Photos by: Getty Images, Ducati and Suzuki
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.
Practice and Qualifying
Of the top ten riders on the combined practice timesheets, the top five included, as most of you know, three Ducatis and both Suzukis. The factory Hondas sat 6th and 7th. Cal Crutchlow, Valentino Rossi and Zarco also made it straight into Q2, wiping up the rear, as it were. Jack Miller got hot on his Desmosedici GP17 during Q1 and moved through to Q2, followed by Maverick Viñales, who also found something late in the day. Both appeared to be capable of making noise in Q2. Overall, Dovizioso led three of the four practice sessions (Zarco the other), topping the charts for the Q2 cabal. KTM had nothing going on, but Aprilia was showing signs of life, Aleix Espargaro sitting 12th after FP3.
Q2 was seriously better than a lot of races. Fifteen minutes of straight adrenaline, with the last three minutes simply breathtaking. Riders including Dovi, Marquez, Jorge Lorenzo and Alex Rins took turns aiming at the 10-year old track record set by Lorenzo as a white-hot rookie to open the 2008 season, falling short each time. But on the day’s last lap, the remarkable Johann Zarco, who we refuse to call The Flying Frenchman, pedaling his two-year old Yamaha, put down a vapor trail, crushing Lorenzo’s former record by 2½ tenths and substantially raising the price of poker in the Zarco contract sweepstakes for 2019-20. Not to mention administering a facial to factory riders Rossi (8th) and Viñales (12th). “Hey Johann, it’s that Honda guy again on line 2.”
Marquez and Danilo Petrucci, as expected, ended Q2 second and third, respectively, both also breaking the previous record. My pick for pole, Dovizioso, held it for quite some time before sagging to the middle of the second row during the final two minutes. Interesting that the first two rows of riders, all of whom appear capable of winning on Sunday, exclude three genuine Aliens – Lorenzo, Rossi and Viñales. As Steven Stills sang eons ago, “There’s something happening here.” Several weeks ago we suggested “track records appear set to fall like dominos.” Even without qualifying tires.
Batting a thousand so far on that one. [And can’t you still hear the separate guitar parts in “For What It’s Worth?” Boom.] Saturday evening, Zarco said his race pace was a concern. Right. I hope everyone got to watch the interview with Marc Marquez in which the clever young Brit interviewer managed to get him to admit, smiling widely, that tire selection for the race is very important and no, we are not yet sure which tires we will use tomorrow. Wow. We journalists really get down to it sometimes.
A Race for the Ages
The 2018 Qatar Motorcycle Grand Prix unfolded as if it had been scripted. The hot French sophomore on the two-year old Yamaha – let’s call him Johann Zarco – took the hole shot from pole and led a snappish bunch of veteran riders on a merry chase for 16 laps. Suddenly, his tires turned to cheese, and those veterans began going through, Sherman-through-Georgia style. Both Dovizioso and Marquez passed through at Turn 1 of Lap 17, with Rossi following suit later in the lap. Ultimately, Cal Crutchlow, Danilo Petrucci, Maverick Viñales and Dani Pedrosa would push the impudent Gaul to 8th place. In golf they say you drive for show, putt for dough. In MotoGP, you gotta save some tire for late in the race.
It was on Lap 21 that the contenders stepped in for the pretenders. Andrea Dovizioso, who had seized the lead on Lap 17, invited Marquez to a private tête-à-tête for the last three laps, an invitation the defending champion eagerly accepted. With Rossi reduced to lurking in 3rd, hoping for something to go wrong in front of him, the two best riders on Earth squared off for six minutes of unbridled, hair-raising battle, exchanging haymakers. Marquez, unable to not make a move on Dovi at some point, finally took his shot at Turn 16 on the final lap, in a virtual replay of the Red Bull Ring and Motegi duels the two fought last year. Consistent with those contests, Dovi took advantage of his superior corner exit speed to clip Marquez by 2/100ths of a second and take a narrow early lead in the 2018 title chase.
Some Days Chicken, Some Days Feathers
In addition to Dovizioso and Marquez, riders who could anticipate a tasty chicken dinner this evening include Rossi, who did manage to climb from 8th to 3rd, and Franco Morbidelli, who edged Hafizh Syahrin for the top rookie participation trophy. Syahrin, for his part, became the first Malaysian rider ever to start a MotoGP race and score points therein, a record he can never lose. Kudos to the luckiest rider on the grid. Jack Miller and Tito Rabat probably feel pretty good this evening, crossing the line in 10th and 11th places, respectively.
Riders going hungry tonight include Alex Rins, Jorge Lorenzo and Pol Espargaro, all of whom crashed out, Rins while traveling in 6th position. Zarco learned a lesson today. Maverick Viñales learned his lesson yesterday while laying an egg in Q2, starting from 12th place. He rode a hellified second half today, only to end up 6th. Not a disaster, but an opportunity lost. Scott Redding, who has apparently already lost his seat for next year to Danilo Petrucci, can say only that he managed to beat Xavier Simeon, a feat comparable to winning the Taller than Mickey Rooney contest.
