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20 days ago
By motogp.com

Believe the unbelievable: 2021, a title fight for the ages?

After nine winners and 15 podium finishers in 2020, who's your pick for the title this year? There's a whole host of candidates...

Tags MotoGP, 2021

2020 was a strange and difficult year for pretty much everyone on the planet. Covid-19 still shapes how we go about our daily lives but one thing that relieved some of the everyday stresses and worries was how incredible the MotoGP™ show was. To say we were treated to weekends that were crammed full of action, drama and sport at its very finest is an understatement. In a year of uncertainty, MotoGP™ allowed us to enjoy some special days.

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Some of the stats behind last season are quite remarkable. Nine riders won, 15 riders stood on the podium, a rookie won a race, South Africa and Portugal saw debut winners in the premier class, KTM won for the first time in the premier class, Tech3 won for the first time in the premier class, Ducati were crowned Constructors Champions for the first time since 2007, and we crowned Joan Mir (Team Suzuki Ecstar) as the King of MotoGP™ for the first time. Oh, and Suzuki won their first title in 20 years. Not bad, right?

 

Now it’s time to strap ourselves in for 2021’s rollercoaster ride. At the start of every campaign, as fans, we all try to predict who is going to win the MotoGP™ World Championship title. It’s a fun debate to be had. In the past, two, three, maybe four riders may have stuck out as clear leading candidates for the title. However, as we sit here ahead of the first Official MotoGP™ Test that gets underway in Qatar at the beginning of March, there’s a list of over 10 riders that you can genuinely argue a case for when talking about title chances. What’s more, that list might grow before the Qatar Grand Prix.

Reigning World Champion Mir will understandably head into the season as the early favourite in most people’s eyes. The Spaniard was the only rider who scored top marks for consistency in 2020 – he and Suzuki weren’t always the quickest on the road, but they were always one of the quickest.

Fabio Quartararo (Monster Energy Yamaha MotoGP), Franco Morbidelli (Petronas Yamaha SRT) and Miguel Oliveira (Red Bull KTM Factory Racing) won more races than Mir, but the latter was on the podium seven times compared to Morbidelli’s five – the next best. Having more experience and knowing he can now win a title, Mir is going to be a thorn in everyone’s side again in 2021 if Suzuki and the Spaniard bring their A-game to the table.

11 points adrift of Mir at the end of the season in second place was Morbidelli. 2020 was a huge year for the Italian who, don’t forget, was on older machinery than most of his competitors. Yes, in the end this was maybe a blessing in disguise, but take nothing away: Morbidelli shone last season. Three wins and two other podiums saw him finish 19 points ahead of bronze medallist Alex Rins (Team Suzuki Ecstar), and it wasn’t exactly a season that didn’t bring challenges and bad luck for the number 21. 

 

Furthermore, Yamaha won half of the races last season, yet Morbidelli was the only Iwata brand rider to finish in the top five of the Championship. A consistent bike is what Yamaha need to challenge the likes of Suzuki for the title, and with Morbidelli once again on year-old machinery, it could be said that he’s at a disadvantage from the off. Nevertheless though, after a sublime season, Morbidelli is riding the crest of a Riviera di Rimini wave and is as strong a shout as any to challenge.

Furthermore, Yamaha won half of the races last season, yet Morbidelli was the only Iwata brand rider to finish in the top five of the Championship. A consistent bike is what Yamaha need to challenge the likes of Suzuki for the title, and with Morbidelli once again on year-old machinery, it could be said that he’s at a disadvantage from the off. Nevertheless though, after a sublime season, Morbidelli is riding the crest of a Riviera di Rimini wave and is as strong a shout as any to challenge.

The aforementioned Rins will also start the season as one of the favourites. Why? Well, his form – for the most part – while either still riding injured or when nearing full fitness was up there with the best of them. The opening round qualifying crash that heavily injured his right shoulder affected most of his season, at some points more than others of course.

P4 at the Czech GP, just three weeks after suffering a fracture-dislocation in the shoulder, was probably his stand-out ride of the season. Some may rightly argue otherwise, but that was the moment Rins stood up to be counted in the title race, despite riding injured. Notable crashes from podium places in Austria and France heavily impacted his challenge, but his run of four podiums in five races – including his Aragon victory – demonstrated what we all knew: Rins is one of the fastest riders out there. Throw in some extra motivation of your teammate being reigning World Champion, and Rins could have the perfect blend to make 2021 his year.

