According to Albert Einstein's Special theory of relativity, time slows down as your speed increases. The faster you go, the slower time appears to pass. That would explain why the Covid-compressed 2020 MotoGP season has simultaneously felt like it was taking forever and is over in the blink of an eye. 14 races in 18 weeks was brutal on everyone involved, an intense schedule which had everyone working at light speed yet struggling to keep up. You would have to go back to the 1960s to find a season that was so short. But back then, they were fitting 8 races into 18 weeks, not nearly double that.
At least we had a fitting stage for the season finale. In a season with highs and lows, holding the last MotoGP round of 2020 at the roller-coaster which is the Autódromo Internacional do Algarve was fitting, a metaphor for the year made physical. But did that location give the winner, Miguel Oliveira, an advantage at what was effectively his home race? Was he, like Nicky Hayden at Laguna Seca in 2005, better able to unlock the secrets of the Portimão track because he had ridden here so often?
Whenever a journalist gets a little too excited over a rider's lap times after FP2, and starts asking them what it means for the race, they inevitably get slapped down with an old racing aphorism. "It's only Friday," riders will say, whether they are at the top of the standings, at the bottom, or somewhere in the middle. Being fast is nice on a Friday, but there is still a long way to go until the riders line up on the grid on Sunday. An awful lot can, and usually does change in the meantime.
That old adage is exponentially true on a Friday at a brand new track where nobody has ridden before. Especially an extraordinary track like Portimao, which snakes all over the Algarve countryside like a roller-coaster hewn into the hills. The track is so different, and so difficult, that there is still a huge amount of work to do before anyone can start to draw conclusions. Add in the fact that Michelin has brought four fronts and four rears (with two different hard tires front and rear), and you have a huge and complex puzzle to solve before Sunday. Two 70-minute sessions on Friday helped, but were still nowhere near enough.
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.