As with almost everything in the world, MotoGP 2020 was a strange affair with a condensed calendar and almost no fans in attendance due to the coronavirus pandemic.
The series was further shaken up when world champion (and frankly the untouchable world champion) Marc Marquez injured himself in the opening round of the year. That left the door open in a topsy-turvy season that saw nine different race winners from four brands and a new name on the championship trophy in Suzuki’s Joan Mir.
Now, after more than three months off, MotoGP has reset and is due to kick off again in Qatar this weekend. It looks like being another intriguing year, and here are the 10 things we’re going to be looking out for.
When will Marquez return?
Probably the biggest question on everyone’s lips is ‘when will Marquez return?’ quickly followed by ‘will he be the same rider?’.
The Spanish wizard’s shoulder injury has been hugely problematic. He’s missed pre-season testing, but has recently been spinning laps on a hotted up road bike in Barcelona and Portimao. Right now it is looking 50-50 as to whether he’ll line up on the Repsol Honda this weekend. We’ve little doubt he will return, but will such a serious injury hamper his all-action style?
Will coronavirus still cause havoc?
Despite a feeling that the coronavirus pandemic coming to a conclusion, it’s still highly likely that there will be one or two covid-created twists in the tale in 2021.
There are already a few hangovers from the pandemic. The 2021 calendar is still largely provisional, with the Argentinian and United States Grands Prix currently postponed, and Qatar will host back-to-back rounds in the way that many of 2020’s races were conducted.
Last year we saw riders miss events due to testing positive for the virus and while it is looking likely that the paddock personnel will all be vaccinated in Qatar, outbreaks could still see riders miss rounds or indeed put entire events at risk.
Even if that’s not the case, we’ve already seen a heavily reduced winter testing programme and development freezes, which could lead to some unpredictable results in the early part of the season.
One notable absence from the 2021 grid is Andrea Dovizioso. The Italian has been a fixture in the Grand Prix paddock since 2002 and has won 15 MotoGP races since joining the top class in 2008.
Runner-up every year between 2017 and 2019, Dovi had a very public fall out with Ducati last year and finds himself on the side lines.
Recently it’s been announced that he will test for Aprilia next month. Officially, he’s not retired and we’re curious to see if he will take up a race seat with the Italian manufacturer, or possibly emerge as a super-sub somewhere else throughout the year.
In the meantime, Ducati has gone with a youthful line-up for 2021. Jack Miller (26) and Pecco Bagnaia (24) front up the factory team, with a trio of 23-year-olds (Jorge Martin, Luca Marini and Enea Bastianini on satellite machines and two-time Moto2 champion Johann Zarco as their elder statesman at 30). All are expected to do well in Qatar, which has been one of the Italian brand’s strongest circuits over the years, but we’re curious to see if they can mount a season long challenge for the title?
Rossi returns. Will he remain?
Valentino Rossi had a nightmare in 2020. After being denied a podium finish (due to a mechanical failure) at the opening round, he took third in round two and showed great consistency to remain in contention for the title after his home race in Misano. From mid-season his campaign went from bad to worse, with four retirements and two rounds missed after testing positive for Covid.
For 2021 he moves from Yamaha’s factory team to the satellite Petronas SRT squad, which finished second in 2020 with Franco Morbidelli.
The world still loves Vale and will be willing one more win in his glittering career. At 42-years-old he is by far and away the elder statesman of the class (11 years older than Aleix Espargaro, the next oldest) and we fully expect the ‘will he, won’t he’ retirement debates to begin pretty much as soon as action kicks off this weekend.
Where are the Brits?
This will be the first year since 2010 when there has been no British representation in the top MotoGP class, following Cal Crutchlow’s retirement and Aprilia’s decision to run Lorenzo Savadori ahead of Bradley Smith.
Former race winner Crutchlow has joined Yamaha as their test and designated replacement rider, so we won’t be surprised to see him lining up on the grid at least aa few more times in 2021, either as a substitute or wild-card rider.
While this is no golden age for British racing, there is still plenty to get excited about this year. The main interest for the Brits comes in the intermediate Moto2 class, where we are represented by two hugely personable riders. Sam Lowes must start as the title favourite. The 30-year-old from Lincoln started and ended 2020 with injuries, but mid-season he won three races in a row and was clearly the fastest rider on the grid.
Carole Nash-backed Jake Dixon goes into his third, and arguably most important, year in the class after moving from British superbikes. The 25-year-old made a step up to become a regular top 10 rider by the mid-season and even led for most of the French Grand Prix, but an injury meant that he was unable to complete the season.
He’s likely to be carrying the aftermath of that wrist injury into 2021, but if he’s fit and can make another small step up in performance he’s another potential race winner. With a place on the 2022 MotoGP grid looking like it’s up for grabs for Dixon, he’s keen to impress. He’s been fast in testing, but we’ll only really find out how strong his wrist is come race time this weekend.
Another needing to impress is Scot John McPhee, who will be among the favourites in Moto3. He’s won three races in a decade in the class but he’ll be 27 this summer, making him the oldest and most experienced rider in the class, and with an age limit of 28 its going to be his last year in the class. Like Dixon, he races for the Petronas SRT squad, and he’ll need a strong campaign to put himself in line for a highly coveted Moto2 seat in ’22.
