Pol’s Honda MotoGP debut: just one-tenth off the pace


The mightily impressive pace of the Espargaró brothers, why Oliveira is mad at Michelin, same old, same old for Rossi and Mir’s GSX-RR thigh supports: Mat Oxley's round-up from the 2021 MotoGP Qatar Grand Prix

Pol Espargaro in the 2021 MotoGP Qatar GP

After losing three seconds in the first two laps Pol Espargaró was only a tenth off the winning pace


The first race of the 73rd season of world championship racing reaped the second-closest top ten in seven decades of premier-class racing – a mere 9.288 seconds separating stellar rookie Enea Bastianini from winner Maverick Viñales.

For perspective the first race of the inaugural premier-class season in 1949 had the top ten separated by 12 minutes and 19 seconds.

This comes as no surprise because the current technical regulations and Michelin spec tyres bring the pack closer together than ever, which is why the ten closest top tens have all been recorded in the last four seasons.

This is great for entertainment but can overshadow some excellent performances.

“For the first time we can fight in the same group as the winner till the last few laps”

Seventh and eighth places for Aleix Espargaró, riding Aprilia’s brand-new 2021 RS-GP, and Pol Espargaró, contesting his first race for Repsol Honda, don’t jump out of the results sheet. But the brothers finished only 5.9 seconds (0.056 seconds apart) behind Viñales, a difference of a quarter of a second per lap.

Big brother’s ride was impressive because this was the first race for an almost completely new RS-GP, with different engine, chassis and aero pack from last year’s 100% new machine. Aleix had only done seven days testing on the bike – three in a private test at Jerez (permitted for concession factories) and four at Losail – but was able to run pretty much the same pace as the Ducatis, Suzukis and Yamahas, which have had years of development in their current forms.

Aleix started conservatively, rising from tenth to chase Fabio Quartararo in the closing stages. And he might have stayed with the factory Yamaha to the finish if he hadn’t lost time passing Jack Miller.

“I suffered a bit with a full tank and lost quite a lot of ground,” he said. “In the middle of the race I was able to overtake a few riders and then with Joan Mir we caught the lead group but, in the end I had no more front tyre.

“For the first time we can say we can fight in the same group as the winner till the last few laps. The bike has good potential on the brakes and in acceleration, because of the downforce aero. Unfortunately we suffer more than expected in fifth and sixth. Also [rear] tyre and fuel consumption seem to be very good.”

Aleix Espargaro leads brother Pol

Brother against brother: Aleix leads Pol in the closing stages


Just as well because Aleix needed everything in the final laps because little brother was coming for him.

“I could see on my board that somebody was coming and I had half a second on him. Then with three laps to the end I checked the tower with the race positions and bike numbers and I saw it was no 44. I said, F**k, this guy has improved a lot!’.”

Espargaró junior had qualified only 12th because he struggled, as most RC213V riders do, to get the maximum performance from a fresh soft rear tyre. And then he too rode very conservatively in the first two laps.

“Our target is to fight for the title. The next race I’m going to go for it!”

“In the race I made most of my time in braking, which is something I really enjoy,” said Pol. “But at the same time when you have a strong point like this you brake later and later and then you reach the limit and you can crash.

“Also, the front tyre is critical with all the bikes, but especially with this kind of bike [the Honda and the KTM] where you gain in braking. It can be super-difficult with a full tank, because it’s easy to make a mistake and run wide or crash. So I really paid attention to this in the beginning, which is why I was really slow, because I didn’t know how the front would be with a full tank in race conditions.”

Pol’s self-restraint in the first two laps (and an incident with Joan Mir) cost him 3.861 seconds on the leader, which means he only lost 2.1 seconds over the next 20, a difference of just one-tenth per lap!

“By the race we had improved a lot of our problems. Still, if we want to get our target, which is to fight for the title, we can’t be eighth at the next race. I know this will be difficult but after the knowledge we got today and a better time attack this Saturday, so I can start from the first rows, I think we can do a good job. The next race I’m going to go for it!”


