Analysis

Qatar MotoGP Saturday round Up: When Is Fast Too Fast, And Why The Race Is Wide Open

Saturday was a day for smashing records in Qatar. First up was the top speed record, Johann Zarco hitting 362.4 km/h at the end of the front straight during FP4. Not just the top speed record for Qatar, but the highest speed ever record at a MotoGP track, the previous record 356.7 set by Andrea Dovizioso at Mugello. To put that in to context, it is 100.666 meters per second. Or put another way, it took Johann Zarco less than one second to cover the distance which takes Usain Bolt 9.6 seconds. It is a mind-bending, brain-warping speed.

It is not necessarily the highest speed ever reached on a MotoGP machine. Years ago, there were rumors of Dani Pedrosa hitting 365 km/h on data at Mugello. Nobody would comment about it on the record at the time, though engineers would tell you privately that it might be an overestimation. At the end of the straight at Mugello, the bikes are still accelerating and over the crest the rear can get light and start to spin. That cost Jorge Lorenzo and Valentino Rossi their engines in 2016.

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Qatar MotoGP Friday Round Up: Quick Ducatis, Early Qualifying, And The Quest For More Holeshot Devices

The normal build up to a MotoGP weekend sees the teams and riders spend FP1 figuring out which tires they think will work, then FP2 working on setup and then chasing a preliminary spot in FP2, leaving themselves plenty of work for Saturday, especially in FP4.

But Qatar is not a normal weekend. For a start, MotoGP arrives here after a total of five days of testing (well, four days, strictly speaking, as the last day of the test was lost to strong winds and a sandy track). Setups have already been found, tires have already been chosen.

Qatar's peculiar time schedule simplifies tire choice even further: the hard tires are built to handle the heat of daytime practice, and are too hard for the cooler evenings when qualifying and the race happen. So the choice is merely between soft and medium, and that choice, too, was largely made during the test.

So the teams arrive with less work to do, and can get straight into perfecting their setup and chasing a spot in Q2. That turned FP2 on Friday into a more frenetic affair than usual, the dash made even madder by the fact that the track is a second or more slower during the day than it is in the evening. If you missed out on Q2 in FP2, the chances of making it through during FP3, held in the afternoon heat, are slim indeed.

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2021 MotoGP Preview: How History Conspired To Create The Closest Grid Ever

Can the 2021 MotoGP season match the weirdness and wildness of 2020? The circumstances are different, but the path which led to Qatar 2021 has laid the groundwork for another fascinating year.

2021 sees two trends colliding to create (we hope) a perfect storm. There is the long-term strategy set out after the Global Financial Crisis of 2008 by Dorna CEO Carmelo Ezpeleta, with support and backing from the many bright minds in Dorna and IRTA. After Kawasaki officially withdrew at the end of 2008, and Honda came within a couple of board meetings of pulling out of MotoGP, Dorna threw their weight behind the teams.

With the grid dwindling (Suzuki pulled out at the end of 2011, after being down to a single rider), the MotoGP class was switched back to a maximum engine capacity of 1000cc, and four cylinders, while the CRT class was introduced as a second tier inside the premier class. Payments to teams were gradually increased, and over time, Dorna, with the backing of the teams, pushed through restrictions on electronics, introducing a spec ECU and then spec software to run it, and a price cap on satellite machines.

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2021 MotoGP Preseason Review: Aerodynamics, Shapeshifters, And The Meaning Of The Qatar Timesheets

The preseason is over. Preparations have been made, new parts tested, bikes, bodies, and brains readied, though not necessarily in that order. MotoGP is on the verge of starting another brand new season.

There was less to develop, test, and prepare this year, the aftermath of rules imposed during the first wave of the Covid-19 pandemic introducing freezes on engine development and limiting aerodynamic updates.

The four factories who did not have concessions in 2020 – Ducati, Honda, Suzuki, and Yamaha – will all be forced to use the engines they homologated for their riders last year for the 2021 season. KTM, who lost concessions thanks to a phenomenally successful season which included three victories, have been allowed to design a new engine for 2021, but must freeze it at the first race in Qatar.

Aprilia, the only remaining factory with full concessions, will be allowed to continue to develop their engine throughout 2021, and will have nine engines to last the season, instead of the seven the other factories have to try to make last the year.

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Andrea Dovizioso To Test For Aprilia - Why Did He Say Yes Now?

It might be an exaggeration to call today's news that Andrea Dovizioso is to test the Aprilia RS-GP MotoGP bike at Jerez from April 12th to 14th a bombshell, but it certainly raised a few eyebrows. The Italian had previously turned down the offer of a full-time ride with the Noale factory for 2021, despite Aprilia extensively courting his services. So for Aprilia to offer a test ride is no surprise. For Dovizioso to accept is certainly interesting.

The press release announced by Aprilia states very clearly that this is not an audition for a permanent ride. "It will not be a ‘trial matrimony’ but an opportunity to turn some laps together without any binding commitment for the future," Aprilia Racing CEO Massimo Rivola is quoted as saying. But the fact that Dovizioso accepted the offer suggest that may change in the future.

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Qatar 2 MotoGP Test Friday Round Up: Whether Losing A Day Of Testing Matters, And Why Getting The Vaccine Is The Responsible Thing To Do

They say a picture paints a thousand words, but the photo above, taken by Cormac Ryan Meenan for the Repsol Honda press release, actually needs several dozen just to explain what is going on. No, it's not raining. No, the Honda RC213V has not dropped a rod, blown a valve, or had an oil pipe come lose (Hondas only ever suffer 'electrical problems', of course). That yellow cloud Pol Espargaro is trailing in his wake is sand, strewn all over the track by the strong winds and sandstorm that also played havoc with F1 in nearby Bahrain.

