A last-lap, last-corner push by Repsol Honda's Marc Márquez to eclipse factory Ducati-mounted race leader Andrea Dovizioso failed as his speed took him wide. Dovizioso then won the drag race to the flag by 0.023 second, with LCR Honda's Cal Crutchlow third, Suzuki's Álex Rins fourth, and 40-year-old phenomenon Valentino Rossi fifth, the top Yamaha despite starting 14th.

It had been a complex three days, eagerly anticipated as the first real evidence of what the teams and riders have accomplished over the winter. Honda has new horsepower, Yamaha has poured research into overcoming its two-year slump of poor late-race tire condition, Ducati has brought fresh and mysterious technologies to the game, and Suzuki, despite limited resources, is now challenging at top level.

Weather, in the form of high winds on Saturday and low temperatures during qualifying (and at race time), was another element. When track temperature dropped to 68 degrees Fahrenheit or lower (the Márquez “crash point”), a tricky zone was created in which no tire was correct. There were many crashes. Rider requests to race earlier than the scheduled 8 p.m. local time were denied.

Also getting attention were the talented youngsters who had impressed in testing and through practice: Fabio Quartararo, who was fifth in FP2 and FP4, qualifying fifth, and Petronas Yamaha teammate Franco Morbidelli, seventh in FP1, FP2, and FP3 and qualifying eighth. Pundits were impressed by Mr. Q’s long run with many 1:55s. Yes, they were riding the easiest bikes on which to learn on a circuit that has favored Yamahas. But could they make their tires last?

We’ve now seen the videos of Dovizioso and teammate Danilo Petrucci activating Ducati’s “holeshot device” with a winding key or large wingnut atop the upper fork crown. It appears to prevent extension of the front suspension and compression of the rear during starts, and it appears to have worked. The GP19s of Dovizioso and Jack Miller were first into turn 1 at the start.

Marc Marquez
Asked at the Qatar post-race press conference about any performance advantages the unexplained additions Ducati fitted to its GP19 may have given Andrea Dovizioso, Marc Márquez brushed off the controversy. “I tried to do my 100 percent inside the track,” he said. “Today, one rider was faster than me, and it was Dovizioso. He beat me.”Photo courtesy of Ducati

Strange palm leaves or ping-pong paddles shielded the bottom quarter of the Ducatis’ brake discs. Are they aerodynamic devices? Heat-retaining devices? Or just plain old attention-getting mechanisms put there by race boss Gigi Dall’Igna to jack the heart rates of Honda execs?

Lastly, there was a mysterious scoop-like shape, attached to the underside of the Ducatis’ swingarms just ahead of the arc of the rear tire. Journalists called it “a tire-cooling scoop,” but when questioned about it, Petrucci said, “I cannot tell you what it is for my contract forbids, but I can say that it is not for tire cooling.”

That scoop-like object was protested by Aprilia Gresini, Red Bull KTM, Repsol Honda, and Suzuki Ecstar. The FIM’s MotoGP stewards panel rejected the protest, so the race results stand. An appeal to the MotoGP Court of Appeals is in process (“Will counsel please approach the bench…”).

Cal Crutchlow
Regarding the potentially career-ending ankle injury he suffered at Phillip Island in October, Cal Crutchlow admitted, “At one point, we didn’t know if I was going to be coming back at all. If you had asked me after warm-up if I’d finish on the podium, I would have laughed. Once we started the race, Marc and I had similar tactics, saving the rear tire.”Photo courtesy of LCR Honda

Dovizioso led the first seven laps, Rins put his Suzuki at the front for three, and Dovizioso regained the lead for all but lap 21 (Márquez) of the rest of the race. Viñales on Saturday had said, “I think tomorrow it’s going to be a group race, especially for the first 10 laps.”

So it was: eight riders in a pack, lap after lap. Then, like an elongated cell dividing, the lead five separated from the rest. And here came Rossi, weak every day but Sunday as so often before, making a late-race push with tire grip he’d saved for the purpose, crossing the gap to be fifth, 0.6 second behind winner Dovizioso.

This is the game played by the masters, to somehow get through the first difficult laps when the extra weight of full fuel is tire torture, to refuse empty challenges that tempt lesser men to gamble away rubber, all in the interest of having something to fight with in the last hectic laps of lunge and riposte. Here we see the differences between veteran and novice: Dovizioso’s race was the inverse of Quartararo’s, making the fast laps when they count, at the end, while Quartararo’s 1:55s were in the first half, his second half being a second a lap slower. (Quartararo was forced to start from pit lane and play catch-up after his M1 stalled on the grid.)

