The 2021 MotoGP season is at an end. And so is the grand prix racing career of Valentino Rossi, the Italian inducted as a MotoGP Legend the same night. Legend is overused as a word to describe racers, but not in this case. Rossi changed the sport, both directly, by his success and the force of his personality, and indirectly, by forcing Dorna to act for fear of what would become of the sport once Rossi left. The technical rule changes they enacted in the wake of Rossi's switch to Ducati and the Global Financial Crisis have created a thrilling spectacle where any number of bikes or riders could win a race. So though Rossi's departure leaves a gaping hole, the sport itself is in excellent shape.
There is a surprisingly celebratory atmosphere at Valencia for the final round of the 2021 MotoGP season. In part because it is a celebration of career for the greatest icon of motorcycle racing. But also because, unlike previous years, it really is the end of the season: we are not stuck in Valencia for another three days for test. That test always cast a pall over proceedings, no one daring to look beyond Sunday, for fear of encountering another three days of continuous grind, on top of the entire year which they had just passed.
Instead, on Sunday night, the season finishes. 2022 starts three days later, at a different track, giving us all room to catch our collective breath, relax for a moment, and start the new season with some semblance of renewed energy. That respite, brief as it is, lightens the mood considerably. It feels like a weekend where we can enjoy the racing.
The danger with making predictions is that it can go horribly wrong. Yesterday, I confidently predicted that it would remain dry all weekend. That prediction lasted until the end of Moto3 FP1. As the final minute approached, the dark clouds which had been slowly creeping up on the Circuito Ricardo Tormo started to sprinkle the track with rain. Just a little at first, then growing heavier once MotoGP got underway.
The rain stopped during the Moto2 session, leaving the track wet throughout (and giving Sam Lowes the opportunity to suffer a horrible highside and injure his right foot), the cool, overcast weather meaning the track dried out quite slowly. There were still a few damp patches by the time MotoGP FP2 started in the afternoon, though by the end, only Turn 1 and Turn 12 still had moisture in places.
Turn 1 was the last part of the track to be resurfaced, a whole stretch of new asphalt laid down from the start straight through to the exit of Turn 1 in 2016, after the whole track had been resurfaced in 2012. The Turn 1 resurfacing had vastly improved the grip into the first corner, the hardest braking zone on the track. But it had not helped the drainage, that spot taking a long time to dry out.
It is a strange weekend, the last race of the season. For all intents and purposes the season is already over, the championship is done, officially in MotoGP and Moto3, and as good as in Moto2 – Raul Fernandez can't afford to throw in the towel, but he has to win the race, and the chances of Remy Gardner finishing lower than 13th are pretty small. But not zero, of course, which is why they will line up on Sunday.
The constructors' championship was settled at Portimão last week, and the odds of Fabio Quartararo and Franco Morbidelli outscoring Pecco Bagnaia and Jack Miller by a combined 28 points on Sunday is pretty low (but again, not zero), which will hand the team title to the factory Ducati Lenovo squad.
So why are we bothering to race at Valencia? Well, apart from the contractual obligation – Dorna has promised TV broadcasters 18 races, Valencia has a contract to host a grand prix, and sponsors have backed teams on the basis of a full season, not knocking off early just because the title is wrapped up.
Why are we here?
Another dramatic day of Moto2 and Moto3 action at the Algarve GP saw one world champ crowned, while another man took a monumental step toward his.
Acosta champ despite growing pains
There was something approaching skepticism with regards to Pedro Acosta in the autumn of this year. The Tiburon de Mazarron’s incredible start to life in the Moto3 world championship had raised expectations to such an extent that a recent run of results in which he scored 7th, 8th and 3rd places in just his 14th, 15th and 16th GPs could be considered something of a crisis.
But this showing demonstrated he had lost none of that spark as he swept to his sixth win of the season to become the second youngest GP world champion in history at 17 years of 166 days old, just one day older than record holder Loris Capirossi, when he swept to the 1990 125cc title in Australia. When it really mattered, Acosta showed the mentality and the brass of a champion.
