Conditions on the final Qatar Test day meant no improvements were seen in the overall times; Ducati fastest from Yamaha ahead of Round 1
And just like that, 2021 pre-season testing for the MotoGP™ riders and teams is over. Five mostly hectic days at the Losail International Circuit for the Official Qatar Test eventually sees Jack Miller and Ducati Lenovo Team head into Round 1 as the combination to beat, Miller’s 1:53.183 is the fastest ever two-wheel lap set in Qatar. The Bologna factory are chased by a trio of Yamahas who are all within a tenth and a half, as Maverick Viñales (Monster Energy Yamaha MotoGP), teammate Fabio Quartararo and Franco Morbidelli (Petronas Yamaha SRT) enjoy a successful pre-season.
Unfortunately, the final day of the Qatar Test flattered to deceive. High winds caused dust to scatter across the Losail International Circuit, which in turn meant barely anyone ventured out for some laps. Track conditions have been very dangerous on Friday, which is why with just over two hours of the first and only pre-season test remaining, Pol Espargaro (Repsol Honda Team) and Danilo Petrucci (Tech3 KTM Factory Racing) were the only two riders to have set a lap time – eight seconds slower than Miller. The red flags were out as cleaning machines ventured out to try and make it safe, but the majority of the work was already done and dusted for the teams. An early finish for many, as the bulk of personnel head home briefly before returning for the first round of 2021 in two weeks’ time.
But despite a wasted day on Friday, we’ve seen plenty of laps laid down across the other four days of Official Test action, as well as the Shakedown for test riders and rookies last Friday. This means we’ve been able to learn a few things about every factory, so let’s have a little gander at how the premier class riders faired.
In the hands of a charismatic Australian, Ducati will head into Round 1 as the fastest. Miller’s blistering time attack lap on Wednesday evening was proof that he and the new GP21 are looking like a formidable partnership this season, with the innovation kings of MotoGP™ – of course – bringing plenty of new parts to test in Qatar. The most notable was some new front aero, a significant change and something we’ve not seen before. It’s difficult to know for sure, but Ducati could be looking at tidying up the airflow to increase top speed, as well as creating more grip in the corners.
Elsewhere, the famous ‘salad box’ is a different shape on the new bikes. Another one of the big changes we’ve seen in 2021 is the front holeshot device that most of the factories have now got. Ducati, along with Aprilia, Honda, KTM and Suzuki have been seen launching off the line with the bike squatted at the front, as well as the rear.
The Bologna brand have looked very good in pre-season testing. Francesco Bagnaia (Ducati Lenovo Team) ends testing inside the top five behind his factory teammate and the trio of Yamahas, and sounded very positive about his work during these five days at Losail. Pecco was visibly pleased with the race pace work he had done throughout and when he pushed for a qualifying-esque time, he wasn’t far away at all – 0.261s to be exact.
Thanks to Johann Zarco’s (Pramac Racing) 1:53.899, Ducati have all their non-rookie riders inside the top 10 ahead of Round 1. Consistently the quickest rider through the speed trap – Thursday seeing him reach a new unofficial record of 357.69km/h down the start/finish straight – Zarco was another rider who seemed happy with his performance overall. The Frenchman commented on Thursday that he had worked a lot on race pace and had plenty of things to try, not all of which were good. But it feels like Zarco is going to be a contender in a couple of weeks’ time.
Zarco’s Pramac Racing teammate Jorge Martin ended the Qatar Test as the fastest rookie. The Spaniard sits P14 thanks to his 1:54.483, an incredibly respectable time from the Moto2™ graduate who is just 1.3s away from Miller’s all-time – unofficial – lap record. Reigning Moto2™ World Champion Enea Bastianini (Avintia Esponsorama Racing) finished a slender 0.022s behind Martin in P15, with Luca Marini (SKY VR46 Avintia) claiming P21 – 1.839s shy of Miller.
For the Ducati trio, the week in Qatar has been largely positive with lots of laps completed by all: Martin clocked 159 in the Official Test, Bastianini 178 and Marini 204. All will have been a learning curve as the trio now head back to Europe, do some homework and get set for their MotoGP™ Grand Prix weekend debuts.
Factory Team Manager Davide Tardozzi rated Ducati’s Qatar Test as a 9/10, the Italian was pleased with every aspect: speed, attitude, and morale of the team. Confidence is brimming in the red camp but one thing that must be said is that traditionally, Losail is a great circuit for Ducati. Nevertheless, a fantastic test.
