Qatar the stage for MotoGP™ season opener

MotoGP
After months of anticipation MotoGP™ riders, teams, fans and spectators around the world will finally have their appetites for action satisfied, when the Commercialbank Grand Prix of Qatar gets the 2012 MotoGP™ World Championship off to a start on Thursday. The first practice sessions of the opening round of the new campaign will bring to an end a lengthy 152-day wait since the final race of the 2011 season in Valencia last November, after an intriguing pre-season which has added to the impatience for the racing to begin.

Two major developments in the premier class which have added to the excitement at the dawn of a new era in MotoGP™ are the introduction of a new 1000cc engine capacity limit, up from the previous 800cc cap, and the debut of the new Claiming Rule Teams, for whom nine of the 21 riders will compete.

Adding to the spectacle of the curtain raiser in Qatar will be the floodlit nature of the first race, and the standout rider in recent years at the Losail circuit has been Casey Stoner. The 2011 World Champion, who was fastest in the final Test at Jerez less than two weeks ago, has won the night-time GP for four of the past five seasons, including last year. His Repsol Honda team-mate Dani Pedrosa has also been in impressive form in pre-season, and between the pair they took the final four race victories of last season. A win for either, or any Honda rider for that matter, in Qatar would give the manufacturer its longest winning streak since 2003.

A large part of the buzz created in pre-season was due to the performance of the M1, and Yamaha Factory Racing duo Jorge Lorenzo and Ben Spies were both highly impressed with the progress of their prototype. 2010 Champion Lorenzo came second in last year's race in Qatar whilst Spies will be seeking his first podium at the track, as they look to turn a promising testing display into hard results.

The third factory set-up on the grid this season will be the Ducati Team, another which has worked tirelessly in the intervening five months to improve its package. Riders Valentino Rossi and Nicky Hayden will both be hopeful of vastly improved results in their respective 2012 campaigns, as they remain focused on the Italian manufacturer's project and challenging the other two factories.

With the six factory riders remaining with the teams they rode for last season, there have been changes elsewhere. Into the Monster Yamaha Tech 3 team comes Andrea Dovizioso, as the Italian begins a new chapter in his career, joining Brit Cal Crutchlow who embarks on his second season in the satellite structure. Crutchlow's pre-season showings in particular have laid the foundations for what promises to be a strong sophomore season.

Another switch comes in the shape of Álvaro Bautista, who has joined the San Carlo Honda Gresini team, and the Spaniard will be accompanied on the RC213V by premier-class debutant and 2011 Moto2 World Champion Stefan Bradl, who rides for LCR Honda in 2012. Remaining on Desmosedici machinery are Héctor Barberá (Pramac Racing) and Karel Abraham (Cardion AB Motoracing).

Much analysis has been made of the CRT project's development but the true measure will come in Qatar, where experienced heads and new faces will compete against one another. Randy de Puniet (Power Electronics Aspar) and Colin Edwards (NGM Mobile Forward Racing) have 15 seasons of MotoGP™ knowledge between them, and the Frenchman was the quickest CRT rider on his Aprilia machine at the Jerez Test in late March.

Aleix Espargaró joins De Puniet on the Power Electronics Aspar team as he returns to the premier class after a year in Moto2™, and another rider with previous MotoGP™ experience is British rider James Ellison, who rides for the Paul Bird Motorsport team after a five-year absence from the World Championship.

Three riders making their premier-class debuts as they graduate from Moto2™ will be Michele Pirro (San Carlo Honda Gresini), Mattia Pasini (Speed Master) and Yonny Hernández (Avintia Blusens), Pirro having won his last race in the intermediate category prior to making the step up.
Hernández's team-mate on the Avintia Blusens team will be Iván Silva, who has previous MotoGP™ experience, and Danilo Petrucci (Came Iodaracing Project) will make his World Championship debut in Qatar.

Moto2
The fiercely competitive Moto2™ class kicks off its third year as the intermediate category of the World Championship, with a 33-rider field set to make 2012 another hugely entertaining and closely-fought contest. No less than 17 of those competing in the Championship this year are Grand Prix winners, and with 2011 title winner Stefan Bradl having stepped up to the premier class a new Champion will be crowned in 2012.

Any number of riders can lay claim to being well equipped for the demands of a season-long challenge for the Moto2™ title, with many having vast World Championship experience, and all will be confident of challenging for victory as they bid to get their respective 2012 seasons off to the best possible start.

