Nothing like the start of a new racing season to turn the iron in a man’s blood into the lead in his pencil. All the speculation, all the testing, all the contingencies will become moot once the lights go out in far-away Qatar. The Alien class – Marc Marquez, Andrea Dovizioso, Valentino Rossi and Maverick Viñales – is sharpening their fairings in anticipation. Another handful of riders dream of getting their tickets punched in 2018.
Riders like Johann Zarco (Monster Tech 3 Yamaha), Dani Pedrosa (Repsol Honda), Jack Miller (Alma Pramac Ducati) and Alex Rins (Suzuki Ecstar) need to get off to a quick start if they want to challenge the usual suspects in 2018. Although the championship cannot be won this weekend, it can certainly be lost for those ending up in the kitty litter. The good news for 23 of the 24 riders lining up at the start – since 2008, only three riders who have won the opener have gone on to capture the title. Winning at Losail is not as important as finishing in the points.
Marc Marquez, the #1 rider on the planet, is the odds-on favorite to threepeat in 2018. During winter testing, he focused on eerily consistent simulations, turning hundreds of laps in metronomic fashion. He may have only topped the timesheets a time or two in the process, but he claims to love this year’s RC213V, exuding quiet confidence and entering the season in great physical shape.
Behind him stands a mixed bag of Aliens, former Aliens, and wannabe Aliens, with names like Viñales, Andrea Dovizioso, Zarco, Valentino Rossi, Dani Pedrosa and Jorge Lorenzo. Of these, the career tracks of the first three are ascendant while those of the last three are heading south. Further back, several young guns – notably Miller and Rins – think they have the juice to displace some of the leaders. Somewhat lost in the sauce are the prospects for guys like Cal Crutchlow, Danilo Petrucci and Andrea Iannone who, if they were running backs in the NFL, would be referred to as “tweeners.” All three are capable of winning races. All three generally find ways not to.
Although there will be plenty of riveting action farther down the food chain, space limitations – read “your short attention span” – prevent us from talking about them too much. If you’re really interested in the prospects of Tom Luthi or Xavier Simeon, best visit their websites.
With the able assistance of Price Waterhouse, Coopers, Lybrand, Sacco and Vanzetti, we have gathered mountains of data and scuttlebutt to provide regular readers with a loose ranking of these fast movers. We use the term “tranche” instead of “group” to sound better-informed and more continental. The methodology behind this assessment is closely guarded, so much so that even I don’t understand it. We will publish the first of our 2018 rankings after the race.
Recent History at Losail
In his 313th grand prix start, Rossi delivered a vintage performance in the 2015 season opener, going knives-in-a-phone booth with factory Ducati #1 Andrea Dovizioso all night before punking his compatriot by 17/100ths to take the lead in the title chase for the first time since 2010. Marquez got pushed way wide into the gravel on Lap 1, ultimately finishing fifth. Andrea Iannone, then laboring for Ducati, made it an all-Italian podium and overinflated our expectations for him in beating Jorge Lorenzo to the line by half a second. 2015 would be remembered as the year Marc Marquez did not win a championship.
The 2016 iteration of the Commercial Bank Grand Prix of Qatar marked the beginning of the newest era in MotoGP, that of Michelin tires and a standard ECU across the grid. In the run-up to the race, hopes that some new faces would emerge from the pack and find their way to the podium were building. Under the lights of Losail, however, defending champion Lorenzo held serve for Yamaha against a strong challenge from Andrea Dovizioso and Marc Marquez; the Usual Suspects once again asserted their dominance. At the time, a wager that nine different riders would ultimately win races that year would have seemed deranged.
Movistar Yamaha’s new kid on the block, Maverick Viñales, did to the field of the 2017 Grand Prix of Qatar what he had done ever since he first placed his bum on the saddle of the YZR-M1 the previous November. He ended the day at the top of the podium, having outdueled Dovizioso over the last eight laps of the race. Rossi finished third that night, with Marquez fourth, keeping his powder dry, coloring between the lines. Aleix Espargaro flogged his Aprilia RS-GP to an encouraging sixth place which would, unfortunately, stand as the high water mark of his season.
How Do YOU Spell Xenophobia?
As the curtain prepares to go up on the 2018 MotoGP season, let’s reacquaint ourselves with the rampant nationalism that is baked into the sport. Spain and Italy have pretty much had things their way since Casey Stoner got PW’ed into retirement by his lovely wife Adrianna after the 2012 season. Italy fits into that sentence only relatively, having failed to win a title during the period but having managed, on the other hand, not to lose a war. The Italian presence in MotoGP, however, is undeniable, with Valentino Rossi still competitive in his dotage and the Ducati brand having regained much of its previously lost luster. Andrea Dovizioso is now The Great Italian Hope and represents a credible threat to unseat Marc Marquez at the top of the food chain.
With premier class riders now hailing from places like Belgium and Malaysia, the Spanish stranglehold is under assault. One surmises that TV viewership across the globe is expanding, except in the United States, where it’s easier to find Ozzie & Harriet reruns than live race coverage. Thailand, we understand, is losing its collective mind over hosting MotoGP beginning this year. One assumes Finland will experience the same in 2019. With F1 giving up ground of late, soccer and MotoGP have become the top two spectator sports in most of the free world. This, in turn, relieves me of the sensation that I am writing mostly for readers from other galaxies. Your comments via DISQUS reinforce this relief.
Your Weekend Forecast
Expect dark, dusty, hot, repressive and oligarchical conditions in this feudal anachronism this weekend. I’ve read that within 50 years daytime highs in the country’s interior could reach 180° F, meaning they won’t be racing at Losail forever. You and I consistently place too much weight on the outcome of Round 1, which is a true outlier, the results of which should be taken with a grain of salt.
That being said, I can confidently predict Andrea Dovizioso will win the 2018 opener. With three very competitive second place finishes in the past three years, an improved bike, and confidence instilled from last year’s championship chase, he is my solid favorite. Marc Marquez, pretty much everyone’s choice to title again this year, has won at Losail only once (2014) since joining the premier class. He should end the evening on the podium. In my mind’s eye I see Jorge Lorenzo crashing out of the lead, the factory Yamaha pair of Viñales and Rossi in the mix, and at least one party crasher making it into the top five. Jack Miller and/or Alex Rins could have a big night. Even Dani Pedrosa, in what may be his swan song for Honda in the Persian Gulf, could end up on the podium.
We will have results and analysis for you sometime on Sunday, since I’m unable to translate the start time and GMT zone into anything comprehensible. I will miss Nick Harris and Dylan Gray. The mad scrambles of Moto2 and Moto3 will be worth watching, and I’ll try to give them some space in the race summary.
In the words of the late great Marvin Gaye, let’s get it on. And if that song gets stuck in your brain for the rest of the day, you’re welcome.