After the surprises and upsets of Jerez, everyone was wondering how realistic the picture was which had emerged, and how Rossi's 14th place would affect the standings. Qatar was Rossi's chance to set the record straight.
The trouble was, that the new generation of riders, which had elbowed their way to the front at Jerez, was showing signs of repeating this performance at Qatar. Although Pedrosa, who had shone at Jerez, was having a much harder time at Qatar, Stoner, the other newcomer who'd done so well in Spain, had led qualifying all weekend, and was the second youngest pole sitter since a certain Fast Freddie Spencer. Rossi, who had been battling chatter in Jerez, and during qualifying, was only 6th on the grid, not far enough ahead to be sure of avoiding getting caught in first corner tangles, like the one which had cost him so dearly two weeks ago. Then there was the small matter of Loris Capirossi, the winner in Spain and championship leader, on the Ducati, looking more and more like a championship winning machine all the time.
The wind, which was still very gusty, had dropped a little since the morning session, and the oil spill caused by Vermeulen's exploding Suzuki was not giving any problems, as the bikes lined up for the start. As the red lights dimmed, Stoner confirmed his form, getting a fantastic start, and the hole shot for the first corner. Rossi, in a determined attempt to avoid low-flying Eliases, had also got a fantastic start, and was close behind Capirossi and Hayden, following Stoner into the first corner, with a rocket-launched Nakano in his wake. Everyone seemed to get through the first corner safely, though a couple of corners later, Randy de Puniet and one of the d'Antin Ducatis ran wide and into the gravel. Round the back of the circuit, Rossi squeezed past Capirossi into 3rd, and Gibernau and Melandri passed Nakano, forcing the fast-starting Kawasaki rider back into 7th.
Along the main straight at the end of the first lap, Capirossi tried to take Rossi back, the Ducati's higher top speed reeling the Yamaha in, but some late braking kept Rossi in third. Stoner had built up an impressive gap at the front, but fellow rookie Pedrosa was struggling back in 11th. As the second lap progressed, Nakano slipped another place, as Edwards moved forward into 7th, the pair followed by Hopper, Elias, Pedrosa and Vermeulen.
The race then started to settle into a rhythm, with Stoner leading the way, and Hayden chasing him down, with Rossi, Capirossi and Gibernau in his wake. Kenny Jr, who had also been so fast in practice, was in a rather dismal 15th place, and Nakano slipped a couple more places, getting caught up in the battle between Elias and Pedrosa, the first of the fights Pedrosa found himself in with the Fortuna Hondas.
As Stoner led the pack onto the main straight for the start of lap 5, it was obvious that Rossi, who had set a new lap record of 1:57.305 on lap 3, was starting to catch Hayden, closing up at the end of the long straight. Then, in a repeat performance of Vermeulen's explosive morning display during the warm-up, Hopkins Suzuki blew, fortunately less spectacularly, and without dumping large quantities of oil on the track. Hopper's frustration with the Suzuki was clear, as he gave the bike a good kicking after parking it against a crash wall.
Rossi caught Hayden on lap 6, and they spent four corners swapping places, until Valentino finally settled the thrilling duel in his favour. This little contretemps allowed Capirossi and Gibernau to close the gap with Vale and Nicky, forming a close group just a fraction behind the storming Stoner. Behind this group, Edwards slipped a place, letting Melandri into 6th, with Elias and Pedrosa closing in behind the number 2 Yamaha rider.
After passing Hayden, Rossi set his sights on Stoner, and slowly started reeling him in over the next couple of laps, catching him on lap 8, but unable to pass him on the straight at the start of lap 9. Then, in a serious blow to Suzuki, Vermeulen entered the pits with a technical fault and retired. This was a very bleak result for Paul Denning's team, and the frustration is clearly starting to show.
On lap 10, Rossi finally got past Stoner, though Casey put on a brave show of resistance, finally running wide, and allowing Hayden, who was still within a second of the leading pair, to catch him. Before the race, Stoner had said that the key to being fast at Qatar was to keep the corner speed up, and not put too much pressure on the rear tyre on exit, to keep down wear, but at this stage, it was Hayden who seemed to be doing this, rather than Stoner. Hayden was clearly fighting the Repsol Honda less, whereas Stoner seemed to be tiring, or perhaps his tyres were wearing, but his lines were a lot less smooth, and he was sliding the bike a lot more than he had in practice.
At the start of lap 12, Hayden passed Stoner at the end of the main straight, but ran wide, allowing Stoner back up the inside, then corrected his line and retook Stoner to take second. Stoner lost touch with Hayden, as Capirossi started to close behind him, taking 3rd on the next lap.
Pedrosa, in the meantime, had got past Elias and was closing down Edwards, passing him on lap 11, and catching Melandri. This turned into just the start of an epic battle with Melandri, which lasted until the last lap of the race. Pedrosa got ahead of Melandri on lap 16, but only emerged the victor as they crossed the finishing line.
The situation stayed unchanged on paper until lap 19, but this belies the closeness of the race. Rossi had a clear lead, but never had more than half a second on Hayden, with Capirossi a second behind Hayden, Stoner a little over a second behind Loris, and Gibernau within half a second of Stoner. By this time, Hayden had closed in on Rossi, and passed him in what looked like a picture-perfect overtaking manoeuvre at the end of the straight.
