Five races into the 2021 MotoGP season, and with the Covid-19 pandemic abating in some places while flaring up in others, there are the first signs of movement in motorcycle racing. Teams, factories, and riders are starting to open (and in some cases, complete) negotiations for this year and beyond, and races are slowly starting to open up to fans.
Although for a variety of reasons, the moves have not been covered in separate stories, here is a quick round up of the latest news and speculation from around the paddock.
Jack Miller stays on with Ducati
As with so many other areas of life, the secret to signing MotoGP contracts lies in the timing. As a rider, you want to put pen to paper at the exact point your market value is at its highest. Coming off back-to-back race victories at Jerez and Le Mans, in the dry and in the flag-to-flag French Grand Prix, Jack Miller has timed his contract extension to perfection. Today, Ducati announced they had signed Miller up for the 2022 MotoGP season, to race in the factory Ducati Lenovo Team.
It was an expensive first day at Le Mans. Bikes in the three Grand Prix classes hit the deck (and the gravel trap) 44 times on Friday, a colossal number, even for Le Mans. To put that into perspective: at the first race in Qatar, there were 37 crashes over all three days of the first Grand Prix, and 27 over three days of the Doha round at Qatar. In fact, six of the nineteen rounds held in 2019 had fewer crashes over all three days than Le Mans did on Friday, and another five rounds only had a handful more.
Some 19 of those 44 crashes happened at Turn 3, the first left hander of the Dunlop Chicane. Given how quickly the costs of a crash can mount up – even a slow crash can cost north of €20,000 to replace carbon fiber fairings, footpegs, and levers. And if fuel tanks, exhausts, wheels, brake discs or (heaven forfend) frames and swingarms have to be replaced, costs can rapidly approach six figures.
For some, the Monday after the Jerez race was a busy day, as they worked their way through a full program of parts and settings to prepare for Le Mans and beyond (and in Suzuki's case, for 2022). For others, they had a relatively easy day, especially the two factory Ducati riders – to the victors go the spoils. And for the unlucky ones of the weekend, they either barely turned a wheel, or not at all, as they headed off for medical checkups.
Fabio Quartararo took no part in the test at all. The Monster Energy Yamaha rider headed back to France to get medical advice on the best options for treatment on the arm pump issue which cost him the race on Sunday. With his home race up next, his priorities were clear.
Aleix Espargaro, who had also suffered with arm pump on Sunday, did ride a little, but he only put in 12 laps before heading back to Barcelona and seeking medical advice. Marc Márquez did a quick run out on Honda's new aero package – one of them, at least – before calling it a day after just 7 laps. The Repsol Honda rider had neck pain from his huge crash on Saturday, as well as stiffness in his shoulder, and elected to focus on his recovery instead.
The satellite bike situation for the coming five-year contract period in MotoGP is starting to crystallize. Today, KTM and Tech3 announced that the French team would be staying inside the stable of the Austrian factory for the entire five years of the MotoGP period, from 2022 to 2026.
That Tech3 would stay with KTM was hardly a surprise: the French team won their first ever premier class race last season with Miguel Oliveira, and the team is an important part of KTM's talent structure, which brings riders through all the way from the Red Bull Rookies to MotoGP. But the fact that it is a five-year deal is unusual, satellite team contracts in MotoGP are usually only for two to three years.
It is a truism to point out that it is just Friday, and too early to be getting excited about who is where on the timesheets. But the reason it is a truism is because (the clue is in the name) it's true. Friday is just the first day of the weekend, and not everybody is up to speed right away. Things change over a weekend, especially once the engineers have had an evening to examine the data.
The weather and the track changes too. The tail end of storm Lola has just passed over Jerez de la Frontera, and temperatures are slowly returning to normal after an unseasonally cold and wet period. The mercury is creeping higher once again, and with every degree of temperature and every ray of direct Andalusian sunlight, track temperatures are increasing, bringing more grip.
In addition, every bike that laps the track lays down a little rubber, creating more and more grip. And there are a lot of bikes turning laps at Jerez: in addition to the usual three Grand Prix classes of Moto3, Moto2, and MotoGP, there are also the Red Bull Rookies and MotoE. The MotoE bikes, in particular, help the MotoGP teams. Like MotoGP, MotoE uses Michelin tires, and the big, heavy machines lay down a lot of Michelin rubber which helps create grip for everyone, and especially MotoGP.
More rubber, more speed
The 2020 MotoGP season saw a curious debate arise. The valve issues which Yamaha suffered at the first two races at Jerez saw the Japanese factory have points deducted and have to manage the remaining 12 races on just three engines for each rider. Franco Morbidelli, already disadvantaged by having to run the 2019 machine, rather than the supposedly more better 2020 Yamaha M1, had just two engines to last the season.
After winning the first two races, and taking a clean sweep of the podium at Jerez 2, the 2020 Yamahas disappeared. Fans and media wrote the M1 off, declaring the bike to be a disaster. The results seemed to justify that designation. Maverick Viñales finished ninth or worse in 7 of the remaining 12 races, and crashed out disastrously in Austria. Fabio Quartararo finished eight or worse in 7 of 12 races, crashed out of two others, and slipped from championship leader to finish the season in eighth. Valentino Rossi had four DNFs, and missed two more races due to a Covid-19 infection, ending the season fifteenth, the worst season in his very, very long Grand Prix career.
Four months after getting off the Ducati with no contracts signed for 2021, Andrea Dovizioso is riding again. The Italian has spent the past three days testing the Aprilia RS-GP at a private test at Jerez, sharing the track with Yamaha, KTM, and Honda, in between the sessions for the MotoE class.
On Wednesday afternoon, the final day of Dovizioso's test with Aprilia, the Italian spoke to the media about the test, his motivation for testing the RS-GP, his plans for the immediate future, and what he thought of the test so far. He was very cagey in his responses, not wanting to give away too much, but reading between the lines he still had plenty to say.
He did not want to enter into detail about how the bike felt, insisting that the first thing he had to do was to find the right riding position before he could be comfortable trying to push the bike to its limit. "You know, when you change the bike after 8 years, it's a big change, so the first thing is the position on the bike. That is the main point," Dovizioso said.
Being comfortable wasn't just about how he felt on the bike, but also finding the best position to get he most out of the machine, the Italian explained. "It takes time, because it's related to being comfortable on the bike, but also you have to understand which is the best position for you and which is the best position for the bike. Because every bike has a different characteristic, so we spent a lot of time on that, and it was impossible to fix these things in three days."