MotoGP opens a marathon season on Sunday in Qatar with champion Fabio Quartararo trying to hold off Francesco Bagnaia on the faster Ducati, while both glance back anxiously at Marc Marquez. Marquez has made it clear he is chasing a man who has left the circuit.
Valentino Rossi retired at the end of last season after racing in the elite category since 2000, two years before MotoGP was created. The Italian won seven top-class world titles. At a few days past his 29th birthday, Marquez has six. “My goal is to fight for the title,” Marquez said at the Honda team presentation, but he added that the competition would be tough. “Fabio was champion, and he deserves to be because he was the most consistent, but Pecco Bagnaia ended the year being the fastest with the Ducati.”
Marquez returned last season after crashing a few laps into the 2020 campaign. For much of last season, he struggled and he sat out the last two races with double vision. With one good arm, he still won three races, all at tracks with an emphasis on left-turning corners, which the Spaniard preferred even before smashing his right arm. “Today everything looks good, the vision is perfect, the arm is better too,” he said in February. Worryingly for his rivals, the revamped Honda seems to be quicker. The second factory rider, Pol Espargaro, set the best time at pre-season testing in Indonesia and then declared: “I’ve never been so fast.”
That might not be an entirely a good thing for Marquez. In previous seasons, the Honda bikes have been set up to suit his risky and aggressive riding style. Quartararo, a 22-year-old Frenchman, has also made a habit of winning with bikes on which others struggle. Last season he collected 278 points while the other three men who raced factory Yamahas over the season collected just 31.
After winning five of last season’s first 12 races, Quartararo struggled to keep up with the accelerating Ducatis as Italian Bagnaia won four of the last six. At testing, the Frenchman complained to the motorbike media that Yamaha has been unable to deliver a greater top speed. “Last year we were an average 9kph (slower), today we are at 9kph. So we didn’t make any steps forward,” he said. “If you have no power, you adapt yourself, like I did in the past. So, if we need to adapt we’re going to adapt.”
Yet while Quartararo has a lower top speed than the Bologna Bullets, testing suggested he still compensates with the best average speed over a lap. While Yamaha, KTM and Honda will all have one satellite team this season, Ducati has three. “When you know that there will be eight Ducatis, eight of the fastest bikes ever, it will be difficult,” said Quartararo.
It is going to be a long season. After 14 races in 2020, all in Europe, and 18 last year in a second Covid-curtailed season, there are 21 on the schedule. That is up from the 19 in each of the two seasons before the pandemic. Finland makes its belated return after a 40-year gap.
Indonesia, which hosted two races in the 1990s, is also added. Australia, Argentina, Japan, Thailand and Malaysia, all cancelled in each of the last two seasons, are scheduled to run this season.