Archive for the ‘Andrea Dovizioso’ Category

MotoGP 2017 Season Review

November 24, 2017

© Bruce Allen.  Exclusive to Motorcycle.com

Marc Marquez Proves It’s a Marathon, Not a Sprint

The final installment of this year’s diatribe should, one thinks, start with an examination of the season preview from back in February. Heading into Qatar, the conventional thinking was that Maverick Vinales, newly and firmly ensconced on the factory Yamaha, the best bike on earth of late, would challenge triple world champion Marc Marquez and his Repsol Honda—you remember, the one with the acceleration issues—for the world championship.

It didn’t work out that way, as the fight ended up being between Marquez and journeyman Ducati #2 (behind the newly signed Lorenzo) Andrea Dovizioso, with Marquez, as expected, taking home the hardware and Dovi displacing Jorge Lorenzo on the #1 Ducati, at a fraction of the price.

Here are some pertinent snippets from the season preview eight months ago:

• “The Big Three factory teams of Yamaha, Honda and Ducati will dominate much of the action, as they are home to the Aliens, those riders whose balance and instincts are a step above the rest of the field—Marc Marquez, Valentino Rossi, Jorge Lorenzo and new Alien on the block Maverick Vinales.”

We ended the season in virtually complete agreement that in 2017 Marquez is the only true Alien, with Rossi, Dovizioso, and Vinales chasing, Pedrosa and Lorenzo hanging onto relevance by their fingernails. We discovered that the 2017 Yamaha M1 was inferior to the 2016 model, as the Tech 3 team of Zarco and Folger pressed the factory boys all year, especially in the rain. Vinales disappointed many, especially given his sensational start to the season.

Recall, after Le Mans, the top seven looked like this:

1. Maverick Vinales 85
2. Dani Pedrosa 68
3. Valentino Rossi 62
4. Marc Marquez 58
5. Johann Zarco 55
6. Andrea Dovizioso 54
7. Cal Crutchlow 40

Vinales was clear of the field by 17 points with three wins in the first five rounds. Had it not been for a regrettable crash out of the points at Austin his lead would have been even greater. Marquez had crashed out at Argentina and again at Le Mans, looking somewhat ragged early in the season. During the spring of 2017, it appeared the fans jocking Vinales might be right, that Marquez’s reign, like a 4th of July sparkler, could be blindingly bright and all too brief.

Let’s just be done with the castigation thing as re Jorge Lorenzo. Despite owning three premier class titles, he has a host of problems. He’s a narcissist, which means few people would be inclined to come to his rescue if, say, he found himself sitting in 18th place after two rounds, his season in tatters, his employers paying Triple World Champion salary prices and having gone public with their over-inflated expectations for 2017. If Lorenzo was on fire in the middle of the street Valentino Rossi wouldn’t stop to piss on him. Lorenzo stood there, smirking, and watched Rossi suffer for two years on the Ducati, then went and did the exact same thing for the same reasons, money and ego. I had expected him to be in the top five most rounds, which was not the case.

We’ll talk about Rossi later.

• “Keeping them honest will be the likes of Lorenzo’s teammate and wingman Andrea Dovizioso, Cal Crutchlow on the LCR Honda, and Andrea Iannone on the factory Suzuki. Alex Rins, on the second factory Suzuki, and Johann Zarco on a Tech 3 satellite Yamaha are the Moto2 grads most likely to podium this year, with Rins looking, to me anyway, like the rookie of the year for 2017. Another Alien in the making.”

So we had Dovizioso ranked ahead of Lorenzo, about whom we had serious doubts heading into the season. We missed on Crutchlow, who had a forgettable year after a solid 2016 but will happily show you pictures of his daughter. We missed on Iannone, Rins and the whole Suzuki project, which we expected to take another step forward and which, instead, went the other way, moonwalking for the first half of the season. Rins got hurt, missed a bunch of races, but came back looking stronger at the end of the season than he had early. Iannone waited until the last few rounds to awaken from his season-long stupor and do some racing.

Rookie of the Year Johann Zarco stole the show in 2017, coming up from Moto2 with a trophy in each hand—the only rider ever to do so—and immediately taking to the 2016 M1 for the Monster Tech 3 team. The early part of his season was extraordinary, capped by a front row start and podium in front of his homeys at Le Mans. He then went into a bit of a funk during the middle of the season, but finished strong, with brilliant performances on the Pacific swing and in Valencia—started and finished second—that have him itching for 2018 to start tomorrow. Stories are emerging that suggest Yamaha wants him to take Rossi’s seat in 2019. He’s a hot property, but a little long in the tooth to be Alien material (he turns 28 in July.)

• “Pramac, Aspar and Avintia Reale get new old Ducati hardware, which could improve prospects for Hectic Hector Barbera and Alvaro Bautista.”

We suggested Danilo Petrucci, aboard the Pramac GP17 would likely be in the mix for some wet rounds, which he was until tailing off late in the season. Barbera was perhaps the single biggest bust of the year, injured during the last pre-season test and never finding his rhythm ever after an encouraging 2016 and offseason. Punched his ticket back to Moto2, his career no longer in what one might call the ascendant stage. And Bautista wasn’t much better, although he gets to stick around for at least another year. Loris Baz lost his ride, Redding trudged off to Aprilia in a headscratcher, a second one occurring when Pramac Ducati signed the lost-at-sea Tito Rabat to a deal for 2018, taking over for Redding. Moving the second seat on the team from the frying pan into the fire, if you ask me.

So, as regards the Ducati contingent, we were mostly wrong about Lorenzo, Dovizioso, and Petrucci. True, we were also wrong about Barbera, Bautista, and Baz. And we were surprised by (wrong about) Karel Abraham, who showed more this season than he has thus far in his entire career. Undeterred, we will point out that we expected next to nothing from Scott Redding and he delivered. He will now take his Stiff Upper Lip to Aprilia with his customary high expectations, although, having ridden the RS-GP in Valencia for two days, he spoke during an interview of the need for Aprilia to “make the bike more user-friendly.”

That didn’t take long.

Sure, Scott. Given the choice between redesigning the entire frigging bike or directing a mediocre rider to lose 20 pounds, Aprilia is probably more inclined to go back to the drawing board. You wanker.

• “It would take another Assen-type miracle for either of the Marc VDS riders, Jack Miller and Tito Rabat, to win this year.”

Just sayin’. Miller earned a promotion to the Octo Pramac Ducati team for his efforts, while Rabat somehow managed to talk the Reale Avintia team into taking a chance on him. It will be interesting to see if Miller can wheedle a GP18 out of Gigi Dall’Igna or whether he will have to pay his dues on a 17. Rabat, showing nothing of the greatness he possessed in Moto2, is lucky to still be employed. Okay, the second half of his 2017 was better than the first. There.

