The theme for the 2020 MotoGP season, insofar as one is discernible, is that there are two types of rider: riders who are doing their best to win races but lose the championship, and riders (or rider) who are doing their best to win the championship, but not win races. And never the twain shall meet, so far this year.
That was the tale of the Teruel round of MotoGP, also known as Aragon 2. Before the race, Takaaki Nakagami looked on course for his first podium, and possibly his first win, which would have put him right into the title fight. But Nakagami never even made it as far as the first intermediate timing strip, crashing out of the lead at Turn 5.
Of the three race winners in the top four of the championship, Maverick Viñales and Fabio Quartararo found a way to go backwards during the race, while Andrea Dovizioso never even found a way to go forwards. That put Joan Mir more firmly in the driving seat of the championship, but despite a very strong race to finish on the podium, he never really threatened to win the race.
Winners and … winners?
2020 keeps throwing up surprises. If having eight different winners on four different manufacturers, including the rookie Brad Binder, wasn't enough, the array of riders qualifying on the front row is remarkable. Twelve different riders have qualified on the front row of the grid, if we include Alex Rins as the twelfth at the Teruel Grand Prix, or Aragon 2. That is over half of the 22-strong grid.
There have been some unexpected names on pole as well. At Brno, it was Johann Zarco, the Frenchman finding a new home on a Ducati after a disastrous half season on the KTM. At the Red Bull Ring for the second race in Austria, it was Pol Espargaro grabbing KTM's first pole position. In Barcelona, Franco Morbidelli grabbed pole position, outshining his Petronas Yamaha teammate and championship leader Fabio Quartararo on a year-old bike.
So Takaaki Nakagami taking pole at Aragon 2 is right in line with the "Expect the Unexpected" theme of 2020, to borrow a line from 1980s cult classic TV show Terrahawks. If you had put a bet on the LCR Honda rider grabbing pole before the start of the season, you would have gotten very good odds. Indeed, the bookmakers were still offering excellent odds on Nakagami to win ahead of this weekend.
No longer under the radar
It was a much more pleasant day that greeted the MotoGP riders for the second round at the Motorland Aragon circuit. Air temperatures for FP1 were 18°C on Friday morning, versus 11°C a week ago. Temperature differences were less marked in the afternoon, but the big difference was in the wind: it had returned since last week, but was not the icy affair it had been previously.
Riders had a chance of making it from Turn 14 all the way to Turn 2 without losing all temperature in the right side of the front tire and ending up in the gravel. Only three riders crashed today, as compared to eight a week ago. That was true across all classes: there were eleven crashers combined in Moto3, Moto2, and MotoGP, compared to eighteen last Friday.
What that meant was that it became a little easier to try the medium tires, front and rear, but the temperatures weren't sufficiently different to start to find major differences. That is as you might expect, coming back to the same track a week later. That also meant that, with the weather expected to be warm enough to be able to push for a time in FP3 on Saturday morning, a bunch of riders decided to forgo the chance to chase a spot in Q2 on Friday, preferring to focus on tire choice and setup.
Faster and slower
In part 1 of the subscriber notes from Aragon, I looked at how the podium happened, and its impact on the championship. But much more happened behind the podium, which also helped make the podium happen and affected the way the title chase is playing out. So here are a few more notes and thoughts from Aragon 1.
Returning to the podium, it is worth reflecting on exactly what Alex Márquez has achieved. The Repsol Honda rider's second podium in two weeks was impressive mainly for being set in the dry rather than in the wet, as happened last week at Le Mans. There was no luck involved, nobody crashed out ahead him. Márquez fought his way forward all the way to the leader Alex Rins. He came pretty close to catching him and passing him too.
The onboard footage from Joan Mir's Suzuki GSX-RR, viewable on the MotoGP.com website as one of the optional camera views, give a very clear view of exactly how Alex Márquez is riding. Seen from Mir's bike, you can see how much Alex Márquez looks like his brother Marc on the bike, despite being 10cm taller and a more slender build. His body shape and language was the same, his head dropped, his elbow held down and inside as he forced the front through the corners. It was an instructive view of just how far the younger Márquez has come.
