With the drama of 2015 MotoGP now past, the revamped 2016 MotoGP Championship is set to begin this weekend at Losail Circuit Sports Club in Qatar.The 3.34-mile Middle Eastern circuit that contains 16 corners has hosted the opening round of MotoGP since 2006, and the night race under the floodlights was introduced in 2008.
This year, 21 full-time riders will be on the grid, including only one rookie – 2014 Moto2 Champion Tito Rabat on the Marc VDS Racing satellite RC213V. Sadly, with the transition of of Nicky Hayden from MotoGP to World Superbike, there are no Americans in MotoGP (or Moto2 and Moto3); this is the first time since 1975 that no America’s have competed in Grand Prix motorcycle racing.The biggest changes in 2016 MotoGP are the new spec ECU and software packages supplied by Magneti Marelli, which require more rider finesse, and the adaptation of Michelin as the spec tire. Bridgestone was the former spec-tire manufacturer since 2009. For Qatar, a smooth and slick track, Michelin will provide soft, medium and hard fronts, and soft and medium rears.
Movistar Yamaha MotoGP
Heading into the season opener, all eyes will be on the reigning MotoGP Champion, Movistar Yamaha MotoGP’s Jorge Lorenzo. The five-time Grand Prix Champion, who earned three premier-class titles (2010, 2012, 2015), has already shown his speed in the preseason testing. The 28-year-old Spaniard led both the Sepang and Qatar tests by over a half of a second. Lorenzo has struggled at Qatar the past two seasons, but he finished on the podium all other years, which includes a win in 2012 and 2013, the latter from the pole.His teammate, nine-time World Champion Valentino Rossi, will be hungry for his 10th title. The 36-year-old Italian – the oldest and most successful rider on the grid with 112 wins across all classes – fought for points to the final round last season. He lost the title to Lorenzo by a mere five points after some drama with fellow MotoGP Champion Marc Marquez on the Repsol Honda RC213V.Rossi has four wins at Qatar, including the 2015 win when he ousted fellow Italians Andrea Iannone and Andrea Dovizioso, both on factory Ducati Desmosedicis.
Team Ecstar Suzuki
The biggest threat to the factory Yamaha YZR-M1 pilots so far in 2016 has been Team Suzuki Ecstar GSX-RR’s Maverick Vinales, who topped the Phillip Island preseason MotoGP test and finished third overall at Qatar testing.Vinales, along with teammate Aleix Espargaro, rejoin the grid for Suzuki’s second year of return in MotoGP. The GSX-RR now has an improved engine, chassis and seamless gearbox, which has helped with the bike’s competitiveness. As for Espargaro, he had struggled with front-end confidence on his GSX-RR throughout the preseason tests.
The factory Repsol Honda team returns in 2016 MotoGP with two-time MotoGP Champion Marquez and Dani Pedrosa. The 2015 season was a debacle for both riders due to the aggressive nature of the 2015 RC213V. Marquez crashed six times during 2015, and a few times during 2016 preseason testing. Pedrosa also struggled, especially during 2016 preseason testing. The team has tried to rectify the aggressive nature of the RC213V, but the new electronics make this even more difficult.
The top Ducati in preseason testing wasn’t a factory GP16 of Ducati Team’s Andrea Dovizioso and Andrea Iannone, but rather the GP15 piloted by Octo Pramac’s Scott Redding. The Brit only finished on the podium once in 2015, but the team is confident ahead of 2016 MotoGP. His teammate, Danilo Petrucci, also was quick during preseason testing, but broke his hand during a crash at the Phillip Island test. Petrucci was forced to miss the Qatar testing two weeks ago, but is expected to ride this weekend at Qatar.As for the factory Ducati riders, Iannone and “Desmo Dovi” Dovizioso continue to work with the new GP16, which just debuted at the final preseason MotoGP test in Qatar. Ducati’s last win in MotoGP was the 2010 Australian GP, and the team is working hard towards changing that.
Satellite Teams (courtesy of MotoGP)
Staying with the same team for the first time in three years, LCR Honda’s Cal Crutchlow was quick throughout preseason testing. The Qatar Test ended in a vicious crash for the LCR Honda man but in true Crutchlow style, he was joking about the crash soon after and is fired up for the season and eager to help Honda improve the RC213V.Crutchlow and Redding were not the only satellite riders to show well during testing, both Loris Baz and Hector Barbera produced commendable results. After his incredible crash in Sepang, Baz returned to go faster and faster and although he was down in 14th during the Qatar Test, his race pace was solid and the tall Frenchman is another who may surprise under the floodlights. His Avintia Racing teammate, Hector Barbera, was another to challenge the factory riders and his ability to produce a flying lap may upset many come qualifying time in Qatar.It will be a big year for both Pol Espargaro and Bradley Smith with the majority of factory seats open at the end of the year, both Monster Yamaha Tech 3 riders will be hungry to land a much sought after factory contract. If Bradley Smith can replicate his near faultless 2015 season, he may very well open several doors. The Brit proved as hard working as ever during testing, despite a lack of preferred tires. On the other side of the garage, Espargaro looks to turn his speed into consistency after an up and down 2015. Of all the riders, Espargaro was perhaps the most excited to switch to Michelin as he felt they would suit his riding style better. All will be revealed come Sunday the 20th of March.Still recovering from his broken leg, Jack Miller struggled somewhat during the Qatar Test and is hoping that with intensive physiotherapy between events he will be more competitive come the Grand Prix. His Estrella Galicia 0,0 Marc VDS teammate, Tito Rabat, also had a difficult test with three crashes as he was unable to get any feedback from the difficult to tame Honda.The first three rounds look set to be extended test sessions for Aprilia Racing Team Gresini who debuted the brand new 2016 RS-GP at the Qatar Test. While pleased with the early results, all involved are aware that they are nowhere near their maximum and much more track time is needed. With both Stefan Bradl and Alvaro Bautista at the helm, Aprilia are sure to make continuing progress throughout the year.Both Yonny Hernandez and Eugene Laverty progressed well throughout testing, Laverty recovering much of the confidence he lost as a result of crashing in Jerez and Sepang and now comfortable with his GP14.2. Hernandez meanwhile worked on improving his relationship and workflow with the Aspar teamBecause Qatar is the only night race of the year, the schedule of the upcoming race weekend slightly differs from the usual. The Free Practice 1 session will take place on Thursday evening (from 19:55 – 20:40 local track time, GMT+3), followed by FP2 (18:00 – 18:45) and FP3 (20:55 – 21:40) on the Friday; FP4 (19:55 – 20:25) on the Saturday before the qualifying sessions (20:35 – 21:15), and the warm-up (17:00 – 17:20) and race (21:00) on Sunday.
2016 Qatar MotoGP TV Schedule
beIN will provide live coverage of 2016 Qatar MotoGP; check your local listings for times.