Luis Salom converted his pole position into a victory at the season opening Qatar Moto3 Grand Prix. The Spaniard, riding for the Ajo squad, took the lead on the final lap after an entralling fight at the front that saw the leading five riders battle throughout the 18 lap race.
It was a KTM benefit with the leading six riders all using the Austrian engine and only fifth place finisher, Kalex shodJonas Folger, not using the KTM chassis.
Salom lead away from his pole position ahead of but it wasn’t long before Alex Rins made his presence known. The 17 year old Estrella Galicia rider slipstreamed past Salom at the start of the second lap and opened a slender lead at the front.
With the long front straight measuring over one kilometre it was always going to be difficult for a Moto3 rider to make a break at the front but in the early stages it seemed as though Salom and Rins would do just that. Vinales seemed to struggle after a handful of laps and the championship favourite fell back from the leaders and was under pressure from Folger. It seemed as though the German needed to get past if he was to have a chance of fighting with Salom and Rins for the win and the Aspar rider barged past Vinales at quarter distance and set his sights on the leaders.
With Vinales having suffered a hand injury just two weeks ago it seemed as though he was being hamstrung by his injury. He did however pick up his pace again and the tense battle at the front was between five riders.
Alex Marquez was the fifth of these riders with the young Spaniard looking very comfortable throughout the race. While his brother, MotoGP racer Marc, is one of the most spectacular riders in the world Alex was calmness personified throughout this race. He was using less track than his rivals throughout and made comfortable and commanding overtaking moves in the final third of the race.
With Rins and Salom leading at the front Marquez quietly made his way through the quintet and just past half distance he was third and harrying Salom. It looked as it the Estrella Galicia squad could start the season with a one-two finish when Rins lead from Marquez with four laps to go but as ever the fight in Moto3 was set to get even more intense in the closing laps.The last four laps saw the leading four riders-Rins, Marquez, Salom and Vinales-change places regularly and Folger maintain a watching brief in fifth.
The German stalked the leading group over the course of the race but he never looked as comfortable as the men he was pursuing. The Aspar rider was fifth for the last 11 laps and never really looked capable of overtaking his rivals. He seemed to lack the front end confidence of his rivals and it may have been related to being the only rider using the Kalex chassis. Even so Folger had a strong weekend and will look forward to the next race in Texas after a solid performance.
The last two laps saw all change at the front. The fight was intense but it was a classic slipstreaming move by Salom and Vinales that got them to the front after the leading four were side by side heading into the braking zone into the first corner. Salom got to the front ahead of Vinales and the duo made their experience count ahead of their younger compatriots. On the final lap Salom managed to open a slight lead in the opening sector but with Vinales having to defend the attacks of Marquez and Rins the leader was able to stretch clear at the front.
Marquez was riding more aggressively now and his determination to stand on the rostrum for the first time was clear to see but he would have to settle for a career best fourth place finish.
Vinales timed his move into second to perfection but exiting the final corner Rins was closing fast on the Team Calvo rider and it seemed as though he was set to surge past at the finish line but ultimately Vinales broke the plane just 0.006s ahead of Rins. It was a thrilling finish and Rins could have been excused for being disappointed but a season opening podium, the second of his career, was clearly enough to leave the 17 year old feeling very positive for the season ahead.
Behind the leaders Zulfahmi Khairuddin was sixth after a race long battle with the Mahindra of Miguel Oliveira. It was a very strong performance for the Indian manufacturer with Efren Vazquez also finishing in the top ten. Last year the team struggled with Danny Webb, Marcel Schrotter and Vitaly Lenov but with a switch to having their chassis manufactured by Suter has clearly given them a boast. Oliveira looked strong throughout but the Portuguese rider and Khairuddin both fell a long way behind the leading group. The pair finished over 16s adrift of the leaders and while they will have been pleased with their points haul there is clearly still a lot of work to be done.
This race was strange with the leading quintet opening a commanding lead early in proceedings and leading the rest in their dust…quite literally given the nature of the track surface in the desert. It will be interesting to see if this gulf in performance exists in the next race of the season at the brand new Circuit of the Americas but with Khairuddin having finished last season so strongly he would have expected much more from today’s race.
Romano Fenati showed just how big a difference a year can make with the Italian, runner up last season, finishing 15th and claiming the final point of the race after fighting with Jasper Iwema and Alexis Masbou in the midfield.