We need to talk about Johann Zarco. For a rookie to lead his very first race on a MotoGP bike is not just unusual, it has never been done before. To do so for six laps is beyond remarkable, and a sign that something rather special is happening.
To put this into perspective, it is worth noting that not only did Zarco lead the race, but he also set the fastest lap in his first race. The last rookie to set the fastest lap during their first race? Marc Márquez, Qatar 2013. Before that? Valentino Rossi, Welkom 2000. And before that, Max Biaggi, Suzuka 1998.
Zarco's downfall came at Turn 2 on lap 7. Quite literally: he got a little off line, hit a dirtier part of the track, and down he went. There is no shame in crashing out of your first MotoGP race. Valentino Rossi crashed out of his first premier class Grand Prix too. On the other hand, Marc Márquez, Jorge Lorenzo, and Dani Pedrosa all finished on the podium in their MotoGP debut race. Max Biaggi actually won his first 500cc race at Suzuka.
The same, but different
There is a difference, of course. Márquez, Lorenzo, Pedrosa, Biaggi were all on a factory team. Rossi too, the Nastro Azzurro squad a de facto factory team set up to house Rossi because the Repsol team was already full. Johann Zarco is on the satellite Monster Tech 3 Yamaha squad, on a bike which was rolled out of the Movistar Yamaha garage and into Tech 3 on Sunday night after the final race at Valencia, and has only had an engine update. The Movistar Yamahas of Rossi and Maverick Viñales have had another swing arm and a new frame in the intervening period.
Zarco also switch from the medium to the soft rear tire just before the race, which will have made a difference to his pace. "I say to the guys, ‘I want to play, like in the poker, with this soft tire.’" Zarco said after the race. "I saw that the race went from 22 to 21 to 20 laps. I say, ‘Why not try it?’ I had nothing to lose."
Could Zarco have made it to the end of the race on the soft tire? He certainly believes that he could. "I’m a smooth rider and with this soft tire it was possible to keep it good," he said. Plenty of other riders used the soft rear tire, including Aleix Espargaro who finished sixth, seven-and-a-half seconds behind the eventual winner, Maverick Viñales.
The other Yamaha riders all went for the medium option, so how the soft would have fared on a Yamaha is an unknown quantity. The soft tire was strongest for five or six laps, riders said after practice. The pace dropped off after that. Would Zarco have been able to maintain his pace on used tires? In the post-race press conference, Valentino Rossi revealed that he had been warned by Franco Morbidelli, the Moto2 rider who is part of the VR46 Riders Academy. "He said that [Zarco] did something special with the Moto2, especially in the last 10 laps. And he always said to me, pay attention, because he will be fast also with the MotoGP."
Six laps is not enough evidence to be drawing any firm conclusions about Zarco's chances of being a candidate for the title. But it is clear from this race, from testing, and from his record in Moto2 that he has a lot of the puzzle pieces which go to make up a genuinely great rider. There is a lot to look forward to from Zarco, that much is certain.
A question of character
In the article I wrote on Sunday night (or rather, early Monday morning – the Spanish have a word for it, "madrugada"), I referred to Zarco as being "slightly eccentric". Some took offense at that. They should not, as it was meant in the nicest possible way. Zarco does not fit the usual profile of the happy-go-lucky, outgoing motorcycle racer. He is earnest, intense, quietly spoken, very polite. I cannot recall ever seeing him angry, except perhaps in the press conference at Barcelona last year, after Luis Salom's death, when Zarco cut off a reporter who asked him about contracts, and Zarco berated him by pointing out that was not an appropriate time to be talking about such trivial matters.
In all of the interactions I have witnessed, he has the same polite earnestness. Motorcycle racers are generally expected to be boisterous party animals, seeking out danger, living on the edge and engaging in a life of wine, women, and worse. Johann Zarco is the opposite, more likely to seek quiet companionship and contemplation. It just goes to show that there are many paths to success in motorcycle racing. The most important traits are talent, dedication, intelligence, a desire to succeed, and the strength of character to do what it takes to achieve that. Zarco has already shown he possesses all of these, and more.
While the MotoGP class was beset with difficulties, the two support races got off without a hitch. The Moto3 class was everything you would expect: a hard-fought battle from start to finish, the race only decided on the last lap. The Moto2 race was not nearly as entertaining, but still better than many races in the intermediate in recent years.
