MotoGP: Can anyone catch Marc Marquez in 2015?

    (CNN)Qatar's Losail circuit drapes its curves across the desert like an ebony necklace on golden silk. This weekend the track will be adorned with a glittering train of hi-tech bikes, as motorcycle racing's premier class, MotoGP, fires back into life.

    Searing temperatures in the Gulf state mean that when MotoGP's riders board their bikes for Sunday's race they will do so at night. Floodlights piercing the black desert sky will illuminate glossy new machines and freshly stitched leathers, while audiences worldwide will be hoping to see their screens lit up by some close racing.
      In spite of the dominance of Repsol Honda's miracle man Marc Marquez last year, there's a real sense that this new season could be one of the closest in years.
      Marquez's success is something of a double-edged sword for MotoGP. On the one hand, the effervescent record-breaker has been a breath of fresh air for the sport. Hugely talented, spectacular to watch, unfailingly upbeat, patient and polite, he has brought new fans and fresh attention to the series.
      On the other hand, racing needs competition, and last year the young Catalan simply blew his opponents away.


      It is not just Marquez though. The factory Honda and Yamaha teams have been so much stronger than the rest of the paddock in recent years that their hegemony has never been threatened.
      It's a situation that the sport's administrators have worked hard to address, and this year those efforts look like they may pay off. At the final test of preseason in Qatar Ducati fired a warning shot that whistled past their opponents' noses, causing them to sit up and take notice.
      Honda's Team Principal, the urbane Italian Livio Suppo -- a former Ducati team boss himself, was impressed.
      "We must congratulate everyone at Ducati, for sure, because they have done a great job," he told CNN.
      "It's not easy to put a new bike on track and for it to be better than the last one straight away. But I know many people at Ducati who are very good engineers and with a lot of passion, so I'm not surprised."
      Italy's Andrea Dovizioso, the Ducati rider who topped the Qatar test, is excited but philosophical about his chances.
      "I believe now we have the base to fight for the podium," he told reporters in Qatar on Wednesday, "Still it's quite early for us because we made just five days on the track. We still have to understand the bike, to be more consistent, but anyway the speed in the test was really good in every condition."

      Level playing field

      MotoGP's administrators introduced the Open Class last year, which affords certain benefits to teams that have been struggling for race wins. More fuel, more engines, and greater tire choices are available to Open bikes, in a bid to level the playing field with the giants of Honda and Yamaha.
      Ducati, in spite of having the vast resources of the Audi Group behind them, received these benefits last year, and continue to do so this term. If they start winning races, the benefits will gradually be withdrawn, but for now they look well set to challenge Honda and Yamaha.
      Ducati Team Principal Gigi Dall'Igna, who has masterminded the team's turnaround, acknowledges the benefits of the Open Class and believes it is good for MotoGP.
      "Like other new manufacturers, we clearly have advantages, but we will lose them once we have demonstrated with our results that we have reached a certain level of competitiveness" he told CNN.
      "I have to admit that we have arrived at this point thanks to this type of regulation, otherwise we would have only got here in three years' time, and probably in the meantime the championship would have lost all spectacle.
      "In my opinion, the regulations are good for the championship overall, and we have helped to improve it," Dall'Igna added.

      Good news for fans

      Suppo agrees that a strong Ducati is good news for fans: "In the MotoGP championship we need as many manufacturers as possible. Don't forget that Suzuki is racing with the same rules, and the results are not the same. If Ducati start winning they will lose some advantages, so I think it's fair enough. It's good for the championship, for the sport, it's good to have more competition."
      Marquez was also taken aback by the Ducati's test performance: "They did a big step this winter time and it looks really good for the championship. I cannot say what will happen, but they did a good test in Qatar two weeks ago and they will be fighting for the first positions here."
      For his own part, the champion looks in typically excellent form. "I am ready to go," he told CNN this week. "I looking forward to riding again, winter time is too long for us."
      Former world champion Jorge Lorenzo is still expected to be Marquez's closest rival this year, and the man from Majorca has prepared meticulously for the season opener. "Whether you win it or not in the end depends on many factors," he told
      "But at least we have to go into the season with the intention of fighting for the title, as we have done all throughout my career in MotoGP. I think that, if the bike works well and I stay in good shape physically, I can do it."

      Clean slate for Lorenzo

      Lorenzo's 2014 season got off to a calamitous start, which helped set Marquez firmly on the road to the title. Livio Suppo doesn't expect a repeat: "Every season starts from zero, and every season is a different story."
      "Historically, it's not easy to repeat. It's true last year Marc really dominated but we know that this had a lot to do with the very bad start of the season for Lorenzo. Jorge, this season, seems to be much more focused and in good form, so I don't think he will be struggling at all."
      Lorenzo reflects on a tough 2014 with apparent calm: "I've learned that if things aren't going well, you shouldn't be tempted to force things, because that will only bring more problems. You have to be patient and be motivated to keep working and training to overcome the bad times."

      Accidents and mistakes

      This being MotoGP however, Suppo says accidents and mistakes could also come into play. "Of course, racing is racing, and a stupid mistake like Jorge did last year in Austin when he jumped the start, or a crash in the first race, and then the season becomes much more difficult for you, and easier for the others."
      Lorenzo's Yamaha teammate Valentino Rossi has struggled in preseason testing, but maintains that he's happy with his bike's progress.
      "I am very happy to leave for the first race of the season after many days of testing," he said early this week. "I am very satisfied about the tests. The bike has improved a lot, but we still have a lot of work to do."


      Across the Honda garage from Marquez, Dani Pedrosa has a new race engineer, with experienced Spanish technician Ramon Aurin replacing Mike Leitner. While Pedrosa's preseason form has been underwhelming, Suppo maintains the switch was a good move.
      "Probably Dani needed some change, and I'm very happy with the change we have done. Dani is very motivated and relaxed, so I'm happy with the situation. There was nothing wrong with the technical skill of his former engineer, but sometimes, as Valentino (Rossi) proved last year, a change in the motivation, in the atmosphere of the team is very important."
      One rider used to change is Britain's Cal Crutchlow, who has moved from Tech3 Yamaha to Ducati and on to LCR Honda in as many seasons. He has impressed in preseason, and could challenge the podium places.
      "I've adapted quite well to the bike," he told "It's been difficult, three bikes in three seasons. But I'm focused, the team is focused. I've been enjoying riding again."
      Fellow Briton Bradley Smith is also raring to go: "My off season was very productive and I did a lot of training to ensure that I'm as prepared as possible for this year," the Monster Tech3 Yamaha told The 24-year-old has a one-year deal with his team, and knows he must deliver if he's to stay in the series.
      "I'm under no illusions, this is the biggest year of my career with that one-year contract." With Suzuki and Aprilia joining the fray with factory backing, Smith knows that his task this year will be tough.
      MotoGP announced record TV distribution this week, with 87 networks in 207 territories now showing the 18-race series. Dorna, the sport's administrators, will be hoping that the promise of closer racing comes to fruition when the lights go green this Sunday.