Circuit: Losail International Circuit
Journey Of The Jackass 2021, Chapter 1: Top Gun fires the Bologna Bullets
Beginning 3 weeks later than usual, the 2021 season of Grand Prix racing was finally ready to get underway, with 2021 also marking the 30th year since Dorna took over the commercial side of Grand Prix racing, and to think that back 30 years ago the Premier Class was dominated by the gaggle of American and Australian legends like Rainey, Schwantz, Lawson, Gardner and Doohan (Throw in John Kocinski as well), and the European riders had only racked up one 500cc win in the past 5 years.
In the 21st Century at least, it’s been the complete opposite, with Spanish and Italian riders dominating the sport, the Australians being held up by Casey Stoner and Jack Miller, and the American presence in the Premier Class becoming all but extinct.
Of course, there’s been plenty of rider changes from 2020, with every manufacturer bar Teams Champions Suzuki (World Champion Joan Mir and Alex Rins) making a change:
Ducati: Our protagonist Jack ‘The Jackass’ Miller and Francesco ‘Pecco’ Bagnaia were both promoted from Pramac Ducati to the factory team in Bologna, with Andrea Dovizioso taking a sabbatical after 13 seasons in MotoGP, while Johann Zarco stepped up to Pramac Ducati on a GP21, joined by 2018 Moto3 champion Jorge Martín making the step-up from Moto2, and Esponsorama will feature the all-rookie combination of 2020 Moto2 World Champion Enea Bastianini, and Luca Marini in the Sky VR46 colours, with both rookies going around on 2019 Ducatis.
It also means Marini will finally race against his half-brother Valentino Rossi, having been born just a few weeks before Rossi wrapped up the 1997 125cc title, reminding you once again that Valentino is an old bugger.
Yamaha: Fabio Quartararo swapped rides with Valentino Rossi in the factory Monster Yamaha team and SRT Petronas Yamaha, ending Vale’s 15-year run with the factory Yamaha team.
Honda: Pol Espargaro moved to Repsol Honda to partner Marc Marquez after 4 years with the factory KTM team, replacing Alex Marquez, who stepped sideways to LCR Honda to replace the departing Cal Crutchlow (Now Yamaha’s test rider), with Stefan Bradl continuing to substitute for the injured Marc, who will sit out at least the opening 2 rounds as he continues his recovery from multiple forearm surgeries.
KTM: Miguel Oliveira was promoted to the factory Red Bull KTM team on the back of his 2 wins for Tech3 in 2020, with Danilo Petrucci moving from Ducati to Tech3, who have dropped their Red Bull title sponsorship and gone for an all-orange livery.
Aprilia: Lorenzo Savadori, who was Aprilia Gresini’s test rider in 2020 and filled in for Bradley Smith in the final 3 races, was given the ride full time after Andrea Iannone was formerly banned for 4 years for doping.
The last piece of news to hit the paddock in the off-season was the passing of the former dual 125cc World Champion and longtime team owner Fausto Gresini, who had been hospitalised with COVID-19 just before the New Year, and sadly died on February 23 at the age of 60, due to complications to his lungs resulting from the virus.
Gresini had led Gresini Racing since 1997, running teams in all 3 categories, and in that time they enjoyed some great highs, winning 250cc & Moto2 titles with Daijiro Kato and Toni Elias, the Moto3 title with Jorge Martin in 2018, the MotoE title, plus several dozen MotoGP wins with Sete Gibernau and Marco Melandri, but they also endured two serious and tragic lows, the first of which was Kato’s death at Suzuka in 2003, and Marco Simoncelli’s death at Malaysia in 2011, a mere week after he’d finished 2nd in Australia.
Mr Gresini certainly wasn’t forgotten this weekend, don’t you worry about that.
Sir Elton John claimed that Saturday night’s alright for fighting, and that was certainly the case in Doha, with Ducati looking ominous after Jack Miller was fastest in both pre-season testing (With an unofficial lap record) and combined practice in a Ducati 1-2 with Pecco Bagnaia, but firing the first shot of 2021 was the Italian, who shattered the Losail qualifying record to take pole position with a 1.52.772, a quarter of a second faster than the factory Yamahas Fabio Quartararo and Maverick Vinales on the front row:
It was the first time both factory Yamahas had started on the front row since Mugello 2018, with Valentino Rossi starting 4th, Miller only started 5th after a slight error on his second lap, with Johann Zarco impressing on the Pramac Ducati with 6th, Aleix Espagaro punched above his weight in the Aprilia with 8th, the Suzukis of Rins and Mir were 9th and 10th, and the best of the Rookies was Enea Bastianini in 13th, as all four Hondas and all four KTMs missed the Top 10 – In fact, Oliveira in 15th was the best KTM, showing just how much the Austrian bike isn’t suited to Losail.
