The VROOM Blog: MotoGP 2021 – it’s time to get going…

 In Blog, MotoGP, News

Photo: Michelin Motorsport

It’s finally time to start getting excited about racing again! I don’t know about you, but I am so looking forward to this season of MotoGP. I don’t know if it is because last season was so thrilling, or if it’s because it provides an escape from the chaos that is the world at large at the moment. I think for me it is a combination of both. I have loved motorbike racing for as long as I can remember (thanks Mum and Dad!) and no matter what else might be going on, all else stops when there is racing on. I love everything about it, I love the rivalries and the friendships, and the atmosphere when we are allowed to attend is second to none.

I do think that in the last year – yes, we’ve been in and out of lockdown for a year now – having an escape has become more important than ever, and for me that escape has been MotoGP and I am so ready to have it back.

Anyway, there has been a fair bit of activity over the months since the season ended with Miguel Oliveira’s spectacular home win at Portimão back in November. We have seen riders undertaking various types of training, team launches and a few changes to the previously announced calendar.

As it stands at the moment, the season will begin in Qatar with a double header. The Grand Prix of Qatar takes place on 28th March and will be followed by the Grand Prix of Doha the following weekend. As usual the races at the Losail International Circuit will take place under floodlights, no doubt providing us with spectacular images.

Following on from Qatar will be Portimão on the 18th of April before May brings us rounds at Jerez, Le Mans and Mugello. Catalunya, Sachsenring and Assen will hold races in June, with the only race scheduled for July being the GP of Finland although this round is still subject to homologation. August and September should see the GP paddock visit the Red Bull Ring, Silverstone, Aragon and Misano before the flyaway races in Motegi, Thailand, Phillip Island and Sepang, with everyone returning to Valencia for the final round of the season in November.

The on-going situation with COVID-19 means that the Argentina GP and Americas GP have both been postponed with the possibility of them taking place towards the end of the season, and the Mandalika International Street Circuit in Indonesia has been made a reserve GP venue – this circuit is also subject to homologation.

Assuming that the calendar stays as it is, we will see a return to many circuits that we missed last season and aside from Qatar we should only be visiting each circuit once.

The winter break has seen riders embarking on a number of different activities, both for training and competition. Valentino Rossi teamed up with Luca Marini and Uccio Salucci to secure a third place finish in the GT3 Pro-Am class of the Gulf 12 hours in Bahrain, proving that they are fast on four wheels too!

Elsewhere we saw Joan Mir and Alex Rins both participating in snowy four wheeled races in Andorra, while many of the riders have also been out on superbikes at various circuits including Portimão and Jerez.

As we enter this 2021 circuit we will see a number of familiar faces in unfamiliar colours, with almost all teams on the grid seeing a change in at least one of their riders – the only exception being Suzuki who have retained Alex Rins and World Champion Joan Mir for a third consecutive year.

Jack Miller and Pecco Bagnaia will remain team mates this season but have made the step up from the Pramac Ducati team to the Factory Ducati team, and replacing them in the Pramac squad are Johann Zarco who spent last season with the Esponsorama team and Jorge Martin who makes the step up from Moto2. The remaining Ducatis on the grid will be taken by the rookie duo of Luca Marini and reigning Moto2 World Champion Enea Bastianini who will team up for the Esponsorama team, although Marini will run under the Sky VR46 colours as Valentino Rossi’s team takes their first step into the premier class.

Yamaha retain the same four riders for 2021 although there has been a shuffle within the teams. The Devil may indeed wear Prada, but with Fabio Quartararo stepping up to join Maverick Viñales in the Factory squad, this year El Diablo will wear blue. Leaving the factory team behind, Valentino Rossi joins his protégé and 2020 world championship runner up Franky Morbidelli in the Petronas SRT squad.

Over at Honda Pol Espargaro makes the switch to partner Marc Marquez, with Alex Marquez moving across to join Takaaki Nakagami at LCR Honda. Pol’s departure from KTM means that Miguel Oliveira gets his chance on factory machinery alongside 2020 rookie of the year Brad Binder. The Tech3 team signed Danilo Petrucci fairly early last season for a crack at 2021 success, and he will be joined by Iker Lecuona who remains with the team he rode for last season.

