Qatar, the first MotoGP race of 2105, was intensely exciting for two reasons: 1) Valentino Rossi won, and 2) both factory Ducatis were restored to full competitiveness, with Andrea Dovizioso finishing only 0.174 seconds behind Rossi and Andrea Iannone coming home only 2.25 sec back in third. This was racing at its best, in which all our expectations are upset and there is complete surprise at the very end.
Jorge Lorenzo’s catapult start from 6th on the grid shot him under slower, 3rd-starting Marquez. Turning to avoid Lorenzo, Marquez had to turn yet more to avoid ramming his front tire into Bradley Smith’s rear. This moved Marquez onto low-grip pavement in Turn 1, and he ran off. He didn’t fall, but by the time he leapt the curb and got back on the course, Marquez had dropped to last place. Rossi, starting a lowly 8th, finished the hectic lap 1 in 10th. Dovizioso, who made a sensational effort in qualifying his resurgent Ducati GP15 on pole, led lap one as Marquez gobbled up seven filler-class riders to be 17th.
Now for the problem they all faced. Losail Circuit is in the desert. When Marquez ran off, a swirling cloud of fine dust resulted. That dust is always present. Did this week’s rain wash dust out of the pavement texture? Or carry fresh dust into it? When rubber researchers want to kill the molecular adhesion aspect of traction, they apply fine silica powder. Reduced grip means more sliding, and more sliding means tires lose their properties faster.
All riders noted that the track was slower than in the preseason Qatar test. All riders were wanting more rear grip. Before the race, Marquez noted, “I was behind Lorenzo for some laps and noticed he was struggling for the rear grip like everybody, but especially the Yamaha is riding more with the rear wheel than us.” Having to use the rear tire to steer comes from being unable to steer with the front. And if you have to spin the rear to steer, how long can it last? Rossi had said, “I have a problem with the rear tire, which is very soft. There’s a lack of grip that we have to fix, and I have to improve my pace.”
It comes down to this: How fast can you go, for how long? Everyone was seeking the same thing in set-up—a combination that could run a competitive lap time (what will that be?) with minimum abuse to the tires. All tracks are bumpy, so suspension has to be soft to gain so-called “mechanical grip”(grip that comes from having the tire on the pavement a maximum fraction of the time), yet firm enough to allow rapid turn-in, preserve ground clearance in corners and support a 100 percent load on the front during braking. When I asked 5-time Daytona winner Scott Russell about tire management, he noted that you yearn to gas it and go, but you can’t be breaking the tire loose all the time if you want to finish. All top riders are therefore extremely aware of pace and its effect on tire durability. The worst thing either Rossi or Marquez could do was to ride as hard as they could to catch the field. They had to go fast, but Daytona 200-fast, not qualifying-fast. This would call for fine judgment and self-control.
Meanwhile, Lorenzo led laps two through eight, ahead of the suddenly very fast Ducatis of Dovi and Iannone. Lorenzo had commented, “…many riders have the extra soft tire that gives them four tenths of a second. They are also stronger than last year.”
Rossi said, “…in this track we are quite slow in the straight and we lost more than 7 to 8 kilometers per hour (to the Hondas) and 10 to the Ducati, and that starts to be a big step.”
Rossi and his crew hoped to “find something” in the pre-race evening warmup, when the five fastest were covered by 0.148 second (With Marquez first and Rossi only 0.024 second behind him). They must have found something, because in the race only Rossi could run low-to-mid 1:55s in the early going, then hang in P4 for several laps (perhaps to evaluate what reserve the leaders had?). Ahead, Lorenzo, Dovi, and Iannone were playing the same game for all they were worth—speed with restraint.
It is generally acknowledged that Marquez is a master of this tire-management game. Cal Crutchlow, after practice, had said, “Marc is definitely stronger than everyone else at the moment. How long he did on a set of tires and the lap time he did was impressive. It was strong, but there is nobody else that can do that.”
Impressive, yes, but as it turned out, there was somebody else who could do that—36-year-old Valentino Rossi.
We onlookers have to fight the temptation to categorize riders from fast to slow without taking their circumstances into consideration. Now that Ducati has broken the spell of seven years wandering in the wilderness, Dovizioso and Iannone are revealed as riders of the first rank. Rossi is “old,” but what we see now is that with a year of study, he has modernized his style, so we can no longer think he’s doing really well to finish 3rd. Modern technique, a modern motorcycle, and Rossi’s unique abilities are powerful.
Rossi passed Dovi on lap 19, but Dovi blew by using his Ducati’s higher top speed. Now the problem switched. Had Rossi saved enough tire to pull out more than what Dovizioso’s horsepower could make up? He made his play, spinning and sliding through the last two laps, spending everything he had so carefully saved. It was, as so many times in Rossi’s glorious past, enough. After the race he said, “It was definitely one of the best races of my career, considering where we were yesterday.”
Lorenzo lost three places from lap 18 to lap 19, ending up 4th. He revealed the problem: “I was feeling better and better, but suddenly (with seven laps to go) there was something wrong. The top part of the helmet the foam came loose and came down so I lost half of my vision. I couldn’t see the corners very well and I couldn’t concentrate or ride like before. I was losing half a second or more a lap. In a race where, at minimum, I could fight for the win, I finished 4th.”
