As the 2021 MotoGP season begins this weekend, I have to wonder: Could we ever possibly expect a more unpredictable curveball of a year than the 2020 season?
Nine different winners. A champion nobody predicted before the season started, who didn't even finish two of the first three races, and ended the season with the same number of MotoGP race wins as championships (one). Then there was the chaos of the year, from the crash, remount and frantic charge, and second crash by Marc Márquez in the first race of the year that broke his arm, followed by his overly ambitious comeback and a series of complications that not only ended his 2020 season but is still affecting his 2021 campaign. There was Valentino Rossi's near-death experience in Austria. And more. Lots more.
How can 2021 follow that act?
We begin to find out this weekend. And 2021 is looking very unpredictable, as well.
Still not a "normal" year
Typically, by now we would have seen the first round of the Superbike World Championship in February in the late summer of Australia, and we'd be getting ready for the MotoGP opener in Qatar, followed by the lone MotoGP round in the United States at the Circuit of the Americas, with the MotoAmerica Superbikes as a support class, and the other Americas round in Argentina. The COVID-19 pandemic continues to keep us far from typical, however. WSBK, usually the first major racing series to start, won't begin until May. The two MotoGP rounds in the Americas are officially postponed, though nobody seems totally confident they'll happen at all.
The current MotoGP calendar calls for two races at Losail International Circuit in Qatar, followed by five months of racing in Europe, and then supposedly a swing through Asia and Australia before the traditional season-ending race at Circuit Ricardo Tormo in Valencia in Spain. Some of the teams and riders have stayed in Qatar since the preseason test and won't leave until after the second race on April 4. The Qatari government offered COVID-19 vaccines to everyone in the paddock, giving them the chance to get vaccinated before they would be able to do so in their home countries. Márquez, who did not go to the test because he is still recovering from the three surgeries on his arm and the hidden infection in the bone that slowed his recovery, flew to Qatar just to get the vaccine.
Speaking of Márquez — everyone is. In a year with many questions, the biggest ones surround when he will start racing and how competitive he will be after most of a year without even riding a motorcycle. Recent Honda news releases showed him riding a minibike on the track and then riding a Honda RC213V-S at the Circuit de Catalunya to test his fitness. MotoGP riders are tightly restricted on how much they can test on their race bikes, but they can ride street bikes all they want, and since the RC213V-S is a street-legal motorcycle — albeit a $184,000 street-legal motorcycle — there was no problem.
Then, this week, Márquez and Honda announced that he would skip the first two rounds in Qatar on the advice of his doctors. Reading between the lines, it seems the concern is not so much about whether he is fit to ride, but what might happen to his right arm if he crashes again. After last year's disaster of trying to return to racing too soon, Márquez and the team appear to be erring on the side of caution.
That still leaves many questions. Can Márquez spot the field a two-race head start and still challenge for the title? Well, consider that Joan Mir did nearly that last year with two DNFs in the first three races. So if Mir can come back from that, surely Márquez can. After so long away from racing, will he be back at 100 percent or 80 percent? Can a Márquez at 80 percent still win a championship? And are we talking 80 percent physically? Mentally? Will he be fragile in his next crash? So many questions.
Who else will contend? Jack Miller moves up to the factory Ducati Lenovo team and was fast in testing. Defending champion Mir and Álex Rins on Team Suzuki ECSTAR have to be considered contenders. Pol Espargaró has jumped on the RC213V at Repsol Honda and, more quickly than just about anyone, has come to terms with a motorcycle that's notorious for being difficult to master. Fabio Quartararo and Maverick Viñales on the factory Monster Energy Yamaha team remain question marks, especially with their consistency, but they have to be considered contenders. Beyond those factory teams, Franco Morbidelli, on the Petronas Yamaha SRT team, has experienced hands around him and carries momentum from a strong performance in 2020.
And that's not even a full list of the riders who could win the title. After all, nobody predicted Mir would be MotoGP world champion a year ago, but he wrapped up the title early at Valencia with a safe finish (while Morbidelli and Miller put on a frantic duel for the win, in what could be a preview of this year — enjoy the highlight video below).
