The 2020 MotoGP season motors relentlessly on, as we visit Montmelo for the last race of the current triple header. The seventh race in eleven weeks, Round 9 marks the numerical mid-point of the season. Sort of: it is race 8 of 14 for the MotoGP class, but race 9 of 15 for Moto2 and Moto3, who raced at Qatar*. And as winter approaches in the northern hemisphere and Covid-19 cases start to rise again in Europe, the chances of us making it all the way to Portimao in late November and completing the remaining 6 races after Barcelona are significantly less than 100%.
The relentless round of races is brutal for everyone except fans and riders, most preferring racing every weekend to sitting at home. Especially in a season as up and down as 2020, where the direction of the championship seems to change every week. "I enjoy that the racing is hard and fast," said Jack Miller, summing up the general feeling of the riders on the grid. "We can have a quick turnaround and things can change very quickly. I enjoy that you don’t have to sit there thinking about a bad race for two or three weeks. You can get back into it straight away which is nice."
It can physically demanding, however. "For sure it's physical," Miller said. "Especially on the Monday after the second weekend you are a bit sluggish, a bit slow to get going. If you're nursing an injury or something like that it is not easy: you tear your body apart on Sunday and you have to be riding again on Friday."
This weekend is a prime example: Stefan Bradl and Cal Crutchlow are both back from surgery after pulling out of last weekend's second race at Misano. The extra week allowed Bradl to recover more fully from the surgery to free a trapped nerve which was causing the Repsol Honda stand-in to lose feeling in his hand. And it gave Cal Crutchlow time for the surgical wounds caused by the fasciotomy in his left arm to heal.
That had required a referral to a plastic surgeon, who had helped clean up the wound which was not healing. "The arm was becoming more open, there were two holes and between there was skin and that skin was going to split," Crutchlow explained in gory detail. It would have been open in a big way. I went to see an orthopedist, who referred me to a plastic surgeon, who sewed it internally."
That had made a massive difference, especially in combination with time in the hyperbaric chamber. "The arm is incredible," the LCR Honda rider said. "It’s gone down. Closed. Really clean. He did a fantastic job. I still had fluid in arm, so they took that off yesterday in Doctor Mir’s office. Massive problem for me not to heal. Lucky now it seems to be better. No idea how it’ll be when I ride, but at least it’s working. It never got infected. That’s main thing."
While the arm may have healed, Crutchlow managed to compensate by twisting his ankle and rupturing ligaments in his ankle. It had been a silly accident, caused when he fell from a high step out of a coronavirus testing office. "I pushed a door through the office and the door had no resistance against it. I stumbled and fell out and over on my ankle and fell onto floor. Heard the snap. I knew it was either the bone or something. I stood up and tried to walk. I could feel the ligaments are really damaged."
Frying pan to fire
That had been on Wednesday afternoon. Dr Mir, who was on hand inside the circuit, drained the fluid from the ankle and Crutchlow slept with the ice machine on it, which has reduced the swelling enormously. "I know what to do as I had it with the other ankle for two months. Yes it’s swollen and black, but it’s not a quarter of the size as it was yesterday. I can’t walk properly but I can ride and I feel a lot, lot better."
There is pressure on Crutchlow to ride. Not least because he still has no ride for 2021 and beyond. His options are limited: only the Aprilia ride remains vacant in MotoGP. And even that is a far from certain thing: "I only speak with them or Massimo [Rivola] when I need to, because they’re waiting for Andrea, the case with Iannone," Crutchlow said. "That’s their decision." That case is said to be scheduled for October, though it is still not listed on the website of the Court of Arbitration for Sport. Even if Iannone's ban is upheld, Andrea Dovizioso is believed to have first refusal for the job.
Close, but not quite there
The announcement we are all waiting for, of course, is of Valentino Rossi signing for Petronas Yamaha. Normally, a press release announcing a rider signing would come on Thursday lunchtime, the rider then appearing in the press conference to talk about his new deal. The fact that Rossi wasn't in the press conference when the rider line up was announced was a sign that the deal wasn't completely wrapped up.
The deal was basically done, though, Rossi told us when he spoke to the media late on Thursday afternoon. "Between the Misano races we fixed everything," the Italian said, as was apparent when Petronas Yamaha SRT team boss Razlan Razali visited the VR46 headquarters. Having Razali, Rossi, and Yamaha boss Lin Jarvis all in the same place had helped nail down the final details.
"I think this weekend I will sign the contract," Rossi said. "The situation is very clear. I will race with Petronas next year but the contract is a little bit long, it’s something to fix. But we’re not in a hurry because we already agreed. I’m very happy to continue next year together with Yamaha and Petronas."
