There's no doubt: Rossi is a contender


Qatar is a dry state so there’s no fun to be had with booze on the podium, but I bet the Yamaha crew more than made up for that when they got back to their hotel on Sunday night. Doha’s international hotels are the only places you can imbibe alcohol in the country, so their terrifyingly expensive bars are an unlikely mix of ex-pat financiers and oil/gas engineers and a few naughty locals. Throw in a rowdy bunch of racers and mechanics and you’ve a pretty weird scene.

I’ll also bet that Valentino Rossi stayed up longer than Jorge Lorenzo, if he could persuade the barman to keep popping the champagne corks. Rossi may be hurtling towards middle age but he still has his old rock and roll attitude, he’s never subscribed to Lorenzo’s beliefs in Spartan self-denial or quasi-Buddhism.

Everyone at Yamaha had every right to have a few drinks on Sunday night because even in their wildest dreams they can hardly have expected to thrash Honda so mightily in the first race of the year. HRC’s post-race debriefs can’t have been pleasant affairs: how come both their factory riders were so soundly beaten by both factory Yamahas and how come Cal Crutchlow was able to run with Dani Pedrosa and Marc Marquez while riding last year’s M1?

True, Losail is more of a Yamaha circuit than a Honda circuit. It’s a desert serpentine: all corner speed, with one fast, flowing corner leading into the next fast, flowing corner and only one straight worthy of the name. As tradition demands, this should be where Honda horsepower tells. Last year the fastest factory Honda had a 4.6mph advantage over the fastest factory Yamaha at Losail. That’s a huge difference and a guaranteed easy overtake on the start-finish straight – it’s like one person standing still and another coming past at a fast walking rate.

This time the difference between the fastest factory Honda and Yamaha was just 1.6mph, which isn’t an easy overtake at all. With such a slim advantage the Hondas required a decent slipstream to make a pass on the main straight, and with the Yamahas exiting the final corner faster, that wasn’t such an easy thing for Marquez or Pedrosa to find. In other words, Yamaha have found a lot more engine over the winter, without losing any of their traditional chassis advantage.

Lorenzo was so ominously inch-perfect and immediately out of sight that we hardly got to see him all race. Instead the cameras – quite rightly – focused on Rossi’s meteoric comeback from his disastrous first two laps. The nine-time champ was both thrilling and hilarious to behold in the early stages. It was almost like he had regressed to his teenage years, making wild tabs here and there and paying a high price for his impatience to make up for his third-row start.

He obviously couldn’t handle being behind Andrea Dovizioso and the Ducati on the first lap, so he dived past, only to run wide. He did the same the next lap, diving past his fellow Italian once more, gaining one place, then running wide again and losing four places as Dovizioso, Stefan Bradl, Cal Crutchlow and Marc Marquez came past.

He was a man in a hurry, happily prepared to take a few wild swipes at his rivals, rather than settle into that turgid old game of follow my leader that’s become the norm in MotoGP over the last few years.

It took Rossi another six laps to extricate himself from that gang, by which time he was 7.3 seconds behind Lorenzo. By the end of the race he was 5.9 seconds down on the world champ, despite having to work his way past Pedrosa, Crutchlow and Marquez. Who knows what might have happened if he hadn’t lost so much ground in the first few laps?

During the off-season Rossi was very much in anti-hype mode, playing down his chances and being (rightly) humble after his Ducati disaster. I’m sure that he’s always felt different inside, I’m sure he’s always felt he might have an outside chance at the title. And I’m now absolutely certain that he thinks he can win the crown. Lorenzo is a daunting rival, but he’s not impossible to beat.

Rossi’s body language at Qatar was entirely different from the last two years. On the bike it screamed joy and aggression. He looked inspired, letting it all hang out and attacking corners with big, sweeping lines, happy to take risks without dreading the consequences. And that’s what you need to be able to do in racing – take a few risks, teeter on the brink and get away with it, giggling inside at your audacity. No wonder that after the race he seemed almost delirious with delight.

No one’s ever won a world championship at the first round and perhaps Qatar will turn out to be Rossi’s best race of the year, but after Sunday night there’s no doubt now that he is still a championship player.

Click here to read more from Mat Oxley.

You may also like