Race day in Qatar would turn into a microcosm of the entire weekend. The hopes and fears of fans and riders alike were both realized and averted. The idea that any kind of plan could be made to deal with this weekend went out the window pretty quickly. And yet at the end, three great races (or rather, two fantastic races and one interesting race) happened, and everyone got out more or less in one piece.
Stars were born on Sunday, some prophesied, some appearing out of the blue. It felt like the beginning of the new era we had been hoping for. MotoGP – once it got underway – was as topsy-turvy as expected. In Moto2, favorites performed as they needed to, while new stars emerged from behind. And in the Moto3 class, last year's rookies matured, and produced a heady brew of thrilling racing.
The weather conditioned it all. Spots of rain ahead of the Asia Talent Cup – like the Red Bull Rookies Cup at European races, the most frenetic racing of the weekend – soon dissipated, the sun soon breaking through. Fine weather prevailed for most of the evening, but as the Moto2 bikes rolled back into pit lane at the end of the race, the rain once again made its presence felt. Lightly at first, and quickly disregarded, but a little heavier as 9pm, the scheduled start of the MotoGP race, approached.
Hurry up and wait
The rain sent the grid into a frenzy of inactivity. There was an awful lot of nothing happening, and hordes of people frantically ensuring that inactivity and indecision ruled the day. The track was pretty much bone dry in most places, but very wet at Turns 14 and 16. The riders did a sighting lap. The start was delayed. MotoGP safety officers Franco Uncini and Loris Capirossi went out for a hoon in the BMW X5M Medical Car to test conditions. They returned, and everyone on the grid argued with each other.
It rained a little more, then stopped. The riders did another sighting lap, several running wide at Turn 14. The start was delayed again. Uncini and Capirossi went for another spin, stopping this time to check the state of the kerbs. They returned once again, and yet more argument ensued. Some riders joined in vociferously, others sat stoically on their bikes waiting for a decision to be made. One or two slipped back to the pits, presumably to answer the call of nature. Or possibly to finish a level of Candy Crush.
A decision was made. The race length was cut by two laps, to twenty, and an extra warm up lap was added. By this time, it was getting on for 9:40pm. If they didn't start racing soon, the race would be going deep into the condensation witching hour, the time between 10pm and 11pm where dew starts to form invisibly on the ground, rendering the track surface treacherous. The race would start.
That delay would have a significant impact. The Honda riders need to use the hardest of the front tires available, to avoid the tire overheating as a result of the punishment the riders have to subject it to under braking, as they seek to make up the ground lost in acceleration. Falling temperatures and the threat of dew meant Michelin counseled Marc Márquez, Dani Pedrosa, and Cal Crutchlow to use the medium front tire. The teams went along with that choice, the riders more or less reluctantly.
They found themselves in a bind. "I was with the hard front tire, and after all these things I had some doubts," Márquez said after the race. "The Michelin guy said you are the only one with the hard, be careful, you can crash. And so I said, OK I go to the medium. It was a mistake." But he only knew it was a mistake after the race was over. "After the race, I think with a hard I was able to fight for the victory until the end. But maybe I was also able to crash! Because the hard in the end gives less warnings, and maybe I put the hard, I'm more competitive, but I crash."
Cal Crutchlow was a lot less sanguine about the situation. When asked if going with the medium instead of the hard front had been the wrong decision, he replied, "I didn't make the wrong choice..." It was not the choice he wanted to make, he insisted. "I don't ever see my tire choice as a gamble, I'm normally completely adamant on what I do, and today, I had it taken out of my hands. And it was the wrong choice. And then, when I started to change my mind, they were already halfway through changing it, so I couldn't go back, because we never had enough time. And Marc got forced to change his as well."
The Flying Frenchman
Márquez' tire choice would only play out in the later part of the race. In the first few laps, all eyes were elsewhere. Johann Zarco quickly got to the front of the pack, then took a commanding lead. The Frenchman looked in total control of the race for five laps, making good on the promise he showed in Moto2 and during testing. He was quick and comfortable, but a small mistake at Turn 2 proved to be immensely costly. He got fractionally off line, and crashed out of the lead.
"It was a good start, a good first braking into the first corner, and I could see that I was feeling good compared to the other riders," Zarco said afterwards. "I’m happy that I could overtake the riders and then take the lead and try to go away. The feeling was good. I didn’t want to push more but it means that I was close to the limit and just a little bit wide in corner two. I crashed. It’s a shame for sure." He felt that a podium could have been possible. And with the way he was riding, who could argue with that?
