Well, we told you it was going to be close. But nobody could have predicted just how close. Records for closeness were smashed at Qatar, with the closest ever top 15, one of the closest podiums, and a thrilling victory by 0.023 of a second.
It went to Andrea Dovizioso, in a repeat of last year, holding off a terrier-like Marc Marquez in yet another battling last lap. As last year, they changed places five times on the final tour. As last year, Dovi had it under control, using a better last-corner exit and the power of his Mission Winnow Ducati to hold off the Repsol Honda’s final charge by the narrowest of margins.
Less than three tenths behind, a heroic Cal Crutchlow (LCR Honda) finally got ahead of frequent race leader Alex Rins on the clearly fully competitive 2019 Ecstar Suzuki.
This was the climax to a race where the combination of tyre-saving tactics and the equalising regulations made the premier class into an extraordinary spectacle, with bikes of close to 300 horsepower packed even closer than an already spectacular Moto3 race. At half distance of the 22-lap, 118.36km race, the top nine riders were still within less than 1.7 seconds (count them!), the sound was awe-inspiring, and positions were constantly changing all the way down the field.
Dovizioso’s control was unshakeable, even though his tactics were decided by circumstances. “It was a strange race. I didn’t really have that strategy, but I was managing my rear tyre.” This meant that Rins was frequently ahead. “His corner speed was amazing.” But apart from that, he hadn’t seen anybody else all race, “and I couldn’t analyse my points.”
On the penultimate lap, he ran a little wide to let Marquez through. Then “I saw he was struggling with the rear. He never give up, but I was able to answer, because I put him really on the limit.”
For the first time all weekend, Dovizioso used Ducati’s aero-wing under the front of the swing-arm. Questioned about aerodynamics after the race, as well as use of the much-discussed hole-shot system, he followed company policy, saying as little as possible.
But all major rival teams except Yamaha protested the use of the under swing-arm device; at the time of writing, no decision had been forthcoming. In a bout of extra bitchiness Alex Rins also protested that Crutchlow had passed him under a yellow flag – disallowed because the slipstream meant that Crutchlow couldn’t help doing it.
Marquez, who responded to the complaints by saying “I do my best on the track, and today one rider was faster than me,” remained jubilant. “It was the same like last year. It was so difficult to keep the line, but I tried to the end. I am very happy with 20 points, at a circuit where we struggle. This weekend I struggled a lot with the front. I used the medium [against his usual preferred hard], and I couldn’t push in the brakings.”
And while Rins and the Suzuki squad could be proud of their evening’s work and close fourth place, it was Crutchlow who got the hero’s welcome, after fighting back to fitness following his severe right leg injuries at last year’s Australian GP.
“I have to say thanks to a lot of people,” he said, naming surgeons, physiotherapists and his LCR team. “I pushed as hard as I could,, and I had problems with the rear tyre at the end.” It had been one of the best races in his career.
Heroism went down the field – singling out Valentino Rossi for special praise. The Monster Yamaha rider had struggled in qualifying, starting from 14th on the grid. He was soon picking his way forward, and at the back of the nine-strong group at half distance. But the 40-year-old’s never-say-die tactics were in overdrive. On lap 16 he got by his team-mate Maverick Vinales, who had qualified on pole but was losing places steadily, then closed on the front gang. His last victim, with three laps to go, was Danilo Petrucci’s factory Ducati, and he was almost two seconds ahead of him at the finish, and sniffing at Rins’s back wheel.
Fears of cold conditions and a slippery track at the start time of 8pm, an hour later than last year, came to naught, with Aprilia test rider Bradley Smith the only rider to crash.
Dovizioso led away from Miller and Marquez, with Crutchlow and the rest in hot pursuit. By lap two Joan Mir (Ecstar Suzuki) was up to fourth ahead of the fading Vinales, and the rookie got ahead of Crutchlow until lap nine. It was only in the later stages that he lost touch with the leaders.
Rins led over the line for the first time on lap eight, and for the next two laps; then it was Dovizioso again until the penultimate lap, when Marquez was in front over the line, just once.
The pack stayed close until well after half distance. By the end, Vinales recovered somewhat at the end to get ahead of impressive rookie Mir, who was fading by the end. Takaaki Nakagami (LCR Honda) was back in front of Franco Morbidelli (Petronas Yamaha) at the end. Morbidelli was fading fast by now, and on the last lap lost tenth place to Aleix Espargaro’s Aprilia.
