Movistar Yamaha’s new kid on the block, Maverick Viñales, did to the field of the 2017 Grand Prix of Qatar what he’s done ever since he first placed his bum on the saddle of the YZR-M1 last November. He ended the day at the top of the timesheets, having outdueled factory Ducati #1 Andrea Dovizioso over the last eight laps of the race. In the process, he took the lead in the 2017 championship and initiated what is likely to become known as The Viñales Years.
Weather conditions on Saturday evening in metropolitan Doha area were so foul that FP4, Q1, and Q2 were all scrubbed, leaving the combined results from the three completed practices as a proxy for the starting grid, to the immense dismay of Valentino Rossi, Jorge Lorenzo, Alex Rins and, one expects, Cal Crutchlow. Scott Redding, having led QP3, was overheard wandering the paddock in the wee hours, sniffing about how he COULD have taken the pole and it’s just so unfair.
Whatever. Behind the front row, at least, the starting grid was a random collection of hardware and talent. An unexpected way to start the season. In an unfriendly locale, with Aliens Rossi and Lorenzo pedaling hard on the fourth row. And the impudent Johann Zarco comfortably seated in fourth.
Rain in the Desert
The weather was bad enough on Saturday to scrub everything in all classes, a veritable gullywasher of a day. And here I thought the ONLY good thing about racing here is that at least you don’t have to worry about rain. Sunday came along with much more teasing kinds of conditions – spitting rain, breezy, high humidity, scudding clouds. Just as the Moto2 tilt (won by Franco Morbidelli for his first victory in the class) was ending, it started sprinkling.
Dorna and FIM executives began hemming and hawing. Riders started calling their garages for tires, making changes on the track. The bikes left the track, the bikes re-entered the track. The race was shortened from 22 to 21 laps, then to 20 with two warm-up laps, by which time the rain had mostly stopped. Several riders watched the red lights go out with tires they had never, or barely, ridden, traction and wear issues all over the place. Madness was in the air.
A Rookie Leads at the Start
Andrea Iannone won the hole shot, but as the field headed towards Turns 2 and 3 one of the Tech 3 Yamahas materialized at the front, accompanied by the animated shouting of announcer Nick Harris: “Johann Zarco leads the Grand Prix of Qatar!” Madness! Zarco was followed in close order by Marc Marquez, Iannone, Dovizioso on the Ducati, and Viñales, who was keeping his powder dry within shouting distance of the front.
By Lap 6, Zarco was looking very relaxed, trailed by Dovizioso, Marquez, Iannone, Viñales and, of all people, Rossi, who had started 10th but worked himself up close to the lead group. The law of averages suddenly made its presence felt, as Zarco crashed out of the lead on Lap 7. Then there were five. Having picked my boy Cal Crutchlow to finish on the podium today, he took revenge on me for past insults, real and imagined, by crashing out on Lap 4. Crashlow got back up and immediately crashed again on his Lap 5 for good measure.
With Dovizioso leading by mid-race, Iannone and Marquez traded a little paint here and there, just like the old days, while the two factory Yamahas lurked in fourth and fifth places. Almost on cue, on Lap 10 Iannone had an unforced lowside in Turn 7 and crashed out of podium contention.
The last eight laps were outstanding. While Marquez faded to fourth, never appearing totally comfortable with his tires, Dovi and Viñales began enjoying a number of close encounters, Rossi hanging back, appearing to wait for something to happen in front of him. Viñales would take the lead around Turn 6 and keep it through Turn 16, after which Dovizioso would blow by him on the main straight and take the lead heading into Turn 1. This continued until the two riders entered Turn 1 on the last lap with Viñales in the lead. He held it all the way, in and through Turn 16, and took the win by half a second. A legend, as the expression goes, is born.
