until Abu Dhabi Autonomous Racing League


What we learned from MotoGP’s first 2021 test

by Matt Beer
13 min read

until Abu Dhabi Autonomous Racing League

Two of MotoGP’s five days of 2021 pre-season testing are already done, with a two-day gap now before teams are back on track for final preparations in Qatar.

Some teams and riders already look like they’re in great shape. Others are trying to play it cool despite languishing down the order.

We’ve already looked at Valentino Rossi’s concerns that Yamaha’s latest bike has more in common with its poor 2020 machine than the 2019 design it was aiming to emulate and Alex Marquez’s string of crashes, plus Jorge Lorenzo’s mischievous bit of test punditry.

Here’s everything else Simon Patterson and Valentin Khorounzhiy noted from the Qatar weekend.

Miller is flying for Ducati

Jack Miller Ducati Qatar MotoGP test 2021

Top spot on the timesheets might have gone to his friend Fabio Quartararo, but new factory Ducati signing Jack Miller may well be the man to beat when the lights go out for the opening race of the year, if the first test is anything to go by.

Only 0.07s behind Quartararo but delighted with what Ducati has done over the winter, Miller’s pace suggests the team’s 2020 issues won’t be a problem at Losail at least.

However, with still lots of work to do as he perfects Ducati’s new aerodynamics package – a new wing design he says adds stability without costing the bike top speed – Miller was adamant that the times are just too close to christen anyone a pre-race favourite at this point.

“The job still isn’t over and we’ve still got three days of testing to go,” he said after the two days concluded.

“I’m pleased with what they’ve done with the restrictions the team had, and I’m looking forward to racing the GP21 now.

“Everyone is always close here because Qatar is one of those tracks that a lot of bikes work well at, and it’ll be even closer after five days of testing before the race.

“We haven’t really seen the Suzuki have a crack at it and I think they’re holding back a little, and maybe KTM are doing the same. It’s too early [to say what’ll happen].” – Simon Patterson

Marquez-permitting, Espargaro will (probably) win…

Pol Espargaro Honda Qatar MotoGP test 2021

Pol Espargaro’s comment that the Honda is “very different” to the KTM could have triggered alarm bells, if not for one important caveat – the physicality of both.

Espargaro acknowledges that the RC213V he now rides, like the RC16 he’s stepped off, needs to hustled around, but “the good thing is that, if you put effort – a lot of effort – into this kind of bike, you get the reward”.

And on Sunday already Espargaro visibly started to get that reward. While 12th on the timesheets is nothing to write home about, he was just seven tenths off the pace after only two days on what many see as MotoGP’s hardest bike.

“The good point is that I don’t need to change [the riding style],” he said last night. “I mean, for sure I need to get adapted to this bike because it’s new, everything is new.

“[But] for me the most difficult is not the physical part of the bike, the chassis, the swing arm etc – it’s more about what you cannot see, what you cannot touch, the electronics, the power delivery.

“In every bike it’s different, and Honda has this kind of acceleration, electronics, which is amazing – but even if it’s amazing I need to get used to it and take the best of these electronics, and at the moment I’m not doing it.

“Sometimes I feel I’m overriding the electronics because it’s so good that I’m just relying on the electronics, and I need myself to do different things on the bike.

Pol Espargaro, Qatar MotoGP test, Honda 6 March 2021

“And today I was learning quite a lot, especially on the race pace. This was the biggest step up compared to yesterday. Yesterday I struggled to make high 1m55s, today my rhythm was in low 1m55s.”

Considering that Honda even without Marc Marquez had a 2020 bike that should’ve probably won at least at Aragon, and that Espargaro really seems to be adapting quicker than his predecessors in the second works seat, he can genuinely target silverware soon.

At least unless/until Marquez comes back fighting fit and likely shifts the benchmark. – Valentin Khorounzhiy

…and Zarco is bound to fight for a win, too

Johann Zarco Pramac Ducati Qatar MotoGP test 2021

There was understandable sympathy for Karel Abraham when he was moved aside by Avintia Ducati for 2020 despite having a deal, but in the end Ducati’s decision to do so, in order to accommodate Johann Zarco within its roster, has looked better with each passing day.

And this Qatar test has been no exception. Now that he’s a Pramac rider with a works-spec bike, Zarco was surprised and buoyed by being able to instantly start building on what he’d learned in his first Ducati year – and him rounding out the top six on both days signposted a strong showing.

