MotoGP

Miller Time: It’s great to be back

Jack writes about his first dry-weather MotoGP podium in Austin, and why he’s as much relieved as elated after a result a long time coming.

THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED ON REDBULL.COM

Hi everyone,

This one is late and going to be quick, but I think you probably know why. It’s taken a while for me to get that first dry-weather podium, so at least I’m consistent …

It’s such a good feeling to stand up there on the podium after the weekend we’ve had here in Austin, and after the speed we showed the whole way through. I’m over the moon with that. Right from Friday I was inside the top four and fastest of the Ducati guys, and it was a bit like Argentina last time when I was up there all weekend but just missed the podium. I didn’t think I rode that smart that day, I felt I was in fights I didn’t need to be in early on and that might have cost me in the long run, but today worked out great in the end. Just, but still great.

Starting fourth and finishing third when two guys in front of you crash out … maybe that doesn’t sound as good, especially when Alex (Rins) came through from seventh on the grid and beat all of us. But I’ll take it, don’t worry about that. It was a hot pace out the front early on, and you know what Marc (Marquez) is like, he’s always pushing everywhere but especially here, and the pace was really fast early on. Four of us, Marc, Vale (Valentino Rossi), Crutch (Cal Crutchlow) and me all took off out the front and Marc was setting a hot pace. I didn’t want to let them stretch away but we were on the limit from the first laps, especially me and Cal, from what it looked like tucked in right behind him.

Cal crashed pretty early and then Marc a few laps after as you all saw; it was a bit of a shock in some ways to see him on the ground but maybe part of the reason he crashed was that he cooked the front tyre because of the early pace. I knew pretty early on that the pace was going to be too much for the soft tyres I chose for 20 laps, so after he went down I knew I was third and had a decent gap behind me, and I wasn’t thinking about second or better at that stage, I knew I just had to get it home. Even now, I’m still sitting here pondering what might have been if I’d chosen to race the medium, but I’ll still take it.

They’re sometimes the hardest races when you have more time to think and you’re not in a battle; second was out of reach and I just needed to keep concentrated to keep third. With about nine laps to go I saw ‘Dovi’ (Andrea Dovizioso) had got past Franco (Morbidelli) into fourth, and he was about five to six seconds behind me at that stage. I knew he’d be coming and that his tyres would be in better shape than mine when he got there, so I made sure I still had something left if I needed it, but it was tight. The laps just seem to take so long, and all you’re focused on is saving that front tyre, because I had massive graining on the right-hand side. At the end it was less than a second between us, so I was definitely stressing in those last few laps.

It’s a relief in some ways to get up there again, it had been so long since Assen in 2016, but for most of that time I didn’t really have the bike to fight for the top three. Right from pre-season testing this year I knew that I did, and then you have something happen like in Qatar when the seat breaks loose and you know you can do the pace of the guys at the front, and you wonder if that’s your chance gone. Argentina was solid and then this weekend was better, but it’s still nice to confirm that you can do it. It’s a reward for the all the hard work, both for me at the team. You probably heard that I lost my voice by the time I did the first TV interviews because the guys on the team were so pumped up when I got back to parc ferme, and after doing more TV interviews and a press conference and talking to a million other people, the voice is pretty much gone … and we haven’t begun celebrating properly yet …

There’s more to come from us I think, I don’t see this as being a one-off and it won’t hopefully be three years between podiums like it was last time … we have some good tracks coming up and I feel comfortable and confident everywhere at the moment, so hopefully I can get more used to this celebrating thing and maybe get better at it.

I’m right on the edge of the top five in the championship now, and that’ll be the goal once we get to Jerez in a few weeks. It’s a GP that typically hasn’t gone that well for me since I’ve been in MotoGP, but this is starting to feel like a year where we can change a few things. I’ll speak to you from there.

Cheers, Jack

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The US MotoGP in a nutshell

A howler by Marc Marquez opens the door for Alex Rins to take a maiden MotoGP win, while Jack Miller snares his second top-flight podium with third place.

THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED ON REDBULL.COM

One race, 50 words

Alex Rins (Suzuki) broke through for his maiden MotoGP win in his 34th premier-class GP when he held off Valentino Rossi (Yamaha) by 0.4secs; Rossi had inherited the lead when Marc Marquez (Honda) crashed from a commanding advantage at half-distance. Jack Miller (Ducati) took his second podium finish in third.

What the result means

Death, taxes and Marquez winning in America; a trio of impenetrable inevitabilities before the Honda rider inexplicably fell on lap 9 of 20 at COTA on Sunday, a crash that came after he’d made it to the first corner of the race in P1 and relentlessly pushed to a near four-second lead over the breathless pack behind him. It looked like a rinse and repeat of every year the Spaniard has raced at COTA – he took his first win there in his second premier-class race in 2013 – and the shock fall cost him a chance of a magnificent seven victories in succession. The DNF also ended Marquez’s perfect run of 10 wins from as many MotoGP starts in the ‘States.

To dwell too much on Marquez would be unfair to Rins and Rossi; Rins came through from seventh on the grid to storm into the podium positions on lap nine, when he demoted Miller to fourth, and he stalked Rossi for lap after lap before pulling the pin with three laps remaining, the sweet-handling Suzuki in its element in COTA’s sweeping first sector. Rossi had little tyre life left at the end, but turned up the heat on Rins on the final lap to see if he could make the young Spaniard blink; the margin was just 0.462secs at the line, but Rins never buckled.

