Match point Quartararo and the Doctor’s last dance - MotoGP returns to Misano as the Frenchman gets his first shot at the crown and Rossi races at home for the final time.
The COTA confetti is still falling in the wake of Repsol Honda Marc Marquez’ triumphant return to the top step in Texas, but now we change gear again as the paddock heads back to Misano World Circuit Marco Simoncelli for the Gran Premio Nolan del Made in Italy e dell’Emilia-Romagna.
It’s a big weekend and for two big reasons. First, Fabio Quartararo (Monster Energy Yamaha MotoGP) could lift the crown and become the first French premier class World Champion, and second, it’s the final dance on home turf for Valentino Rossi (Petronas Yamaha SRT) as the icon prepares to hang up his racing leathers at the end of the season. That does guarantee one thing already, however, it’s going to be another weekend that lives long in the memory.
First, the title fight. Quartararo is now 52 points clear after pipping Ducati Lenovo’s Francesco Bagnaia to second in Austin and in doing so, the Frenchman also halted what had been some serious momentum for Pecco after back to back wins for the Italian. But now it’s the turf that saw the two so closely matched on our last visit, it could be a hard-fought duel for the race and, potentially, the crown. Fireworks? There may well be plenty, and the magic number is 50: if Quartararo is that far ahead - or more - by the flag, he is the 2021 MotoGP World Champion.
If he wins, he’s Champion. If he’s second and Bagnaia behind him, he’s champion. From there the gaps in the points awarded get smaller and the possibilities more varied, although it would seem unlikely they’d both finish and finish far from the podium. On the other side of the coin, if Bagnaia is far enough ahead and gets the gap to below 50 again, he stays in the game and the battle rages on to the Algarve GP. Does that guarantee a gloves off tussle for glory? It could be quite the showdown.
The other players who could play a big role in the race will likely come out guns blazing too, with the countdown on for a number of key battles this season. That includes Rookie of the Year, and given it’s Jorge Martin (Pramac Racing) ahead and Enea Bastianini (Avintia Esponsorama) on his tail - the latter of whom had race-winning pace on our last visit and took his first premier class podium - it could be a pivotal weekend there too as they’re split by just 11 points. With no pressure like that endured by those who beat him on home turf last time, can the Beast once again blast through for glory, get even further forward and/or cut that gap?
It also seems likely, comparing the first GP we had at Misano and then Texas, that Marquez will feature in the fight for the top five once again as a minimum, even as he continues to get back to his full form. Reigning Champion - at the last Grand Prix this year where that phrase may be true - Joan Mir (Team Suzuki Ecstar) has shown he’s pretty handy at the track too. And what of Jack Miller (Ducati Lenovo Team)? Last time out he looked to have searing pace before a tougher Sunday, and he’ll likely be playing the teammate game to perfection once again as Bagnaia faces what may be his final stand. One to watch, especially if he’s racing for red and not solely his own race result…
Red Bull KTM’s Brad Binder is also on a solid, somewhat stealthy run of points. The South African is now sixth overall and has only one zero on his scorecard in 2021, which is from way back at Jerez. He’s only 10 points behind Johann Zarco (Pramac Racing), who is currently the rider in fifth, so the pressure is now on for the Frenchman a little, at least overall. In the fight for top Independent Team rider, however, Zarco has some good breathing space with 141 points to Aleix Espargaro’s (Aprilia Racing Team Gresini) 104. That could therefore potentially be decided this weekend, with 50 points left in play after Emilia-Romagna.
As well as Pecco leading the home turf charge on track, there are the more veteran Italians. Andrea Dovizioso (Petronas Yamaha SRT) has been making marked steps forward on his return to the Iwata marque and, as he now does actually have recent experience at Misano on the Yamaha, there may well be even more coming. Franco Morbidelli (Monster Energy Yamaha MotoGP), despite still pushing to get back to full fitness, could also feel the benefit of racing for the second time at the same track as he settles in on the 2021 M1. What can they do on home soil?
And then, of course, there’s Rossi. There may be three races left for the number 46 to shine the sun and moon in the premier class of Grand Prix racing, but the third to last event of the Doctor’s tenure will be extra special in its own way. A venue likely no one on Earth knows better or has raced more, and in front of his final home crowd in gloriously uproarious yellow, it’s its own occasion. The end of an era for an area that has become defined first by what was the new kid on the block searing through the ranks with such charisma and style, and then the icon who has created one of the most successful academies in motorcycle racing, based just up the road. His ranch adds some significant acreage to his home village of Tavullia, just as his presence and legacy have added so much to the region and the sport. Emotional doesn’t quite explain it; it’s a point of no return for all those who’ve raced, watched and loved one of global sport’s biggest icons. On track, at least.
By definition, all those lining up for the Emilia-Romagna GP are at least one of those three, and it will mark a moment in time for Rossi and, potentially, for a new World Champion too.