As always, Moto2/3 delivered plenty of talking points at the Qatar Grand Prix. Sunday’s results threw up a host of surprises and some fine racing. Here, we take a look through some of the big talking points from both classes.
Aki Chose Well
Viñales and Lowes were the winners in the top two classes. But the man with arguably the most to celebrate on Sunday was Aki Ajo. Of his four riders in 2021, two finished second and fifth in the Moto2 race. The other two: first and second in Moto3. Not a bad return when two of those names – Raul Fernandez in Moto2 and Pedro Acosta in Moto3 – were rookies in their respective classes.
As a highly successful team boss and known talent spotter, not every one of Ajo’s past gambles has paid off. For every Marc Márquez, Johann Zarco and Brad Binder, there has been a Nico Antonelli, Can Öncü or Tetsuta Nagashima, names that never quite lived up to the initial billing.
And the latter is worth mentioning. When he was ruthlessly cut from Ajo’s Moto2 squad late last year, it was not only cut-throat in the extreme (Nagashima remains without a ride in 2021); it was a risk. At that time, Fernandez had yet to win a grand prix and still seemed a work in progress. Promoting him to Moto2 alongside Remy Gardner seemed a touch premature, especially when he had yet to master the race craft necessary in a Moto3 brawl.
But standing at 177cm, Ajo recognised Fernandez was already on his way to outgrowing the junior class. He has long appreciated the Spaniard’s work ethic – “sometimes we need to stop him and tell him to relax,” he said last year – and had the foresight to know the height issue would only have held him back had he stayed in the junior class another year. It was an inspired move. Observers had noted how the 20-year old has looked as though he’s been riding a Moto2 machine for years. For five laps on Sunday, it fell to Fernandez to chase down leader Sam Lowes.
It wasn’t just Fernandez’s potential. Ajo clearly understood the ludicrous talent of last year’s Red Bull Rookies winner Pedro Acosta. Making space for the 16-year old Spaniard was a requisite. Yes, Ajo had to be ruthless as he shuffled his pack. But the results at round one speak for themselves.
Ajo’s methods are well known. He runs his teams like a MotoGP outfit that boasts engineers with championship winning pedigree. Total dedication is a requisite. And, as one paddock veteran once told me, if you don’t start returning decent results in his team from the beginning, well, it was nice knowing you and good luck with your future endeavours. “I was working a wee bit with Aki last year so I know how he works,” said Gardner, the Moto2 runner up, 2.2 seconds behind Lowes, on Sunday. “He’s hard. He’s definitely hard. But I think he brings the best out in you. If there’s a problem, it’s just ride around the problem. If it’s a problem you can’t fix, then ride around it and do what you can, and make the best of it. He expects a lot but he provides a lot. It’s a great team and he’s put together a great package.”
Meanwhile Masia showed fine race craft in the final two laps to win a customary Moto3 thriller by just 0.042s. He didn’t once get flustered during the weekend, even when slower than his rookie team-mate. As he said after the race, Ajo’s insistence to ignore the time sheets during preseason testing at this track left him well prepared for the race’s final slog.
“He is a particular guy,” said Masia of his new boss. “A little bit serious. But for sure he gave me a lot of peace, a lot of calm. He gave me the opportunity to work and keep the mind always focussed on improving my pace through testing, without thinking about the fast lap. That work we did before is the result we have today. His main target is to transmit as much calm to me as possible. At the moment it’s working really well.”
Acosta – only the fourth rider in Moto3 history to stand on the podium in his very first race – echoed his team-mate’s thoughts after a thrilling ride that demonstrated he deserved the hype. “The first thing is he gave me the opportunity to be here. He gave me a little bit of calm. He’s a cold man, from Finland! He helped me a lot to be focussed on the work and to be calm.”
In Gardner and Masia, he has riders capable of winning their respective categories, while Fernandez and Acosta can flourish in Moto2 and Moto3 with a little more breathing space. A hat tip to the Finn, who, once again, appears to have found that winning formula.
