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.
All because of a few strands of highly volatile RNA. COVID-19, more commonly known as the corona virus, has disrupted life in ways society had almost forgotten about, as health authorities around the world try to contain the virus from becoming a true pandemic, and establishing itself as a permanent fixture in the zoo of human disease alongside influenza and the common cold, those other two corona viruses already infecting humanity.
That strategy of containment, of trying to prevent it becoming a pandemic, is very much the problem. To try to slow the spread of the disease, travel restrictions are being put in place, and large-scale events are being canceled. The objective is to limit the spread of the disease, by restricting people from traveling from areas where the disease is prevalent, and preventing large groups from gathering in those areas.
Of course, if those attempts to prevent the spread of the virus fail, then other measures will be needed. What those measures might be, and how they could affect global society, let alone MotoGP, is completely unpredictable at this point in time. Given that it took just two days for the Qatar MotoGP round to go from going ahead as scheduled to being Moto2 and Moto3 only – and the races for two support classes are only happening because the riders, teams, and bikes were already there for the test which happened last weekend – it is nigh-on impossible to make long-term predictions for how the rest of the season might play out. "There will absolutely be a 2020 MotoGP season," Dorna CEO Carmelo Ezpeleta promised on Monday. As to Exactly what shape that season will take, it is still probably too early to say.
So what effect will the disrupted start of the 2020 season have on MotoGP? There are a lot of ways the series will be affected. Mentally, physically, emotionally, leaving aside financially for the moment. Riders who were primed after a strong test at Qatar will be frustrated at being thwarted. Riders (and factories) who were concerned about the start of the season will be relieved. Riders recovering from injury or surgery will have a few more weeks to prepare. Andrea Iannone, who was waiting for the outcome of his appeal against a ban for doping, will be hoping to get clarity before the season starts, and perhaps even participate in the first race, when it happens.
But for most, the overriding feeling will be one of frustration. They have all spent all winter working toward being as fit and ready as possible on March 8th, to give themselves the best chance to start the season strongly. They are full of pent-up energy and tension, and no way of releasing it, walking time bombs ready to blow.
One foot on the podium
The frustration will be greater for some than for others. Maverick Viñales, for example, spent all winter preparing meticulously for the 2020 season. He had his new crew in place at the beginning of last year, and by the end, they were working as a truly well-oiled machine. The Yamaha M1 has improved strongly since the beginning of last year, and the 2020 Factory-Spec machine Viñales has been testing has shown a lot of promise. Yamahas were fastest at Sepang and Qatar, and Viñales' long-run pace was devastating at both tests.
Viñales was ready to go racing, and compete for the win at Qatar. He and his crew had had a chance to get the bike nicely dialed in for the Losail Circuit, and Yamaha had even brought a new holeshot device to help the Yamaha riders with their starts.
Although not all of that work will be lost, an enforced layoff of an extra month leaves Viñales kicking his heels. He can at least spend more time honing his starts and his early laps on track, if he chooses to extend his winter stay in Qatar, albeit with an R1 rather than an M1. But if there was one rider chomping at the bit after the Qatar test, it was surely Maverick Viñales.
A different scenario
When they do return to racing, MotoGP will be at either Austin or Termas De Rio Hondo. Both of those might well suit the Yamaha, and Viñales. At Austin last year, Viñales had outstanding pace, though he ruined his race by getting a jump start, and having to serve a ride through penalty (and due to the confusion caused by the debate after Cal Crutchlow's jump start at the previous race in Argentina, an unnecessary long-lap penalty as well). Despite that, he was lapping as fast as winner Alex Rins and runner up Valentino Rossi.
In Argentina last year, Viñales suffered all the issues which plagued him for the first half of 2019. A poor start, then a lack of grip when conditions changed due to the heat and the Moto2 rubber on the track. Compared to racing in Qatar, where Viñales clearly has everything under control, Termas De Rio Honda holds a lot of unknowns for Viñales. Will he improve his qualifying and his starts? Will the work he has done over the winter, riding in the worst of conditions, in the heat of the day, when grip at both Sepang and Qatar was at its lowest, pay off in terms of results?
First chance lost?
For Fabio Quartararo, the loss of Thailand will surely weigh heavier. Last year, the Petronas Yamaha rider took the fight with Marc Márquez all the way to the line, the reigning champion outfoxing the then rookie on the final lap. With a better bike, and the experience gained over the last few races, Quartararo would surely have fancied his chances of coming out on top this time. Yamaha have found enough top speed for the Frenchman to at least prevent the Honda from toying with him.
Quartararo would have been a favorite at Qatar as well. He finished fastest on the second day of the test, and his race run – full race distance – matched the long run of Viñales. The Frenchman was very close to his first win in MotoGP a couple of times in 2019, and the first two races in 2020 looked like being his chance to finally get that elusive victory. Even last year, in his first ever MotoGP race, he managed to set the fastest race lap, after being forced to start from pit lane when he stalled his bike on the grid. If he was that fast as rookie, imagine what a year's experience would do.
