The VROOM Blog #QatarGP – Victorious Viñales takes first blood at Losail
Well, that was certainly a weekend worth waiting for – the opening round of the 2021 MotoGP season held at Losail International Circuit in Qatar did not disappoint.
Heading into the weekend there was a lot of focus on Jack Miller – he had topped the tests held in Qatar last week and his Ducati had won the last two MotoGP races here in the hands of Andrea Dovizioso. Could Jack win on his 100th MotoGP start? Many people thought so although Jack himself was quick to point out that “the test is a test, racing is so different.”
As this was the first round of the season, we were treated to a live stream of the riders gathering together (although socially distanced) for the class photos and honestly I don’t know why I enjoyed it so much – it’s literally just riders coming out of pit lane onto the grid to get a photo taken. I think the enjoyment stems from two things – firstly it’s been a while since we have had any racing, and secondly it’s a good opportunity to see riders in their new colours with their new team mates before they actually hit the track.
Class photos complete, it was time for the first MotoGP press conference of the season. Present were Jack Miller, Pol and Aleix Espargaro, Fabio Quartararo, Valentino Rossi and reigning World Champion Joan Mir. The riders were asked to predict who they thought would win the Championship this season – four of the six think that Joan Mir will retain his title. Mir did write down his own name, as did Jack Miller who stated “I put myself because why not?” Valentino went for his team mate and protégé Franky Morbidelli.
It was nice to see Mir, Pol and Aleix all highlight Sam Lowes as favourite for the Moto2 crown this year. Other selections were Jake Dixon, Remy Gardner and Marco Bezzecchi. Moto3 title contenders were predicted to be Jaume Masia, Gabriel Rodrigo, Pedro Acosta and Andrea Migno.
It will certainly be interesting to look back at the end of the season and see if anyone was able to correctly predict any of the 2021 champions…
Finally Friday rolled around and there were MotoGP bikes on track for FP1 and FP2. It was Franky Morbidelli who took first blood and topped FP1, with Jack Miller topping FP2.
Qualifying on Saturday followed on from an FP4 session where Johann Zarco set a new speed record for MotoGP – reaching an astounding 362.4km/h, breaking the record set by Dovizioso in the2019 Italian GP by 5.7km/h. Zarco is the first premier class rider to go over 360km/h.
Q1 saw Joan Mir and Taka Nakagami progress through to Q2, but you have to wonder what might have been for rookie Jorge Martin who crashed on a fast lap at the end of the session – he was on course to keep the World Champion from making it to Q2.
The Q2 session was a blistering one, with lap records being broken left, right and centre. It was Pecco Bagnaia who eventually came out on top to claim his first MotoGP pole position, setting a new all-time lap record at the Losail circuit in the process. Pecco would be joined on the front row by Yamaha duo Fabio Quartararo and Maverick Viñales, with the second row being headed by none other than Valentino Rossi alongside Jack Miller and Johann Zarco.
Joan Mir would begin his title defence from 10th on the grid which wasn’t ideal, but he wasn’t exactly the king of qualifying last season either. There were no rookies in Q2, but Enea Bastianini was the best of the rookie qualifiers in 13th, just ahead of Jorge Martin with Luca Marini in 18th and Lorenzo Savadori last on the grid.
Race day arrived and it was windy, which in turn made the track dusty with sand for the morning (actually, it’s afternoon in Qatar) warm up session. Warm up was topped by Fabio Quartararo from Viñales and Zarco, with pole sitter Pecco Bagnaia down in 15th.
Following the warm up sessions, the paddock came together in pit lane to honour the late Fausto Gresini. The bikes of Aleix Espargaro, Nicolo Bulega and Gabriel Rodrigo were displayed outside the Gresini team garage as the paddock observed a minute of silence for the Italian, followed by a round of applause. It was fitting that Fabio Di Giannantonio took his Gresini machine to a podium place finish in the Moto2 race, and that the last Moto2 winner on a Gresini machine – Sam Lowes – won the race, albeit with a different team now.
Incidentally, Sam Lowes is the first British rider to win the opening race in the intermediate class since Bill Ivy at the Nurburgring in 1968 and the first British winner of a season opener in any class since Barry Sheene in Venezuela in 1979!
I had just about calmed myself down following John McPhee (and 2 others) being needlessly wiped out of the Moto3 race by a reckless move from Artigas, and fantastic performances from Lowes and Dixon in Moto2 in time for the MotoGP riders to line up on the grid for the first time in 2021.
The grid this year contains 12 World Champions with 30 GP World Championships between them, as well as 8 riders who were not born when Valentino Rossi – who is heading into his 26th season in the GP paddock – made his GP debut in the 125cc class in Malaysia back in 1996! The grid also sees 3 sets of brothers competing in MotoGP for the very first time – Marc and Alex Marquez, Pol and Alex Espargaro and Valentino Rossi and (half-brother) Luca Marini.
