After a dramatic finale in Valencia, we look at the big winners and losers from the final race and indeed the 2021 season as a whole.
It’s quite the feat to manage two world champions in the same year. And quite another to have team-mates fighting for one of those gongs, as Aki Ajo did with Remy Gardner and Raul Fernandez in the Moto2 class. But it wasn’t just about the Finn’s eye for rider selection. Up to the final round, the battling team-mates remained respectful without tensions ever bubbling over.
During the final round, Fernandez attempted to unsettle his elder team-mate. He hovered around Gardner in free practice, passing, sitting up, watching from behind. Even in the race, the Spaniard slowed the pace to make the Australian’s life difficult, back in the pack.
For this, Ajo has to take great credit. As Massimo Branchini, Gardner’s crew chief testified, “Inside of the box we don’t want fighting. Aki’s so strong about this. We have two riders that use their heads, and don’t create tension. We go to eat together. Everything is shared. Both guys are very clever about this.”
This kind of atmosphere isn’t just created overnight; it’s the result of Ajo instilling his ideas and methods over a number of years. “You have to be prepared, and try to prepare the atmosphere, the working style, the team harmony inside,” he said back in July. “This is something you need to work on for years to be prepared. We are more like a family than maybe some other teams. We really try and teach our riders from the beginning to show them our way, how we are working and helping each other all the time.”
Even after the team’s triumph he was keen to play down his own role in this. “I was afraid of it but it was actually much easier than I expected. Maybe we got lucky or something! No problems at all, nothing. Both respected themselves in an incredible way in the box, on the track and outside, everywhere. Really something where we can also learn a lot for the future. An experience in my life where it went so well to the last second, the last moment.” Now that’s good management.
Gardner’s nervy tenth place wasn’t quite indicative of his performances over the season. The final race of 2021 was, he said, just a case of getting over the line and sealing the title, especially when he carried some painful scars from the previous week in Portugal (two broken ribs).
But overall, it was a season of multiple accomplishments. His world title was the first for an Aussie aboard either a 250cc or Moto2 machine since Kel Carruthers in 1969. In June, he was the first Australian to ever win three races on the bounce. And after father Wayne’s 500cc title in 1987, the Gardners are only the second family in history to have a father and son win grand prix championships.
And he did so despite being the heaviest rider on the grid. Weighing 72 kilos, around eight or nine more than his team-mate, a big disadvantage in a class designed for parity. As crew chief Branchini explained, ““With leathers and helmet he is 83kg. The average rider is 75-76kg. So that’s around 8kg more. You might think this means (the rider) loses speed. Not true. The biggest difference is the tyre life. Every braking and every acceleration, there is 8kg more, in every corner, on every lap. All race. Finally, the speed difference is 0.2kph. But tyre life is affected more. The full tank for one race puts 12kg. Remy has an extra of 8kg. The rider has an empty fuel tank and it’s like Remy’s is full!”
This was something the Australian was all too aware of in the past, something he overly dwelled on. Aki Ajo noticed as much in their early meetings in 2020 and made it clear he could no longer use this as an excuse. “I remember our face-to-face talks were quite intensive and tough and emotional,” said the Finn. “I would not say we were fighting but we had some different opinions and I was quite clear that I believed him and I liked his style but quite a lot would have to change with the attitude if we worked together. He had some doubts, whether he brought them himself or from people around him, in his head that he was too heavy and the bike is slow because of this-or-that. I was shooting everything down in the first moments.”
Overcoming this disadvantage, and not dwelling on it were to reasons why Gardner ended the year as champ.
By the autumn of the year, it was clear KTM’s Moto3 package was the bike to have. The Austrian factory would have wrapped up the Manufacturers’ title long before the final race had it not split its efforts with Husqvarna and GASGAS, essentially rebadged KTMs. It’s the first time, KTM has had such a clear advantage in the class since 2016. In the second half of the year, Leopard Honda were the only rival machines that could regularly keep up.
What’s more, their decision to withdraw from the Moto2 as chassis suppliers at the end of 2019 hasn’t affected their supply to MotoGP. Aki Ajo’s team runs Kalex chassis, but also still runs KTM stickers on the side of the bike. And news in Valencia that Aspar’s Moto2 squad will now be known as the GASGAS set-up (even if they are, like Ajo, using Kalex frames) will provide another opportunity to push that brand, and house some young prospects that could eventually graduate to the premier class. A clever strategy.
Considering the extent of his struggles early in the year, the Majorcan’s fifth place in the championship seems like something of an achievement. Augusto swapped frames during the first two GPs and was miles off the class’ leading names. He then crashed in three consecutive races – Jerez, Le Mans and Mugello – when podium potential was there. But from there, he didn’t buck. Quite the contrary, he picked up six podiums from the final ten races, suggesting he has re-found his level from 2019. “I’m happy to finish the season in this way. The second part of the season was so good. we got back on our level finally and I was fast and consistent. The shame is I didn’t get the win,” he said at Valencia. It’s understandable he feels the season’s climax came at the wrong moment. “I don’t want to go on holidays. I want to keep going!” Now under Aki Ajo’s wing for 2022, Augusto should be a championship player once more.