Neither Austin nor Argentina were particularly favorable for Quartararo, the Petronas Yamaha rider reverting to the kind of results more typical for a rookie at both race tracks. But that was almost certainly down to a lack of experience at the tracks with a MotoGP bike. He may yet expect better results when the season finally kicks off.
Time waits for no one
For Valentino Rossi, the loss of a race may prove to be a boon. The Italian was strong but not exceptional at the Qatar test, but the Yamaha was clearly showing potential. He was strong in Qatar last year, crossing the line just six tenths of a second behind the eventual winner Andrea Dovizioso. Unfortunately for the Italian, the season opener last year was such a tight battle that there were three other riders between him and the winner, putting him fifth.
The postponement of Thailand puts Rossi potentially starting the season at the two tracks he scored a podium in 2019. In Argentina, he won a duel with Andrea Dovizioso to finish second behind a distant Marc Márquez. And in Austin, he eventually lost out to Alex Rins to take another second place. These are tracks where Rossi could shine.
The loss of Qatar and delay to the start of the season also means that is one less race for Rossi to have to compete in. The Italian is now 41 years old, and by his own admission, the additional effort to keep himself in peak fitness is much more demanding than it was ten years ago. Losing one or more races may be a little easier on the body for Rossi, and may even end up having an influence on his decision on whether to retire at the end of the season, or continue. It will delay his decision for a while, though; expect Rossi to take the summer break to take a long, hard look at his results, his fitness, and his enjoyment levels, and decide his future.
Ready when you are
If it is hard to see how Yamaha can meet the cancellation of Qatar and postponement of Thailand with anything other than frustration, you might expect Suzuki to treat it all with a great deal more equanimity. Not because Suzuki couldn't hope to get a win or podium in the first race – both Alex Rins and Joan Mir were exceptionally strong at both the Sepang and Qatar tests, the pair topping the first day of the Qatar test and both riders posting very quick long runs – but because it looks like Suzuki are going to be quick everywhere.
Last year, Alex Rins finished fifth in Argentina after a race-long battle in the front group, then went on to win the next race in Austin. Joan Mir's pace in Austin was outstanding in just his third race, though the rookie was penalized for the minutest of false starts, just as Cal Crutchlow had been the race before in Argentina."The pace was really good," Mir said after the race in Austin. "When I see my pace it makes me more angry."
The Suzuki looks stronger than it did last year: a bit more top speed, but more importantly, more easily capable of setting a single fast lap, helped, no doubt, by the new construction Michelin tires. Alex Rins is fast, and is starting to be worried by the pace of teammate Joan Mir. There is a proper rivalry between the two developing, which is also pushing the pair to be quicker. The 2020 season appears to hold no fear for Suzuki. Wherever it starts, they will compete from the beginning.
A chance lost?
Whether Ducati, and more particularly, Andrea Dovizioso, feel the same way about the cancellation of Qatar is open to question. Dovizioso has won the opening race here for the past two years running, and was only beaten into second in 2017 by the ferocious pace of Maverick Viñales in his first race on the Yamaha. This is a track where the Ducati is quick, good enough to get around the corners without losing too much ground, giving them a chance to unleash the fearsome Ducati horsepower down Qatar's kilometer-plus-long straight. In the past few years, who came out of the last corner in the lead was irrelevant. By the end of it, a Ducati would be in front.
In 2020, Ducati appear to have stepped it up another notch. Jack Miller was clocked at 355.2 km/h through the speed traps at Qatar, the highest top speed ever recorded at the track. Even Danilo Petrucci, whose stocky frame makes for far from perfect aerodynamics, hit 352.9 km/h along the front straight. The bike is plenty fast enough. Though the concern is that Yamaha and Suzuki, especially, have made a step closer to the Ducati, and though not capable of matching the speed of the GP20, they can now at least stay in the slipstream.
Qatar has been the foundation on which Andrea Dovizioso's title challenge has been built in recent years. Taking a lead from the first race means putting pressure on Marc Márquez from the start. Through a series of events, Dovizioso has not been able to capitalize on that lead, but it always started his championship off on the right foot.
If the series is to start in either Austin or Argentina, Dovizioso faces a tough challenge. Argentina has not been a bad track for Ducati, despite the flowing nature of the circuit, but Austin has been one of the worst tracks for the Italian factory. The long section of one corner leading into the other from Turn 2 onward, all the way to Turn 10, has been the Desmosedici's kryptonite.
Despite that, Dovizioso finished the Austin race in fourth place last year, with Jack Miller on the Pramac Ducati ahead of him. But they were nine seconds behind the winner, Alex Rins, and would have been much, much further behind Marc Márquez if the Spaniard hadn't fallen off while leading by over four seconds.
So what about Honda? Delaying the start of the season is a godsend for Marc Márquez, and for Takaaki Nakagami and Miguel Oliveira as well, giving them more time to recover from the shoulder surgery all three had over the winter. But of course, as Márquez is the defending champion, his recovery is likely to play a more key role in the 2020 championship.
