That camel-packed desert certainly chucks out some brilliantly close racing, doesn’t it? And once again, it did not disappoint, offering up a nail-biter full of brilliance, commitment, maturity, and an exchange of handbags at 200 km/h.
It began weirdly – as it almost always does. Maverick was singing the praises of Cal Crutchlow, who spent three days belting the Yamaha around and offering his input. The Top Gun was of the view Cal had transformed his bike. But Maverick was just fresh off a win, so the cocky was strong in him.
Morbidelli’s weekend campaign began with both his bikes billowing smoke, and him being the fastest bloke on the track in any case.
Puig was seen muttering darkly to himself, probably prayers for Portimao and the return of Marc, while the HRC pit was taking quiet bets on which lap Pol and Baby Marquez would plough gravel. Once again, HRC’s dependence on a solitary rider of exceptional brilliance was starkly on display.
Qatar served up a wee sandstorm for FP3, and a third of the field sat it out, rather than have the sand hissing off their helmets. The wind was so bad, top speeds were down by about 20-30 km/h, but the word was conditions would be pretty good for the race, and that consistent 1.54s were what was needed to play.
When Qualifying rolled around, Puig was thunderous with impending fail. Journeyman Bradl, who made it into Q2, was the only dim light preventing HRC from sliding further into an abyss if its own making.
Mir and Oliveira also managed to work their way into Q2, while Rossi ended up starting in 21st, the worst start in his entire career. The Doctor’s inability to come to grips (pardon the pun) with his rear-tyre was once again his ongoing lament.
But Q2 was all about the rookie, Jorge Martin, who qualified magnificently on pole, and was cheered and clapped by the entire pit-lane as he returned to Parc fermé. Behind him sat Zarco and Vinales, obviously keen to take up where they left off the previous round.
The second row was Miller, Fabulous, and Bagnaia, who were also eager to resume the battle. The Suzuki camp, Rins and Mir, had each qualified a grid-place higher than they had the week before (8th and 9th), but Aleix Espergaro and his wicked new Aprilia sat ahead of them both.
The start was spectacular. Martin just hosed them all to the first corner, and then just started hammering out brilliantly consistent laps. You’d think he’d been on a MotoGP bike for years, rather than just his second race.
Zarco was in a confident second place, followed by Aleix’s Aprilia, and an astonishingly fast-starting Oliveira, who catapaulted his KTM there from 12th on the grid. Rins and Mir adopted a very short watching brief in 5th and 6th, while the factory Ducatis and Yamahas seemed overwhelmed at the start.
Oliveira’s fourth did not last long. Rins passed him very quickly, and two corners later, Mir also swept past. Miller dragged Fabulous off down the straight and grabbed seventh as they came around for the second lap – and the sheer straightline stomp of the Ducatis was once again going to be a factor. If they could get those things to turn better, there would be no stopping the Bologna Bullets.
A freight-train quickly formed, and the intriguing high-speed chess-game began. No-one was getting away from anyone, and young Martin was leading them all a merry chase. But things began to slowly re-assemble themselves behind the rookie.
Rins was hunting Aleix down for third. Aleix was looking for a crack at Zarco for second, to put the Frenchman between him and Rins. So everyone passed everyone, no-one made it stick, and they all went back to chasing Martin.
The race was still young, and very suddenly Miller and Bagnaia were the fastest men on track. They were still well in touch with the front runners, Martin, Zarco, Rins, Aleix, Olivier, and Mir. Vianles was back in tenth and no-one was even thinking about Fabulous.
Except Fabulous. He was thinking of lots of things – and all of them involved getting past everyone in front. This was when Martin began looking a little doomed. Rins got around Zarco for second, and Mir passed Oliveira to grab sixth. The Suzukis looked to have everyone’s measure…briefly.
Their superior corner speed was negated every time they hit the straight. Zarco would simply blaze past Rins, not even needing to slipstream. But then Rins would pass Zarco two corners later. It was spellbinding to watch.
I couldn’t help but wonder when Rins would pass Martin. Surely the rookie was going to run out of tyres, or concentration, or both. But Martin was hard-forged in the fires of Moto3. He had nerve and balls and he was still leading as Miller and Bagnaia started to edge forward.
Fabulous was also creeping towards the front, and now hot on the wheels of both Bagnaia and Miller. It was hard to know where to look, because there was so much going on. Rins was again passed by Zarco down the straight, and Miller was also showing young Fabulous what acceleration was all about.
This is when Oliveira, who had made a sensational start, started to go backward. Vinales grabbed ninth spot off him, and set off after Fabulous who was still monstering Miller for seventh.
As they started the next lap, Bagnaia ate Mir down the straight, with Miller in hot pursuit, while he, in turn was being pursued by Fabulous.
Rins was around Zarco again for the most hotly contested second spot I’ve seen in ages, and Bagnaia was making life a misery for Aleix, who was struggling to hold onto fourth.
