There's an old racing adage: when the flag drops, the talking stops, though the word 'talking' is rarely used. It's a cliche, but like all cliches, it is a cliche because it reflects such a basic truth. Without bikes circulating on track in anger, fans and press have nothing to do but engage in idle speculation, and pick over the minutiae of rules, rumors and races long past. As soon as the racing starts again, all is forgotten, and we all lose ourselves in the now. It is the zen which all racing fans aspire to.
So after spending months going round in circles over the 2014 regulations, speculating about who they favor, and expressing outrage at either the perceived injustice of the rules, or the supposed incompetence of those involved in drawing them up at the last minute, the talk stopped at Qatar on Sunday night. The fans filled their bellies on three outstanding races, all of which went down to the wire. With something once again at stake, all talk of rules was forgotten.
And to be honest, the 2014 rules had none of the negative effects which so many people had feared. The best riders on the day still ended up on the podium, while the gap between the winner and the rest of the pack was much reduced. The gap from the winner to the first Ducati was cut from 22 seconds in 2013 to 12 seconds this year. The gap from the winner to Aleix Espargaro – first CRT in 2013, first Open class rider in 2014 – was cut from 49 seconds to just 11 seconds. And even ignoring Espargaro's Yamaha M1, the gap to the first Honda production racer – an outstanding performance by Scott Redding on the Gresini RCV1000R – was slashed to 32 seconds.
Even the cut in fuel did not affect the races as badly as many feared. It appeared that there had been some dissembling going on in both the Yamaha and Honda garages. HRC had been brushing off any suggestions that fuel may be an issue for them, while at Yamaha, there were a number of worried faces. There was a clue that things were not as serious as feared when Jorge Lorenzo stopped worrying about fuel and focused his ire on the new Bridgestone rubber, but Valentino Rossi kept banging the fuel drum. On race day, there was no sign of fuel issues for the Italian, Rossi telling the press conference that his engineers had done a great job to fix the fuel issues, and had given him a properly fast bike. 'I think Yamaha worked well on the fuel consumption,' he said.
It was quite the revival for Rossi. The gamble to drop Jeremy Burgess in favor of Silvano Galbusera as crew chief had paid off. 'Last year I made a very dangerous bet,' he said. Galbusera had no experience in MotoGP, but a positive experience working with him testing a World Superbike machine coming back from a broken leg in 2010 had encouraged Rossi to try. The way of working had now changed, with electronics and data engineer Matteo Flamigni playing a greater role.
The biggest gain for Rossi was clearly in braking. Rossi was able to attack on the brakes at will once again, fighting his way forward from 10th on the grid quickly – and aided by a couple of crashes in front of him – and engaging in hand-to-hand combat with Marc Marquez. Braking was an area where Rossi had suffered all last year, and the joy and determination with which he launched himself into corners spoke volumes about the improvements which have been made.
The battle with Marquez turned the race into an instant classic. From the moment when Rossi arrived on the back wheel of Marquez a third of the way through the race, the pair stalked and sniped, swapping places and sometimes even trading paint. The early skirmishes turned into all out war in the last few laps, the lead swapping four times on the penultimate lap. They were tough moves, no quarter given nor asked by either rider, Marquez squeezing his bike through an impossibly narrow gap at one point. In the end, the reigning world champion came out on top, Rossi losing ground after running the merest fraction wide.
Though Marquez' victory was far from a surprise, the fact that he did manage to win at Qatar is still quite a feat. The Spaniard came to the first race of the year after six weeks laid up with a spiral fracture in his fibula, still in pain and having started walking just a week ago. He worked his way through practice and qualifying methodically, serving notice by taking pole on Saturday – his 10th in 19 starts, a strike rate of over 50% for the youngster – then gambled on using the harder of the two rear tire options in the race. It paid off, and his willingness to fight and his appetite for risk landed him the win and the lead in the championship.
What was even more impressive by Marquez is that he showed that he has learned patience. For the first half of the race, Marquez sat calmly behind Stefan Bradl, happy to let the LCR Honda rider make the pace while he rested the right arm he was using to compensate for the lack of strength in his leg. In the end, he didn't need to choose a moment to attack, as Stefan Bradl crashed out of the lead at turn 6, one of very many fallers. But the fact that Marquez has already learned to control his more impetuous nature bodes well for the champion. It was an outstanding ride by the Repsol Honda man, and a portent of what is to come.
