The 2016 Commercial Bank Grand Prix of Qatar marked the beginning of a new era in MotoGP, that of Michelin tires and standard electronics across the grid. In the run-up to the race, hopes that some new faces would emerge from the pack and find their way to the podium had been soaring. Under the lights of Losail, however, defending champion Jorge Lorenzo held serve for Yamaha against a strong challenge from Andrea Dovizioso and Marc Marquez; the Usual Suspects had once again asserted their dominance of the sport.
Qualifying had produced an ethnically-striated grid – Spaniards filling up rows one and three, with an all-Italian second row and an all-British fourth. Lorenzo laid down a fast lap early in the session, as did Marquez a bit later, and both held up despite Maverick Vinales and Andrea “Maniac Joe” Iannone taking serious runs at them at session’s end. Vinales missed out on the two hole by 4/1000ths of a second. Iannone could have easily moved up to the front row had he not been momentarily held up by Scott Redding, who appeared to be doing his best to get out of the way. (A track record final lap by Marquez was tossed when it was determined he had started it one second after the checkered flag had waved.)
Having watched six of the top seven riders in Moto2 jump the start, the start of the MotoGP tilt appeared somewhat sluggish, especially for Marquez and Vinales, who got lost in the sauce. Marquez, looking WAY more comfortable than he looked last season prior to switching to his 2014 chassis, escaped from the crowd to join the lead group in fourth position. Vinales, perhaps concerned about making an early-season mistake, found himself mired behind Dani Pedrosa, where he spent the entire evening.
The lead group formed up with Lorenzo leading the Dueling Andreas of the factory Ducati team, trailed by Valentino Rossi and Marquez. At the start of Lap 2, both Ducatis flew past Lorenzo, Iannone in the lead. Marquez slipped past Rossi on Lap 3 and began dogging Lorenzo on Lap 4. I was just getting comfortable with the idea of Iannone winning his first premier class race when he lowsided out of the lead in Turn 13 of Lap 6, leaving Dovizioso to slug it out with the Aliens. Sure enough, on Lap 9 Lorenzo found his way through on Dovizioso and that was that. Marquez and Dovizioso would trade places a few times over the remaining 14 laps, but no one was able to mount any kind of serious challenge to Lorenzo once he found his rhythm.
Tell Us Again What We Learned This Winter
Nothing. Elevated expectations for Vinales and Octo Pramac Ducati Brit Scott Redding didn’t pan out, at least in Round One. This is a good time to point out that the Qatar GP usually offers up a few surprises to which followers of MotoGP give too much weight. This is probably more true in 2016 than usual, given the technical changes everyone was dealing with. Here’s what we know at this moment:
- The top riders have already adjusted to the Michelins and the control ECU.
- Dovizioso and Iannone will do well at the long, sweeping circuits like Brno and Phillip Island. We don’t know how they will hold up at the cramped little joints like The Sachsenring and Motegi.
- Marquez has finally learned that 16 points is better than none.
- Rossi, now joined at the hip with Yamaha for the rest of his career, will have more fruitful days than he did today. Although he qualified better than usual, there was no late-race challenge from #46. His choice of the harder option rear tire proved to have been in vain.
- Michelin has figured out a lot of stuff in a very short time. Many of the riders set their fastest laps of the day late in the race.
- Iannone has replaced the departed Nicky Hayden in the competition for the absolute worst haircut on the grid. At this point, he’s winning by a mile.
- The competition for the top riders has already begun.
Early Season Silliness
Right, so Rossi and Lorenzo were reportedly offered contracts for 2017-18 simultaneously, by email. Rossi signs his immediately. Lorenzo does not. Rossi suggests Lorenzo is shopping Ducati. (Lorenzo is, in fact, shopping Ducati.) Lorenzo fires back that Rossi had no choice because no one else would want him. Boom. Bradley Smith, on the verge of eviction by Tech 3 boss Herve Poncharal, signs a deal with KTM for next year, leaving Yamaha a spot with which to woo Alex Rins.
I would say the odds of Lorenzo moving to Ducati in 2017 increased at the close of Lap 1, when the lead group entered the front straight. Lorenzo, at the front of the pack, could only sit and watch as both factory Ducatis effortlessly blew past him, Grant-through-Richmond style, forcing him to push harder in the turns than he might have wished for the rest of the race. The speed of the Desmosedici (Iannone was clocked at 218 mph on Saturday) combined with the skills of Jorge Lorenzo herald a formidable force if, indeed, Lorenzo elects to switch. He would probably enjoy, too, the prospect of winning a title or three at Ducati, which The Doctor was unable to do, albeit during the pre-Dall’Igna era.
