The new MotoGP World Championship season is firmly up and running and it’s fair to say it opened with a bang with the two opening rounds at Qatar seeing some explosive action.
Indeed, the two races under the floodlights at the Losail circuit were two of the closest ever with Sunday’s race seeing the top ten separated by just 5.3s (Formula One eat your heart out!) and the top 15 by 8.9s.
As alluded to previously, the results from Losail aren’t always an accurate outline of form for the rest of the season and this year’s races were further affected by strong winds and dusty conditions so it won’t be until the European season gets underway at Portimao next weekend will we truly know who looks the strongest. But, for now, it’s Ducati and Yamaha who have stolen a march over the rest of the field.
Zarco leads the way
Just over eighteen months ago, Johann Zarco’s racing career was seemingly on the scrapheap with the Frenchman having quit a two-year deal with KTM after just half a season. But now he’s leading the World Championship after a brace of second place finishes at Qatar.
The double world Moto2 champion had shone with Tech 3 Yamaha in his first two seasons in MotoGP in 2017-18 but completely lost his way at KTM, a bike he quite simply couldn’t adapt to. So shot was his confidence, he voluntarily walked away from the deal, forfeiting some substantial wages and with no ride on the horizon, his career looked finished.
Ducati picked him up though and having had a solid season last year with the low level Avintia squad he was not only promoted to the Pramac team for 2021 but also rewarded with a 2021-spec machine, identical to the machines ridden by Jack Miller and Pecco Bagnaia in the official factory team.
It’s obviously early days but Zarco, who together with race winner Fabio Quartararo gave France two riders on a premier class GP podium for the first time since 1954, notched up his 50th GP podium finish with second last Sunday and has found harmony with both the manufacturer and his new team so has to be considered a title contender when the European season gets underway.
Despite the obvious speed advantage held by Ducati, which they fully utilised along Losail’s start and finish straight, they still weren’t the best in the twisty sections and it was the Monster Energy Yamaha riders Maverick Vinales and Quartararo who took the race wins.
Indeed, the two races were almost carbon copies of each other, each rider dropping back to the lower end of the top ten in the opening laps before working their way through the pack, hitting the front in the final third of the race and then pulling away in the closing laps.
The Yamaha is probably one of the more user friendly machines on the grid but the riders knew they had to take the lead at the beginning of the lap to utilise their advantage through the technical sections. This, in turn, enabled them to pull away and ensure the Ducatis couldn’t blast by – often without the aid of a slipstream – when they got back to the start and finish straight.
Both Vinales and Quartararo pulled it off to near-perfection on the respective weekends but neither was able to do it on both occasions. Each took a commanding win but each got mired in the pack too, unable to follow their team-mate to the front when a 1-2 could well have been on the cards. Nevertheless, they’ve both started the season strongly and must be pleased with their haul of points.
It was back in 1993 when the first 200mph top speed was recorded by a Grand Prix machine, Shinichi Itoh breaking the landmark speed on his 500cc Rothmans Honda at Hockenheim, Germany.
At Qatar, Zarco took the fastest ever speed recorded to a new high when he blasted through the speedtrap during the opening weekend of the year at a staggering 225mph. True, he was aided by a slipstream but the two races highlighted just how much quicker the Ducati is when compared to the other manufacturers. Indeed, the overhead shots made it almost look embarrassing at times as they literally left everyone else for dead.
Nowhere was this seen more than at round one when reigning World Champion Joan Mir seemingly had second place sewn up after a brilliant ride from tenth on the grid. But a slight mistake at the final corner meant he was left powerless as both Zarco and Bagnaia ripped by to relegate him to fourth at the chequered flag. It was almost as if they had a 250cc advantage!
It will have left Suzuki and co with plenty of head-scratching as to how they reduce that deficit as will Ducati’s holeshot device that again saw them in a superior position. The way both Bagnaia and rookie sensation Jorge Martin took off when the lights turned green was literally like they’d been fired out of a gun. Having advantages in these two areas won’t necessarily see them reap the rewards – success requires the whole package to be right – but the signs certainly look good for the Bologna bullets.
