Things have been busy during the closed season. The old, far too fast for safety 990cc MotoGP monsters have been relegated to the history books, replaced by lighter, less powerful 800cc machines. Riders have switched teams, teams have switched sponsors, tyre manufacturers have produced a new and even more bewildering range of different compounds and fitments, and this weekend, as the first race came and went, the cumulative effect of these changes was visible for the first time in real race conditions.
The first thing to note was that some manufacturers have clearly been busier than others. Or, probably more accurately, that their efforts have been better rewarded. Top of the tree have to be Suzuki, who suddenly emerged, in the brave new 800cc world, as front runners in most of the pre season testing sessions. Also up there are Ducati who have clearly eked a little more power out of the 800 than one might expect as it's an absolute rocketship on the straights. Surprisingly, Honda - generally regarded as being the driving force behind the capacity change - haven't made the vast technical strides everyone expected, while Yamaha have come up with a sweet handling but distinctly light on power machine.
The next thing was that some people have adapted to the new rules, or their new teams, distinctly better than others. The Yamaha pairing of Rossi and Edwards, reunited for another year, both took to the new bike pretty immediately, while Suzuki's Hopkins and Vermeulen similarly went to the top of the timesheets. Both teams seem to have bikes which favour rideability and handling over outright speed, though neither are slow.Honda have the strange situation of a current World Champion, in the person of Nicky Hayden, who has so obviously been sidelined in the design and engineering process in favour of his talented but characterless team-mate that he now has a bike he can't get on with. Dani Pedrosa, meantime, with a bike built around his diminutive 250 racer physique was going well, but not as well as you might expect. Better than his perpetually sour demeanour would suggest, though. And over in the Ducati camp, crash-happy Casey Stoner seemed to have remembered that the black round bits go at the bottom of a motorbike and was giving team-mate and old master Loris Capirossi a good run for his money.
But the real surprise, though everybody except the organisers seemed to have sussed it already, was that the 800cc bikes are no slower than the 990s. Far from it, in fact, as lap records were destroyed throughout pre-season testing. So much for safety, then, as the smaller machines make up all their disadvantages in power by carrying massive corner speed. And guess where people tend to fall off...
Anyway, on to Qatar. It's a lovely modern track, designed with bikes in mid. It's fast, safe and technical enough to remain interesting. Practice and qualifying saw Valentino Rossi and Yamaha come off the ropes fighting, with Edwards leading the first free practice session before deferring to Rossi to take second throughout practice, getting pipped in the dying seconds of qualifying by the Ducati of Casey Stoner. That Ducati showed itself to be a full fifteen kilometres an hour (as near as makes no difference ten miles an hour) faster than Rossi's Yamaha down the main straight, and it seems to go round corners quite well, too. Despite smacking himself around rather well in pre season tests here, Suzuki's John Hopkins was on the pace from the word go as well, never being outside the top six and actually leading some of the time. His team-mate Chris Vermeulen didn't fare quite so well, struggling with tyre choice and ending up qualifying back in thirteenth despite showing great form. Honda started to get their act together as, variously, Carlos Checa, Tony Elias and Dani Pedrosa broke through into the top group. But World Champion Nicky Hayden was having a torrid time, utterly failing to gel with the bike and having to ride against it instead of with it. An inauspicious start to a title defence as Hayden qualified ninth while Pedrosa was outridden by satellite team Gresini Honda's Tony Elias to find himself in fifth, in the middle of the second row. Kawasaki didn't have a especially good time, either, as their new bike is proving to still be something of a handful. Randy de Puniet still managed to get it into eighth, though, after an up and down practice. Someone else having an up and down time was new entry Ilmor. Their bike, on a shoestring budget, came out late last year and got some valuable data from the last races. But while it seems to be sweet enough handling, Andrew Pitt and Jeremy McWilliams are having to push extra hard to get beyond the lack of power. Too hard, it seems, as McWilliams had a fast and nasty crash on Friday, not doing any major damage to himself but exacerbating an injury from pre season testing that meant he had to sit the race out.
So the final grid positions were Rossi, just five thousandths of a second ahead of Stoner with Edwards just behind making up the front row. Elias, Pedrosa and Hopkins were row two, with Capirossi, de Puniet and Hayden on row three. Hayden was the first rider to be more than a second outside Rossi's pole time. Marco Melandri finished the top ten.