We’ve mentioned one Yamaha, now it’s time to mention two more. 2020 couldn’t have started any better for Quartararo, who took Jerez by storm: a debut victory in the MotoGP™ class at Round 1, then a second 25-point haul was added the weekend after. 50 points from a possible 50 immediately placed the Frenchman as the title favourite, but his season wouldn’t go according to plan.

 

Inconsistency was the main downfall for Quartararo, Maverick Viñales (Monster Energy Yamaha MotoGP) and Valentino Rossi (Petronas Yamaha SRT). The 2020 bike was sometimes the best weapon out there, other times it wouldn’t allow the riders to fight for top fives on a Sunday. Three wins for El Diablo was the equal-best tally last season, but Quartararo finished P8 in the overall standings, 44 points behind Mir and 31 behind teammate Morbidelli.

It was a similar story for Viñales. Two P2s in Jerez was a solid way to open his podium account for the season, then a slump – like Quartararo – occurred before a maiden victory of the season was cemented at Misano. Title race back on? Unfortunately not for Viñales, who went without a podium for the remaining seven races.

Despite the 2020 campaign ultimately ending in disappointment for both Viñales and Quartararo, the 2021 factory Yamaha attackers are undoubtedly title contenders this year. If the new YZR-M1 is a consistent bike, that allows its riders to transfer supreme qualifying pace into Sundays, then the Iwata factory have an unreal chance at seeing one of their riders claim the crown.

Ducati will have something to say about that though. Across the board, the Bologna brand have had a real facelift as Jack Miller and Francesco Bagnaia take over from Andrea Dovizioso and Danilo Petrucci (Tech3 KTM Factory Racing) in the factory setup. Both 2020 Pramac Racing riders enter the fray as potential candidates for the title, as Ducati place their trust in youth in order to try and return the rider’s title to their trophy cabinet – something they haven’t done since Casey Stoner demolished the field in 2007.

In Miller, Ducati have a rider who was a regular rostrum contender and finisher in 2020. His first victory for the Italian marque came agonisingly close at the Styria and Valencia GPs, but it was a coming-of-age season for the charismatic Australian as he notched up four podiums. Wearing factory red will have turned the pressure up slightly, but there’s no doubt Miller is ready to win on a Desmosedici. And if that win comes early doors, a title charge is on the menu.

Teammate Bagnaia had a rollercoaster 2020. Heartbreak came at the Andalucia GP when his Ducati gave up the chase as the Italian sophomore looked locked in for his first MotoGP™ podium. Then, a crash in the Czech Republic resulted in a fractured leg, forcing Pecco to sit out the next three rounds as he returned to action on home turf. And that return was mighty. P2 while still nursing his injury was a real gauntlet thrown by the Italian, with the following weekend at Misano proving just what Bagnaia is capable of on his day.

 

The only rider who kept Bagnaia honest on Sunday at the Emilia Romagna GP was Viñales. In the end, Pecco tucked the front of his GP20 at Turn 6 and handed his Spanish rival the victory, but those two weekends at the Misano World Circuit Marco Simoncelli were a significant sign that Bagnaia’s wait for a MotoGP™ shouldn’t be much longer. It didn’t come in 2020, the latter half of his campaign didn’t pull up any trees, but make no mistake: Bagnaia, an Italian factory Ducati rider, is 100% a title contender ahead of the season.

So that’s seven riders who have got a well-deserved mention, and we haven’t even got to two manufacturers yet. First, let’s explore KTM. 2020 was the year the Austrian manufacturer announced themselves as MotoGP™ race winners, as rookie Brad Binder and now Red Bull KTM Factory Racing teammate Miguel Oliveira won three races between them. Binder’s Czech GP victory was nothing short of extraordinary, a rookie – in just his third race – blowing the competition out the water to hand KTM and South Africa their first MotoGP™ wins was simply unbelievable. But it wasn’t just a flash in the pan for Binder.

At the very next Grand Prix in Austria, Binder finished P4 from P17 on the grid. The sequence of P1 and P4 would be his best results of the season, but the eventual Rookie of the Year was an ever-impressive figure throughout 2020. Yes, sometimes the consistency in his game wasn’t there, but he was a rookie after all. The fastest lap of the race and P7 at the European GP, followed by a P5 at the same circuit a week later, was a nice return to great form for Binder in what was an unforgettable year for himself and KTM.

