Full round-up from Qatar

Published: 03 April 2015

Qatar was the season opener that had it all; a typically action packed Moto3 race, a race that seemingly nobody wanted to win in Moto2 and an incredibly exciting MotoGP. You couldn't have written a better script to get people talking about MotoGP.

Having feared competing with El Classico and pushing back the start of the season by seven days to avoid clashing with Barcelona and Real Madrid there was a real sense when watching the three races that MotoGP was in fantastic health and could compete with any sporting event.

This is the best we've ever seen of Rossi


There's always something different in the air when Valentino Rossi wins a Grand Prix. When he won in Assen in 2013 it was viewed as an inherited win after others hit problems and the paddock reacted to the win by thinking that it could well be the last time that we see the legend stand on top of the podium.

When he won at Misano last year it was confirmation that he was the only rider in 2014 capable of matching Marquez on a somewhat regular basis. When he crossed the line that day the hairs on your neck stood to attention such was the reaction from the home crowd on the Adriatic coast. His Philip Island victory sent the locals home happy, once again thinking that maybe this would be the last time that they'd be able to cheer "Vale, Vale, Vale!"

Qatar was different however. There was no sense that this was the last time that we'd see a Rossi win. Instead there was a very definite shift in the reaction...is Agostini's record of Grand Prix victories once again a legitimate target for Rossi? He still needs another 13 wins but suddenly that doesn't seem as farfetched as it did a few years ago.

Rossi is riding better than ever at the moment. Earlier in his career he was riding against a level of competition that couldn't consistently challenge him and Rossi didn't have to fight on multiple fronts. When he was competing against Roberts, Biaggi or Gibernau earlier in his career there was only ever one rider that he needed to beat but now he is fighting against Marquez, Lorenzo, Pedrosa, Dovizioso and Iannone and he's capable of digging deeper than ever into his well of talent and showing what he can do.

His demeanour at Sepang 1 was one of a man completely comfortable in his surrounds and ready to once again dominate MotoGP. He won't be able to do what he did in the last and turn up to the starting grid expected to win every race, the field is just too competitive for that now, but he'll start every race ready to challenge and at 36 years of age that's more than most Grand Prix motorcyclists can ever expect.

When asked how this year compares to when he had to fight with only one rider for the title Rossi's response showed how passionate he still is about racing:

"I'm very happy, because in the last years, the races changed. Because have one moment with Stoner and Lorenzo, that the races was finished after three laps. Sincerely was most difficult and also boring races. Now looks that for some reason has changed, and with Marc, is always more battle to the end, a little bit more strategy, and I like a lot this kind of race."

Marquez plays the long game


A first corner mistake by Marquez saw him drop to the back of the field and the world champion had to fight his way back to get to fifth at the flag. His 11 points haul from Qatar could become critically important later in the year when the title is decided and it was clear after the race that this was what he was thinking of when he decided to settle for fifth rather than press on to try and bridge the gap to Lorenzo.

"We have to be happy because we saved 11 leading points as it could have been a perfectly zero," said Marquez. "It was a tough race, where I made a mistake at the first corner and I have gone to the last position. This has meant that I had to overcome, pushing hard all the evidence, but in the end I saw that he could not catch the front group. I prefer that we shot at a similar pace head group. In Austin continue to work even harder."

Last year Marquez' errors in races were rarely punished. He was riding in the perfect storm where he was able to ride to his limit for most of the season and rivals couldn't hope to get close to him. Having that margin meant that if he made a mistake he was already comfortably ahead or had enough in hand to be able to overcome the problem and move through the field.

This season he won't have such luck; it's just too competitive in MotoGP for that now. The strength of the satellite bikes, the improvements made by Ducati and the speed of the Factory Yamaha and Honda machines mean that any mistake will now be punished and riders will have no chance of recovering with that much ease.

Last year saw everything come together for Marquez in the early races and when he racked up the wins it was clear that this was a historical convergence of circumstances. This year it will be much more like a traditional season with Marc having to fight for his wins and podiums and the scrapper in Marquez is sure to enjoy doing just that.

