By Dan Moakes
March 22 2016
The 2016 FIM MotoGP World Championship season got underway at the Losail circuit, for the floodlit Grand Prix of Qatar. How would things develop at the start of the renewed contest between Marc Márquez, for Honda, and the Yamaha riders Jorge Lorenzo and Valentino Rossi?
The 2015 season had ended in controversy, thanks to verbal and on-track clashes between Rossi and Márquez, and Rossi’s subsequent penalty that gave the initiative to Lorenzo in the final race of the season. But the actions of those three riders were not the whole story of the season, and no doubt the likes of Pedrosa, Dovizioso and Iannone, and others beside, would be looking to get in on the act again in 2016.
There are amended technical rules, and there is a change of tyre supplier (Michelin returns instead of Bridgestone), but on the rider front there have not been too many changes since last year. The new face for MotoGP is that of Tito Rabat, a 13-time winner in Moto2 and the champion in 2014. Rabat joins the Marc VDS Honda team, alongside Jack Miller, who moves from the LCR squad. Scott Redding crosses to the Pramac Ducati team, whilst Yonny Hernández stays with the Italian marque but now as a member of the Aspar team. Forward Yamaha does not continue in the class, so Loris Baz joins the Avintia Ducati team. 2006 champion Nicky Hayden has gone to Superbikes, after over 200 MotoGP races and 28 podium results.
If qualifying at Losail can provide any kind of indication, then there is a competitive MotoGP season ahead. The top four riders at the front of the grid were on four different makes of motorcycle, with Yamaha YZR-M1 leading Honda RC213V, Suzuki GSX-RR and Ducati Desmosedici GP16; and three of the big factory teams had both their riders in the top seven. Pole position went to reigning champion Lorenzo, with his MoviStar Yamaha team-mate Rossi in fifth. Repsol Honda had Márquez second and Dani Pedrosa seventh, and the Ducati team had Andrea Iannone fourth and Andrea Dovizioso sixth.
Also in amongst the front runners was Maverick Viñales on the first of the Ecstar-backed Suzukis, with third place. It was only his second front row start in the premier class, and meanwhile team-mate Aleix Espargaró was back in P15. Leading the way with customer machinery was Héctor Barberá, eighth for Avintia Ducati, then came Pol Espargaró (Tech 3 Yamaha), Cal Crutchlow (LCR Honda), Bradley Smith (also Tech 3), Scott Redding, Yonny Hernández, Eugene Laverty (Aspar Ducati); with the second Suzuki followed by Loris Baz, Álvaro Bautistá (Aprilia/Gresini), Jack Miller, Tito Rabat and Stefan Bradl (also Aprilia). Pramac Ducati rider Danilo Petrucci had to withdraw with an injured hand.
The race start saw Márquez drop back to fifth, behind Lorenzo, Iannone, Dovizioso and Rossi. He was followed by Pedrosa, Viñales, Crutchlow and Hernández. It wasn’t long before the top speed of the Ducati proved telling, as the main start-finish straight saw both Iannone and Dovizioso overtake Lorenzo, although the Yamaha man almost got one of the places back on the brakes for the right-handed turn one. The first five remained together, with Pedrosa and Viñales in touch and the rest soon starting to lose ground to the leaders.
Ducati led the way with Iannone and Dovizioso, then it was Lorenzo, with Márquez getting past Rossi for fourth on the inside at a right-handed corner. Behind Pedrosa and Viñales, Crutchlow regained eighth from Hernández, with the Colombian about to retire. Barberá led Smith, Pol Espargaró, Redding, Miller, Aleix Espargaró, Baz, Laverty, Rabat, Bautistá and Bradl.
Some of the early action included the battle for the lead between the Ducati team-mates, with turn one seeing Dovizioso get through on the inside, but with Iannone’s similar response further round the same corner. More swaps between them did see ‘Dovi’ get ahead, and not long after the number 29 machine of Iannone went down, in a lowside crash when he touched a white line at the turn thirteen right-hander. This left a four-man leading group, with Crutchlow catching Pedrosa and Viñales. But before he could reach them the Englishman crashed at turn four, a right-hander. Baz and then Bradl crashed soon after.
Lorenzo took over at the front, the leading group now also comprising Dovizioso, Márquez and Rossi. It took a while for Jorge to ease out a margin over the next trio, but gradually they spaced out a bit, and Lorenzo was soon beating the lap record as he got beyond 1.5s in the lead. Márquez went second, diving through on the inside of Dovi through a left-hander; but as these two seemingly slowed a bit in the late stages, Rossi closed in again after running wide earlier on.
Lorenzo had stretched out of reach, but the last laps saw the next trio remain close. Going into the last lap, Dovizioso passed Márquez over the finish line on the outside, maintaining the place at turn one. The Spaniard was able to get inside his Ducati rival at turn sixteen, the final right-hander, but he ran wide and so Andrea took second place, with Rossi still behind them in fourth. Viñales continued to shadow Pedrosa as they took fifth and sixth.
Barberá ran well but was in the end relegated by the Tech 3 Yamaha duo, with Espargaró seventh, then Smith. Redding was tenth, ahead of Aleix Espargaró, Laverty, Bautistá, Miller and Rabat. All the finishers scored points, with five retirements plus non-starter Petrucci.
Like in 2015, the Ducatis looked fast in Qatar, the Hondas were perhaps not handling as their riders would like, and the Yamaha perhaps had the edge all-round. This time Jorge Lorenzo had the perfect opening to his title defence, with his likely challengers all very familiar. What is in store for us at the next round in Argentina?
Standings after one race: Lorenzo 25; Dovizioso 20; Márquez 16; Rossi 13; Pedrosa 11; Viñales 10; P.Espargaró 9; Smith 8; Barberá 7; Redding 6; A.Espargaró 5; Laverty 4; Bautistá 3; Miller 2; Rabat 1
Yamaha 25; Ducati 20; Honda 16; Suzuki 10; Aprilia 3