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Journey of the Jackass, 2021, Chapter 4: The Mule In The Trenches
Circuit: Circuito de Jerez – Ángel Nieto
Two weeks on from Portugal, where the Factory Yamaha team went 3/3 in 2021 thanks to Fabio Quartararo, it was time for the Spanish Grand Prix at Jerez, the track that abruptly shattered the Marc Marquez mystique in 2020, thanks to that highside at Turn 4 that also shattered the 8-time World Champion’s humerus and sidelined him for 9 months.
On the rider front, after his extended adventure as Marc’s Repsol Honda substitute came to an end, Stefan Bradl returned to the grid as a wildcard in the classic Red White & Blue HRC colours, the first wildcard rider in MotoGP since 2019, and former Moto2 Champion Tito Rabat, who left MotoGP for World Superbikes this year, was back on a Ducati as the injury substitute for Jorge Martin at Pramac, which somewhat ironically means Tito is back in MotoGP before he’s even made his debut in WSBK.
This visit to Jerez also marks 25 years since the epic Mick Doohan vs Alex Criville fight, as Criville looked set to win at home from Mighty Mick, only for the eager Spanish fans to cause chaos when they prematurely invaded the track with a lap to go, allowing Doohan to make one final lunge on his teammate at the final corner, and the tension climaxed when the Spaniard high-sided and lost a certain 1-2 for Repsol Honda as Doohan won the race, setting the tone for their multiple clashes that season.
And, it was the 21st anniversary of Valentino Rossi’s maiden 500cc podium, which happened to come at Jerez, which is also where The Doctor scored his 199th and most recent Premier Class podium in the Andalusia race last year, although based on Vale’s start to the year, he’d do well just to score a point, let alone a 200th podium finish.
Following a fall at Portimao that left him with a mere 14 points from 3 races despite his factory rider status, Jack Miller described himself as being “In the trenches and I’m trying to dig myself out of it”, and The Jackass only just avoided another barrage of heavy shellfire from the press by scraping into the Top 10 of Combined Practice to get directly into Q2, which wasn’t the case for Marc Marquez, who gave everyone a heart attack when he totalled his Honda into the air fence at Turn 7 after the front end washed out at high speed, but Marc was up and okay, and took part in Qualifying.
When it came to Saturday Qualifying, just as it was during practice, Fabio Quartararo topped the time sheets and kept up his perfect qualifying record (Now 4/4) at Jerez in the MotoGP class, and you couldn’t have waited any longer to take out a fourth mortgage and put it on the Frenchman making it a hat-trick of wins on Sunday.
Joining ‘El Diablo’ on the front row was his former Petronas Yamaha teammate Franco Morbidelli, who came from Q1 on the 2019 Yamaha, and after seemingly struggling for pace all weekend, Miller fired in a rocket from nowhere after missing half of FP4, recording his first front row start of the season, with Pecco Baganaia 4th on the other Factory Ducati, Takaaki Nakagami started as the best Honda in 5th, Johann Zarco 6th, Maverick Vinales 7th, Aleix Espargaro 8th for Aprilia, Alex Rins the best Suzuki in 9th, Joan Mir 10th, Brad Binder 11th for KTM, and wildcard Bradl started 12th, ahead of both the factory Hondas.
History shows Jerez is a track where Honda and Yamaha have dominated thanks to the many fast sweeping corners, with Ducati’s only prior win at the track being Loris Capirossi in 2006, with the Bologna Bullets only recording 4 podium appearances in the 15 years since, and few would’ve expected them to turn the tables, especially looking at Fabio Quartararo’s pace during the long runs in FP4.
Marc Marquez had another major crash in the morning Warm-Up, this time at his familiar Turn 4, but once again ‘The Ant’ was up on his feet and perfectly fine, and he got a surprise visit on the grid from one Giacomo Agostini, and I can imagine Ago was telling him the simple trick to finishing is not to shatter your arm.
Finally, pretty much every rider went for the Medium/Medium Michelin tyre combination, with the only lateral thinkers being Maverick Vinales and Joan Mir with the Soft front.
The Race (25 Laps)
As the lights went out, Miller used the holeshot to lead as expected into Turn 1 from Morbidelli, Bagnaia, Quartararo and Aleix Espargaro, Johann Zarco lost 4 places in the opening sector, and the first rider to drop out was Alex Marquez, who fell for the third time in 4 races at Turn 8.