Álex Rins
Fourth and eighth in the under-the-lights season-opener, the Suzukis were praised for their midcorner speed. “The race pace was quite slow and I was constantly trying to get to the front to pull a gap, but Dovi and Márquez overtook me down the straight,” Álex Rins (42) said. “We know this isn’t our best track, but I felt good and we’re all pleased with this result.”Photo courtesy of Suzuki

I expect great things of Quartararo. He is a novice only in MotoGP and, like most riders who reach his level, has been racing all his life. For him, MotoGP is just a new piece of equipment to learn, like a fighter pilot assigned an updated aircraft. He will learn it.

Dovizioso described dealing with the challenge from Rins: “He wanted to be faster too soon, and that was bad for the tire. Fortunately, I had more power on the straight. I lost a little bit of time in the middle of the corner because his speed in the middle of the corner was amazing. But I was able to overtake him every time and continue to save the tire. That was the key to try to put Marc on the limit in the last few laps. It helped me to understand Márquez’s bad situation on the rear tire.”

Márquez would have preferred to run harder tires but was prevented from doing so by the low track temperature. He said, “Today was a very strange race. I mean it was a very slow pace. But for me it was much better because I was struggling to save the rear tire, but also the front, and I think the others didn’t have the problem with the front.”

Ah, but they did. After topping FP1 on Friday, Rossi in FP2—with almost no setup changes—encountered a condition that destroyed his front tires in five laps. “I destroyed it on the right,” he said, “because here you work a lot the right side. It looks like the line is narrow for us to go fast.”

Thus, here were Rossi, unable to advance because his preferred medium front was too soft, and Márquez, kept from using the hard, yet finding the medium too soft to be durable. Márquez again: “I was struggling a lot to understand and manage the front tire, because for my riding style it was too soft; even the hard one was not working [because it was different from last year’s hard].

When you can’t steer with one end, try the other!

Maverick Viñales
Maverick Viñales (12) qualified on pole for the seventh time in his MotoGP career. His factory Yamaha teammate, Valentino Rossi (46), was 14th. At the finish, the 40-year-old Italian was two positions ahead of the much younger Spaniard. “I arrived fifth,” Rossi said guardedly. “That’s good, especially because I’m 0.6 second from the victory, but at this track we are always good.”Photo courtesy of Yamaha

Márquez continued: “When you ride all the race with the rear tire, it means you are using a lot of rubber, and I saw in the end the speed of Dovi was better. But then I just tried to push and see what happens if I try at the last corner. I lost, but I’m very happy because of these 20 points.”

Dovizioso saw it this way: “He was able to try again in the last corner, and he is so good with that. But in the end, he did a mistake. Only Marc in that situation is thinking about overtaking riders. So I did a perfect lap to put him on the limit, but at the end you have to be ready for him because he is like this.”

Márquez made the move, but the extra speed carried him wide. It was Dovizioso by a length.

Fabio Quartararo
MotoGP rookie Fabio Quartararo was forced to start from pit lane after his satellite Yamaha stalled on the grid. He finished the race in 16th, narrowly missing out on a point-scoring position. “The biggest thing I learned from my first Grand Prix is that it is much harder to overtake in this category than it is in Moto2 and Moto3,” he said, “but we did learn a lot during the race.”Photo courtesy of Petronas Yamaha

Crutchlow was delighted to find himself performing well despite not knowing in December whether his ankle injured in October at Phillip Island would even be healed enough to race. He is there on a factory Honda because his intelligence, powers of observation, and North Country forthrightness have made him Honda’s reliable test pilot. We are all delighted to see him on the podium.

Rins and his Suzuki were in the lead group the whole way, so at the moment Yamaha engineers face an even taller hill to climb. Rossi and crew had come up with setup changes that made the front usable. Rossi’s verdict on Yamaha’s 2019 updates? “The problems are more or less the same,” he said. “In some areas, we improved but, unfortunately, we are always struggling with rear grip, and it is difficult.”

On top of that, the Hondas are now even with Ducati on top speed, while the Yamahas were always near the bottom of that list. And Qatar is a track where Yamahas have done well in the past; it lacks small corners like Circuit of The America’s squiggles, where the Hondas pull away. Márquez came close to winning at Qatar despite having said, “It’s one of the most difficult for us. Since we arrived here, I felt like we were struggling like every year.” That makes the future look rosy for the Honda men.

Viñales, whose mood had been elevated by good performance through practice and qualifying, was back on Depression Street as so often in the past two years.

In two weeks, this paddock will grasp at yet another part of the elephant that is MotoGP, and the picture will change again. At the moment, we have only a very few pixels.