Movistar Yamaha’s new kid on the block, Maverick Viñales, did to the field of the 2017 Grand Prix of Qatar what he’s done ever since he first placed his bum on the saddle of the YZR-M1 last November. He ended the day at the top of the timesheets, having outdueled factory Ducati #1 Andrea Dovizioso over the last eight laps of the race. In the process, he took the lead in the 2017 championship and initiated what is likely to become known as The Viñales Years.

A revelation after his first two years in MotoGP with Suzuki, Maverick Viñales has looked even more impressive since switching to Yamaha.

Saturday Washout

Weather conditions on Saturday evening in metropolitan Doha area were so foul that FP4, Q1, and Q2 were all scrubbed, leaving the combined results from the three completed practices as a proxy for the starting grid, to the immense dismay of Valentino Rossi, Jorge Lorenzo, Alex Rins and, one expects, Cal Crutchlow. Scott Redding, having led QP3, was overheard wandering the paddock in the wee hours, sniffing about how he could have taken the pole and it’s just so unfair.

Whatever. Behind the front row, at least, the starting grid was a random collection of hardware and talent. An unexpected way to start the season. In an unfriendly locale, with Aliens Rossi and Lorenzo pedaling hard on the fourth row. And the impudent Johann Zarco comfortably seated in fourth.

Rain in the Desert

Heavy rains and poor drainage at the Losail track forced race organizers to write-off Saturday.

The weather was bad enough on Saturday to scrub everything in all classes, a veritable gullywasher of a day. And here I thought the only good thing about racing here is that at least you don’t have to worry about rain. Sunday came along with much more teasing kinds of conditions – spitting rain, breezy, high humidity, scudding clouds. Just as the Moto2 tilt (won by Franco Morbidelli for his first victory in the class) was ending, it started sprinkling.

Dorna and FIM executives began hemming and hawing. Riders started calling their garages for tires, making changes on the track. The bikes left the track, the bikes re-entered the track. The race was shortened from 22 to 21 laps, then to 20 with two warm-up laps, by which time the rain had mostly stopped. Several riders watched the red lights go out with tires they had never, or barely, ridden, traction and wear issues all over the place. Madness was in the air.

A Rookie Leads at the Start

Andrea Iannone took the first lead of the season but was soon overtaken by an impressive Johann Zarco. The Frenchman eventually crashed out but did hold the lead for the first six laps.

Andrea Iannone won the hole shot, but as the field headed towards Turns 2 and 3 one of the Tech 3 Yamahas materialized at the front, accompanied by the animated shouting of announcer Nick Harris: “Johann Zarco leads the Grand Prix of Qatar!” Madness! Zarco was followed in close order by Marc Marquez, Iannone, Dovizioso on the Ducati, and Viñales, who was keeping his powder dry within shouting distance of the front.

By Lap 6, Zarco was looking very relaxed, trailed by Dovizioso, Marquez, Iannone, Viñales and, of all people, Rossi, who had started 10th but worked himself up close to the lead group. The law of averages suddenly made its presence felt, as Zarco crashed out of the lead on Lap 7. Then there were five. Having picked my boy Cal Crutchlow to finish on the podium today, he took revenge on me for past insults, real and imagined, by crashing out on Lap 4. Crashlow got back up and immediately crashed again on his Lap 5 for good measure.

Viñales Prevails

Marc Marquez was in second for much of the early going, fighting off Suzuki’s Andrea Iannone.

With Dovizioso leading by mid-race, Iannone and Marquez traded a little paint here and there, just like the old days, while the two factory Yamahas lurked in fourth and fifth places. Almost on cue, on Lap 10 Iannone had an unforced lowside in Turn 7 and crashed out of podium contention.

The last eight laps were outstanding. While Marquez faded to fourth, never appearing totally comfortable with his tires, Dovi and Viñales began enjoying a number of close encounters, Rossi hanging back, appearing to wait for something to happen in front of him. Viñales would take the lead around Turn 6 and keep it through Turn 16, after which Dovizioso would blow by him on the main straight and take the lead heading into Turn 1. This continued until the two riders entered Turn 1 on the last lap with Viñales in the lead. He held it all the way, in and through Turn 16, and took the win by half a second. A legend, as the expression goes, is born.