Race (22 Laps)
126 days since season 2020 ended in Portugal, the Premier Class was ready to rumble under lights, and every rider went for a Soft/Soft Michelin tyre combination, and with Ducati looking extremely ominous, the conditions on Sunday swung back the way of the Yamahas, with a strong headwind down the long pit straight that held up in the afternoon warm-up all the way through to racenight appearing set to reduce the trademark straight line speed advantage of the Bologna Bullets.
But, come the start, the Ducati riders nailed their holeshot devices as Bagnaia led a factory team 1-2 into Turn 1, Johann Zarco was into 3rd, and in a start that I couldn’t even believe, Pramac teammate Jorge Martin WENT FROM 14TH TO 4TH ON DEBUT, AFTER SCYTHING HIS WAY UP THE INSIDE WITHOUT TOUCHING ONE BIKE!
They’ll never give points for nailing the start, but good lord, you’ll never see a better launch from a rookie MotoGP rider.
So the Yamahas copped an almighty sucker punch off the start line, and worst of all was 2020 runner-up Franco Morbidelli, who fell from 7th to 19th, the apparent reason being that his holeshot device became stuck on and ruined his bike’s turning ability for the whole race.
Still, at least Franco was upright, because Danilo Petrucci was sent flying into the gravel only 2 corners into his Tech3 debut after clipping the rear of Enea Bastianini, who forgot to engage his own Ducati holeshot and dropped from 13th to 18th.
The Ducati fleet was broken up when Quartararo passed Martin on Lap 3, Vinales joined him on the next lap, and the French rider was approaching lap record territory, posting a time just 1-thousandth off Jorge Lorenzo’s mark (1.54.927) from 2016, before it came down on Lap 4 when Vinales set a new lap record of 1.54.624, which remained the fastest lap of the race.
Zarco passed Miller for 2nd and closed the gap to Bagnaia, who wasn’t pushing early on to keep some tyre life for the end of the race, but he’d have to skate a very thin line, because the Yamahas were coming fast, as Quartararo also passed Miller to move into the Top 3, and Alex Rins and Joan Mir (Who had fallen to 12th at the start) passed Martin and began their move for the Top 5, as Martin began to come back to earth after that start from heaven.
The second retirement of the race was Taka Nakagami on the LCR Honda, who fell at Turn 9 on Lap 7, and after a terrible Saturday, Miguel Oliveira was riding very well on Sunday, passing Rossi for 10th on Lap 8 as the lead KTM on the track.
Vinales passed Miller on Lap 8, as the Top 5 were within a second, and Rins made it 6 bikes within a second after closing up behind the Aussie, who was beginning to struggle with tyre life after his early attempts at management didn’t pay off.
Vinales looked to have the better speed of the two Yamahas, but he had to wait to find a way through on El Diablo, Rins passed Miller on Lap 10, but the Spaniard ran wide at Turn 16 and allowed the Ducati to fly back ahead, as Vinales made the pass on Quartararo at Turn 1.
It wouldn’t be the last time a Suzuki ran wide in front of a Ducati at Turn 16 during the race…. The next time would be slightly more costly.
At the halfway stage, Vinales moved past Zarco for 2nd place, and it was now the Spaniard known as ‘Top Gun’ who was looking like the greatest threat to Ducati winning the race as he immediately pulled a gap on the other 4 riders, and Miller used the Ducati top speed to pass Quatararo on Lap 12 in an attempt to push for the podium.
Rins passed Quartararo on Lap 12, and Vinales was now breathing fire on Bagnaia, who was starting to feel the most serious pressure he’d felt all race, and with the strong wind, there were times when Vinales was even able to get a slipstream on the Ducati, which is virtually unheard of for a four-stroke Yamaha.
Further down the order, Aleix Espargaro was still kicking along in 8th spot, Enea Bastianini was up to 12th ahead of Martin, Alex Marquez fell on Lap 14 and put both LCR Hondas out of the race, and capping off a horror show for Petronas Yamaha, Rossi had fallen out of the points at the halfway mark.
With 9 laps to go, Vinales attacked Bagnaia at Turn 10, but Pecco hung tough and stayed in the lead for now, Rins passed Miller in the final sector, this time for good, and the longer Maverick couldn’t take the lead, the bigger the chasing pack became!
Even Aleix Espargaro was in there!
However, the change for the lead was going to come sooner rather than later, and Vinales finally got ahead on Lap 15, and after that, it was kick the tyres and light the fires for Top Gun, who opened up a second lead, and all told, he was off and gone!
Mir passed Miller on Lap 16, putting both the Suzukis into the Top 5, and by now Jack’s race was unravelling at a rate of knots with his rear tyre in a state of dismay, eventually dropping behind Quartararo into 7th.
After losing the lead, Bagnaia was bumped down to 3rd when Zarco made a block pass into Turn 1 to try and hunt down the Yamaha, and with 5 laps to go, the only riders who could realistically win, barring a fall, were Vinales and Zarco.
