On Sunday, the 2019 MotoGP World Championship began under the lights in Qatar at the Losail International Circuit. There was much anticipation regarding some outstanding rookies and also how Valentino Rossi (Monster Energy Yamaha MotoGP) and Jorge Lorenzo (Repsol Honda Team) would fair from the fifth row of the grid. The other interest circled was around Maverick Vinales (Monster Energy Yamaha MotoGP) ability to cope with the pressure of pole position. In the end, though, the race boiled down to that contemporary duel: Marc Marquez (Repsol Honda Team) versus Andrea Dovizioso (Mission Winnow Ducati).
Ducati’s new ‘holeshot device’ had been seen clearly in action for the first time this weekend, with the world feed cameras picking up Ducati GP19s making unusual movements as they prepared for practice starts throughout the free practice sessions. Andrea Dovizioso proved the device works, by making the holeshot ahead of fellow GP19 rider, Jack Miller (Alma Pramac Racing), who came from the second row to beat both Marc Marquez and polesitter Maverick Vinales to the first corner.
Unfortunately for Miller, his race soon came undone when his seat came loose through the fast right-handers of turns twelve, thirteen and fourteen. The Australian tore his seat away between turns fifteen and sixteen, but the lack of grip he had without an actual seat meant it became impossible to rider quickly and consistently, and so eventually the #43 retired.
Miller left behind a group of around fifteen riders at the front, although that number soon dropped to ten as the field settled, and those incapable of keeping the front pace were dropped.
It was not long until the tactics of Dovizioso became clear. He would try to sit at the front of the race and control the pace, saving the tyre and taking few risks, knowing that he had the power on the straight to keep himself clear of any pursuers, as well as being safe in the knowledge that Marquez – the one rider in the group who could pass him in a straight line bar Dovizioso’ Mission Winnow Ducati teammate Danilo Petrucci – had no intention of leading the race himself.
It was not an easy task for Dovizioso, though, to stay in front. The Suzuki of Alex Rins (Team Suzuki Ecstar) soon made his presence known, and was able to pass Dovizioso on several occasions throughout the main portion of the lap, but was never able to hold Dovizioso’s Desmosedici at bay once they got to the straight. He did, however, lead three laps in the middle of the race, which showed the improvements Suzuki have made to the power of the GSX-RR over the winter.
Whilst Rins and Dovizioso had been fighting over the lead at the front, the top group had been diminished to nine riders, as Takaaki Nakagami (LCR Honda IDEMITSU) started to fall away. That left the three Yamahas of Vinales, Rossi and Franco Morbidelli (Petronas Yamaha SRT) at the back of the front group which, once Dovizioso had dealt with Rins, was still headed by the #04 Ducati.
Dovizioso, surprisingly, was somewhat assisted in his stronghold over the leadership of the race by Marquez, who passed Rins on lap eleven, preventing the Suzuki rider from mounting any further assaults on the Desmosedici. Marquez knew the game of Dovizioso, and he didn’t need Rins escaping at the front to complicate matters.
In the final five laps, things started to heat up. Maverick Vinales made a failed attempt at passing the extremely impressive rookie Joan Mir (Team Suzuki Ecstar) on he inside at the penultimate corner on lap sixteen. That let Vinales’ teammate Rossi through into seventh place, and the Italian made his way past Mir on the next lap. A small gap had now appeared between Rossi and the front group. Vinales could see that, but again failed in passing Mir, sliding wide at turn four on lap seventeen, costing himself a further second, that he would not recover.
The gap Rossi suffered to the first five riders after passing Mir was overhauled by the Italian between turns five and seven, and with three laps to go he made his move on Petrucci for fifth place, a move which went without response from the factory Ducati debutant.
At the same time as Rossi moved on Petrucci, Cal Crutchlow (LCR Honda CASTROL) – who had been quietly sitting in a top six spot all race – made his move for a podium, passing Alex Rins for third, as the Dovizioso and Marquez started to construct a small gap, and gear up for a final lap duel.
Marquez beat Dovizioso to the line on the penultimate lap, but Dovi out-braked him into turn one, and held the line, not allowing Marquez to slide through on the inside mid-corner.
Knowing what happened the previous year when Dovizioso beat him when Marquez left his attack to the final corner, the #93 tried to pass at turn ten, but ran wide and Dovizioso squared him off through the sweeping turn eleven.