How did Jack Miller fare?

Miller’s third place was his first visit to the rostrum since his unlikely win from 18th on the grid on a satellite Honda in his second MotoGP season (Assen 2016), and while that result owed itself to plenty of skill as well as good fortune, Sunday’s third was on the cards from the moment he established himself as the fastest Ducati rider at COTA on Friday, when he sat inside the top four after practice. He qualified fourth and stayed there in the early stages, and his pace in those early laps proved crucial when his choice to run soft-compound tyres started to backfire just before the halfway stage, the other three riders in the top quartet all on more durable medium rubber.

While Cal Crutchlow (Honda) and Marquez fell ahead of him and the last 11 laps were mostly a lonely ride trying to avoid the worst of COTA’s horrendous bumps, Miller’s podium was hugely meritorious from a physical and mental standpoint; a year after he nursed a shoulder injury from a training accident through arguably the most physical track on the calendar, the Australian showed grit and maturity in Austin to sensibly bring the bike home and spray the champagne on a podium where all three visitors had much to celebrate. Even after his non-score because of a broken seat in Qatar in round one, Miller is now up to sixth in the world championship standings with 29 points, and, crucially, just one point behind the rider on the factory Ducati whose seat he covets for 2020, Danilo Petrucci.

“I got pretty excited and lost my voice again,” Jack croaked after the race, his in-lap featuring more than its fair share of shouting beneath his helmet.

“It’s amazing. It was a strong weekend all around from myself and the team, we’ve been chipping away and today we got pretty lucky. I chose the soft front (tyre) which probably wasn’t the right choice, I had a big mark on the right-hand side and I was a sitting duck at the end. I saw I had a buffer to ‘Dovi’ (Andrea Dovizioso) and I just tried to manage it. It’s been a long time, that’s for sure.”

The moment that made the race

Turn 12, lap 9, one streak over: Marquez’s fall not only snapped his stranglehold over the ‘States, but meant he dropped from first to fourth in the championship. There’s no panic for the Honda man – he was comfortably the fastest rider all weekend at COTA and there’s still 16 races to go – but it was easily the most unexpected moment of a season that has, so far, been full of surprises.

The stat that matters

45: Rins’ win was the first for Suzuki since the British Grand Prix of 2016, when Maverick Vinales saluted at Silverstone – a span of 45 races. Sunday was the first race not won by Honda, Ducati or Yamaha in that timeframe.

Who were the winners in Austin?

As we mentioned earlier, there was plenty for all three riders who made the rostrum at COTA to be happy about, but perhaps the biggest winner of all in Austin was the man who finished best of the rest, Dovizioso. The Italian was in Miller’s shadow all weekend at COTA from a Ducati perspective, and following a lacklustre Friday and after the field lost the third practice session on Saturday because of heavy rain and storms, the Italian lined up in 13th on the grid for his worst qualifying in two years, and with chief title rival Marquez on pole and seemingly on course to annex another American victory. Dovizioso had a brilliant first lap to rise to sixth, and advanced two more spots when Crutchlow and Marquez fell later on to snare 13 precious points – and a remarkable championship lead when all looked lost 24 hours earlier.

The other winners in Austin? Franco Morbidelli, the second-year Yamaha man brushing off the embarrassment of a last-lap crash that also took out stablemate Vinales last time out in Argentina to finish a career-best fifth, while rookie teammate Fabio Quartararo could be satisfied with seventh, if not the eight-second gap to Morbidelli after qualifying one place ahead. Pol Espargaro (KTM) was a season-best eighth, while Takaaki Nakagami had his third top-10 result in as many races this year when he finished 10th on a dark day for Honda …

Who lost out at COTA?

The dark day we mentioned? Honda had Marquez crash out of the lead, Crutchlow fall from third and Marquez’s teammate, Jorge Lorenzo, crawl to a halt on lap 12 with a mechanical problem, a day after he’d stopped in qualifying after his bike’s chain worked loose. Lorenzo has just seven points from the first three races and sits 17th in the standings.

On a day when his old team celebrated, Vinales would have felt like doing anything but after finishing 11th, five points which came after a first-lap double whammy; from sixth on the grid, the Spaniard’s penchant for tardy first laps reared its ugly head again as he dropped spots on the first tour, and he was later assessed a ride-through penalty for jumping the start, a fate that also befell Rins’ Suzuki teammate Joan Mir. Mir finished outside the points in 17th place, while Vinales is already 40 points behind series leader Dovizioso after three forgettable races to start 2019.

What’s next?

After three races away from MotoGP’s European heartland, the series swings back to closer locales for the majority of the paddock with round four at Jerez, the Spanish Grand Prix (May 5). It’s one of a quartet of races in Spain this season (Catalunya, Aragon and Valencia being the others), and therefore a home race for eight of the 22-strong rider line-up. Marquez will be looking to defy a curious historical trend at Jerez; no rider since Lorenzo (2010-11) has managed to win back-to-back premier class races at the circuit.

The Argentina MotoGP in a nutshell

Marc Marquez terrorised the field at Termas, while there were fluctuating fortunes for Yamaha’s main men in round two of the 2019 season.

THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED ON REDBULL.COM

One race, 50 words

Marc Marquez (Honda) started from pole and disappeared after the lights went out, the reigning world champion winning by 9.8 seconds as a race-long battle between Italians Valentino Rossi (Yamaha) and Andrea Dovizioso (Ducati) was finally settled in Rossi’s favour on the last lap. Australia’s Jack Miller (Ducati) finished fourth.

What the result means

Much has been made of Marquez’s records in Germany (he’s never lost there in the MotoGP class) and the USA (he’s won every race in America since he came to MotoGP in 2013), and while the results haven’t shown it, Argentina belongs on the same plane as those two countries where the races often become one for second place if he’s involved. Sunday’s win was Marquez’s third at the Termas de Rio Hondo circuit, while in the years he hasn’t won in Argentina, he crashed from the lead after taking pole in both 2015 and ’17, and was clearly the fastest rider out there 12 months ago before his race went from bad to worse with three separate penalties and a controversial clash with old foe Rossi. On Sunday, the closest anyone came to the Spaniard after the start was when the top three reconvened in parc ferme before the podium ceremony … After what he admitted was a damage limitation exercise by taking second at one of Honda’s weaker circuits in Qatar to begin the year, Marquez did what Marquez does in Argentina; of his trio of wins at the track, this one was, by some distance, the widest margin.

How did Jack Miller fare?

The season-opener became unglued for Miller in Qatar three weeks ago, quite literally as his seat parted ways from his bike early in the race when it came loose beneath him, setting off a chain of events that led to his retirement after a strong weekend. In Argentina, Miller made that practice pace pay off in the race; after he was second in all three practice sessions and qualified fifth after avoiding a massive highside on his final lap when he was over four-tenths of a second faster than anything he’d done all weekend, the Australian coolly converted another second-row start into a fourth-place finish, one that matched his return at the Termas de Rio Hondo circuit last year, and represented his best result since he took fourth at Le Mans in France almost 12 months ago.

It didn’t come easy for Miller, though; after leaping to third at the first corner, he dropped to seventh midway through the race as others surged, particularly Alex Rins (Suzuki), who had stormed through from 16th on the grid after a disastrous qualifying. As the only rider in the front group electing to run the medium-compound Michelin front tyre, it was difficult to gauge whether Miller had used the best of his rubber too early at the fast and flowing circuit compared to his rivals, but he came good late, disposing of 2018 teammate Danilo Petrucci (Ducati) with three laps left before passing Rins for good into the first corner on the penultimate tour.

He finished just 1.6secs behind Dovizioso to be oh-so-close to that coveted second career podium, but this was a strong bounce-back result for the Aussie after the disappointment of Losail.

“I got stuck in a couple of battles that, now I’m looking back at it, I probably didn’t need to get into, and maybe that cost me a chance of a podium,” Miller said after the race.

“It seems like I had a lot more tyre than some of the guys around me at the end of the race, and I was back in sixth with five laps to go, but felt I had a bit more than Rins and Petrucci in front of me, I was able to pick them off quite efficiently.”

The moment that made the race

How about the start? After one lap, Marquez led by 1.049secs; after two, the gap was 2.442secs. Three laps in, the Spaniard was 3.162secs ahead, and it was game over. His lead peaked at 12.701secs with four laps left, and only dropped beneath 10secs on the final lap as he slowed almost to walking pace to cross the line and salute his team. A race after the closest top 15 in MotoGP history in Qatar, and given the quality of this year’s field, this was a Marquez masterclass.

The stat that matters

13: On the day where it was exactly 23 years since he made his debut in the world championship class in the 125cc race in Malaysia (think about that for a moment), Rossi took his first podium finish in 13 races (since Germany last season) by finishing second to Marquez.

Who were the winners in Argentina?

Marquez, as we’ve mentioned, and also Rossi, who has snared 31 points from the first two races, a scenario that looked very unlikely when he couldn’t even emerge out of Q1 in Qatar three weeks ago. Dovizioso too, the Ducati man taking just his second podium at a circuit that has been something of a bogey track. And, as discussed, Miller for making his strong pace before Sunday count when it really mattered.

Outside of that quickest quartet? Takaaki Nakagami, who finished seventh for a second-straight top-10 result to start the year; in two Grands Prix, the Japanese has scored nearly half as many points (16) this year as he managed in 19 races last year (33). Rins, who would have willingly accepted a fifth-place finish given how lost he and Suzuki were after qualifying. And, further back, there were maiden MotoGP points for three of the 2019 rookies; Fabio Quartararo (Yamaha) was eighth, Miguel Oliveira (KTM) finished 11th, and Miller’s teammate Francesco Bagnaia (Ducati) was 14th.

Who lost out at Termas?

There was plenty of anger, some regret and a bit of despair as the paddock packed up in Argentina, with Cal Crutchlow fitting into the first category after the 2018 race-winner had his chances of a repeat scuppered before the lights extinguished; the Honda rider was judged to have jumped the start, a subsequent ride-through penalty taking him out of the front group on a weekend where his practice pace suggested a podium was within reach. The Briton eventually finished 13th.

“We would have been able to fight for the podium and probably would have had a good, safe second place. But we didn’t, the stewards said that I jumped the start, which I completely disagree with,” Crutchlow said.

