A few hours before the first MotoGP race of the season in Qatar, four manufacturers and 11 riders are in contention for a top-three finish. David Gruz analyses the extremely even playing field.
Beyond the usual anticipation ahead of a season opener, the 2018 Qatar Grand Prix marks genuinely one of the most exciting times in recent MotoGP history.
There is a sense that riders from four different manufacturers can be strong contenders – at least for podiums – and nobody really knows what to expect on Sunday.
When riders were asked who the favourite is for the Qatar race, they usually gave a vague answer or simply offered an appreciation of how even the field is. The only name that popped up on a few occasions was Andrea Dovizioso.
"I think the fastest guy is not here [in the top three of qualifying], it is Andrea [Dovizioso], he has a very good pace and he is the favourite one for the race," said Marc Marquez during the post-qualifying press conference.
His satellite counterpart Cal Crutchlow echoed him, simply saying: "Dovi looks the favourite, surely."
It’s indeed last year’s runner-up who is the safest bet, if only by a small margin, for victory.
This is down to a combination of different factors, namely the change in Dovizioso's reputation last year, a strong pre-season, the fact that Qatar has always been one of the Ducati’s strongest tracks, and the Italian topping both Friday practice sessions.
He led a dominant Ducati performance in the latter session, which was the only chance for the field to secure a spot in Q2 due to FP1 and FP3 being held in daylight and therefore proving irrelevant.
But that was just about the only thing anyone has dominated during the weekend so far.
Once vying for qualifying spots was over, FP4 gave a better insight into who’s hot and who’s not for Sunday - and, as it turned out, everyone is hot.
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With only a few tenths separating the field, the smallest of things – a change in temperature, wind, a dirtier-than-anticipated track, a small set-up change - can make the difference in the race.
It’s still a couple of Ducatis at the top of the above table, with Dovizioso ending his run with two 1m55.2s. However, he had little to back those up as his next best lap was half a second slower.
While Dovizioso had a small edge in ultimate pace, Petrucci shone in terms of consistency – the Italian was 55.6s or lower on six occasions while a few others only managed to do that once.
Yet he is not conclusively the strongest one either and there are many close behind.
The factory Yamaha riders are primed for a rollercoaster of a season, and it has already started in Qatar.
Valentino Rossi, barring a rare crash in FP3, has in general managed his weekend well and was competitive. But Maverick Vinales was just unable to get going on Friday.
He was 11th in both FP1 and FP2, was consigned to take part in Q1 and, even though he made it to Q2 without any problems, he was only 12th there.
But if there is a silver lining for last year’s winner in Qatar, it is his race pace in FP4. Following a set-up change, Vinales’ 15-lap run was by far the longest, as well as one of the most consistent of the field.
But, FP4 results are not a totally reliable guide of what the race will be like, and two riders who definitely did not show their true potential were Johann Zarco and Jorge Lorenzo.
The Frenchman had a crash, which makes his race pace a bit of an unknown.
Even though it’s hard to imagine him not being one of the favourites for the race after such a phenomenal qualifying performance, the pole-sitter doesn’t think he has the pace to win right now.
"Just fantastic, I was happy, good to be on pole position," said Zarco. "It doesn’t mean anything for the race, just a good start and a good opportunity.
"At the moment I think I don’t have the pace for the victory, but why not go for it tomorrow?"
Lorenzo, on the other hand, was hampered by electronics issues throughout all of Saturday. This also played a part in his relatively poor qualifying performance, as he had to ride his second and less preferred bike on his first run.
The only rider that made it into Q2 who actually seems a little off the pace is Dani Pedrosa, perhaps the only of the three factory-contracted Honda riders living up to the expectation that the manufacturer should struggle in Qatar.
In the meantime, two exciting additions to the mix are Suzuki’s Alex Rins and Andrea Iannone.
The former seems to have truly left his difficult, injury-ravaged rookie season behind, and might have already tackled his first big challenge – being stronger than Iannone.
Based on pre-season testing and this weekend so far, Marquez rightly touted Suzuki's new bike as a victory contender, but the exact rate of improvement is still to be seen regardless of Sunday's result - as Qatar was a strong track for the team even last year.
Tyre life the decisive factor
The race does not appear to be a question of who is quick enough to fight at the front, but rather who can make their tyres last, especially the rear.
That is where some riders and teams are starting to look more in trouble, and where Dovizioso once again seems to have an advantage over the rest.
"Managing the rear tyre for tomorrow is the key," said Petrucci. "Dovizioso I think is the strongest one because he is very able to manage the tyres until the end.
"I think Dovi got a little bit more in this moment in managing the tyre."
For Petrucci himself, this was an issue last year, but the Italian worked on it over the winter. He lost weight, worked on his riding style and now has a bike he claims is better at conserving the tyres.
For the 27-year-old, this seems as good a chance as any to grab his much-deserved first win in the category – which would be one special start to the season when he is trying to get a factory contract.
The third Ducati of Lorenzo is a less obvious candidate - he's been lagging a bit behind and was even hit by technical gremlins, but he was a notoriously good starter with the Ducati already last year so he could feature at the top early on.
The manufacturer that could struggle more with the tyres is Yamaha, which did not fix its issues over the winter.
Rossi said it will be "very much at the limit to do 22 laps", and Vinales will have an even tougher job as he has to fight his way through from 12th and will need to push early on.
Zarco was also not free of Yamaha’s woes, as prior to his qualifying heroics he was struggling with rear grip – not what you want when tyre life is crucial.
Regardless, Yamaha, just like the majority of the top teams, was trialling the soft rear tyre so they have hope they can keep up with the others.
Honda continues to gravitate towards harder compounds, adding a welcome variety to tyre selections. Marquez made a last-second decision to run two medium tyres in last year’s race, and ended up regretting it.
The reigning champion was on the hard front and medium rear combination in FP4 and said "everything is clear" for the race, so he looks set to run on a harder tyres than his rivals, making him a big threat for late in the race.
And given he was one of three riders to surpass the old lap record in qualifying on a track where he and Honda have always struggled, he appears a shoo-in to be in the lead pack.
Honda has also made a step forward in terms of top speed with its 2018 bike, which could help Marquez, as well as Crutchlow and Pedrosa, to defend their positions early on.
The field will have one last chance to find some much-needed edge over their rivals in warm-up, and Lorenzo will be worth keeping an eye on during that session.
"I have one last card to play in the warm-up," said the six-time Qatar winner.
In the end, it's Dovizioso - and to a smaller degree Petrucci - who are closest to ticking all the boxes that are needed for victory.
Regardless of who ends up winning, everything is pointing to the Qatar Grand Prix being a cracking start to the 2018 MotoGP season.