You might call that a good start to the new season. There were four races held on Sunday at the Losail International Circuit in Qatar: three Grand Prix classes and race two of the Asia Talent Cup. All four would become titanic battles between riders, ending in searing duels to the line. Three of the four would be decided by less than three hundredths of a second. The fourth – Moto2 – would be decided by just over a tenth. The combined winning margin for MotoGP, Moto2, and Moto3 is just 0.162 seconds. Add in the Asia Talent Cup, and that takes the grand total to 0.175 seconds.
It seems fair to say we were treated to some insanely close races at Qatar. In Moto2 and Moto3, three riders broke away to contest victory among themselves. In both classes, an incident – a crash in Moto3, a technical problem with the rear brake in Moto2 – saw the trio whittled down to a duo, the race going all the way to the line.
The MotoGP race was even tighter, the closest finishing group ever at Qatar, with first place separated from seventh place by just 4.621 seconds, and from eighth by 7.112. The top three finished within a second, the top two by 0.027 seconds – a numerologically pleasing gap, given the race-winning machine.
This was the closest race in MotoGP that I can remember. The leaders streaked across the line to complete 22 laps on Sunday night, and on 11 of those laps, the gap between first and second was less than a tenth of a second. On another seven laps, the gap was between one and two tenths. On the remaining four laps, the gap was always under three tenths.
There was nothing to choose between the leaders, the winner impossible to identify even up until the final corner. It looked for all the world as if someone had tried to organize a MotoGP race, and a Moto3 race had broken out. A freight train of riders chased each other round the track for 22 laps, and at the end, two men fought it out in the last corner, with an entertainingly predictable outcome.
The 2018 race was like a condensed version of the 2017 season. Johann Zarco led the way in the early laps, the Monster Tech3 Yamaha rider repeating his feat from last year's race, though he held on for a good deal longer than in 2017. Tech3 team boss Hervé Poncharal sat watching the race on pit wall strung tight as a bow, his nerves slowly easing up once Zarco got past the six lap mark at which point he had crashed out last year.
Zarco looked like finally cracking his first MotoGP win for seventeen laps, but as he swept through the final corner and onto the front straight, his fate was sealed. Behind him, Andrea Dovizioso was winding up the Ducati GP18 ready to hit the nitrous button down the front straight. Zarco led across the line, but was immediately swamped by the Ducati as Dovizioso used his 10 km/h top speed advantage to take the lead.
Unfortunately for Zarco, Marc Márquez knew that he could not let Dovizioso get away. The reigning world champion got in the slipstream of the Ducati and wildly waggled his way past Zarco, touching the Frenchman, struggling to stop his fishtailing Honda RC213V, and nearly running wide in the attempt. It came close to ending in utter disaster for Márquez, but the Spaniard's outrageous skill just held it all together. It would not be the last time in the race.
"My target was try to control Andrea, because he was the fastest one," Márquez explained in the press conference. "My problem was when he passed Zarco I went behind him. It doesn’t matter when or where. He overtook Zarco. I just was behind him. I was on the limit, all in is what I said." It had been an insanely close call. "When Andrea overtook Zarco, I was just behind, but then I start to lose the rear. I touched Zarco. I released the brakes. I took the slipstream of Andrea. Then I couldn’t stop the bike. I went wide, but I stay on the corner. That was the key of the race, was the key point."
From that point on, Zarco was finished, and dropped through the field like a stone. Not because he started going so much more slowly – the Frenchman kept doing low 1'56s, the pace he had been lapping at for a few laps – but because the rest of the field found a sudden burst of speed. Dovizioso, Márquez, Valentino Rossi, Cal Crutchlow, Danilo Petrucci all suddenly started slamming in low 1'55s, gapping the Frenchman in the space of a couple of laps.
Afterwards, Zarco revealed that he had been hampered by a problem with his front tire. "I wanted to keep fighting for the rest, but with this front tire problem, I could not fight and then from this moment five laps to the end, I had to accept to take what I can," the Frenchman explained. "I got the best I could, I did what I could do, and when I have a technician from Michelin and also on my team saying that something has been wrong, it means that OK, the rider's job is done, then when you are doing this kind of sport, this can happen. I keep smiling, and anyway, eighth position when you have a problem, it means you are competitive. And I was leading the race, maybe I was slow but nobody overtook me, which means I was good today."
