC212V) pictured at right when the two-day test concluded on Monday evening. Stoner was a mere .064s better on his fastest lap of 1m, 55.681s, though he was more consistently in the ‘55s.

The 25-year-old Australian had an instant affinity for the desert circuit. In 2006, his first year in the premier class, the Honda-mounted Stoner arrived at the track after a difficult journey with little sustenance and earned his first pole position in only his second MotoGP race. Stoner then went on to lead the race for the first nine of 22 laps.

The following year Stoner used his win in Qatar, one of ten victories in 18 races, as a springboard to capturing the 2007 MotoGP World Championship. He returned to Qatar the following year and won again, stretching his margin of victory by more than two seconds, which he would do again when he won the 2009 running of the race. Stoner was in the lead last year and pulling away when his front end slid out. Now, having finished with the fastest time at the test, Stoner is ready to get back to the top step of the podium.

Pedrosa is no stranger to the podium in Qatar. The two-time 250cc World Champion finished third to Stoner in both 2007 and 2008. Having finished the test here with a near similar time to his new team-mate, Pedrosa is ready for the start of the season.

In 2010, Pedrosa had his most successful season. The 25-year-old from Sabadell, Spain won four races, twice as many as he’d won during any of the previous four years of his MotoGP career. There were four further podiums and certain to be more before he suffered a broken collarbone at Honda’s home grand prix at Twin Ring Motegi. Pedrosa’s pre-season form confirms that his physical condition has returned to championship level, and he’ll need to be in top shape in such a talented field.

Andrea Dovizioso, the former 125cc World Champion, enters his third year with the Repsol Honda team having had his most successful MotoGP season in 2010. Dovizioso finished on the podium seven times and finished with the most points of his MotoGP career, while equaling his career best overall finish of fifth. Yet Dovizioso wasn’t able to add a victory to his win in difficult conditions at Donington Park in 2009, though he came tantalizingly close more than once.

Marco Simoncelli  (San Carlo Honda Gresini RC212V) pictured at left enters his second season brimming with confidence from a successful test season. Simoncelli was the fastest of all riders at the second test in Sepang, narrowly in front of Pedrosa and Stoner, with Dovizioso fifth fastest. The combination of a year’s experience and improvements in the Honda RC212V had put Simoncelli among the class favourites.  The 2008 250cc World Champion saw the potential in the 2011 race machine at the 2010 season-ending test after Valencia. The bike has more power than previous versions and "Super Sic” was comfortable from the start. Now he needs to maintain his progress as he enters his first full season on factory equipment.

Hiroshi Aoyama (San Carlo Honda Gresini), the last ever 250cc World Champion, also starts his sophomore season in the premier class. The top Japanese rider in the world championships made an impressive leap on the first day of the final test to set the third fastest time.

Being among the leaders is nothing new for the nine-time race-winner who has spent most of his grand prix career in the Honda family and he plans to be there this year. The move to the San Carlo Gresini Honda team has been seamless and Aoyama gives the team much of the credit for his testing success.

Toni Elias (LCR Honda MotoGP) is the most recent world champion, having won the inaugural Moto2 World Championship in 2010. Prior to that the Spaniard spent five years in the MotoGP class, with three of those aboard Hondas. Now back in the top class, Elias has had a difficult pre-season adopting to the Honda RC212V, though he refuses to believe he’s gotten the most out of himself and the machine and expects to improve with more seat time.

Copy and photos courtesy of Honda Motor Europe.

Yamaha Factory Racing:

Reigning MotoGP World Champion Jorge Lorenzo steps up to the grid to challenge for a second title at the controls of his YZR-M1. Joining him in the garage and completing Yamaha Factory Racing's line up for this season will be 2010 MotoGP Rookie of the Year Ben Spies.

The 2010 season saw Lorenzo firmly cement his place as one of the Grand Prix elite. The 23 yr old Mallorcan stormed through the 18 round season to take an impressive nine race wins and a premier class record breaking 383 point tally on his way to title victory. The Yamaha Factory rider has started every MotoGP race in his premiership career at Qatar from the front row, t aking a pole position in his 2008 MotoGP debut and has always finished on the podium, although a race win has so far eluded him.

Spies, the Texan Factory newcomer, is no stranger to Yamaha having taken the Yamaha Factory Superbike to victory in the 2009 World Superbike Championship. He went on to impress in his debut season in MotoGP in 2010 on the Tech3 Yamaha M1, securing sixth in the championship standings as the highest placed non-factory rider, scoring two podiums and a dazzling pole position start for his home race at Indianapolis in the process. The 2010 season opener at the Losail circuit saw the 25yr old push on from a fourth row grid start position to finish the race in fifth, just 3.9 seconds from the race winner. 

The pre-season winter testing has seen both riders perform strongly, posting impressive race pace as they set up their 2011 M1s for what will be the final year of the 800cc MotoGP class. The updated 800cc machi nes have made advances in grip level, stability and electronics to give Lorenzo and Spies the best possible weapons in their fight for the chequered flag.

Jorge Lorenzo: "The new season is here and I'm very proud to be able to start it with the number one. Our bike has been better and better from the first test but there is still room for improvement. Winning the World Championship last year was a great achievement but everybody starts the same this weekend with no points and the competition is very tough. I have been training very hard over the winter to be ready and I am excited to start."

Ben Spies: "It feels really good to be here as part of the Factory Team, we worked really hard last year to get here. I've got a great crew around me, I've worked with most of them before in different teams so it's almost like a reunion! Everything has gone really smoothly in the tests, I have to say I'm more of a racer than a tester so I'm pretty impatient now to get to it and see what we can do."

Copy and photo courtesy of Yamaha Motor Europe N.V.