Yamaha once again proved that they’re one-lap pace is meteoric. The aforementioned Viñales, Quartararo and Morbidelli all pushed for a fast lap time when they set their best times of the test, and even though they lost out to Miller, things are still looking good for Yamaha in that department. However, it’s race pace and lots of other intricate details that all four of their full-time riders have been working on in Qatar.
On Wednesday, Yamaha rolled out a new aero fairing and new mudguard. Top speed is still a weakness to the Iwata factory’s bow, and these updates will have been trying to reduce the gap to the likes of Ducati and Honda. Moreover, the Yamaha riders have been testing a new chassis at the Qatar Test, and the signs have been positive. It looks like the decision has been made to use the new chassis this season.
Second fastest Viñales was seen working hard on his practice starts. On Wednesday and Thursday, pitlane reporter Simon Crafar reported that the number 12 must have been into double figures with the number of times he’d come to the end of pitlane, sink the rear of his Yamaha and launch himself down into Turn 1. It’s a weakness that Viñales has been focusing on in pre-season testing, as well as the opening handful of laps. We’ll see if his hard work will come to fruition in due course.
New factory recruit Quartararo said it took him a good 30-40 laps to get reacquainted with his YZR-M1 monster on Saturday, but once the Frenchman had regained his confidence at the controls, all seemed to go well. The 2019 Rookie of the Year said he felt comfortable on the new chassis and had tried “many things” like teammate Viñales, with race pace looking fantastic for all the Yamahas. Team Manager Massimo Meregalli said both of his riders are feeling very confident, with parts like the chassis and aero body have been approved by both riders.
Morbidelli and Valentino Rossi (Petronas Yamaha SRT) join their factory counterparts in looking good in race trim. Rossi, judging from the timesheets, was the only rider out of the quartet who didn’t look at slamming in a time attack, but The Doctor is sounding in very good spirits heading into his 26th Grand Prix season. The nine-time World Champion ends pre-season testing 11th overall, with his 1:53.993 being his best-ever lap at Losail. There’s plenty of life in the 42-year-old yet, who feels “good with the bike” and “better than last year.”
6th on the combined timesheets was Aprilia Racing Team Gresini’s Aleix Espargaro. As has been heavily reported, their 2021 RS-GP is completely new: the engine, chassis, two aero designs, exhausts and ‘salad box’ have changed, and Aprilia also have their first carbon swingarm – which means Suzuki are the only manufacturer that doesn’t have this feature. In addition, the aforementioned front holeshot device was being used to great effect by the Spaniard. A 1:53.640 best time was enough to get Espargaro within half a second of Miller, very promising signs indeed.
Massimo Rivola, Aprilia Racing CEO, gave their pre-season a 7/10 rating. Understandably, the factory are trying to keep their feet on the ground after a promising 2020 season didn’t materialise into results in the season proper, but he was pleased with the progress shown in Qatar. Rookie Lorenzo Savadori ended the test in P26, 2.571s away, but the Italian has been nursing a shoulder injury throughout. Time for Savadori to get some rest and rehabilitation ahead of the Qatar GP.
It’s fair to say that World Champions Team Suzuki Ecstar have gone under the radar at the beginning of 2021. Reigning King of MotoGP™ Joan Mir finished P7 overall, one place and 0.033s ahead of teammate Alex Rins. A new chassis and a new swingarm have been used in Qatar as well as all the other little bits that all riders and teams play with, as Suzuki also get a head start on next season with Mir, Rins and test rider Sylvain Guintoli giving a 2022 engine a runout.
Mir has admitted that both Ducati and Yamaha look better on overall pace, however, the GSX-RR duo really aren’t far away at all. The Losail International Circuit isn’t one that naturally goes hand in hand with Suzuki, but the riders are feeling good and have made improvements from last year’s bike – a worry for the other teams. Nothing ground-breaking from the Hamamatsu factory, but they’re certainly in the mix. In Mir’s own words: “We are competitive, we are not slow, it’s only testing.”
Next, we come to Honda. A mixed Qatar Test has been endured by the Japanese giants, but the main and overriding positive is the efforts of Pol Espargaro (Repsol Honda Team). The Spaniard set the exact same time as ninth place Zarco to finish just inside the top 10, but the outright lap time shouldn’t be the main thing to look at – and that goes for all riders. Espargaro’s adaptation from KTM to Honda has been seamless, the number 44 impressing just about everybody in the paddock with his performance so far. Closing out the test, Pol Espargaro described his debut as a “pain release” from a winter full of anticipation, and added “wow, it feels good” to be getting on well with his new toy.
