MotoGP World Championship Grand Prix 2018
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 tires up to full temperature, so the revised Qatar Grand Prix time schedule may help him. Following last year’s freak rainstorms, the Losail program 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.
The Moto2 World Championship will use Honda CBR600 engines for the final time this year. Honda has powered Moto2 since its creation in 2010. By the end of this season, Honda’s Moto2 engines will have covered more than three million kilometers since the first race at Losail in April 2010. During this time the series has allowed teams to compete at a reduced cost and helped forge a new generation of MotoGP riders. Sixteen of this year’s 24 MotoGP riders have ridden in Moto2, with the championship’s strict technical regulations helping them showcase their talent.
Morbidelli, Luthi and Nakagami won 11 of last year’s 18 Moto2 rounds, so there’s no doubt that the class will anoint another new generation of winners during 2018. Arguably, there are three main championship favorites: Miguel Oliveira (Red Bull KTM Ajo KTM), Alex Marquez (Estrella Galicia 0,0 Marc VDS Kalex) and Francesco Bagnaia (Sky Racing Team VR46 Kalex).
Twenty-three-year-old Portuguese star Oliveira won the last three races of 2018, so if he can continue that form into the new season he could be the man to beat. The younger Marquez brother won his first three Moto2 races last year and was in the title hunt until he suffered a midseason injury. Bagnaia was Moto2’s top rookie of 2018 and will almost certainly be a stronger presence this season. His talent has already won him a MotoGP ride in 2019, with an independent Ducati team.
There will also be a lot of interest in rookie Joan Mir (Estrella Galicia 0,0 Marc VDS Kalex), who graduates to Moto2 after dominating last year’s Moto3 World Championship, with ten victories from 18 races. Also likely to figure strongly will be Hector Barbera (Pons HP40 Kalex) and Sam Lowes (Swiss Innovative Investors KTM) who both drop back into the intermediate class from MotoGP. Other contenders include Brad Binder (Red Bull KTM Ajo KTM), rookie Romano Fenati (Marinelli Snipers Team Kalex) and veteran Mattia Pasini (Italtrans Racing Team Kalex), winner of last year’s Mugello race.
The season-opening Moto2 race at Losail will also make history – the 20-lap event gets under way at 5.20pm, 20 minutes before sunset, so this race will be the first Grand Prix to take place beneath a setting sun.
The Qatar Moto3 race will run in daylight, with the first Grand Prix of 2018 commencing at 4pm. Riders of Honda’s superb NSF250RW dominated last year’s Moto3 series, winning all but one of 18 races and monopolizing the top seven positions in the 2018 World Championship. Just like Moto2, last year’s top Moto3 riders have moved up a class, with champion Mir and runner-up Fenati contesting Moto2.
Their departure leaves plenty of fast teenagers on Hondas, with 18-year-old Spaniard Aron Canet (Estrella Galicia 0,0 Honda NSF250RW), 19-year-old Italian Fabio Di Giannantonio (Del Conca Gresini Moto3 Honda NSF250RW) and 19-year-old Spaniard Jorge Martin (Del Conca Gresini Moto3 Honda NSF250RW) sure to be at the front once again.
A total of 13 riders will use NSF250RW machines this year. Japanese fans will note with interest the progress of Tatsuki Suzuki (Sic58 Squadra Corse Honda NSF250RW), who finished 14th overall last year, and Ayumu Sasaki (Petronas Sprinta Racing Honda NSF250RW) who contests his second Grand Prix season this year.
Qatar joined the MotoGP World Championship in 2004, making history as the first Middle Eastern race on the calendar. In 2008 the event once again made history, becoming the first MotoGP race to run under floodlights, thanks to the circuit’s 5.4-million watt lighting system. The track, situated a short drive to the north of the capital Doha, is dominated by fast, flowing corners and a long main straight. The secret to good a lap time at Losail is high corner speed and a smooth riding technique.
Following Sunday’s racing the paddock packs up and heads to South America for round two, at Termas de Rio Hondo in Argentina, on 8th April.
Honda MotoGP rider quotes
Marc Marquez, Repsol Honda Team:
“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 tires, 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.”
Dani Pedrosa, Repsol Honda Team:
“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!”
Cal Crutchlow, LCR Honda CASTROL:
“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.”
Takaaki Nakagami, LCR Honda IDEMITSU:
“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.”
Franco Morbidelli, Estrella Galicia 0,0 Marc VDS:
“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.”
Thomas Luthi, Estrella Galicia 0,0 Marc VDS:
“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.”
Honda Moto2 rider quotes
Francesco Bagnaia, Sky Racing Team VR46:
“The first race of the year, on a complicated but beautiful track! There are so many reasons to try to give our best. Last year, when I made my debut in Moto2, I struggled a bit, but this year we arrive in Qatar after a really good preseason. It will be a tough race, but riding fast on a track like this gives me great satisfaction!”
Alex Marquez, Estrella Galicia 0,0 Marc VDS:
“We have worked so hard this preseason to improve our performance and our rhythm and I think we did quite well, so I can’t wait to get to the first race. It will be an interesting weekend because Qatar is a completely different track to those where we’ve tested and it will be important to learn how the harder rear tire works with the bike in Qatar. I really like the track, it’s great fun to ride because it’s fast and it really flows. We go there with 100 percent motivation for the new season. We will try to finish the race on the podium and hopefully continue with a regular rhythm at all the races. I will give my 100 percent, along with my team.”
Miguel Oliveira, Red Bull KTM Ajo:
“Last year we came into the season waiting to see what we would find. I didn’t know what position in the World Championship I would end up in. During the Qatar weekend we set a goal, which we met in each practice session, and in the end we finished in the top five, which was a pretty good start. This year the objective is similar, but we are already confident that practice will go well, that we can do a good job and that in the race I will be in a position that allows me to fight for the podium. I feel prepared. When you finish a preseason, you always have that extra motivation knowing that the really important things, the races, are starting. That’s where the points are awarded!”
Honda Moto3 rider quotes
Aron Canet, Estrella Galicia 0,0:
“I am very motivated for this Grand Prix after a grueling preseason, in which I trained a lot. Now I want to demonstrate the results of that work. Riding in daylight means we may have less grip than normal, but we have worked during preseason so that this affects us as little as possible. On the other hand, the ambient temperature will be higher, but I feel strong enough to perform at my best in these conditions.”
Fabio Di Giannantonio, Del Conca Gresini Moto3:
“We are really charged up! This time we’ve had a preseason without setbacks because we worked with a new approach and great motivation. The new bike is not only beautiful, but also – and especially – ready. We did a lot of laps during testing, except in the final test because of the rain, and we improved in every outing. Both engine and chassis feel great and I feel better after every kilometer… so we’re ready to put up a fight.”
Jorge Martin, Del Conca Gresini Moto3:
“We head to Qatar with the aim to do great things. We worked really well during the winter and found a nice base set-up. I still don’t feel 100 percent comfortable on the bike, but I’m sure the two days of practice at Losail will help me find the perfect feeling with my Honda. We can be among the protagonists this weekend, and if we can solve some minor issues during braking I think we will be able to get in the mix of the win.”