For the second year in a row, The Grand Prix of Qatar delivered a riveting race with unexpected results. The 2014 edition saw putative race favorite Jorge Lorenzo dump his Yamaha M1 on the first lap, paving the way for a cage match between teammate Valentino Rossi and defending Repsol Honda world champion Marc Marquez in which Marquez prevailed by a quarter second. A year later, it was the favorite Marquez going walkabout on Lap 1, setting up a night-long rumble between the factory Yamahas and the factory Ducatis (what?) in which Rossi eventually pipped Andrea Dovizioso at the flag.

Valentino Rossi, Andrea Dovizioso and Andrea Iannone formed a rare all-Italian, Honda-less podium at Qatar.

The podium celebration, an all Italian lovefest, included third place finisher Andrea Iannone on the second factory Ducati. No Spaniards. No Hondas. The result from Losail thus fits the definition of the term “outlier”: An element of a data set that distinctly stands out from the rest of the data. Those of you who expect to see a similar result this week in Austin please raise your hands.

Before turning our attention to The Lone Star State, let’s review what we learned from Round 1:

  • The Ducati GP15 is the real deal, having more in common with the Yamaha M1 than the Honda RC213V. There is no truth to the rumor that the factory team is adopting the name Team Lazarus, but the Italian bike is once again competitive, a relief to everyone at Dorna and MotoGP fans around the world. It will do well at the tracks where the Yamahas excel, places such as Losail, Mugello and Brno. Having placed four bikes in the top 12 in the desert, with two on the podium, one can expect those numbers to be halved in Austin, a track seemingly custom-designed for the Honda.
  • Dani Pedrosa’s 2015 campaign is screwed, blued and tattooed. How he managed to enter the season incapable of riding staggers the imagination. He is projected to miss from two to four of the next races. And the circumstances which led HRC to name Hiro Aoyama as his replacement rather than Casey Stoner must have been complicated to the extreme. Aoyama will do well to score points, while Stoner could probably climb aboard and challenge for the podium. Is Stoner ready? Possibly. Able? Probably. Willing? No (Or perhaps it was Honda that was less-than-willing -Ed.). The choice of Aoyama tells me we are unlikely ever again to see Casey Stoner throw his leg over a MotoGP bike.
Dani Pedrosa gave it a shot at Qatar but his future is now in question after having surgery to remove a whole muscle casing from his right arm.
  • Jorge Lorenzo’s team obviously forgot to pack the duct tape before leaving for Qatar. He told reporters after the race that it was his helmet liner, rather than tires or fatigue, which cause him to fade from 1st to 4th place late in the race, the liner (apparently on Lap 18) having slipped down to where it impaired his peripheral vision. Having led for most of the race, Lorenzo appears ready to contend for the title again in 2015.
  • Valentino Rossi continues to defy the laws of nature, appearing as strong and skilled at age 36 as he was at 26. His post-race complaints about the concessions Ducati continues to receive were undignified for a future hall of famer. Having qualified 8th and won the race, he shouldn’t concern himself with Ducati having an advantage in qualifying with their soft rear tire. Vale needs to let the politicians worry about the regulations and focus on what former Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis preached to his team for decades – “Just win, baby.”
  • The underpowered Team Suzuki Ecstar will not be competitive at Yamaha-friendly tracks like Losail. I expect them to improve upon their results this week at COTA and to have their best outings at places like Assen, the Sachsenring and Indianapolis.
  • The underpowered, underfinanced and undermanned Aprilia Racing Team Gresini is going to endure a long, painful season. A Paul Byrd Motorsports-type of season. The sole consolation for Fausto Gresini is that it is Aprilia’s money being flushed down the toilet rather than his own.

Recent History at COTA

The inaugural Grand Prix of the Americas (apparently Grand Prix of the Western World was already taken, presumably by F-1) in 2013 announced the arrival of Marc Marquez as a legitimate title contender. He and Repsol Honda teammate Pedrosa dominated the timesheets in practice, qualified 1-2 on Saturday, and jumped out to the early lead on Lap 1 of the race. Pedrosa led the rookie for 12 laps before Marquez went through effortlessly on Lap 13 and brought it home by a second and a half with Yamaha’s Lorenzo, pedaling as hard as possible, finishing third, six seconds in front of Cal Crutchlow, then on the Monster Tech 3 Yamaha. The win elevated young Marquez into a tie with Lorenzo for the 2013 championship lead, sent his confidence soaring, and paved the way for his first premier class title that fall.