Lowes composed until the end
Consider the then and now of Moto2’s opening winner, Sam Lowes. Just over a year ago, he was forced to sit out race one due to a painful shoulder dislocation, suffered during preseason testing. It had been over three and a half years since had previously won a race.
Yet things appear very rosy indeed for the Englishman at the beginning of 2021. His calm, measured win never appeared in doubt from the moment he grabbed the lead on lap three. His victory was the first for a Brit at the opening round of the year in any category since Barry Sheene won the Venezuelan Grand Prix in 1979 (and the first triumph in an intermediate class season opener since Bill Ivy in 1968).
That’s not to say this was all straight running. Lowes cut an emotional figure during the podium ceremonies. Not least because of the pressure that comes with entering the event as a clear favourite, courtesy of his stellar testing and free practice performances. A surprise crash at turn two in Sunday’s warm up, as well as the increased wind, provided a few doubts heading into the 20-lap affair.
“Last year, in the end, was a good year for me,” Lowes said. “But nobody was talking about me to do that job. I was coming from some tough years, and no one was thinking I would be battling for the championship or winning races. That was a very different feeling. I was trying to prove I could do it again, and to be fast. Now, naturally after last year and after being fast in testing, people are talking about you (like) you have a chance, or you can be one of the top guys. It’s normal that brings a bit more pressure.
“Obviously, all of us guys believe in ourselves and want to be at the front anyway. But this morning, crashing in warm-up and then with the wind, it was a difficult race. It was a long winter and to come to the first race and win is emotional. No matter how many times you’re on the podium it’ll be like that. It’s winning a grand prix. It’s a big thing. It’s important to me, my life and my family. I was just letting it sink in.”
If you think back to how Fausto Gresini’s team overcame tremendous adversity in the past, Sunday’s result shouldn’t have come as a great surprise. The Italian, who tragically lost his battle against Covid-19 in early March, not handled himself with tremendous dignity after the losses of Daijiro Kato and Marco Simoncelli, two riders competing for his MotoGP team; he, and his squad, somehow found the inner strength to ready themselves for the races that followed those respective tragedies. Sete Gibernau’s Welkom success in 2003, a week on from Kato’s passing, and Michele Pirro’s Valencian win a fortnight after Simoncelli’s untimely death were testament to Fausto’s team.
The first race without the team’s figurehead was always going to be emotional. So, it fell to Fabio Di Giannantonio to honour his former boss by putting in a performance that would have made the double 125cc champion proud. ‘Diggia’ has returned to the team two years on from a disagreement over contract specifics that ended with both parties in court. Preseason testing was far from straightforward, as he adjusted from a Speed Up frame to the Kalex. “Testing has been not so good. We had troubles with a lot of things,” he said on Sunday. “When we came here we focussed just on what is our goal. I’m so happy.”
He rode maturely here. Sitting as low as eighth on laps four and five, the 22 year old worked his way through a group including Joe Roberts, Jake Dixon and Bo Bendsneyder to latch onto Marco Bezzecchi with just a lap to play. A sterling move under his countryman at turn twelve sealed only his fifth podium in the class.
Talk naturally turned to Fausto soon after. “This race was all with my heart. I think Fausto was with me, also,” he told Simon Crafar in parc fermé. Later, in the press conference, he continued: “Sorry for my voice. I screamed so hard in my helmet after the race. I’m so, so happy, honestly. I have mixed feelings because we couldn’t start better. At the end a podium is a podium because here in Qatar I’ve never been so strong. This winter has been so long, so strange.
“We’ve been through a lot of bad things during this winter. It was something unreal. But this team believed in our boss’ goal and our goal. We worked so hard to arrive here as ready as possible. All race I was riding with my head, but most of all my heart. I really wanted a podium from half race. I was pushing so hard. It’s something incredible. I have a mixture of feelings. (But) All of this is for Fausto.”
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