Five things to know before MotoGP starts Sunday

Adovizioso

In a matter of hours, the lights will be on at Losail International Circuit in Qatar and MotoGP bikes will be rolling onto the track for the first practice sessions of the season.

At last, after too long an absence, the sweet sound of racebikes at speed.

There are several reasons to hope for a competitive season of MotoGP racing in 2015. At the last preseason test, 14 riders lapped within a second of the best time and new names and marques are crowding toward the front. To help you get ready, here are five things you need to know and watch for as a new season pulls onto the track.

Andrea Iannone

Ducati's back... but all the way back?

For the first time in years, guys wearing "Ducati" on their leathers aren't moping around the pits like a kid whose favorite pet just died.

To date, only one man in the world has been able to win regularly on a Ducati MotoGP bike: Casey Stoner, with his supernatural skills. And even he fled the Italian brand not long after.

But, because of Stoner's championship in 2007, Ducati could stubbornly stick to its course and blame the riders when one after another talented racer couldn't win. The "blame the rider" strategy hit a brick wall when Valentino Rossi went from a man with an outside shot of breaking the all-time Grand Prix win record to a glum, mid-pack runner as soon as he threw a leg over a Ducati GP11. If Valentino Rossi can't ride your bike, you can no longer blame the rider.

So Ducati hired Gigi Dall'Igna away from Aprilia and set him loose to clean house and change course at Ducati Corse. Based on preseason testing, it appears Dall'Igna may be the savior Ducati was looking for.

The last official test was a week and a half ago at Losail, where the season begins Sunday with a night race under the lights. It's dangerous to read too much into the results of testing at Losail. It's not a typical track and it's the only night race. Plus, the third day of the three-day test, the one where teams were going to try race-length simulations, got rained out. But if the preseason speed the Ducatis showed holds up, there could be a race winner not riding a Honda or a Yamaha for the first time since 2010.

The two who stand to gain are the Andreas, Dovizioso and Iannone, the two factory Ducati riders. The loser may be Cal Crutchlow, the last in a long line of racers who confidently went to Ducati, thinking they could learn to ride the machine, and later giving up in defeat. Crutchlow may have left Ducati moments before it became competitve.

Suzuki GSXRR

Fast new marques on the grid

This year will mark a reversal in the downward trend of the number of brands competing at the MotoGP level. Along with Honda and Yamaha, the dominant two marques in recent years, and a resurgent Ducati, the field will include entries from Suzuki and Aprilia.

In early testing last year, the Suzuki GSXRR showed impressive speed, alongside a less impressive tendency to blow up. In testing since the beginning of the year, Suzuki seems to have solved the problem, and the two young riders, Aleix Espárgaro and Maverick Viñales, were within a second of the front-runners at the last Qatar test.

Meanwhile, Aprilia was consistently at the back of the field in testing, and nobody is more unhappy about it than veteran Marco Melandri. You know how sports so often gives us those "feel-good stories" we enjoy so much? Melandri's is shaping up as the "feel-bad story" of 2015. He was happily contending for a world championship in World Superbike until Aprilia decided to shift its focus to MotoGP. Melandri has gone from a constant threat for race wins in World Superbike to being the last name on the MotoGP test time sheets on a regular basis as he tries to wrap his head around the feel of different tires and a very different motorcycle.

Fast new names on the grid

Maverick VinalesGiven the explosion onto the MotoGP scene by Marc Márquez, the eternal pressure to find the next great rider is hotter than ever. As a result, there are some interesting rookies in MotoGP in 2015.

Probably the most interesting true rookie in the field is Viñales, plucked from Moto2 by Suzuki to ride for its new factory team. Viñales lapped within half a second of his more experienced teammate at both the Sepang and Qatar preseason tests.

Jack MillerHonda took the unusual step of elevating 20-year-old Australian rider Jack Miller straight from his second-place finish in Moto3, just behind little brother Alex Márquez, to MotoGP. Miller is riding for the CWM LCR Honda team on a Open class bike (see the rules section below), a step up from about 55 horsepower last year to about 250 horsepower in 2015. Miller is riding the Honda RC213V-RS "customer" bike, so he has less competitive equipment than Viñales. Plus, he doesn't have the Moto2 experience Viñales has to draw upon. Given that the two are the same age and are good friends, their rookie results will inevitably be compared, fair or not.

Marc Marquez

Veteran contenders

Márquez is 22 and feeling bulletproof. It's hard to bet against him winning his third straight championship. But unlike last year, Jorge Lorenzo is starting the 2015 season at full strength. Back home at Yamaha, Rossi is a happy, confident rider again. Dani Pedrosa certainly has to be more determined than ever to avoid the fate of being called the best rider never to win a world title.

Nicky Hayden is now the lone U.S. rider in MotoGP. Off-season surgery eliminated the pain and swelling in his throttle wrist, but he is still on a Honda RC213V-RS that is not competitive with the top factory bikes. He will turn 34 this year, his 13th in MotoGP, and it sounds like the clock is ticking loudly.

Yes, the rules still induce headaches

We might dream of rules that are limited to a maximum displacement of 1,000 cc and two wheels — run what ya brung. But World Championship-level motorcycle racing in 2015 is nowhere near that simple.

Things will consolidate in 2016, but for now, here's the short version of the current state of affairs. There are essentially two classes within MotoGP: Factory and Open. While all bikes use the official ECU hardware from Magneti Marelli, Factory bikes can use their own software, which gives them flexibility to manage traction control, engine braking, wheelie control, launch control, etc. In exchange for this advantage, they are limited to 20 liters of fuel and can use only five engines during the season. The Open teams use the official Magneti Marelli software, not their own proprietary programming magic, but they get 24 liters of fuel for the race and can use up to 12 engines per season. Plus, they can use a softer tire not available to the Factory teams, which provides an advantage in qualifying.

Honda RC213VWhat makes this complicated is that Ducati, Suzuki and Aprilia are Factory teams running under hybrid rules. They can use their own software, but they get the fuel and tire advantages of the Open teams. Those advantages start to go away after three podium finishes, two seconds or a win in a dry race.

Four riders on two brands of motorcycles have won everything the last two years. Never bet the farm on the basis of pre-season testing, but what we've seen so far suggests 2015 could be less predictable. That's just speculation, however. Truth starts when the red lights go out Sunday.

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