For a place which 95% of the paddock hates going to, Qatar certainly knows how to make us want to come back. The area between Doha and the Losail International Circuit has been a mixture of noisy construction, omnipresent sand and dust, and an ever-changing and convoluted road system (the route to the track regularly and literally changing overnight) ever since I first went to a race there in 2009. But once at the circuit, the track layout serves up some of the best racing in the world.
Fittingly, the title sponsor for the Qatar round of MotoGP was VisitQatar, the Qatari tourist office aimed at stimulating inbound tourism to the Gulf peninsula. To be honest, the best thing VisitQatar could do to attract visitors to the country is just play all three of Sunday’s races on a loop. In the Moto3 race, the first eleven riders all finished within a second.
The first five riders in MotoGP finished within six tenths of a second. And the winning margin in all three races was five hundredths of a second or less. These were races decided by the width of a wheel, the winner in doubt all the way to the line.
The MotoGP race was a thrilling affair, a close race from start to finish, with wild passes as far as the eye can see. Riders jockeyed for position, vying to make their contesting strategies pay off.
Yet it still left some fans feeling empty, with the impression that they were being cheated of an even better race if the riders has been willing and able to go flat out as soon as the lights went out all the way to the end.
The Princess and the Pea
This is just how much of a golden age we are currently living through: even when we have yet another of the closest races in history – victory decided by hundredths of a second, the closest top fifteen in history, the second closest top ten, the eighth closest podium– spoiled fans complain that the racing is contrived.
Seated at the table of the gods, MotoGP fans complain about being served yet another feast of nectar and ambrosia. As someone who spent the early part of his career as a MotoGP writer reporting on the 800s, where the gaps between the finishers were measured by the phases of the moon, I find that attitude incomprehensible.
Perhaps it is because it is each race ends up with the same protagonists slugging it out for victory, despite a large group of exciting young talents fighting at the front for most of the race.
But more often than not, the race comes down to a straight battle between the unrivaled talent of Marc Márquez, and the razor-sharp intelligence of Andrea Dovizioso, usually decided in the last corner.
For the neutral observer, this is everything you could want in a motorcycle race. For the partisan supporter of one rider or another, it can be a harder pill to swallow if their favorite does not feature.
The Qatar race may have ended up as yet another last-corner shoot out between Dovizioso and Márquez, but it looked wide open for most of the race. The Ducatis got the holeshot, Andrea Dovizioso and Jack Miller shooting past Maverick Viñales from second and fourth to enter Turn 1 first and second.
Was it down to the ‘holeshot device’ Ducati have been using since Motegi last year? “I started first, so it was good,” Dovizioso said, evading the question afterwards. “Jack’s start was even better.”
Viñales’ demotion to third at Turn 1 was only the beginning. Dovizioso and Miller went past him off the line as they headed to Turn 1. As they turned in, the Monster Energy Yamaha rider was out wide, allowing Marc Márquez underneath, quickly followed by Cal Crutchlow and Taka Nakagami on the way on to Turn 2. Starting from pole, Viñales had dropped down to sixth. Before the lap was over, rookie Joan Mir had pushed him down to seventh.
The Ducatis may have gotten the holeshot, but they weren’t able to make a break. Andrea Dovizioso led, with Jack Miller hot on his heels, at least for the moment. Miller’s pursuit would last just under two laps. The Pramac Ducati rider started sliding around before the second lap was over, sitting up and running wide at Turn 15, and losing positions rapidly.
The problem, it turned out, was that the seat foam was starting to come loose from the seat unit. “The seat is glued to the subframe, and the subframe is paint, and the paint didn’t stick well enough and the glue ripped the seat and the paint off,” Miller explained after the race.
“I was going through the fast sequence of the right handers, the first one was good, the second one I almost fell off the inside of the bike because the seat broke and then I felt the seat clip back in as it is fitted. I thought it was okay. But then at the next one bang it fell off again so I made it through the next left hander and looked down to see the seat was twisted.”
At that point, he decided to rip the seat off and try to ride without it. “I grabbed it and threw it but essential once the paint and seat had been ripped off the carbon itself is like ice and our asses have got no grip on them,” Miller said.”I was trying to manage it as best I could, trying to stay with the guys, but by the time I threw the seat off I was outside the top 10.”
