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The SHARK Grand Prix de France was a wild weekend. The first flag-to-flag race in four years was the tip of the iceberg on Sunday as Round 5 of the season threw up so many challenges for the riders, but at the end of it all, Le Mans saw the 2021 MotoGP™ title race close right up.
Jack Miller’s (Ducati Lenovo Team) cool, calm and collected French GP triumph saw him become the first Australian since MotoGP™ Legend Casey Stoner to win back-to-back races in the premier class. Miller oozed confidence in all conditions at Le Mans, and having not allowed two long-lap penalties to get the better of his emotions in a chaotic Sunday battle, a disappointing start to the campaign has been firmly put to bed.
Joining the Aussie on the rostrum were a couple of home heroes: Johann Zarco (Pramac Racing) and Fabio Quartararo (Monster Energy Yamaha MotoGP). In Zarco's case, it’s now three podiums in the opening five races. The resurrection of the Frenchman since his and KTM’s disaster in 2019 has been sensational, and Zarco is proving Ducati were absolutely spot on to take a gamble on the double Moto2™ World Champion. A MotoGP™ win continues to evade Zarco, but he’s speaking like a man whose sole focus is to win the World Championship. In other words, the correct mentality.
Less than two weeks after undergoing a second arm pump surgery in three years, Quartararo whipped out a stellar home Grand Prix weekend. Rapid in the dry, another Le Mans pole position was bagged. But for the second successive time in France, the weather gods would spoil the party for Quartararo as at the end of Lap 5, it was too wet to stay out on slicks.
Last year, we saw Quartararo finish P9 – from pole – in the wet conditions on home turf. It was El Diablo’s first wet race in MotoGP™, so it was no surprise to see the likes of him and Joan Mir (Team Suzuki Ecstar), Francesco Bagnaia (Ducati Lenovo Team) and other inexperienced premier class riders struggle slightly. However, in arguably trickier circumstances, 2021 saw the 22-year-old produce a terrific performance to finish P3. Quartararo himself admitted it felt like a victory. After Jerez’s setback, returning to the podium in such conditions was a Champion’s ride.
Someone else who delivered a Champion’s ride at Le Mans was Bagnaia. Saturday’s P16 result after a tyre choice mistake in Q1 could have been a weekend spoiler for the Italian, who was leading the World Championship ahead of Sunday’s drama-filled encounter. Staying level-headed and unflustered, Pecco was P5 coming out of pitlane as the field swapped bikes. The Italian then dropped to P10 prior to taking his two long-lap penalties, before clawing his way back to P4 by the time the chequered flag was out – less than two seconds shy of Quartararo. A top showing.
Incidentally, the top four in the French GP are the leading quartet in the World Championship as we leave Le Mans and get set for a date with one of Italy’s gems. Quartararo leads Bagnaia by one point, with third place Zarco and fourth place Miller 12 and 16 points adrift respectively. A Yamaha fronting a trio of ravenous Ducatis.
That gem we mentioned? Mugello, of course. A magnificent ribbon of asphalt nestled into the spectacular Tuscan hills, it’s a place Ducati call home. If there’s anywhere on the calendar that Ducati would choose to win at, it would be Mugello. They’ve done exactly that on the last three occasions, thanks to Danilo Petrucci (2019), Jorge Lorenzo (2018) and Andrea Dovizioso (2017). They have at least three riders who will all be craving to repeat the success of their predecessors, all of whom knowing a victory could propel them into the title race lead.
The only Yamaha rider to win in our last 11 visits to Mugello has been Lorenzo. With Ducati’s unrivalled speed down the 1.1km straight going to be somewhat terrifying, Yamaha and Quartararo are going to have to utilise their strengths in the twisty bits to stand a chance of beating the trio of Ducatis that are stalking their every move this year. Ducati have demonstrated their GP21 missile is a bike that has the versatility capable of winning anywhere, so at a stranglehold like Mugello, Yamaha and the other manufacturers are going to have to bring their A-game.
And they will, especially in the case of Quartararo. His Doha and Portugal performances were inch-perfect, so too was his Andalucia outing before arm pump struck. In the dry conditions at Le Mans, it was also looking like a difficult task to beat the Frenchman.
All four of 2021’s – so far – standout performers look the complete package this season. We’re only a quarter of the way through the campaign, there’s going to be dramatic twists and turns in abundance before we crown the World Champion, but the title race is looking as dazzling as ever. 16 points, four riders, the majestic Mugello up next.
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