The historic 70th season of motorcycle world championship racing got under way in the Arabian desert on 18 March, a whole world away from the first premier-class world championship race hosted on a small, rainy island in the middle of the Irish Sea on 17
The unforgettable moment of a memorable race came as the riders completed the 17th of 22 laps. They all knew this would be a race of tyre management, so they spent much of the race following Zarco, clicking off the laps, looking after the tyres and waiting to pull the pin. Marquez underlined this point after the race. ‘Zarco led for so long because we wanted him to.’
As the leading seven of Zarco, Dovizioso, Marquez, Rossi, Crutchlow, Pedrosa and Petrucci raced past the pits at over 210 mph (338 km/h), Dovizioso used the Ducati’s grunt to take the lead. Marquez knew he must go with the Italian, so he too went past the Frenchman, but the pair collided as they braked for Turn One, Marquez’s Honda lifting its rear wheel and fishtailing left and right as he fought to retain control. He just about managed that and somehow managed to deny Zarco a counter-attack.
Zarco was suddenly going backwards, because he had burned his front tyre. His rivals presumed he had overused the tyre but Zarco claimed he had got a dud. Either way, he soon fell victim to Rossi and the rest.
Now Dovizioso tried to make the break. He set his fastest lap on lap 19, eking a lead of three-tenths over Marquez, while Rossi was a further half second behind. By now, the rest had lost touch. It would be a three-way fight for the win.
But Dovizioso had nothing more to give. ‘When I got to the front, I had finished my rear tyre,’ he said. ‘I could make good lap times but not as good as I wanted. I couldn’t take my [usual] lines, so I couldn’t create the gap.’
Marquez was right behind, of course, like a dog with a bone. As usual, he was faster through left-handers, which kept him right with the Ducati. As they started the last lap, the gap was less than two-tenths, with Rossi too far back to be in the game… unless the leaders got tangled up.
Of course, at the last corner, Marquez did attack Dovizioso, just like Motegi and Red Bull Ring last year. The result was just the same: Marquez had to enter the corner too fast, which ran him wide, allowing Dovizioso to cut back in front. Nevertheless, the finish was very close, the RCV’s front wheel mere inches behind the GP18’s rear.
‘As always, you have to win the race to understand the level of the competition and I didn’t expect to finish the race with Marc,’ said the victor. ‘For sure, Marc did something unreal to stay with me. I’m happy because I made the last corner in the perfect way. He closed the door more [than at Motegi and Red Bull Ring] but I was able to turn the bike very quickly and use the Ducati’s power on the straight.
‘I’m really happy because we confirmed the hard work we did this winter. In the past we were competitive here but not like this year. I was able to make a really terrible start and gain a lot of positions, while at the same moment saving my tyres and deciding my strategy. It’s not so easy to have this chance when MotoGP is at such a high level it’s at, so I’m really happy about that. We have confirmed that we are more competitive than at the end of last year.’
Dovizioso’s seventh win from the last 14 races was mighty impressive, but Marquez’s second place was more ominous. Losail is usually one of the worst tracks for the Spaniard and his RCV (he had finished two of the previous three Qatar GPs seven seconds behind the winner), so Honda have made by far the biggest improvement.
‘Twenty points at a very difficult track is like a victory,’ said the 25-year-old. ‘We did a great job, even though I struggled a lot with the hard front tyre which gave me a lot of risks in the lefthand corners. Andrea deserves the victory because he was faster and had more. My target was to control him. When he passed Zarco and I went with him, I was on the limit, sliding around the track but I was able to stay there and able to try at the last corner.’
The performance of Honda’s latest engine made all the difference for Marquez and the other HRC riders. Marquez was hardly out of control all weekend and he didn’t fall once; a major change from 2017, when his crash average was 1.5 falls per weekend.
Crutchlow, who finished fourth, 2.9 seconds behind Rossi, explained the difference. ‘Honda have done a great job with the engine. We are more competitive on the straights, so we don’t have to fight the bike so much in the corners.’
Rossi was delighted to be on the podium again. ‘I showed people I’m not too old,’ he said, just days after signing a 2019/2020 deal with Yamaha. ‘When Dovizioso got in front, the rhythm changed and that was the key moment for me. I had to overtake Zarco and give my maximum to go with Andrea and Marc. My idea was to stay as close as possible, because I knew Marc would try at the last corner, but they didn’t lose a lot of time.’
Petrucci crossed the line a second behind Crutchlow, with Viñales right alongside after a stirring comeback from 14th. A last-minute change of set-up to the Spaniard’s M1 had allowed him to use more corner speed which also helped reduce his wheel-spin problems. His last victim was Pedrosa, who complained of a mysterious lack of rear grip.
Zarco finished alone in eighth, having led the race from lap two to lap 17. Iannone was ninth, the lone Suzuki finisher after Rins had slid off while in the thick of the lead battle. Jack Miller completed the top 10 in his first race with Pramac Ducati. Top rookie was Moto2 champ Franco Morbidelli, a promising 12th. KTM and Aprilia had grim results: Pol Espargaro’s RC16 broke, leaving Bradley Smith KTM’s top finisher in 18th. Aprilia’s Aleix Espargaro had been battling with Miller when he had fuelling problems on the final lap. Lorenzo crashed out when his brakes failed.
Francesco Bagnaia (VR46 Kalex) scored his first Moto2 victory, leading the whole race, barring one corner on the final lap when Lorenzo Baldassari (Pons Kalex) briefly got past. The 21-year-old former Moto3 winner, who already has a Ducati MotoGP ride for 2019, held on to win by 0.112 seconds.
Alex Marquez (Marc VDS Kalex) was also in the hunt until he had rear brake problems that slowed him considerably. Somehow he managed to keep veteran Mattia Pasini (Italtrans Kalex) at bay. The Red Bull KTMs of Brad Binder and Miguel Oliveira were next.
Joe Roberts, the sole American in the paddock, qualified 27th and finished 25th on Moto2’s newest chassis, the Japanese NTS. ‘The feeling with the bike was really good,’ he said. ‘But the bike is still new and sometimes if you try to find a good direction, you find that it’s not the right way. It’s unfortunate we figured this out during the race because I think we had a lot of potential to be quite far up this weekend.’
Honda continued from where they left off last year, dominating the Moto3 race with another podium lockout. Jorge Martin (Del Conca Honda) won a race-long duel with fellow Spaniard Aron Canet (Estrella Galicia Honda) by 0.023 seconds. Podium first-timer Lorenzo Dalla Porta (Leopard Honda) completed the top three.
Canet drafted Martin out of the final corner but didn’t quite have the speed to slingshot past. Pole-starter Niccolo Antonelli (Sic58 Honda) dropped to 10th, then recovered to fourth, 0.045 seconds behind Dalla Porta. Gabriel Rodrigo (KTM) was the first nonHonda rider in fifth.
A valiant ride from the The Doctor (46), but Dovi (04) proved to be faster on the Ducati