Starting Lap 2, Brad Binder’s once promising weekend went down the crapper when he fell at Turn 2 before re-mounting in last place, but any hopes of a dark horse podium were gone, as Quartararo and Bagnaia swapped 3rd and 4th place after a few attempts.
On Lap 3, Alex Rins came in too hot at the old Dry Sack/Pedrosa Corner/Turn 6 and suffered an extremely slow lowside off his Suzuki for the second weekend running, but like Binder, the Spaniard got going again, minus half the front aero pieces, and kept circling in the hopes of other rides going down to give him a crack at a Top 15.
Back at the front, Quartararo and Aleix Espargaro both made textbook moves at Turn 13 to end the lap – Quartararo on Morbidelli for 2nd, and Aleix on Pecco for 4th place, and the chances of an Aprilia podium were realistic, albeit unlikely!
Zarco had recovered from his slow start and broke away from the Honda trio of Bradl, Marc Marquez and Pol Espargaro, and immediately set a 1.38.1, which was 2 tenths quicker than any of the leaders, and barely a tenth off Marc’s lap record pace (1.38.051) from 2019.
Miller’s lead was now under serious threat, because Fabio’s corner speed on the Yamaha was just too good to hold off forever, and the Frenchman claimed the lead at Turn 13 to end Lap 4, and that was time for serious alarm bells for the rest of the field with the polesitter in clear air, as shown when Quartararo set a new lap record 1.37.797 on Lap 5, some 5-tenths faster than Miller.
To Jack’s credit, he built up a one second gap to Morbidelli in an effort to keep Fabio honest, but the concern was how much tyre was the Ducati using just to keep pace with the Yamaha, and Quartararo set another fastest lap/lap record on Lap 8 (1.37.770) to push his lead beyond a second.
Bagnaia reclaimed 4th place from Aleix at Turn 6 on Lap 9, and further down, Zarco took 8th from Vinales (Top Gun would get it back), Marquez was stuck behind Pol Espargaro, and just behind them, Bastianini fell from 12th at Turn 2 on Lap 10, but like Binder and Rins, he re-mounted at the rear.
Morbidelli appeared to be struggling at half-race distance, dropping 2 seconds behind Miller as Bagnaia closed up to his exhaust, Vinales got back ahead of Zarco, and Binder fell off the KTM for the second and final time at Turn 13, as Bastianini had a more peaceful ending, pulling in to the pits to retire and save the bike.
By this stage, Quartararo’s lead was still 1.4 seconds to Miller, who was only lapping a tenth slower, Morbidelli was now having to brake extremely late just to keep Pecco behind, but out of nowhere, the race, and indeed the universe, was about to be tipped on its axis.
Quartararo lost some 6 tenths after a rather strange tour through Turn 6 on Lap 14, and in the blink of an eye, El Diablo had gone from looking nigh on unbeatable to having a Queenslander sniffing his rear wheel, as 3rd place changed hands when Morbidelli had a front end wobble to end Lap 14, and Bagnaia only needed one chance to put both factory Dukes into the podium places.
As it turned out, that Turn 6 moment wasn’t some isolated incident, because the Quartararo lead had collapsed from 1.4 seconds down to 2 tenths in the space of a lap!
Miller, who probably couldn’t believe his eyes, took the lead to start Lap 16, and apparently this wasn’t some strategy by Fabio to save some grip, because the Yamaha couldn’t seem to go with the Ducati, which meant the Aussie was NOW IN A RACE WINNING POSITION!
In fact, Pecco was now closing in on Quartararo at a similar rate that Miller had caught him, and it was an absolute guessing game as to what had happened to the championship leader – Had his scorching pace wrecked the tyres, was it a mechanical issue with the bike, or a mysterious physical issue – Regardless, he was going to do well just to finish on the podium!
So with 8 laps to go, the Ducati Corse garage and the Commonwealth of Australia began crapping themselves at the mere thought of Jack finally winning a race, and just to pile on the tension, Bagnaia took Quartararo at Turn 3 on Lap 18, and it was a Factory Ducati 1-2, at a track they hadn’t won at for 15 years!
Morbidelli went back into 3rd ahead of Fabio at the Dry Sack that same lap, Aleix Espargaro and Taka Nakagami were lining up behind, as was Joan Mir, and I have to revise that previous statement – Fabio wasn’t even going to finish in the Top 10, because this wasn’t a sudden drop in performance, it was a freefall from the stratosphere!
