Qatar GP: More Competitive Than MotoGP’s Own Standards

“History repeats itself’ — this seemed to be the theme of the 2019 Qatar MotoGP, the first race of the season.

As reigning World Champion Marc Marquez exclaimed after the race, “(It) was exactly like last year. Exactly the same!” Ducati’s Andrea Dovizioso managed to hold off the charge from Honda’s Marquez — bringing his bike home a mere 0.023 seconds ahead.

Incredibly, this is a repeat of what happened at the Qatar Grand Prix last year when Dovizioso held out last-corner lunge by Marquez to grab victory (winning by 0.027 seconds). Photographs comparing the placement of the duo crossing the finishing line in the 2018 and 2019 editions of the Qatar MotoGP are going viral as they convey massive deja-vu! Cal Crutchlow narrowly grabbed the final podium spot for LCR Honda.

Dovizioso’s victory (and the legality of Ducati’s bikes) was questioned by Honda, Suzuki, Aprilia and KTM as they filed a protest with regards to a rear tyre winglet it used during the race. A post-race investigation found the part to be legal, and confirmed Ducati’s results at the Qatar MotoGP.

Qualifying: Vinales on pole
On Saturday, Yamaha rider Maverick Vinales shone to clinch pole. Vinales was the fastest in pre-season testing across all three days and hence his pole was not unexpected. At the same time, Dovizioso qualified second – a rider who had struggled in pre-season testing. He shared after qualifying, “We finished the test with a really bad feeling with the bike. We wanted to study a lot during the week before the race, and it was right. I’m so happy with the way we worked in this practice, we improved a lot our speed.” Indeed, Dovizioso’s strong qualifying run showed us the leaps that Ducati made in the run-up to the first race of the season.

Marquez qualified third to complete the front row. Fortunes continued to swing across the grid as Valentino Rossi and Jorge Lorenzo (in his first race for Honda), both eagerly watched riders went out in Q1. Lorenzo crashed his Honda in Turn 2, while Rossi just didn’t seem to have the pace. A star from qualifying was debutant Fabio Quartararo, riding for the new Petronas Yamaha SRT team, who notched up an impressive P5.

The biggest winners
Dovizioso, who is in the hunt for his first ever MotoGP world championship, shone through the race. Will he be able to consistently deliver to take the challenge to Marquez, especially on other circuits where the reigning World Champion doesn’t seem to put a foot wrong?

Marquez seemed to be very pleased with his second-place finish at the Qatar MotoGP as this is a track where the team has traditionally underperformed. He has only won here once before – in 2014, the season where he won ten straight races. He said after the race, “It’s a circuit that we struggle. This weekend we were struggling a lot with the front tyre. If you see, we put the medium, I wasn’t able to push like I would like in the brake points. But okay, we finish the race, 20 points. One race, that normally we struggle at, less from the calendar.”

2019 fast seems to be the season of great comebacks (a doff of the hat to Robert Kubica at the Williams F1 Team) as Cal Crutchlow grabbed third. Crutchlow, who is the second oldest rider on the grid, had been out injured with a busted ankle since the 2018 Australian Motorcycle Grand Prix (October).

An unexpected hero on the racetrack was superstar Rossi, who started a lowly P14 but managed to work his way up to P5 — with the possibility of a podium seeming ever so close. Rookie Joan Mir also had a great result for Suzuki, keeping pace with the lead group and eventually finishing in eighth place. In fact, the ‘Rookie of the Year’ title is fascinating this year with four supremely talented rookies — Mir, Quartararo, Francesco Bagnaia and Miguel Oliveira making their presence felt.

Those who lost out: Vinales, Quartararo, Miller and Petrucci
Polesitter Vinales has been known for his poor starts through last season. Although he claimed to have been working to improve his starts in the off-season, he had yet another average getaway with Dovizioso leading the pack into Turn 1. After being forced wide in Tun 1 by Marquez, Vinales dropped further back to P6, which largely set the tone for this race. He finally finished the race only in P7.

A crucial key to succeeding at the 2019 Qatar GP was tyre management — and its implications on strategy. As Dovizioso revealed, “It was a strange race. I was managing the rear tyre because everybody was struggling, also in the end it was difficult to manage the tyre.”

A casualty of tyre strategy was Suzuki rider Alex Rins, who opted for the soft tyre when most of his rivals choose the medium compound. Rins was at the front of the pack all through but his victory bid screeched to a halt after he ran massively wide at Turn 1 on the third-last lap thanks to degrading tyres. He will be massively disappointed, given that it could have been his first-ever MotoGP victory.

Teenage rookie Quartararo had a devastating race day as he could not get going from his P5 grid position on the warm-up lap, and had to begin from the pitlane. From there, he rode like a man possessed to storm his way up the order — even setting the fastest lap of the race in the process. He finished in 16th place without any points but earned plenty of respect for his gumption and grit.

Pramac Ducati rider Jack Miller, who qualified in P4 and quickly jumped to P2 at Turn 1, suffered from a bizarre broken seat in the second lap, which led to his eventual retirement. The cameras captured Miller ripping his broken seat off his bike and throwing it off, but riding without a seat left him with no grip to stay on the bike.

Lorenzo, who was expected to take on Marquez as a teammate and challenger in his first race with the Honda team, had to be content with a far-off 13th place as he never quite recovered from his dismal starting position.

Another rider who will be smacking himself with disappointment is Dovizioso’s teammate Danilo Petrucci, who only managed a sixth-place finish. He will be wondering what he could have done differently to match his teammate’s pace. Petrucci, who stepped up to Ducati from the satellite Pramac team this season to replace Lorenzo, will be feeling the pressure as he is the only factory rider on the 2019 premier class grid on a one-year contract.

An action-packed race
One of Dorna’s primary objectives for the 2019 season has been a combination of regulation and standardisation to level out the playing field and promote closer competition. The 2019 Qatar MotoGP certainly seemed like evidence that things are working well — the dramatic race was packed with action, overtaking and unpredictability. Overall, the top 15 riders were covered by a mere 15 seconds — the closest ever in any MotoGP race. The lead pack, consisting of eight drivers in the latter parts of the race, saw tightly fought battles all along.

Another highlight from the race weekend was the gushing presence of Formula 1 World Champion and superstar Lewis Hamilton, who proclaimed that a MotoGP test was his dream. After Fernando Alonso’s foray from Formula 1 to other motorsport categories in recent times, it is interesting to see how both MotoGP and Formula 1 could use Hamilton’s status to build publicity. Currently, it is a common sponsor that is benefitting the most!

Next, the action shifts to Argentina — a race where the last four editions have seen four different winners. Reigning champion Marquez will be looking to draw his first blood of the season, while Dovizioso will be looking to consolidate his showing in Qatar and announce his championship challenge in no uncertain terms. Other riders who lost out this weekend — especially Lorenzo — will be hoping to bounce back, hard. And where’s Yamaha in all of this? They will be eager to join the Ducati vs. Honda vs. Suzuki battle at the front.

(With inputs from Kunal Ghate)

This post was first published on Firstpost

Kunal Shah is an FIA-accredited Formula 1 journalist who has been reporting on Formula 1 for nearly two decades. He worked with the Force India Formula 1 Team for 6 seasons in Marketing, Sponsorship and Commercial roles. As a former single-seater racer, he was responsible for Force India's grassroots talent program, One from a Billion Hunt. Presently, he co-writes a regular Formula 1 column for Firstpost, speaks on Inside Line F1 Podcast & Pits to Podium and produces broadcast/OTT content for NENT Group (Viasport & Viaplay).

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