Let’s Take a Closer Look

We need to talk about Valentino Rossi. Before we do, let’s tip our hats to the 2017 riders who have escaped mention thus far.
• Dani Pedrosa. Another competitive season, two more wins on Spanish soil. Low maintenance and a serviceable wingman for Marquez. I just keep thinking that there is a lot of young talent on its way up and that sooner or later Honda will make a change. I thought they would last year. I think they will after 2018. But that’s just me.
• Cal Crutchlow. Ninth for the year, no wins, another year older—33 next year—appears to have reached the high water mark of his career last season. His body is beaten up and older than he is. Will have a rookie teammate next year to corrupt. He gets quoted in the press way too often for a mid-pack rider. Probably because he gets to speak in his first language, unlike most of the contenders. I imagine he’s not the hot interview target on Telemundo that he is on BBC Sports.
• Jonas Folger. Zarco’s rookie J&J Tech 3 buddy, he podiumed in Germany before his season was ended prematurely by injury and illness. Folger showed way more than I expected early in the year, possibly because he, too, was piloting the 2016 Yamaha M1, perhaps the best bike on the grid. If he improves even a little and can stay healthy, his bank account could get laced in 2019, too, along with frère Johann.
• Aleix Espargaro again brought his “win or die trying” spirit to Aprilia, and paid the price. Though showing moments of brilliance, he failed to finish eight races and failed to start another due to crashing out, getting hurt, and suffering a number of mechanical letdowns. His 2017 bike was better than his 2016, and 2018 should be better yet. But dude needs to stay on the bike. Next year he’ll have Scott Redding instead of the departed Sam Lowes to make him look good.
• Pol Espargaro and Bradley Smith. The rookie KTM tandem had an encouraging year, despite accumulating 8 DNFs and no podiums, with top ten finishes hard to come by. Espargaro had the better of Smith most of the year, crashing out more often but finishing on top for the season. KTM, according to rumor, covets Zarco for 2019, too, and is said to be over Bradley Smith.
• Finally, Sad Sam Lowes. Sam failed to accumulate the required 10 points during an entire 18 round season, for God’s sake, necessary to qualify for a final disparagement in this column, and so we simply wish Sam good luck and Godspeed in Moto2.

Last but not least, Valentino Rossi. I seem to be something of a rare breed in that I neither love nor despise The Doctor. He went into the 2017 season as a dark horse for the title and sat grinning in first place during those halcyon days after Jerez and before Le Mans, where things started going downhill for the nine-time world champion. Crashing out of the front row at Le Mans, then breaking his leg later in the year, and it was all she wrote. He was never comfortable on the 2017 Yamaha, and was uncompetitive in the rain. Objectively speaking, despite having some brilliant moments, he was not the Rossi we have watched over the years, even as recently as 2015.

There are people out there—smart, otherwise-lucid folks—who sit in delirious anticipation of Rossi’s triumphant exit from MotoGP on the heels of his 10th world championship in 2018. Seriously, there are. But it’s simply not going to happen. He is old enough to have fathered most of the riders in Moto2 and all of the riders in Moto3. He is accumulating scar tissue at an accelerating rate. Yamaha needs to give him and Vinales a better bike for 2018. Even if they do, it won’t be Rossi hoisting the 2018 trophy, although it could be his teammate. Which would really piss him off. I believe next season will be his last as a full-time rider. One could easily see him as a Yamaha wildcard at Mugello and Misano in 2019 and beyond.

The 2017 Season in One Paragraph

The opening third of the season was owned and operated by the factory Yamaha team, which held first place for the first seven rounds. During the middle of the season, Rossi and Vinales began to falter somewhat, Marquez started finding his breathtaking rhythm and Andrea Dovizioso started winning races. By the last third of the year, it was a shootout between Marquez and Dovizioso, one which appeared to have been settled at Phillip Island but was, arguably, settled at Aragon, in that the standings of the top eight riders after Round 14 matched the final 2017 standings.

2017 Season Graph color snip

Although we enjoyed the drama of the Pacific swing and Valencia, in hindsight those four rounds ended up having little to do with the final results. Which is not to say that a number of us weren’t pretty geeked up at Motegi and Phillip Island. It was nerve-wrenching to watch Marquez playing defense and Dovizioso on offense. In the end, the title was decided at Valencia, just not in the manner for which most of us had been hoping.

As an aside, the spreadsheet appears to support the old golfing adage that you drive for show and putt for dough. Spraying the ball off the tee, then making long putts for saves and, finally, the win, is how the smart ones do it. In contrast to his fabled 2014 season, it took Marquez a while to understand the new bike and find his rhythm. Once he did, in Barcelona, and as he got closer to the 18th green in Valencia, he started making those putts. From then on he was essentially unstoppable.

Final Tranches of 2017

Tranche 1: Marc Marquez
Tranche 2: Andrea Dovizioso, Maverick Vinales, Dani Pedrosa, Valentino Rossi, Johann Zarco
Tranche 3: Jorge Lorenzo, Cal Crutchlow, Jonas Folger, Alex Rins, Pol Espargaro, Aleix Espargaro, Andrea Iannone, Jack Miller, Danilo Petrucci, Alvaro Bautista
Tranche 4: Bradley Smith, Scott Redding, Loris Baz
Tranche 5: Sam Lowes, Tito Rabat, Hector Barbera, Karel Abraham

The Last Word

MotoGP 2017 confirmed several pre-season predictions and missed on a few others.
Marc Marquez is the rider of the decade, discussion closed. The sun is setting on Valentino Rossi. Jorge Lorenzo made a huge mistake taking his game to Ducati. Maverick Vinales is going to be a premier class champion, just not right away. Andrea Dovizioso still has plenty of gas in his tank. The KTM team is going to be nails in the near future. Johann Zarco is the class of the rookie class of 2017, with Folger and Rins not far behind. And, with plenty of hot young talent in the pipeline, MotoGP in 2017 is as good as it’s ever been.

 

Final Tuesday Valencia Test Times

November 15, 2017

Final test results for Tuesday, courtesy of Autosport.com. Interesting that both Rossi and Viñales are doing a “Marquez” on a 2016 chassis. Miller, Zarco and Aleix continue to impress.

Pos
Driver
Team
Gap
Laps
1
Maverick Viñales
Yamaha
1m30.189s
80
2
Johann Zarco
Tech3 Yamaha
0.200s
53
3
Marc Marquez
Honda
0.312s
70
4
Valentino Rossi
Yamaha
0.330s
63
5
Jack Miller
Pramac Ducati
0.446s
57
6
Aleix Espargaro
Aprilia
0.567s
51
7
Andrea Dovizioso
Ducati
0.661s
50
8
Jorge Lorenzo
Ducati
0.870s
48
9
Pol Espargaro
KTM
0.977s
56
10
Cal Crutchlow
LCR Honda
1.070s
55
11
Dani Pedrosa
Honda
1.139s
52
12
Bradley Smith
KTM
1.226s
53
13
Tito Rabat
Avintia Ducati
1.484s
70
14
Danilo Petrucci
Pramac Ducati
1.532s
46
15
Scott Redding
Aprilia
1.886s
64
16
Karel Abraham
Aspar Ducati
2.256s
66
17
Takaaki Nakagami
LCR Honda
2.534s
76
18
Franco Morbidelli
MVDS Honda
2.573s
78
19
Takumi Takahashi
MVDS Honda
3.380s
55
20
Xavier Simeon
Avintia Ducati
4.053s
43

MotoGP Valencia Results

November 12, 2017

© Bruce Allen.  Exclusive to Motorcycle.com.