Here’s an easy one: If/when Lorenzo bolts for Ducati, Yamaha will immediately sign the 21 year-old Vinales for as long as they can. He’s the hottest property in MotoGP right now, despite his mediocre performance today. Honda, on the other hand, needs to decide soon if they really want another two years of hard-luck Pedrosa, or if the future wouldn’t look much brighter with Marquez and Vinales (or Marquez and Rins) fronting the Repsol factory team.
The Big Picture
I’m not even sure there IS a big picture so early in the season. Iannone’s impression of Lorenzo’s 2014 crash in the desert has needlessly put him behind the eight ball for the rest of the year; why he was pushing so hard so early in the race, with all that bike beneath him, is a mystery.
Rossi, his meal ticket punched for the next three years, may have lost a bit of intensity – about racing, that is. He seems fully charged up for a season-long verbal feud with Lorenzo, and would probably welcome Marquez back into the fray as well. Dorna, it seems, is not amused by Rossi’s baiting of his two Spanish rivals, and may try to convince him to cool his jets. Having a 27 year-old Rossi snarling and snapping at you was once a frightening prospect. A 37 year-old Rossi, who has been beaten by both Lorenzo and Marquez: not so much. Yamaha may live to regret their pre-emptive signing of Rossi, especially if it ends up costing them both Vinales and Rins.
Two Weeks to the Middle of Nowhere
The grid has a little time to screw things back together before heading off for a back-to-back, Round Two in Argentina and Round Three in Austin. Even old econ majors like me are not too geeked up about hearing the teams yammer on about analyzing all the data they collected this weekend. Whatever. It’s good to have the bikes back on track competing in anger. It’s great having Nick Harris calling the shots in the booth. It’s good for the sport to have Marquez competitive again this year. It will be good – next year – to have more bikes on the grid. And it will be fascinating to see which bums end up on which seats as the season rolls on.
For now, Lorenzo rules.
|2016 MotoGP Qatar Results|
|1||Jorge Lorenzo||Movistar Yamaha||–|
|2||Andrea Dovizioso||Ducati Corse||+2.019|
|3||Marc Marquez||Repsol Honda||+2.287|
|4||Valentino Rossi||Movistar Yamaha||+2.387|
|5||Dani Pedrosa||Repsol Honda||+14.083|
|6||Maverick Vinales||Suzuki Ecstar||+15.423|
|7||Pol Espargaro||Monster Yamaha Tech3||+18.629|
|8||Bradley Smith||Monster Yamaha Tech3||+18.652|
|9||Hector Barbera||Avintia Racing||+21.160|
|10||Scott Redding||Octo Pramac Yaknich Ducati||+24.435|
|11||Aleix Espargaro||Suzuki Ecstar||+35.847|
|12||Eugene Laverty||Aspar Ducati||+41.756|
|13||Alvaro Bautista||Aprilia Gresini||+41.932|
|14||Jack Miller||Estrella Galicia 0,0 Marc VDS Honda||+41.982|
|15||Tito Rabat||Estrella Galicia 0,0 Marc VDS Honda||+54.953|
|–||Stefan Bradl||Aprilia Gresini||11 Laps|
|–||Loris Baz||Avintia Ducati||14 Laps|
|–||Cal Crutchlow||LCR Honda||16 Laps|
|–||Andrea Iannone||Ducati||17 Laps|
|–||Yonny Hernandez||Aspar Ducati||21 Laps|
|2016 MotoGP Top Ten Standings After 1 Round|
|1||Jorge Lorenzo||Movistar Yamaha||25|
|2||Andrea Dovizioso||Ducati Corse||20|
|3||Marc Marquez||Repsol Honda||16|
|4||Valentino Rossi||Movistar Yamaha||13|
|5||Dani Pedrosa||Repsol Honda||11|
|6||Maverick Vinales||Suzuki Ecstar||10|
|7||Pol Espargaro||Monster Yamaha Tech3||9|
|8||Bradley Smith||Monster Yamaha Tech3||8|
|9||Hector Barbera||Avintia Racing||7|
|10||Scott Redding||Octo Pramac Yaknich Ducati||6|