MotoGP 2021 Season Preview

| March 25, 2021

MotoGP 2021 is just around the corner—new faces, colors, numbers and a great champion making a very long anticipated return. It’s going to be a good one.

Cycle News Magazine 2021-MotoGP-Preview
Miller pounds out the laps on the factory Ducati. The Australian heads into the 2021 season as a firm title contender.

By Neil Morrison | Photography by Gold & Goose

Four months on from 2020’s thrilling conclusion, one is tempted to ask: where do we go from here? Last year MotoGP was as wild and unpredictable as it’s ever been: nine winners across 14 races, four manufacturers taking at least two wins apiece and Honda wasn’t among them. Oh, and one of the more unexpected victors in any season across Grand Prix’s 72-year history.

Well, the shortest winter of preseason testing has hinted it won’t end there. Just five days of testing were on offer (six to rookies) to the class of 2021, all of them at one track. The final evening was rendered useless as a sandstorm engulfed the vast, featureless plains of Qatar, meaning certain testing programs—Suzuki and KTM’s in particular—were far from complete.

It left just over a tenth covering the top four, and five manufacturers in the top 10. Analysis of longer runs suggested as many as 10 names could be counted in the running for the podium. And that’s before we even contemplate the joker of this season who was missing from last week’s running: Marc Marquez. Yes, it’s fair to say this season is shaping up very nicely indeed.

Only the possibility of a returning Marquez threatens to upset MotoGP’s recent penchant for throwing up the unexpected. Yes, he hasn’t climbed aboard his Honda RC213V in over eight months. But the serial champion has cast a shadow over his competitors with a flurry of recent social media posts, showing rapid recent progress in his rehabilitation from the double fracture of his upper right arm. Knowing his ability to withstand pain and shred months off even the most optimistic doctor’s forecast, it would be foolish to bet against him featuring in the championship from the early rounds, if not the first.

But even a rider of Marquez’s caliber will need time to get up to speed. And a new guard of young, fast names have sampled that winning feeling in his absence. The limited running in Qatar suggested many of them will be relishing the ex-champ’s return, namely the four men who were under his existing circuit record last week: Jack Miller, now resplendent in Ducati’s factory colors, and the Yamaha trio of Maverick Vinales, Fabio Quartararo and Franco Morbidelli. Despite rarely featuring at the front of testing, Suzuki duo Joan Mir and Alex Rins had the rhythm to suggest they will once again be among the leaders and must be factored into the championship running.

Of all the six factories present in the class, only KTM flew back to Europe post-test with worry lines etched into the brows of its engineers. Honda—even in the absence of its number one rider—and Aprilia look to be in much better shape than a year ago. Results at the Losail International Circuit have not always been the most trustworthy of barometers for a season’s progression. But it wouldn’t be a stretch to suggest as many as six names could be listed as favorites for the title. There’s no reason to think the 19 races ahead won’t outdo the surprises 2020 threw up.

MotoGP 2021 Season Preview | Ducati

Out With The Old…

Francesco Bagnaia
Francesco Bagnaia moves up to the factory Ducati team. Much is expected of the young Italian who replaces compatriot Andrea Dovizioso.

The factory Ducati garage rarely seemed a happy place in 2020. Technical guru Gigi Dall’Igna’s refusal to alter the power-heavy and slightly cumbersome philosophy of the Desmosedici irked Dovizioso to the point relations between the pair totally broke down, while Petrucci knew from the spring of last year he was surplus to requirements. Miller and Francesco Bagnaia, who both received a promotion from Pramac, have brought a freshness and enthusiasm that appears to have given everyone in red a lift.

In Qatar the Desmosedici re-established its outright speed advantage with Johann Zarco—on the latest equipment along with the factory riders and Martin—well over the track’s top speed record, his Pramac Ducati clocked at 222 mph on the run to turn one. Only Pol Espargaro’s Honda (216 mph) got close, meaning the Bologna bullets should have no problem breezing by competitors at races one and two, both held at the Losail circuit. Miller felt front-end stability and braking prowess remain where the bike can make the difference, and the Australian was struck by the ease with which he rode.

MotoGP 2021 Season Preview | Yamaha

Know Your Weakness

Maverick Vinales
Maverick Vinales absolutely must get good starts in 2021. If he can, he will be a serious title threat.

