Day 1 of MotoGP™ action in 2021 is in the history books, and leading the way on Friday at the Barwa Grand Prix of Qatar is Ducati Lenovo Team’s Jack Miller as the Australian picked up where he left off in testing. Miller's 1:53.387 was just 0.007s away from the all-time lap record, and teammate Francesco Bagnaia made it a Borgo Panigale factory 1-2. An infinitesimal 0.035s split the two red machines, with Fabio Quartararo (Monster Energy Yamaha MotoGP) completing the top three after ending the day 0.188 off Miller.
After a scorching FP1 was completed earlier in the day, the Losail floodlights were switched on for FP2 and Miller, Bagnaia, Aleix Espargaro (Aprilia Racing Team Gresini) and Alex Rins (Team Suzuki Ecstar) all almost immediately set laptimes quicker than Franco Morbidelli’s (Petronas Yamaha SRT) FP1 pace. That was before the Red Flag came out due to track conditions, with some debris scattered across the track on the start/finish straight. However, after a quick clean up operation, the MotoGP™ riders were back out with one thing on their mind: securing a place in the top 10 and therefore a provisional place in Q2.
Aleix Espargaro was the first rider to venture into the 1:53s under the evening lights and briefly went an incredible seven tenths clear, before Rins then cut the deficit to just under half a second. It then fell a little quieter at the top but with just under 15 minutes to go on the opening day, Quartararo slotted into within a tenth of Aleix Espargaro to make it four manufacturers in the top four: Aprilia, Yamaha, Ducati, and Suzuki. Soft front and rear rubber was the choice for pretty much every rider as the first shootout of the year began.
On his next lap, Quartararo made good on his earlier threat and did demote Aleix Espargaro to P2, with Quartararo's fellow Monster Energy Yamaha MotoGP rider Maverick Viñales taking over in P3. Johann Zarco (Pramac Racing) and Valentino Rossi (Petronas Yamaha SRT) were next to climb the ladder into P5 and P6, with rookies Enea Bastianini (Esponsorama Racing) and then Jorge Martin (Pramac Racing) enjoying some time in the top 10 too.
With nine minutes left, Bagnaia then took charge and did so by an almighty 0.275s. That lap was within half a tenth of Marc Marquez’s (Repsol Honda Team) all-time lap record, a 1:53.380, and Miller was next to challenge as he crossed the line within just 0.007s of Marquez' time and took over in P1. It was soon a Ducati 1-2-3 as well, with Zarco going 0.199s behind Miller and the top 10 positions chopping and changing.
Quartararo was then glowing the timing screens with red in the opening three sectors, but the Yamahas were losing touch in the last sector as the superior grunt of the Ducatis kicked in. Nevertheless, El Diablo was able to grab P3 to break the Ducati trio apart. Bagnaia then threatened to reclaim top spot but Pol Espargaro’s (Repsol Honda Team) second crash of the day, this time at Turn 15, meant the Italian couldn’t complete his lap due to yellow flags.
In the end then, it's Ducati and Miller who take first blood in 2021 and Bagnaia is forced to settle for second. The Italian makes sure it’s a Bologna 1-2 at the top though, with Yamaha looking good and Quartararo the quickest YZR-M1 rider so far in third. Zarco is looking like a serious contender on the GP21 too and finishes Friday in P4, with Rins going well on the soft tyres – something that bodes well for Suzuki to shrug of their sometime Achilles' heel of one-lap pace – to claim P5.
Viñales and Morbidelli were close in sixth and seventh, respectively, finishing within three tenths of Miller as Aleix Espargaro slipped to P8 at the end of play. Valentino Rossi finished inside the top 10 for the second session in a row, the nine-time World Champion taking ninth, and Pol Espargaro grabbed a vital P10 despite his late tumble. Two crashes in one day aren’t what HRC’s new recruit would have been looking for, but the number 44 has some good speed.
Reigning World Champion Joan Mir (Team Suzuki Ecstar) misses out on what could prove to be a crucial top 10 place as his title defence begins, but the gap could hardly be smaller: just 0.013s. With the cooler evening temperatures allowing the riders to set their best times of the day compared to when the sun was beating down in FP1 though, the same could well happen again in FP3 – so will an automatic place in Q2 be a struggle for Mir?
MotoGP™ really has returned with a bang in 2021 as 16 riders finish within a second on the opening day, a fantastic way to welcome back Grand Prix motorcycle racing. 15:15 local time (GMT+3) on Saturday afternoon is when the premier class will be back on track for FP3 and the provisional places in Q2 will be confirmed, so make sure to tune in and come back for the first qualifying shootout of the season from 19:20.