"That's why we line up on Sunday. You never know what's gonna happen." Nicky Hayden was replying to one of my typically stupid questions after the race in Indianapolis in 2009. The day before, I had asked him if he had given up hope of a good result after qualifying in 6th on the Ducati in front of his home crowd. That Sunday, he had ridden a solid race and taken advantage of the misfortunes of others, ending the day on the podium. The heady mixture of hope, determination, talent and a smattering of luck put him where he wanted to be. Or close to it at least.
Hayden's phrase is one of the most succinct and accurate descriptions of motorcycle racing, as the events of the season opener at Qatar go to show. The script which we all thought had been written on Saturday got torn up and thrown out the window on Sunday. Because you never know what's gonna happen.
The Moto3 race was the usual barnstormer, where the race looked like it was anybody's, yet it still ended up with two of the most experienced riders sharing the podium. Moto2 saw one bizarre incident follow another, until the last man left standing took victory. And MotoGP turned into a heart-stopping thriller, with the favorite catching himself out, and the winner coming from halfway down the grid.
Most bizarre of all was the fact that not a single Spaniard appeared on any podium in all three Grand Prix classes. It has been a long time since that happened. Disregarding Laguna Seca (where only MotoGP ever rode) the last time that nine non-Spanish riders occupied the podium spots was Shanghai in 2005. A ten-year streak of Spanish success was cut short by two races. With Valentino Rossi, Andrea Dovizioso and Andrea Iannone taking the top three spots in MotoGP, it was also the first all Italian podium since Motegi in 2006. "It was a long, long time ago that this happened," Rossi joked at the press conference. "I know, because I was there also."
The MotoGP race played out only half as expected. Ducati came good on the pace shown in FP4, proving that the GP15 is not the bike the GP14 used to be. Both Andrea Dovizioso and Andrea Iannone staying fast all the way to the end of the race. But the preordained winner, Marc Márquez, made a mess of the first corner, ran wide, rejoined in last place, and spent the rest of the race playing catch up, fighting his way forward. And the Movistar Yamahas, neither of whom had shown much pace during free practice came good. Jorge Lorenzo led until a problem with his helmet saw him lose half of his vision and three places to three Italians. Valentino Rossi, blessed with only mediocre race pace in FP4, used the hard front tire to blaze a trail through the pack, moving up from tenth at the end of the first lap to hold off Andrea Dovizioso in a dazzling duel to take victory.
"I think this was one of the best races of my career, and for sure one of the best battles of the last lap," Rossi said of the fight in the press conference. "I remember this level maybe with Capirossi in Mugello, always with the Ducati, or with Jorge in Montmelo, or one time with Capirossi in Sepang in the past, like the old times." Where had Rossi's speed come from? After qualifying, Rossi had said he and his team had made a mistake going for the medium front tire, and they should have elected to use the hard front. They tried that during warm up – at Qatar, perhaps the only time the warm up is literally warmer than the race, taking place for the MotoGP class just as the sun is going down – and with some tweaks to the set up, became the fastest rider on the track.
The thrill of battle left Rossi exhilarated, and as sated as it is possible for a racer to be. That a man of his age, his record, his stature, and his financial means should still have the drive and determination to put in the hard work to still be successful is truly remarkable. "I like my job, because it is also my passion," he said, something which was clear from the way he celebrated victory, his 83rd in the premier class.
Rossi also showed his passion in the answer he gave when asked if he expected this season to be the most difficult he had ever faced. For Rossi, the difficulty was not in the quantity and quality of his rivals. It was not the six men capable of winning now that the Ducati is finally a competitive motorcycle which made racing hard. "It is completely the opposite," Rossi countered. "I'm very happy, because in the last years the races changed. Because there was one moment with Stoner and Lorenzo that the races were finished after three laps. Sincerely, they were the most difficult and also boring races. Now, it looks that for some reason has changed, and with Marc, is always more battle to the end, a little bit more strategy. I like a lot this kind of races."
What can you say of the Ducatis? Dovizioso used the words 'normal bike' again to describe the Desmosedici GP15, emphasizing once again just how far the manufacturer has come. "This bike is working very well, I was able to make the same lap and similar line as Lorenzo and Valentino, but still we have to work in some areas." Last year, Dovizioso had been forced to use too much of his energy forcing the bike to turn once the tires started to wear, and had lost touch with the leaders. At Qatar, Dovizioso's fastest lap had been his last lap, and the lap before had been as fast as his third.
Just how far Ducati has come was also clear from Dovizioso's reaction to losing out to Rossi. "Before the race, if somebody told me I would make this kind of race, I would be very happy," the Italian said. "But when you make all the race right there, and you try to manage and at the end, Valentino beat me, the feeling is not the best!" Goals and objectives change when racing, once you realize what is possible. "It's normal, during the race it's a long time for us, 45 minutes is a long time, and you change your opinion! I was in front, and I really feel the possibility to fight for the victory." When you understand that victory is within your grasp, the glory of a podium simply will not cut it.
Both Dovizioso and Iannone made a special effort to thanks the engineers back at Ducati Corse for all their hard work. It is clear that this result was a reward not just for the patience of Dovizioso, or for the talent of Iannone. Most of all, this was a reward for the work that went on in Borgo Panigale, engineers working long hours into the night to get the bike ready. That hard work paid off.
The Qatar race also laid to rest any notion that Ducati might let up if they found themselves getting close to a good result, and at risk of losing their concessions. The two podiums today put the total to three, meaning that Ducati will lose 2 liters of fuel, their allowance cut from 24 to 22 for both the factory Ducati team, and for Pramac Ducati. (Not for the Avintia team, however, they run under the Open rules, and so are not affected). That will not make much difference, as Ducati have been racing with 22 liters of fuel since the beginning of last year. They never really needed 24 liters.