As the lights went out it was Pecco Bagnaia who grabbed the holeshot, ahead of Jack Miller, Johann Zarco and – from the fifth row – Jorge Martin as Ducati took the top four positions into the first corner. The first corner was as far as KTM new boy Danilo Petrucci got as his race ended in the gravel – not the ideal start to his KTM career.
Back towards the front, Aleix Espargaro who had been fifth off the line, found himself being passed by not one but three Yamahas as Fabio, Maverick and Vale all made their way forward.
Lap 2 saw Zarco pass Miller for 2nd and Franky Morbidelli drop to 19th. Maverick Viñales was swarming all over the back of his team mate Quartararo for 4th place.
Taka Nakagami became the second crasher of the race on lap 7, going out of the race at turn 9. Fabio and Maverick were working their way towards the leading Ducatis with Fabio closing the gap to Zarco in 2nd. By lap 11 Maverick had passed his team mate for 3rd and he wasted no time in heading after Zarco, passing him on the next lap and starting to challenge Pecco for the lead.
As Alex Marquez crashed out on lap 14, the Suzukis were on the move – Alex Rins was up to 4th having disposed of Jack Miller, while Joan Mir was challenging Quartararo for 6th as the pair closed the gap to the leading group.
On lap 15, Maverick made his move on Pecco, took the lead of the race and didn’t look back! Joan Mir took 6th place from Fabio, before snatching 5th from Miller a lap later – could the World Champion be on for a podium?
As Maverick began to pull away at the front, Zarco made his way through to 2nd bumping the factory Ducati of Pecco Bagnaia back to 3rd as Joan Mir passed team mate Rins for 4th and began closing in on Pecco and the podium.
With two laps to go, Mir pinched the last podium position from Bagnaia and started to close the gap to Zarco, passing him on the final lap. It looked as though Mir was going to score a podium until the very last corner when he ran just wide enough for both Zarco and Bagnaia to mug him and take the podium places for themselves.
But it was Maverick’s day – he scorched across the finish line 1 second ahead of the Ducatis of Zarco and Bagnaia, with Joan Mir finishing in 4th. Fabio Quartararo held on for 5th ahead of Rins, while Aleix Espargaro finished in 7th one place ahead of younger brother Pol who was top Honda in 8th.
Jack Miller and rookie Enea Bastianini rounded out the top 10.
Maverick Viñales secured his 9th MotoGP win after what he described as a “fantastic weekend” and I really do hope that this is some kind of turn around for Maverick. If we have learned anything over the last few seasons though, it’s not to get our hopes up for Maverick after one good result – hopefully that will change this year.
Johann Zarco’s 2nd place finish must’ve felt like vindication for the Frenchman. It wasn’t so long ago that his career was at rock bottom – mid way through 2019 he made the decision to leave his ride at KTM half way through his contract at the end of the season, but KTM told him to leave immediately and put test rider Mika Kallio on the bike for the remainder of 2019. After Taka Nakagami was injured, LCR offered Zarco a ride for the final 3 races of the season, and while he didn’t set the world on fire he did remind everyone that he had talent.
Last season, Esponsorama Racing signed up the 2 time Moto2 World Champion on an older Ducati. Zarco performed well enough throughout 2020 – including a podium finish – that he earned a promotion to the Pramac Ducati team on the latest Ducati for this season. I can’t wait until he wins a race – I’ve missed him back flipping off the tyre walls!
3rd place was perhaps not what Pecco Bagnaia had hoped for from pole position, but he did say he was happy with the result, and that he would learn from his mistakes in this race – he used too much tyre in the early stages of the race – for next weekend.
Frankie Carchedi – Joan Mir’s crew chief – said on the grid before the race that they had made a change for the warm up session that Joan had liked and it must have paid off as his race performance was much better than the earlier weekend sessions suggested it might have been! Joan looked happy enough when he returned to his garage, no doubt another rider who will learn from this weekend and hope to see progress in the race next week.
Two people who would certainly not have been happy with their results this weekend are Petronas riders Franky Morbidelli and Valentino Rossi. Rossi started 4th and finished in 12th place citing tyre issues, while Franky Morbidelli finished outside of the points in 18th and he was not happy about it.
The usually mild mannered Italian was quite outspoken after the race when asked about the issues that caused him such a poor performance, stating that there was a problem with the bike on the grid and that he knows he isn’t high on the priority list for Yamaha at the moment, but that he hopes they will take the issues seriously and get them sorted. It does baffle me slightly that the man who finished as top Yamaha and second in the championship last year remains on what is effectively a 2 year old bike.
Now that the first race weekend of the season is done and dusted, we have a few days off before the action starts all over again for a second race in Qatar – the Doha GP will start with FP1 on Friday and I can’t wait!