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Every rider who was fast at the pre-season MotoGP™ Official Qatar Test was quick to play their speed down ahead of the 2021 season kicking off under the lights. However, judging by what we’ve seen on Day 1 at the Barwa Grand Prix of Qatar, most – if not all – of the riders who had something to be cheerful about, still do.
Fastest in the pre-season test, fastest on Free Practice Friday. That’s the story of Jack Miller’s (Ducati Lenovo Team) season so far. Impressive, even if it’s only been five – discounting the final day of testing – days on track. But Ducati, in the hands of fellow factory rider Francesco Bagnaia and Pramac Racing’s Johann Zarco have continued to look rather useful around Losail, with the trio sitting pretty in the top four heading into qualifying day in Qatar.
Losail, since Ducati produced a motorcycle that was capable of challenging MotoGP™’s elite, has long been a happy hunting ground. Andrea Dovizioso’s worst finish on this layout since 2015 has been P2. Two wins came in 2018 and 2019, and so far, the Bologna factory have to be the favourites for the 25-point haul once again.
Miller and Bagnaia were within a whisker of Marc Marquez’s (Repsol Honda Team) all-time lap record on Friday evening, with Zarco under two tenths away from the pair of them. Bagnaia might have even beaten it on his final lap if it wasn’t for yellow flags being shown for Pol Espargaro’s (Repsol Honda Team) crash. No matter, it’s looking rosy in the red corner so far, but there’s another manufacturer who look particularly potent too.
Yamaha finished P2, P3 and P4 in the pre-season test thanks to Maverick Viñales (Monster Energy Yamaha MotoGP), his teammate Fabio Quartararo and Petronas Yamaha SRT’s Franco Morbidelli. Valentino Rossi (Petronas Yamaha SRT) was P11, but the 42-year-old lapped Losail quicker than he ever had.
Fast forward to Friday and once again, the Iwata camp are Ducati’s closest challengers. Quartararo claimed P3 in FP2, the Frenchman claiming red sector times in the opening three splits before Yamaha’s lack of top end grunt cost them on the start/finish straight. Still, all four YZR-M1s look in fantastic trim. Viñales and FP1 pacesetter Morbidelli claimed P6 and P7 respectively, under three tenths from the Ducatis, while Rossi pocketed P9 – less than half a second adrift.
One lap pace hasn’t been Yamaha’s downfall in recent years though, it’s Sunday that has caused some issues. Not all the time, because Yamaha won half the races last season. But crucially, problems have occurred enough times to cause damage in a title chase. It’s going to be very interesting to see how all four Yamaha stars get on in combat with Ducati’s missiles this Sunday.
When we talk about one-lap performance, Suzuki don’t come into the equation. And if they do, it’s not for the right reasons. However, in contrast to Yamaha, Sunday is where World Champion Joan Mir and teammate Alex Rins come alive. Both had a quiet pre-season test but Friday saw Rins sneak into the top five, lapping just 0.236s slower on soft rubber than Ducati’s high-flying riders. It might only be a Friday evening, but this is a really promising sign for Suzuki. And especially promising for Rins.
King Mir missed out on a top 10 by just 0.013s to 10th fastest Pol Espargaro. Finding time on a scorching, sunlit Losail International Circuit isn’t going to be easy for Mir if he wants to avoid Q1. Mir’s test best was a 1:53.827, nearly a tenth quicker than he managed today, so with that in mind, you know there’s more pace in Mir’s locker. We didn’t talk about them much in pre-season, however, Suzuki do look in very good shape for Qatar. They just have to hope qualifying doesn’t come back to haunt them.
One of, if not the great revelations from 2021 pre-season testing was Aprilia Racing Team Gresini’s brand-new RS-GP. Team management and number one rider Aleix Espargaro did a great job of keeping calm while everyone else surrounding them hyped up their chances. After Friday’s outing though, the hype is only going to grow. Aleix Espargaro was the first rider to venture into the 1:53s at the Qatar Grand Prix and although he eventually slipped to P8, the number 41 was only 0.340s off Miller’s time. In other words, close. And comfortably in the top 10.
It’s important for all of us not to get too carried away with Aleix Espargaro’s form so far at this very early stage of the season, but boy are the signs encouraging for the Noale factory. The Spaniard is right in amongst it with Ducati, Yamaha and Suzuki, and isn’t at all looking out of his depth. Testing displayed the early signs of progress being made; Friday in Qatar is pretty much confirming that Aprilia have bridged a huge gap. At least in Qatar. Of course, the big question now is how well can Aleix Espargaro qualify ahead of Sunday’s opener.
Elsewhere, we’ve learned that Pol Espargaro is still finding the front-end limits to his new RC213V shaped toy. Two crashes on Day 1 prove that the Spaniard is pushing, and P10 proves that he’s quick. The number 44 also went slower today than he did at the pre-season test, again showing that there’s more to come. If conditions don’t allow for improvements, then the new HRC recruit is into Q2 and has a good chance as any to find himself lining up on the first two rows for Sunday’s showdown. Without Marc Marquez, Honda are weakened. But Pol Espargaro continues to impress and leads the Honda charge in Qatar.
As they did in testing, KTM are seemingly struggling for pace at the start of the season. Brad Binder (Red Bull KTM Factory Racing) was the best-placed RC16 in P16, marginally under a second from Miller’s time. The Austrian factory have an uphill task on their hands in Qatar, but it’ll be interesting to see what their race pace is like. The signs aren’t good so far, but it’s far from a disaster yet. Landing back on European soil will be the confirmation we need of where KTM sit in the pecking order in 2021.
It’s been a breath-taking return to action. 2021 promised so much in pre-season and after the first two Free Practice sessions, the excitement levels have only been raised. However, Friday counts for nothing in the grand scheme of things. Qualifying on Saturday will get everyone revved up for Sunday’s race, where we’ll then really be able to see which riders, teams and manufacturers have got their packages hooked up.
Tune in for MotoGP™ FP3 on Saturday at 15:15 local time (GMT+3) to see if anyone can penetrate the top 10, before qualifying for the premier class begins at 20:00 local time.
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