Conditions for the two most recent rounds of the MotoGP World Championship couldn’t have been more different with glorious sunshine at Jerez in southern Spain two weeks ago followed by rain and cold temperatures for the French Grand Prix at Le Mans on Sunday. But the result was the same with Jack Miller taking both wins on his Ducati.
Miller had only won one MotoGP race prior to 2021 and that came in his first season in the class in 2016 at a wet Dutch Grand Prix at Assen. He was riding a privateer Honda back then and as quality a ride as it was, it was almost a freak result due to the conditions. This year’s victories most certainly haven’t been a fluke and he’s now put himself right into Championship contention.
Of course, that was the aim and expectation at the beginning of the season whether Miller’s or the factory Ducati team. However, two lowly finishes of ninth at the first three rounds cranked up the pressure somewhat especially as team-mate Francesco Bagnaia soon led the championship.
Issues with arm-pump, every racer’s nightmare, were rectified immediately after the third round at Portimao and Miller’s been on the front foot ever since. True, his win at Jerez was slightly fortuitous due to Fabio Quartararo’s own arm problems but his pace was strong, and he was the one to benefit the most, going on to take an emotional win.
With his confidence sky high, he was quick at Le Mans in both the wet and dry, particularly the former where despite a trip through the gravel trap and two long-lap penalties, he was still quicker than everyone else. There’s still a long way to go in the title race but the 26-year old, who became the first Australian to win back to back MotoGP races since Casey Stoner in 2012, has brought himself right back into the frame.
Fabio bounces back
With wins at both Qatar and Portimao, Quartararo forged into an early championship lead and looked like extending it at Jerez when the Monster Energy Yamaha rider stormed into a comfortable lead. The win looked a formality until his pace dropped dramatically and he fell back through the field to an eventual 13th.
The problem was arm-pump, an issue that has been plaguing riders for more than 30 years. Freddie Spencer was the first high profile rider to be affected back in 1986, the diagnosis of carpal tunnel syndrome effectively spelling the end of his GP career. As times have gone on, the impact on a rider’s career hasn’t had the same long-term effects but short-term it most definitely has.
Thankfully, medical procedures now allow riders to be operated on and the muscles in the forearms given the room they need to breathe with the right oxygen levels reaching the offending areas. In the main, riders can get back to their previous levels but riders with huge scars on their forearms are now a majority rather than a minority.
Less than two weeks after his operation, Quartararo, like Miller, was back on the grid and fighting for the race win. Indeed, if the rain hadn’t come, the Frenchman could well have won his home Grand Prix, but third place was the outcome as he reclaimed the title lead. More importantly, he proved he could finally run at podium pace in the rain and completed his first flag-to-flag race – even if he did pull into team-mate Maverick Vinales’ pit box when he swapped bikes!
Vinales, meanwhile, had a race to forget. Fast in the dry, he qualified in second and was running in the same position in the early stages of the race. But as soon as the rain began to fall, he literally disappeared from the picture and ended up finishing in a lowly tenth.
Strength in depth
Quartararo may have moved back to the top of the Championship standings in France, but Ducati have strength in depth and they currently occupy second to fourth with Bagnaia and Johann Zarco in between Quartararo and Miller, just 16 points covering the quartet.
Bagania has yet to win a race but he’s finished every race inside the top six so far, three of them on the podium, and now looks the real deal, finally realising his MotoGP potential and delivering the form that won him the Moto2 title in 2018.
His fourth place in France was particularly impressive as he qualified way back in 16th place and on the sixth row of the grid. Coming from that far back to finish fourth would be impressive in any race but given the conditions in France it was even more of a statement. He stayed out of trouble and used his head to continually move forward whilst others around him didn’t.
Meanwhile, Zarco got his challenge back on track after his crash at Portimao and relatively lowly eighth place finish at Jerez. At one stage, it looked like he had the pace to reel Miller in but ultimately, he ran out of laps and later admitted he should have pushed harder as soon as he’d switched to wets.
Nevertheless, three second place finishes in the first five rounds is an impressive return and his career his firmly back on track, firmly vindicating Ducati’s decision to hire him and promote him to the Pramac team with a 2021 machine. The dark KTM days of 2019 are well and truly behind him.
Suzuki’s defence of their title isn’t quite going to plan at the moment with reigning champion Joan Mir currently lying in sixth overall on 49 points, 31 behind Quartararo. That gap wouldn’t have been so big though had he not crashed at Le Mans.
Just like 2020, the Majorcan’s been finishing races regularly albeit not on the podium as frequently as he was last season. But, like Quartararo, Sunday was his first flag to flag race and he crashed out on the lap when everyone was making a dash to pit lane to swap bikes and from slick tyres to wet. It was a painful lesson but one he’ll undoubtedly learn from.
More concerning for Suzuki is Alex Rins who’s now crashed out of podium positions in three of the five Grands Prix to be held thus far. With just 23 points, he’s down in 12th overall and his title challenge is effectively over already.
Those crashes have come in the last three races with Le Mans seeing him crash out no sooner had he swapped bikes and left pitlane and again after remounting. The Spaniard undoubtedly has the pace, but the mistakes are proving costly and when he needs to be remaining calm in situations, he’s doing the opposite. He needs to stop the slide – and fast – otherwise his five-year tenure with the team may start to come under threat.
Suzuki weren’t the only ones to come away from Le Mans empty-handed with the conditions, as expected, causing chaos. Aprilia were another team to see neither rider reach the chequered flag but for the Italian manufacturer the issues were technical rather than crashes and for the first time in 2021, they had a disappointing meeting.
It would be harsh to have called them also-rans in recent years, but they’ve tended to be ones at the bottom of the manufacturer standings of late. However, a major overhaul of the RS-GP machine over the winter months, particularly with the engine characteristics and the aerodynamics, has seen significant progress with Aleix Espargaro already only seven points shy of the total he scored in the entirety of 2020.
He suffered two crashes in practice in France and then failed to make it out of Q1, but he fought his way up to sixth in the race and was on course for another good haul of points before the motor died on him just after half-race distance. Team-mate Lorenzo Savadori had suffered a similar fate a few laps before, but the Italian rookie had a good weekend overall as he made it through to Q2 for the first time, which may have silenced a few of his critics.
The team will be hoping the technical issues were a mere blip in their season and will be looking to make a swift return to the top six next time out, Espargaro having achieved that twice in the four races he’s finished.
Ups and downs for Marquez
It’s been an eventful couple of weeks for six-time champion Marc Marquez as he continues his return and build up with both his fitness and pace. The signs are slowly emerging though that he’s getting ever closer to the Marquez of old and a victory was there for the taking in France.
The master of mixed conditions and a flag to flag race, Marquez hit the front almost as soon as the riders returned to the track on full wets and it looked like he’d finally be back on top of a GP podium. But it all went wrong when he crashed out, eventually remounting in 17th. Once back in his rhythm, he was lapping some 1.5s quicker than race winner Miller although only a top ten finish was ever on the cards after his spill.
Even that didn’t come to fruition though as he crashed out again and you could see in his reaction when he got back to his garage that he realised he’d blown his opportunity. He’s still not where he needs to be in the dry but after sustaining several spills across the race weekends, his arm has stood up to the test. Strength over a full race distance is still an issue but expect to see him back on top sooner rather than later.
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.