It seems like everybody wants to win a race in 2020, but nobody wants to win the championship. The Aragon round of MotoGP produced another new winner, and shook up the championship once again. The result you might have expected after qualifying never materialized. Yamahas finished top in all four free practice sessions, and there were three Yamahas in the first four slots on the grid after qualifying, Cal Crutchlow in third the only non-Yamaha on the front row.
What happened? Well, the temperature went up, and that persuaded riders to gamble on the medium front with little or no data on the tire. Racing and practice turned out to be two very different things – who would have thought? Tire wear, especially the way tires wear, became a factor. And riders who love the track found a little bit extra.
With his convincing victory, Alex Rins became the eighth winner of the season, and the eighth winner in as many races. Starting at Brno, we have had victories for Brad Binder, in Austria we had Andrea Dovizioso and Miguel Oliveira, at Misano there was Franco Morbidelli and Maverick Viñales, Fabio Quartararo in Barcelona, and then Danilo Petrucci at Le Mans.
It looked like we would have another twist in this weird and unsettling season this morning. At Turn 14, the current MotoGP championship leader's Yamaha M1 got a little squirrelly as he rode over the kerbs. A little too squirrelly, the front stepping out and then the rear gripping and flicking Fabio Quartararo up into the air, and down onto his left hip. When the Frenchman finally slid to a halt, he struggled to get up, clearly in enormous pain. He was stretchered into a waiting ambulance, and taken off to the medical center.
For a while, it looked like this could be a serious blow to Quartararo's title chances, handing the advantage to Joan Mir. But scans and X-rays revealed that the Petronas Yamaha rider had gotten off relatively lightly, with only bruising and a hematoma in his left hip. A match for the bruise to his right hip suffered in a crash on Friday morning.
Hospital to rostrum
Quartararo limped out of the medical center on crutches, and clearly had difficulty walking to his bike for the start of FP4. He took an extra lap to find his rhythm again, but was soon pounding out laps in the low 1'49s, setting pace that was second only to Maverick Viñales. Half an hour later, he fired out a blistering lap to take pole, his third of the season and ninth in MotoGP. He had gotten away with it, and come up smelling of roses.
There is a particular type of crash which happens in the wet. A rider will be heading toward a corner, and will start to brake for a corner. At the moment they start to tip the bike into the corner, the front wheel whips out from underneath them almost instantaneously, dumping them on the floor. The crash happens without warning, and without there being anything the rider can do about it. One minute you are up, the next you are on the ground.
The crash happens because on a wet track, grip is unpredictable. Tires cool, and where you thought there was traction, there was in fact none. A tire that might have been working on one side a couple of corners previously has lost so much heat due to the rain, the wind, that the grip you had previously disappears into thin air.
We saw a lot of those crashes in MotoGP FP1 this morning at Aragon, despite clear blue skies and a bone dry track. The reason? The track temperature was simply too cold, and as a result, the tires don't reach the required temperature either. The rubber which is soft and sticky when up to temperature is suddenly stiff and slick as glass, like the tires on a 1:12 Tamiya replica of a MotoGP bike. Johann Zarco and Fabio Quartararo both went down at Turn 14, a notorious point for that particular type of crash to happen.
Down in the dry
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
If 2020 has taught us anything, it is that it is pointless to try to make sense of 2020. There is neither rhyme nor reason to this year; you just have to let it wash over you like an autumnal rain shower and hope to emerge on the other side, if not unscathed, then at least in some sort of shape to continue. It is impossible to make plans, impossible to predict what might happen next.
So it is in MotoGP too. After Barcelona, we started to believe that a shape was emerging to the 2020 MotoGP championship. That favorites were emerging who would do battle over the title for the remaining six races. Naturally enough, this turned out to be naively optimistic, reckoning without the weirdness which runs like a shimmering thread through this pandemic-blighted year. We really should have known better.
Le Mans confronted us once again with the reality of 2020. A rain shower as the bikes headed out for the sighting lap threw the race into disarray, reshuffling the cards once again. Teams had to gamble on whether the rain would persist, and if so, for how long, and make choices about tires and setup. Once the race started on a very obviously wet track, the rain came and went, ending any thoughts of pitting for slicks, leaving the riders to sink or swim by their tire choice, and how well they managed to preserve their tires to the end.
Ironic. During the soaking wet first session of practice for the MotoGP class at Le Mans yesterday, there were no fallers. On Saturday morning, with the sun high in the sky – well, low in the October sky, but with nary a cloud in sight – the morning session for MotoGP turned into a crash fest, six riders going down. That was one more than in the treacherous drying conditions of FP2 on Friday afternoon. By the end of the day, three more riders had gone down, bringing the total number of crashes in MotoGP to nine, nearly twice as many as Friday.
Why so many crashes when the track condition is so good? In part because today was dry, and Q2 beckoned. The riders had one shot, and had to push. More than this, though, MotoGP is at Le Mans in October, and even on bright, sunny days, the track temperature is on the very bottom limit of the range within which the Michelin tires will operate. With a cold wind whipping out from behind the grandstands as the riders headed into the braking zone for the chicane, it was easy to get caught out by the cold left-hand side of the tires. And that meant a trip through the gravel.
"It was a very tricky day in Le Mans, like always," was the verdict of Fabio Quartararo on Friday evening, after a wet morning session and afternoon practice on a track which was rapidly drying, but never quite dry. He spoke for just about everyone, the track proving especially treacherous in the afternoon, ending FP2 almost completely dry with a few damp patches, enough to catch a few riders out, including Aprilia's Bradley Smith and Aleix Espargaro, Ducati's Andrea Dovizioso, KTM rookie Brad Binder, and the LCR Honda of Takaaki Nakagami.
Most were just harmless falls, the front washing out on a damp patch, but Bradley Smith found himself propelled into the air when the traction control on his Aprilia RS-GP couldn't react quickly enough to the rear spinning up when he hit a damp patch on track. "I was feeling alright this afternoon, the wet patches were quite scary," he said. "I felt like I was managing the situation quite good but just got caught out by that one. TC didn’t catch me in time! And down I went."