What was the hold up? Nothing in particular, but because everything was agreed in principle, and Rossi, Yamaha, and Petronas were all committed to the deal, there was no reason to rush to sign the deal. "Because we are OK we don’t make a hurry," Rossi said. "You know, it’s an important contract. You have something to fix, technical, the bike, and also the team. I think some guys will move from Petronas to the factory with Quartararo and also the opposite. In general we are not in a hurry. We arrive here. Anyway I’m happy and it’s OK like this."
Speaking to the Italian press, Rossi gave a little more detail on exactly who would be moving with him. He will be taking crew chief David Muñoz, data engineer Matteo Flamigni, and rider coach Idalio Gavira with him to Petronas, but not his entire crew. Mechanics Alex Briggs, Brent Stephens, Bernard Ansiau, and Mark Elder would not be moving with him. "Sincerely, I have tried, but other people work at Petronas who they do not want to lose. I tried, I am happy to take the three who come with me, but I feel very bad not being able to take people who when I enter the box make me feel as if I enter home, it will be sad not to see them next season in the garage after so many years."
That was a bitter blow for Rossi. "It tastes really bad, especially because of Alex and Brent," Rossi said. "They wanted to continue with me, many times Alex told me that he was going to be with me until the end, Brent the same, they both wanted to stay until my last race and then retire. It will be sad not to have them next year and not be able to do the last race together."
Petronas had a couple of good reasons not to take the rest of Rossi's crew. First and foremost, the crew of mechanics had been put together with the utmost care by team managers Wilco Zeelenberg and Johan Stigefelt. Secondly, the antipodean section of Rossi's crew – Briggs and Stephens – would have been expensive to employ, given the cost of flying them back and forth to Australia and New Zealand between the races. Whether they will remain in the factory Yamaha team to help the arriving Fabio Quartararo is unknown at this point. Speaking to Hungarian journalist Niki Kovács, Briggs said he was 'closer to the end of his career than the beginning'. They may have to wait a while before their future is known. But such is the life of a MotoGP mechanic.
Give it its druthers
To distract us while we await the news of contracts, there is of course a motorcycle race on at Barcelona. It is a special track which has thrown up some fantastic races, one of the few circuits with a layout which does justice to the speed and ability of a MotoGP bike. A high-speed front straight approached through a fast corner, making it both quicker than most – the Ducatis are hitting nearly 350 km/h through the speed traps there – followed by hard braking for a right-left combination comprising the first two corners.
Then a sequence of long turns, offering plenty of places to pass, before embarking on a trip toward the short back straight. That straight offers one of the best places to pass at the end, the tight left hander of Turn 10, or La Caixa. Then an intricate few turns through the stadium section up to the two long rights which lead back onto the front straight. Turns 13 and 14 are key to carrying speed onto the straight, but also wide enough to offer a point of attack on the final corner.
The layout may be flowing, but the tarmac is both abrasive and lacks grip. That makes it demanding on tires, easy to spin the rear and burn up the tire, yet difficult to carry the speed a grippy surface would offer. It is a very different proposition from Misano.
On paper, a low-grip, high-speed track with a couple of hard braking points should not be suited to the Yamaha, yet the M1 has won here nine times in the eighteen years the MotoGP class has raced at the track (as well as three times during the 500cc era). The Yamaha's ability to carry corner speed really lends itself to the flowing nature of the track, which can help minimize the top speed disadvantage.
"In the last two years we were competitive with the Yamaha to fight for the podium," Valentino Rossi said when asked about the circuit. "We hope also this year we can be strong. Like you said it’s a long straight. For sure we have to suffer there. But it also has fast and medium fast corners where you have to enter very fast, where usually our bike is good."
The lack of grip is not an issue for the Yamaha either, Franco Morbidelli believes. How does he approach a track which is lacking grip? "With a lot of feeling, and a lot of confidence, because in Brno there wasn't grip at all, and I was fast, so..." Morbidelli retorted. "Yamaha has been good where there has been grip and in situations where there wasn't grip this year."
The lack of grip puts an emphasis on managing the tires. "I think the grip level is not like Misano of course, especially really difficult for the tire management," Takaaki Nakagami said. "I remember that last year I really struggled, especially in the second part of the race until the end. I was really struggling to feel the grip, because it's quite a long track and quite technical, and I was really struggling with the stability on hard braking in Turn 1 and after the back straight which is Turn 10."
The surface is fine for five or six laps, during qualifying or when chasing a fast lap to get through to Q2, Nakagami said. The problem came after that, when tire performance dropped off a cliff. "I remember the race distance after 15 laps, there was a big big drop in tire grip, that's why I struggled in the second part of the race," the LCR Honda rider told us. "Also I checked the timesheet for last year, and even Marc, he won the race, but it was quite difficult to keep the lap times at the end of the race. Even Marc had quite a big drop at the end of the race. This is the key point, how important to develop the bike, not for the qualifying, but to be strong on race pace."
