As that massive red fireball of the sun dropped below the Qatar desert skyline the wind, sprinkled with sand that you could taste, picked up to signal the start of the season. Drifting in the wind was the sound of mighty engines across the barren sand-laden landscape while the battlefield of tarmac was bathed in bright light from thousands of bulbs. The MotoGP™ season was about to start
Sunday night in Qatar will be no different apart from the desert skyline. Nothing like as barren and now filled with the twinkling lights of massive sports stadiums and skyscrapers. No sign of the camels that we used to follow on our way to the circuit. A Grand Prix paddock fired up, nervous and excited about the battles that lie ahead for the next eight months. It is that feeling of anticipation that never goes away.
Twenty-one Grands Prix scheduled in the longest season in the 74-year-old history of the sport. The second earliest start to the season since Daytona staged the 1964 American Grand Prix. It is the first battle of a long campaign that looms ahead. How much will we take from the results on Sunday, when the last round is staged a long time ahead at Valencia in November.
Let us start with the new MotoGP™ World Champion Fabio Quartararo. The last time a reigning World Champion won the opening round of the season was in 2016 when Jorge Lorenzo was victorious in Qatar on the Yamaha. So how important is it to win the opening round. Looking at the record in the MotoGP™ era, very important. Valentino Rossi won the first race for four successive years starting in 2002 and went on to be crowned World Champion on each occasion including the switch to Yamaha in 2004. Casey Stoner did it in 2007 and 2011 on both Ducati and Honda machinery. The Spanish duo of Lorenzo and Marc Marquez also won the first race and title in 2012 and 2014, respectively. However, in that same MotoGP™ era only two riders have retained their titles the following season. No great surprise it is Rossi and Marquez.
So, what about the newcomers facing the daunting prospect of their first MotoGP™ race. The history books are not on the side of Remy Gardner, Raul Fernandez, Darryn Binder, Fabio di Giannantonio and Marco Bezzecchi. The last rookie to win on his premier class debut was Max Biaggi in 1998, riding the Honda at Suzuka. The Italian is only one of five riders to have achieved such a feat. The very first premier class World Championship race at the 1949 TT was won by Harold Daniell in the Isle of Man. A year later Geoff Duke won at the TT on his 500cc World Championship debut. Circumstances helped two debutant winners to their only Grand Prix wins. Jorge Kissling won in 1961 in Argentina and Edmund Czihak at the Nürburgring in Germany in 1974 when the leading riders boycotted the race on safety grounds. Finnish rider Jarno Saarinen won the opening two rounds riding the new two-stroke 500cc Yamaha in 1973 before losing his life in that tragic 250 cc Grand Prix at Monza. Only Duke went on to win the premier class title although Saarinen would surely have won the World title, probably for many years to come.
Honda’s last winner in the opening round was Marc Marquez in 2014. Suzuki’s in 1999 with Kenny Roberts junior. Andrea Dovizioso, who returns on Sunday riding the WithU Yamaha RNF, brought Ducati success in 2019. Both relative newcomers KTM and Aprilia chase their first opening round success. Maverick Vinales has twice won in Qatar riding for Yamaha including last year. He returns with Aprilia chasing their first MotoGP™ victory. He teams up with Aleix Espargaro who has been so impressive in testing, but is the only rider in the 24-rider field who has not won a Grand Prix in any class.
My old friend the former 500cc Motocross World Champion Graham Noyce always told me, when the flag drops the bullshit stops. In Qatar on Sunday, it is more a case of when the sun drops.