The problem was a lack of grip from his front tire, Zarco said. "It was sliding. Just sliding. You go into the corner and instead of turning, you go wide. Or if you want to turn you can crash. It was this kind of problem." He had had a few warnings early on in the race, but it got worse as the race went along. "It was much worse at the end of the race, but I had some alerts maybe after seven, eight laps," he said.
But Zarco took comfort in knowing that he was not that far away, despite his precipitate slide down the order. Leading the race had helped build his confidence, give him the belief he will need in races to come. "That's why I want to lead races," he explained. "The more I can do, the more it is becoming normal, and I think compared to last year, I was much more under control. So that was a great feeling. I was almost feeling slow, but as I say, if I am staying in front and nobody passes me, it means that we are not so slow, so happy for that."
Episode on repeat
The last five laps played out like they had twice last year. Andrea Dovizioso led, laying down a murderous pace which Márquez could follow, but not easily attack. Behind Márquez, Valentino Rossi had latched onto the leading duo, unsure he would be able to pass, but certain of taking advantage should it all end in tears.
It didn't, but on the final lap, it came very close. Unable to deny his nature, Márquez pushed to the limit to hunt Dovizioso down, launching an attack in the final corner of the last lap. In a carbon copy of the Red Bull Ring and Motegi last year, Márquez attacked, ran wide, and left the door open for Dovizioso to calmly sweep inside and drive away to the line to take victory.
"It was like deja vu," Márquez joked in the press conference. "Last corner with Andrea, I go in, go wide, he goes inside, and he wins the race." Yet Márquez was far from despondent at going three to nothing down in last corner battles with the Italian. "On the other hand, it's true that I lost this last lap, last corner battle in the worst circuits for us. Red Bull Ring, Motegi, here. So, if it is like this in the future, it will be okay. But then on the strong circuits, on my favorite circuits, then I need to attack there. I knew that I was on the limit, but I try. Now I can sleep well this night. If not, I cannot sleep."
That last corner battle is becoming something of an archetype, for both men. Márquez lunges wildly, Dovizioso parries calmly, having expected it all along. His description of the race bore out the inner calm which the Italian carries. "Our bike works very well in this track. Better than last year," he said. "I was able to play with the bike in a good way. I didn’t take any risks at the beginning. I saved the tire. Most of the time I wasn’t so close to the rider in front of me because I didn’t need to be."
"I was able to take every decision in a relaxed way and prepare everything for the last part of the race," Dovizioso continued, "Because everybody at the moment was saving the tire, there wasn’t a special rhythm in that moment. We did 1'55.2 at the end of the race and that time we arrived 1'55.6, 1'55.8 at the beginning of the race. So this means that everybody was going faster, but nobody can ride with that lap time, because nobody was able to finish the race in a good shape. I knew that and I managed the situation in a good way."
But Márquez' improved pace and the obvious improvement to the Honda was cause for concern, not just for Dovizioso but for the entire grid. The bike is clearly better than last year, easier to ride and consequently easier to manage. "I think this is the reality," Dovizioso opined, using a favorite phrase of his. "I think we confirmed we are more competitive than last year, but this race I think Honda’s riders confirmed they are also better than last year. Looks like that in the first round, so we will see."
Ducati team boss Davide Tardozzi was delighted with the win, the garage erupting with joy when Dovizioso crossed the line to take victory. "We are very happy about Dovi’s attitude," Tardozzi said. "He wants more. He has demonstrated that he is really not only a talented guy but a clever guy. He managed the race in a perfect way. That’s why we call him Professor Dovi. We are very happy."
Fast is better than safe
Valentino Rossi's third place was just rewards for a gamble that paid off for the Italian. He and his team had decided to scrap the idea of saving the tires, and chosen a setup for outright performance instead. "Yesterday in qualifying I was not very happy about the balance," Rossi said, "because we try some modifications to save the front tire. Yes, we can save the front tire, but then we lose the speed."
