The chill of the wind
Strong gusts blew across the Losail International Circuit as well as through the MotoGP establishment on a sunny and busy set-up day on the eve of the VisitQatar Grand Prix. No less than four ‘rookies’ grace the grid of twenty-two riders, two of those as world champions in other classes and the full quartet with Grand Prix winning pedigree. 2019, more than any other season, feels like the next generation are close to the heels of three riders now in their thirties (three more to hit that age bracket this year) and one Quadragenarian.
“We were just talking about this before! Yes, he could be my son,” joked Valentino Rossi seated next to Fabio Quartararo in the official press conference, who at 19 years of age is the youngest newbie in the MotoGP field. The Frenchman even reminisced about waiting “one or two hours” in the paddock as a kid to have his photograph taken with #46. The Italian said that he entered the premier class later than Quartararo (he was 21 at the time of his first 500cc GP); but the truth is that the Petronas Yamaha rider, Pecco Bagnaia, Miguel Oliveira or Joan Mir will have to produce something astonishing to match Rossi’s maiden effort in that 2000 season as he gained two wins and seven more podiums on the unforgettable yellow Nastro Azzuro NSR Honda.
Still, include riders like Franco Morbidelli and Hafizh Syahrin (both in their second terms) and there is a new posse on the block. “100%,” concurred 27 year old Pol Espargaro, a rider ‘in between’ with five terms on a MotoGP bike. “I don’t think the riders coming up have been so young or so ‘early’. [They have] a new riding style and – while I don’t consider us as the ‘old’ riders, more the ones that have been in MotoGP a couple of years – we need to get adapted to what is coming. This is the thing I admire most about Valentino. I think he is one of the very few who have been able to adapt and move with the new generation. He has ‘suffered’ the generations getting the elbows down, and if you see him now compared to when he first started then he is totally different. This is the hardest part of the job: to adapt.”
Part of the tangible excitement at Losail was the potential of the incomers. Quartararo has already impressed in testing on the 2018 Yamaha, so has Bagnaia on the Alta Pramac Ducati, Oliveira has made very visible strides with the Red Bull Tech3 KTM and Joan Mir was talking confidently but also humbly to the media for the first time in Suzuki blue.
“Pre-season went really well, better than I could have imagined,” the 20 year old said on the precipice of just his second campaign since dominating Moto3 and as teammate to the vibrant Alex Rins, himself just two seasons into MotoGP at the age of 23. “What can I hope for? Try to make the top ten in every session and then try to cut distances [to the leaders].” The fact that he felt confident to talk of the top half of the leaderboard speaks volumes of his belief. Mir is the real-deal: smart, perceptive and no prone to bombast.
“Even as a rookie when you are in a factory team you have to try many things and that takes away a bit of time for yourself to get confidence,” he said. “It’s not like the Suzuki is a satellite bike from the previous year that has already been well developed and you just have to turn laps. It’s a bit more complicated…but I like the bike and I feel comfortable. There are things we have to polish.”
The Rookie of the Year gong is usually a ‘lite’ award; perhaps a label for the rider that didn’t quite crash as much or did not have their belief rattled by the challenge of MotoGP (the veterans have racecraft and crucial experience in their arsenals after all). In 2019 there is extra gravitas to the title thanks to the calibre of the competition. “It will be complicated and difficult because there is such a high level among the rookies….but I think this also places more value on it,” agreed Mir.
Without an ounce of partisan bias, Johann Zarco felt that countryman Quartararo was in a position to ape his MotoGP debut back in 2017 when he shocked the flock by pushing his way to the front and led for six laps before ending up in the gravel. “The Yamaha is working very well here and Fabio proved it last week,” the Red Bull KTM man (who said he has his designs on the top ten) opined. “He can be the surprise, like I did for the Qatar race, but for the season I really think Bagnaia will be the most constant one and once he has understood things then he will be pretty strong.”
There was talk (quite assuredly from the riders) of the race being pushed back from the 20.00 start time on Sunday to 19.00, so as to not veer too close to the crucial time of the evening when the temperatures drop and the humidity rises. An annual hazard at Losail and something the teams re-discovered at the test two weeks previously. There were also photo and TV obligations galore for what was a frantic day of activity under the blue Qatari skies.
The first thrusts and parries of a different kind of MotoGP story takes place tomorrow.