It’s race week! Soon we will be revisiting the rollercoaster at Portimao, and even more exciting: the King is coming back! Yes, Marc Marquez has been declared fit to race this week and Friday will be the very first time he’s seen on his beloved RC213V since that traumatic crash in the opening round of 2020. To add on to that excitement, Marc’s prime rival, one Andrea Dovizioso has been testing the new and improved Aprilia RS-GP, so could the triple runner up also be about to come back to the premier class?
Lots of questions to answer, lots of thrilling stories to unfold. But before we get ahead of ourselves, let’s revisit the opening rounds, and see just who goes into Portimao on a hot streak, and who really needs a good result.
Moto3: No surprises, except for the surprises
First things first, good lord that Pedro Acosta! I thought he was impressive over the first weekend: straight into Q2, a top 10 qualifying position and an impressively mature race to take him to the podium on his first-ever appearance! But in race 2… he was just dynamite. Pit lane to the victory – that boy passed the whole field, and then still had enough tyre left at the end of the race to pull a big enough gap so he wouldn’t end up mugged on the start-finish straight by a slipstream? Seriously impressive stuff. Acosta absolutely trounced the field in his Red Bull Rookies Cup tenure, and if the Moto3 boys don’t buck up a little, I’d say he has a decent chance at taking this year’s title, after all, he does go into Portimao as the championship leader, with 45 points out of a possible 50 in his pocket!
Another impressive championship hopeful has to be Darryn Binder. Having made the decision to swap from the KTM Moto3 bike to the Honda spec after signing with the Petronas team, Binder has seemed to be almost in his element. He took pole position in the opening round, even if he had to pass through Q1 to get it, he holds the all-time lap record around the Losail International Circuit for the lightweight class, and he managed to get on the podium in both races. He goes to Portimao as second in the championship, just 9 points down from Acosta. With Binder’s experience in the class, he just might be emerging as the championship favourite, early though it is to call such things. I must admit, I hadn’t expected our favourite divebomb to be a title contender this year – I thought he might take longer to adjust to the Honda, and I maybe didn’t credit him as being mature enough as a competitor. I’m happy to have been wrong, as Binder is absolutely class and I always enjoy seeing him do well.
The losers of the opening rounds are quite clearly Jaume Masia and John McPhee. Masia may have taken an opening-round win, which really was a masterclass in how to win a Moto3 race; however, it was the second round that revealed his flaws. Masia has proven time and again that he has the raw talent to be a world champion – that is not in doubt. Unfortunately, he does tend to be prone to irrationality, which is ultimately what could cost him the championship he so craves. This was evident in the Doha GP, wherein he erratically rubbed against at least five other riders throughout the race, the last two of which were on the final lap, in an overly aggressive move that ultimately cost him the chance to fight for the victory. If Masia wants to be world champion this year, he has to eliminate these irrationalities. He could have easily been on the podium in both races, and taken a good haul of points into the European leg of the season. Come the end of the year, he just might regret this early fumbling of points.
As for John McPhee… yikes. How much bad luck can one rider have? Taken out of both opening rounds when he had strong race pace and the experience to potentially have taken podium finishes in both rounds? That’s got to sting. However, much as I do feel bad for John, his irascible reaction in the Doha GP was irresponsible and reprehensible. I understand that the adrenaline runs high in races and getting taken out, not once but twice, is infuriating, but there is no excuse for a 26-year-old to be punching a fellow rider, no matter their history. For his indiscretion, McPhee has received a severe penalty, which I believe will make it incredibly difficult for him to get any points at all in the Portimao GP (namely a pit lane start, with a ten second time penalty added to his final race time.) As such, McPhee may be going into round 4 with no points at all – a damning start to his last hurrah in the Moto3 championship.