He tried to continue, but the different riding style missing a seat forced on him meant he chewed up his tires too quickly. “The problem was I wasn’t able to enter the corners. I would go in but my butt would slide to the outside of the seat rather than gripping so I wasn’t able to get my shoulders out.”
“So I had to sit very centrally on the bike and use a lot of lean angle. Doing that I destroyed the edge of the front tire and I started to get a lot of understeer, especially in the fast corners, then a lot of chatter and a lot of understeer just because I was using 60 degrees lean angle when you normally use 47 degrees.” At the end of lap 13, Miller pulled in, unable to ride any longer.
Miller’s sudden loss of pace opened a breach at the front, and for a moment, it looked like Dovizioso and Márquez would make a break for freedom. But it was too early for a definite split, and the chasing group quickly closed the gap on the leaders again, swelling the leading group’s numbers again.
A Ducati led from two Hondas, Cal Crutchlow having latched onto the tail of Marc Márquez. Behind Crutchlow two Suzukis followed, rookie Joan Mir making a strong showing to lead his teammate Alex Rins.
The other hotly tipped rookie, Pecco Bagnaia, did not fare so well. The Pramac Ducati rider had been clipped by Danilo Petrucci in the hectic run to Turn 1 from the start, ripping the wings from the right side of his bike. With just one set of wings on his Desmosedici GP18, Bagnaia struggled to keep the bike in a straight line, the bike pulling to the left.
“I started very well and was in a good position, but then someone made a crazy overtaking to Petrucci and he caught me,” Bagnaia said. “I lost my right wing and it was very difficult. I pushed in the first laps but it was very dangerous because the bike was pushing me to the left every time.”
The lack of wings made the bike sit higher than the team had intended, completely altering the setup. “The bike was 5mm higher without the wings, and it was very difficult, because you have been working on a setting and without a little part of the bike it is completely changed,” Bagnaia explained.
“It was moving too much on the straight and when I started braking it was pushing me to the left. I tried but it was impossible. I went wide twice.” In the end, he had no option but to pull into the pits. A bad day for the Pramac Ducati squad, with both riders out.
The leading group soon grew larger still. Danilo Petrucci and Maverick Viñales closed on the leaders, while Valentino Rossi had come charging through the field from fourteenth to eighth, with Franco Morbidelli making it three Yamahas line astern at the rear of the leading group. Behind Morbidelli, a gap opened up as Jack Miller dropped away, creating a chasm which would not be bridged again.
At the front, Alex Rins had decided not to settle for the status quo. He had sliced past Cal Crutchlow on lap 4, and then dived up the inside of Marc Márquez at Turn 6 the following lap to sit in second.
But the Suzuki Ecstar rider had designs on much more. Firing up the inside of Andrea Dovizioso at Turn 15, Rins was putting the surgical precision of the Suzuki GSX-RR on display. He led the race out of the final corner and onto the final straight.
Firing out of the last corner, the Suzuki left its natural habitat behind. Emerging from the jungle of fast and slow left and right turns onto the desolate plain of Losail’s kilometer-long straight, Rins became easy prey for the Ducati. Dovizioso rolled out of the last turn, opened the taps on the Desmosedici GP19, and unleashed the three hundred or so horses from beneath the fairing of the Ducati. Rins didn’t even make it to the line before being gobbled up by the GP19.
It was to be a pattern which repeated lap after lap until mid race. Rins would take the lead in the first half of the circuit, making use of the other-worldly agility of the Suzuki. Andrea Dovizioso would bide his time, waiting for the final corner, and his chance to unleash the beat once again. Rins could never open a big enough gap around the flowing rear of the circuit to make a definitive break, and the GP19 was merciless in a straight line.
The pattern was briefly interrupted when Marc Márquez made a wild dive inside Alex Rins on lap 11, pushing them both wide and allowing Danilo Petrucci to come though. Márquez was able to strike back immediately, but Rins got stuck behind the Ducati for three laps, leaving Márquez to sit behind Dovizioso and size him.
Eventually, though, Rins would not be denied, the Spaniard braking hard into Turn 1 and cutting in way later than Petrucci could ever imagine possible on the Ducati. From there, the Suzuki rider engaged the leaders once again, slashing underneath both the Honda and Ducati at every opportunity. But neither Márquez nor Dovizioso were inclined to give Rins an inch. He had to be contained, lest he make a break and escape beyond the reach of their collective horsepower.
