I had a whistle stop trip to Qatar for the opening race of the 2012 MotoGP season. Owing to works commitments I was only able to arrive in the desert kingdom hours before the start of the race. It was however a very rewarding night to be in Losail.
Having been in Valencia for the final 125cc race in history it was special to be present at the opening race of its Moto3 successor. In Grand Prix racing one door closes and another opens but the Moto3 class seems to have recaptured the intensity that was missing in the closing years of the venerable 125 class.
In recent years the title was effectively decided by which bikes Aprilia gave to whom. Ajo and Aspar dominated the last six years by virtue of having a vastly superior factory bike from the Noale based manufacturer.
The new class however removes such an advantage and similar to the Moto2 class it has produced a vastly different array of riders challenging at the front of the field. Whereas in 125s riders such as Louis Rossi could only challenge for the lower points scoring positions in Qatar the Frenchman ran in the front five in the opening laps before steadily falling to a solid top finish. For Zulfahmi Khairuddin it was a similar story with the Malaysian finishing a career best sixth in Qatar.
The change to 250cc four-stroke Moto3 bike has rejunivinated a flagging class had struggled for relevance in the real world marketplace and competitive action on class. The new class however resembles what 125cc had once been with ultra competitive fields and close racing. The change to four stroke engines have meant that the soundtrack has changed but the action has reverted to an earlier age of the smallest Grand Prix class.
The levelling of the playing field has meant that riders such as the aforementioned Rossi and Khairuddin can compete at the front but it hasn’t changed who the leading riders are. Both Maverick Vinales and Sandro Cortese were consistent podium finishers in the 125cc class and both set the pace throughout the weekend. They were however joined by a surprise package in the form of Romano Fenati.
The Italian rookie stunned everyone with an assured race to second that saw him lead for the opening five laps and harry and hastle Vinales for much of the 18 laps. To come into the Grand Prix paddock and make such an instant impact is an amazing achievement, one that not even the likes of Vinales, Marc Marquez or Dani Pedrosa can boast in recent years.
Fenati’s assured race points to the podium also will have served as a much needed shot in the arm for young Italian riders coming through to the ranks of Grand Prix racers. Recent years have seen Spain dominate the lower classes and withItalyhaving been searching for the next Valentino Rossi for years it seems that with Fenati that search may finally be over.
It’s a lot of pressure to put on a youngsters shoulders but given how impressive his debut performance was it is inevitable that the pressure will find the 16 year old sooner rather than later. With the machinery on a much more equal basis and with no previous data to use the Moto3 race saw a host of rookies join Fenati as having superb baptisms in the GP paddock. Arthur Sissis and Alex Rins also finished in the top ten with both looking very impressive and consistent throughout the race.
Moto2 was as exciting as ever with the third year of the class opening with a race for the ages…..but in saying that we often talk of Moto2 races as being “instant classics!” The series has gone from strength to strength in its two year existence and is for many fans the highlight of the weekend.
In Qatar the race evolved into a tight scrap for the lead involving eventual winner Marc Marquez and pole sitter Thomas Luthi. The pair clashed on the final lap with Marquez moving across to the outside of the track at turn one, to take the racing line, after slipstreaming past Luthi.
The Spaniard however was not completely past Luthi and the Swiss star, who dominated practice and qualifying, refused to cede the position and was pushed wide. Luthi would eventually finsh the race fifth. There was nothing illegal about what Marquez did and it is seen time and again in racing but whereas most time the rider in Luthi’s position will sit up, and the force of the wind hitting his body will slow the bike, and avoid an incident in this case Luthi decided to dig in his heals. It ended up costing him the opportunity to win the race.
Seeing Pol Espargaro on the lowest step of the rostrum was also a welcome sign of the Spanish rider recovering from what was a disappointing rookie campaign last year. His speed in the final races of the season, including a podium inAustralia, showed that the fiery determination that he showed in 125s would be translated to Moto2.
Opening the season however with his third podium in the class however shows that in the coming year we should see the Pons rider at the front of the field. His riding style makes him one of the most intriguing riders to see in wheel to wheel combat and with Iannone also displaying the same characteristics fireworks are sure to fly between the pair, just as they did in 125s.
Espargaro led during the middle stages of the race before falling back from the lead battle and claiming a podium spot ahead of his teammate Esteve Rabat.
Last year races in the MotoGP class were processional however with the 800cc coming to an end the class has been invigorated. New life has taken over the premier class and in Qatar we saw the first signs of just how positive the growth was throughout the winter.
