PRE-SEASON MOTOGP IN QATAR: For the 2021 MotoGP World Series, the only official pre-season running took place in early March in Doha, Qatar, in the Middle East. The other pre-season “full tour” tests – including the typical several days in Malaysia – couldn’t happen due to ongoing issues with the world-wide pandemic.
Pre-season testing requires tracks with typically good weather, and preferably a venue layout that is not too odd as to make the evaluation of new parts problematic. Interestingly, while MotoGP was in Qatar for their only running prior to the opening two races at the same venue at the end of the month, Formula One was not far away in Bahrain, preparing for their opener at that track, also on March 28.
Both tests were interrupted by bad weather, in this case, sandstorms that make running almost impossible on slippery surfaces. I experienced this bizarre phenomenon while track testing the original Ducati Panigale at the Yas Marina F1 circuit in Abu Dhabi, in the United Arab Emirates, in the same general region.
When the sand arrives, with gusting winds, all you can do is slow down and pull in. The wake from the bike ahead is impressive, but the sand makes things impossible for the tires, and sometimes you can’t see where you’re going!
For the MotoGP aces, the final day of running at Qatar was basically ruined, with only five racers bothering to try the conditions. Except for general parts checking, the conditions made any kind of evaluation – the whole point of testing – impossible.
These tests are often misleading in terms of lap times and riders’ responses anyway, making pre-season predictions tricky, at best. The intense level of competition in MotoGP, during 2020, means that trying to evaluate potential performance is very risky, and likely mostly a waste of time.
Last season, Suzuki were very impressive on the way to a World Championship for Joan Mir and a third overall for team-mate Alex Rins. The same two riders will lead the freshly Monster-sponsored, GSX-RR equipped squad. But the departure of team boss and bike racing veteran Davide Brivio for the Renault (now branded Alpine) F1 squad has caused experts to doubt Suzuki’s ability to repeat its title. I think the all-round strength of their package will continue to impress in 2021.
At Qatar, one of the most interesting stories was the ever-improving top speed of Ducati’s already prodigiously quick Desmosedici. French ace Johann Zarco bumped the track’s record by 5k, up to 357.6 km/h – 222.2 mile per hour. Last season, Ducati struggled, but typically they have been a pace-setter at the Doha circuit. That said, COVID-10 made sure there was no Qatar race in 2020.
French star Johann Zardo went 222.2 mph
Many of the team’s staff were planning to return to Europe for a few days prior to the end-of-the-month openers back at Doha. However, this is a risky plan, given possible lockdowns and travel restrictions.
While the F1 teams are mostly based in the United Kingdom – where vaccinations plans are well along – the bike crews are primarily from Spain and Italy, countries that aren’t as advanced in terms of inoculations.
The government of Qatar contended that they wanted the teams vaccinated so that when they returned from Europe for the season-opening double headers, there would be far less risk of bringing the ever-changing, more risky recent variants of COVID with them.
Middle East governments have offered to inoculate most of the travelling paddock, and while the F1 world was reluctant, the eventual direction in Qatar was pro-injection. The late daily starting time for the MotoGP tests – given that running takes place in cooler conditions under the lights – meant the mornings could be used for the teams to get their shots.
VACCINATIONS: Everyone is worried about the appearance of professional race teams and competitors “jumping the line,” and getting special treatment. On the flip side, a case can be made that their travel requirements and event activities mean they could be super spreaders, and various mandated quarantines for racers and their crews during 2020 confirm these real risks.
The two most famous racers on the planet – F1’s Lewis Hamilton and MotoGP’s ‘Doctor’ Valentino Rossi – both missed events last year because of the virus.
“Yes, we did get the vaccine this morning and I’m very happy because it’s a step for our normal life,” explained Italian Rossi in Qatar, on March 12. “We can make more normal without having the nightmare to see someone near who has COVID and miss two to three races like what happened to me last year.”
Valentino Rossi was recently vaccinated
For World Champ Mir, consultations with his various doctors and trainers caused him to decide to get the shot in Qatar. As well, after learning that the Suzuki squad will work in Doha for the next few weeks rather than travelling back and forth to Italy, Mir has opted to stay put and do his training near the circuit.
“A lot of people with family and children are staying in Qatar,” confirmed the 23-year-old from Mallorca. “I don’t see it as fair if they choose to stay and I go back home. I stay with my team, and it’s not the end of the world, we will be in a luxury hotel, and it doesn’t matter.”