Elsewhere, Yamaha’s Franco Morbidelli made few friends at his new manufacturer when he took out stablemate Maverick Vinales on the last lap when the pair were running seventh and eighth; Morbidelli’s strong pace to that point and Vinales’ atypical soft-tyre strategy amounted to zero points for both after the Italian’s gaffe.

Finally, a thought towards Jorge Lorenzo; on a day where his Repsol Honda teammate ran rings around the rest, the Spaniard fluffed the start from 11th on the grid and finished 12th, 27.497secs (more than a second a lap) behind Marquez.

What’s next?

The series stays in the Americas for round three while heading northwards to Austin, Texas – which is traditionally bad news for anyone not named Marquez. The Spaniard took his maiden MotoGP victory at the Circuit of the Americas in the first visit for the series to COTA in 2013 – and hasn’t lost there since, part of a perfect 10-for-10 run of wins in the US between that circuit and two others, Laguna Seca and Indianapolis.

Miller Time: Making it count

Jack Miller writes about a race weekend in Argentina where his practice pace paid off with a superb fourth place in Sunday’s second GP of the year.

THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED ON REDBULL.COM

Hi everyone,

It definitely feels good to be talking to you after a strong weekend from start to finish in Argentina, not just one that went well until Sunday like it did in Qatar. And when you can do a race when your seat doesn’t come off after two laps, that’s always a good thing too …

Fourth is my best result since France last year which was a bloody long time ago, and I was fourth last year here in Argentina too. It feels good and a bit of a relief too after Qatar, we had such good pace there but I left with nothing because of the seat coming loose and the other dramas that followed that.

We’ve been working really hard as a team and the bike is good, and we’ve been doing the most laps of anyone in practice and spending a lot of time working on our race pace, and today it paid off for us. To have it go to plan is nice, and you want to get the monkey off your back and get off zero points, there’s nothing worse than leaving the first race with 0 next to your name. To get so close to the podium – I was only 1.6 seconds behind ‘Dovi’ (Andrea Dovizioso) – is a bit frustrating in some ways, but we’re right there. It’s just a matter of time if we keep working the way we are, I think.

I’m learning a lot with this new bike for me every time I ride it, and I learned in the race today too with how I approached it. I got stuck in a couple of battles that, now I’m looking back at it, I probably didn’t need to get into, and maybe that cost me a chance of a podium. So, you learn from the experiences at the front.

I was the only rider in the front group to be on the medium front tyre, and that was a problem because three laps in I had a warning light come up on the dash that the tyre had got up to 91 degrees, which is off the scale when you look at the temperatures we try to aim for. The track caught us all out I think because the sun was pretty hot and we’d had pretty cloudy weather all weekend, so the track temps were a bit high. I had a few moments because of that, so I focused on saving the rear tyre as best I could. It seems like I had a lot more tyre than some of the guys around me at the end of the race, and I was back in sixth with five laps to go, but felt I had a bit more than (Alex) Rins and (Danilo) Petrucci in front of me. I got Petrucci with three laps left and then Rins on the second-last lap to get to fourth, and I was able to pick them off quite efficiently.

I’m really enjoying riding this GP19 Ducati. I never raced the ’18 last year, and this bike is a big step. I said to someone that I feel like I’m bringing a gun to a gun fight now, and that’s the best way of explaining it. The speed is easier to come by and you don’t feel you’re riding it right on the ragged edge every corner just to get a lap time out. That’s why Qatar was frustrating; with the way ‘Dovi’ rode that race and controlled the pace, I reckon I could have stayed with the front group and been in a position to do something in the last few laps. In the first few laps on this bike is when I notice it, you’re not constantly over-braking and cooking the front tyre just to stay with those guys, and not trying to make up for not being able to stay with them on the straights. I can manage the tyres better because the speed of the bike is there, that’s probably the biggest factor.

Fourth for me was a highlight on Sunday for sure, but I had to get down before the podium of the Moto2 race to congratulate Remy Gardner for coming second, it’s always great to see an Aussie up there. Super cool for him, unreal. He’s been in Moto2 trying hard for a while now, and it’s his first year on a decent bike, and the results are showing. He just missed out in Qatar and then to get second here – and he just about could have won it too – that’s great for him that his hard work is paying off. I think he’s matured a fair bit as well as getting a better bike, and I’m really happy for him.

You guys would have noticed that I did something with the livery on the bike this weekend, with my number 43 looking different. I wanted to pay tribute to the people in Christchurch for the terrible thing that happened there a few weeks ago, my parents and a lot of my family are from New Zealand and it’s a place close to my heart, and it really hit close to home for me. To have that on the bike and get a good result, maybe it brought me a bit of luck. It was an important gesture for me to do, and I’m definitely thinking of the people back there because it’s been such a tough time for everybody.

We’re off to Austin next, once we actually get out of Argentina – it’s quite a big journey to get back to the US from here, and I’ll stay in California and do some training. And try not to injure myself like I did there last year … I’ll do my best to keep myself in one piece this time.

Cheers, Jack

The Qatar MotoGP in a nutshell

Andrea Dovizioso edges Marc Marquez in a desert classic at Losail, while Cal Crutchlow and Valentino Rossi defy the pain barrier and the form book respectively.

THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED ON REDBULL.COM

One race, 50 words

For the second year running in Qatar, Andrea Dovizioso (Ducati) held off Marc Marquez (Honda) on the run to the line after a tactical race of tyre management erupted on the last of the 22 laps. Cal Crutchlow (Honda) was third in his return after breaking his ankle last October.

What the result means

Same again, anyone? Dovizioso and Marquez have fought for the past two MotoGP titles, although to be fair, the Spaniard had control of last year’s championship fight after rare some early-season errors had the Italian on his back foot. Sunday’s Qatar season-opener was a carbon-copy of Losail 12 months ago, where Dovizioso managed the pace and his tyre consumption from the front before turning up the wick in the final laps, and held off a predictable last-corner lunge from Marquez before using Ducati’s superior straight-line grunt to win the drag race to the chequered flag. It was the perfect way for ‘Desmo Dovi’ to begin his latest quest to dethrone MotoGP’s undisputed king, but as Marquez himself said, 20 points at what is one of Honda’s weaker tracks bodes well for the season to come, a campaign where you’d expect Ducati’s main man to be his biggest rival once more.

How did Jack Miller fare?

It was all going so well at Losail for the Australian, who comfortably made Q2 after finishing third on the combined practice timesheets, and qualified fourth and just 0.263secs from pole for his best Saturday showing in Qatar, a result that he was happy with even after a crash on his final lap that cost him a front-row spot. Miller made his customary brilliant start to be second behind Dovizioso by the first corner of the season, but that’s where the good news ended; on lap two, the Alma Pramac Ducati rider was forced to sit up in the final sector to discard the foam padding on his seat, which had inexplicably worked loose. He dropped back to 12th after dropping the broken seat padding beside the track, and while he worked his way back into the top 10, his body position on the bike – he was visibly having to compromise his approach into corners because of the broken seat – wore out his front medium-compound Michelin tyre, and by lap 13 he could do more, pulling into the pits to retire. On a weekend where he’d shown outstanding pace late in long runs on used tyres in practice, it was a bitter blow.

“It’s a real shame because we went very fast through the whole weekend, I was convinced that I could stay with the leading group until the end,” he said.

“After the problem with the seat, I couldn’t control the bike in the corners and it was impossible to keep on.”

The moment that made the race

Lap 21 of 22, where Dovizioso, who had led for the majority of the race, had a wobble at Turn 4, which allowed Marquez to scythe through to take the lead. For much of the race, the Ducati man had been carefully managing his rear tyre to keep something in reserve in case he needed it on the final laps; seeing Marquez struggling to stay in front of him was all he needed, and he was never headed – besides Marquez briefly nudging past as he dive-bombed the Ducati into the last corner on the last lap – after taking the lead on the run to the first corner for the final time.

“I was managing the rear tyre because everybody was struggling,” Dovizioso said.

“Because I didn’t see nobody, I couldn’t really know my positive and negative point. I saw Marc … struggle a lot with the rear tyre, so it was good for me to understand that, and I push really hard in the last lap. Marc never give up, he’s always there, but I was able to answer because I put him really on the limit.”

The stat that matters

0.004secs: the difference between first and second in last year’s Qatar race and Sunday’s 2019 season-opener; Dovizioso beat Marquez in 2018 by 0.027secs, and by 0.023secs 12 months later.

Who were the winners in Qatar?

Dovizioso for starting the season in the best possible way, and Marquez for taking home a strong result at a rare track where he and Honda don’t have it all their own way; in seven season-openers at Losail, the Spaniard has won just once (2014). Crutchlow’s third place, after he capitalised on Suzuki’s Alex Rins running wide at the first corner with three laps to go, was a brilliant and brave ride considering the state of the Briton’s ankle after his horrendous crash in practice at Phillip Island last year and the gruelling rehab that followed.

Valentino Rossi and Yamaha pulled a rabbit out of a hat to get ‘The Doctor’ to fifth and just six-tenths of a second from the win after qualifying only 14th, while Rins’ rookie teammate Joan Mir deserves a shout-out after a fantastic first race, the young Spaniard looking comfortable fighting in the front group and finishing eighth after qualifying just outside of the top 10.

Who lost out at Losail?

Miller’s face was red with rage after Losail, but Maverick Vinales’ visage wasn’t a lot different; after dominating qualifying to take pole position and looking set for a strong start to the season at one of his best circuits, his 2018 woes – where he repeatedly fell back early in races before charging late for little reward – resurfaced again on Sunday night, the Spaniard dropping to seventh on lap one and finishing in the same place 21 laps later, only 2.4secs from the win but behind Yamaha teammate Rossi, which few would have predicted given the gulf in pace between the pair before the race.

Fabio Quartararo fits into this category too, even though he left Qatar with his reputation enhanced; the French rookie qualified a brilliant fifth for the all-new Petronas Yamaha SRT outfit on Saturday, but had to start the race from the pit lane after his bike stalled on the warm-up lap. The 19-year-old, the youngest rider in MotoGP, was furious with himself and rode like it once he eventually got going at the back of the pack, setting the fastest lap of the race on lap 3 (1min 55.039secs), but he could only finish 16th, and earned zero points.

