As predicted, it was Marc Márquez versus Andrea Dovizioso, with Maverick Viñales in miraculous attendance on a Yamaha somehow a second faster than in recent events. After a mid-race push, the two leaders took turns passing each other, running wide, and being repassed, so the finish was decided by whose turn it was to repass at the last turn. It was Márquez, with Dovizioso second, and a block of three Yamahas third, fourth, and fifth, Viñales at their head.

Márquez, starting first, led four laps, then Valentino Rossi led six, and then Dovi led all the rest save for the last.

Many variables cooperated to make this, the first MotoGP held on Thailand's Buriram International Circuit, one of the closest ever, with four riders within a tenth in qualifying (almost won by the come-from-nowhere Rossi), and a last-lap, last-corner outcome. Riders found Buriram initially lacking in grip, but as accumulated dust was blown out by the first afternoon, conditions improved. Yet it was hot—Cal Crutchlow reckoned, "It's hotter here than Sepang (Malaysia), f—king sure."

Anyone who imagines MotoGP is just sitting on a motorbike and working the controls should think again. “When I ran the heart monitor in Misano the last time I averaged 192 for 41 minutes. Average,” Crutchlow also said.

Marc Márquez
Marc Márquez took the win in Thailand after swapping positions with Andrea Dovizioso.Courtesy of Repsol Honda

Jorge Lorenzo, Dovizioso’s teammate, was ruled out of the event because of a hairline fracture resulting from a spectacular highside crash in practice.

A big question that remains is, do the Yamahas owe their return to competitiveness to set-up changes, to the new stiffer-construction hard rear tire, or to the nature of the track, which half favored the Hondas and Ducati and half favored the Yamahas and Suzukis.

Rossi (fourth today) said, “We need to understand if it was just the track that helped us, or the reality that we made a small step.

“...Unfortunately I think that it is the track and the tire.”

Valentino Rossi
Valentino Rossi believes the track and tires were the reasons for the strong Yamaha showing in Thailand.Courtesy of Movistar Yamaha

Dovizioso’s view was, “The first part [of Buriram Circuit] can be good for us and then from the middle to the end it is not.”

But also, “This is a Suzuki and Yamaha track since it flows a lot and they are the best in that area.”

And, “…here there are several long turns where we are struggling.”

The product of close competition is riders learning from each other, and thereby bootstrapping the skills of all. Márquez said of his late-race duel with Dovi, “Today we swapped the styles—I was Dovi and he was Marc, he went in really fast and slightly wide, but he was very close to achieving his goal, which was a kind of block pass.

“Maybe [my riding style is like] Schwantz because I’m braking more on the limit, but my target is to try to change my style, to try to be like Dovi’s style—smooth and lean a little bit and accelerate. But at the moment it is not possible.

“…in Motegi we need to improve in two or three areas because the Ducati there will be very strong. I was behind Dovi for a lot of laps here and I saw a few points where he was very strong. So if we want to beat him in Motegi we must improve some points to be faster or it will not be possible.”

Dovi emphasized contrast: “Our styles are completely different. Style is one thing and the characteristic of the bike is another story. Both things create this big difference because I think his style is…the same style as Honda—very agile and aggressive.

“My style is a bit more relaxed, but you also have to ride our bike in that way. You can’t ride the Ducati like this and I don’t think I can ride the Honda in the same way.

“We are trying to study and work, and try to be better where he is better, but still there is a big difference in style and the characteristic of the bike.”

Andrea Dovizioso
Dovi came out on the short end of the passing battle and left Thailand with a second-place trophy.Courtesy of Ducati

The classic example of a block pass was Gary Nixon’s quick dive to the inside, braking very late, and occupying the apex just as his opponent approached it at higher speed. This forced the other rider to lift, run wide, and lose time. Nixon raced men, not tracks.

As he has done before, Viñales was able to make time near the end of the race. He was fifth for 16 laps, then was able to gather the tire and pace to pass Rossi and Álex Rins to finish third, making up time on the leaders to be just 0.27 second behind the leader. If this results from the bike and not from the track or the new tire, it is a great advance from Yamaha’s recent discouraging finishes.

What was working for Viñales? “We tried some things that we should have tried many months ago.

“It was very important today to improve a little bit the braking and a little bit the acceleration.…”

Maverick Viñales
Maverick Viñales credited an improvement in braking and acceleration for his third-place finish.Courtesy of Movistar Yamaha

The change might have been to raise the bike, which can increase weight transfer in both braking and acceleration enough to give good initial bite in braking and to make a bike accelerate rather than spin on throttle. Motorcycle race tire rubber has to be much harder than formula car rubber because of its greater load per square inch of footprint. The sides of tires cool on straights and temperature up during braking and turning. If there’s not enough prompt weight transfer, the result can be front locking and rear spinning.

Johann Zarco, fifth, was able to pass Rins to make it three Yamahas third-fourth-fifth.

“In the end,” Zarco said, “the top four went away a little bit and I saw [that in] the last three laps I had enough energy to push again. I saw that I could catch Álex.”

“I tried for all the race to save the tires, like everybody, because it’s more like a [bi]cycle race now [in that no one has the resources to lead for long],” Rossi said.

“Everybody waiting, sometimes one rider will push for two laps and all the other guys follow, but after [he] slows down another one tries to lead. Now you never push for all the race.

“I tried, but in the last laps I was more in trouble [with the tires] and I lacked two- or three-tenths [in lap time].”

Dani Pedrosa was unable to get temperature into the hard tire that Michelin dictated for the race.

With the Suzukis advancing in the last two races and the Yamahas just now returning to competitive pace, Motegi (in two weeks) could be an even closer contest than today’s. When many riders and machines compete on a common level, the importance of small differences is greatly magnified. Don’t miss this golden age.