Andrea Dovizioso and Maverick Viñales swapped the lead several times, with Dovi’s Ducati surging ahead on the straight and Viñales’ Yamaha regaining the advantage in the corners.

Elsewhere on the Grid

Aleix Espargaro and his #41 Aprilia RS-GP started in 15th but finished strongly in sixth behind Honda’s Dani Pedrosa. It was Aprilia’s highest finish since returning to the premier class.

Dani Pedrosa has had worse days than today. With little expected from him, he qualified seventh, spent the early part of the race in mid-pack, then bided his time as guys started falling off in front of him, ultimately finishing fifth. Shades of Colin Edwards late in his career. Aleix Espargaro, in perhaps the best ride of the day, flogged his factory Aprilia from 15th position at the start to sixth at the finish, the best result for the team since they re-entered MotoGP last year. Scott Redding scored a heartening seventh on his Ducati GP16, Jack Miller (we are officially amazed) was eighth on the Marc VDS Honda, and my boy Alex Rins held onto his Suzuki well enough all day for ninth place, becoming the leading rookie for the season.

Bradley Smith and KTM have a lot of work ahead of them in the manufacturer’s debut season.

For other riders, the 2017 opener was forgettable. Crashers include Crutchlow (2), Iannone, Zarco and Alvaro Bautista, while Danilo Petucci had to retire his GP17 with mechanical issues. The KTM team of Pol Espargaro and Bradley Smith was saved from the indignity of finishing last and next-to-last only by the futility of Sam Lowes, who delivered his own Aprilia to the finish line some 40 seconds behind teammate Aleix, and was the last rider to cross the line. Out of the points and, hopefully, dissuaded from any illusion that he might score more than 20 points all year.

We would be derelict in our reportorial duties were we to fail to mention that triple world champion Jorge Lorenzo, in his debut with his new Italian employer, started 12th, had four guys in front of him crash out or retire, and finished 11th, 20 seconds behind teammate Dovizioso. We know rain gives Jorge the yips. Now, it appears that high humidity does the same thing. And, lest readers assume this is just a Qatarian anomaly, it is true that Lorenzo won here last year from pole. Just sayin’.

Jorge Lorenzo was a non-factor in his Ducati debut.

The Big Picture

Having been burned in the past, we must be careful not to draw too many conclusions from what occurred tonight. We learned, or confirmed our suspicions about, several things:

  • Maverick Viñales is a baller.
  • Valentino Rossi at age 38 is about as good as anyone out there.
  • The Suzuki can compete for wins.
  • Andrea Dovizioso is the #1 rider on the factory Ducati team.
  • We have been underestimating Johann Zarco since November.
It’s early yet but Maverick Viñales is already a clear front-runner in the 2017 MotoGP title chase.

In two weeks the grid heads off to Argentina for its annual Bungle in the Jungle. Rio Hondo is a Honda-friendly circuit, as is Austin two weeks later. Marc Marquez should win the next two races. If, instead, Maverick Viñales should win either, MotoGP is likely to have a new champion this year. And if it does, you can tell your grandkids you watched Maverick win the very first race of The Viñales Years.

