Fabio Quartararo claimed his first MotoGP race win since Catalonia last year as Monster Yamaha secured a second successive Grand Prix triumph in Qatar.

Quartararo has been open about his struggles with the pressure of mounting a championship bid in 2020 but, having worked closely with a psychologist in recent months, will be hoping his win in Doha is the start of something special.

It was already a momentous occasion for rookie Jorge Martin, who secured pole in just his second outing in qualifying for a premier-class event, and the Spaniard held firm at the front for much of the race.

With his Pramac Racing team-mate Johann Zarco for company at the front, Martin looked in good shape but there was always a sense some of the big hitters from further down the field were just biding their time.

Alex Rins (Team Suzuki Ecstar) was the first to make his move but ultimately lost out in his tussle with Zarco, while reigning champion Joan Mir (Team Suzuki Ecstar) and Jack Miller (Ducati Lenovo Team) engaged in some risky jostling as they looked to get themselves in position for a late surge.

The pair touched a couple of times, including a particularly hefty bump on lap 13 that saw them exchange gestures, though both stayed up.

Francesco Bagnaia (Ducati Lenovo Team) also looked a threat for a while but misjudged the first turn at the start of lap 17 and lost four places.

It was around this time that Quartararo, who started fifth, began to make his move as he looked to match his Monster Yamaha colleague Maverick Vinales' win last time out.

It did not take him long to get around Zarco and by the end of the 18th lap he had passed Martin, who quickly responded only to be overtaken once again by the persistent Quartararo.

Martin kept the pressure on but Quartararo never looked unduly worried in the final stages, while Zarco finally managed to pass his rookie team-mate to finish second and seal successive podium finishes.

Jorge Martin will start Sunday's Doha MotoGP on pole after stunning the field in qualifying but the rookie insists the race win will belong to someone else.

The Spaniard nudged Pramac Racing team-mate Johann Zarco into second place with a superlative display, with Maverick Vinales – who won the season-opening race in Qatar – in third.

It was a phenomenal result for Martin on just his second outing in qualifying for a premier-class event, but the 23-year-old refused to get carried away as he lowered expectations ahead of the race at the Losail International Circuit. 

"It's difficult to describe my feelings," he said of his first pole. "In the first run, I was behind [Joan] Mir and I felt super confident, I was catching him so fast, and I said, 'Okay, I need a faster bike [to follow]'.

"I was hoping to be behind Pecco [Francesco Bagnaia] but he wasn't improving at all, so I said, 'Okay, it’s my time to boost, my time to demonstrate who I am'.

"For sure, I didn't expect to make pole; I was expecting to be front four, front five.

"When I finished the lap and I was up there in first position, it's unbelievable. This is so great. Tomorrow – another day to learn because for sure it's not my day to win.

"If we can fight for a top six that'd be great and I will be super happy."

Martin picked up a point with a 15th-place finish last week, when Zarco and pole-sitter Bagnaia joined Vinales on the podium.

A best lap of one minute and 53.106 seconds saw Martin clinch pole this time around and Zarco admitted he was taken aback when he realised who had gone faster than him.

"I'm pretty happy, a low one minute 53 seconds was a good target to be on the first row," said the Frenchman.

"When I saw this one minute 53.2 seconds when I crossed the finish line I expected to be on pole.

"But when I understood it was the 89 on pole, my team-mate, I was a bit surprised.

"I'm happy anyway because it's all going too perfect for Pramac team – first and second and it's just happiness to take. It has been great."

Provisional classification

1. Jorge Martin (Pramac Racing) 1:53.106
2. Johann Zarco (Pramac Racing) +0.157
3. Maverick Vinales (Monster Energy Yamaha MotoGP) +0.161
4. Jack Miller (Ducati Lenovo Team) +0.197
5. Fabio Quartararo (Monster Energy Yamaha MotoGP) +0.363
6. Francesco Bagnaia (Ducati Lenovo Team) +0.548
7. Aleix Espargaro (Aprilia Racing Team Gresini) +0.599
8. Alex Rins (Team Suzuki Ecstar) +0.639
9. Joan Mir (Team Suzuki Ecstar) +0.679
10. Franco Morbidelli (Petronas Yamaha SRT) +0.688
11. Stefan Bradl (Repsol Honda Team) +1.118
12. Miguel Oliveira (Red Bull KTM Factory Racing) +1.990

Maverick Vinales knows Monster Energy Yahama must improve despite a winning start to the MotoGP season at the Qatar Grand Prix.