Forced to make a decision, Rossi erred on the side of speed rather than endurance. "Today I say, we try everything to go fast. After if the tire will last, it lasts. If not, ciao. We make a good step this morning. We improve the traction exit from the corners, and also I think that we work well also with the electronics. The good and the bad is that from one track to the other, the difference of the bike will be big also this year. So, nobody knows what will happen in Argentina."
Stiffer is better
Rossi's teammate had made an even more radical change which had worked out remarkably well. After a miserable time in the tests, where he was fast one day, nowhere the next, Maverick Viñales finally managed to persuade his crew to make the bike stiffer, fitting harder springs. It had transformed his ability to go fast on the bike, and he fought his way through from twelfth on the grid to finish sixth, and within a sniff of fourth, and perhaps even the podium.
"We didn't focus on the electronics for the race, we focused to find the setup. And actually it works," Viñales said afterwards. "We took the opposite direction to the test, we went harder in the front, stiffer on the rear. Something I really like and something I asked many times to do. Finally, we did it here and it's a good way."
The change also helped manage some of the wheelspin he had been suffering during testing. "For sure, it gets much better entering the corner and less shaking on the bike," he said. "So it's something I like. The bike is more stable and I can attack a little bit more the apex of the corners. A little more corner speed but also with the brakes. So I didn't make a lot of problems in the acceleration [area] because I gained in the middle of the corner. It's something I asked for many, many times. But we did it here on the race weekend."
It felt like he had wasted the entire off-season of testing over the winter, Viñales explained. "For me looking back it's like I lose three months because now the bike is totally different from the test. Chassis is the same but the way the setup is totally different. In the other direction. So still I need more confidence but the strongest point of the bike from last year comes again, which is the fast corners, and I'm quite happy."
Tire choice proved to be the difference between the podium and missing out for both Cal Crutchlow and Danilo Petrucci. Crutchlow had gone with the medium front rather than the hard front favored by the Repsol Honda riders. "I knew I would be able to manage the hard front in the race, but I didn't know what the result would look like," Crutchlow said. "If Dani and Marc use this tire, then I can usually use it. But I went with the medium. Maybe I could have finished one place further forward with the hard front. But I don't think so."
Petrucci had chosen the soft front rather than the medium front, the Ducatis capable of running much softer front tires than most of the other bikes on the grid. But the soft front had been a bridge too far, the Italian acknowledged. "I think I was the only one on the soft front, and it worked well in the race simulation, but in the race, I got overtaken a few times, because I had not so much turning power, and especially on braking, I was not as strong as always," Petrucci said.
The Italian was especially disappointed after finishing fifth. "I'm a little bit disappointed, because yesterday I said my target was top five, and I reached that," he said. "But I said top five because I didn't want to say the podium, but in reality I thought that Márquez and Dovi had something more, but I said, maybe third position is OK. I stayed in third position all weekend, had a good pace."
Blue is the color
Overall, the Qatar MotoGP race was full of promise. Suzuki went very well during the race, at least until Alex Rins crashed out, and Andrea Iannone was no slouch either. Rins was in the battle with the front eight, towards the latter half of that group, struggling to win a braking duel with Danilo Petrucci, but also soaking up the knowledge of the new GSX-RR.
"I’m happy because we learned a lot from this weekend," Rins said. "All the time we were on the top and put the Suzuki there. But in the race everything changed. I was starting from sixth position – my best result. Then the feeling with the clutch was not so good on the start. We missed a bit on the first lap. Then when I was with Dovi I was following him easy – well not very easy, but easy. Then when he started to overtake on the straight it was impossible for me to overtake him on brakes. I wasn’t competitive on the brakes today."
Rins had no real answer for why he struggled on the brakes when it was one of his strong points during the test. "Maybe the track wasn’t in the best condition. The feeling was not the same than in the test that we did here. We tried to put the bike in a perfect set up but today in the race with a full tank I didn’t feel really good."
Track? Tires? Temperature?
The question is whether the changing track conditions are actually responsible for the tire problems a number of riders reported. Johann Zarco blamed his precipitate fall on a problem with the front tire he had been given by Michelin. Dani Pedrosa believed a similar problem halted his chances of a good result, the Repsol Honda finishing seventh after he suffered spinning with the rear tire, which saw him drop from third after the first few laps.
