After a shocking offseason, in which the MotoGP world appeared to have been turned on its head, it was mostly the usual suspects occupying the podium as the big bikes of MotoGP kicked off 2014 in fine style under the lights of Losail. Defending world champion Marc Marquez, six weeks after breaking his leg, barely held off a resurgent Valentino Rossi for the win, with Dani Pedrosa sneaking onto the podium in third place. Double world champion Jorge Lorenzo, who has been singing the blues for months, crashed out of the lead on Lap One and landed squarely behind the eight ball.

A new season brings about new rules. But how much of a difference did they make?

Before getting into the race itself, let’s examine the rule changes in microcosm, by comparing the second qualifying sessions from 2013 and this past Saturday.

* indicates a CRT entry.* indicates an Open Option entry.

2013 Qualifying 2 2014 Qualifying 2
Pos. Rider Motorcycle Time Rider Motorcycle Time
1 Jorge Lorenzo Yamaha 1:54.714 Marc Marquez Honda 1:54.507
2 Cal Crutchlow Yamaha 1:54.916 Alvaro Bautista Honda 1:54.564
3 Dani Pedrosa Honda 1:55.151 Bradley Smith Yamaha 1:54.601
4 Andrea Dovizioso Ducati 1:55.160 Andrea Dovizioso Ducati 1:54.644
5 Stefan Bradl Honda 1:55.477 Jorge Lorenzo Yamaha 1:54.661
6 Marc Marquez Honda 1:55.645 Dani Pedrosa Honda 1:54.703
7 Valentino Rossi Yamaha 1:55.711 Stefan Bradl Honda 1:54.871
8 Alvaro Bautista Honda 1:55.870 Cal Crutchlow Ducati 1:54.888
9 Bradley Smith Yamaha 1:56.315 Aleix Espargaro Yamaha* 1:54.986
10 Andrea Iannone Ducati 1:56.523 Valentino Rossi Yamaha 1:55.096
11 Nicky Hayden Ducati 1:56.667 Andrea Iannone Ducati 1:55.127
12 Aleix Espargaro FTR Aprilia* 1:57.064 Pol Espargaro Yamaha 1:55.152

In the run-up to the race, considerable discussion centered around the off-season rule changes and the effects those changes would have on life in the upper reaches of the premier class. A comparison of the 2013 QP2 and 2014 QP2 illustrates how far off base many of those conversations were. Without exception, every rider who made it through to QP2 in 2014 improved his time compared to last year.

The expectation that the 2014 Open class would be more competitive than the 2013 CRT class has been clearly met. The groaning and gnashing of teeth emanating from the Movistar Yamaha team that the new rules punish them for their previous success ring hollow, in that they, too, improved their qualifying times from last year. The “unfair advantage” Ducati allegedly enjoys by opting to run in the Open class is a myth; in 2013, Ducatis qualified 4th, 10th and 11th, while this year they managed 4th, 8th and 11th. And even poor Nicky Hayden, whose Honda Production Racer is, according to him, only slightly faster than a 1986 Vespa, improved on his time from last year, just not by enough to make it to QP2. Waah waah waah.

On paper, the new rules should give Ducati an advantage. And while the two factory Ducatis finished higher than they did last year, Jorge Lorenzo's first-lap crash was the bigger factor.

On paper, the new rules should give Ducati an advantage. And while the two factory Ducatis finished higher than they did last year, Jorge Lorenzo’s first-lap crash was the bigger factor.

The last word on this subject: the most fascinating aspect of all of this is the remarkably reduced spread in the QP times. Last year, the difference between Lorenzo and Aleix Espargaro was 2.3 seconds. This year, the margin between Marquez and Pol Espargaro is a mere .6 seconds. Despite the sniveling and whining from Lorenzo and Rossi, this portends much more exciting racing in 2014.

But What about the Race?

With a front row comprised of Repsol Honda’s wonderkid, FUN&GO Gresini Honda’s Alvaro Bautista, and Monster Tech3 Yamaha Brit Bradley Smith, the offseason madness looked set to continue into the season opener. Movistar Yamaha’s Lorenzo? Fifth. Repsol Honda veteran Pedrosa? Sixth. Aging factory Yamaha icon Rossi? Tenth. Expectations were all over the board. NGM Forward Yamaha poster boy Aleix Espargaro, who had owned the off-season and the first three practice sessions in Doha, choked on a bone in qualifying, crashing both of his bikes, and started from ninth place. Of the first 12 qualifiers, four were factory studs, another four represented satellite factory teams, and four enjoyed Open class advantages in fuel and tire choices, three of which were Ducatis.

Anything could happen.

Aleix Espargaro was the star in the Free Practice sessions. The NGM Forward Yamaha rider overcame a poor qualifying session to finish a career-best fourth.

