The 2011 season saw Jorge Lorenzo defending the number 1 plate. This year Casey Stoner defends the MotoGP title aboard the new 1000cc machinery and a 21-rider grid bolstered by the new Claiming Rule Teams (CRT).
Unique as the only night race on the 18-round schedule, Qatar has traditionally been Casey Stoner’s stomping ground. The Repsol Honda ace enters 2012 the title favorite. The Aussie won’t go unchallenged, of course, with Yamaha’s Jorge Lorenzo looking strong in preseason testing, and Stoner’s own teammate, Dani Pedrosa, a prime contender as well.
There will also be several other plotlines playing out besides the expected Honda/Yamaha title fight. Prime among these sub-plots is the Ducati development, with MotoGP GOAT, Valentino Rossi, struggling mightily on the Ducati in 2011. There will be intrigue in the factory camps as well, with the satellite squads figuring to be on a more even development playing field in the first 1000cc campaign. This will play out primarily in the Yamaha camp, where the Tech 3 riders should be pressing Ben Spies for a breakout season.
Then there are the CRT squads. Compared to the factory-built prototypes, CRT entries get double the engine allocation for the season (12 to six) and an extra three liters of fuel (24 to 21). Team Aspar’s Randy de Puniet has already showed up some of the satellite factory bikes during preseason tests. De Puniet has done his damage aboard the Aprilia-based CRT, the most prominent manufacturer amongst the claiming rule entries. The ART utilizes an RSV4 engine and Aprilia chassis – raising some eyebrows as a turn-key racebike and a developing story to watch in 2012.
Another significant change this season are new specifications for the Bridgestone tires. The Stones broke more than one rider in recent years with slow warm-up resulting in a glut of early lap/warm-up crashes. Recently retired Loris Capirossi made some waves in the off-season in his new role as MotoGP Safety Advisor, speaking of changes to the Bridgestone spec and his role as liaison between the riders and Japanese tire manufacturer.
The new tires have already factored into pre-season testing, with rider-friendly warm-up countered by reports of decreased grip after the opening laps. For some riders, like Superbike-reared Americans Ben Spies and Nicky Hayden, larger engines and squirming tires could prove advantageous – at least that’s the idea… Gossip also affixes blame to the new Stones for some handling chirps on Honda, that and the increased minimum weight from 153 to 157 kg (346 pounds) – another off-season storyline. The manufacturer that figures out a tire-friendly formula with its heavier, more powerful mount, will gain a significant advantage in the rider/manufacturer titles.
It will be an interesting season to be sure, with a full 21 rider grid. There’s a pleasing symmetry with each of the three remaining manufacturers supporting a two-rider factory team, with two satellites, for a total of 12 factory bikes. The remaining nine positions are filled by the CRT ilk. Here’s what to expect broken down by manufacturer.