2021 MotoGP season review
Fans return to the stands as Ducati and a new generation of riders take over. Mat Oxley looks back at a year of change
Hopes that the global vaccine roll out would allow a return to a normal championship, spread across five continents, were soon dashed. The Japanese, Malaysian, Australian and Argentine GPs were all cancelled, while the Grand Prix of the Americas was postponed for six months. Yet 2021 was a huge improvement on 2020, with crowds back from mid-season.
What those fans witnessed was a generational shift. Frenchman Fabio Quartararo won the MotoGP crown aged 22, runner-up was 24-year-old Pecco Bagnaia and third was last year’s champion Joan Mir, also 24.
At the same time 42-year-old Valentino Rossi and 31-year-old Danilo Petrucci left MotoGP, making room for more youngsters next year, like 21-year-old Raul Fernández who came so close to winning the 2021 Moto2 world title in his rookie season.
Quartararo, Bagnaia and Mir moved things forward. They are three very different riders. Quartararo is all action on the bike, Bagnaia is silky smooth and Mir is a battering ram. They’re also different characters. Quartararo is a bit bling, Bagnaia more like a philosophy student, while Mir appears to be a gentle young man until you spot that dangerous twinkle in his eye.
So far they’ve managed to remain friends. In fact some onlookers complain they’re too friendly. Where are the bitter rivalries that push riders to explore new limits?
Rossi, whose earlier years in MotoGP vibrated with controversy, blames social media for making riders think twice before starting a shouting match. “Now, even if you say something small, the echo is bigger,” says the nine-times world champion. “Ten or 15 years ago you could be stronger in what you said.”
Although Quartararo, Bagnaia and Mir were the dominant riders of 2021 the real highlight of the year was a manufacturer. Ducati celebrated the 50th anniversary of its first MotoGP race, but the company only contested a handful of events at that time before quietly withdrawing in the face of the two-stroke onslaught. Not until 2003, when 990cc four-strokes replaced the 500cc two-strokes, did it return. Since then Ducati’s Desmosedici MotoGP bike has ridden a roller-coaster of good times but mostly bad times, from world champion in 2007 to a 100-race run without a victory.
In 2021 Ducati won seven races, including four of the last six, took the Constructors’ Championship and achieved its first front-row and podium lockouts. Bagnaia – the factory’s number one – might have won the Riders’ Championship if he hadn’t had bad luck and made errors.
Ducati’s resurgence is largely thanks to one man – Gigi Dall’Igna.
His Ducati has adopted an aggressive approach to MotoGP’s rulebook, finding loopholes where the more conservative Japanese daren’t look.
Downforce aerodynamics, holeshot devices and shapeshifters are three of the technologies he’s introduced that have been copied by rivals. MotoGP’s rulebook specifically outlaws electronically adjustable suspension, so Dall’Igna created complex mechanical systems, which the rule makers hadn’t even considered.
The Ducati is now the best all-round bike on the grid. The Desmosedici is so rider-friendly that even rookies were able to ride it to success last season: Jorge Martin took a victory, Enea Bastianini took two podiums and Luca Marini (Rossi’s half-brother) one front-row start.
And what of 2022? Ducati will have eight Desmosedicis, a third of the grid, which will surely affect the dynamics of the racing. It is so fast that it will make life difficult for riders on slower machines, like Quartararo’s Yamaha and Mir’s Suzuki. Only one man can hope to beat them – six-times MotoGP king Marc Márquez. If he is fit for the start of 2022, Ducati should worry.