Tech-wise, Honda brought three different chassis to Qatar: one ‘standard 2020’, one with carbon bonded onto the frame and a completely new one. Some new aero was testing by Stefan Bradl (Honda Test Team) and Takaaki Nakagami (LCR Honda Idemitsu) in the opening exchanges of the test, we’ll wait and see if HRC bring it to the opening race weekend.
Nakagami was the second best Honda rider on the overall timesheets in P12, just ahead of Bradl in P13. Both of these riders suffered more than one crash, a Turn 2 tumble on Wednesday saw Bradl sit out the afternoon session, with Honda seeing their riders hit the deck 10 times in total – more than any other factory. Unfortunately for Alex Marquez (LCR Honda Castrol), a big highside at Turn 9 on Thursday evening resulted in a small right foot metatarsal fracture, but the double World Champion should be fit to ride at the Qatar Grand Prix.
Repsol Honda Team Manager Alberto Puig didn’t want to give much away about his feelings regarding the Qatar Test, he seemed happy enough but didn’t want to be over-optimistic. Puig did delve into Espargaro’s debut and was very pleased with how “smooth” his new rider has adapted. And let’s not forget, one huge talking point over the next 14 days will be whether Marc Marquez will be on the bike in Qatar. His latest check-up went very well and the number 93 will now step up his training intensity, so the signs are there for the eight-time World Champion to link up with impressive teammate Espargaro and the rest of the Honda camp in the near future.
After an outstanding 2020 season, KTM haven’t hit the ground running in 2021 judging from the outside. Miguel Oliveira (Red Bull KTM Factory Racing) was the fastest RC16 rider on track and the double 2020 winner was P16, 1.343s away from the time set by Miller. Teammate Brad Binder finishes 0.165s behind Oliveira on the timesheets in P17, but the Austrian factory have little data in Qatar: no race here last year with their new and improved package has seemingly hampered them over the past seven days, and Losail isn’t KTM’s strongest layout.
They did bring plenty of new items to test though. Simon Crafar called them the “winners on the hardware front,” the most notable changes from the naked eye was the slimmer new front fairing that – seemingly – has a few more ‘shark teeth’ carved in. As well as this, test rider Dani Pedrosa was the first seen sporting KTM’s new seat unit.
Oliveira didn’t seem too downbeat at the end of the test, the Portuguese star said there have been positive things to take but there are no specific worries at this stage. The number 88 did point out that KTM are struggling to exploit the maximum from the package at the minute, but it’s not as bad as the lap times suggest.
Petrucci has completed his first test on a KTM machine, the Italian is pleased with the progress he’s made over the four proper days on track and has some clear ideas of what is needed to improve on his 1:54.895 best. Teammate Iker Lecuona says he has learned a lot and has improved a lot, but also recognises that there is work to do to close down the faster guys. Not perfect, but far from a disaster – despite the timesheets – for the Austrian factories.
So just like that, MotoGP™ 2021 pre-season testing is over. Next up: the Barwa Grand Prix of Qatar. In two weeks’ time the premier class warriors will be back on track at Losail, but it will be during a race weekend. Before that, the Moto2™ and Moto3™ riders will be taking part in a three-day Official Qatar Test, so make sure you keep up to date with that and all the reaction from the MotoGP™ Test right here on motogp.com.
Qatar Test results – Top 10:
1. Jack Miller (Ducati Lenovo Team) – 1:53.183
2. Maverick Viñales (Monster Energy Yamaha MotoGP) + 0.061
3. Fabio Quartararo (Monster Energy Yamaha MotoGP) + 0.080
4. Franco Morbidelli (Petronas Yamaha SRT) + 0.140
5. Francesco Bagnaia (Ducati Lenovo Team) + 0.261
6. Aleix Espargaro (Aprilia Racing Team Gresini) + 0.457
7. Joan Mir (Team Suzuki Ecstar) + 0.644
8. Alex Rins (Team Suzuki Ecstar) + 0.677
9. Johann Zarco (Pramac Racing) + 0.716
10. Pol Espargaro (Repsol Honda Team) + 0.716