Michael Laverty continues as part of the BT Sport MotoGP commentary team for the 2021 season, when the former British Superbike, World Supersport and MotoGP rider will be providing viewers with his expert analysis of track events and bike technology.

Crash.net spoke to the 39-year-old ahead of this weekend's Qatar season-opener…

Crash.net:

Let's start with the big pre-event news Michael, that despite riding an RC213V-S in Catalunya and Portimao, Marc Marquez won't be competing in Qatar…

Michael Laverty:

I'd be interested to know how much of a say he had in that decision, because we know how driven Marquez is and how much he would have wanted to be on the grid.

Even if it was only to safely bring home a few points in Qatar, he probably feels he was capable of that, having been in Catalunya and Portimao – Portimao is such a physical circuit and he was able to manhandle the production RCV around there.

So I would imagine he was probably feeling he could go to Qatar and grab points. It looks like that decision has been taken out of his hands this time around, which didn't happen in Jerez when he came back immediately. Probably they are feeling the remnants of that [early comeback decision] so they are being extra cautious this time after the complications with the bone infection.

I'm glad in some ways that they are being extra-cautious because if something else did happen, a further injury, we don’t want that to be the end of Marc's career. We want to see him back and performing miracles yet again on two wheels.

Crash.net:

Marquez has said he's missing both Qatar races, does that also pretty much rule him out of the 2021 title do you think?

Michael Laverty:

I really don't think so, because even a few rounds into last year we were still always saying, 'If Marc comes back and he gets on a run, as in 2019, he can win back-to-back races'.

At the moment there are so many fast guys, you could list almost ten that could be fighting for the podium every week. So they are all going to be stealing points off each other, whereas Marc – when he's on top form in his championship winning seasons - he was first or second most weekends.

That consistency and ability to fight – whether it's Fabio Quartararo or Joan Mir or Jack Miller – it will always be someone vs. Marquez. So if Marc comes back and does not have to worry about injury and can race to his full ability, then there is no doubt that it will be Marc vs. all those guys at different races. But it'll be consistently Marc at the front.

So I think he can afford to give away those first two weekends and still come back - fingers crossed, with full fitness and riding to Marc's level - in championship contention.

But I've no doubt that Joan Mir, Fabio Quartararo and Maverick Vinales are smiling a bit, thinking they've got a head start on him, because they know how tough a challenger he is.

I also saw an interesting comment by Valentino Rossi, saying that the other guys have grown while Marc's been out and they are no longer afraid of him.

It is something we have to take into consideration. Marc has been off a bike – if you include the shoulder surgery ahead of 2020, he barely rode his practice bikes before testing last year, then we had a long lockdown, then he came back and got injured at the first race.

So if you think of Marc riding on two wheels it's been such a long time since he's gone through his normal motions of riding flat track, Supermoto, Motocross, and riding his MotoGP bike to the absolute limit.

He will have a period of adaption back to that level. I don’t think he will arrive in Portugal and stand on the top step of the podium, as much as everyone thinks the fairy-tale is possible.

I still think he has to come back with realistic ambitions against the guys who have grown in his absence.

Crash.net:

It's been a strange winter testing schedule with only four days of proper running for the full grid, but what caught your eye?

Michael Laverty:

I was impressed by Ducati. Obviously, they were the guys that we thought last season – without Marc on the grid and in the hands of Dovi - could have been the ones to capitalise. But it just wasn't to be and then you look at how that relationship ended.

It seems like the changing of the guard at Ducati to a more youthful line-up, bringing in younger guys to the factory team with Jack and Pecco, as well as the Moto2 rookies on three of their other bikes.

They've also changed their aero package and the comments from Jack about being able to release that front brake and roll through the corner – we haven’t heard that from a Ducati rider since probably before Stoner!

So that's music to the Ducati fans' ears, that the bike is actually turning and we know it's got top speed. The new aero was quite interesting, to see if they are using that ground effect to help turning.

So I'm excited to see what Jack can do in Qatar, but I was also really impressed with the consistency of the Yamahas. From all four riders. Okay, Qatar is a good circuit for the Yamaha chassis, but it's also a circuit with a long 1km straight, plus you are accelerating out of that last corner in second gear. Something the Yamaha doesn’t do that well.