Ducati start to lose concessions


So following a double podium in Qatar Ducati have now officially arrived back at the front of MotoGP, they've also officially started to lose some of their Factory Option concessions. The first of these concessions lost is two litres of available fuel with the Bologna based manufacturer now limited to 22 litres of fuel for a race.

This will make no difference to Ducati because that's what they have been running for the last year so there's little reason to believe that they'll suddenly fall off the pace. Even if they lose the soft tyre, following three wins, there's not much chance of the GP15 suddenly becoming uncompetitive. Dovizioso used that tyre to set pole position but having spent all winter and the race on the medium tyre, the same tyre used by the factory Yamaha and Honda riders, it was clear that the pace of the Ducati is real and that they've nothing to worry about this year.

Speaking to MCN in the paddock during the Qatar test a few weeks ago Dovizioso made clear that he's not worried about losing any of the Open concessions because "If we start to lose the benefits it's because we're finishing on the podium." The strong start to the season saw Ducati lose some of their concessions but it won't cost them any of their speed.

For the first time since Casey Stoner it seems that Ducati has the speed to consistently battle at the front.

Pedrosa's arm pump


After the race Repsol Honda convened the media for "A statement from Dani about his situation." At this point no-one knew what to expect but given that HRC told the media that Dani would read a statement and there would be no questions afterwards it was clear that this was a serious problem.

Having undergone arm pump surgery twice in his career once it became clear that it was related to a recurrence of this issue there was a growing sense of unease when Pedrosa started his statement with thoughts of retirement crossing everyone's minds. Ultimately Pedrosa said that he was looking at all options to alleviate the issue in future and that he'd need to assess his condition before deciding what to do.

A third surgery, one that Livio Suppo said was "highly invasive", was the end result of that decision. Pedrosa has had a great career, three world title attest to his ability, but one of the biggest ironies of this injury is that it comes when he looks so much more comfortable in his own skin. Speaking to the media throughout the weekend Pedrosa was laughing and joking and appeared so at ease with himself.

He's gone through a lot of changes over the last year-ending his relationship with Alberto Puig and making wholesale changes to his pit crew-and it's clearly helped to reinvigorate the Spaniard. Now with this injury and the resultant surgery there's huge question marks hanging over Pedrosa's head that won't be answered for months.

Suppo stressed how important Pedrosa is to HRC and commented that there's not many riders in the world better than Pedrosa even when he's riding with one hand tied behind his back by the arm pump and it was hard to argue with that after the race in Qatar.

Moto2: A race nobody wanted to win


All weekend it looks like Lowes, Zarco and Rabat would convert their top three qualifying pace into a share of the podium. A rubbish start for Rabat left him down the field and he clashed with Simone Corsi. Lowes crash left him empty handed after setting the pace all weekend. Zarco had a gear selector issue and was hugely fortunate to finish after almost running into the pitwall after being distracted by the problem in the closing laps.

Jonas Folger took the win and the German, in his second year in the class, now moves from being an outside bet for the championship to one of the contenders. Folger has always been fast, he made his Grand Prix debut in 2009 and could easily have won at Jerez. That year he was teamed with Andrea Iannone and gave a great account of himself. Since then he's had a rocky career with patches of great form and moments of madness. Last year it started to come together for him at AGR and it will be interesting to see if he can build on Qatar and get close to the pace of the front runners in Texas.

The all German speaking podium in Qatar was spread by 12s and showed the gulf in class in Moto2 once the top three were taken out of contention. Xavier Simeon did well to take second but Thomas Luthi will have to be disappointed with just third at the flag. The Swiss rider needs to be a title contender this year and in Qatar, one of his favourite circuits, he did little to prove that this year he'll be able to contend for his first intermediate title.

In fact in Qatar Alex Rins looked far more likely to be a contender. The Spanish rookie finished in the wheeltracks of Luthi after almost slipstreaming past the Swiss rider to claim the final rostrum finish. Rins was fast all weekend but also looked to constantly have some pace in reserve. It was reminiscent of Maverick Vinales last year and that's no bad thing for the Pons team who lost their star rider to his Suzuki MotoGP promotion.

Rins raced in the shadow of Alex Marquez last year in Moto3 but most of the paddock talent spotters thought that it was Rins that has the higher ceiling. His title fight with Vinales in 2013 for the Moto3 crown showed a hugely intelligent and talented rider and Qatar showed how easily he's adapted to the intermediate class. He'll be fast throughout the year.

