With the dust now settled after the opening MotoGP weekend of the season the Qatar Grand Prix showed us that there is the potential for an exciting season in all three classes.
In the premier class the aggression of Valentino Rossi and Marc Marquez stole the spotlight and Jorge Lorenzo’s metronomic consistency was overshadowed by his pursuers. Lorenzo led from lights to flag and opened a commanding three second lead in just a handful of laps. From that point onwards we saw little of the race leader with the TV director rightly focusing on the scraps behind.
Lorenzo’s form however will surely have sounding an ominous warning for the rest of the field. As ever the world champion was able to get straight down to speed in the race and turn in a series of super fast laps. Just like he has been since 2010 Jorge’s relentless consistency is his biggest strength and if you are unable to get to the front in the first two laps of a Grand Prix it can be almost impossible to catch Lorenzo.
We saw in Qatar that Rossi had very strong race pace but after qualifying on the third row and falling back to seventh after his off track excursion it was obviously impossible for him to challenge his teammate but we did see that in 2013 that he will be a force to be reckoned with once again.
After his miserable two year spell in racing purgatory he was keen to get to the front as soon as possible on Sunday. He made a lightening start and shot up to fourth position but his impatience to get past Andrea Dovizioso was heavily punished and he fell down the order.
Valentino was impatient because he knew that if he was to have even a chance of winning the race he needed to be on Lorenzo’s tail from the very start. Ultimately we’ll never know what would have happened if Rossi had clearly passed Dovizioso’s Ducati but the tale of the weekend indicated that while Rossi was very quick he was a fraction slower than his teammate.
The four practice sessions showed that Valentino had very strong race pace but that Jorge was probably about a tenth of a second faster this weekend. In the race Rossi may have been able to hang with Jorge but it’s unlikely that he would have beaten him. Even so with Qatar having historically been one of Lorenzo’s stronger races this was a very encouraging start to the year for Rossi.
The next race of the season, at the brand new Circuit of the America’s, is an unknown for the grid but the Yamaha and Honda test there did indicate that the Honda would be faster. The Texan track has lots of long straights and heavy acceleration zones, over 30 seconds of the lap time is spent in first gear, so it should play to the strengths of the Honda.
As a result it might be the Spanish Grand Prix at Jerez before we see a true fight at the front between Rossi and Lorenzo and by that time you would imagine that Rossi and his crew chief, Jeremy Burgess, will have gotten a thorough understanding of the 1000cc YZR-M1 and winning at Jerez could be possible for Valentino.
After spending two years with his competitiveness dulled on the Ducati it was terrific to see Rossi riding with confidence again. He put his bike where he wanted it to go and had so much confidence in the front end. It was as if his Ducati nightmare had never happened and he was suddenly the confident, other worldly talent of his pre 2011 self.
In the race he looked like a man hell bent to show the world that he was still the greatest rider in the world. Whereas in the last few years we have grown accustomed to seeing Lorenzo, Dani Pedrosa and Casey Stoner seek perfection on every lap and races became a “follow my leader” procession in Qatar we saw Rossi, and Marquez, ride aggressively and try overtaking moves at almost any opportunity.
Rossi was clearly revelling in once again having a bike that inspires confidence rather than dread and he wanted to have fun on his return to Yamaha. He dived under rivals, he out accelerated them and he dared them to try and outbrake him. Ultimately he was rewarded with a second place finish but far more than that the crowd was rewarded by seeing Rossi back on form.
At Ducati he always did his best to smile but so often it was a forced smile, at parc ferme in Qatar we saw the jubilance of a young Rossi and given that he ended the race six seconds adrift of Lorenzo despite all his battles he will clearly be feeling very confident of challenging for the title. In preseason Rossi was keen to call himself the number two rider at Yamaha and you always felt that he was saying the humble lines required following his Ducati experience but that he never really believed what he was saying. After Qatar he will certainly feel that he can win a tenth world title.
The stunning debut of Marquez also gave the TV producers and broadcasters reason to smile. The Spaniard was as stunning as ever on the track but with his aggressive riding and gravity defying riding style the viewing figures should be impressive this season.
