Can the 2021 MotoGP season match the weirdness and wildness of 2020? The circumstances are different, but the path which led to Qatar 2021 has laid the groundwork for another fascinating year.
2021 sees two trends colliding to create (we hope) a perfect storm. There is the long-term strategy set out after the Global Financial Crisis of 2008 by Dorna CEO Carmelo Ezpeleta, with support and backing from the many bright minds in Dorna and IRTA. After Kawasaki officially withdrew at the end of 2008, and Honda came within a couple of board meetings of pulling out of MotoGP, Dorna threw their weight behind the teams.
With the grid dwindling (Suzuki pulled out at the end of 2011, after being down to a single rider), the MotoGP class was switched back to a maximum engine capacity of 1000cc, and four cylinders, while the CRT class was introduced as a second tier inside the premier class. Payments to teams were gradually increased, and over time, Dorna, with the backing of the teams, pushed through restrictions on electronics, introducing a spec ECU and then spec software to run it, and a price cap on satellite machines.
The CRT became the Open class, and eventually morphed into the Concessions system, which sees factories which haven't been successful get more engines, the freedom to develop, and more testing. Add to that the switch to Michelin tires, which were easier for riders to get their heads around than the Bridgestones, which required blind faith and a complete lack of fear.
As a result of all these changes, manufacturers started slowly to return. Suzuki and Aprilia came first in 2015. Suzuki returned with a new inline four rather than the narrow angle V4 they had raced from 2002 to 2011. Aprilia morphed from Open class ART entry to factory squad, the bike an evolution of the RSV4 Superbike. They were joined by KTM in 2017, the Austrian factory committing to spending €250 million over their first five season in MotoGP. By comparison, that is roughly what Kawasaki spent over three seasons for just two bikes.
The machine parity on the 2020 grid was unparalleled, and 2021 adds another layer on top of that (or rather, removes another layer). The Petronas Yamaha team went from two year-old bikes to one full factory bike and one 2019 bike in 2020. 2021 sees Honda follow a similar path, with both LCR Hondas now full factory 2021 machines, and the Esponsorama squad now also only one year behind the factory and Pramac Ducati squads, upgrading the bike which Tito Rabat left behind when he lost his seat to Enea Bastianini. Of the 22 bikes on the MotoGP grid, 18 are the latest factory spec.
The Covid-19 pandemic has made the parity among machinery even greater. The engine homologation freeze for 2021 put in place in the early days of the pandemic lockdown, when we had no idea what the future might hold, means that the disparities between Ducati, Honda, Suzuki, and Yamaha have not grown. And with KTM allowed to introduce a new engine for the start of the 2021 season, (though not able to develop it further having lost concessions as a result of their outstanding 2020 campaign), and Aprilia still able to develop their current engine through the season, those factories have had a chance to close the gap even further.
MotoGP embarks upon the 2021 season from a position where the bikes have never been closer in performance. Once upon a time, you could place bets on which rider would be the first to be lapped, and how soon after the start of the race. In 2021, you would get better odds on a rookie winning the title than of a rider being lapped for simply being too slow.
That does not mean that the bikes are all the same – far from it. Each machine has a particular character. The Ducati is blindingly fast but a little slow to turn. The Honda is quick, brutal, twitchy, but nimble. The Yamaha makes up on the corners what it loses on the straights. The Suzuki turns on a dime and is fast enough to keep up in a straight line. Don't ask about qualifying, though. The KTM is quick and can brake, and will turn aggressively, but still struggles when the going gets flowing.
Even the Aprilia is nearing being genuinely competitive. The switch to a 90° V4 configuration brought huge benefits, but a mass of teething problems in 2020. Now, with a year of development and the focus on evolution rather than revolution, the bike is getting better. The aerodynamics freeze hurt the RS-GP last year too, Aprilia unable to switch to the high downforce aero package that would have given them much better acceleration. This year, they can use that.
With the bikes less of a factor in the equation, the focus is more on the riders. So what to expect from the MotoGP entries in 2021? Here's a rundown of who to look out for, and what to expect. For ease of reference, I have divided the riders into several categories:
- The Favorites, riders who are in with a shot of the title
- The Imperfect, riders who are fast enough to fight for podiums and victories, but who have a weakness which is likely to stand between them and a chance of the championship
- The Wildcards, riders who are unlikely to feature in the title fight, but will throw up a surprise or two throughout the year
- The Question Marks, riders whose future is uncertain, and could either surprise or disappoint
- The Rookies, the riders making their debut in MotoGP in 2021.
