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?
If you have aspirations of winning the championship, the first qualifying session of the year is your first chance to stake your claim. Qualifying is the moment you state your intentions, show everyone what you have, and what they are up against.
The rest of the year, pole position is nice, but the most important thing is to be on the front row, and get a good start. But at the first qualifying session of the year for the first race of the year, you need to send your opponents a message: This is what you are up against. This is what you face if you wish to beat me.
Champions know this. At Qatar, the champions made their presence felt, and announced their intent to the world. In MotoGP, the defending champion – and the man who starts the year as favorite – set a pace that none could follow, robbing upstart Cal Crutchlow of what would have been his first pole.
In Moto2, Pol Espargaro made a mistake, crashed, and corrected his error as soon as his bike was rebuilt, pushing hard to take pole in the dying seconds of the session. And In Moto3, Luis Salom took his first ever Grand Prix pole by putting it on the line when it mattered, seeing off all-comers in the final moments, while Maverick Viñales gritted his teeth to ride through the pain and grab 2nd on the grid.
Racing at the desert at night, in the false noon created by the astonishingly efficient lighting system at the Qatar circuit, is always going to be a weird experience. But on Friday, events conspired to take it from the merely odd into the strangely surreal.
The culprits? The weather was one, the odd fleetingly brief shower of thick rain drops sending everyone scurrying into the pits and scratching their heads over what to do.
The other thing that had many people confused was the new qualifying rules. Though not necessarily particularly complex, like all rule changes, the effect they have on the system, the way the weekend operates, only becomes apparent once the changes are put into effect.
But before I get to that, some attention deserves to be paid to Marc Marquez. In his very first MotoGP weekend, he topped his second ever session of free practice, and followed it up by being fastest in his third session of free practice as well. He has now been quickest in the majority of the official MotoGP sessions he has ever taken part in. OK, that’s only two out of three, and the conditions have been a little unusual, but to be this fast this early is astonishing.
It’s back. The world is a better place now that young men are wasting fuel going round in circles at irresponsibly breakneck speeds on multi-million dollar motorcycles. (On a side note, someone pointed out today that a satellite 160kg Honda RC213V costs about half its weight in gold, at current prices, which suggests that a factory bike must be close to costing its own weight in gold).
The lights in the desert are once again spectacularly lit, and the sandy void which surrounds the Losail circuit again rings with the bellow of MotoGP bikes.