The first mad scrap for pole position occurred last night in its usual frenetic manner, with every class setting incredible lap times under the floodlights of Losail. But who took opening night honours, and what chances will they have come the race?
Moto3: More pack racing, slipstream will make the difference
As ever, the Moto3 field managed to provide hilarity in their messy tactics to try and use slipstreams for the all-important lap time advantage. In Q1, the qualifying system to set up the last four rows of the grid, many riders did not manage to set a competitive lap time, with veterans of the field such as Tatsuki Suzuki, taking the chequered flag before even getting a chance to push for a competitive time. This was because the aforementioned messy tactics of Q1 in Moto3 was exacerbated by Darryn Bnder (who was the fastest of the field) faking out the riders by pretending to set up for another run, before ultimately sitting back down in his garage. This meant that many riders,w ho were waiting for him to leave the pits in order to try and follow him around the circuit in hopes of gaining an advantage, were too late to set another time. As such, a smug Darryn Binder sailed into Q2 to challenge for a position on the front four rows of the grid, and he was joined by Romano Fenati, Izan Guevara and Riccardo Rossi.
In Q2 it was much the same. A gaggle of riders went out to compete for lap times, but this saw them mess each other’s lap times up as they jostled for position around the track, attempting to make use of the slipstreaming effect. This is where team mate strategies really came into effect. The most successful pairing was CIP Green’s team riders, Maximilian Kofler and Kaito Toba, who broke from the pack and helped each other to cross the line with competitive times. However, as ever with Moto3, it was the final minute where we saw riders really grit their teeth and perform. Personal Best sectors were swapped between 10 riders over the course of the final lap, with everyone snaking their way around the circuit, using every inch of the tarmac to go as fast as possible. Izan Guevara, the exceptional rookie was one of the first over the line, and it looked like a dream debut pole position was certain, but Darryn Binder, still pumped up from his passage through Q1 managed to snatch it from him, setting a blistering time of 2:04.075 to be the first polesitter of the 2021 season. Guevara kept himself on the front row in second, and John McPhee (one of the strongest title hopefuls in the field) rounds out the front row in third.
Jeremy Alcoba, Jaume Masia and Kaito Toba (2019’s Qatar GP winner) round out the top 6, and with the big pack battles that always ensue in Moto3 races, any of the top 6 in qualifying could feasibly be the race winner. With reports from the circuit of increased wind speed, it will be intriguing to see what effect this will have on the small Moto3 bikes, and who will take charge in the opening round of the championship.
Moto2: Can the Brits take charge?
Where the Moto3 field struggle to set lap times in qualifying because of too much messing around playing the waiting game in pit lane, Moto2 suffers with no such issue, with riders happy to go out and set multiple lap times throughout the session on a single set of tyres, because the Dunlop rubber is optimal once it has had a couple of laps wear put on it. Some of the big names to miss out on a spot in the top 14 were Fabio Di Giannantonio, Augusto Fernandez and the reigning Moto3 world champion Albert Arenas, who is one fo the rookies in this year’s Moto2 campaign. Arenas and Fernandez struggled in the session, but Di Giannantonio managed to set a competitive lap time that saw him move into Q2, along will rookie Celestino Vietti, Somkiat Chantra and 2019’s Moto3 World Chamion Lorenzo DallaPorta, who last year struggled to adjust to the bigger Moto2 bike.
In Q2, the riders expected to take top spots were Sam Lowes and Marco Bezzechi, the favourites for this year’s title fight, because they have been dominant through the free practice sessions. However, the Red Bull KTM Ajo boys were eager to get stuck in, using teamwork to blitz the field in the opening runs. Initially, Lowes struggled to set a lap time, going past track limits and getting his times scrubbed off. However, as soon as Lowes settled into his rhythm, he was untouchable. Lowes took the top spot and is the first polesitter in the intermediate class, with a lap of 1:58.726, a good tenth faster than the rest of the field. Rookie Raul Fernandez with the KTM Ajo team made it an impressive debut in the class by securing a second place start on the grid, and Bo Bendsneyder, who was very nearly displaced to World Super Sport after a disappointing 2020 season, managed to round out the front row after showing decent form all weekend thus far.
