It seems like an age since I last sat down and wrote a MotoGP report, and even longer since I had the opportunity to cover one with as much going on as this. But I'm getting ahead of myself. Qatar is a lovely country, peopled by delightfully friendly and tolerant folk who have the added attraction of loving their motorsport. Hence building a bang up to date, state of the art, circuit in the middle of the desert. And when it was decided that it was a little too ferociously hot (It's a desert. Who'd have guessed?) to race during the heat of the midday sun, the circuit simply threw a vast amount of money at the best, most sophisticated floodlighting system in the world and ran the race at night instead. That's not a solution without any issues at all, but now they seem to have got the bugs ironed out and it's working brilliantly.
So here we are at the beginning of a new season. And while some things have changed, some remain the same. The Yamaha camp has seen the departure of James Toseland from the Tech3 team, returning to SBK and swapping seats with 2009 champion Ben Spies. In the factory team, Rossi still partners Lorenzo who, as usual, starts the season injured. Honda still has Pedrosa and Dovizioso on factory bikes, with the RC212 being by far the most popular customer machine as well. The Ducati pairing of Stoner and Hayden continues unchanged, while Suzuki said goodbye to Chris Vermeulen, also returning to SBK, and replaced him with Alvaro Bautista from the 250cc class.
Enough of the background stuff, anyway. Free practice showed a few things of note. First of all, Stoner is certainly recovered from whatever was ailing him last season. Second, the Ducati engineers have been hard at work over the close season. And third, that although Stoner and the Ducati dominated the opening sessions it wasn't likely to be the walkover we've seen in the past as the factory Honda is at least as fast in a straight line. In fact the real eye opener was just how much slower the Yamaha is. Rossi was over ten km/h down in a couple of sessions when compared to Stoner down the main straight. The fact that the World Champion was still up at the sharp end of the leaderboard at all speaks volumes both about his talent and the overall package that the Yamaha represents.
So through free practice and qualifying it was Stoner who took control and lead pretty convincingly from the front. But when things had calmed down and grid positions were decided, despite Stoner's massive speed advantage (329.1km/h against Rossi's 319.4) there was under a third of a second dividing the Australian from the Italian in second place. Jorge Lorenzo, injuries and all, was third on the grid and just half a second from Rossi, while the second row was headed by an on form and consistent Randy de Puniet on the LCR Honda. Loris Capirossi, in his three hundredth GP start, took a respectable fifth on the Suzuki, with the row being completed by Andrea Dovizioso on the first factory Honda. Row three saw Pedrosa leading Colin Edwards and Nicky Hayden. the Ducati rider having struggled with setup until the last moment and left to drag himself up from almost last place. And rounding out the top ten was 2009 250 champion Hiroshi Aoyama. Hiro is one of the nicest guys you'll ever meet and shares that with his brother, former Alto Evolution SBK rider Shuhei Aoyama. But I digress.
Warmup is meaningless but again had Stoner fastest from Rossi, Lorenzo and Hayden who had clearly fou8nd something to work properly on the Ducati. Ben Spies seemed to be starting the season the way he meant to go on too, running a solid fifth.
But as we said, warmup is meaningless. And never more than this time, as when the lights went out it was Dani Pedrosa who surged through to the lead, followed by Rossi and Nicky Hayden who got a fantastic start to relegate his team-mate to fourth, ahead of Lorenzo who also started badly. Spies got a great start too, jumping up to seventh behind Dovizioso from an eleventh place start. St the front, of course, this couldn't continue and before the first lap was over Rossi muscled past Pedrosa and set about making some space between himself and the following pack. But it didn't happen that way. Because the Honda engineers have worked hard as well, and Pedrosa was able to stay with Rossi close enough to be able to outdrag him on the straight and take the lead again. And Stoner too was able to get past, relegating the champion to third, with hayden snapping at his heels, by the end of lap two. And it stayed that way for another couple of laps while the Italian regrouped and started to build the pressure on Pedrosa. But while that was happening Stoner was extending a seemingly unassailable lead. And unassailable it would have been, too, as by the time Rossi got past Pedrosa on lap five there was a yawning two seconds space between him and the Australian. Even Rossi was going to be hard pressed to close that. It looked as though the Italian's predictions for this race at least were correct.