Part of the reason it's impossible to make much of a prediction at this point is because we have so little information to work with. The Malaysia test was canceled by a state of emergency declared there due to a COVID-19 outbreak and the Qatar test provides iffy information, at best. The Losail track is not typical. Who wins in Qatar doesn't usually tell us much about who's going to win the rest of the season.
Also, consider that last year Quartararo handily won the first two races of the delayed season at Circuito de Jerez and looked like a clear favorite. In the end, he finished eighth in the season standings. So for multiple reasons, whatever happens the next two weekends in Qatar, don't put too much stock in it.
Breakthrough for U.S. racers, but not U.S. TV coverage
So suppose you'd like to watch these unpredictable races of 2021 and like most RevZilla customers you live in the United States. Sorry, but I don't have good news for you.
Just a few years ago, you could watch all three classes of MotoGP, World Superbike and MotoAmerica on beIN Sports network. Lots of people complained because it often wasn't a part of the cable TV packages lots of people had, and wasn't available in some areas. Still, those now look like the good old days.
MotoGP now airs on NBCSN — a channel that is going to disappear after this year, so motorcycle racing, which has hopped around from channel to channel, faces an uncertain future in 2022. Also, when I say NBCSN airs MotoGP, I mean just the MotoGP race. Not Moto2 or Moto3. And MotoGP races are sometimes shown live, sometimes hours later.
Sure, serious fans can sign up for the MotoGP VideoPass for €139.99 (about $166 U.S.) per year. That gets you all the practice sessions, all the races and more. But what about casual fans or potential fans? You know, exactly the people you need to hook to keep the sport growing — or, in the case of the United States, keep it from continuing to shrink. Potential fans aren't going to shell out well over a hundred dollars on the off chance this MotoGP thing they've heard about might be interesting.
This is particularly important in 2021 because there are three interesting stories unfolding with U.S. riders in world championship roadracing. Joe Roberts made a big leap forward in Moto2 in 2020 and for 2021 has moved to the championship-winning Italtrans Racing team. Five-time MotoAmerica Superbike champion Cameron Beaubier takes Roberts' old seat at the Tennor American Racing team. Roberts could potentially have a breakthrough year. Even though it's a lot to expect Beaubier to contend in his first year in Moto2, just watching how a national Superbike champ adjusts to an unforgiving Moto2 bike and faces off against the world's best will make for an interesting story line.
Too bad casual fans who might be drawn in by those stories won't see Moto2 on NBCSN. The latest word I've heard is that NBCSN will show MotoGP races, as it did last year, and "highlights from Moto2."
Don't expect to see much of the third U.S. rider at the world championship level, either, even though Garrett Gerloff starts his second season in World Superbike for the GRT Yamaha WorldSBK team with the momentum of three podium finishes last year. NBCSN only showed a few World Superbike races last year, and seemed to do that grudgingly.
Just when we have more compelling stories about U.S. roadracers than we've had in years, potential U.S. fans will see less world championship racing on TV than we've seen in years. Plus, there's the real possibility of a second year without a U.S. MotoGP round.
Look, personally I don't care if motorcycle roadracing remains a tiny niche sport in the country of my birth. I don't need my interests to achieve mainstream popularity. But if only for the sake of the best rising U.S. talent, which deserves a shot at the world stage along with Spanish and Italian kids, I'd like to see the sport grow stronger here. MotoGP should have racers from every continent except Antarctica. Right now, the 22-rider field consists of 19 Europeans, one Australian, one Asian rider from Japan and one from South Africa. Just as glaring as the lack of a rider from the Americas is the underrepresentation of the huge motorcycle markets of Asia, beyond Japan.
As the 2021 season begins, I'm optimistic the world will see another great year of MotoGP racing. From a U.S. perspective, I'm pessimistic because I expect that the trend will continue of fewer and fewer of us seeing it at all.