By Gordon Hatch - MotoGP correspondent
Stoner grabs first win with Honda in typical fashion at MotoGP season opener in Qatar
Casey Stoner stormed to his first win for Repsol Honda at the opening round of the 2011 MotoGP championship in emphatic fashion under a floodlit Losail International Circuit in Doha, Qatar. Stoner’s victory makes it five wins for the 2007 champion with four wins now in MotoGP and one in the 250cc class.
The Australian battled with teammate Dani Pedrosa in the early stages of the 20-lap race but Stoner made the most of his RC212V and announced his arrival at Honda in the best way possible. The battle between the teammates was a thrilling affair with both riders swapping the lead after a start that saw a number of changes including a burst of red in the form of seven-time MotoGP champion Valentino Rossi on his Marlboro Ducati GP11.
I'm very proud to be racing for Repsol Honda and to take my first victory in the first race.
The race looked like it would go the distance between the Repsol Honda riders but it proved not to be after Pedrosa dropped off Stoner, suddenly leaving him at the front with a commanding lead that he held to the end. Delighted with his first win for his new employer Stoner said, “After a great pre-season, we came into this race weekend and everything kept getting better and better for us. This morning in warm up we had a few issues getting a good feeling with the bike carrying a full tank of fuel and this issue also affected us in the early part of the race, but we knew as the fuel level decreased and the tyres aged, that our bike would come back to us.
“Dani came past and we decided to follow to see where he was strong and where I was weak. Then when I started to feel more confident with the bike and had more grip and better turning, we decided to push forwards and take advantage. Tonight the bike was fantastic, as it has been for all the sessions and I'm very proud to be racing for Repsol Honda and to take my first victory in the first race,” he said.
Stoner added he is very happy with his start to the new season and also sent a heartfelt thanks to his new team, “It is a great way to start the season! I'm really happy with how everything has gone and the way the team has all worked together, a big thanks to Honda and my best wishes to Japan in this difficult time.”
Following Stoner from some length was reigning MotoGP Champion Jorge Lorcnzo who worked tirelessly on his factory Yamaha YZR-M1 to grab second place and 20 points to open his tally in this year’s championship. The result’s importance was reflected in Lorenzo’s post race fist-pumping celebrations.
Lorenzo had a speed disadvantage against the Hondas and this was magnified even more with the 1.1km Losail straight but nevertheless the spaniard was dogged in his fight with Stoner and Pedrosa so much so that he actually led the first lap and never gave up in his pursuit.
Following the race Lorenzo spoke of his satisfaction with his result, “I think maybe I am more proud of that podium than a race victory, that’s how I feel tonight,” said the reigning champion. “I feel very proud of myself and my team who never gave up and worked to give me the best bike that they can. I put everything I have inside into my riding on the track for the race from the start to the end and was on the limit every lap. I almost crashed on one corner but I managed to stay on the bike and finished in second position which is the best that I could do.”
While Lorenzo left the podium extremely satisfied Pedrsosa on the other hand was thinking of what could have been after leading in the early stages of the race but fading away in the latter stages. Pedrosa battled with Stoner for a considerable part of the race until his left arm started to lose power, so much so he could barely use it at the end.
Pedrosa broked his left collarbone in three places at last year’s Japanese GP at the Twin Ring Motegi and this has also affected his arm. “I'm disappointed, not for the race I had, but for the physical problems I had again with my left arm,” said Pedrosa while continuing, “Already in practice I felt something, but I was not sure if it could be that bad, at the end I couldn't grab the handlebar and in the last 7-8 laps I couldn't use the clutch at all. I was just holding the arm and I was suffering a lot.
“The bike was perfect all race, I had the chance to win but I had a very hard time, one of the toughest races of my life. I don't know what can I do because should be ok after the rest I had this winter. I did the tests and everything was in order. In the winter tests I was a bit weak, but I felt alright, so I don't know what we have to do. I feel sorry for my team as well, because the bike was very good, fast, perfect also in the corners. I'm proud of how I've been riding,” said Pedrosa.
Pedrosa concluded by saying he can’t predict what will happen at the next race, “I've been fighting with Casey in this circuit as nobody else did in the past but at the same time I feel sad because I don't know what the future will bring. I know we will go to Jerez in two weeks, where the bike will run very well, and I'm very strong and fast, but I don't know what will happen.”
