Losail circuit in Qatar is traditionally the first round in the MotoGP World Championship. The desert state, mercifully free so far from troubles afflicting its neighbours, again played host to the circus under the fantastic floodlit skies. No matter how many times we come here, the place still amazes me.
This year the season starts off with a little less certainty than usual. Valentino Rossi, the greatest racer ever, is on the Ducati, where we all wanted him to be, but his shoulder is still not right and, frankly, he's struggling. The Yamahas of current champion Lorenzo and new team mate Ben Spies are sweet handling but don't have the legs to compete with the Hondas while the Tech3 satellite yamaha team are slower yet. Suzuki are just fielding the one rider this year, the likeable Alvaro Bautista, and their difficulties are likely to be reflected in their performance to be honest. Which leaves Honda in a commanding position. probably the most commanding, in fact, since Rossi left them. The Repsol team of Stoner, Pedrosa and Dovizioso is reinforced by serious talent on fast satellite machines - Simoncelli and Aoyama on the Gresini bikes. It'll be a tough act to beat.
First casualty of the already uneven struggle was Bautista, who broke his leg badly in a vicious crash during practice and ruled himself out of the race. Probably the first half of the season, in fact. That left us without a Suzuki on the grid for the first time in living history, I think.
Cal Crutchlow had a nasty crash as well, filing a large part of his left little finger off as it got trapped between the bars and the track. But Cal's tough, and after getting it looked at he just swabbed it with TCP and got on with riding. OK, so that's not entirely accurate. But the lad from Coventry, for whom the word "gritty" may well have been invented, did get back on a bike and carry on participating in the weekend's festivities. Did it properly, too.
Anyway. When the dust had settled and the numbers were totted up, a clear pattern emerged. Actually to be honest that pattern had emerged almost from the off. Casey Stoner was going to be the man to beat. And Pedrosa was most likely to do it. The pair of them dominated all the practice sessions, with a surprising third place showing for Hector Barbera on the Aspar Ducati. Spies showed the promise of things to come, finishing ahead of his team-mate Lorenzo in two of the three sessions while Rossi bounced around the midfield, not having much fun.
Qualifying was much the same story, with Stoner two tenths faster than Pedrosa to take pole. Lorenzo pulled something out of the bag to round out the front row, nearly two thirds of a second down. Just a few hundredths back on the second row, Simoncelli headed Spies and Barbera while Dovizioso and Crutchlow sat ahead of Rossi on the third row. Rounding out the top ten was Colin Edwards.
Of course, overnight there is lots of work to be don and the warmup session normally gives the teams a chance to establish whether the changes were in the right or wrong direction. Pedrosa and Lorenzo would both say yes, getting ahead of their team-mates. For the rest of the field it was rather more of the same.
On to the race, then.
Lights out and it was no surprise that Dani Pedrosa made a scorching start. A bit more of a surprise was the way that Lorenzo managed to get to the front so quickly, though. And absolutely astonishing was the way that Rossi came up from the back of the third row to second place by the first corner. Unfortunately what could have been another piece of Rossi mythology went wrong as the Ducati seemed reluctant to turn and Rossi ended up running wide and getting swallowed up in the melee, emerging seventh. Dovizioso had a great start, finishing the lap in fourth place while Spies didn't do so well, getitng pushed back down the field after Randy de Puniet highsided in front of him. Just to make the Pramac team's weekend, Loris Capirossi hit his hand on de Puniet's bike as he took avoiding action and had to retire as well. So by the first corner of the second lap it was no longer possible to finsh and score les sthan two championship points. Which is crazy.
The second lap saw Stoner and Pedrosa make the most of their Honda power to simply draft past Lorenzo, who could really do little about it. And from then on the race was between the two Honda riders for the first place and then everyone else for the third podium step. Pedrosa and Stoner maintained a scorching pace despite battling for position. The Spaniard took and held the lead for a few laps before Stoner took it back and then upped the pace further, Suffering from arm pump, Pedrsa could only watch his team-mate pull away while slipping inexorably back into the clutches of the pursuing World Champion. Lorenzo saw his chance and took it, passing cleanly and staying ahead for the second place.
Further back, Rossi was battling first with the Ducati and then with Spies. Spies made a very robust pass that would have taken anyone but Rossi off the track, after taking an age before finally managing to get ahead of the Italian and make it stick. A litte further back, Cal Crutchlow made a brilliant effort and climbed up to tenth in the early stages before a combination of pain and inexperience on the bike dropped him to twelfth. Still a brilliant effort, though.
The race long battle between Simoncelli and Doviziozo was finally decided in favour of the factory rider, while at the back of the pack Nicky Hayden eventually managed to get the Ducati working better and battled up to ninth.
So it wasn't, in truth, the thrilling opener that we hoped for. Then again, the restricted lines and the general stiffness of a first race usually limit the real excitement of a round in Qatar anyway. The astonishing pace of the Stoner/Honda combination bodes ill for the rest of the season, at least in terms of exciting races. Stoner is a brilliant rider but he's rarely exciting to watch, especially when he's leading comfortably and has a performance advantage. Having said that, the next few rounds aren't really massively high speed tracks. So maybe if everyone else can get their handling sorted out then things will get better...
1 Casey Stoner (Honda)
2 Jorge Lorenzo (Yamaha)
3 Dani Pedrosa (Honda)
4 Andrea Dovizioso (Honda)
5 Marco Simoncelli (Honda)
6 Ben Spies (Yamaha)
7 Valentino Rossi (Ducati)
8 Colin Edwards (Yamaha)
9 Nicky Hayden (Ducati)
10 Hiroshi Aoyama (Honda)
after one round:
1 Casey Stoner 25
2 Jorge Lorenzo 20
3 Dani Pedrosa 16
4 Andrea Dovizioso 13
5 Marco Simoncelli 11
6 Ben Spies 10
7 Valentino Rossi 9
8 Colin Edwards 8
9 Nicky Hayden 7
10 Hiroshi Aoyama 6