Every year since he won his first championship in his rookie season in 2013, Marc Márquez has started the season as the favorite to win the title. That was true in 2020 as well, but all that changed in the first race at Jerez. Or perhaps the second race, when the Repsol Honda rider foolishly decided to try to race on a freshly plated humerus he had broken the week before when he crash on the exit of Turn 3 and was hit by his bike as it followed him into the gravel.
Márquez has not raced since, after a long and complicated recovery and multiple surgeries to fix the problem. He will not contest the first two races at Qatar, as his doctors advised that the bone density of his humerus was not yet where it needs to be to race. And it is by no means certain he will make a return at Portimão either.
When Márquez does return, he will not have raced a MotoGP machine competitively for approximately nine months. And he will have to confront any lingering fears from the aftermath of that Jerez crash. How long will he take to regain his former speed? And will he still have the same burning ambition that pushed him into taking risks others simply weren't willing to take, thanks to his confidence in his other-worldly ability to control a racing motorcycle?
Can we really consider Marc Márquez as a favorite for the title, taking all these things into consideration? History says yes, we can and we should. Márquez is still the best rider in the world, and by some margin. Given the current depth on the grid – a case can be made for saying that the 22 entries for 2021 contain the 20 or 21 best riders in the world – that is a quite remarkable feat.
Marc Márquez is blindingly fast, a generational talent, and incredibly consistent. He can win almost everywhere, and when he can't win, he can still get on the podium. Even if he misses the first three races, he could still win the title. He is still a favorite.
The reigning champion Joan Mir must also be regarded as one of the frontrunners for 2021 MotoGP crown. Like Marc Márquez, his strength is his consistency – in a nine-race stretch between Austria 1 and Valencia 1 last year, he finished on the podium six times, and clinched the title with a race in hand. And he won the 2020 title in just his second year, after struggling with injury in the second half of his rookie season. Mir has made impressive progress, and learned a lot by winning the title last year.
There are still chinks in his armor, however. Along with a victory and six other podiums, he had a seventh, an eleventh, and a DNF. His qualifying was modest at best, a problem both Suzuki riders had, an unwanted side effect of the GSX-RR's phenomenal tire management ability. But the price of having lots of tire left is starting from the fourth row of the grid.
The Suzuki is the most all-round bike on the grid, and that makes it a mighty weapon in the hands of any talented rider. Alex Rins, teammate to the reigning champion, is as talented as anyone on the grid. The fact that he finished third in the championship last year despite seriously busting up his shoulder at the opening round of 2020 is testament to his ability.
Rins' weakness is the inverse of Mir's strength. Rins' highs are arguably higher, but his lows are indisputably lower. Where Joan Mir can take a tough weekend and turn it into a fifth place, Alex Rins will finish tenth, fifteenth. Worst still, he can take a good weekend and convert into disaster, crashing out of leading positions. That is something that can be fixed with experience, but will that fix come in 2021?
If momentum at the end of one season is a guide to the next, then Jack Miller is a dangerous prospect indeed. The Australian moves from the satellite Pramac squad into the factory Ducati Lenovo team, where he immediately takes on the mantle of lead rider, ahead of his younger teammate Pecco Bagnaia.
It is a role he is obviously ready for. Miller enters his seventh MotoGP season with a swagger about him. He has learned tough lessons on his way to the factory team, including hard early years on underperforming and difficult Hondas, and the role as test mule in the Pramac team, trying new parts to hand to the factory squad. He already holds himself like a champion; in a sport in which confidence plays such an important role, that is half the battle.
Miller's challenge is to manage the Ducati. Last year, the Desmosedici struggled with the rear Michelin at certain tracks, unable to manage braking and entry into some corners. Miller must hope that with a year to develop the chassis, Ducati have found something to make his life a little easier at the tracks where the bike is weakest.
If we are to judge 2021 by momentum at the end of 2020, then Franco Morbidelli is a fifty-car freight train laden with lead and uranium. The Italian had two wins and a third place in the last four races of last season, and just got stronger as the year progressed. Being outclassed by his rookie teammate Fabio Quartararo in 2019 was just the spark Morbidelli needed to light the fire of his ambition. He trained harder, was more focused in 2020, and it paid off in spades, Morbidelli finishing the year in second place between the two Suzukis.
