“It’s been a long winter…” The first words of Marc Marquez (Repsol Honda Team) in the pre-event Press Conference in Qatar are surely echoed by the MotoGP™ grid and the whole paddock. After four tests beginning in November and wrapping up earlier in March, it’s finally time to race.
Or almost. First on Wednesday was the pre-event to preface the weekend: a nine-time motorcycle racing World Champion and a two-time Dakar Rally winner going skeet shooting. Local hero Nasser Al-Attiyah, Qatari Olympic bronze medalist in skeet shooting, met Valentino Rossi (Movistar Yamaha MotoGP) and gave him some pointers under the desert sun as the two shot more than just the breeze.
Then it was Press Conference time. Joining Marquez and Rossi were Jorge Lorenzo (Ducati Team), Maverick Viñales (Movistar Yamaha MotoGP), Andrea Iannone (Team Suzuki Ecstar) and Cal Crutchlow (LCR Honda).
First to speak was the reigning Champion, Marquez. “It’s been a long winter but now we’re here! This preseason has been a bit better than last year, I’m happier and I feel more comfortable. I feel good with the bike overall. I look forward to starting the 2017 season with a good weekend. We’ve had some big changes, especially with the engine, but we’re still working hard to get the best setup – that takes time.”
Time is something also required by the ‘Doctor’. After some preseason struggles, Rossi has a clear goal for the first race: “We have to try and stay in that front group coming from a difficult winter. We struggled to find the right setting and we have to work and try and improve – but I hope to be strong and competitive.” Winner at Losail most recently in 2015, the number 46 has a good record at the track – a good omen for Sunday.
His new teammate – Viñales – has had a very different winter. Fastest in every test and immediately at home on the Yamaha, it’s looking good for the Spaniard: “At the moment it’s only been preseason but we’ve found a good setup in all tests, on all tracks. So we’ll just try to bring that into the season. We improved the bike a lot over winter! The riding style change from Suzuki to Yamaha isn’t so different.”
One bigger change in riding style has seen Jorge Lorenzo go from the blue of Yamaha to the red of Ducati. After struggling more in Sepang, the ‘Spartan’ has since made rapid progress up the timesheets – something he hopes to continue as he gets more and more track time: “It’s a new era for me so I’m really looking forward to starting. Step by step and little by little, that’s how the preseason has been going and here in Qatar we made a big step forward, but more on one lap. So our main goal before the race is to improve the pace little by little. The first day in Sepang was a little bit of a shock because I was used to being competitive from the beginning and it takes time, but on the final day I made a big step and was quite competitive. Here in Qatar we’ve been much better so that makes me optimistic for the future.”
Team Suzuki Ecstar’s new recruit Andrea Iannone was lightning fast in Sepang, before struggling a little more in Phillip Island and at the #QatarTest. So what has been the focus since? “Recovering the gap, and adjusting the bike and getting it to my style. We believe we have a lot of potential and we want to reduce the gap. At the moment it’s difficult because from the test we don’t have a great feeling; we didn’t get to a good compromise. The pace isn’t bad but isn’t so close to the top four or five. I hope to improve and fight at the top.”
Last but not least was Independent Team rider Crutchlow, who took two stunning victories last season and has been impressive in preseason once again. Also testing for HRC as engines were the focus of much of the winter, the Brit is pretty positive ahead of the season opener: “We’ve been quite pleased. At the moment it’s proving difficult to find the right balance but we’ve been quick at every track, which is good for me and the team. I don’t think a motorcycle racer is ever uninjured…we’re always trying to be 100% fit, but when you throw yourself off these things as often as I did last year you’re never quite fully fit however hard you try! But it was nice to have a winter off for some family time, and now it’s great to be back. March gets your brain in racing mode.”