MotoGP are on the brink of getting their 2021 season underway with a double-header at Qatar but after five days of testing at the Losail International Circuit, who’s the man to beat this season?
As we saw in 2020, MotoGP is far from predictable; admittedly, that was aided by the absence of eight-time champion Marc Marquez, who broke his right arm in a monster crash during the opening round of the delayed 2020 season.
The 2020 season delivered nine different race winners and 15 different podium sitters, and ultimately a new champion in Joan Mir and Suzuki. But what does 2021 have in store?
For starters, we have a fair few riders changing teams. Pol Espargaro has left the KTM project that secured three race wins over the course of 2020 to join Marquez at Repsol Honda. Meanwhile, at Yamaha, Fabio Quartararo has been elevated to the factory team in a straight swap with nine-time champion Valentino Rossi.
Ducati has two fresh faces in the factory team, albeit not new to the manufacturer. Jack Miller and Francesco Bagnaia join the Bologna team, while Pramac field Johann Zarco and one of three rookies in Jorge Martin.
Talking of Miller, the loveable Australian set the timesheets alight over the course of the five-day test under the lights by setting a new unofficial lap record with a 1’53.380 but was the 26-year-old star performer over the course of a long run?
In short, no. That went to the factory Yamaha new-boy, Quartararo. The Frenchman was the fastest rider by average over the course of a race run, but the question remains, how will Yamaha fair once the lights go out for real?
It’s no secret that Yamaha love testing, practice and even qualifying. Maverick Viñales has been crowned ‘testing champion’ a number of times, but with the lack of straight-line speed from the YZR-M1’s inline-four engine, could that be their downfall once again? Yamaha has reverted back to the 2019 engine. A combination of the 2020 chassis and a 2019 engine form their 2021 challenger, which has been deemed a ‘little bit better than last years bike. Unfortunately, in MotoGP, ‘a little bit better’ isn’t quite good enough, especially when Ducati set a new top speed record at 222.22mph with Johann Zarco.
Fears once again lie with the rear grip, something that has hindered Yamaha since Jorge Lorenzo’s departure in 2016. However, the issue didn’t appear all that much of a problem during the test but bear in mind, it’s still over a week until race day, and there will be the Dunlop rubber on the track surface from the Moto3 and Moto2 machines, which apparently, all play a part in Yamaha’s downfall.
Over at Ducati, Miller’s race run didn’t quite go as planned. The Aussie cooked his tyre early on, causing a drop in pace, but isn’t overly stressed as the race will be a different story. Ducati is one of the teams to run the new front holeshot device, something that is used to lower the centre of gravity to accelerate off the line quicker. We already know the Ducati in the hands of Miller is a fast starter, and in places like Qatar, which has a long run into turn one, this could prove costly for their rivals – especially with Ducatis straight-line speed.
Sticking with Italy, Aprilia has made leaps and bounds of progress. The Noale-based manufacturer featured towards the top of the timesheets across all five-days, finishing sixth overall and enjoyed laps in the 53’s, for the first time. Aleix Espargaro will be a force to reckon with in 2021, as well as his brother Pol Espargaro on the Honda.
Once again, the Honda seems a little lively, with Alex Marquez crashing four times in five-days, resulting in a fractured Metatarsal, ending his test a day early. Espargaro (Pol) also took to the Losail sand trap as he continues to adapt to the RC213V.
Espargaro’s former team, KTM, have found themselves in a pickle, with two-time premier class Grand Prix winner Miguel Oliveira claiming the manufacturer has ‘hit a wall’. Still, the team claim their struggles seem ‘worse on paper’. 2020 Czech winner, Brad Binder crashed twice when fitting new rubber while Tech 3’s new recruit Danilo Petrucci struggled with adapting to life on the RC16, crashing at turn six.
Reigning champions Suzuki didn’t set the world on fire in Qatar, instead focusing on the long runs. Once again, however, their downfall seems to be at the start of their long runs. The first five or six laps are once again Suzukis worse part, but they remain one of the strongest and consistent teams on the grid after that. Mir has opted to stick with the chassis that took him to the title in 2020, while team-mate Alex Rins is also raring to go.
In short, it looks like Yamaha are the favourites on paper, but will have their work cut out with the Bologna bullets, and who knows, if Marc Marquez returns, everyone will have their work cut out!
The MotoGP season gets underway with a double-dose of Qatar, with the Losail International Circuit hosting round one (March 28th) and round two (April 4th). But who will take bragging rights and kick off the 2021 season in style?
Featured images: Yamaha Racing