Seventeen down and one to go. Also, two down, one to go. That is the story of Portimão, in a nutshell. But the raw numbers are not what matters. The most interesting part is how we got there, and the stories that we found along the way.
But before we return to the fripperies of motorcycle racing, something that really matters. On Saturday evening, on the road which runs from the circuit to the harbor town of Portimão, a horrific accident happened. On a section of road which had traffic measure in place to control the flow of traffic leaving and coming to the track, a police motorcycle hit a taxi head on.
It was a massive impact. The police officer died as a result of the collision, and the occupants of the taxi, the driver and a journalist, Lucio Lopez of MotoRaceNation, were badly injured. Journalist Simon Patterson, who saw the crash in his van, and photographer David Goldman, who was driving back to his hotel with passengers in his car, both stopped and immediately rushed to the taxi, which had caught fire. They pulled Lucio Lopez and the taxi driver from the car, just before it exploded.
The right stuff
We like to talk about how the modern era of MotoGP is so diverse. Of how on any given Sunday, you are never quite sure who you are going to see on the podium. Sure, there have been two riders who have stood head and shoulders above the rest in the championship. But races have played out in myriad unexpected ways. A lot of things can happen. And surprisingly often, they do.
Yet Saturdays are surprisingly monotonous, at least in terms of qualifying. So far this year, two riders have taken 11 of the 17 poles handed out so far, with Fabio Quartararo taking 5 and Pecco Bagnaia now on 6. If it isn't one of the two men who fought for the 2021 MotoGP crown, it was either another Ducati, or in one case, another Yamaha. Jorge Martin has amassed 3 poles to his name, while Johann Zarco and Maverick Viñales have one each in 2021, on a Ducati and Yamaha respectively.
(Ironic, that Viñales should take pole on the weekend he informed Yamaha he would be leaving at the end of the year. Even more ironic that Viñales didn't even make it that far, getting himself fired after the first round in Austria.)
You would almost think that the championship hadn't been wrapped up at Misano 2. Friday at Portimão saw Fabio Quartararo and Pecco Bagnaia going head to head as if the title was still on the line. FP1? Fabio Quartararo beats Pecco Bagnaia, with the two separated by just 0.045. FP2? Fabio Quartararo and Pecco Bagnaia swap fastest laps, with the Frenchman snatching the best time in the dying moments, Pecco Bagnaia coming up just short on his final lap.
Dig deeper into the times and it's clear just how far ahead the two riders who fought for the championship all this year are. Both are capable of banging out long sequences of 1'40.4s on new and used tires. The title may have been settled two weeks ago at Misano, but the battle of egos will not be done until the checkered flag drops at Valencia. The fierce but friendly rivalry continues to go down to the line.
We have been fortunate this year compared to 2020. Last year, we had repeat races at five circuits, making up ten of the fourteen MotoGP rounds held. In 2021, the situation with the Covid-19 pandemic has improved to the point that MotoGP managed to visit three different continents, needing to return to the same circuit only four times. Eight races out of eighteen is far from perfect, but much better than the situation in 2020.
Even the repeat races were better this year than last. 2020 saw all five of the repeat rounds at the same track held on consecutive weekends, as back-to-back rounds. 2021 started off that way, with the second round at Qatar held on the Sunday after the first race there. Austria followed suit in August. But the next repeat round wasn't until September and October, with Misano 2 taking place fully five weeks after Misano 1.
As the last of the double headers, Portimão is even more extreme. MotoGP has returned to the Portuguese circuit for the second time more nearly seven months after its first visit back in April. The reason for that massive gap is simple: the second round at Portimão was added in early July, after it became clear that Dorna would have to cancel the Australian round at Phillip Island.
There was some consternation in Austria in August when KTM rolled out a wheel cover for the rear wheel of the KTM RC4 on the Red Bull KTM Ajo bikes of Pedro Acosta and Jaume Masia. Despite the strict technical rules in Moto3, the specter of aerodynamics has reared its ugly head.
Naturally, this advance could not go unanswered by KTM's only technical rival in Moto3. At Aragon, the Hondas of the Leopard squad – the most technically advanced of the Honda Moto3 teams – also sprouted a closed wheel cover, almost identical in design to that of the KTM.