This weekend the historic 70th season of motorcycle Grand Prix racing roars into action at the Losail International Circuit on the Arabian Peninsula. The Qatar Grand Prix is now MotoGP’s traditional season-opener, having opened the championship every year since 2007.

The 2018 MotoGP World Championship is historic in another way: it takes place over a record-breaking 19 rounds that will take riders and teams to 15 countries across the globe. By contrast, the inaugural 1949 World Championships featured just six rounds; all of them in Europe.

Honda has great hopes for the new season, during which the company chases a third consecutive MotoGP title double of the Riders and Constructors World Championships. Preseason testing has gone well, with Honda’s three most experienced MotoGP riders – Marc Marquez (Repsol Honda Team RC213V), Dani Pedrosa (Repsol Honda Team RC213V) and Cal Crutchlow (LCR Honda CASTROL RC213V) – showing excellent pace at Sepang in Malaysia, Chang in Thailand and Losail.

Marquez recently celebrated his 25th birthday while preparing for his sixth season in the premier class, which he hopes will yield his fifth title in the category, a truly remarkable achievement for one so young. The Spaniard has already won 35 MotoGP victories, in addition to his 26 wins (and two world titles) in the 125cc and Moto2 categories. He currently stands sixth in the sport’s all-time winners list, with only Giacomo Agostini, Valentino Rossi, Angel Nieto, Mike Hailwood and Jorge Lorenzo ahead of him.

Last year Marquez won six races after a steady start to the season, including a fourth-place finish in Qatar. So far he has only scored one MotoGP victory at Losail, in 2014, which isn’t usually the best track for his RC213V. His promising form during preseason testing suggests he may have a better chance in the desert on Sunday, although he fully understands that this is only the first race of 19, so it’s better to take home a solid points score, rather than risk everything for maximum points.

Marquez and HRC focused their preseason testing on the latest iteration of the RC213V engine, with a slightly revised firing configuration to combine improved top-end power with rider-friendly low-rpm power.

Pedrosa also likes the latest version, which was good enough to power him to the top of preseason testing at Chang last month. This weekend the 32-year-old Spaniard commences his 13th season with the Repsol Honda Team. Pedrosa has won 54 victories across the MotoGP, 250cc and 125cc classes, which puts him seventh equal in the all-time winners list, alongside another Honda legend, Mick Doohan. He finished last season in fourth place, scoring two victories and another six top-three finishes. Only team-mate Marquez scored more podiums. Pedrosa has yet to win a race at Losail; his best so far is a second-place finish in 2012.

Pedrosa’s slight frame can give him some issues in cooler conditions, when he can find it difficult to get his tyres up to full temperature, so the revised Qatar Grand Prix time schedule may help him. Following last year’s freak rainstorms, the Losail programme has been brought forward, with some practice taking place in daylight. During the first years of Qatar’s floodlit racing, the MotoGP race started at 10pm. It was later switched to 9pm and this year will start at 7pm, when track temperature should be several degrees warmer.

Crutchlow’s preseason form has also been impressive, suggesting that the 32-year-old Briton is all set for his best season yet. Not only is he riding better than ever, he is now an HRC-contracted rider, so he will get all the engineering support he needs to extract maximum performance from his RC213V. After winning two MotoGP races during 2016, Crutchlow failed to increase his victory tally last season, so is fired up to return to his 2016 form.

Honda has three experienced riders in MotoGP this year, plus three rookies. One of these is Crutchlow’s new team-mate: Takaaki Nakagami (LCR Honda IDEMITSU RC213V). The 26-year-old Japanese star comes to the premier class after six seasons in the Honda-powered Moto2 class, where he won two races, and two seasons in the 125cc class.

Nakagami has been the surprise in preseason testing, ending the Chang tests an impressive tenth fastest, less than seven tenths of a second behind Pedrosa, although his progress during the Losail outing was slowed by a tumble. The HRC rider has adapted well to his RC213V, and both Marquez and Crutchlow have helped get him up to speed, by allowing him to follow them during testing.

Honda’s other two rookies are team-mates Franco Morbidelli (Estrella Galicia 0,0 Marc VDS Honda RC213V) and Thomas Luthi (Estrella Galicia 0,0 Marc VDS Honda RC213V), who finished first and second in last year’s Moto2 Wold Championship.