Vinales shot from fifth with 15 laps to go to first with seven rounds of the track remaining in Doha on Sunday, nipping ahead of Francesco Bagnaia, who started on pole.

It ultimately proved a relatively comfortable triumph for the Spaniard, with the drama coming further back – defending champion Joan Mir losing out on a podium place with a mistake at the final corner.

However, after suffering a slow start from which he subsequently struck back, Vinales conceded there is work to do for his team.

"We are not there yet. We need to improve," he said during a news conference.

"We need to work really hard because it's just the first race. We stick with our feet on the ground, and we'll work hard for the next one, to be faster, especially from the start, we have to be better."

Vinales praised the work the team has done in pre-season, though, as well as the impact made by new Yamaha test driver Cal Crutchlow.

"I didn't have that feeling during other weekends to have that corner speed, but with Yamaha we work very hard to have that front part of the bike to make it better," he said.

"Also, Cal works very hard with the bike. The way Cal rides the bike is very similar to me, and it helps me with many things, especially because he came from a big factory and he has given us advice which was good for the race."

Despite demolishing the Losail circuit lap record in qualifying, Ducati debutant Bagnaia looked set to miss out on a place in the top three when Johann Zarco – of his former team Pramac Racing – and Mir overtook him.

However, Mir's slip-up with just one turn left to go allowed Bagnaia to take third place and the Italian conceded he needs to find a balance between starting strong, without giving up a lead.

"Maybe for the next one, I have to change the strategy a bit, push less in the first part of the race and follow someone, but in any case we have more data now to look at," he said.

"We will improve for sure, to be better in the last part of the race."

Lewis Hamilton was thrilled to come out on top in a dramatic Bahrain Grand Prix, which he labelled as one of the toughest Formula One races he has been involved in for some time.

Max Verstappen started on pole in Bahrain, but despite the Red Bull having had the edge over Hamilton's Mercedes in practice and qualifying, it was the seven-time world champion who triumphed.

It did not come easy for Hamilton, who had to see out a late attack from Verstappen to secure his first season-opening success in six years.

The victory only came courtesy of an error from the Red Bull driver, who was adjudged to have gone beyond track limits during a potentially decisive overtake with four laps left to go, and was instructed to immediately give the place back.

If Sunday's evidence is anything to go by, Verstappen and Red Bull are well placed to make more of a challenge this season.

Speaking in his post-race interview, an exhilarated Hamilton said: "Wow! What a difficult race that was.

"Stopping early we knew would be difficult but we had to cover Max, they have had an amazing performance all weekend.

"We suffered the last stint. Max was all over me at the end and I was just about able to hold him off. That was one of the hardest races I've had for a while."

Asked if he was at the peak of his powers, 36-year-old Hamilton replied: "I definitely am. Each year they are talking about when you hit your peak and timing is everything.

"I think I am at that and Max is doing really well at the moment. I love the challenge."

Verstappen, meanwhile, looked to take the positives after crossing the line just 0.745 seconds after Hamilton.

"It's a shame but you also have to see the positive. We are really taking the fight to them, and I think that's great to start the year like that," Verstappen said.

"I don't know what happened with the car early on. It don't think it was completely solved in the low-speed corners, so we'll have a look at that. Overall, we managed to finish the race and score good points."

It was a sentiment echoed by Red Bull chief Christian Horner, with the team's principal believing they are finally ready to mount a serious title push this year.

"A great race, a tough one to lose. It is the first of 23 so hopefully, we give Lewis a harder time this year," Horner told Sky Sports.

"Once you have that instruction [to give the place back] you have to move out of the way. It is tough racing, it is fair racing.

"The races come thick and fast once we get going. Mercedes have been so strong over the years. I think the biggest winner today was the fans. It sets up a great season and I hope we see more battles between Max and Lewis this season."

Maverick Vinales got his 2021 MotoGP campaign up and running with a season-opening victory as he charged up from fifth at the Qatar Grand Prix.

Pole-setter Francesco Bagnaia could not get away from the chasing pack, which included Johann Zarco (Pramac Racing) and his Ducati team-mate Jack Miller.

With defending world champion Joan Mir – starting in 10th – and fellow Suzuki rider Alex Rins struggling to keep pace initially, it was Monster Yamaha's Vinales who made his move.

Finding himself in fifth with 15 laps remaining, Vinales closed the gap on Bagnaia by the time the final seven came around.