That just leaves the Aprilia team who keep Aleix Espargaro for a 5th season – he will be joined by Lorenzo Savadori.

I have to say – and I’m sure I’ve said it before so apologies for sounding like a broken record – I don’t understand what goes on within that team. They kept the second seat open for Andrea Iannone pending the outcome of his appeal against a drugs ban (which he lost, and had his ban extended), and placed test rider Bradley Smith on the bike for most of last season until he was suddenly replaced for the final 3 rounds by Lorenzo Savadori. It was then announced that the second seat for this season would be decided by the results of testing in the run up to the start of the season. Basically whichever rider – Bradley or Savadori – performed best in testing would be given the seat for this season. As it turned out, Bradley Smith was absent from testing and the team presentation and Savadori was announced as the second rider for 2021. There has been no announcement from Bradley about what he will be doing this season, although he has said that he still believes he has more to offer in MotoGP. He has been working hard with Claudio Corti to set up ‘Team 109’ – the team will run Yamaha R3s in the Spanish 300 championship, so he will have that to keep him busy until he secures a ride for himself, although quite where that may be remains to be seen.

The absence of Bradley Smith and Cal Crutchlow – who has made the switch to Yamaha as test rider – means that in 2021 there will be no full time British rider on the MotoGP grid. In recent years we have seen the likes of James Toseland, Crutchlow, Smith, Eugene Laverty, Michael Laverty, Sam Lowes and Scott Redding represent the UK in the premier class and with the exception of Jake Dixon, Sam Lowes and possibly John McPhee who are currently in Moto2 and Moto3 it is hard to see where the next British rider to take on the premier class may come from.

Toseland, Crutchlow, Lowes and both Laverty brothers made their premier class moves from superbike classes, with Jake Dixon being the most recent example of how difficult it can be to make the step from superbikes to GP machinery – he fought Leon Haslam all the way for the 2018 BSB championship, eventually finishing in 2nd place but his first season in the MotoGP paddock on a Moto2 bike was a massive challenge. Thankfully a move to the Petronas team last season saw Jake achieve some impressive results and he will continue with the team this season – they obviously have a team in the premier class so ideally Jake would progress there, but that would of course depend on the availability of seats.

Sam Lowes had a great season last year and remains with the Marc VDS team for another shot at the Moto2 Championship – would he consider moving back to MotoGP if he could secure a decent ride or is he happy enough to stay in Moto2? Outside of the GP paddock, I do struggle to see where another Brit might come from. There is the British Talent Cup with the BSB paddock that is part of the ‘Road to MotoGP’ programme; however it will take a few years for the youngsters competing in that class to work their way up to the premier class.

In terms of ‘established’ stars, there are a few options but the Jonathan Rea MotoGP ship has sailed in my opinion – I can’t see that move happening if it hasn’t already. Scott Redding is currently in World Superbike following his successful switch from MotoGP to BSB for 2019 – he won the BSB crown at his first attempt and then spent last season pushing Rea for the World Superbike crown. Could he make a move back to the MotoGP paddock to try again? Only time will tell, but it is a great shame to be starting the season without a British rider in the premier class.

After what was a great battle for Rookie of the year last season between Alex Marquez and Brad Binder, this year we will see four rookies going into battle. Reigning Moto2 Champion Enea Bastianini will again find himself battling with Luca Marini and Jorge Martin, while Lorenzo Savadori also counts as a rookie in spite of his three appearances last season as this will be his first full season in the championship. I stand to be proved wrong here, but I’m not sure that Savadori will feature in the battle for the rookie crown.

Perhaps the most surprising story of the winter was the departure of Suzuki team boss Davide Brivio. Brivio is off to F1 and Joan Mir admitted that at first he thought the news was some kind of joke. While the departure will surely leave a hole in the team, project leader Shinichi Sahara believes that the team left behind will continue to work well – so much so that Brivio will not be replaced for 2021, instead he expects the team to simply pick up where they left off and share the responsibilities between themselves.