Twenty-three-year-old Italian Morbidelli has also shown steady improvement during preseason testing as he adapts from a 125 horsepower Moto2 bike to a 240 horsepower MotoGP machine that can surpass 340km/h (210mph). Winner of eight Moto2 races last year – including the Qatar season-opener – Morbidelli’s 2018 target is pure and simple: to continue learning the fine art of MotoGP riding technique.

Luthi, winner of 11 Moto2 races during the past eight years, has had a more challenging start to his MotoGP career. Injuries suffered towards the end of last year’s Moto2 series prevented the 31-year-old Swiss from climbing aboard his RC213V until the first tests of 2018, at the end of January. He therefore finds himself a step or two behind his fellow rookies, but his intention is much the same: to keep making steady progress race by race.

Marc Marquez

Marc Marquez 93

“I’m really excited that the first race has finally arrived. It looks like it’ll be a very competitive season, starting from the first race here in Qatar. Having tested here so recently, we know there are several riders who are already very fast, within only two to three hundredths, so the race could be exciting and anything can happen on Sunday. We’ve also worked well during the winter tests and now we look forward to getting started. The Qatar round is a unique one compared to the others on the calendar, and we’re aware that it’s not one of the easiest for us. Still, during the test we focused on trying to get as close as possible to the pace of our opponents on used tyres, and at the moment we’re not that far off. It will be a long season and we’ll continue working on our bike’s set-up to try and make the best of every situation on race day.”

Repsol Honda Team
Dani Pedrosa

Dani Pedrosa 26

“We arrive at the first race in Qatar after an intense preseason that saw us do a lot of work. It looks like this is going to be a very competitive year, with many candidates for the podium. Many riders have been very competitive, as have the manufacturers. Therefore, more than ever we have to focus on our side of the garage in order to perform our best starting with the first race. I feel ready for this year’s challenge and so do my team. I’m really looking forward to getting on my bike on Friday!”

Repsol Honda Team
Cal Crutchlow

Cal Crutchlow 35

“Like everyone else, we’ve been working hard in testing and we can’t wait to go racing – this is what we’re all here for! I’m looking forward to the first race, even if Qatar hasn’t always been so kind to us in the past. Hopefully this year we can do better, because we’ve had a strong preseason, working really well with all the engineers from HRC, who are giving me great support. The one thing we need to work on, following the tests earlier this month, is our front feeling with the bike. From Friday we will see what we can do to improve that, which should help me run a fast and consistent pace with less risk. This is going to be a tough season, with some really close racing and 19 races. I’m ready to do the best I can.”

LCR Honda Castrol
Takaaki Nakagami

Takaaki Nakagami 30

“This season is my first in the MotoGP class, so it’s going to be tough. All the riders have lots of potential, so it’s not going to be easy. But I have a great package with my Honda RC213V and great sponsors, especially IDEMITSU. Our race pace has been strong during preseason testing. I have one main area of my riding technique which I need to focus on – I am struggling to pick up the bike quickly on the corner exits, so I am losing time on acceleration. I need to get much better at that. It’s great that all the Japanese fans are looking forward to the new season because they’ve been waiting a long time for a Japanese MotoGP rider. I’m really proud to be with Honda and I will do my best.”

LCR Honda Idemitsu
Franco Morbidelli

Franco Morbidelli 21

“I have a good feeling. I’m looking forward to my first race in MotoGP and I’m looking forward to my first weekend in MotoGP. I really want to enjoy it, to work well with my team, to be very precise; in fact to do everything in the right way! My expectations? I don’t have any in particular, but it will be important to start where we finished testing, by restarting this weekend with a similar gap to the top guys and to the top Honda riders. After that it would be nice to improve my pace and also improve a couple of things in the set-up. One objective this year, of course, is to be top rookie. I’m stepping up with several of my Moto2 ‘classmates’, so of course my aim is still to be strongest of my ‘classmates’. That’s an objective that comes by itself and for sure I will give everything to achieve it. Perhaps MotoGP will change the balance between the rookies, but we have a great package, so we are ready to fight.”

EG 0,0 Marc VDS
Thomas Luthi

Thomas Luthi 12

“I’m excited, for sure, very excited! The time has flown by since the end of January when I sat on my Honda for the first time at Sepang. I gained some experience there and also at the tests at Chang and Losail, but I still need to get a lot more experience before I am 100 percent on a MotoGP bike. The season starts this Sunday, which is great, but I need to take the first races as more learning experience, gaining more knowledge about the bike better and always climbing the curve.”

EG 0,0 Marc VDS
Grand Prix of Qatar

Losail International Circuit, Qatar

MotoGP 2018, Round 1