Return of the British Grand Prix
Covid devastated the 2020 MotoGP calendar and left us with a campaign largely fought out on Spanish tracks.
One of the victims was the British Grand Prix at Silverstone, but this year it is scheduled to be back. Set to take place on 29 August, on the summer bank holiday weekend, it’ll be round 12 of the series, so we should be in for a treat as the championships start to get to the sharp end.
We’ll be cheering for our favourites in the Moto2 and Moto3 class, as well as marvelling at the world’s fastest riders in MotoGP, but could we also have some additional interest in the form of local wild-cards, which are allowed back again after falling foul to Covid rules? We certainly hope so!
Can Mir do it again?
In many ways, 2020 was the wildest and most unpredictable season in recent memory. With Marquez out, Dovizioso distracted and all of the Yamaha riders having some kind of woe, the championship was there for the taking.
Step forward Joan Mir and Suzuki, who kept their heads when all around others were losing theirs. The Suzuki was rarely the fastest bike outright but worked well everywhere, while Mir and team-mate Alex Rins rode brilliantly all season.
Mir only won one race but was on the podium a further six times, allowing him to win the title with a round to go.
Despite triumphing, the 23-year-old will be few peoples’ favourites to retain his title. We think that’s a good thing, because that lack of pressure could well see him take his riding to a new level and provide a strong defence to his title.
Another Euro revival?
Mir and Suzuki may have had a breakthrough year in 2020, but they weren’t the only ones.
In many ways KTM were the stand out performers, with many dubbing the RC16 the best bike on the grid.
Lead rider Pol Espargaro ended the year fifth in the championship, with Miguel Oliviera taking two wins and rookie Brad Binder topping the podium in Brno. Much interest this year will revolve around whether or not the Austrian manufacturer can continue its success, and also whether or not Aprilia can emulate them.
The Italian brand has consistently struggled since joining MotoGP but every year they show glimpses of making a challenge. Aleix Espargaro again continues as lead rider, although the project has failed to attract a big name to join him – with Lorenzo Savadori stepping up from a test rider role become full time race rider.
Aprilia are the only manufacturer left with ‘concessions’ which means that they are able to carry out engine upgrades and additional testing, where their rivals can’t. With Aprilia taking the project in house from 2022, having outsourced to the Gresini team previously, there will be a lot of eyes on the RS-GP to see if it can finally bridge the gap to the leading bikes.
Support class surprises
There’s more to MotoGP than just the main class. The aforementioned Moto2 and Moto3 championships also take place at each round and provide great racing and plenty to talk about.
In Moto2 there’s been an exodus of talent to the top class and it leaves the field open for a new champion. Britain’s Sam Lowes will start as favourite, but much of the interest will be around American Cameron Beaubier, who is a newcomer to the class.
Despite being team-mate to Marc Marquez in 125cc GPs back in 2009, he’s built his reputation in American superbikes, where he’s won five titles in six years. It will be interesting how he adapts to the less powerful but stiffer Moto2 bikes after a decade on production machines, not to mention the world championship tracks and lifestyle.
Fellow American Joe Roberts will be another title favourite, as will Italian Marco Bezzecchi, one of a number of Valentino Rossi’s proteges, and Australia’s Remy Gardner, son of 1987 500cc world champion Wayne Gardner. We’ve also got our eye on Gardner’s rookie team-mate Raul Fernandez, from Spain, but as always in Moto2 there are a host of riders who can have a breakthrough season.
In Moto3, it’s harder to see a clear title favourite but we’re looking forward to seeing how sole Brit John McPhee gets on. His team-mate at Petronas SRT, South African Darryn Binder, is an all-action rider who has frequently shone in second tier teams and will be expected to win regularly in 2021. Look out too for 16-year-old Spaniard Pedro Acosta, who won last year’s Red Bull MotoGP Rookies Cup and who is a name we expect to hear a lot more of in the future.
Enter the silly season
Every year MotoGP enjoys a ‘silly season’ when social media fills up with speculation of who goes where for the following year.
These tend to be most intense in even numbered years, as most factory stars are on two-year deals, with the top teams signing up their talent last year for the 2021 and 2022 campaigns.
That doesn’t mean that there are no opportunities for new riders to join move up to the big class in 2022, and we expect that there will be a particular desire for the organisers to get a talented American or Brit into the top class with Jake Dixon, Cameron Beaubier and Joe Roberts likely to be the first names in the hat.
Much will hinge upon Valentino Rossi’s decision to retire or continue at the end of the season. If he quits, a plum Yamaha seat will open up, although there may be options at KTM and Aprilia too.
Aprilia will be running its MotoGP operation directly from the factory in 2022, leaving speculation about their current Gresini team, especially in light of the recent passing of team owner Fausto Gresini. Talk is likely to be rife about the possibility of Rossi’s VR46 squad moving up to the top class in 2022, and with Suzuki saying that it will provide material to a satellite squad there will be much talk of where those bikes will go, and who will ride them.
Expect chatter about the Brits too. Lowes and Dixon will want to move up to the premier class, while John McPhee will be moving on from Moto3 as he edges towards to class age limit. Will new Brits make it to the big stage? Will we be seeing some fresh faces on the grid in 2022?