I hauled my sleepy self out of bed around the time vampires were heading back to their coffins. Wretched Qatar and its weird timezone. But it’s not like I was NOT gonna get up. The opening round of the 2021 season would not pass without me seeing it live.
I had watched all the practices and qualifying. And so far, all I knew was that Marquez was out until at least Portimao, Petrucci was sporting an extra wide fairing on his Aprilia, Zarco had told everyone he was going to win everything this year – and then promptly became the first rider to crash, Rossi was contesting his 26th season, Fabulous had become a blonde in the off-season, and Alex Marquez suddenly looked more at home in the appalling melange of the new LCR Honda colours than he ever did in Repsol livery.
Free Practice at Qatar is weird. The race is at night, but half the practices are under the blazing sun. So the track temperature is in the high 40s for FP1 and FP3, but FP2, FP4 and Qualifying are run at night in the mid-20s.
So, apart from Zarco, there were a bunch of riders examining the gravel as they found their 2021 legs. But he was the first And he was also the fastest. To Zarco’s everlasting credit, he had hammered his Ducati to a new top-speed record of 362.4km/h, so much could be forgiven.
Jack Miller fell off three times, Pol Espergaro also sailed off into the rocks, and the world champion rookie, Bastianini, was likewise a visitor.
What was also noteworthy was Maverick Vinales. The Top Gun would get to the end of pit-lane, pull over, look around, and then practice a race start. He did this every time he exited the pits. Clearly, he felt he needed to work on this aspect of his race-craft.
Qualifying was a nail-biter – but it all looked very much like Ducati, and its sheer speed, was going to be the marque to beat – despite the late surge offered up by the Yamahas.
Bagnaia was on pole. Beside him sat Fabulous, and then Maverick. In fourth was Rossi – who’d been towed around earlier by Bagnaia (which made his haters hate some more, but made me very happy) – followed by Miller, and Zarco. The next row was Morbidelli, Aleix Espargaro (astride the fastest and all-new Aprilia ever built), and Rins.
The world champion? Well, Mir was back in tenth and no-one paid him all that much mind. Until later. Then everyone paid attention.
When the red light went out, the Ducatis were unbeatable off the line. Vinales, despite his commitment to practicing starts, was simply blown into the weeds by whatever voodoo Gigi injected into the Ducatis. It was Bagnaia in front, followed by Miller, and Zarco, and within three corners, Jorge Martin had slammed his way to fourth.
The first lap was brilliant, and then it got better – and it wasn’t because Petrucci fell off.
Zarco went by Miller down the straight and set off to chase Bagnaia, who was now 0.7 seconds ahead. Close behind them, Aleix Espargaro, in fourth, was making Aprilia hearts beat faster, while Fabulous and Rossi set themselves for a meaningful chase.
On the second lap, it was four Ducatis being chased by three Yamahas, one of which was Maverick’s, and he was making his new team-mate work for his pay.
Jorge Martin had faded back a touch to fifth, but that was enough for Maverick to block pass him for that position.
But behind them a blue Hamamatsu storm was brewing.
Rossi was now in seventh, but ran wide and let Rins through, and you could almost feel the two Suzuki boys dial it up a notch. Mir was still back in eighth, but he has always been a slow starter. He was coming, of that there was no doubt.
At the front, Bagnaia was not getting away, and Rossi’s day was getting worse. Mir passed him and set off after Martin.
Fabulous was now the fastest man on the track, while Millerand Zarco were stalking Bagnaia with intent.
Rins then passed Martin while Bagnaia eked out his lead to a full second. At the back, Morbidelli was obviously wondering what had gone wrong, because Luca Marini passed him to grab 20th position. Rossi was also no doubt wondering why he was also riding backwards.
Zarco started to make good on his claims to the world championship and closed Bagnaia’s lead down to 0.3 seconds in a lap, just as Fabulous was starting to close in on and then pass Miller for third place. Jack immediately struck back down the main straight (because Ducati), but Fabulous’s testicular fortitude was bigger braking into Turn One, where he out-braked Jack and took back third.
With the race still only a third done, it was Bagnaia, Zarco, Fabulous, Miller, and Vinales – all up in each other’s rear tyres.
Taka Nakagami lost the front in Turn Nine and returned to his pit to stare inscrutably at his data – which is what he does when he’s not racing.
