After a memorable 2015 season that culminated — amongst a maelstrom of tension between most of the big guns — with a third world title to Jorge Lorenzo (Movistar Yamaha), the 2016 season kicks off this weekend under lights in Qatar after an intriguing pre-season.
Although the methodical Lorenzo has seemingly adapted to the radical new landscape — unified Magneti-Marelli software and a new control tyre supplier in Michelin — better than anyone else by going fastest in two of the three pre-season tests this year, there's a very real possibility that the status quo of domination by the Yamaha and Honda factory bikes could be upset sometime in the 18-race campaign.
Suzuki Ecstar's Maverick Vinales is one rider looking to upset the established order, with the Spaniard improving markedly over the pre-season. His impressive catalogue of development included setting the fastest time at Phillip Island as he took maximum advantage of an improved GSX-RR, which now has a seamless gearbox as well as a better engine and chassis.
Such has been Vinales' pace, he could break Suzuki's winning drought in MotoGP sooner rather than later. Vinales' teammate will again be Aleix Espargaro, who finally began to string some fast laps together in the final pre-season test.
Meanwhile, Lorenzo will begin his quest to claim back-to-back championships in the premier class for the first time in Qatar. Although he won the 2015 title in acrimonious circumstances after his teammate Valentino Rossi accused Marc Marquez (Repsol Honda) of too much on-track support to his countryman, the facts remain that Lorenzo won more races, set more poles, produced more fastest laps and led more laps than any other rider throughout the season.
"All of us are eager to start the true competition. The winter was so long and testing has not the same feeling as racing," said Lorenzo. "I feel very strong and arrive very confident to this first match of the season. I'm happy I adapted quite well to the Michelin tyres and we proved it during two of three tests.
"However we need to keep our feet on the ground because until Sunday the points are not distributed so we have to work hard from Thursday on to get a good position and then demonstrate our strong pace in the race. I would like to start this 2016 season in the best way possible, especially compared to the beginning of 2015. Let's go into this race fighting and enjoy it!"
Lorenzo is a two-time winner at Losail, but last year's race was won by Rossi ahead of Ducati pair Andrea Dovizioso and Andrea Iannone after a tight scrap, while Marquez was fastest down the 1km main chute with a 350.5km/h pass.
Tyre management will be critical in 2016, especially with the less sophisticated software at everyone's disposal, and it could be just the environment for a wise head like Rossi to step up to the plate. Rossi has little left to prove but continues to line up with as much passion and burning desire as in 1996 when he made his Grand Prix debut in the 125cc ranks.
Following the events of last year, Rossi's relationship with Marquez now appears beyond repair, but it will be interesting to see the dynamics if they are on the same patch of tarmac in Qatar and beyond. Either cool heads will prevail or the red mist may descend again…
Marquez, after a crash-marred 2015 campaign which scuppered any chance of making it three MotoGP titles on the trot, begins the year with an uphill battle to match Lorenzo's initial pace after a challenging pre-season. The new electronics have given him and teammate Dani Pedrosa more than a few headaches, as well as Honda's peaky engine, so they turn up for round one behind Yamaha and Ducati in the development stakes. Marquez did punch out a positive race simulation on the final day in Qatar though, which gave him a late confidence boost.
Pedrosa finished 2015 in top form, and this could be his final "now or never" campaign.
Honda has three other riders on the 2016 books: Aussie Jack Miller and his Estrella Galicia 0,0 Marc VDS rookie teammate Tito Rabat — the only new face in 2016 — as well as Miller's erstwhile colleague at LCR Honda, Cal Crutchlow.
Crutchlow was the most impressive of the satellite trio in testing, while Miller missed the Sepang outing while recovering from a broken leg. He was back for Phillip Island, but then struggled in Qatar, as did Rabat. And the other complicating factor is that he's still not at 100 percent fitness.
“We’ve had some time to go through the data from the Qatar test and we know where we need to improve the bike when we head back for the first race of the season," sad Miller. "Since the test I’ve also had more time to work on my injured ankle and I have much more mobility in the joint now, which will definitely help this weekend. I’m feeling really good after a solid week of training and I’m looking forward to getting the new season started.”
While Dovizioso and Iannone are the big guns in the Ducati camp, the Italian manufacturer's depth has taken a massive turn for the better during pre-season with riders like Hector Barbera (Avintia Racing) and Scott Redding (Octo Pramac Yakhnich) well up the timesheets — Barbera now on the three-year-old 14.2 version of the Desmosedici. Danilo Petrucci, Redding’s teammate, suffered a severely broken hand after falling at Phillip Island and was forced to miss the Qatar Test. He is hopeful of competing in Qatar, and is the only rider among the roster of 21 under an injury cloud.
Loris Baz is the second cog at Avintia, while Yonny Hernandez and Eugene Laverty will ride Ducatis for the Aspar team.
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 Smith can replicate his near faultless 2015 season, he may very well open several doors.
Aprilia (Stefan Bradl and Alvaro Bautista) will hit Qatar heavily underdone after only recently inaugurating its all-new RS-GP machine, which will take some solid development before it begins pushing for top 10 results.
In the intermediate Moto2 class, Ajo Motorsport’s Johann Zarco now sets out to become the first rider to reclaim his crown. He'll have it tough though, with riders like Sam Lowes (Federal Oil Gresini Moto2), Alex Rins (Paginas Amarillas HP 40), 2015 Qatar race winner, Jonas Folger (Dynavolt Intact GP) and Tom Luthi (Garage Plus Interwetten) on the grid.
Lowes started from pole in Qatar last year, and was in contention for the race win until he crashed while battling with Zarco.
Class rookies include reigning Moto3 world champion Danny Kent and Moto3 runner-up Miguel Oliveira on the Leopard Racing machines.
With one of the longest straights on the calendar, Losail always produces stunning racing in the lightweight Moto3 class, and in 2015 the first nine riders in the race were covered by 0.909 seconds, the smallest ever margin to cover the top nine.
Niccolo Antonelli (Ongetta-Rivacold) ended last week's three-day Qatar test as the fastest rider ahead of Livio Loi (RW Racing GP) and Fabio Quartararo (Leopard Racing).
With the top two riders from 2015 gone, Enea Bastianini (Gresini Racing Moto3) will be many people’s favourite for the title this season after finishing third in 2015. However, the young Italian who struggled to crack the top 10 while testing in Qatar.
Brad Binder (Red Bull KTM Ajo) and Romano Fenati (Sky Racing Team VR46) will be looking to convert their experience in the lightweight class into a title challenge, while at the other end of the spectrum rookies Nicolo Bulega (Sky Racing Team VR46), Joan Mir (Leopard Racing) and Aron Canet (Estrella Galicia 0,0) will be out to make a strong impressions.
The three world championship races at Losail will be held over the following distances and times:
• MotoGP: 22 laps, 118.4km, starting at 9:00pm local time (5:00am AEST March 21)
• Moto2: 20 laps, 107.6km, starting a 7:20pm local time (3:20am AEST March 21)
• Moto3: 18 laps, 96.8km, starting at 6:00pm local time (2:00am AEST March 21)
Images courtesy of MotoGP.com