Always a highlight of the pre-season is the unveiling of the liveries that each team will run for the season, and this year did not disappoint. While some team liveries remain largely unchanged, there have been some notable changes for the upcoming season. The award for most drastic change definitely goes to Herve Poncharal’s Tech3 KTM team – the bikes that Petrucci and Lecuona will pilot this year will not be the blue and orange of last season, but will be orange and black. And there is a LOT of orange on those bikes! I wasn’t 100% convinced at first but it has definitely grown on me, and you certainly won’t miss them out on track.

Other noteworthy changes are the LCR Honda of Alex Marquez which looks stunning with added blue, and the Ducati of Luca Marini who will run the Sky VR46 livery rather than the Esponsorama livery of his teammate. Reigning team champions Suzuki have added Monster Energy branding as they welcome the drinks giant on board as a sponsor for the 2021 season.

As I mentioned the rest of the liveries have remained pretty similar to those we saw last season and this of course brought up the annual discussion of the Repsol Honda livery which has been fairly unchanged for a large number of years now. Many are quick to brand this boring, and while I am not a huge fan of the livery itself – it is hugely recognisable and as the saying goes – if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it…

The paddock lost one of its own on 23rd of February as Fausto Gresini died following almost two months in intensive care after contracting COVID-19. Known more recently as the founder of the Gresini Team, Fausto was a two time World Champion in the 125cc class, taking the crown in 1985 and 1987. He retired from competition in 1994 as one of the most successful 125cc riders of his era with 21 wins, before his journey as a team boss began in 1997.

The Gresini team secured their first World Championship in 2001 with the late Daijiro Kato in the 250cc class before also claiming the inaugural Moto2 World Championship and MotoE World Cup with Toni Elias and Matteo Ferrari in 2010 and 2019 respectively. They also collected the Moto3 crown in 2018 with Jorge Martin. Team Gresini will be present in Moto3, Moto2 and MotoGP this season and will race on in Fausto’s memory, which I’m sure is exactly what he would’ve wanted.

Pre-season testing this year has all taken place in Qatar after the Sepang tests were cancelled due to the on-going pandemic. The testing kicked off with a ‘shakedown’ test in which test riders and rookies were allowed to participate, giving three of the four rookies their first taste of MotoGP. It was HRC test rider Stefan Bradl who topped the test, with Enea Bastianini the quickest rookie in 4th.

The shakedown test was followed by 5 days of testing for all MotoGP riders. The five days were topped by Aleix Espargaro on what is apparently a brand new Aprilia for 2021, Fabio Quartararo on his Monster Energy Yamaha, Jack Miller on the Factory Ducati, Maverick Viñales on the second Monster Energy Yamaha, and Danilo Petrucci was the fastest of only five riders who ventured out on the final day on his Tech3 KTM.

It was Jack Miller who claimed the first bragging rights of the season, posting the fastest time of the combined test days. He was closely followed by Viñales, Quartararo, Morbidelli and Bagnaia, with everyone down to Valentino Rossi in 11th covered by less than 0.9 of a second. Top rookie in the test was Jorge Martin, who in 14th was 1.3 seconds off Miller’s fastest time. Bastianini was just behind Martin, 1.322 off Miller’s time while Luca Marini was 1.8 seconds off. Not bad for their first runs out on MotoGP machinery – this test was surely all about learning for the rookies, and I’m sure they will continue to improve as the season goes on. Fellow rookie Savadori finished the test 2.57 seconds behind Miller – not ideal considering he has already ridden the Aprilia. And yes, I know I said it was basically a new bike for this season, but he still has more MotoGP experience than the other rookies so you might’ve expected him to be faster than them…

Ultimately though, there are no points for testing and often it is hard to read into the results of tests – we will have to wait and see how the season pans out.

With the test taking place less than two weeks before the start of the season, it baffled me that so many riders made the decision to travel home (or at least back to Europe for those who live further afield) before returning in time for the first round. With the current situation I would have thought that it would make sense to remain in Qatar rather than travel back and forward.

