Qatar MotoGP: New rules, old feuds

    Valentino Rossi rounds a bend during the MotoGP of Qatar free practice session at the Losail Circuit.

    Story highlights

    • MotoGP season starts Sunday
    • The traditional night-time curtain raiser will be set in Qatar
    • This season sees fundamental changes on the grid
    • Marquez v Rossi set to reignite

    (CNN)MotoGP roars back into life this weekend, against the black and gold of Qatar's desert circuit, Losail. The traditional night-time curtain raiser is always a race to savor, but this year there are some particularly juicy morsels to chew over.

    Marquez vs. Rossi

      The clash between Marc Marquez and Valentino Rossi was the motorcycle racing equivalent of a band smashing its guitars and stage-diving into the crowd as the lead singer and guitarist traded blows.
      The acrimony that followed the now infamous Sepang clash has barely cleared, but both riders are now at pains to play it down.
      "I think nothing particularly special will happen," Rossi told reporters in Qatar this week. "On track I think everything will be the same. Everybody will try to give the maximum to try to be in front without something more 'special'."
      Marquez, who told CNN in November he was ready to extend his hand to the Italian, is also playing down the feud.
      "In the end I have 20 opponents and I must fight against each one for try to win the championship and that is my target," he said this week.
      Valentino Rossi plays to the cameras at the Indianapolis Grand Prix
      Motorcycle racing journalist and commentator Steve English is less convinced, but like most believes the spat adds to this season's appeal.
      "There's little chance that we'll see an improvement in their relationship," English told CNN.
      "And given the fireworks we've seen from them over the last 12 months would anyone want to see that? Every time they are on track together will be like a midsummer blockbuster so get your popcorn ready for Rossi/Marquez the sequel!"
      Hervé Poncharal, Yamaha Tech3's affable team principle, laughs off the controversy.
      "The orange fan will always think the orange rider was right, the blue and yellow fan will do the same with their own rider," he told CNN, referring to the respective colors of Marquez and Rossi.
      Frenchman Herve Poncharal of Monster Yamaha Tech 3 smiles during a press conference
      "But it didn't distract anybody, I think Vale, Marc, Jorge (Lorenzo) and the whole field, we concentrated on understanding our new machine, our new tires, and being ready for the first round."
      English believes this season may ultimately define how the feud is remembered.
      "Winners write history so it's likely that it will be this season that settles their dispute. If Rossi can defeat Marquez it will be a clear sign of his superiority; whereas if Marquez can unseat Rossi as the sport's leading light the incident in Sepang will be seen as the passing of the torch."

      New tires, new electronics

      This season sees two fundamental changes on the grid.
      The first is the long-heralded introduction of a common Electronic Control Unit (ECU), meaning all teams will be using the same software. The hope is that this will not only reduce the gap between the factory teams and the rest of the paddock, but also -- crucially -- lower the cost of entry for new teams.
      This radical change would be enough on its own, but last year also saw the end of Bridgestone's deal to supply tires for MotoGP, with Michelin stepping in from 2016.
      Poncharal admits it has been a tricky transition.
      "[After the first test] we heard from our factory guys, Jorge and Vale, that there was a big gap and a few steps behind what we were using in 2015," he admitted.
      Marquez rounds a corner during practice at Qatar
      "But as soon as we started the testing in Sepang in February ... it was a very big step forward, and we heard that the two factory guys and their engineers were really happy with the progress Yamaha made in understanding and using the new ECU, and clearly the tires improved a lot."
      English believes the changes have added an air of mystery to the season opener.
      "(They) have leveled the playing field but also meant that the form guide has been thrown out the window," he told CNN.
      "Winter testing times should always be taken with a pinch of salt -- actually an entire silo of salt -- but this fact is even more relevant than is normally is the case."
      Poncharal believes the changes are good news for fans.
      "At the end of the day I think we will have incredible racing, and it will be thanks to the unified ECU and the new tire manufacturers."

      A dominant Jorge Lorenzo

      If the end of last season was all about Rossi and Marquez, the fact that neither was world champion tells you a lot about the man who was. Jorge Lorenzo may lack his rivals' box-office appeal, but he was a deserved winner in 2015. In fact, he probably should have won more comfortably.
      "Last year Lorenzo's consistency was questionable and it opened the door for Rossi to almost take the title," says English. "This year though it's difficult to see Lorenzo leaving the door ajar one more time."
      The rest of the field may still struggle to reach the front runners.
      Thumbs up! Jorge Lorenzo is all smiles at Indianapolis
      "On paper our technical package will be closer than the previous years, this is for sure," says Tech3's Poncharal.
      "But what makes our sport very special and very exciting is that it doesn't matter how strong your technical package is, the rider makes a difference, and still for me, right now, with respect to every rider on the MotoGP grid, there are three guys -- Marc Marquez, Jorge Lorenzo, Valentino Rossi -- that are a little bit more than the others in terms of riding on the qualifying lap and especially on full race distance."
      The key will be how Lorenzo, who likes to lead from the front and fares less well in wheel-to-wheel skirmishes, copes with any mishaps.
      "Anything can happen on race day and it will be how Lorenzo deals with the adversities that will crop up throughout the year that will dictate his title defense," English told CNN.
      "Can anyone stop Lorenzo? Of course they can but right now he's holding the high cards."

      Honda's travails

      Last season was one to forget for MotoGP's biggest factory team.
      Flushed with the success of Marquez's back to back championships they were widely tipped for a third title. Instead Honda delivered an untameable beast of a bike, with front end issues that ended race after race for rider after rider. Winter has offered few scraps of comfort for a team looking to bounce back.
      "Last year the bike was a disaster because the engine characteristics were so harsh, and while that has improved for this year they are still lagging behind," English says.
      "Honda will still win races because Marquez and Dani Pedrosa are unbelievably talented, but to maintain a title charge over 18 races against the Yamaha riders seems to be out of reach for them."
      Marquez remains characteristically optimistic that things will come together.
      "When we came (to Qatar) two weeks ago we did a big step forward with the setup at the very end of the test, and I really felt at ease with the bike, especially in my last run that was quite late in the evening, with the dew already starting to form," said Marquze.
      "That's positive in view of the race, even if we're not yet where we'd like to be and still have a margin for improvement with the setup."

      Surprise packages

      While the top three are riding a wave of their own, there is plenty of talent bubbling just below.
      Suzuki's Maverick Vinales and Pramac Ducati's Scott Redding, in particular, have made a big impression in winter.
      "The consistency of Jorge Lorenzo, the improvements of Scott Redding since jumping on the Ducati and the speed of Maverick Vinales have been the clear talking points," says English.
      "Vinales in particular has impressed greatly as he looks to make the step from rookie to genuine top tier Grand Prix rider."
      Maverick Vinales of Suzuki
      Poncharal concurs.
      "Maverick Vinales and the Suzuki have been -- not the surprise, because everybody could see last year there was incredible potential in Maverick and his package -- but nobody was expecting to see him so fast not only on one lap but on his (overall) pace, and on three different circuits," Poncharal told CNN.
      "Redding has been incredibly fast on the Phillip Island and Qatar tests, and (Pramac Ducati teammate) Danilo Petrucci also impressed me a lot in the first two weeks."
      Whatever happens under Losail's floodlights Sunday, this season should be one to remember.
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