Marc Marquez will try to rebound at Circuit of the Americas, a track he has dominated the past two years.

Last year’s race was, as expected, another Repsol Honda clambake. Once again, the two Honda pilots finished in the top three during every free practice session. Once again they qualified 1-2. This time around, Marquez led from start to finish. Pedrosa trailed at the flag by some four seconds, with surprise third place finisher Andrea Dovizioso wrestling his Ducati Desmosedici to a miracle third place finish, albeit 17 seconds behind Pedrosa. This, you may recall, was the race in which Jorge Lorenzo comically jumped the start by 20 feet in a completely uncharacteristic loss of poise that, in combination with his DNF at Losail, brought his 2014 campaign crashing down around his ears.

Saluting Nicky Hayden

Sunday’s race will mark the 200th career start for Team Aspar’s Nicky Hayden, the sole American rider in MotoGP. At age 33 and clearly on the back nine of his career, Nicky still gets juiced for race days. With his wrist injury mostly healed, and a more competitive Honda RC213V-RS under him, he may yet have opportunities to finish in the top ten, but these will be few and far between.

Nicky Hayden may never return to his competitive prime but he’ll still give it his all while he still has the chance.

One gets the sense that at some point Grand Prix racing becomes a way of life that riders, clearly past their prime, are either unwilling or unable to let go of until management comes along and thanks them for their years of service. Why else would Hayden, or anyone for that matter, elect to compete for 15th place in MotoGP when they could be fighting for podium spots in World Superbike?

Your Weekend Weather Forecast

Before delving into the weather, let me remind you that Marc Marquez is, after five races in the U.S., undefeated on American soil, with a win at Laguna Seca, two in Indianapolis and two here to his credit. With an 80% chance of rain all three days, this streak could be in jeopardy. While he is virtually unstoppable on dry tracks, his record in the wet, and especially flag-to-flag affairs (see Phillip Island 2014) is less impressive. Ducati bikes have enjoyed positive results on wet tracks in recent years; how the GP15 performs in the rain has yet to be seen.

Expect the weather to be a major wildcard this weekend in Austin.

The lights go out for the big bikes at 3 pm EDT with the broadcast carried on Fox Sports 1. We’ll have race results and pix here later in the day.

  • Old MOron

    Ha ha ha, hilarious comments on Aprilia, Gresini and Byrdie.

    Here’s a question for you. What makes you think the Suzooks will improve their results this weekend? They are down on power, and COTA has two long straights that should
    see them suffering.

    • Bruce Allen

      I’m probably wrong on that, for the reasons you point out. Thinking they may be able to compensate in the slower, twisty sections of the track. Both riders continue to rave about the frame and suspension, just need a little more grunt.

      • Chrhu Kelki Meren

        That sounds a lot like what people used to say about the Yamahas.

    • Vrooom

      The rain might slow things down enough to leave them in the mix. That’s their best hope.

      • Old MOron

        I wouldn’t mind if it rained all weekend. Things were shaken up in Qatar. Let’s keep shaking.

  • ‘Mike Smith

    I can’t wait! I can’t wait! I can’t wait!

    Want me to say it again? 🙂

  • 12er

    One of these years I’ll make it to COTA, I sure miss the Laguna Seca round. It being at the peak of tax season doesnt help either. Hard to get time off for the extra travel days.

  • Old MOron

    Wow, what a practice session.
    It was pissing down, but that didn’t stop
    the riders from really going for it.

    So… we knew that the old Ducati was good
    in the rain. Danilo Petrucci put last
    year’s Bike in 5th position, ahead of
    all Yamahas except Vale’s, and all but two
    of the Hondas. Nicely done!

    Maybe the new Duc is good, too.
    Dovi certainly got it right, but the Maniac
    Joe was way back.

    It doesn’t look good for Yorgay. He’s two
    seconds back. We’ll see what the next
    practice session brings.

    One interesting note:
    The first practice session of the day
    was delayed by almost an hour due to
    “track staffing issues”.
    Kind of embarrassing if you ask me.