It was a frustrating experience for Rins. “Inside of the helmet I was very angry because I had good race pace like them,” he said after the race. “For example, for the management of the tires I finished the race with good performance. But they were playing with me on the straight.”
With three laps left, Cal Crutchlow outdragged Rins along the front straight, drawing level and sticking his nose in front of the Suzuki rider. Rins was determined not to let the LCR Honda rider past, however, braking late and deep into the corner.
But his determination outweighed what was left of his brakes, and he ran wide. Crutchlow held his line through Turn 1 and eased into third place.
The pace at the front had been hotting up, as Andrea Dovizioso switched his attention from managing the race to winning it. Marc Márquez followed suit, shaking off Alex Rins, and sizing up his chances with Dovizioso. The Repsol Honda rider hewed closer to the Ducati, making his presence known and waiting for an opening to appear.
On the penultimate lap, Márquez made his first move, cutting underneath Dovizioso as the Italian ran wide at Turn 4. Dovizioso was quickly back on Márquez’ tail, looking to strike back. Dovizioso took a peek at Turn 15, while behind him Alex Rins took over third from Cal Crutchlow. But the factory Ducati man bided his time and unleashed the beast once more along the straight. The 2019 Honda RC213V is not short of power, but along with the slipstream, it was no match for Dovizioso.
Alex Rins suffered the same fate, Cal Crutchlow pulling out of his slipstream to take back third from the Suzuki man. Rins was slightly put out by this, as he believed he saw yellow flags being waved after Bradley Smith had crashed in Turn 1 a few moments earlier. “What I saw was Crutchlow and Dovi overtook under the yellow flag,” he said after the race. “This is what I saw and I think Marquez saw it too.”
But the race still wasn’t done. Dovizioso was back in the lead, but Márquez had not given up on victory. How hard was Márquez trying? Enough to nearly lose the front at Turn 3, holding the bike as it tried to flip him out of the seat. But he clung to the rear of the Ducati, before stuffing his Honda up the inside of Dovizioso at Turn 10.
He was running out of front tire, though, and ran wide allowing the Italian back past on the inside. He lost the front again through the triple right hander, but hung on anyway, pushing for the last two corners.
He could have attempted a pass at Turn 15, the last left hander before the final turn, but instead he dived up the inside of the last corner, hoping to get the run onto the straight. But it was too much to ask of his front tire, and he went just wide enough to let Dovizioso through.
With better drive, the Ducati GP19 proved impossible to catch, and Andrea Dovizioso went on to take the win in the season opener, by a wheel. Twenty three thousandths of a second was what separated Dovizioso from Márquez, with Cal Crutchlow crossing the line in third three tenths behind the Repsol Honda rider.
It was almost a carbon copy of the 2018 race, Dovizioso’s margin of victory cut by four thousandths of a second, and Crutchlow replacing Valentino Rossi on the podium. Behind the podium, the field was closer, Alex Rins and Valentino Rossi completing the top five, Rossi finishing six tenths behind Andrea Dovizioso.
It was an important victory for Andrea Dovizioso, not just for the 25 points, but to keep the Honda, now with more horsepower, in its place. But the Italian had been forced to deal with Alex Rins on the Suzuki as well, and that had made his task much more difficult.” I didn’t know really what the riders can do,” Dovizioso said.”I expected Rins that strong. Even if yesterday he crashed twice and maybe he lost a little bit the feeling. He’s so good in the race.”
He had felt completely outgunned in the corners, Dovizioso said. “I saw [Rins] during the test and his speed in the middle of the corners is embarrassing. His bike I think is completely the opposite to my bike. I can accelerate so strong. I can be very fast in the straight, but in the middle of the corners I’m struggling a lot.”
That had required a change of strategy. “I want to stop him every time, because it was too early to push. Nobody can push for entire race with the rear tire. So I think he started too soon. I was able to stop him and continue to save the tire, and that was a perfect strategy to fight with Marc in the last lap.”
