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
Slightly more worrying for Valentino Rossi is that unlike Jorge Martin and the Japanese Yamaha engineer, the Italian is symptomatic. Rossi woke up feeling sore and with a slight fever before testing positive. Outcomes for Covid-19 vary widely, with the vast majority of people recovering quickly and fully. But the symptoms tend to be more severe than for the common winter flu, and that will come at a cost to his fitness. For the sake of Valentino Rossi, Yamaha, and MotoGP, we can only wish him a full and speedy recovery.
Who will take his place? The timing of Rossi's illness is fortuitous for Yamaha. The rules say that a team must "make every reasonable effort to provide a qualified substitute rider to fulfill their entry obligations within 10 days of withdrawal". The deadline for entering a substitute is two hours after the end of FP2. The end of FP2 for the Teruel Grand Prix, the race after this one, is eight days from now.
In theory, Yamaha could still choose to enter test rider Jorge Lorenzo, or even one of their WorldSBK riders. But given the precarious situation that Rossi and Yamaha find themselves in with engine usage, it makes more sense to skip the next two rounds, and hope for Rossi to return fully fit and with fewer races left for his engines to last through. It might even make it possible to give Rossi back some of the revs which were taken away after the disaster at Jerez.
But Grand Prix racing goes on regardless, as they have throughout history. It has never even stopped for deaths in the past, so why would it stop for a virus? The riders line up this weekend to take another shot at turning the momentum of the championship their way.
Dry, fast, cold
Aragon is a very different track to Le Mans, where we have just come from. It is drier, faster, with much longer corners. But like Le Mans, MotoGP is there out of season, though in this case, only by a few weeks. But inland, at an elevation of 300 meters, the difference between the end of September and mid October can be just enough to make riding in the morning a treacherous affair. Overnight temperatures are forecast to drop to 4°C On Friday. It will be a very chilly Motorland Aragon circuit which greets the Grand Prix paddock on Saturday morning.
This has been an issue at the past few races. In Barcelona and Le Mans, temperatures in the morning sessions were right on the minimum needed by the Michelin tires. And the tire allocation meant that the riders had a maximum of 5 of the softest front and 6 of the softest rears. But as the tire allocation had to be set before the season began – a demand by the teams – it means that when conditions have been colder than expected, the teams and riders have struggled. That was especially the case at Barcelona, but it was also true at Le Mans and is going to be the same at Aragon.
It was clear that something needed to be done, and so from this weekend, the riders will get an extra soft front tire. That should at least make the morning sessions a little easier to cope with, when temperatures can be very cold. Especially with the strong winds which can tear through the valley Aragon sits in.
More softs please
"It’s going to be tricky," Franco Morbidelli said. "The condition is quite cold and windy. We have a long straight. A left and a long straight. Another left. Then we go right for a fast corner. Michelin brought more soft options and they brought more soft front options as well. They are coming our way and they are coming the weather’s way. We will have to be careful in turn 2 especially in the early laps."
The layout poses a particular problem, especially the section down the hill along the back straight, and back up again to cross the finish line. There are two right-hand corners at Turns 13 and 14, then a quick left onto the back straight of nearly a kilometer, the long left handers at the bottom of the hill, Turns 16 and 17, and then back up the hill to the short front straight across the finish line. Then a 90° left at Turn 1, before the first right hander in nearly half a circuit, the fast and sweeping Turn 2. That is a long time to go without putting load, and therefore heat, into the right-hand side of the tire.
"I don’t know what it is , maybe 40-something seconds, when we are not on the right hand side of the tire, so Turn 2 is not going to be fun until the afternoon session," Cal Crutchlow told us. "That’s the biggest obstacle. The other thing is the wind. Today it is strong, we’ll have to ride down the back straight in the middle of the track quite a lot because you don’t want to get blown from side-to-side."
It is part of the job, Crutchlow acknowledged. "Racing a motorcycle is always challenging," he said." Last week it was raining. In Barcelona it was slippy and you had to manage the tire and the temperature."
Though the decision to bring an extra soft tire was met with universal approval, Andrea Dovizioso felt there was more that Michelin could do. "I'm happy, because Loris [Capirossi] worked with Michelin to have more quantities of the softer tire, and we will have that and it will be important for everybody," Andrea Dovizioso said. "But we already spoke, also in the last Safety Commission about that, and we pushed a bit more about the asymmetric front tires. I think there are more than a few tracks were we need asymmetric tires. Even more this year because we are racing a bit later and it's a bit colder. But in any case, to have an asymmetric tire, I think it will be safer and better."
