It turns out there is someone who wants to win the 2020 MotoGP championship after all. A couple of people in fact, and they are now starting to make an effort to actually win this thing. After last week at Misano, when the top four in the championship were separated by just 4 points, it was hard to discern a shape to the 2020 title chase. Unseasonably cold weather, a punishing track for tires, and the usual run of random racing incidents events shook up the championship at Montmelo. Now, a pattern seems to be emerging from the fog of racing war.
After Misano, just 4 points separated the top four. A week later, there are 24 points covering the first four places, and 8 points – twice what covered last week's top four – the gap from first to second place. The points spread between the top ten has nearly doubled, from 27 to 50 points.
At Misano, Takaaki Nakagami was highlighted as a rider still in with a shot of the championship, not least by Repsol Honda boss Albert Puig, in defense of the job Honda have done in 2020. The LCR Honda rider was seventh, but trailed the leader Andrea Dovizioso by 21 points. With 7 races still left to contest, Nakagami had a shot at the title which was anything but theoretical.
What did we learn from qualifying for the Grand Prix of Catalonia on Saturday? We learned that qualifying is extremely deceptive. The front of the grid is a mixture of riders who are genuinely fast on race pace, and riders who are only quick over a single lap. But what we also learned is that the track at Montmelo, outside Barcelona, is so hard on tires that qualifying is only a very small part of the story. It is uncertain whether where you qualify will have any bearing on the outcome of the race.
The problem at Barcelona is that the track is punishing on tires. You do not get to the end of the race with tire to spare. Indeed, you may not make it to the end of the race at all. "The last laps of the race, we will struggle not to make a lap time, we will struggle to stay on the bike," warned Pol Espargaro. "Maybe by the end of the race, it's not going to be who can perform better, who can be faster, I think by the end of the race it's going to be who takes more risk, who cares less about crashing."
With Valentino Rossi finally confirmed at the Petronas Yamaha SRT team, the rider line up for 2021 is getting close to completion. The factory seats at Honda, KTM, Suzuki, and Yamaha are filled, as are the satellite seats at KTM and Yamaha.
The nominally vacant seat at LCR Honda is destined to be taken by Takaaki Nakagami once again, the Japanese rider still in talks with HRC management over whether he will get a 2021 spec RC213V or a 2020 bike. Nakagami's performance so far on the 2019 bike has shown him worthy of getting the latest spec, but those details will take a while to thrash out.
The next question to be answered will come some time next week, when Ducati announce their plans for 2021 and beyond. They are expected to move Pecco Bagnaia into the factory team and Johann Zarco up to the Pramac squad. Jorge Martin is likely to join Zarco in Pramac, while Enea Bastianini should head to Avintia.
"It's only Friday." Something you tend to hear from riders on, well, Fridays, when you ask them who they think is looking strong. Friday is the day that people are getting up to speed, evaluating different setup directions, making a preliminary assessment of tires, and putting in a banker lap when time and conditions allow. Drawing conclusions from either session of practice on Friday is fraught with difficulty.
Doubly so for Friday at the Circuit de Catalunya in Montmelo, near Barcelona. The track hosted three days of action for the WorldSBK series last weekend – now with double headers for the World Supersport and Supersport 300 classes due to the compressed 2020 schedule – and so received a layer of Pirelli rubber. There have been rainstorms during the week which have washed some of that rubber from the track, changing grip levels once again. And the wind on Friday was, in the words of Jack Miller, "pretty savage".
On the face of it, you might say that Franco Morbidelli, Johann Zarco, and Brad Binder are capable of quick times, Morbidelli and Zarco dropping under 1'40. On race pace, you might want to conclude that Morbidelli, Fabio Quartararo, Joan Mir, Alex Rins, and Maverick Viñales are all quick on used tires. But the results from Friday need to be read like you might read tea leaves. Sifted through in the hope of finding patterns; but fearful of leaping to conclusions which the future simply will not bear out.
Clean track, low grip
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."
Just when you thought the 2020 MotoGP season couldn't get any weirder, the Emilia-Romagna round at Misano threw up surprises we never even knew were possible. You would have that that having MotoGP race at the same track twice would make matters even more predictable, but instead, we find ourselves deep inside the world of Donald Rumsfeld's famous unknown unknowns.
The race itself was more a war of attrition than a bar-banging battle from lights to flag. It was hardly bereft of excitement – the battle for the podium grew intense and controversial in the last few laps – but the eventual winner spent pretty much the whole race alone. The same was true for the rider who should have won, but managed to throw it all away with seven laps to go.
That was far from the only crash. Of the 20 riders who started the race, only 13 managed to cross the line at the end of 27 laps. That is one of those surprises we really hadn't seen coming – two races and a test, combined with almost perfect weather (the briefest of showers during the Moto2 race, just enough to force a restart interrupted a week of otherwise endless sunshine) meant the newly resurfaced track had more grip than the tires could handle, and by Sunday, the riders knew every bump around Misano better than the knew their own mothers.
We are in the toughest stretch of the punishing 2020 MotoGP schedule, ahead of the second race of the first of three triple headers – 9 races in 11 weeks, in three sets of three. It is a brutal start to this stretch, with last Sunday's race followed by a test on Tuesday, then practice starting again on Friday. Over the course of 10 days, the MotoGP riders will have been riding for 7 of them.
What will the second race at Misano look like, after the MotoGP riders have already have 4 days of riding at the track? "For sure everything will be very close after a Grand Prix, race, then a test, then another race," Alex Rins predicted. "Everything will be so close, so we need to be at 100%, we need to give our 100% to be at the front, to be concentrated, and giving our best."
Why will everything be closer? Because the second race at the same circuit gives everyone a chance to try to correct the mistakes they made at the first. Take Jack Miller. On Sunday, he was persuaded to race with the medium front instead of following his gut instinct, which told him to go with the hard front. It is a decision he will revisit come Sunday, and something he worked on at the test.