Marc Marquez Wins Sixth World Championship 

All season long, we at MO have been chanting the mantra, “Let Valencia Decide.” With the title unsettled heading into the weekend, the opportunity for a riveting finale existed (if only mathematically), Marquez holding a 21 point lead over Ducati pilot Andrea Dovizioso as the riders lined up on the grid. The math caught up with Dovi on Lap 25 when, desperate to get past insubordinate teammate Jorge Lorenzo, he ran hot into Turn 8, ultimately laying his GP17 down gently in the gravel. And so the 2017 title was awarded at Valencia, having been decided some weeks earlier. 

Practice and Qualifying 

All weekend, the MotoGP world appeared to be owned lock, stock and barrel by a sublime Marc Marquez. He spent Friday and Saturday zipping around the Ricardo Tormo circuit, seemingly without a care in the world. His approach to racing is unique and reflects his high racing IQ: He finds The (elusive) Limit on Friday and Saturday, then goes out and manages it on Sunday. As a result, despite hitting the deck 27 times over the course of the season, he crashed out of only two races.

Meanwhile, Andrea Dovizioso, The Great Italian Hope of 2017, was having problems coming to grips with the short, tight circuit that is Valencia. FP3, for Dovi, was a mess, and almost forced him to endure the ignominy of going through Q1. Q2 was little better, as Marquez laid down the first sub 1:30 lap of the weekend early in the session while Dovi could do no better than the back of the third row. The good news for him, if any, was that Marquez was joined on the front row by Johann Zarco and Andrea Iannone, both of whom have been intemperately endowed with gobs of reckless abandon.

Despite the dreadful company on the front row, Marquez appeared buoyant all day Saturday, and the weekend had anticlimax written all over it. The racing god in charge of qualifying, facing ridicule Saturday evening from the other racing gods, was heard to say, “Bollocks. You guys wanted Dovi on pole and Marquez 9th? No idea how I got that switched around. Bloody hell.” And, before we get started, let me raise the ire of some readers while I mention needlessly that Dovi and Marquez, the last two left standing, received stunning upgrades in the brolly girl department. (By comparison, Jorge Lorenzo’s brolly person was 6’3” tall with long dark hair and an Adam’s apple.)

The Race 

As the red lights went out on the 2017 season, the two Repsol Hondas of Marquez and Pedrosa jumped out front, which was big. Johann Zarco, starting well, dispatched Andrea Iannone on Lap 1. Gaining confidence on the great 2016 Yamaha M1, he went through on Pedrosa on Lap 2 and was allowed through by Marquez on Lap 4, as expected. Marquez, he of the high racing IQ, had a rabbit in front and a wingman behind him; he couldn’t want for more. With a loosely gathered lead group of five, the race proceeded, um, processed this way for the bulk of the day.

Marquez Being Marquez

Lap 24 would prove instructive. Zarco continued to lead, visions of his first MotoGP win, and the first ever win by a satellite Yamaha, dancing in his head. But Marquez, rather than maintaining a safe gap between himself and the leader, began inching closer to Zarco, appearing to be lining…him…up. Lining him up, when the title was sitting there on a platter. But with Dovi stuck back in fifth…

MM’s lizard brain took over on Lap 24 and #93 went through fast on Zarco at the end of the main straight, executing another transcendent save before riding through the turn, the run-off area and a large expanse of gravel, practically needing to purchase a ticket to get back in the race. He re-entered in fifth position and finished on the podium after the factory Ducati team imploded.

Was this part of the Marquez team strategy? To let someone take the lead, wait until late in the race, see what’s up with Dovi and, unless he’s leading, go for the win and if it doesn’t work out oh well? Must be, since second place was there for the taking. Unlike Lorenzo, Marquez seems to stick with the plan.

Drama in the Ducati Garage

Jorge Lorenzo–expected, at a minimum, to stay out of Dovi’s way while the Italian tried to make his way up front—inexplicably and blatantly blocked him for the first 12 laps. On Lap 13, JLo received the first of three notorious dashboard alerts—Mapping 8—code directing him to allow Dovizioso through.  All of which he ignored. After having said he hadn’t seen the exact same messages at Sepang two weeks earlier.

By Lap 20 he had also ignored three clear pit board directions to allow Dovi through. My notes on Lap 21 included “insubordinate.” Lorenzo was, finally, gracious enough to crash out on Lap 25, clearing the way for Dovi who, as excited as an Iowa farm boy in a Vegas whorehouse, almost immediately ran hot into Turn 8, entered the gravel trap, and fell victim to river rock, the 2017 championship chase with him, dusted and done.

The post-race meeting between Lorenzo, his team, and the visiting suits from Bologna promises to be interesting.  And all this, after Dovi declared just a month ago what a fine teammate Lorenzo has been in 2017, especially in comparison to The Maniac he shared the garage with last year.

Repsol Honda Magic

With five laps left, Zarco led a menacing Dani Pedrosa and a distant Marquez. The last lap of 2017 took shape between Zarco and Pedrosa, not the matchup many of us expected, but a good one nonetheless. The grizzled veteran and the impudent rookie. The Frenchman with nothing to lose and the Spaniard with nothing to gain.

Pedrosa made short work of Zarco at Turn 1 of the last lap and easily held him off on the way to his second win of the year, with Marquez gaining the third step on the podium. His win, and the Ducati debacle, delivered HRC a rare triple crown in MotoGP—top rider, top team and top constructor. It also saved Yamaha from finishing outside the top two OEMs for the first time since the earth cooled.

Key Moment of the Season 

Unfortunately, there is no obvious event one can easily point to as being the decisive moment of the 2017 campaign.  Marquez says it was winning at Sachsenring and Brno, finishing the first half and starting the second half strong. Others might say it was the collection of impossible saves (races in Assen and Valencia, practices in Brno, Mugello, Motegi and, famously, the Save of the Century during FP4 at Sepang). Personally, I think it was Phillip Island, where Marquez’s win and Dovi’s dumpster fire fanned an 11-point lead into a virtually insurmountable 33 with but two rounds left. 

The Last Word 

Despite the fact that a sizable portion of the MotoGP fan world dislikes Marc Marquez, there can be little argument that he is the best rider in an age of strong riders and relative equity in the distribution of quality bikes. I never thought I’d say anything very complimentary about Carmelo Ezpeleta, the big cheese at Dorna, but his goal, begun years ago, to level the playing field and lower costs for the teams is working out, at least the first part. There is more and better competition these days, and what used to be a sharp line separating the haves from the have nots has become blurred.  Much more proletarian, with the exception of the party leaders at the very top.

