Reload and reset: round two rolls into Doha
Sparks are sure to fly as MotoGP™ returns to Losail International Circuit, with Viñales in the spotlight after his season-opening victory
Wednesday, 31 March 2021
Expectation was high ahead of the season-opening Qatar GP and, if anything, it’s even higher as MotoGP™ returns to Losail International Circuit for the TISSOT Grand Prix of Doha. After a barnstormer to welcome back the world’s fastest motorcycle racing Championship, there’s plenty to look forward to on a take two that sees the grid arrive with one man in the crosshairs: Maverick Viñales (Monster Energy Yamaha MotoGP).
As wins go, Viñales’ first of the year was definitely a hard-earned one, as well as his second at Losail. From lights out it was an all-Ducati affair at the front in the initial stages, leaving the eventual winner with plenty of work to do. But that he did, slicing his way through to the front and then pulling the pin. So can those he defeated fight back?
With a race of data and a fair few more sessions before the lights go out, the men closest on the chase – Johann Zarco (Pramac Racing), Francesco Bagnaia (Ducati Lenovo Team) and reigning Champion Joan Mir (Team Suzuki Ecstar) will be eager to try and bridge that gap or leapfrog Viñales, and Mir especially will take heart from an impressive Sunday despite some struggles earlier in the first race weekend of the year. What may worry them in Viñales’ pace, however, is that conditions got worse from Saturday – Yamaha’s traditional day of searing pace – but the number 12 was able to drop everyone, including his fellow Iwata marque machines.
That included new Monster Energy Yamaha MotoGP teammate Fabio Quartararo, and the Frenchman will be having a hard look through the data to see where Viñales had the edge, as will Jack Miller (Ducati Lenovo Team) as the man fastest in testing ended the first race in ninth – and new teammate Bagnaia put it on the podium. The wealth of information is only a positive though, and neither should be counted out from a launch up the timesheets this time round – something Valentino Rossi (Petronas Yamaha SRT) and teammate Franco Morbidelli will be looking for too.
Information is always key, but maybe even more so in the Doha Grand Prix. From veterans outfoxed by teammates to those still adapting or just settling into MotoGP™, there’s a lot to learn. For the Millers and Alex Rins (Team Suzuki Ecstar) of the grid it’s about bridging an unexpected gap, for the newcomers it’s a blessing to have another race at the same track.
Enea Bastianini (Esponsorama Racing) starts the second race weekend of the year as top rookie following an impressive top ten, and he’ll know what went right and what could go better. Jorge Martin (Pramac Racing) will also be able to look through the numbers from bikes on the podium, and the Spaniard will likely also have taken more than just another glance at his stunning race start, gaining ten places in the blink of an eye. Repeating that but making it stick a little longer is the name of the game. Luca Marini (Sky VR46 Esponsorama) will want more too, the Italian’s progress steadier so far.
Meanwhile Aprilia Racing Team Gresini, with a nearly all-new bike, will be another outfit making good use of more information. Aleix Espargaro impressed once again as he ended the race in seventh but only 5.934s off race winner Viñales, which is the closest gap to the winner of an Aprilia in the MotoGP™ era. Can they equal or even better the best result for the Noale factory in MotoGP™ of sixth?
The man Aleix Espargaro duelled for that seventh place was another great storyline too, as it was none other than his younger brother Pol Espargaro. The newly-arrived Repsol Honda Team rider had a solid first outing in a different shade of orange, and was just 0.056 off seventh place after a drag to the line. As he’s continuing to adapt, a race under his belt is welcome – as it is for continuing, temporary teammate Stefan Bradl. On the other side of the coin, Alex Marquez (LCR Honda Castrol) and Takaaki Nakagami (LCR Honda Idemitsu) will be looking for solid finishes and points this time around, both crashing out in the Qatar GP after a difficult time at Losail so far.
A difficult time at Losail so far is also true for KTM, even since they debuted in MotoGP™. Some tracks suit some better than others, some tracks are easier to test at and some tracks saw no premier class race action in 2020 just to add another extra challenge. But if we saw one thing from the Austrian factory last year, aside from pretty continual excellence, it was an impressive gain on take two at the same track. That bodes well for the Doha GP, as does the ability of Miguel Oliveira to continue taking to full factory life like a duck to water. Teammate Brad Binder most definitely got his elbows out in the first race of the year too, so it’s not all fallen into place yet but the light at the end of the tunnel likely starts with more track time to gain more information on a circuit that has never been KTM’s best hunting ground.
That track time begins again on Friday as the grids head back out to battle Losail International Circuit, with another 25 points on the line as the lights go out for the second stunner of the season at 20:00 (GMT+3) on Sunday. It’s advantage Viñales… but for how long?
MotoGP™ Championship top five:
1 Maverick Viñales – Monster Energy Yamaha MotoGP – Yamaha – 25
2 Johann Zarco* – Pramac Racing – Ducati – 20
3 Francesco Bagnaia – Ducati Lenovo Team – Ducati – 16
4 Joan Mir – Team Suzuki Ecstar – Suzuki – 13
5 Fabio Quartararo – Monster Energy Yamaha MotoGP – Yamaha – 11
*Independent Team rider
Can anyone catch Lowes at Losail?
The Brit was imperious in the season opener, so can the likes of Gardner, Bezzecchi and Diggia fight back on take two?
Not since 1979 has a British rider won the opening race of a Grand Prix season, but Sam Lowes (Elf Marc VDS Racing Team) did just that in 2021 and in some style. A controlled and perfectly pitched ride to the flag saw him start the year with the first 25 points on offer, so the question heading into the TISSOT Grand Prix of Doha is a simple one: can anyone catch the number 22?
The best candidate based on the first race of the year is Remy Gardner (Red Bull KTM Ajo), as the Australian had the best pace to rival the Brit – he just started further back. Lowes recovered quickly after losing out slightly from pole, but Gardner had more work to after qualifying sixth and ending Lap 1 in eighth, costing him more time as he fought his way back through into clear air on the chase. With a closer qualifying and a better start, can Gardner put on the pressure?
Third was also an intriguing battle. Fabio Di Giannantonio (Federal Oil Gresini Moto2) came out on top for a first emotional podium for Gresini in the intermediate class since 2016, but it was close between Diggia and Marco Bezzecchi (Sky Racing Team VR46). Can they take a step forward after a race of data? And what about those just behind them, the likes of Joe Roberts (Italtrans Racing Team) and Jake Dixon (Petronas Sprinta Racing)?
Raul Fernandez (Red Bull KTM Ajo), meanwhile, could be an even more interesting watch. The rookie sensation spent a lot of his first ever Moto2™ race fighting for the podium, and as his experience increases, his pace and race management likely will too. Another race at the same track is great news for rookies, and Fernandez is well poised to make the most of it. There were some impressive performances from two more of his fellow debutants too, with American Cameron Beaubier (American Racing) duelling Celestino Vietti (Sky Racing Team VR46) for 11th as they both began their intermediate class careers just three tenths off the top ten. What can they do on take two?