In my season preview article, I noted that this was going to be a MotoGP season full of unknowns. The usually consistent “premier class” saw a number of rules and equipment changes over the off-season. The first round in Qatar answered a lot of those questions, and not the way I was expecting them to. We saw several glimmers of the gems that may yet emerge from the 2016 MotoGP season, as well as a couple things that raised eyebrows.
The most notable of these surprises is the life of the new Michelin tires. Reviewing statistics from the 2015 season, 14 out of 18 fast laps came on Laps 2 through 5. At Qatar, Lorenzo was setting fast laps all the way to Lap 20 or 22. We know Michelin has been a big proponent of direct return on investment with its racing participation. That said, I do not believe many saw such a dramatic coming. We will need to wait and see how the next few grands prix play out. However, if this becomes a norm in MotoGP, it will be interesting to see how aggressive teams and riders become on tire choice, and how much it changes race strategy. It could also make grands prix boring if no one begins to lose pace as a race goes on. On the other hand, if two or more riders are locked in a battle, they may not need to worry about tire wear. The larger 17-inch rims and did not appear to hurt the visual aspect of the on-track product the way some had feared, The close racing at the front made the grand prix very entertaining to watch, regardless if the riders were carrying 62-degrees of lean angle or 64-degrees.
Another takeaway from the race was the performance of the factory Ducatis. Despite Iannone crashing out on Lap 5, Dovizioso finished second. Moreover, both Ducatis showed they had the pace to stay with the Yamahas. Where the Ducati appeared to gain its advantage was on the Losail Circuit’s long front straight. Ducatis have never been short on top-end power in MotoGP. The problem has usually been getting that power to the ground early on corner exit. That is where Stoner’s unique riding style could do things all other Ducati factory riders had not been able to. This is where innovations like Yamaha’s cross-plane crankshaft come into play. Even with the simplified electronics, it appears Ducati engineers have found a way to address their age-old problem. MotoGP’s next stop is Argentina, before making their way to the United States’ Circuit of the Americas. We will have to wait and see how much of an advantage the Ducatis can gain on both of those circuits’ long backstraights.
Not surprisingly, off-season favorite and 2015 World Champion Jorge Lorenzo took a convincing victory. Lorenzo’s strong and consistent pace throughout winter testing easily made him the favorite for the Qatar race. Meanwhile, Lorenzo’s nine-time World Champion teammate Valentino Rossi came home in fourth. While having some technical problems with his Yamaha R1, Rossi never appeared to be a threat to Lorenzo, and had a hard time staying with Marc Marquez after Marquez passed him on Lap 3. We do not have a big enough sample size to determine how much of a threat Rossi will be this year. With his future at Yamaha secured with a two-year contract extension, Rossi can ride off into the sunset on the brand that brought him four of his seven MotoGP titles. It will be interesting to watch this season unfold and see if Rossi can stay with Lorenzo and the Ducatis at more technical tracks like Assen or Misano.