So it turns out somebody does want to win this thing after all. After a wild, wild ride through the 2020 MotoGP season – scratch that, through all of 2020 – Joan Mir has finally been crowned champion. And he did it in the most Joan Mir way possible: not with an extravagant flourish, or with all-out aggression risking everything, but by understanding what was needed, riding to the limits on the day, and seizing the prize when it was offered. This was a title won with the head, with generous measure of guts and heart thrown into the mix.
There's an old cliche about swans, gliding gracefully and calmly across the water while paddling like fury below it. That was how the Suzuki rider came into the second weekend at Valencia, the race where he had the title within reach. Outwardly projecting calm, he had the turmoil of nerves to deal with underneath. Try as he might, Mir could not prevent that tension from breaking through to the surface.
It was supposed to be a steady, stable weekend with consistent weather for all three days of the Valencia MotoGP round. But it's 2020, so of course, that didn't happen. After a solid day of dry weather on Friday, conditions turned on Saturday. Not by a lot, but just enough to render chasing a quick time in practice and qualifying a treacherous business, with light rain coming and going throughout.
After the track dried in FP3, it never really rained hard enough to need wet tires. But there was just enough rain at times to make grip supremely treacherous, and to force riders to take bigger risks than they might have wanted. Alex Márquez paid the heaviest price, pushing hard in Q1 after rain had started to fall, the rear coming round on him and snapping back to highside him to what looked like low earth orbit.
It turned out to be a lucky escape for Márquez, the Repsol Honda rider escaping with a painful tailbone and a badly bruised bone in his left hand. His injuries were severe enough that his participation in the race tomorrow is to be assessed during warm up on Sunday morning.
"Well, for sure I think we are not the fastest, but it's only Friday." A common enough refrain after FP2, with another day of practice and qualifying to go before the race on Sunday. But when it is championship leader Joan Mir saying it, on the weekend he could wrap up the title, is it a sign of trouble?
So far, Mir has been remarkably calm and composed under pressure. He has impressed even nine-time world champion and MotoGP legend Valentino Rossi. "Nobody bet on Mir at the beginning of the season, but already in the last races of last season he did a big improvement and also in the winter test he was strong," Rossi told us on Friday evening. "For me he's very mature, it's like he has more experience considering he is a very young rider and it's just the second year in MotoGP and also he did just one season in Moto2. So he's an unbelievable talent, I think. Nobody expected that he can win the championship this year. But I think that if he will win he deserves it 100% because he was the more constant, that this year is very important."
It is Groundhog day one last time. The last of the back-to-back races at the same tracks beckons, the riders returning to the scene of last week's triumphs and tragedies. Will we see a repeat of last week? Will there be another Suzuki Ecstar 1-2? Will the KTMs be at the front again? Will Ducati have another worrying weekend? Does Yamaha face disaster again?
The weekend certainly kicked off with a repeat performance of Valentino Rossi's Covid-19 saga. Last Thursday, news started to leak that Valentino Rossi had failed a Covid-19 test, and would not be able to travel to Valencia for the European round of MotoGP. In the end, he had two positive tests 24 hours apart and missed only the Friday sessions, taking to the track on Saturday morning for FP3. That gave American rider Garrett Gerloff his time in the sun, or rather, the rain, the spray, and the sun, the weather wreaking havoc last weekend.
How do racers like Joan Mir cope with pressure? Some chill out, others work themselves into a frenzy
I don’t know about you but I get pre-race butterflies whenever a MotoGP season draws towards its climax. I know it’s ridiculous, because I’m sat comfortably where no harm can come to me, but I’m nervous for what might happen, for what might go wrong.
Perhaps it’s some kind of nervy leftover from racing all those decades ago. For those that haven’t raced it’s probably difficult to imagine what racers feel like on Sunday mornings. There’s so much adrenaline pumping around your body that you sometimes feel sick and faint, so you’re just dying for the race to start, so you can stop feeling so rank.
Different riders have different ways of dealing with those feelings, but I can’t even begin to imagine how MotoGP riders cope with the stress and pressure of battling for the championship. That’s another level altogether.
For most of the 2020 Grand Prix season, nobody has wanted to win a championship. Every time someone has taken a lead at one race, they have found ever more creative ways to throw it away at the next. Fabio Quartararo got off to a lightning start, winning the first two races of the season. Then he let his lead slip away, Andrea Dovizioso making inroads into the Petronas Yamaha rider's advantage.
Behind the leaders, Maverick Viñales made a strong charge, then faded away, then came back again with a win at Misano 2. Jack Miller started off strong, had a DNF, then a run of good results and another DNF and has been up and down (literally, in a couple of cases) ever since. Takaaki Nakagami closed in relentlessly by finishing inside the top ten every race, until he crashed out of the lead at Aragon 2.
It was hard to see who was in the driving seat of the championship. Quartararo took back the lead at Barcelona, but hasn't finished any better than eighth since then. Dovizioso has slowly slipped further out of reach, while Maverick Viñales has barely stayed in touch with the top of the championship. Franco Morbidelli has won two races to close the gap, but had some poor finishes and a DNF as well.
Throwing it away
What is the point of free practice? It is to prepare bike, rider, and team (not necessarily in that order) for Sunday's race. On a good weekend, you spend Friday testing your base setup and getting an idea of which tires to use. On Saturday, you refine the setup and check how your preferred tire lasts over something approaching race distance. In warm up on Sunday morning, you might try a final tweak in search of more tire life or a fraction more performance.
The goal of all this is simple: to arrive on the grid on Sunday afternoon with the best possible setup. To eliminate as many unknowns as possible, and provide the rider with the sharpest possible weapon with which to do battle. From that point on, it is up to the rider.
That's the theory. In practice, of course, it rarely runs quite that smoothly. There is always something cropping up that makes the whole process a good deal more complicated than anyone hoped, unexpected obstacles to be overcome along the way.
Several top MotoGP title contenders are already way past the usual lifespan with their engines, so how will they cope at the last three races?
Three of 14 races remain in the 2020 MotoGP World Championship, Covid permitting. The second wave of the pandemic is racing through Europe as riders prepare for the triple-header finale on the Iberian Peninsula, starting with Sunday’s European GP at Valencia and ending with the Portuguese GP at Portimao on November 22.
Literally no one knows if the championship will go full distance, but the back-to-back races at Valencia – the European and then the Valencia GP – are currently set to go ahead despite a night-time curfew in the region.