Other impressive rides came in the form of Niccolo Antonelli, who had a difficult season in 2020, but managed a very clever race to take a podium finish in the Doha GP, and manage a top 6 in the opening round. As well as this, Kaito Toba, having been demoted to the Green CIP team, seems to have found a resurgence of form, managing top 10 finishes and decent points in both of the opening rounds. Andrea Migno, despite also being collected into the gravel in the first race, made a strong comeback in the second round, just missing out on the podium. Also, I have to commend Tatsuki Suzuki, who missed the pre-season testing due to returning a positive Covid test, qualified on the last row of the grid in the opening round, and yet still took top 8 finishes in both races. There is a lot of talent coming through in Moto3, and I am truly looking forward to seeing the progression of many of their careers.
Moto2: Lowes on cruise control!
A very satisfying opening gambit for us Brits! Sam Lowes is truly showing his mettle. Back to back wins and going to Portimao with the full 50 points in his pocket? This is what we love to see. Lowes was absolutely indomitable over the Qatar doubleheader, from Free Practise 1 all the way to the end of the race, absolutely no one could lay a glove on him. Lowes’ experience is clearly paying its due diligence as he makes an early claim on the Moto2 world title, but there are a whole list of guys lining up to try and take his crown away.
Remy Gardner has probably been the most impressive rider for me. He’s been emulating Lowes’ form – having taken two second-place finishes and heading to Portimao as second in the championship, just 10 points behind Lowes. In the second race, it seemed as though Gardner made the biggest improvement, as he was the only rider to get close enough to pressure Lowes for the win, even if he couldn’t manage to make a pass in the end. Gardner has just excelled from the word go this year. The boost in confidence that his first-ever race victory gave him (coincidentally which came from the Portimao race last year) coupled with the move to the highly competitive Red Bull KTM Ajo team, has really given us a different Remy Gardner this year, and I think he could mount an effective championship challenge. He’s a name that most people have been expecting to see in the premier class eventually, and maybe that move will come sooner rather than later.
Marco Bezzechi came into this year as the rider everyone believed would be Sam Lowes main championship challenger. While he could not take a podium finish in either opening race, this isn’t the disaster many will have claimed it to be. Two solid fourth-place finishes are good in terms of points hauls, and much as I am obviously cheering for our home favourite Lowes, I have to admit that he does have a reputation as a bit of a crasher. If Bezzechi can take a few race wins this season – and we know he is capable of that – it could be these solid points that make all the difference come the end of the year.
I’m so very invested in the Moto2 field that I could probably wax poetic about three-quarters of the field, but this article is dragging as it is, so I’m just going to give major kudos to the rookies of the class.
Raul Fernandez was imperious inMoto3 last year, having taken half of all the pole positions in qualifying and achieving two race wins that completely left the rest of the field in his dust – speaking both metaphorically and literally. As such, it was no surprise that he went well on a Moto2 bike, but achieving a podium in his second ever race? That’s an incredibly quick learning curve and I’m super impressed. Whilst I would be surprised to see him as a championship challenger this year, I’ve got to say that he’s definitely got one in him, and in the future, I would love to see what he could do on a GP bike.
Other rookies to shout out obviously include Cameron Beaubier. The five times MotoAmerica champion has been incredibly brave by taking a stab at the Moto2 championship. He’s gone from the top of the pile to qualifying on almost the last row of the grid, and the impact that could have on one’s psyche is serious. So seriously, I’m impressed by his commitment and dedication. Even more impressive though, is the fact that he almost managed a top ten finish in his first-ever Moto2 race, and whilst he crashed out of the Doha GP, you have to assume that with a learning curve like that, he might be battling at the sharp end before the end of the year.
Celestino Vietti, Tony Arbolino, Ai Ogura and Albert Arenas – the main competitors in last year’s Moto3 championship have also taken well to the intermediate class, with Ogura and Vietti especially showing their mettle, taking a 5th place and 7th place finish respectively. Vietti also managed to take points in the opening round, and he’s certainly another rider that I could see in the premier class after a couple of successful years in Moto2.
