By: Myanna Wedes

We have arrived and are ready for round one of the 2021 MotoGP season. Qatar has always been a race where some shine and others are tested physically being the first event of the year. We are excited to see how some of the riders handle the pressure of the race as expectations increase with rider changes, development of the bikes and the anticipated return of Marc Marquez now likely to be for the Grande Prémio 888 de Portugal race after he withdrew from the first two races in Qatar. The Spanish Champion will utilise the time away to ensure his fitness are at a level which enables him to race with strength and confidence. Right now, it is just that touch too early to put his body under immense strain with a risk of re-injuring himself high. The delayed return will allow him to work on his physical conditioning which is still required in order to build up his tolerance to racing a MotoGP bike again after some serious time away from the sport.

In terms of the factories we are watching closely, no doubt Ducati, Yamaha and Suzuki are the top contenders with Honda there though without their main rider. The expectations will be high for Pol Espargaro to perform whilst Takaaki Nakagami improves and Alex Marquez gets acquainted with his LCR Honda. Joan Mir, the 2020 World Champion has admitted that not much of the Suzuki bike has changed. In fact, the engine is the same and the bike as well. So their focal points are keeping the consistency though improving in the speed department to win more races and not fall behind early.

Joan Mir

Team Suzuki Ecstar (Joan Mir)

Joan Mir:

“It’s great to get back to racing after the winter break! Qatar is quite a good circuit for me, and although we didn’t race here last year, I’m pretty familiar with it right now due to all the testing and training we’ve done here. I’m ready to give my all to kick off this new season in a good way, and I’m just counting down the hours now!”

Alex Rins

Team Suzuki Ecstar (Alex Rins)

Alex Rins:

“The atmosphere in Qatar is always amazing; when you see the sun go down and all the floodlights come on, you know it’s something special! Everybody is ready to battle after the off-season so I think the race will be an exciting one and I feel ready for it! I got 4th here in 2019 but I’d like to go higher and aim for a podium!”

We did notice on the first day of wheels turning that Rins improved his time from the test which is positive whilst Mir found it quite difficult as a result of the last day of the test being cut short due to the weather conditions. One rider is positive and the other is hesitant so we are intrigued to see how both perform in the qualifying sessions followed by the race. The cross hair will be on Mir’s back because of his success last year whilst being up and down in the results.

In turning to a debut on board the Honda Respol, P. Espargaro is aware that his first race under his new team will be a challenge and tough to work through as a result of a new machine being under his control. For sure, P. Espargaro will be thinking about how Jorge Lorenzo struggled on the bike and whether or not he will suffer the same feelings. He believes the Honda is tough to ride though not the most difficult bike on the grid. Could this be a mindset aspect that propels him or holds him back from success? Adapting a riding style is a very important element in becoming a quality rider. He wants to be proactive and keep pushing regardless of whether he is considered a rookie on board the Honda.

Pol Espargaro

CormacGP & Repsol Honda MotoGP Team (Pol Espargaro)

Pol Espargaro:

“The first race is finally here, I am really excited to get back on the Honda. We had a good test and I am looking forward to the first race weekend. There are some things we still need to learn and understand about the bike and it will be an intense opening weekend, but I am excited. Racing the Repsol Honda is something most people dream of and I can’t wait to do it. I am not setting a target for the race other than do the best that we can. Let’s put on a good show for all the fans that are at home, it’s time to go racing!”.

In the first day, P. Espargaro believes he is finding the limit and crashing is a part of that process. Some will agree whilst others disagree with this opinion. It will be very important that he finishes the race this weekend regardless of position as a poor start can become a reason to resent the change he made going from KTM to Honda.

In comparison, the Ducati Lenovo Team are very excited to have Australian Jack Miller as their leading rider and have been working tirelessly to be ready for the first event of the year. There is pressure on Miller to perform with Pecco Bagnaia next to him as well as Johann Zarco across the garages at Pramac and newbie Jorge Martin. With that said, if anyone is ready to conquer the red beast, it is Miller.

Jack Miller

Ducati Corse Press (Jack Miller)

Jack Miller:

“Finally, we are back in action for the first Grand Prix of 2021 this weekend. The official Qatar Test had been really positive, and I have never felt so comfortable on the bike before starting the Championship as this year. My feeling with the Desmosedici is great, and also, our speed is not that bad. I hope we will find good track conditions all weekend to prepare ourselves well for both races that we will have here in Losail. For sure, also our rivals will be really competitive here, but I am determined to start the new season on a high, fighting for the top podium as I did at the end of last year”.