After threatening once but being held off, Vinales spotted a gap and dived through to take a lead he would not relinquish.

Bagnaia's race looked set to go from bad to worse when he dropped out of the top three altogether.

It left Zarco and Mir tussling for second, and last year's champion had the edge on the last lap yet, in a remarkable twist, he fell short on the final corner.

Mir appeared to run wide, with his exit speed dropping and allowing Zarco to clinch second – Bagnaia, who had blitzed the Losail lap record in qualifying, battling back to mark his first race for Ducati with a podium finish.

Fabio Quartararo completed the top five, with Mir's team-mate Rins finishing sixth.

There was misery for Takaaki Nakagami, who crashed out on turn nine midway through the race, with Danilo Petrucci's Tech3 KTM debut also coming to a premature end.

Lewis Hamilton clung on to survive a late attack from Max Verstappen to begin his Formula One title defence with a dramatic victory in the Bahrain Grand Prix.

Verstappen's Red Bull had the edge in speed over Hamilton's Mercedes for the entirety of the race weekend but, after a frenetic stop-start opening to the race gave way to a strategic battle between the teams expected to compete at the front of the grid this season, it was the Briton who found himself taking the chequered flag.

Having emerged from his final pit stop nearly nine seconds behind Hamilton, pole-sitter Verstappen looked to have made the crucial overtake with four laps remaining.

But he was forced to give the place back having gone beyond the track limits to get past Hamilton, and Verstappen could not find an opportunity with which to make the decisive move for a second time, Red Bull left frustrated as the seven-time champion claimed his first season-opening win since 2015.

Sebastian Vettel will start his first race for Aston Martin at the back of the grid after being hit with a penalty at the Bahrain Grand Prix.

Vettel has been penalised for ignoring yellow flags in qualifying at the Bahrain International Circuit in Sakhir on Saturday.

The four-time Formula One world champion breached the rules when Haas driver Nikita Mazepin spun at Turn 1 during Q1, resulting in double waving of yellow flags - which Vettel failed to respect.

Vettel qualified in 18th but was given a five-place penalty and hit with three penalty points after being summoned to the stewards ahead of Sunday's race.

The stewards said in their verdict: "[Valtteri] Bottas, Vettel, [Sergio] Perez and [George] Russell approached the scene and drove past Mazepin. Bottas, was immediately instructed by his team to abort his lap in accordance with the Race Director's Event Notes.

"Perez and Russell had received the chequered flag, and were instructed to slow, with Russell receiving the additional information that it had been a double yellow sector.

"Vettel did not abandon his lap. He explained to the stewards that he saw the smoke ahead of him, but was unsure if it was a lock-up or a stopped car until he was quite close to the car and the smoke was lifting.

"The stewards observed that he had already passed the signal panel when it illuminated as he approached the scene, and that the marshals in that turn had not yet reacted with a yellow flag. Nevertheless, Vettel was approaching a car that was stopped sideways on the track and by the rule this would necessitate a double yellow flag."

Vettel said: "We were already quite far back so it doesn't make a difference.

"Hopefully we will come up with something clever with strategy so we can move up and enjoy it along the way."

Lewis Hamilton claims it is "no secret" the new Formula One regulations have been introduced to slow Mercedes, but he was encouraged by their opening qualifying session of the season.

Changes to aerodynamic regulations for 2021 have had a great impact on the reigning champions' low-rake chassis, the Silver Arrows say.

Mercedes have won the past seven constructors' championships, yet Red Bull led the way in pre-season testing.

The fastest lap belonged to Max Verstappen and the same man took pole on Saturday at the season-opening Bahrain Grand Prix.

But Hamilton was only 0.388 seconds back in second and that performance spells good news for the Briton, with all 16 Bahrain winners coming from the first two rows of the grid but only seven of them qualifying on pole.

Meanwhile, Verstappen has retired three times at this event and four times at the Sakhir track.

Hamilton remains very much in contention, despite feeling the rules have been designed to hurt his team.

"It's no secret. The changes, of course they've been done to peg us back," he said. "We've had the changes last year to our engine to do the same thing.

"That's okay. We love a challenge, we don't look down on these things. We just work hard to do the best that we can, and that's what we'll do."

But Hamilton was not amused by a request for him to analyse where Red Bull are now better, as Verstappen - having ended last year with a win - targets back-to-back triumphs for the first time in his career.

"Really? I don't want to tell you what our problem is," Hamilton said. "They're just faster."