So race day had a mercifully light wind so very little sand was being blown across the track. And just after 15:00 local time, the lights went out to mark the opening of the first race in the 2007 MotoGP season. First off the line, and hardly surprising, was Valentino Rossi. Casey Stoner went out of the blocks well, while Edwards got a handful of wheelspin and shot through the pack backwards, ending up seventh. Tony Elias did well to get up to a strong third, with Pedrosa fourth and Melandri fifth ahead of Hopkins. Nicky Hayden was in ninth place after a dreadful start, behind Loris Capirossi who also started badly.
But as the leaders streamed out onto the straight at the end of the first lap, Casey Stoner simply moved right, opened the taps and went past Rossi's Yamaha as though he'd hit the Nitrous button. And that set the stage for the rest of the race, really. Rossi and the Yamaha were far faster through the corners, and the ex champion was able to retake the lead fairly easily on many occasions. But there was no way he could get far enough ahead to still be in front after the rocketship Ducati fired its boosters down the straight. So he had to do it all again. Lap after lap. To make things worse, Dani Pedrosa climbed up into third and pulled the same stunt, though Rossi was having none of it and outbraked the young Spaniard at the end of the straight to maintain his second place and gradually break away from him.
Tony Elias slipped back through the pack, fighting all the way, as his tyres presumably went off before running very wide and taking to the gravel, rejoining safely but out of contention, while John Hopkins rode the wheels off the Suzuki to close with and seriously threaten Pedrosa for the last podium spot. And his team-mate Chris Vermeulen rode a sterling race after a dodgy start, climbing from thirteenth to seventh, duffing up the World Champion on the way. Colin Edwards picked the pace up after his poor start and nearly came a cropper as he lost the front of the Yamaha, eventually managing to save it with his knee and elbow! Less fortunate were Loris Capirossi, Randy de Puniet and Carlos Checa, all of whom crashed out when they lost the front trying to hold the frightening corner speeds these bikes now achieve. Capirossi in particular was really on a charge, setting a new lap record before binning it in sixth place.
Four laps from the end saw Rossi make a particularly robust overtake early in the lap which looked promising as he extended a slight bit of air between himself and the pursuing Ducati. But it wasn't enough, and Stoner got back into the lead before the pair screamed across the line to start the next lap. Rossi is a wily customer, though, and despite keeping the pressure up he seemed to content himself with second, easing off to cross the line over two seconds behind Stoner. It's still early in the championship, after all, and twenty points is better than crashing out and getting nothing. Pedrosa just managed to fend off the determined Hopkins to hold onto third by just half a second, albeit six seconds short of Rossi, while fellow Honda pilot Melandri had to make do with fifth after an initially strong showing that put him among the leading group for a few laps. Colin Edwards made an herculean effort to drag himself back up to sixth after his poor start while Chris Vermeulen held off a resurgent Hayden to take seventh. The champion started to go more quickly toward the end, but eighth is a poor way to open a title defence, scrabbling around with Alex Barros from the D'Antin Ducati squad who are more well known for being, frankly, a bit rubbish. Fair play to Barros, though, who made a good fist of things to take a solid ninth ahead of Shinya Nakano in his first Honda appearance.
So this opening race, though hardly a classic in racing terms, was historic for other reasons. Mainly, though, for demonstrating that safety has not been improved one iota by the new bikes. In fact there were more crashes in qualifying ad the actual race than ever before. And all the same way - losing the front as the massive corner speeds simply overwhelm the tyre. But anyway. Last year we rather wrote Casey Stoner off as being fast but crashing too much. While one race isn't a whole season. it looks as though he may just have matured a whole lot in the winter break. Rossi and the Yamaha work brilliantly together as ever, but though they can get brilliant qualifying times when there's nobody in the way, anything that obstructs corner speed will wreck their lap time. They really need more speed. A lot more speed. And this weekend was possibly the most dismal performance from a sitting World Champion that we've seen. Hopefully Hayden will be able to get a grip and start a proper defence, because otherwise it's just possible that the good old, exciting, edge of the seat days of MotoGP may just be gone forever...
Qatar MotoGP Results
1. Casey Stoner (Ducati)
2. Valentino Rossi (Yamaha)
3. Daniel Pedrosa (Honda)
4. John Hopkins (Suzuki)
5. Marco Melandri (Honda)
6. Colin Edwards (Yamaha)
7. Chris Vermeulen (Suzuki)
8. Nicky Hayden (Honda)
9. Alex Barros (Ducati)
10. Shinya Nakano (Honda)
MotoGP standings (after one round)
1. Casey Stoner 25
2. Valentino Rossi 20
3. Daniel Pedrosa 16
4. John Hopkins 13
5. Marco Melandri 11
6. Colin Edwards 10
7. Chris Vermeulen 9
8. Nicky Hayden 8
9. Alex Barros 7
10. Shinya Nakano 6