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Lights go ON for opening 2008 MotoGP round

Lights go ON for opening 2008 MotoGP round

Its the MotoGP World Championships opening race of the season for the second consecutive year, and in 2008 the Commercialbank Grand Prix of Qatar will be another first for the series, as the Losail International Circuit plays host to the series first ever night race.

Its the MotoGP World Championships opening race of the season for the second consecutive year, and in 2008 the Commercialbank Grand Prix of Qatar will be another first for the series, as the Losail International Circuit plays host to the series first ever night race.

One of the most ambitious lighting projects in history, the task of providing a shadow-free and safe environment for the momentous race has been months in the making. The possibility of riding in the evening at Qatar had been pondered as long as two years ago, but was only confirmed last September in an official announcement in Misano.

Whilst the track itself, and its million dollar lighting system designed by experts Musco, will be the undeniable initial focus of public attention in the build-up to the race, there will be no small amount of interest in the state of affairs in the MotoGP and lower cylinder categories.

Ducati Marlboros Casey Stoner will be competing in his first race with the number one plate, opening the defence of his 2007 MotoGP World Championship crown. The Australian began 2008 with a typically dominant display at the Official Test in Jerez in February, taking the BMW M Award prize in the 40-minute shootout that marked the first competitive action of the year.

Unfortunately for Stoners rivals, the 22 year-old has been highly successful at both his previous visits to Qatar. Bedraggled by flu and arriving late for the 2006 practice sessions, the then-rookie took pole position for what was only his second MotoGP race. On the day of the Grand Prix he battled with future title rival Valentino Rossi, before eventually missing out on the podium spots. In 2007 he confirmed the potential shown the previous year, and once again duked it out with the Italian. The power of the Desmosedici and the cool head of the future World Champion saw him hold off the future hall of famer, en route to his first MotoGP victory.

Rossi is expected to be challenging Stoner once again this year, and will be competing in his first race with Bridgestone tyres on his Fiat Yamaha M1. The five-time World Champion was the winner of the 2006 race in Losail, and one of the riders to participate in the Safety Commissions initial analysis of the night race possibility ahead of that race. He joined Loris Capirossi and Kenny Roberts Jr. in a street bike assessment of the track and will undoubtedly be keen to ensure that all his recommendations have been met.

The Repsol Honda duo of Dani Pedrosa and Nicky Hayden will be attempting to establish their title credentials early on at Qatar, racing against time to complete development of the RC212V. Pedrosa saw his preseason hit hard by a testing crash in Sepang, and has been absent for the majority of practice opportunities to recover from a broken hand. 2006 World Champion Hayden has been putting the latest evolution of the machine through its paces in some marathon testing sessions, and has it all to prove in 2008.

The most movement after the final race of last year has come with the changing of garages, with just six of the eighteen-rider strong MotoGP grid staying with the same team for 2008. Big moves have come from the likes of John Hopkins, who switches to Kawasaki after a long association with Suzuki, Loris Capirossi who occupies the space left vacant by the Anglo-American, and Marco Melandri who in turn takes the veterans place in the Ducati Marlboro team.

Aside from the existing MotoGP competitors carrying on in the premier class with different teams (Randy de Puniet, Colin Edwards, Toni Elias, Sylvain Guintoli and Shinya Nakano) and those remaining with their 2007 teams (Stoner, Rossi, Chris Vermeulen and Anthony West) there is also an influx of new blood in the 800cc class. Heading up the interest is reigning 250cc World Champion Jorge Lorenzo, who has taken to the new cylinder class like a duck to water in preseason. The Spaniard rides for Fiat Yamaha as the only rookie factory rider, in a garage partitioned due to his running different tyres to team-mate Rossi. Lorenzo has quite the pedigree in Qatar, holding three wins at the Losail International Circuit from his time in 125cc and 250cc and the fastest night lap recorded so far at the track in last weeks Official Test.

Lorenzos former 250cc rivals Andrea Dovizioso and Alex de Angelis also move up to the premier class this year, riding satellite Honda machines for the JiR Team Scot and San Carlo Honda Gresini outfits respectively.

Another championship-winning rookie comes in the form of Tech 3 Yamahas James Toseland, a two time world champion in production bike racing. The Briton knows the circuit well on a four-stroke, and was one of the first riders to try out the floodlights at the end of last year, meaning he will not get a better chance to make an early mark on the MotoGP series.

With the departure of last years top three in the 250cc class, the quarter litre category title race has been blasted wide open in 2008. The form riders in preseason testing have come from the KTM camp, with Mika Kallio clocking fast times at a number of visits to Jerez and Valencia. The Finn was the winner of the final round of 2007, and his maiden appearance in 250cc at Qatar last year could have seen him on the rostrum were it not for some untimely mechanical problems.

Kallios team-mate Hiroshi Aoyama has also had his fair share of misfortune in Qatar. The Japanese rider had been expected to star at the race last year after recording KTMs then-best ever dry result of fifth in 2006, but crashed out on lap two and suffered a nasty finger injury. He will be one of the expected title contenders this year as the Austrian factorys machines look stronger than ever.

Heading the Aprilia charge is Aspar rider Alvaro Bautista, already a proven racewinner in the 250cc class. The Spaniard is joined in the garage this year by countryman Hector Faubel, one of a cluster of debutantes that also includes 125cc success stories Lukas Pesek and Mattia Pasini.

Also on top of the range Aprilia machinery in 2008 are Emmi Caffe Lattes Thomas Luthi so close to a podium finish in his maiden 250cc race at Losail last year-, Lotus Aprilias returning Alex Debon, and Hector Barbera, with all three expected to push for success in Qatar.

125cc World Champion Gabor Talmacsi continues in the lower cylinder category this year, and will open his title defence at the track where he took pole position and second place last season. Eying up his title are a string of competitors looking to make 2008 their own, including KTMs Tomoyoshi Koyama, WRB man Simone Corsi, Polaris World newcomer and fastest rider at the first 125cc Qatar night test Bradley Smith and Talmacsis own team-mate, Sergio Gadea.

The fabulous Losail International Circuit lies on the outskirts of Doha, the capital city of Qatar. Built in little over a year, the track cost $58 million USD and required round-the-clock dedication from almost 1,000 workers in order to get it ready for the inaugural event on the 2nd October 2004. The track itself is a flowing layout of 5.4 kilometres, surrounded by artificial grass designed to prevent sand from the neighbouring desert from blowing onto the circuit. The main straight is over a kilometre in length and there is a good mix of medium and high-speed corners, including a couple of quick left-handers which has proved particularly popular with the riders.

Further investment was required for the lighting project, which was completed under six months after the agreement to run races at night at Losail. This was key to making the track available year round, and features state-of-the-art technology to ensure shadows are at a minimum and visibility is perfect at high speed.

The Commercialbank Grand Prix of Qatar takes place on Sunday 9th March, at 11pm local time. The 125cc and 250cc races precede the MotoGP class, at 8pm and 9.15pm respectively. Practice sessions begin on the evening of Friday 7th March.

MotoGP, 2008, Commercialbank GRAND PRIX OF QATAR

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