The final name here was one it’s taken us a long time to mention, Marquez’s new Repsol Honda teammate, Jorge Lorenzo. The three-time premier-class winner in Qatar came into the first race after a pre-season compromised with injury, and his confidence took as much of a battering as his body on Saturday, where he crashed twice, once in qualifying, to start his first race with his new team back in 15th. Three points for a relatively anonymous 13th-place finish wouldn’t have been what the Spaniard had in mind for his Honda debut.

What’s next?

After a long wait for the first race of the year, we have a relatively lengthy (for in-season standards, at least) pause before round two, as the teams and riders make the lengthy trek to rural Argentina for the race at the Termas de Rio Hondo circuit on Sunday March 31. Crutchlow won a chaotic race last year for Honda, which came after Miller took a remarkable pole in an arguably more chaotic half-wet, half-dry qualifying 24 hours earlier. There was also a clash between two riders you may have heard of with some history, Marquez and Rossi …

Johann Zarco’s juggling act

MotoGP’s fast Frenchman is looking to find the right balance of passion, pace and maturity to propel the KTM factory team up the grid.

THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED ON REDBULL.COM

Speak to Johann Zarco for any extended period of time, and it’s hard not to get swept up in the passion and emotion with which he approaches his craft as one of the fastest and most exciting riders in MotoGP. Zarco, 28, begins his third MotoGP season in new leathers this season, moving from the Tech 3 Yamaha squad with which he cut his MotoGP teeth to the Red Bull KTM Factory Racing Team, which is a nod to his results so far on satellite machinery, and a leap of faith that the fast Frenchman can become the rider in the premier class that he was in the second tier. Will he need to change to achieve that end? Even Zarco himself isn’t sure.

Off back-to-back Moto2 titles, Zarco arrived like a tornado into MotoGP two years ago, leading his first Grand Prix as a rookie in Qatar (where he set the fastest lap of the race), finishing on the podium in just his fifth Grand Prix (at home at Le Mans) and taking pole position for his eighth race at Assen, the Dutch circuit steeped in two-wheel history as the sport’s ‘Cathedral’. And while his first two seasons have produced three podiums each and two sixth-place championship finishes, Zarco knows that a move to a factory team comes with extra responsibility, and necessitates a slightly amended approach.

“The main motivation to race, to get victories and titles, is deep inside me, and I still have that in my mind,” Zarco says at the Sepang Circuit in Malaysia, site of last week’s first MotoGP test session of 2019.

“But to control well my emotion, to reach that target and that dream, I will have to have a different challenge throughout the season.

“This is the factory job I have to do, to develop the bike. Even if it’s hard times sometimes, if not everything is coming immediately, I need to enjoy this time anyway.”

Zarco comes to the factory KTM outfit in year three of its MotoGP odyssey, and to a team with aspirations of bigger things. With Spaniard Pol Espargaro and Briton Bradley Smith as its riders, the fledgling squad finished 10th in the teams’ standings in its debut season, improving to ninth last year as Espargaro took the team’s first (and his maiden) MotoGP podium result at the final race of 2018 in Valencia.

Zarco’s arrival in place of Smith, who has subsequently joined Aprilia as a test rider, ups the ante for KTM, with the Frenchman’s fearsome natural speed immediately seeing expectations raised before a wheel was turned in anger for the new season. But when asked if he feels he is ready to lead KTM into regular top-three contention, Zarco is quick to pump the brakes.

“KTM needed a new rider after two years, and development and some new information from a rider that has, at the moment, podium pace,” he says.

“As a leader … at the moment I do not even realise that. What I see is that when I am in the box, Pol is faster than me. I think a lot of people inside the KTM box, maybe me also, think I can go immediately to a very high pace for podiums or victories on the KTM, but at my first test it did not happen that way. We need to be humble … and accept that it is not coming immediately.

“Now I am involved a lot more in the direction of the development of the bike, so to do that well you have to control the emotions.”

Finding the fine line between being a more technically astute and analytical rider while maintaining the emotional edge that punctuates his pace is something that remains a work in progress for Zarco, whose blazing start to last season hit the skids after a rollercoaster weekend at his home Grand Prix in France. Zarco sent the Le Mans crowd into delirium when he took pole position on Saturday; fast-forward 24 hours, and that delight became despair when he crashed on lap nine trying to chase down the race-leading Ducati of Jorge Lorenzo while circulating in second place.

Looking back at the best and worst weekend of his MotoGP tenure, Zarco says he learned a valuable lesson – and why maintaining some form of controlled emotion will allow him to take the next step.

“When you are living it, it is difficult to realise if it is difficult or not,” he says of the pressure of a home Grand Prix as the only local rider on the grid.

“But if you do not have the championship in mind, do not have a clear target, the French Grand Prix for me and a home Grand Prix for everyone else becomes a Grand Prix with more pressure, because it’s the one where you want to do more.

“If you are clever and you never forget that what is most important is to fight for the title or have a good position in the championship, then you can have a little bit less pressure. To control the pressure, you really need to be able to, during the race, keep control of yourself. This I realised because of my mistake; I wanted to do it very well and I wanted to lead the race and go away, but I crashed because I was scared to lose the opportunity. But now I know I lost more opportunity crashing than finishing the race.”

Ask Zarco to recall what was going through his mind after taking the most memorable pole position of 2018 and the first by a Frenchman at home in 30 years and he pauses, looking to do the memory justice by finding the right words in his second language.