Said Dovizioso: “On the last lap, I pushed really hard, but I didn’t have any more grip on the edge. It was impossible to try to attack Valentino. I knew after a few corners he had more traction and I tried to make the last lap as fast as I could. It was my fastest lap with a really finished tire, but it wasn’t enough. I couldn’t exit Turn 1 in front of him.
“For the first half of the race we didn’t push 100 percent because we had a question mark about the consumption of the rear tire, and as we expected, at the end it wasn’t really good and I couldn’t make high speed in the middle of the corner.”
Marquez, meanwhile, unable to outdo the times of the lead group, had reached the limit of his combination in 5th place, after passing teammate Dani Pedrosa. “The problem here is that if you push 100 percent all the race, you can overheat the tires, and that was the problem.
“I tried to keep pushing, and at one time I was 2.5 seconds behind Iannone and Lorenzo. But on the last three laps I did a mistake and nearly crashed on one corner. I decided it was time to say ‘Okay, 11 points are enough today.’”
Pedrosa, who qualified ahead of Marquez, had a recurrence of arm pump in the race. and he said he “cannot continue racing and performing this way.” We all respect Pedrosa for the way he has quietly kept pace with what may be the fastest group of riders ever seen in the sport. Two operations have failed to prevent hand numbness and loss of strength in his right forearm. “My plan now is to try to fix my arm, said Pedrosa after the event.
Some riders—notably Lorenzo and Bradley Smith—say they’d encountered sub-standard tires in practice. “We didn’t adjust anything else on the bike other than changing the tire,” said Smith. “And I improved by half a second.”
Said Lorenzo: “In FP4, we got a tire that didn’t have any grip, but in qualifying (he was 6th), luckily, we got the first tire working very well. The second tire had less grip but wasn’t too bad.”
Some dismiss such experiences, as so much that riders say is dismissed when it disagrees with the official line. Yet we’ve seen tire suppliers cut corners before now so we must keep an open mind here.
Let’s hope Ducati decides at some point to tell the story of the return to strength. Part of it may be more weight forward, and part may be an adjustable swingarm pivot height. But there may also be a new way of working, more empirical, less computer-centered, a system that identifies trends of improvement and systematically follows them to their peaks. Whatever the reasons, we are delighted to have Ducati back. We must, however, bear in mind that part of their speed comes from rules jiggery-pokery—the option of a softer tire, 12 engines per rider instead of five, and the freedom to carry 24 liters of fuel instead of 20. Oh, and no in-season engine development freeze. Has MotoGP become a complex handicap event?
No matter—let’s celebrate!
|1||ROSSI Valentino||46||ITA||25||Movistar Yamaha MotoGP||Yamaha||42’35.717|
|2||DOVIZIOSO Andrea||4||ITA||20||Ducati Team||Ducati||+0.174|
|3||IANNONE Andrea||29||ITA||16||Ducati Team||Ducati||+2.250|
|4||LORENZO Jorge||99||SPA||13||Movistar Yamaha MotoGP||Yamaha||+2.707|
|5||MARQUEZ Marc||93||SPA||11||Repsol Honda Team||Honda||+7.036|
|6||PEDROSA Dani||26||SPA||10||Repsol Honda Team||Honda||+10.755|
|7||CRUTCHLOW Cal||35||GBR||9||CWM LCR Honda||Honda||+12.384|
|8||SMITH Bradley||38||GBR||8||Monster Yamaha Tech 3||Yamaha||+12.914|
|9||ESPARGARO Pol||44||SPA||7||Monster Yamaha Tech 3||Yamaha||+13.031|
|10||HERNANDEZ Yonny||68||COL||6||Pramac Racing||Ducati||+17.435|
|11||ESPARGARO Aleix||41||SPA||5||Team Suzuki Ecstar||Suzuki||+19.901|
|12||PETRUCCI Danilo||9||ITA||4||Pramac Racing||Ducati||+24.432|
|13||REDDING Scott||45||GBR||3||Estrella Galicia 0,0 Marc VDS||Honda||+32.032|
|14||VINALES Maverick||25||SPA||2||Team Suzuki Ecstar||Suzuki||+33.463|
|15||BARBERA Hector||8||SPA||1||Avintia Racing||Ducati||+33.625|
|16||BRADL Stefan||6||GER||0||Athina Forward Racing||Forward Yamaha||+33.944|
|17||HAYDEN Nicky||69||USA||0||Aspar MotoGP Team||Honda||+38.970|
|18||LAVERTY Eugene||50||IRE||0||Aspar MotoGP Team||Honda||+46.570|
|19||DI MEGLIO Mike||63||FRA||0||Avintia Racing||Ducati||+59.211|
|20||DE ANGELIS Alex||15||RSM||0||Athina Forward Racing||Forward Yamaha||+1’14.981|
|21||MELANDRI Marco||33||ITA||0||Aprilia Racing Team Gresini||Aprilia||+1’48.143|
|22||BAZ Loris||76||FRA||0||Athina Forward Racing||Forward Yamaha||+3 laps|
|23||ABRAHAM Karel||17||CZE||0||AB Motoracing||Honda||+1 lap|
|24||MILLER Jack||43||AUS||0||CWM LCR Honda||Honda||+1 lap|
|25||BAUTISTA Alvaro||19||SPA||0||Aprilia Racing Team Gresini||Aprilia||-|