Another week, another race track. We are a third of the way into the 2021 MotoGP season (probably, possibly, pandemic permitting), and things are starting to move fast. A third of the way now, and in three weeks' time, we will be at the halfway mark.
It is hard to overstate how important this part of the season is. Jerez, Le Mans, Mugello, Barcelona, and Assen are the guts of the season, the foundations on which championships are built. By the time we pack up for the summer break – a long one this time, five weeks between Assen and Austria, with Sachsenring taking place before Assen instead of after, its usual slot – we should have a very good idea of who is in the driving seat for this year.
What makes the triumvirate of Mugello, Barcelona, and Assen key? They are fast, punishing tracks that test man and machine. They are riders' tracks, where a fast rider can make the difference, but they also need a bike to be set up well in pursuit of a good result. There are no shortcuts at those three circuits, no relying on one aspect of the machine to get you out of trouble.
The bike has to do a lot of things well, from braking to turning to accelerating. That needs a good crew chief to analyze strengths and weaknesses, a competent team to find the right balance between them, and a good rider to use that bike between them. If motorcycle racing is about finding the best compromise between braking, acceleration, turning, speed, the Mugello-Barcelona-Assen is the ultimate test of that.
Barcelona has a lot of everything. A long, fast straight, where the bikes will once again aim to top 350 km/h. Very hard braking at Turn 1 and Turn 4, and in its previous incarnation, at Turn 10 (but more of that later). Difficult changes of direction, from Turn 1 through Turn 2, from Turn 7 through Turn 8, and through Turns 10, 11, and 12. And long, fast sweeping corners, Turn 3, Turn 4, Turn 14.
A lot of places to overtake too: Turn 1 and Turn 4 on the brakes, as well as Turn 5 if you're brave. Turn 10, of course, and if you are brave and inspired, through the final couple of corners in a desperate last lap sprint to the line.
The most interesting question for the 2021 edition of the Gran Premi de Catalunya is how the new Turn 10 will affect the race. The old F1 hairpin has been abandoned, and the old sweeping turn of La Caixa has been restored, albeit reprofiled and moved closer to Turn 9, to create a bit more run off on the exit of the turn. It is a much faster corner now, with multiple lines through it, rather than the point-and-shoot affair the F1 hairpin was.
Of course, the reason that Barcelona switched to using the F1 hairpin in the first place was after the tragic death of Luis Salom at the circuit in 2016. That was an avoidable tragedy, caused by not having air fence and gravel at Turn 13, a spot where riders didn't usually crash. Salom proved that you could crash there, and he paid for that with his life.
After the accident, which happened during practice on Friday, MotoGP immediately switched from the MotoGP to the F1 layout, which included both the hairpin and the chicane at Turn 13. In 2017, they modified the layout of the chicane to keep the riders away from the wall. In 2018, Barcelona improved run off at Turn 13, restoring it so that the chicane could be removed. But the F1 hairpin at Turn 10 was retained.
Now, three years later, the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya has finally fixed the last vestige of the F1 track. Gone is the hairpin, replaced by a safer version of the old MotoGP Turn 10, only with more run off. Barcelona is a true motorcycle racing circuit again.
The riders were enthusiastic, many having already ridden the circuit on production bikes earlier in the year. "I was here a couple of months ago, with a GSX-R, with a street bike, and I was looking at that corner," Joan Mir told us. "It looks quite clean, more safe, and it also looks like you can have less trouble in that corner than the previous one. So I like it, I enjoyed riding the bike there."
Pecco Bagnaia was also happier with new corner. "Turn 10 is a corner that from the moment that they changed it, I struggled a bit," the factory Ducati rider said. "So I'm really happy to have this type of layout, because it's better, you can be more smooth on entry, you don't have to make a really strange braking. And I think that corner was always dangerous, Turn 10 with the F1 layout. We saw a lot of crashes there, every time someone was crashing there, they took out another rider. So I think that it will be better, this corner."
New weekend, clear mind
Bagnaia had been one of the riders most heavily affected by the death of Jason Dupasquier at Mugello, not wanting to race and crashing out on the second lap due to a lapse of concentration. Though we move from one circuit tinged with tragedy to another – it is the fifth anniversary of Luis Salom's death at Barcelona – the paddock is already moving on. A huge banner commemorating Dupasquier hangs in the MotoGP paddock, which everyone is signing as a mark of respect. But the grinding inevitability of the MotoGP season means riders are looking forward, not backward.
