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Sunday’s opening MotoGP™ race in Qatar was memorable in so many ways. Memorable indeed. That is, unless you’re a Spanish fan of MotoGP...
With nineteen years of experience reporting on MotoGP™ for Motorcycle News, Matthew Birt knows the championship inside-out. For the 2015 season he joins the motogp.com team to bring you exclusive news and opinion from inside the paddock.
Sunday’s opening MotoGP™ race in Qatar was memorable in so many ways.
There was another pulsating Moto3™ battle won inches from the finish line by Alexis Masbou.
A debut win for Jonas Folger and high drama in Moto2 was then followed by a stunning 109th career win for Valentino Rossi in MotoGP™ that the Italian not surprisingly rated as one of the best of his career.
That is unless you’re a Spanish fan of MotoGP.
For a nation that has become accustomed to unrivalled success in the World Championship, the Qatar season opener represented a rare race to forget.
For the first time since the Chinese Grand Prix in Shanghai nearly 10 years ago, none of the nine podium places up for grabs went to Spanish talent.
You have to go even further back to 2003 for the last time a MotoGP podium at the opening round of the season was missing a Spanish rider.
Nobody could have predicted a Qatar MotoGP rostrum that didn’t feature at least one of Marc Marquez, Jorge Lorenzo or Dani Pedrosa.
Let’s start with the reigning World Champion...
His challenge for a 20th premier class victory was over barely 15 seconds into the race. Marquez needed to run off track to avoid clipping the back of Bradley Smith’s Monster Yamaha Tech 3 machine at the first corner.
Dead last in 25th, his trademark aggression saw him make 20 overtakes to fight back to fifth.
Hunting down the top four though was beyond even Marquez. His impressive charge back through the pack had seen him abuse his Bridgestone tyres, and with the rear overheating, he called off his pursuit when he nearly crashed in the final three laps. Eleven points for fifth were definitely better than none.
That decision demonstrated a new side to Marquez. In the past, he’d have continued to throw caution to the wind and most likely ended in the gravel. His words, not mine.
Marquez though now is looking at the bigger picture of the Championship rather than just instant glory. His manager Emilio Alzamora told me in winter testing that the key to Marquez winning a third straight title would be to accept that sometimes second, third or worse is enough.
In Qatar it was difficult to accept, admitted Marquez, but he’d limited the damage of the early mistake.
Marquez’s downfall was all his own doing, but Lorenzo’s victory challenge faded in bizarre circumstances.
He was looking comfortable in the lead when he suddenly started dropping out of contention.
After complaining about rear grip issues all weekend, the natural assumption was that he was struggling to maintain his pace on worn rubber.
But what nobody could see trackside or on TV was that he couldn’t see properly!
A large piece of foam inside of his HJC helmet began slipping down his forehead and impaired his vision.
Images emerged later clearly showed how much his vision was restricted and he did well to stay as close to the podium as he did.
I’d imagine Yamaha management were less than impressed by what happened. This year is the Japanese factory’s 60th anniversary, and what better way to kick off celebrations with a 1-2 in the opening MotoGP race?
As Yamaha boss Lin Jarvis told me after the race, “No disrespect to Ducati because they pushed us very hard, but a 1-2 was there.”
Lorenzo’s woes seemed trivial though in comparison to Repsol Honda rival Pedrosa.
A broken piece of foam can be fixed, but whether Pedrosa’s body is beyond repair remains to be seen.
A brilliant second on the grid in qualifying after a strong showing in practice gave no hint of the torment and pain that was to follow in a race he finished in a low-key sixth.
In an emotional statement released after the race, he revealed a debilitating right arm pump issue that he’s tried unsuccessfully to cure for over a year is still a speed-limiting handicap.
Arm pump strikes fear into the heart of any rider, not least because there is no obvious cure.
So what next for Pedrosa?
His appearance at the next race in Austin seems highly unlikely. The Circuit of the Americas features a series of brutally hard braking points and physically demanding high-speed changes of direction that will expose the arm pump issue again.
Some say Pedrosa will take a period of rest to try and recuperate from an issue that can’t be cured with additional surgery.
But he has just had the best part of five months off in the winter and been struck down with the arm pump issue again. In fact, he knew it was an issue all through winter testing, but kept the problem a secret from all but HRC.
Some say he will be forced to reluctantly retire, while on his own blog issued via Repsol this morning, he says he will make a decision in the next few days.
The blog was released under the heading ‘A Difficult Moment’.
Pedrosa has had his fair share of those down the years. Pedrosa was leading the 2008 and 2013 World Championships, only for injury to intervene. Both times crashes at Germany’s Sachsenring saw him eventually slip out of contention.
Other campaigns have been heavily influenced by injuries. He was in early contention for the 2011 title when his infamous tangle with Marco Simoncelli in Le Mans snapped his left collarbone again.
That came just a few months after his 2010 challenge was ended in Japan, when a throttle stuck open in practice and prematurely put him out of contention.Pedrosa has shown repeatedly in his career that he can ride in the most intense physical pain and come back from injuries and setbacks that would have finished lesser men.
But mentally he must be crushed now, wondering if he will ever be able to compete at the highest level again.
Modern day MotoGP bikes are faster and more physically demanding to ride than ever before.
They weigh 158 kilograms but produce close to 270bhp. In Qatar, Pedrosa and the field were braking from close to 220mph on the start straight down to 60mph for the first corner. That’s scrubbing off 160mph in less than 200 metres!
The physical strength that demands is incomprehensible to mere mortals like me, but emphasises the demands the machinery now places on the human body.
To ride one at 99.9% fitness is a tough mission. Riding one in Pedrosa’s condition with numbness and weakness in his right arm is nigh on impossible. The fact he still finished sixth in Qatar is testament not only to his talent but his dogged determination to succeed in the most adverse circumstances.
It would be cruel in the extreme for Pedrosa to have to retire.
Since his second season in the World Championship paddock in 2003, he has won at least one race in every season since.
But the ultimate prize has always eluded him. Forever the bridesmaid and never the bride, Pedrosa has been runner-up in MotoGP three times and never been crowned champion, despite the fact that he sits eighth in the all-time Grand Prix winners list.
He’s proved to be one of the fastest riders of the modern era.
He’s also proved that fortune doesn’t always favour the brave.
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