LOSAIL CIRCUIT, Doha, Qatar – Well, the hype, guessing, predictions, and prognostications are finally done, and the first races of the Moto GP season made it all worthwhile. In particular, the results of many rookies in all three classes bode well for future competition.
Rain, rain, go away, come again another day – that was about the sum total of attitudes at Qatar on race weekend, and indeed the week before the race. The desert kingdom was rocked with high winds and rare torrential downpours – biblical might be a suitable adjective, given the mid-Eastern location of the track – of rain and the even more rare hail, upsetting pre-race practice for the Moto 2 and 3 teams, and eventually cancelling the entire Saturday qualifying sessions for all classes, as the place was flooded. One commentator said the area had received more than a third of the usual annual rainfall in that one day!
In the event, the Moto 3 and 2 races got off okay, but it started sprinkling just as the Moto GP bikes lined up at 9 p.m. After a 45-minute delay of indecision and endless track inspections – one was reminded of The Clash’s famous song Should I Stay or Should I Go – the race finally got going, shortened by a couple of laps.
It turned out to be worth the wait. Shockingly, by the end of the first lap, Moto GP rookie Johann Zarco was leading on a Tech 3 Yamaha (basically last year’s factory bike) and he quite calmly just rode away from the field with Marc Marquez (Honda), Andrea Iannone (Suzuki), Andrea Dovizioso (Ducati), and Yamaha teammates Maverick Viňales (tipped to win the thing in a walk) and Valentino Rossi panting along in his wake.
Zarco’s fairy-tale start to his Moto GP career was derailed when he got just a couple of inches off-line and locked the front end, crashing out uninjured. But up to that time he’d led a third of the race and had been slowly pulling away from the defending world champion and the rest. He said later that he hadn’t been pushing overly hard, just made a slight mistake with his line, ironically after starting to tell himself to calm down, relax, and just ride the bike instead of thinking about where he was.
It was still a bloody impressive debut, to say the least. The fact that his Tech 3 team-mate Jonas Folger, another Moto GP rookie fresh from Moto 2, eventually finished 10th, only adds to team owner Hervé Poncheral’s reputation for his uncanny ability to pick talent.
The long delay had led 2016 champ Marc Marquez to change to a softer front tire than he preferred, worried about the falling temperatures and danger of dew on the track (don’t forget, it’s a night-time race under the lights, starting nearly at 10 p.m. local time after the delays). He paid for it, never comfortable with the front end, and in relatively short order was passed by Iannone, Dovizioso, Viňales, and Rossi, after which he hung on to fourth till the finish, albeit nearly being caught by his team-mate Dani Pedrosa and Aleix Espargaro, in a fantastic debut ride for Aprilia’s new Moto GP machine.
Iannone promptly did his trademark performance of crashing out of a podium position (four times in 2016), and after things settled down it was Dovi, Viňales, and Rossi pushing each other for the win. Dovizioso’s Ducati was fearsome on the 1-km front straight, getting over 340 km/h on most laps, while the Yamahas were faster and more agile in the twisty bits.
At the end, Viňales managed to get by on the last lap and keep just enough of a gap coming onto the straight to keep the Ducati barely at bay and take his second Moto GP victory, with Rossi another couple of eyeblinks back. All three riders looked delighted with their results post-race, Dovizioso perhaps looking a touch sadly resigned – it was his third second-place finish at Qatar in the last three seasons.
Ducati’s ultra-expensive new signing Jorge Lorenzo (rumours have him being paid €12 million a season) was nowhere. He started 12th, ran wide early on, and managed only a pretty sad 11th. Not much value for money showing so far …
The top 10 was completed by Brit Scott Redding on a 2016 Ducati, Aussie Jack Miller on a satellite Honda, Spaniard Alex Rins on a factory Suzuki (another Moto GP rookie), and Folger. They all finished ahead of fast riders with good bikes and more experience, so more credit to all of them for good performances.
Italian Franco Morbidelli finally got his first victory, after finishing on the podium in the last six races of 2016. He and veteran Tom Luthi were close for four laps; then the Italian pulled the pin and was never headed after that. Post-race Luthi shrugged and said, “He was just that little bit faster today. I was happy to control the gap to Nakagami and collect good points for second.”
Japanese ace Taka Nakagami grabbed third, holding off a determined Miguel Olivera, whose fourth was a fabulous result for the series rookie and the first race for the new KTM chassis. The Portuguese rider is delighted to be back with KTM and team boss Aki Ajo, with whom he started his Grand Prix career in Moto 3.
Valentino Rossi had reason to cheer the results as well, as Morbidelli is a product of his famous VR46 training academy, and sixth place went to his half-brother Luca Marini – a great result for the teenager, who had a terrific race to just beat Fabio Quartararo, also very impressive in his first race in the Moto 2 class. Quatararo had won two European titles before jumping into Moto 3 last season, but never looked comfortable there. His surprise jump to Moto 2 has worked out well, the tall and lanky Frenchman is obviously a lot more comfortable on the bigger, heavier Moto 2 bikes.
By way of contrast, last year’s unstoppable Moto 3 champion Brad Binder looked a bit lost in his Moto 2 debut, managing only 20th.
The rest of the top 10 were Lorenzo Baldassari (Italy, Kalex), Xavi Vierge (Spain, Tech 3 Mistral), and Axel Pons (Spain, Kalex).
As usual, the Moto 3 contest was the most spectacular. There were nine riders in contention for the win on the last lap, following a series of crazy drafting entries into the first corner after the kilometre-long front straight, often five or six bikes wide.
Spaniard Joan Mir carried through on his 2016 promise by taking a hard-fought win for the Leopard Honda team – in fact, and most unusually, the top five finishers were on Hondas. Second, and nearly a winner, was Scot John McPhee, riding for the new British Talent Team, a group devoted to developing young British riders for GP careers. The team thought a top 10 optimistic, so having McPhee in close contention for the win and collecting a podium had them over the moon. McPhee, after suffering severe injuries at the end of last season that kept him in the hospital for months, was ecstatic over his return to the front of the field.
Spaniard Jorge Martin collected third after leading much of the race, with teenage countryman Aron Canet fourth. Italian bad boy Romano Fenati was a good fifth, in his first ride after being fired from Rossi’s VR46 team in the middle of 2016 for unspecified behaviour issues.
Moto GP standings after Race 1 of 18
1. Maverick Viňales, Spain, Movistar Yamaha, 25 points
2. Andrea Dovizioso, Italy, Ducati Team, 20
3 Valentino Rossi, Italy, Movistar Yamaha, 16
4. Marc Marquez, Spain, Repsol Honda, 13
5. Dani Pedrosa, Spain, Repsol Honda, 11
6. Aleix Espargaro, Spain, Gresini Aprilia, 10
7. Scott Redding, U.K. Octo Pramac Ducati, 9
8. Jack Miller, Australia, Estrella-Galica 0,0 Honda, 8
9. Alex Rins, Spain, Team Suzuki Ecstar, 7
10. Jonas Folger, Germany, Monster Tech 3 Yamaha, 6.
Next race Circuit Rio Honda, Argentina, April 9.