The wait is over and the first pre-event Press Conference of the 2019 season got underway on Thursday at the VisitQatar Grand Prix, with close competition the name of the game.
Joining reigning World Champion Marc Marquez (Repsol Honda Team) to face the media was 2018 runner-up Andrea Dovizioso (Mission Winnow Ducati), Valentino Rossi (Monster Energy Yamaha MotoGP), Jorge Lorenzo (Repsol Honda Team), Maverick Viñales (Monster Energy Yamaha MotoGP), Alex Rins (Team Suzuki Ecstar), joined for the first time in the premier class by rookie Fabio Quartararo (Petronas Yamaha SRT).
First to talk was reigning Champion Marquez, who heads into the weekend after shoulder surgery over the winter break. But is that weighing on his mind? He said not: "It's nice to start the season again and I’m happy because I already forgot my injury, the shoulder problems. I’m just focused on the race weekend, that is the most important and in my current condition I’m close to 100% so this is positive news for us."
Maybe for him, although it could give a fair few rivals food for thought. But of those, who is Marquez looking at as his closest competition? In a field as tight as this, the answer is a simple one: "Since 2017 I’ve been looking at everybody. I’m looking at all my opponents in the same way because for example in 2017 we were here and not a lot of people spoke about Dovizioso, then he was the man to beat. This preseason it was interesting to see how Yamaha improved, Ducati improved, Suzuki improved with Rins... let's see how the season starts but of course we'll be very fast here because we tested."
And long runs? It's something Marquez has been unable to put in in preseason, but he's far from concerned: "Of course it has been a strange preseason for Repsol Honda and I. I missed some long runs but anyway I'm happy; happy with the base that we have, happy with how I felt on the bike. It's more about mentality."
One of his biggest competitors, Dovizioso, was up next and echoed a few of those thoughts: "Testing is difficult to analyse the level of the competitors because every rider works in a different way. So it’s difficult and like Marc says, everybody will be quite fast here because of the three day test. But I don’t know, it looks like this season could be a bit different on paper and from the test it looks like everybody improved a little bit; I don’t know whether it’s the bike or the riders. I don’t know what we can expect in this race, in the past it’s always been a good race, I think we can be very competitive but analysing the test doesn’t show this. But the race week is always different, so I’m not too worried about that."
Jorge Lorenzo also thinks it's a more positive story in race trim. Breaking a scaphoid so close to the season opener hasn't been ideal - and after some injury problems to conclude the 2018 season, too - but he sounded upbeat. "We've been a bit unlucky in the last six months, in the last six months I’ve never felt 100%, but I think I still need one month more to be able to do pushups, all the things you can do when you are healed. But I’m quite well to ride a bike, better than the test. I will be a bit stronger, also Honda will bring a few modifications to make my life a little bit easier to be a little stronger than I was." And how does he see the Honda in terms of adaptation? "It’s a completely different bike, with strong points and weak points. I like the bike, but it’s a never ending process to be perfect on the bike and I’ll never stop trying to improve the small details. Here let’s try to finish the race as well as possible and take some points."
Valentino Rossi, meanwhile, returned to the subject of close competition and the 'Doctor', who starts the season at 40 after the recent milestone, started on that. "40-years-old, an important moment in my life! For the rest I feel good, it’s like the first day at school. It’s always interesting to see all the guys from the paddock, looking at the new bikes, the new colours – everything. And yeah it looks like the lineup of the Championship is unbelievable. Especially because all the factory bikes are very strong, and during the test more or less everybody was fast. We need to understand because usually during the race the bike is a bit different, but I expect all the factory riders at the top. I hope to be there, I hope to be strong. Yamaha have been working hard during the winter and we hope to be stronger than last year."
Expanding on that, the number 46 said it could be a big fight for the podium although he wouldn't predict much ahead of the weekend: "It’s difficult to say because like you said, in the last years here I did good results. Apart from one victory I was on the podium a lot of times, so we have to try. But if I have to think now, maybe we have seven or eight riders ready for the podium. I don’t know if we are stronger here than last year because anyway it was a good race. But we’ll see, we have to try. Also try to understand the conditions, with the grip, with the wind, we’ll see..."
Teammate Maverick Viñales also sounded guardedly positive about the Iwata marque and the level of the field: "For sure our competitors are strong right now but we are closing the gap little by little. And that’s important, to make the good choice when you try things and I think we are doing the correct things, testing the good parts. But anyway as we demonstrated we were fast on many different tracks and that’s important. I can’t wait to start and I'm happy to start at the level I am."
And in terms of his start to the season? More positivity again: "I tried to face this season with a lot of calm, with a positive mind – it’s important for me to feel good. I think we must trust our feelings, preseason I went my way, riding the way I like to ride. We did good lap times but still we need to improve, Yamaha work so hard but still to be there every race we need to make another step. But anyway like I said, I feel positive with the bike and that’s the most important thing. Inside the team they work really well and I’m really happy with how it is going and I cant wait to start. Honestly I’ve been thinking of this moment to start for many days. I start with a positive mind and I hope to be there at the top as always."
He already topped testing at Qatar so it looks good, but pretty close by for much of the time was Alex Rins. So there's a lot of talk around the Suzuki rider, and he could well be a key player on race day. But there's no mention of pressure: "Sincerely I think we finished the 2018 season with very good performance, always finishing in the top five or six, also some podiums. And this preseason I was trying to be strong. I was trying to improve our Suzuki bike a little bit because the setup from last year was very nice. But we improve a little bit on the braking area, a little bit on the top speed area so this means Suzuki have worked very hard during the winter. So, I’m excited to start this preseason, I’m excited to see what I can do and I will try to give my 100%."
Another man excited to get racing but for slightly different reasons is Fabio Quartararo who, like Rins and Viñales, had a top showing in preseason - but even more so for the young French rookie, who finished the Qatar Test with a stunning second place ahead of his premier class debut. And it was also his premier class debut in the Press Conference: "Well for sure it’s quite impressive to be here with all the riders. Yeah we will try to stay focused on the first race on a GP bike. We had a really good test here, I’m feeling really good with the bike but as you know everybody is fast. The goal is to enjoy it and not think about the result..."
There was another key point of discussion around Quartararo too: his age. Rossi, sat next to the rookie, had it pointed out that he was old enough to be the Frenchman's father - and it was a topic they'd already covered.
"We speak now exactly about this, I said he could be my son! He’s very, very young. 1999 so he´s two years younger than my brother yet he’s already in MotoGP! He has had a strange career. He arrived as a genius but for some reason he lost a little, but this year with this team and this bike he has a very important chance to demonstrate his speed." And another comparison? "He arrives a year earlier than me to MotoGP because when I arrived I was 21...so he’s younger than I was!"
So with the talking done and photos taken, Thursday also saw a big announcement after the riders' Press Conference: Losail International Circuit will host MotoGP™ until 2031. That adds an additional five-year extension onto the existing contract that had confirmed the Qatari venue on the calendar until 2026. The Grand Prix of Qatar debuted on the calendar in 2004 and then became the sport’s first ever night race in 2008. More than a decade later the spectacular in the desert only continues going from strength to strength in unique, floodlit style – as it will until at least 2031.