Fourth place went to Repsol Honda’s third rider Andrea Dovizioso who had a race-long battle with San Carlo Honda Gresini rider Marco Simoncelli, who again impressed at the Qatar track to snatch fifth place ahead of a raft of more experienced riders. Simoncelli and Dovizioso swapped places for the majority of the race before Dovi eeked out a small advantage at the end.
Lorenzo’s teammate Ben Spies crossed the finish line in sixth position after battling with Ducati Marlboro debutant Valentino Rossi who fought valiantly with the texan throughout the race but Spies stamped his authority on the duel close to the end. Despite running wide at turn one a number of times while trying to pass Rossi who did his best to keep him at bay, Spies, who replaces Rossi in the official Yamaha MotoGP team this year, was able to stay ahead of Ducati rider.
Rossi nearly fell at one stage in his battle with Spies and despite his best efforts the ‘Doctor’ thought the better of it and eased off a little after his scare, not wanting to end his first race for the Ducati Marlboro squad and millions of fans worldwide lower than 7th or worse in the gravel.
Following Rossi into eigth and ninth places were Americans Colin Edwards (Monster Yamaha Tech 3) and Nicky Hayden (Ducati Marlboro). Both riders had to work hard for their spots in the top ten, especially so for Hayden with the 2006 champion struggling in the first two thirds of the race. Yet in the final third Hayden found something and passed a streak of riders to finish ninth despite being in 13th earlier in the race.
Edwards rode in typical fashion on the YZR-M1 that he says is working brilliantly for him. The texan battled early on with Hector Barbera (Mapfre Aspar) and Hiroshi Aoyama (San Carlo Gresini Honda) before his experience shone through leaving him in eigth position which he held comfortable until the end.
Japanese rider Aoyama fought hard on his satellite Honda and grabbed the final spot in the top ten – a result that is surely to give him and his fellow countrymen in the paddock some solace despite the tragic natural disasters that struck in their homeland last week.
British rookie Cal Crutchlow (Monster Yamaha Tech 3) got his first season in the pinnacle of motorcycle racing underway in splendid form, coming home in 11th place and earning him a points scoring finish on his maiden GP. Crutchlow battled throughout the race and didn’t give anything up easy sending a message to his rivals he is prepared to fight for his place in the championship.
Crutchlow was followed by Hector Barbera who showed great promise during free practice earlier in the week but under racing conditions Barbera’s lack of experience showed. He can take something away from the fact that he battled with Valentino Rossi early on in the race, eager to show that he was capable of going head to head with the factory Ducati but it wasn’t to be for ‘Barberix’.
Czech Republic rider Karel Abraham finished his first MotoGP race in 13th and last place on his Cardion AB Motoracing Ducati and although placing last the rookie impressed on his first outing in the premier class.
The opening round of the 2011 season has been one to forget for both the factory Suzuki team, Pramac Racing and LCR Honda with each of the teams encountering misfortunes before and during the race. The first blow came in the form of lone Suzuki rider Alvaro Bautista being sidelined for some time after breaking his left femur during Friday nights free practice session. The Suzuki team tried every possibility to get a replacement rider but to no avail but ex-GP star John Hopkins will substitute for Bautista at the next round in Jerez, Spain.
Pramac Racing’s misfortunes came in the first lap of the race after Randy de Puniet highsided his Ducati GP11 on front of his teammate Loris Capirossi with the incident leaving de Puniet on the tarmac and sending Capirossi off the track in an attempt to avoid his teammate’s bike. Despite trying to continue Capirossi had to retire after it emerged that his had had been clipped by de Puniet’s bike, forcing the Italian out of the race. KCR Honda saw their lone rider Toni Elias crash his RC212V in a week that the Spaniard will not want to remember for some time.
Stoner and his Repsol Honda team now march on to Jerez in Spain from 1-3 April where he will aim to repeat his success at the Andalusian track but it wont be easy with teammate Pedrosa and reigning champ Lorenzo looking to take the win on front of a partisan crowd and also the likes of Spies, Dovizioso and Rossi all aiming to take podium positions.