When the flag drops, the speculation stops. Though usually, a rather more forthright word is used instead of speculation. After the long winter of testing, of trying to assess who was trying what on which lap to try to compare lap times, MotoGP is underway for real. Everyone on track is looking for race pace, and a fast lap to ensure they get into Q2. It is a whole lot easier to comprehend, and infinitely more thrilling.
Conditions had not looked promising ahead of practice. Strong winds blew down the front straight in the late afternoon, raising fears that they would coat the circuit in dust and sand. Then shortly before the action was due to kick off, a few drops of rain started falling, threatening to at least delay proceedings should it continue. But the wind dropped and the rain stopped, and the 2015 MotoGP season got underway as planned.
Fears about the track were unfounded, lap times quickly heading towards something resembling race pace. Danny Kent's fastest lap in Moto3 was seven tenths off the lap record in the first session of the day, and when Moto2 hit the track, Sam Lowes set about destroying the existing pole record, becoming the first ever Moto2 rider to break the two minute barrier at the circuit. In MotoGP, Marc Márquez was lapping a few tenths off lap record pace, a record still held by Casey Stoner from 2008.
The circuit had done a good job of cleaning the track and removing the sand and dust which blows onto it. It was a combination of improved effort, track sweepers having been used more effectively, and the completion of the stadium which sits next to the track. For the past few years, construction has been intense at neighboring plots, throwing up massive clouds of dust which tended to settle on the Losail circuit. With the Losail Sports Arena now completed, building work has ceased, leaving the track much cleaner than it has been in the past.
Not clean enough for the Yamaha men, though. Jorge Lorenzo complained that the track was still dirty, making the bike move around too much on corner entry and corner exit. All of the Yamaha men bar Lorenzo were slow, with Valentino Rossi ending FP1 in ninth, Pol Espargaro in eleventh, Bradley Smith in thirteenth. Though Lorenzo complained of a lack of grip, it did not appear to slow him. The Movistar Yamaha man lapped consistently around 1'55.7. That is already faster than race pace last year, and we are only at FP1.
Lorenzo's pace may be fast, but the Repsol Hondas are faster. To the surprise of no one, Marc Márquez ended the day as fastest, managing to lap in the mid 1'55s. Dani Pedrosa, too, was quick, doing shorter runs but still posting consistently fast laps. It is the Hondas who have adapted best to the circumstances, as the fifth fastest time for Cal Crutchlow on the satellite LCR bike can attest.
All of the riders were slower than they had been in the test, Andrea Dovizioso told the media, with the exception of the Hondas. "I am a bit worried about them," he said. And rightly so: Pedrosa was nearly a quarter of a second quicker, Márquez was two tenths slower, as was Cal Crutchlow. By comparison, Valentino Rossi was nearly six tenths slower in FP1 than during the test, Pol Espargaro was seven tenths slower, and the factory Ducatis were over a second slower than they had been last week.
Was there an explanation for that? Not a single coherent one, everyone struggling with their own problems. Valentino Rossi was struggling with rear grip, after a set up change was making the bike use up the rear tire far too fast, and leaving him with no grip on corner entry and corner exit. Andrea Iannone had no confidence in the front of his Ducati, having to save the front several times to prevent himself from crashing. Andrea Dovizioso said he couldn't get the same feeling from the tires as at the test. There were a lot of small things which were slowing him up, boiling down to the fact that though the GP15 is a major step forward, it is still a very new bike, and they are still working on finding the right base set up. When they get it right, as they did at the test last week, the Ducatis fly. If they miss out, then they come up short. Still, Dovizioso ended the day as seventh fastest, his pace and Iannone's good enough to run with the group behind the top three. As at the test, neither factory Ducati rider used the softer tire, working instead on the medium, which is likely to be the race tire for everyone.
The effect of the soft tires was evident from the surprise entrants into the top ten. Aleix Espargaro has been impressive on the Suzuki GSX-RR, but taking third place in FP1 was down to using the softer rear. On the medium tire, the Suzuki's pace was more than respectable, matching that of the Ducatis and Valentino Rossi. What makes Espargaro's time all the more impressive is the speed deficit of the Suzuki: Espargaro and teammate Maverick Viñales are 23rd and 24th on the speed charts, with only the ART machine of Alex De Angelis behind them. The Suzukis are 20 km/h down on the Repsol Hondas, but clearly making it up in the corners.
The two Pramac Ducatis used the soft tire to full effect, diving into the top ten in the final moments thanks to the softer rubber. Danilo Petrucci ended the session in sixth, despite a rather comical jog down pit lane after the bike he was supposed to go out on conked out before he arrived at the pit exit. Yonny Hernandez got up to eighth, fortunately without incident.
What conclusions can we draw from the first day of practice? MotoGP has only had a single session, making any conclusions more than premature. "It's the first 45 minutes of the year," Cal Crutchlow said pointedly. He was fifth fastest, top satellite rider, and ahead of the factory Ducatis and Valentino Rossi today, but tomorrow, he could be fifteenth, he claimed.