 

And speaking of unforgettable years, step into the limelight Mr Oliveira. One of the most spectacular moments of 2020 was the final corner move in Styria – P3 to P1, final corner, final lap. Oliveira slicing up the inside of Miller and Pol Espargaro (Repsol Honda Team) to take his, Portugal’s and Tech3’s first premier class win, on KTM’s home turf, was one of those sporting moments that leaves you staring at the screen with your mouth gaping.

Up until the final race of the season, Oliveira was consistently a top six finisher on the RC16. Seven came his way ahead of MotoGP™’s return to Portuguese soil for the season finale in Portimao, a hugely anticipated weekend for everyone – none more so than Portugal’s home hero. What happened on track during those three days from Oliveira was perfection. Pole position, fastest lap of the race, race win. No rider was able to match the number 88 around the rollercoaster, as Oliveira took a dream home Grand Prix win by over three seconds. Anyone who thinks Binder, Oliveira and KTM can’t mount a title challenge this year is seriously underestimating their potential.

So, we’ve managed to get this far without mentioning the most successful team in MotoGP™ history. But don’t worry, we haven’t forgotten Repsol Honda Team. It goes without saying that eight-time World Champion Marc Marquez is a title contender, but how soon will the Spaniard be fit enough to compete for podiums and victories? Not even Marc Marquez knows the answer to that. Hopefully it’s as soon as possible, because our eyes need to be treated to the sight of the number 93 wrestling his RC213V around every inch of a racetrack again.

On the other side of the garage is Pol Espargaro, who after his best season in MotoGP™ to date, makes the switch from KTM to Honda for 2021. Five podiums and P5 in the Championship standings signalled an excellent season for the number 44, who demonstrated on more than one occasion that both he and the KTM were going to take some serious stopping. Crashes in Czechia and Austria, when he was arguably the fastest rider on track, were the only real downsides to Pol Espargaro’s campaign.

 

Coming mighty close to victory in Styria, the younger Espargaro brother showed that he was ready to win races. Now, at a team and manufacturer who have winning coursing through their veins, the jigsaw pieces are all in place for Pol Espargaro to string a title-challenging season together this year.

Okay, that’s a total of 11 riders listed who each showed to some extent last year that they have what it takes to fight for a World Championship title. That’s half the grid. More names will be thrown into the hat ahead of the season too, a certain nine-time World Champion named Valentino Rossi can never be written off. At 42 years young, The Doctor enters his 26th season as a Grand Prix racer and although he may not have won since 2017, Rossi showed last year – most notably in Jerez and Catalunya – that he still has the pace to run at the front with the young protagonists.

Double 2020 podium finisher Alex Marquez (LCR Honda Castrol) and his teammate Takaaki Nakagami (LCR Honda Idemitsu) make up a powerful Lucio Cecchinello led outfit, while Tech3 KTM Factory Racing boasts a line-up that is the perfect blend of experience, youth and speed in Danilo Petrucci and Iker Lecuona. People may not tip them for a title challenge straight away, but there’s no reason why they can’t be up the sharp end challenging for podiums and victories every weekend. The same goes for Pramac Racing's Johann Zarco, who proved he was capable of climbing onto the podium riding a Ducati last season. Is 2021 the year we see the Frenchman stake a claim for the title now he's found and settled in his new home?

At the end of the day, the riders and machines on display are the best in the world. MotoGP™ is spine shatteringly competitive and if truth be told, picking a title winner before a single wheel has been officially turned in anger this year is impossible. The eagerly anticipated Qatar Test will give us an early indication as to which riders, teams and manufacturers are going to be the ones chasing 2021 title glory. The opening handful of rounds will then really provide us with the evidence we need to suggest who will end up wearing one of the sporting world’s most coveted crowns come November.

As always, you can watch every ounce of every session in 2021 LIVE and OnDemand with MotoGP™ VideoPass. The official streaming service of MotoGP™ offers you unrivalled access to interviews and features as well as all the track action on motogp.com, the MotoGP™ app for Apple and Android, while you can also watch LIVE or OnDemand VideoPass content with Roku TV, Apple TV, Android TV or Amazon Fire TV.

Every practice session, qualifying battle and race, exclusive interviews, historic races and so much more fantastic content: this is VideoPass!

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