Plenty of positives for Lowes to take


Sam Lowes is one of the most enthusiastic rider in the paddock. The Englishman always has a huge grin on his face and is ready with a joke however after crashing out of the race the pain of losing a sure fire podium left him completely spent. The emotion of having been the fastest man all weekend and coming away with nothing to show for it was heartbreaking for the Speed Up rider and after all his struggles last year with the team he felt ready to make the step and prove his Grand Prix credentials in Qatar.

"The problem is that the only thing that matters is the race," said Lowes. "it's bad because it's the first race and everyone looks at you and criticises you that you crash a lot, and that's true, but this year is different. I know it's different and I'll accept the criticism but I know that I'm fast enough to do a good job. Results kind of went our way today considering that we didn't finish but COTA is a track that I like and we'll go there and get a good result.

"The problem is that people will say that I crashed because I was going too fast, I crashed because I made a mistake and that's totally different. It was the first race of the year and maybe I was a bit nervous after qualifying on pole position but this track isn't forgiving because it's dirty. All these factors led into this and now I'll go to the next race and try and wipe the slate clean. I know that I'm fast enough so I'll keep working hard and we'll get there."

Missing out on a podium and potentially a win meant it was understandable for Lowes to have been devastated by outcome of the opening round of the championship but his speed made everyone take notice of him. Tito Rabat, the reigning world champion, couldn't match him for pace over the weekend and while the Spaniard would have likely been stronger in the race it was clearly a fight between two riders for the win.

Lowes was strong in COTA last year, a first corner crash robbed him of showing his true potential in the race, so he should be confident of bouncing straight back and proving that Qatar was far from a mirage in the desert and more like what we can expect throughout the year.

Kent and Quartararo impress in Moto3


It's strange that on a weekend when Alexis Masbou took the win and pole position the Frenchman was upstaged  by the rider that finished in seventh. But Fabio Quartararo is like no other rookie I can remember. He's come in as a double CEV champion and under huge pressure to instantly adapt to racing in the world championship. His debut showed that he's ready for the bright lights and it was his ability to set so many fast times lapping on his own that left the biggest impression.

Masbou was fast all weekend and took a thoroughly deserved victory but having been in the paddock for so long everyone knows what to expect from Masbou. He'll be fast but it's hard to see him having the consistency to win the title. Masbou has made changes over the winter and is focussed on getting the most from himself but he doesn't have the talent of his compatriot and in Qatar Quartararo showed that he's already one of the best riders in the field and all that he's lacking is experience at the highest level before he can fight for podiums...as it was in Qatar he finished just half a second off the rostrum.

The final step on the podium went to Danny Kent with the Englishman having a very impressive weekend. Fast in every session and showing tactical nous Kent was a contender for the race win throughout. Having regularly struggled to get his season off to a good start in the past this was a hugely significant result for Kent and showed that he can be a title challenger this year.

"We've been very strong all through the winter and we've worked very hard," said Kent after finishing third. "From FP1 we've been very strong and consistently fast. We went into the race and we knew that we had very good pace and could run at the front.

"We've struggled in the past in the first few races so it's a big relief for me to start the year on a high with a podium. I knew coming into this year that I needed to work hard over the winter and I've lost two kg and worked hard with the team. All that hard work has paid off and we've been rewarded with a podium."

Quotes of the weekend


"It is unbelievable. I think one of the best races of my career, and for sure one of the best battle of the last lap. I remember this level maybe with Capirossi in Mugello, always with the Ducati, or with Jorge in Montmelo, or one time with Capirossi in Sepang in the past, like the old times. Sincerely, I don't remember very well the last lap, I just remember that I was close to crash two or three times!"
Valentino Rossi, Yamaha

If Valentino Rossi says that this was one of the best battles that he's had in his career...it's worth taking note!

"Before the race, if somebody tell me I would make this kind of race, I would be very happy, but when you make all the race right there, and you try to manage and at the end, Valentino beat me, the feeling is not the best! But it's normal, during the race, it's a long time for us, 45 minutes is a long time, and you change your opinion!
Andrea Dovizioso, Ducati

Dovizioso wasn't the only person that changed his opinion over the 45 minutes of Sunday's race. Qatar proved that Ducati's pace over winter testing was real and that they'll be a force throughout the season.