The queue to pass the factory Yamaha gave us another top notch racing moment on Lap 19, as Nakagami made a cracking move around the outside of Aleix for 5th at the fast Sito Pons Corner (Turn 5) to leave everyone on the edge of their pants:
Seconds later, as the Honda rider made it 2 for 1 by passing Quartararo for 4th at the Dry Sack, Joan Mir slid in from nowhere to grab Aleix, who had gone from eyeing up 4th place down to 7th in two corners, but he would jump back to 6th by the end of the lap.
Vinales went by, Zarco went by, and it was a sight as Marc Marquez passed Fabio on Lap 20, and the French rider was now 3 seconds a lap slower than Jack Miller, and when Pol Espargaro jumped ahead, Fabio was out of the Top 10, barely 5 minutes after he’d been out in front dominating the race.
Now, with 5 laps to go, Miller led by 1.9 seconds to Pecco, whose grip on 2nd wasn’t totally secure from Morbidelli, with Taka low-key flying in the final laps, but unless his Honda sprouted wings, the podium was just out of reach.
Fabio fell down to 13th after Miguel Oliveira and Bradl got by, meaning Pecco would claim the championship lead with a Top 2 finish, but the Italian was going for the glory of a maiden MotoGP win as he cut the gap down to Jack to 1.1 seconds with 2 laps to go, and Australia held its collective breath….
But our protagonist never blinked, and AFTER 5 YEARS OF WAITING, THE JACKASS WAS BACK ON THE TOP STEP OF THE PODIUM!
After the mass pile-on for his forgettable start to 2021, The Jackass had charged out of the trenches to score his first win since the fabled 2016 Dutch TT (His 25th start, this was his 103rd), it was his long-awaited first win for Ducati after 4 years on a Desmosedici, and the fact that Pecco Bagnaia made it a 1-2 for the Bologna Bullets, their first since Czechia 2018, at a track that they hadn’t even finished in the Top 2 at for 15 years, should put Sunday’s result into perspective.
And I thought a podium would’ve been a great result for Jack.
So, Bagnaia’s latest podium gives him the championship lead by 2 points (66-64) after trailing Quartararo by 15, Franco Morbidelli returned to the podium in 2021, Taka Nakagami matched his career-best result of 4th, Joan Mir was 5th, Aleix Espargaro finished in 6th again, Vinales was just behind, and rounding out the Top 10 was Johann Zarco in 8th, and the two factory Hondas of Marc Marquez and Pol Espargaro, who wound up only 12 seconds behind Miller despite all of their struggles.
After his dramatic freefall down the field, the answer for Quartararo’s issues, as confirmed by himself, was a dreaded case of ARM-PUMP, which left him unable to completely brake and accelerate, and provides a plausible explanation as to why he was grimacing after the race.
Another amazing stat was that this was the first time there hasn’t been a Spanish rider on the podium for the MotoGP class of the Spanish Grand Prix since 2003, when it was Valentino Rossi, Max Biaggi and Troy Bayliss on the podium – Two Italians and an Australian, just as it was on Sunday!
Ah, what a fantastic night, and the further good news for my fellow Australian fans came earlier on during the Moto2 race:
Moto2: The Remy Rollercoaster
Remy Gardner had taken the championship lead with a 3rd placing at Portimao, becoming the first Aussie since the late Gregg Hansford to pull that off in the Intermediate championship, and this weekend he brought up his 100th Grand Prix appearance(79 in Moto2 and 21 in Moto3), matching his dad Wayne’s career total in the process, and Remy celebrated the ton by setting an all-time Moto2 lap record pace in FP3 which translated well on Saturday as he racked up his fourth career pole position, and once again bettered the Jerez lap record.
Alongside him was Fabio Di Giannantonio on the Team Gresini Kalex, Marco Bezzecchi 3rd again in pursuit of his first podium of 2021, Raul Fernandez started 4th on the sister Red Bull KTM Ajo bike, Sam Lowes couldn’t make it 4 consecutive pole positions as he started 5th, and Xavi Vierge would start 6th on the Petronas SRT Kalex.
In fact, the Top 6 riders were all ahead of Marcel Schrotter’s former record time of 1.41.109, which was set last year in the midst of a July heatwave that turned the track into a melting pot, so it’s fair to say the riders seemed to be helped by the increased grip from the cooler conditions this year.
