The first round of the 2021 MotoGP series took place under the lights in Qatar, on Sunday evening, and Monster Yamaha’s team leader Maverick Vinales took a solid (for the modern era) victory at the Barwa-backed Losail circuit on the outskirts of Doha. Unlike previous seasons (but not 2020 when the main event was cancelled at the 11th hour due to the arrival of the Pandemic), this event did not feature a slip-streaming fight for the win at the finish line on the kilometer-long front straight.
Instead, Vinales rode through the lead group to score the win by just over a second.
This result was great news for Vinales, frequently the pace setter during off-season action over the past four seasons. By capitalizing on his potential, he might slightly silence his many critics, who say the 26-year-old is too mentally fragile to control a season at the top of the World Championship standings.
“It’s been a while since I overtook so many riders,” explained the father-to-be. “Early on, I felt that special feeling with the bike. I think this win is very good for morale, because it is always important to trust ourselves.”
Yamaha would like to turn their back on a frustrating 2020 campaign that, to be kind, might best be described as messy and disappointing. While Yamaha won lots of races, both their works squad and the satellite Petronas team had a bizarre run of mostly self-inflicted disappointments.
Perhaps the strongest Yamaha rider last year was Fabio Quartararo, or maybe his team-mate Franco Morbidelli, both of the “B” squad. 2020 Vinales was at best third choice, although the leader of the “A” pair of YZR-M1 racers.
Fourth man was living legend Valentino Rossi, who moved to Petronas this season while Quartararo got shuffled up to the top tier with established official number one Vinales.
In Qatar, Quartararo had a strong factory debut, netting fifth. However, the Petronas squad, frequently embarrassing the “A” effort, had a bad 2021 debut.
Rossi had a troubled race, running near the front before a couple of encounters forced him to play catch-up. “The Doctor” wound up 12th, while late 2020-star Morbidelli couldn’t establish a race pace and was out of the points down in 18th.
There will be much soul-searching (and data mining) at Petronas in the four-day break before the start of Qatar two.
The battle for runner-up honours was a fun focal point, with 2020 World Champ Joan Mir showing continuing form for the Ecstar Suzuki team.
While Suzuki stars Mir and 2020 third overall Alex Rins still can’t get their spec Michelin rubber to “switch on” during qualifying, their race form is regularly impressive.
Mir and Rins were at the bottom of the top ten from the start of the 22-lap race, while the main Ducati challenge opened with an unprecedented four Desmo hole shot!
Much off-season discussion centred on the Desmosedici GP21’s ability to lower for maximum traction and straight-line speed, and the works Lenovo squad and satellite Pramac effort moved straight to the front as the lights turned of.
PHOTO: Pole setter and third place overall Francesco Bagnaia (#63). Photo courtesy Ducati Media House
Pole man Francesco Bagnaia took the point, with his works team leader Jack Miller in second, followed by Pramac’s Johann Zarco and class rookie Jorge Martin. Did I mention Martin, in his first MotoGP start, came from row five and 14th overall on the grid?
The Ducatis also showed remarkable top speed in practice and qualifying, with Zarco setting the new outright record with a run at 362.4 km/h in Free Practice Four.
They were again fast in the race, but a need to conserve fuel forced Ducati to electronically limit their bikes, and only Honda maintained their strong top speeds (355) through to race day.
So, Mir worked up to second but knew Zarco and Bagnaia would be looking for the last lap draft and pass. It looked like he tried to out-fox the following Ducatis with a wide line in the last turn on the final lap, but the move back-fired and Zarco netted second with Bagnaia .04 of a second back for third, Mir fourth another two tenths back.
After the race, Zarco admitted that he “doesn’t need more power, we have enough! But I think I need to be a bull on the last few laps, or in the moment when Vinales pushes past, to have his capacity. I went faster in that moment, but four-tenths went missing, and we need to find those four-tenths. We will try to have a better connection with the rear tire into the corner.”
“Unfortunately, I think I made the wrong strategy and wore the tires down too much at the start,” reflected works rookie Bagnaia. “After seven laps, I started to struggle a lot. I think that our issues were also due to the different track conditions compared to the last few (warmer) days.”
For Mir, his middle east evening was a positive overall, even with the final straight fade from second to fourth: “I made a step this morning in the warm-up, and I regained my feeling with the bike – the most important thing. I had a feeling those Ducatis would overtake me on the last straight with the slipstream, and I’m still satisfied with fourth.”
Stay tuned for Qatar two, one week hence.
PHOTO: Fourth place finisher and current MotoGP champ Joan Mir – Photo courtesy Suzuki Racing