Five months have passed since Casey Stoner's dramatic victory at Valencia and so much has changed. After the death of Marco Simoncelli two weeks earlier, the sport was in a state of mourning and the paddock mood was sombre. The lovable, flamboyant Italian will never be forgotten, quite rightly, but a new season gives everyone in MotoGP an opportunity to move on and produce the kind of entertainment that he would've loved.
The floodlit desert of Qatar provides an ideal setting for the first race of 2012 as the spotlight will be shining on 21 of the world's finest motorcycle racers. The Losail International Circuit is in its ninth year as a Grand Prix venue and is firmly established as the curtain-raiser with the track providing as good a test for man and machine as any on the calendar with its variety of corner speeds and profiles. The 1.068km pit straight, one of the longest on the calendar, also pushes the engines to the limit.
Riders will be reaching the first corner slightly quicker than before thanks to one of this year's rule changes, the switch to 1000cc engines. At this stage, it looks tough to predict who will arrive at that corner first on Sunday night after a closely matched testing programme between the two top teams.
Stoner put in a late flyer to top the final test in Jerez but Jorge Lorenzo will feel confident for Qatar after leading all day prior to that point. Dani Pedrosa and Ben Spies followed their teammates close behind to complete a top four that has risen above the rest throughout pre-season.
Neither Honda nor Yamaha have enjoyed trouble free winters by any means. The reigning champions lost an entire day in Malaysia due to a problem with one of the new 1000cc power units while Yamaha's lead rider wasn't fit to ride their new M1 until the end of January but both will feel ready for round one.
Ducati may not share the same feelings as they face the prospect of watching the leaders escape in the opening race for the second year in succession. Valentino Rossi and Nicky Hayden are keen to point out that the GP12 is a step forward from last year's ill-fated machine but a big enough step to win races? Not yet. It's unlikely that the midfield struggles of 2011 will be repeated but neither Rossi nor Ducati are expecting to record a fourth Losail success.
Their biggest competition may well come from the satellite Yamahas of Cal Crutchlow and Andrea Dovizioso. With this race being the first of the 1000cc era, the Tech 3 duo should theoretically have an identical specification of motorcycle to the factory squad and with both riders desperate to establish early superiority over the other, their head-to-head will be fascinating and could take them past the Ducatis.
The burden of riding Marco Simoncelli's Honda RC213V falls on the shoulders of Alvaro Bautista as San Carlo Honda Gresini kick off the season with a black livery in tribute to their former rider. Despite the unwelcome circumstances, Bautista has a wonderful opportunity on what is certain to be a competitive package. His switch does also come partly due to the withdrawal of Suzuki as the tally of manufacturers drops to three.
It's a good job the likes of LCR continue to run satellite bikes and after last year's failed experiment with the Moto2 World Champion, Lucio Cecchinello has replaced Toni Elias with his successor Stefan Bradl. The German has looked competitive in testing though and should avoid the turmoil his predecessor suffered.
Karel Abraham's Cardion AB team and Pramac Racing have both stuck with Ducati but the latter has changed riders with Hector Barbera now their only representative. This means 2012 will be the first ever MotoGP season not to feature Loris Capirossi, another character that will be missed this year. Randy de Puniet has also departed and now heads up Aspar's two-man CRT project alongside the returning Aleix Espargaro.
The CRT tussle will almost be a race within a race on Sunday with none of them looking likely to trouble the factory-spec bikes. Honour will be at stake to see how leads them home though and Forward Racing will pin their hopes on the ultra-experienced Colin Edwards which could hand them an advantage, particularly considering that four of the other CRT runners have never raced in a Qatar MotoGP before.
Speed Master's Mattia Pasini may be able to overcome that handicap, after all he's won here on a 250 before, but IodaRacing's Danilo Petrucci and Avintia Racing's Ivan Silva have never raced here at all. Silva's teammate Yonny Hernandez has but his Losail experience is limited to two Moto2 outings while Gresini's Michele Pirro has only one Moto2 appearance in Qatar to speak of.
MotoGP newcomers Paul Bird Motorsport may have found the perfect rider for the challenge in James Ellison who makes his return to the series. The Briton swaps World Supersport and BSB and although he will have to get used to a different end of the grid, his experience could give PBM an edge over some of their CRT rivals.
First practice takes place at 17:55 UK time on Thursday with the two remaining practice sessions planned for Friday. The Qatar Grand Prix's unique schedule sees qualifying on Saturday night and the race at 8pm UK time on Sunday. The Checkered Flag will have full coverage of this and every GP weekend throughout the season.
Losail Former Winners:
|2011||Casey Stoner||Stefan Bradl||Nicolas Terol|
|2010||Valentino Rossi||Shoya Tomizawa||Nicolas Terol|
|2009||Casey Stoner||Hector Barbera||Andrea Iannone|
|2008||Casey Stoner||Mattia Pasini||Sergio Gadea|
|2007||Casey Stoner||Jorge Lorenzo||Hector Faubel|
|2006||Valentino Rossi||Jorge Lorenzo||Alvaro Bautista|
|2005||Valentino Rossi||Casey Stoner||Gabor Talmacsi|
|2004||Sete Gibernau||Sebastian Porto||Jorge Lorenzo|
|*No Moto3 races have been held at Losail|