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MotoGP: Qatar Preview: The lights are on and MotoGP is FINALLY home

Credit: MotoGP.com

MotoGP will fire back into life under floodlights at Losail this weekend, as we get ready for another blistering season, packed full of action and drama and thrills and spills, where records may well be broken – possibly, even shattered. The Qatari Grand Prix, whilst still the least attended race on the calendar, consistently provides some of the best, fiercest Racing all season and is the perfect way to sit down in front of the TV and watch the greatest motorcycle racing championship in the world kick-start it’s year.

Marc Marquez comes to Losail having won their just once in the premier class, back in 2014. The Repsol Honda rider enters 2018 with six titles under his belt and he will want to become the first Spanish premier class champion to win the series on three consecutive occasions. Honda haven’t won at Losail since Marquez won in 2014 and they haven’t had a 1-2 since 2004, with Sete Gibernau and Colin Edwards. Can Marquez overcome the odds in the desert to take the championship lead from the get-go?

Out to finally take a premier class win in Losail, Andrea Dovizioso enters 2018 as the runner-up in the world, taking six wins last season in an effort to bring Ducati their first Grand Prix title since 2007. The Italian has been 2nd at Losail for the last three successive seasons, with Dovizioso only fractionally losing out in 2015 and 2017. We will be witnessing something intriguing for the first time too; Dovizioso has never come into a championship season in the premier class of world motorcycle racing as runner-up and with that, whether he likes it or not, comes expectation. It will be interesting to see whether Dovizioso can repeat his efforts of last year and go one better, or if he will sink back down the field.

Maverick Vinales finished top Yamaha in 2017, with third, although after taking three wins from the first five races, he wouldn’t win again. Things have not been any better for the 2017 Qatari GP winner in testing either, with the Spaniard struggling with the Yamaha in high-heat conditions. Vinales starts his fourth season in MotoGP with a new contract already secured for 2019 and 2020, so we may see him ride with more confidence in 2018, with no added pressure of his future in the paddock under threat. Vinales will be there or there abouts but whether he or the bike can launch a championship challenge is going to have to play out along with the season.

Dani Pedrosa was revitalised in 2017, with wins at Jerez and Valencia, as he charged his way to fourth in the championship. Pedrosa has never won at Losail in the premier class and his last podium at the track was 2014; he will be out to kick-start his 2018 season by ending that particular desert drought. Pedrosa has been the rider on form in testing too, with the flyweight Spaniard shining at Sepang, Chang and Losail. For the first time in a long time, double 250cc champion Pedrosa is being considered as a genuine title fighter but can he sustain that for a whole season? I certainly hope so – if anyone deserves a MotoGP title then surely it is him?

Valentino Rossi had highlights of genius in 2017 but also some really low points of injury, in what was a season where at rounds, Valentino looked like he could’ve, and arguably should’ve, wiped the floor with the opposition. After his first three races on the podium, Rossi slipped to a 10th at Jerez before crashing out of 2nd in an intense battle for the lead at Le Mans. He was then injured at Mugello where he finished a hard-fought fourth but it wasn’t until Assen, where he won. It was his only win of the entire campaign, as he had to wait until Silverstone to get on the podium again. After that, a broken leg ended what was already a dim hope of championship success. Rossi has won a total of four times at Losail, with his latest coming in 2015. A podium last year will fire the 39-year-old Italian veteran up for another quest of title number 10.

Zaaaaarcooo! Johann Zarco was the revelation and sensation of last season, with two podiums in the final two races of 2017. The Tech 3 Yamaha rider led the Qatari Grand Prix last year, before crashing at the infamous turn 2. Now coming into his second season of premier class racing, Zarco could be an upset, not just for a win but for a title challenge too. Although testing is just that, Zarco proved he had great pace, albeit a bit lacking over race distance. If Zarco can mount the podium in three of the first six races, he has a chance. He is going to be an exciting force once again!