Race winners in the category include Thomas Lüthi (Interwetten Paddock), Alex de Angelis (NGM Mobile Forward Racing), Andrea Iannone (Speed Master), Yuki Takahashi (NGM Mobile Forward Racing), Roberto Rolfo (Technomag-CIP) and Marc Márquez (CatalunyaCaixa Repsol), all of whom will be rejoined by 2010 Moto2™ World Champion Toni Elías, who returns to the class riding for the Mapfre Aspar team. Márquez's recovery from his crash at Sepang last October, which ruled him out for the final two rounds of the season and much of the pre-season, has been impressive and he was amongst the fastest at the final Test at Jerez two weeks prior to the GP.

Added to that list of proven race winners are a number of Moto2™ podium finishers who will be hungry for a first win in the class. Simone Corsi (Came Iodaracing Project), Mika Kallio and Marc VDS Racing team-mate Scott Redding, Bradley Smith (Tech 3 Racing), Pol Espargaró (Pons 40 HP Tuenti), Julián Simón (Blusens Avintia) and Dominique Aegerter (Technomag-CIP) have all stepped onto the rostrum on one or more occasion over the past two seasons, and will all be pushing to take the next step. Claudio Corti's (Italtrans) pre-season form has also hinted that the Italian could be ready to feature regularly towards the front.

A selection of new riders fresh into the category will also be added to the mix, as last-ever 125cc World Champion Nico Terol (Mapfre Aspar) again locks horns with Johann Zarco (JiR Moto2). Making his World Championship debut will be Gino Rea, as the British rider competes for the Federal Oil Gresini Moto2 team in 2012, and Japanese rider Takaaki Nakagami (Italtrans) returns to the World Championship.

History will also be made as Elena Rosell becomes the first female rider to compete in Moto2™, riding for the QMMF team, on which she will be joined by Australian rider Anthony West. The set-up will also field a wildcard rider for this round, Nasser Al Malki.

Moto3
A new era begins at the 2012 Commercialbank Grand Prix of Qatar with the debut of Moto3™, the 250cc four-stroke bikes brought in to replace the former 125cc machines which had been a part of the World Championship since its beginnings in 1949. The pre-season has hinted at an exciting new generation of machinery and an intense level of competition, with 32 riders competing for the honour of being crowned the first-ever Moto3™ World Champion.

A core of riders will be labelled as favourites following their exploits in both the 125s and pre-season, with the likes of Maverick Viñales (Blusens Avintia), Sandro Cortese (Red Bull KTM Ajo) and Héctor Faubel (Bankia Aspar) being three such names. All Grand Prix winners, the trio will be accompanied by a number of promising talents in trying to start the season with a strong result in Qatar.

Danny Kent (Red Bull KTM Ajo) has been impressive in pre-season, whilst Alberto Moncayo (Bankia Aspar), Luis Salom (RW Racing GP), and Jonas Folger (Iodaracing Project) all have solid experience.

Portuguese rider Miguel Oliveira (Estrella Galicia 0'0) makes a return to the World Championship after debuting last year, and Efrén Vázquez (JHK T-Shirt Laglisse), Danny Webb (Mahindra Racing), Zulfahmi Khairuddin (AirAsia-SIC-Ajo) and Jasper Iwema (Moto FGR) all know their way around the World Championship circuits well.

Joining the World Championship for their first seasons will be 11 new riders, as the talent continues to filter through to the big stage. 2011 Red Bull MotoGP Rookies Cup runner-up Arthur Sissis rides for the Red Bull KTM Ajo team in 2012, and his fellow former Rookies Cup riders Frenchman Alan Techer (Technomag-CIP-TSR) and South African Brad Binder (RW Racing GP) also make the step up to Moto3™ as they attempt to get off to good starts at Losail.
Other new faces will include Italian prospects Niccolò Antonelli (San Carlo Gresini Moto3) and Romano Fenati (Team Italia FMI), the latter of whom took the Jerez Test by storm, and Japanese rider Kenta Fujii (Technomag-CIP-TSR).

Prior to the action kicking off on track, MotoGP™ riders Cal Crutchlow and Héctor Barberá will participate in the official GP pre-event on Thursday afternoon, when they test out some jet-skis with the spectacular Doha skyline as the backdrop. Moto2™ wildcard Nasser Al Malki and Moto3™ rider Maverick Viñales will also take part.

The Commercialbank Grand Prix of Qatar adopts a different format to the remainder of the rounds this season, stretching across four days from April 5-8. The first practice session starts at 6pm local time on Thursday when the Moto3™ bikes head out onto track, with the MotoGP™ first practice commencing at 7.55pm local time. The MotoGP™ race is scheduled to begin at 10pm local time on Sunday.