Qatar. The most unique race of the season, for a few reasons. Obviously, it is a night race, and the only one on the MotoGP calendar and, whether you like it or not, it certainly makes the opening race of the season stand out from the rest. The Qatari round of the World Championship is also distinct from the other races because of the amount of fans that turn up – because they don’t, for the most part. Now with a view to the track, we can see that the Losail International Circuit achieves that difficult blend of fast, medium speed, and slow sections that, in this case, sum to a track that reaches an agreeable compromise between great racing and also a circuit which the riders tend to enjoy.
Even still, it is easy to forget that Qatar is a relatively long-standing fixture on the calendar; making its debut back in 2004. Of course, back then it was run in the heat of the day, but 2007 saw the final daytime race at Losail (and Casey Stoner’s first victory in the top class), as in 2008 all three classes began the season under floodlights. That brought the next feature of Qatar which, for better or worse, makes it distinct from the other races, and that is the infamous ‘dew point’. This meant that for many years the weekend started on Thursday, so that teams and riders could complete all the required sessions before the dew set in. For 2018, though, the first round of the season is back to a standard weekend format, taking place over three days. They have achieved this by moving everything earlier: Moto3 will start at 4pm Qatar time, so in the daytime, and the Moto2 race will make history by being the first motorcycle Grand Prix to take start under the sun and end under artificial lighting.
Since 2014, every race in Qatar has been stellar. That year, Valentino Rossi fought a Marc Marquez recovering from a six-week-old broken leg for victory until the final lap, with the Spaniard coming out on top. One year later, The Doctor took on Andrea Dovizioso in a similar battle, but with the nine-times World Champion reigning supreme on this occasion as the podium was completed by Andrea Iannone for an all-Italian podium. 2016 was a different affair: the first race with Michelin tyres since Valencia 2008 saw Jorge Lorenzo streak away in the final laps,
leaving Dovi and Marquez to squabble over second with the #04 Ducati coming out on top on this occasion. Finally, last year saw Valentino Rossi recover from a terrible weekend and preseason to salvage a podium with third place, but a couple of seconds shy of the lead battle featuring Dovizioso (yet again) and Maverick Vinales – the Spaniard making good on his preseason promise to take his first victory for Yamaha on debut, the first rider to do so since Rossi in 2004.
But what will this year hold? While last year’s Grand Prix of Qatar saw Vinales claim victory, the star of the show was of course Johann Zarco on the Tech 3 Yamaha. He crashed after six laps, but set the fastest lap time of the race, and led until he fell – all on his MotoGP debut. In 2018, using a chassis which took Jorge Lorenzo to the title back in 2015 (on Bridgestones), the Frenchman looks at the moment as though he is Yamaha’s most realistic shot at the title – and they won’t give him more support! But seriously, a disastrous preseason for the factory Yamaha team which saw them solve almost none of their 2017 issues has highlighted Zarco as their best bet. The double Moto2 World Champion was fast in all three circuits which hosted preseason testing (Sepang, Buriram, Losail) and was the only rider who could hold a candle to the three factory Hondas and the factory Ducati of Dovizioso throughout. Of course, Zarco’s first six laps of the 2016 race was not the first time Qatar had shown itself to be kind to a rookie on a Yamaha – Jorge Lorenzo took pole position in 2008 on his debut, with a lap record that still stands today (although Zarco was within one tenth of that time by the end of the test), and the same day James Toseland qualified second on his MotoGP debut to sit in the middle of a Yamaha front row lockout – something which is almost impossible to imagine at the moment.
The factory Yamaha squad had a mixed bag in preseason, but for the most part it was something of a disaster. In 2017 the M1 had chronic wheelspin, caused by a mixture of its subpar relationship with the Michelin tyres, at least those used since Mugello, and the Iwata-based engineers’ relatively poor understanding of the Magnetti Marelli electronics. These were the issues Yamaha set out to resolve for 2018, but thus far its efforts have seemed ineffective at best, with Vinales saying the new bike is worse than last year, whilst Rossi stated that the Movistar Yamaha team are merely at the same level as last season. The pair had a more positive final day of preseason, with Rossi setting a good lap time at the end of the day to enter the season as the second fastest rider, and with a pace which, on paper, would have him on the top step. In comparison, Vinales had a more difficult day as a whole, but found a better feeling in the final forty minutes, but even still it was not enough for Maverick to feel he was in a better position to last season. To flick back to Rossi, it is worth pointing out that, whilst the pace of his long run was quite positive, he only did half a race distance. After that point, Rossi admits he doesn’t really know what will happen, and he is concerned about the wear of both the front and the rear tyre. His situation seems better than that of his teammate, though, although that was common last season – when things didn’t work so well with the Yamaha last season, it was usually Rossi who would come out on top of the two. Whatever the case, it is quite clear that Yamaha have a lot of work to do if they are to challenge for the title this season. On top of that the inconsistency of the M1 which it has retained from last season means that whilst the final day of the test ten days ago proved positive for the Iwata factory’s official pair, it could all be completely different for them come the race weekend.
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