Freddie Spencer’s rider insight from the MotoGP season opener in Qatar
First off, I want to talk a little bit about the way that they’ve restructured practice. One of the complaints that the riders had, as I understand, was because the race start was so late in the evening at 9pm. It would start getting really cold out in the desert and then the moisture would affect the track surface. Maybe safety issues, certainly, could affect performance. So moving it two hours earlier, I think it was a smart thing.
I think the problem was that they put free practice one and the warm-up in the daytime with the third session in the evening. So, if you’re having to work on some things before the race – which happens a lot of times, especially at the first race – it’s not really beneficial performance-wise considering that the race is at night and the warm-up was in the afternoon. I feel like that they’re certainly going to have to make some adjustments on that front, and I know that Cal Crutchlow made the comment that it was kind of a wasted practice.
During normal race weekends you will certainly have situations where it might be dry or hot one session and cold the next, but you don’t know what the race is going to be. That’s different. When you know the race is going to be at night you certainly would like to be able to work on race set-up, which is what they do for most of the sessions. They should try to get consistent lap times over the pace of the race and it needs to be done in in conditions that you’re going to race in, or as close to race conditions as possible.
Going into qualifying, I think everyone watching free practice assumed that Marc Márquez was going to be tough, and he did exactly what we expected and showed, as we expected to see after the way that the testing sessions have gone, what the machines really would do and the bikes would do and what the riders had in store for each other. Again, Marc showed in practice that he had the pace. It seemed like he was certainly more comfortable with everyone else and that he had the one lap pace, the quick lap time.
The Yamahas were going to be a concern and Maverick Viñales showed that. I think the most inconsistent issue we have going into this year with Maverick is that he is really quick in one session and slow in another, and is that part machine problems? Or, as I mentioned the other day in the podcast, it could be something that he’s going to have to work through with his mindset, and certainly get a hold of with his emotions. He showed that this weekend and in some of the practice sessions… he certainly showed his frustration.
Valentino Rossi, we weren’t sure what he was going to have in Qatar. He looked pretty good in practice but you never know what he’s going to do in the race.
And the Ducatis, with Andrea Dovizioso especially, practice was not an indicator of his performance. He was right up there though, in the top three or four – very consistent – which is what has allowed him going into this weekend to win six out of 13 races. I would have to say, as everybody did, that he was going to be one of the favourites. His team-mate Jorge Lorenzo, ever since he ran that quick lap at Sepang, and then going into the next test in Thailand, the day before that there was talk of him having to take a pay cut. I’m not saying that’s the reason why, support wise, but maybe he is just a bit fragile in that way and he’s certainly emotional.
Like I said before, emotion is good as long as you keep it in check because it can certainly help you if you channel it in the right way; if the emotion gets in the way on the track or off the track when you’re thinking about what you need to do, it certainly gets in the way of that clarity of thought: the methodical part, the analytical part. That’s why you need to solve issues, solve problems, have a good game plan and execute that plan. Right now, Lorenzo certainly seems like he is unable to move beyond that and, as you know, we saw that in the race.
Going into the race, I thought it was going to be a battle between Márquez and Dovizioso, and maybe Valentino too. I thought, just from his facial expressions and things that I saw, Rossi looked pretty good and pretty comfortable.
But the surprise of qualifying and at the start of the race was Johann Zarco. This is the thing about Zarco (I know that he has some consistency problems), but to me he has one of the qualities that is required to not only win world championships – which he already has with his Moto2 championships – to certainly compete in the elite level of MotoGP, and that is the ability to reach down and perform exactly when you need to, when you’re under maximum pressure and maybe not even in the best conditions. And he did that on that last lap with an incredible qualifying time of 1min 53.680sec, breaking the lap record that had stood for 10 years, which, in itself, was a surprise to me. I know on the broadcast they talked about the qualifying tires, but still, 10 years is a long time for a lap record to stand up considering the improvements of everything over the years. What an incredible lap he had, and then Márquez was second out there, then Dovizioso in third.
Once the race started and Johann got out front, what I thought he would do was exactly what he did, which was to run just as quick as he needed to and try to control the pace, and every time someone tried to make a pass, he came right back. It showed that Zarco has matured over the last year at that level and he’s not intimidated in any way. He was right there for 18 laps and then once Dovizioso came through and got up front, then Johann faded – more than I thought he was going to. He did talk about it, about how he had to save the right front tyre and how he had problems pushing the front and tucking in. Going at the level now that it’s at and the speed that they’re racing, it’s not so much a drop in lap time – it’s not a huge drop – but it’s certainly a lot of positions lost. Zarco did finish the race and he did a good job, and he was up there for 18 laps, which shows that he’s going to be up there as the season goes on.
Now, the surprise performance, besides Valentino getting third, which I thought was great, was Maverick. I was very proud of the way that he was back in 14th, I think with 10, 11 or 12 laps to go – not that far back as the field didn’t spread out – but still he hung in there and kept pushing and kept pushing, and the positive thing from that is it shows that maybe (and this could be true for Valentino’s performance too) they’ve got a handle on that tyre degradation over the last five or six laps because Valentino was only seven tenths back from the leader and Maverick had closed down within three seconds. So, the two factory Yamahas were up there towards the end, which has got to give them a lot of confidence going into the next race in Argentina.
The battle between Dovizioso and Marc was kind of what I expected. In the last corner, Marc did exactly what he needed to do and you knew he was going to do it, Dovizioso knew he was going to do it and everybody knew he was going to do it. So it’s not a big leap to say that was going to happen, but when he did make the pass, Dovizioso did the smart thing and he didn’t give a whole lot of room, so Marc had to have a really tight line which meant that he didn’t really run wide, as he did on the last two occasions in 2017 when Dovizioso made the pass, but he ran just a little bit, had to get the bike slowed down and turned a little more than he wanted to, and Dovizioso got by and made it look easy.
The Ducati is really impressive on acceleration so that whole race that Dovizioso rode was perfect in many ways. He saved the tyre, the right side specifically, which allowed him to get a great drive and get the bike turned going into the last corner, get on the throttle and begin its acceleration. It was just smart. He didn’t make any mistakes, he knew what the competition had for him, but to me, it showed even more than that. It showed that the Ducati’s performance over the last 14 races, specifically, has been pretty incredible.
So I did pick Márquez, going into the season, to win the championship and after the first race I’m still sticking with that, but it should be a great battle and wildcards Valentino and Maverick are going to step it up, and obviously, a couple of others can too.
Going into the next race in Argentina (April 8) should be exciting. I’m looking forward to it, and I hope you are too.