The Suzuki team are the only complete team to have remained behind in Qatar –including riders Alex Rins and World Champion Joan Mir, with project leader Shinichi Sahara stating that this makes him ‘very proud of the group that we are’. The team will remain within a bubble system that means that they only leave their hotel to travel to the circuit, and they will eat in a designated area of the hotel with no access for the general public.

Dorna and the Qatar government have also worked to provide the Pfizer vaccine to members of the paddock, with the first doses having already been administered to those who requested it. Second doses will follow.

So, as the season starts this week the question on the lips of many a race fan will be who will win the MotoGP crown in 2021? Honestly, I have no idea! I know who I would like to win it, and I do have some thoughts on who might be in with a chance.

I would really like to see Franky Morbidelli become MotoGP Champion this year, and I do think he is in with a good chance – he came second to Joan Mir last year and he will be remaining on the same bike with the same team this season. In his own words, Franky knows he starts the season with the opportunity to win, but he is under no illusions that it will be easy:

“I don’t forget that I am a satellite rider, I need to focus on results. I want to start with the knowledge that I can win the championship because last year I was really close to that, but MotoGP is a jungle and is full of angry animals so it is going to be a tough battle.”

I love his description of MotoGP being full of angry animals, because for all that most of them seem to be lovely guys when the visor comes down being nice doesn’t get you anywhere!

Others that I think will start the season as possible title contenders are Jack Miller – he has grown as a rider over the last few seasons and he thoroughly deserves his shot on the factory Ducati, if he starts this year as he finished 2020 he will be one to watch.

Pol Espargaro has made the switch to Repsol Honda and looks to have taken to the bike quite well – it has been a long time since Marc Marquez has faced any real competition from the other side of that garage, could Pol be the man to do that? Maybe!

Over at Yamaha, Maverick Viñales and Fabio Quartararo will both consider themselves to be title contenders, and so would I. they both had solid starts to 2020, with Fabio winning the first two races, but they were unable to remain consistent for the full season and as Joan Mir proved consistency can be vital in this game.

Alex Rins had a strong season in 2020, finishing 3rd overall despite a shoulder injury that caused him to miss the first race of the season and no doubt hampered his performance in the early races – he could certainly mount a serious bid for the title in 2021.

None of these names are set in stone, and considering that last season saw nine race winners and 15 podium finishers it would be remiss of me not to at least name check some others who may just spring a surprise in the fight for the 2021 championship. So in no particular order; Alex Marquez, Miguel Oliveira, Brad Binder, Pecco Bagnaia and of course you must never write off Valentino Rossi. Who knows – perhaps a change of scenery could be just what The Doctor ordered…

Joan Mir will for some head into the season as the favourite – he won it last year after all, and it would be fab to see him do the double! Mir himself says that he knows he may be the ‘man to beat’ for many, but that Marc Marquez will be the favourite if he returns at full strength.

Talking of Marc Marquez – there has been loads of speculation about whether or not he will return to action, and if he does when will this be. We have been provided with fairly regular updates about the condition of his arm, and we have seen him posting photos of his training – first in the gym, and then on a mini bike.

The speculation of course hit fever pitch when he posted videos of himself on board a Repsol liveried Honda RC213V-S last week at Catalunya and Portimão, having been included on the provisional entry list for the Qatar GP. Then on Monday, it was announced that Marc would sit out both of the races in Qatar – the official release said he would miss at least the first race, but Marc himself has posted that he will sit out both races. The decision has been taken after discussion with his medical team who are pleased with his progress following an increase in training, but ‘consider it prudent and necessary not to accelerate’ his return following such a period of inactivity.

I think that it’s sensible to take the time to heal properly and to return only when it is safe to do so – there is no point in returning too early and causing more lasting damage. I do believe if he returns at close to his full strength he will have something to say about who will be champion in 2021.

So that’s it, it’s finally race week! This time next week the first round of the season will be done and dusted and we will be eagerly anticipating the rest of the season. It’s certainly got all of the makings of another great season!

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