Oliveira lets rip at Michelin

Miguel Oliveira

Oliveira wants more than one front tyre to choose from

Red Bull

Front-tyre performance is more critical to the Honda RC213V and KTM RC16 because these bikes make their lap time in braking and entry, which demands a strong front tyre that offers plenty of support. Marc Márquez has won most of his races in the Michelin era using the hardest-possible front slick, which also explains why he has a lot of crashes in practice, because he needs to find the limit of the tyre and because the harder the rubber the less warning you get of impending disaster.

At Losail last weekend everyone ran the softest front (and rear) because the medium was no good and the hardest was only to be used in the hotter daytime sessions.

KTM was in real trouble with front tyres from the moment it arrived in Qatar for preseason testing at the start of this month.

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Miguel Oliveira won two races on the RC16 last year, so he started 2021 as a title contender. No surprise then that by Sunday night – when he finished the race in 13th – he had had enough of the front-tyre situation.

“Unfortunately the line is so narrow between having the right tyre, the right temperature and getting our performance right,” said the 14-times GP winner. “It’s really disappointing because here we have to choose tyres by elimination, not by choice. It’s not our free choice to use the soft front, we use it because we cannot use any other tyre.

“The combination between the carcass and the rubber of the medium option is just wrong. We communicated this [to Michelin] from the first day we started testing here – nobody uses the medium. So we use the hard front when it’s hot [during daytime practice] and when we can use the hard we are competitive.

“We feel we should have different options available from the tyre manufacturer that actually work, especially after the many years that Michelin has been here. But quite the opposite is happening.

“We can’t spend six months developing a bike with a certain type of tyre and then have those tyres removed from the allocation. Our result from today isn’t a reflection of any kind of bike issue.”


Rossi: same old, same old

Valentino Rossi chased by Brad Binder Stefan Bradl and Alex MArquez in the 2021 MotoGP Qatar GP

Rossi mid-pack, chased by Brad Binder, Stefan Bradl and Alex Márquez

Petronas SRT

Valentino Rossi’s impressive qualifying performance – a fraction of a second off the front row – wasn’t followed by a great race performance.

At the start of his 26th GP season and his first as a non-factory team rider since 1997 it was the same old story.

“In the race I struggled very much because after some laps the rear tyre started to lose performance and grip. For some reason I stress the tyre too much. In my long runs in practice I already had this feeling. We tried to do something but we couldn’t fix the problem. Maverick [Viñales] made a great race and him and Fabio [Quartararo] have something different in their settings, so it will be good to try to understand if we can improve for next week.”

Rossi has always preferred stiffer settings to his fellow M1 riders, which may explain why he over-stresses his tyres. However, in the past he’s tried running a softer bike, but without success. He needs to find half a second a lap, which is a lot.

Team-mate Franky Morbidelli had a nightmare start to the first season in which he is considered a MotoGP championship contender. His start device/shapeshifter – which drops the rear of the bike to improve the start and corner exits – auto-actuated and didn’t reset. He decided to keep riding and did amazingly well to finish 23 seconds down on the winner.

Some factory engineers think the time has come to ban start devices.


Mir’s thigh supports

Joan Mir with thigh support

Thigh supports help Mir hold his GSX-RR better during braking


Joan Mir contested the first race of his title defence with special thigh supports fitted to his Suzuki GSX-RR to help him during braking.

MotoGP bikes pull 1.7g on the brakes, enough to throw the rider over the front of the bike if he doesn’t hold on for dear life with everything he’s got: hands gripping the handlebars, boots dug into the footpegs, backside rammed into the seat and thighs gripping the fuel tank.

Mir won last year’s world championship despite being unable to grip the GSX-RR’s fuel tank because the bike is so slim, hence the new add-ons in Qatar.

“I like to really use the power of the legs in the braking area,” he explained.  “I ride the bike a lot with my legs – I don’t ride so much with the upper body. If you look at the Suzuki’s fuel tank you will see the sides are completely flat, so when I brake my knees go forward and this is something I don’t like because it’s so uncomfortable. With these supports fitted the tank has a more normal shape, so this is a solution to work more with my legs.”

Team-mate Alex Rins doesn’t currently use the thigh supports.

Jorge Lorenzo used his own version of braking supports when he switched from the Yamaha to the Ducati and then the Honda.