Struggles for Honda and KTM
Whilst Ducati, Yamaha, Suzuki and Aprilia had reasons to be cheerful at the conclusion of the two Qatar rounds, Repsol Honda and KTM found themselves at the opposite end of the spectrum with each taking a best finish of eighth.
Given the closeness of the racing – Brad Binder’s KTM was only 4.9s adrift of race winner Quartararo on Sunday – that might not be as bad as it seems but the truth is, they were never in the picture on either weekend.
KTM, who readily acknowledged that Losail was one of their worst circuits, struggled terribly with the soft Michelin front tyre, failing to make it last the distance in round one. Desperate for improvements at round two, all four KTM riders switched to a medium front, the only riders to do so, for round two but fared only slightly better.
Honda were more optimistic after the first race as Pol Espargaro’s race pace was pretty similar to race winner Vinales’; the problem was he lost almost three seconds in the opening laps so couldn’t make much of an impression with eighth the outcome.
Still getting used to the RC213V, particularly on a full tank of fuel, after just a handful of days of testing, he went quicker still in the second race but so too did everyone else and although the gap to the race winner was still only six seconds, 13th was the result second time around.
Esparagaro will improve without doubt but the return of Marc Marquez can’t come soon enough for the Japanese giant.
Coming into Qatar, Britain’s main hopes lay with Sam Lowes in the Moto 2 category and the Marc VDS rider didn’t disappoint. He was the undoubted class act of the field at round one, seemingly topping qualifying with ease.
A morning warm-up spill didn’t help his cause but he put in a clinical performance in the race to open his account in perfect fashion. The result was the same at round two but it was a lot closer as Remy Gardner pushed him all the way and Lowes demonstrated his skills in a different manner.
Under intense pressure throughout, Lowes didn’t buckle one bit and had all the answers to Gardner’s attacks, successfully keeping him at bay at all times. It was hard fought and he set the fastest lap of the race on the final lap, indicative of how hard both riders were pushing.
Two wins from the first two races was the ideal start to his season and although there’s an awful long way to go, he became the first Brit since Mike Hailwood in 1966 to win the first two races of the season in the intermediate category. Illustrious company indeed.
A new star is born
Former Moto3 World Champion and MotoGP rookie Martin – team-mate to Zarco at Pramac Ducati – took a sensational pole position at round two before playing down his chances for the race, simply expressing his desire to continue his upward learning curve with a top eight finish the aim. It’s fair to say he did a bit more than that!
The Spaniard looked like he’d been in MotoGP for years as he controlled the race perfectly from the front, never putting a wheel wrong as he led for 18 of the 22 laps.
However, Martin wasn’t the main talking point of the weekend, that fell to a 16-year old making his debut in the Moto 3 World Championship, Pedro Acosta, who put in an astonishing performance to win from pit lane in the second race.
The Spanish youngster, winner of the Red Bull Rookies Cup last year, had already finished a close second on his Grand Prix debut the week previous, but at round two turned in one of the best performances ever witnessed.
Forced to start from pit lane due to a misdemeanour in qualifying, the Spanish youngster was more than 11 seconds adrift of the race leader at the conclusion of the opening lap when he lay in 23rd. But what followed was simply stunning as Acosta, and three other riders who’d started from pit lane, worked together to bring the gap down.
After 9 of the 18 laps, the gap had been more than halved to 5.5s and just three laps later he was in the leading group. Once there, it was almost a formality he’d work his way to the front despite his tender years and lack of GP experience. He duly did that to take the win by 0.039s from Darryn Binder and also the Championship lead – a star was most definitely born in the desert of Qatar.
Having started watching motorcycle races all over the world form childhood, Phil Wain has been a freelance motorcycle journalist for 15 years and is features writer for a number of publications including BikeSport News and Classic Racer, having also been a regular contributor to MCN and MCN Sport. He is PR officer for a number of teams and riders at both the British Superbike Championship and International road races, including Smiths Racing, Quattro Plant Kawasaki, RAF Regular & Reserve Kawasaki, Dafabet Devitt Racing, John McGuinness, Lee Johnston and KMR Kawasaki. He is also heavily involved with the Isle of Man TT Races, writing official press releases and race reports as well as providing ITV4 with statistical information.