Elsewhere on the Grid
Dani Pedrosa has had worse days than today. With little expected from him, he qualified seventh, spent the early part of the race in mid-pack, then bided his time as guys started falling off in front of him, ultimately finishing fifth. Shades of Colin Edwards late in his career. Aleix Espargaro, in perhaps the best ride of the day, flogged his factory Aprilia from 15th position at the start to sixth at the finish, the best result for the team since they re-entered MotoGP last year. Scott Redding scored a heartening seventh on his Ducati GP16, Jack Miller (we are officially amazed) was eighth on the Marc VDS Honda, and my boy Alex Rins held onto his Suzuki well enough all day for ninth place, becoming the leading rookie for the season.
For other riders, the 2017 opener was forgettable. Crashers include Crutchlow (2), Iannone, Zarco and Alvaro Bautista, while Danilo Petucci had to retire his GP17 with mechanical issues. The KTM team of Pol Espargaro and Bradley Smith was saved from the indignity of finishing last and next-to-last only by the futility of Sam Lowes, who delivered his own Aprilia to the finish line some 40 seconds behind teammate Aleix, and was the last rider to cross the line. Out of the points and, hopefully, dissuaded from any illusion that he might score more than 20 points all year.
We would be derelict in our reportorial duties were we to fail to mention that triple world champion Jorge Lorenzo, in his debut with his new Italian employer, started 12th, had four guys in front of him crash out or retire, and finished 11th, 20 seconds behind teammate Dovizioso. We know rain gives Jorge the yips. Now, it appears that high humidity does the same thing. And, lest readers assume this is just a Qatarian anomaly, it is true that Lorenzo won here last year from pole. Just sayin’.
The Big Picture
Having been burned in the past, we must be careful to draw too many conclusions from what occurred tonight. We learned, or confirmed our suspicions about, several things:
- Maverick Viñales is a baller.
- Valentino Rossi at age 38 is about as good as anyone out there.
- The Suzuki can compete for wins.
- Andrea Dovizioso is the #1 rider on the factory Ducati team.
- We have been underestimating Johann Zarco since November.
In two weeks the grid heads off to Argentina for its annual Bungle in the Jungle. Rio Hondo is a Honda-friendly circuit, as is Austin two weeks later. Marc Marquez should win the next two races. If, instead, Maverick Viñales should win either, MotoGP is likely to have a new champion this year. And if it does, you can tell your grandkids you watched Maverick win the very first race of The Viñales Years.
|2017 MotoGP Qatar Results|
|1||Maverick Viñales||Movistar Yamaha||–|
|2||Andrea Dovizioso||Ducati Corse||+0.461|
|3||Valentino Rossi||Movistar Yamaha||+1.928|
|4||Marc Marquez||Repsol Honda||+6.745|
|5||Dani Pedrosa||Repsol Honda||+7.128|
|6||Aleix Espargaro||Aprilia Gresini||+7.661|
|7||Scott Redding||Octo Pramac Ducati||+9.782|
|8||Jack Miller||Estrella Galicia 0,0 Marc VDS Honda||+14.486|
|9||Alex Rins||Suzuki Ecstar||+14.788|
|10||Jonas Folger||Monster Yamaha Tech3||+15.069|
|11||Jorge Lorenzo||Ducati Corse||+20.516|
|12||Loris Baz||Reale Avintia Ducati||+21.255|
|13||Hector Barbera||Avintia Racing||+28.828|
|14||Karel Abrahamg||Pull&Bear Aspar Ducati||+29.123|
|15||Tito Rabat||Estrella Galicia 0,0 Marc VDS Honda||+29.470|
|16||Pol Espargaro||Red Bull KTM||+33.601|
|17||Bradley Smith||Red Bull KTM||+39.704|
|18||Sam Lowes||Aprilia Gresini||+47.131|
|DNF||Danilo Petrucci||Octo Pramac Yaknich Ducati||6 Laps|
|DNF||Andrea Iannone||Suzuki Ecstar||10 Laps|
|DNF||Alvaro Bautista||Pull&Bear Aspar Ducati||13 Laps|
|DNF||Johann Zarco||Monster Yamaha Tech 3||14 Laps|
|DNF||Cal Crutchlow||LCR Honda||16 Laps|
|2017 MotoGP Top 10 Standings After 1 Round|