Morbidelli's main obstacle is the machine he is on. While the rest of the Yamaha riders are on newer equipment, the Petronas Yamaha rider is still on a 2019 Yamaha M1, albeit with a number of significant upgrades, including suspension and the carbon fiber swingarm rejected by the factory riders. Morbidelli's bike is the slowest in terms of outright top speed, but the Italian is also using the age of his equipment as motivation. Being an underdog is a blade Morbidelli has wielded with skill and gusto, and that makes him a favorite for 2021.
That brings us to Morbidelli's former teammate. Fabio Quartararo moves up to the factory Monster Energy Yamaha squad in 2021, with new determination from the promotion. He has used the lessons of last year, where he started off with two wins in a row but still ended up only eighth in the championship, as a spur to address his weaknesses. A sports psychologist should help Quartararo to step up and deal with a bad weekend. If he manages that, he becomes a genuine threat for the championship. But if he doesn't?
Quartararo joins Maverick Viñales in the factory Yamaha squad. The Spaniard was once Yamaha's great new hope. But in his four years in the team, he has reached something of a plateau, an issue exacerbated by the nature of the Yamaha. On his day, Viñales is the fastest rider in the world, capable of disappearing into the distance and leaving his rivals standing.
The problem comes when things don't go his way. Viñales doesn't have a plan B, he is incapable of regrouping and inventing another way to try to win a race. The fact that the Yamaha lacks outright speed doesn't help, nor the fact that it is not exactly a star on the brakes. But the bike only explains a part of Viñales' performance.
Pol Espargaro is MotoGP's great unknown. The Spaniard was frustrated and less than impressive in his first years on the Yamaha, a bike that didn't suit him. He moved mountains at KTM, helping to turn the bike into a competitive machine that won three races in 2020. Then again, Espargaro was not one of the winners on the RC16.
Now Espargaro has moved to the Repsol Honda team, on a bike that obviously suits his riding style, rewarding a rider who is willing physically browbeat the bike. Espargaro was universally named by his rivals as having been impressive in the preseason tests, and he appears to have adapted well to the Honda RC213V. He looks capable of winning a race or two on the bike. But it may take him a little longer to unlock all of the secrets of the bike. The best is likely to come for Espargaro in 2022, rather than 2021.
The bike he leaves behind is in good hands. Miguel Oliveira has moved up to the factory Red Bull KTM team from the Tech3 satellite squad, and arrives fresh off the back of victory at the last race of 2020 in Portimão, his second of the season. He has immediately positioned himself as the leader of the team, and looks every inch the budding champion. But the KTM is not quite where it needs to be to be a challenger everywhere, a fact borne out by preseason testing. Qatar is not a track which suits the RC16, and that will be a factor at other circuits throughout the year.
Brad Binder faces a similar challenge. The South African was impressive in his rookie season, winning in only his third race in the class. His problem is consistency, crashing out too often and prone to stupid mistakes. When he is fast, he has the speed to match any other rider on the grid, including Marc Márquez. But he doesn't always cross the line when he has the speed.
That is eminently fixable, however. To judge Binder's consistency solely by his first season in the premier class is rather unfair. He learned a lot last year, about riding a MotoGP bike and how to manage a season. But he still has to show he can put it all together.
In the factory Ducati team, the pressure on Pecco Bagnaia will increase. The Italian showed flashes of brilliance in 2020, but he also had a weakness: in cold conditions, he couldn't get enough heat into the front Michelin tire to be competitive. He has worked on that during the winter, riding a Ducati V4S on tracks in Spain and Italy, and trying to be quick right out of the gate. If he can master that, he is a factor to be reckoned with.
Moving up to the Pramac Ducati team means Johann Zarco now has the latest Ducati machinery. But being the number one rider in Pramac comes with a downside, which Jack Miller and Danilo Petrucci know all too well. Whenever Gigi Dall'Igna's band of geniuses have a brilliant new idea to test, it is the Pramac Ducati garage that gets to try it first. After all, if a Pramac rider has problems with the new parts, the factory team isn't affected. If the new parts work, then they get handed to the factory team. The risk lies with Pramac, the rewards go to both Pramac and the factory Ducati team.
So Johann Zarco is likely to be faster than he was in 2020, and he was impressively quick on a two-year-old Desmosedici last year. On a new bike, he should be capable of fighting for wins and podiums. But his job is to help Jack Miller win a title, rather than win the title himself.
If Pol Espargaro is the great unknown among the riders of MotoGP, the combination of his brother and the Aprilia is the machine equivalent. Aleix Espargaro is fast, we know that. And the new Aprilia engine in the RS-GP was impressive in places in 2020. In 2021, Aprilia have made a clear step forward with the bike. At the preseason tests, Espargaro was consistently among the top three or four riders.