The winner of the Moto2 race was obvious from the very first laps. Franco Morbidelli got a strong start, and quickly disposed of Tom Luthi, breaking the Swiss rider's resistance by lap 3, then putting a big gap between them over the next few laps. He then went on to demonstrate what he has learned over the winter, by managing his tires pretty much all the way to the line. It was a thoroughly convincing victory, not just in how he had achieved it, but in who he had beaten to get it.
By beating Tom Luthi at Qatar, Morbidelli staked a claim to the 2017 championship. Luthi is a stalwart of the Moto2 class, a perennial title contender who never seems to quite seal the deal. His record at Qatar is strong: of the now eight Moto2 races he has competed in at Qatar, the Swiss rider has won one and finished four more on the podium. Luthi serves as a perfect surrogate for measuring performance: if you can't beat Luthi in Moto2, then you don't deserve to move up to MotoGP by right. He is MotoGP's gatekeeper.
Takaaki Nakagami held on to take third, but had a tough battle of it with Miguel Oliveira. Given that the KTM Oliveira is riding is so completely new, for the bike to be this competitive this early is a very strong sign. It is confirmation of the results from testing, where the KTM was fast in both hot and cold weather. It is also pleasing to see that some variation in chassis design. The steel trellis frame proved its worth in Moto3, and is proving to be just as effective in Moto2. If the KTM MotoGP bike can replicate that success in MotoGP – a much tougher task, admittedly – it may force the paddock to abandon some of its natural conservatism.
Ones to watch
There were some interesting performances further back. Fabio Quartararo finished seventh, just behind Luca Marini. Quartararo had a very tough year in Moto3 in 2016, after switching from the Estrella Galicia Honda to the Leopard KTM. He never really gelled with the bike, and perhaps the weight of expectations put on his (very) young shoulders was a little too much. Because of his success in the Spanish FIM CEV championship, the FIM made a special rule, to allow him to enter the Moto3 world championship several weeks ahead of his sixteenth birthday. The hype surrounding his arrival was immense, perhaps too much for a boy of barely sixteen years old to bear.
Now, Quartararo finds himself in Sito Pons' Moto2 team. Many MotoGP riders have gone before him: Maverick Viñales, Alex Rins, Pol Espargaro, Aleix Espargaro. The team are widely regarded as one of the best three or four in Moto2. If anyone is capable of bringing on a precocious youngster, and helping him to mature, it is Sito Pons. Seventh, on his first outing in Moto2, is something to admire.
The man he finished behind is also one to keep an eye on. In many ways, it must be tough to be Luca Marini: being the half brother of the most famous motorcycle racer in the world, widely regarded as the best of all time, it is hard to live up to your sibling. But Marini has Valentino Rossi's calmness and maturity, and he and Quartararo almost caught Alex Márquez before the end of the race. Both Marini and Quartararo are likely to find themselves a lot closer to the front in the coming season.
Moto3 madness matures
If the Moto2 race was a largely cerebral exercise, Moto3 was exactly the kind of raw, visceral experience that makes it so beloved of race fans. A big group fought over victory all the way to the line, with the best man on the day taking a deserving win. The podium was a very good reflection of the relative strengths during the race. Joan Mir won the race by being focused, level-headed, and through racecraft. John McPhee was wily, and unlucky to make a mistake on the final lap which left him out of contention. Jorge Martin had been strong from the start, and made the right moves at the right time.
What struck me most of all during the Moto3 race is how last year's rookies have matured. The Moto3 race had the same raw thrill as ever, yet the racing was more professional, the passes more clinical.
It was also clear just how much of an impression Brad Binder had left on the class. Joan Mir and John McPhee especially made sure that they were in the top four or five every lap. They were never caught out when the group split, neither did they waste their energy fighting to lead on every lap. The ability to think at the end of a long and tiring race is what gives a racer an edge on the last lap, and is the difference between winning and losing. Joan Mir and John McPhee clearly had that.
Others didn't. The return of Romano Fenati was widely welcomed, and the Italian had his usual exciting race, battling at the front for most of it. But at the end, he once again failed to seal the deal, crossing the line in fifth behind Aron Canet. Nobody questions Fenati's speed, but he still needs to work on his racecraft.
Qatar was an exceptional (in every sense of that word) start to what is shaping up to be a great season. There is much to look forward to over the next seventeen races. And less than two weeks to wait for the next installment. Lucky us.
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