With Silver Arrows team-mate Valtteri Bottas qualifying third, the top three - Verstappen, Hamilton, Bottas - are on course to become the first trio to appear on 15 podiums together.

Although Verstappen is still in the lead, this Mercedes challenge seemed improbable for Hamilton just days ago.

"I think this is a really good step forward for us coming this weekend," he said.

"We thought it was double the gap that you see today. That's down to some really fantastic work from the men and women back at the factory.

"Of course we want to be first, but we knew that it was going to be a challenge, we knew from day one on track really that Red Bull was going to be faster than us.

"We knew we had a bit of an uphill slope to climb. I'm just proud of everyone's efforts."

Elsewhere, two former champions had vastly contrasting fortunes after offseason moves.

Three-time Bahrain winner Fernando Alonso is back in F1 with Alpine Team, formerly Renault, where he won two world titles.

And his second debut was a success as he reached Q3 for the first time since Monaco 2018 and claimed ninth on the grid.

"It was good," said Alonso, who won this event on the previous two occasions it opened a season. "I think we have to be pleased with the qualifying.

"I was not confident in any of the sessions so far in the weekend - I was struggling a little bit to feel the rear of the car in windy conditions - and now in the qualifying everything was calmer.

"The night situation I think helped us with the cooler temperatures, so I was able to attack and feel the car a little bit better and it was fun."

On the other hand, Sebastian Vettel was eliminated in Q1 as his second run was hampered by yellow flags prompted by Haas rookie Nikita Mazepin's spin.

No driver has more wins (four) or poles (three) in Bahrain than the former Ferrari man, but his Aston Martin bow did not go to plan.

Vettel will start from 18th and said: "If I panicked now, would it help? If I was really upset?

"For sure, I am upset and angry that it wasn't our fault in a way not to make it through, but we have to take it and do what we can, preparing tomorrow."

Matters could yet get worse for the German, who will appear before the stewards on Sunday for failing to respect the flags, potentially meaning a five-place penalty.

Francesco Bagnaia targeted "a really great result" at the Qatar Grand Prix after setting a stunning lap record on his factory Ducati debut.

Third-year MotoGP rider Bagnaia had finished 15th and 16th in his two seasons with Pramac Racing but has quickly focused on loftier ambitions following his bow with the factory team.

Ducati - winners of the previous two Qatar GPs with the since-departed Andrea Dovizioso - had been fast all week at the season opener, with Jack Miller setting the practice pace in his 100th grand prix with a best time of one minute and 53.387 seconds ahead of second-placed team-mate Bagnaia.

But Bagnaia later suggested he had believed he could run in less than 1:53 in qualifying and so it proved, a magnificent 1:52.772 setting a two-wheel lap record at the Losail International Circuit.

That was enough for a healthy 0.266-second gap to Fabio Quartararo, while Bagnaia gave veteran Valentino Rossi - a four-time Qatar winner - a tow to take him to the front of the second row.

Rossi has 10 podiums at Losail and his next in MotoGP will make him the first to 200.

Even from his commanding position, Bagnaia could be forgiven for being pessimistic after his year-high six abandonments in 2020 - including five in the final eight races - but he was full of positivity following an outstanding display.

"I'm very happy," he said. "Already yesterday I was thinking it was possible today to arrive at (1:)52.

"In the second attempt, when I started pushing, I thought it was possible. After the third sector, I was very close to this lap time.

"I'm very happy; my first pole position in my first race with this team. I would like to make everything possible to finish the race tomorrow in the best way possible. I think we can make a really great result."

Miller had to settle for fifth, next to Rossi, as he pursues a third straight podium for the first time in his career following two to end 2020.

Quartararo also had reason to be disappointed with his day as he mistimed his second run and the chequered flag denied him the opportunity to challenge Bagnaia.

Another debutant at a factory team, Yamaha's Quartararo won the first two races of the season last year but has had only one podium in 12 outings since.

The 21-year-old, who has colleague Maverick Vinales - the 2017 Qatar winner - behind him in third, said: "It's a shame I couldn't do the second lap on my second run. I had the chequered flag for a second.

"But I'm quite happy. I think we did a great lap. We tried something in FP4 that was bad, honestly - I didn't feel great on the bike. But I feel that we have great potential for tomorrow.

"We will go with that bike for the race because it's the one that I feel good [on]. I think we made too much changes today, but I'm feeling happy.