Cal Crutchlow said at Valencia last year, and again this weekend, that he thinks that Marc is quite possibly the best rider in the world at the moment and given that the reigning Moto2 champion took to the premier class like a duck to water a victory looks to be in the not too distant future. The very next race could well provide that opportunity given that Marquez dominated the joint test session at COTA.
Having seen Marquez have such an impressive debut, and convincingly beat his teammate Pedrosa, it is obviously easy to think that he will continue this form but Pedrosa is not likely to be intimidated by his young rival.
We saw last year that Dani has a lot more mental fortitude than what was the case in the past and his form in the second half of 2012, winning six of eight races, still has to make him a title favourite. In Qatar he was hampered by a lack of rear grip and he never really looked comfortable on the bike. As a result a fourth place finish was about all that could have been expected from him.
Pedrosa will be happy for Marquez to get the attention of the media but he will be much stronger in the coming races and you would have to imagine that his speed, consistency and experience should give him an edge over his rookie teammate.
Cal Crutchlow was keen to vent his frustrations at being stepped over by Ducati for a factory ride and Yamaha’s refusal to offer him factory support but the combative Englishman was very strong in Qatar. Cal is the kind of rider who feeds off any feeling that he has been mistreated or overlooked.
When he is at his best it is usually when he has been slighted and in Qatar his front row qualifying effort was superb. In the race however he couldn’t match that performance and finished fifth. He struggled to make any attempt to overtake the Repsol Honda’s but having seen the aggressive overtaking of Rossi in the closing stages I would be very surprised if Cal suffers the same fate again.
In his rookie season, on the 800cc bike, finding consistency was the key but with Rossi and Marquez showing on Sunday that aggressive and opportunistic riding can offer rewards once again I would expect that Cal will dial up his aggression once again. He has the speed to be a frontrunner but with added aggression he could make the move to regular podium finisher and maybe even race winner this season.
His teammate at Tech3, rookie Bradley Smith, crashed out of his debut but the Englishman will take some encouragement from the weekend. For the last year the decision to promote Smith to the premier class has been derided by many and while he is obviously not of the same talent as Marquez he had a solid weekend.
His pace in practice and qualifying was relatively similar to what Stefan Bradl wasachieving last year as a rookie. However his early race crash cost him valuable mileage and experience. For Smith 2013 has to be seen as a learning year. Gaining experience has to be his target and if he applies himself and learns from his teammate he could have a decent year.
In the 125cc class there was a good reason why Smith was a factory Honda and Aprilia rider. He has a lot of talent and speed but we saw time and again throughout his career that he struggles in wheel to wheel battles. He seems to set his pace based on what riders are around him instead of being aggressive and overtaking them as soon as possible.
In MotoGP this aggression is needed and it will be interesting to see how Bradley develops as the year progresses. He was a podium finisher as a Moto2 rookie but he was too often a mid-pack racer. Some of the blame for this has to fall on the Tech3 machinery at his disposal but now is the time for Smith to shine otherwise the criticism of Herve Ponceral’s decision to promote him will grow louder.
At Ducati there were signs of encouragement. Andrea Dovizioso’s second row start showed that the raw speed of the bike is quite good but once again when the race started we saw the red bikes struggle more and more as the race wore on. Tyre wear is clearly still a major concern for the team but without the media attention of having Rossi there is a bigger chance that they might make quiet progress over the course of the season.
With Rossi it was clear that Ducati tried lots of different things to try and cure the problems of the bike. We saw various chassis, swingarms, weight distribution packages and electronic upgrades but ultimately the team made little progress. With lots of elements of the bike changing on a regular basis it is very difficult for teams to actually understand why the bike wasn’t improving.
Maybe with less attention the team can now try and make some changes and analyse the data and try and understand what has changed. The internal management changes may also help and hopefully the resources of the new Audi ownership can bring stability to the race team. It’s clearly a long road to the top for Ducati but their decision to have four factory bikes this year will give them a lot more data and make progress easier.
The upgrade to factory status of the Pramac team was one of the key decisions made by Ducati last year but in Qatar Ben Spies struggled greatly. The American is still suffering from his winter shoulder surgery and was obviously at far than ideal fitness at the season opener but seeing a Grand Prix winner on a factory machine forced to battle with the CRTs was a difficult sight.
