How Fabio Quartararo became France's first MotoGP champion: Mat Oxley
“Quartararo assumed the title lead in Portugal and never relinquished it”
Finally, France has its first premier-class motorcycle world champion. A hundred and twenty seven years since the world’s first autocycle racer spluttered out of Paris, en route to Rouen, Fabio Quartararo beat all-comers to take the 2021 MotoGP world title.
The 22-year-old from Nice graduated to MotoGP in 2019, via today’s usual route: the Moto3 Junior World Championship and the Moto3 and Moto2 World Championships.
He won his first MotoGP races last year and became title favourite when Marc Márquez broke an arm, which kept the six-time MotoGP champion out for nine months. But Quartararo didn’t win the title. Yamaha’s 2020 YZR-M1 was too sensitive to track conditions, so his season was a rollercoaster ride – three victories and 11 results outside the top six.
Nevertheless Yamaha was convinced of Quartararo’s talent, so this year he was promoted from its independent Petronasbacked team to the factory squad, while Valentino Rossi moved in the opposite direction.
The 2021 YZR-M1 was partly a clone of the factory’s 2019 bike, with which Quartararo occasionally hassled Márquez during his rookie season in the class of kings. He assumed the lead of this year’s championship at April’s Portuguese Grand Prix and never relinquished his advantage, winning races when things went his way and finishing on the lower steps of the podium when they didn’t.
Consistency is key in racing and in MotoGP, more so now than ever with its current Michelin spec tyres, which are so sensitive to treatment, both in the garage and on the track. Sometimes a tiny difference in track temperature or tyre pressure can change everything, so the tyre options that seemed perfect on Friday and Saturday are anything but on Sunday. At other times the Moto2 race, which usually precedes MotoGP, scrubs off the rubber laid down during the weekend, reducing grip.
Therefore it is the rider who must adapt when the lights go out on Sunday afternoon. Some may take a few laps to adjust to the new reality, while the special ones immediately get a feel for the conditions and modify their technique to leave their rivals in their wake.
This has always been Márquez’s great strength, which is one reason he won every MotoGP title following the introduction of Michelin spec tyres in 2016, until his accident.
This is one reason why Quartararo won the 2021 crown. Yamaha’s previous MotoGP world champions have ridden the YZR-M1 smoothly, using arcing cornering lines to exploit its advantage in mid-corner speed. Quartararo sometimes rides like that, but mostly he climbs all over the motorcycle, using his body weight to adjust load between the front and rear tyres, either to find grip or reduce wear. It’s an intuitive process that few riders fully master.
“Fabio plays a lot with his body to compensate, so he makes a lot of weight transfer to manage braking and acceleration,” explains his race engineer Diego Gubellini. “Jorge [Lorenzo, Yamaha’s previous MotoGP champion] moved a lot on the bike, but laterally, left and right, because his target was to increase corner speed. Fabio moves less this way but more forward and backwards.”
“Márquez is already back to winning ways, even though his arm is weak”
MotoGP underwent another major technical change when Michelin’s spec tyres arrived. Spec Magneti Marelli software was also introduced, reducing the efficiency of the various rider controls – traction control, antiwheelie, engine-braking control and so on. This also increased the rider’s ability to decide his own fate. Instead of relying on the electronics to go faster or get out of trouble, the rider must now rely on himself to make things happen.
Yamaha struggled more than any other with the software. Finally its electronics engineers re-thought their philosophy for 2021. Previously their electronics strategies had increased traction control during the race, as the rear tyre lost grip, which seemed to make sense. In fact increasing traction control by reducing torque to the rear tyre merely hurt acceleration.
For 2021 Yamaha entirely rewrote its traction-control maps, transferring even more responsibility to the rider, which suits Quartararo perfectly.
“In general, Fabio doesn’t use the electronic controls so much,” adds Gubellini. “He does a lot by himself – he likes to manage the throttle and feel the bike. Of course, like every team we play with the electronics and prepare different maps to assist him during the race, especially as the rear tyre goes down, but usually he prefers to manage that himself.
“It’s not easy riding this way, because potentially you can make more mistakes but also you can perform more, so it’s something from which you can get benefit, if you train yourself correctly.”
Quartararo’s talent gave Yamaha its first MotoGP title of the Michelin/Magneti Marelli era, a significant turnaround of fortunes for the Iwata brand, which won its last MotoGP crown in 2015, when riders used tailor-made factory software and Bridgestone tyres.
The big question, of course, is what will happen in 2022 when Quartararo goes head-to-head with Márquez, who is already back to his winning ways, even though his right arm is still weak. By March, the Spaniard should be at full strength.
Their duel for supremacy – the man who ruled MotoGP for so long and is now desperate to take back his crown against the youngster – may make for some unmissable racing.
Mat Oxley has covered motorcycle racing for many years – and also has the distinction of being an Isle of Man TT winner
Follow Mat on Twitter @matoxley