Honda’s official Repsol-backed MotoGP team starts the 2021 MotoGP World Championship in Qatar this weekend with new signing Pol Espargaro (Repsol Honda Team Honda RC213V) and HRC test rider Stefan Bradl, who continues to substitute for six-times MotoGP World Champion Marc Marquez.
Sunday’s Qatar Grand Prix is the first of two back-to-back races at Losail, with the Doha GP taking place following weekend.
The 2021 MotoGP championship will be the 73rd year of motorcycling’s World Championships and marks Honda’s 40th consecutive season in the premier class, with the NS500 and NSR500 two-strokes, then the RC211V, RC212V and RC213V four-strokes. Honda also contested the 1966 and 1967 Grand Prix seasons with the RC181 four-stroke and contested some races in the 1979, 1980 and 1981 championships with the NR500 four-stroke.
During this time Honda has won a record-breaking 21 MotoGP Riders World Championships and 25 MotoGP Constructors World Championships.
Espargaro’s race debut aboard his RC213V is highly anticipated. The Spaniard and his countryman Marquez and were great rivals in Moto2, before graduating to MotoGP. Espargaro won the Moto2 World Championship in 2013, the year after Marquez, before moving into MotoGP in 2014. Therefore this will be the 29-year-old’s eighth season in the premier class. Last year Espargaro had his best season yet in MotoGP, scoring four podiums and ending the year fifth overall.
The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has complicated Espargaro’s preparation for his first MotoGP campaign with Honda. Usually all MotoGP riders would have two three-days tests at Sepang and Losail to prepare for the opening races. This year’s Sepang tests were cancelled due to the pandemic, leaving riders just five days of preseason tests at Losail to adjust to their machines, work on base settings and do race simulations. And riders were unable to use the last day due to strong winds blowing sand onto the track.
Despite these constraints Espargaro performed superbly. After just four days aboard the latest iteration of the RC213V, the machine that won seven of the last nine MotoGP Constructors World Championships, the former Moto2 race winner was just seven tenths of a second off the fastest lap times.
Espargaro had planned to carry out a full race simulation on the final day, but the windy conditions prevented that. So he goes into this weekend relying upon himself and his engineers to get the maximum performance out of his RC213V despite a lack of testing.
Espargaro has tasted success at Losail. In 2013 he won the Moto2 race. In MotoGP his best result at the track so far is a seventh-place finish in 2016.
Bradl took over Marquez’s RC213V last August, after Marquez broke his upper right arm at July’s season-opening Spanish GP. The 31-year-old German, whose usual duties are testing and developing the RC213V, did a superb job during the rest of the season, building speed race by race. At the season-ending Portuguese GP he qualified on the second row and finished seventh, three seconds behind fourth-placed Espargaro.
Bradl is a winner at Losail. He took first place in the 2011 Qatar Moto2 race, on his way to winning that year’s Moto2 world title. He last contested a MotoGP race at the track in 2016.
Marquez’s absence from this weekend’s racing follows his first rides since his abortive comeback at last July’s Andalusian GP. First he rode a minibike around a kart track on March 13, then stepped up to a RC213V-S road bike, which he rode at Barcelona, Spain, and Portimao, Portugal.
Marquez was overjoyed to be back on a motorcycle after an eight-months wait and three operations, including bone-graft surgery in December. However, fans around the world will have to wait a while longer for the most anticipated comeback in MotoGP history. Following his outings at Barcelona and Portimao the 28-year-old underwent a medical review, which advised him to wait a little longer before making his return. He will have his next check-up on April 12, the Monday before the Portuguese GP.
Takaaki Nakagami (LCR Honda Idemitsu Honda RC213V) made the most of the shortened preseason testing schedule to get ready for his fourth season in MotoGP and his first with a latest-spec RC213V. in previous years the former Moto2 race winner had ridden older-spec machines. However, his impressive performance throughout 2020, including his first pole position at October’s Teruel Grand Prix, won him an important machinery upgrade for 2021.
Last year the 29-year-old from Chiba was often in the fight for the podium and ended the year tenth overall. This season he intends to take maximum profit of his 2021 RC213V to keep learning and score his first top-three results. So far his best MotoGP result at Losail was his ninth place in 2019, just seven seconds behind the winner.
This is a very special year for Lucio Cecchinello’s LCR Honda team, which celebrates its 25th anniversary. Alongside Nakagami on the grid will be new team recruit Alex Marquez (LCR Honda Castrol Honda RC213V) who joins Cecchinello’s squad after a stellar rookie MotoGP season.
The 2019 Moto2 World Champion scored two podiums in his first year in motorcycling’s most demanding category – a second place at the rain-soaked French GP and another second-place in the Aragon round. The 24-year-old’s calm, analytical approach to riding on the track and working in the garage impressed everyone around him, so his aim for 2021 is to keep working and moving forward, with the goal of regularly joining the podium fight.
Since the inaugural 2004 Qatar GP Honda has won MotoGP races at the track with Sete Gibernau (Telefonica Movistar Honda RC211V), Casey Stoner (Repsol Honda Team Honda RC212V) and Marquez.