The reigning MotoGP™ King was centre stage in the Press Conference, but surrounding him were hungry challengers to the 2021 crown
We have lift-off in 2021. The Barwa Grand Prix of Qatar officially kicked off with the pre-event Press Conference as MotoGP™ World Champion Joan Mir sat centre stage ready to embark on what he hopes is a title defending campaign. Everyone surrounding the number 36 on Thursday evening, the likes of Jack Miller (Ducati Lenovo Team), Fabio Quartararo (Monster Energy Yamaha MotoGP), Pol Espargaro (Repsol Honda Team), Valentino Rossi (Petronas Yamaha SRT) and Aleix Espargaro (Aprilia Racing Team Gresini), will be hoping it’s them who will be lifting the trophy come November.
Between now and then though, there’s thousands of kilometres to be raced – starting under the lights at the Losail International Circuit. Naturally as the current king, Mir has a target on his back and will head into the 2021 season as the rider to beat. Both he and Team Suzuki Ecstar Alex Rins had a quiet pre-season test, but Mir was relishing the weekend ahead and the “great challenge” that faces him and the team this year.
“Yes. So happy to be here again. Last year we did a really good season, a dream to achieve the Championship. We are here in Qatar, everyone starts from zero and it will be important to feel great here. The test was not bad but we have work to do. I’m looking forward to this season, we have a great challenge ahead of us defending the title and we’ll do as good as we can so let’s see.”
Someone who wasn’t quiet in testing was Miller. Fastest man on the timesheets here earlier this month, the Australian is being tipped as one of the favourite title contenders in 2021 – and for good reason. The factory star didn’t want to get carried away about his and Ducati’s testing performance though and knows there’s plenty more variables to consider in a Grand Prix weekend. But, Miller is looking and sounding right up for taking the fight to Mir, as well as the others.
“Yeah I feel ready as I’ll ever be. We didn’t get that big of a break, I went back to Australia for a bit but not as much as I’d like. The pre-season went good, I didn’t have a massive move it was just one garage over, I already knew a lot of the guys so we got on straight away. The times were good in testing but we can’t look into it too much, the conditions were perfect. We’ll start again from zero here, it will be a bit different with Dunlop rubber on the track so we’ll come in with an open mind,” explained Miller.
Something no one would have predicted last year is Repsol Honda going winless. The sport’s most decorated manufacturer signed up Pol Espargaro to partner still absent Marc Marquez this year and if testing is anything to go by, then the younger Espargaro has settled in well. Very well. However, naturally, the Spaniard didn’t want to overhype his chances for Round 1, but did admit that his one-lap pace wasn’t far from the likes of Miller, Quartararo and Maverick Viñales (Monster Energy Yamaha MotoGP).
“Yeah it was a difficult beginning to the season because we just had four days of testing,” said Pol Espargaro. “For the rookies it was even worse but also for the guys who changed bikes, it was not the best preseason. Anyways even with those four days, the final day I felt comfortable and I could do something interesting with race pace, at least to start to think about where to be on the race. On one lap we weren’t far from Jack Miller, we know he is very fast, also Fabio and Maverick but still I think we have a lot to learn and it will be a little bit difficult, but we will enjoy the first race of the season.”
The number 44 went onto explain the old saying: Honda have the most difficult bike on the grid. Pol Espargaro doesn’t agree though and says you have to adapt your riding style accordingly. But how much was he able to do that at the pre-season test?
“In the past when I heard someone saying this bike is very difficult, I was always thinking the same thing, for me, one bike with one manufacturer can be very difficult and for one rider with a riding style better to this one it can be easier. So, for me, the Honda for sure is not the easiest but I don’t agree it is the most difficult bike on the grid. You just need to match the riding style of the bike and it feels like I did that a little in the Test.
“I don’t know how much I matched because it is difficult to evaluate after four days how much I’m connected to the bike. I would take out this idea the bike is difficult, and I want to start to be positive, to be proactive and try to make things happen. Starting here in Qatar it is not the best place for Honda or even me, but the Test was quite positive, but we are going to go for it and see what we can do in the first races even if we are still rookies with this bike.”
Winner of three races in 2021, Quartararo will be eager to mount a season-long title challenge this season now he is donning factory colours. All four YZR-M1s were looking in very decent trim during pre-season testing and the Frenchman explained how he’d been able to learn from his difficult end to the year last time out.
“Yes, I think that last year and the end of the season was difficult, but I think I have learned many things that can bring me a lot of experience for the future and this year. It feels like it has been high and low, but I feel ready for 2021 and I think that is the most important thing.”
Feeling ready for the 2021 season is something that at 42 years of age may sound very daunting. Not to Rossi though. The nine-time World Champion embarks on a new voyage in his illustrious Grand Prix career that enters its 26th chapter, and after lapping Losail quicker than ever, Rossi got the same buzz as he has done for the previous 26 years on the first Thursday of the season.
“Yes the atmosphere of Thursday of the first race is always the same, like the first day of school,” began The Doctor. “It’s always exciting, also for the pictures together on the grid, you have the feeling that in some hours we start. I changed team after a long, long time, but I feel good. The atmosphere is good and the test was not so bad, now we have to see in a real race weekend.”
Seeing how they get on in a real race weekend is something that Aleix Espargaro and Aprilia are eager to do with the 2021 RS-GP. After a supremely impressing Qatar Test, a lot of eyes will be concentrating on how Espargaro and Lorenzo Savadori get on. Could Aprilia challenge for regular rostrums in 2021? Aleix Espargaro was certainly hopeful of that, but he was another rider to point out that testing and a Grand Prix weekend are two wholly different prospects.
“I hope it is like this, but you never know, a test is a test,” began the Spaniard. “Races are completely different, and Moto2 and Moto3 the track will change. We will not start from zero but somewhere we will have to change some things. The test was good, the RS-GP 21 looks sincerely promising, but we have to race and compare with the others. I’m sure everyone will improve for the race. It’s not going to be easy but I’m very motivated and feel I have the chance to fight with the best and it gives me positive energy and I can’t wait for FP1.”
Millions of fans from every corner of the globe also can’t wait for MotoGP™ FP1 to get underway on Friday in Qatar. World Champion Mir will roll out of pitlane for the first time in 2021, during a Grand Prix, as the number one rider. However, there’s so many riders waiting in the wings to make sure it’s them who take all the plaudits this year.
The new season has arrived, and the fighting talk has begun. The talking will now be done on track and you can see who tops the first premier class session of the year at 15:40 local time (GMT+3) – tune in! – www.motogp.com