It was obvious to me Zarco had every intention of winning this race. He was riding with aggression and grace, and Bagnaia was not getting away. It was also obvious Rossi was not going to win anything, because Oliveira passed him for 10th.
I missed that awful event because I was watching Vinales take fourth spot off Miller, even as the two Suzuki boys tucked themselves into sixth (Rins) and seventh (Mir).
Maverick was now looking to teach Fabulous who was who in the Yamaha factory garage, but Fabulous is one of the latest-braking bastards in the paddock, and the end of the main straight is where his cags can be seen from space.
Rins now passed Miller, who shot straight back – which is what you have to love about Jack, he gives up no position without a fight.
Twelve whole laps from the end, Vinales finally outbraked Fabulous into Turn one and grabbed third spot behind Zarco and Bagnaia.
Now it was Rins’ turn to torment Jack, and Maverick’s turn to chew on Zarco. Maverick was aggression incarnate as he chased the Frenchman, but he was smooth and solid.
On the next lap, the fastest bike on the track was Aleix Espargaro’s Aprilia, but all eyes were on Vinales passing Zarco for second, and Rins passing Fabulous for third.
It just kept getting better.
It would seem the Ducatis’ immense speed was being negated by a strong headwind down the straight, as well as them being forced to switch to a more economical engine map – and Bagnaia was now in serious strife with Vinales.
Alex Marquez fell off. No-one cared. Everyone was waiting for the inevitable Vinales pass on Bagnaia. And it was clear the Suzukis were coming hard as well. Rins went past Miller, then Miller went past Rins, and hung grimly on to fourth.
The top three riders were all lapping in the 1.59s, so no-one was getting away anywhere, except Rins, who finally made a pass stick on Miller and secured fourth – which happened pretty much at the same time as Vinales did Bagnaia like a late-night kebab.
With seven laps left, it was Vinales, Bagnaia, Zarco – still convinced he had this in the bag – Rins, Miller, Mir, and Fabulous.
And then Maverick just rode away. His Yamaha’s corner speed was devastating. In half-a-lap, he’d put half-a-second on Bagnaia, who must have been fuming and not paying attention, because Zarco then passed him as well.
Coming into the fifth-last lap, Maverick was way out in front, Zarco was chasing, Bagnaia was fending off Rins and Mir, while Jack was deciding that a podium was not for him this round.
In mid-field, the rookie Bastianini, was being as impressive as Hell, and I expect some wondrous things from him very early this season. Rossi and Binder were squabbling over 13th place, when the Giraffe King ran the Doctor a little wide and settled that.
Mir then passed Rins for fourth, and started to feel his world champion gonads begin to churn. Vinales was now almost a second in front, Zarco looked to be settling for second – which would be like a win for him – and Bagnaia was being swamped by Suzuki blue. Miller was drifting back into the clutches of the Espargaro bothers – and three laps from the end, the excitement got dialed up another notch. I put a fresh towel down on the couch.
Fabulous passed Rins, who’d obviously run out of tyres, and Mir grabbed third spot off Bagnaia.
Suddenly, it started to look like there would not be a single factory Ducati on the podium – and as Mir closed in on Zarco, even that hard-fought second started to look iffy for the satellite team.
Vinales was gone, and barring a brain-snap in the last two laps, the race was his. This is when I think I started holding my breath.
Mir was relentless in his pursuit of Zarco’s second place. It was a question of when, and it had to be soon as the corners ticked past.
Three corners from the end, Mir grabbed second spot from Zarco and the Suzuki garage erupted into cheers. But that last corner proved to be his undoing. The world champion ran it a touch wide, presumably to block the Ducatis from going around him coming onto the main straight.
The Ducatis of Zarco and Bagnaia duly went inside him, and maybe punched the first fuel map button they were using early in the race, and just hosed him over the line.
It was magnificent to watch – and one of the best races I have ever seen. Must be that sandy desert air and the romantic lighting.
I guess we’ll see next week when the circus does it all again at the same track.
Boris is a writer who has contributed to many magazines and websites over the years, edited a couple of those things as well, and written a few books. But his most important contribution is pissing people off. He feels this is his calling in life and something he takes seriously. He also enjoys whiskey, whisky and the way girls dance on tables. And riding motorcycles. He's pretty keen on that, too.
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