Red Bull KTM launched the 2019 MotoGP year with Pol Espargaro and Johann Zarco scoring 12th and 15th positions at the Losail International Circuit but with a vastly reduced margin to the race winner.
Temperatures improved and the windy conditions that blighted Practice and Qualification on Saturday were not so prevalent for the first round of nineteen. The fans and viewers that turned their attention to the rapid, floodlit corners of the Qatari racetrack – fifteen years as part of the MotoGP calendar – were rewarded with three entertaining races split by fractions of a second.
KTM fielded a bold line-up of the Red Bull KTM Factory Racing Team and Red Bull KTM Tech3: the first time that four KTM RC16s were present on the premier class Grand Prix grid. Pol Espargaro, Miguel Oliveira and Johann Zarco ran close together for most of the race in the second half of a field that was closely packed, and often with only ten seconds dividing the majority of runners. Hafizh Syahrin struggled to find an effective rhythm and classified outside the points.
Espargaro was finally able to overtake his Portuguese brandmate and finished in 12th position: just 12.7 seconds away from winner Andrea Dovizioso. The gap was more than half the distance achieved in 2017 and 2018. Zarco recovered from a tough Saturday period and a grid slot of 21st to notch his first point on the RC16 with 15th. Oliveira forged an impressive early pace but in the second half of the race had to slow due to tyre wear and passed the chequered flag in 17th.
Pol Espargaro: “A mix of feelings but we must be happy because the gap to first place is not so far. We were close…but we also finished twelfth. It feels like it’s good, but also that it’s not enough. When you are close to the top guys you start to look what is going on and thinking about where we lose such a small gap per lap. I think we are talking 0.3 per lap: it is not much. I think it is in some acceleration. We are so close but twelve seconds away.”
Johann Zarco: “The beginning of the race was pretty good. I was controlling the bike well and the others were not much stronger than me. It was a good way to analyse the performance of the others. I’m happy because I expected to have some struggles but I saw other riders were also having problems: I know at the moment we don’t have the package for winning, not even for the top five but with good work and good control I really trust that a top ten is possible and that is the target throughout the year. Let’s see in Argentina if I can catch it. I wanted it here but because of the up-and-down of Friday and Saturday finally I was not ready. That is part of experience, and doing 22 laps in a row was really important and the first time we do it. I have a factory team and I know they have the quality to make a strong analysis of this race.”
Miguel Oliveira: “The race was quite interesting. I was trying to keep up with this little group of Aleix Esparagaro and Taka Nakagami and after seven, eight laps to go I felt a big drop of tyre, I had a lot of sliding with vibration on the rear, so I honestly thought the tyre was going to explode. Obviously, I couldn’t do much. I’m disappointed, because I knew I could have finished in the points. It was quite hard to manage it, but anyway, I’m glad we finished the race, I had good fun and gathered some good information.”
Hafizh Syahrin: “It has been a difficult race for me. We have a big gap to the front and I don’t know how to explain it well. I couldn’t keep the pace and while I played with the electronics the gap got bigger and bigger. To be honest, I’m slow at the moment and I don’t have the confidence to push more. I try to learn from today’s race and improve further. I’m disappointed with myself, but we keep on working hard, we are patient and I hope it’s coming soon.”
Mike Leitner, Red Bull KTM Team Manager: “Round one and generally we are really happy to have four bikes on the grid and have all four finish: this sounds like something quite easy but it is not always like that. Both Pol and Johann were quite happy with the performance of the bike and we know we have to improve our package and continue to grow. When we first came here we were thirty seconds from the race winner and we have to be realistic. This was never an easy track for us but in the middle of the race we were only 5-6 seconds away and this is very motivating for everybody in the team to keep pushing. We have eighteen more races now and we will try often as possible to get into these top ten positions.”
Pit Beirer, KTM Motorsport Director: “The first Grand Prix is done and I’m happy. All four guys were back in the garage healthy and being just 12 seconds from the winner means just half a second a lap. We had doubts and struggles all weekend at this track and some critical questions but 0.5 is still not too far and I know we can still improve and it will bring us right into the middle of a serious game. Johann was perhaps struggling the most of the group but managed to have a good race. We’ll build on this.”
Moto2 & Moto3
Red Bull KTM Ajo’s Brad Binder finished in 12th position for the first Moto2 Grand Prix with a new single spec engine – only the second time in the history of the category inaugurated at the beginning of the decade. Moto3 World Champion Jorge Martin opened his account both with his new team and in the Moto2 category in 15th.
The 18-lap Moto3 race was the first of the day and was won by Kaito Toba with Aron Canet taking his KTM RC250 GP on the podium in 3rd place (the first of five KTMs in the top ten). Red Bull KTM Ajo’s Can Öncü completed his maiden Grand Prix in what is his debut FIM world championship season in 18th position.
The Gran Premio Motul de la República Argentina will represent round two of nineteen and will take place in three weeks time.