Marquez tried to go to the inside of turn twelve, but Dovizioso did not allow the door to open, and after a good run through turn fourteen for the Italian, an attack into turn fifteen was impossible for Marquez. It had to be the last corner, but Dovizioso had a good exit from fifteen, and was exceptionally late on the brakes into sixteen. There was little Marquez could do, but anyway he let the brakes off and block passed Dovizioso. But, as one year ago, Dovizioso squared him off, and even despite the improved Honda engine for 2019 and a slipstream, Marquez could do nothing to stop Dovizioso from taking the win and the initial championship lead.
Cal Crutchlow managed to hold off Alex Rins for what is in essence a second consecutive podium for the Brit, after his rostrum in Japan last year. It was a stunning comeback from a potentially career-ending injury for Crutchlow, one which surprised even him.
Fourth place for Alex Rins was unfortunate, as he had ridden superbly for the whole race, but in the end it was horsepower that cost him. Suzuki have made gains in the top end of their GSX-RR motor over the winter, but they need more if they are to challenge Honda and Ducati on a circuit with a 1.1km front straight, with the finish line way over halfway down it.
The same can be said for Yamaha. They have consistently been the slowest bike this weekend, and that cost Rossi, Vinales and Morbidelli. They all struggled to overtake anything which wasn’t a Yamaha and, to add insult to injury, Rossi was visibly weaker on traction compared to his rivals, especially through turn eleven where the bikes spin the rear tyre the whole way. Nonetheless, fourteenth to fifth was an impressive comeback from The Doctor, who is still without a podium since Sachsenring last year.
Danilo Petrucci was visibly distraught with sixth place, after seeming to have the pace to win throughout the weekend. Maverick Vinales came home in seventh place ahead of Joan Mir, who had fought with Marc Marquez on his MotoGP debut for half the race, and finished ahead of Takaaki Nakagami (9th) and Aleix Espargaro (Aprilia Racing Team Gresini) who completed the top ten.
Eleventh place went to Franco Morbidelli whose soft tyre gave up on him in the final part of the race, whilst Pol Espargaro (Red Bull KTM Factory Racing) had a decent ride aboard the RC16, finishing twelve seconds off the win after a difficult weekend for the Austrian marque on a circuit which has been traditionally tough for them.
Jorge Lorenzo’s chances of a dream Honda debut went out of the window on Saturday, when he was hurt by two crashes in FP3 and then Q1. Fortunately for the factory Honda man, there is a three week break in which he can focus on recovering for round two of the season in Argentina. Behind him, Andrea Iannone scored points in fourteenth on his debut for Aprilia Racing Team Gresini, as did Johann Zarco in fifteenth on his debut for Red Bull KTM Factory Racing. It was also the closest top fifteen in MotoGP history, with just over fifteen seconds covering the points scorers.
Perhaps the most heart-breaking moment of the race was when Fabio Quartararo (Petronas Yamaha SRT) stalled his M1 on the grid before the warm up lap. The Frenchman had qualified fifth for his debut MotoGP and had been brilliant all weekend. From the start, Quartararo started to set fastest lap after fastest lap, and at one point had passed Jorge Lorenzo, before his tyre gave up and he slipped back to eighteenth. Nonetheless, the debut weekend of Fabio Quartararo in the premier class was exceptional, and the moment when he is racing against the very best in MotoGP at the front of the field is surely not far away.
There were only three retirements from the 2019 season opener, with Francesco Bagnaia (Alma Pramac Racing) joining his teammate Jack Miller back in the garage on his MotoGP debut thanks to having one of the winglets wiped off the GP18. It doesn’t sound like a big deal, but unbalanced aero would have made the bike un-rideable. Finally Bradley Smith (Aprilia Factory Racing) crashed in turn one on the penultimate lap.
Although he was running last at the time, Smith’s crash on the RSGP caused some controversy post-race, as Suzuki protested the result of the race on two counts. Firstly, it protested that Cal Crutchlow had overtaken Rins under yellow flags – this protest was rejected.
Secondly, together with Honda, Aprilia and KTM, Suzuki protested the Ducati’s new aerodynamics, in which one piece hangs from the bottom of the fork leg, whilst the other hangs from the swingarm. Dovizioso used this setup for the first time in the warm up session for the Qatar race, but Danilo Petrucci had been using it since the Qatar test two weeks previously. Again, the protest was rejected on a lack of evidence, but it has been referred now to the MotoGP court of appeal, meaning the result could be entirely different for the season opener once the paddock arrives in Argentina for the second round of the season in three weeks’ time.
Featured image courtesy of Ducati