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.
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?
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.)
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.
It has been a fascinating day of thrilling action at the Red Bull Ring. Records have been broken, riders have pushed the limits of their bikes, and the fans – back in full force at last – have added some of the atmosphere that has been missing during the long Covid-19 pandemic. There was elation and heartbreak, a sensational pole in MotoGP, and above all, glorious Austrian summer weather.
Yet it all lacked a sense that it stood outside reality, had no bearing on the actual racing, nothing to do with MotoGP. Perhaps that is the illusion of a return to racing after such a long summer break, the longest in recent history. But more likely, it is because while the fans lapped up the action under the sunshine, we all knew that whatever happened on Saturday is likely to be undone by the weather gods on Sunday. If it rains tomorrow – and it almost certainly will, though the question of when, how heavily, and for how long is completely uncertain – then what happened on track today will be forgotten. On Sunday, it all starts from scratch again.
It is hard to sit down after a MotoGP weekend to write about the racing after a young rider has lost their lives. I have had to do it four times now, and it doesn't get any easier. It merely raises the uncomfortable questions we all know surround motorcycle racing: how do you enjoy a sport which is fundamentally dangerous? A sport in which a mistake risks not just injury, but death?
I have no ready answer to this question. It remains as uncomfortable now as it did the first time I had to address it, after Shoya Tomizawa's tragic accident at Misano in 2010. I feel just as ambiguous about it now as I did eleven years ago. It remains as clear as mud.
If anything, the manner of Jason Dupasquier's passing made the situation even more complicated. The Swiss rider fell right at the end of the Q2 session for Moto3, and was struck by following riders. The minimum combined weight for rider and bike for Moto3 is 152kg. The physics of speed differential and minimum weight meant Dupasquier sustained massive injuries in the incident.
The rear brake has become one of the most important tools on a MotoGP bike. Tech 3 KTM rider Danilo Petrucci explains why
Most road riders use a lot more front brake, while MotoGP riders use the rear brake much more. This is just one example of how the art and science of riding a MotoGP bike has very little to do with everyday motorcycling.
The rear brake is now one of the most important tools on a MotoGP machine, which is why riders use it through 70% of the lap, while they use the front brake half as much (but with a lot more braking force and stopping power).
It was inevitable really. The weather over the first two days of the Le Mans Grand Prix had been chaotic, so why would Sunday be any different? The skies were predictably unpredictable, the weather managing to provide different conditions for all three Grand Prix classes, in itself quite an achievement. We kicked the day off with a wet Moto3 race, the rain stopping early on to allow the Moto2 race to be dry. And to round things off, MotoGP started dry, then the drops of rain that started falling on lap 3 turned into a downpour on lap 4, triggering the first flag-to-flag race in MotoGP since Brno in 2017.
Chaos was unleashed, and a new Prince of Chaos crowned, the former prince brutally dethroned, betrayed by the conditions, and by the lack of strength in his right arm. Such is chaos, and such is the way of a flag-to-flag race. It was fascinating and terrifying to watch, and like all flag-to-flag races, immediately raised a host of questions over rules and safety. And reminded us once again that leads are meaningless early in the race. It's about the full 27 laps.