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Under a Starlit Qatar Sky: MotoGP’s 2017 Season Begins

38. Let’s just let that sink in for a minute. 38. Years. Old. Even now, you cannot ignore the force that is Valentino Rossi. Or, ignore it, but at your peril, because you cannot underestimate the nine-time world champion. So, 38! (And I crib about aching bones and turning 40).

Just for that, I want Vale to win his 10th championship. It will be the gigantic ‘fuck you’ every Vale fan has ever wanted to give the nay-sayers.

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The 2017 question: Will Valentino Rossi be fast enough? Image courtesy: Yamaha Racing Team; editorial use only

 

But will he? It is perhaps one of the biggest questions playing on everyone’s mind, as we go into the start of the 2017 season at starlit Qatar. There they will be, the warriors, squinting under a gazillion floodlights lighting up a battle that promises to outshine 2016. Though, if the forecast and the weather have a say, it could just be raining (well, then, let’s just call off the bets and settle down for a gigantic upset).

This is also when we will finally discover the answer to the current million-dollar question: Can Jorge Lorenzo bend the Ducati Desmosedici to his will? And in doing so, will he manage to break Valentino Rossi’s record of being the only rider to have won two races back-to-back with different manufacturers. It’s obvious that Lorenzo wants to do what Rossi couldn’t: Make the Ducati a championship-winning bike once again.

At least, the tests have been encouraging. Lorenzo left Qatar, 4th on the timesheets, while Andrea Dovizioso, working the advantage of riding the Ducati for far longer than his Spanish counterpart, ended the three-day test at 2nd place. It is no secret that the Ducati has made great transformations under the guidance of magician Gigi Dell’Igna who managed to bring it all together last year, even putting the Desmos on the podium. Of course, this year, the Ducati garage in Qatar revealed a front fairing that looked more like a battering ram than a nose. In fact, crash.net has an interesting interview with MotoGP technical director Danny Alridge (read it here) and also attempts at demystifying the new fairings we will see this season, post external winglet-ban.

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Dovi and the hammer-head fairing. Image courtesy: Ducati; editorial use only

 

Dovi tried out the new hammerhead-shark-like fairing and had this to say in the team press release: “… I also did a couple of exits with the new fairing: in my opinion, our engineers have done a great job because it wasn’t easy to create a certain aerodynamic downforce without using the winglets. Now we are weighing up the pros and cons before we take a decision and also work out the tracks where this solution can give the biggest advantages.”

Meanwhile, it was a time of introspection (at least that’s how I would like to think of it) at the Yamaha garage. There was no doubt that the new addition to the family — Maverick Vinales — was going to be positively phenomenal this season. He led the charts, from Sepang to Qatar, and Phillip Island in between, showing an incredible mastery over his machine. It was enough for everyone to sit up and take notice, even Valentino Rossi. 

He was quoted in crash.net as saying, “It looks like with the bike we have a good potential, because Vinales is very, very fast. But I think that he and his team are able to understand in a shorter time the way to make this bike at the maximum and we are a bit in delay. So we are a bit worried and we hope that we can be stronger for the first race.”

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Maverick Vinales quickly adapted to the Yamaha. But will he have race pace? Image courtesy: Yamaha Racing Team; editorial use only

 

The pre-season statistics tell the story: A strong Valencia test opened out into an equally strong showing in Sepang, as Vinales ended the Malaysian session at 1st with a top speed of 1:59.368. His charge continued through to Phillip Island (1:28.549) and ended at the top in Qatar (1:54.330). Vale, in comparison, did not fare too well. Despite a little hope on the second day in Qatar where he kept pace with his teammate and ended in 2nd place (1:54.732), Vale slipped down to 11th place on the final day, leaving him in the 6th spot at the end of the three days.

Every Vale fan (yours truly included) wants to see The Goat equal Giacomo Agostini’s record. But is it just too late? Perhaps, he is just a tad slower, his reflexes just a tad uneven and nerves edgy, just by a little bit? Maybe we are laying too much on his shoulders. Maybe it is time for the fans to kick back, have a little faith and fall in love with racing all over again… just because Vale is 38 and he is right up there, battling for position and points. And that is something. Because, we have learned one thing, time and again, The Goat has the tendency to kick back when one’s not looking.

Sure, the Ducati and Yamaha teams stole the show this pre-season. But let’s not forget Honda and the inimitable Marc Marquez and Dani Pedrosa.

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Marc Marquez: Will he stay undefeatable? Image courtesy: Honda Racing; editorial use only

 

The three-time world champion said in a team release, “I’m happy with the pace we were able to keep today but of course it hasn’t been the best test of the pre-season for us. I crashed three times, the first at the very beginning because the bike had a wobble at turn 4 and I braked late. Then later in the night, I lost the front twice, and especially the last crash during my race simulation was my fault. But when you’re doing a long run you must try and push, otherwise, you can’t understand where you really are. Anyway, better if this kind of thing happens now, during a test, and hopefully when we come here again for the race we’ll be able to manage things better. As I said, our rhythm is quite good; only Maverick [Viñales] is faster than everyone here, and if we were to race tomorrow I believe we should be able to fight for the podium.”

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Jorge Lorenzo: Taming the Desmos; Image courtesy: Ducati; editorial use only

 

Enter the mega season premiere press conference at sweaty Qatar. Obviously, Maverick Vinales’s seamless prowess with the Yamaha was the focus. Just like Jorge Lorenzo’s new bond with the Desmos, or the “wild animal” as he called it. There was the acknowledgment that this season could throw up multiple winners, like last year. And there was also the nod to the potential difficulties adapting and adjusting to a new bike and team. For Vale, it was recognizing the new rival in the midst, his teammate, whose level, he said, was faster, and stronger, and one that had the pace on all the tracks.

However, the truth will unfold a few days from now, when testing will be but a distant memory. Instead, there will be the glaze of red lights, shimmering in a desert haze (or the gloom of rain). Because at the end of the day, it always boils down to that moment when the lights go off and the racing begins.

May the best man win!

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