MotoGP 2021: Marquez still the man to beat despite delayed start to new season

By Sports Desk March 25, 2021

For the first time in a long time, the new MotoGP season promises a wide-open title race.

Marc Marquez's standing at the top of the sport has long been undisputed, but injury robbed him of his 2020 campaign and allowed Joan Mir to profit.

A response from Marquez this year has to be expected, but he will not be fit in time for the Qatar double-header that begins the season.

The first of the two Losail International Circuit races comes on Sunday, when Marquez's rivals will be looking to send a message to the absent superstar ahead of another intriguing title tussle.
 

MIR A THREAT TO MARQUEZ?

The 2020 championship would typically make Mir the man to beat in 2021, but Marquez is the bookmakers' favourite, even as he prepares to sit out the start of the season.

Prior to last season, when he appeared in only the first grand prix, Marquez had six titles in seven years.

The Repsol Honda rider will be confident, too, that his delayed recovery will not negatively impact his challenge. This will be the 14th time the campaign has started in Qatar but only four of the previous 13 race winners – most recently Marquez in 2013 – have gone on to top the standings at the end of the year.

Indeed, it is not an event Marquez will mind missing too much, with just one win in seven appearances at the Qatar Grand Prix.

If he can return swiftly afterwards, however, his rivals will have reason to fear. Excluding four abandonments, Marquez has finished first (16 times) or second (eight) in his past 24 races.

Mir's sole previous appearance at Qatar does not suggest he will be able to forge an early lead either, having finished eighth in 2018.

But the defending champion made the podium in seven of his final 11 races in 2020 to clinch the title, Suzuki Ecstar's first riders' championship since 2000.
 

CHALLENGERS TO THE CHAMPIONS

Mir was the man who went away with the title as Marquez missed out, but he was not alone in pursuit of the six-time champion's crown.

Petronas Yamaha's Franco Morbidelli was second last year, just 13 points back, and finished the campaign with two wins in four races, as well as consecutive podiums to end the season.

Jack Miller, now of the factory Ducati team, joined Morbidelli on the podium on both occasions and is being counted among the contenders despite never finishing higher than seventh over the course of a season in this category.

Morbidelli's team-mate last year Fabio Quartararo has moved to the Yamaha factory team after a disappointing 2020, but he has shown just what a threat he can be early in the year, starting with back-to-back victories last time out.

And while Marquez and Mir at least do not have to worry about Andrea Dovizioso, taking a one-year sabbatical, the Honda man might find competition a little closer to home.

New team-mate Pol Espargaro earned his move with five podiums in his past 10 races after only one in the previous 109.
 

THE OLD AND THE NEW

Marquez could join Valentino Rossi on seven titles, behind only Giacomo Agostini (eight) in the 500cc class, with another championship – and the Italian is highly unlikely to play any part in stopping him.

With Marquez out of the picture, veteran Rossi slumped to a career-worst 15th place in the standings last season, with only a single podium – his lowest return since 2011.

That disappointing campaign brought an end to the 42-year-old's second stint with the Yamaha factory team.

Rossi will instead ride for Petronas Yamaha, where he needs just one more podium to become the first 500cc/MotoGP rider to the 500 mark.

At the other end of the spectrum, Luca Marini, Enea Bastianini and Jorge Martin are debutants.

There were three new men in 2020, too, although with Esponsorama Racing pair Marini and Bastianini, this is the first year since 2013 (Andrea Ianone and Claudio Corti) there will be two Italians making their bow in the same year.

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