1. Viñales is the real deal
Placing fastest at each of the preseason tests, romping through free practice and bagging your first pole position is one thing. But, with the spotlight firmly fixed on your every move come Sunday evening, maintaining your cool and replicating that speed is quite another. Is anyone still doubting whether Maverick Viñales’ ability to fight for the title? Thought not.
There was much to admire in this showing: his cool assessing of the situation from just behind the front group in the first six laps; the variety in his range of passing – the sliding under Dovizioso at turn five, two laps from the flag a particular highlight -; and of course that final lap, his fastest of the race.
But the image that stuck was his reaction in parc fermé soon after. Aside from the immediate jump into the arms of a rapturous crew, Viñales was a picture of calm. Wide smiles, yes, but there was no sign of wild euphoria. No need for incessant celebration. This is just one step ticked off. You get the feeling he expects to be in this position again, very soon.
2. Honda still well placed
There were some worrying signs for Honda riders in Qatar. Some of the failings of old – mainly acceleration – were still apparent, which were compounded by Aleix Espargaro’s comments that he – five foot nine and 20 kilos heavier than Dani Pedrosa – was able to out-drag his fellow Catalan on the main straight.
That Marquez wasn’t embroiled in the hunt for victory came as a surprise. But his plight was understandable. So reliant on late braking, the RC213V has a habit of pushing the front to its limits. As a result he normally selects the hardest option available. Yet with temperatures falling, the risk of crashing without warning was very real. After all, Marquez slid off here twice around the same time on the final evening of testing two weeks before. Why risk it all in the first round?
Each Honda rider opted for the medium and it was soon overworked. But you have to imagine the reigning world champion would have been contending with Viñales and Dovizioso had it not been for his tyre selection, a consequence of the two delays to the race start. Marquez played it safe.
As he said, “I think with a hard [front tyre] I was able to fight for the victory until the end. But maybe I was also able to crash! Because the hard in the end has less warnings, and maybe I put the hard, I’m more competitive, but I crash. It was so critical.”
For Marquez to have entertained the idea of challenging the front at a track that doesn’t suit his bike bodes well. And that ability to gather points when needed is still intact.
3. Zarco ready to impress
We can forgive Laurent Fellon, manager of Johann Zarco, getting a tad overexcited. He had just witnessed his rider dispensing with three of motorcycle racing’s leading names (Marquez, Viñales and Iannone) then gapping them as though this was just another Moto2 romp, before an unceremonious fall. It all ended prematurely, but there was enough in Zarco’s premier class debut to suggest Fellon wasn’t being wildly unrealistic.
“He was happy that I did this,” Zarco said, referencing a post-race chat with his manager. “He said, ‘You need to improve your feeling, still need to learn things, keep training hard and you can dream about victories and podiums.’” Victories may be a stretch, but keeping this showing in mind, Zarco could be a very real podium threat at certain races this year.
4. Aprilia has made massive strides
Aprilia has been here before. When making his debut for the factory in 2003, Colin Edwards fought off countryman Nicky Hayden in a race-long scrap around Suzuka’s glorious curves for sixth place. That was some going for the two-time World Superbike champion and the result brought the extra satisfaction of getting one over a rider with whom he had fought for the Repsol Honda berth at the end of the previous year.
14 seasons on and Aprilia have scaled those heights once again, as Aleix Espargaro claimed a remarkable sixth in his first outing for the Italian marque. The results sheet reveals this ride was more impressive than that Spring day in ’03 too. Espargaro was just seven seconds off the race winner, and less than a second from the top Honda. The Catalan has struggled to extract the maximum from the RS-GP over one lap but the ’17 chassis allows him to brake as late as he needs. The traction is good too, and Espargaro has often spoken highly of the bike’s ability to maintain its pace over a race distance. He used this to brilliant effect on Sunday night as he rose from 15th on lap one.
The top ten was the target for this outing. Espargaro blitzed that and it is clear there are now five manufacturers capable of fighting for the top six.
5. Lorenzo needs more time to be competitive
The early signs were good for Ducati’s new arrival last weekend. Fifth in the opening free practice session was a follow up from a promising final preseason test at this very track. Jorge Lorenzo and Ducati’s record at this track suggested there was more to come.
Yet Sunday ended in disappointment. Lorenzo was eleventh, 20 seconds back of the man that replaced him at Yamaha, and had to make do with fighting Loris Baz’s two-year old GP15 in the closing laps – surely a sobering experience for a rider of his ability. Perhaps we got over excited when thinking a ‘fairytale’ debut was possible. The result brought things into perspective for Lorenzo too.
Comparing his performance to that of team-mate Andrea Dovizioso, Lorenzo said, “The big difference with old tyres. When the rear tyre starts to drop, he is able to ride much better, probably using more the rear brake, or riding differently. With this bike, when I start losing the rear grip, I lose so much performance.”
A weekend of strange conditions and varying grip undoubtedly played against the Majorcan but as he conceded, “To be honest, I’m not prepared to fight for something big.” Suddenly this week’s private test in Jerez takes on greater significance.