Over in the Junior Leagues
Spaniard Jorge Martin stiff-armed countryman Aron Canet for the win in the Moto3 race, with the new guy at Leopard Racing, Lorenzo Dalla Porta, glomming onto the third podium spot milliseconds ahead of about six other guys. Enea Bastianini, taking over the #1 seat at Leopard with the graduation of 2017 champion Joan Mir to Moto2, crashed out of a podium spot, giving an ominous start to his 2018 campaign.
Pecco Bagnaia, late of the SKY Racing Team VR46, held on to the Moto2 win today, narrowly evading the clutches of Lorenzo Baldassarri, in a thrilling contest that also came down to the last turn. Little Brother Alex Marquez, who had been fast all weekend, started from pole and was cruising along in 3rd position, well within reach of the leaders, when his rear brakes pinched the disc and, inexplicably, held on, at which point the disc quickly cooked, changed color from gray to red to white, back to gray when they finally came unstuck, killing his chances for the win but allowing him a podium nonetheless.
Bagnaia, according to news reports, has already signed a contract to join Jack Miller with Alma Pramac Ducati next season. The dominoes look set to fall such that Petrucci heads over to Gresini Aprilia, and Redding for points west. Apparently Honda has the early inside track to sign Zarco to the factory team to ride alongside Marquez starting next year, with Pedrosa being shown the door, as feared. Earliest silly season I can ever remember. Rossi signed for two more years last week, in case you’ve been hanging out under a rock.
Rider Rankings After Round One
Tranche 1: Marquez, Dovizioso, Rossi, Petrucci, Crutchlow
Tranche 2: Viñales, Zarco, Rins, Pedrosa, Miller
Tranche 3: Lorenzo, Iannone, Syahrin, A. Espargaro, Morbidelli
Tranche 4: P. Espargaro, Abraham, Bautista, Rabat
Tranche 5: Simeon, Redding, Nakagami, Smith, Luthi
Before you take to DISQUS to shred my rankings, remember Allen’s Corollary to Newton’s Third Law: For every action, there is an equal and opposite criticism.
Argentina in two weeks. Be there.
|2018 MotoGP Qatar Results|
|1||Andrea Dovizioso||Ducati Corse||42:34.654|
|2||Marc Marquez||Repsol Honda||+0.027|
|3||Valentino Rossi||Movistar Yamaha||+0.797|
|4||Cal Crutchlow||LCR Honda Castrol||+2.881|
|5||Danilo Petrucci||Alma Pramac Ducati||+3.821|
|6||Maverick Viñales||Movistar Yamaha||+3.888|
|7||Dani Pedrosa||Repsol Honda||+4.621|
|8||Johann Zarco||Monster Yamaha Tech 3||+7.112|
|9||Andrea Iannone||Suzuki Ecstar||+12.957|
|10||Jack Miller||Alma Pramac Ducati||+14.594|
|11||Tito Rabat||Reale Avintia Ducati||+15.181|
|12||Franco Morbidelli||Estrella Galicia 0,0 Marc VDS Honda||+16.274|
|13||Alvaro Bautista||Angel Nieto Ducati||+19.788|
|14||Hafizh Syahrin||Monster Yamaha Tech3||+20.299|
|15||Karel Abraham||Angel Nieto Ducati||+23.287|
|16||Thomas Luthi||Estrella Galicia 0,0 Marc VDS Honda||+24.189|
|17||Takaaki Nakagami||LCR Honda Idemitsu||+24.554|
|18||Bradley Smith||Red Bull KTM||+31.704|
|19||Aleix Espargaro||Aprilia Gresini||+34.712|
|20||Scott Redding||Aprilia Gresini||+37.641|
|21||Xavier Simeon||Reale Avintia Ducati||+46.706|
|DNF||Pol Espargaro||Red Bull KTM||7 Laps|
|DNF||Alex Rins||Suzuki Ecstar||10 Laps|
|DNF||Jorge Lorenzo||Ducati Corse||10 Laps|
|2018 MotoGP Top 10 Standings After 1 Round|
|1||Andrea Dovizioso||Ducati Corse||25|
|2||Marc Marquez||Repsol Honda||20|
|3||Valentino Rossi||Movistar Yamaha||16|
|4||Cal Crutchlow||LCR Honda Castrol||13|
|5||Danilo Petrucci||Alma Pramac Ducati||11|
|6||Maverick Viñales||Movistar Yamaha||10|
|7||Dani Pedrosa||Repsol Honda||9|
|8||Johann Zarco||Monster Yamaha Tech 3||8|
|9||Andrea Iannone||Suzuki Ecstar||7|
|10||Jack Miller||Alma Pramac Ducati||6|