Zarco said that he still needed to be more comfortable on the Desmosedici, and that he was still spinning the tyre too much and sliding. “But having a few things that I cannot do as I want, I’m still competitive, so it means a good start,” he said.

“Having the step from Avintia to Pramac, I also feel I’m even more into the project of developing the bike, and that’s a nice feeling – when I can be fast and give comments and see that they [Ducati] like this kind of comments, it’s pretty positive.”

The Frenchman is still chasing his first MotoGP win, and so is Pramac. It looked a pretty likely prospect for 2021 when the move was announced – and it looks likelier now. – VK

Suzuki is fully in control

Joan Mir Suzuki Qatar MotoGP test 2021

It’s an ominous sign for the world champion’s rivals that Suzuki duo Joan Mir and Alex Rins have concluded their first test of 2021 so relaxed and confident that they’re already working on the 2022 GSX-RR machine, with test rider Sylvain Guintoli trialling the new engine for next season at Losail.

There’s still plenty of things for 2021 to try out too, and world champion Mir admitted that he had a hard day of work on the second day of testing as he ploughed through a whole host of parts.

But, finishing up delighted with progress made on a bike that was already one of the most sorted packages on the grid, he sounded for all the world like a very confident reigning champion and the man to beat. And that’s exactly what he is.

“It was a tough day because we tried lots of new things such as the new spec chassis items, some things with the electronics, and some tyres,” Mir said after the test.

“We tried to find the best way forward and I’m happy with the performance, and my lap times so far.

“The team and I have done a really good job, the test has been positive, and for sure we feel prepared for the next three days of testing at the end of next week.” – SP

Marquez’s bike seems in safe hands

Stefan Bradl

We should know more about the comeback plans of six-time MotoGP champion Marc Marquez this week, with the Honda rider scheduled for another medical check-up in the coming days to assess the bone regrowth in his damaged right arm.

Should those checks be positive, then it’s possible that we could see him back in action at the first round of the year later this month – although that remains a very outside possibility right now.

Instead, what’s more likely is that Honda test rider Stefan Bradl will continue to deputise for him, and the German’s excellent speed throughout testing is likely to have done his case with the factory no harm at all.

Consistently near the top of the timesheets, he ended up an impressive fifth, well clear of the next best Honda of Espargaro in 12th.

However, Bradl’s continuing presence in Repsol Honda colours is causing increasing consternation among rival team bosses.

Doubling up as racer and test rider and therefore able to ride at both official tests and race weekends as well as private tests (a privilege shared only by concession-status Aprilia’s riders), Bradl is causing other teams to grumble about the advantage his ample mileage has handed to Honda’s development programme. – SP

Rookies are making steady progress

Luca Marini VR46 Ducati Qatar MotoGP test 2021

MotoGP’s crop of three 2021 rookies have been working through the basics of learning their way in the premier class, with reigning Moto2 champion Enea Bastianini the fastest of the trio of Ducati-mounted newcomers after three days.

“I’ve ridden more smoothly and relaxed as with this bike you can’t ride aggressively,” Esponsorama rider Bastianini admitted to discovering on day two.

“I finally got a good time in the middle of the session. We have started working with electronics and set-up, and the result of these three days is very positive.

“A goal for the next test is certainly to improve gradually to get in the best conditions to the two races.”

That’s a trend repeated across the rookie board, with Pramac’s Jorge Martin also pleased with his pace as he too increases his understanding of the bike, especially on used tyres.

Despite starting the day off with a crash on only his third lap, he was quickly able to find his confidence again – and said the goal at the next test is to increase his learning by following some of the more experienced riders.

Luca Marini is also heading in the right direction after using the second day of testing to make important ergonomic adjustments to the VR46/Esponsorama Ducati.

Among the tallest riders on the grid, it took time for Marini to find the right position on the cramped Ducati – but with that sorted, he’s been able to work on adjusting his riding style for the new bike.

“I have done a lot on my riding style in braking and now I am closer to the other Ducati guys,” he said.

“The riding position is better, I can do more laps and keep a good pace. I am doing a lot in terms of electronics, I have more confidence on the front too and I have pushed more on the tyres that are really very different from Dunlop [used in Moto2].

“We have to work on many details to be 100%, but we can think of a race simulation in the next session.” – SP

Binder isn’t starting as he means to go on

Brad Binder

While Alex Marquez courted headlines – our headlines, anyway – by crashing three times in two days, his fellow sophomore Brad Binder also had a rocky time over at KTM, and was pretty dispirited by how his test had concluded.

“Today was just one of those days,” he said on Sunday night. “I think that wraps it up quite well.