"On Monday I was already in a better shape," Pecco Bagnaia admitted, having had some time to put the weekend into perspective. "I had accepted that fact, because it was not easy on Sunday, but Monday I was more relaxed at home, and I accepted that fact and I was starting to think where I can be better in that area. Then we had the luck to have another race this weekend, so we can be concentrated just on that race, and everything comes easier in this aspect."
As the oldest hand in the paddock, Valentino Rossi had a little more perspective and, sadly, a little more experience of these situations. "I think that we are good to look forward, also because you don’t have another choice! So I mean, or else you escape, like you run from the motorhome, take the car and go home. This is one way," Rossi said. "Or if you remain there, for me at the end, when you jump on the bike it's dangerous. Always. So you need to be concentrated at 100% at that. Because if not it's dangerous, especially for you."
Everyone was upset by the news of Jason Dupasquier's death, but realistically, the only way forward was to race, Rossi explained. "When the news happened, everybody was devastated, but you have to race. This is the way." A perspective worthy of a MotoGP Mandalorian.
So who is favorite to win in Barcelona? You only need to look back at last year to get a sense of who might triumph. Fabio Quartararo won convincingly here last year, and is coming off triumph at Mugello. He leads the championship comfortably, but he is also impressing with his consistency: three wins and a podium, plus a fifth place he regarded as disappointing, and a thirteenth spot at Jerez where arm pump took him out of the lead. That thirteenth place was particularly impressive and important, saving a handful of points from potential disaster.
Crucially for Quartararo and all the Yamaha riders, the front holeshot device should make a huge difference. It is a very long run from the starting line to Turn 1, as Maverick Viñales demonstrated last year, getting swallowed up at the start and dropping a long way through the field. At Mugello, another track with a longish run to the first corner, Quartararo only lost a single place to the Ducati of Pecco Bagnaia. That is grounds for hope in Barcelona.
In fact, barring Maverick Viñales, who got swamped at the start, all of the Yamahas did well at Barcelona last year. Franco Morbidelli and Valentino Rossi battled with Quartararo for the lead for much of the race, Morbidelli the first to drop back, before Rossi crashed out of a potential podium position. The bike clearly suits the swooping Mugello.
The same might be said for the Suzuki. Like the Yamaha, the bike has an uncanny ability to hold corner speed and turn through the changes of direction. So good was it last year that at the end of the race, Joan Mir and Alex Rins were hunting Quartararo down and Mir was in position to pounce, had the race been longer.
But the Suzukis will not have it quite as easy this year, Joan Mir believed. Apart from the holeshot deficit – Suzuki only has the front device, as they don't have a working rear version yet – the other manufacturers have made a step forward, the world champion said.
"I think that the other bikes improved," Mir told us. "We didn't improve as much as the others with respect to last year, and we have to be really on the limit. We have to go on the limit to get the results. And this can make crashes for this reason. So I think that there's not a big problem with the Suzuki on the front, because I think that our front is not bad. But we have to be more on the limit than last year."
Mir will be competing in Barcelona on his own this year. Teammate Alex Rins suffered a fractured wrist in a freak training accident, crashing on a bicycle while doing training laps around the circuit. Normally, one might feel some sympathy for such an event, but in this case that is a good deal harder.
Bad luck or bad judgment?
It appears that Rins only has himself to blame for his bicycle crash. He was riding relatively slowly, but at the same time, texting on his phone, and not looking up. He rode into one of the vans Dorna staff use while they are putting up the signage for the weekend, and which are a common sight on track when the riders are training, or doing sighting laps on the track on foot or by bicycle. If Rins hadn't been using his phone, he wouldn't be prepping for surgery.
This incident comes on top of four crashes in the previous for races. At some point, you have to ask where bad luck ends and poor judgment commences. In the case of Rins' race crashes, that is hard to say. In the case of this accident, the evidence is pretty damning.
The crash leaves Rins with another zero to his name. After losing out thanks to crashes in the last four races, he won't even line up on the grid on Sunday. Rins appears to be working hard to leave himself with as little chance as possible of winning the title in 2021. He will have to focus his efforts on 2022 instead. Suzuki will not replace him this weekend, Sylvain Guintoli only stepping in to replace him at the test on Monday.