Unlike last year, Marquez managed to hold off Valentino Rossi. The battle between the two had provided the entertainment in the 2013 race, and did the same again, and more, this year. It also showed the progress made by both riders, Marquez coming out on top to win the race, and Rossi battling no longer with a rookie, but with the reigning world champion.
Many people had written Valentino Rossi off, believing him to have lost his edge in the two years he spent at Ducati. I was one of the people who believed that though Rossi was still one of the best racers in the world, he was no longer a match for the three Spaniards who dominated last year. It looks like I was wrong: there is life in the old dog yet, once a few fundamental problems have been overcome. That doesn't mean that a tenth world title is on the cards, but at least Rossi should be able to mix it with Marquez, Jorge Lorenzo and Dani Pedrosa at more races during the season.
Behind Rossi, Dani Pedrosa occupied the final spot on the podium, a decent achievement given his relatively poor results at Qatar. The low-grip surface is something which Pedrosa has always had trouble dealing with, third being the best finish Pedrosa has achieved here. The Repsol Honda rider was happy to have bagged a podium, but he had luck on his side. The Spaniard benefited from crashes in front of him, taking third after Alvaro Bautista went down with a couple of laps to go.
Crashes were a commonplace, and for some riders, particularly expensive. The reason for the crashes was simple: conditions at race time were different than during practice and qualifying. The track was considerably cooler, robbing the track even further of grip. Crashes were down not so much to problems with the Bridgestones, as in the minds of those trying to brake where they couldn't. Stefan Bradl, Alvaro Bautista, Bradley Smith and Jorge Lorenzo all lost the front in braking, overestimating the grip available.
Jorge Lorenzo admitted the mistake had been his. After a dismal start to the weekend, agonizing over a lack of rear grip, the Lorenzo and his Yamaha crew had found some solutions on Saturday, entering the race with determination and some optimism. Lorenzo got his usual lightning start and took off from the front. His optimism ran out at Turn 15, the last left hander before the final corner. He had got extra drive out of the previous corner, and arrived at 15 with a little more speed than expected. 'I made a mistake,' Lorenzo said. Different tires from last year and cooler temperatures had made conditions trickier than expected. 'I didn't take these circumstances into account.' Lorenzo does not often make mistakes, but this was a very expensive one indeed. 25 points down in the championship, and the initiative passed to Marc Marquez.
The man expected to shake up the order came home in fourth, Aleix Espargaro getting a dismal start and never finding a way past the Ducatis. Aleix paid a heavy price for his two crashes during qualifying, both bikes being destroyed, and his team needing to borrow parts from Colin Edwards' second bike to get to the grid on time. He was stuck behind Ducatis for a large part of the race, losing out on top speed to the Desmosedicis along the straight. He managed in the end, and thanks to the carnage ahead of him, ended up in fourth. The elder Espargaro learned a salutary lesson at Qatar: that when you step into the spotlights in MotoGP, they can easily blind you. With the experience from leading the first sessions of practice at Qatar, Aleix can start to build. His day will come, sooner, rather than later.
For the Ducatis, Andrea Dovizioso was delighted to have halved his deficit from 2013. But that still leaves a gap to the leaders of over 12 seconds, and the most significant problem remains. The understeer which plagues the Ducati makes it impossible to ride the bike the way the others can. That will be Gigi Dall'Igna's next challenge, but it is an issue which he will not be able to address until he has more data.
Dovizioso's teammate Cal Crutchlow's performance was affected by matters out of his own hands. The Englishman parked his bike at the side of the track as soon as he crossed the finish line, after a bizarre electronics problem had played havoc with his settings. A malfunctioning transponder meant that the wrong data was being fed to the ECU, with the result that the bike was getting lost on the track. Power delivery was completely out of sync with the track, too little on the straight, too much in the corners, the bike utterly lost. Signs of Crutchlow's problems could be seen on the timing screens, his name shooting up and down the order as his transponder vacillated between functioning and not. It was a tough debut for the Englishman, but the problems were out of his hands.
