Qatar is always a strange place to kick off the MotoGP season: a windswept circuit in the middle of the desert (though not for long, as the suburbs of Doha are rapidly approaching the track), racing under the floodlights, around a circuit with just a single grandstand a VIP pavilion. It is an odd location with a weird atmosphere. The race feels surreal, part of a science fiction spectacular, an impression reinforced as you drive back to Doha afterwards, the huge Blade Runner-esque skyscrapers awash with ever-shifting patterns of blinking lights.
You would think that the season opener couldn't get much odder, but series organizer Dorna has found a way. In response to complaints of dew forming after 9pm in the evening, rendering the track treacherous (and incidentally, buying room to run the race later at night should a rain shower threaten to upset the apple cart), the race times have been shifted. MotoGP is now the only class that runs in the dark, with FP2, qualifying, and the race all taking place after sunset. Moto2 and Moto3 will both practice and race during daytime.
The unfortunate side effect to the new schedule is that MotoGP now has two radically different sets of conditions. FP1, FP3, and Warm Up all take place around 3pm, when the sun is still hot and the track is scorching. FP2, FP4, qualifying, and the race all take place after dark, once air and track temperatures have dropped by a significant margin. It is not quite as bad as Moto2, however: the intermediate class holds FP2 and qualifying after dark, but will race at 5:20pm, 25 minutes before sunset. They will start the race in sunlight, finish it in the dark, and heaven knows what the difference in track temperatures will be between the start and the end of the race.
For MotoGP, the new schedule means that the early sessions are all pretty much meaningless. "You can't really get any useful data, because the track is so much slower when it's so hot," Wilco Zeelenberg, rider coach to Maverick Viñales told me. The teams will be using up the tires they can't race, trying to get a feel for the state of the track, before working in earnest on setup once it gets dark. Is that a problem? "Not really, we got a lot of work done at the test," Zeelenberg said.
Too close to call
Traditionally, Qatar is a Yamaha track. A Yamaha has won six of the last eight races at the Losail International Circuit. The track has everything the Yamaha does well: a lot of fast corners and difficult changes of direction, places where smart riders can carry a lot of corner speed. Maverick Viñales won there last year, on his first time out on the M1.
Can Viñales do it again? The omens from preseason testing are not good. The Spaniard struggled a little in testing, finding some speed at Qatar, but still only finishing fifth overall, with a Honda and a Ducati ahead of him. But a Yamaha might still win: Johann Zarco left the test as fastest overall, while Valentino Rossi was second behind the Frenchman, but laid down a fierce pace in his final long run.
Then again, Qatar has also been pretty good to Ducati. Casey Stoner won here three times in a row between 2007 and 2009, and Andrea Dovizioso has finished second for the past three years. Losail is also one of Jorge Lorenzo's favorite tracks, though the Spaniard struggled in 2017, his first race on a Ducati which turned out to be a little harder than he had expected. The Ducati is better again than it was last year, Dovizioso finishing third at the test two weeks ago, with little to choose between them.
The Honda has not always been the best fit at Qatar. Sure, Casey Stoner won in 2012, and Marc Márquez in 2014, but it has been a tough couple of years for HRC at the season opener. But this year could be different. "I'm quite happy about the performance in the preseason," Dani Pedrosa commented, despite a crash in which he had injured his hand. A Honda in good shape can at least stay in the fight until the end of the race. And judging by Cal Crutchlow's pace at the test, the Honda is in very good shape indeed.
Even the Suzuki looks strong at Qatar. Both Andrea Iannone and Alex Rins were in the top eight, the gaps to the front relatively small. The bike has taken a big step forward from last year, as have both riders. So picking a favorite for Qatar is actually pretty hard. Not least because the gap between the different riders and different bikes is so small.
Close, but no sigar
The closeness of the field can be quite deceptive. When I asked Wilco Zeelenberg about Maverick Viñales' preseason, Zeelenberg rejected the idea that the young Spaniard had been struggling. When the gaps are so small, with 10 or more riders within half a second of each other, a very good lap time can still leave riders lounging at the bottom end of the top ten. So yes, Zeelenberg conceded, maybe Viñales is not where he would want to be on the timesheets. But he is much closer in times than he is in terms of position.
Just how close is the field in MotoGP? The riders in the press conference were asked for their favorite to win the 2018 title. They were unable to point to a clear favorite. Marc Márquez had perhaps the best excuse not to. "I don't want to say, because I didn't say Dovizioso last year," the Repsol Honda joked. But the consensus was pretty clear. There are five or six strong riders, Dovizioso said, describing the championship as "completely open".
Valentino Rossi was even more uncertain. There are eight, nine, maybe ten riders who could win the title, the Italian said. "This is the most balanced season ever," he said. Most of all, the riders said, it was too early to say. A lot can happen, and there is plenty of time for a surprise or two. "The situation will be more clear race by race," Andrea Iannone commented. As the races go by, the riders drop out of contention one by one. Until then, anything could happen.
That tire thing
Similar excitement last year had driven the teams – most notably Repsol Honda, if paddock rumor is to be believed – to ask Dorna and Michelin to fix the tire allocation, a request Michelin dutifully obliged. Now, the teams and riders know exactly which tires they will have at each of the nineteen races this season.
