Despite all the rule changes and the great showing by Aleix Espargaro, fastest in every session right up to when he crashed twice in qualifying, the results sheet had a familiar look to it at Qatar. The full factory bikes on only twenty liters of fuel monopolized the rostrum but in fourth, albeit eight seconds behind third place, came Espargaro on an Open Class bike. Is that as close as twenty-four liters of gas could get him? Probably not.
Aleix's brace of qualifying crashes comprehensively wrecked two bikes. His crew performed a minor miracle to fabricate one bike out of their spares and the remnants, but they had a problem; the tank, or rather the lack of one. As the Forward team's bike is basically last year's Tech 3 satellite Yamaha, the solution was to use one off last year's Yamaha. And that, of course, would be a twenty-two liter tank. So was Espargaro slowed by fuel problems? If they're running similar strategy, the Yamaha's system re-calibrates the allowed rate of fuel usage every six laps and a look at the times shows a perturbation after six laps, no noticeable change after twelve and a distinct step down at eighteen, and Aleix only just beat Dovizioso to the flag. I don't believe Espargaro would have got on the rostrum with twenty-four liters but I do think he would have been closer to Pedrosa. This theory is backed up by the problems Scott Redding had with the 22.2 -liter tank of his customer RCV Honda, which also had to do some economy motoring in the closing stages.
It's difficult to know what to make of the effect, or lack of, of the new fuel regulations. Last year, Rossi ran out of gas on the slow-down lap, so how come this year he was able to fight to the flag with the Hondas with no apparent top-speed disadvantage on the long front straight? Marquez may have been held back by his lack of fitness, but that doesn't explain Pedrosa. Were the Hondas at the limit of their fuel efficiency? Surely Rossi must have been coping with a really lean-burning, difficult to deal with engine? Or did the seamless gearbox's ability to save considerable amounts of fuel during acceleration make the difference?
Last year, Valentino was over sixteen seconds behind the winner in Texas; any significant reduction in that gap, let alone the ability to run with the Hondas, would point to a serious shift in the balance of power.
Historically, Qatar is not good predictor of behavior for the rest of the season although it is difficult to escape the feeling that we may have seen this year's world champions win all three races. Texas is a new track with a design that distinctly plays to the strengths of the Hondas, and the Argentine track is brand new. We may have to wait for Jerez to see the pattern of the season emerge.
As Wayne Rainey used to say, when you get to Europe the ground war starts.