2017 MotoGP Qatar Results
Pos. Rider Team Time
1 Maverick Viñales Movistar Yamaha
2 Andrea Dovizioso Ducati Corse +0.461
3 Valentino Rossi Movistar Yamaha +1.928
4 Marc Marquez Repsol Honda +6.745
5 Dani Pedrosa Repsol Honda +7.128
6 Aleix Espargaro Aprilia Gresini +7.661
7 Scott Redding Octo Pramac Ducati +9.782
8 Jack Miller Estrella Galicia 0,0 Marc VDS Honda +14.486
9 Alex Rins Suzuki Ecstar +14.788
10 Jonas Folger Monster Yamaha Tech3 +15.069
11 Jorge Lorenzo Ducati Corse +20.516
12 Loris Baz Reale Avintia Ducati +21.255
13 Hector Barbera Avintia Racing +28.828
14 Karel Abraham Pull&Bear Aspar Ducati +29.123
15 Tito Rabat Estrella Galicia 0,0 Marc VDS Honda +29.470
16 Pol Espargaro Red Bull KTM +33.601
17 Bradley Smith Red Bull KTM +39.704
18 Sam Lowes Aprilia Gresini +47.131
Not Classified
DNF Danilo Petrucci Octo Pramac Yaknich Ducati 6 Laps
DNF Andrea Iannone Suzuki Ecstar 10 Laps
DNF Alvaro Bautista Pull&Bear Aspar Ducati 13 Laps
DNF Johann Zarco Monster Yamaha Tech 3 14 Laps
DNF Cal Crutchlow LCR Honda 16 Laps
2017 MotoGP Top 10 Standings After 1 Round
1 Maverick Viñales Yamaha 25
2 Andrea Dovizioso Ducati 20
3 Valentino Rossi Yamaha 16
4 Marc Marquez Honda 13
5 Dani Pedrosa Honda 11
6 Aleix Espargaro Aprilia 10
7 Scott Redding Ducati 9
8 Jack Miller Honda 8
9 Alex Rins Suzuki 7
10 Jonas Folger Yamaha 6
  • Bruce Allen

    Dennis Chung, thank you for the images, the captions, and getting this thing posted in record time. Now if the article itself were only a little stronger…

    • JMDGT

      Don’t sell yourself short Mon Amie. Your write ups are stellar.

    • Kos

      Early days, Bruce, early days.

      You’re just getting warmed up!

  • john phyyt

    Thank you so much Bruce. Just excellent , I haven’t watched the race yet but I waited for your report as it is definative.. Compared to Snoozville over at F1 , Half a minute from 1st to fourth.. Moto GP just rocks.. There are enough riders who can win. It seems Alien status counts for nothing. Zarco has shown enough to be a true contender. Will this be a lost year for Lorenzo?

    KTM… .. Don’t wait ! New chassis NOW. You are already blowing millions of euros ….more than a second a lap is unacceptable.. You are spending money to show the world that you are slow and intransigent . ??

    • spiff

      Right now KTM is looking for rear grip. Do you think that the steel frame is to blame or the geometry?

      • john phyyt

        All about confidence. I believe Lorenzo is as good a rider as Dovizioso.. Results show that it is the rider which makes the difference in their case.
        But you need to risk your neck lap after lap and it is easy to blame your bike if “there is no feel at corner entry/exit” .. Right now. others can go faster on different chassis SO.. would you risk it?? I believe both Espargaro and Smith are able to be very competitive on other bikes. So, Yes KTM need to change .

        • spiff

          They have one race under their belt. I think change would be premature. They need to give refinement a chance. Look at how developed the M1 is yet Rossi is looking for front end feel. One click here some different linkage there, who knows what their solution is.

        • spiff

          I was looking at the times, Pol was on average less then a second a lap off of Lorenzo. I’m not claiming they are fine, KTM has a lot in front of them, just trying to keep it in perspective.

          • Vrooom

            True, but less than a second off 11th isn’t going to get you far, especially with 4 faster riders crashed out. KTM will shorten the gap, but they seem further off than when Suzuki got involved again.

    • Bruce Allen

      “You are spending money to show the world that you are slow and intransigent . ??” See, I need a small garage full of guys like you who can feed me the zingers the readers love and which, after nine years, are becoming harder to come by, to dangle the preposition. Keep ’em coming.

    • Bruce Allen

      So, no need for spoiler alerts with you. Do you also eat your dessert before tucking into dinner? 🙂

    • Gruf Rude

      The thing about trellis frames is they can be quickly and easily modified. Need more frame flex? Remove a tube or make it smaller. Adding stiffness is just as simple. Also easy to CAD-test a steel-trellis solution rather than working with a vacuum-cast unobtainium frame. KTM is brand-new to MotoGP (or big-bore roadracing in general) and experience (and the mountains of data that come with it) is important.

