What was the big story of the MotoGP season opener in Qatar? It’s obvious: The Doctor is back. After a failed pass on Andrea Dovizioso, in which he ran wide and hit his brake lever protector on the back of Dani Pedrosa’s rear tire. “The protection saved me, because for sure I crash [without it]” he said afterwards.
He upped the pace and chased down the group containing Dani Pedrosa, Marc Marquez, and Cal Crutchlow, passed them all, and after a thrilling battle with Marquez, went on to take second place in his first race back with Yamaha. If anyone thought that Rossi might have lost it, this was the race in which he proved that he was still capable of being at the front, the only condition being that he has a decent machine underneath him.
That reading of the race, though both attractive and seductive, is not the complete picture. Viewed with a more jaundiced eye, Rossi was comprehensively thrashed by his teammate – “In this weekend, I think it is impossible to beat Lorenzo,” he admitted.
Closing down on a group being held up by a struggling Pedrosa, who had been troubled by a lack of rear grip all weekend, Rossi then had enormous difficulty dealing with a MotoGP rookie, racing for the first time in the class. Is that beautiful palace on the horizon real, or was it just a mirage, a trick of the light in the desert?
A little bit of both. First things first: Jorge Lorenzo was impossible to beat this weekend. He did nothing wrong from the moment he took to the track, carrying on in 2013 where he left off in 2012. “It’s like he’s not human,” Rossi said of his teammate. Lorenzo reigned supreme at Qatar, like an Emperor sent to Earth by the gods to rule motorcycle racing. Unfortunately, his overwhelming dominance did not gain his sponsors much TV time, as Dorna’s TV production unit concentrated instead – quite rightly – on the thrilling battle behind.
Rossi was also helped by Dani Pedrosa. The Repsol Honda man was hampered by a lack of rear grip, which is crucial to getting the RC213V to turn. Just how badly he was affected is obvious from the timesheets: where Jorge Lorenzo was 4.4 seconds faster over race distance than he was in 2012, Pedrosa was a full 4 seconds slower.
Pedrosa’s saving grace – and a disadvantage for his rivals – was the fact that the Honda’s power makes it very difficult to get past. As Cal Crutchlow has been saying all weekend, the high corner speed sweeping lines the Yamaha uses to go fast are no good if you are behind the Honda.
The RC213V needs to square-off the corner, and use its grip and power to fire out of the corner and accelerate away. It is, in a very limited form, the same problem which the old Honda 500cc V twins, and the Proton KR triple faced when up against the V4 500cc two-stroke bikes. Sweeping lines may be the fastest way around the track, but that won’t necessarily win you the race, if you get stuck behind a more powerful bike which is using a point-and-shoot style, and is robbing you of your corner speed.
While Crutchlow struggled to get by, Rossi had a lot less difficulty. “He was able to make a pass because he’s so aggressive,” Crutchlow observed, having watched the process from behind. Marc Marquez also struggled to get past his teammate, though Crutchlow put that down to choice, not a lack of ability. “Marquez was better than Pedrosa, and he could have passed him at any point. He was just playing with him, he was sitting up – don’t get me wrong, he was still riding hard, but he could have passed him loads of times in the first corner.”
Marquez himself put it down to learning how to race, and adapting his style to the MotoGP bike. He had learned he needed to ride differently with a used tire, using less lean angle and more drive. He had learned that a MotoGP race was a lot more physically demanding than a Moto2 race. And he had also learned that it was a lot harder to pass MotoGP riders than it was to pass the Moto2 boys.
The truth, once again, probably lies in the middle, Marquez sitting behind Pedrosa and observing, learning. Through the race his style began to change, standing the bike up earlier to get it off the corner faster. It stood him in good stead when he finally made the pass – something he did with due care and attention, not wishing to stoke the flames of a fire which will inevitably engulf the Repsol Honda garage, but which it is too early to really start.
So quickly does Marquez learn that it took Rossi several attempts until he managed to keep the young Spaniard behind him. Marquez is no respecter of authority, or status, or myth, and legend, and was just as determined to beat Rossi as he was to beat Claudio Corti, fighting a minute and a half behind him down in sixteenth. In the mind of the true motorcycle racer, other riders have no business being in front of him, whoever those other riders may be. Marc Marquez, above all, is a real racer.
His talent is also beyond doubt. A podium in your first race: Jorge Lorenzo did it, Dani Pedrosa did it, it is what you are supposed to do if you aspire to be world champion. Giving Valentino Rossi trouble, and beating your teammate, is exactly what he should be doing. Rossi joked that he would have to try to beat Marquez as often as possible in the first half of the season, before the Spaniard got any experience.
But the biggest story of Sunday, perhaps, is the change in the minds of the riders that happened during and after the race. Jorge Lorenzo, Dani Pedrosa and Casey Stoner concentrated all their efforts on producing inch-perfect laps, pursuing perfection to such an extent that a pass was a risky proposition.
Valentino Rossi, with his new-found ally Marc Marquez, do not care for such niceties, and are only interested in passing the man in front of them, however they can. Marquez was being ultra cautious around Pedrosa, aware that any mishaps with his teammate could ignite an already difficult situation between the two riders’ managers, Emilio Alzamora and Alberto Puig.
Next time, he will be less cautious, and resume his naturally more aggressive approach. This approach is what will shake up MotoGP, as both Marquez and Rossi do whatever they need to get past riders, instead of sitting politely behind them waiting for a mistake, as has been the custom of recent years.
Cal Crutchlow has already learned he needs to follow the way of Marquez and Rossi. Asked what he was going to do to avoid being stuck behind a Honda the next time it happened, he was clear: “Take a leaf out of Valentino’s book, and start charging them. If that’s the only way to do it, then we’ve got to do it.”
If Rossi can qualify better – he admitted that this is something he needs to work on, exploiting the new QP system – then he may be close enough to stick with Lorenzo, and attempt to get in front of him. It will not be long before Marquez has the speed to join them – given how quick he was at Austin, it may even come next race – and then we shall see how Lorenzo deals with a dual attack. As other riders see that an aggressive approach is yielding results, then they, too, will try the same tack.
So sure, The Doctor is back. But more importantly, there’s a new youngster in town with the same attitude, and at least as much talent. The combination of Rossi and Marquez is going to have a profound effect on this season of MotoGP, but also the series in years to come. It is the shot in the arm which the series badly needs, restoring the thrills and excitement which had been missing in recent years.
Judging by the number of journalists hoarse from shouting at the TV monitors in the media center at Qatar on Sunday night, this could be a very good year indeed.
Photo: © 2013 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.