With MotoGP heading to Brno for the first of three races, a new chapter opens for the championship. The two season openers at Jerez were somehow anachronistic, races out of time, and out of place. The searing heat of an Andalusian summer turned the Circuito de Jerez into an alien space, the searing heat punishing riders, bikes, and tires. It proved costly, too, Yamaha losing three engines to the heat in two races, Ducati losing one, that of Pecco Bagnaia. Those lost engines are likely to have long-term consequences for Yamaha, though it seems as if Ducati have escape a little more lightly.
These three races at two race tracks are something of a return to normality. The Czech Grand Prix at Brno, and the Austrian Grand Prix at the Red Bull Ring in Spielberg, are happening on the weekends scheduled on the original calendar, before the COVID-19 pandemic MotoGP calendar, along with the rest of the world, on its head. Much has changed, of course: MotoGP is at Brno with a much-reduced paddock, with no fans and no media outside of a small band of TV journalists. But at least the Grand Prix paddock is where it was supposed to be, in the conditions which could have been expected back in January.
A new chapter opens in the championship for a few more reasons, too. The biggest being that Marc Márquez has pretty much been eliminated from the championship in 2020. On Monday morning, the reigning champion was taken to hospital in Barcelona to have the titanium plate which had been holding his broken humerus together replaced, after the one fitted just under two weeks ago had broken.
Pane and suffering
What had happened? Repsol Honda manager Alberto Puig raised a few eyebrows with the explanation he gave TV broadcasters at Brno. "It was a domestic accident this time because he was trying to open a window and he suddenly felt a lot of pain," he said. "Later we could check that the plate was broken."
A certain amount had been lost in translation. Marc Márquez' brother Alex gave a little more detail. "It was 7:30 in the morning," brother and teammate Alex told us. "He woke up a little bit earlier than me and I was sleeping. So I was on my bed and he woke me already with the arm broken. He was only trying to go for a walk with the dogs, to walk a bit and relax, and opening a big window - it's like a door window - broke the arm." The window, he clarified in Spanish, were actually glass patio doors which opened up onto the patio of the house the Márquez brothers share.
It seems improbable that just opening a patio door – no matter how heavy, would cause the titanium plate to break, opening the fractured arm once again, but seen within the wider context, it is perhaps not so surprising. The titanium plates fitted to keep bones together are thin, and meant only to hold the bone together while it heals. It is not meant to support the full force of normal use, or be a replacement for the humerus while the bone heals.
Stress, metaphorical and physical
When enough stress is placed on the titanium plate, it will eventually either bend or break. That plate has seen plenty of stress: first with Márquez doing push ups with the arm just a few hours after it had been inserted surgically. Then by the Spaniard riding on the Saturday of the second race in Jerez, in an attempt to see if it would be possible to race. And finally, as he worked at full steam to prepare for a more successful return to racing at Brno. He posted photos and videos on his social media accounts showing him getting physiotherapy on the arm, and working with weights doing shoulder presses and arm rows.
Did all that contribute to the eventual failure of the titanium plate in Márquez' right arm? In the press release issued on Monday, Dr. Mir described the problem as follows: "an accumulation of stress in the operated area has caused the plate to suffer some damage, so today the titanium plate has been removed and replaced by a new fixation."
Repsol Honda team boss Alberto Puig delivered some extremely mixed messages when talking to the media. "This was probably caused after all the stress that he had in the arm," Puig said, before insinuating that the medical staff involved had not informed them of the risks. "But we went to Jerez because the doctors gave the okay to do it and they never informed us that the plate could have broken. If we had this info probably, he would not have gone to Jerez or Honda would not have given him the chance to ride."
A moment later, Puig was stating that the incident had nothing to do with Jerez. "Racing is a dangerous sport, but this thing didn’t happen in Jerez," Puig replied when asked if Márquez had taken too much of a risk to try to ride less than a week after breaking his arm in the first race at Jerez. "It happened in his house. So if you look at it this way, no."
A Quantum of Blame
Puig seems to be implying that the second race at Jerez was Schrödinger's Grand Prix, where Márquez' attempts to ride both did and didn't put enough stress on his arm to weaken the plate, and the only way to find out was by opening the door of the patio. Or perhaps that the doctors saying it was safe to ride put stress into Márquez' arm, while HRC allowing Márquez to ride had no effect on putting stress into the titanium plate. Ironically, Puig is taking an Einsteinian approach, where blame is to be apportioned based on the relative perspective of the observer.
With Márquez out of the next three races – officially, Honda are announcing it one race at a time, but nobody is expecting him to try to return so quickly this time – we have a new championship. Or rather, the championship as it stands after the first two races at Jerez is the foundation on which the 2020 MotoGP title will be built. Two races in Spain has set the scene for a fascinating next chapter in the championship, with the main players clearly defined, but still plenty of time for plot twists.
