Lights, camera… RACE WEEK! MotoGP™ revs back into life
After a long winter break and five days of official testing, the time has finally come to suit and boot up for racing. Are you ready?
Tuesday, 23 March 2021
First we saw the liveries, then we saw the class of 2021 head out for testing. Now, at the floodlit oasis of Losail International Circuit, it’s time to get suited and booted for another season of stunning competition. Rarely is anything predictable in this era of MotoGP™, but there is at least one certainty everyone can agree on: we’re most definitely ready to go racing. Are you?
This season, the headlines are overflowing before a lap has even been ticked off in anger. A new reigning Champion begins the year on the throne, Joan Mir (Team Suzuki Ecstar), and the world waits with bated breath to find out when we will get to see the return of eight-time World Champion Marc Marquez (Repsol Honda Team), although we know it won’t be to race in Qatar. Rider and team musical chairs leaves us with a different grid and new colours for many, as well as a few new faces as we welcome four rookies. But it’s the same incredible level of competition: thousandths are the new hundredths in MotoGP™.
And so we arrive into Round 1. Doha hosts the first and second Grands Prix of the season and Losail also opened its doors for all the official winter test days this year, so we’re not heading in blind but we are heading in primed. Jack Miller (Ducati Lenovo Team) arrives with the biggest target on his back, flanked by a flotilla of Yamahas as the testing timesheets saw the Aussie and his teammate Francesco Bagnaia bookend a top five reigned by Ducati and Yamaha. But there’s more to racing than one-lap speed…
Miller will definitely be one to watch as the lights go out, however, as will Bagnaia. Both are full factory this season and the pressure is certainly greater, but so too are the performances we’ve seen so far. Losail has also seen the Borgo Panigale factory enjoy some serious success of late, and the stage is set for the Bologna bullets to start the season where they’ll wish to go on: the front. That’s not forgetting the likes of Johann Zarco either as the Frenchman moves to Pramac Racing and enjoys ever more experience with the Italian machine, also proving his mettle in testing. The holeshot heroes have some serious top speed and three experienced riders who look ready, on paper, to get straight in the mix.
The timesheets in testing were far from a one-trick pony though. Three Yamahas ended the test within less than a tenth and a half of Miller at the top: Maverick Viñales (Monster Energy Yamaha MotoGP), Fabio Quartararo (Monster Energy Yamaha MotoGP) and last year’s Championship runner up Franco Morbidelli (Petronas Yamaha SRT). Viñales starts the year settled in, Morbidelli likewise. Quartararo switches to the factory Yamaha squad, but seems to have immediately found his footing. So too has nine-time World Champion Valentino Rossi at Petronas Yamaha SRT as the legendary Italian – never one to push for a stunner in testing but still near the top ten – was full of enthusiasm after the five days on track that prefaced the season. After a 2020 of highs and lows for the Iwata marque, and Ducati to an extent, are the two factories who took testing by the horns the two who arrive into the first Grand Prix ready to do the same in race trim?
Just behind them, sixth in testing saw Aprilia come to the fore. Aleix Espargaro (Aprilia Racing Team Gresini) put the Noale factory’s nearly all-new bike right up there every time he went out on track, and increasing expectation has so far been backed up by ever-increasing pace. What can the number 41 do once the lights go out? With teammate Lorenzo Savadori coming back from injury and also a rookie, Espargaro is the man in the spotlight for the new bike as racing gets underway in earnest. We’ve seen flashes of brilliance, but the 2021 aim for Aprilia will be to sustain that.