Another three seconds away, Pol Espargaro’s lone Red Bull KTM was a couple of seconds clear of a big pack. This was led at the end by Jorge Lorenzo (Repsol Honda), who suffered a dire first race on the factory bike. Still injured, he had fallen twice on Saturday, started from 15th, and bided his time to get back ahead of Andrea Iannone (Aprilia), Johann Zarco (Red Bull KTM) and Fabio Quartararo (Petronas Yamaha).
Quartararo had stalled on the grid and had to start from pit lane. He set fastest lap of the race as he caught up, but just missed out on the points.
Jack Miller had an even stranger race. Qualified fourth, he got a blazing start and was second behind Dovizioso on the first lap. On the second, however, he suddenly sat up and slowed, reached behind him, removed the seat pad, and threw it away, luckily without hitting any following riders.
It had come loose through the fast right-handers. He dropped to 11th, and moved back into the top ten soon afterwards. But his seating position and weight distribution was wrong, and as a result he chewed up his front tyre and had to retire.
FIM MotoGP Stewards Panel received various protests concerning aerodynamic devices on the rear swing arm of Ducati machinery ridden by Andrea Dovizioso (Mission Winnow Ducati Team), Danilo Petrucci (Mission Winnow Ducati Team) and Jack Miller (Alma Pramac Racing).
The protests were made by Aprilia Racing Team Gresini, Red Bull KTM Factory Racing, Repsol Honda Team and Team Suzuki Ecstar, who presented their concerns to the FIM MotoGP Stewards Panel. Based on guidelines and regulations currently in force, the FIM MotoGP Stewards Panel rejected their protests.
The result of the VisitQatar Grand Prix remains in standing. An appeals process is ongoing.
Moto2 Race – 20 Laps, 107.600 km
Hopes that the new Triumph power would t revitalise Moto2 came true in spades at Qatar. With the win decided by 0.26 of a second and third by the even smaller margin of 0.002 of a second, it was all the better because of the way the top challenger for the win came through from 12th on the first lap.
That was returned veteran Thomas Luthi, at 32 the oldest rider in the class; and he failed to displace long-time-leader Lorenzo Baldassarri (Flexbox HP40 Kalex) by the narrowest of margins, after hunting him down and getting ahead briefly on the last lap.
Luthi, the first rider to return from MotoGP and achieve such success, had got through what turned into an equally fierce scrap for the last podium position.
His Exactweld team-mate Marcel Schrotter, who had started from a first pole, had finally lost the place to the transformed son-of-a-champion Remy Gardner (ONEXOX Kalex) on the final lap. But on the run to the line he got back ahead of the Australian by inches.
Fourth was Gardner’s career-best finish, but he was spitting mad. “I was down on speed. I was in front of him when we came onto the straight.”
Less than two tenths behind, second Flexbox-Pons rider Augusto Fernandez came through by half distance for a challenging fifth, getting past Alex Marquez (EG-VDS Kalex) to do so.
Marquez would lose another place to Sam Lowes (Federal Oil Gresini Kalex), the Briton gaining speed at the end for sixth, with Marquez less than two seconds behind.
Baldassarri had gained the lead on the second lap, and by lap 12 had managed to get almost a second clear. But at this stage Luthi had come through, and his arrival forced the pace of the pursuit. He was ahead of Gardner on lap 14, the Australian resisting strongly, and narrowly avoiding falling.
Luthi’s next target was his team-mate, and he was ahead of him cleanly on lap 17, the gap already down to 0.8 of a second.
There followed an inspiring pursuit over the last three laps. By the time they started the last one, he was right on the Italian’s tail. He did get ahead briefly, only for Baldassari to regain the lead on the cut-back … and he narrowly held off in the final sprint to the line.
“I really enjoyed that race, and it’s the best come-back I could have thought of,” said the former 125 champion; while an elated Baldassarri was almost beyond words after the level of effort. “Thanks to my team, and to the bike. It was fantastic,” he said.
Behind the top seven, Luca Marini (SKY VR46 Kalex) had been losing speed throughout; while class rookie Enea Bastianini (Italtrans Kalex) made a brilliant debut in ninth, his final victim being front-row starter Xavi Vierge (EG-VDS Kalex). Vierge had led the first lap, but started losing ground almost immediately, with grip problems.