Five thoughts post Qatar Grand Prix

1. I've said all winter that this looks like being a classic season of MotoGP and Sunday's season opener did little to dissuade me from that view. The sight of two factory Yamaha's battling with two factory Ducati bikes at the front showed that for the first time in MotoGP history we'll have three manufacturers that will all have the pace to fight at the front. Honda weren't able to figure in the fight for the win but Marquez' recovery from dropping to last at the first corner more than illustrated that the champion had the speed to be in thick of the championship fight.

2. This weekend was one of the strongest that we've seen from British riders in years. In the premier class Cal Crutchlow showed great speed in practice and while he was constantly keen to downplay his expectations his pace was impressive. A qualifying crash scuppered any hopes of finishing higher than seventh but ending his first weekend riding the Honda as top satellite was a highly successful weekend for Cal.

Bradley Smith was just half a second behind Crutchlow at the flag but Qatar showed once again the progress that Smith has made over the last six months. He knows that this is a make or break year and that he needs to perform. Beating Pol Espargaro is the easiest way to prove that he deserves to be on a satellite Yamaha and in Qatar he did just that. Scott Redding had a difficult weekend with constant problems with the front end robbing him of confidence on corner entry and he came away knowing that 13th place at the flag wasn't enough and that the team needs to "find our own direction with setup."

In Moto2 Sam Lowes had a sensational weekend with the Englishman topping ever practice and qualifying session and impressing everyone with his approach to the weekend. He was fast and loose in Qatar and while his Sunday crash, after a false neutral, left him empty handed the speed was there and a first rostrum finish is now only a matter of time for the former WSS champion. Lowes needed to prove to himself and his team that he could compete at the front in Moto2 and Qatar did just that.

Danny Kent's podium in Moto3 came after what I would consider the most complete weekend of his Grand Prix career. Kent was fast in every session, and able to set his times on his own, and looked in complete control of his Leopard Racing Honda. He's a changed man from a year ago and looks incredibly confident. He's in a team that's focused on getting the most from him and if round one is any indication he's an immediate title threat.

John McPhee's fifth place finish came after having hardly sat on his 2015 bike until the weekend started. With only 20 laps on the new chassis from pre-season McPhee needed time to get up to speed in practice but by race day he looked aggressive and confident. A mistake in his gearing left him down on top speed and forced to defend rather than attack on the main straight. Without that issue he could well have finished on the podium.

3. Fabio Quartararo had a stellar debut with the Frenchman living up to his CEV hype. Having come into Grand Prix with the highest profile that I can remember he was instantly earmarked by rivals as one to watch. No one was willing to give him a tow in practice and qualifying yet he was consistently able to set fast times. When he hit the front in the Moto3 race there was an of expectancy in the press room that he would win on his Grand Prix debut, something not done since Nobby Ueda in 1991. Ultimately the Monlou rider had to settle for seventh but the point had been made to the field; he'll be a contender all season.

4. Lowes crash on lap three of the Moto2 race robbed everyone of what looked set to be a great scrap with Zarco for the win. The speed and consistency of the pair was incredibly closely matched over the weekend, Lowes seemed to have the edge in practice and qualifying, but in the race it could have gone either way. Having already broken away from the pack the pair would have been safe to race each other and they would have turned a somewhat dull Moto2 race into a barnstormer. In Qatar there was only three riders capable of setting the pace-Lowes, Zarco and Rabat-and ultimately all three hit problems. It was the one glimmer of good fortune that Lowes saw on Sunday night, he hadn't lost much ground in the title fight.

5. My overriding thought after the Qatar Grand Prix was...can it be time for Texas yet? Qatar showed everything that is great about motorcycle racing in general and MotoGP in particular. We saw plenty of great scraps, huge emotional swings for riders and some fantastic racing. When the Formula 1 season opened with a dull Australian Grand Prix that paddock was excited to move on to Malaysia to prove that they could have a more competitive season. We're excited to move onto the second round because once again MotoGP delivered the best racing in the world and we want to build on that momentum.