The MotoGP World Championship season got underway in sensational style at Qatar at the weekend with one of the closest races ever witnessed in the series. No less than eight riders disputed the race win for the majority of the race with just 0.6s covering the top five at the chequered flag – and 15s the top 15 – but whilst there were many talking points, the podium was a familiar sight with Andrea Dovizioso getting the better of Marc Marquez in a dash to the line with Cal Crutchlow performing heroics to claim third.
Dovi wins – again
It had been a relatively low key winter for Dovizioso with steady but not spectacular performances at the pre-season tests but having finished runner-up for the last two seasons, the majority of people expected him to be there or thereabouts on race day particularly with the Losail circuit having a 1km straight where the Ducati could utilise its top speed advantage.
The Italian duly did that but he rode a smart race, controlling the pace from the front and although riders like Alex Rins on his Suzuki were clearly the quicker through the twisty sections, where the Ducati continues to lack mid-corner speed, Dovi never let them get more than a bike’s length ahead.
With a freight train of riders behind him, the pressure was always on the former 125cc World Champion but he never faltered and when the expected attack came from reigning champion Marquez on the final lap, he was able to fight back immediately. Indeed, the last few hundred yards were almost a carbon copy of twelve months ago and when Marquez dived up the inside only to run wide, Dovizioso calmly nipped back up the inside and held the Spaniard off albeit by the tiny margin of 0.023s.
A number of paddock insiders are tipping the likeable Dovizioso for this year’s title and after more than a decade in the Championship, few would argue it would be one of the most well-deserved and popular outcomes. But we have 18 more rounds to go so talk of that will have to wait some time!!
Mixed fortunes at Honda
Although he finished second twelve months ago, Marquez wasn’t particularly confident about his chances at Qatar this time with the circuit traditionally being one of the Honda’s weakest on the 19-round calendar. However, as expected, he was still in the mix throughout the three days and tried his utmost to steal the win from Dovizioso.
Some usual ‘do or die’ passes failed to come off this time but the relatively slow pace in the race meant his front tyre, although still worn, wasn’t as bad as he feared and he was able to stay in contention with the Ducati. The 20 points gained were as good as 25 given his more favoured circuits lie ahead.
For team-mate Jorge Lorenzo, the weekend started well with second place in the opening free practice session but went downhill from there onwards. Already nursing a recently broken scaphoid, the former world champion was victim of a vicious highside on Saturday which left him even more battered and bruised and unsure if he’d be able to complete the race.
Although 13th was a long way below where he was looking to finish, it was at least points on the board and he’ll have been reassured by the fact that when everything was fine – i.e. on Friday – he was right at the sharp end. He’ll certainly be glad of the three-week gap before round two though.
The ride of the day, arguably, came from British ace Crutchlow with the Isle of Man-based rider taking a brilliant third place on his comeback ride from injury suffered last October. His shattered ankle meant he wasn’t able to return to testing until early-February which put him very much on the back foot compared to his rivals.
The final test at Qatar just over a week ago wasn’t exactly a confidence boost for the now 33-year old and the opening day of the Grand Prix suggested it was going to be a tough few days. However, showing his usual grit and determination, he successfully made it through to Q2 and subsequently lined up in sixth on the grid, a position he took full advantage of.
Despite still suffering with some discomfort in his ankle – which was broken in 17 places – he ran with the front pack throughout and whilst his training programme over the winter has been severely limited, there was no sign of him fading and third place and a 17th career podium was a superb result.
Disappointment for Vinales; Rossi shines
After claiming pole position with a blistering lap in qualifying, Maverick Vinales would have gone into race day feeling optimistic about claiming the maximum 25 points, just like he’d done two years ago, but his chances disappeared after making a disastrous start. The Monster Yamaha rider found himself at the wrong end of the top ten and barely made an impression as he eventually finished in seventh place.
True, that was only a few seconds off the front but whilst the Spaniard felt he had the pace to match the leader, he wasn’t able to get close to them as he only managed a couple of overtaking manoeuvres. The complete opposite happened for team-mate Valentino Rossi who was way down the grid after qualifying in a lowly 14th.
Unlike Vinales, the 40-year old moved forward with relative ease and although he never really looked like he’d make it into a podium position, fifth place – just 0.6s behind Dovizioso – was a tremendous effort for the 40-year old. However, if he’s to make a serious title challenge, he needs to sort out his qualifying and set up to make sure he can compete in all conditions, not just when the track and air temperatures are at their best.
Suzuki make their mark
The Suzuki of Rins has been fast all winter and, as predicted on these pages, he was challenging for the win at Qatar. Despite a slightly sluggish start, he soon moved his way through the pack and ran in a podium position for much of the race before Crutchlow relegated him to fourth which will probably have left him slightly disappointed. It was a solid start nevertheless and bodes well for the rest of the season.
Equally impressive was the performance of his young team-mate Joan Mir who was having his first-ever MotoGP race. The rookie has been quietly going about his business over the winter months and not been getting too concerned by the outstanding testing times of fellow debutantes Fabio Quartararo and Francesco Bagnaia.
Racing is when it matters most and the former Moto3 World Champion was the best rookie on race day with eighth place. He ran inside the top five for much of the race and only dropped back in the closing stages which, quite possibly, was due to having overworked his tyres but now he has a full race distance under his belt, he’ll understand how the bike and tyres change so will be much better placed to make his challenge last all the way until the end.
Hard luck story
He may have only finished 16th but one other rider who deserves a mention is French rookie Fabio Quartararo who qualified his Petronas Yamaha in a brilliant sixth place. Having been in sparkling form at the Losail test a week before the first round, he proved that his pace was no fluke and looked well set to record an excellent result first time out.
However, it all came to nothing when he stalled the bike at the start of the warm up lap and subsequently had to start from pit lane. A long way adrift of the pack, the 19-year old was unable to make it into the points but the fastest lap of the race again showed how quickly he’s adapted to the MotoGP bike so will be hoping luck is on his side next time out and he can convert his pace into the result he already deserves.
Having started watching motorcycle races all over the world form childhood, Phil Wain has been a freelance motorcycle journalist for 15 years and is features writer for a number of publications including BikeSport News and Classic Racer, having also been a regular contributor to MCN and MCN Sport. He is PR officer for a number of teams and riders at both the British Superbike Championship and International road races, including Smiths Racing, Quattro Plant Kawasaki, RAF Regular & Reserve Kawasaki, Dafabet Devitt Racing, John McGuinness, Lee Johnston and KMR Kawasaki. He is also heavily involved with the Isle of Man TT Races, writing official press releases and race reports as well as providing ITV4 with statistical information.