A flowing track with low grip and plenty of passing places in the corners means the Barcelona circuit is ideally suited to the Suzuki GSX-RR. For many observers, that makes Joan Mir the favorite to take the win on Sunday. That gave him a confidence boost, Mir told us. "For sure, this makes me super happy, it makes me very confident for this weekend, because it's true that on paper this could be a good track for us, but it's also true that you never know. You never know this year with the tires, how you will feel on Friday or on the bike. I think that we can be competitive, so this makes me more confident."
Balance speed and agility
Tire management and managing wheelspin was the key to surviving the race and coming out on top, Mir explained. "The grip is a lot different," the Suzuki Ecstar rider said. "Here it will be really important to manage the tires in a really good way, because you spin a lot. It will be really important to manage the throttle and to feel the rear tire a lot, to have possibilities to be even faster at the end of the race. This will be the key in this race. Even more than in Misano, because in Misano, the grip was so high and the tire was not super slippery at the end of the race because of this. But this track is really critical for this, so we have to pay a lot of attention."
The front straight could be a problem, but one which can be avoided by qualifying on the front row, the Suzuki rider believes. "The top speed is not our strongest point, but this track, top speed is important for sure and more if you fight in the second group, where you have to overtake. But if we want to make another step, it's important to start in front and not have to worry about the power, just put a great pace and break away, or to be fighting with the top three guys."
Speed offered an easy way to overtake, but there was more than one way of getting past the riders ahead, Mir said. "For sure, top speed is really important to overtake, to breathe a little bit more. Because with our bike, when you have to overtake with a bike that has less power, you have to risk more than if you have a lot of power, that normally you can manage in a better way, you can prepare more the overtaking on the brakes. But with our bike, it looks like we have to do it inside the corner or in a corner where there is a corner before it, where you can prepare it. But I think that at the moment it's not a problem if we start in front."
The main challenge is expected to come from Ducati, but there are plenty of question marks there. Ducatis can manage the low grip/high speed conditions, but Andrea Dovizioso, in particular, is still struggling with the rear Michelin tire. In particular, he has had to radically change the way he brakes and tries to stop the bike. "I have to change that and I’m trying to change that but it’s not very instinctive, so it’s very difficult to make the perfect move and approach of the bike. But that effects everything. Still I’m not that good at that point and it’s clear that’s the point where I have to be better."
Dovizioso's problem, shared with the other Ducati riders bar Pecco Bagnaia, is using the rear tire to stop the bike. The 2020 tire will not slide as easily or predictably as the 2019 rear Michelin did. But on a low-grip track, it may be a little easier. And tire management is Andrea Dovizioso's forte, as he has demonstrated by winning here in 2017. Then teammate Jorge Lorenzo followed it up with victory in 2018, and Dovizioso was competitive in 2019 as well, but was taken out b erstwhile teammate Lorenzo who had entered Turn 10 too enthusiastically and skittled both Dovizioso and Maverick Viñales. The factory Ducati rider will be hoping for a less incident-rich race in 2020.
What could have been
The winner of the 2019 race was back in the paddock at the Montmelo circuit, though only for a brief visit. Reigning world champion Marc Márquez came to the circuit to see his team and talk with Honda. His arm is healing well, but slowly, and Márquez is not expected to be back any time soon, Valencia at the very earliest.
The pictures of him sitting on his Honda RC213V may have changed his mind, however. The look of longing on his face is clear to see, and being back with his team, spending time with his bike, must have motivated him to want to come back sooner rather than later. The fact that Andrea Dovizioso is leading with just 84 points must rankle too: with six races left after Barcelona, the thought must have crossed his mind that the title is still wide open, even for a rider who currently has zero points, and hasn't ridden a MotoGP bike since trying and failing to return at Jerez back in July.
That failed return, and the painful and worrying aftermath, is what is keeping him from rushing back. He has been consulting closely with doctors, he said in a recent video, and he has been heeding their advice. He wants to race again, and is keenly aware of how close he came to losing the ability to do that when he rebroke his humerus after Jerez 2. He doesn't want a repeat of that.
One final note: the MotoGP race, like all three races on Sunday, starts an hour later than normal. Moto3 starts at 12 noon CEST, while the Moto2 race starts at 1:20pm. MotoGP will then line up on the grid at 3pm, to avoid a clash with F1, which races in Russia and should be finished before MotoGP starts.
* So relentless has the 2020 season been that I got the round numbers wrong in a previous version of this story. A sign I have lost count of where we are as the rounds keep coming every weekend.
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