With the conclusion of yesterday’s three days of track action at the Losail International Circuit in Qatar, MotoGP’s amended pre-season testing plan is fully complete. The next time we see bikes on track, it’ll be for a much more higher-stakes game.
With only five days of action at a single circuit so far, it’s hard to understand the significance of what we’ve learned from testing.
It’s clear that lots of people are looking fast and the two opening races (both in Qatar) are set to be very close. However, there are a few things that we’ve been able to learn about how the season beyond the Losail month might look.
Honda might cope fine without Marquez
There is no easy way to phrase it: 2020 was an unmitigated disaster for Honda, as its lost its star rider Marc Marquez at round one and proceeded to suffer its worst season in 40 years, going without a premier class win for the first time since 1981.
Amid the news that Marquez is most likely going to sit out the start of 2021 as well, there was a possibility of more of the same struggle for Honda.
But now it looks like it’s been handed a lifeline in the shape of new signing Pol Espargaro, whose rapid transition from KTM RC16 to Honda RC213V has been nothing short of miraculous.
Admitting as testing ended that the Honda seems to be almost built for him and his aggressive, elbows-out riding style, he’s now being tipped by many of his rivals as a dark horse for the opening two races at Losail.
“Before I came here, it was difficult to think of an ideal result because of how easily Marquez has been beating us while other [Honda] riders struggled,” joked Espargaro.
“But if someone had come before the test and told me I would finish feeling like this with just four days of testing, I would sign up super fast.” – Simon Patterson
Rossi might have found his mojo again
Valentino Rossi ended the test happier than he’s appeared in months, opening up about his relief at finally finding his way back towards the sharp end of the MotoGP timesheets in testing.
He hopes his resurgent form brings to a close some of the toughest months of his storied career in the premier class.
A delighted Rossi finished the test inside the top 10 with a time of 1m53.993s, setting his fastest ever lap of the desert circuit en route to eighth place.
“We’ve worked hard and I’m happy with it,” he said after the first day of the three-day test, “because I’m not at the top level yet but I’m a lot closer.
“We have to say that the first two [Jack Miller and Fabio Quartararo] and [Maverick] Vinales made impressive time attacks, but I felt like a real rider again today!”
He went even further after the second day of action, admitting when asked by The Race that after a tough series of months to round out 2020, it felt good to be fully back to his old self.
He uncharacteristically crashed out of three races in a row in late 2020, at home at Misano as well as at Barcelona and Le Mans, before contracting COVID-19 and missing the two Aragon races.
Having been able to fight for the podiums in the first half of last season, he admitted that in the latter stages he never felt fully fit as he continued to battle with after-effects of the virus. Only now, months later, has he been able to get back into the swing of things.
“Last year, the end of the season was very difficult for me when I took the COVID,” he said. “Apart from that, even before it, I arrived from some mistakes in Misano and Barcelona.
“I did the last races, but I was always struggling a lot, and I was quite far from the top.
“So this test is quite important, because I’m back with better performance. We’ve improved the bike a lot, and I made my personal best lap at Qatar in all my career – I’ve never done a 1m53s lap before.” – SP
Marc Marquez isn’t the only rider racing to be fit
Marc Marquez’s path to recovery and race fitness has been long and well-publicised, and looks like it may finally be approaching its conclusion. The latest update has declared that he will now intensify his training programme to prepare for a “gradual” return to MotoGP.
But that doesn’t exactly sound like he’ll be there in Qatar for the season opener, so Stefan Bradl may be riding that Repsol-coloured RC213V for a bit yet.
However, while Marquez is the only full-time rider who is expected to miss the Qatar opener, he is not the only one with pressing fitness concerns.
His brother Alex sustained a small fracture of his foot in what was a fifth crash in four days of testing, and was subsequently pictured on crutches in the paddock.
The younger Marquez, however, is pretty nonplussed about the injury and though he was declared unfit to ride by MotoGP doctors in the immediate aftermath, he would’ve sought another fitness test and would’ve tried to ride again if the final day of testing wasn’t virtually negated by track and weather conditions.
“I put new tyres on to make a time attack, because it’s something I needed to improve, and making the time attack I crashed,” Marquez said of his penultimate-day mishap.
“It was a high-side, Turn 9. Fortunately I’m OK.
“I have a small crack in my right foot. I feel good and I already rode races with this broken, so I think it will not be a problem to be on the bike.”
Meanwhile, Aprilia’s rookie Lorenzo Savadori has been nursing an injured right shoulder all throughout testing. And he has been markedly less optimistic about his timeline for full recovery.
“Honestly, day by day it hasn’t improved because it needs [me to be] relaxed and at the moment it’s not possible,” Savadori said during testing, having felt a lack of strength and a pain that had to be managed with medication.
“[It’s a problem in] corners 7, 8, 9 and 11, because the bike moves a little, and the track is not linear, not flat, it was quite difficult for me to manage the bike very well.
“Honestly, I don’t know if I’ll arrive at 100% for the first race. I’ll return to Italy to work for this, to try to arrive at 100%.
“Of course I will be more ready than now, because now the shoulder needs to relax some days.” – Valentin Khorounzhiy
Bagnaia isn’t here to play support role
It’s really easy to be led by narratives in testing, and those narratives to be formed by headline times, but it did genuinely seem, even at a closer look, that Francesco Bagnaia wasn’t quite at works Ducati team-mate Jack Miller’s level as action commenced at Losail.
While Miller was enjoying what he readily admitted was his smoothest MotoGP pre-season yet, Bagnaia appeared adrift in single-lap and long-run pace, at least through the first two days.
