MotoGP fans will be hoping to see anyone other than the reigning champion Marc Marquez on top of the podium when the first race of the 18-round series – motorcycle racing’s equivalent of Formula One – finishes in Qatar on Sunday.
No one has anything personal against Spain’s 22-year-old speed genius, it’s just that last year he won races too easily. He broke the opposition by taking 10 consecutive victories at the start of the season, after which he won his second world title at a canter.
But this year his chief rival, the 27-year-old Spaniard Jorge Lorenzo, starts the series fully fit, and armed with a seamless-shift gearbox in his 1000cc Yamaha YZR-M1. A seamless shifter means that Lorenzo will not have to touch the clutch lever as he moves up and down his six-speed transmission, and it could pare perhaps three-tenths of a second – a significant saving for a MotoGP rider – from a 1min 55sec lap on the 3.375-mile Losail circuit.
“It gives more stability under braking, and this makes the bike stop in a shorter distance and move less,” Lorenzo says.
Before the upstart Marquez came to dominate MotoGP in 2013, it looked as though the 2010 and 2012 world champion Lorenzo might rule the sport for several seasons.
That dream abruptly having been shattered, Lorenzo has now picked himself up and hopes that his super-suave style, allied to a better Yamaha, might be enough to regain the title. “If the bike works well and I stay in good shape physically, I can do it,” he says.
Marquez’s style is the more spectacular, as he drags his forearm and leg through the corners on his 200mph Honda RC213V. He also demonstrates an astonishing ability to turn the 250-horsepower bike into a corner while his rear wheel is dancing in the air under braking.
Rivals have taken note and tried to raise their game – none more so than the fans’ permanent favourite, Valentino Rossi. Marquez was only three years old when Rossi made his grand prix debut in 1996, but the 36-year-old Italian proved last year by finishing second in the points table that old racetrack dogs can learn new tricks.
“We are trying to raise our level so that we can arrive at the same level as Marquez,” Rossi says. “I will try to improve the braking and corner entry, and I’m still working on changing my position on the bike.”
Marquez has much more than just the Yamaha pairing and his own team-mate, Dani Pedrosa, to worry about. Ducati are back in contention.
They have underperformed so often in recent seasons that the ability of the charismatic red bikes from Italy to attract sponsors – and thus to survive in MotoGP – must have been in doubt.
But the Bologna company lured the gifted engineer Gigi Dall’Igna from the Aprilia factory and paired him with riders Andrea Dovizioso, 29, and Andrea Iannone, 25.
The new Ducati GP15 V4 is narrower and more compact, and a shorter wheelbase appears to have cured the bike’s tendency to run wide in corners, an affliction that not even Rossi could beat during an arduous time with the factory.
The new all-Italian combo dominated the final round of pre-season testing in Qatar, with Dovizioso setting the fastest lap and Iannone third quickest. Both their all-out qualifying laps and their race-distance simulations were impressive. Can the little Italian factory again dethrone the Japanese giants, as it last did in 2007, with the now-retired Casey Stoner?
Marquez remains favourite to retain the title, but at least this season he might have to sweat before he takes his third championship, and there should be more race winners.
FLYING THE FLAG: The British challenge
Cal Crutchlow, 29, LCR Honda
Finished fifth in 2013 but seeks to bounce back after a disastrous year with Ducati.
Bradley Smith, 24, Yamaha Tech 3
Aims to be the top British rider and highest scorer among the private teams.
Eugene Laverty, 28, Aspar Honda
Ulster rider switches from the World Superbikes to make his MotoGP debut.
Scott Redding, 22, Marc VDS Honda
The youngest ever grand prix winner – at the age of 15 – Redding is Britain’s best long-term prospect.Reuse content