If we must draw conclusions, then what is clear is that the Repsol Hondas are fast and going to get faster. Jorge Lorenzo may have had plenty to complain about, but he was also very fast. The good thing, Lorenzo said, is that he did not have a single major problem, but just lots of small ones. There was room for improvement, and the gap to the Hondas is small enough to bridge.
We will have a much better idea of where everyone stands tomorrow, when MotoGP has two sessions of practice. There are a lot of riders with a lot of work to do there: Valentino Rossi will be looking to work on rear grip. Cal Crutchlow will be working on tire life, and trying to identify and fix the brake problem which has plagued him throughout testing. The Tech 3 men need to find some more rear grip. And the Ducatis, well they just need to work, and keep refining their new bike.
If the MotoGP class was short-changed on the first day of practice, the Moto2 and Moto3 riders had their normal allocation of time on track. If it is hard to draw conclusions from MotoGP practice, the state of play in Moto2 was blindingly obvious. There are three riders who lead the pack, with a tight group behind.
Best of the Moto2 bunch is Sam Lowes, who put up a blistering pace throughout both sessions of practice. The switch to an aluminum swingarm has given the Speed Up rider the feeling he wanted, and he is happy, motivated and fast. Ajo rider Johann Zarco had the measure of Lowes for part of the sessions, the pair even posting identical lap times at one point. When Lowes pushed for a really fast lap, though, Zarco could not follow. Reigning Moto2 champion Tito Rabat is the last of the trio, and will clearly be a factor on Sunday. After the first day of practice, these three look very much like the favorites to contest the championship.
The other interest in Moto2 is the battle of the rookies and ex-teammates, Alex Márquez and Alex Rins. So far, Rins has won this battle easily, both in testing and now after the first day of practice. Rins is ninth fastest overall, and 1.7 seconds behind Lowes. Márquez, with perhaps less pressure on him sharing a garage with the reigning champion, is eighteenth, and seven tenths slower than Rins.
In Moto3, the field seems a little more wide open, the most impressive thing being the showing from the newcomers. Fabio Quartararo shone as expected, ending the day seventh overall and eight tenths off the pace of Miguel Oliveira. But Red Bull Rookie champion Jorge Martin was also impressive, his progress stymied by a massive highside during FP2. Jorge Navarro, too, was fast on his first visit to Qatar. Navarro may have half a season experience in the class, after replacing Livio Loi mid-season last year, but he has never ridden at Losail. All three riders have learned very quickly.
Loi, incidentally, was eight quickest at the end of day one. There is nothing like losing your job and having to work to get another ride to make you think hard about what you want to do. Loi appears to have grown in both maturity and especially motivation.
It was Miguel Oliveira who led the way in Moto3, the switch to the Red Bull KTM team having done the Portuguese rider the world of good. Danny Kent showed he has taken to the Honda very well, and Niccolo Antonelli seemed to show that he may finally be ready to make good on the promise he has shown last year. Whether Moto3 will live up to the breathtaking racing it provided last year remains to be seen. But with onboard cameras now fitted to the Moto3 machines, we should be guaranteed a few heart-stopping moments come Sunday.
While much of the focus was on the track, the ongoing saga of sponsorship kept tongues wagging off the track, Aspar and LCR Honda at the forefront of people's minds. Aspar has been hardest hit, the withdrawal of Drive M7 leaving the team a couple of million euros short of budget. Team boss Juan Martinez was combative, however, saying he was 100% sure that the team will finish the year. The Spaniard has several meetings with sponsors lined up for the next week, and hopes to come to Austin with a new deal under his arm.
Martinez told the media that the loss of Drive M7 had come as a shock. The point at which the contract should have been terminated was in September 2014, the deal automatically being extended as far as he was concerned. That does not concur with reports from other sources, which imply that the team had been told some time ago that the contract would not be extended. It will most likely be settled in the courts.
The sponsorship situation saw a lot of feverish activity yesterday, with bikes being restickered and logos removed from leathers. That provided a particularly comical result for the CWM LCR Honda team of Cal Crutchlow and Jack Miller. The police raids on the CWM offices, and the removal of the CWMFX trading platform leaves the CWMFX.com website now out of operation, for the moment at least. The team will continue for the moment with CWM branding, with the references to CWMFX.com removed.
To achieve that, the FX has been removed from the CWMFX.com on Cal Crutchlow's leathers. That leaves the British rider with CWM.com emblazoned across his chest, at least until Alpinestars can deliver him a new set with a revised design. The trouble is, CWM.com is not a website run by the financial services company backing LCR Honda. Instead, type that into your web browser, and it takes you to the website of Carsey Werner Television, the production company behind the hit TV comedy That '70s Show. That seems somehow strangely appropriate.