After several successful days of testing at the track, all of Team Suzuki Ecstar are feeling ready to take on the challenge of the 2021 season. This follows the decision to stay in Qatar for the whole break period between the tests and races, as a matter of safe-guarding to lower the risk of Covid-19 infection.
Spain’s Joan Mir (pictured here) comes into the first race as the defending champion (set for Sunday, but Monday morning NZ time), having taken the crown in emphatic style last November, but the Mallorcan is not taking anything for granted in the title chase and he is aware of the challenges ahead.
However, he is feeling strong and well prepared after a winter of physical training. In 2019, when Mir debuted with Team Suzuki Ecstar in Qatar, he managed a very impressive eighth place; he also won at the circuit in 2017 when riding in Moto3.
His Suzuki team-mate Alex Rins returns at full fitness for the start of the season, after shoulder problems dogged him throughout 2020. Despite this, Rins still achieved a great third place in the championship standings, behind Italian Franco Morbidelli.
Like his team-mate, Rins’ off-season has been a successful one, and he is fresh and ready for his fifth season in the top class. In 2019 he took fourth in a hard-fought race at the Qatari circuit.
Losail, on the outskirts of Qatar’s capital of Doha, is a unique circuit due to its desert location and spectacular night time racing. The bright lights illuminating the track have become synonymous with a thrilling start to the season since 2007.
Doha hosts both the first and second Grands Prix of the season and Losail also opened its doors for all the official winter test days this year, so we’re not heading in blind, but we are heading in primed.
Australian Jack Miller (Ducati Lenovo Team) arrives with the biggest target on his back, flanked by a flotilla of Yamahas as the testing timesheets saw the Aussie and his team-mate Francesco Bagnaia bookend a top five reigned by Ducati and Yamaha. But there’s more to racing than one lap speed …
Miller will definitely be one to watch as the lights go out, however, as will Bagnaia. Both are full factory this season and the pressure is certainly greater, but so too are the performances we’ve seen so far. Losail has also seen the Borgo Panigale factory enjoy some serious success of late, and the stage is set for the Bologna bullets to start the season where they’ll wish to go on: the front.
That’s not forgetting the likes of Johann Zarco either as the Frenchman moves to Pramac Racing and has ever more experience with the Italian machine, also proving his mettle in testing. The holeshot heroes have some serious top speed and three experienced riders who look ready, on paper, to get straight in the mix.
The timesheets in testing were far from a one-trick pony though. Three Yamahas ended the test within less than a tenth and a half of Miller at the top: Maverick Viñales (Monster Energy Yamaha MotoGP), Fabio Quartararo (Monster Energy Yamaha MotoGP) and last year’s Championship runner up Franco Morbidelli (Petronas Yamaha SRT).
Viñales starts the year settled in, Rome-born Morbidelli likewise. Quartararo switches to the factory Yamaha squad, but seems to have immediately found his footing.
So too has nine-time World Champion Valentino Rossi (Petronas Yamaha SRT) as the legendary Italian – never one to push for a stunner in testing but still near the top ten – was full of enthusiasm after the five days on track that prefaced the season.
After a 2020 of highs and lows for the Iwata marque, and Ducati to an extent, are the two factories who took testing by the horns the two who arrive into the first Grand Prix ready to do the same in race trim?
Just behind them, sixth in testing saw Aprilia come to the fore. Aleix Espargaro (Aprilia Racing Team Gresini) put the Noale factory’s nearly all-new bike right up there every time he went out on track, and increasing expectation has so far been backed up by ever-increasing pace. What can the number 41 do once the lights go out? With team-mate Lorenzo Savadori coming back from injury and also a rookie, Espargaro is the man in the spotlight for the new bike as racing gets underway in earnest. We’ve seen flashes of brilliance, but the 2021 aim for Aprilia will be to sustain that.
While the Repsol Honda Team will have to wait a while longer before theiur multi-time former MotoGP champion Marc Marquez returns from injury, Spain’s Pol Espargaro has joined the fold and, after an impressive trajectory over the past couple of seasons, he began 2021 with an impressively quick adaptation to the Honda.
Fast and fast often, the Spaniard was tenth overall in testing and could be a dark horse for much further forward as the race weekend begins, with each session of track time only giving him more experience of his new bike and team. Premier class podium finisher? Check. Race winner is the next goal.
LCR Honda Idemitsu’s Takaaki Nakagami will be hoping to move forward too after a slightly more muted test, as both he and new team-mate Alex Marquez (LCR Honda Castrol) suffered a few crashes – the latter also injuring his foot but ready to head back out for Round 1. Both fought for podiums last year and Alex Marquez successfully, as a rookie no less, so they’ll want to move back up the field to where they’d left off last season.
The Austrian KTM factory ripped up the history books and wrote a few replacements in 2020, with Brad Binder (Red Bull KTM Factory Racing) winning them their first MotoGP race – and his, as a rookie and the first premier class winner from South Africa – and new team-mate Miguel Oliveira then adding two more MotoGP victories for KTM as well as becoming the first Portuguese premier class winner.
Oliveira, now alongside Binder in the Red Bull KTM Factory Racing team, was the fastest Austrian machine in testing, but the two were side by side in P16 and P17. They’ll want more once the lights go out as KTM look to continue their roll of incredible success, but we’ve said it before and we’ll say it again: testing is testing. Friday practice, qualifying and then finally the first race of the year are often a wiser litmus test.
Spain’s Iker Lecuona (Tech3 KTM Factory Racing) will be looking for more this year too as he starts his second season, needing to move up from where he ended testing, and new arrival Danilo Petrucci (Tech3 KTM Factory Racing) will be interesting to watch too as he adapts to his new bike.
The stage is set, the floodlights are primed and the grid is ready to start another rollercoaster season of incredible racing with the Barwa Grand Prix of Qatar. Don’t miss it, with lights out for the first MotoGP race of 2021. Let’s GO!
Photo courtesy Suzuki Europe
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