"I think we did a great, great job in the qualifying. Now we're just missing the race. I can't wait."

Neither the Ducatis nor the Yamahas should have to worry this weekend about defending champion Joan Mir, who failed to capitalise on the absence of Repsol Honda great Marc Marquez.

Mir was forced to contend in Q1 and will start from 10th, having finished eighth in his only previous Losail entry in 2018.


Provisional classification

1. Francesco Bagnaia (Ducati) 1:52.772
2. Fabio Quartararo (Monster Yamaha) +0.266s
3. Maverick Vinales (Monster Yamaha) +0.316s
4. Valentino Rossi (Petronas Yamaha) +0.342s
5. Jack Miller (Ducati) +0.443s
6. Johann Zarco (Pramac Racing) +0.514s
7. Franco Morbidelli (Petronas Yamaha) +0.541s
8. Aleix Espargaro (Aprilia Racing Team) +0.543s
9. Alex Rins (Team Suzuki Ecstar) +0.718s
10. Joan Mir (Team Suzuki Ecstar) +0.910s
11. Takaaki Nakagami (LCR Honda) +0.949s
12. Pol Espargaro (Repsol Honda) +1.158s

Lewis Hamilton felt he had got all he could out of his Mercedes as Max Verstappen stormed to an impressive pole position for the season-opening Bahrain Grand Prix.

Red Bull driver Verstappen finished 0.388 seconds clear of Mercedes rival and defending world champion Hamilton in qualifying on Saturday.

Valtteri Bottas was 0.589s back in third with Charles Leclerc taking an impressive fourth for Ferrari.

Verstappen had previously topped every practice session in Sakhir, a circuit where he is due a change of luck having retired there four times – more than at any other track in his Formula One career.

His dominant start to the campaign has fans dreaming of a competitive 2021 season after Hamilton was in a class of his own in winning a seventh world title last year.

"We have already had a great week of testing," Verstappen said.

"There are no guarantees but it's been great so far coming back for the race week. The car has been working really well - really enjoyable to drive.

"With the wind conditions changing, it's not easy to change the set-up of the car for every session but it all worked out perfectly in qualifying and I'm really happy with pole position.

"My first lap in Q3 wasn't amazing so I knew there was more in it – you never know how much - but finally the balance was there and you can push a little bit more. 

"You have to be careful not to overheat the rear tyres but where it mattered we could perform. The car has been steady on the short and long runs - we have a good car."

Hamilton felt grid spots of second and third were solid accomplishments for Mercedes after their struggles in pre-season testing.

The Briton said: "Amazing [to have competition]. Congratulations to Max. He did such a great job, so fast on that last lap.

"I absolutely gave it everything I had but unfortunately it was not good enough. There is always more but it was the best I could do that is for sure and I got absolutely everything I could from the car.

"We did a really good job from testing to come here - everyone in the factory has done an amazing job. 

"To be that close, closer to the Red Bulls [is good] considering in testing we thought we would be further behind."

There was some disappointment for Red Bull when Sergio Perez was unable to reach Q3 as he tried to reach the shoot-out on medium tyres. He will start 11th.

It means Hamilton and Bottas will, as they did for much of last season when Alex Albon struggled, have a strategic numerical advantage at the front as they battle Verstappen.

Bottas said: "Anything is possible and we can only aim for Sunday. We have two cars in the mix at the front with Max, so we'll see.

"The practice this morning wasn't easy, I had a couple of issues with balance.

"It was a bit better this evening. We used two sets of soft tyres in Q2 so in Q3, I only had one set of tyres, so it wasn't easy to compete with Max and Lewis."

Verstappen was just 0.023s ahead of Hamilton after the first runs of Q3, and then had to respond when his rival went fastest with his second attempt.

The Dutchman produced a brilliant answer, though, comfortably taking pole as he looks to win two straight races for the first time in his F1 career, having triumphed in the last race of 2020.

Pierre Gasly was fifth ahead of Daniel Ricciardo for his new team McLaren. Lando Norris, Carlos Sainz, the returning Fernando Alonso and Lance Stroll rounded out the top 10.

Sebastian Vettel had a frustrating first competitive outing for Aston Martin, as he and Esteban Ocon were eliminated in Q1, not helped by yellow flags towards the end of the session.

Ocon was 16th with Vettel in 18th, just one place ahead of Mick Schumacher on his F1 debut as the two Haas cars finished on the back row.