“It was a little bit difficult this morning, didn’t feel too great, then I really started to find my way and feel really good on the bike.

“We had two new sets [of tyres] for the end of the day, and just before I put the one set on, I fell off. And then we went on the other bike, and I put in one new set of tyres, and fell off.

“So, yeah, then we decided to call it quits for the day.

“It’s unfortunate to finish the day like this, but luckily we have three good days coming up this week.”

Even without the spills, Binder wasn’t too far up the order over the two days, and ended up just 17th on combined times. He was still ahead of the Tech3 KTM riders, but they were a bit smilier – Iker Lecuona was “quite happy” despite “not the best result” and so was newcomer Danilo Petrucci despite a Sunday crash of his own.

Danilo Petrucci  after crash , Qatar MotoGP test

Petrucci though knows he is still a way away from where he wants to be on the RC16, with the ex-Ducati rider explaining that he still needs to figure out a set-up to compensate for the fact he’s comfortably the bulkiest of the KTM riders, as well to get his head around having “too much traction”. – VK

Espargaro getting happier with Aprilia’s form

Aleix Espargaro Aprilia Qatar MotoGP test 2021

Aprilia rider Aleix Espargaro ended the second day of testing in Losail more content with Aprilia’s progress than his slightly reserved comments after day one, as MotoGP’s tail-end manufacturer managed to show progress for a second day in a row.

Espargaro was fast throughout the test, ending up third overall, and consistent as well. But it’s become something of a running pattern to hear the veteran Spaniard sounding happy before the year starts only to be disappointed – and he admits he’s trying hard to temper that urge despite being upbeat.

“[Team boss] Massimo [Rivola] is sitting in front of me and won’t allow me to say that I’m very happy,” Espargaro joked on his Zoom call with the media after testing, “but sincerely it’s just the first test but yes, we’re happy.

“We’ve been very fast, we’ve shown that we can fight with the best in lap times, and we’re doing good steps.

“We can have fun this year!”

KTM not concerned about poor pace

Miguel Oliveira KTM Qatar MotoGP test 2021

Factory KTM rider Miguel Oliveira has insisted that he’s not concerned about a lack of testing pace from his manufacturer despite finishing the first outing of 2021 in 11th place, with KTM the only brand not represented in the overall top six.

Downplaying KTM’s apparent lack of progress by pointing out it’s early in testing and the team’s still within a second of the pace, Oliveira said there’s still time to get everything lined up correctly ahead of the opening two races at Losail.

“I’m not worried at all,” said the Portuguese double race winner, “because we clearly know what we need to do to go faster and the team already has a couple of ideas to try on the next three days of testing.

“From my side, I would have liked to have gone a little bit faster because in order to be competitive we need to be faster – but I’m happy because the bike isn’t quite there and I already set my best ever lap time at this track.

“We have the same spec of frame, swing arm and engine as last year, although we’ve tested some aero parts to build up some front tyre temperature and top speed.

“Everything else has been little adjustments on electronics, suspension – nothing major.

“We haven’t gone to things like bike geometry yet so there’s room to improve and I’m happy about that.” – SP

Another string to the bow of Morbidelli’s image

Franco Morbidelli

Franco Morbidelli endeared himself to many with his anti-racism messaging last year, and while this particular subject is nowhere near as important as that, there is also something endearing about the latest way Morbidelli has stood out in MotoGP.

In this case, it’s about his helmet design. Morbidelli’s flower-heavy helmet layout is maybe a bit on the busy side, and the ‘Monster claws’ are really quite incongruous, but there is a lot to like about the reasoning.

“We wanted to change something on the helmet this year with Aldo [Drudi, designer],” Morbidelli explained, “and he had the idea of putting some flowers on the helmet, because he told me ‘if you are not going to do it, who else is going to do it?’.

“In such an aggressive world, to bring something like flowers is not usual, and is not normal, and they don’t communicate aggressiveness, they don’t communicate anger, something aggressive – like, I don’t know, like a devil could be, or something more racing[-themed], more aggressive.

“I said ‘yes, I want to put some flowers on my helmet’, so we decided to – because of my behaviour, because of how I am – and I think they came out pretty nice.”

Morbidelli has a point – there’s definitely a tendency to go pretty aggressive and ‘badass’ with helmet designs in MotoGP, whether through sharp colours or through the main object, whether it be a spider or a big, serious-looking dog or an intense stare.

There isn’t anything wrong with any of that – but sometimes you just want to look at some flowers. – VK

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