With two Yamahas leading the title chase, we would ordinarily expect Brno to consolidate the positions of Fabio Quartararo and Maverick Viñales in the championship. Brno is the kind of track at which the Yamaha M1 can excel: a wide track with a lot of fast, flowing corners where you carry corner speed to get a quick exit. They are mostly third gear or above, so the bikes don't do much accelerating from a dead stop, spending more time on the edge of the tire and getting drive that way. Though it is a fast track, speed is not achieved through outright horsepower.
Gradients need power
But horsepower is still crucial at Brno. The circuit nestles in densely wooded hills, and snakes up and down the landscape. Television pictures or photographs do accurately convey just how steep some parts of the track are. Stand in Turn 10, close to the lowest point of the circuit, and look up the hill toward the where the finish line is located, and what you see is a mountain road winding up a steep hillside. Scooters carrying photographers laden with an extra 20kg of cameras and lenses struggle to make it up the hill back to the paddock. Walking up the hill might put you out of breath, but you are still likely to pass a few stranded scooters along the way.
They don't call that section, and especially the part between Turns 12 and 13, Horsepower Hill for nothing. Here, grunt is what matters. And grunt is what the Ducatis and the Hondas have in spades. In fact, if you go back over the past ten years, Hondas have won here seven times, with four different riders, and Ducati have won here once, in 2018, leaving two wins for a Yamaha. But those came in the first half of the last decade, in 2010 and 2015 with Jorge Lorenzo. Since then, Brno has been a Honda and a Ducati track.
Honda's hopes will ride mainly on Cal Crutchlow, but though the LCR Honda rider's fractured scaphoid has had more time to heal since he broke it nearly three weeks ago, it remains painful. The Englishman has already won here, of course, back in 2016, shortly after the birth of his daughter, Willow. Those were strange circumstances, the first outing for Michelin's wet tires on a drying track, Crutchlow gambling correctly and riding superbly.
Perhaps we should not write off Takaaki Nakagami, of course. The Japanese rider had his best ever result last time out at Jerez, and seems to be jelling better with the 2019 Honda RC213V better than he did with its predecessor. The bike Nakagami is riding won here last year, Marc Márquez defeating Andrea Dovizioso. If Nakagami can carry over the from he showed in Spain, he could cause a surprise or two.
All eyes will be on Ducati, however, Andrea Dovizioso has finished first and second here for the past two years, and the Desmosedici has the horsepower to pull up the hill and leave the rest for dead. Dovizioso had a strong first race at Jerez, but a weaker second race, when the Grand Prix was rechristened the GP of Andalusia. He still finished as first Ducati, however, though he had a trio of Yamahas, a Honda and a Suzuki ahead of him.
The steep hills aren't the only aspect of the circuit which are beneficial for the Ducati. The track combines a relatively abrasive surface with a lack of grip, as Aprilia's Bradley Smith explained. "I think this is one of the lowest grip racetracks if I have a look at the race from last season, and if I have a look at the rear tire drop in performance last year, and also previous year," Smith told us. "It seems to be one of those circuits which is quite critical with rear tire grip."
This suits Dovizioso down to the ground. The factory Ducati rider is the master of managing tire grip and wear, and having a little bit left over at the end of the race when others struggle. Less grip will also help with Dovizioso's problems in braking. Dovizioso, especially, has been struggling to wrap his head around the new grippier rear Michelin, which is making it more difficult to use the rear to stop the bike smoothly using engine braking for corner entry. There is more grip available, but requires changes to the weight distribution to get the best of both the front and rear tires under braking.
Aprilia are struggling with something similar, Aleix Espargaro explained. "When you have the rear tire with more grip, it's not just about acceleration and slide or spin," the Gresini Aprilia rider said. "It's not the only thing that changes. Obviously the extra grip is welcome, because you can use more power, that's clear, but also on the braking. On the braking you have two separate things. The first one is that you can stop more the bike with the extra grip of the rear, so you have to rebalance a little bit of the bike try to put as much weight as possible, to try to not spend much time with the rear tire in the air cause then you are losing braking performance. But it's not a super positive thing, because the rear extra grip is pushing also the front. And as you say the front is exactly the same as last year, so you have to rebalance the bike a little bit."
With a bit less grip, the rear becomes slightly more predictable and manageable. That can help Dovizioso and the other Ducatis at a track where they are expecting to do well.
Bump and grind
But it is not all sweetness and light in the Czech Republic for Ducati. Brno has a little less grip, but it is also rather bumpy, and due a new surface. Though it has gotten better over the years, the Ducati still doesn't handle bumps particularly well, the bike getting upset when it hits bumps at full lean and making its tendency to understeer that much worse. There are a lot of long corners at Brno to upset the bike. But the GP20's horsepower should more than make up for that.