Listening to Marc Marquez discuss the championship in the post-race press conference, it became clear just how much mental energy he devotes to his craft. Yes, he has the entire package of physical attributes and a great company behind him. He freely admits to practicing crashing on Fridays and Saturdays, learning to avoid injury and allow the possibility of re-entering a race. (See Joan Mir’s performance in today’s Moto3 finale.  Dude has Alien written all over him.)

Six world championships at age 24. Valentino Rossi holds the record of nine at age 38. There was once a day where it appeared inevitable a young Tiger Woods would eclipse Jack Nicklaus’ career-record 18 wins in major tournaments, and many of you know how that worked out.  Granted, there is a world of young talent out there readying itself to take on Marc Marquez in MotoGP.  Names like Morbidelli, Mir, Renati, Loggia and more. They’re all fast.  But do they have the will, the mental discipline, the determination found in few athletes—Tom Brady and Peyton Manning come readily to mind—it takes to string together world championships like a daisy chain at such a young age?

Only time will tell. For now, the motorcycle racing world has a perfectly adequate example of excellence at work in the premier class of MotoGP.

“Perfection is not attainable, but if we chase perfection we can catch excellence.”

 –Vince Lombardi

* * *    

 Thank you to the handful of readers who put up with this nonsense year after year.  It is a pleasure delivering it to you and laughing out loud at your comments.

I’ll be taking a glance at testing on Tuesday and Wednesday and will occasionally post during the offseason. I’m discussing covering both MotoGP and WSBK next season with The Powers That Be at MO, so be forewarned. I will try to talk them into ordering a 2017 Season Recap for a few weeks from now. Otherwise, I look forward to your constructive criticisms and hysterical comments again next year.  Peace.

Here are some images from Sunday’s race in Valencia.

Marquez Champ6

Marquez takes his sixth title in Valencia, 2017.

Marquez from behind

Most riders’ view of #93.

Marquez Valencia 2017

Clinching the 2017 championship, Valencia.

Morbidelli

Here comes trouble–Franco Morbidelli

Joan Mir

More trouble on the horizon–Joan Mir in Moto2 next year

Three World Champs

2017 World Champions

Screenshot (59)

The man who would be king in 2017. Kudos, Andrea.

MotoGP Valencia Setup

October 30, 2017

© Bruce Allen.                      October 30, 2017

Nine years since Casey Stoner won on a Ducati at Valencia, yet Dovizioso has to win on Sunday or else. Yamahas have done OK, too.

Assume Marquez slides out of the race on Lap 1. I know, I know.

In addition to Dovi, not counting Jorge Lorenzo, who wouldn’t dare, there are still four or five guys who are ready, willing and able to win in Valencia, which means Dovi has his work cut out for him. Guys who could be leading or closing on him as the last lap approaches. Maverick Vinales. Johann Zarco. Rossi? Probably not, for a number of reasons. Dani Pedrosa, Marquez’ wingman for the weekend, who could win the race and give his teammate a title at the same time. Who doesn’t give a shit about Andrea Dovizioso or Ducati. Cal Crutchlow. Aleix.

So, what we may get is what we asked for—a last lap battle for a title—between Dovizioso and somebody, just not Marquez, with nine years of history running against the Italian. Marquez, one believes, is not going to do too much fighting this weekend. Dovi is going to do nothing but fight. And I can’t imagine too many people getting too geeked up watching Dovi win and Marquez finish a distant sixth, say, and winning the title anyway.

If, on the other hand, Marquez is running by himself in 7th place with two laps left, riders who might have been deferring to Dovi, if any, could change their minds and go after him. Even Lorenzo, whose team orders would have likely expired by then. I would pay good money to see Lorenzo and Dovi going neck and neck during the final lap, even with the title effectively out of reach. Lorenzo wanting his first win on the Ducati. Dovi wanting to keep his disappearing title chance alive.

That would be worth the price of admission. In fact, the odds, as I see them, are pretty high that we will have a dramatic last lap or three, with the title possibly on the line. Take THAT, F-1.

If this site had the horsepower, I would offer up a real survey.

Survey: Rider Most Likely to Fight with Dovizioso over the Last Two Laps:

◊ Maverick Vinales
◊ Johann Zarco
◊ Dani Pedrosa
◊ Cal Crutchlow
◊ Aleix Espargaro

MotoGP Sepang Results

October 29, 2017

© Bruce Allen.  Exclusive to Motorcycle.com

Valencia WILL Decide as Dovizioso Wins in Malaysia 

Factory Ducati #1 rider Andrea Dovizioso could hope for but one thing as the starting lights went out at the wet Sepang circuit—win the race and keep the title chase alive heading back to Spain for the finale.  Trailing defending champ Marc Marquez by 33 points entering the day, he needed to cut the deficit to less than 25 to avoid having to endure another nauseating Marquez title celebration. By winning the race, and with Marquez off the podium, the 2017 title will be decided in two weeks, and is more likely to end with a whimper than a bang. 

Practice and Qualifying 

Friday provided a dry session for FP1 and a wet session for FP2. Dovi topped the charts during both, looking very relaxed for a guy down 33 points with two races left. Marquez, typically, took his time in FP1, looking around, then got serious during the wet afternoon session and trailed only Dovizioso at the end of the day

Saturday was hot and “dry” all day, if you think of 90% relative humidity as “dry.” FP3 was decisive in culling the herd, as all but two of the riders set their fastest times of the weekend in the morning, topped by Dr. Rossi, who came out of nowhere on Friday to headline FP3 on Saturday. Those passing directly into Q2 included both factory riders from the Yamaha, Honda, Suzuki and Ducati teams and the two satellite Hondas of Cal Crutchlow and Jack Miller, who has been on something of a roll since breaking his leg.

Q1 was pretty orderly, as my boy Alex Rins and KTM heartthrob Pol Espargaro made it through to Q2, Espargaro directly after laying down his bike very late in the session. This set the stage for Q2, which I would like to summarize by simply listing the riders who sat pole during the 15 minute session:

Jack Miller (after Marquez crashed on his first flying lap)

Johann Zarco, looking fast all weekend

Dani Pedrosa, loving the hot track

Jorge Lorenzo, loving the dry track

Johann Zarco again, and for quite awhile. Then, quickly, as the session was ending

Dani Pedrosa

Valentino Rossi

Andrea Dovizioso

Johann Zarco once more, and, finally

Dani Pedrosa, for his first pole since Catalunya.

The final minute of the session was a blur, one which pushed Marquez to the seven spot, topping row 3. After his first lap crash, he changed bikes, put in one fast lap in which he was out of shape most of the time, got off the bike and had it put away for Sunday.  Previously, FP4 was the scene of what some are calling The Save of the Century, when he traveled perhaps 60 yards on his rear wheel and right knee, his front wheel, akimbo, laying down a thick black line, before righting himself and continuing gingerly down the road.

So, Sunday’s race would feature Pedrosa, Zarco and Dovizioso on the front row and Rossi, Vinales and Lorenzo on Row 2, with Marquez, Rins and Iannone comprising Row 3. With loose cannons Zarco and Iannone in the mix heading into Turn 1, it seemed Sunday’s race, for some riders, could be rather brief. Not a good thing with a championship at stake late in the season. No one wants to be collateral damage, or the cause of it.