Opinion was divided on whether this was a good thing or not. Valentino Rossi felt that it was. "It is similar to the Bridgestone time because Bridgestone had a very high potential but not much development in the last four or five seasons, so the tires were always the same," the Italian veteran told the press conference. "For me it is good. It can be positive or negative but I think the tires have reached a good level so I think it is good to have the same tires for the season."
Andrea Dovizioso was in two minds about it. He appreciated the stability of a fixed tire allocation, but it also introduced an element of chance, he said. "In one way you have to be a bit lucky because your tire has to fit your bike and your riding style. On the other side it is positive because you have stability and able to work more on the bike. It is a balance like always with positive and negatives." Riders would only find out at the race weekend whether the rules were going to help them or hinder them that particular Sunday.
Given that Honda is believed to have been behind having the tire allocation fixed for the season, Marc Márquez was remarkably negative about it. " I am not happy and I don’t agree with it because it depends on the season, and we have some new tires that we don’t know how they will fit on other tracks," the Repsol Honda rider asserted. It was strange that they were able to make changes to the bike and go back and forth, but were stuck with the tires whether they worked or not, he pointed out. "We need to have some flexibility as we have some flexibility inside the team as we can try a new thing but maybe come back to the old one, so maybe we also need to have that with the tire choices as well."
Cal Crutchlow, often a thorn in Michelin's side, was deeply unhappy about the whole affair. "The tire allocation is an absolute joke, just the worst thing that we've ever seen," he fumed. "This frozen allocation thing, now that they've told us what we're getting the next two races, honestly, you don't even know whether it's pointless to turn up. Five guys might choose the wrong tire and not finish, five guys might choose too soft a tire and fade backwards, and five guys might just cruise around three seconds slower than everyone else and be the top five guys at the end of the race. You have no idea, because it's so up and down."
The biggest problem as far as Crutchlow was concerned was quality control, however. "For example, I went out here the other day with a tire that I'd used for 26 laps, I came in and put a new set of tires, and I couldn't get within two seconds of the old used tire, and it was brand new," Crutchlow said. "The same tire. So what happens if I selected that for the race? What happens if I selected it for qualifying? And then, I came back in, I took another one, straight away, no problem. I think the quality control is really really really a problem. They'll say that it's not, but we can sit there and show them data all day long."
But freezing the allocation at the start of the season was also a non-starter for Crutchlow. "There has to be a better system than this, there has to be," he claimed. "You'll see races ruined I think by people not being able to finish races or manage, just because it's freezing cold but they've had to use the harder tire. Or the opposite, tires lasting two laps because it's six stages too soft for their bike. Don't forget they've only got a certain amount of pieces of that one. So if I look at this weekend's allocation, I've got five tires. It's as simple as that."
The saving grace of the situation was that everyone could expect to be affected just as badly (or positively), Crutchlow told us. "We have to manage the situation like everyone else."
Yamaha's happy conundrum
Perhaps the biggest news from Thursday – and the least surprising – is that Valentino Rossi signed on for two more years with Yamaha. His new contract will see him racing through the 2020 season, meaning he will be on the bike at least three more years. And he did mean "at least three more years". Rossi hinted strongly that he wanted to keep racing for as long as he was still competitive. "I saw a lot of great riders and also drivers stop at the maximum of their career like Schumacher, Biaggi or Bayliss but I think not everyone was happy about that," he said. Some of those came back to racing in later years, Rossi explained. "Schumacher and Bayliss came back to the track so I have decided I will race to the end, I don’t want to think in the future maybe I can do another season or two." That may be a risk to his legacy, if he started to fade away, but that was a risk worth taking, Rossi said.
There were plenty of reasons for Yamaha to allow Rossi to stay on, Yamaha Motor Racing boss Lin Jarvis told reporters. "There are so many reasons, it’s difficult to give one. Because of everything he brings to Yamaha and the sport and the team, because of who he is. That’s the motivation. But I would also like to add that he is still highly competitive and absolutely a top rider capable of winning."
Jarvis was very forthcoming about a number of subjects, of which more tomorrow. But he let slip one little tidbit which proved to be extremely illuminating. Yamaha only discovered that Tech3 would be leaving them to take KTMs in 2019 when they started talking to Tech3 boss Hervé Poncharal about taking on Pecco Bagnaia. "The reason we eventually discovered that Tech 3 would change was because we considering whether we could take and place Bagnaia," Jarvis told us. "When we found that maybe we would be interested in that, we found the team couldn’t accept it."
The fact that there are so many competitive factories meant that Yamaha found themselves fishing behind the net. "From a sporting side, it’s a positive development," Jarvis said. "The reality is KTM is going to supply the Poncharal team. So if you are Dorna it’s great. We have six manufacturers now in the game and six manufacturers now ready to supply satellite teams. But for us it broke a relationship that existed for 20 years. Did we know that it was a threat? Did we see it coming this early? No. Are we glad we discovered it so early? Yes, because now we can at least plan for an alternative." What that alternative will be remains to be seen. But there will be people breaking Lin Jarvis' door down at Qatar to provide him with that alternative.
Gathering the background information for detailed 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, by making a donation, or by contributing via our GoFundMe page.