Analysis

2020 Qatar Saturday Round Up: American Poles, Dunlop's New Front, Scooter Brakes, And Where We Race Next

It has been a decade, but it is here at last. The last time a rider from the United States of America took pole position in a Grand Prix was in 2010, at Indianapolis, where Ben Spies set the fastest time in qualifying. The last time an American rider was fastest in the intermediate class was Kenny Noyes at Le Mans in 2010. 2010 was a good year for Americans in racing.

Are we likely to see a revival of Americans in Grand Prix racing? Unlikely, given that there is only one rider from the US current in the entire series. But that doesn't preclude seeing a lot of success for the US this year. Joe Roberts has found something this year. The American Racing team (owned, ironically, by someone who is not American) have taken a big step forward with the Kalex, and the bike suits Joe Roberts' riding style much better than the KTM did.

He proved that during the test here last weekend, where he was inside the top ten, and half a second behind Jorge Navarro, the quickest rider at the test. Roberts stepped it up a gear on the race weekend, being fastest on Friday, breaking the lap record at the track, and leading Marco Bezzecchi by a quarter of a second.

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2020 Qatar Friday Round Up: New World Riders, Riding At Night, And KTM Gets Faster

There is nothing like the sight of racing motorcycles entering a track for timed laps to bring a circuit alive. If yesterday, the atmosphere was best described as eerie, the baritone roar of a pack of Moto3 bikes was enough to snap the MotoGP paddock out of its malaise. We went from wandering around looking lost to watching the timing screens, and jumping out of the way of bikes as they entered the pits.

Walking up and down pit lane, and with a chance to focus on Moto2 and Moto3 exclusively, a few things catch your attention. First, the luxurious space afforded to the MotoGP teams: each MotoGP rider has a garage to call their own, giving bikes, riders, and mechanics plenty of space to move around in. The Moto2 and Moto3 riders have vastly less room, with three two-rider teams squeezed across two garages. That forces mechanics to squeeze Moto2 bikes (as wide as most MotoGP machines) in between concrete pillars and the thin partition walls used to separate the teams, and give them somewhere to display their sponsors' names.

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2020 Qatar Thursday Round Up: The Unknown Unknowns Of The New Season

Eerie. That was how a Dutch colleague described the MotoGP paddock at Qatar. Using the English word, after which we both struggled to find the right Dutch word to describe the same atmosphere. That is the joy of language, of course, that one language can have a word that perfectly encapsulates an emotion, an atmosphere, a concept, where others need half a sentence or more. In this case, English came up with the goods.

Lost. That was another word that was used. "We are all feeling a bit lost," Red Bull Tech 3 KTM team boss Hervé Poncharal said, as he stood outside the garage of his MotoGP team, where staff were busy packing bikes and equipment into flight cases and packing boxes. A couple of hundred meters further down the paddock, the Red Bull Tech3 KTM's Moto3 team were preparing for the start of the season, the riders suited up and heading to the grid for the traditional class photo, which marks the formal start of the 2020 season.

The contrast was stark, and a little confusing. MotoGP packing up, bikes and equipment stored ready for shipment to the next race, wherever that may be. Moto3 and Moto2 teams buzzing with excitement, eager to finally get down to work, go into battle after the phony war of winter testing.

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What Does The Delayed Start To The 2020 MotoGP Season Mean To The Factories?

On Sunday, at 6pm, the desert night will erupt in a cacophony of sound, as Grand Prix motorcycle racing gets underway for the start of the 2020 season. But it won't be the vicious bellow of MotoGP machines which will shatter the desert silence; instead, the more modest howl (118 dB compared to 130 dB of the MotoGP bikes) of the Triumph triple-engined Moto2 machines will scream away from the lights and around the floodlit track.

It wasn't meant to be that way, of course. The Moto2 machines were supposed to race an hour and forty minutes earlier, their original start time planned for 4:20pm local time. Now, it will be the Moto3 riders starting their race at that time, and not the 3pm slot originally scheduled. The MotoGP machines will be sitting in packing crates, waiting to be shipped to the next race.

As I write this, it is not entirely clear where that will be. It might be Austin, Texas, unless the US authorities impose further restrictions. It might be Termas De Rio Honda, in Argentina, unless the Argentinian government changes its mind about allowing entry from Italy, or Japan, or anywhere else. It might even be Jerez, if international air travel is subject to sudden and extreme restrictions.

Evolution

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How The Cancellation Of Qatar Affects MotoGP's Engine Freeze And Aerodynamics Homologation

Marc Marquez' 2020 Honda RC213V at the Sepang test, with the aero package he rejected at the Qatar test

The cancellation of the Qatar MotoGP race and the Thai round of MotoGP in Buriram throws MotoGP's regular schedule into a bit of disarray. The deadlines under which the MotoGP manufacturers were working have suddenly been opened up again. Factories without concessions – Honda, Suzuki, Yamaha, and Ducati – were due to homologate their engines this week, ahead of the first race, and all six manufacturers were due to submit their aerodynamics packages for homologation, although aerodynamics packages can vary per rider.

Similarly, teams were due to submit their gearbox ratios ahead of the first race, with a maximum of 24 different gearbox ratios and 4 different final drive ratios allowed during the season.

