MotoGP started up again in Qatar this weekend, and like most major global sports, the same characters at the top last year ran the show now. Defending world champion Jorge Lorenzo, his Yamaha teammate Valentino Rossi, Honda’s champion Marc Marquez and the factory Ducati men Andrea Iannone and Andrea Dovizioso – they were the only people at the front throughout the race despite some excitement in winter testing and qualifying.
The Way We Were
After the roiling interpersonal drama of last year between Lorenzo, Rossi and Marquez, with its charges of cheating, conspiracy and post-race media manipulation, the off-season was decidedly quiet.
Yamaha Motor Corporation’s worst nightmare, their two star riders bashing each other loudly and publicly, was mercifully short-lived as each man settled into preparations for the 2016 campaign. The Yamaha M1 motorcycle, clearly the best machine in 2015, evolved mildly along the axiom that “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”, though winglets did make an appearance on Lorenzo’s machine.
Marquez and his fellow Honda factory teammate Dani Pedrosa, complained bitterly about the slow progress Honda was making in catching up during official off-season testing. As of this year all teams use the same off-the-shelf electronic rider aids, and new Michelin spec tires, changes that may sound simple to outsiders but actually represent a mountain of development work for riders and engineers. Honda, it seems, struggled more than most.
Ducati too chose an evolutionary path, their most imposing feature the enlarged ugly winglets that first sprouted last year, growing longer and wider. They claim they improve top speed and front wheel grip, which test results proved. Yamaha too tried the winglets during testing. Rossi determined them to be of no use “They are very interesting, they change the airflow, but I don‘t feel a difference. I prefer the bike without the wings, it‘s more beautiful!” Lorenzo disagreed.
Suzuki found themselves dominating the time sheets in official practice, a wonderful surprise for them, while Aprilia remained in the back of the pack, a sad and disappointing circumstance for the second most successful brand in the history of motorcycle racing.
The Way We Started
“What you fucking want?” – Valentino Rossi on Lorenzo
Free practice and qualifying delivered few surprises. Right from the off, Lorenzo demonstrated his usual, dominant style, posting repeated top speed laps. The same top players from last year shuffled around for the first six places, with the notable exception of Pedrosa, who never seemed to keep up. Maverick Viñales, the youngest man on the grid and Suzuki’s rising star placed the rapidly ascending GSX-RR in second place, his first front row starting position in the MotoGP class.
Like the time sheets, the inter-personal drama too was more of the same as last year. During free practice, Lorenzo and Rossi brushed near to each other as the former exited the pits. Rossi turned and gestured to Lorenzo madly, later saying that Lorenzo spoiled his flying lap. Lorenzo, smiling to cameras, shrugged it off as a tempest in Rossi’s teapot. Yamaha management cringed loudly enough to be heard around the world.
The Way We Will Be
One of the notable announcements of the weekend was that Rossi signed on to race for another two years (after this one) with Yamaha, while Bradley Smith and a few others also solidified contracts for 2017. Normally, this type of negotiation happens mid-season, so one can only wonder as to the politics behind these forward-looking moves. Lots of ink was spilled in many news outlets about Lorenzo’s future at Yamaha, given the acrimony between him and Rossi. Marquez, meanwhile, and Pedrosa will almost certainly remain with Honda which sets up next year as more of the same, before this even got started.
Racing For Turn One
Qatar was a parade, not a race. The first three laps promised much as the Andreas of Ducati swapped places after they shot past Lorenzo as though he was standing still. Ducati, always long on top speed if a little short on staying power, looked like they would take full advantage of the 340 km/h potential of the Qatar circuit.
It was not to be, as inevitably the metronomic performance of the reigning world champion first dispatched Dovizioso and then Iannone. All hope of a battle faded when Iannone took himself out in an overly aggressive dive for the inside on his teammate, leaving Lorenzo essentially unchallenged for the rest of the race bar a pair of weak counter attacks near the middle. Dovizioso was caught and overtaken by Marquez, who after complaining about his Honda all weekend found that he actually was fighting hard at the front. But Dovisio wasn’t one to give up and took second back in time for the flag, offering a touch of much needed drama. Rossi put in a few fastest laps but never rose higher than fourth.
The race ended in that order: Lorenzo commanding first, Dovizioso second, Marquez third and Rossi fourth. Many seconds behind him followed Pedrosa, with young Viñales hot on his tail. The usual crashers did their duty and left the race sideways, with prickly Cal Crutchlow inexplicable losing his front end while Stefan Bradl washed out his Aprilia to continue his streak as the good rider least likely to complete a race.
The Way Forward?
At the podium, an ugly incident reminded everyone of the deadly acrimony of last year. As Marquez took to the third place step, a loud and clearly audible booing was overheard from the crowds. The ever smiling and good-natured Marquez ignored it, but even Lorenzo got some of that treatment, perhaps as some sources on the internet later alluded, from Rossi fans.
Regardless of who did it and why, it is unprecedented, and totally unacceptable. The race was clean, the riders all behaved professionally (unless you count Crutchlow’s permanent homeless man appearance as unprofessional) and totally bereft of controversy. That the poison of the Rossi-Marquez-Lorenzo nonsense of last year spilled over into a celebration which had nothing to do with Rossi, augers poorly for the fans and participants of MotoGP in 2016.
“I was never really in the fight” admitted Rossi after the race, further solidifying the totally dispute-free nature of the competition. Any jeers that may have come from his supporters were therefore effectively pointless, and totally ideological.
Time will tell if this was an isolated incident, or if the sick behaviour of retail politics has soaked into the sport permanently.