The Race

Once the red lights went out on Sunday, Marquez appeared to have been shot out of a howitzer, taking the hole shot into Turn 1 hot, then watching Johann Zarco and Jorge Lorenzo slip by as he settled into third, Dovizioso trailing in fourth. On Lap 4, Dovizioso and Marquez did a little do-si-do after which Dovizioso took over third place and Marquez dropped back to fourth, where he would finish. So far so good for the Italian challenger, though Lorenzo and Zarco would still need to be dealt with. At that point, there was plenty of race left.

By Lap 9, Zarco appeared to be having issues with his soft rear rain tire, as first Lorenzo, then Dovizioso, went through on him.  (Though he would not win today’s race, he did clinch the Rookie of the Year award, as well as the Top Independent Rider for 2017, and he will be a hot property in next year’s silly season.) Thus, with factory Ducati rider Lorenzo leading factory Ducati rider Dovizioso, the talk in the commentary booth turned to “team orders,” that euphemism loathed by racing fans in which money and/or politics is injected into the rather Darwinian proceedings on track, occasionally producing some perverse results.  The Ferrari F-1 team back in the 90’s, head and shoulders above the rest of the field, with Michael Schumacher and Rubens Barrichello driving, used to take turns winning races, to the disgust of fans around the world.  Such concerns were alive and well in Malaysia today.

Lorenzo did not appear to be having any of it.  The triple MotoGP champion, winless in 2017 with an ego as big as the great outdoors, had said, earlier in the year, that if Dovi needed “help” in Valencia he would try to provide it. This, however, was not Valencia, although it might as well have been.  Had Lorenzo beaten Dovizioso today, with Marquez slotted fourth, the championship would have been decided.

Other than Alex Rins getting disqualified for taking a shortcut back to the pits on Lap 12, things proceeded apace until Lap 16. At turn 15, the hairpin between the back and front straights, Lorenzo lost his grits, ran wide, nearly came off, and left a bright red stripe on the asphalt where his left knee slider was all that stood between him and a painful visit to the kitty litter. While this was going on, Dovizioso quietly slipped through and took the lead he would not relinquish.

The Big Picture

Marc Marquez’ ride today was reminiscent of his outing at Brno in 2014.  He had won the first 10 races that year.  He was virtually a mortal lock to win the title.  He had been fast all weekend in practice.  Yet, once the race rolled around, he appeared disinterested in challenging for the lead and an untouchable record 11th consecutive premier class win. Instead, like today, he rode a conservative, low-risk race to a 4th place finish with no harm done. His effort today sets up a deciding match in Valencia, but not the kind we were hoping for.

Marc Marquez returns to Spain in two weeks leading by 21 points. The number of permutations and combinations on offer next time out plummeted today. Dovizioso must win the next race to have any kind of chance for the championship; should he finish second or worse, Marquez is champion again.  Assuming, for a moment, that Dovi wins, Marquez would have to finish 12th or worse, the odds of which, with a title on the line, are incalculably high. Back in the day when I had a friendly bookie in St. Louis, such a parley—Dovi wins, Marquez scoring fewer than five points—would pay around 200-1. So, though we may have the pleasure of watching the title decided at the last race—our fervent hope all season—it provides about as much drama as watching iron rust.

Preparing for Valencia

We have a number of things on our plate for the next two weeks. The final tranching of the riders. Trying to figure out a way to pump some drama into the last race of the season.  Most worrisome of all, coming up with a classic quote that captures the essence of a great campaign that may have lasted two weeks too long. Andrea Dovizioso has enjoyed his finest MotoGP season ever this year, tripling his number of career premier class wins and pushing the eighth wonder of the world to the brink to the very end.

Andrea Dovizioso in 2017 is destined for one of two undesired labels.  The first is “plucky,” which will be his if he finishes second this season.  The second is “lucky,” which will be his if he wins in Valencia and Marquez finishes out of the points, having been collected, for example, by an Andrea Iannone or an Alvaro Bautista, each on his way to another undistinguished season.  Riders in Valencia may be somewhat cautious around Marquez, not wishing to be the villain, or goober, who keeps him from his appointed fourth premier class title in 2017.

A Wingman is a Wingman

September 5, 2017

News coming out of the Ducati cabal is that Jorge Lorenzo, he of the three (3) MotoGP world championships, would be willing to accept “team orders” in order to help teammate Andrea Dovizioso secure the world championship for his employer. This is headline-type stuff, if true. Lorenzo, fiercely proud and defiant, would seem metabolically-unsuited to serve as wingman for anyone, including/especially a teammate.  Such thinking runs counter to the #1 rule of racing which is to always, no matter what, try to beat your teammate.

 

Jorge-Lorenzo-Smile-HD

Jorge Lorenzo, The Great Usurper, in better days.

 

Lorenzo, true to form, allegedly says, yes, it is true, but the time, she is not right. If, at some point in the season, it is clear Dovi’s situation is blah blah blah…then I will be happy to help him in any way I can wah wah wah.  Which is another way of suggesting Ducati take their team rules and sit on them. Either you’re a wingman or you’re not.

Let’s just say we find Lorenzo hunting Dovizioso on Lap 17 of Sunday’s race. Marquez and Pedrosa are in the mix, but we’re watching the two Ducati riders. Should Lorenzo attack #04 and possibly cause contact, or even worse, collection, how would management react? Part of the money they’re paying Lorenzo is for that overwhelming competitive nature in which his lizard brain takes over and he becomes lost in the moment, at breathtaking speeds, doing what he loves to do, as well, occasionally now, as anyone ever has.

So big money Jorge Lorenzo, goes the headline, is willing to accept team orders to protect Andrea Dovizioso, his putative understudy at the beginning of the season.  Right. Lorenzo, after years of working for the Japanese, says yes but means no. Put Lorenzo up there in the mix at the end of the race and he’s going to go for greatness.  It’s in his genes. He needs a win in the worst possible way. He’s got the grunt, now, for corner exit and long straights. He’s on a bike that has proven itself competitive at pretty much every track on the schedule, some, such as Austria, ridiculously so.

Lorenzo:  Team orders.  Good one.  I’ve got your team orders right here.

 

 

 

 

MotoGP Misano Preview

September 4, 2017

© Bruce Allen.  Exclusive to Motorcycle.com
Rossi Out—Then There Were Four

MotoGP turns its sights on stunning San Marino once again, returning this weekend for Round 13 minus The Doctor, who, as everyone knows by now, badly broke his leg in a training accident last week. Ducati pilot Andrea Dovizioso, perhaps the Italian erede apparente, leads the now diminished 2017 chase pursued by three Spaniards. He and the two youngsters, Marc Marquez and Maverick Vińales, can only feel relieved that the yellow 800-pound gorilla has left the room. Dani Pedrosa, the third challenger, his prospects now marginally improved, hangs in contention by a thread.