To see that consistency and speed across all four riders, and the fact that Valentino was jumping up to the mid-part of the speed traps was good with that new nosecone and front mudguard obviously helping with less drag.

Even though the engine hasn't changed, it's an engine that we know is robust with Franco Morbidelli riding pretty much a whole season on two engines last year! So I think Ducati and Yamaha are looking strong for me.

Suzuki are always slightly under the radar, but we know how good a package they have and two strong riders. For me it's looking like the inline fours [Yamaha and Suzuki] vs the Ducati and then Honda once Marc gets back. But not forgetting Pol has obviously been really impressive in Qatar with his transition to Honda.

Aprilia as well, the rhythm Aleix shows the new bike could be the real deal. We hope it is, we want six manufacturers battling for wins. Then KTM were a little bit off the radar, but I think it's a difficult circuit for them in general so I don't think they will be getting too panicky just yet and it seems the riders aren’t either.

But I was always a little bit concerned that KTM losing the Concessions, and now making seven engines go the season rather than nine means they possibly had to change a few components to make them a bit more durable, causing a little drop in performance. So it could be that KTM aren't quite as strong as last year, which would be a shame.

But I think we've got such a healthy grid in MotoGP when you look at all six manufacturers, including the rookies looking strong on the Ducati, it all builds up to another awesome MotoGP season. I'm excited!

Crash.net:

On the tech side, we also saw at the tests that a lot of teams have now developed a 'double holeshot device' working on the front and rear…

Michael Laverty:

It's interesting. When the holeshot device first appeared I expected it to be on the front-end first because that's a simpler system and the one the motocross guys did before they started working with the rear.

But when I watched the clips of Jack Miller starting on the Ducati in Qatar it's incredible the speed it goes off now with the rear and front down. It looks like a drag bike!

I think he had almost done 0-100km/h in 2.1-seconds last year, without the front device. So I would hazard a guess he's touching the 2-seconds flat or maybe dropping under now.

If he drops into that 1.9-seconds bracket that's a whole new ball game, because they always try and target 2.3-2.4-seconds for a MotoGP start. That generally means you will at least hold your position off the grid or get the holeshot from the front row. So now they are dropping that tenth of a second on the 0-100k is a big deal.

It looks impressive to watch, and every manufacturer is now going in that direction, of a front and rear holeshot device.

Crash.net:

On the subject of starts, we could see from the lap analysis that Maverick Vinales spent a lot of time practicing his starts during the day, not just at the end of each day. Pulling straight back into the pits each time. He said he was working on the clutch. What do you think that could be about?

Michael Laverty:

Yeah, I think it was about 15 out-and-in starts that he did. With the MotoGP bike they run the dry clutch, so obviously no oil lubricant for the plates. Every time you do a start with the dry clutch, generally the next start is not as consistent. So perhaps they are trying something to get that consistency where if they do have a race stoppage and they don’t have that luxury of enough time to change the clutch, they are ready to go again and perhaps not suffer with clutch slip.

That can be an issue with the dry clutches, and it happened to Vinales in Austria 1 last year when he had a slipping clutch after the restart. So whether it's something in terms of that reliability, to see if they can put ten starts on a clutch and not have any risk of it slipping or dragging and keep the rider feel, so they get that initial bite. That would be my best guess.

I assumed it was also doing starts with a full tank of fuel to see how that bike feels, because that's obviously been Maverick's Achille's heel; lap 1 with a full tank. 20kg of extra weight, so the bike is a bit more difficult to stop.

I think doing all those starts would also help Maverick get the feeling for the extra fuel pushing you in the corners and learn what the tyres do when they are fresh out of the warmers and not fully up to temperature.

If Maverick can fix that – and really he just needs to maintain his position in the first 3-4 laps because we know he qualifies well.

Crash.net:

Talking of tyres, the change to the Michelin rear construction last year seemed to shake things up…

Michael Laverty:

I think that was a real spanner in the works and obviously the factory Ducati boys really struggled with that extra push from the rear tyre. It did seem to initially help the inline fours, both Suzuki and Yamaha seemed to benefit from that extra grip from the rear.