Zarco is a slightly eccentric individual, and his very eccentricity is what allows him to be as fast as he is. He took heart from the first six laps of the race. "For the first race, starting in this way is good for the mind, good for the confidence. I could see how they are riding, how they can control and be clever during the race. It’s a good lesson for me."
The value of intelligence
It wasn't only Zarco that got a look at the fastest riders in the world, they also got a good look at him. The Frenchman and his Monster Tech 3 Yamaha teammate Jonas Folger had been the bane of Valentino Rossi's life during testing, and now he had a chance to study him at close range. "I expect Zarco to be in front, but not like this. Also it was my nightmare during the winter test because he was always in front!"
Rossi had been warned about Zarco by Franco Morbidelli, one of the riders in the VR46 Academy. "I was curious about his performance with the MotoGP because we always worked with Franco Morbidelli last year and he said that he did something special with the Moto2, especially in the last 10 laps. And he always said to me, pay attention, because he will be fast also with the MotoGP."
Cal Crutchlow had previously ascribed the success of Zarco and Folger to the fact that the Yamaha M1 is one of the easiest bikes on the grid to ride. Rossi also backed that theory. "The bike that they have is maybe a bit more easy to ride and is at a very high level: Yamaha I think is a great bike for arriving in MotoGP because it is a bike that is a friend of the rider. After in the race, with the pressure, they need time and experience, but they did a great job."
When Zarco crashed out, it looked like he had handed the race to Andrea Dovizioso. The factory Ducati rider was positioned perfectly to take advantage, and the Ducati is strong at the circuit, at least in the hands of riders with experience of the bike. But another Yamaha rider was quickly gaining speed. Maverick Viñales had started off steadily, not wanting to risk too much in the conditions early on after a couple of scares.
As he gained confidence, he closed in on the leaders, quickly catching them. The question was, would he be able to get past them? Despite his victory at Silverstone, there had been question marks over Viñales' ability to take the fight to other riders. Viñales dispelled those doubts in the most powerful manner imaginable. Facing a battle with Dovizioso, he knew he had to get past early in the lap, or the Italian would simply use the extra horsepower of the Ducati to power past along the straight.
Viñales dealt with that with fearsome precision. His pass on Marc Márquez had foreshadowed what was to come, holding the Repsol Honda rider off on the brakes into Turn 1. But the passes he put on Andrea Dovizioso were ice cold and surgical. Four times he had to worm his way past the Ducati through the flowing rear section of the track. Four times he found a way past, making inch-perfect passes earlier each time.
Turn 10 wasn't early enough to gap Dovizioso before the straight, and prevent being passed back. Neither was Turn 8, nor Turn 6. Finally, a textbook move at Turn 5 on the penultimate lap left him enough room to pull a gap Dovizioso was unable to close on horsepower alone. Viñales then put in his fastest lap of the race on the final lap to seal the deal. Viñales joins a small but illustrious group of riders who had won on their first outing after switching teams. The last time two times it happened was when Casey Stoner joined Ducati, and then again when he switched to Honda.
How should we assess Viñales' performance? Moving to Yamaha is the easiest move in the paddock, the bike the easiest to ride. But riding isn't enough: to extract every last ounce of performance from the bike is as hard on the Yamaha as it is on any other MotoGP machine. The journey to the peak may be less strenuous, the Yamaha's rideability offering a gentle slope to the top. But the peak itself is just as rarefied a place as on any other bike. Getting there may be easier, but staying there still demands an almost supernatural talent.
Does this mean that we can start to carve Viñales' name onto the trophy? It is way too early for that. Viñales' performance may have earned him Alien status, but there were mitigating factors at play. Marc Márquez was the absent elephant in the room. The Repsol Honda rider crossed the line in fourth, nearly seven seconds behind Viñales. But he did so after using the wrong front tire, and being unable to keep up at the front after half distance.
The hidden Honda
Márquez' problem (and the problem all the Honda riders have) was illustrated again and again coming onto the front straight. No matter who they were up against coming out of the final corner, they would always end up losing out. The Ducati was obviously destroying any motorcycle which had the temerity to approach, but the RC213V was being humiliated by every bike they encountered.