Can Aleix Espargaro really dare to dream? Judging by the preseason, he and Aprilia might finally get the podium they have been chasing. But the biggest problem they face is the fact that the field is now so incredibly competitive. Even as they close the gap, the group at the top grows larger, the margins smaller. Podiums are surely possible. But so is disappointment.
At the age of 42, Valentino Rossi is riding faster than ever. His problem is that while he has gotten faster in over two decades in the premier class, his rivals have leapfrogged past him and moved the game on. It is to his eternal credit that he is still even in the game, a feat unrivaled in the sport. But the question is whether he can be fast enough to be consistently competitive.
The disadvantage Rossi has is the fact he is riding a Yamaha, and the bike does not have the speed to be flexible. On their day, Rossi and the Yamaha are capable of winning a race, still – money on Rossi to win at Assen is a risky but potentially lucrative investment. The question is whether such days will come around often enough for Rossi to feel it is worth continuing on beyond this year. Ask him today, and he will say yes, he wants to keep racing. Whether he feels the same way at the end of 2021 is the great unknown.
There will be at least one Márquez on the grid at Qatar, Alex Márquez fit to race despite fracturing his foot in a crash during the test two weeks ago. The Spaniard has been demoted from the factory Repsol squad to LCR Honda, but finds a more convivial atmosphere there. The younger Márquez impressed in the second half of his rookie year, bagging a podium in the wet at Le Mans, then following it up with a dry podium at Aragon. His challenge is to improve on that for 2021. The only question is how much better he will be this season.
Teammate Takaaki Nakagami is even more of an unknown factor. The Japanese rider made a huge step forward last season, going from solid mid-pack rider to being a consistent podium threat, even starting from pole at Aragon. But the problem is that though he threatened the podium, he never actually made it onto the box to collect a trophy. And his adventure from pole only lasted a few corners, the LCR Honda rider crashing out on the first lap. On a full factory bike for 2021, Nakagami will be stronger this year. But his weaknesses last year were glaring.
The Question Marks
Danilo Petrucci was booted out of the factory Ducati, a seat that was always only temporarily his. Despite the fact that he has now won two races, at Mugello and at Le Mans, Ducati ditched Petrucci for younger riders, and the Italian finds himself at Tech3 on a KTM. In theory, the bike should suit him, though the difficulties KTM faced at Qatar made it hard to judge. If he doesn't adapt, then he may find himself moved aside to make way for young talent.
Red Bull Tech3 teammate Iker Lecuona faces a similar fate. The Spaniard faced a tough rookie season, thrown in at the teammate. Lecuona showed flashes of speed, but he crashed out too often. If he cannot improve that, and score more consistent results, then he too may find himself in search of another ride, given the wealth of talent looking to move up from Moto2.
Some of that talent may be eyeing the seat at Aprilia currently occupied by Lorenzo Savadori. Aprilia's test rider turned full time entry faces a huge uphill task. The second seat at Aprilia is seemingly cursed – just ask Sam Lowes, Bradley Smith, or Andrea Iannone – and Savadori lacks the experience or, for the moment, the speed to escape that jinx.
Savadori faces the added complication that Andrea Dovizioso may be waiting in the wings. The unemployed Italian is set to test the RS-GP in Jerez, and Aprilia are in desperate need of his riding ability and technical insight. If Dovizioso likes the bike, he might even take over Savadori's spot immediately. There has never been a hotter hot seat than the saddle of the #32 Aprilia.
Finally, we come to the rookies (technically, Lorenzo Savadori is a rookie, but the Italian has plenty of experience testing the Aprilia), and a talented bunch that they are. Enea Bastianini impressed in his brief period in Moto2, picking up the skills needed to ride a bigger bike very quickly. The Italian has the raw talent to get to grips with a MotoGP machine quickly, and could cause a few surprises.
Teammate Luca Marini is the opposite of Bastianini. The talent of Marini is more between the ears, the half brother of Valentino Rossi a more cerebral rider who takes longer to understand a bike. Once he does, he can find the speed. But he is unlikely to be at the front of things right from the start.
Jorge Martin enters the class with perhaps the greatest expectations. The Spaniard was the first to be signed by Ducati, though it took a long time to announce the deal. He is the prototypically talented motorcycle racer, mixing brains, bravery, and speed. The question is how far that talent can carry him in MotoGP. If there is a challenge he faces, it is the mental pressure of expectation.
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