Same time, same place, same bubbling froth of what-could-be and a few cast and colour changes: welcome to the light-bathed Losail and the launch of eighteen appointments for MotoGP in 2017. This weekend the opener of the last major world championship in the Fédération Internationale de Motocyclisme canon takes place in Qatar for the eleventh time in a row and from four official tests from November, February and March the big questions in motorcycle racing’s pinnacle series have surfaced and are impatiently waiting for a repost.
Can Maverick Viñales deliver on his unbeatable speed since gelling immediately with the factory Movistar Yamaha? Can teammate Valentino Rossi challenge for yet another crown in a season where he hits the age of 38? Can Marc Marquez barrel his Honda to the front once more? Will Jorge Lorenzo turn Ducati into a title-threat? Cal Crutchlow: will the first British grand Prix winner in nearly forty years do it again? What will the Monster Yamaha Tech 3 rookies of Jonas Folger and Johann Zarco be able to show?
Qatar is the first probing search for answers and contains an electric current of expectation that will have racing fans around the globe pinned to their LED screens come Sunday evening. After a dominant serving of intent in Spain, Malaysia, Australia and Qatar for the pre-season tests, many will be looking at the pace and racecraft of Viñales on his Yamaha debut. An apprenticeship year in 2015 promised much, wins on the Suzuki in 2016 established his potential and now MotoGP could face a tidal wave from the twenty-two year old from the seaside town of Roses. Like any sporting behemoth, Rossi – in his twenty-second competitive campaign – cannot be discounted and the second year of Michelin tyres and standard spec electronics means that familiar threats from the grid will emerge and perhaps some unlikely players from the wings (or should that be reshaped aerodynamic fairing internals) will surface again after a historic nine winners in 2016.
Qatar, Argentina, USA, Spain, France, Italy, Holland, Germany, Czech Republic, Austria, Great Britain, Japan, Australia and Malaysia constitute a competition that will last from this weekend until the first weeks of November and is bound to bob-and-weave in momentum and drama as the points standings grow in digits. Like Anaheim 1, Phillip Island WorldSBK, Qatar MXGP, Daytona Flat Track and the first kilometres of the Dakar Rally; Losail is the vibrant first burst of activity of the unpredictable and unknowing.
As always the frantic and physics-defying melee of Moto3 will open the majority of Sunday race programmes and where young hopefuls like Enea Bastianini, Nicolo Bulega, Andrea Migno and Aron Canet will try to take on champions KTM. The intermediate Moto2 class and the traditional last rung into MotoGP has some authentically exciting athletes like Franco Morbidelli, Alex Marquez and Lorenzo Baldassarri duelling with older hands like Thomas Luthi and trying to swat away the presence of new guns like Pecco Bagnaia.
As the sole nocturnal fixture on the MotoGP slate, Qatar has a special look and feel. The tingling atmosphere of places like Mugello, Brno, Silverstone might not be a factor but the colourful and light-bouncing aspect of Losail always captures the action unlike any other venue. Don’t miss it.