Maverick Viñales closed the book on the questions, doubts and bench racing leading into 2017 MotoGP series by extending his pre-season testing dominance into an authoritative victory at rain-hit Qatar. The twenty-two year old celebrated his first triumph for Movistar Yamaha in what was (eventually) a dry and shortened sprint at Losail through defeating Andrea Dovizioso and a surprising recovery by teammate Valentino Rossi who made the box in third place.
There was a genuine feeling of ‘will-it-won’t-it’ around Losail due to freak weather conditions and an electrical storm that battered the circuit on Friday night. The lack of drainage meant large pools accumulated in the gravel traps, and streams cut across at least three corners of what was otherwise a dry course on Saturday. Safety concerns before the evening qualification period led to cancellation of the programme and with worries over an unstable forecast for Sunday. By 9pm local time on raceday the skies were no less clear and two spouts of rain caused delays and consternation among some riders on the grid. Finally, almost an hour later, the opening soiree of MotoGP could get underway as temperatures dropped, more rain was a danger and dew was also an issue.
Monster Tech 3 Yamaha’s Johann Zarco was an early revelation; the French rookie led the first six laps and with a small gap looked as though he might be the first debutant winner in the premier class since 2008 but slid out of the running on Turn 2. Viñales and Rossi hunted the rear wheel of Marc Marquez and soon pushed up to threaten new race leader Dovizioso. Rossi was masterful after struggling in practice with a lack of feeling with his front tyre and kept the pressure on the Spaniard and Italian ahead of him. Viñales finally made a small break from the Ducati starting the last lap, and #25 had the gap he needed to release all the pressure and expectation fortified by his outstanding performances in all four tests leading up to Qatar.
“This race was so difficult,” Viñales said. “You spend the pre-season trying your best but you don't know if it will be enough so I was very happy to take this first win for Yamaha. When you have this extra pressure and motivation then it pushes you. When it started to rain then it meant the first laps were really difficult but when I got to my own pace I could concentrate and save the tyre to be strong at the end of the race. To control anything in MotoGP is difficult but I was fast once I got my feeling and when I saw Valentino was behind me I thought ‘right, now you really have to concentrate!’ Dovi started to push when I got close to him and it was really difficult, not easy at all but I could win and battle in the right way. I felt great.”
2015 World Champion Jorge Lorenzo made his debut on the Ducati and scored a result of 11th that the Spaniard described as “disappointing”. #99’s off track excursion to avoid hitting Dani Pedrosa on Turn 4 on the first lap cost him a lot of time and positions. Another ‘first timer’ was Jonas Folger and the German came back from a cautious start to claim tenth. LCR Honda’s Cal Crutchlow had his front tyre swapped for a harder option on the grid among the delay for the race start; the Brit crashed early while jostling as part of the large leading group and then went down again a lap later with his RCV damaged.
EG 0,0 Marc VDS rider Franco Morbidelli scored the first Moto2 pole position of his career after clocking the fastest time before the abandonment of proceedings on Saturday. The Italian was one of the favourites for success in Qatar and duly delivered. He swiftly dismissed the early threat of Thomas Luthi and then opened a three second window ahead of the field. #21 was calculated and ruthless to celebrate his maiden GP win in some style.
“Lots of emotions when I crossed the finish line; it was a cocktail of emotions actually,” Franky said. “You think about everything in your life and I was trying to take all I was feeling and to absorb it. It was so nice.”
Moto3 offered up a fantastic spectacle to open 2017 with thirteen riders separated by less than two seconds for over half of the eighteen laps. The final circulations whittled the fastest down to a group of nine with Estrella Galicia 0,0s Aron Canet in the midst of the pulse-quickening dispute. As Joan Mir succeeded by over a tenth of a second from John McPhee and Jorge Martin, Canet missed out on the box by less than four hundredths of a second: half a bike length.
MotoGP will cut through the time zones and into a bevvy of public attention and clamour with the Grand Prix of Argentina in two weeks time at Termas de Rio Hondo.