Casey Stoner, Jorge Lorenzo and Dani Pedrosa are the three best motorcyclists on the planet and inQatarthey served up a thrilling race. Stoner led for most of the race until in the final five laps he was suddenly caught by his pursuers. Standing trackside and with no big screen TVs available to me I was shocked to see the leading trio all in close company coming into view five laps from the end.
I instantly surmised, wrongly, that Casey had simply “cooked” his tyres and pushed too hard in the early stages to open his lead. Throughout the weekend the riders talked of how the new Bridgestone now lost grip and how in the race tyre management would play a key role.
My initial thoughts on Stoner’s problems were I would later find unfounded. The reigning champion was suffering a severe case of arm pump and was struggling even to keep his throttle open on the straights.
Lorenzo and Pedrosa felt no need to ask if Casey was OK as they powered past him into the lead. Pedrosa endured rather than enjoyed most of the weekend in Qatar. The race came hot on the heels of stories of Dani cheating on his yachtsman exams and a practice crash and a lowly grid position hardly gave rise to hopes of a strong race.
As ever however Dani made a storming start and powered from the third row of the grid to second; Stoner relegated to third. The Australian however wasted time in getting to the front and by lap four he was already opening a lead.
Lorenzo and Pedrosa gave chase but, as had been expected before the weekend, Stoner was in a class of his own….before his arm started to limit his performance. Before the weekend it seemed that would be little chance of anyone catching Stoner but the effects of his arm and a much more competitive Yamaha really gave us a thrilling spectacle.
Lorenzo’s pole lap was one of the best of his career and after the race the former champion talked of a “perfect weekend” but now the problem is moving the bike forward and developing it.
All the teams are at the start of their development cycle but one cycle is showing dangerous signs of breaking. After the race Valentino Rossi angrily talked of how he “can’t ride the new Ducati” and the Italian superstar also said “This Ducati has problems: I gave indications over where to intervene, but we didn’t solve our problems.”
His comments indicate that Ducati have not listened to his complaints and solved the problems as he wanted. With Nicky Hayden and Hector Barbera both finishing in the top eight it was clear that the bike was much more competitive than Rossi was able to ride it. As unbelievable as it seems aboard the Ducati the 105 times Grand Prix is an ordinary rider. Just as we saw numerous riders before him Rossi cannot get his head around how to ride the Bologna machine.
With Rossi clearly getting more and more disillusioned it is heartbreaking to see the greatest rider of his generation, and I would say any generation, effectively just making up the numbers. After the race Rossi commented that even catching Hayden is impossible.
After a career spanning seven different types of bikes and nine championships Rossi now faces the biggest question of his career; is it worth the aggravation to continue?
He is a proud man and will want to finish what he started with Ducati. At the time of his announcement as rider it seemed like a match made in heaven. Italian racing royalty coming together but the hype has never been matched with on track performance.
A solitary podium finish last year, gifted after Pedrosa and Marco Simoncelli crashed inLe Mans, is the lone highlight of their relationship andQatarshowed that the change to the 1000s will make little difference.
Even accounting for the clash with Barbera, which Rossi said cost him the chance of fighting for fifth, you would have to ask the question of whether it is worth continuing past the end of their agreement if all Rossi can do is battle for sixth position, at best.
At the end of the season Rossi will have to ask himself whether it is spending more time with Ducati is best for him….or whether it would be wiser to call time on his glittering career.
Racing in the night was an interesting spectacle. Having been at Daytona in February for the Daytona 500 it was not my first experience of floodlights lining a track but coming through the desert and suddenly seeing the floodlit Losail International Circuit was certainly an unusual experience.
The schedule of the weekend, spread over four days, would also leave you constantly in a state of flux. For me arriving late on Sunday morning and off loading my bags in a hotel room before heading to the track was very draining but speaking to others in the paddock the change of routine is very difficult to adjust to.
Adrenalin fuels everyone during the Qatar weekend with night racing a unique occurance to this race. But by three o’clock on race I was drained of energy as I sat back and tried to finish my race reports and transcribe an interview. After a long day travelling I was spent and needing rest.
The day ended soon after for me but not before I thought of the prospect of a year to remember in all three classes. Parity has returned to the smallest class, remained in Moto2 and in MotoGP the best riders in the world now have the chance to race one other.Qatar is just one of 18 races in the 2012 season but while the desert race is filled with unique features such as night racing the hope is that the quality of racing in the MotoGP class will be common to all other rounds of the championship.
MotoGP in 2012 is underway and suddenly I’m feeling energised again ahead of the new season…..