"Unfortunately the rear was spinning a lot," Pedrosa said. "I couldn't really do better, I was losing a lot in corner 3 and the long left going up and some other corners in sector 4. Everybody was getting by me, and it was difficult. Lucky that I had the front so I could go hard on the front to keep the pace, but, you know, unfortunately yesterday I had one not so good tire in the qualifying, and one today in the race."
Was it really the tire, or was it the change in track temperature, grip, and feedback, as conditions changed radically between practice sessions and between days? Without having access to each rider's data, it is impossible to tell. We do know that Michelin occasionally has concerns over quality assurance, but that is something the French tire maker is constantly working on.
But it is also undeniably true that the track underwent considerable changes as the weekend went on. The wind changed direction completely from Friday to Saturday, a strong tailwind turning into a strong headwind down the front straight, dumping a sprinkling of sand onto the track into the bargain. Track temperatures varied from 42°C in FP3 to 23°C during the race, with the Moto2 race having deposited a nice layer of rubber on the track for the MotoGP bikes to use.
Pedrosa and Zarco were not the only people to complain about things not working the way they did on previous days. Alex Rins said the bike felt different on Sunday, though he had no complaints about the tires. Petrucci's tire didn't work as well during the race as it had during qualifying. All this highlights the complexity of tracking down a performance problem with a tire. There a dozens of factors which could be involved in a tire having reduced performance, only one of which is the tire itself.
If the MotoGP season looks like it might be heading for another Dovizioso/Márquez showdown, the support classes saw the title candidates immediately sifting the wheat from the chaff. In Moto2, Pecco Bagnaia got his first victory, finally living up to the hype which has surrounded him. Bagnaia, Lorenzo Baldassarri, and Alex Márquez got away in the early stages of the race, and were preparing to do battle over the podium places. But while Márquez and Baldassarri were battling over second, Márquez suffered a problem with his rear brake. The brake jammed on, slowing the Spaniard on his charge, and he could only pick up his pace again once the rear brake effectively ceased functioning. A brave effort saw Márquez retain third despite a valiant effort by Mattia Pasini to catch him.
In the Moto3 class, it was Jorge Martin's chance to show just how good he is. Martin escaped from the pack with Aron Canet and with Enea Bastianini. Bastianini crashed out, leaving Canet to take on Martin on his own. Try as he might, Canet simply could not get close enough to launch a proper full-on attack. The calmness with which Martin won the race was impressive. The young Spaniard still has a way to go.
What conclusions can we draw from the season opener? Firstly, that Andrea Dovizioso because the first Ducati to win the Qatar race since Casey Stoner in 2009, though the bike is unimaginably different between then and now. Dovizioso won by 0.027 seconds, a fitting tribute to Stoner's racing number, though the Italian certainly did so without any knowledge of it.
More worrying, we know that the Hondas are in excellent shape: no longer are they struggling to get into the top five, they are starting to go very well at tracks where they have traditionally had problems. If Marc Márquez is losing out to Andrea Dovizioso by less than three hundredths of a second at a track where the Honda is weak, just imagine what will happen once MotoGP gets to Austin. The consolation here is that Ducati has made a clear step forward as well.
The Suzukis are strong, as Alex Rins (and to a lesser extent, Andrea Iannone) demonstrate, but Rins is still catching up on the races he missed through injury last year. The GSX-RR is a radically more competitive bike than last year's machine, Suzuki's rivals have been warned.
The Yamaha situation is a complicated one. The riders are capable of overcoming some of the problems they have identified, though Qatar remains a very strange first race. Rossi's gamble on chasing performance over endurance paid off, though it is still far from certain this will work at every track.
Maverick Viñales is engaged in a battle of wills with his crew, but above all, with himself. He got his way to go back to a much older setting, making the bike a good deal stiffer than had been found during testing. They had fooled themselves during the preseason tests, Viñales said. "In testing, we fixed for a few laps, you know. With new tires, no fuel and crazy laps. But for the rhythm I've never felt like FP4 and the race." It sounds like Yamaha have found a way to give the nut between the handlebars a firm tweak, and that has delivered serious consequences.
But the main lesson we learned at Qatar is that MotoGP is closer than ever, and it was already ridiculously close. I have a feeling that we are in for another magic season. There is no reason to believe my hunch will not turn out to be right.
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