Dovizioso will not have the field to himself, of course. Both Pecco Bagnaia and Jack Miller had strong races at Jerez, though on different weekends. Miller came close to a podium at the first race, while his Pramac Ducati teammate Pecco Bagnaia was on his way to his first MotoGP podium when his engine let go. That was not something to worry about, Bagnaia said. "Obviously I care, but it's more important that the mechanics see what happened. I'm a rider, so I just have to think about being fast and being strong, so it's something I don't have to see too much. The only thing that I asked is if it is a question that could happen again, and they said to me that I don't have to think about that, because it was only in Jerez. So for me, it's already good like this, and I can just think about being fast this weekend."
Jack Miller will be keen to put the crash in the second weekend at Jerez behind him, and Brno is a good place to do that. The Australian was on the podium here last year, a second behind factory rider Andrea Dovizioso. The crash had been a consequence of the extraordinary heat in Jerez, contributing to the fact that his front tire overheated, Miller said. That shouldn't be an issue this weekend, however. "We were strong in both races in Jerez, a track where normally we are not strong at, so we will try to continue that roll here, if not more," the Pramac Ducati rider told us.
It will be imperative for the Yamahas not to let the Ducatis get out of their grasp in Brno, but there is a real concern for the Japanese factory. Yamaha lost three engines in two weeks at Jerez, a problem believed to be down to a defective component inside the Yamaha M1's sealed, homologated engine. It is a problem which can be fixed, but only with the blessing of the other members of the MSMA, as the rules state that seals can be broken only with the unanimous consent of the MSMA, and to replace parts which pose a safety issue. Nor must replacing the parts must not offer any advantage in terms of performance.
Given the dysfunctional state of the MSMA at the moment – a state of almost open warfare exists between the factories, centering mainly around Ducati's drive to explore aerodynamics, and the other manufacturers' fears that this will drive up costs – getting all of the factories' permission to change the parts could be difficult. That is complicated by the fact that Yamahas have finished one and two in the first two races of 2020. "The manufacturer who is having problems is currently leading the championship," Ducati sporting director Paolo Ciabatti told German-language publication Speedweek.
All of the Yamaha riders feigned a lack of concern ahead of the Brno round. "I don't think if you are at a fast track like here or in Austria it is a big problem for the engine, but maybe more the temperatures in Jerez," Valentino Rossi told the press conference. "The conditions were extreme." Franco Morbidelli, who had an engine stop on him in the race at Jerez, dismissed concerns out of hand. What had happened to his M1? "I don’t know. I didn’t ask," he said.
He was not terrified at the prospect of facing Horsepower Hill, Morbidelli said. "As always there are some straights and there are some corners," the Petronas Yamaha rider told the media. "In the straights we are weak. In the corners we are strong. We will try to be as strong as possible in the corners, and we will try to limit as much as possible our weak points on the straights . Yamaha has always been fast here. This is encouraging. Lately I’m really fast. I need to improve my speed in practice, especially in qualifying. We will try to do that this weekend. I’m not worrying about top speed too much."
Perhaps the most interesting prospect at Jerez is KTM. The Austrian factory had an outstanding first couple of races, though they were not rewarded with the results they perhaps deserved. A mixture of inexperience, bad luck, and getting stuck behind Ducatis had held both factory and satellite riders back.
But there was plenty of room for optimism. Pol Espargaro was not overly concerned by the horsepower deficit of the KTM RC16. "Here, for sure, the power is quite important," he said, "but the good thing here is that there are not any apex corners where you start from zero. Maybe that will help us a little bit. The corners are starting from third gear, more or less, with quite a lot of speed and this is something that will help us with the top speed."
More manageable weather conditions should help, Espargaro said. "For sure it was very difficult to fight with the Ducatis in Jerez because you needed to be in the slipstream or just close behind and there it was hot like hell. It was impossible to stay there and take profit of the slipstream to overtake on the brakes because the front tire was getting too hot and it was impossible. Here I think we will have more room to play. There are some good places to overtake and some hard braking zones. I think we will be better than in Jerez, I hope so."
The combination of an updated bike and more grip in the rear tire should also be to KTM's advantage, Espargaro explained. "Here we were struggling with the rear spin – the straight spin – quite a lot. After 15 laps more or less, for the last 6 I was spinning quite a lot and it was very difficult to control, but this year the tires are a bit more consistent which will help us a lot. This is a fast place but with a lot of fast corner where you need to turn a lot to open the throttle. We were struggling a lot last year but now we look much better in these places so I just want to see where we are slow compared to last year. But it seems our weakness in turning and tire consistency are more or less gone."
KTM enters Brno with a more competitive bike, an optimistic Pol Espargaro, and two young riders in Miguel Oliveira and Brad Binder who have shown enormous potential in the first two races of 2020. If Brno is a return to something resembling normality – or perhaps a new normal – then the competitive KTMs are part of that newer, revised reality. That is something worth celebrating.
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