The final Moto2 race of 2019 was just further proof of what we’ve seen all year: Raul Fernandez, proving himself to be perhaps the fastest Moto2 rider of the year. The 20-year old became the first rookie in intermediate class history to rack up eight wins, a feat that was beyond former greats Freddie Spencer, John Kocinski, Dani Pedrosa and Marc Marquez.
But such was his dominance here, Fernandez could even try and dictate the pace and nature of the race early on. Locked in a tight fight with Fabio Di Giannantonio and namesake Augusto, Raul deliberately slowed his speed “to create more chaos behind me. If I had one opportunity it was to do that.” Ultimately Di Giannantonio’s decision to break clear meant Fernandez had little option but follow. His fastest lap the final time around spoke of his superiority.
So why does he find himself at this end of the list? Well, the peculiar outburst in the days that followed didn’t win him any new fans. Claiming the Ajo team had conspired to work against him, Fernandez said he was the “moral winner” of the year. The 20-year old also had a sly dig at his team-mate. “He wasn’t the most intelligent one, he was the one that had fewer things put in his path,” he told Motorsport.com’s German Garcia Casanova.
This not only sounded like sour grapes. It also gave the impression – yet again – that Fernandez is not entirely happy with the path ahead of him. Most riders would barely be able to contain their excitement on the eve of their first MotoGP test. But the Spaniard’s body language suggested he was anything but. As brilliant as he’s been on the track in 2021, Fernandez has also been no stranger to controversy.
And considering how KTM has bowed to his wishes – handing him a MotoGP contract when Yamaha was interested, finding brother Adrian a good Moto3 seat in 2022 – it is puzzling that Raul still carries the air of someone that has been slighted.
It was another spirited year for Leopard Honda in Moto3. The manner in which the squad honed Dennis Foggia from erratic, inconsistent talent into a fast title contender was one of the year’s big storylines. But their reaction to the outcome of the Algarve GP wasn’t great. It’s understandable waving away Darryn Binder – the man who tagged Foggia’s back wheel, bringing him down – ten minutes after the event as emotions run high. But Team Principal Christian Lundberg’s comments at Valencia were anything to go by, there was a sniff of conspiracy in the air. What were we meant to read into his belief that Binder not only purposely took down Foggia on the Algarve, but slowed his pace in the final laps of the Emilia Romagna GP to let Pedro Acosta by for third place was absurd. Foggia’s taking down of Acosta in the final race looked like a mistake.
Then there is the issue of Xavi Artigas, a debut race winner at Valencia. The Catalan endured a rookie campaign filled with ups and downs. He caused crashes for other riders in his first two races and retired from a total of six outings (as well as missing two because of contracting COVID-19). But in the last part of the season, he was a regular front runner. Artigas was taken out of the victory fight by Acosta in Aragon. He had race-winning potential on his first visit to CotA but jumped the start. And he won the season finale brilliantly, robbing Sergio Garcia at the very last corner for a thrilling victory. Letting him slip away after doing so much work to develop him and bring him from the FIM Junior World Championship is a decision they may come to regret.
One juicy storyline in Moto3 was the return of Deniz Öncü. The Turkish teenager was made an example of after swerving on the back straight of the Grand Prix of the Americas, causing a horrific three-rider crash. The majority of the paddock felt his two-race suspension was entirely justified. Manager Kenan Sofuoglu, however, was the exception stating high levels of aggression are necessary to succeed in the junior class.
So would the Turkish rider return here a reformed character? Well, not quite. Öncü was certainly fast. He was arguably the quickest of the lot as he charged through from 13th on the grid to lead by lap eleven. But the 18-year old looked ragged and was riding each lap as though his title depended on it. A Long Lap Penalty was a consequence of him repeatedly exceeding track limits. “He rode like a demon,” said team boss Hervé Poncharal. And he did. But Öncü still has a few rough edges to straighten out if he wishes to fight for the title next year, and avoid further controversies with his rivals.
This was a sad send-off for a rider who was once the coming man of the Moto2 class. Lorenzo Baldassarri’s final outing in the intermediate category was just two turns old when he collided with Marco Bezzecchi’s fallen machine. A cruel outcome, but one in keeping with how the lanky Italian’s fortunes have gone in recent years. Just two and a half seasons before, Baldassarri found himself at the top of the Moto2 World Championship. When he stepped up to the premier class was a matter of ‘when’, not ‘if’.
But Dunlop’s front tyre change from the 2019 Spanish Grand Prix onward was one from which he never really recovered. Baldassarri switched from Pons Kalex to Forward Racing MV Agusta in 2021, but an upturn in results wasn’t forthcoming. He had scored just three points before he cracked the second metacarpal of his left hand. Recovery was complicated, meaning he missed the Dutch, Austrian and Aragon GPs. He bowed out of Moto2 31st in the championship and without a ride for 2022 – a sad conclusion for a rider who once had the world at his feet.
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