In The Paddock Column

Michael Scott | March 17, 2021

Cycle News In The Paddock

COLUMN

MotoGP is Back, and Lazarus is on Hold

MotoGP’s back. The European spring is back. The latest revised calendar is back. Testing has begun at Qatar. And the groundswell is, well, swelling.

It is (to coin a phrase much beloved of sports TV commentators) the greatest comeback since Lazarus.

I was hoping to reserve this favored source of cliche for the return of Marc Marquez, for when he jumps straight back onto his orange Honda and wins the first five races going away, leaving the rest of them with eyes like saucers. But this may be a dream too far, not only that he will be straight back to domination, but even that he’ll be on the bike at all.

Marc Marquez
Photo Courtesy of Red Bull Content Pool

Word from Qatar is Marc might miss the first two GPs in the desert, only returning for Jerez’s round three mid-April. Makes sense, given it’s been less than three months since his last arm-open/new-plate surgery, the third attempt to fix his snapped funny-bone.

On Friday, March 12, came the latest medical bulletin, that 14 weeks after the last surgery, he had been given the go-ahead “to intensify his strength and mobility recovery program.” This underlines the fact that he’s not just starting again in regaining lost bone and muscle strength but is starting again from having already slipped back six months, over the course of the previous failed surgeries.

Lazarus jokes (it is a rich seam) will have to wait.

Instead, we turn our mind to testing, which ran over six days in the desert, and is not quite finished as this column goes to bed on day five, however, it was pleasing to see Jack Miller on the top of the times, challenged strongly by the Yamahas, with both Vinales and Quartararo having a spell at the top. The process of testing is obviously vital for riders getting their lock-down-sluggish reflexes back up to speed, and for engineers in assessing the merit or otherwise of the limited development allowed midway through a two-year engine freeze.

It is of less value to us fans, being simultaneously fascinating and dull. It means so much, and so little. Especially in current circumstances, where the only major innovation is a so-far unexplained aero-bulge on the lower flanks of the factory Ducati fairings. Given the Italian innovators’ penchant for misdirection and plain mischief, perhaps one suggestion that it might be part two of the under-seat sandwich box, a compartment to keep a thermos of espresso warm, was not entirely facetious.

Actually, it wasn’t quite the only thing. Another innovation cuts right across all factories, with a refinement of the chassis shape-shifting, which lowers the center of gravity for launching off the line. Last year, triggered (of course) by Ducati’s sit-down-rear device, all factories except KTM essayed systems that temporarily compressed front or rear suspension for start. That has gone further. These Qatar tests demonstrated that all the factories now have systems that compress both ends of the bike.

This of course nullifies any advantage, by ensuring that all have the same capability. Lap times and race averages will improve across the board.

Such is the nature of development, and likewise the evolution of the breed. Though it is hard to see much value in this for street riders. Unless we’re all going to be buckling down the springs for every traffic-light grand prix.

Covid has taught us much about the whole concept of testing. We’ve had brain-ticklers and mouth-swabs, temperature readings and rapid lateral flows, etc.

And any number of false positives.

Recent history suggests MotoGP’s first false positive was Aprilia’s Aleix Espargaro on top for the first real day of fast times, and thereafter staying in touch with Quartararo’s Yamaha and Miller’s Duke. Welcome, but not yet completely convincing.

Past two-stroke glories notwithstanding, Aprilia has been MotoGP’s poor relation since the loud but treacherous 990cc three-cylinder Cube of 2002. This second all-new bike in two years might have the potential to change that, but surely not in its first outing. After all, the 2020 Aprilia showed well in first tests but slumped during the season. And with just one strong rider (teammate Savadori is a class rookie), can the necessary development be pushed forward as required?

And yet.

Much remains in the realms of pure speculation. What we can grab hold of is the sight of a handful of riders in new colors. And not just Quartararo’s scary prematurely yellow hair.

And that lap times are really, really fast, and really close. Honda’s new guy Pol Espargaro has adapted quickly to the RCV; most of the rookies are looking good, especially Bastianini and Martin; KTM’s refreshed lineup is also strong.

So, it looks very much like a good and unpredictable season to come. Now it’s down to the retreat of the pandemic to allow it all to go ahead as planned. CN

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Michael Scott | MotoGP Editor Scott has been covering MotoGP since long before it was MotoGP. Remember two-strokes? Scott does. He’s also a best-selling author of biographies on the lives of legendary racers such as Wayne Rainey and Barry Sheene.