“It was the first time ever after qualifying that I felt a victory feeling inside my helmet, with almost the emotion to cry,” he eventually says.

“It was just Saturday, with no (championship) points … but normally you have to take distance from all that emotion because the main thing is Sunday, and then the championship. But this was different. I stood on my bike and wanted to say ‘hello’ to the fans, and wanted to cry.”

Zarco knows that he may need to take a temporary step backwards to progress with his move to KTM; Espargaro’s 14th place in the 2018 championship is the highest a KTM rider has finished in the standings in two seasons, a long way from Zarco’s back-to-back top-six results. And while he sees the first season of his two-year contract with his new team as a stepping stone to bigger things, Zarco isn’t lacking for ambition.

“I think it would be good to be around the top 10 in every race; this can be a possible target,” he says.

“We have a lot of things to set up to be ready for the next year. But inside the top 10, all the team would be happy and it would show that we are building up, building a strong base for the top.”

6 things we learned from the Malaysia MotoGP test

Ducati dominated the top of the timesheets, but Honda kept its powder dry as the riders sweltered across three sizzling days at Sepang.

THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED ON REDBULL.COM

First days back at “school” don’t get much tougher than last week’s first MotoGP pre-season test for 2019 in Malaysia, where the riders and teams sweltered at a baking Sepang circuit where the track temperatures topped out at nearly 60 degrees – no misprint – on all three eight-hour days.

While we got an early read on the off-season developments of the teams and manufacturers over the break since Valencia last November, the brutality of the conditions also gave us some instant feedback on who had spent the off-season training hard to whip themselves into shape, and which riders didn’t quite manage to get the gym/nightclub balance just right …

All 11 teams and 21 riders – Repsol Honda star recruit Jorge Lorenzo sat out as he continued to recover after fracturing his left wrist in a January training accident – took to the circuit across the three days, with a raft of new aerodynamic parts sprouting from almost every machine, and the usual pre-season games of secrecy (closed garage doors) and subterfuge by teams taking place to throw their rivals (and the media) off as everyone tries to work out where they stand in the pecking order.

With three different manufacturers (Honda, Yamaha and Ducati) topping the timesheets after the three days, the pre-season picture remained murky as the clouds gathered over Sepang on the final day of testing, the heavens finally opening after a long week an hour after action wrapped up on Friday evening.

Who’s fast? Who has problems to solve? Who can be optimistic? Who will wish there was more time available before the 2019 season roars into life in Qatar on March 10? Analysing what really happened at Sepang requires more nuance and context than simply scanning the timesheets, so here’s six things we learned from Malaysia that might give us a sign of what’s to follow.

1. It’s wide open, but …

Reigning world champion Marc Marquez sat atop the timesheets on day one, while fellow Spaniard Maverick Vinales had Yamaha flying highest on the second day. On the final day, Danilo Petrucci led a Ducati domination at the sharp end as the test wound down. What can we read from that mixed bag? A little, with a lot of asterisks.

A little over two months removed from left shoulder surgery, Marquez wasn’t his usual gravity-defying self in Malaysia, but still managed to lead the way on the first day. Trackside, it was evident that building strength and stability in his left shoulder remains a work in progress, and he was more cautious than usual in some of Sepang’s sweeping switchback sequences, not daring to risk a crash that would set him back. Of course, because he’s Marquez, he was plenty fast enough, but he wrapped up each day early after 30-odd laps, choosing to focus on recovery while his rivals were churning out 70-plus laps a day in the scorching heat. “Of course, I would have liked to ride more but we had to take it a bit easy,” he said. “I’m happy because I was riding easy, not in my riding style, but I was able to ride more.”

Vinales was in an upbeat mood after Yamaha, which won just one race last season, looked to have started 2019 closer to the front than the equivalent test last year. “I made some laps behind our rivals, so I could compare how our bike is working, and it’s not bad,” he said. “There are just some small details left and that’s the most important. Last year they were some steps ahead, and now we are closer.”

The final morning of the test started under the shade of some rare cloud cover, and with track conditions more suited to a qualifying simulation run than tyre preservation in the baking heat, an impromptu ‘happy hour’ exploded into life, and Ducati made quite an impression. Six riders went beneath Lorenzo’s circuit-best time of 1min 58.830secs set at the Malaysia test last year, and four of them – the first four – were Ducatis, Petrucci’s 1:58.239 standing as the best time of the test.

Alma Pramac Racing rookie Francesco Bagnaia was a head-turning second, just six-hundredths of a second adrift, while his teammate Jack Miller (+0.127secs) and Petrucci’s stablemate Andrea Dovizioso (+0.299) rounded out the quickest quartet. As much as Dovizioso tried to play down Ducati’s pace afterwards with the usual disclaimers about it only being testing and so on, it was quite the statement of intent for the manufacturer that has finished runner-up the last two seasons.

Another reason for Dovi’s discretion was that we never saw Honda’s true pace, what with Lorenzo not in Malaysia, Marquez not at full power, and Cal Crutchlow taking his own (literal) tentative steps back from injury after snapping his ankle horrifically in practice at last year’s Australian Grand Prix weekend. Takaaki Nakagami, Crutchlow’s teammate, finished the test inside the top 10, but the Japanese was riding a 2018-spec RC213V, not the new model to be raced by Marquez and co. in Qatar in four weeks’ time.