Dovizioso had made life difficult for himself by getting a downshift wrong, which had allowed Márquez to pass. But the Italian turned that to his advantage, as he got a chance to see where the weaknesses of the Honda lay. “I did a mistake on the brake with the shifting and Marc overtook me. But that gave me the possibly to understand the situation of Marc, and gave me an extra boost because I understood his grip was worse than me.”
He didn’t have it all his own way, however. “In the braking he was better,” Dovizioso said of Marquez. “But my speed was a bit better, so I decided immediately to try to overtake him as soon as possible and push and didn’t give him the possibility. At the end he was able to overtake me but in the ‘Marc style’. He is so good to try to overtake, even when he doesn’t have the same speed.”
What was ‘Marc style’? “It’s difficult to explain,” Dovizioso said. “You have to be a rider to understand exactly. When you are behind the riders and you have to take a risk to brake so hard, lock the front, the rear, don’t make a mistake and stay on the corner, it’s very difficult. You feel the fear. You feel, ‘I can’t do that.'”
“I think Marc has something more about that and he’s able to play a little bit more than us in this situation, and he’s able to try and try to manage. He takes a lot of risk, but he’s good most of the time to play on that risk, on that limit.” That didn’t make Márquez unbeatable, though. “We know that and we try to answer in the right away,” Dovizioso said.
With Márquez coming back from shoulder surgery, was slowing the race up and managing the right strategy? Would it not have made more sense to push harder and force Márquez to use up the limited strength he has in his left shoulder? That was not possible, Dovizioso said.
“I think MotoGP now is really different than in the past. If you look at Valentino, he finished six tenths behind, and finished fifth. I think nobody is trying to make the fastest race, especially because you can arrive at the end of the race in a really bad situation. I think the best strategy is to try to be ready in the right moment. I think this is what I did. I save a lot the tire during the race. That’s why I stopped every time Rins because to follow him I had to use the rear tire.”
Taking It Easy
Márquez admitted the slow pace had made life a lot easier for him. “Of course, for my physical condition the race was easy, because the pace was very slow,” he said. “In the beginning for me, like I said, it was much better for the physical condition and also for the tires.”
Was second good enough? Márquez was putting on a brave face, but with a much more powerful engine, the Honda RC213V’s biggest weakness compared to the Ducati had been removed. “The engine gave me the second position, because believe me, last year I had a better pace and last year I felt better on the chassis side.”
That was down to the tire allocation being better for the Hondas last year. The combination of a slightly different allocation and colder conditions meant he hadn’t been able to use the hard front, Márquez said, which had been able to use during practice.
“Like we saw in the first day, the hard front tire was working very good because the temperature was higher. But yesterday and today it was very, very cold and then I wasn’t able to use the hard front tire. For that reason, I use the K .”
Second place was an improvement on the last time Márquez had used that compound, he said. “Last time that I used the K tire here, the medium one, I finished fifth. The engine gave me that extra to finish in second place. I pray before the race to have a slow pace, and Dovi gave me a slow pace. I try in the end, but my rear tire was finished because, like I said, I was riding only with the rear.”
But second place in a race over 22 laps, after incredibly invasive surgery to fix a serious shoulder injury is a very good start for Márquez. The race also showed that the Honda is no longer outgunned by the Ducati. Márquez’ title defense could have gotten off to a much worse start indeed.
A Return Made Possible
If Márquez’ second spot is a strong result, Cal Crutchlow’s podium is close to a miracle. The Englishman genuinely feared he would never be able to race again after destroying his ankle in a massive crash at Phillip Island last year. “It’s a dream, to be honest because we didn’t know that I was going to be coming back at all at one point, let alone coming back and being competitive,” the LCR Honda rider said.
He certainly hadn’t expected to be anywhere near the front, after a winter of testing which he hadn’t felt was particularly productive, and after tough times during practice. “If you would have asked me after finishing thirteenth or fourteenth in warm up that I was going to be on the podium, I would have laughed. I played my cards in the race.”
“I felt good once we started the race. I think me and Marc had a very similar tactic to try and save the rear tire and manage a little bit more. But then if we started to push the front we would have some problems with the front. So then, as Marc said, we started to ride with the rear and it’s difficult to manage that situation.”
