Even better than the real thing?

In some respects, the third round of 2021 saw the return of some kind of normalcy. And it wasn’t just because of the return of the sport’s unquestioned King. After a madcap nine months, a time in which nine different riders won MotoGP races (five of them for the first time), one name finally stamped a little authority on proceedings. 

Not since the Jerez double header last July (14 races ago) had a rider won back-to-back races, the longest sequence of its kind since October 2002 to August 2003. While Marc Marquez’s lengthy spell on the sidelines was responsible for a stretch of near unparalleled randomness in the premier class, it wasn’t the Catalan that ended it.

It was left to Fabio Quartararo to leave his mark, much in the way Marquez had done prior his nine-month layoff. The Frenchman was irresistible on the Algarve, the scene of one of numerous meltdowns last year. He showed blinding speed throughout free practice and was flawless on Sunday. What’s more, there was a swagger that hints Quartararo is finally becoming the rider the watching world has long felt he could be.

Like the previous outing in Qatar, there are genuine grounds to believe this was his best showing to date; compare how he handled himself on Sunday to the histrionics we saw repeatedly through last year. It feels we must presage any point here with ‘we’re only three rounds in,’ but Fabio does appear a different beast in 2021, both on the bike and off it.

The Algarve International Circuit offered further evidence Yamaha’s ’21 M1 is a significant upgrade on that nervous, fickle beast Fabio found himself steering through 2020. Friday confirmed Qatar wasn’t a one off. The ’21 chassis is much improved in terms of the feel it offers-up. On last weekend’s evidence, this year’s bike is manoeuvrable, stable and allows him to run those wide, arching lines with bags of corner speed, so important when Fabio’s riding is so dependent on front-end feel. “If I don’t feel that, I’m lost,” he admitted.

The omens were good on Friday. “It reminds me of the old times of 2019 when everything was so easy,” he said. Then on Saturday he expanded: “Last year when we were turning we had no feeling and the bike was just going so wide. This year when we want to turn, the bike is turning and we have that front feeling that in Qatar I had, to overtake, to feel the limit. With last year’s bike I turned but I don’t know if I would crash or not.”

For this reason, Quartararo’s poor starts in 2021 haven’t been overly critical. He has been tenacious in his overtaking, as witnessed by his demotion of both Marquez and Jack Miller in one swoop on lap two, and an expert move under Johann Zarco at the penultimate turn on lap five.

More notable still was his coolness off the bike. There were no signs of emotion spilling over. Too often last year there were tears in victory and defeat. “I feel like I’m complaining less,” he said of his current garage demeanour. Compare that to this round last year, when he worked himself into such a fluster, his feedback lost any form of precision. “When you have emotions so high you just say the bike is not working and you don’t know exactly which part,” he said here last November. Offseason work with a psychologist is clearly paying off. Previously, he lost energy listening or reading the opinions expressed on TV, newspapers or websites. As mentioned in February, it has “helped me to just focus on myself and not lose time hearing all the people saying things that for me are not true – I don’t need to give importance to that.”

But what really caught the eye in Portugal was how he showed not a single sign of pressure. Once in front, Quartararo immediately lowered his times. Much to the factory Yamaha man’s surprise, so did Alex Rins. Yet there was no flapping. He never allowed any self-doubt to enter his mind. Not even when he bettered his previous personal best five times in nine laps, and Rins – just about – hung on. “I don’t feel that pressure when I have someone (behind). Every lap I was looking my lap time and looking how far he was, but that was more motivation than pressure.”

Simply put, Fabio had done his sums, knew his pursuer was operating above his abilities and something would eventually give. “I was expecting Alex to make a mistake,” he said. “I was really impressed because he had a great pace yesterday, but not as good as me.”

There is a warning here, of course. Quartararo also started last season like a house on fire. So dominant was he at the Andalusian Grand Prix, he had the temerity to imitate football superstar Kylian Mbappe crossing the line in celebration. In that respect, his CR7 jump on Sunday rightly caused some to squirm – and not just because of who he imitated.

But three races into last year, the effects of Yamaha’s engine woes from Jerez were already being felt. Despite his blinding speed at Jerez, Quartararo still hadn’t found the sweet spot when riding the M1, finding it nervous and vague. Yes, we have only visited two tracks 2021, but there are grounds to believe this is the beginning of a championship push.

Tougher challenges lie in wait, of course. How he deals with the games Marquez reserved for Rins and Mir this weekend will provide a clear glimpse at how far he’s come. Likewise, how he’ll manage the high-pressure situations when that championship lead starts to come under threat. For all his talent, Quartararo has never put a full season together at world level (a disappointing 2020 is still the closest he’s ever come).

Yet it’s easy to forget Fabio’s youth. Having celebrated his 22nd birthday on Tuesday, he’s already amassed five premier class victories (only Marquez (19), Casey Stoner (9) and Freddie Spencer (8) had won more by that age). And with that run of vintage races – think Jerez, Le Mans, Mugello, Barcelona, Assen – on the horizon, where a well performing Yamaha has historically been tough to beat, Quartararo now has a great chance of building up a considerable head of steam before summer. So far, so good.

By Neil Morrison @NeilMorrison87

Photos by CormacGP @CormacGP

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