The CRT fight was once again led by the Aspar ART machines of Aleix Espargaro and Randy de Puniet. In practice Espargaro was superb and almost within a second of the fastest times on Friday. Given that last year the CRT bikes were over three seconds off the pace this gave an illustration of just how much progress these bikes have made in the last 12 months.
Of course with Honda set to sell their “production RCV” next year and Yamaha announcing over the weekend that they will offer engines and chassis for lease next season it is likely that this will the last Qatari race to feature the CRT bikes. They are unloved by many but they have served their function of bulking up the grid and in the hands of Espargaro they have produced some surprising results.
In the intermediate Moto2 class it was announced over the weekend that Honda would continue as engine supplier in the class until at least 2015. There was speculation that the class may be opened to more engine manufacturers but given that the chassis manufacturers have so much experience and data using the 600cc production based Honda engine it is clear that it would be very difficult, or nigh on impossible, for another engine maker to be anywhere competitive in the class.
On the track Pol Espargaro was very competitive in taking a clean sweep of pole position and race win. The championship favourite was however forced to fight for the victory with Scott Redding pushing him all the way after an exciting race.
At the start of the race Nakagami tried to make a break for it and the Italtrans rider was able to open a lead before losing the lead to Redding just before half distance and falling off the pace. The Japanese rider has been mentioned as dark horse for the title and claiming his first career podium will have given him lots of confidence going forward.
Confidence is not something that Espargaro will lack after a strong winter but his fight with Redding for the win showed that while Pol should be a regular winner he will have to fight hard for those victories.
Redding rode very well and the introduction of the minimum weight limit has clearly helped in levelling the playing for the Englishman. However, it is five years since he last won a Grand Prix, the 2008 British Grand Prix where Scott became the youngest ever Grand Prix winner. He has the speed and aggression to be very successful but he needs to add to his victory tally soon to add more validity to his title challenge. The Marc VDS rider had some strong races last season but if he is challenge for the championship he needs to be a consistent rostrum finisher.
This year has the potential to be a reputation maker in the Moto2 class. With Marquez having moved on to the premier class there is potential for riders to create a lot of attention for themselves. Dominique Aegerter has had his moments over the last couple of seasons but the Swiss rider’s solid performance in Qatar showed that he could be a surprise contender at races this season.
In Moto3 the race distilled into a five way scrap for the victory with Luis Salom winning ahead of Alex Rins and Maverick Vinales for an all Spanish podium. Alex Marquez and Jonas Folger also featured in the fight for the victory.
Folger was the only rider within the leading quintet who failed to really make headway in the group and the Aspar rider settled for a steady fifth position finish. Folger kept a watching brief on the rest of the leaders but never really looked capable of actually overtaking anyone. This may have been related to being the only rider using the Kalex chassis whereas the rest of the leaders used the KTM.
Salom judged his ace to perfection and took the lead on the final lap and opened a lead at the front while Marquez, Rins and Vinales scrapped it out for the podium spots. Marquez looked like he had done enough to claim a first career podium finish but his inexperience and enthusiasm got the better of him and he dropped to fourth. Even so it was a very competitive race from the young Spaniard and in his first full season he should be a regular contender.
His teammate, Rins, was beaten to the podium by just 0.006s, or half the width of a wheel, after being unable to slipstream past Vinales at the finish line. Rins was impressive last year, claiming a podium at Le Mans last year and a pole position at Jerez, but again his maturity on Sunday showed that he has to be regarded as a title contender this season.
Salom’s victory, on his Ajo KTM debut, showed that the experienced Spaniard is now ready to fight for the title. With Vinales hampered by a hand injury it was crucial to start the season with a victory but with Maverick having showed few ill effects of losing the tip of finger two weeks ago it is clear that this year’s Moto3 season should be very close.
Behind the leaders Miguel Oliviera had a strong start to the season and showed that the Mahindra could be competitive at times this season. The Indian manufacturer no longer manufacturers their chassis, Suter now take car of this however it is still a Mahindra design, and with Oliviera and Efren Vazquez both finishing in the top ten it was an encouraging start to the campaign.