The issue has happened to Ducati before. At Estoril in 2012, Nicky Hayden's Desmosedici suffered a similar glitch, though in his case, the bike thought it was half a lap further on than it actually was. Given Estoril's very specific layout – a long, fast front straight, with a tight back section with lots of slow curves – having the bike provide the wrong power delivery can be a terrifying experience. Though GPS is banned, locational awareness is programmed based on the timing loops around the track, as well as measured distance traveled. These sorts of malfunctions are some of the reasons put forward by Dorna technical staff, when arguing for the restriction and simplification of electronics. If there is only one power setting for the entire track, then riders can at least be sure of knowing how the bike will react when the throttles are opened.
For a change, the MotoGP race was better than the Moto2 race, though the Moto2 race still turned into a bit of a thriller. Tito Rabat took a totally deserved victory, seeing off an unfortunate Taka Nakagami in the latter stages of the race. After the race, Nakagami would be scrapped from the results entirely, after it was found that his team had fitted an illegal air filter. The error was judged to be an honest mistake, but a violation of the rules is a violation of the rules, and Nakagami was expunged from the results. His removal gave the Marc VDS team the top two steps on the podium, Tom Luthi shifting up into third.
While Rabat's victory was well taken, the really impressive performances were behind him, with the class rookies. Maverick Viñales crossed the line as fifth, later promoted to fourth once Nakagami had been scrapped from the results. The step from Moto3 to Moto2 is one of the biggest in racing; the 2012 Moto3 champion took a year to adapt to the class. For Viñales to be running at the front in his very first race proves the Spaniard is something very special indeed.
Two places behind him, reigning World Supersport champion Sam Lowes ended the race in 6th. Several riders have tried to make the step from WSS to Moto2, but ended up struggling badly. So far, Lowes has dealt with aplomb everything the new series has thrown at him. A podium cannot be very far off.
If the faces dominating Moto2 were no surprise, the finishing order in Moto3 was much more of a shakeup. Though it can hardly be considered a shock that the Alexes Rins and Marquez of Estrella Galicia should be running at the front, there were fears that the team would have trouble in the first few races as they worked to get the brand new Honda ready to compete. HRC appeared to take all of the preseason and the first two sessions of free practice for the Moto3 class, but once qualifying hit, Honda were ready. Two Hondas led the field in qualifying, then four topped the timesheets during warm up, while on Sunday, there were five Hondas in the top ten for most of the race. The Honda NSF250RW is a serious weapon, and Rins and Marquez will be the title contenders which everyone expected.
Yet it was not a Honda which took the first victory of the year, but rather the young Australian Jack Miller. Miller rode a measured and sensible race, profiting from a mistake by Alex Marquez on the final lap. Taking his first victory in Grand Prix racing, Miller celebrated exactly as a rider should: exorbitant one-handed stand up wheelies; stand up wheelies to kiss his fairing; clowning and showboating on the bike, taking on ridiculous and exaggerated poses as he rode the cool down lap. He followed it up with an accidental obscenity in his post-race interview, giving himself over to the joy he felt.
Miller's victory has been a long time coming, but it was one that was inevitable. The years he spent on a badly underpowered FTR Honda meant he had to find ways in his riding of making the bike go faster. That has turned him into a very complete rider, and he shows great promise for the future. Jack Miller is clearly a future world champion.
Two other riders are worthy of note in the Moto3 race. Miguel Oliveira punched well above his weight on the Mahindra, ending the race in fourth, but over 11 seconds ahead of the next Mahindra. The Suter-built Indian bike is down on power compared to the Honda and the KTM, but Oliveira extracted every last ounce of performance from the bike.
Then there's Karel Hanika. Hanika finished in 14th position in his Moto3 debut, a remarkable achievement given the deeply competitive nature of the class. The young Czech rider still has an awful lot to learn, but he has clearly demonstrated his potential.
Three races, three deserved winners, plenty to talk about, and some memories that will live for ever. This is the hallmark of a great weekend's racing. No need to fill our stomachs with the empty calories of speculation, we have the real meat of results to chew over. Bring on Austin.