Lights on and lights out as MotoGP season gets underway in Qatar

Doha (AFP) –


Following two weeks of testing at Qatar's Losail circuit, the new MotoGP season gets underway in the Gulf state this weekend with a host of riders looking to exploit the continued absence of six-time world champion Marc Marquez.

The 28-year-old Spanish star injured his right arm during the first race of 2020 and has subsequently undergone three operations.

As well as missing the inaugural race, which takes place under floodlights on Sunday, the Honda star will also be out of action for next week's second round at the same circuit.

In his absence, the focus will naturally be on reigning champion Spain's Joan Mir (Suzuki), Italy's Franco Morbidelli (Yamaha-SRT), who came second last season, and Spain's Alex Rins (Suzuki), third in the championship in 2020.

However, there will be even more focus on the riders who dominated testing which was also held at the Losail track.

The fastest rider of the five days of tests, Australia's Jack Miller on a Ducati could also be in contention for the title, saying he had "never felt so comfortable on the bike before starting the Championship as this year".

- Ducati v Yamaha -

Miller will have to face off against Yamaha which holds the record on the Losail track with eight wins to Ducati's five and performed admirably during the test period.

Spain's Maverick Vinales and France's Fabio Quartararo, who succeeds Italy's Valentino Rossi, came in second and third place for their times followed by Morbidelli in fourth.

There are changes across the grid with riders on new bikes riding for new teams promising to make this season of 19 scheduled races one to watch, Covid-19 permitting.

Just one team, Suzuki, has held on to its two riders from last season.

Seven-time MotoGP world champion Rossi, 42, opens a new chapter as a satellite rider for Yamaha SRT, the first time he will race with countryman Morbidelli by his side.

Spain's Pol Espargaro shifts from KTM to Honda, alongside Marquez's stand-in, German Stefan Bradl.

- New colours all round -

At Ducati, not two but three riders capable of emerging as serious contenders will make their debut in new colours: Miller and his Italian teammate Francesco Bagnaia, as well as France's Johann Zarco, leader in their former home Pramac.

Three rookies will join them on the grid to represent the Italian brand: Spain's Jorge Martin at Pramac and Moto2 champion, Italy's Enea Bastianini, at Avintia who will be joined by his countryman Luca Marini, the half-brother of Rossi.

Unusually, the three former Moto2 riders might have an advantage over their experienced MotoGP counterparts this weekend as only the intermediate categories raced in Qatar last year with the MotoGP round blocked by Covid-19 restrictions in Europe.

In Moto2, Britain's Sam Lowes (third in the 2020 championship) will be worth a look, as will Italy's Marco Bezzecchi (4th) and Australia's Remy Gardner (6th), with the three clocking the fastest times in pre-season tests.

In Moto3, fans will be expecting a thrilling clash between veterans John McPhee, Darryn Binder, Jaume Masia, Dennis Foggia and Gabriel Rodrigo and newcomers Pedro Acosta, Izan Guevara, Adrian Fernandez and Xavier Artigas.