MOTOGP: Stoner shines in the dark desert

Casey Stoner looked the favourite to win the season-opening Qatar MotoGP going in, and his blistering pace in all three practice sessions as well as claiming pole on Saturday pretty much assured him of victory – accidents permitting, as he found to his cost last year.

The season-opener is always a mixture of trepidation and relief for teams in any motorsport, as finally the doubts of pre-season testing are swept away and everyone gets to see what their true standing is. For some it’s confirmation that they are in for a great season; for others, it’s that sinking feeling that the next nine months are going to be a long, dispiriting slog.

For Honda it was always looking like a very, very good set of oems for the year with their expanded line-up of newcomer Casey Stoner and returnees Dani Pedrosa and Andrea Dovizioso looking very strong indeed on this year’s bike. The Yamaha riders – world champion Jorge Lorenzo, and Ben Spies replacing Valentino Rossi – on the other hand were fretting about their bike being down on power. And as for Ducati … Well, only Casey Stoner has ever been able to make the current Ducati really sing, so there were fears about what would happen in his absence even if they had the great Rossi in his stead. Rossi, however, is also still struggling with his troublesome shoulder injury and not at his peak, so the team are in damage limitation mode at present.

All of this duly played out – pretty much as expected – under the floodlights in the first few laps of the dazzling night-time race in the desert of Qatar.

Starting from second on the grid it was always probably that the flyweight Dani Pedrosa would perform his usual rocket-assisted getaway and he duly took the lead into the first corner, with Stoner slotting into second ahead of Jorge Lorenzo. It briefly looked as though Rossi might be achieving the impossible as he competed for the front down the inside, but he’d overcooked it and ran wide compromising his entry into the first corner and losing all the positions and more that he had gained with his rash sprint.

Lorenzo wasn’t about to let the Honda boys take control, however, and two corners on he jinked to the inside line and passed Stoner for second. A few corners on and Lorenzo has dispatched Pedrosa as well to take the lead – perhaps that power differential Yamaha were worried about was overstated?

Well, no, not really. Once the race got into its groove it was clear that the two Hondas of Pedrosa and Stoner had the raw speed – especially down the front straight where they just crucified the Yamaha. Lorenzo was able to hold onto the lead for a short while by canny positioning of his bike through the apex of the corners to thwart the Hondas’ momentum, but it as no surprise when first Stoner and then Pedrosa found their way past and back to the front, leaving Lorenzo in third ahead of Dovizioso and Marco Simoncelli (two more Hondas), while sixth place – the best of the rest – was being fought over by Rossi and Hector Barbera with Ben Spies close behind.

Surprisingly Pedrosa was proving to be the faster of the leading Hondas and made the point by forcing his way past Stoner for the lead. Stoner, perhaps a little surprised by this, sat back and bided his time – and sure enough Pedrosa faded badly after the midpoint of the race, admitting later that he was suffering from such severe arm cramps that he could barely control the bike. Stoner took back the lead and Lorenzo was soon past for second, while Pedrosa would probably count himself lucky to have built up enough of a lead to manage to maintain third place by the chequered flag.

Stoner was of course delighted with the win, while Pedrosa was notably subdued and crestfallen with his loss of pace and arm problems. The most interesting reaction was form the driver wearing the #1 – Lorenzo was punching the air and clearly ecstatic with the race, later calling it his best performance ever. The bike might not have been up to the job of beating the Hondas, but the rider had almost pulled it off regardless and he was right to feel that the season ahead ight be a much better one than the team feared coming into Qatar.

Behind them, Honda’s Dovizioso and Simoncelli dutifully filed across the line in fourth and fifth after an uneventful day at the office, while Rossi lost out for sixth to Ben Spies but given the circumstances will probably feel it was about as good a result as he could have expected. Rossi was a comfortable 10s ahead of Colin Edwards and his own Ducati team mate Nicky Hayden.

After his good early pace, Barbera progressively dropped back through the field and ended up a disappointing 12th place behind series rookie Cal Crutchlow, who narrowly missed out on a top ten finish on his debut performance.

Tony Elias exited the race with four laps to go when his LCR Honda abruptly ditched him hard onto the tarmac going into the final corner, leaving Elias hurt and winded and crawling away through the gravel in a sad and pathetic sight.

Randy de Puniet was an early faller in turn 7 of lap 1 when his rear wheel just went out from under him; unfortunately his crash caught out his Pramac team mate Loris Capirossi who hurt his hand trying to avoid the fallen bike, and Loris had to return to the pits and retire at the end of the lap as well making it a dismal start to the team.

It had of course already proven a bad start to the year for Suzuki, who are only fielding one bike this year for financial reasons and then saw their rider suffer a bad fall in practice on Friday. It was immediately clear that Alvaro Bautista was badly injured when he couldn’t get to his feet, and a broken left femur was diagnosed which required an immediate operation. The team had no stand-by rider to hand and with MotoGP rules not permitting a new rider to come in straight into qualifying, the team had to pull out of the Qatar MotoGP – but John Hopkins has been lined up to take Bautista’s place at the next race in Jerez on April 3 while the Spaniard recuperates.

Race results

Pos Rider            Team              Time
 1. Casey Stoner     Honda         42m38.569s
 2. Jorge Lorenzo    Yamaha         +  3.440s
 3. Dani Pedrosa     Honda          +  5.051s
 4. Andrea Dovizioso Honda          +  5.942s
 5. Marco Simoncelli Gresini Honda  +  7.358s
 6. Ben Spies        Yamaha         + 10.468s
 7. Valentino Rossi  Ducati         + 16.431s
 8. Colin Edwards    Tech 3 Yamaha  + 26.293s
 9. Nicky Hayden     Ducati         + 27.416s
10. Hiroshi Aoyama   Gresini Honda  + 28.920s
11. Cal Crutchlow    Tech 3 Yamaha  + 34.539s
12. Hector Barbera   Aspar Ducati   + 34.829s
13. Karel Abraham    Cardion Ducati + 37.957s

Retirements:

Toni Elias       LCR Honda      18 laps
Loris Capirossi  Pramac Ducati   2 laps
Randy de Puniet  Pramac Ducati   0 laps

Championship standings

Pos Driver            Pts
1   Casey Stoner      25
2   Jorge Lorenzo     20
3   Daniel Pedrosa    16
4   Andrea Dovizioso  13
5   Marco Simoncelli  11
6   Ben Spies         10
7   Valentino Rossi   9
8   Colin Edwards     8
9   Nicky Hayden      7
10  Hiroshi Aoyama    6
11  Cal Crutchlow     5
12  Hector Barbera    4
13  Karel Abraham     3

Pos Constructor  Pts
1   Honda        25
2   Yamaha       20
3   Ducati       9
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