The Aprilia I thought was going to work well with it originally, after we first saw the new rear tyre in the special test session at Phillip Island and Andrea Iannone jumped to the top of the timesheet. But it didn't in terms of the new bike last year.

It has been something that they've all had to adapt to and also when you watch the preparation of the tyres by the teams, the heating cycle and using those ovens out the back to make sure all the wheel itself is up to temperature and maintains that heat cycle out onto the grid so the riders don’t have that drop in temperature.

There's a lot of science that goes on behind the scenes, I noticed I think KTM and Honda always do a last-minute run from the garage with the mechanic bringing the wheel out to the grid. It's not a panic change, I think it's a direct-from-the-oven change so they are making sure they are using a wheel that hasn’t lost too much of the heat built-up in the metal. It keeps it more constant.

I think there's been a lot more development in that side of it all in recent years, in terms of learning how to manage the rubber and keep it in the optimum operating window. Every second you sit there on the grid, especially at Le Mans or Silverstone or anywhere cold, tyre temperature is dropping down and the technicians have that live data on their computer screen.

Ducati were the first with their MegaRide software to analyse all that and I think everyone else has caught up now. So while the engineers have less to work with in terms of the ECU now, with the control software and hardware, it's fascinating how it's just made them look at other areas more, like the science of how to manage and optimise the control tyre.

Crash.net:

Andrea Iannone won't be coming back for Aprilia this season and, with Bradley Smith losing out as Iannone's replacement and Cal Crutchlow becoming Yamaha test rider, there won't be any British riders. It seemed Aprilia still wants Smith involved on the testing side, but now Andrea Dovizioso is going to try the bike. What do you make of it all?

Michael Laverty:

It's a shame for Bradley and for us not to have a British rider on the grid, without Cal we hoped Bradley was going to get that position. You can understand Aprilia's reasoning with Lorenzo Savadori, to have a young Italian rider in there and the fact that he's probably less suited to the test role compared to Bradley who has more experience to develop the bike.

They've got Aleix to do the job for them in putting the bike up front and that's a hard pill for Bradley to swallow, to be told that, over Lorenzo, you are probably the better testing candidate so we want you to test rather than race.

I think Bradley was playing hard ball a little bit over the test rider role, but now that you get Dovi in the mix, Bradley is going to want to secure that contract if he wants to just keep himself on a MotoGP bike this year.

But for me personally I'm actually quite excited to see what Dovi does on the Aprilia.

He spent such a long time developing the Ducati and when you look at the new Aprilia, the rear end of the bike looks like they've got the mass damper ['salad box'] in the seat unit. The exhausts come out of the rear bank of cylinders like a Ducati to me, the silhouette of the seat looks Ducati Desmosedici from a couple of years ago.

So there might be something with that 90-degree V4 that works for Dovi, that he could perhaps help them with the development path and - who knows - maybe we could even see Dovi on the grid with the Noale factory sometime this year.

That'd be interesting because I think it's a shame for Dovi, who is still in peak condition, still capable of fighting for race wins. He should be on the grid really.

Crash.net:

Many would agree it's a shame Dovi is not on the grid. Many are also surprised that Franco Morbidelli finished title runner-up and top Yamaha but still has the A-spec bike. How much of an issue do you think that will be for him?

Michael Laverty:

It was tough for Franky ahead of 2020, after being pretty well beaten by his rookie team-mate in 2019 and then downgraded from the Factory-Spec, which went over to Fabio.

But then Franky said he looked inwards, worked harder, came back a stronger rider and proved everyone wrong last year.

I think he was pushing for the latest equipment at the midpoint of last season, Lin Jarvis was trying to do what he could to make that happen. Then all of a sudden Franky started to realise perhaps my 2019 bike isn't so bad, it's got the consistency that the other guys seemed to lack.

So he kind of accepted it was going to be difficult for Yamaha to make that [Factory-Spec] happen, so he settled that his bike is a good package for him. He knows he can deliver on it.

It is a shame for him if he doesn’t get that new nosecone though, I'm not sure it will fit with his chassis, because the difference is the adjusted air intake on the Factory-Spec. I hope he can get that aero because the few km/h advantage could be the difference between Franky fighting with Ducatis and getting passed by them.