Then Stoner made a mistake.
Not a small one, either. Well, a small mistake but one with huge consequences. He had experienced some small front end slides and had tried to modify his riding style to put less load on the front. Unfortunately it seems he went too far, as swinging into one of the long right handers the front of the Ducati washed out and dumped Stoner into the gravel. It later transpired that he hadn't loaded the front enough on the way in and had simply run out of grip.
Which put Rossi in the lead. But certainly not in the clear. What followed was seventeen laps of serious racing between some of the most dedicated, professional and committed motorbike racers on the planet. Up until lap seventeen, the biggest gap between Rossi and the following riders was half a second. The smallest was under a tenth. Pedrosa's charge faded surprisingly quickly, with the Honda mantle being taken up by Dovizioso who has most certainly upped his game this season and was challenging hard for the lead (and indeed taking it on occasions) throughout. Nicky Hayden flew the flag for Ducati as their satellite bikes also dropped out of contention, while Lorenzo dropped back before rallying in the later stages.
So as we got to the dying throes of the race, Rossi clearly realised that he was going to have to pull something out of the bag to be sure of getting this. And he did, opening a two second lead in a single lap while Dovizioso and Hayden fought and tripped each other up. Someone else gained some advantage from that too, as Lorenzo had got back into the groove and was now closing the battling pair down fast. Some outstandingly ruthless overtaking by the young Spaniard saw him lift second place with just three laps to go, and the ongoing fight between Hayden and Dovizioso slowed them down enough to allow him to get a bit of a cushion. As for the last podium place, that was something both these guys wanted really badly. Hayden certainly hasn't tasted podium champagne for far too long and with it so close he could almost taste it, wasn't about to let it go easily. But ultimately, despite his herculean efforts, the sheer grunt of the Honda saw him outdragged to the line, losing out by just eleven thousandths of a second.
We've been a bit quiet about the rest of the race though, mainly because there isn't a huge amount to report. Ben Spies rode to a highly respectable but rather lonely fifth place a couple of seconds behind Hayden and about six seconds ahead of de Puniet. Pedrosa flagged but just managed to finish ahead of Edwards and Capirossi who had tussled for most of the race. Edwards had setup and grip problems with the Yamaha but still rode a solid race while Capirossi's Suzuki is still underpowered and struggling over race distance. In his first MotoGP, Hiroshi Aoyama did well to round out the top ten.
So it's a good start to the season. Nobody has a clear advantage on track, as the Yamaha overall package is countered to an extent by the sheer speed of the Ducatis and Hondas. We're off to Japan next, a circuit where the Japanese teams really need to shine...and Stoner and Hayden will be trying to stop them. It's going to be great...
Qatar MotoGP Results
1. Valentino Rossi (Yamaha)
2. Jorge Lorenzo (Yamaha)
3. Andrea Dovizioso (Honda)
4. Nicky Hayden (Ducati)
5. Ben Spies (Yamaha)
6. Randy de Puniet (Honda)
7. Dani Pedrosa (Honda)
8. Colin Edwards (Yamaha)
9. Loris Capirossi (Suzuki)
10. Hiroshi Aoyama (Honda)
MotoGP standings (after one round)
1. Valentino Rossi 25
2. Jorge Lorenzo 20
3. Andrea Dovizioso 16
4. Nicky Hayden 14
5. Ben Spies 11
6. Randy de Puniet 10
7. Dani Pedrosa 9
8. Colin Edwards 8
9. Loris Capirossi 7
10. Hiroshi Aoyama 6