So now that Qatar and Thailand have been canceled or postponed, what happens next?

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2020 WorldSBK Preview: All Change In World Superbikes?

What championship is the biggest box office draw? MotoGP. What championship is the most likely to give box office drama throughout the year? In 2020 it could be WorldSBK.

It’s a far cry from recent years where we’ve traded Jonathan Rea’s domination for Alvaro Bautista’s purple patch and then seen Rea rise from the ashes. The stick to beat WorldSBK with in recent years has always been that one man has won five titles in a row and won so many races. This year that could all change.

Scott Redding comes in as the reigning British Superbike champion. There’s a level of expectation heaped on his shoulders. Honda are back as a full-factory team and they are sure to be strong over the coming seasons. When HRC race they race to win. Yamaha has a brand new bike that has found a small step forward that could leap them into regular contention. BMW is in the second year of their programme. Kawasaki showed they are still the benchmark for consistency. This year in WorldSBK all five manufacturers will feel they can be competitive. Their riders will all think that they have a chance.

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Qatar MotoGP Test Subscriber Notes: Assessing All Six Factories After Qatar

So testing is done and dusted – at Qatar, quite literally, once the wind picks up – and the pile of parts each factory brought has been sifted through, approved, or discarded. The factories are as ready as they are ever going to be for the first race in Qatar, at which point the real work starts. Testing will only tell you so much; it is only in the race that the last, most crucial bits of data are revealed: how bikes behave in the slipstream; how aggressive racing lines treat tires in comparison to fast qualifying and testing lines; whether all those fancy new holeshot devices will help anyone to get into the Turn 1 ahead of the pack. Only during the race do factories and riders find out whether the strategy they have chosen to pursue will actually work.

Fabio Quartararo at the 2020 Qatar MotoGP Test

So after three days of the Qatar test, what have we learned? In these notes:

Honda, from catastrophe to optimism courtesy of old bodywork

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Qatar MotoGP Test Sunday Round Up: Happy Yamahas, How Ducati's Squatting Device Helps, And Honda's Tribulations

The second day of the final preseason test of 2020 showed pretty much the same pattern as the first day: Maverick Viñales didn't finish the day on top of the timesheets, but the Monster Energy Yamaha rider clearly has the best pace, capable of running consistent low 1'54s, a tenth or two faster than anyone else. Fabio Quartararo posted the fastest single lap on Sunday, and he and Alex Rins were the only riders getting anywhere near to Viñales' pace.

As a benchmark, Quartararo posted 14 laps in the 1'54s, Viñales 13 laps, Rins 11 laps. Joan Mir was the only other consistent contender, with 6 laps in the 1'54s, and a solid race pace in the low 1'50s, high 1'54s. The Yamahas and Suzukis are looking very strong indeed at Qatar.

That was borne out by Maverick Viñales' media debrief. Once, those were glum affairs, in which Viñales would sullenly respond with nearly monosyllabic answers. His mood has improved since last year, especially since his results became more competitive in the second half of the season. This year, he is positively upbeat: he used the word 'happy' ten times in three-and-a-half minutes speaking to reporters. Two years ago, the only time Viñales used the word 'happy' was when he preceded it with the words 'we can't be'.

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Qatar MotoGP Test Saturday Round Up: A Fast Yamaha, Ducati's Holeshot Squatter, And Aprilia Aggro

If there is one thing that we learned from the Sepang test, it is that the field is even closer this year. In Malaysia, 18 riders finished within a second of one another. That pattern has continued at Qatar, Pol Espargaro in fourteenth just 0.987 second behind the fastest man, Alex Rins. As comparison, the KTM rider was the last rider within a second of the fastest man after the first day of this test in 2019, but then, there were just eight riders ahead of him, rather than thirteen. And there was a gap of nearly four tenths of a second between the riders in second and third last year. Not so in 2020.

But if the single lap times were close, the race pace was a lot less so. Maverick Viñales towered over the rest in terms of consistent pace, with only the Suzukis of Alex Rins and Joan Mir getting anywhere near the pace of the Monster Energy Yamaha rider. Viñales laid down a real benchmark, with ten of his 47 laps in the 1'54s, which is under the race lap record. That included a run of ten laps, seven of which were 1'54s, five of which were consecutive. That is a rather terrifying race pace for the Spaniard to lay down, just two weeks ahead of the first race.

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Qatar MotoGP Test Preview: The Last Chance To Get Things Right

From the humid heat of Malaysia to the cool desert night air, MotoGP enters the final test before the season kicks off in two weeks. The Qatar MotoGP test is something of an oddity, and hard to quantify. It comes too late to make any major changes to the bike, yet plays a crucial role in exposing vital weaknesses in the factories' MotoGP machines. It is a place where you won't see any major updates being rolled out, but it is also the test where factories are looking to catch each other out. With just two weeks to go to the start of the season, it is too late for anyone to understand and copy any brilliant new ideas before the start of the season.

The main purpose of the Qatar test is to verify engine configurations. All six factories rolled out new engines, updated over the winter break, at Sepang, but the Malaysian circuit is deceptive. Hot tropical air, a big, wide track with very few tight, low-gear corners means that it is hard to tell whether additional power has pushed the engine over the fine line between aggressive and uncontrollable.

Getting it right

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