It looked like we would have another twist in this weird and unsettling season this morning. At Turn 14, the current MotoGP championship leader's Yamaha M1 got a little squirrelly as he rode over the kerbs. A little too squirrelly, the front stepping out and then the rear gripping and flicking Fabio Quartararo up into the air, and down onto his left hip. When the Frenchman finally slid to a halt, he struggled to get up, clearly in enormous pain. He was stretchered into a waiting ambulance, and taken off to the medical center.
For a while, it looked like this could be a serious blow to Quartararo's title chances, handing the advantage to Joan Mir. But scans and X-rays revealed that the Petronas Yamaha rider had gotten off relatively lightly, with only bruising and a hematoma in his left hip. A match for the bruise to his right hip suffered in a crash on Friday morning.
Hospital to rostrum
Quartararo limped out of the medical center on crutches, and clearly had difficulty walking to his bike for the start of FP4. He took an extra lap to find his rhythm again, but was soon pounding out laps in the low 1'49s, setting pace that was second only to Maverick Viñales. Half an hour later, he fired out a blistering lap to take pole, his third of the season and ninth in MotoGP. He had gotten away with it, and come up smelling of roses.
There is a particular type of crash which happens in the wet. A rider will be heading toward a corner, and will start to brake for a corner. At the moment they start to tip the bike into the corner, the front wheel whips out from underneath them almost instantaneously, dumping them on the floor. The crash happens without warning, and without there being anything the rider can do about it. One minute you are up, the next you are on the ground.
The crash happens because on a wet track, grip is unpredictable. Tires cool, and where you thought there was traction, there was in fact none. A tire that might have been working on one side a couple of corners previously has lost so much heat due to the rain, the wind, that the grip you had previously disappears into thin air.
We saw a lot of those crashes in MotoGP FP1 this morning at Aragon, despite clear blue skies and a bone dry track. The reason? The track temperature was simply too cold, and as a result, the tires don't reach the required temperature either. The rubber which is soft and sticky when up to temperature is suddenly stiff and slick as glass, like the tires on a 1:12 Tamiya replica of a MotoGP bike. Johann Zarco and Fabio Quartararo both went down at Turn 14, a notorious point for that particular type of crash to happen.
Down in the dry
In Brno, it was a TV cameraman. In Austria, it was a rider in the Red Bull Rookies Cup. At Misano, it was Jorge Martin. At Le Mans, it was a Yamaha engineer. And at Aragon, the coronavirus finally reaches the MotoGP grid, with Valentino Rossi testing positive for the virus on Thursday afternoon, before he was scheduled to depart from his home in Tavullia to travel to Aragon.
It was inevitable really. As case numbers start to explode at the start of the European winter, and with a group of 1400 people traveling between their homes (if they are lucky – staff from outside of Europe are stuck in Europe until the end of the season, with no opportunities to see friends and family until almost December) and various race tracks, the probability of Covid-19 hitting the paddock was large.
Despite the rigorous protocols put in place by Dorna for MotoGP (compare and contrast with WorldSBK, where things are much less strict) Valentino Rossi has tested positive, along with a number of other paddock workers. It is an open question whether we make it to the end of the season, or even past the Grand Prix of Teruel at Aragon next week. As cases rise, the need to be leading the championship grows ever more imperative.
Down with a fever
If 2020 has taught us anything, it is that it is pointless to try to make sense of 2020. There is neither rhyme nor reason to this year; you just have to let it wash over you like an autumnal rain shower and hope to emerge on the other side, if not unscathed, then at least in some sort of shape to continue. It is impossible to make plans, impossible to predict what might happen next.
So it is in MotoGP too. After Barcelona, we started to believe that a shape was emerging to the 2020 MotoGP championship. That favorites were emerging who would do battle over the title for the remaining six races. Naturally enough, this turned out to be naively optimistic, reckoning without the weirdness which runs like a shimmering thread through this pandemic-blighted year. We really should have known better.
Le Mans confronted us once again with the reality of 2020. A rain shower as the bikes headed out for the sighting lap threw the race into disarray, reshuffling the cards once again. Teams had to gamble on whether the rain would persist, and if so, for how long, and make choices about tires and setup. Once the race started on a very obviously wet track, the rain came and went, ending any thoughts of pitting for slicks, leaving the riders to sink or swim by their tire choice, and how well they managed to preserve their tires to the end.