With 14 laps to go, Martin was barely keeping Rins at bay. The rookie wasn’t making any mistakes, but Rins was determined to get past, knowing Zarco was only going to bitch him once that straight came into sight.
And so it came to be. Zarco sailed past the Suzuki down the straight, while back in the field, Binder made short work of a fading Oliveira for tenth spot.
Bagnaia was looking to put the hurt on Aleix, who was starting to struggle a bit with his tyres, and as they came onto the straight again, Bagnaia did just that, just as Miller came howling past both Mir and Aleix to grab fifth, right behind him.
The Ducatis were simply devastating in a straight line, but seemed to be running slightly wider lines in the corners. Both the Suzukis and Yamahas were able to run much tighter ones – and this was starting to pay off.
Rins had found himself awash in a sea of red bikes. There were Ducatis all around him. A scant 11 laps from the end, it was still Martin, then Zarco, Rins, Bagnaia, Miller, and Aleix, who was being closely followed by some very fast-moving factory Yamahas.
The top nine were separated by 1.3 seconds. It was closer than any MotoGP in memory, and Miller was now the fastest bike on the circuit. Then Rins had a big moment in Turn 9 when his front-end decided it didn’t want to do what he wanted it to, but he was straight back on the gas.
Fabulous now began to make his move. He passed Aleix, just as Bagnaia passed Rins for third. Now it was a Ducati one, two, three – and the world champion then had a hard crack at Miller (who was trying to pass Rins), ran him wide in Turn 10 and grabbed fifth.
Jack was having none of that shit. As they came onto the straight, Mir was already wide, and Jack made contact with him, forcing him into the sand off the side of the track, gave him a filthy look and some hand gesture – all of which allowed Fabulous to blast past them both. Race Direction felt we should all move on in the spirit of brotherhood, and no-one was penalised.
Alex Marquez crashed, Puig kicked some stuff around his garage, and then kicked some more stuff when Pol rode off the track a short time later.
Nine laps were left. Martin still led, followed by Zarco, Bagnaia, Rins, Fabulous, Aleix, Miller, Vinales and Mir. It was still anyone’s guess who was going to fill the podium. Surely the rookie could not hang onto his lead? Especially with Zarco sitting so close to him.
Fabulous out-braked Rins into Turn One and was now in fourth. Rins tried to get past him in Turn Four, but Fabulous was on the charge. On the next lap he block-passed Bagnaia coming onto the straight, but Peco hosed him as they flew past the pit garages, then ran wide in Turn One and gave his spot back to Fabulous. Miller also blasted past Rins on the straight.
Now it was Martin, Zarco, Fabulous, Miller, Rins, and Vinales – and there were still five laps left. Miller then had a shot at getting past Fabulous, but couldn’t make it stick. Maverick, on the other hand made his pass on Rins in Turn Four, glue-like.
There was no stopping Fabulous now. He’d been lining up his fellow Frenchman for a few corners, then shot past him. Two corners later he ended Martin’s amazing run and passed him as well.
As they came onto the straight, four laps from the end of the race, Martin nailed Fabulous with Ducati power, but Zarco wasn’t close enough to do likewise. And Vinales was chewing on his rear tyre, so there was that to consider.
I stood up and watched the last three laps. Sitting down was not an option. Fabulous went past Martin on Turn Four, and Maverick was pushing Zarco hard for third. And then he passed him. But Fabulous was sailing away at the front.
He had to. He knew that if he didn’t gap a Ducati, any Ducati, before he came back onto the straight, he’d be eaten by horsepower.
Maverick then made a boo-boo. He ran wide and let Zarco past, and as they started on the third-last lap, Fabulous was the fastest man on the track and utterly flawless in the lead.
Into the last lap, Fabulous was uncatchable. Martin, in second, had to know Zarco was gonna put the pass on him, and Vinales was trying hard in fourth, pursued by a relentless Rins. And then he made his second boo-boo, ran wide on turn One and let Rins take fourth.
Zarco waited until Turn 15 to pass Martin, and followed Fabulous across the line, making it a French one-two – the first time since 1954 since that last happened.
It was a brilliant race. And it was the closest top 15 finish in the history of the sport. A mere 8.9 seconds separated them when the chequered flag was waved.
The star of that show was doubtlessly Jorge Martin. On pole and led for most of the race – and obviously a force to be reckoned with in coming races and seasons.
Marquez may well be back next round at Portimao. But that’s Oliveira’s home track, and Martin is only going to get faster. Fabulous is also on a high, as is Vinales, and it’s not like the Suzuki boys were slow. I have a feeling even The Doctor, who had a disastrous weekend and finished in 16th, will be keen to stamp a little of his yellow on the championship once it hits Europe.
I also predict the HRC garage will be a very tense place for some time to come.
Boris is a writer who has contributed to many magazines and websites over the years, edited a couple of those things as well, and written a few books. But his most important contribution is pissing people off. He feels this is his calling in life and something he takes seriously. He also enjoys whiskey, whisky and the way girls dance on tables. And riding motorcycles. He's pretty keen on that, too.
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