New Yamaha signing Maverick Vinales lived up to his pre-event hype by taking the win under the lights at Qatar in the opening round of the 2017 World Championship.
The 22-year-old Spaniard, who moved to Yamaha from Suzuki for 2017, has been the cream of winter testing, topping the timesheets in every single off-season test, and had the honour of taking pole position as a result of his time in Thursday’s free practice session. Saturday’s official qualifying sessions were cancelled due to storms over the desert circuit.
Away from the lights it was MotoGP rookie Johann Zarco who was a surprise leader on the Monster Tech 3 Yamaha. The Frenchman, a double Moto2 champion, made a great start and led for the first six laps, only to crash out of a one and a half second lead on the seventh lap.
Zarco’s departure left Ducati’s Andrea Dovizioso leading from defending champion Marc Marquez on the Repsol Honda and Andrea Iannone on his Suzuki debut. Iannone’s challenge was over by lap 11, when he too crashed out, and by that time the Yamaha’s of Vinales and Valentino Rossi were right on the tail of the leaders. Dovizioso was able to enjoy a good battle with Vinales but ultimately had to give second best. The Italian had chosen a softer option tyre to get the best performance out of the powerful Ducati, but Vinales’ more durable option proved to be a better option in the closing laps.
Behind the top three, Marquez faded to a distant fourth, finishing just ahead of his team-mate Dani Pedrosa, who had enjoyed a good battle with Aleix Espargaro on the Aprilia. Esparagaro’s ride was one of the best of the night, giving the Italian factory its best result in MotoGP.
Scott Redding was best of the Brits, in seventh on last year’s factory Ducati, but it was a tough day for Cal Crutchlow, who struggled throughout the weekend and suffered two crashes during the race on his LCR Honda. Bradley Smith made big strides with the new KTM throughout the weekend but didn’t trouble the scorers, finishing 17th, while Sam Lowes was one place behind him on the second Aprilia. Multiple world champion Jorge Lorenzo has a baptism of fire on his Ducati debut though, finishing 11th – his lowest ever race finish in a nine year MotoGP career.
Speaking after the race, Vinales said: “I feel incredible and it shows in the results. We did a great job during the whole weekend and we started good in the test, then in FP1 we were already feeling really good. The race was difficult, it started to rain and there was a bit of confusion because we didn’t know what to do. The first laps were very challenging, the track was so slippery and I wanted to take it easy and stay calm. I knew I had a good pace, so I tried to push at the very end of the race. There were many crashes at the front, so I waited for the right moment and finally we took the victory. The feeling when I crossed the line was incredible. As the first victory with Yamaha, it was even more important than the first MotoGP victory, because there was so much pressure. We were leading all the tests, “You can do it”, and finally we did, so I’m happy with how I handled the pressure and also that the team worked really good. The electronics were ready and the grip of the tyres was really good on the last laps. The third sector was honestly so crucial, because Andrea [Dovizioso] used the soft tyres, so he collected the benefits and could accelerate better all the time and he didn’t waste the tyre, so it was hard to beat him, but in sector three I was really strong the whole weekend. I set my best sector three on the last lap and it was the minimum to take the victory, it’s really great, I’m so happy. I hope for a perfect start in Argentina. The start here was good, but I just went outside of the line and when Zarco came he crashed into me, so I had to pick up the bike and then Marquez and Dovi passed me so it was a bit chaotic on the early laps, but then I was able to concentrate. We have to continue like that and maintain this concentration.”
Dovizioso added: “I’m very pleased with the result and the job we did this weekend: it was difficult for everyone because of the conditions we encountered, but we worked well and we calmly arrived at the race with a competitive set-up. We were even better at choosing the rear tyre on the grid, changing strategy and switching to the soft tyre. In the final part of the race I tried to hold back Maverick but I don’t think that we could have done anything better today.”
Rossi was delighted to be on the podium after a tough weekend, commenting: “My secret is my team. We never give up and we always keep up our concentration. I always feel the support and the trust from all the guys around me, which is great. We know our potential and we know we have a great bike and race rider. Sincerely, when I was in the top five I already said “this is OK”, but arriving on the podium is something even better. I’m very happy to start the season like this, because the podium is always better and, like was said, it comes after a difficult period. We have to continue like this. This result is very good for us, both for our feeling and also for the technical side, because we now understand a lot of things.”
Bad weather meant that the event proved challenging in many ways. Built in the Arabian desert, Qatar is known for its lack of rainfall but bad weather on Saturday saw the entire qualifying day cancelled. A combination of inadequate drainage at the circuit, and the fact that racing takes place under the glare of the floodlights in this night race made conditions to tricky to ride, but thankfully race day was largely unaffected. Both support races took place in dry conditions and, despite a shower causing a delay to the MotoGP event, the race went ahead without problems.
In the support classes, Italian Franco Morbidelli won the Moto2 race at a canter while the Moto3 race was the best of the day with the top eight covered by less than a second at the flag. In the end Spaniard Joan Mir won from Scotsman John McPhee, who gave the new British Talent Team an almost perfect start to the season.