If it turns out that this season was, indeed, Rossi’s last flirtation with a title, it will mark the end of an astonishing era. Even if he returns to racing this year and again in 2018, his more lucid fans cannot realistically expect him to compete for a tenth world championship. He would simply be honoring his contract with Yamaha, in his inimitable style. And so it goes amongst the yachting set.

Yamaha announced on Monday that no replacement would take Rossi’s spot on the grid at Misano. My guess, that Yamaha’s best test rider, Katsuyuki Nakasuga, would take Rossi’s place was, not surprisingly, wrong. (Some readers will remember the Katman’s samurai performance at Valencia in 2012 when he ended up, after some weirdness, on the second step of the podium.)

It saddens me to consider the possibility that, one day, we will have watched Valentino Rossi race a MotoGP bike for the last time. But over the years we’ve learned not to write him off. He will likely ride again this year and, as regards returning for Yamaha in 2018 (drum roll please…wait for it…) Let Valencia Decide.

Recent History at Misano

The 2014 GP TIM di San Marino e Della Rivera di Rimini saw Movistar Yamaha homey Rossi win for the first time since Assen in 2013 and for the first time on quasi-Italian soil since San Marino in 2009. The fans immensely enjoyed watching the loathesome Marc Marquez crash his Repsol Honda out of the proceedings at around 50 mph. Two Italian riders on Ducatis claimed spots in the top five. All in all, it was a good day to be Italian.

As the Misano round of the 2015 MotoGP championship got underway, the fractious weather gods turned on the rain spigots around Lap 6 and turned them right off again during Lap 16, forcing a double flag-to-flag affair for the first time in recent memory. When the smoke cleared, Marc Marquez had a win, Brits Bradley Smith and Scott Redding stood, incredulous, on the podium, and Rossi (5th) had extended his championship lead over Jorge Lorenzo to 23 points with five rounds left. Lorenzo himself was in the medical center getting x-rays, having high-sided shortly after the second pit stop on cold tires, trying desperately to catch Rossi. Some folks lost a lot of money betting on Vale for the championship at that point of that season.

Last year, Repsol Honda #2 Dani Pedrosa, mired in the worst slump of his career and winless in 2016, busted out on the picturesque sun-drenched shores of the Adriatic with a convincing win over Rossi and Lorenzo. For series leader Marc Marquez, another exercise in damage limitation, running a lonely fourth most of the day, worked well enough to keep his margin over Rossi at 43 points with five rounds to go.

To the casual observer, the Marco Simoncelli Circuit at Misano would appear to be Honda-friendly, with two wins in a row for the Repsol team. Series leader Andrea Dovizioso has started here nine times in the premier class, has finished every race, and has never podiumed. But that was then, and this is now.

The long-range forecast for the weekend calls for mostly clear skies and temps heading well into the 80’s on Sunday—Honda conditions. But as we’ve seen numerous times this year, more and more tracks are becoming Ducati-friendly. DesmoDovi, with a lead to protect, needs a podium this time around. A third consecutive win would be totally convenient. At that point we might have to reconsider the entire concept and discuss tracks that are “rider-friendly,” Austin and Marquez leap to mind. And, interestingly, there is a Misano Man, Jorge himself, in the field.

Let’s Tranche Again!

After Round 11:

Tranche 1: Vinales, Marquez, Dovizioso, Rossi, Pedrosa
Tranche 2: Zarco, Bautista, Folger, Crutchlow, A Espargaro
Tranche 3: Barbera, Miller, Petrucci, Baz, Lorenzo
Tranche 4: Abraham, Iannone, Rins, Redding
Tranche 5: P. Espargaro, Rabat, Smith Lowes

After Round 12:

Tranche 1: Vinales, Marquez, Dovizioso, (Rossi), Pedrosa
Tranche 2 Zarco, Bautista, Folger, Crutchlow, Lorenzo↑
Tranche 3: Barbera, Petrucci, Baz, Rins↑, A Espargaro↓
Tranche 4: Miller↓, Abraham, Iannone, Redding
Tranche 5: P Espargaro, Rabat, Smith, Lowes

A word or two of explanation is in order. Jorge Lorenzo and Scott Redding are up one week and down the next; perhaps they deserve their own Tranche Yo-Yo. The Espargaro brothers are a conundrum. I want to keep Aleix in #2, as he is clearly improving and getting more from the Aprilia than Moto2-bound Sam Lowes. His demotion is due to two poor outings in a row. Finishing 11th and punking Tito Rabat at the flag last time out on the KTM, Little Brother Pol would have easily earned a promotion to Tranche 4 had he not crashed on the warm-down lap, which is sufficiently embarrassing to leave him where he is.

Jack Miller, Ducati-bound next year, just doesn’t give a rip anymore.

I would like to see Too Tall Loris Baz on the Ducati GP16; I think he has the juice to climb into Tranche 2 if he had a better bike. And Alex Rins (9th at Silverstone), now more or less fully healed, is making great strides on his Suzuki and could find himself in #2 as early as next week, especially if, as is his practice, Lorenzo follows up his positive result at Silverstone with a stinker at Misano. Memo to the Zarco and Folger jocks out there: I still think Alex Rins is going to be a baller in MotoGP.

Finally, a word of congratulations to veteran Thomas Luthi on having earned a promotion to MotoGP (Marc VDS) after seven years of loyal service in Moto2. He turns 31 this week, and will team with Franco Morbidelli on what is expected to be a satellite Honda. His Moto2 seat is being taken by a humbled Sam Lowes, sufficiently remorseful about his abrupt dismissal from the Aprilia MotoGP program to immediately announce his intention of winning the Moto2 title in 2018. Dude has stones; not so sure about the chops or the IQ.

Thailand? Thailand.

It’s official—MotoGP will start traveling to Thailand’s Chang International Circuit next year, with Finland coming onboard in 2019. The Powers that Be have announced that next year’s provisional calendar will be released soon. Many of us are wondering what this addition will do to the annual Pacific flyaway rounds. I’m thinking that four races in four weeks, most of them in grueling hot conditions, could push several teams, and a number of journalists covering MotoGP, to the brink. God forbid MO gets invited to send someone to Thailand next year, because that someone would probably be me, and the trip to Malaysia in 2014 put me in the hospital for three days afterwards.

Your Weekend Forecast

Sunny and hot weather. No #46. Cubic miles of thick yellow smoke pouring from the grandstands of the faithful. Major pressure on Dovizioso and Vinales, the sole factory Yamaha rep this weekend. Both Repsol Hondas on the podium. Dovizioso on the podium.

Just for the sake of cosmic symmetry, let us assume that Sunday’s results find Pedrosa repeating his win from last year, Marquez second, Dovizioso third, and Vinales fourth. This would produce the following Top Five heading for Aragon:

Misano proj.         Total
1. ADovizioso    3rd place 183 +16= 196
2. MMarquez    2nd place 174 +20 = 194
3. MVinales       4th place 170 +13 =  183
4. DPedrosa       1st place 148 +25 =  173
5. VR                          DNS 157 + 0 =     157

Sorry I can’t get these columns to align correctly.

