Racing is back, at last. After a period of four months, in which the COVID-19 pandemic took us on a journey from concern through despair and back to hope again, the MotoGP paddock is busy once again, preparing for a weekend of on-track action. Not as busy as otherwise, perhaps, the atmosphere is very different from a normal weekend, with no fans, no VIPs, no guests, no media, and half of the team members working from home. But the trucks are behind the garages, the riders are in their leathers, and the bikes are back on track.
So what should we be looking out for this weekend, now that racing has returned? Here are a few things to keep an eye on at this critical opening race.
The narrative back in February, before the opening round was called off, was about how Marc Márquez' shoulder would hold up during the first few races. A year after surgery to fix his left shoulder, he had had to have surgery on the right shoulder, to stop it from dislocating like his left shoulder had. The right shoulder was in better shape than the left was, but the surgery to fix it was almost as invasive and intense as the operation in 2018. Would Márquez be fit in time for the 2020 season?
The answer, it turns out, is yes: with an extra four months of recovery time, Márquez' shoulder is pretty close to being 100%. "Today I was not worried, but now I can breathe because on the physical side I feel fit," Márquez said on Wednesday. "Of course, I feel something on the shoulder from where I’ve stopped practice but riding the bike is not a problem." Though Márquez was unable to bring his own personal physiotherapist, Carlos Garcia, to the track, Garcia has returned to work with the Clinica Mobile, and is present at Jerez in that capacity. Should Márquez' shoulder need attention, the person who supervised his physical rehabilitation is on hand to assist.
Of course, Márquez was not the only rider who ended 2019 with shoulder surgery. Takaaki Nakagami and Miguel Oliveira had also had operations to fix problems with their shoulders. Both riders have now had a lot of time to recover, and are fit and ready to go. Oliveira was the fastest of the KTMs at the test on Wednesday, a very positive sign for the Red Bull KTM Tech3 rider. Starting his second season off in good health and competitive will be a strong motivation.
The importance of starting the season fit cannot be overstated. The 2020 season will see 13 races held in the space of 18 weeks, with 5 races in 6 weeks to kick off the season. Pick up an injury, and there is no time to recover, you just have to grin and bear it, and hope not to lose too many points in the process.
Danilo Petrucci could end up the poster boy for this theory. The Italian had a big crash on Wednesday – through no fault of his own, it is worth pointing out, the factory Ducati rider crashing over oil produced by Aleix Espargaro's Aprilia – and displayed concussion-type symptoms as well as a painful neck. Riding is going to be hard, at a track which is already tough for Ducati.
The moral of the story is don't get injured, if you can at all afford it. That, of course, is easier said than done.
Michelin's new rear
There have been a fair few changes for the 2020 season, but the new rear Michelin might be the most significant. The tire offers a stiffer casing, allowing softer rubber to be used and giving more edge grip. That, of course, helps the corner speed bikes – the Yamaha and the Suzuki – though it doesn't take anything away from the point-and-squirt bikes. If you want to pick the bike up and the accelerate, you still can.
But the edge grip does subtly change the balance of the bikes, and teams and factories will need some time to recalibrate and learn to get the best out of the new tire. There is less work for the Yamahas to do than there is for Honda and Ducati, which should give them an early edge.
The additional grip from the rear causes the Honda, in particular, to push the front. The first touch of throttle as the riders prepare to pick the bike to accelerate hard can upset the front, and risk washing it out. That could cause a few crashes for Honda, and provide spectacular footage of Marc Márquez saving the front. Good for Dorna in marketing the sport, less good for Márquez' title defense. This will take some time to fix. But fix it they will, at some point.
Risk vs reward
13 races in 18 weeks is a tough schedule, with no time to recover. It is also going to reward consistency, and punish mistakes. You need to be close to the podium week in, week out, and it will be hard to claw your way back from a DNF. Injuries will be penalized much more heavily than in normal years too.
The added complication here is the fact that there will be five pairs of back-to-back races at the same track. Riders who pick up a track quickly, who understand the conditions and are up to speed straight away, are normally at an advantage, while others who need some time to figure out the finer details can find themselves playing catch up.
But the teams and riders get a second bite at the cherry at five circuits, at Jerez, Spielberg, Misano, Aragon, and Valencia. Those who get it right straight away will gain little from the extra track time in the second race. Those who miss out in the first race will have more data, and the lessons of their failures will help make them faster in the second race.
That could add a complication for the front runners, even those who were quick straight off the bat. The second race weekend is likely to be much tighter than the first, the field much closer together. The closer the field, the more people battling it out for the podium. And the tighter the podium fight, the bigger the chance that a small mistake puts a title contender back into sixth or seventh, rather than second or third. In a year when consistency is key, consistency is going to be tougher than ever.
If the new Michelin rear plays to the Yamaha's strengths – and the Yamaha's strengths are all the better for Yamaha having fix some of the M1's weaknesses – then the opening races offer Yamaha a chance to make the difference. If Maverick Viñales, or even Fabio Quartararo have any hopes of the title this year, then they need to score as many points as possible before Honda figure out how to work with the tire.
The strength of the Yamaha lies in corner speed, and the new tire helps give them better drive out of the corner and onto the straight. That has helped top speed a little, and Jerez is a track where top speed isn't a factor.
Where Yamaha are worried is in braking. Both the Honda and the Ducati are very strong on the brakes, giving them a chance to launch an attack at the end of the back straight, into the final corner, or into Turn 1. Improving on the brakes is key for Yamaha.
"In Qatar we were working very hard on the braking, because I feel we have to improve on that area compared to Marc," Maverick Viñales said on Wednesday. "Marc is quite good in braking on the track. So I think we need to make another step on that area. I think it will be our main focus during the weekend, we are going to try to improve the braking. Also, to overtake will be crucial, at this track, that's not easy. So we need to be strong on that area. I think we have good grip, good turning, the bike is working well, but still we need to improve on the brakes."
If Viñales or Quartararo – or Morbidelli or Rossi – are to prevent the Honda or Ducati using their horsepower or their braking prowess to get past, then their strategy is simple: get the holeshot, then get away on the first lap. "For me the most important is to try to qualify on the front row, and to try to take the lead on the first corner and to hit my rhythm. This is the best way to ride with this bike, and it's what we need to do," Viñales explained.
That means focusing during FP1 and FP3 – temperatures are likely to be too high during the afternoon FP2 session to have much chance of setting a very fast time – to get through to Q2, then giving it everything to chase pole. Meanwhile, the Hondas and the Suzukis, bikes which can pass easily, can spend more time on setup than on chasing a time early on.
This is the eternal dilemma for Yamaha. The bike is often the fastest machine over a lap. But the way it makes that lap makes it vulnerable to attack. After all, races aren't decided over a single lap, but over 26 or 27. Needing a front row start is the Yamaha's Achilles' heel. Until they get more tools in their toolbox – such as the ability to outbrake other bikes to attack – then they will remain vulnerable.
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