2. Yamaha are on the way back

Vinales was the fastest Yamaha (fifth overall), and while factory teammate Valentino Rossi was five places and half a second behind at the end of the three days, the two sides of the garage were largely in harmony about the team’s engine direction for 2019, and the ground it has gained over the northern hemisphere winter.

“It’s good, because it’s the first test and we improved some things, but we have a lot of work to do,” Rossi said, calling Vinales’ day two time (1:58.897) “unattainable”.

“The gap is quite big, so we need time. I’m happy about the atmosphere and especially about the ideas inside the garage; it looks like Yamaha are very much concentrated on improving, so this is important.”

Rossi, who turns 40 on February 16, shows no sign of slowing down nor tiring of the constant attention he faces as the star attraction in MotoGP 19 years after his debut in the premier class. The off-season training is harder, but he’s right up for it. That said, the Malaysian heat was a wake-up call. “I used the used tyre a lot, but I didn’t make a long run because, f**k, it’s hot!” he laughed after the second day, when he turned 51 laps (more than two-and-a-half race distances at Sepang) before retreating into the air-conditioning.

3. Jack’s ready to make a splash

Miller looked fit and ready to fire in Malaysia, getting around the hotel on the day before the test in a replica singlet of NBA sharpshooter Steph Curry, perhaps a signal that he intends to be equally on target this season. The Aussie left his family Christmas celebrations early in Townsville to head to California for a month of tough training, where he indulged in his new favourite off-track sporting pursuit, cycling.

“The guys I ride with … they’re all strong, so some days you can go out there and feel on top of everything, and then another day they’ll push to a new level and you feel completely s**t,” he said. “It humbles you. They challenge you to be better.”

Miller was sore at Sepang, courtesy of a thigh haematoma from a motocross spill while out riding with Aussie dirt-bike star Chad Reed, but was very quick, finishing third on the second and third days of the test, and third overall. Things came in threes for the 24-year-old; he had a spill on each of the three days, the last one in the final laps of a race simulation on the last afternoon, but was happy to escape unscathed, and to see the easy speed he’s been able to unlock from the GP19 machine so far.

“I’m 24 now, have done the hard yards, have the experience and all of that,” he said of the season to come. “I think it’s going to be a good year, and I’m really looking forward to it.”

4. KTM doesn’t lack for ambition

Seemingly the busiest factory outfit at Sepang was KTM, the third-year team throwing a vast array of parts to test at 2018 returnee Pol Espargaro, new recruit Johann Zarco, and the team’s test rider Mika Kallio across the three days. Returns on the stopwatch were modest – Zarco was the best-placed of the trio in 17th overall – but Sepang was more about the Frenchman getting accustomed to the brutal acceleration of the KTM compared to the buttery-smooth satellite year-old Yamaha he’s been riding for the past two seasons.

Where Espargaro’s nature is to take whatever he’s given and quickly try to find its limits, Zarco is a more analytical rider, one who wants to understand what he has beneath him before unleashing his searing speed. It’s a contrast of approaches in order to achieve the same goal, and the camaraderie in the team, and the open relationship between the teammates, makes this look like a combination that can work.

Zarco has a two-year deal with KTM and feels the team will be in contention for bigger things in 2020, but he’s not backing away from a surge up the grid this season.

“I think it would be good to be around the top 10 in every race; this can be a possible target,” he said.

5. Rins is ready for the top step

Testing times can mask a lot; Alex Rins’ position on the overall timesheets (12th, 0.941secs off Petrucci’s best time) doesn’t look all that impressive until you dig a little deeper. The budding Spanish star, who finished the final six races of 2018 inside the top six to end up fifth in the championship, sounds and looks (courtesy of his blown-out hairdo) like a new man this season, and his race pace on old tyres on the second day – where he described his rhythm on tyres that had done 20-25 laps as “incredible” – raised eyebrows up and down the pit lane.

The Spaniard has mastered the Lorenzo-like quality of being fast without looking all that quick; trackside, it never really appeared he was pushing that hard until you checked the stopwatch, where he was routinely churning out 1min 59sec laps for fun in his race simulation.

Suzuki was one of two factories (KTM being the other) not to have a rider inside the top 10 after three days, but don’t expect that to last for long – and from Qatar, Rins should be in any conversation about potential race-winners at every Grand Prix.

6. MotoGP riders are a different breed

OK, we know this already, but the toughness of the 21 riders in such difficult conditions across three days has to be applauded, even for the riders who arrived in Malaysia fully fit.

Watching Marquez scurry from the Honda garage to debriefs and back trying to avoid over-enthusiastic fans from patting him on his tender left shoulder showed you the discomfort he must be in, while Crutchlow’s mangled right ankle looked red-raw at the end of each day, his first laps since breaking it at the Island quite the ordeal. “I feel like I’ve been hit by a bus every morning I wake up,” he said, adding: “when I’m on the bike I’m alright, it’s when I get off …”.

Ducati’s Tito Rabat, coming back to action after breaking his leg at the British GP last August, could barely walk before he got on the bike each day … and still did 175 laps across three days in conditions that weren’t exactly akin to a Spanish winter’s day in February. Yes, a different breed indeed.