I have a confession: My faith was shaken. The pre-season tests hadn’t inspired confidence and neither had the practice sessions. Maverick Vinales was fast, Marc Marquez was on form and even Jorge Lorenzo had somehow managed to find the pace. I told myself (and even wrote about it, didn’t I?) that it’s best to never say never until the lights go off.
But things didn’t really follow a plan that first this race weekend. Rossi continued to suffer through the free practice sessions and the lack of a Qualifying left him with a lowly 10th place on the grid. That darned rain, I thought, was going to ruin everything.
Race day Sunday dawned with a brief burst of rain that rendered the Qatar track unraceable, at least for a while. The suspense was unimaginable as the riders, Loris Capirossi and the Safety Car went out to check on the track, once, twice, three times. Finally, they lined up. The lights turned red and they took off down the straight and the first corner in a shortened race that would last 20 laps. Finally. It became obvious, within seconds, that this was going to be an unusual race, one that, it seemed, was going throw all our predictions right back at us. Shimmying past Vinales, Iannone and Marquez, was Frenchman and two-time Moto2 world champion, Johann Zarco atop the Tech 3 Yamaha. He was pushing, that much was obvious from the get-go, and managing to stay ahead of a charging Marquez and Iannone, both eager to shake off their testing pangs. Zarco though was having none of it. It was a passionate race to stay on top that had everyone rooting for him, but lasted a mere six laps before his crash at turn 2. Andrea Dovizioso took Zarco’s spot at the lead, with Marquez playing chase. Iannone was a definite podium contender until he clipped the back of Marquez’s bike and crashed. Vinales, though, reaped the benefits of the Iannone mistake as he took his 3rd spot, and set about attacking Marquez. Close behind, the dark horse of the evening, the man everyone had written off, Rossi stayed on pace.
It was too much to hope for. But The Goat stole the show. Amid cheers, he made his move, passing Marquez who had now slipped down to 3rd place. It was lap 12 and Rossi had become a podium contender. He had done it … again. The remaining eight laps were about watching the battle for first, as Dovizioso and Vinales exchanged places again and again. Vinales would make his move and then Dovi would pass the young Yamaha rider, easy-peasy, through the start-finish straight, a testament to the Ducati power. The battle continued till the very end, until Vinales pushed his way past Dovi, making it stick and taking his first maiden MotoGP win. Dovi took 2nd and Rossi, much to his own surprise, took the third spot on the podium. Later, in a candid moment, he confessed that he wouldn’t have betted on himself.
Suffice to say, two weeks later, the Argentina race weekend opened with optimism. But the Doctor was stuck at the back, struggling — it’s not the tyres, but the motorcycle setup, he later said. Then came odd weather conditions, leaving us with a strange starting grid scattered with unlikely names at the front. Barring Marquez, of course, who, it seems, has found his mojo. The Spaniard took pole position, followed closely by (take a wild guess? Nope, you are wrong) Karel Abraham and Crutchlow. Vinales took 6th place (his superhuman-like skills taking a momentary break, we assume) with teammate Rossi taking up the 7th. Iannone, Dovi and Zarco will be lining up in 12th, 13th and 14th places, with Lorenzo following up in 16th place.
The bets though, are still off. Race day is here and only the best men will climb on to the podium.