    • Bruce Allen

      You should read Mat Oxley. He actually knows what’s going on.

  • JMDGT

    What a race. A great start to the season. The rain would give me the yips too. A lot of dynamic happenings. The last eight laps were magic. The magic of Moto GP.

  • Junker

    I had to laugh when Crutchlow went down, since I was just saying Bruce had he and Ianonne switched in his season prediction. Then Ianonne remembered he was…Ianonne…and I was no longer feeling smug.

    Anyhow, great race. Its crazy to be, like, pulling for almost everyone. But, seeing the arrogant Lorenzo slug it out for 11th and +20 was nice. If he keeps this up I may start to feel sorry and root for him, too.

    • Vrooom

      I agree about Lorenzo. I’ll bet he hates being number 2 on the team as a multi time champion. Apparently it takes a special kind of rider to make the Ducati work, it’s so darn fast in the straights it’s hard to believe he could do better than 11th, especially with 4 riders crashing out ahead of him. That’s 15th. Dovi was fast though.

  • Old MOron

    “We have been underestimating Johann Zarco since November.”

    What do you mean, we?
    Great report, Bruce. Good on Rins for staying on his bike. Poor Cal, as soon as I saw him in the gravel, I imagined your lament. How nice of him to crash twice.

    I agree that Aleix probably had the ride of the day on his Aprilia.
    Rossi found something on Sunday. Enjoyed watching him ride. Where is AM? Will he come here and take his medicine?

    • Bruce Allen

      It’s the editorial “we.” You know, like the Oxford, comma. “Success has many fathers; failure is but an orphan.” When I’m right it’s I. When I’m wrong it’s WE. Team player all the way.

      • spiff

        Commodore 64. Lol, I remember the first time I saw one and thought wow.

      • Vrooom

        Looking forward to it.

  • spiff

    The real surprise for me this year is Tech3. I guess it is a testament to what they were working on last year. It will be interesting to see if they fall off late in the races.

    I think a problem with MotoGP is that the bikes can predetermin your results. I like it when the satalites show up.

    • Bruce Allen

      It’s all good when the satellites podium. Wins are even nicer.

    • spiff

      I just reread this and feel the need to clarify. It is a testament to what the factory guys were working on last year. I wonder how much the satellites do to the bikes. Are they regulated to turning clickers on the forks?

      • Gruf Rude

        Relegated to turning clickers, changing springs, adjusting pivot points on swingarms and rider ergonomics and, most importantly, poring over the Magnetti-Marelli electronics. In other words, the same stuff the factory technicians/mechanics do without the ability to call home to the factory to work on new engine and frame designs for next year.
        The satellites will always be a step behind, but with a really good rider and crew, they can be pretty darn close in this era.

      • BDan75

        I’m not sure about Yamaha, but I’ve heard that other satellite teams have their rev limiters set lower as well (like 500 rpm). As a rider I’d think that would be kinda hard to swallow…but hey, I guess better to have a paying riding job than not.

  • gjw1992

    The impatience and frustration of the rain delay building tension then the race itself – terrific stuff. And among 101 other things good to see Aprillia finish high. A great opener. I think KTM need a better tester than Smith – I doubt he’ll help development much.

    And another good report.

    • Old MOron

      Just curious here. I’ve read that Smith has a good technical understanding of bike setup. What makes you doubt his development capabilities? KTM snapped him up very early in 2016. I think he may been the first to move. What makes you think KTM were wrong about him?

      • gjw1992

        I’m not sure he’s a good enough racer – promising in 125 years ago, not so much in motogp. Looking at his record he was pretty consistent in 2015 with tech3, Top-10s if just top 3. So I might be a little harsh on him. And KTM won’t get a star for a few years yet.

        • Old MOron

          Yeah, he did pretty well in 2015. I think last year he was riding a Yahama that had been designed for Bridgestones. He was doing so-so util he got injured. It will be interesting to compare him to Pol this tear.

