He was all smiles atop a snowy Andorran mountain when the cover officially broke for his 2021 look, full of ebullient chatter about Repsol Honda’s loaded history and the on-track challenge of a new bike and the ultimate teammate that awaited him. Any idiot could see it, any child could tell: Pol Espargaro was ready, practically jumping out of his seat with nervous energy at the chance to wring its neck, the neck he’s been hearing and reading and seeing he might be pretty good on for years now. “If only Dani would retire,” messageboards clamored. “If only Honda hadn’t thought of Jorge first,” journalists mused. Through it all, Pol shrugged, smiled, overdelivered. Then came the offer. Now comes the reckoning.
Everywhere you’ve looked for the past year, sports has reflected the surreality of the pandemic like a funhouse mirror with all the fun removed — Korean baseball teams “cheered on” by cardboard cutouts of cats; NBA Finals games with noise piped in from a videogame; soccer derbies absent fireworks and fan brawls. No amount of exposure to this rot can dull the senses: It’s weird, and not in a good way. Motorcycle racing hasn’t been excepted from this, perhaps the most unpredictable MotoGP season in history conducted entirely within the confines of six European countries behind closed doors and open grandstands as though they were high-stakes preseason tests with nothing to dull the bikes’ din (good) and champagne celebrations you could hear every single clap of on TV (bad). But if a degree of normalcy or a sampling of The Before Times is what you crave in your sports viewing right now, you’d be hard pressed to come up with more routine proceedings than what’ll go down in the Qatari desert on Sunday. For all the new regulations and restrictions and trouble it takes to get there, I can promise you the grandstand won’t look any more full than it usually does. That the emirs’ accountants already have it covered on the balance sheets is, in its own warped way, reassuring.
If the rumors are true and Dorna has hired a crew to emulate even a fraction of Drive to Survive’s popularity in its soap opera treatment of Formula 1 on Netflix, MotoGP seems set to take off in America in a way Valentino Rossi or Nicky Hayden couldn’t quite have imagined. And if you’re reading this and you’re about to take the plunge, welcome, it’s never been better for a new or liberated fan: Even if Marc Marquez hadn’t opted to rest his shoulder for the first two rounds of the year, the season would be wide open. Knowledgeable heads have thus far been inclined to suggest Jack Miller or Franco Morbidelli are the favorites, Maverick Viñales or Fabio Quartararo will factor heavily into it if they can get themselves correct, and Alex Rins and (spare a thought) defending world champ Joan Mir could again sneak surprises out from underneath the others. And when Marc’s doctors finally clear him to ride, you can rest easy knowing he’ll be there to trouble the rest and defend his legacy as the best to ever do it.1
All of this ignores, for my money, the most interesting man on the grid in 2021.
The thing about Pol is how the excitement is practically radiating off him right now. It’s infectious in a team where smiles have been hard to come by this past year, relatively speaking. It helps that he’s never played coy with his emotions, though I also think he’s slightly harder to read and less moody than older brother Aleix (probably because he hasn’t been psychically beaten down by year after year of CRTs and Aprilias full of empty promises). But when HRC came calling before the postponed 2020 season had turned a wheel in real anger, well, what was he gonna do, wait for Alex Marquez to prove himself capable? Good thing he didn’t, too: After seven years of hearing how his more aggressive style might suit the twitchier Honda the way it did with the KTMs and the way it didn’t quite with the Yamahas that came before, here on a silver platter, dished fresh and with a fun side of stunted development in Marc’s absence, was the ride he’d been waiting for exhibiting flashes of potential in Alex’s late-2020 form. You could see him thinking it every time he stepped off the KTM he loved for so nearly delivering him a first career premier class victory last year: All that bike needs is the right rider. I am that rider.
Pol has had four days to get acquainted with the RC213V, all on the same track, some of it curtailed by wind. Four days. First practice at Losail is tomorrow. In preseason testing, he was consistently in the top 10 and often in the top six. He’s said he’s adapting faster than he expected but still doesn’t have a rhythm down. For what it’s worth, Miller thinks he’ll be a problem come Sunday. Anyone else on that bike, I’d say, sure, let’s hope for a top 10. Just look at Alex Marquez last year, thrown in at the deep end with everything to learn and only his brother’s couchside word to guide him. Just look at Cal Crutchlow, retired to a relaxed life riding development Yamahas after being flicked from the thing one time too many. Just look at Stefan Bradl, God bless him, who can’t figure out if he’s more needed on the bike or in a commentary booth. Just look at Jorge Lorenzo, thrown to a lion that devoured him whole. Just look at Marc, wrestling furiously with his corporeal limits to hasten his return.
And the dawn will break and the sun will burn and the night will fall and the lights will shine and the gulfside dunes will make their swirling sands felt once more. No, this won’t be for mere top 10s. This won’t be for restoring Honda’s honor showing face up front again. This won’t be for erasing all those years in Marc’s shadow back in Spain, in Moto3, in Moto2, at the top. This will be for something more. This will be for all the marbles. All that bike needs is one who speaks, who knows, who can, who acts. All that bike needs is the right rider. Pol Espargaro might be that rider.
– – – – –
1I didn’t say most successful or greatest. Fuck the stats sheets and your boyhood bedroom posters. Use your eyes.