After five days of testing and two race weekends, the MotoGP field is finally moving on from Qatar’s Losail circuit and heading for the rest of its season.
The very particular mix of temperatures, conditions and track layout at Losail has created two thrilling races and set up plenty of fascinating questions for when the ‘normal’ season begins at Portimao in a fortnight.
And it’s also produced some very clear winners and losers.
The factory Yamaha team
For all the fears both of its riders harboured of being stuck in the pack and getting demolished by the Ducatis on the main straight at Losail, Yamaha’s factory team leaves Qatar with a clean sweep of wins.
And this was despite Maverick Vinales and Fabio Quartararo dropping to the lower reaches of the top 10 after the start of both races.
The initial assessment seems to be that the new M1 is more nimble when it comes to wheel-to-wheel battle – and that’s cause for serious optimism going forward, even if other tracks will further test the hypothesis.
And though both riders had a good race and a ‘so-so’ race each, Yamaha has got to be pretty thrilled with Quartararo getting his first victory in factory colours out of the way this early, and especially with him living up to his relaxed reputation by not being flustered by Vinales’ opening-weekend triumph.
“Honestly, I have a good relationship with Maverick and of course in the first moment you are a little bit frustrated, but at the end it’s good, we saw that the potential of the bike is to win,” Quartararo said of his reaction to the season opener.
“And at one stage you need to say, ‘he won, what do I do? I will not get angry with him, I am happy for him, but I will work even more and try to do it also for me’.
“So I think the relationship is good and I think in the pre-season we did a good job, I felt like we collaborated in the same way and it’s great to fight for victories together.”
Ducati’s talent pipeline
Dorna’s wish for a two-team presence for each of its six manufacturers means the day of Ducati’s six-rider flotilla may soon be coming to an end.
But while it still persists Ducati is finally putting its horde of bikes to proper talent development use.
Rookie poleman Jorge Martin was the revelation of the Doha Grand Prix. Enea Bastianini rode an excellent debut race and confirmed it was no fluke in the follow-up.
Even Luca Marini, though seemingly a step behind his fellow Ducati rookies, certainly did his reputation no harm, showing clear improvement and coming up just 0.008s short of a Q2 berth.
If they all develop as hoped, Ducati won’t be able to hang on to all three. Its bosses should know that as well as anyone, having lured Martin away from the KTM camp.
But it means that, with an already youthful factory line-up, Ducati will have no shortage of homegrown talent keen to ride its bikes in the foreseeable future, and that’s always a nice position to be in.
Let’s assume that Marquez will return to MotoGP from Portimao onwards, and that he will be in decent enough shape to mount a title challenge.
Once he’d been forced to miss Qatar, Marquez’s best-case scenario for the double-header would’ve been both races being cancelled somehow. His worst-case scenario would’ve been a dominant rider emerging and picking up 50 points.
He didn’t get the former, but he certainly didn’t get the latter either.
— MotoVisualized (@motovisualized) April 5, 2021
Only one rider made the podium in both races, and that was a satellite rider who most people don’t have pencilled in as a likely title contender (although that might need a rethink). That’s Johann Zarco, and right behind him in the points are the Yamahas – obviously a threat, but with the spectre of past years’ reliably inconsistent form hanging over them.
I don’t know who Marquez is most worried about among the 2021 crop, but the two Suzukis seem like a decent shout given the bike’s versatility – and while neither Alex Rins nor Joan Mir had a bad time of it in the double-header, neither maximised their results.
Maybe Marquez won’t be anywhere near his best in 2021, and all of this will prove academic. But if he truly believes he can win the crown this year, he won’t feel worse about his chances after Losail.
Pramac is somehow not a MotoGP race-winning team yet. But this visit to Qatar added three podiums to its tally, its rider leads the championship and its chances of finishing as the top independent team this year look as good as they could possibly look after two races.
And there’s the added bonus of the ‘youth+experience’ rider pairing having created a downright idyllic initial situation, with both Zarco and Martin having been only too happy to make each other’s lives easier in the Doha Grand Prix.
“It was a nice qualifying yesterday, with a nice surprise of the team-mate having the pole, and another surprise during the race – he has been leading almost all the race, and I expected to have maybe a slower pace than last week, but he was feeling comfortable and we went even faster than last weekend,” Zarco told MotoGP’s After The Flag show, sounding almost proud.
“The way Jorge has been riding, it was not like a rookie. Controlling everything as a man, a MotoGP man” :: Johann Zarco
“Every time a rider overtook me I was able to overtake him again to protect this second place, and also kind of protect Jorge, to keep him leading the race because he was so clean, I wanted to keep this pace.
“I’ve been pretty impressed [with him], but that’s perfect. I think for the comments that we can give then to Ducati it will be pretty interesting – I hope that we can do a step to have an even better feeling on the bike, to go even faster.
“The way he has been riding, it was not like a rookie. Controlling everything as a man, a MotoGP man.”
And when Zarco did pass Martin in the Doha GP, with two corners to go for what was ultimately second place, the rookie showed deference to his experienced team-mate.
