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With qualifying abandoned, Franco Morbidelli (EG 0,0 Marc VDS) showed that free practice times really do matter, as he bagged pole position in Qatar for the launch of the 2017 season. The Italian shared the front row with his teammate Alex Marquez and the highest scoring rider in Intermediate class history, last year’s runner-up Tom Lüthi (CarXpert Interwetten).
Moto2™: Morbidelli takes dominant victory under floodlights
Having ended 2016 with five consecutive podiums, Morbidelli continued his form into pre-season testing and rocked up in Doha as bookies favourite, in spite of the fact he was still searching for his first grand prix victory. In the past, keeping precious life in his tyres has been a big problem for Franco. Leading races was a common theme in 2016, but staying there was another matter, and time after time, he played the part of bridesmaid in parc ferme - until now.
Four top riders have moved into MotoGP since last year and from the moment the lights went out on the 2016 season, another four names were declared as sure-fire title challengers for the following season - Franco Morbidelli, Tom Lüthi, Alex Marquez and Takaaki Nakagami... and they are pretty safe names to be in the mix at the end of 2017.
After pre-season, another name was added into the mix though, with KTM entering the chassis battle. The Red Bull KTM Ajo team have got right down to business, and whilst Brad Binder will take time to develop, Miguel Oliveira is ready - and showed in the months leading up to Qatar that both he and the bike can cause upset this year.
As the race got underway, Morbidelli couldn't resist pulling the pin to recreate the race pace he'd given us a glimpse of during warm-up. Lüthi was a couple of tenths per lap slower than Franco, but if anyone knew about the Italian's previous failings to last the distance, it was Tom, and maybe just sitting and waiting for the race to come to him was a the best idea.
Morbidelli’s former traits were nowhere to be seen. Every lap and every line into each corner was inch perfect, he was on rails. He hadn't disappeared from Lüthi's view, but like an anaconda, his grip was too tight and it was the sort of performance that sucked the life out of his opponents as he went on to win his first grand prix in supreme style - with the fastest lap of the race for good measure.
The wily Tom Lüthi was second, the race didn't perhaps pan out exactly as he'd imagined, but the Swiss rider knows only too well how important 20 points are at the start of the season. His next job is to try and find the podium more consistently and starting in Argentina, a circuit that's only given him 19 points in three previous visits.
Seeing off Marquez and Oliveira to claim third overall was Takaaki Nakagami (Idemitsu Honda Team Asia). 'Taka' had his best season to date in 2016 but this year is about stepping up and third place isn't a bad way to start. It took him three races to collect ten points at the start of last year, and he had to wait until Catalunya before he took a trophy back to Japan.
KTM's Miguel Oliveira had caught Taka, but he could never quite reel in the experienced Moto2 runner. Still, for a debut in the class, KTM should be incredibly proud of their efforts and with a talent like Miguel Oliveira, the future looks bright for them. Kalex may have won the last 35 races in the Moto2™ class since Austin 2015, but the fourth place from Miguel Oliveira and KTM is a shock to the system, all eyes will now be on the team in Argentina to see if they can perform as admirably at a circuit they've not tested at.
In sixth and seventh, neither Luca Marini (Forward Racing Team) nor Fabio Quartararo (Pons HP 40) can go without mentions. Marini shared row five with his team-mate Lorenzo Baldassarri at the start of the night, but on this occasion looked far more comfortable than his usually capable teammate.
As for Quartararo? The critics of the young Frenchman have gone into hibernation and are set to stay there for a long time. The 17-year-old suits the larger machine, didn't tire in the latter stages and in general, looked great - podiums are booked for future dates.
Now we head for Argentina. Morbidelli suggesting his pace was so quick that he could race within himself in Qatar isn't what Lüthi and co. want to hear, but the Italian did go onto say that it was for this reason that his Dunlops lasted and he's not necessarily sure that he's totally got rid of his tyre demons just yet. So that gives the rest a bit of hope as we head to South America.
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