MotoGP 2021 Mid-Term Report: The Winners & Losers Pt.1

The first-half of the 2021 MotoGP World Championship season has been and gone... but who will be toasting success and who will be licking some wounds?

start of the Italian MotoGP at Mugello

School’s out for summer among those competing in the 2021 MotoGP World Championship offering a chance to go to bed without setting an alarm, bake a bit in the sun and catch up with loved ones…

Of course, when we say that we actually mean a few weeks training hard, count down the hours until they are next on track and catch up with engineers in a determined attempt to shave those precious thousands of a second when racing resumes.

With nine races down and (maybe) ten more to go, the 22 riders will be looking back on the first half of the year with varying degrees of satisfaction and disdain. 

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Indeed, it’s fair to say there were some clear winners and losers from MotoGP 2021 Part I, with those classified in the latter no doubt desperate to reverse this for the sequel

But who will be looking to maintain their form and which are getting all Rocky Balboa on their 'vaykay'?

Winner - Fabio Quartararo

Come the end of the 2020 MotoGP season it was hard to tell whether Fabio Quartararo should be categorised as a winner or a loser.

A three-time race winner in only his second season on a (admittedly well funded) privateer Yamaha should have seen him celebrated as the talent he evidently is. But he also let slip a comfortable lead, became strewn with errors towards the end of the year and was ultimately shown up by a team-mate on older machinery.

However, to say Quartararo has bounced back in 2021 would be an understatement, not least because the one factor that had people questioning if Yamaha had selected the right rider to replace Valentino Rossi in the Factory team - his consistency - is precisely why he headed into summer armed with a 34 point cushion.

Indeed, Quartararo’s form collapsed in 2020 as doubts crept into his mind and errors crept into his game, understandable given his experience and age, but still a daunting demon to overcome when you’re stepping into the biggest possible shoes as Rossi’s replacement.

And yet, we’ve barely seen an error from Quartararo this year. His scintillating speed over a single lap remains extraordinary (he’s started first or second for eight of the nine races) but he is backing it up with some deft race craft with his win in Mugello, where Yamaha is often found gasping for top end breath, a definite standout.

He’s the only rider to have finished every race inside the points and even at moments where circumstances conspired against him - arm pump in Jerez, rain in Le Mans, unfastened leathers in Barcelona - he kept it sunny side up and the points ticking over.

Time will tell if the demons reappear when we get to the business end of the season, but let’s just say it’s very easy to forget little more than two years ago he was a barely known figure with just one Moto2 win to his name and was only selected when Dani Pedrosa turned the ride down…

Loser - Honda

Honda suffered quite the fall from grace in 2020 in the wake of Marc Marquez’s particularly ill-timed period out through injury, but the hangover has lingered into 2021.

Marquez has of course returned and even topped the podium at the Sachsenring which - injury or not - was a seriously impressive performance given the seemingly compromising equipment underneath him.

Indeed, regardless of whether allowing Marquez to steer development of the RC213V is ultimately in Honda’s best interests, his injury exposed a lack of direction in his absence.

As such, there have been periods this year where Honda had four riders on three different specification machinery, while it’s arguably no coincidence that Marquez, Pol Espargaro and Alex Marquez top the leaderboard for accidents in 2021.

Time will tell if Marquez’s injury clouds his form for the years to come, but Honda’s scattergraph form across the board show the issues there are more fundamental than first feared.

Winner - Ducati

There was a point in 2020 where Ducati looked to be wiping egg off its face after Andrea Dovizioso called its bluff over contract negotiations having already failed to snag one of the (many) big names it was targeting for 2021.

As such, it was ‘forced’ to commit to a factory pairing of Jack Miller and Pecco Bagnaia. In reality, Ducati seemed to be the only party not to see the benefit of throwing a chance to two hungry riders it had been developing rather than another signing that had to find their feet on the very ‘particular’ Desmo.

Suitably, both riders have risen to the challenge but while ‘team leader’ Miller has topped the podium twice in 2021, it is Bagnaia that arguably stands out.

Though he is yet to win a race and there are rough edges that betray his relative inexperience - particularly in qualifying - on race day he is arguably the only rider capable of matching Quartararo.

Were it not for his sloppy crash out of the lead at Mugello - a race that had all the stars aligning for a famous win - he’d be right on Quartararo’s tail and with arguably more to come.

Kudos must be paid to Ducati though for developing the tricky GP20 into a more weaponised GP21 that now appears to handle as well as it bullets in a straight line. 

Loser - Suzuki

It’s a touch harsh to refer to Suzuki as a ‘loser’ but after its incredible and surprising title win in 2020, it appears to be paying for a conservative development approach for its defence.

Indeed, while the GSX-RR doesn’t appear to be a slower machine, gains by its rivals have served to dampen its strengths while highlighting its weaknesses.

Defending champion Joan Mir is having a stronger season than perhaps his low profile suggests, the Spaniard still in with a shout of back-to-back titles through some dogged ascending rides up the order that have earned him three podiums.

However, once again the riders are hamstrung by Suzuki’s inability to generate heat into its tyres with their qualifying average even lower than it was in 2020 when Mir won the title from starting around ninth. 

As for Alex Rins, the Spaniard came into the year knowing he had the pace to match his title-winning team-mate but has blotted his copybook with a series of accidents that have dented his reputation. Superb on his day, but the antithesis of Mir when it comes to cast-iron consistency.

Winner - Johann Zarco

A rider that is never afraid to show his feelings, having become very familiar with a pouting Johann Zarco through 2019, followed by a smiling one in 2020, the Frenchman hasn’t stopped beaming in 2021.

Saying he has revived his MotoGP career since linking up with Ducati might be overstating it, but Zarco should be respected for playing the long game and making a success out of his dramatic change of course when he left KTM and accepted a move to minnows Avinita.

On the latest-spec Pramac Ducati, Zarco is reminding everyone why he is a double Moto2 World Champion. His ability to both turn on the speed in qualifying and stretch his tyres in races helping to establish him as the solid anchor to Ducati’s title campaign.

While he is possibly lacking the last 5% to secure that long-awaited first win for both himself and Pramac Racing, it’s clear what Johann Zarco can do when he is a heureux Frenchman.