Crutchlow had dropped back from third early in the race, which he quickly realized was the wrong place to be. “Three people came past me and I was sixth or seventh or something,” he said. “When I was behind these three riders at the start, I felt really comfortable. But then they passed me and I just thought they were mental.”
“They were madmen. They were swerving everywhere. I knew I had to get past them to be in a good rhythm and a good state of mind to be able to be smooth, because the other riders around me were not really riding smooth at that point, but that’s MotoGP.”
Picking Up Racecraft
Alex Rins finished off the podium, but he had both shown his potential and learned some racecraft. Qatar is not a track where you might expect the Suzuki to excel, as the bike will always come up short on the long front straight.
“I think I had the potential to win the race, sincerely,” Rins said. “But anyway, this sometimes happens. We have some good points, but some worse points. We have very good corner speed, but not on the main straight.”
That was in stark contrast to the Desmosedici GP19, Rins said. “Ducati has good speed, good brakes, but slow corner speed. This is life! I’m very happy. I’m not complaining about this. We knew before starting this race that this track will be hard for us. The important thing is we did an incredible race, overtaking a lot of riders. I learned a lot.”
Rins hadn’t been happy immediately after the checkered flag, he admitted. “In the first ten minutes I was really frustrated. But then I was really happy because all we did in the preseason we demonstrated that we are very close.” It also confirmed to Rins that he could win a race in 2019.
The Old Man Turns Up on Sunday
After a miserable time in practice, failing to get through to Q2, Valentino Rossi had ended up qualifying in a lowly fourteenth position. On Saturday, Rossi had been dejected, unsure he would even manage to get into the top ten.
But the Italian only really comes alive on a Sunday, and this, combined with a setup modification and a relatively slow race pace allowed Rossi to charge through the field and come within six tenths of the winner.
“We worked today from yesterday by modifying the setting of the bike and also for the race we made some other adjustments which worked well,” Rossi said. “I am happy because it was a good race. I feel good with the bike today and I enjoyed it coming from the back so it is not so bad.”
There was no room for optimism, though. Rossi gave a bleak assessment of where Yamaha is in 2019. “The problem is my feeling is that we are more or less like last year,” the Monster Energy Yamaha rider said.
“I arrived in fifth place which is good, especially being 0.6s from the victory. But in this track we are always good so we have to keep working because in some other places we could have some more problems.”
2019 looks like becoming a repeat of 2018, Rossi feared. “For me the problems are more or less the same. In some areas we improved, but unfortunately we are always struggling with the rear grip and it is difficult. But, today my bike was good because if you don’t have a good bike you don’t arrive close to the victory or podium so it is okay.”
“The problem is that also last year in Qatar we good. For some reason the tire slides here but resists. At other tracks usually when the tire slides the performance drops more. So for me we are more or less on the same boat.”
Making sense of where Yamaha stands is a treacherous task. Rossi has remained pessimistic throughout winter testing, noting the improvements of the bike, but always putting it into the context of the improvements made by the other factories. Being faster is good, but if you only improve as much as your rivals, you end up back in the same place as last year.
Muddying the waters is the fact that Maverick Viñales believes that Yamaha have made a massive step forward. Viñales’ pole position was encouraging, but the Spaniard was unable to convert that into a strong result on Sunday. Starting from first, Viñales had crossed the line in seventh, behind Danilo Petrucci. He, and Yamaha, had expected much more.
Qualifying Isn’t Racing
Viñales was open about where the blame lay. “Well, for sure I know the race went really difficult,” he said. “Somehow alone I can make the lap time, then when I am in the group, it’s really difficult. I have to ride completely differently. I have to ride different lines, and I cannot be as fast as when I’m alone. So now we have another point of work, and after this race, we know more what to improve on the bike.”
The Yamaha’s natural tendency is to use wide, sweeping lines, but that didn’t work in the race, Viñales explained. “Going behind the others, I needed to make really stop-and-go lines, like they do, and I stressed the tire a lot, trying to make something to overtake, trying to make something happen. But finally I started to ride fast when I was alone, so I understand very well the problem.”
The Monster Energy Yamaha rider went into some detail on where his riding style came up short in the race. “For example, I brake completely straight,” Viñales said. “Because when I brake with lean angle, I get into trouble with the front. So my ideal line is to brake straight, then to lean the bike and make good corner speed, and be very kind with the tires when I open the gas.”