Race (23 Laps)
Starting alongside Gardner, ‘DiGi’ activated the holeshot and took the lead into Turn 1, Augusto Fernandez passed Raul Fernandez for 4th place, but they moved up another place when Marco Bezzecchi went in way too hot into Turn 6 and almost hit Gardner’s rear wheel, but they both carried on, as Sam Lowes started slowly and sat in 6th after Lap 1.
Augusto Fernandez was passed by Raul Fernandez for 3rd on Lap 3, then ended his race moments later due to a lowside fall at Turn 6, and moments later, the sister Gresini bike of Nicolo Bulega (Who was due to serve a Long Lap Penalty for causing an accident in Portimao) tried pulling a move and suffered the same fate as Augusto.
With Di Giannantonio comfortably in the lead and pulling away Fernandez started to pressure Gardner, Lowes passed Bezzecchi and set a fastest lap in clean air, and Somikat Chantra crashed at Turn 11 and walked away holding his wrist.
6 laps in, DiGi’s lead was out to 1.1 seconds over Gardner, who was starting to look like a rolling roadblock for his teammate, Hector Garzo joined the DNF list when he went down at Turn 6 that same lap, and it wasn’t until Lap 9 that Raul was able to overtake the Aussie at Nieto Corner, by which time the Italian led by 2.6 seconds, and it was going to take a mighty effort to run him down.
Another crucial move in that sequence was Bezzecchi passing Lowes for 4th at Turn 1, which freed him up to attack the flagging Gardner on Lap 11, and the Sky VR46 rider was looking good for his first podium of the season, a strange thing to say given Bezz is right in the title fight.
Albert Arenas was the next rider to bite the dust, falling off his Boscoscuro at Turn 8 on Lap 13, Simone Corsi’s MV Agusta performed more barrel rolls than an Olympic gymnast when he fell at Turn 11 on Lap 15, and as the race ticked into the final 10 laps, DiGi’s lead was consistent at 2.5 seconds to Raul Fernandez, who was on course to claim the championship lead from Gardner by 3 points if they maintained position until the end of the race.
As quickly as he was on track to claim top spot, Fernandez went wide at Turn 13 on Lap 17, and Bezzecchi hooked up the Kalex and swooped past to take 2nd place, as Gardner set his fastest lap in pursuit of what would’ve been a fifth consecutive podium finish, stretching back to Portimao last season.
With 5 laps to go, an Italian 1-2 was looking like a formality, as DiGi’s lead was still a comfortable 2.5 seconds, Bezz was beginning to stretch his legs over the KTM Ajo pair, and just as Gardner was lining up a move for 3rd, he carried too much speed into the Dry Sack and lost 4th place to Lowes, which also gave back the title lead to Fernandez.
As the riders began the penultimate lap, Fernandez had a twitch in the rear at Turn 2, a mistake that allowed Lowes into 3rd place, and Gardner followed the Brit to take 4th and maybe add a bit of excitement to the end of the race, but it never really happened, probably because Remy just didn’t have enough tyre performance left, although it wasn’t as bad as Fernandez, who was now riding on a pair of worn carcasses, in a major case of Moto2 growing pains for the rookie.
But, the star of the day was Fabio Di Giannantonio, who scored his maiden Moto2 win after 3 years in the category, and it was also Gresini Racing’s first Moto2 win since Sam Lowes at Aragon in 2016, in the same week that Fausto Gresini’s widow Nadia Padovani became Managing Director of the team!
Bezzecchi finished 2nd, 1.7 seconds behind after DiGi started the victory celebrations in the final sector, Lowes completed the podium, with Gardner’s 4th placing helping him maintain the title lead by 3 points to the Brit, Fernandez fell away badly to finish 5th, Xavi Vierge and Ai Ogura had a riveting race-long fight for 6th that went the way of Vierge, Joe Roberts and Aron Canet weren’t in podium contention this time around and finished in 8th and 9th, and 10th place was decided when Cameron Beaubier fell at Turn 9 on the final lap trying to pass Marcel Schrotter.
So 4 races in, there’s only 17 points between 1st and 5th in Moto2:
Remy Gardner leads on 69 points
Sam Lowes is 2nd on 66 points
Raul Fernandez is 3rd on 63
Marco Bezzecchi is 4th on 56
And Fabio Di Giannantonio now sits 5th on 52 points.
That said, there’s an ocean’s worth of water still to pass under the bridge.
Next Up: Le Mans and the French Grand Prix in a fortnight!