A Ducati on pole? Three Ducatis on the first two rows? Four Ducatis in the top ten? Cheater tire! The only logical explanation for the grid positions the factory and Pramac Ducati secured at Qatar is the fact they have the special soft tire available to them. And that tire, we are told by everyone who is not on a Ducati, is worth a second a lap. So the grid positions of the Ducati are a travesty, right? Come the race, they'll be rolling road blocks holding up the rest once their tires go off, right?
Wrong. This narrative, current among everyone who sees their favorite rider further down the grid than they had hoped for, bears only a very passing resemblance to the truth. The soft tire may offer some advantage to those who are allowed to use it, but it takes experience and data to get the best out of the softer rubber. Ducati have plenty of data they can pass on to the Pramac team, but the Desmosedici GP15 of Andrea Dovizioso and Andrea Iannone has barely had more than two or three laps on the soft tire. The bike is so new that they simply haven't got around to spending much time working on qualifying.
The real story is a lot more complex than just the soft tire. It starts in FP4, when Marc Márquez realized that the Yamahas were still struggling to match race pace, but showing real signs of improvement. It was time to do something about that, and he decided to deploy a trick he picked up last year. The Repsol Honda man allowed both Pramac Ducatis to get into his draft, and towed them round to help their fast laps. His ploy paid off, though not entirely. Yonny Hernandez was catapulted up into fifth, but Danilo Petrucci got a little too close and was forced into mistakes. Petrucci ended up only ninth, losing out in the second half of the track. If he had got the last two sectors right, Petrucci could have been as high as fourth.
Why would Márquez give another rider a tow, when usually, riders hate it when others try to hitch a ride? Hernandez is on the GP14.2, Petrucci on the GP14.1, bikes which are good on a new tire, but which fade badly after a few laps. They are the perfect rolling roadblocks, as their riders expend more and more effort to get the bike to turn, unable to use more lean angle as they battle the understeer of the old Desmosedici. Fast enough to stay ahead of, say, a Yamaha on the straight, while holding them up in the corner. Márquez has scattered the Pramac bikes like mines, ready to get in the way of Jorge Lorenzo and Valentino Rossi.
But that doesn't explain the Factory Ducatis. Neither Andrea Dovizioso nor Andrea Iannone needed a tow to set their best laps. They were both set on merit, yet the soft tire played much less of a role in the pole position and fourth the two men wrapped up at Qatar. The Desmosedici GP15 is so new that the teams have barely set more than two or three laps on the soft tire. With just five days on the GP15 coming into the first race, the first priority of Ducati was to get the bike working in race trim.
Since it rolled out of the Ducati Corse workshop and onto the track, Dovizioso and Iannone and their crews have been working on finding a base set up, and ironing out the small niggles of a brand new bike. Making the bike as fast as possible on soft rubber has been a very long way down their list of priorities, and the GP15 has spent next to no time on softer rubber. Neither Andrea Dovizioso nor Andrea Iannone had used the softer tire during the weekend until they rolled out of the pits at the start of Q2. "We had never used the soft tire before, and so we didn't know what to expect," Andrea Iannone told Italian media. "So the bike wasn't perfect for the fast lap, we had too much power and not the right set up to use it." Maybe the soft tire is worth a second a lap, as Ducati's rivals claim. But neither Dovizioso nor Iannone got anywhere near the maximum out of it. When they do, the Factory Ducati team is likely to start racking up quite the watch collection.
If it is a given that the Pramac Ducatis will fade as the tires go off, what of the factory bikes? Looking at the race pace of the Desmosedici in FP4 – the only true measure of race pace, now that FP1 through FP3 has become a form of pre-qualifying – it is clear that Andrea Dovizioso's pace is good, and it is solid on used tires. Dovizioso is almost as fast as Marc Márquez: in the seven laps he did under 1'57, his average pace is 1:55.725. Márquez posted 8 laps under 1'57, at an average of 1'55.677. That is a difference of just 0.049 seconds, which over the course of a 22 lap race would accrue to just over a second. In other words, the difference is nothing.
Can Dovizioso hold that pace? The Italian believes that he can. This is not like it was in the past, he told the press conference. "When you have to do the race and the grip is not so good, you can't use so much your energy, you are slower. And lap by lap you have to use your energy and the grip of the tires, and lap by lap the gap becomes bigger and bigger. And that was why in the practice we were fast, when you make the lap time in the first lap with the maximum energy and the best grip." Things were different now. "I believe with this bike we are able to ride in a better way. Still we have a question mark, because only in the race you will understand every detail," he said. "We arrive at FP4 where everybody uses the full tank and you make the pace of the race, and our pace today was really good, because we are able to work like the competitors."
The Ducati Desmosedici GP15 is a completely different bike, it turns, it needs less effort to ride than its predecessor, and it does not appear to chew up the rear tire like the old bike did. Both Dovizioso and Iannone spent lots of time on old tires, and they were still fast. There are still plenty of question marks, both Dovizioso and Iannone affirmed, as the bike has never done a complete race simulation, never having done more than 15 laps in a row. But things are much more optimistic The long-suffering Ducatisti could finally have something to cheer about.
You could see from the reaction of the Ducati team members that this was something different. Dovizioso's pole was not the first of his time with Ducati, but this one was different. The Italian bagged pole at Motegi in October last year, and the team members were all clearly happy then. But this pole was celebrated with more passion, unlocked more joy than the one in Japan. The men and women at Ducati know this one means much more. Ducati Corse boss Gigi Dall'Igna made a point of hugging and shaking hands with everyone in a Ducati shirt as he walked down towards Parc Fermé. He knew how hard they had worked to get this far.
