Analysis

Le Mans MotoGP Subscriber Notes: Fickle Weather, A Wild 2020, Starting With No Electronics, A Popular Winner, And 2020's Mr Consistency

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.

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Le Mans MotoGP Saturday Round Up: Pole vs Pace, Tires vs The Weather, VR46 vs Avintia, And 2022 Satellite Rides

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.

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Le Mans MotoGP Friday Round Up: Mixed Conditions, Miller's Marquez-esque Trick, Risk And Reward, And KTM's Holeshot

"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."

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Le Mans MotoGP Preview: High Grip, Wet Weather, And A Wide Open Field

And so we enter the final stretch of the 2020 MotoGP season – and the fact that six Yamaha engineers are stuck in Andorra due to one of them contracting Covid-19 is a reminder that the end of the 2020 season might come sooner than expected. MotoGP heads to Le Mans, for the French Grand Prix, not in May, when the series usually heads there. That means cooler temperatures, not just in terms of air temperatures, but in solar intensity as well. Le Mans in early October gets 4 hours less sunshine than in mid May, and with the sun much lower in the sky, it doesn't heat the asphalt as much even when it is hidden by curtains of cloud, or drenched in rain.

But Le Mans has some saving graces. Firstly, the weather in October is pretty much as you might expect, something which proved problematic in Barcelona, where temperatures were about 10°C colder than expected. That means that the selection of compounds Michelin has brought to Le Mans are much more capable of dealing with the conditions likely to prevail. That, in turn, should mean that teams and riders have a wider choice of tires during the weekend, and aren't just stuck with the softest compounds available.

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Barcelona Moto2 & Moto3 Review: Marini's Revenge, Speed Up Speeds Up, Baldassari's Blues, And Binder's Blinder

Anger Drives Luca On

Nothing fires a rider's motivation quite like feeling slighted. As mentioned in this column a week ago, Moto2 championship leader Luca Marini fully expected to be up front and fighting at the Emilia-Romagna Grand Prix. Losing out in fights with Enea Bastianini and Sam Lowes clearly stung as he suffered the indignity of finishing fourth.

He arrived in Barcelona intent on proving a point. Fast through free practice, fastest in qualifying, the 23-year old Italian could have easily settled for second once Sam Lowes – the only rider capable of matching him over race distance – edged ahead on lap 16. But he later revealed that it wouldn't have sat right internally had he not responded.

“When I saw on the board ‘8 laps (to go)', the rear dropped a lot,” Marini explained, displaying all of the in-race intelligence that he shows off the bike. “Sam overtook me. He was really fast but pushing the rear tyre. I was hoping he would have a drop also, bigger than me. I tried to stay behind him, put pressure and in last 3 laps he started doing some mistakes.”

“Starting on Friday the feeling was great. We made the correct changes on the bike for here. The race was nice. With this low temperature it was easy to push every lap. We worked a lot on the engine brake to try and save the tyre, because I knew it was important.

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Barcelona MotoGP Subscriber Notes: A Champion Arises, A New Mr Consistency, Yamaha Speed, And Maverick's Misery

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.

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Barcelona MotoGP Saturday Round Up: Start Fast Or End Fast - Preparing For A War Of Attrition

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."

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Barcelona MotoGP Friday Round Up: Low Grip, Heavy Winds, Meaningless Times, And Coronavirus Concerns

"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

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Barcelona MotoGP Thursday Round Up: Injury Surprises, A Missing Announcement, And Managing Tires For Success

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."

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Emilia-Romagna Moto2 & Moto3 Review - Neil Morrison On A Dunlop Tyre Gamble, Dixon In Form, Fenati's Redemption, And Moto3 Penalties

Bestia’s Bullet

As a tyre manufacturer that supplies rubber for a Grand Prix category, one of the main priorities entering a race weekend is avoid any possibility of leaving with egg on your face. While producing excellent tyres that work in a variety of conditions and temperatures, Dunlop, the supplier of Moto2 and Moto3 rubber, is known to err on the side of caution, making sure the tyres in its allocation (both softer and harder options) can do a full race distance without any issues.

At the San Marino Grand Prix, all 29 Moto2 riders chose Dunlop’s softer option for the race. Asked if he was confident it would go race distance without any drop off, Gary Purdy joked, “It could do two race distances!” Therefore, the English factory decided to introduce a softer rear compound for the following week’s race at the Emilia-Romagna GP.

Rather than knowing the tyre choice from Friday morning, riders were tasked with assessing two compounds (one was the race tyre from the San Marino GP, then a softer compound still) for suitability over 27 laps. There was a real variety in tyre strategy in qualifying. “It’s fantastic,” Purdy said. “Teams are coming to me and asking what they should do (on race day). These back-to-back races have given us a great opportunity to mix it up a bit.”

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