MOTOGP: Round 1 – Losail, Qatar – 12 April

The two stories of the opening round of the 2009 MotoGP season were about Casey Stoner – and the weather. Was Stoner really as dominant on this track as all the practice sessions seemed to suggest? Would his fitness be up to a full race distance? And – would the weather let us find out?

You’d think that running a race in the middle of the Qatar desert at least meant that it would be rain free – the area only gets 6 days rain in the entire year, so surely there shouldn’t be any problem running motorbikes here?

And yet, at the stroke of 11pm local time on Sunday evening, the rain (which had already played hell with the 125cc and 250cc support races) started to fall and the ‘start delayed’ board came out. Normally, MotoGP would happily run in wet weather – but not here, not as a night race at least. The powerful floodlights (using enough power to light a normal road all the way to Moscow, someone had calculated) would reflect off a wet track and blind the riders, so running even in a light drizzle was dangerous.

Within minutes of the delayed start, “light drizzle was a fond memory and we had a full-on thunderstorm and deluge. There was no chance of starting the race in these conditions, and the officials and teams went into emergency meetings to decide whether to try and run the race the following day – or way until later in the year and use the spot in the schedule vacated by the cancelled Hungarian MotoGP.

No one wanted to go for the latter option and start all the practice sessions from scratch several months hence, and so finally, the Qatar MotoGP got to run on Monday evening (9pm local time) 22 hours behind schedule. But when the moment came for the race to start, this time all was well – no rain in sight to spoil the party.

As expected, Casey Stoner leapt away in front – and was barely seen again for the entire race. The margin of his victory will be worrying for the competition.

Valentino Rossi could arguably have pushed him closer, but the world champion had a jerky start and got shuffled down to third behind a flying Loris Capirossi who sped past from the second row. Rossi was sluggish for the first three laps and even got passed by his team mate Jorge Lorezo, before the bike and tyres finally found their sweet spot and allowed Rossi to climb back up to second and commence the charge after Stoner.

But by now, Stoner has a 3s lead over Rossi. Rossi chipped away over the next eight laps to get it down to under 2s, but the cost was high – his tyres were shot, and he had to pull off the pace during the second half of the race allowing Stoner to disappear into the distance for good.

“After yesterday’s rain the asphalt became a bit more aggressive, and I had some small problems with the front tyre, so at one point I had to decide whether I should crash or give up,” said Rossi. “So I thought a bit, and since we knew we were a bit on the limit, I gave up.”

Loris Capirossi also had tyre troubles, finding that the front tyre wasn’t behaving anything like it had for the earlier part of the weekend. “Today after just five laps it felt like it was destroyed,” he explained. And on lap 8 the front simply slid from under him and he disappeared off the track in a shower of sparks, allowing Jorge Lorenzo to pick up an untroubled 3rd place.

Capirossi was the only retirement of the day, although both Marco Leandri and James Toseland had excursions into the gravel at the end of the start/finish straight. And Dani Pedrosa (who was riding injured in the first place) had a luck escape when he was slow through a turn and Alex de Angelis was caught out, running right into the side of the factory Honda and very nearly unseating the Spaniard. How Pedrosa kept control and carried on was a minor miracle, but it had clearly rattled him and thereafter Dani fell back through the field at a fair rate of knots. Race control investigated the incident but decided not to penalise de Angelis, who did not feel he had done anything wrong: “I was called up to Race Direction to put forward my version of the collision with Dani, but there was no complaint against me so it wasn’t a big deal,” said de Angelis, who did not let the collision mar his pleasure at finishing sixth.

Another rider competing while injured was Nicky Hayden, who kept plugging away and finished a very creditable 12th.

There had also been questions about Stoner’s fitness and whether his wrist had fully healed after winter surgery: Stoner hadn’t run a full race distance since the operation and observers were wondering whether he would make it all the way. But when it came to it, he showed no sign of any problems and was perfect all the way to the chequered – although he expressed dissatisfaction with his fitness afterwards.

“It was a very, very difficult race, physically I’ve still got a long way to go,” Stoner said. “My wrist is fine, I had no problems with that, but I need a little bit more physical training before I’m back to what I was. But concentration wise, I was good.

“I feel that I’m stronger now than I was at the end of last year,” he added. “My wrist has come back to close enough 100 per cent for everyday life, but definitely 100 per cent for riding.”

However, it’s hard to know exactly how much race really tells us about how the 2009 MotoGP season will go: the night racing, together with the unprecedented delay, means that this was a very strange outing for the MotoGP field. We should know more about the relative form from the next event, at Japan on the 26th of April.

Race results

Pos  Rider             Bike      Time
 1.  Casey Stoner      Ducati    42m53.984s
 2.  Valentino Rossi   Yamaha    +   7.771s
 3.  Jorge Lorenzo     Yamaha    +  16.244s
 4.  Colin Edwards     Yamaha    +  24.410s
 5.  Andrea Dovizioso  Honda     +  27.263s
 6.  Alex de Angelis   Honda     +  29.883s
 7.  Chris Vermeulen   Suzuki    +  33.627s
 8.  Mika Kallio       Ducati    +  34.755s
 9.  Toni Elias        Honda     +  39.481s
10.  Randy de Puniet   Honda     +  42.284s
11.  Dani Pedrosa      Honda     +  48.526s
12.  Nicky Hayden      Ducati    +  48.883s
13.  Sete Gibernau     Ducati    +  52.215s
14.  Marco Melandri    Kawasaki  +  56.379s
15.  Yuki Takahashi    Honda     +1m00.286s
16.  James Toseland    Yamaha    +1m14.978s
17.  Niccolo Canepa    Ducati    +1m15.028s

Retirements:

     Rider             Bike      Laps
     Loris Capirossi   Suzuki    7

Drivers’ championship

Pos Driver              Points
1   Casey Stoner        25
2   Valentino Rossi     20
3   Jorge Lorenzo       16
4   Colin Edwards       13
5   Andrea Dovizioso    11
6   Alex de Angelis     10
7   Chris Vermeulen      9
8   Mika Kallio          8
9   Toni Elías           7
10  Randy de Puniet      6
11  Daniel Pedrosa       5
12  Nicky Hayden         4
13  Sete Gibernau        3
14  Marco Melandri       2
15  Yuki Takahashi       1

Constructors’ championship

Pos Constructor     Points
1   Ducati          25
2   Yamaha          20
3   Honda           11
4   Suzuki           9
5   Kawasaki         2
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