The night schedule at Qatar means that writers and journalists end the weekend in a state of utter exhaustion. To bed at dawn for a few hours fitful sleep, up around noon, off the to the track for a full day’s – or night’s – work, then do the same thing over again. Race day is worse, the schedule is tougher, the adrenaline rush greater, the comedown even bigger. And there’s usually about twice as much work to do as well. It is still the greatest job in the world, of course, but it makes you long for sleep a couple of times a year. Qatar race-night round ups tend to be terse, and given my usual verbosity, this is no bad thing.
The races. The Moto3 race looked a lot like a 125cc race with a different soundtrack. The great thing about Moto3 is that with a level playing field, we get a slighly different cast of characters, but the best riders remain at the top. The winner’s name had been pencilled in since the preseason, Maverick Vinales clearly the cream of the crop in the most junior Grand Prix class. Third man Sandro Cortese was another podium regular, but sandwiched in between was Romano Fenati, a rookie to the class and a name few people who had not been following the preseason testing or the European 125cc championship will have heard of. Fenati is the real deal, giving a sterling account of himself and only wilting under the relentless pressure from Vinales at the very end.
Moto3 also taught an interesting lesson: The fastest bikes were the KTMs, with 5 KTMs topping the maximum speed charts, followed by 4 Kalex KTMs. Yet the race-winning FTR Honda of Vinales was some 10 km/h down on the KTMs, and still managed to win. Sandro Cortese – Red Bull KTM rider on a factory KTM – explained that though KTM had done a great job of building the Moto3 bike, it did not have the handling of the FTR Honda. The FTR had better corner entry, and more traction on corner exit, making the KTM’s top speed irrelevant.
In Moto2, we saw a thriller, the kind of race that has motorcycle racing fans all over the planet salivating at the thought. The battle went down to the wire, and only a controversial pass saw the race settled, Marc Marquez passing Thom Luthi and then pulling across and onto Luthi’s line. The move went unpunished, not, as the conspiracy theorists would have you believe, because of the flag on his passport, but because the pass was within the limits of the rules. Marquez was past, or had reason to believe he was, and so pulled across to take the correct line for Turn 1. Luthi had pushed to hold on once Marquez came past, and was not quite completely behind the Spaniard after Marquez had come by. He found Marquez encroaching on his line, and instead of sitting up just enough to slow himself down and then dive up the inside of Marquez, he stayed where he was and got pushed wide. Afterwards, Marquez apologized, though he mitigated his behavior by saying that he himself had just been victim of a whole pile of just those kind of aggressive passes before he made his move on Luthi.
But Marquez’ victory should worry Thom Luthi deeply. Luthi has show much more maturity and aggression so far this season, and is clearly a title favorite. But if Marquez is already beating him after just 5 days on the bike following a very long layoff after surgery to fix the eye he injured in Sepang, then we can start to pencil Marquez’ name in for the championship already. Marquez is Moto2′s alien, and he should move up to MotoGP as quickly as he possibly can.
The racing in MotoGP was greatly improved, but not by the tires going off, as I had at first believed. An attack of arm pump had slowed Casey Stoner up, causing him to change his riding style, rolling through the corners rather than driving through them aggressively, in an attempt to last as long as possible. It worked for a while, but in the end, Stoner had to surrender to the pain, allowing Jorge Lorenzo and Dani Pedrosa past. Lorenzo worked hard for the victory, and it was well-earned, but perhaps the most heartening sight was that of Dani Pedrosa badgering away at Lorenzo like a terrier, looking as aggressive as he has been since his 250 days.
With Stoner out with arm pump, was this a Pyrrhic victory for Stoner? Not really, as although Stoner might have had the pace to win if he hadn’t had arm pump, his margin of victory would not have been that significant, at a track where Stoner has dominated in the past few years. The Yamaha M1 is competitive on race day as well as testing, and Lorenzo is in the form of his life. With a revitalized Pedrosa joining in the fray, this could be a good year.
Stoner explained afterwards that a combination of lack of attention to preparation, new gloves and Qatar’s layout – lots of right hand turns followed by lefts, meaning that you have to brake, push, flick the bike upwards to get it turned and then brake again, several times a lap – had caused the onset of arm pump. He had been forced to abandon his previous gloves, as they were worn out after 7 months of intensive use. New gloves are always that little bit stiff, and really need breaking in beforehand – Ben Spies has his crew chief Tom Houseworth walk around in his new gloves, to stretch them out a little. Any extra effort on top of racing a MotoGP bike can be enough to start arm pump, so precautions need to be taken to avoid such effort.
Stoner was not too concerned about the arm pump, as he said it was an issue he had successfully addressed back in 2010, at Silverstone. He was typically coy on exactly how he did it, hinting only that it was something to do with nutrition. More training was definitely not the way, however, as adding muscle will actually increase the chances of it occurring, Stoner said.
Behind the front runners – a long way behind the front runners – came what looks like turning into the battle of the season. Cal Crutchlow and Andrea Dovizioso are teammates at the Monster Tech 3 Yamaha team, but both intend to progress beyond their current station. As the first person you have to beat is your teammate, and as Dovizioso and Crutchlow are surprisingly evenly matched, on the evidence of Qatar, this could turn into a humdinger. Herve Poncharal told a small group of journalists afterwards that he had watched the battle in terror, exhilarated to see his riders do so well, but terrified that one would take the other out and both would score nothing.
Down in 10th, there was a colorless, uninspired Valentino Rossi, and the tension of running around a very, very long way off the podium is starting to tell. According to reports in the Italian media – the best being over on the ever-reliable GPOne.com - after the race, Rossi had a go at Ducati, saying that this bike had the same problems and that they were not listening to his requests. He had had the pace for 5th, Rossi claimed, but frankly, that was not what he was in MotoGP for. He wanted podiums and more, and Ducati were not providing him with the tools he needs to do the job.
Meanwhile, five seconds ahead of him, Nicky Hayden is getting on and doing his job. The Ducati has improved enough for Hayden to start to ride it, and the Kentucky Kid has never been called out for a lack of effort. Hayden has what he has, and is trying to get the best out of it, regardless of whether it is ideal or not. Rossi’s crew has been reduced to copying Hayden’s settings, to see if that will help the Italian. The last time that happened was at Yamaha, when Jorge Lorenzo and Ramon Forcada were beating the combination of Rossi and Jerry Burgess. And Rossi and Burgess have so far been unable to replicate what Casey Stoner and Cristian Gabbarini have done, even on the carbon fiber chassis which Ducati – under the advice of Rossi – have since written off as a failed experiment.
The Rossi / Ducati marriage is starting to turn sour. Rossi massively underestimated just how good Casey Stoner was on the bike, as indeed did Ducati, it appears. Ducati have worked and are working overtime to bring new updates to the bike, but whether those changes will help remains to be seen. With Rossi looking and sounding totally unmotivated, even if they brought a great bike for him, you would have to wonder whether he would have the hunger still in him to ride it.
Valentino Rossi is a man of great character, great charm and great wit. He has faced his vale of tears at Ducati with massive dignity, undertaking his PR duties without complaint – for the most part. But increasingly, when speaking to the press, he looks like a man playing a part, playing the part of a witty, charming rake. He appears to have lost heart in this project, and perhaps even in motorcycle racing. And that is very, very sad indeed.
Photo: © 2012 Scott Jones / Scott Jones Photography – All Rights Reserved
This article was originally published on MotoMatters, and is republished here on Asphalt & Rubber with permission by the author.