  • Bruce Allen

    Please give me a moment to explain why these “results” articles come across as speculation much of the time. It’s not because I’m too lazy to do the research (I am), It’s because it’s a small point of pride to me that I get the copy off to Dennis within two hours of the race completion. Doing it on the fly, guys. I also post it on my blog once I’ve sent the email. I know some of you Old MOrons with limited ability to defer gratification read the words over there, then come here hours later for the images and the comments. Works for me.

  • Karl Englebright

    Yeah, Zarco did lead for some laps. While I agree that the guy is talented, I see him being a threat towards the end of the season, or next year. I was predicting him either to fade or crash. Loads of talent, not enough experience to run end to end in the lead.

  • Vrooom

    Rins, Folger and Zarco are all competitive, pretty exciting to have 3 rookie riders capable of slotting in the top 10. I’ve always liked Aleix Espargo, more so than his brother, still I’m surprised that Sam Lowes is that slow. Meanwhile there is no joy in the Marquez/Lorenzo love nest, I picture Marquez stomping around in a tantrum while Lorenzo just sulks. We just might have another multi-winner season, depending on whether Vinales can be knocked off the top step. There seems to be a number of people competing, but you don’t often win sliding on your side across the finish line. Maniac Joe was competitive, he just needs to remember which end has wheels.

    • Old MOron

      If the Maniac Joe can keep his head on straight, he might have a great year. As long as he finishes ahead of Lorenzo, I’ll be happy.

      I had Zarco pegged for rookie of the year right from the start, but holy smokes, maybe he can finish in the top six. And I’m really interested to see how Aleix and Aprilia will do throughout the year.

      • Bruce Allen

        Re #29: And if a bullfrog had wings…

      • Bruce Allen

        Lets see how your boy JZ does at Rio Honda and Honda Circuit of the Americas.

        • Old MOron

          Okay Brucie, but if he does well, maybe you can start bigging him up.

  • TroySiahaan

    Good stuff, Bruce! I, too, immediately thought of you when Cal went down (and REALLY thought of you when he biffed a second time), but in fairness to Cal, Michelin urged him (along with Pedrosa and Marquez) to switch to the medium front tire instead of the hard all three guys were originally going to run. Would that have changed anything? Who knows. And true, the Repsol boys didn’t fall down, but I like Cal. So I’ll stick up for him whenever I can. 😉

    • Bruce Allen

      The Great British Hope. When I filed the report there wasn’t any info available about Honda kind of pushing these three onto the medium front. What’s funny is that when I pick Crutchlow to do well he scuffs his leathers. When I pick him to win a handful of points he podiums. And don’t put a microphone in front of him.

      • TroySiahaan

        His interviews are the best!

  • Bruce Allen

    Did anyone else see the article in which Iannone vowed that Qatar would be his “first and last crash” of 2017? A bunch of us are mortgaging our homes to take this bet. Anyone want in?

    • Gruf Rude

      What’s the Vegas line on that one? $5 will get you $5.01?

    • Old MOron

      Ooh, no kidding? I haven’t seen that. I wonder if he’s saying so because he’s frustrated with himself, or because he has confidence in the Zook.

    • spiff

      I believe him.

  • Kos

    Great race, and a near-great write up (gotta keep you hungry, Bruce, it’s a long season). My long-ish takeaway:

    Vinales stayed ahead of the monstrous Duc by setting his fastest time on the last lap — did I get that right?!

    Bow down to Ducati engineers. Combining the fastest motor, along with the ability to “manage” a soft rear tire through the entire race, is quite a feat. Due credit to Vin, also, of course.

    Would this year be a contest if Marquez had any engine in his bike, other than a Honda?

    After crap winter tests and crap qualifying, Rossi on the podium? This guy defines the phrase “aging gracefully”. I’m pulling for him. Thanks, Shoeshine, you’re humble, and lovable.

    Zarco isn’t going to win the championship this year, but I think he’ll finish high enough, often enough, that he may affect the championship outcome significantly by getting in between the Big Boys. In future years, he may spoil The Vinales Years for you, Bruce.