Based on lap times alone, Yamaha should be considered a sure-fire bet for its first rider’s title since 2015. Yet with engine development frozen for factories without concessions, it has been able to make little headway on the top-speed deficit that plagued its challengers in 2019 and 2020. In qualifying trim, the M1 remains capable of brilliant lap times. And when alone on track, the rhythm of three of its riders is just as strong.

Yet each Yamaha contender is acutely aware of the machine’s Achilles Heel: top speed. In a battle, the M1 remains down on its rivals, making overtaking perilous, and all-or-nothing braking feats a necessity. Petronas SRT’s Franco Morbidelli—still on an effectively 2019-spec bike—surmised it nicely. “I have a bike to win. Not a bike to fight too much.” Qualifying and starting well will be imperative, something not lost on Vinales who spent the final three days working on his starts.

Quartararo’s promotion to the factory squad in Valentino Rossi’s place has been seamless. The factory’s 2021 chassis is a big step forward on what they raced last year. A new aero package and front fender have slightly reduced its top-speed handicap and aid front-tire cooling. But a clearer picture of its progress won’t arrive until May as the Losail International Circuit has always been a Yamaha track

MotoGP 2021 Season Preview | Suzuki

If It Ain’t Broke…

Joan Mir
Joan Mir goes into his title defense with a largely unchanged Suzuki GSX-RR. Will it be enough to thwart his many challengers?

You have to go back to 1981 and the days of Marco Lucchinelli and Randy Mamola when Suzuki last had two of its riders in the top three in a premier class championship. The factory’s forward thinking meant it had brought its 2022-spec engine to Qatar for riders to test. Yet upgrading the GSX-RR proved a touch more difficult. The curtailed test meant Mir was unable to give a full assessment of a new chassis and bemoaned “only one of 10 (new parts we tested) probably works.” He conceded one-lap pace—Suzuki’s big weakness last year—is “really difficult to change without changing the engine.” But both he and Rins were consistent, especially later in their long runs.

But the biggest question mark hanging over the Hamamatsu factory remains the departure of figurehead Davide Brivio. A seven-man ‘Management Committee’ headed by Project Leader Shinichi Sahara will decide on all matters ranging from development direction to running a Suzuki satellite team in 2022. The decision to not directly replace the Italian represents something of a gamble.

MotoGP 2021 Season Preview | Honda

New Hope

Pol Espargaro
Pol Espargaro has been dynamite on the Honda in preseason testing and will be in the hunt for race wins and possibly a title challenge in 2021.

Even in the older Marquez’s absence, there is an abundance of positivity surrounding Honda for 2021. Fresh from its worst premier class campaign (no wins, no poles and only two podiums) since 1981, there were fears this could be a wasted preseason with Marquez missing and Pol Espargaro needing time to adapt to the particular RC213V.

Yet the opposite was true. Test rider Stefan Bradl ably substituted for the eight-time champ while Espargaro was running podium rhythm by day four. So much for a period of adaptation…

The machine remains a critical beast, however. LCR Honda’s Alex Marquez and Takaaki Nakagami shared eight crashes between them across the five days of running in Qatar, with the former fracturing a toe in his right foot. Honda’s front-end must be pushed to its limits to extract a lap time. But in Marc’s hands it should be capable of race wins at the very least.

MotoGP 2021 Season Preview | KTM

Reason For Concern

Brad Binder
The preseason has been a difficult one for Brad Binder (pictured) and his fellow orange riders.

After finishing just 21 points off in the Constructors’ Championship in 2020, big things are expected of KTM this year. Motorsports Director Pit Beirer was no exception. “I definitely want to be (named among) the title contenders,” he said in February.

Qatar was a reality check, however. New factory boy Miguel Oliveira and Brad Binder struggled to match the fastest times of the test, finishing 16th and 17th respectively. The South African crashed three times and was over a second off in terms of pace. “It’s the general feeling that we have hit a wall,” said Oliveira toward the test’s end.

The loss of Pol Espargaro is surely one factor. The fact that both factory riders plus Tech3 KTM’s new signing Danilo Petrucci, are working with new crew chiefs this year, is another. And the Losail International Circuit doesn’t work to the RC16’s strengths. Perhaps we won’t see the true potential of 2020’s surprise package until the series returns to Europe in late April.

MotoGP 2021 Season Preview | Aprilia

A Fresh Start

Aleix Espargaro
Can Aleix Espargaro turn a solid preseason into race results?

