MotoGP champion Casey Stoner will have a bigger challenge in more ways than one this season, even if he is the overwhelming favourite to win the opening floodlit race in Qatar this weekend. The Australian is chasing his third title in the top category but this time, thanks to the decision to increase engine capacity, on a more powerful 1,000cc machine than the 800cc Honda he triumphed with last year.
His Honda team won the last four races of 2011 and Stoner has set the pace in pre-season testing, lapping fastest on four of the five days in Malaysia and Spain. The 26-year-old, who won 10 races last season, has also triumphed in four of the last five Qatar Grands Prix with four pole positions. Despite that formidable record, Stoner still expects this year to be tougher.
"We head to Qatar feeling positive, but still have some work to do," he said in a team preview.
"This will be the first time with the new bike on this circuit so we will need to spend some time on the set-up to put ourselves in the best position.
"We've always enjoyed good results at the Losail circuit but this is a new season and there are more competitors contesting for victory this year."
The bigger engine could also make the racing more spectacular, with greater power surging through the rear wheel. This year sees the introduction of the Claiming Rule Teams (CRT) concept which allows new entrants to run under lower-cost regulations with a prototype chassis coupled with an affordable production engine. Riders on such machines include American veteran Colin Edwards with a Suter-BMW for Forward Racing while Britain's James Ellison returns on an Aprilia for the Paul Bird Motorsport former World Superbike team after a five-year absence.
Nine of the 21-strong MotoGP field will be on CRT bikes.
Six factory riders stay with their 2011 teams but newcomers include Moto2 champion Stefan Bradl of Germany, Italians Michele Pirro, Mattia Pasini and Danilo Petrucci along with Colombian Yonny Hernandez.
Italian Andrea Dovizioso has joined the Tech3 Yamaha team from Honda while Spaniard Alvaro Bautista switched to Honda Gresini after the death last October of Italian Marco Simoncelli.
Stoner's main rivals will be familiar faces, however, with Spanish team mate Dani Pedrosa injury-free at last while Yamaha's 2010 champion Jorge Lorenzo and American Ben Spies will also be strong contenders.
"I think this season we have a slightly more competitive bike so I am hoping for good things to happen," said Lorenzo, last year's overall runner-up who needed plastic surgery on a finger last October.
"Because of my hand injury it has been a long time since I was in a race so I am really excited for Sunday. I have been training a lot for this season. I'm feeling very good and very happy with the bike as well."
Pedrosa missed four races last year due to injury, including a broken collarbone, but the 26-year-old told Reuters last month he was feeling great.
"Stoner and Lorenzo are riding to a good level but so am I," declared the Spaniard. "Casey is very fast and so is Jorge, they are great opponents.
"I think the change in the bikes is positive... they are more powerful, harder on the tyres but it should be a better spectacle because there will be more overtaking."
Among all the optimism, Italian great Valentino Rossi has struck a discordant note with his Ducati still lagging the leaders after a 2011 that saw the 33-year-old fail to chalk up a single victory for the first time in his grand prix career.
"I am a realist and I know well that our times are still a long way off and that there are still some things to fix," the nine-times world champion across all categories said in a team statement.
"We won't be able to address some of them right away, but it's also true that both we at the track and the guys back home now have a direction to work in and we must try to do as well as we can."