He can do that when he rides alone, but when you get caught up in a battle, your focus switches to riding more defensively, and keeping the door shut for those behind.
“With more riders battling, you have to close the line, you have to be with the other riders, so you have to ride completely differently,” Viñales said. “Going deeper with the brakes, with more lean angle on the brakes so I stress a lot the front and then I have to open full throttle very early, and I start to make the bike struggle.”
“For one lap we can go very fast, because I can just go around the track and make a lot of speed, and I trust the bike, and I trust the front, and I can do it,” he said. “But now it’s time to improve the braking area. We improved it quite a lot, but not enough. Our competitors are better on this area.”
It is rather reminiscent of what Pata Yamaha WorldSBK rider Alex Lowes has been doing on the Yamaha YZF-R1M. Tired of being fast, but losing out in the race as riders barged underneath his grand sweeping lines, Lowes concentrated on changing his lines to be more stop and go, while still holding on to the same speed.
Of course, Viñales wouldn’t have to run different lines if he was capable of getting a good start. He has spent time over the winter practicing starts, and riding with a full fuel tank, to get used to the sensation.
Yet starting from pole, Viñales was seventh by the time the field crossed the line at the end of the first lap. That is a cause for frustration inside Yamaha, and a weakness for Viñales at too many tracks through the season.
While many had expected to see Fabio Quartararo cross the line as first rookie, that honor went to Joan Mir. The Suzuki rider came into his own at the season opener in Qatar. He managed to stay with front group for most of the race, before finally losing touch on lap 18. But in the end, inexperience got the better of him.
“It was good to be close to the top guys,” Mir said. “I learned a lot from all of them. I didn’t expect to be fighting with such great riders. But I’m really happy. It was a shame, because at the end, the soft tire was a bit finished, and I could not make anything more at the end. But anyway, we made a good race, on the first laps, I was trying also to save the tires, but at the end it was not enough.”
He had tried to save the tire, but in the race, had learned that was much more difficult than his experience in Moto2 had taught him. “I was thinking that I was saving the tire, but sincerely, I knew that I could be doing it better. I have to force a little bit more the front, and to conserve a little bit more the rear tire. On the brakes, you don’t consume the tires a lot. It’s more on the gas. But now I know a bit the way I have to follow, and it’s good.”
Keeping His Head
Tire consumption was a common theme among all the rookies, most of whom ran out of rear tire toward the end of the race. Fabio Quartararo and Miguel Oliveira had made it doubly hard on themselves by stalling their bikes on the grid at the start of the warm up lap, meaning they had a lot more work to do to catch up.
Here, too, age and experience helped. Oliveira remained calm, quickly pushing his bike off the grid and into pit lane, where it could be started, and he could start the warm up lap, before lining up at the back of the grid. The much younger Quartararo – just 19, compared to Oliveira’s 24 years of age – panicked, and pushed his bike quickly backward, nearly running it into the wall.
By the time he got into pit lane and got his bike started, pit lane had closed again, and he wasn’t able to proceed to the grid. Quartararo had to start his maiden MotoGP race from pit lane, out of contention before he had even started.
Yet luck played a role in how the fates of Quartararo and Oliveira unfolded. Oliveira had qualified on the sixth row of the grid, while Quartararo was meant to start from the second row. Quartararo got off the line a little way before he stalled his bike, while Oliveira had barely moved at all.
Ironically, Oliveira’s poorer grid position made getting into pit lane much easier. He was lined up very close to the gate in the pit wall, meaning he could see where he was heading, and could easily roll off the grid and into pit lane. Quartararo was some 40 meters further forward when he stalled, meaning he had a lot further to go to back into pit lane, and as a result, much more time to panic.
Making Up Time
Despite his poor start, Quartararo’s pace was impressive. In the first half of the race, he was running lap times which matched those of the lead group. But in doing so, he burned up his tires, and slowed up in the second half of the race.
Despite this, Quartararo still finished sixteenth, and nine tenths behind Johann Zarco on the factory KTM. Take away the eight or so seconds he lost at the start, and a top ten finish would have been on the cards.
The performance of the rookies is one of the most heartening aspects of the opening race at Qatar. Joan Mir fought at the front for most of the race, while Fabio Quartararo matched the pace of the leaders. Pecco Bagnaia showed promise, despite losing the wings on one side of his bike.