And then there’s Suzuki. Seventh and eighth was where reigning Champion Joan Mir and Suzuki Ecstar teammate Alex Rins ended the Qatar Test, and the feedback was positive. Consistently fast and consistently threatening in 2020, nothing in testing said Suzuki won’t be out the blocks to defend both the riders title and the teams’ Championship. The Hamamatsu factory’s Achilles heel – if such a thing exists in a season of such success – was qualifying last season, so that may be the first thing to keep a keen eye on as Saturday arrives. It seems though that nothing big to report may translate into “yes, we very much require the Jaws music once the lights go out for racing”… with test rider Sylvain Guintoli already having been working on their 2022 engine during the Qatar Test. If that’s not a mark of feeling everything is under control…
As race weekend arrives, meanwhile, we will be left waiting for the answer to one of the biggest questions: when will Marc Marquez return? Sidelined by injury after Jerez last year, it’s been a long, long road of surgery and recovery for the eight-time World Champion but the signs are looking good. Recently on track on a Honda RC213V-S in Catalunya and Portimão and looking ever more ready to race, there was certainly more than enough to make a good few rumours. His return won’t be in Qatar, however, so the foreboding music for his rivals remains on low for now.
On the other side of the Repsol Honda Team garage there’s plenty to talk about too though. Pol Espargaro joins the fold and, after an impressive trajectory over the past couple of seasons, began 2021 with an equally impressively quick adaptation to the Honda. Fast and fast often, the Spaniard was tenth overall in testing and could be a dark horse for much further forward as the race weekend begins, with each session of track time only giving him more experience of his new bike and team. Premier class podium finisher? Check. Race winner is the next goal.
LCR Honda Idemitsu’s Takaaki Nakagami will be hoping to move forward too after a slightly more muted test, as both he and new teammate Alex Marquez (LCR Honda Castrol) suffered a few crashes – the latter also injuring his foot but ready to head back out for Round 1. Both fought for podiums last year and Alex Marquez successfully, as a rookie no less, so they’ll want to move back up the field to where they’d left off last season.
That’s also true of KTM. The Austrian factory ripped up the history books and wrote a few replacements in 2020, with Brad Binder (Red Bull KTM Factory Racing) winning them their first MotoGP™ race – and his, as a rookie and the first premier class winner from South Africa – and new teammate Miguel Oliveira then adding two more MotoGP™ victories for KTM as well as becoming the first Portuguese premier class winner. Oliveira, now alongside Binder in the Red Bull KTM Factory Racing team, was the fastest Austrian machine in testing, but the two were side by side in P16 and P17. They’ll want more once the lights go out as KTM look to continue their roll of incredible success, but we’ve said it before and we’ll say it again: testing is testing. Friday practice, qualifying and then finally the first race of the year are often a wiser litmus test.
Iker Lecuona (Tech3 KTM Factory Racing) will be looking for more this year too as he starts his second season, needing to move up from where he ended testing, and new arrival Danilo Petrucci (Tech3 KTM Factory Racing) will be interesting to watch too as he adapts to his new bike.
Speaking of adaptation, there’s also plenty to keep an eye out for as the Moto2™ graduates begin their first seasons, eager to get in the mix. Savadori is a rookie but with a few events under his belt by now, whereas the trio of rookies moving up from the intermediate class tasted MotoGP™ for the very first time in the Qatar Test. The fastest of the three was Jorge Martin (Pramac Racing) in 14th, but it was incredibly close as reigning Moto2™ World Champion Enea Bastianini (Avintia Esponsorama) was just 0.022 further back. Luca Marini (Sky VR46 Avintia) was a little more in arrears but also impressed, and just like those adapting from one factory to another… every session is just another chance to improve.
The stage is set, the floodlights are primed and the grid is ready to start another rollercoaster season of incredible racing with the Barwa Grand Prix of Qatar. Don’t miss it, with lights out for the first MotoGP™ race of 2021 at 20:00 (GMT +3). Let’s GO!
MotoGP™ Qatar Test top five:
1 Jack Miller – Ducati Lenovo Team – Ducati – 1:53.183
2 Maverick Viñales – Monster Energy Yamaha MotoGP – Yamaha – +0.061
3 Fabio Quartararo – Monster Energy Yamaha MotoGP – Yamaha – +0.080
4 Franco Morbidelli* – Petronas Yamaha SRT – Yamaha – +0.140
5 Francesco Bagnaia – Ducati Lenovo Team – Ducati – +0.261
*Independent Team rider
Too close to call? Moto2™ gears up for 2021
Lowes, Bezzecchi and Gardner headline an all-star cast in the intermediate class
If testing taught us anything ahead of the Barwa Grand Prix of Qatar, it’s that Moto2™ is almost too close to call. Day 2 saw six riders within 0.089, and on Day 3 the top three were split by just half a tenth – giving a whole host of names the right to call themselves contenders. So let’s take a look at a few, but by no means all.