The race got off to a clean start, with Lorenzo vaulting into the lead, putting his ambition to become a Spanish blues singer on hold. Then, in turn 15 of Lap One, the unthinkable occurred – Lorenzo crashed out of the lead, an unforced error which just as suddenly revived his musical aspirations. As the riders crossed the start/finish line for the first time, it was Stefan Bradl on the LCR Honda, Marquez, Smith, Andrea Dovizioso on the factory Ducati, Andrea Iannone on the satellite Ducati, and Rossi leading the way. My thoughts, at that point:

  • Stefan Bradl? He’ll crash.
  • What are Dovizioso and, moreover, Iannone doing up front?
  • What happened to Bautista? Did he crash already?
  • Where’s Elmo Dani Pedrosa?

Gradually (ignoring the Lorenzo debacle) a state of normalcy began to settle over the field. Iannone crashed out on Lap Two, but would recover sufficiently to finish tenth. Both Bautista and Pedrosa began picking riders off and moving up the chart. Rossi, who I thought had been sandbagging over the winter, suddenly materialized in fourth place on Lap Six. Bradl crashed out at turn six of Lap Nine, at which point the top five riders were Marquez, Rossi, Smith, Pedrosa and Bautista. Instead of a 2013 front group consisting of one or two riders, there were four or five in the picture. Things were getting interesting. And by “interesting”, I mean that Marc Marquez and Valentino Rossi, Tomorrow and Yesterday, suddenly found themselves in a cage match that would provide 13 laps of grand prix motorcycle racing at its finest.

Unlike in recent seasons, the lead group at Losail included several riders mixing it up. Things could get interesting this season.

Ultimately, Smith crashed his satellite Yamaha on Lap 19, giving up 11 championship points in the process, and Bautista laid his RC213V down on Lap 21, handing third place to Pedrosa. That Marquez would enjoy his seventh career win in the premier class was not a shock; for him, a broken leg seems about as bothersome as a head cold. That he would need every ounce of skill, daring and luck he owns to nip Rossi at the flag is remarkable.

Rossi is not a seven time premier class champion for nothing, and his ability to adjust to pretty much anything – outside of a Ducati Desmosedici – is firmly established. There must be some serious head-shaking going on in the Movistar Yamaha garage tonight, as the new boss has, for the time being, given way to the old boss. And I wonder how Jeremy Burgess, Rossi’s former crew chief, is feeling about now.

Marc Marquez demonstrated once again why he’s considered such a phenom, while Valentino Rossi showed he can still battle with the best of them.

Elsewhere on the Grid

Aleix Espargaro, despite his miserable QP and inauspicious start, ended the day in fourth place, and must still be feeling wildly optimistic about his prospects for the season. Two other Brits in the field, Cal Crutchlow on the Ducati and rookie Scott Redding on the production Honda, ended up sixth and seventh, sticking it in the eye of the American contingent of Hayden and Colin Edwards, who still had relatively good days. Hayden drove his Vespa to an eighth place finish, while the 40-year-old Edwards enjoyed his first top ten finish in over a year aboard the #2 NGM Forward Yamaha. Edwards insists that he will switch to the FTR frame once it is ready, while teammate Espargaro seems pretty happy with the status quo. As noted above, Andrea Iannone completed today’s top ten.

Five Things We Learned Heading to Austin

  1. The world has never seen anything like Marc Marquez.
  2. Valentino Rossi still belongs in MotoGP.
  3. Aleix Espargaro may not win the 2014 title, but his stock is way high.
  4. It could be a very long year for Jorge Lorenzo.
  5. After a number of dull, predictable years, MotoGP is BACK.
2014 MotoGP Qatar Top Ten Results
Pos. Rider Team Time
1 Marc Marquez Repsol Honda
2 Valentino Rossi Movistar Yamaha +0.259
3 Dani Pedrosa Repsol Honda +3.370
4 Aleix Espargaro NGM Forward Yamaha +11.623
5 Andrea Dovizioso Ducati Corse +12.159
6 Cal Crutchlow Ducati Corse +28.526
7 Scott Redding GO&FUN Honda Gresini +32.593
8 Nicky Hayden Drive M7 Aspar Honda +32.628
9 Colin Edwards NGM Forward Yamaha +39.547
10 Andrea Iannone Pramac Ducati +43.360

6Cal CrutchlowDucati10

2014 MotoGP Top Ten Standings After 1 Round
Pos. Rider Motorcycle Points
1 Marc Marquez Honda 25
2 Valentino Rossi Yamaha 20
3 Dani Pedrosa Honda 16
4 Aleix Espargaro Forward Yamaha* 13
5 Andrea Dovizioso Ducati 11
7 Scott Redding Honda 9
8 Nicky Hayden Honda 8
9 Colin Edwards Forward Yamaha* 7
10 Andrea Iannone Ducati 6
* indicates an Open Option entry.