Am I projecting a Honda 1-2? Seems that way. We’ll have results and analysis here as quickly Sunday as possible. Ciao.

MotoGP Assen Results

June 25, 2017

© Bruce Allen.  Exclusive to Motorcycle.com

Classic Rossi Win Tightens Title Chase

With more passing than you’d see at an April 20 party, the 2017 Motul Assen TT was one of the more riveting races in recent memory. Tech 3 Yamaha rookie sensation Johann Zarco led the first 11 laps from pole. Meanwhile, Rossi and Ducati brute Danilo Petrucci were in the heart of the lead group along with Marc Marquez on the Repsol Honda. But Rossi—fast, patient and strategic—managed to beat Petrucci to the flag by .06 seconds. They don’t call him The Doctor for nothing.

RossiThe weather gods were just toying with us today—a drowned WUP, the usual thrilling Moto3 race on an almost-dry track, and spitting rain on several occasions during the MotoGP race. Several riders, guessing the big ol’ rain was on the way, pitted and changed to rain tires, including Zarco and Jorge Lorenzo (who had a note from Gigi D’allIgna stating he could put rain tires on whenever he wanted, even if the track was dry). The real rain never arrived, to the dismay of the early pitters, but high drama was around in excess.

Practice and Qualifying

Rehearsals for today’s battle featured something for every taste and budget. FP1 (wet) was topped by Petrucci on the Ducati GP17 followed by Zarco on the Tech 3 Yamaha and LCR Honda ruffian Cal Crutchlow. FP2 was dry, and the results were more typical—factory Yamaha pilot and series leader Maverick Vinales led, trailed by the other precocious Tech 3 rookie, German Jonas Folger, and that Marquez guy, you know, the one with all the trophies.

Saturday was pretty much wet all day, and the results reflected it. Scott Redding, Rossi, Marquez and Vinales topped FP3 in the wet; FP4 was wet again, so much so that a number of riders decided to play euchre in the garage instead of going racing. The Q1 and Q2 division had already taken place, and besides, when those leathers get good and wet, strange dark stuff starts growing in the grooves and creases. FP4 in the rain is for those other guys. Same for the soaking WUP.

Q1 saw Redding and Sad Sam Lowes, two British mudders, advance through to Q2, leaving names like Andrea Iannone, Jack Miller, both Espargaro brothers and one Jorge Lorenzo to the back half of the grid, Lorenzo notably starting in the, um, 21 hole. (I thought “holes” only go down to ten, after which comes Everyone Else.) In case you missed it the first time, that was Sam Lowes on the Aprilia advancing into Q2 for the first time. He likely won’t have that many more chances.

As usual, Q2 was a fairly orderly process of riders seeking their natural level or something a bit higher, until the last two minutes, when it became your usual fire drill. Petrucci and his big bad GP17 held pole until perhaps five seconds from the end, when Marquez flashed across the line first, followed almost immediately by overachieving Frenchman Zarco, sending his crew into paroxysms of joy as the impudent rookie claimed his first premier class pole. Didn’t someone recently suggest that strange stuff happens at Assen? For the record, two of the pre-race favorites got stoned in Q2; Maverick Vinales started 11th today, just ahead of Dani Pedrosa.

A Race for the Ages

Zarco’s intent, to get away from the pack and win going away, never bore fruit, as Marquez, Rossi and Petrucci formed a cozy lead group with the Frenchman. Rossi went through on Marquez on Lap 10 and set his sights on Zarco, passing him two laps later. Zarco struck back immediately, tried to cut inside, got his nose chopped off by Rossi, bounced wide, and never got back in the chase. With soft tires apparently dropping off, and the drizzle getting heavier, Zarco pitted on Lap 20, got caught speeding in pit lane, took his ride-through penalty, and finished the day 14th, just ahead of Lorenzo, who had not taken a penalty. For the 26-year old, dreams of world domination took a step backward today.

While Rossi led Marquez on a bracing mid-race chase, Petrucci following, several Aliens, notably Maverick Vinales and Andrea Dovizioso, were laying down fast laps and gaining on the leaders. In the final chicane on Lap 12, series leader Vinales hit the deck, his bike and championship lead cartwheeling away in the gravel.

Late in the day, Cal Crutchlow made an appearance on his LCR Honda, engaging in a personal pas de deux with Marquez all the way to the flag. While Rossi was busy pimping Petrux for the win after a sensational four-lap fight (where were the blue flags for the back markers getting lapped at the end?), Marquez and Dovi made a blurry Crutchlow sandwich at the flag, 12/100ths of a second separating Marquez in third from Dovi in fifth.

The Big Picture

The top of the 2017 standings chart are as tight as I can ever remember, with 11 points separating first and fourth places, Andrea Dovizioso parked at the top of the pile. Shades of Casey Stoner. Vinales, Rossi and Marquez are solidly in the hunt. Dovi seized the lead from Vinales today, while Petrucci leaped past Jorge Lorenzo into 7th place. Cal Crutchlow’s credible fourth place finish today allowed him to swap spots with Tech 3 rookie crasher Jonas Folger in ninth and tenth, respectively.

I was poormouthing Ducati Corse several weeks ago. Since then both Dovizioso and Petrucci have been making me look sick. Front row starts, wins, podiums—will it never cease? After a revolting start to the season (26 points in the first five rounds, two DNFs), Petrucci has come alive, with 36 points in the last three rounds, including an unlucky fall out of the points at Catalunya. And Dovizioso, the hottest rider on track for the last month, is, for the first time in his premier class career, getting asked about his chances for a world championship. Doing his best impression of an Italian-accented Colonel Klink, he consistently answers, “I know nut-thing.”

It could happen. And, simply for comparison’s sake, we should point out that of the three Ducati GP17s on track this season, triple world champion Jorge Lorenzo is running third. In eighth place for the season. Getting schooled every week by any number of less-distinguished riders. Constantly checking the weather radar on his phone. Sensitive to any aches in his surgically-repaired collarbones, sure signs of wet weather to come. From here, the only kind thing to do is quietly wonder what he’s going to do at the end of next season; Ducati has not been the panacea he had hoped for.

One Last Thing

If you sift through enough MotoGP sand, eventually you’ll discover a nugget. And so we found a video in which the British sportscaster described Bradley Smith’s left little finger, injured at Catalunya, as having been “marmaladed,” the second “a” pronounced “ah.” Evidence once again that, compared to idiomatic American English, British English has much higher comedic coefficient. Surely this term will be a heavy favorite in the “Best Use of Fruit to Describe a Rather Ghastly Injury” category at the annual British Produce Grower’s Association knees-up in Dover later this year.

With the German Grand Prix on Sunday, followed by a month of snoring through La Liga on cable, we’ll have the race preview here mid-week.

Race Results

2017 Standings

 

Lorenzo to Ducati: “Here’s what’s up.”

