Qatar GP Preview: Beware the Underdog

by Louis Suddaby

Cast your mind back five years and you would often start a MotoGP weekend with only four contenders for victory in mind, the two wearing orange at Repsol Honda and the two in blue at Yamaha, but times have drastically changed. The resurgence of Ducati as a credible force again, coupled with the emergence of independent riders with race winning potential, leave this weekend’s season opener in Qatar wide open.

Last year’s Qatar Grand Prix provided one of the great ‘what if’ stories of the MotoGP era as a remarkable rookie announced himself in the premier class. When Johann Zarco stormed into the lead at turn one and promptly eased away into the distance, the world collectively asked, “could we be about to see history made?” An unfortunate crash at turn two destroyed hopes of a debut victory for the Frenchman but he had served notice of his potential at the highest level.

Twelve months later and the Monster Yamaha Tech 3 rider has victory in his sights once again. After a near-miss in Valencia, Johann is still chasing a maiden MotoGP win for himself and his team and the pre-season test here suggests he has a real shot. Zarco ended three days of running here with a two-tenth lead over the competition with a lap just fractionally slower than the all-time Losail record. The race-winning pace is unquestionably there, and after admitting that the turn two crash of a year ago still haunts him, you can bet that he won’t make the same mistake again.

By no means is Zarco the only independent rider with the potential to win this race. Cal Crutchlow has been as impressive as anyone this winter, finishing inside the top four at all three winter tests, including at Losail when his race simulation ranked as highly as anyone else in the field. The Honda RC213V’s known lack of acceleration onto the 1km main straight could count against him if he finds himself in a group fight on Sunday but confidence is high as far as the British rider is concerned.

Jack Miller has been another of the winter’s stand-out stories, having adjusted to the Ducati GP17 with consummate ease. The new signing at Pramac has been a fixture in the top six this winter and took the first ever victory of his Grand Prix career here four years ago, back in his Moto3 days. A victory this time around would be an almighty shock but he does have the machine that won six times last year at his disposal, so perhaps we shouldn’t rule it out.

History would suggest that Ducatis don’t go particularly well at Losail (they haven’t won here since 2009) but that couldn’t be further from the truth. Andrea Dovizioso has been an agonisingly-close second in each of the last three seasons here and those were in season’s where Ducati weren’t considered title challengers. Make no mistake, they are this time, and this will be a race they have targeted.

Five of the last six races here have gone the way of the factory Yamaha team and although the winter hasn’t exactly gone to plan for them, they will probably start the weekend as slight favourites. The YZR-M1 still appears to go missing on low grip circuits and in mixed weather conditions but neither of those factors should come into play here, allowing Maverick Vinales and Valentino Rossi to extract the undoubted potential out of the machine. Vinales has cut a frustrated figure at times this winter, a far cry from the man who looked unstoppable a year ago, while Rossi has sounded a cautiously optimistic note. The Doctor has already stolen the pre-race headlines by signing a two-year contract extension. Could he make more headlines on Sunday?

It would be remiss to look ahead to the opening Grand Prix without mentioning the world champion, and Marc Marquez has been ominously happy with Repsol Honda’s progress in testing. However competitive the 2018-spec RC213V is looking, the Spaniard is wise enough to pick his battles and admits that this circuit may be one of Honda’s weakest on the calendar. It would be foolish to write Marquez or Dani Pedrosa off going into any MotoGP weekend, but if they emerge victorious here, the rest will really start worrying.

Marquez will be out to make a winning start, although Losail may not suit the Hondas (Photo Credit: MotoGP.com)

In Moto2, Qatar provides quite an accurate form guide for the season as a whole with five of the last seven winners going on to clinch the title. That adds an extra layer to an already-fascinating weekend with KTM looking to build on a dominant finish to 2017 which saw them win each of the last three races at a canter. Miguel Oliveira has proven in the past that once he discovers that winning feeling, he’s very difficult to dislodge, and he will be intent on extending his winning streak. Whatever happens, we’re guaranteed a new winner here with nobody on the current grid having won a Moto2 race in Qatar before.

All eyes will be on the KTMs in Moto3 too after the Austrian manufacturer took a walloping from Honda in 2017. The Japanese machines won 17 out of 18 races last season, including Joan Mir’s victory here, so this weekend will give us a first indication of whether the former champions have made up ground this winter.

Whatever happens, The Checkered Flag will have full coverage of all three classes throughout the weekend.

Qatar GP: Previous Winners

YearMotoGP Moto2 Moto3/125cc 
2017M.VinalesYamahaF.MorbidelliKalexJ.MirHonda
2016J.LorenzoYamahaT.LuthiKalexN.AntonelliHonda
2015V.RossiYamahaJ.FolgerKalexA.MasbouHonda
2014M.MarquezHondaT.RabatKalexJ.MillerKTM
2013J.LorenzoYamahaP.EspargaroKalexL.SalomKTM
2012J.LorenzoYamahaM.MarquezSuterM.VinalesFTR Honda
2011C.StonerHondaS.BradlKalexN.TerolAprilia
2010V.RossiYamahaS.TomizawaSuterN.TerolAprilia

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