In a virtual carbon copy of last year’s riveting Grand Prix of Qatar, Andrea Dovizioso, the second-best rider on the planet today, edged defending world champion Marc Marquez by .023 seconds to capture the win. Cal Crutchlow, the Black Knight of MotoGP, took the third step on the podium on a right ankle held together with bandaids and baling wire. Parity has arrived in MotoGP, with tonight’s race producing the 8th closest podium in history and the fastest Top 15 ever. Last year, Dovizioso’s winning margin was .027 seconds, suggesting Marquez, his surgically-repaired shoulder mostly healed, is making progress. Comparing this year’s top seven riders to last year, the only significant difference is Suzuki’s Alex Rins. Last year Rins, whose season started miserably despite my jocking him all over the place, crashed out mid-race. This year, he was in the mix the entire time, led the race for a couple of partial laps, and finished fourth, barely 14/100ths behind Crutchlow. He was followed by Yamaha’s Valentino Rossi (who started 14th), Ducati factory rider Danilo Petrucci and polesitter Maverick Vinales who, with a full fuel tank and cold tires, rides like the second coming of James Ellison. Last year, behind Dovi and Marquez, it was Rossi, Crutchlow, Petrucci, and Vinales. This, I suggest, is what they mean by “the usual suspects.” Embed from Getty Images
The season opener at Losail went mostly according to expectations, which is to say it was crowded up front. At one point I counted nine bikes in the lead group, a sight normally seen in Moto3. French sophomore Johann Zarco led from pole most of the day, fueling a lot of premature trash talk. Once his tires went up, though, it came down to Andrea Dovizioso and Marc Marquez for early bragging rights. Round One goes to the Italian on points. No TKO.
Nothing like the start of a new racing season to turn the iron in a man’s blood into the lead in his pencil. All the speculation, all the testing, all the contingencies will become moot once the lights go out in far-away Qatar. The Alien class – Marc Marquez, Andrea Dovizioso, Valentino Rossi and Maverick Viñales – is sharpening their fairings in anticipation. Another handful of riders dream of getting their tickets punched in 2018.
More often than not, a world press launch is held somewhere not far off the beaten path of familiarity. The local language may be French, Spanish, Italian or some other Latin dialect, but the sights and sounds don’t fall under the guise of the really exotic. The 2017 KTM 1290 Super Duke R launch in Qatar was a little different. While Qatar is very westernized (I saw an Applebee’s in downtown Doha, for chrissakes!) there’s no forgetting you’re visiting an area of the world that’s fundamentally dissimilar. Architecture, fashion, culture and cuisine are constant reminders that things are different. And sand, lots and lots of sand.
As soon as you begin mentally mapping the featureless layout of the Losail International Circuit, it gets dark, the floodlights come on and the track layout changes in a surreal manner. A desert haze drifts through the infield, and in addition to remembering if the approaching corner is the slow left one or the fast left one, you’re also now looking through faceshield glares and the occasional glimpse of you passing your own shadow. Steadfast among all these nocturnal distractions is the familiarity of the Super Duke R’s performance, its booming exhaust note, and that deliciously torquey V-Twin.
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.
To the surprise of no one, Jorge Lorenzo set the fast time in the first outing of the 2016 MotoGP season at Losail. Rossi was right behind with Iannone rounding out the top three. Maverick Viñales continues to show impressive speed in fifth, while the two factory Repsol Honda riders only managed 7th and 8th for Pedrosa and Marquez, respectively.
Anticipation is mounting for another spectacular confrontation at the opening round of the 2016 MotoGP season in Qatar. Last year, Valentino Rossi won under the floodlights. Marc Marquez crossed the finish line first in 2014 while Jorge Lorenzo won back-to-back openers in 2013 and 2012. So, the top three riders can all claim recent victories at Losail. In preseason testing, the Ducatis of Iannone and Dovizioso have been fast, while Maverick Viñales, on the GSX-RR, has been topping time sheets. Who do think will be victorious in Qatar when the checkered flag drops in 2016?
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.
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.
Wait, what, really? Holy crap, MotoGP is already upon us as if the last round of the 2013 season concluded yesterday. Twenty-thirteen was an amazing season that saw the legend, Valentino Rossi, return to Yamaha with renewed vigor, and the crowning of the sport’s youngest ever champion. The year in which Marc Marquez demoralized his competition while destroying long-standing records is meaningless, though, once the curtain goes up on the 2014 season.