There is a reason 36 year-old Valentino Rossi is still the most revered motorcycle racer on the planet. In his 313th grand prix start, Rossi, on the factory Yamaha, delivered a dazzling performance in the 2015 season opener, going hammer and tongs with factory Ducati #1 Andrea “DesmoDovi” Dovizioso all night before punking his compatriot by 17/100ths of a second to take the lead in the title chase for the first time since 2010.
Two-time defending world champion Marc Marquez, the immediate future of the sport, saw his chances for a season-opening win end in the first turn of Lap 1, when he was pushed WAY wide into the runoff area. How far off the racing surface was young Marc pushed, you ask? Far enough, it’s rumored, that a concession vendor offered him an ice-cold Coke. Re-entering the race dead last, he spent the evening slicing his way through the field, grinding his molars to dust, eventually finishing a respectable fifth, securing 11 points, and setting his sights on Austin, Texas. Guys like Marquez have short memories, and it’s a long season; no reason to think young Marc won’t win his third consecutive premier class title this year. Yet anyway.
Aside from Rossi’s heroics and Marquez’ travails, the story of Round 1 is the unbelievable turnaround being engineered before our very eyes in the Ducati garages by Gigi Dall’Igna, the Great White-Haired Hope of Italian racing fans everywhere. Having parted company with longtime employer Aprilia late in 2013, Dall’Igna has given a miraculous and immediate boost to the fortunes of the Ducati racing program. Keep in mind that Dovizioso and “the other Andrea”, Crazy Joe Iannone, first threw a leg over the radical new Desmosedici GP15 35 days ago. At Losail, they qualified 1st and 4th, ran in the front group all day, eventually blew away Yamaha icon Jorge Lorenzo, and finished together on the podium, the first time I’ve seen two Ducatis on the podium since, well, for a good long time.
Now, before you start getting all whooped up about some kind of paradigm shift in MotoGP, let me remind you of several facts. One, this was the first round of the season, run in the middle of the night in the Middle East on the only circuit dustier than Aragon. Two, Marc Marquez is not going to suffer this kind of race very often; I fully expect him to dominate rounds 2 and 3 in Texas and Argentina. And three, the day is approaching when Rossi will no longer be able to perform at his unique level. Losail, recall, is a Yamaha-friendly track, one of the friendliest, in fact, and the Repsol Honda contingent (which claimed 5th and 6th places today) will enjoy significant advantages over both the Yamahas and the Ducatis at a number of circuits on the tour. Relatively speaking, Losail is the MotoGP equivalent of Bonneville, while Austin, Rio Hondo and Motegi are more similar to downtown Washington, D.C. at rush hour.
How About Shutting Up and Telling Us About the Race?
Okay. After a clean start, the early leaders were Dovizioso, Lorenzo (who had jumped up from the six hole), Iannone, Yonny Hernandez on a Pramac Ducati, Bradley Smith on the Tech 3 Yamaha and his teammate Pol Espargaro; Pedrosa was stuck in the mud farther back, and Marquez was cruising the hinterlands. For a good part of the day, Lorenzo led The Two Andreas on a merry chase, while Rossi was working his way back into contention, having fallen as far back as 10th early.
Dovizioso went through on Lorenzo for the first time on Lap 9; the two would ultimately trade positions perhaps a dozen times, MotoGP at its finest. Iannone was keeping his powder dry in third place; Rossi showed up on his rear wheel on Lap 11. The four played Trading Places until Lap 19, when Dovizioso went through on Lorenzo again. Rossi immediately did the same, and then began his series of lead exchanges with Dovizioso, who was showing no signs of fatigue or tire wear. One had the sense that Dovizioso, younger, with more grunt, his years of handling and tire degradation problems apparently solved, would prevail in the run to the line. But it was not to be. Today, the Doctor schooled his students, all of them.
At the end of the day (Lord I hate that expression), we saw three Italians on the podium, which is to say the Spanish riders got blanked. Weird. We were left wondering whether Lorenzo, who showed up for practice 5 kilos lighter than he weighed at the end of last season, ran out of energy late in the day. Personally, I got the impression that Rossi treats practice the way established NBA stars treat the regular season – they only get amped up for the playoffs. Rossi, whose four practice sessions had him running 9th, 7th, 9th and 5th, and who qualified 8th, suddenly is the fastest guy in the joint when the red lights go out. If I’m his boss, Lin Jarvis, I’m okay with that.
Elsewhere on the Grid
Cal Crutchlow, on the Come What May LCR Honda, enjoyed a relatively successful maiden Honda outing, finishing 7th. He had taken time out of his busy practice schedule to flame Mike di Meglio of Avintia Racing for getting in his way during, like, FP1. Cal has morphed from one of the charming, likeable hard-luck guys on the grid to another mid-level clanging gong, and needs to take a nap. Tech 3 teammates Smith and Espargaro spent much of the day connected at the wrists and ankles, with Smith eventually crossing the line in 8th place, a tenth ahead of Little Brother. Yonny Hernandez completed the top ten in an encouraging outing on his Pramac Ducati, having qualified 5th (?) and running with the big dogs for a couple of early laps. Guy has some skills. In a bit of a disappointment, Big Brother Aleix Espargaro marked the return of a factory Suzuki program to the premier class with an 11th place finish after over-achieving in practice all weekend. The Suzuki is likely to perform better at the Honda tracks than places like Losail where top-end speed is at a premium.
Farther down the food chain, the maiden outing of the Aprilia Racing Team Gresini was a debacle, as expected. Alvaro Bautista got bumped by a charging Marquez early in the race and lost a brake caliper, while sad sack teammate Marco Melandri finished 34 seconds behind Alex de Angelis on his own hopeless Octo IodaRacing Team ART nag. Athinà Forward Racing’s Loris Baz, the record will show, finished his MotoGP debut three laps down, but spent some quality time mid-race in his garage getting his tires changed and spin-balanced and his ashtray emptied. The top rookie finisher today was, unsurprisingly, Maverick Vinales, who copped two points on his own Suzuki Ecstar. And Old Lonesome, Nicky Hayden, pushed his open class Honda to an uninspiring 17th place finish, just behind the once-competitive Stefan Bradl.
On to Austin
MotoGP returns to the U.S. in two weeks, descending upon the pretentiously-named “Circuit of the Americas” in Texas. (Let’s just call it Austin.) Expect radically different results in Round 2. But if today’s podium somehow repeats in the Lone Star State, MotoGP will have officially been turned on its head. Until then, we will view Losail 2015 as an outlier, while March 29 may be named a national holiday in Italy. Valentino Rossi fans around the world will savor today’s race, one of the best in his 20 years as The Alpha Male of Motorcycles.
|2015 MotoGP Qatar Top Ten Results|
|1||Valentino Rossi||Movistar Yamaha||–|
|2||Andrea Dovizioso||Ducati Corse||+0.174|
|3||Andrea Iannone||Ducati Corse||+2.250|
|4||Jorge Lorenzo||Movistar Yamaha||+2.707|
|5||Marc Marquez||Repsol Honda||+7.036|
|6||Dani Pedrosa||Repsol Honda||+10.755|
|7||Cal Crutchlow||CWM LCR Honda||+12.384|
|8||Bradley Smith||Monster Yamaha Tech3||+12.914|
|9||Pol Espargaro||Monster Yamaha Tech3||+13.031|
|10||Yonny Hernandez||Pramac Ducati||+17.435|
|2015 MotoGP Top Ten Standings After 1 Round|