Stepping over to this teammate, Bagnaia is really excited with a smile on his face. The transition from the sister team to the head factory team has been a rewarding experience for the young Italian rider. He will need to be on his ‘A Game’ in order to stay with his teammate working together as a united pair. If they can achieve this together, it will really push the others on the grid to pull up their socks and chase. A dynamic team can achieve a World Championship together because in the end of the day, it is about working together for the common outcome of a title, a trophy and the success printed next your name, manufacturer and team personnel.

Pecco Bagnaia

Ducati Corse Press (Pecco Bagnaia)

Pecco Bagnaia:

“I’m really excited to finally face my first Grand Prix as an official rider of the Ducati Lenovo Team. I’ve been waiting for this moment for a long time, and I can’t wait to experience the adrenaline of the first lights out of season. After the two test sessions we’ve had over the last few weeks, we arrive at the first round of the year with a solid base to work from. It will be important to improve our time attack to guarantee a place in the first two rows of the grid in qualifying. I’m very excited, and I feel I can fight for a good result in the race!”.

On the first day, Miller was rapidly quick and there is anticipation that he will break a lap record or two when it comes to lap times and speed. This was very exciting to see because for many years Miller has been working around the clock to showcase his talent to the world. To finish first and second in the combined standings will wake up the paddock. Regardless of a slight crash for Miller, the expectations and feelings are incredibly positive. The weather conditions and tyre wear, speed of the circuit and confidence will be all the required elements to succeed on race day. The Ducati bike must become the skin of the rider and together feeling as one in order to really find limits, push and make other rivals aware of the competitiveness that is sure to exist on any Grand Prix weekend.

Jack Miller

Ducati Corse Press (Jack Miller)

Jack Miller:

“It was a bit of bumpy start due to the crash in FP1, but then the day ended well. In the afternoon, the wind made the conditions difficult, but towards the evening, I found the feeling with my Desmosedici again; I set a very good lap time with the soft tyre, which is just 7 thousandths off the track record. I’m delighted: it was important to close these first two sessions well because tomorrow in FP3, with the higher temperatures, it will be tough to improve. We were all very close today, and I expect very fast times in qualifying. I am excited and eager to head out on track again tomorrow”.

Pecco Bagnaia:

“I’m delighted! Today it was important to finish in the top ten: the FP3 session will be held during the day, and with the heat, it will be difficult to get the same times like tonight, and on top of that, it will be windier than today. During the first time attack, I set a very good lap time, and if I hadn’t run into the yellow flag on my second attempt, I probably would have improved it even more. I am satisfied because I feel very comfortable with the bike. Tomorrow, in FP4, we’ll work on the race pace, which is still the only detail we need to focus on”.

One of the major changes from a technical perspective during the sessions and race is the new track limits detection system which has been introduced. According to race direction this change is to increase the fairness and equality for the riders by cracking down on those who are breaking the rules and regulations to their advantage.

Mike Webb:“Track limit regulations are staying the same but what we’ve been working on all last year is an updated system to detect track limits. Dorna and timekeeping have been working on this last year, we’ve got a new system that has pressure senses on the track outside the kerbs, so we can detect very accurately when a rider has gone out of track limits. It’s a much more accurate system. “So the rule stays the same but because the system is actuated a little differently to the cameras we used before, it means for the riders that if they go out of track limits, there’s immediately a signal. In the past we had to look at a camera image and make a judgement. Now it’s just in or out; it’s very accurate. The difference for the riders or protocol is that now, one wheel out means out. In the past it was two wheels in the green, and is this two or one, how far out… no more of that judgment. Out is out and it doesn’t matter if it’s one wheel or two. It’s more accurate and it means it’s more fair for every rider, with a very clear view of who is in or who is out. The rule is the same, but the judgment is much more precise.”

We are eagerly waiting to see how French rider Fabio Quartararo shapes up on race day with his new Yamaha machine. Without question, Quartararo put immense pressure on himself, psyched himself out of succeeding and was incredibly emotional in the second half of the 2020 season. He has grown and learned to master his emotions on and off track, whilst learning the new aspects of his factory machine with Valentino Rossi trading places and taking his spot for the 2021 season. Who made the right move?