Márquez lost out to Andrea Iannone on the Suzuki GSX-RR. He lost out to Maverick Viñales and Valentino Rossi on the Yamaha M1. Dani Pedrosa even ended up struggling to match the speed off the corner of Aleix Espargaro on the Aprilia RS-GP. Espargaro is twenty centimeters taller, and as many kilos heavier than Pedrosa. Yet it was Pedrosa losing out in acceleration to Espargaro. Strange days indeed.
This will not always be so, however. Márquez has repeatedly said during testing that the Honda is in better shape than it was at the same time last year. The Honda still lacks acceleration, but the new engine itself appears to be a sounder proposition than the monstrous screamer engine they used last year. The trouble is that changing firing interval from screamer to big bang has changed the engine character so radically that HRC have basically had to start all over again with the spec electronics.
The thing is, they have done this once before. Last year, it took them until the summer break to figure out how to get the best out of the Magneti Marelli system. With a year of experience under their belt, the process should be much quicker. The Honda RC213V won't always be this difficult to ride. Once the acceleration of the bike is addressed, the Hondas are going to be a much tougher package. By about Mugello or Barcelona, Marc Márquez is going to be an even more formidable opponent than he already is.
An embarrassment of riches
With all these focus on the unfolding duel between Maverick Viñales and Marc Márquez – Qatar did nothing to dispel the notion that the championship will be fought out between these two – it is easy to overlook the performance of the other riders on the podium, and further down the grid. That does them, and the race, a disservice. A lot happened.
To put Andrea Dovizioso's performance down solely to the Ducati's horsepower is to understate the outstanding ride the Italian put in. Dovizioso grows along with the Ducati he has played an important part in shaping. The bike is powerful, but it is also excellent on the brakes. Dovizioso could brake later on the GP17 than he could on last year's bike. But it still does not turn as well as the Yamaha, which is what allowed Viñales to so thoroughly dissect him through the back section of the Losail circuit.
Ten is a magic number
As for Valentino Rossi, he was as surprised as anyone else to find himself on the podium. It had been a difficult weekend up until the race: old problems from testing had resurfaced on Thursday, which practice on Friday had only partially helped solve. The loss of all action on Saturday had been a blow, which the extra track time during warm up had not helped fix.
But the cooler temperatures and tricky conditions helped solve some of the problems he had. That, and a fix to the front end of the Yamaha allowed Rossi to brake a little better, rendering him competitive. Despite taking a knock at the start – Cal Crutchlow clipped the rear of Rossi's bike, damaging his rear camera, though the touch was merely the result of the typical first corner frenzy, rather than carelessness on the part of either rider – Rossi was quickly at the front after starting from tenth on the grid.
Does this mean that Rossi can make a run for a tenth Grand Prix title? He can make a run at one every year he is competing. But it doesn't get any easier each season. The Qatar race showed that 2017 has thrown up a new set of challengers. His teammate is getting on better with the 2017 bike, and other riders are dealing with the 2017 Michelin tires better. It won't be easy, and first he has to start winning races. Fortunately for the Italian, next up is Argentina, a track he loves.
Andrea Iannone had originally been part of the lead group, but he too had crashed out of the race. It was not entirely his own fault. He misjudged the slower corner speed of Marc Márquez' Honda, and found himself just a little too close. His front wheel touched the rear of Márquez' bike, and down Iannone went. Iannone's performance revealed that the potential of the Suzuki GSX-RR is high.
Where would he have been if he had not crashed? "I think we have a very good chance to fight for the podium," Iannone opined. "I think we could have finished very easily in third position." The strength of the bike lay in high corner speed it could develop, he said. "When you arrive at the angle the bike was unbelievable. It’s very fast turning and very fast with high speed." He hadn't felt comfortable on corner entry, and he was losing on corner exit, but he kept emphasizing the potential the bike has for improvement.
Alex Rins also demonstrated the strength of the Suzuki. The Spaniard won the battle of the rookies – at least, he did after Johann Zarco crashed out – finishing in ninth, just behind Jack Miller in eighth and fourteen seconds off the pace of the winner. He just beat Jonas Folger to the line. Both rookies excelled on their debut, up against stiff competition.
You win some...