With 3 laps to go, Bagania was having to fend off Mir for the final podium position, although it was only the one Suzuki that could go on, as Rins hit tyre troubles and was passed by Quartararo, who was now pretty much settled in for 5th place on his factory debut, and Miller had now fallen off the cliff Wile E. Coyote style, and was passed by both of the Espargaro brothers to drop to 9th place.
Mir passed Bagnaia on Lap 20, bumping the factory Ducati off the podium after leading 67% of the race, and on the final lap, Top Gun was off and gone to a win of the highest order, his first win in Qatar since 2017, and Mir looked like he was going to finish in 2nd place after passing Zarco in the final sector….
But the World Champion went wide out of Turn 16 trying to ensure the Ducatis didn’t get the slipstream in the run to flag, and the end result was ZARCO AND BAGNAIA BUMPED HIM OFF THE PODIUM metres from the line!
Amazing – Joan probably could’ve escaped that error passing another Inline Four bike, or if it was any other circuit besides Losail, but against a bloody Ducati Desmosedici, it was like watching Jaws devour an innocent swimmer.
Anyway, after running in the Top 3 for pretty much the entire race, Zarco and Bagnaia at least finished on the podium, although you’d have to think Bologna would be left to rue what might’ve been, after they dominated testing and qualifying in Losail, before the raceday conditions, and some apparent issue with fuel burn during the race (Alluded to by Simon Crafar on the broadcast) saw Yamaha pull the rug out and run over them in a result not many saw coming!
Some standout performances were Aleix Espargaro in 7th, who was only 6 seconds off the race winner on the Aprilia, the first time the Italian manufacturer have even been within 6 seconds of a race winner in the 4-stroke era, and Enea Bastianini proved himself best of the rookies on opening night, finishing 10th on a 2019 Ducati, only a second behind the apparent factory leader Jack Miller, who just couldn’t make his rear tyre work in what was a disappointing 100th MotoGP for our local hero.
Anyway, we’ll see if things are different this weekend for Doha Part 2.
Moto2: The Remy Rollercoaster
After finishing his tenure at the now-defunct Onexox TKKR SAG team with a maiden Grand Prix win in Portugal, Remy Gardner had made the big step up to Red Bull KTM Ajo in the Moto2 offseason, which was the first time in his intermediate class career the son of the Woolongong Whiz has been able to showcase his talent for a major team, and he comfortably went straight into Q2 from Combined Practice times but would be denied a likely front row start (He was only a tenth down on Sam Lowes through the first 2 sectors) after Xavi Vierge had a fall at the end of Q2, forcing Remy to back off and start from 6th, as last season’s 3rd-placed rider Lowes took pole position from Gardner’s rookie teammate Raul Fernandez and Bo Bendsneyder.
Starting from 4th, the Sky VR46 rider Marco Bezzecchi took the lead after the opening lap, but Lowes soon settled into a rhythm and took the lead from the Italian:
For most of the race, Lowes’ immediate threat was Remy Gardner, who fell to 7th after being squeezed at Turn 1, but the Aussie worked his way into 4th by Lap 7, and passed Bezzecchi into the podium places on Lap 8.
The Aussie swapped places with teammate Fernandez at the Turn 6 hairpin on Lap 9, moving into 2nd place and beginning his chase of race leader Lowes, who was 1.3 seconds up the road:
Speaking of Fernandez, he was only given a Moto2 ride at the end of November by Aki Ajo after a year in Moto3, but despite barely any preparation, the young Spaniard looked like a duck in water in the intermediate class, as he sat in 3rd place ahead of Bezzecchi for most of the evening, before being nabbed late on when his tyres just couldn’t make it.
Despite the win being within striking distance, Lowes more than comfortably held Gardner at arm’s length for the remainder of the race, and after missing last year’s Qatar round due to injury, the Brit won from pole by 2.2 seconds to Gardner in a solid 2nd place on his debut for Aki Ajo’s team, and 3rd place between Fabio Di Giannantonio and Bezzecchi went right down to the line after a tense final lap, and by just 0.013s, DiGi scored an emotional podium for the Gresini team after passing Marco on the final lap!
Somewhere in the universe, Mr Gresini was smiling.
Filling out the remainder of the Top 10 riders were Fernandez in 5th, who lost absolutely no admirers, American Joe Roberts finished in 6th in his first race for Italtrans (In former champion Enea Bastianini’s old seat), Jake Dixon finished 7th after a wild weekend that saw him cop a grid penalty for an incident with his teammate, Marcel Schrotter was 8th, Bendsneyder was 9th, and the first non-Kalex bike was Jorge Navarro in 10th for Boscoscuro, who are what we knew as Speed Up, having simply been renamed by team owner Luca Boscoscuro during the recent testing days.
Next Up: Losail Part Two this weekend!