Marco Bezzechi heads the second row from Joe Roberts (last year’s polesitter in Moto2 for the Qatar GP) and Remy Gardner (the winner of the final round of 2020.) Elsewhere, the Petronas team mates Jake Dixon and Xavi Vierge had difficulties, with Vierge crashing into Dixon while Dixon was cruising on the racing line. Neither has managed a top 10 qualifying position because of this. For the race, again I would count on the top 6 all fighting for the win, with Fernandez maybe losing out due to a lack of experience within the class. However, Lowes has shown the superior race pace across free practice so he may take first blood in the championship fight.
MotoGP: One in many could actually win!
Wow oh wow did we see some competitiveness from the MotoGP field! In Friday’s night final free practice session lap times were threatening Marc Marquez’s all-time record but I don’t think anyone expected it to be so thoroughly smashed.
Firstly, the riders going through Q1 shockingly included the current world champion, Joan Mir, who had issues with putting together a single competitive lap time on fresh tyres. Mir has been rueing the loss of the final day of testing for this, as Suzuki were more focused on testing their 2022 engine in the first two days of the test. The rest of the riders going through Q1 consisted of 3 Honda’s – Alex Marquez, Takaaki Nakagami and Stefan Bradl – all of whom have also missed out on improving lap times due to having to test multiple new developments for the RC213V. As well as all 4 KTM riders, who have struggled with the Losail circuit, and the 4 rookies were in this group as well.
It would seem that the world champion was most displeased at finding himself in Q1, as he showed aggression from the start, pushing hard in his opening laps to secure immediate entry into Q2. For the most part, Mir was able to respond to any rider lapping quicker than him, however it was looking worrying for the world champion when Nakagami managed to go quicker than him, and Jorge Martin on his final lap was threatening to knock Mir out of Q2. Unluckily for the rookie, he crashed and Mir scraped through to fight for the front 4 rows.
In Q2, the gloves really came off, with the Ducati’s showing a strong advantage straight away. Frenchman Johann Zarco smashed the all-time top speed barrier in free practice 4, firing his Desmosedici down the straight at 362.4kph, so quick times were a given.
And quick times were an understatement. Francesco Bagnaia was the first to go through the previous lap record time, held by Marc Marquez since 2019, however this was rather quickly bested by his team mate Jack Miller.
So it was a Factory Ducati 1-2, but pole hounds Fabio Quartararo were not willing to discount themselves. The Factory Yamaha men and the Factory Ducati men traded fastest laps throughout the first half of Q2, with times getting increasingly tighter as the session continued, but it seemed as though Fabio Quartararo was going to take first night honours with a very impressive 1:53.086.
With fresh rubber underneath him, Maverick Vinales was the first to slam in a super impressive final gasp for pole position, coming up just short of his new team mate to make it a factory Yamaha 1-2. But Pecco Bagnaia burst onto the tarmac, towing his mentor Valentino Rossi behind him, to cross the line with a 1:52.772, the fastest lap ever recorded at the Losail International Circuit. Rossi also benefitted from the tow Bagnaia gave him, only just missing a front row start after Vinales put in a final lap time.
So your front row for the opening round in Qatar is Pecco Bagnaia, who took his maiden pole position in the premier class on his debut in the factory Ducati team, from Fabio Quartararo on his debut in the factory Yamaha team, from Maverick Vinales.
The second row is made up of the GOAT himself, Valentino Rossi, from Jack Miller on his debut in the factory Ducati team, and Johann Zarco on his debut in the Pramac Ducati team. The current world champion, Joan Mir who struggled to get into Q2, lines up in 10th, and vice champion last year, Franco Morbidelli, lines up in 7th.
All told, it does look as though this will be a race between the Yamaha’s and the Ducati’s. Pace-wise n other manufacturer has really featured, and with the power of the Ducati down the front straight, it would be a genuine surprise to not see someone in red take the top step.
However, MotoGP is nothing if not unpredictable. With reports from the track detailing strong winds and maybe even a sand storm threatening, could that massively upset the status quo? Also, despite their poor qualifying, you can never discount the Suzuki men, who could nail the start and will undoubtedly keep their tyres far better than the other manufacturers.
And what of Aleix Espargaro? Does the Aprilia work now? He’s managed a very promising 8th on the starting grid, and he’s been demonstrating some impressive pace – could he upset the expected Ducati and Yamaha podium?
There are so many variables to take into account that I cannot even hazard a guess at this week’s race winner. I’m even hesitant to predict a top 3, although it would be surprise if no Ducati’s or Yamaha’s feature. But qualifying is done and dusted now; all eyes are on race day. Don’t forget, the MotoGP race kicks off at 6pm UK time!
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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