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.