“For sure if it wasn’t Zarco, I would try in the last corner,” he admitted. “But he has another role in the team now. He’s leading the championship, he has to push for that championship, and I just have to learn.”
It clearly helps to have the whole grid ride at the same track for the whole of pre-season and then two race weekends.
And unlike the Qatar races of 2018 and 2019 this year’s events were not decided in the final corner in ultra-dramatic fashion.
But that’s a matter of happenstance. What clearly isn’t happenstance is having the Doha GP top 15 fit in within nine seconds. That’s the kind of number every racing championship in the world – save for MotoGP’s crazy younger brother Moto3 – will rightfully be insanely jealous of.
Top 15. Nine seconds. Five manufacturers in the top 10. Every manufacturer with at least 10 points on the board already.
In terms of points haul, the Qatar double-header was the worst run of two races in the Petronas SRT’s admittedly very short MotoGP history so far. Each of its riders picked up just four points.
Franco Morbidelli, heralded as a likely title contender heading into the campaign, struggled with a holeshot device issue in the opener, having looked fairly strong for much of that weekend.
He then had a cleaner run in the follow-up Doha Grand Prix, but by then the pace had gone – and to hear how Morbidelli described it, it wasn’t really there to begin with.
“We went back to a configuration more similar to 2020, the beginning of the year,” he explained. “And the race was better than the last one, for sure, I was able to fight.
“Similar problems to beginning of 2020 came, I struggled to maintain a good pace until the end, I finished the tyre too soon and wasn’t able to be consistent and fast.
“But anyway there are positives to this race. We improved the feeling compared to the previous nine days – that’s a good thing, of course it’s not what we want but it’s a good thing.
“I’ve got to take a positive from this weekend, and the positive from this weekend is that we were able finally on the last day to improve the feeling, making a big step back – that’s a bit worrying but it’s what helped us today.”
For team-mate Valentino Rossi finding a positive may be even harder. The seven-time champion felt he was “a lot faster” in the Doha GP compared to the Qatar GP, but that still translated to finishing five seconds off the points.
The KTM camp will absolutely not feel like losers heading out of Qatar, what with Brad Binder picking up an eighth-place finish in the Doha GP that didn’t really look on the cards throughout the whole of last month.
But overall, 14 points for its four riders across the two races is a paltry return for a manufacturer and a bike that looked so good last year.
Yes, the RC16 doesn’t like Losail, but that just means it’s probably not quite there yet as a complete package.
And even Binder’s feel-good Doha GP result comes with the caveat of his team-mate Miguel Oliveira’s what-could-have-been, given Oliveira was up to a brilliant third off the line only to endure a “backwards race” that sounds like it could’ve been avoidable.
“After the start, my dashboard went black,” Oliveira explained. “It didn’t have any information about shifting lights, which gear I was on, which map, went to change maps, tyre information – it was all gone.
“It was very hard to do the race just by pure sensation. It became quite a problem to really get the maximum out of our bike.”
The incident Miller had with Mir rightly caused a big hullabaloo and he was probably fortunate to escape sanction, but that won’t be much of a consolation given he sits only ninth in the standings after the Qatar double-header after a pair of ninth-place finishes.
Miller was very much expected to be in the mix for victory on both weekends, but his first race fell apart due to what he felt was a sudden loss of grip, and in the second he was struck by arm pump, which meant he “couldn’t feel the brake lever” in the closing laps.
That second issue at least should be fixable, and Miller expects to go into surgery this week (as does Tech3 KTM rider Iker Lecuona, for the same reason).
But 14 point from two races at a Ducati-friendly track was not just only the fourth-best return in the Ducati camp, but also just generally a paltry return, especially given Marc Marquez’s absence and the headstart opportunity that provided.
The LCR team that scored in every race last year drew two blanks to start the 2021 season. That’ll happen when your two riders combine to produce three DNFs.
“We knew before coming here that historically it’s a track where with the Honda bike you suffer a little bit,” Alex Marquez said, having crashed out in both races.
“The main problem for us to fight and to be there was the front tyre, which was a little bit too soft for us. We were suffering a little bit on the right side, with the graining.
“Not an easy three weeks here for us, for our team. Crashes, problems, everything.
“I think that we are competitive, we are there, we need to be positive, we’re going to a track that can be more positive for us.
“I’m the first one who puts homework for me this week at home. I will not say any excuses. Today [Doha GP] was my fault, I already said to the team sorry and we’ll be more competitive and stronger in Portimao.”
Don’t take this as criticism of the affable Italian – Savadori is new to MotoGP and has been nursing a shoulder injury since the start of testing. Even if his shoulder has been healing, he’s been clearly forced to play catch-up in a whole variety of ways.
His Portimao performance last year was clear evidence he’s capable of more in the premier class, and perhaps Savadori – who has just turned 28 – will show it again at the Portuguese circuit this year.
But it’d be naive to think that he’ll get a lot of time to prove himself as a MotoGP rider, especially against the backdrop of Aprilia’s very public interest in Andrea Dovizioso.
So in that context, spending a month that could’ve been so useful hurt was not helpful.