The first MotoGP race of the year has been run and won, so we've got our first glimpse at what season 2011 is going to look like. And it seems it's going to look like the Honda Cup. Delivering on the promise the bike showed last year, Honda's RC212V took four of the top five finishing spots in Qatar, with only defending champion Jorge Lorenzo waving the flag for Yamaha in second place. Ben Spies rode to an encouraging sixth place for Yamaha, and the Rossi/Ducati combination started with a whimper, not a bang, in 7th. Smart money would have to be on Australian Casey Stoner for the title; after a brief dice with a wearied Dani Pedrosa, Stoner strolled away to a 3.5-second win.
The sky-high cost of prototype racing at MotoGP level is evidenced by the fact that only three manufacturers are giving prototype racing an honest shot in 2011 – Honda, Yamaha and Ducati, with a token contribution from a single Suzuki machine half-heartedly fulfilling its contractual obligations.
Towards the end of 2010, Honda started making some very effective changes to its RC211V – clearly not happy that as the biggest motorcycle company in the world, it has been starved of championship success since Nicky Hayden caught what Valentino Rossi fumbled in 2006. By the end of last year, the Honda was showing some serious straight line speed, and were it not for a late-season injury, Dani Pedrosa was starting to look like he might mount a serious title assault.
There's no question this year; the Honda is the bike to be on. Which makes Casey Stoner's decision to leave purgatory at Ducati and come across to the factory Repsol Honda team a very wise one. Fast and focused, Stoner diced briefly with a weakening Pedrosa before walking home the first race of 2011 and sending a clear shot across the bows of Yamaha and Ducati. Hondas took third, fourth and fifth as well, with Pedrosa, Dovizioso and Simoncelli. That's a pretty awe-inspiring lineup of rider talent, on a bike that's clearly got the goods.
Yamaha, sponsorless in 2011 despite retaining the defending champion Lorenzo, took second place and sixth, although Jorge never looked like a serious challenge to Stoner. Ben Spies looked promising in 6th, and would likely have done better if he didn't have to dice with Valentino Rossi for most of the race.
Rossi came home 7th, clearly struggling with both the Ducati and his injured shoulder, but able to put on quite a show as he kept a faster Spies at bay for much of the race. A front-end slide ended that scrap and just about put Rossi upside down. Rossi and team chief Jerry Burgess will have their hands full getting the Italian bike to co-operate – and motorcycling's brightest star certainly doesn't want to eke out the twilight of his career on non-competitive machinery. He'll be hoping that the money Ducati saved by pulling out of World Superbike can help turn the Desmosedici into a race-winner – and that his body is up to the challenge too.
Meanwhile, Casey Stoner is a hard man to beat when he's on a fast bike. He's meticulous, ruthless and a fiery competitor. Years of struggling with a bike nobody else seemed to be able to ride have honed a fine edge on his riding skills – and he looks like he's enjoying a beach holiday aboard the Honda. Stoner for 2011 Champion – it's looking like a pretty good bet. But as Rossi found out last year, anything can happen.
1. Casey Stoner, Repsol Honda Team, 42m 38.569s
2. Jorge Lorenzo, Yamaha Factory Racing, 42m 42.009s
3. Dani Pedrosa, Repsol Honda Team, 42m 43.620s
4. Andrea Dovizioso, Repsol Honda Team, 42m 44.511s
5. Marco Simoncelli, San Carlo Honda Gresini, 42m 45.927s
6. Ben Spies, Yamaha Factory Racing, 42m 49.037s
7. Valentino Rossi, Ducati Marlboro Team, 42m 55.000s
8. Colin Edwards, Monster Yamaha Tech 3, 43m 4.862s
9. Nicky Hayden, Ducati Marlboro Team, 43m 5.985s
10. Hiroshi Aoyama, San Carlo Honda Gresini, 43m 7.489s
11. Cal Crutchlow, Monster Yamaha Tech 3, 43m 13.108s
12. Hector Barbera, Mapfre Aspar Team, 43m 13.398s
13. Karel Abraham, Cardion AB Motoracing, 43m 16.526s
Toni Elias, ESP LCR Honda MotoGP
Loris Capirossi, ITA Pramac Racing Team
Randy de Puniet, FRA Pramac Racing Team