The fastest man in Qatar so far in 2021 is Sam Lowes (Elf Marc VDS Racing Team). The 2020 title challenger looks ready to pick up where he left off and you could likely call him the favourite. By far the most experienced of the quickest riders in testing, Lowes is in good shape for an assault on the crown and in a better position than this time last year when he missed the Qatar GP due to injury – and then he still took the fight all the way down to the wire…
Marco Bezzecchi (Sky Racing Team VR46), meanwhile, lurks just thousandths further back. The Italian also fought for the crown for much of the latter half of last season and became a Moto2™ race winner before a few mistakes derailed his final challenge. But mistakes can be a useful thing to a rider on a mission, because they teach lessons – and Bezzecchi has certainly proven himself a fast learner and a fast rider.
The same could be said of Remy Gardner (Red Bull KTM Ajo). The Australian has shown flashes of blazing pace and talent but sometimes peppered with mistakes or simple bad luck – including some serious injury struggles. Going into 2021, however, he’s with one of the most successful teams in the class and turned some good 2020 momentum into even more in pre-season testing. One of the quickest and most consistent in Doha so far, is this the moment it all starts to come together for Gardner? One thing’s for sure: the Aussie will push as hard as possible trying to make sure it does.
So who else looks threatening? Aron Canet (Inde Aspar Team) was a big presence on the timesheets on Friday and Saturday in testing and seems like he’s made another step forward to build on an impressive rookie season. Xavi Vierge (Petronas Sprinta Racing) had some serious speed too, and his teammate Jake Dixon – despite having been told his injury woes could even threaten his career – was another who seemed to have unlocked something even more as we begin 2021. Bo Bendsneyder (Pertamina Mandalika SAG Team) also seemed to have made a step forward. Now on a Kalex and with more experience under his belt, the Dutchman impressed in the test and could be one to watch. And what about Joe Roberts? The American moves to Italtrans Racing Team for 2021 and, after a stunner in Qatar last year, will want to start his new chapter in similar form.
It wouldn’t be a new year without some fresh faces either. Raul Fernandez (Red Bull KTM Ajo) flew the rookie flag the highest in the test as he immediately looked like a seasoned campaigner. Easily in the top ten and fastest rookie throughout, just that bit more – that he’ll be focused on finding in practice – could see him really start to challenge the more established names ahead of him too. Reigning Moto3™ World Champion Albert Arenas (Inde Aspar Team) moved up into the top ten on Day 3 too, and his old lightweight class sparring partners weren’t so far behind as Tony Arbolino (Liqui Moly Intact GP) and Ai Ogura (Idemitsu Honda Team Asia) also look to be settling in well. American Cameron Beaubier (American Racing) made solid progress too as he adjusts not from Moto3™ but MotoAmerica… and his rate of knots moving up the timesheets day by day was testament to progress. Who will strike first in the battle of the rookies, and will they take any veteran scalps along the way?
We’ll find out soon enough as the first battle – and the first Championship leader – is decided in the Barwa Grand Prix of Qatar. Moto2™ saddle up at 18:20 local time (GMT +3), with the first 25 points – and bragging rights – up for grabs.