Rins is not the only rider with a curious start to the weekend. Maverick Viñales' Barcelona Grand Prix started off with the news that he had parted ways with his crew chief. The press release stated that it had been by mutual consent, but Viñales gave a rather more muddled version of events.
"Basically, from three or four races ago I wasn't feeling good, I didn't feel the maximum potential," Viñales said. "So basically I was talking a lot with Yamaha, and Yamaha decided to face this with another strategy, which was to change the crew chief. And I believe in Yamaha. Honestly, I have a very good relationship with Esteban, and I have a lot of confidence in him, but Yamaha always try to give me the best, so we will see."
It is the second time he has swapped crew chiefs in his five seasons with Yamaha. He dropped Ramon Forcada at the end of 2018, his second season in the class, and asked for Esteban Garcia to be brought in, as the crew chief he knew well and who had won the Moto3 championship with him in 2013. Now, just over two years later, Garcia is gone, making way for Silvano Galbusera, crew chief for Yamaha's test team for the past few years since Valentino Rossi dropped him in favor of David Muñoz.
Did Viñales demand that Garcia be sacked, or did Garcia walk out? Did Yamaha decide to swap Garcia for Galbusera in an attempt to improve the performance of Viñales? It is impossible to know at the moment, though Viñales made his side of the argument clear. "I think it's a totally different story," the Spaniard said.
"Basically I think Yamaha tried to find a different strategy, because sometimes for me it was difficult to find a good setting on the bike, a good balance, and for the last 4 races I've been very fast in FP1 and then gone backwards all weekend. The only thing that Yamaha want is to provide me with the best, and try to give me the maximum. I think that's why they forced to make this change."
The timing of the change is certainly curious, though Ducati rider Jack Miller refused to be drawn on it. He did emphasize that he found the timing of the move curious, though. "It changes a fair bit; it’s the heart and soul of your team right there," Miller said about the decision to change a crew chief. "At the end of the day it’s his decision and I’ve said it before: opinions are like ****holes, everyone’s got one. Mine doesn’t mean nothing. At the end of the day if he wasn’t feeling it then it was his choice and you have to respect that. It’s a tough one for me to change like that in the middle of the season but maybe it’s what he needs and power to him. It’s a big thing."
The Ducatis face this round with some optimism, having been strong last year and improved in the early part of this season. "We’ll wait and see how the Yamahas are going here, but the GP21 is definitely the best one we have had so far and here should be a place it works well," Miller said. "Mugello has never been my happiest of hunting ground so I’m happy with the sixth there and I’m hoping to be up there from the start this weekend."
The KTMs, too, should be competitive at Barcelona, coming off a strong weekend at Mugello. "The track is quite different to Mugello for sure but one positive thing is that I remember our bike being really good here last year," Brad Binder told us. "Three of the four KTMs were in the Q2 and both sessions were really strong, so it is a track that really suits our bike well and I’m really excited to see what we can do here now we have our updates."
The new chassis proved to be a big step forward at Mugello, and the switch to synthetic fuel gave improved power and acceleration. "Regardless of the layout of the track I believe we will be much stronger from here on out."
Honda, on the other hand, do not expect too much from this weekend. Marc Márquez continues to struggle as he slowly recovers from the humerus he broke at Jerez last summer, the problems now being caused by his shoulder. "Since I came back it has been difficult to understand what’s going on in the track and on the bike," the Repsol Honda rider said. "I mean, I started a little bit with the setup or with the new items that Honda and all of the riders made last year but then I was riding the bike and I didn’t understand anything. I come back to my standard bike, the bike that I race in 2020 in Jerez. It was better, but still I didn’t understand."
Márquez' problem is that he can only really push for five laps, before the best of his shoulder wears off. As he loses strength from his shoulder, he adapts his riding, and that upsets the balance of the bike, Márquez explained. He and his crew would end up running in circles chasing a moving target as they tried to adapt a bike to his changing strength and body. That will likely only get fixed during the summer break, when Márquez has a chance to complete his recovery.
But first, we race in Barcelona. As it's 2021, the weekend won't be free of weather challenges, with heavy rain forecast for the races on Sunday. The race starts an hour earlier than usual, the lights going out at 1pm local time in Barcelona to avoid a clash with the F1 race in Baku. But it's 2021, so you never know what might happen.
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