Lorenzo’s returning Yamaha teammate, Valentino Rossi, would eventually claim second position ahead of Marc Marquez after both riders fought back from adversity in the opening laps.
Rossi, starting from the third row, made a superb start and was battling in the lead group by the time the pack exited turn two with Lorenzo leading from Dani Pedrosa, Andrea Dovizioso and Rossi. The nine times world champion was clearly eager to get ahead of Dovizioso’s Ducati and he dived past his compatriot half way around the opening tour but outbraked himself and ran wide leaving the door open for Dovizioso to retake the position.
At the start of the second lap however Rossi could already see his teammate scampering clear in the distance, Lorenzo was able to open a half a second lead at this point, and it was clear that if he was to challenge for the win Rossi needed to get past the Ducati. The first corner provided the opportunity but Rossi ran to deep under braking and ran off track onto the expansive tarmac run off. The mistake cost Rossi dearly and he fell back to seventh position behind Stefan Bradl.
Marquez also had a difficult start and fell back to eighth position but immediately he started to make progress. The Repsol Honda rookie had shown strong pace throughout the weekend but it was crucial for him to get back to the front as soon as possible and he wasted little time in slicing his way through the pack.
Cal Crutchlow impressed again with his single lap pace in qualifying but having been shuffled back to fifth position from his front row start he struggled to make an impression on the leaders. Within a handful of laps Dovizioso was already struggling for pace and falling down the field leaving Lorenzo leading from Pedrosa, Marquez and Crutchlow.
Rossi was now trying to attack Bradl for sixth but the German defended before ultimately ceding the position to his rival on the eighth lap. Bradl, once more racing for LCR-Honda, would crash out of the race later on that lap.
With Rossi now released he set about chasing down the leading quartet. The Italian was over four seconds behind Crutchlow after ten laps but once in clear air he quickly closed the gap and was within striking distance with five laps to go.
In front of Crutchlow the factory Honda’s were having a great scrap with Pedrosa lacking confidence in his bikes grip but defending resolutely. Marquez however was not to be denied and slipstreamed past Pedrosa on the home straight with five laps to go. Crutchlow had the perfect vantage point for the battle between the Repsol Honda teammates and the Englishman commented after the race that Marc could easily have made the move earlier but that he was sitting up and braking early into the first turn. Amazingly Marquez was effectively toying with his vastly more experienced teammate on his premier class debut.
Crutchlow was able to match the pace of the Honda’s but never able to make a move on them. Just like we saw last year the Englishman showed that he had the pace to match the factory riders but unfortunately he was never able to pounce and overtake them. With the Yamaha so much suppler than the Honda you could see how much quicker Crutchlow was mid corner but more often than not he would have a run at the Honda’s mid corner and at the apex he would then be blocked by the slower bike and left with nowhere to go. The Honda’s on the other hand would square the corner off and get on the power very early and make it impossible for Crutchlow to attack.
Speaking after the race Crutchlow admitted
“I paid dearly for my speed deficit,” said the Tech3 rider. “I couldn’t pass them; I was faster, yes, but it was impossible. Stuck behind the Honda it is very difficult for the Yamaha to run smooth lines. I rode the best I could just to lose speed on the straight. We had some speed restrictions, and I also had to change the map to avoid running out of fuel [which made] it even harder.”
The Englishman was however about to get a lesson in how to overtake the Honda’s from Rossi.
The factory Yamaha rider showed Crutchlow just how important it is to be ultra aggressive when you are fighting at the front of the field and he dived down the inside of the Tech3 rider at the first corner to take fourth behind the Honda’s. Crutchlow tried to defend but braked too late and ran wide. His race was now run and he would be too far adrift of the leaders to challenge for the podium.
Rossi however was far from done. He was straight onto the back of Pedrosa and Marquez and within half a lap had passed them both.
“I’m very happy because it was my dream to come back with Yamaha,” said Rossi. “To arrive on the podium at the first race was my target from November and I put all my effort to arrive at the maximum here. It was a difficult weekend, especially yesterday in qualifying, but I knew I had great pace so I tried to recover in the beginning but I made a mistake and I lost time. I had to do a great second part of the race and step by step I came close to my podium.
“In the end there was a great battle, especially with Marc for the second place. I’m so happy for me, for my team, for my friends and all my fans who stay with me through two difficult years and also for Yamaha, to start the season with first and second place is not so bad!”
Rossi was as aggressive as ever and when he spotted any chance he dived past the Honda’s. Given how difficult Crutchlow found it to find a way through this lesson will not have been lost on the Englishman. Whereas in the past being consistent and chasing perfection was the key to winning in MotoGP now being aggressive is important once again. Marquez was also aggressive from the off and he tried to get back past Rossi but ultimately he had to settle for an impressive debut podium.
“To tell the truth, I was pretty nervous on the grid, because it was my first MotoGP race,” said the Repsol Honda rookie. “I don’t think I’ve ever been so nervous before. I found it hard to keep calm and I wasn’t as focused as in Moto2. However, I regained my concentration at the last moment. The start was important and we knew that we were taking off from the dirty part of the track.
“I didn’t get off well, but I was able to attack on the opening laps and overtake many riders. I think that this was the key. When I rode behind Dani I learnt a lot, also later on with Valentino. Fighting against him is always nice to watch, but it’s always tough at the same time. Valentino was a tough rival to overtake on the final laps. He beat us this time, but we hope to learn from him and from everyone who went faster than us”
His teammate, Pedrosa, was unable to match Marquez’ speed at the end of the race but overall he was pleased with his season opener:
“Today’s race was good, in part,” commented Pedrosa. “I rode strongly and at a good level, although I had to slide around a lot during the entire race to combat a lack of rear grip. I saw from the opening lap that Lorenzo was going much faster and I tried to keep my position, because I knew that on the corners the traction issue came into play. I tried as hard as I could to keep my position, but then Rossi came through at a blistering pace and, to tell the truth, I couldn’t stop him -he went straight through. I did all that I could, but it wasn’t enough.”
At the front however Lorenzo was peerless and finished the race with an advantage of over five seconds. Speaking afterwards the victor said:
“I’m really happy, really proud of myself and the team and this weekend, which was quite perfect,” said the double MotoGP champion. “To start the season in this way is fantastic. I wanted to get away at the start but I knew it would be difficult because the other riders were very strong, so I had to push at more than 100 per cent for just a few tenths each lap.
“Once I got a few seconds it was a bit easier and it started to be four or five tenths, which gave me the confidence to stay calm and focussed, and that’s when a rider is at their best. We have to celebrate the result, but we [can’t] be too calm because we know we have things to improve on the bike.”
Behind the leaders Alvaro Bautista finished ahead of a gaggle of Ducati’s with Dovizioso leading home his teammate Nicky Hayden and the Pramac Ducati’s. Aleix Espargaro once more was the leading CRT machine after a strong weekend with de Puniet, Barbera, Hernandez and Aoyama rounding out the points scorers.
With Lorenzo starting the season in perfect form, Rossi showing the paddock that his fire and determination is as impressive as ever, Marquez starting his premier class career with a podium and Crutchlow and Pedrosa having strong races it is clear that the season opening race points to a very exciting season.