MotoGP’s next generation: Moto2 champion Gardner and phenomenon Fernández

MotoGP

Remy Gardner and Raúl Fernández created the best-ever Moto2 title duel, so how do they compare and how will they go in MotoGP next year?

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World champion Gardner (right) and runner-up Fernández at September’s San Marino GP

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Remy Gardner made history at Valencia on Sunday, when he became only the second world champion son of a world champion father in more than seven decades of motorcycle world championship racing.

Gardner’s father Wayne won the 500cc world title 34 years ago, 11 years before Remy was born. (Gardner’s number 87 is a nod to dad’s title-winning year.)

The only other father/son champions are ‘King’ Kenny Roberts, winner of the 500cc championship in 1978, 1979 and 1980, and Kenny Roberts Jr, who won the same crown in 2000.

Coincidentally Gardner senior started his GP career in 1983, the same year that ‘King’ Kenny ended his. Gardner junior made his GP debut at Misano in 2014, seven years after Roberts Jr retired from MotoGP.

Remy Gardner’s journey to the top hasn’t been an easy one. His family moved from Australia to Spain in 2011, because dad knew that was the place to be if his sons – Remy and younger brother Luca – wanted to fight their way to the top. Remy rose through the ranks via the Copa Espana and CEV championships, securing his first full-time GP deal in 2015, his dad always paying for the rides, to a total cost of around €2million. Luca retired from racing a few years into this adventure.

Gardner graduated from Moto3 to Moto2 in 2016 and struggled, but step by step he got there, despite breaking both legs in 2018. In the early days his riding was a lot like dad’s – wild, on the edge and too often over the edge – but during 2020 he finally worked it out, crashing less and winning his first GP.

Aki Ajo’s decision to sign the 23-year-old to his Red Bull-backed Kalex squad for 2021 suggested Gardner was ready to fight for the world title, because the Finnish kingmaker doesn’t sign duds. Gardner had five seasons of Moto2 behind him – his first podium at Termas de Río Hondo in 2019 and his first win at Portimao in 2020 – so he knew pretty much everything he needed to know. Joining arguably the best team on the grid was the final piece of the puzzle, so he started 2021 as a title favourite.

Only one problem, Ajo promoted his Moto3 rider Raúl Fernández to Moto2 at the same time. Fernández had won two of the last three Moto3 races of 2020, but surely it would take the 20-year-old Spaniard a while to translate his riding technique from a skinny-tyred, 85-kilo, 60-horsepower motorcycle to a fat-tyred, 145-kilo, 140-horsepower motorcycle?

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Gardner gets the better of Fernández at the penultimate race of the year, a crucial victory

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No it wouldn’t. Fernández proved he was something very special on the first day of Moto2 off-season testing at Portimao, immediately after the season-ending 2020 race.

“We knew Raúl had some talent, but on his first day on the bike he was the fastest guy until two o’clock in the afternoon, so already we said, ‘is this real?!’” says Alex Baumgartel of Kalex, winners of the last eight Moto2 riders title and last nine Moto2 constructors titles. “But even then you cannot predict how the transition will go – will it be a quick one, a tough one or a wavy one?”

Fernández took his first Moto2 victory at Portimao in April and his second at Le Mans a few weeks later. It’s a truism of motorcycle racing that the talent of the really special riders becomes more evident when you put them on bigger, faster motorcycles.

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Fernández repeated this achievement during September’s MotoGP test at Misano, when he stunned the pit lane with his speed during his first ride on a MotoGP bike. Both Fernández and Gardner will ride KTM RC16s with Tech3 next year.

The Gardner/Fernández fight for the 2021 Moto2 title was the best since the birth of the class in 2010. Their duel also created the greatest team performance in the category, with Red Bull Ajo winning 12 of 18 races, taking 23 podiums and seven one-twos. The team’s total of 618 points was astonishing. In MotoGP the factory Ducati squad won the teams’ championship with 433 points.

Gardner’s early season consistency gave him a championship lead that he never relinquished, although Fernández came within one point of his team-mate at Le Mans and within nine points at COTA, where Gardner had his only race crash of the season.

The battle swung this way and that, Gardner apparently taking control with a victory hat-trick at Mugello, Catalunya and Sachsenring, but Fernández replied with his own hat-trick at Aragon, Misano 1 and COTA.

The decisive moment came a few weeks later at Misano 2, where Fernández crashed out of the lead – the rookie’s third race crash of the year – while Gardner struggled to seventh. A fortnight after that Gardner put one hand on the crown with his fifth victory of the year, at Portimao.

Last Sunday at Valencia, Gardner secured the championship with a nail-biting ride to tenth. Fernández needed to win the race and have Gardner finish 14th or lower to take the championship. Fernández duly won the race, while Gardner just made it. If he had finished 2.8sec further back, behind 13th-placed Stefano Manzi, the crown would’ve gone to Spain, not Australia.

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Fernández impressed mightily during his first MotoGP test, at Misano in September

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Fernández’s eighth victory made him Moto2’s most successful rookie, ahead of Marc Márquez, who rode a Suter to seven victories in his rookie year in 2011, although he did miss the last two races due to a crash that was no fault of his own.

So how do Gardner and Fernández compare?

“I don’t compare riders too much – I like to analyse everyone separately and I always say all these riders have 100%,” says Ajo, whose team previously won the Moto2 title with Johann Zarco in 2015 and 2016. “They have the same amount of skill and everything but in different areas and they need to be a bit lucky and passionate about what they do to get everything out of themselves. I always find the positives of everyone and also the negatives, because this is the way to improve.

“Both Remy and Raúl are talented and hungry guys. If we talk about riding technique, Raúl uses the front tyre a lot, while Remy uses the rear more, so there’s a big difference in riding style. They have more or less the same speed but in a quite different way.”

It’s no surprise that Gardner uses the rear, because his first major success was a junior Australian dirt track title, while Fernández grew up riding minibikes on asphalt.

Despite their very different techniques they don’t use very different set-ups.

“Raúl does the lap time with the front, Remy is more on the acceleration side, but the only difference in set-up is in springs and wheel rates,” adds Baumgartel.

“Remy has grown up a lot during these last seasons. He learned and got recommendations how to ride the new Dunlops [Moto2 now uses tyres originally designed for 1000cc EWC bikes] and he made the next step.

“Raúl is the most impressive rookie we’ve had. His speed and his consistency was amazing, he was always there at every track. The wet isn’t his favourite but he’s learning that now. Actually his season was mind-blowing. The other rookies couldn’t believe his speed in the beginning, it was probably like a hammer blow to them.”

How will Gardner and Fernández go in MotoGP?

“I think it’s the rider’s concentration mode that really matters,” Baumgartel explains. “You’ve got to have the focus to stay in your ‘mind box’ over the season, that’s the big task. And you have to separate the important from the unimportant, believe in your team and keep your spirit.”