It’s always a relief when the first race of the MotoGP season is done and dusted: now all the bullshit stops and the riders and teams have to do their talking on track, where it really counts. Forget what happened in testing as that never gives a truthful picture.
Or does it? It’s easy to forget, in the post-race hysteria after a maiden victory that seemingly came out of nowhere, that Bastianini topped the timesheets at the Sepang test. Riding a year-old Ducati GP21 in place of the two-year-old Ducati GP19 he rode in 2021, Bastianini suddenly found himself in the enviable position of having a bike with which he could paint his own canvas rather than having to paint-by-numbers.
Part of Bastianini’s genius in Qatar was not simply running the medium rear Michelin – other riders did the same – but his riding style which is very much like Marc Marquez: attack the front tyre which has the advantage of saving the rear tyre so it has performance left at the end of the race, something that the likes of Pol Espargaro, running the soft rear tyre that he destroyed running so fast at the front, could not hope to emulate. In the circumstances, a podium finish for Pol was a brilliant ride.
Much was made of Ducati’s eight-bike attack but while Bastianini – or The Beast as he is affectionately known – was riding a known quantity on the GP21 (the bike which, let’s not forget, won four out of the last six races in 2021), the factory riders were having a torrid time with the GP22. Bagnaia had a dreadful qualifying and even worse race when he skittled out pole-sitter Jorge Martin into retirement for them both and Jack Miller dropped like a stone into retirement early on with electronic gremlins. Elsewhere in the Ducati camp, the next best rider was Johan Zarco who finished ninth and Luca Marini was the only other Ducati points finisher in 13th.
Another important factor in Bastianini’s and Gresini’s armoury is his crew chief Alberto Giribuola, who is a master of electronics. It was Giribuola who masterminded Andrea Dovizioso’s trio of championship runner up slots in 2017, 2018 and 2019 and it looks as if he might be about to have as much success with Bastianini.
And let’s not forget the strength in depth of the Gresini team. Multiple race winners in MotoGP with Sete Gibernau, Marco Melandri and Tony Elias, the team survived the tragic loss of Fausto Gresini at the beginning of 2021 from Covid and the outpouring of emotion of the whole team, now being run by Fausto’s widow, was just beautiful to witness. This is a team that is full of the passion for racing.
Yamaha and Suzuki were feeling confident for the race, even if Suzuki still haven’t sorted out their qualifying issues, Mir and Rins ended up on the third and fourth rows respectively, with Quartararo next to Rins. All three thought they could run at the front but the pace was simply too hot and all three struggled to keep up. Mir finished the race 4.8 seconds behind the winner, with Rins four seconds further back and Quartararo two seconds behind that. This year’s race was 11.5 seconds faster than last year’s, so while Ducati, Honda, Aprilia and KTM have got faster, Yamaha have stayed where they were. Suzuki has improved but the in-line four-cylinder engines just don’t have the grunt of the V4s.
Of course, all this is based on one track – a track, let’s not forget, that has a long straight – and it would be unrealistic to think the Yamaha and Suzuki will be handicapped at every track. But without the top speed of the V4-engined bikes, they are going to have their work cut out for them.
Honda have come into 2022 with a radically re-designed RC213V, partly because they were without their talisman Marquez for so much of the last two years. This forced them to build a bike that suited more than one rider and, while in Losail that played into the hands of Espargaro, Marquez has to learn how to ride without using his favoured front end hammering technique as the new bike is more rear-biased to take advantage of the Michelin rear slick tyre. Espargaro uses the rear more than the front so the new bike suits him down to the ground. That, however, was his downfall in the race.
Espargaro chose the soft/soft tyre set up because he thought there would be a large group running at the front, consequently running slower lap times. But he was out at the front on his own and ruined his tyres staying there: his rear-tyre biased riding technique killed the tyre and he did extremely well to finish in third, a result with which he was very happy.
Of course, the big news for South African fans was the performance of the Binder Brothers. Second place for Brad was KTM’s first-ever podium in Qatar and Darryn lost out on a point in his first race by the width of a hair. The fact that he finished, however, was a huge boost for him: he now has infinitely more experience to take into the next race: testing is one thing but running with the pack quite another and, if he ended up second-best rookie behind Remy Gardner, it was a well-fought second-best.
The KTM looks a whole lot better than it did in testing and it seems that KTM might have found their way again by not changing everything wholesale and just staying calm and developing what they have. It seems to be working and Brad certainly now has the experience and skill to fight at the very top consistently over the season.
Just as mouth-watering is the prospect of Aprilia joining the other manufacturers at the sharp end of the field. Aleix Espargaro had a brilliant race, running in the top four and finishing less than a second behind his brother on the Honda. More importantly, the Aprilia was the second-fastest bike in a straight line, just behind Mir’s Suzuki.
Of course, not every track has a long straight, as we mentioned, and so agility will count as much as sheer grunt which will favour different bikes over the course of the season. Even after one race, the prospects are tantalising.