Hamilton has won the last two editions of the Bahrain Grand Prix, but no driver has ever recorded three straight victories at the event.

PROVISIONAL CLASSIFICATION

1. Max Verstappen (Red Bull) 1:28.997
2. Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes) +0.388s
3. Valtteri Bottas (Mercedes) +0.589s
4. Charles Leclerc (Ferrari) +0.681s
5. Pierre Gasly (AlphaTauri) +0.812s
6. Daniel Ricciardo (McLaren) +0.930s
7. Lando Norris (McLaren) +0.977s
8. Carlos Sainz (Ferrari) +1.218s
9. Fernando Alonso (Alpine) +1.252s
10. Lance Stroll (Aston Martin) +1.604s

Valtteri Bottas was left "puzzled" by Mercedes' "undriveable" W12 as Max Verstappen set the pace in both practice sessions at the season-opening Bahrain Grand Prix on Friday 

Red Bull driver Verstappen topped the timesheets ahead of Mercedes' Bottas in FP1 and McLaren's Lando Norris in FP2 in Sakhir.

Seven-time Formula One world champion Lewis Hamilton was fourth and third respectively after team principal Toto Wolff said the best the Silver Arrows could hope for would be to match Red Bull's pace.

Bottas said of Mercedes' new car on the eve of qualifying for the first race of 2021: "The last long run we did was pretty inconsistent, and I couldn't really put any laps together, and the car, as I said, felt undriveable at times.

"A bit puzzled, but it's Friday and that's why we practice."

Dutchman Verstappen, who clocked a quickest lap of one minute, 30.847 seconds, knows Red Bull must build on an encouraging start when it really matters.

He said: "I was really happy but tomorrow is again a different day, even more windy, which with these cars is quite more tricky, so again we'll have to try and be on it, but again, a good start to the weekend,

"I was also really [happy] before, but of course, now we have to show what we can do in qualifying."

The drivers had to contend with a sandstorm in practice and face more testing conditions over the weekend, with high winds and temperatures of up to 38 degrees Celsius forecast.

Verstappen added: "Of course, with the heat, it's not easy to find a really good balance around the whole lap. I think it's a positive day. 

"There are still things to look into what we can look better for tomorrow, but again, also tomorrow, I think it's going to be even more windy so that will be even more difficult to drive.

"That's the same for everyone, so we'll see what happens."

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.

Lewis Hamilton returns to Bahrain four months on from winning an 11th race of a dominant 2020 season knowing Mercedes have plenty of questions to answer from an exciting-looking Red Bull.

It was another season to remember for Hamilton in a campaign disrupted heavily by the coronavirus pandemic, the Briton himself contracting the virus late in the season and missing the second leg of a Sakhir double-header a week later.

By winning a seventh Formula One world title, Hamilton levelled Michael Schumacher's all-time record and also surpassed the legendary German for overall race wins (now 95), and he is now going in search of history.

But the evidence in pre-season suggests Mercedes are set for a titanic tussle with Red Bull, whose exciting line-up of Max Verstappen – the 23-year-old many are tipping to finally go toe-to-toe-with Hamilton – and Sergio Perez will be out to lay down a marker at the Bahrain International Circuit in Sakhir.

Many have suggested that F1's technical 2021 changes have redressed the competitive balance and certainly there was evidence to suggest as such at pre-season testing where Mercedes posted the lowest lap count of any team and Red Bull set the pace on two out of the three days.

We have been here before with Mercedes, though, where some have questioned whether their period of dominance – the Silver Arrows winning the constructors' championship seven years running – is finally over, only for the German manufacturers to turn it on when it matters.

This weekend should give us a clearer indication as to the strength of both teams, but that is by no means the only talking point on the grid...

LAST TIME OUT

Red Bull can certainly take heart from a strong end to the 2020 campaign, which saw Verstappen coast to victory at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, a race in which Hamilton finished third after returning from his absence due to COVID-19.

In that race, Red Bull were not necessarily favourites but beat Mercedes in a straight-line fight for Verstappen's second triumph of the season – his first coming in round five at the 70th Anniversary Grand Prix.

Perez can also take plenty of confidence from the fact he triumphed at this circuit for the Sakhir Grand Prix a week after Hamilton's last win of 2020, with a power issue in Abu Dhabi meaning his final outing with Racing Point ended in a whimper.

Valtteri Bottas finished second ahead of Hamilton on that occasion and the Finn knows he has a lot to prove against a strong-looking Red Bull line-up, while McLaren cars finished in fifth and sixth and are fancied for another strong campaign after finished third in the constructors' championship.