Ironically, fuel may have helped play a part in Ducati's success at Qatar, albeit a very minor one. The Qatar circuit is one of the heaviest for fuel consumption, and the long straight from a low gear consumes a lot of fuel. The Hondas and Yamahas sometimes have to cut power ever so slightly to ensure they can make the race with just 20 liters of fuel. Ducati do not need to do that, and so can use more power to the end of the race. You get the sneaking suspicion that Rossi took advantage of the Ducatis for part of the race, staying in their slipstream down the straight. One way of conserving fuel is to use the great big hole in the air being created by the bike in front of you.
Three more dry wins, and Ducati lose the soft rear tire, but even that will not put much of a dent in their performance. The real benefit which Ducati have had from the concessions granted to them has come from the unlimited testing, and not being subject to the engine freeze. That is what has allowed them to make so much progress all throughout last year, and what will allow them to refine their bike throughout this year. Ducati cannot lose those concessions this year, though they may be subject to an engine freeze if they win enough races this year.
The concessions for Ducati – now applied to Suzuki and Aprilia – were vital. Without them, Ducati would not have been able to develop the Desmosedici fast enough, and become competitive before the patience of Philip Morris ran out. If Ducati had not be granted concessions, they would no longer be in MotoGP.
For a long time, it looked like it would not be Valentino Rossi, but Jorge Lorenzo who might with the race. Lorenzo led, engaging Dovizioso in fierce combat, and handing out as good as he got, until some five or so laps to the end. He then started slipping back through the field, with no apparent reason. It was initially assumed that tire wear was to blame, but after the race, it turned out to be something much stranger. The foam lining of his HJC helmet had worked itself loose, and slipped down in front of his eyes, partially obscuring his vision. He could see only about half of what he could normally, making riding that much more difficult. That he was able to lap at a pace of 1'56.2 or so despite the problem is testament to his ability.
After his mistake in the first corner, Marc Márquez was left with work to do. He fought his way bravely forward, passing some 20 riders on the way. Sometimes a little roughly, such as when he clipped Alvaro Bautista and severed a brake line. His charge through the field was impressive, but it meant asking a lot of his tires, and overheating them on occasion. That left him with the dilemma of trying to push on and keep catching the front runners, or slow down for a couple of laps until they regained their performance. Slowing down was not an option, so he pushed on, but paid the price at the end. After nearly crashing a couple of times, he had to settle for fifth. Eleven points are eleven points. Márquez took that as a positive, and as a sign of his own maturity. "I'm sure that two years ago, the end of the race would be in the gravel," he joked.
Dani Pedrosa rode round to what seemed like a faceless sixth, once again disappointing in a race. But it transpired afterwards that it was not so much a faceless sixth, as an armless sixth. Pedrosa has been suffering with arm pump and numbness in his right arm for over a year now, and this race was no different. This was a true tragedy for the Spaniard, as he had spent the winter consulting doctors trying to find a cure. He has already had two different operations to try to fix the problem, but neither of them succeeded. The recurrence of the problem made Pedrosa decide to first try to fix the problem before trying to keep on racing. The results of the past year show what he is capable of in his current situation. That is not a prospect which will appeal to a rider of Pedrosa's caliber. Better to try to get the problem fixed, and come back to try win races.
Pedrosa's sixth place is also a testament to the talent of the Spaniard. The Repsol Honda man was riding almost literally with one hand tied behind his back, the use of his right hand limited by pain and a lack of sensation. Yet he still loses less than half a second a lap to the race winner, and finishes ahead of everyone but the factory Honda, Yamaha and Ducati riders. To try to understand just what an achievement that is, stick a knife in your right forearm, put on your thickest winter motorcycle mittens, jump on a racing motorcycle and try to ride as fast as you can for 45 minutes. Easy it is not.
While the MotoGP race was both exhilarating and surprising, the real shocks came in Moto2. Before the race started, it was easy to pick the podium: Sam Lowes, Johann Zarco and Tito Rabat had been a cut above the rest. Surely the podium would come from one of those three?
Tito Rabat ruled himself out of contention by getting a terrible start, and losing a lot of ground in Turn 1. Sam Lowes and Johann Zarco escaped at the front, with Zarco taking over the lead from Lowes, and setting a blistering pace. Lowes tried just a little too hard to follow – despite advice from his pit board – and paid the price, crashing out in the final corner. Rabat suffered the same fate, finding himself caught in the mid-pack melee where a blatant disregard for the rules is a basic survival skill. He tried to get past Simone Corsi, but Corsi cut in front of him going into Turn 1, clipped Rabat's front wheel and sent the reigning champion tumbling.
That left Zarco free to cruise home at leisure, maintaining the pace he needed to hold his lead and keep his focus. It was all going swimmingly until lap 17, when a bolt on his gear lever worked its way loose, leaving the Frenchman stuck in third gear. He noticed the problem coming onto the main straight, and understandably, though unwisely, looked down to try to spot the problem and potentially fix it. In doing so, he nearly created a worse disaster, the bike veering right as he fiddled with his gear lever. It was only when he hit the grass just a foot or so away from the pit wall that he noticed, and barely saved himself from hitting the wall. He could not fix the problem while still riding the bike, and quickly dropped down the field. At least he salvaged some points, crossing the line in eighth.
Jonas Folger crossed the line to take his maiden win in Moto2. He had a strong season last year as a rookie, and was widely regarded as an outside chance for the championship this year. His victory at Qatar, with Lowes and Rabat not scoring, and Zarco getting only limited points, catapults Folger into the championship lead, turning him from dark horse to prize stallion. That's why they line up on Sunday. Because you never really know what's going to happen.