IT'S BEEN A FRANTIC START TO THE SEASON WITH PLOTS AND SUB-PLOTS ABOUND PLUS THE RETURN OF THE KING AS MARC MARQUEZ RETURNS TO ACTION AT LAST
And just like that *clicks fingers* we're already five rounds in the 2021 MotoGP season! With two races in the desert of Qatar, then a visit to the incredible Portimao circuit in Portugal before a sunny weekend in Jerez, and most recently the polar opposite this weekend in France. There is a real mix of stories that have encapsulated the season so far - Yamaha's strong start to the season, Pecco Bagniaia's championship-leading form but none more so than the early season struggles and subsequent rejuvenation of Ducati Corse rider Jack Miller, the form of Valentino Rossi and the return of Marc Marquez.
The opening rounds were Yamaha country as Maverick Viñales took the opening round under the lights before teammate Fabio Quartararo bit back with back-to-back wins. Miller opened his account for the season with a fine win in a Ducati 1-2 with Bagnaia in Spain as Quartararo faded dramatically with arm pump, an issue impressively corrected between Jerez and Le Mans. The best of the Yamahas at Jerez was Petronas SRT man Franky Morbidelli as Viñales once again struggled to maintain anything like a championship challenge.
Portimao saw the return of the King as Marc Marquez made his competitive return to racing after a 10-month lay-off due to right arm injuries received at Jerez last July. The Repsol Honda man hadn't raced the Portimao circuit previously, only a test day to familiarise himself with the layout. There was an air of 'what if' should the older Marquez crash but fears were soon allayed as the Spaniard proved the strength of his arm after tipping off early in the weekend. An admirable finish of 7th, just 13 seconds off the race winner was a good return although the more physically demanding Jerez proved to be more difficult, taking 9th place at the flag just 10 seconds shy of the winning time.
It has certainly been an open season in MotoGP so far although as with any championship challenge consistency is the keyword. Wins are the target but when they're not achievable a podium will do. Pecco Bagniaia is the epitome of consistency this season where, despite two difficult grid positions, the former Moto2 World Champion has not finished outside the top six so far with three podium visits to his credit and the lead in the riders championship before the French GP.
And what a weekend the French GP turned out to be. The Le Mans microclimate is well-known for throwing up difficult weekend weather and this weekend was no different. Limited dry track time saw a real scrabble for times during the dry Free Practice 2 session of Friday as the weather forecast for the weekend showed a deterioration towards race day. Saturday showed promise early but the track stayed wet for the all-important Q1 qualifying session, catching out title leader Bagnaia and the Suzuki pair of Alex Rins and current World Champion, Joan Mir.
Monster Energy Yamaha locked out the first two positions as home hero Quartararo showed no ill effects from his arm-pump surgery by taking a wet pole position for Sunday's race ahead of Viñales and Miller, still riding the crest of the wave from Jerez in third. A fast-improving Marc Marquez hauled his Repsol Honda into contention with a second-row start in 6th and the best qualifying display of the season for the ever-popular Valentino Rossi, in 9th after leading the session early on.
Rossi has struggled all season with the Petronas SRT Yamaha M1 with just 4 points to his name from the opening race of the season, finishing out of the points in the second Qatar race and Portimao while a DNF in Spain summed up the season so far. It's been a tough start with his new team, however a post-race test at Jerez unearthed some answers to some searching questions for The Doctor and his M1 and he was keen to put them in to practice at the Le Mans race, especially if the forecast was correct...
Race day was the most frantic of the season so far as a wet morning Warm-Up paved the way for a soaking Moto3 race however the French asphalt dried out sufficiently for Moto2 and the MotoGP field were greeted with sunshine, specks of blue sky but an ominous black cloud in the distance, most paddock regulars anticipated the first flag-to-flag race since 2017.
It was declared a dry race but that didn't last too long, as Quartararo, Miller, and Viñales battled for the lead the heavens began to open as the trio began lap 5. White flags flew and pit lane opened for the chance to change to bikes with a full wet set-up. It was almost carnage as first, the fences of Parc Ferme blew over as the wind picked up, Quartararo pulled into his teammate's parking slot and had to be shepherded to his machine, Valentino Rossi was almost wiped out by a KTM, and Morbidelli's knee painfully gave way as he went for the change, causing both bike and rider to fall.
Back on track, it was more of the same; Rins went down, Marc Marquez went down, and to add insult to injury the Ducati Corse pair both landed double long lap penalties for speeding infringements in pit lane while Quartararo took a single long lap penalty for getting his parking bays confused!
As the drama settled and Miller took the race by the scruff of the neck, Quartararo had to manage the gap not only ahead but behind as a hard-charging fellow Frenchman in the shape of Johann Zarco was closing rapidly, as was Pecco. Zarco caught and passed his compatriot but ran out of laps to make a challenge on Miller and it was the same story for Bagnaia, a herculean recovery from 16th to 4th at the flag including the two long lap penalties left him in contention for the ride of the day, falling just a couple of seconds short of the podium. Marc Marquez failed to finish after crashing out without injury on his in lap to change machines and Valentino Rossi managed his best finish of the season so far in 11th.
Fabio Quartararo now leads the World Championship by a single point from Francesco Bagnaia, Johann Zarco, and Jack Miller with Viñales fading to fifth, 24 points behind as the MotoGP circus now moves on to Mugello for the Italian MotoGP round on 28-30th May.