New season, more challengers, shrinking gaps throughout the field and the result is exactly what we were served with in 2017, with the gentlemanly rivalry between Andrea Dovizioso and Marc Marquez picking up at its highest point. In a déjà vu from Motegi and Austria, the race was decided in the final turn, with a wild trademark lunge from the reigning world champion and a typically measured response from the Ducati man. Third time unlucky for Marquez and Dovizioso went on to finally win the first race of the season after testing the waters for the past couple of years.
Losing is not a feeling Marquez accepts often but a podium was the best Honda would’ve hoped for and, in his words, the Spaniard will go to bed happy knowing he at least tried. Valentino Rossi fought his best to keep Losail a Yamaha track but the final podium position was as good as he could muster at the flag, proving once again that eighth place on the grid is his lucky charm.
Marquez and poleman Johann Zarco disputed the lead at the start, with Dani Pedrosa joining them right away despite both Hondas entering the playground on the harder front tyre. Front row man Danilo Petrucci had a less than ideal start, the Italian dropping behind Rossi and ahead of Cal Crutchlow. Rossi had progressed from eighth to fourth halfway through lap one while Dovizioso got swallowed by the pack to drop into eighth position. Alex Rins also lost some places to trail the Italian, while Jorge Lorenzo and Maverick Viñales each lost three places at the start and were fighting to return to the top ten.
Marquez continued to harass Zarco at the front but the Frenchman was not intimidated in the slightest. Rossi slipstreamed Pedrosa at the beginning of lap three, while Dovizioso fired in the fastest time amongst the leaders. With the top ten keeping in close proximity, Rossi was eager to get past Marquez, while Petrucci wanted past Pedrosa. The Pramac man copied Rossi’s move on the small Spaniard one lap later and found himself knocking on the doors of the podium, with Rossi three tenths ahead. Meanwhile, Pedrosa looked to be struggling and was soon overtaken by Crutchlow and Dovizioso, the Italian continuing to run the hottest pace on show. Pedrosa was losing touch with the lead group slightly and got embroiled in a battle with the Suzukis and Jack Miller.
Back at the front, Zarco was maintaining a three-tenth gap to the two world champions behind him and Marquez unwillingly handed over the task of chasing him down to Rossi on lap six. The Honda man had no choice but to call a truce on the Yamahas for now and fend off Petrucci instead. Crutchlow, Dovizioso and Rins completed the lead group, half a second ahead of Pedrosa, Miller and Andrea Iannone. Another second down the road, Lorenzo and Viñales were each running in clear air.
Proving his status as race favourite, Dovizioso started his charge on lap eight, picking up Crutchlow and Petrucci and hunting down Marquez, who was giving the two leading Yamahas a bit of a breather. Rossi thought about an attack on a few occasions but the Tech 3 man held strong and the status quo was maintained in a proverbial calm before the storm to the midpoint of the race.
Marquez got bored of the peace and quiet and got back through on Rossi when the top two went a bit wide, Dovizioso taking his chance and pushing the Yamaha another place down, not leaving Marquez out of his sights. So eager was the Italian that he made it past the world champion barely half a lap later, in a double slipstream at the end of the straight.
At the halfway point, the still massive front group was “slowing down” into the 1:56s, and Rins was the first to blink in turn two, crashing out of a top six position, setting an example for Lorenzo to do the same soon after.
Despite the hot pace of Dovizioso, Zarco wanted to bolt at the front, with the gap increasing to half a second for the first time, making Marquez pick up the task of reeling him in after a move on Dovizioso in turn six. The Spaniard got within a tenth of a second from the lead but fell victim to the dreaded slipstream with eight laps to go, the factory Ducati blasting past him once again. Rossi, Crutchlow, Pedrosa and Petrucci were the other men hanging in the lead group, with Viñales kicking himself for the poor first lap back in eighth, two and a half seconds down. The Yamaha man still had reason to hope, showing impressive pace and being one of the few dipping into the 1:55s at this point of the race.
With the overwhelming sensation that everyone was just biding their time, Zarco continued to lead, despite having shown none of this rapid pace in practice. The Frenchman finally fell victim to Dovizioso with five laps to go, the opportunist reigning world champion following him in the slipstream and almost ending up in the gravel trap at turn one. As the Spaniard was casually pulling it back together, Rossi made it past the satellite Yamaha as well. As Petrucci and Pedrosa were starting to fade from the lead group, Viñales was swallowing down the tenths of a second keeping him away from the podium fight and was right on their tails with three laps remaining.
Zarco looked to have eventually run out of grip in the final two laps, falling behind Crutchlow, Petrucci, Viñales and eventually Pedrosa, but no such problems for Dovizioso, Marquez and Rossi who started setting red hot sectors. The Yamaha veteran was working wonders to keep with the two leaders and the Jaws music started playing on the last lap, in a déjà vu of all the memorable fights between last year’s main title rivals.
The Honda man was struggling to keep up with the Ducati’s speed and although he was close enough to smell burning rubber from the Italian, the classic lunge at the final corner was desperate but ultimately unsuccessful and the Italian finally got his much awaited win in Qatar. Rossi crossed the line seven tenths behind the feisty duo, with Cal Crutchlow the best of the rest two seconds down the road.
Petrucci could not keep up with the leaders despite the front row start and ended up fifth, narrowly ahead of Viñales, in a tale of 'what could have been' for both riders. Pedrosa completed the top seven, with Zarco dropping over two seconds to the Spaniard for eighth place, little reward after leading so much of the race. Iannone was the only finishing Suzuki in ninth place, with Miller making his Ducati debut in the top ten. The honour of fastest rookie went to Franco Morbidelli in twelfth place.
Dovizioso leaves Losail with the lead in the championship, with his arch enemy and begrudging friend Marquez close behind and with Rossi starting the campaign for that evasive tenth title from third in the standings.