Miguel Oliveira finished just over a second behind Johann Zarco, riding the factory version of Oliveira’s KTM, and despite starting from the back of the grid. These riders will continue to grow, and as they do, they will cause more and more headaches for the fast guys at the front of the race.
The other positive aspect of the 2019 MotoGP round at Qatar is just how close all six factories are now. Pol Espargaro finished twelfth, and was disappointed with his position, but he was 12.774 seconds behind the winner, some 19 seconds closer than the first KTM was last year.
Espargaro’s twelfth place also made him the sixth different manufacturer in the top twelve, two places behind brother Aleix on the Aprilia. The field is now so intensely competitive that getting anywhere near the front is an enormous achievement, but to have all six factories getting closer is a tribute to the current set of rules, and the state of play in MotoGP.
Too Early to Tell
Jorge Lorenzo’s debut on the Repsol Honda had been much anticipated, but Lorenzo was one of the many fallers on Saturday. In that fall, he suffered back and shoulder pain, eventually discovering that he had fractured a rib. Being in so much pain limited Lorenzo too much to be a contender.
“There are many positive things even though it was not a great result,” Lorenzo said. “Because 13th position is never a good result. But I was very limited because of the crash, it was a big impact everywhere but especially my shoulder which limited my confidence and limited my condition on the bike and from then on I was always slower compared to how I started the weekend. This was the main problem.”
But Lorenzo is also still trying to find the right riding position on the Repsol Honda. In Qatar, the team were experimenting with different materials on the seat, to give the Spaniard more grip, and more control over the bike. “It is like a rubber material,” Lorenzo explained when asked about it.
“The brown seat, the rubbery one is the good one. I think in that aspect we are okay we just need to modify some more things around the ergonomics of the bike. We are getting closer, but we still need to improve a little bit more. I think we need one or two more races to fix everything. But we are in the right direction.”
History was being made in the lower classes as well. The first Moto2 race with Triumph engines turned into a thrilling battle between Tom Lüthi and Lorenzo Baldassarri, the Italian eventually coming out on top.
Lüthi had made a strong charge through the field to chase Baldassarri down, but he came up just short at the end. Lüthi’s teammate Marcel Schrotter crossed the line in third, just ahead of Remy Gardner and Augusto Fernandez.
The racing was as close as it had been at the end of 2019, so the switch to the Triumph engine made little difference in that respect. But the sound was vastly improved, and the bikes were a little more flexible in terms of riding style.
The weekend was dominated by Kalex, which seems to have a wider operating window. The KTMs were not a factory in Qatar, but may well be more competitive at some of the other circuits.
In Moto3, Kaito Toba took an impressive win, becoming the first ever Japanese winner in Moto3, and the first Japanese winner in the smallest capacity class since Tomoyoshi Koyama in 2007. With Ai Ogura, Kazuki Masaki, and Tatsuki Suzuki all looking competitive in both the test and the race weekend in Qatar, it looks like Japan is producing talented riders again. Toba is also the first Asian Talent Cup rider to win a Moto3 race, Dorna’s investment in the series starting to pay off.
Qatar also saw the debut of the Long Lap penalty, taken by Romano Fenati, after a message appeared on his dashboard. Unfortunately for Fenati, the message which appeared was only a warning, not a penalty, so Fenati lost a second and a half for no good reason. That, it seems, is the story of Fenati’s life.
The season opener at Qatar was a genuinely thrilling affair, but it was spoiled at the very end by a protest against the aerodynamic parts used by Ducati. All three riders on the GP19 used the front wheel covers and the rear swing arm spoiler, and four factories – KTM, Honda, Aprilia, Suzuki – submitted a protest to the Stewards.
This protest was rejected, and the factories appealed, sending it to the MotoGP Court of Appeals. For the moment, Dovizioso’s victory stands, but the results are still provisional until the Court issues a judgment, expected before the Argentinian round on 31st March.
All of this is covered in great detail in an article published on Monday. If you would like to learn more about the protest, about the parts in question – in this case, the rear spoiler stuck to the bottom of the swing arm – why the factories objected, and what Ducati claims is the purpose of the piece, you can read all about it here.