The 2021 MotoGP season sparks into life in Qatar this weekend. Here’a s look at five talking points ahead of the curtain-raiser at the Losail International circuit:
One year on after the Covid-19 pandemic forced the cancellation of the first round of the MotoGP championship in Qatar the gulf state’s Losail International Circuit takes centre stage with back-to-back night races on Sunday and again on April 4 to get the 2021 campaign off to an atmospheric and theatrical floodlit start. Qatar, which hosted pre-season testing, has offered coronavirus vaccines to the entire paddock. The MotoGP circus then moves on to the Algarve in Portugal for the third leg of a 19-race calendar, with two further races in the United States and Argentina expected to be slotted in towards the end of the year. Practice for Sunday’s opener gets underway on Thursday.
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The six-time MotoGP world champion is the notable absentee from Qatar’s double header. His season-ending crash in the first race last year led to three bouts of surgery on his fractured right arm, the last in December, and left the way clear for his fellow Spaniard Joan Mir to claim his crown. The 28-year-old pulled out of this weekend’s curtain-raiser on Monday, saying that although his recovery was going well he required more time before returning to the day job. With his next medical check-up on April 12 that suggests Portugal’s third leg on April 18 as a target for his overdue return. The Honda star has downplayed his chances of reclaiming his throne this term: “The objective is to get on a motorbike, have fun again and from there find a good level and fight for podiums and victories. How long will that take? I don’t know.”
A change but no rest for the doctor
Valentino Rossi is entering his 26th year of competition at the ripe old age of 42 but ‘the doctor’‘s drive and determination remain undimmed as he leaves a factory team for the first time since 2002 for Yamaha’s satellite SRT stable. The seven-time MotoGP world champion is optimistic the switch will trigger an upturn in results after his worst season in 2020 left him in 15th in the riders’ standings with two races missed due to coronavirus. Whether this is his swansong season depends in large part on his track performance. “It is not an easy decision. I will decide during the summer break, in the middle of the season,” he told motogp.com. “My decision will be based on results. If I am strong, can fight for podiums and victories, I will continue another year.” Rossi’s teammate is Franco Morbidelli, a graduate from Rossi’s VR46 academy. The 2020 runner-up describes his mentor as “like a big brother”. Rossi is counting on their close friendship to withstand the natural rivalry that develops between riders on the same team. “To fight and still be friends we will need to have a real friendship. It won’t be easy, but I think we can do it.”
Mir – the consistent champion
Marquez’s premature exit opened the way for a thrilling topsy-turvy title tussle last year with Joan Mir landing the spoils in the penultimate race a week after finally claiming his first MotoGP victory and ending a winless run stretching back to 2017 when he was crowned Moto3 world champion. Credited for his consistency the Suzuki rider from Mallorca can be expected to put up a resilient title defence against a slew of serious challengers. Among them France’s Fabio Quartararo who takes Rossi’s place in the Yamaha factory team. He marked himself down as a future champion with wins in the first two races before bike issues put a spanner in his bid to become France’s first MotoGP champion. He told AFP from his home in Andorra in February: “I’m ready to win the championship. In 2019, I made the podium, last year some wins, all that’s missing is the final step, to be champion of the world.”
Australian Jack Miller will have plenty to say in the title race based on the evidence of pre-season testing at Losail this month. Miller’s Ducati led the times with the fastest lap – 1min 53.183 – ever recorded at the track. A trio of Yamahas belonging to Maverick Vinales, Fabio Quartararo and Franco Morbidelli were hot on his heels with Miller’s Ducati teammate Francesco Bagnaia completing the top five.
The 2021 MotoGP calendar ahead of Sunday’s opening race in Qatar:
March 28: Qatar (Losail) April 4: Qatar (Losail) April 18: Portugal (Algarve) May 2: Spain (Jerez) May 16: France (Le Mans) May 30: Italy (Mugello) June 6: Catalonia, Spain (Barcelona) June 20: Germany (Sachsenring) June 27: Netherlands (Assen) July 11: Finland (KymiRing) August 15: Austria (Spielberg) August 29: Great Britain (Silverstone) September 12: Aragon, Spain (Alcaniz) September 19: San Marino (Misano) October 3: Japan (Motegi) October 10: Thailand (Buriram) October 24: Australia (Phillip Island) October 31: Malaysia (Sepang) November 14: Valencia, Spain (Ricardo Tormo)
Postponed GPs, new dates to be confirmed: Argentina (Termas de Río Hondo), United States (Austin)