Monday, April 22, 2024
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MotoGP 2024: Qatar – Normal Service Resumed

Image source: KTM

We all have a favourite circuit, one that appeals because of its historical significance, or because of a particular race and result or simply because it appeals to our aesthetic sense. There are obvious ones – Spa Francorchamps, the Nurburgring, Silverstone, Monza, Suzuka – and there are others that mean nothing to us apart from the fact that a race in our favourite racing series takes place there.

It’s doubtful that Qatar registers very highly on anyone’s list of all-time great race tracks but, as a venue for the opening race of a season, it’s hard to beat, for one very simple reason: the race is run at night, under millions of watts of illumination. Here, for the first time, we get to really look at the bikes and they never look better than under artificial light. It’s a breathtaking debut and perfectly sets the scene for the season ahead.

Image source: KTM

The first race of the season has another special quality, for it is here that we get the first indications of the pecking order and, even if it is obviously too early to tell, an idea of how the championship is going to pan out. With that in mind, Qatar gave us nothing that we didn’t already suspect would happen and plenty to get excited about.

It was no surprise to see Ducati, KTM and Aprilia at the top of the time sheets and, sadly, it was equally no surprise to see Yamaha and Honda struggling. It’s nothing we haven’t become used to over the past two seasons, of course, but it is still incredible how far they have fallen: 13th on the grid for Zarco’s Honda was the highest Japanese grid position, the first Japanese bike in the Sprint race being Quartararo’s Yamaha, which also headed the Oriental contingent in the main race, finishing 11th. The balance of power has definitely swung to Europe and, if this continues, how long will Honda and Yamaha top brass continue to pour money into MotoGP? We’ve said before that there is a lot of strength in depth in both teams and they can’t be written off but, unless the results start coming, expect the worst.

Image source: MotoGP

The Sprint race was a little processional, if not an enticing glimpse into the future. Jorge Martin, Brad Binder and Aleix Espargaro filled the podium, with Bagnaia fourth. A close fifth was Marc Marquez, giving hope that, with more races under his belt, he will be challenging for wins. Of more interest was the performance of the new Wonder Kid, Pedro Acosta. Eighth in qualifying and eighth in the Sprint race was a debut that many had predicted but no one could have done so with any certainty, other than taking into account the fact that he is a phenomenal and precocious talent.

If Acosta’s Sprint race was relatively low-key, he really made people sit up and take notice in the Main race. Belying his rookie status, he casually picked off Aleix Espargaro, Jack Miller, Enea Bastianini and Alex Marquez before sitting behind Marc Marquez for a couple of laps. A clean move at turn one took him past the six-time MotoGP champion into fourth and, all of a sudden, it wasn’t out of the question for a podium finish as the top three certainly hadn’t made a break at the front.

Image source: MotoGP

Perhaps it was inexperience managing tyres over a race distance, but Acosta then started to drop back down the order as his rear tyre went off, eventually finishing ninth. It didn’t matter: by any measure, it was an impressive debut and, if any confirmation was needed, it would be a brave person who would bet against him ending the season with several podiums and perhaps even a race win.

Up front, no one could do anything about Bagnaia, who had the bike underneath him that he hadn’t had in the Sprint race. Binder and Martin might have been able to do something about it and, certainly, Bagnaia wasn’t getting away at the front, but a strong battle for second place between Binder and Martin distracted them from catching the flying factory Ducati. After the Sprint race, Martin had joked that it would be good to lead the championship for more than 24 hours (all he managed in 2023) but it was not to be and the day ran out with Bagnaia heading the championship table, with Binder two points behind and Martin a single point behind Binder.

Image source: KTM

It was a particularly heartening performance for Binder, who has always gone well in the Sprints but largely struggled to match it in the main race. To finish second to Bagnaia – not very far behind at all – will give the team a huge boost, especially in light of Miller’s pretty awful race, where he crashed out very early on, remounted and finished dead last. Miller’s contribution to the team cannot be understated and he is very well-liked but he’s going to have to up his game in the races if he is not to lose his seat to Acosta in 2025 (which might already be a done deal).

Image source: KTM

We all know that championships are won just as often on percentages as on outright victories. If that is the case, then Martin and Binder could very well launch a bid for the title by winning Sprint races – something they are both very good at doing – and placing well in the main races, especially if Bagnaia is inconsistent, although that looks like optimistic thinking right now. Both Bagnaia and the GP24 Ducati seem to have everything well under control, which is ominous for the chasing pack.

After the Sprint race, Aprilia had hopes of doing even better in the Main race, after Espargaro had finished on the podium in the Sprint, having started from second on the grid. The RS-GP had no vices whatsoever, other than a slight lack of straight-line speed, while the Ducatis suffered from chatter and Binder wanted more edge grip to improve acceleration out of corners. But Aprilia’s expected challenge for victory in the Main race failed to materialise, no doubt much to the frustration of the team and its riders. Espargaro had a poor start and, when things had settled down, he simply could make no impression on the Ducatis and KTMs ahead of him. If consistency wins championships then Aprilia need to generate some.

Image source: MotoGP

There were several interesting things to take away from Qatar. The first and most astonishing was the fact that the total race time for the Sprint race was 11 seconds faster than four months ago when the circus was last at the Lusail track. That’s a huge improvement, especially when the bikes are largely the same, with no significant rule change in the interim.

Here’s another thing: did you hear anyone mention tyre pressures? It was a huge talking point last year but there was barely a whisper about it this weekend in both Sprint and Main races. Before the weekend, Michelin announced that the minimum permitted pressure for the front tyre would be lowered to 1.80 bar, from 1.88 bar; not as much as some riders wanted but still a step in the right direction. In addition, it was announced that disqualification from the results due to running under pressure for too long during the race would be ditched, with a 16-second penalty replacing it. While that would be pretty devastating in itself, it’s not the tragedy a full disqualification would be.

Image source: KTM

Finally, a word about the artistic merits of the livery designs. It’s purely subjective, of course, but the Prima Pramac Ducatis looked spectacular, with a darker version of last year’s red and purple colour scheme. The LCR Hondas brought back a lot of memories with the green and white Castrol livery while the Pertamina VR46 Ducatis wore striking Day-Glo yellow paint that really made them stand out. The Gresini Ducatis looked positively drab by comparison, although it might be that their colours aren’t at their best under artificial light. No one knows what the factory Yamahas and Hondas look like as we barely saw them the whole weekend…!

Portugal coming up next, in two weeks’ time but then Argentina has been cancelled so there will be a three-week gap before we’re in the U.S. of A.

Image source: Ducati
Harry Fisher
Harry Fisher
Harry has been obsessing about motorbikes for over 45 years, riding them for 38 years and writing and talking about them for 13 years. In that time, he has ridden everything from an Aprilia to a Zundapp, from the 1920s to the 2020s. His favourites are the ones that didn’t break down and leave him stranded. While he loves the convenience of modern bikes, he likes nothing better than getting his hands dirty keeping old bikes running, just as long as it’s not by the roadside! Old enough to know better and young enough not to care, he knows you don’t stop riding when you get old, you get old when you stop riding.