At Sepang, Márquez was complaining of weakness in his shoulder, but at Qatar two weeks later, he had gained some strength, and had less pain. The real problem, however, was the bike: the aerodynamic package which Honda had brought for the RC213V was forcing the front wide, and causing him to crash. Márquez first put it down to weakness in his shoulder, but a frantic few hours of experimentation on the last day of the test nailed down the cause as the new aero.
Delaying the start of the season for at least a month gives HRC time to go back and try to retrace their steps again. They will have more time to take another look at their engine, and a long, hard look at their aerodynamic package, to try to understand where they went wrong. Speaking to Hungarian journalist Niki Kovács, HRC Technical Director Takeo Yokoyama confirmed that Honda would continue to work on their engine in the breathing space afforded them by the postponement.
But Yokoyama clearly had some confidence too. He told Kovács that Honda was disappointed that the first race had been canceled, as they knew that everyone was expecting them to struggle in Qatar, historically a difficult track for them. Honda had been hoping to surprise everyone with a strong race, Yokoyama told Kovács.
Continuing to develop engines and aerodynamics remains a risk, of course. With no more testing for their full-time MotoGP riders, HRC will have to rely on engineering data and on test rider Stefan Bradl. Small steps are possible, big changes are a big risk.
More strength needed
Marc Márquez will be less unhappy about the cancellation of Qatar, and not just because it gives him an extra month to work on the recovery of his shoulder. It would also mean that the first race would be at either Austin or Argentina. At Austin, Marc Márquez had an unbeaten winning streak up until he crashed out last year, and even then, he crashed while several seconds clear. A week earlier, Márquez had won the race in Argentina by nearly ten seconds. And he went on to win the Jerez race quite comfortable three weeks after that.
Of course, starting the season in Austin would be much tougher for Marc's teammate and younger brother Alex. The first race in MotoGP is always much tougher than you might expect, but Austin is a punishing track in all classes, let alone in MotoGP. To start your MotoGP career at the most physically demanding circuit on the calendar would truly mean being thrown in at the deep end.
The delay will certainly come as a blessing for Aprilia, though not for Aleix Espargaro, who flew to Qatar early only to find that the MotoGP race had been canceled. The 2020 RS-GP is clearly a big step forward, but reliability is a concern, unsurprising given that the engine was designed from the ground up less than a year ago, and first saw track action at the Sepang test at the beginning of February. Another month of development time, of time on the dyno running simulations based on track data, will be like manna from heaven for Aprilia.
The postponement of the first two races will also be welcomed by Andrea Iannone. With a decision from the CDI, the FIM disciplinary court, on his suspension for doping due imminently, it would give him time to either launch an appeal to the CAS, the Court of Arbitration for Sport, if the ban is upheld, or prepare for the first race of the year if the ban is overturned. Iannone recently submitted another 100 pages of evidence to the CDI, in an attempt to persuade them his ingestion of drostanolone was accidental. The postponement of the opening races buys Iannone more time for the court to examine those documents.
Ready to race
What of KTM? The Austrian factory is still in the middle of its development program, but at this point, data from racing is more useful than data from testing. The bike was fast at both Sepang and Qatar, and rookie Brad Binder impressed with a quick time at the Qatar test. They are ready to go racing, but as a factory with concessions, could equally well use the time to continue testing, or just rely on Dani Pedrosa to push the project forward.
Like Alex Márquez, the biggest challenge facing KTM is the fact that they have two rookies on their books, in Brad Binder and Iker Lecuona, and the first race could end up being at the Circuit of the Americas. The good thing is that the 2020 KTM RC16, and especially the new chassis, takes less effort to turn than last year's bike. But at a circuit like Austin, that will only go so far towards helping.
If there is a big winner from the cancellation of the MotoGP race at Qatar, it is the young talent hoping to move up to the premier class in 2021. With no MotoGP class racing at Losail, MotoGP team bosses, managers, and rider coaches will have time to focus closely on the riders in Moto2. Without the distraction of their own teams, they will have a chance to try to assess just how the talent in Moto2 stacks up.
For riders like Jorge Martin, Jorge Navarro, Remy Gardner, Luca Marini, Enea Bastianini, Xavi Vierge, Augusto Fernandez, and Lorenzo Baldassarri, this is their chance to shine. A solid weekend at Qatar followed by an outstanding race could move them up a rung or two in the pecking order for any seats which may become free in MotoGP. Even Aron Canet, who has had a truly exceptional preseason ahead of his rookie year in Moto2, could catch the eye of a team, or even a factory. The cancellation of Qatar could give a big career boost to at least one Moto2 rider this weekend.
As of this writing, the MotoGP world has been put on hold. Unsurprising, given that the spread of the corona virus has put pretty much the whole world on hold. At some point, the whole circus will get underway again. When that is, is pretty much anyone's guess. One thing is for sure: for the MotoGP riders, for the teams, and for the fans. It can't come soon enough.
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