It took a long time for everyone to get to the Termas de Río Hondo circuit in a distant corner of Argentina. And while the track offered plenty to make up for it, the journey was only worthwhile for one of the major factory teams.
Ducati and Honda might as well not have bothered.
Likewise Aprilia, and Suzuki.
The opposite was true for KTM, with both brand-new bikes in the points for the first time and at only the second attempt, after a race of high attrition.
But it was Yamaha who took the greatest benefit, and Maverick Viñales especially. He almost looked serene as he powered away to his second win in the first two races, the first Yamaha rider to do so since Wayne Rainey in 1990.
With teammate Valentino Rossi a clear second, both overcoming downbeat starting positions after a weather-stricken practice and qualifying left a higgledy-piggledy grid, the season could hardly have started better for Movistar Yamaha.
Viñales probably didn’t need much help, but it came anyway.
Firstly from Marc Márquez, who took a blazing start from his fourth straight pole position at the fast and rhythmical 4.806-km lakeside circuit in the distant hinterland.
He finished the third of 25 laps already 2.2 seconds clear of Viñales, who had just taken over second from front-row qualifier Cal Crutchlow (LCR Honda), with Rossi fourth.
But the defending champion would only manage one more corner, losing the front on the way into Turn 2, in a carbon copy of his Friday crash. “This kind of mistake makes me really disappointed, because I was feeling quite comfortable,” he said soon afterwards.
We would never know if Viñales could have caught him, after coming charging through from sixth on the grid. “It was a difficult race. It was hard to overtake Cal – he is very good on the brakes. I was ready to push 100 per cent to try to catch Marc, then he crashed. After that, I just did my pace, but thinking a lot – how to use the map to save the tyres, in case I had to push more.”
He didn’t have to, thanks – explained Crutchlow – to a rogue warning light that came on a couple of times. In any case, the Briton had his hands full with Rossi, chasing hard, and then closing inexorably after half distance.
Rossi also found Crutchlow hard to get by, but had improved his setting on race morning. “I enjoyed it a lot after another difficult weekend. I always knew I would have to fight Cal for the podium, but when I was following I could see I had a little more.”
He was less tired than after his third place in Qatar, but especially he was happy because of finally getting the bike suited to his style, and “because of great work by Yamaha, because we have more top speed, still with great driveability.” He was 2.9 seconds adrift of Viñales, who had set fastest lap, short of Rossi’s 2015 record.
Crutchlow settled for third, another second down, after crashing out in Qatar. “I had some warning light on the dash, but I didn’t panic.”
The front three did not get all the attention. It was a race that gained excitement, reinforced a couple of new heroes, and claimed some high-profile victims.
First of the casualties was Jorge Lorenzo, who had qualified a lowly 16th, but had gained confidence over the weekend, and gained some places in the run to the first corner … only to run into the back of Andrea Iannone’s Suzuki and crash out directly.
His factory Ducati teammate Andrea Dovizioso had qualified 13th, but survived until lap 15, when he was working on getting through a big group disputing fourth … only to be clobbered from behind by Aleix Espargaró’s Aprilia, also moving through the field. Once again Dovi was innocent victim, as he was both here and in Texas last year.
The battle for fourth was absorbing.
In the early stages Danilo Petrucci (Pramac Ducati) held the position, successfully defending against several attacks by Dani Pedrosa (Repsol Honda). After some seven laps Johann Zarco (Monster Yamaha) had joined in and was harrying Pedrosa, with Alvaro Bautista (Pull & Bear Ducati) also mixing it, and Dovi in close attendance.
The factory Honda rider finally managed to make a pass stick on lap 12, and was moving quickly clear of Zarco and the rest when on lap 14 he crashed in the same way and in the same place as Márquez. “There are some bumps there and they make it tricky, as the grip is kind of ‘on-off’. It’s a shame about the crash, but I’m happy I felt good enough to try and chase down the front group,” he said.
Zarco held on for a couple of laps as Petrucci dropped away, but he was burning up his tyres, and with 10 laps to go Bautista took over and soon escaped. He was less than three seconds behind Crutchlow at the end, Zarco almost 10 behind him.
Petrucci, one of only four riders to choose the hard rear tyre, had run out of grip, and when he came under attack by Jonas Folger in the dying laps, try as he might, he couldn’t prevent the second Monster Yamaha rookie from stealing an excellent sixth.
Another lively group was only five seconds behind, although their positions remained set after Scott Redding (Pramac Ducati) took an eventual eighth off Jack Miller’s VDS Honda on lap 12. Miller was less than three tenths behind over the line, first-time front-row starter Karel Abraham (Pull & Bear Ducati) less than a second behind, narrowly holding off Loris Baz’s Avintia Ducati.
Almost 15 seconds behind, Tito Rabat (VDS Honda) finally prevailed after a long battle with Héctor Barberá (Avintia Ducati) and Pol Espargaró (Red Bull KTM), whose teammate Bradley Smith had closed to within half a second by the finish.
Iannone was 16th after a ride-through penalty for a jumped start; teammate Álex Rins had joined the crash list, and remounted to retire. Sam Lowes (Aprilia) retired with gearbox problems.
Yamaha took over the top two championship positions, Viñales on a maxed out 50, Rossi on 36: then Dovizioso 20, Redding 17 and Crutchlow 16.
By Michael Scott