May 3, 2017

© Bruce Allen

Great headline– “Jorge Lorenzo wants Ducati to develop MotoGP bike like Yamaha“–and interesting article from one of the serious news sources in racing.  This after teammate Andrea Dovizioso went public last week with his opinion that the GP17 needed to be re-designed from the ground up.  At Ducati Corse and in the garage at Jerez, you can hear the sound of drumbeats off in the distance. Trouble with Gigi on the horizon, too. Newly arrived and highly paid triple world champion says he can’t compete on your bike.

Gigi Dall'Igna

Bummer.

http://www.autosport.com/news/report.php/id/129275

MotoGP 2017 Qatar Results

March 26, 2017

© Bruce Allen.  Exclusive to Motorcycle.com

Maverick Viñales Starts his Own Era 

Movistar Yamaha’s new kid on the block, Maverick Viñales, did to the field of the 2017 Grand Prix of Qatar what he’s done ever since he first placed his bum on the saddle of the YZR-M1 last November.  He ended the day at the top of the timesheets, having outdueled factory Ducati #1 Andrea Dovizioso over the last eight laps of the race.  In the process, he took the lead in the 2017 championship and initiated what is likely to become known as The Viñales Years. 

Saturday Washout

Weather conditions on Saturday evening in metropolitan Doha area were so foul that FP4, Q1, and Q2 were all scrubbed, leaving the combined results from the three completed practices as a proxy for the starting grid, to the immense dismay of Valentino Rossi, Jorge Lorenzo, Alex Rins and, one expects, Cal Crutchlow.  Scott Redding, having led QP3, was overheard wandering the paddock in the wee hours, sniffing about how he COULD have taken the pole and it’s just so unfair.

Starting Grid from QTimes.JPG

Whatever.  Behind the front row, at least, the starting grid was a random collection of hardware and talent.  An unexpected way to start the season.  In an unfriendly locale, with Aliens Rossi and Lorenzo pedaling hard on the fourth row. And the impudent Johann Zarco comfortably seated in fourth. 

Rain in the Desert

The weather was bad enough on Saturday to scrub everything in all classes, a veritable gullywasher of a day.  And here I thought the ONLY good thing about racing here is that at least you don’t have to worry about rain.  Sunday came along with much more teasing kinds of conditions–spitting rain, breezy, high humidity, scudding clouds.  Just as the Moto2 tilt (won by Franco Morbidelli for his first Moto2 victory) was ending, it started sprinkling.

Dorna and FIM executives began hemming and hawing.  Riders started calling their garages for tires, making changes on the track.  The bikes left the track, the bikes re-entered the track.  The race was shortened from 22 to 21 laps, then to 20 with two warm-up laps, by which time the rain had mostly stopped.  Several riders watched the red lights go out with tires they had never, or barely, ridden, traction and wear issues all over the place.  Madness was in the air.

A Rookie Leads at the Start

Andrea Iannone won the hole shot, but as the field headed towards Turns 2 and 3 one of the Tech 3 Yamahas materialized at the front, accompanied by the animated shouting of announcer Nick Harris, “Johann Zarco leads the Grand Prix of Qatar!”   Madness! Zarco was followed in close order by Marc Marquez, Iannone, Andrea Dovizioso on the Ducati, and Viñales, who was keeping his powder dry within shouting distance of the front.

By Lap 6, Zarco was looking very relaxed, trailed by Dovizioso, Marquez, Iannone, Viñales and, of all people, Valentino Rossi, who had started 10th but worked himself up close to the lead group.  The law of averages suddenly made its presence felt, as Zarco crashed out of the lead on Lap 7.  Then there were five.  Having picked my boy Cal Crutchlow to finish on the podium today, he took revenge on me for past insults, real and imagined, by crashing out on Lap 4.  Crashlow got back up and immediately crashed again on his Lap 5 for good measure.

Viñales Prevails

With Dovizioso leading by mid-race, Iannone and Marquez traded a little paint here and there, just like the old days, while the two factory Yamahas lurked in fourth and fifth places.  Almost on cue, on Lap 10 Iannone had an unforced lowside in Turn 7 and crashed out of podium contention.

The last eight laps were outstanding.  While Marquez faded to fourth, never appearing totally comfortable with his tires, Dovi and Viñales began enjoying a number of close encounters, Rossi hanging back, appearing to wait for something to happen in front of him.  Viñales would take the lead around Turn 6 and keep it through Turn 16, after which Dovizioso would blow by him on the main straight and take the lead heading into Turn 1.  This continued until the two riders entered Turn 1 on the last lap with Viñales in the lead.  He held it all the way, in and through Turn 16, and took the win by half a second.  A legend, as the expression goes, is born.

Elsewhere on the Grid

Dani Pedrosa has had worse days than today.  With little expected from him, he qualified seventh, spent the early part of the race in mid-pack, then bided his time as guys started falling off in front of him, ultimately finishing fifth.  Shades of Colin Edwards late in his career.  Aleix Espargaro, in perhaps the best ride of the day, flogged his factory Aprilia from 15th position at the start to sixth at the finish, the best result for the team since they re-entered MotoGP last year.  Scott Redding scored a heartening seventh on his Ducati GP16, Jack Miller (we are officially amazed) was eighth on the Marc VDS Honda, and my boy Alex Rins held onto his Suzuki well enough all day for ninth place, becoming the leading rookie for the season.

For other riders, the 2017 opener was forgettable.  Crashers include Crutchlow (2), Iannone, Zarco and Bautista, while Danilo Petucci had to retire his GP17 with mechanical issues.  The KTM team of Pol Espargaro and Bradley Smith was saved from the indignity of finishing last and next-to-last only by the futility of Sam Lowes, who delivered his own Aprilia to the finish line some 40 seconds behind teammate Aleix, and was the last rider to cross the line.  Out of the points and, hopefully, dissuaded from any illusion that he might score more than 20 points all year.

We would be derelict in our reportorial duties were we to fail to mention that triple world champion Jorge Lorenzo, in his debut with his new Italian employer, started 12th, had four guys in front of him crash out or retire, and finished 11th, 20 seconds behind teammate Dovizioso.  We know rain gives Jorge the yips.  Now, it appears that high humidity does the same thing.  And, lest readers assume this is just a Qatarian anomaly, it is true that Lorenzo won here last year from pole.  Just sayin’.

The Big Picture

Having been burned in the past, we must be careful to draw too many conclusions from what occurred tonight.  We learned, or confirmed our suspicions about, several things:

  • Maverick Viñales is a baller.
  • Valentino Rossi at age 38 is about as good as anyone out there.
  • The Suzuki can compete for wins.
  • Andrea Dovizioso is the #1 rider on the factory Ducati team.
  • We have been underestimating Johann Zarco since November.

In two weeks the grid heads off to Argentina for its annual Bungle in the Jungle.  Rio Hondo is a Honda-friendly circuit, as is Austin two weeks later.  Marc Marquez should win the next two races.  If, instead, Maverick Viñales should win either, MotoGP is likely to have a new champion this year.  And if it does, you can tell your grandkids you watched Maverick win the very first race of The Viñales Years.