Moto2™ Qatar Test top five:
1 Sam Lowes – Elf Marc VDS Racing Team – Kalex – 1:58.655
2 Marco Bezzecchi – Sky Racing Team VR46 – Kalex – +0.013
3 Remy Gardner – Red Bull KTM Ajo – Kalex – +0.048
4 Xavi Vierge – Petronas Sprinta Racing – Kalex – +0.177
5 Jake Dixon – Petronas Sprinta Racing – Kalex – +0.182
Veterans vs rookies: Moto3™ gets ready to rumble
Masia, Foggia, McPhee, Binder, Rodrigo; the veterans were up there in testing. But then there are the rookies…
What’s the perfect way to end the last day of testing? Probably something like Jaume Masia’s (Red Bull KTM Ajo) new – although unofficial – lap record. The Spaniard seems pretty settled in at Red Bull KTM Ajo already, and his warning shot will likely be heard by his rivals. But then, so too will that of new teammate Pedro Acosta. So is this season going to begin a clash of the rookies and veterans?
Masia’s lap was certainly a stunner, but we already know that Moto3™ is rarely a runaway game at the front and the likes of Dennis Foggia (Leopard Racing), John McPhee (Petronas Sprinta Racing), his new teammate Darryn Binder – adapting well to the Honda – and Gabriel Rodrigo (Indonesian Racing Gresini Moto3) won’t go down without a good few classic lightweight class battles. We also know that the rookies this year have hit the ground running in a way we’ve not seen for some time.
Acosta is one – the 2020 Red Bull MotoGP Rookies Cup winner second in testing behind only his teammate – and Izan Guevara (GasGas Gaviota Aspar Team) another as the reigning FIM Moto3™ Junior World Champion blazed out the blocks with some serious speed. What makes their performances all the more impressive is that they don’t know the track like they do some of the venues in Europe, and that’s something else to maybe make a few a little nervous later in the season. But for now, what is too much to ask? Wins? Podiums? They certainly have the speed, but the tactics will be a key test – as will holding their nerve.
That said, it’s been some time since this pedigree of CV has been on show. Both the FIM Moto3™JWCh and Rookies are known proving grounds and two of the most successful programmes on the Road to MotoGP™, but both Acosta and Guevara have even more in their track records. Acosta absolutely dominated the Rookies, which has been done before, but he also backed it up with race wins in the FIM CEV Repsol as he came third overall in the aforementioned FIM Moto3™ JWCh. Guevara, meanwhile, just can’t stop progressing. European Talent Cup winner in 2019, the Spaniard then moved to the FIM Moto3™ JWCh and by Jerez mid-season was almost unbeatable on his way to the crown. At Aragon, he won all three races – riders have done that before, a good match between man, machine and venue can create a little magic – only, after a nightmare qualifying, Guevara managed it three times in a row from outside the top 20 on the grid. Convinced yet?
Xavier Artigas (Leopard Racing), meanwhile, may not have been quite as near the front as his rookie compatriots, but he’s also already got a Grand Prix podium as he took to the rostrum on a wildcard in Valencia in 2019, too. On his first Grand Prix appearance. He ended the test in 11th, only just behind Darryn Binder, and shouldn’t be overlooked either after a season at the front in the FIM Moto3™ JWCh too – he’s the man who lost out on the crown to Guevara, losing a little momentum but after most definitely having done more than enough to impress regardless.
The timesheets gave us plenty to be excited about in testing. The lightning speed of the rookies and the aforementioned veterans alike, as well as riders like Romano Fenati (Sterilgarda Max Racing Team) and 2020 Rookie of the Year Jeremy Alcoba (Indonesian Racing Gresini Moto3) and their consistent pace. Who will take the first flag of the year in Moto3™? We’ll find out soon, after another 18 laps of wonderful lightweight class chaos.
Tune in for the Moto3™ race at the Barwa Grand Prix of Qatar at 17:00 (GMT +3) on Sunday the 28th of March.
Moto3™ Qatar Test top five:
1 Jaume Masia – Red Bull KTM Ajo – KTM – 2:04.263
2 Pedro Acosta – Red Bull KTM Ajo – KTM – +0.306
3 Dennis Foggia – Leopard Racing – Honda – +0.440
4 Izan Guevara – GasGas Gaviota Aspar Team – GasGas – +0.455
5 Gabriel Rodrigo – Indonesian Racing Gresini Moto3 – Honda – +0.527