It's back. The world is a better place now that young men are wasting fuel going round in circles at irresponsibly breakneck speeds on multimillion dollar motorcycles. (On a side note, someone pointed out today that a satellite 160kg Honda RC213V costs about half its weight in gold, at current prices, which suggests that a factory bike must be close to costing its own weight in gold). The lights in the desert are once again spectacularly lit, and the sandy void which surrounds the Losail circuit again rings with the bellow of MotoGP bikes.
Not that the desert void wasn't already a surprisingly packed place. On the other side of the access road to the circuit sits a massive building site, where work is being undertaken on the Lusail Iconic Stadium, one of the many stadiums being built for the 2022 FIFA Soccer World Cup. The scale of that work is vast, as is the amount of dust the work is kicking up, much of which is being blown over the track. When the Moto3 bikes hit the track - the first class to go out at the circuit, with the exception of a QMMF Superbike round earlier in the day - it looked like the little four-stroke bikes were blowing engines left, right and center, as they kicked up clouds of dust and trailed them behind them.
The dirty track created tricky conditions, especially for the MotoGP bikes, which use a different line around the Qatari circuit. Though there was only one crasher - the unfortunate Yonny Hernandez - the first session of free practice saw several riders run persistently through the gravel. In the case of Bradley Smith, that was down to having to recalibrate his brain - and his braking points - to the speed of a MotoGP machine. "On a 125, you're using the kerbs as brake markers, in Moto2 you can just use the start of the kerbs. In MotoGP, you're having to use shadows as brake markers. That's really hard under the spotlights," the Monster Tech 3 Yamaha man said.
While Smith grappled to learn the circuit, the rest of the Yamahas had no problems at all with the track. An elated Valentino Rossi led for three quarters of the session, the Italian fast from the start and consistent, only to be dropped to third place by Jorge Lorenzo and an impressive Cal Crutchlow. The difference between the three was minimal, however: seventy one thousandths of a second separated Lorenzo in first from Rossi in third, with Crutchlow sandwiched in between. Their advantage over the rest of the grid was comfortable: fourth-place man Marc Marquez was over half a second back from the Yamahas.
Why were the Yamahas so much faster at Qatar? "The Yamaha is better in tricky conditions," Crutchlow explained, pointing also to the results at Jerez. He did not expect it to last, and once the track improved, the Hondas would be back with a vengeance, he predicted. "When the track conditions come cleaner, the Honda has maybe half a second advantage," Crutchlow told reporters. He also had a good explanation for why the Hondas struggle in the trickier conditions. The way the Hondas turn, Crutchlow explained, is by sliding the rear. They slide and use the slide to get drive. Under less than ideal conditions, the bike continues to slide, but the drive is no longer there, making the bike much slower.
Incomprehensibly, Crutchlow spoke only to a small group of reporters, his strong performance apparently being overlooked by the media because of Rossi's return to the front of the fold - though not in front of Crutchlow. He was not being overlooked by his rivals, however. Rossi told the press - admittedly, in response to a question on the matter by the UK's leading motorcycling newspaper - that he believed Crutchlow could spend the year fighting with the top four, adding that Stefan Bradl could also be in the mix. Lorenzo, too, felt that Crutchlow could chase both wins and podiums this season, needing only some consistency and patience.
The reason Crutchlow drew such a small crowd was because most of the press - especially the large contingent of Italian press - was gathered around the Yamaha offices, waiting for Valentino Rossi to speak. Understandably, given Rossi's return from his own rhetorical time in the wilderness at Ducati. It was a very different Valentino Rossi who faced the media at Qatar, a much younger looking man, with a spring in his step and a twinkle in his eye. What was the difference? "If you look at me on the bike, it's also completely different to the Ducati," Rossi said. "My situation was a bit difficult in the past two years, because I have a lot of pressure. Everybody expect that I stay in the front, but I know that I cannot stay in the front, because I am not able to ride at 100%. This situation was difficult, especially speaking with journalists, with the fans, because everybody expected [me to be at the front], but I already know this is not possible," the Italian said. Being at Yamaha was better: "Like this is more fun."
The difference was being able to feel the front end, and trust it, and make small changes to his riding to get the bike to react in a particular way. That worked on the Yamaha, Rossi explained, but the Ducati was something different altogether. He could still not quite get out of the bike what Lorenzo could get out of the bike, his teammate able to ride the bike at 100%. Rossi was at least still close, and had improved by moving away from the set up used by Lorenzo, to one which suited his own style a little better.
While the Yamahas were going well, things were more difficult for Honda. Marc Marquez taking fourth is perhaps to be expected, the rookie spending the first session relearning lines. But Dani Pedrosa's lowly 8th place, over a second behind Lorenzo, was not what the Repsol Honda man had planned. Pedrosa was struggling with a set up issue, which meant that he simply could not get the bike to turn. Corner entry was a massive problem for the Spaniard, as his multiple trips across the gravel proved all too graphically. It would be solved tomorrow, Pedrosa hoped, and with a cleaner track, the Spaniard should be back in contention again.
Playing with set up was of limited use anyway, Jorge Lorenzo's team manager Wilco Zeelenberg explained. On Friday, the track would be much cleaner, and the bike would react differently, meaning you almost have to start again from scratch with your set up work. Better to wait, get a feel for the track and the bike, and start the real work tomorrow.
The Ducatis were also much more hopeful after the first day, especially with Andrea Dovizioso's strong pace. The Italian finished the day in fifth, but more importantly, on his last run he put in a string of mid 1'57 laps, his pace consistent and fast. While teammate Nicky Hayden was way down in tenth, he too drew hope from Dovizioso's time. Hayden said he was matching the Italian for most of the track, but was losing most of his time in the section of three right handers in the final loop of the circuit. If they could solve the problems they had with turning there, he felt he could be much closer to the front as well.
While Dovizioso's fastest lap was one of a sequence, Aleix Espargaro's best time had come in the draft of Cal Crutchlow, the Aspar Aprilia rider profiting from the speed of the Englishman. Still, for a CRT bike to get with 1.2 seconds of fastest man Lorenzo was pretty impressive, especially given that he was 20 km/h slower along the front straight. Last year, teammate Randy de Puniet had been fastest CRT machine, over 3.5 seconds off the pace of the leader. This year, four men got closer than that, though only Espargaro got anywhere near the leaders.
Tomorrow, the riders return to a track which should be cleaner, with the MotoGP riders due for two sessions on Friday. A cleaner track should mean a slightly less skewed result in favor of the Yamahas. But Qatar remains a strong track for the Yamahas, regardless of the conditions, and an all-Yamaha podium is a realistic possibility. We shall see tomorrow what Marc Marquez and Dani Pedrosa have to say about that.