The level of talent under the Yamaha umbrella is impressive, although emotionally charged. Maverick Vinales is fast, newly married, becoming a father off-track and wanting to be the reason Yamaha can cheer. With that said, there is sure to be a rivalry between the two riders at some point naturally speaking, if not, working together could be a major bonus to keep the Japanese manufacturer improving their machines and collectively the results. This weekend will be a good test of character for the two of them.

Fabio Quartararo
Fabio Quartararo

Monster Energy Yamaha MotoGP Team (Fabio Quartararo)

Fabio Quartararo:

“I’m so happy to finally make our first laps of the 2021 season. We didn’t ride with the best tyre option in FP1 because we needed to save the soft tyres for later, for the right moment. We tried something on the first run of FP2 that I didn’t like, but it’s good to have been able to try it. Now we know. It was also good to do the two time attacks at the end. It was tough, because our competitors are fast, but I’m happy that I’ve done two great laps. There were some small mistakes to improve on, but overall I’m happy with today.”

Maverick Vinales

Monster Energy Yamaha MotoGP Team (Maverick Vinales)

Maverick Vinales:

“We had to wait a long time to start the season. I think we picked up in FP1 where we left off during the Qatar Test. Everything was working well and I felt fantastic on the bike on track, keeping the lines and riding smoothly. In the evening we felt a little bit different than we did during the test. For sure, the track is not in the same condition, but we are certain that we will be able to improve during the race weekend. The bike is working well, it’s just the conditions that are different, so we need to understand the set-up. For tomorrow we will focus on the balance of the bike to see if we can improve. I know we will fix it. I can’t wait for tomorrow to put in some nice laps.”

With regard to dark horses for Championship contention, we still think Franco Morbidelli is one to watch in 2021. He is fast, comfortable and feeling confident within the PETRONAS Yamaha Sepang Racing MotoGP Team alongside friend, Valentino Rossi. Rossi is celebrating his 25th anniversary of his GP debut which is mighty impressive. We are really excited for this partnering this year to see how they balance each other’s expectations, feelings, feedback and how they work together to achieve the goals of the team. The Doctor will want to be competitive from the first few race events as this is what drives his desire to stay on board a MotoGP machine whilst Morbidelli was close to a title in 2020, the hunger will be red hot! The atmosphere within the team is good, with everyone working for the absolute maximum and with pressure certainly present. The motivation to fight with Morbidelli exists for Rossi as he believes the Italian he helped grow into a rider is one of the best on the grid.

Franco Morbidelli

PETRONAS Yamaha Sepang Racing MotoGP Team (Franco Morbidelli)

Franco Morbidelli:

“I’m pretty happy about today. I was fast in the afternoon, but then at night we tried the medium rear tyre and we struggled a little bit with it. I still managed to get into the top-ten though, which was really important today because tomorrow it will be difficult to improve the times. You could see that so many riders gave their maximum tonight. There are things that we need to improve, to do better, so we will check what we can do and then try. It will be difficult but I think we can manage to reduce the gap. It will be important to make a good qualifying, but overall I am happy with our performance today.”

Valentino Rossi
Valentino Rossi

PETRONAS Yamaha Sepang Racing MotoGP Team (Valentino Rossi)

Valentino Rossi:

“I’m happy with this first day. I feel really comfortable in the team, there is a nice atmosphere and we are working well in the garage. Our target for today was to try to stay inside the top-ten, because tomorrow it will be difficult to improve the lap time, and in the end I was P9. I feel also happy with the bike and I have already bettered my time from the test, which is good. We now need to work, to try to improve some small details for tomorrow and also we know that the tyre choice is not an easy one to make. For me this is going to be crucial; we think that it will be hot tomorrow but less so on Sunday. Our main aim tomorrow though will be to make a good time attack and start in a top position.”

Credit - (Rossi, Espargaro, Quartararo, Mir, Espargaro and Miller) (Rossi, Espargaro, Quartararo, Mir, Espargaro and Miller)

This snapshot of the pre-race event is a key indicator as to how the riders are feeling and how that changes when lights go out on Sunday. The hard work takes place from FP1 right up until the warm up session on the day the race is set to take place. If you make mistakes, they will be seen, heard and dissected. To those asking who is struggling, it is appears KTM are lacking pace, with Brad Binder on day one the highest place KTM in 16th place which is not an ideal situation to be in. It will be sometime before we understand the true strengths and weaknesses of the KTM and certainly on European soil this will be discovered. Time to lock in for Saturday and Sunday to witness the most important start to a season since the pandemic caused chaos to the MotoGP calendar in 2020.