Perhaps the most remarkable ride of the day went to Aleix Espargaro. On his first outing on the bike, the Spaniard took Aprilia's best result in MotoGP, crossing the line in sixth. He battled Dani Pedrosa for much of the race, beating him sometimes, losing out at others. But it is clear that Espargaro has bonded with the Aprilia RS-GP. It allows him to ride the bike the way he wants to, pushing the front aggressively. The Aprilia has come on in leaps and bound over the winter, and is close to being a genuinely competitive bike.
It is better in the race than during practice, according to Espargaro. "It's a real 'Sunday bike'", he said. "When the traction drops, the Aprilia is fantastic. This is something that is good, in every single track when it's very hot, and no one is able to go with the soft, I am able to go with the soft, so we'll have some advantage."
Espargaro's result saw him appear in Parc Fermé, as the best rider from an independent team. That rather exposed the bizarre situation that Aprilia are in. Because they did not enter separately, but came in in partnership with Fausto Gresini, as the Gresini Aprilia team, IRTA (who decided these things) regard them as an independent or private team, despite them being a factory effort. It behooves IRTA to put an end to this travesty. At the rate they are going Espargaro will be appearing in Parc Fermé by right, as part of the top three finishers.
… And you lose some
If there were a lot of positives to take from the weekend, there were also a few negatives. Not least the performance of Jorge Lorenzo on his first outing on the Ducati. To cross the line in eleventh, twenty seconds behind the winner and his teammate, is not the start Lorenzo will have had in mind. "Disappointing for sure," he said. "This was not the dream debut."
Lorenzo shouldered the blame for his result. He had made a mistake in Turn 4, coming in way too hot and running wide. He left the track in eighth, rejoined in sixteenth, and took his time to get up to speed again. He was capable of being fast for five or six laps, but once the tires dropped, he struggled. His fast laps were good enough to match the pace of the front. Lorenzo's problem was that he could do only six laps at that pace. After that, he dropped into the 1'57s and 1'58s.
When asked to compare himself with his teammate Andrea Dovizioso, Lorenzo highlighted his own weak points. "Especially the big difference is with old tires," Lorenzo said. "When the rear tire starts to drop, he is able to ride much better, probably using more the rear brake, or riding differently. With this bike, when I start losing the rear grip, I lose so much performance."
How does this bode for the rest of the season? The situation is probably not as bleak as it looks on paper. Going from the Yamaha to the Ducati is probably the most radical switch you can make. To go from a bike that is on rails, that requires smoothness and precision, to one which needs a lot more physical input to move around the track, and which has a propensity to move and wriggle underneath the rider, needs a totally different mindset. That transition is going to take Lorenzo a while to manage. But it is too early to say that it is beyond him.
The future is bright
There is much to write about in Moto2 and Moto3 as well, but that will have to wait for another day. The MotoGP race offered the promise of an outstanding season. The duel between Viñales and Márquez is unfolding as we might expect, with the added bonus of the fact that Márquez starts the season with just 13 points, trailing his younger compatriot by 12 points. Ducati have made a step forward, and Dovizioso is more than capable of holding the for until Lorenzo arrives to take up the challenge. If he manages to.
The MotoGP rookies are as sensational as hoped, at least the three on proven bikes are. Johann Zarco led his very first MotoGP race, and looked more than capable of winning it, such was the comfort with which he led. The fact that he didn't should not surprise us, it is one thing to lead, it is another to lead the last lap.
In Moto2, Franco Morbidelli made good on the promise he showed during the off season, beating Tom Luthi and Taka Nakagami easily. Miguel Oliveira took the brand new KTM Moto2 bike to fourth in its first outing. Meanwhile, further back, rookie Fabio Quartararo made an outstanding debut, wrapped in a duel with Luca Marini, the Italian also showing some real promise.
In Moto3, Joan Mir won the race in the same manner as Brad Binder, controlling the race throughout, and then striking at the end when he needed to. John McPhee took a commendable second place, the Scotsman paying off the faith placed in him by Dorna and the British Talent Team. Jorge Martin had a great start to the season, and Romano Fenati came back with a bang.
It is going to be a good year in Grand Prix motorcycle racing.
Gathering the background information for long articles such as these is an expensive and time-consuming operation. If you enjoyed this article, please consider supporting MotoMatters.com. You can help by either taking out a subscription, buying the beautiful MotoMatters.com 2017 racing calendar, by making a donation, or by contributing via our GoFundMe page.