But on the penultimate day – which effectively turned into the final day – he showed his cards, and those cards were good. His best lap left him a reasonably close fifth in the combined timesheets, and he fitted in a pretty respectable 14-lap long run, albeit suffering from some clear pace drop-off.
Bagnaia did say he needed to improve his single-lap pace “to stay in the first two rows”, and set a relatively modest target of fighting for the top five.
When pushed on it he explained that this was more due to his poor end to the 2020 campaign than the outcome of testing, while also caveating: “But my pace is very good. So, I’m saying ‘top five’ but we’ll see during the weekend”.
All the Ducati talk has been about Miller (below), and rightly so, but it’s clear Bagnaia even now does not see himself as any kind of support act. He was ever so slightly taken aback when it was put to him by The Race that there was a perception of Miller entering the season as team leader.
“I’m feeling at the level of Jack, inside the team,” Bagnaia said. “I don’t feel he’s in front of me.
“For sure for the results he made last year in the last races, maybe he’ll start with more pressure, but Ducati never made it that I feel second in this team, at the moment.”
If his Qatar pace matches that rhetoric – and pre-season certainly showed potential for that to be the case – then Ducati is in for a really fun debut with its new works line-up. – VK
Zarco could be a dark horse for a podium
Pramac Ducati rider Johann Zarco was one of the quiet men of the Qatar tests, going about his business without setting the world alight – but ending the test inside the top five.
That was thanks to a quick time attack lap, but he had strong race pace too. He is now potentially a threat for the podium when the season kicks off in two weeks’ time.
Admitting that he spent most of the test concentrating on what testing is for – trying new things and experimenting with the bike – rather than preparing too much for the race, he’s still got plenty of time to show his cards when free practice kicks off.
With two back-to-back weekends at Losail, that’s a smart strategy, especially given Zarco’s new role as Ducati’s racing test rider – a role that kept him so busy throughout the test that he wasn’t able to complete his planned race simulation on day two.
One area where Zarco certainly isn’t lacking: top speed. The Frenchman obliterated MotoGP’s high speed record at Losail, clocking a new record of 222.2mph – something that should be very beneficial come the opening races, especially if he ends up in a fight against a chronically-underpowered Yamaha. – SP
Rookie of the year is going to be close
After five days on their new Ducatis (all three 2021 rookies are lining up on Desmosedicis), there’s no calling which of them is going to come out on top of the upcoming rookie of the year scrap, with only 0.2 seconds covering Enea Bastianini, Luca Marini and Jorge Martin so far.
Reigning Moto2 champion Bastianini was fractionally ahead – but admitted afterwards that he’s glad for the chance to recuperate ahead of the opening round as the physical toll of stepping up from 140bhp to over double that takes its toll on his body.
But, aiming to be fully fit for the race and happy with his progress so far in learning the ways of the bike, he’s excited to get going.
Similarly, on the other side of the Esponsorama Racing garage (albeit in different colours), Luca Marini leaves Qatar content with his testing progress.
Taking longer than the others to get his ergonomics dialled in thanks to his height, he’s taken an important lesson from his big brother Valentino Rossi in data analysis, sounding content with what he’s learned so far thanks to the amount of effort expended studying not only what he has done but all the other Ducatis too.
Pramac Ducati rider Jorge Martin is the rookie who sounds perhaps the least prepared thanks to a few crashes across the testing – but that’s only fractionally.
He’s already comfortable with pushing the bike to the limit and has a reputation as a qualifying master – so while he might not be first rookie in the opening races, expect him to impact the starting order. – SP
There won’t be a ‘shock’ champion
…but not because MotoGP is about to get really predictable. Rather, it’ll be because on the basis of testing so far there’s as many as eight riders who’d make perfect sense as the 2021 MotoGP world champion, and you’d have to think at least one of them will get it right enough to prevent a major upset.
Having four days at the same track does bunch the field closer together, but it’s pretty amazing that all of 2020’s main protagonists – with the exception of the Losail-adverse KTM – are looking both incredibly prepared and very closely matched for the season ahead.
So, eight riders, let’s list them off. The Yamaha works duo Maverick Vinales and Fabio Quartararo are clearly championship-capable and had a strong showing, but their new bike does not look a humongous upgrade on the 2019 machine that took Franco Morbidelli to within 13 points of the 2020 crown – which means the Italian could be a perfectly logical champion, too.
The Suzukis have been relatively quiet and seemingly not entirely happy with the new parts, but a glance at the peak laptimes and Joan Mir’s week-one long run strongly suggests that both Mir and Alex Rins still have the pace to qualify lower-Q2 and then work their way up the order in the race. And that’s what their 2020 campaigns were built on, so both are firmly in the title mix here.
Jack Miller’s seventh place last year undersells how good that campaign was, and he looks stronger now that he’s in the works team, so the two Qatar races really should put him on the path to a credible championship challenge. But team-mate Francesco Bagnaia really would be a shock champion – just because he’s never produced a run of eye-catching form that’s spanned more than a couple of races in a row.
Six clear contenders down, two to go. Honda’s new boy Pol Espargaro is one of them – he’s maybe not quite at a top level yet with the RC213V in terms of sheer pace, but he’s made massive progress with the bike in just four days and may well already have a higher ceiling with it than he did on the RC16.
And the final name is Espargaro’s team-mate Marc Marquez who, though he missed pre-season testing and probably won’t be there for race one, can never be a ‘shock’ MotoGP champion again. – VK