First we saw the liveries, then we saw the class of 2021 head out for testing. Now, at the floodlit oasis of Losail International Circuit, it’s time to get suited and booted for another season of stunning competition. Rarely is anything predictable in this era of MotoGP™, but there is at least one certainty everyone can agree on: we’re most definitely ready to go racing. Are you?
This season, the headlines are overflowing before a lap has even been ticked off in anger. A new reigning Champion begins the year on the throne, Joan Mir (Team Suzuki Ecstar), and the world waits with bated breath to find out when we will get to see the return of eight-time World Champion Marc Marquez (Repsol Honda Team), although we know it won't be to race in Qatar. Rider and team musical chairs leaves us with a different grid and new colours for many, as well as a few new faces as we welcome four rookies. But it’s the same incredible level of competition: thousandths are the new hundredths in MotoGP™.
And so we arrive into Round 1. Doha hosts the first and second Grands Prix of the season and Losail also opened its doors for all the official winter test days this year, so we’re not heading in blind but we are heading in primed. Jack Miller (Ducati Lenovo Team) arrives with the biggest target on his back, flanked by a flotilla of Yamahas as the testing timesheets saw the Aussie and his teammate Francesco Bagnaia bookend a top five reigned by Ducati and Yamaha. But there’s more to racing than one-lap speed…
Miller will definitely be one to watch as the lights go out, however, as will Bagnaia. Both are full factory this season and the pressure is certainly greater, but so too are the performances we’ve seen so far. Losail has also seen the Borgo Panigale factory enjoy some serious success of late, and the stage is set for the Bologna bullets to start the season where they’ll wish to go on: the front. That’s not forgetting the likes of Johann Zarco either as the Frenchman moves to Pramac Racing and enjoys ever more experience with the Italian machine, also proving his mettle in testing. The holeshot heroes have some serious top speed and three experienced riders who look ready, on paper, to get straight in the mix.
The timesheets in testing were far from a one-trick pony though. Three Yamahas ended the test within less than a tenth and a half of Miller at the top: Maverick Viñales (Monster Energy Yamaha MotoGP), Fabio Quartararo (Monster Energy Yamaha MotoGP) and last year’s Championship runner up Franco Morbidelli (Petronas Yamaha SRT). Viñales starts the year settled in, Morbidelli likewise. Quartararo switches to the factory Yamaha squad, but seems to have immediately found his footing. So too has nine-time World Champion Valentino Rossi at Petronas Yamaha SRT as the legendary Italian – never one to push for a stunner in testing but still near the top ten – was full of enthusiasm after the five days on track that prefaced the season. After a 2020 of highs and lows for the Iwata marque, and Ducati to an extent, are the two factories who took testing by the horns the two who arrive into the first Grand Prix ready to do the same in race trim?
Just behind them, sixth in testing saw Aprilia come to the fore. Aleix Espargaro (Aprilia Racing Team Gresini) put the Noale factory’s nearly all-new bike right up there every time he went out on track, and increasing expectation has so far been backed up by ever-increasing pace. What can the number 41 do once the lights go out? With teammate Lorenzo Savadori coming back from injury and also a rookie, Espargaro is the man in the spotlight for the new bike as racing gets underway in earnest. We've seen flashes of brilliance, but the 2021 aim for Aprilia will be to sustain that.
And then there’s Suzuki. Seventh and eighth was where reigning Champion Joan Mir and Suzuki Ecstar teammate Alex Rins ended the Qatar Test, and the feedback was positive. Consistently fast and consistently threatening in 2020, nothing in testing said Suzuki won’t be out the blocks to defend both the riders title and the teams’ Championship. The Hamamatsu factory’s Achilles heel – if such a thing exists in a season of such success – was qualifying last season, so that may be the first thing to keep a keen eye on as Saturday arrives. It seems though that nothing big to report may translate into "yes, we very much require the Jaws music once the lights go out for racing"... with test rider Sylvain Guintoli already having been working on their 2022 engine during the Qatar Test. If that's not a mark of feeling everything is under control...
As race weekend arrives, meanwhile, we will be left waiting for the answer to one of the biggest questions: when will Marc Marquez return? Sidelined by injury after Jerez last year, it’s been a long, long road of surgery and recovery for the eight-time World Champion but the signs are looking good. Recently on track on a Honda RC213V-S in Catalunya and Portimão and looking ever more ready to race, there was certainly more than enough to make a good few rumours. His return won't be in Qatar, however, so the foreboding music for his rivals remains on low for now.
On the other side of the Repsol Honda Team garage there’s plenty to talk about too though. Pol Espargaro joins the fold and, after an impressive trajectory over the past couple of seasons, began 2021 with an equally impressively quick adaptation to the Honda. Fast and fast often, the Spaniard was tenth overall in testing and could be a dark horse for much further forward as the race weekend begins, with each session of track time only giving him more experience of his new bike and team. Premier class podium finisher? Check. Race winner is the next goal.
LCR Honda Idemitsu’s Takaaki Nakagami will be hoping to move forward too after a slightly more muted test, as both he and new teammate Alex Marquez (LCR Honda Castrol) suffered a few crashes – the latter also injuring his foot but ready to head back out for Round 1. Both fought for podiums last year and Alex Marquez successfully, as a rookie no less, so they’ll want to move back up the field to where they’d left off last season.
That’s also true of KTM. The Austrian factory ripped up the history books and wrote a few replacements in 2020, with Brad Binder (Red Bull KTM Factory Racing) winning them their first MotoGP™ race – and his, as a rookie and the first premier class winner from South Africa – and new teammate Miguel Oliveira then adding two more MotoGP™ victories for KTM as well as becoming the first Portuguese premier class winner. Oliveira, now alongside Binder in the Red Bull KTM Factory Racing team, was the fastest Austrian machine in testing, but the two were side by side in P16 and P17. They’ll want more once the lights go out as KTM look to continue their roll of incredible success, but we’ve said it before and we’ll say it again: testing is testing. Friday practice, qualifying and then finally the first race of the year are often a wiser litmus test.
Iker Lecuona (Tech3 KTM Factory Racing) will be looking for more this year too as he starts his second season, needing to move up from where he ended testing, and new arrival Danilo Petrucci (Tech3 KTM Factory Racing) will be interesting to watch too as he adapts to his new bike.
Speaking of adaptation, there’s also plenty to keep an eye out for as the Moto2™ graduates begin their first seasons, eager to get in the mix. Savadori is a rookie but with a few events under his belt by now, whereas the trio of rookies moving up from the intermediate class tasted MotoGP™ for the very first time in the Qatar Test. The fastest of the three was Jorge Martin (Pramac Racing) in 14th, but it was incredibly close as reigning Moto2™ World Champion Enea Bastianini (Avintia Esponsorama) was just 0.022 further back. Luca Marini (Sky VR46 Avintia) was a little more in arrears but also impressed, and just like those adapting from one factory to another… every session is just another chance to improve.
The stage is set, the floodlights are primed and the grid is ready to start another rollercoaster season of incredible racing with the Barwa Grand Prix of Qatar. Don’t miss it, with lights out for the first MotoGP™ race of 2021 at 20:00 (GMT +3). Let's GO!