After a notoriously difficult 2020, Aprilia could be poised to spring a surprise. Having greatly revised the RS-GP over the winter, Aleix Espargaro posted the sixth-fastest time in preseason tests in Qatar and showed rhythm that suggests he will be in the running for a top-six position at race one. The Noale factory has revised every aspect of its package, with notable steps forward taken with its aerodynamics package and engine torque.

“In lap times we proved that we can fight with the best, and also regarding the pace, the race simulation, if I’m not the fast one, almost,” Espargaro said. “It looks like we can have fun this year.” But we have been here before. The Catalan entered last season confident of podium finishes, but managed a single eighth place as his best result.

MotoGP 2021 Season Preview | Moto2

Joe Roberts
Joe Roberts moves to 2020 title winners Italtrans for 2021 and has only one thing on his mind: becoming World Champion at the end of the year.

Last year’s champion Enea Bastianini and runner up Luca Marini may have stepped up to the premier class, but that’s not to say this year’s class is lacking in talent. Marco Bezzecchi was a sensation last year, scoring two victories and five further podium finishes on his way to finishing fourth overall in his first season with the Sky Racing VR46 squad and Kalex’s chassis. He’ll be a tough prospect from the start.

The same could be said for Sam Lowes. The Englishman was reborn in 2020 with the highly professional Marc VDS squad and scored three race wins across last year. Big things are also expected of Australia’s Remy Gardner. The 23-year old switches from the OneXOX TKKR Sag team to Aki Ajo’s highly professional KTM-sponsored squad, who coincidentally run Kalex chassis.

And America has two hopefuls this year. Californian Joe Roberts heads to reigning World Champions Team Italtrans. The American will be hoping to build on his seventh-place finish in last year’s championship and achieve his first win in the class. However, all eyes will be fixed on five-time MotoAmerica Superbike champ Cameron Beaubier’s adaption to Moto2 machinery in the American Racing Team.

With 22 chassis on the grid, Kalex is firm favorites to retain the Constructor’s crown it has won in the past eight seasons. But Speed Up’s sweet-handling frame has been rebranded Boscoscuro for this year. Jorge Navarro and Aron Canet should be in the running for regular race wins.

MotoGP 2021 Season Preview | Moto3

Jaume Masia
As the most experienced rider in the field, Jaume Masia is odds-on favorite for the 2021 Moto3 Championship.

Such was the talent on display in the Moto3 class in 2020, all of the championship’s top five have stepped up to Moto2. Eventual champion Albert Arenas, Tony Arbolino, Ai Ogura, Raul Fernandez and Celestino Vietti’s have all stepped up, meaning Jaume Masia must start the season as favorite. Having moved from Leopard Honda to Aki Ajo’s highly successful KTM squad, the Spaniard must iron out his inconsistencies to improve on his sixth in last year’s championship.

Much is expected of Petronas Sprinta Honda duo John McPhee and new recruit Darryn Binder, who both must put up championship challenges to ensure career progression. The likes of Sergio Garcia, now riding for Aspar GasGas (a rebranded KTM), Leopard Honda’s Dennis Foggia, Max Racing Husqvarna’s Romano Fenati and SIC58 Squadra Corse Honda’s Tatsuki Suzuki should all be regularly in the hunt for race wins. And a crop of new rookies, headed by reigning Red Bull Rookies champion Pedro Acosta, could well be in occasional podium contention.

Development has been frozen for Honda and KTM, the class’ two manufacturers, meaning the close racing that defined recent seasons will remain. Just five races over the past two seasons have been won by more than one second.

MotoGP 2021 Season Preview | MotoE

Jordi Torres
Champion Jordi Torres is back for another tilt, but MotoE is lacking in star firepower this year.

Back for its third season, the MotoE World Cup will once again run a seven-race series, this time at six different tracks, starting at the Spanish Grand Prix in early May. Battery technology has progressed, meaning organizers are hopeful races can be one lap longer than the five-/six-lap affairs of 2020.

But due to calendar clashes with the World Endurance Championship (where many of the MotoE riders race), the entry list has taken a hit. Only two grand prix winners are present in the form of reigning World Cup winner Jordi Torres (Pons Racing 40) and Dominique Aegerter (Dynavolt Intact GP). 2019 champ Matteo Ferrari (Trentino Gresini MotoE) returns for a third campaign. Yet the remainder of the entry list is lacking in star quality.

Cycle News Magazine 2021-MotoGP-Preview

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