Finally, Fabio Di Giannantonio, I have to mention. In the first race he took a very emotional podium finish, something that came on the heels of his switch to the Gresini team, and the tragic death of Fausto Gresini himself. There were tears all along the pit wall as DiGi dedicated the trophy to Fausto and I for one truly hope he can take that elusive first win in the Moto2 class. If not to honour his deceased mentor, then for himself, as it seems he may be MotoGP bound, if the rumours of a satellite Gresini team are indeed true.
MotoGP: Good an bad for Yamaha
The premier class never fail to deliver underneath the Losail floodlights, and 2021 has been no different. Two absolutely stunning races were produced, with two surprising victors emerging, a resurgence in form for a familiar face, a fantastically fast rookie and record-breaking top speeds.
Ultimately, the biggest winner from the Qatar doubleheader was Yamaha. Maverick Vinales and Fabio Quartararo took a race victory each, and they weren’t exactly easy wins to take. Yamaha has been notoriously awful at overtaking because while they have the advantage on corner speed, they lack the straight-line speed to make a move stick, plus they have trouble with tyre pressures and temperatures when engaged in battles. Luckily for them, it seems that whatever minuscule changes the Japanese factory have been making, seems to be working. Both Vinales and Quartararo had to pass through multiple riders to take their race wins, and this included making overtakes on Ducati’s – a bike that has 11kp/h more than the Yamaha. Vinales especially has been critiqued in the past for his tendency to fade in races when he gets overtaken, but it seems that both riders have changed their mentalities for the new season, and both could be true competitors in this year’s title fight – if the M1 decides to co-operate in other tracks that is.
Another big winner is Johann Zarco. The Frenchman has had his fair share of poor luck during the course of his premier class career, with the notorious failure of his venture within the Red Bull KTM factory team. However, it would seem that the promotion to the Pramac Ducati team is working wonders. Zarco has emerged as the championship leader as we head into Portimao, having taken two second-place finishes and thus has 40 points in his pocket. Zarco is of course still chasing an elusive first victory in the premier class, and I for one believe he could get it – and honestly, I hope he does, it’s been far too long since we saw that iconic backflip celebration! While I would be hesitant to label him a total championship threat, mostly because he does have a reputation for crashing, by no means should he be ruled out, anyone else remembers his dominance in the Moto2 years?
Pramac Ducati really has cemented themselves a winning line up, with Jorge Martin on the opposite side of the garage. Martin showed significant improvement across the two race weekends, with a lightning start in the first race to catapult him from 14th into 4th in the first corner, and then taking his maiden premier class pole position, plus a podium finish, in just his second MotoGP race. Again, Martin has the pedigree to back up his talent – he blitzed the Moto3 field in the year he won the championship – and I feel certain he is able to fight for another championship. Truly it will be wonderful to watch his premier class progression.
On the flip side, you have to wonder what happened to Ducati’s factory teammates. Pecco Bagnaia and Jack Miller both showed incredible promise, with Miller easily topping the pre-season testing times, and Bagnaia absolutely smashing the existing lap record time out of the water with his debut pole position in the opening round. Whilst Pecco did manage to take a podium – which really he only got due to the insane grunt of the Ducati engine as he mugged Joan Mir on the straight to the finish line – Jack Miller had a disaster. In the opening race, Miller suffered a dud tyre, wherein the tyre’s rim ate the wheel from the inside out, whilst in the second race, he suffered several riders crashing into him, including a very heated collision with Joan Mir, as well as some extremely debilitating arm pump. Miller salvaged double 9th place finishes, at a track that has been hailed as a Ducati stronghold. Undoubtedly the factory boys will be facing some stick over their poor performances across the doubleheader, especially with the satellite team looking so strong.
