For the second time in as many races, rain interfered with proceedings as the MotoGP circus rolled, or rather splashed, into Honda's back yard. The Twin-Ring Motegi circuit is one of the best known to fans around the world, featuring as it does on just about every racing game made on just about every platform. It's technical, fast and very well designed while managing to be extremely safe as well. Which is a good thing.
Free practice was damp, though the dampness was merely a precursor of the deluge to come. With standing water on the track and the sophisticated drainage system simply overwhelmed by the volume of water, the organisers had little choice but to cancel qualifying practice. Which left them in a bit of a quandary. How do the riders' grid positions get chosen without qualifying? Now personally I'd have gone for the old pick a grid slot out of the hat option that we used in production racing back in the good old days. Close racing almost always ensued as at least one front running rider would find himself towards the back of the grid and with lots of overtaking to do. But DORNA clearly lack the stomach for something that controversial, and simply took the results of the fastest free practice times instead. To me that's almost as unfair as using the hat because free practice times don't necessarily mean anything - you could have been testing a new shock, messing around with your electronics, anything other than going for a qualifying time. But that's the decision they made, and some of it seemed to make sense. Valentino Rossi starting from pole certainly seemed reasonable, as did Casey Stoner in second and Jorge Lorenzo in third. Actually, the second row of Chris Vermeulen, Colin Edwards and Loris Capirossi seemed OK as well, while row three had Andrea Dovizioso, Marco Melandri and Toni Elias. That's a little less common, Melandri and Elias not exactly being consistent top qualifiers these days. That James Toseland headed the fourth row is a bit of a surprise as well, the Englishman normally qualifying quite well. But that he was ahead of factory Honda mounted Dani Pedrosa and factory Ducati mounted Nicky Hayden was a real shock.
Anyway, everyone accepted the way things had turned out, paddled off back to their hotels or motorhomes and got their wet weather gear ready for the next day.
Which looked as though it was going to be dry for the race.
Of course, this caused a degree of consternation as, in essence, nobody had any real data whatsoever to go racing with. Free practice had been dry but cold, The great thing, of course, is that everyone was in the same boat and at least for once the single tyre rule would make things more even and possibly ensure a decent race.
So after the warmup, which was still wet though no longer raining, there was a mad scramble to figure out a tyre/suspension/electronics combination to last the race. Even for the very best in the world, that's a tall order. Casey Stoner was fastest, followed by Toni Elias and Yuki Takahashi on the Scot Honda, anxious to shine in his home GP. The rest of the front of the grid languished near the bottom of the timesheets, even after the session was extended to give them more setup time. The race was going to be a challenge...
By the time the race came around the track was completely dry, having been thoroughly dried off by the lesser classes which had raced earlier, and the sun was shining. Though it still wasn't particularly warm, conditions were completely different from any time at the weekend. But at least it was dry and there was grip. Lots of grip.
As the lights went out it was Valentino Rossi who got an incredible start, streaking into the lead with, incredibly, Dani Pedrosa slamming through from eleventh on the grid to second before the end of the first lap. Lorenzo was third while Stoner shot off backwards, finishing the first lap in sixth and dropping to seventh in lap two, hassled by James Toseland all the way. Further back, Nicky Hayden's weekend went downhill fast as he was taken out completely by Takahashi after not even completing a lap.
At the front it was definitely Rossi's race to control, and he set a scorching pace towing just Pedrosa and Lorenzo along and leaving the rest of the pack behind. There was some spirited riding from Pedrosa, who went for the lead several times, but the hero of the hour was Dovizioso, who wrung the neck of the Yamaha to first get past Pedrosa and then start looking or ways to mess up Rossi's title challenge. It took eight laps before Lorenzo was able to pass, but pass he did, cleanly but firmly. And to be honest, though the pace at the front was impressive and the racing was fairly close at times, that was as good as it got. Pedrosa continued to push but despite a few brief lunges he never really looked threatening. Rossi kept the pressure up but also never really looked as though he would pass Lorenzo, while Lorenzo himself never put a wheel wrong on the way to his second premier class victory.
Further back, Toseland got an excellent start, climbing to seventh and fighting hard as he gradually dropped back down the field, finishing a solid ninth and making an important step back towards regaining his form and confidence after the debilitating crashes of the beginning of the season. Chris Vermeulen made a great start on the Suzuki, and for a while it looked as though he was going to do great things, but his tyre choice wasn't as good as some and he dropped back, ending up one place behind Toseland in a spirited ride. Eighth place finisher Mika Kallio continued to show his class, climbing from second from last to record another strong finish on the Pramac Ducati. And ahead of him, Loris Capirossi rode calmly and smoothly to give Suzuki some much needed points in seventh. Marco Melandri worked wonders on the sinister black Hayate Racing Kawasaki to take sixth. melandri is a fabulous rider as well as a nice guy, and it's good to see him back in the mix after his dismal time on the Ducati. Andrea Dovizioso, who had been in fourth place for almost all the race, succumbed to a resurgent Casey Stoner with just two laps to run, but Stoner, despite finding his happy place on the bike towards the end of the race, wasn't able to make that next step and get onto the podium.
For the championship, this race was an excellent result, keeping things open and maintaining interest. But overall it wasn't all that exciting as there was little close racing, really, and the gap between the lead group and the rest of the field was pretty large. But next week we're off to Jerez, and we all know that there are plenty of opportunities for things to get far, far too exciting there...
Qatar MotoGP Results
1. Jorge Lorenzo (Yamaha)
2. Valentino Rossi (Yamaha)
3. Dani Pedrosa (Honda)
4. Casey Stoner (Ducati)
5. Andrea Dovizioso (Honda)
6. Marco Melandri (Kawasaki)
7. Loris Capirossi (Suzuki)
8. Mika Kallio (Ducati)
James Toseland (Yamaha)
10. Chris Vermeulen (Suzuki)
MotoGP standings (after two rounds)
1. Jorge Lorenzo 41
2. Valentino Rossi 40
3. Casey Stoner 38
4. Andrea Dovizioso 22
5. Dani Pedrosa 21
6. Colin Edwards 17
7. Mika Kallio 16
8. Chris Vermeulen 15
9. Alex de Angelis 13
10. Marco Melandri 12