But I think his development as a rider during last year was brilliant to watch. I think he could well be the top Yamaha rider again. He could well be their championship challenger.

I think having Valentino alongside him, his mentor as a team-mate, is probably also a dream for Franky. And it's a great garage, with people in there like Stiggy and Wilco.

All the ingredients are there. It is that two-year-old package but we know how strong it is and I think Ramon Forcada [crew chief] being unceremoniously dumped by Maverick Vinales [at the end of 2018] has got a point to prove as well. Both he and Franco seem fired-up and work well together.

Crash.net:

Morbidelli was one of nine different race winners' last season. Do you think we'll see a similar number of winners this year, or was 2020 a bit of a freak year?

Michael Laverty:

It's a tough one to call. They are certainly going to approach it differently to last year, when it was a condensed calendar. Now you've got a week between a lot of events and, apart from Qatar, at the moment you're not staying at the same circuit for the following weekend.

So it will be a different landscape, but I still think there is parity across manufacturers, everyone is on such a level playing field. The Michelins have levelled the playing field in terms of now you've got to manage race distance, it is a different ballgame in the last five years.

I wouldn't like to say they are the ceiling, but there is a performance limit and it helps to keep the class so close.

If you, not luck in, but if you do your work throughout the weekend and the weather conditions fall right, you have the package to win that Sunday. I think that was part of what was happening last year to bring so many winners to the fore.

I think there could potentially be at least ten different winners this year because guys like Pol Espargaro, Jack Miller and of course Marc Marquez didn't get a win last year!

Crash.net:

Starting as the man to beat on paper is Suzuki's reigning champion Joan Mir. This will be only his sixth season in grand prix racing and third in MotoGP, how highly do you rate Mir?

Michael Laverty:

He's phenomenal. His progression with an unproven manufacturer, I know Suzuki have been a growing force in recent years but for him to believe in his ability and make that decision to go to Suzuki initially rather than follow the Honda path when they were interested in him as well. He's carved out his own career and his own direction.

When you listen to him, he's mature beyond his years, he speaks so well. He's articulate, considered. On the bike he's so aggressive, such a good racer and a nice style with his body position. His consistency. He ticks so many boxes! He's a nice guy to boot, he works well with that squad.

I think he's got a great environment in there. I remember speaking to [his crew chief] Frankie Carchedi after his rookie weekend in MotoGP in Qatar 2019 and he said just looking at his data, the kid is phenomenal.

He's got such a bright future, he's already got a MotoGP title to his name, one that no-one really saw coming so early for him but I think he'll continue to go from strength-to-strength as long as the guys from Hamamatsu keep developing that bike to the same level as Honda, Ducati and Yamaha.

I believe Suzuki will, they've got the right ingredients and the right people. Okay, they’ve lost Davide Brivio, their team leader, but it seems like rather than bring someone in who could upset the harmony they've stuck with the people they know.

I think Joan Mir is an absolute class act. I'd like to see him and Marc head-to-head. It's a mouth-watering prospect!

Crash.net:

Do you think Mir is now at the level where he can take the fight to a fully fit Marc Marquez?

Michael Laverty:

I think so. I think Marc on form is still for me the number one, what Marc can do on a bike sometimes defies physics! He is something special, but Joan Mir – when I look at Valentino Rossi's career, he always had that difficulty in qualifying, giving himself a bit of hard work for the race, and Joan Mir is the same. He had difficulties in qualifying last year but could overcome it with his race craft.

Everyone has their strengths and weaknesses as a rider. Marc has very few weaknesses but possibly one is the fact that to ride to his speed he has to flirt with disaster, he has to play with the limits so much.

I think Joan possibly has a little bit more of a buffer when he's at his 100 percent. It's a story that I'll watch with a keen interest as they develop in the next few years, but I think Joan's style – he looks fantastic on the bike but also more margin for error than when you watch Marc.

Possibly earlier in his career Marc learned to make those crashes in practice and then rein it back 1-2 percent in the race to bring it home, and he's been at the top of his game over his last few championships.

But Joan Mir is still very early in his progression as a MotoGP rider, there's more to develop and uncover from his talent for sure.