The current schedule is also an issue for MotoGP. "Also the conditions, it will be maybe the coldest situation this season, because it will be 3, 4, 5 degrees during the night. In the morning it will be a few more degrees, but not that much, and here like in a few corners it's difficult to get heat in the tires, so we will see," Dovizioso said.
How to solve it? It is a bit late in the day to fix anything for 2020. The easiest way to address it would be to move the morning sessions for MotoGP around. Starting them even 30 minutes later might make a difference in track temperature. But more soft tires, and perhaps more asymmetric front tires might help as well. It is worth asking the question whether Michelin need to fix an issue which is arising solely because this is such an unusual year.
Long corners, long back straight
What can we expect from the weekend? Aragon has a fast back straight, which favors the faster V4s, especially the Ducatis, and the Ducatis have gone well here in recent history. But it also has a number of fast long corners, which are made for the Yamaha. The two sections sort of balance each other out.
"I'm not really worried about the back straight, because there are three sectors where we have a lot of corners, and also traction corners, where we are fast," Maverick Viñales explained. "The long straight is from a really long corner. Sure, we’re at a disadvantage but there are a lot of long, round corners with a lot of speed. We are really good there and have a lot of traction this year. We need to work a lot in sector 1, 2 and 3 to not get so much disadvantage in 4. The key will be to do a super sector 3, and in the last lap if I have to fight with someone, I can overtake in sector 3."
Viñales, of course, is coming off a bad weekend at Le Mans, where he made a very poor start and got swallowed up by the field before they hit the first corner. That meant he was behind Valentino Rossi when the Italian crashed out, losing even more ground.
There is a simple solution, Viñales said. He had just one objective on Sunday. "Start first then push like hell, like there is no tomorrow."
The Yamaha's speed deficit is a concern, especially for Franco Morbidelli, consistently the rider with the lowest top speed at every track. "I’m losing 15km/h, 20km/h at every track," the Petronas Yamaha rider said at Le Mans. The trick was not to think about it, however. "In Aragon the straight is going to be longer and maybe I’m going to lose more, but I need to overcome this thing and I don’t want to think about straights. I just want to think about corners. I just want to think about nailing corners and do the things that I’ve been doing until now. Try to nail corners, do the best riding that I can, and do the best setup of the bike that I can in order to make the corners fast, and then we see."
The real battle will be between Fabio Quartararo and Joan Mir, the two still just 10 points apart in the championship. Quartararo is confident because he was fast last year, and the Yamaha is even better. Joan Mir really has to finish ahead of the Frenchman if he is to make inroads into Quartararo's lead. But the Suzuki Ecstar rider, finished way down in fourteenth here last year.
Mir is confident, however. "There’s not many difference between this track and Barcelona," the Spaniard said. "Similar tracks with similar types of corners." At Barcelona, the Suzuki rider ended up on the podium, and had the race lasted another lap, he had a shot at beating Quartararo.
Despite his modest result at Aragon last year, Mir believes the track suits the Suzuki. "On paper it was a good track for Suzuki," he said. "I remember Iannone fighting for the victory with Dovi and Marc two years ago. Last year I was strong but it was my first year and I make a mistake in first laps. Then I never recovered a great position. I feel here we can make a good race and be performing like we expect."
Aragon has been good for the Ducatis the past couple of seasons. But the new rear Michelin tire which has hampered the established Ducati riders could make it more difficult. Danilo Petrucci is coming off victory at Le Mans, and has new-found confidence after a change in the Misano test solved some of his issues in braking. Jack Miller has a point to prove, after losing an engine at Le Mans. And Andrea Dovizioso was runner up at Aragon for the last two years.
How the rear tire behaves will be crucial, Dovizioso pointed out. "Like every weekend I don't know, because with the new casing, I'm really interested to see how will be the exit, because normally with this tire, it's very difficult to manage the first part of the exit," he said. "So it will be very important to be OK in that area."
The Ducatis should be able to make up time in braking, however. "Overall I think this can be a good track for us, because on the braking we can be really good here, because there is a lot of braking with angle," Dovizioso explained. "Normally we struggle in straight braking, so I think here it is a bit better. I hope. But I don't know. I think and I believe that the Yamaha will be very strong, but I think we can have our cards. In the last two years we showed that. It's not the best track for us, but in the end, in the last two years, we managed the tires in a good way, and it helped us to make very good result in the end."
We are heading toward the endgame in the 2020 MotoGP season, and Valentino Rossi's absence shows that the end may come sooner than expected. From now on, no one can afford to make any mistakes. Points grow ever more valuable with every race.
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