Honda keep hold of Marquez as MotoGP returns with Qatar race

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MOTOGP returned last weekend in Qatar and there was good news for Honda, who signed Marc Marquez for a further two years for the works Repsol team.

Even bigger news was that nine-times world champion Valentino Rossi signed a two-year extension to his current deal that will keep him at Yamaha until 2021, when he will be 41 years of age. Wow. What unbelievable drive, commitment, enthusiasm and talent.

And don’t think he won’t be able to still mix it with the best younger talent on the grid, because in Qatar he was just sensational. Don’t bet against him writing a few more chapters in the story of one of the greatest bike racers of all time. His passion, commitment and riding skills remain at the highest level and there were lots of tributes paid to him over the weekend.

Into Q1 and the slowest 14 riders in practice battled for the final two places in Q2, with Jack Miller on the Ducati and Maverick Vinales on the Yamaha winning through. Vinales had struggled throughout winter testing but left some good riders to fill the lower placings from 13 downwards on the grid, including Aleix Espargaro, Franco Morbidelli and Scott Redding.

In Q2 any one of six riders could have taken pole but in the end it was Johann Zarco on the Tech 3 Yamaha, who had raced so brilliantly last year. He was joined on the front row by Marquez and Danilo Petrucci (Ducati). Cal Crutchlow was fourth, Andrea Dovizioso fifth and the Moto GP rookie Alex Rins (Suzuki), who was sensational all weekend, was sixth.

Dani Pedrosa, Rossi and Jorge Lorenzo filled the third row, with Miller, Andrea Iannone and Vinales behind them. Vinales was 12th and looked set to struggle on the Yamaha again.

I just want to mention the speed traps. I am not sure how many readers have been to track days and ridden at 100 mph or over but it feels bloody quick on two wheels.

These MotoGP bikes were timed at 351 kph, or about 220 mph in real money in Qatar. These are on hybrid bikes that are not easy to ride. You can see the riders struggling to keep what are quite small machines going in a straight line on occasions. Hats off to them all – they have my total respect.

All weekend my thoughts had been about a race between Marquez and Dovizioso, carrying on where they left off last season.

Marquez duly took the lead off the start but my favourite for the race, Dovi, slipped down to seventh. However, he seems to be a different rider these last couple of years. He has learnt to be patient, that you don’t have to try and win the race on the first lap and only push when you and the bike are ready.

He made steady progress through the field. He would gain a place and then consolidate for three or four laps until he was up to second by lap 18. When he eventually took the lead he looked in control, even with Marquez all over the back of his bike.

It was a really good race, with Zarco, who was in the lead for 15 odd laps, Marquez and Rossi all taking spells at the front.

Eventually Dovi, Marquez and Rossi had opened up a little gap on the chasing pack, led by Crutchlow and Petrucci.

As we saw in Australia and Barcelona last year, Dovizioso has got used to the last-lap battles with Marquez and knows when and how to win, utilising the straight-line speed advantage of the Ducati and good racecraft. Plus, he has learnt to get his elbows out and shove back.

As we have come to expect, Marc dived down the inside at the final corner a little bit out of control for anyone else, but in control for him, but when he ran a touch wide Dovi got back on the power first to win by two-hundredths of a second. Rossi was third, just seven-tenths adrift.

Crutchlow was a great fourth, with Petrucci, who I think was expecting a podium, a little disappointed with fifth. Vinales, who said he felt comfortable on the Yamaha for the first time in six months, was pleased with sixth and he was followed by Pedrosa, Zarco (who was the only rider to opt for a soft front tyre and really struggled towards the end of the race), Iannone and Miller. Of the other Brits Smith was 18th and Redding 20th. I felt sorry for Lorenzo, who had been running in ninth or tenth when his rear brakes failed and put him down the road.

  • Moto2 and 3

Francesco Bagnaia won the Moto2 race from Lorenzo Baldassarri and Alex Marquez. Marquez had taken pole and was favourite to win. I was thinking he was having another poor race, as he went straight on a couple of times during braking. It later turned out his rear brakes were sticking.

On one shot mid-way through the race you could clearly see the rear disc glowing white-hot, so he did really well to hold on to third.

Jorge Martin won the Moto3 race from Aron Canet and Lorenzo Dalla Porta.

  • Superbikes

The first round of the World Superbikes season was held in Phillip Island a couple of weeks ago, with Marco Melandri winning both races on the Ducati. He won the first by a second from Tom Sykes on the Kawasaki and the second by two-hundredths from Jonathan Rea.

Reigning champion Rea wasn’t his usual dominant self but don’t hold your breath. I expect that by the time we get to race 26 he will be the rider we are all talking about once again.

  • WRC

We have already had three rounds of the World Rally Championship.

Sebastien Ogier won the traditional season opener in Monte Carlo in the M Sport Ford from the two Toyotas of Ott Tanaak and Jari-Matti Latvala. Kris Meeke was fourth, Elfyn Evans sixth and Craig Breen ninth, which was a good showing for the Brits.

It was cold and full of snow for the second round in Sweden, with Thierry Neuville winning in the Hyundai. Hyundai came into the season as favourites after strong performances in testing. Breen was second in the Citroen, which was a massive effort from him.

He has a full season, apart from the three races when former multiple champion Sebastien Loeb will take over. Andreas Mikkelsen was third, with Evans tenth and Meeke crashing out.

The third round was in Mexico, with Ogier showing just why he is a multiple world champion by taking another victory from Dani Sordo and Meeke.

Loeb, in his first rally for quite a while, was leading until he suffered a puncture, which cost him a lot of time. He ended up in fifth.

There were a lot of comments in the press afterwards that there wasn’t a team in the service area that wouldn’t fight to try and get Loeb to sign a contract if he decides to do a full season in 2019.

  • Formula E

I would like to just mention Formula E. I am not a big electric-car fan in motorsport. I like V8s and V12s and I am even starting to like F1 now it is getting a little bit noisier again, although they still need to do a lot more.

However, I have to say the Formula E racing is fantastic and it is interesting to see how many of the top manufacturers are buying into it. Porsche and Mercedes are joining in 2019 in a field that already includes Audi, Jaguar and Nissan.

It is gathering pace and the current season, which began in September, is now half-way through. Former-Toro Rosso F1 driver Jean-Eric Vergne is leading the championship after six races from Felix Rosenqvist and British driver Sam Bird.

The racing is very good to watch – and you don’t have to put the sound down.

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