As Hayden passed Rossi, Valentino did something strange. Something which can only be interpreted as a sign of supreme dominance, and confidence in his abilities. He sat up, and looked behind him, to see where Capirossi was. As he turned and crouched over the clip-ons again, he had lost virtually no ground on Hayden. It looked as if Rossi was deciding whether the pair had enough time on Capirossi to let Hayden lead for a while, to spare his own tyres and see where the best place was to take Nicky back again, or whether Loris would complicate matters. It seemed that Loris was too close, as at the end of the straight, at the start of lap 20, Rossi was back past Hayden with apparent ease.
Rossi proceeded to pull away for the win, a true champion's demonstration of prowess, and a worthy display to push his number of GP victories past Mick Doohan's 54. He crossed the line 0.9 of a second ahead of Hayden, very happy, and visibly relieved to have got back to winning form. Capirossi followed half a second behind Nicky to take the last podium spot.
Sadly for Stoner, Gibernau got past him on the penultimate lap, to take fourth. Pedrosa won his slugging match with Melandri for 6th, Melandri's team mate Elias finishing 8th. Edwards had slipped to 9th in a lacklustre show, followed by compatriot Kenny Roberts Jr in 10th, who had recovered from a poor start. Nakano's race had been a mirror image of KR JR's, slipping from a fantastic start to finish 11th. Checa came in a creditable 12th, with James Ellison an excellent 13th, ahead of Makoto Tamada's disastrous 14th, followed by the d'Antin Ducatis of Hofmann and Cardoso, who had complained bitterly all weekend that they had not had enough tyres from Dunlop.
The Qatar race provided a number of fascinating lessons. Firstly, that you should never, ever discount Valentino Rossi. He is still the best rider at managing a race, conserving his tyres, and pushing when he needs to. He is still the champion, despite the coming of the young pretenders. He was obviously relieved to have broken the jinx of Jerez, and it was an obvious confidence-boost to the man who barely needs it. But it was also a display of mastery: at the post-race interview, he said they were still having problems when grip is 100%, but "when tyres start to slide, I have good control".
HRC seemed to have found some improvements, as Nicky looked much smoother and more comfortable than at Jerez, or even during qualifying. It looks like they are starting to find their way, and Nicky is starting to look like he can develop the bike after all. Pedrosa's strong showing on a track he doesn't like is also a positive sign for the Repsol Honda team. In contrast to Jerez, Pedrosa was strong all the way to the end of the race, so once he's back on tracks he likes, he's going to be challenging very hard.
Capirossi was happy with the result, describing this as the worst track for the Bridgestone-shod Ducatis all year, giving them confidence for the coming races. Gibernau also looked relaxed after the race, and this result will have boosted his confidence, strengthening his rather fragile mental state, a good omen for the next few races.
Melandri will be relieved to finish ahead of Elias, though I think the team will be disappointed not to have been further ahead, especially with Elias starting from the front row of the grid.
Edwards was disappointing, and will have to do better if he wants to renew his contract at the end of the year. But if Yamaha find a solution to the chatter problems, then he should return to the front of the pack again.
Roberts put on another dependable display, despite a poor start, and the bike is definitely showing promise. I think KR JR will also be bolstered by his good showing in practice, and it's going to be interesting to see what happens as they improve the chassis.
Kawasaki will be glad to leave Qatar, after a mildly disastrous weekend. Nakano started brilliantly, but slipped a long way. His lap times are amazingly consistent, lapping at 1:59 for 19 of the 22 laps. Unfortunately, the front runners were putting in 1:57s and 1:58s.
But Kawasaki's weekend is nowhere near as disastrous as Suzuki's. Both bikes out of the race with mechanical problems, and 6 engines destroyed is not a good score by anyone's standards, and hard questions are going to have to be asked about the direction of the project.
The Tech 3 Yamaha did well, performing better than one might expect of them, but it's obvious that Dunlop still have a long way to go to build a winning race tyre. And a long way to go to be able to even provide a decent level of race support, if the d'Antin Ducati team is to be believed.
The biggest disappointment to me, though, is Makoto Tamada. He had a difficult season last year because of injury, recovering well in the second half, and an outstanding season before that on Bridgestones, but he has been dire this season, without an obvious reason. He will have to improve radically if he does not want to be looking for work.
1 46 Valentino Rossi ITA Yamaha 43'22.229 163.742
2 69 Nicky Hayden USA HONDA 43'23.129 163.686 0.900
3 65 Loris Capirossi ITA Ducati 43'23.723 163.648 1.494
4 15 Sete Gibernau SPA Ducati 43'26.867 163.451 4.638
5 27 Casey Stoner AUS HONDA 43'29.804 163.267 7.575
6 26 Dani Pedrosa SPA HONDA 43'33.049 163.064 10.820
7 33 Marco Melandri ITA HONDA 43'34.013 163.004 11.784
8 24 Toni Elias SPA HONDA 43'41.710 162.525 19.481
9 5 Colin Edwards USA Yamaha 43'45.149 162.313 22.920
10 10 Kenny ROBERTS USA KR211V 43'56.515 161.613 34.286
11 56 Shinya Nakano JPN Kawasaki 43'57.545 161.550 35.316
12 7 Carlos Checa SPA Yamaha 44'11.474 160.701 49.245
13 77 James Ellison GBR Yamaha 44'23.698 159.964 1'01.469
14 6 Makoto Tamada JPN HONDA 44'33.007 159.406 1'10.778
15 66 Alex HOFMANN GER Ducati 44'44.280 158.737 1'22.051
16 30 Jose Luis CARDOSO SPA Ducati 44'56.047 158.044 1'33.818
71 Chris Vermeulen AUS Suzuki 14'08.367 159.808 15 laps
21 John Hopkins USA Suzuki 8'04.022 160.058 18 laps
Not finished first lap
17 Randy de Puniet FRA Kawasaki