Yamaha’s display at Losail, two Sundays running, was about as convincing as it gets: two victories achieved by two different riders, both fighting their way through the pack in the fastest-ever races at the track, with the closest racing in history.
But does it actually mean anything, apart from the points and trophies?
Even Sunday’s winner Fabio Quartararo wasn’t sure. “At the moment I believe in the bike but I can’t say it’s going to work all year.”
And, of course, Yamaha has been here before. Quartararo won the first two races of 2020 and Maverick Viñales, winner of the previous Sunday’s season-opener, won the first two races of 2017, only for their campaigns to go awry.
Most riders love close racing but by last Sunday tempers were starting to fray
Losail is always weird – an unusual track and unique conditions, which have little relevance to the other 16 circuits currently on the 2021 calendar. And this year it was weirder than ever, because this is the first time that a season has started with two races at the same circuit after five days of testing there.
By the end of Sunday’s Doha GP, each rider had completed around 420 laps of Losail. That adds up to about 1400 miles, which is more miles than a team would rack up in a 24 Heures de Losail. This isn’t how MotoGP usually works, because it allows teams to get deep into the groove and maximise their potential. Yamaha obviously did that better than anyone else, but it’s not a normal situation.
The Qatar and Doha GPs were facsimiles of each other. On the first Sunday Viñales came through from sixth on the first lap to take the lead, break away and beat a pair of Ducatis by 1.092 seconds. On the second Sunday Fabio Quartararo came through from sixth on the first lap to take the lead, break away and beat a pair of Ducatis by 1.457 seconds.
Of course both races were much more thrilling than that. The racing was ridiculously close: 9.288 seconds covering the top ten first time out, 5.382 seconds next time out, easily the closest race in 73 years of MotoGP racing.
Losail has always made for great action: lots of swooping corners plus a long straight with a fast entry that allows riders to use the slipstream effect to maximum effect.
Most riders love close racing but by last Sunday tempers were starting to fray. Plenty of paint was swapped and Joan Mir and Jack Miller collided twice, continuing their disagreement on the slowdown lap. If the racing stays that close for the rest of the season, there will be plenty more where that came from.
The closest MotoGP race in history, thanks partly to the slipstream effect on Losail’s long main straight.
Both Viñales’ and Quartararo’s victories were impressive, because by the end of last season everyone knew that the only way for a Yamaha rider to win a MotoGP race is to be out front from the start. Only by doing that can he use the empty racetrack to carve through the corners as the YZR-M1 likes, while the fresh air of the open road keeps his front tyre cool.
Last year whenever a Yamaha rider got caught up in the pack his race was finished. Take Franco Morbidelli’s two Valencia races. At Valencia One he was seventh after the first lap, in the thick of the pack, so his front tyre got hotter and its pressure increased, which changed the tyre’s profile, so he couldn’t brake or turn, so he went backwards to finish 11th. At Valencia Two he led the first lap and stayed in front all the way, apart from a corner or two when Miller came past, to win the race. His second race was 32 seconds faster than his first.
And yet at Losail both Viñales and Quartararo charged through the pack, passing multiple riders and never losing any performance from the front tyre.
“Last week I rode like an amateur, like a rookie… I thinking, ‘why didn’t I use my brain?'”
Quartararo’s victory was more impressive because he got beaten up in the first few laps. Miller came past on lap two, then Pecco Bagnaia two laps later, relegating the Frenchman to ninth. Surely his race was over, because whenever he got beaten up last year he never fought back.
The 21-year-old spent six laps during the mid-stages of the race stuck in eighth place, going nowhere. Then just after half-distance he started moving forward: past Aleix Espargaró, then Miller, then Alex Rins, Pecco Bagnaia and Johann Zarco on consecutive laps and finally rookie Jorge Martin with four laps remaining.
His pace during the last stages was his fastest of the race. Once he was in front he knew he had to make a clean break from the pack, otherwise the warp-fast Ducatis would motor past on the start-finish straight and he’d have to start all over again.
“Last week I rode like an amateur, like a rookie – I didn’t play with the maps at all and I wasn’t controlling the rear tyre,” explained Quartararo, who finished the first race in fifth, while his team-mate took all the glory. “I was three days in the hotel thinking, ‘why didn’t I use my brain?’
“When I was in P9 I felt like I couldn’t win the race. I said, Okay, we will try to do our best. Then I said, No, no, we will try to go for the win. I felt so good in the overtakes – I could brake so hard and keep using the brake on the edge of the tyre.
Reasons to be cheerful – the Doha podium was more joyous than most
“This track helps us a lot to make some good overtakes, like out of Turn Three and I felt so great with the bike in Turns Eight, Nine, 10 and 15. It’s good we have got confidence in the front because sometimes when you make an overtake you can feel the front moving. That’s something we didn’t have last year when I was just going into corners, with no feeling and losing the front. With this bike I have a bit more confidence with the front because I feel the limit much more and this is what I need to go fast. We have this here in Qatar, so I’m crossing my fingers to have it in all the races, so I can try more strong overtakes.
“We will see in two weeks because last year Portimao was one of the most difficult tracks for us. Franky [Morbidelli] got third with the 2019 bike but with the 2020 bike we finished 11th, 12th and 14th.”
The race was 4.666 seconds faster than the previous Sunday’s, so the first six riders past the chequered flag bettered Viñales’ winning time from the first race. Indeed Viñales was faster in the second race, but he finished fifth instead of first.