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.
But an air of uncertainty hangs over the heads of the Moto2 and Moto3 classes as well. Yes, they are preparing for their first weekend of real racing. But when the following round will be? Nobody really knows. The current plan is to head to Texas for the US round of MotoGP at the Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas. But even that date is only written in pencil, liable to change at the whim of national governments and the advice of their health authorities.
Into the unknown
The corona virus is having a profound effect on the start of the 2020 MotoGP season. MotoGP is not racing at the Losail International Circuit because the Qatari government decided on Sunday that Italian passport holders would no longer be allowed into Qatar, unless they subjected themselves to a 14-day quarantine period on arrival. That made it impossible for the full MotoGP grid to race, with a substantial part of MotoGP team personnel either Italian, or based in Italy. With Moto2 and Moto3 already there for the test, at least there was an assurance of some action.
The situation had changed fast, IRTA CEO Mike Trimby explained to me. "The situation with Qatar changed almost by the hour over the weekend," the head of the organization representing the teams said. "First, we sent a list of people in the teams who were coming on flights from Italy, for the government to give them a waiver through with a health check. Then we had to send a list of people with Italian nationalities, to see if they would be allowed in wherever they came from. And in the end, they made a unilateral decision on Sunday morning, to ban anyone coming from Italy unless they went into quarantine for fourteen days, in which case, most of the people said, don't bother, we'll go home."
Even then, the situation for the teams was complicated. "People with Italian passports who came from other countries had a health check when they got here and were allowed in," Trimby told me. "But it was honestly, changing by the minute. And then we had a situation here where they banned guest passes from the paddock to stop any local guests from mixing with the paddock, where people might potentially be infected."
All calendars are provisional
The situation changed by the minute on Thursday as well. I spoke to Trimby around 3pm local time, and was told a press release would be coming out with a revised calendar shortly after 4pm. That revised calendar had the Aragon round pushed back a week earlier, from October 4th to September 27th, and the Thailand round in Buriram slotted in on October 4th, the date vacated by Aragon. But a few hours earlier, there were persistent and credible rumors that Aragon would be brought all the way forward to April 5th, the date of the Austin round, with the race in Texas canceled.
Before the regular Thursday press conference, Dorna CEO Carmelo Ezpeleta talked to a packed room to explain the change to the calendar, and the rationale for the calendar change. He confirmed that switching the Aragon race with Austin had been an option, but had been rejected.
During the Dorna CEO's press conference, I was stood at the back of the room, behind a family member of a rider in the Moto2 class. While Ezpeleta was explaining the decision to move Aragon to September 27th, I glanced at this person's phone, and happened to notice them booking accommodation in Alcañiz, home of the Motorland Aragon Circuit, for the weekend of April 5th. With free cancellation, of course. Just to be safe.
Wait and see
The reality is that we have no idea when the next race will be, but must proceed as if we do. For the moment, the paddock is preparing to race in Austin. MotoGP bikes and equipment are almost packed, and Moto2 and Moto3 will follow suit on Sunday night. But everything will remain at the Qatar circuit, awaiting further developments. "[The freight] will stay here until we know where it's going, which is planned to be Texas, and I'm printing freight labels for Texas," Mike Trimby told me. "But obviously, we will leave it here until the last possible moment before sending it to Texas, in case there is any change to government restrictions on people entering Texas or a change by the promoter, or in case it has to be postponed."
Did all this uncertainty make his life difficult, I asked? "That's the most stupid question I've had all day," Trimby replied, with some justification. I was, after all, about the thirtieth journalist who had come in to ask exactly the same set of questions. "Yes it makes my life extremely difficult."
The boss speaks
Precisely because there is so much uncertainty, Carmelo Ezpeleta said there was no point in trying to figure out what would happen to the championship. "The next Grand Prix is the United States, but we don’t know anything for sure, we are waiting to send all of the materials until the last moment. If the situation changes between now and that moment we will take the decision. We have a lot of possibilities and are considering everything, but the main aim of the FIM, IRTA and Dorna is to maintain the championship."
Any speculation was useless, he said. "We are asking the whole MotoGP community to not pay attention to the rumors, please, because people are very happy to start to say [a lot of things]. We are together, we are talking to all the people around the world. We will try to do the championship. The first article we have with the promoters is to respect the laws of the country. If there are laws in place we can't do anything. If the law forbids us to go somewhere we won’t continue. When the law permits it, we will think about changing in the future."
The objective of Dorna was simple: to try to complete as many of the races scheduled on the calendar as possible. "Our aim as FIM, IRTA and Dorna is to maintain the championship with the maximum number of races. Obviously, it will not be a normal championship and maybe we will change things, but we always want to maintain two things; the sporting side to be equal for everybody and secondly to try to accommodate ourselves to the situation. I will not say now if I am optimistic, but the only thing I promise to you is that we will work hard to make any solution happen which will allow us to make the 19 remaining races."