WHAT TO LOOK OUT FOR IN SAKHIR

There are plenty of sub-plots in play this weekend after a close-season of change in F1.

Most notable is the return of a legend and the arrival of a rookie aiming to emulate his great father.

Two-time world champion Fernando Alonso is back, racing for the rebranded Alpine Team – formerly Renault where the brilliant Spaniard won his two titles.

Mick Schumacher, son of Michael, has sizeable shoes to fill and will start his career on the biggest stage with Haas alongside fellow F1 rookie Nikita Mazepin.

Sebastian Vettel has a new home after ending his association with Ferrari and will race for Aston Martin, who are back in F1 for the first time since 1960, while the Scuderia signed Carlos Sainz Jr from McLaren to line-up alongside Charles Leclerc for 2021.

McLaren consequently turned to amiable Australian Daniel Ricciardo to partner Lando Norris, with the team starting 2021 12 podiums shy of 500.

TOP FIVE OPTA STATS

- Vettel and Hamilton are the drivers to have won the most races at the Bahrain GP (four), and have taken the most pole positions (three).

- In 2014, Mercedes recorded the first out of their 70 one-twos in hybrid-era qualifying in Bahrain (Nico Rosberg first, Hamilton second). The Germans have achieved 78 one-twos; they are two wins away from reaching Ferrari as the team to have secured one-twos in qualifying most often (80).

- Mick Schumacher will race his maiden grand prix in Bahrain eight years, four months and three days after father Michael's final appearance in Brazil 2012. Both will have started in F1 aged 22 years old, but the younger Schumacher will have done so seven months and 16 days earlier than his dad.

- Sainz will be the third Spanish driver to race for Ferrari. In his maiden race for the Scudería, Alfonso de Portago failed to finish in France (1956), but Alonso won in Bahrain (2010).

- Verstappen has retired three times at the Bahrain Grand Prix (four in Sakhir), more than any other race in his F1 career. The Dutchman has the chance to win back-to-back grands prix in F1 for the first time after 120 races.

After an unpredictable 2020 Formula One campaign ended in wholly predictable fashion, the world's best drivers are back for more in 2021.

The coronavirus pandemic delayed the start to last season and prompted serious surgery to the planned race calendar.

At the end of it all, though, Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes again walked away on top of the pile.

As so often in recent years, the task for the rest of the grid this coming year is simply to stop the reigning champion and his Silver Arrow.

While that is easier said than done, of course, the signs in pre-season are promising.

Will testing preparations derail Mercedes in the opening weeks? We are about to find out, as the Bahrain opener is just days away...

 

MORE HAMILTON AND MERCEDES DOMINANCE?

Hamilton's title in 2020 was his seventh, tying Michael Schumacher's competition record. A new benchmark is on the horizon if the Briton can repeat his success.

That is not the only landmark in Hamilton's sights, either: with 95 wins and 98 pole positions – both F1 highs – he can surely look forward to a pair of century celebrations this year.

But even if this is to be another sublime season for the 36-year-old, he surely will not find it as straightforward as last year.

Hamilton shut out the noise surrounding his future to claim 11 victories in 2020, yet the new contract he belatedly signed at the end of the campaign keeps him with Mercedes only until the end of 2021.

That spells another 12 months of uncertainty for the sport's premier driver, who also does not yet appear entirely at home in the new W12 car.

The Silver Arrows recorded only 304 test laps in pre-season – the fewest of any team – and may require Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas to learn on the job if they are to extend their record-breaking streak of seven straight constructors' championships.

 

WHO CAN CHALLENGE THE DEFENDING CHAMP?

Mercedes team-mate Bottas has finished second to Hamilton in the past two seasons, but it would be a tough ask to expect him to outperform the 'GOAT' in the same car – even before considering potential issues with that machine.

No, if Hamilton is to be dethroned, Red Bull look the best bet.

Max Verstappen is undoubtedly the chief threat at the Austrian outfit, having qualified ahead of his team-mates on 36 of 38 occasions since Daniel Ricciardo departed (including a 17-0 record against Alex Albon in 2020).

Indeed, Verstappen – third last year – had the fastest lap time in testing, his effort of a minute and 28.960 seconds in Bahrain putting Red Bull on top in pre-season for the first time.

The Dutchman is pessimistic, though, saying: "[Testing] doesn't say anything about pure performance.

