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The countdown has begun. After the Official Qatar Test, the MotoGP™ teams and their respective riders are counting down the days to face the long-awaited Barwa Grand Prix of Qatar that will kick off the 2021 World Championship. After a longer than usual winter, the test days at the Losail International Circuit and the reactions of the great protagonists allow us to draw a fairly realistic sketch of what we can expect to see in the first rounds of the season at the Qatar and Doha GPs.
How does each Team Manager rate their pre-season in Qatar?
Inevitably, most eyes will be focused on reigning World Champion, Joan Mir (Team Suzuki Ecstar), and his teammate, Alex Rins. Both come into the early rounds somewhat under the radar following a lowkey Test, where the work around the GSX-RR didn’t grab the same headlines as other manufacturers, despite innovations with the chassis and swingarm, while also having the luxury of testing the 2022 engine.
Although both managed to finish in the Top 10 combines times of the Test, there are still some questions hanging over their time attacks. Not quite being able to match up with some of their rivals in terms of speeds could see them once again make life difficult for themselves during Qualifyings, however, they remain confident of their ability to bring it on Sundays.
Champions Suzuki remain unconcerned by one lap pace
Suzuki's 2020 will forever be remembered for its Drivers and Teams World titles. They narrowly missed out on the Triple Crown thanks to the efforts of Ducati, who were awarded the Constructors’ Championship. Having witnessed the action in Losail in recent weeks, it is clear that this wasn’t a flash in the pan either. The Bologna brand has grabbed numerous headlines and it is no wonder. In the recent Test, their six pilots debuted with their respective new teams and three rookies began to make their mark, experiencing a steep learning curve. Despite the crashes, Jorge Martín (Pramac Racing) stepped up to be the best of the rookies, but both Enea Bastianini (Avintia Esponsorama) and Luca Marini (SKY VR46 Avintia) followed closely behind him.
Ducati in Qatar: 6 debuts, 3 rookies and blistering speeds
The focus will of course be on the first GP, and the ability to bring their testing form to the track. Ducati Lenovo Team, comprising of Jack Miller and Francesco Bagnaia, and Pramac Racing’s Johann Zarco, who is already flirting with breaking the 360 km/h barrier all looked good on their GP-21s.
The Desmosedici was spotted equipped with new front aerodynamics, as well as a different 'salad box' and a front 'holeshot' similar to that already used by most factories, and the changes helped Miller end the Test as the fastest rider thanks to a stratospheric - unofficial – record, outgunning Fabio Quartararo (Monster Energy Yamaha MotoGP), and it tees up the season opener nicely, with the Australian and Frenchman looking among the favourites to take the first 25 points on offer in 2021.
Ready for the thrill! Join Jack Miller OnBoard around Losail
A strong showing at the Qatar GP could just be what Quartararo needs to launch his bid on the MotoGP™ crown, but he will challengers come from the outside, but also from within. El Diablo’s teammate Maverick Viñales was also competitive on one lap, but it remains to be seen if he can continue that form on Sundays.
The Yamahas look well primed to challenge once again, with Petronas SRT rider Franco Morbidelli perhaps the rider who has looked most comfortable on the M1 in recent months.
Viñales and Quartararo feeling "quick and ready" for Round 1
With three race wins and second overall in the Championship in 2020, Morbidelli is among the frontrunners to challenge once again for honours, and he will have the added bonus of riding alongside Valentino Rossi, as the MotoGP™ icon begins a new chapter of his storied career. The evergreen 'Doctor' went from low to high in the Test supported by the new material package, which included innovations in the aerodynamic fairing, the fender and even the chassis.
With the improvement in terms of top speed and its riders consolidating their race pace in the final days of testing, it makes one think that Yamaha have a great opportunity for the perfect start to the season, such as last year in Jerez. The precedent also invites optimism, with Rossi tasting victory four in the desert -the last in 2015- and Viñales also having his moment in 2017. Since then Losail has been red thanks to Andrea Dovizioso's double with Ducati in 2018 and 2019. In fact, we must go back to 2014 to remember the last triumph of a Honda, in the hands, of course, of Marc Márquez (Repsol Honda Team).
"Very positive" for HRC as Pol Espargaro shines at Losail
The return of the eight-time Champion looms over the rest of the grid, with the Spaniard successfully passing the latest medical checks of his right humerus. He has even posted to Instagram, showing that he is getting ready to return, riding a minibike near his home. He heads down the final stretch of his recovery to return to 100% it is still up in the air whether he will return at the Qatar GP, with his name included on the provisional entry list.
Given this, HRC has reason for optimism thanks to the incredibly impressive adaptation to the RC213V of Marc's new teammate, Pol Espargaró. As was presumed, his aggressive style couples perfectly with the performance of the Honda machine. We can certainly expect to see a double threat from the Hondas this season.
Seated in the Top 10 and backed by the good work of the tester Stefan Bradl, Espargaro generated a lot of confidence within his team and gave wings to Honda's 2021 project in the absence of Márquez. Led by Bradl, HRC also tested three different chassis during some very intense days for Takaaki Nakagami (LCR Honda Idemitsu) and his new partner, Alex Márquez (LCR Honda Castrol). All of the Hondas ended up on the ground at Losail as they pushed the limits, although it was the younger Marquez who came out worst, due to a fall that resulted in a small fracture of the fourth metatarsal in the right foot after a violent highside.
"It's been tricky" - KTM review underwhelming few days
Falls have also been present within KTM, perhaps the manufacturer that arouses the greatest uncertainty following their performance in Qatar. The fact that they were not able to compete last year at Losail with an RC16 that dazzled throughout the year paints a rather unpredictable picture. The feelings from the Test doesn’t invite too much optimism, but their own riders have pointed out that the results do not really reflect their level. Both Brad Binder (Red Bull KTM Factory Racing) and his new partner, Miguel Oliveira, come from winning races in 2020 and will try to be competitive from the start thanks to their remarkable knowledge of an RC16 that also features new kit such as a narrower front fairing with 'shark teeth'. In their goal of taking a good bite into the World Cup, they will also be supported by the Tech3 duo, made up of Danilo Petrucci and Iker Lecuona.
Uncertainty also makes an appearance when assessing Aprilia's options for success in the first round of the season. In Noale there is a certain contained euphoria after the strong performances by Aleix Espargaró (Aprilia Racing Team Gresini) on the back of the RS-GP during the Test. It is a totally new machine, on which the Italian manufacturer has placed enormous hope.
RS-GP is "more ready than ever" following impressive testing
The new chassis and the new engine are accompanied by noteworthy innovations in the aerodynamic design, as well as in the exhausts and the 'salad box', not forgetting the inclusion of its first carbon swingarm. After delving into the race pace as well, it remains to be seen how reliable an RS-GP will be on which to lay the foundations for the future. Espargaro wants to amortize his new 'beast' immediately, while his new partner, Lorenzo Savadori, will try to soak up the experience of being a full-time rider in MotoGP™. With cautious optimism, they feel this can be the year we see the best of Aprilia.
With less than two weeks to go until the MotoGP™ machines are rolling again in the middle of the desert, the expectations cannot be higher. Suzuki will open their title defence, although many indicators point to Ducati and Yamaha as the powers to beat in the first round, without forgetting the legacy of Honda and the emotional factor that the buzz around the possible return of the racing giant Márquez.
What about the unknown quantities? Can KTM or Aprilia have their say at Losail?
The possibilities are limitless as we enter into a season in which the outcome is anybody’s guess. What more could you want? Who will draw first blood in Qatar?
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