What is likely to happen? I don't think anyone really knows, even Dorna. The stressed looks on the faces of Dorna and IRTA staff betray the amount of work being done to try to plan for all possible contingencies. But which of those plans will be set in motion, and which discarded, only time will tell. The next round of MotoGP is truly the Grand Prix of Terra Incognita.
While all this was happening, and in a move apparently designed to attract the minimum attention, Jorge Lorenzo decided to announce what we had all long suspected: that he is to race as a wildcard at the Barcelona round of MotoGP (presuming that happens, which we must assume it will). He made the announcement in a Social Media video recorded at what seemed to be the busiest traffic intersection in Lugano, Switzerland, his words barely audible over the traffic noise.
Jorge Lorenzo separated from the management agency which had represented him for the past six or so years. Had he not done so, then he might have had someone to check the audio quality on his announcement, and to advise him to wait a few days to give himself a better chance of getting his announcement a little more media exposure.
Tomorrow, at least, there will be bikes on track. I, like many other MotoGP journalists, know a great deal less about the Moto2 and Moto3 classes than I do about the premier class. It will be a chance for us to learn and to focus on what would otherwise be regarded as support classes. And the action should be worth it: Qatar traditionally dishes up a thrilling Moto3 race, with the long front straight an ideal chance for slipstreaming, and the run to the line long enough that timing your jump is crucial. The Moto2 race tends to be a more spread out affair, but a solid performance in Qatar is usually a good basis to build a championship challenge on.
Who to watch out for? In Moto3, that is hard to say, given the nature of the track. At the test, a few riders like John McPhee spent a long time on old tires working on race pace, while others just chased a single fast lap on soft tires in the hope of seeing their name at the top of the timesheets. But the race will come down to whoever is clever enough to position themselves correctly through the last couple of corners, and wait until the perfect moment to whip out of the slipstream and try to pass before the line.
The winner is likely to be riding a Honda, however. "At first, I was a bit afraid, because everybody said that the KTM will be a good bike," Rivacold Snipers rider Tony Arbolino told the press conference. "But for the moment, we don't have this problem," he joked. "But I think the Honda is an amazing bike, and if you have a good bike, you can always race for the championship."
Speed Ups speed up
There is more of a mix in Moto2, however. The Speed Up bikes have made a step forward, with aerodynamics being an important improvement. "I think the biggest area was in terms of aerodynamics, because we always had a lack of top speed," Speed Up rider Jorge Navarro told the press conference. "To fight in the races is difficult when you don’t have this speed, because mainly at the beginning of the race everybody is very aggressive and when you don’t have this chance to arrive to the braking point near the rider in front of you its difficult to overtake. I think this was the weakest point last year, that I had to wait a lot to make a safe move, so I always arrived late to fight for the victory. 'Ah, with one or two laps more I could win'. I think this year with the new aerodynamics, it will be easier to overtake other riders."
Navarro, together with Fabio Di Giannantonio, phenomenal (so far) rookie Aron Canet, and returning Moto2 rider Hafizh Syahrin face an armada of Kalexes, headed by veteran Tom Lüthi, and youngsters Jorge Martin, Remy Gardner, Luca Marini, and perhaps Enea Bastianini, Xavi Vierge, and Lorenzo Baldassarri. Other riders looked quick too, including Joe Roberts, Marcel Schrotter, and Nicolo Bulega. Up until he separated his shoulder in a crash at Jerez – no fault of his own, it turns out – Sam Lowes had also regained some of the confidence he had in previous years at Gresini. But Lowes is still far from fit, despite wanting to try to ride at Qatar.
Not all Kalexes are fighting on equal footing, however. Some teams are starting the season on the 2019 chassis, rather than the 2020 frame being used by front runners like Martin and Lüthi. Remy Gardner sees little disadvantage to using the older chassis, however. "I never got to try the 2020 Kalex but the 2019 Kalex is working well for me," he said. He finished the Qatar test as third fastest overall, just over a tenth behind Jorge Navarro. "It's not working too bad!" he joked.
Day into night
The one complication for the Moto2 riders is that at the test, they were riding during the day. That, after all, was when they were due to be racing, under the new schedule that was supposed to be used when MotoGP was still going to be racing at Qatar. But with MotoGP canceled, the Moto2 class has been moved back into darkness, with much cooler track conditions. The setup work they did has mostly been for naught.
Still, at least we will have bikes on track in a few more hours. Despite all the confusion, despite the uncertainty, soon, Grand Prix racing machines will be circulating at Losail. Thanks heavens for small mercies.
If you enjoyed this article, please consider supporting MotoMatters.com. You can help by either taking out a subscription, supporting us on Patreon, by making a donation, or contributing via our GoFundMe page. You can find out more about subscribing to MotoMatters.com here.