Should we now hail Dall'Igna as a genius? That would do a disservice to the people at Ducati Corse. Dall'Igna may deserve the lion's share of the credit, but his main achievement has not been a brilliant piece of individual engineering design, but rather an astonishing feat of organizational excellence. Dall'Igna has transformed the way the race department works at Borgo Panigale, freeing up channels of communication, getting everyone talking to one another, firing those who will not cooperate and hiring those who will. He has turned Ducati Corse into a single team, with a single goal, to deliver a racing motorcycle capable of being competitive. He may have led the engineering project behind it, but his greatest triumph has been in unleashing and directing the talent which was already at Ducati. Anyone who has ever worked on a project with a large number of people will appreciate just how significant that is.
And what of Dovizioso? He may be on pole, but does he have the guts and gumption to actually fight for victory? His critics say that he lacks the talent and spirit to hold up when the chips are on the table, pointing to his time in the Repsol Honda team. It is true that his results in Repsol Honda were disappointing, but this is a very different Dovizioso. The Dovizioso who joined Repsol Honda was one of HRC's golden boys, pampered and protected and nurtured all the way into MotoGP.
Being ousted at Repsol Honda to make way for Casey Stoner was the first real setback for the Italian, and made him rethink his life and his approach to racing. Steeled by the disappointment, Dovi toughened up at Tech 3 – always a good environment for racers – then put in the hard miles at Ducati. He suffered through 2013, which prepared him for 2014, the year in which progress started to be made. Suffering through that Calvary steeled his resolve and honed his talent, and prepared him for the GP15. Tough times breed tough riders, and Dovizioso is now the most motivated rider on the grid. He showed at Misano last year just how far sheer determination would get him, finishing just shy of the podium in conditions which should have left him out of the running.
There is a very real chance that Dovizioso could win the first race for Ducati since the departure of Casey Stoner back in 2010. The irony such a win would bring is frankly delicious: It was Stoner leaving Ducati to join Honda which resulted in Dovizioso getting the boot there. Dovizioso taking over where Stoner left off reeks of karmic justice.
Winning will not be easy. First, he will have to beat Marc Márquez, something which happens less than 50% of the time in the races which the Repsol Honda rider starts. Márquez' Achilles' heel is his starts, the Spaniard still struggling to get off the line. With Dani Pedrosa ahead of him, Andrea Iannone in fourth, Jorge Lorenzo directly behind him in sixth, and Yonny Hernandez where Márquez helped him to, in fifth, he could easily get caught up in a battle with slower riders. If Dovizioso gets a clean start and Márquez doesn't, it could be all over after the first couple of laps.
Whatever happened to the Yamahas? Jorge Lorenzo should be favorite to chase Márquez for the win, and Valentino Rossi has fought Márquez down to the line in the last two editions of the race. This year it looks to be different, with all of the Yamahas suffering grip problems. For Jorge Lorenzo, there is not a single major problem, just a whole lot of small things which are holding him back. Above all, the lack of grip from the asphalt is what is causing the problems for the bike. "But you know, we are missing, some little things in a lot of areas, in braking, electronically in the middle of the corner, and in traction at the exit of the corners, and also in the speed. So we are not the strongest one in any part, that's the problem," was Lorenzo's explanation for his position.
He was not yet giving up on a podium, however. It was "difficult, but not impossible," according to the Movistar Yamaha rider. "I have seen stranger things happen, so you have to always think big, be positive."
Valentino Rossi is in even more trouble than Lorenzo. If the Spaniard starts from sixth, Rossi starts from eighth, in the middle of the third row. It is a long way back for the Italian, who has been on the podium here for the past two years, battling for the win with Marc Márquez in 2014. He is having more problems this year, however, his biggest issue the speed deficit along the front straight. "We lose seven, eight kilometers to the Honda, and ten from the Ducati," Rossi said. Why they were losing that speed was hard to pinpoint, though the main suspect was the exit of the final corner.
Rossi was impressed by the step the Ducatis had made, in more than just top speed. "Last year we had two Yamahas, two Hondas. Now it looks like we have six bikes, because also the Ducatis are very strong."
If MotoGP is promising, the two support classes look like providing some fascinating racing as well. Sam Lowes grabbed pole in Moto2, after dominating free practice, and laying out a marker in qualifying for the class. Characteristic of his hunger was the fact that he crashed with a couple of minutes to go, pushing hard to try to improve his time again. The Moto2 race is shaping up to be a three-way shootout between Lowes, Johann Zarco and Tito Rabat. Three worthy candidates for both race victory and for the Moto2 title. This could be a very good year in Moto3.
Moto3 was much harder to predict, Alexis Masbou taking advantage to secure his first ever pole. Masbou used the draft of the Red Bull KTM riders, who were working together to chase a good lap. This is a tactic now being used by all the teams in Moto3, teammates riding together to slingshot around the track in pursuit of a fast lap.
Most impressive performance of the Moto3 class has been Fabio Quartararo, taking sixth on his debut in the class. The Frenchman has been fast all weekend, getting faster every outing at a track he has never seen before. Yet he may well struggle come race day – in the CEV championship, he was used to breaking away and riding on his own. That is virtually impossible in Moto3, with a big group of riders likely to for at a track like Qatar. Then it comes down to tactics, choosing the right wheel and the right moment to strike. It may take a few races before Quartararo gets the knack for that.
So who will win? It is hard to say. There is a large group of riders capable of running at the front, including such names as Danny Kent, Niccolo Antonelli, Francesco Bagnaia, John McPhee, Miguel Oliveira, Efren Vazquez, Brad Binder. Even Livio Loi, Jorge Navarro, Hiroki Ono and Karel Hanika could be a factor. Moto3 has not yet lost its magic. It is going to be a good day's racing at Qatar.