Pramac Racing probably didn’t imagine how successful their two Grand Prix weekends in the Middle East would be when they landed in Doha. In Johann Zarco, they have a two-time World Champion who is still learning the ins and outs of a Ducati. And in Jorge Martin, they have a World Champion premier class rookie who – along with fellow rookies Luca Marini (SKY VR46 Avintia) and Enea Bastianini (Avintia Esponsorama Racing) – had very little pre-season prep.
Riding the latest spec machinery though, especially in Zarco’s case, expectations are high. In a good way. There doesn’t seem to be a whole heap of pressure on the Frenchman’s shoulders, but rider and team know they can achieve great things in 2021. From the off in Qatar, Zarco was up at the sharp end. P4 in FP2 at the Qatar GP, a couple of tenths shy of Jack Miller (Ducati Lenovo Team), was a job well done. P6 on the grid was decent enough and when the Ducati riders unleashed their superior rocket ship holeshot devices as the lights went out, the two factory riders, Zarco and Martin from P14 were the top four into Turn 1.
A race of tyre attrition played out, with Zarco one of the standouts. The 2015 and 2016 Moto2™ World Champion screamed past Joan Mir (Team Suzuki Ecstar) on the run to the line to claim P2, his second Ducati podium and fastest of the GP21s. Martin dropped back through the pack, but that’s to be expected. A point in your first MotoGP™ race is nothing to be sniffed at as the Spaniard picked up P15, and clearly, it was an outing that Martin learned a great deal from.
What happened at the Grand Prix of Doha is something none of us really expected. Not even Pramac Racing, nor Martin himself, could have dreamt of Saturday evenings action. First, both Martin and Zarco sailed straight into Q2 thanks to top-notch FP2 performances. A first time in the second part of qualifying in the premier class for Martin meant, at the very worst, he’d line-up P12 for his second MotoGP™ race. That would have been an impressive result.
That thought quickly went out the window though, with Martin top of the pile after the first set of time attacks. Watching on in awe, as we always do in qualifying, Qatar GP race winner Maverick Viñales (Monster Energy Yamaha MotoGP) came out all guns blazing in his second run to beat Martin’s time by 0.330s. Three tenths is a decent chunk of time to find for anyone, let alone a rookie in his second ever qualifying session.
But that’s exactly what Martin did. Just before the number 89 powered across the line, Zarco went provisional pole, but a first Saturday P1 since last year’s Czech GP went astray as a rookie sensation landed a hammer blow. Having spent just 10 days on a MotoGP™ thoroughbred, it was pole position for Martin, a result that sent the motorcycle racing world into raptures. Scenes of ecstasy were seen in the Pramac Racing garage as they secured a dream 1-2 in qualifying, the first for Pramac as they enter their 20th year of premier class competition.
“It’s a great start to the year, the 20th anniversary of MotoGP™ [for Pramac]. The podium last weekend and qualifying first and second is amazing, it’s really emotional,” said Pramac Racing Team Manager Francesco Guidotti on Saturday evening. Asked whether there has ever been a better day than this for the team in the last 20 years, Guidotti responded: “Hopefully tomorrow. In racing, the best result is always the next one, so tomorrow, let’s try to do a great race.”
24 hours later, the closest ever top 10 and closest ever top 15 race unfolded in Doha. Ahead of the start, many predicted Martin would naturally fade backwards from pole position as the pack of hungry wolves behind flexed their more experienced muscles. But it became apparent from quite early on that this wasn’t going to be the case.
Martin and Zarco got perfect getaways from the front row and led into Turn 1. As a ferocious dogfight ignited behind, Martin looked like a seasoned veteran as he set the pace holding the race leading baton. Tucked in behind, Zarco was able to fend off a hard-charging Alex Rins (Team Suzuki Ecstar) and looked content in P2, with the factory Ducatis of Miller and Francesco Bagnaia (Ducati Lenovo Team) having a tougher time of things entangled in the pack.
Amazingly, it wasn’t until five laps to go where Martin first saw another bike come past him. Fabio Quartararo (Monster Energy Yamaha MotoGP) struck at the Turn 15 left-hander, only for the rookie to strike back on the start/finish straight. Quartararo’s second bite at the cherry did then stick at Turn 4 with four laps to go, and at this point, Zarco was being hounded by another Yamaha showing quality late-race rhythm – Viñales.