Jorge Lorenzo was 7th in the championship last season and we know as well he does that 2018 has to be a year in which wins must return for the Spaniard. The last Spanish Ducati rider to get on the podium in Losail was Ruben Xaus in 2004 and Lorenzo languished in 11th last season at the Qatar round. He must do better and I believe he will.

Andrea Iannone had a disastrous 2017 as he moved over to Suzuki, in a move where many – including myself – thought he could be a winner. With the bike improving through testing, Iannone may well be back to his old, radical, aggressive self. Alex Rins once again joins him and he also looks quick. Both riders have a podium at Losail, with Iannone’s most recent being 2015 with 3rd and Rins’ being 3rd in Moto3 2013.

The Gresini Aprilia outfit keep Aleix Espargaro for 2018, with the ex GP podium finisher running well at Losail last season. Scott Redding joins him, as the Brit moves back to the Gresini team of which he started his premier class career with, back in 2014. Redding’s best finish at Losail was 2nd in Moto2 in 2013, whereas Aprilia’s best finish was also at Losail, last year with Espargaro.

The Red Bull KTM Factory Racing outfit retain their line up of 2017, with Pol Espargaro and Bradley Smith continuing with the machine’s development. Espargaro won the 2013 Moto2 race at Losail, whereas Bradley Smith’s 2008 125cc pole position is still the fastest ever lightweight class lap at Losail. Of course, that is for you trivia-hunting fans.

Danilo Petrucci heads up the Alma Pramac Racing Ducati team for 2018, with Australian Jack Miller partnering the Italian. Petrucci was on the podium no less than four times last season but retired for the Losail race, of which he has never finished inside the top 10. Jack Miller was 8th in the race last season and won the 2014 Moto3 event at the track too.

Cal Crutchlow heads up the LCR Honda charge and for the 2018 season, he will have a new teammate in Takaaki Nakagami. The Brit had a disaster in the 2017 Losail race, crashing twice, with a best finish at the track being 4th in 2012. A British rider hasn’t stepped on the podium of the opening premier class race since 1984, with Barry Sheene at Kyalami. Takaaki Nakagami has been the most impressive rookie during testing and the Japanese sensation looks like he could be a bit of a dark horse. Podium overload in 2018 for LCR?

Alvaro Bautista goes into 2018 off the back of an impressive 2017 campaign, in which he finished inside the top 10 on seven occasions, of which two were in the top five with a best of fourth. The Spaniard has failed to finish three of the last four Losail races but he won the 2006 125cc race. Karel Abraham joins Bautista at the Angel Nieto Racing team, with a best result of 7th at Assen last season. The only Czech on the grid will be hoping to become more of a top 10 runner in the forthcoming season.

The Avintia Ducati team somewhat unceremoniously dumped a well-performing Loris Baz and also parted ways with Hector Barbera at the end of last season. A brand new line up sees Tito Rabat come over to the team and Xavier Simeon controversially come up to the premier class. Rabat needs a good season in 2018, as his MotoGP life has been far from star-studded whilst Xavier Simeon will look to be the first Belgian in the class to score points since Sebastian Le Grelle was 11th at Catalunya in 2000.

The Marc VDS outfit, like Avintia, have a new rider line-up. Reigning Moto2 champion Franco Morbidelli makes the leap up to the premier class with arch rival and ex 125cc champion Thomas Lüthi joining him in what is an exciting line up. Both riders have won at Losail in the last two seasons so be prepared to see some potential fireworks come Sunday evening.

The final rider is another rookie, Hafizh Syahrin. The Malaysian replaces Jonas Folger for a season as the German recovers from illness. Syahrin has looked good in testing considering the limited time he has had on the machine, with his potential looking good. Can the Malaysian be an upset in some capacity at any point in 2018?

MotoGP 2018 has all the prospects of being the best season ever, with 12 GP champions on the grid, 32 titles between them. With the exception of Aleix Espargaró and Danilo Petrucci, every rider on the grid has won at some level of Grand Prix Racing. A promising prospect for 2018, the Qatari Grand Prix will answer some questions but I believe it will pose more questions as this year looks set to be the most unpredictable ever!

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