It was an all-Kalex top ten, with the next-best another class rookie, with Fabio Di Giannantonio finally come out on top in a late dice with Red Bull KTM’s Brad Binder. The South African thought the Austrian bike’s problems were track-specific. “We were fastest at Jerez tests, so I think it is just here,” he said.
A couple of seconds adrift, Andrea Locatelli (Italtrans Kalex) held off Jesko Raffin’s NTS; while rookie Jorge Martin (Red Bull KTM) narrowly saved the last point from a closing Bo Bendsneyder (NTS).
American Racing’s Joe Roberts (KTM) was 22nd.
Iker Lecuona, Niccolo Bulega and Jorge Navarro crashed out on the first corner, followed soon afterwards by rookie Marco Bezzecchi. Nagashima and two more rookies, Chantra and Dixon, also crashed.
Moto3 Race – 18 laps, 96.840 km
Kaito Toba became the first Japanese rider to win in Moto3 – and the first in any class since the late Shoyu Tomizawa in 2010 – in a typically nail-biting Moto3 race that brought the sun down at Qatar.
The 17-year-old Honda Team Asia rider, in his second season, prevailed over a grisly gang, ultra-close for the full distance. Starting from his first front row, he changed places twice on the final lap with second-placed Lorenzo Dalla Porta (Leopard Honda), who had led more times over the line than anybody else. The gap, as Toba came past again over the line, was just 0.053 of a second.
“It’s an amazing feeling,” said the teenager, who had finished the first lap ninth, but led for the first time on the sixth and seventh laps.
Pole starter Aron Canet (Sterilgarda KTM) was just a tenth behind; with the top 11 riders crossing the line within one second.
Positions had swapped throughout, of course; but the big loser was returned racing bad boy Romano Fenati (Snipers Honda). He’d started badly from the fourth row, set a new record on the second lap, and before half distance had joined the front runners, leading for the first time on lap nine.
The veteran, back from Moto2 after being sacked in disgrace (and vowing to retire) after a brake-grabbing incident at Misano, was using trade-mark wide sweeping lines to fox his younger rivals; but was unable to break away.
Then he mistook a “track limits” warning on his dashboard for an actual penalty rather than a caution, and became the first rider to take a “long lap” penalty. It cost him less than two seconds, but dropped him to an eventual ninth place.
Second Leopard Honda rider Marcos Ramirez made a strong late bid, finishing a close fourth, just over three tenths adrift, but inches ahead of SKY VR46 KTM rookie Celestino Vietti.
Early front runner Albert Arenas (Sarna KTM) narrowly beat his team-mate Raul Fernandez to sixth; inches ahead of erstwhile leader Nico Antonelli (SIC58 Honda) and the luckless Fenati. Jakub Kornfeil (Redox KTM) completed the top ten.
Yurchenko, Masia, Booth-Amos and Sasaki crashed together on the first lap; and later Binder fell alone while Suzuki and Masaki tangled together. Second SKY VR46 rider Foggia also crashed out
The championship positions, obviously, are in race finishing order, with 18 rounds remaining.
LOSER OF THE WEEKEND
Romano Fenati left racing in disgrace last season … but is back in Moto3 under sufferance, determined to keep his temper in check and his nose clean. In the race, he got a dashboard warning about exceeding track limits. He took it as a penalty notice, and was the first rider to serve a “long lap” penalty. It was voluntary, but won’t give him credit next time he earns a sanction.
JOKERS OF THE WEEKEND
Dorna’s video filming and editing staff. Having been reprimanded by Ducati for aiming Dovizioso’s on-bike camera to show him operating the hole-shot device, they made sure to film every subsequent practice start in loving slo-mo detail. Just to show they could.
Remy Gardner – Fourth, Moto2
“He passed me before the finish line. I just didn’t have the speed on the bike. I was making everything up on entry and corner speed. It didn’t matter how good an exit I got, he’d pull away. It cost us a podium.”
Jack Miller – DNF, MotoGP
“I feel I rode really well, and was going good in the first lap, following Dovizioso. Then as I went into the sequence of fast rights my seat decided it didn’t want to stay on. It was so loose I had to chuck it off, and after that my position on the bike was all wrong, and I burned my tyre.”
By Michael Scott