Crash.net:

For most of last season, Fabio Quartararo rather than Mir was on course to become MotoGP's new champion, but it all went wrong…

Michael Laverty:

It's an interesting one isn't it. When you look at Fabio in year one as a rookie, he barely put a foot wrong. Always had a smile on his face and never let the pressure get to him.

Last year he just showed a few cracks in that unflappable exterior that we'd seen as a rookie, so I think he let the pressure get to him a little bit after starting the season with those two wins. Everyone was thinking of him as the championship favourite without Marc there and I think on the mental side of it he got flustered a little bit.

Yes the bike wasn't as consistent as the package he had in 2019, so that ability to roll out in Friday practice and be a tenth off the last record was lost last year and he had to work to make the Factory-Spec package feel like his bike.

But he will learn from that and he will grow, because he had to knuckle down and figure out what was needed with the bike to get a base setting back into the window he had in 2019.

That experience will make him a stronger rider but it was tough to see someone going through those growing pains if you like and MotoGP doesn't always go as smoothly as you'd like. So he had to dig deep last year, he had to accept the fact that he was getting beaten by his team-mate on slightly inferior machinery, which was a 180-shift from when he beat Franky the year before.

So I do see him learning from those mistakes and stepping into the factory squad and putting it right this year. I think we'll see a more consistent Fabio in the Monster Yamaha colours and I look forward to it because to watch Fabio on his day is remarkable.

Crash.net:

Finally Michael, what are you thoughts on Moto2 and Moto3, with the likes of Sam Lowes, Jake Dixon and John McPhee all looking strong in testing…

Michael Laverty:

I'm excited for all three guys really, the Moto2 boys especially. I think Sam, with his speed over the second half of last year was the fastest guy in the field. He was unlucky with that injury in Valencia otherwise for sure he would have been champion.

So now staying in the Marc VDS squad, with Gilles Bigot [as crew chief] and the structure he has around him and the confidence he's built up over the last 12 months means Sam is my championship favourite, no doubt.

He's lost his key rivals in the three guys that have moved up to MotoGP but he's still got Bezzecchi there and a bunch of others hot on his heels.

Jake Dixon impressed me with how he's come back from injury to be that fast in Qatar. I really expected it to be a tougher return because that was a big injury with the wrist and at one point it was worrying if he would even be on the grid this season. It was a potentially career-ending injury.

Coming back for a second year with the same Petronas team, on a Kalex, after impressing last year, I think Jake's going to grow, definitely podium and definitely win races. To even be thinking about having two British winners in Moto2 is such a nice place to be!

Then you look at Moto3 and I think John McPhee has been so fast in testing, again staying at Petronas and having Mark Woodage there as crew chief means he's got a great team around him.

He was unlucky last year not to get that step up to Moto2, circumstances went against him, it derailed his season after such a strong start, so he just needs to bring that consistency to the table this year.

Like Sam in Moto2, John's my championship favourite if he puts everything together.

But we know the Leopard Hondas are fast on that straight and that can be frustrating to compete against when you are on the same engine and equipment! It was the same with KTM at the end of last season, they found a bit of speed.

It looks like Petronas have worked hard over the winter and improved something there because on the testing timesheets their average speed looks more consistent.

Also John having Darryn Binder as team-mate now – Pawi last year was a good team-mate and they got on well, but Pawi wasn't able to give John that tow around in qualifying the way that so many other Moto3 teams work with their riders. By giving each other a lap to get directly through to Qualifying 2 helps relieve the pressure of the race weekend and is all important in Moto3.

Then I think John's capable of delivering in the battle, his aggression is up, he's good on the brakes, he does everything right now. He's mature, he's ready for Moto2 and I'd love to see him make that step up as Moto3 world champion this year.

So we've got three Brits in the smaller categories all capable of winning races this year and then hopefully either Jake or Sam can move up to MotoGP for 2022. That would be the icing on the cake!

BT Sport is the home of MotoGP in the UK. Catch all the action from Qatar exclusively live on BT Sport including practice, qualifying and the race. The weekend’s action starts from 10.45am on Friday 26th March on BT Sport 2.

 

Comments

Loading Comments...