Red Bull Motorsports
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MotoGP™ is back with a bang as Johann Zarco claims second in Qatar
There's plenty of drama under the lights at the 2021 MotoGP™ championship season-opener, as Pramac Ducati's Joann Zarco claims a last gasp podium.
Twenty-two of the world's fastest motorcycle racers gathered under the floodlights at the Losail International Circuit in Qatar for 22 laps of 300kph gladiatorial combat that signalled the start of the 19-race 2021 MotoGP™ World Championship – and it all started in thrilling fashion.
Just over seven seconds covered the top 10 at the finish flag, as Pramac Ducati's Johann Zarco capped a brilliant ride for his new team to hold onto second place, leading home the factory Ducati of pole-sitter Francesco Bagnaia in a mad dash to the line to deny reigning 2020 MotoGP™ champion Joan Mir a podium finish.
At the sharp end, despite early race dominance from the four Ducatis, it was the Yamaha of Maverick Viñales who claimed a surefooted victory in the opening race of the season, although the rest of the podium places hung in the balance right up until the final few metres
Ducati Racing's new boy Bagnaia started his tenure with the storied Italian manufacturer in style, claiming his maiden MotoGP™ pole position ahead of the Yamaha duo of Fabio Quartararo and Viñales.
By lap five the Ducati foursome was disrupted by the two Yamaha bikes, with fifth place Viñales following through new team-mate Quartararo to demote the fast starting Martin to seventh. Yamaha's early push to the front was far from over as Quartararo slipped by Miller at the end of lap six and set about claiming Zarco's second place.
At the midway point of the race Viñales made his move into third place, as the top six riders played a waiting game. Suzuki's Álex Rins put himself in contention in sixth, while Miller remained in touch of the podium. With 11 laps remaining Bagnaia's lead came under threat from Viñales and the Spanish rider was forced to go the extra mile to get around the pole-sitter, who rode a defensive masterclass.
Bagnaia's second place soon became third, as the shrewd Zarco claimed the runner-up slot entering the final five laps. The French rider's podium aspirations quickly came under pressure from the resurgent Mir however, who'd rode brilliantly to put himself in contention after starting 11th on the grid, as the Ducatis lost grip and speed.
As Viñales took the victory, the evening's best action was saved for the final seconds of the race and Zarco got what he deserved after a rapid and calculated race. After losing second place to Mir, with a few hundred metres to spare, Zarco retook the reigning champion as he ran wide in an attempt to defend, allowing the Ducati man to slip under and back into second place, followed by Bagnaia, kicking the Suzuki rider off the podium at the line.
For the first time since the season-opening race of 2013 there was no Marc Márquez on the grid for a premier class Grand Prix. Honda's Spanish eight-time champion remains in recovery mode from the elbow injury sustained in the opening race of the delayed 2020 MotoGP™ campaign, with speculation regarding his return date, which is currently anticipated to be round three in Portugal on April 18.
In Márquez's absence, the Repsol Honda challenge was spearheaded by new signing Pol Espargaró and the ex-KTM racer ended up 13th on the grid in Qatar after a crash in Q2. He finished the race a solid eighth, one place ahead of podium hopeful Miller on the works Ducati. Espargaró saw temporary team-mate Stefan Bradl seal a creditable 11th at the line, beating Valentino Rossi and narrowly missing out on a top 10.
In the KTM stable, following a trying qualifying for all four Austrian-built bikes, double MotoGP™ winner Miguel Oliveria found some good pace and sneaked through the field to end up as the top KTM in his first race for the Red Bull KTM Factory Racing squad, beating team-mate Brad Binder. Meanwhile, reigning Moto2™ champion Enea Bastianini capped an impressive debut to bring his Esponsorama Racing Ducati home in 10th place
The teams and rivals will meet again in just one week's time at the same circuit for round two of the 2021 MotoGP™ championship. Can Ducati maintain their early race supremacy to end up winners at the flag or will KTM and Honda regroup to challenge for a podium in Qatar before the series heads to Europe and the stage for the return of Marc Márquez?