You can guarantee three things when the Qatar Grand Prix comes around:
1) The official start of the MotoGP season, often followed by a short break in the calendar.
2) Liberal use of the headlines 'Arabian Nights' (a pun I felt pretty clever about coining back at the 2006 streetbike test) and 'Night Riders' (the more PC replacement from the press release factory) .
3) Casey Stoner will at some point be at the head of the MotoGP race.
There are few riders who have such affinity with a track as Stoner does at Losail, with his four wins in the last five seasons. There is Valentino Rossi's seven-year residency on the top step of the Mugello podium, Loris Capirossi's mix of talent and fortune for three consecutive years at Motegi and Jorge Lorenzo's MotoGP three-peat in Portugal are other examples of man-machine-track harmony in the modern era. That trio… and Stoner at Phillip Island, of course, where he has five wins in a row.
What makes Stoner's Qatar wins so daunting for his rivals, though, is the manner in which he achieves them. It's the opening race of the year and the Australian has built up the weekend with the fastest times in the first two free practices for the past four years. What a way to show your intentions after the winter break. For the past three years, he has carried that over to take pole position.
With the exception of the freak crash in 2010, Stoner has been faultless on race day in Qatar since his Ducati-powered maiden MotoGP win in 2007. He led fifteen of the twenty-two laps last year, the entirety of the race in 2009, sixteen laps in 2008 and, as close as the challenge from Rossi was in 2007, the Italian never crossed the line ahead of him on that occasion. Seventy-eight of the last one-hundred-and-ten laps of the Losail International Circuit have featured the 2011 World Champion at the head of the field.
The best chance for the rest of the grid, then? It's probably going to come down to whether Dani Pedrosa or Jorge Lorenzo can not only stick with Stoner for the opening laps, but also play the tyre and fuel game to perfection. Each of the duo put in five laps at a faster pace than Stoner's in the 2011 race — most of Pedrosa's towards the midway point and Lorenzo's on the final laps. Neither has been able to consistently go round more quickly than him in Qatar, but they do have the speed to get ahead and get him involved in a battle. Pedrosa will be best equipped to pass down the straight onboard the same Honda RC213V model as Stoner, whilst Lorenzo is no doubt going to have to make a riskier move on the brakes.
Qatar at night is a unique challenge for Bridgestone due to the low track temperatures once the sun goes down in the desert. There are always grip issues for the MotoGP riders. There could be backmarkers to contend with. Stoner may very well run away with the win in Qatar, but all signs point to an intriguing start to the new 1000cc era.