What about the reigning champs? Well, it’s hard to say whether you would call them winners or losers. On the one hand, both bikes were able to carve their way through the field again, as is so often the case for the GSX-RR riders. However, you have to feel that a lot of the stress and pressure of having to make a good start and the hassle of overtaking other riders must be taking its toll. The world champion, Joan Mir, had to go through Q1 before both races, and he only barely scraped into Q2 each time. With the Suzuki’s lucky to make it onto the third row of the grid in qualifying, it’s clear that the pressure is truly on the world champion. I’ve already mentioned the coming together that Mir and Miller had, but it doesn’t seem to be a singular occurrence. At the end of the 2020 season, Mir pulled a strong overtake on Bagnaia that dislocated the Italian’s arm, and these rough passes are getting more common. Of course, Mir’s style is to brake a lot later than many of his rivals – it’s just the way he finds he can turn his bike best, and rubbing is racing – but it does seem a little like the world champion is struggling with the dismal qualifying efforts of the GSX-RR. Both Suzuki men are however doing far better at this stage in the championship than they were last year points-wise, so there’s no need to write them off just yet.
The Honda’s and KTM’s have not been mentioned at all over the Qatar doubleheader and unfortunately, it’s because they have been nowhere. The KTM riders have all struggled with the soft option tyre’s that Michelin supplied for the Qatar rounds, as it just doesn’t gel with the RC-16. It wasn’t until the second race, where all 4 KTM riders gambled on the medium tyre that any improvements were seen at all, with Miguel Oliveira emulating Jorge Martin and making a rocket start off the line – jumping from 12th to 3rdin the first corner – and Brad Binder managing to place 8th in the race overall. Write them off at your peril, however – there are three very capable, race winner riders across the KTM teams and undoubtedly the RC-16 will be more competitive at European tracks, in races that take place during the day.
Honda meanwhile… it has to be said, the impact of Marc Marquez’s absence is rather obvious. With there being no data from Marquez using the 2020 RC213V, the other riders have suffered. Bradl of course is a test rider and not expected to perform exceptionally well, whilst Pol Espargaro is new to the Honda beast and will be learning the intricacies of a new bike. Alex Marquez and Takaaki Nakagami are where the real onus has fallen and it hasn’t been pretty. I think Alex has crashed at every corner of the Losail International Circuit and Taka may not be far behind. Neither rider managed to score points in the opening rounds, but with Marc coming back in Portimao, and Pol showing promise, I’m certain the LCR boys will be back at the sharp end very soon.
The Petronas team I’m certain will be exceedingly glad to be out of Qatar and heading to a track that very much favoured Franco Morbidelli’s 2019 machine. Both riders have had a dismal two weekends in the desert, with Morbidelli suffering from mechanical issues across both weekends and Valentino Rossi qualifying 21st on the grid – his worst qualifying performance in his entire Moto GP/500cc class history. With Rossi giving himself until the summer break to decide whether his performance is promising enough to continue racing next year, it’s looking worrying that while we may get Marc Marquez back, this could be the end of the Doctor’s racing days. In fact, the only positives the Petronas team can take from the entire Qatar experience is that Morbidelli was exceedingly competitive in the hotter temperatures, which bodes well for the rest of the tracks, which will take place in the daylight, and Morbidelli had a dismal beginning to his season last year as well, and still became vice-champion.
Finally, the Aprilia. Aleix Espargaro may be the hardest working man in the paddock, wrestling his RS-GP around every circuit and doing his best to take any points possible. Though, it seems his due diligence may be about to be rewarded. Aleix took back to back top 10 finishes in Doha, a very promising result for the usually pointless Aprilia. With Dovizioso potentially about to make a wildcard appearance and maybe even a full-time role within the Aprilia team, we could be about to see an Aprilia podium – if the promise can be translated onto other tracks.
Overall, it’s looking like we’re really in line for a fantastic season, what with all 6 manufacturers showing themselves to be competitive, a gaggle of riders in the hunt for the championship; Marc Marquez definitely coming back and maybe Andrea Dovizioso will be too. To top it all off, this week we ride the rollercoaster again, and I for one am supremely excited. To Portimao then, and whatever wonders await us there!
This article was written by the fantastic Rebekah Lee, our resident Motorsport nut and MA Creative writing graduate. She’s been fascinated by all things motorsports since childhood – follow her on Twitter at @bekahjlee
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