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.
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
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.
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.
Nearly 41% of the MotoGP grid hit the track at the Circuit de Catalunya in Montmelo near Barcelona on Wednesday, as the riders gathered together for what would essentially become the world's fastest track day. Nine MotoGP riders were joined by a handful of stars from Moto2, Moto3, and the WorldSBK paddock to get some track time, all on production machines.
The MotoGP stars on track included the Espargaro brothers, Pol and Aleix, both LCR Honda riders Alex Marquez and Takaaki Nakagami, Ecstar Suzuki riders Joan Mir and Alex Rins, factory Yamaha rider Fabio Quartararo, and the Ducatis of Jack Miller and Johann Zarco. Bikes used included the Ducati Panigale V4S, Yamaha YZF-R1, Suzuki GSX-R1000, Aprilia RSV4, the Honda RC213V-S, and a Honda CBR1000RR-R Fireblade ridden by Repsol Honda rider Pol Espargaro. On track in other classes were Ana Carrasco, Remy Gardner, Raul Fernandez, Tito Rabat, Albert Arenas, and Jaume Masia.
In the last weeks of December, Japan's leading MotoGP journalist Akira Nishimura spoke to two of the key players in Honda's MotoGP project: Honda Racing Corporation General Manager Tetsuhiro Kuwata, and 2020 RC213V development leader Takehiro Koyasu. As a native Japanese speaker, Nishimura-san got more out of the HRC bosses than an English-speaking journalist would. The conversation covered Honda's MotoGP riders, an analysis of their thoroughly mediocre 2020 season, and their expectations for 2021.
In 2020, Honda had to endure a tough season, in contrast to previous years. Needless to say, one of the biggest reasons for that was the absence of Marc Marquez (Repsol Honda Team). His right humerus fracture at the opening round in Jerez sidelined the eight-time world champion for all the races of the 2020 season, a costly loss for HRC.
Meanwhile, Takaaki Nakagami (LCR Honda IEMITSU) made a significant improvement in both riding skills and race results. Also, MotoGP rookie Alex Marquez (Repsol Honda Team) did a fantastic job with two second-place finishes despite it being his debut year in the premier class. On the other hand, the Brit Cal Crutchlow (LCR Honda Castrol) decided to draw his racing career to a close at the end of the year. With these abundant topics for the review of the 2020 season and the preview for the forthcoming 2021 season, we interviewed Honda Racing Corporation General Manager Tetsuhiro Kuwata and 2020 RC213V development leader Takehiro Koyasu.
First of all, we asked them for a comprehensive review and the preview, then moved on to the detailed Q&A with them.
Kuwata: "It is quite simple. We lost entirely throughout the 2020 season. However, we also learned a lot from these defeats, and we believe these hardships will make us even stronger.
2020 was a transformative year for Takaaki Nakagami. His results in his first two seasons in MotoGP had been rather modest, to put it mildly. The LCR Honda rider had looked very much like the token Japanese representative in MotoGP he was suspected of being, a sop to appease Honda, who have long wanted to field a Japanese rider in the premier class.
That all changed in 2020. Nakagami went from being an also-ran to being a constant podium contender, scoring his first pole and front row starts, and matching or beating his best result on four occasions. He was very fast in practice, both over a single lap and in terms of race pace. His zenith came at Aragon 2, where he grabbed pole and led the race for the first few corners, before crashing out.
What brought about this change? After a mediocre first race in Jerez, Nakagami spent a lot of time studying the data of Marc Márquez, and tried to adapt the six-time MotoGP champion's riding style to his own. That proved to be a huge step forward for the LCR Honda rider, and Nakagami ended the season as a serious threat in every race.
After speaking to journalists throughout the year in English, his second language, Nakagami finally gave an interview in his native Japanese to esteemed Japanese journalist Akira Nishimura. In the interview, Nakagami opens up on how he changed his riding style to be more competitive, on how he learned to handle the Honda RC213V, and what HRC did to improve the performance of the bike, including introducing the holeshot device and a shapeshifter.
So here, with Nishimura-san's excellent translation into English, is Takaaki Nakagami in his own words.
Whenever a journalist gets a little too excited over a rider's lap times after FP2, and starts asking them what it means for the race, they inevitably get slapped down with an old racing aphorism. "It's only Friday," riders will say, whether they are at the top of the standings, at the bottom, or somewhere in the middle. Being fast is nice on a Friday, but there is still a long way to go until the riders line up on the grid on Sunday. An awful lot can, and usually does change in the meantime.
That old adage is exponentially true on a Friday at a brand new track where nobody has ridden before. Especially an extraordinary track like Portimao, which snakes all over the Algarve countryside like a roller-coaster hewn into the hills. The track is so different, and so difficult, that there is still a huge amount of work to do before anyone can start to draw conclusions. Add in the fact that Michelin has brought four fronts and four rears (with two different hard tires front and rear), and you have a huge and complex puzzle to solve before Sunday. Two 70-minute sessions on Friday helped, but were still nowhere near enough.
"Well, for sure I think we are not the fastest, but it's only Friday." A common enough refrain after FP2, with another day of practice and qualifying to go before the race on Sunday. But when it is championship leader Joan Mir saying it, on the weekend he could wrap up the title, is it a sign of trouble?
So far, Mir has been remarkably calm and composed under pressure. He has impressed even nine-time world champion and MotoGP legend Valentino Rossi. "Nobody bet on Mir at the beginning of the season, but already in the last races of last season he did a big improvement and also in the winter test he was strong," Rossi told us on Friday evening. "For me he's very mature, it's like he has more experience considering he is a very young rider and it's just the second year in MotoGP and also he did just one season in Moto2. So he's an unbelievable talent, I think. Nobody expected that he can win the championship this year. But I think that if he will win he deserves it 100% because he was the more constant, that this year is very important."