With just under four laps left on the clock, Martin had five riders within a second behind him: Zarco, Viñales, Miller, Rins and Bagnaia, with Aleix Espargaro (Aprilia Racing Team Gresini) and World Champion Mir also latched onto the back of the group. It would have been easy for Martin to crumble under pressure, but he didn’t.
Ultimately, nothing could be done about Quartararo in the closing stages. The same as nothing could have been done about Viñales seven days prior. But heading onto the last lap, the Pramac Racing boys – baring a disaster – had sealed a podium as the pack split. Now, it was Martin vs Zarco. Turn 15 saw the Frenchman make his move, clean as a whistle on his teammate, and although incredibly tempted, Martin kept a serene and mature head at the final corner. A P2 and P3 double podium was secured for Pramac Racing, two in a row for Zarco and a sensational first in the premier class for Martin. Again, Pramac had beaten the factory Bologna bullets at Losail. Just like Petronas Yamaha SRT last year, the satellite teams and riders proved they have the power to upset the odds.
In the aftermath, Martin said it himself: “I think today I was really intelligent, really mature.” Absolutely spot on. One of the most impressive factors about Martin’s Doha ride was how at home he looked, how unfazed he was to be leading a race and how, when Quartararo and Zarco passed him, he kept a level head. A true racer and World Champion, Martin wasn’t entirely satisfied with losing P2 on the final lap, despite standing on the podium, but again his words reflect that Pramac and Ducati have a wise gem on their books.
“I’m not happy 100% because I lost the second position with two corners to go. For sure if it wasn’t Zarco, I would have tried [to pass] at the last corner, but he has another role in the team. He’s leading the Championship. So now he has to push for that Championship, and I have to learn and keep pushing.”
And he’s right. Zarco is now leading the MotoGP™ World Championship for the first time thanks to his 40-point haul from the Qatar and Doha GPs. The 30-year-old’s well-documented rise from ruins to ruler in the past 18 months is quite extraordinary, and thanks to his determination and Ducati’s trust, the Frenchman is a 2021 title contender after picking up a 50th Grand Prix rostrum. That last lap pass on Martin would have been an almighty psychological boost for Zarco too, losing to his rookie teammate – no matter how quick Martin was – would have been a damaging blow deep down.
“A positive weekend. A nice qualifying yesterday with a nice surprise with my teammate having pole, and another surprise during the race,” began Zarco in his post-race interview, who goes to give a fantastic explanation of the race and how well his teammate performed. “He [Martin] has been leading all the race and I expected to maybe have a slower pace than last week, but he was feeling comfortable and we went even faster. That was nice because I was feeling good behind him, and I was enjoying it a lot, and the good thing was when a rider overtook me I was able to overtake them again, to protect this second place and also kind of protection for Jorge to keep him leading the race.
“He was so clean, I wanted to keep this pace. It was working perfectly until three or four laps to go. Fabio came, and he was strong. He was able to overtake Jorge in good time, have a gap, and for me the energy was there to try and follow Fabio, don’t let him go. But, I didn’t overtake Jorge easily. He was going fast and overtaking Jorge until the last lap was very complicated where I had to control the guys behind and try to overtake Jorge. But it worked perfectly in Turn 15 and I didn’t expect to leave Qatar leading the Championship.
“I’ve been pretty impressed and even during the race I was surprised,” continues Zarco, talking about Martin. “That’s perfect. Let him go, continue to do this because I know the bike he has and I know the way he is riding, and also I could work a lot on myself so I think the comments we can give to Ducati will be pretty interesting to see if we can make another step on the bike to have a better feeling to go even faster.
“But since Friday, even when it was in the afternoon and very hot, he got a feeling and didn’t do any mistakes. And the way he has been riding it was not like a rookie. Controlling everything, as a man – a MotoGP man.”
Pramac Racing have two phenomenal talents riding their GP21s this year. Zarco is a World Championship leader, with Martin already bagging his first podium. The future is bright for Pramac and Ducati, and the Italian-backed team and factory couldn’t have wished for a better start to 2021. Two men, both brimming with speed, taking MotoGP™ by storm in the desert. Bravo Pramac. Now, what does Portimao's rollercoaster have in store?