The strong winds and sand rendered the final day of the test completely useless. At one point, the entire session was red flagged due to the conditions. But even when the track was open, few were keen to ride. Only 9 of the 29 riders present even took to the track, clocking up a grand total of 56 laps between them. And that included in and out laps. That is pretty much the average of what each rider was putting in on Thursday.

A lot of those laps weren't even full laps. Pol Espargaro, Takaaki Nakagami, Brad Binder, and Maverick Viñales put in 20-odd laps between them just doing practice starts, starting from the pits, cruising around, then coming in to try another start, after making a few adjustments to electronics and clutch.

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Qatar 2 MotoGP Test Thursday Round Up: Speed Records, Race Simulations, Why Ducati And Yamaha Are Strong, And KTM Are Struggling

There was a palpable sense of excitement after the record-setting laps by Jack Miller and Fabio Quartararo yesterday. Would more records be broken on Thursday?

They wouldn't. Though both Maverick Viñales and Franco Morbidelli got under Marc Márquez' original lap record at the track (a record which still stands, incidentally, given that records are only set on race weekends and not at tests), they still ended up several hundredths short of Miller's blistering time from Wednesday. And with the wind expected to pick up on Friday the prospect of a lap of 1'52 is growing ever more distant. Conditions will not be as absolutely perfect as they were on Wednesday again any time soon.

One record was broken, however. After Johann Zarco fired down Losail's front straight 0.9 km/h faster than Marc Márquez' previous top speed record, 352.9 km/h to Márquez' 352.0 km/h, the Frenchman shattered the top speed record by nearly 5 km/h on Thursday, clocking a best speed of 357.6 km/h. For those of you who prefer their rods, chains, and ells, that is 222.2 mph. A speed for which Johann Zarco had to have all his ducks in a row.

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Qatar 2 MotoGP Test Wednesday Round Up: The Meaninglessness Of Broken Records, Progress On Frames, And Pol Comes Good On The Honda

Records were smashed on Wednesday, and it didn't mean a thing, other than that MotoGP riders can be pretty quick on a motorbike. But that we already knew.

First, Fabio Quartararo took over a tenth off the outright circuit record set by Marc Márquez during FP2 at the 2019 MotoGP round, the Monster Energy Yamaha rider posting a 1'53.263 to Márquez' 1'53.380. Then, on his last lap of the day, Jack Miller powered his Ducati to a lap of 1'53.183, just shy of two tenths faster than Márquez' best lap.

Earlier in the day, Johann Zarco had broken Marc Márquez' top speed record, being clocked through the speed trap at the end of the straight at 352.9 km/h, 0.9 km/h better than the Repsol Honda during the 2019 race.

Does this mean that Jack Miller will beat Fabio Quartararo after the Frenchman starts from pole, by exploiting the speed of his Ducati GP21 down the front straight? I mean, it could happen. It's definitely one of the many possible ways the season opener plays out when MotoGP 2021 gets underway on March 28th. But what happened on Wednesday, 10th March is not a reliable indication of anything.

It's only testing

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Qatar 1 MotoGP Test Subscriber Notes: Where The Six MotoGP Factories Stand After Two Days Of Testing

Far from being a day of rest, on Sunday, the real work of testing began at the Losail International Circuit in Qatar. After a day to wrap their collective heads around the mind-bending speeds which riding a MotoGP bike involves, the riders got down to the work of sifting through the collection of parts the factories have brought in their quest for victory. And in racing, victory only comes through speed.

Questions were raised, and some were answered, though only partially in most cases. That doesn't matter as much as it might at a normal test, of course, because the riders and teams will only be heading back to their hotels for two days, to relax a little, to recover (for the riders), or to dive as deeply as possible into the data to try to learn as many lessons as possible ahead of the next test, which starts on Wednesday.

So what did we learn? A quick run through MotoGP's six manufacturers.

Yamaha

The big question for Yamaha was whether the 2021 chassis was the step forward that the riders had been hoping for. The 2021 chassis is not so much a step forward as half a step back a compromise between last year's frame and the 2019 chassis which Franco Morbidelli used to such good effect in 2020.

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Qatar 1 MotoGP Test Saturday Round Up: Getting Back Up To Speed, A Fast Aprilia, Ducati's Aero, And Rossi's Motherly Advice

This is not a normal era, thanks to the Covid-19 pandemic, and the pandemic touches things in unexpected ways. Sure, we knew that MotoGP testing had been restructured because of Covid-19, the Sepang test being dropped and an extra test in Qatar being added in its place.

But like all things in life, it is not quite as simple as it looks at first glance. Because the two Qatar tests are scheduled so closely together, the teams are not treating them as two separate tests. As far as the teams, and especially the factories, are concerned, there is not a two-day test and a three-day test. Instead, there is one five-day test with a two-day break in the middle.

Viewing the next week as a single test means drawing up a totally different testing plan. Instead of cramming a race simulation run into the first two-day test, then another in the second three-day test, the teams are working methodically towards arriving at a race setup ready for next Thursday or Friday, when they can do a proper long run in readiness for the first race of the 2021 MotoGP season on March 28th.

The long test

All that means that the first day of testing was, not exactly relaxed, but a little more focused and methodical. There was no rushing to complete a program; instead the riders had time to get back up to speed after three months off a MotoGP bike, and the teams spent their time working out a base setup to use as a benchmark for measuring progress.

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