As the light turned green at the end of the Losail pit lane to start the first practice session of the year, one question lingered over the new MotoGP season: is this the most open championship in motorsport, or will Marc Marquez cruise to the title once again?
Both of those points may actually be correct. Last season, nine different riders stood on the top step of the podium, five more than both World Superbikes and Formula One. The mid-season run of grand prixs became something of a lottery with a run of eight different winners in as many races, and outside of the factory teams, the likes of Cal Crutchlow and Jack Miller were able to claim their maiden victories in the premier category.
But, there was to be no stopping Marquez. Five victories across the season – one more than fellow Spaniard Jorge Lorenzo – meant that a third MotoGP world championship was wrapped up with three races to spare, while both the F1 and WSB titles went down to the final race weekends of the season.
Now, the 24-year-old Marquez will bid to join the greats. He is already level in terms of MotoGP titles with Kenny Roberts, Wayne Rainey and Lorenzo, motorcycling greats by any stretch, and another title would see him join a trio of British legends in Mike Hailwood, Geoff Duke and the late John Surtees, who passed away earlier this month, as well as the American Eddie Lawson.
Despite his pre-season being disrupted by injury again – a dislocated shoulder that Marquez called “a little wake-up call” – Marquez is the favourite to triumph once again. His main rival, Lorenzo, has moved bikes from Yamaha to Ducati and will take time to settle, especially if pre-season testing is anything to go by, while Valentino Rossi has not yet been able to answer Marquez’s questions and, at 38 years old, is no spring chicken.
Yet it’s in Qatar this weekend that Lorenzo, Rossi and Yamaha’s new rider, Maverick Vinales, will need to take advantage of any doubts in Marquez’s head in an attempt to catch him cold. “The first race of the season is always a special one because you’re a bit more nervous than usual,” Marquez said this week. “The Qatar track is also one of the most special circuits on the calendar and one of the main things to consider is the sand, which can make the surface quite slippery as soon as you get out of the best line. The limit is very narrow.
“Maybe it’s not one of the best tracks for my riding style, but I like it and we have worked very hard during the preseason to find a good rhythm and a good base setup for all circuits. From a technical point of view, we’re starting this championship better than the last one, and although that doesn’t automatically mean that the results will be better, I think our machine has reached a level to fight for the podium.”
He’s right to be cautious, as only once in his four-year MotoGP career has he triumphed in the first race of the season at Losail – which came in his dominant 2014 season where he won 10 grand prixs in a row. In 2015, the one year that Marquez failed to win the title, he could only muster one victory out of the first eight races, and that paved the way for Lorenzo to build the gap that would halt the Marquez juggernaut, at least for one season.
Don’t expect the same from Lorenzo this year though. Instead, look at his Yamaha replacement, with 22-year-old Vinales already topping the testing timesheets and completing the move from Suzuki with ease. “At the moment it’s only been pre-season but we’ve found a good setup in all tests, on all tracks,” Vinales said. “So we’ll just try to bring that into the season. We improved the bike a lot over winter. The riding style change from Suzuki to Yamaha isn’t so different.”
From a British perspective, Crutchlow will lead the charge again on his LCR Honda, and can again challenge right at the front of the pack for race victories – providing he stays the right way up. Crutchlow put MotoGP back on the map in Britain last season when he became the first rider from these shores to win in the top class since Barry Sheene in 1978, and just to dispel any accusations that he only secured his maiden victory at Brno because it was wet, he followed up with a second place at Silverstone and another win in the dry at Phillip Island.
But even by his own admission, the key to his hopes this year depends on not throwing the bike down the road as often as he did in 2016, and the Isle of Man resident has welcomed the winter back at home to aid his body’s recovery. “I don't think a motorcycle racer is ever uninjured…we’re always trying to be 100 per cent fit, but when you throw yourself off these things as often as I did last year you’re never quite fully fit however hard you try. But it was nice to have a winter off for some family time, and now it’s great to be back. March gets your brain in racing mode.”
He added: “We’ve been quite pleased. At the moment it’s proving difficult to find the right balance but we’ve been quick at every track, which is good for me and the team.”
There’s no doubt anymore that Crutchlow can mix it with the Marquezs and the Rossis of the world, but the test comes in doing so consistently. That’s also the challenge for young Vinales, and if he makes the same impact as that of Marquez four years ago, there season may just go down to the wire in seven months’ time.