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.
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.
“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.
Johann Zarco’s jaw-dropping top speed during last weekend’s Qatar grand prix raised inevitable questions…
Of course, Martin was the real star of the weekend. The 23-year-old former Moto3 world championship finished his first MotoGP race in 15th, qualified on pole for his second and led 18 of the 22 laps, without making a single mistake worthy of real attention. He only lost second to Pramac team-mate Johann Zarco with two corners to go and he finished 1.5 seconds behind Quartararo.
Martin’s was the best start to a MotoGP career since Marc Márquez arrived in 2013, taking pole and victory in his second race.
It was an astonishing performance under immense pressure, with a dozen riders snapping at his heels throughout. And his coolness both before and after the race beggared belief.
“For sure my target is not to win,” he said after qualifying.
And then this after the race…
“I think I raced like a rookie, even though I rode a mature race. I was trying not to push, trying to manage the race. My first lap I did a 55.2, so I said, it’s good enough, I’ll keep this pace as long as I can.
“It was difficult leading for 18 laps but I think it was better for me, because I could control the pace and control the tyres, which I struggle to do last week, so I made a great step, improving my focus and my management of the tyre.”
In the giddiness of a moment that will surely stay with him for the rest of his life Martin also showed real class.
“I dedicate this podium to Fausto [Gresini, who lost his battle with Covid-19 in February],” said Martin. “Fausto was really important to my career because he gave me the opportunity to go with the Honda in Moto3. At that time I was in a really low moment because I had a bad bike and I wasn’t making results. He said, ‘Okay, come here to my team – I know you have the talent and we can win the championship together’. I miss him because he was a really close friend, like family. I’m happy I stopped with the Gresini team for a big hug and for sure he was watching up there.”
Martin may find some of the upcoming tracks a greater challenge than Losail, which can be kind to rookies, thanks to its flowing nature, and has always been kind to Ducati.
Zarco was right behind his young team-mate pretty much throughout the race, unable to make a pass stick until the penultimate corner. Two runners-up finishes put the Frenchman ahead in the championship, almost two years after his career seemed over following his decision to walk out of the KTM factory team.
Ducati unveiled its latest aero at the Qatar tests – is the Italian factory using downforce to increase cornering grip, a new area of MotoGP aerodynamics performance?
“I did not expect to be leading the championship when I came here 35 days ago,” he said. “I was just coming for the first test, focusing on doing a good job and now I’m leading the championship. I still have things to control, but I feel more comfortable, with more options during the race. If I can keep growing up in that way, so that I can use the potential of Ducati then I will be able to enjoy some other tracks also.”
The race was a duplicate of the previous Sunday’s further down the order: once again Suzuki was so close but so far and Honda and KTM continued to struggle with front tyres.
At the first race Mir and his GSX-RR finished fourth, missing the podium by nine hundredths of a second. Yesterday it was Alex Rins’ turn to feel the pain – fourth place, 0.588 seconds behind Martin at the flag.
The reigning world champion was highly agitated after his seventh-place finish. He wasn’t only mad with Miller about their clash exiting Turn 16 – “it was super-dangerous manoeuvre” – he wasn’t happy with Michelin either.
After the race I asked him to compare the performance of his tyres in the two races.
There was a long pause and then, “I cannot answer you. Sorry,”.
This may have something with MotoGP regulation number 22.214.171.124.3 (I’m a fun guy, right?). More about this in tomorrow’s blog.