"I know people are excited and think we are just saying this, but Mercedes are still the favourites. How can they not be when they have won seven world championships in a row?"

Ferrari can never be counted out, but they are starting a season with two drivers yet to win a world championship (Charles Leclerc and Carlos Sainz) for the first time since 2007, when Felipe Massa and Kimi Raikkonen lined up for the Scuderia. Of course, that year ended with Raikkonen being crowned champion.

 

ELSEWHERE...

There is no shortage of intrigue away from the top teams, with two big names returning to F1 – albeit only one of the two drivers having previously raced at this level.

Former champion Fernando Alonso is back, joining the rebranded Alpine team, formerly Renault – where the Spaniard won two titles.

Alonso's most recent race win came in Ferrari colours at the 2013 Spanish Grand Prix, since when he has gone 110 events without victory.

If Alpine can be competitive and Alonso belatedly returns to the top step of the podium later in the season, he could break Raikkonen's record of 114 grands prix between triumphs (2013 to 2018).

The 39-year-old needs only three podiums to reach 100 in F1.

At the other end of the spectrum, Mick Schumacher is the familiar name but new face at Haas, forming an all-rookie line-up alongside Nikita Mazepin, his F2 title rival last year.

Schumacher, who won that championship, will debut at Bahrain eight years, four months and three days after father Michael's final race in Brazil in 2012.

Michael was also 22 when he made his F1 bow, although Mick will be seven months and 16 days younger.

Ricciardo has joined McLaren, who are 12 podiums shy of 500, and Aston Martin are back for the first time since 1960, replacing Racing Point and bringing in Sebastian Vettel.

Meanwhile, there will be increased attention paid to Williams' George Russell, who impressed when given a chance with Mercedes at Sakhir 2020, qualifying second and finishing ninth.

Jamaica’s racing icon Peter Moodie is being remembered as being committed to excellence following his death after a brief illness on Saturday.

For decades, Moodie served Jamaica’s racing fraternity as perhaps it’s best ever driver, mechanic par excellence and a mentor who was revered by fellow race drivers and fans alike.

According to the Jamaica Millennium Motoring Club (JMMC), Moodie was renowned throughout Jamaica, the Caribbean, North and South America for his commitment to excellence and meticulous approach to motor racing competition that were hallmarks throughout his racing career, first as a driver himself, then later as he coached numerous up and coming young drivers, including his children.

“Spanning several decades, his racing accolades too numerous to mention, he was always the “man to beat” in any competition he entered, whether circuit racing, rallying, sprints, dexterity tests or karting,” the JMMC said in a statement.

“His stern but always fair and by-the-rules approach provided an outstanding example to his fellow competitors to always be at their best when competing against him.”

The sentiments were shared by the Jamaica Race Driver’s Club JRDC), who said in a statement Saturday: “Mr Moodie’s contribution to the JRDC and to motorsports overall in Jamaica was tremendous and impacted many in the most positive way possible. His loss will be felt by all who knew him well and he will surely not be forgotten.”

Meanwhile, Jamaica’s Minister of Sport Olivia Grange said Moodie has earned himself a place in the top drawer of motorsports in Jamaica.

“I am deeply saddened to learn of the death of former race car champion driver and mechanic, Peter Moodie Snr,” Minister Grange said.

“His superb skills as a race car driver were matched only by his phenomenal knowledge of the workings of motor vehicles. In fact, he was one of the pioneers and for the last four decades, the leading figure in circuit and go-cart racing.

“In addition, Peter was a top-notch instructor, ensuring that the knowledge was passed on to the succeeding drivers in the sport. With the passing of Peter Moodie, Snr, Jamaica has lost one who was totally dedicated to the development of his sport and his country.”

Those closest to him in the industry shared some of their memories on social media, including veteran driver Peter Rae.

“I remember racing karts at Hill Run in the early '80s and along a stretch in front of the pits I somehow flipped kart landed on me and I was a bit dazed and I clearly remember Mr Moodie shouting at me get the (expletive) out the way as Pinky was fast approaching,” Rae recalled on Facebook.

“Also remember my very first race at Dover was an amazing feat beating Pete Snr, Mark Moodie & Pinky in Watdat....fond memories. Peter Moodie Snr a true stalwart, a fierce competitor, engine/chassis builder and coach. You have made an indelible mark on the sport of motor racing. Race on my friend.”

© 2022 SportsMaxTV All Rights Reserved.