It is hard to believe, but it is here at last. After a layoff of over four months due to the global COVID-19 pandemic, Grand Prix racing motorcycles will be back on track in just a few hours time. At first it seemed like there would be no racing at all in MotoGP, as race after race was canceled, but as the pandemic started to burn itself out in Spain and Italy, Dorna and the FIM started searching for a way ahead.
As the weeks passed, the cancellations ceased, and plans were laid for a new season. Hugely curtailed, and limited to just a handful of tracks, and with the way the series would be run radically reconfigured to make it as safe as possible. 13 races to be held over 18 weekends, teams limited to a much smaller presence, a limited number of TV crews, and journalists excluded entirely. Everything to avoid MotoGP becoming a catalyst for the further spread of the disease, and races having to be canceled once again.
So on Wednesday, bikes take the track again for a day of testing for all four classes – MotoGP, Moto2, Moto3, and MotoE – before the season kicks off in earnest again on Friday. On Sunday, we should be racing again, at last.
Unknown unknown unknowns
Naturally enough, the pandemic leaves us with a vast number of unknowns, far more than usual. Before the season even starts, we don't know how long it will last: in the most optimistic scenario, there will be races in Thailand and Sepang in late November, if the pandemic allows both intercontinental air travel and fans to attend the races. But if the disease starts to flare up again, the season could grind to an early halt.
The first five races look like a safe bet, at Jerez, Brno, and Spielberg. The back-to-back weekends at Misano look promising, though given how much has happened in the past four months, it is hard to look ahead two months into the future with much confidence. From Misano back to Spain for Barcelona in late September, then Le Mans and Aragon in October, followed by Valencia in November? I certainly wouldn't put money on them not happening, but nor would I be surprised to see the season finishing earlier. There are no certainties in the time of COVID-19.
It would take a major disaster to prevent the races happening this Sunday, at least. So the unknowns we face for the next couple of weeks will at least be of the welcome kind: who will kick the restarted season off with a win? Who will be the surprise package of 2020? How will having back-to-back races at the same circuit affect the result? Who has made the best use of the lockdown, and gained most in motivation and ambition?
The weekend kicks off with a test on Wednesday, though to call it a test is a bit of a stretch. Fitting four classes into eight and a half hours of track time is a real squeeze: MotoGP will be getting two 90-minute sessions, Moto2 and Moto3 will get two 40-minute sessions, and MotoE have three sessions of half an hour each.
The purpose of the test is not so much for factories to be trying out new parts, but rather for riders to get back up to speed again, after four months or more off a Grand Prix bike, and for the teams and factories to make sure the bikes are running properly and nothing has been forgotten.
It is also an opportunity for the teams, mechanics, engineers, and riders to get the hang of working again, this time under severely revised conditions. With the exception of KTM and Aprilia, who were able to test at Misano under the concessions system, every team on the grid has lost some of the rhythm of working together, complicated by the fact that graceful dance of mechanics working on a bike in the garage will have to be relearned, to make room for the COVID-19 protocols put in place to ensure the event can be run smoothly.
We had a bit of a preview of the disruption caused by the pandemic at the opening round of F1 at the Red Bull Ring in Austria on the first weekend of July. The first race back saw a string of retirements due to technical problems. The second race, a week later, was a lot less eventful, and saw just three drivers not complete the race, rather than the nine of the previous round.
Not really a guide
So what can we expect? Though Wednesday's test is more of a shakedown than the pursuit of bike optimization ahead of the weekend, the pace at the test will give a hint of what might follow on Sunday. Ending Wednesday on top of the timesheets is no guarantee of victory on Sunday. But the test will be a chance to get an idea of how the tires are working in the scorching conditions the riders will face at Jerez. The past couple of days have seen mechanics posting photos of track thermometers showing temperatures in the mid 60s °C. Michelin have had to bring harder compounds than originally planned to cope with the higher temps.
There will be a lot of focus on the Honda garage, given what happened at Qatar. It took Marc Márquez until the final couple of hours on the final day of the test to figure out that the aerodynamic package HRC had intended to use for the 2020 season was seriously flawed. The 2020 aero was pushing the front while leaned over, causing it to wash out. Returning to the 2019 package fixed the problem, though it also meant losing any benefits the new winglet package may have brought.
So Wednesday will be the first time the Honda riders – or at least Marc and Alex Márquez, and Cal Crutchlow – will have had to focus solely on the rest of the 2020 Honda RC213V, and prepare it for the race weekend. So far during preseason testing, the bike has looked like it has not made much progress since last year. Wednesday gives Honda a chance to catch up.
It will also be a chance for the Márquez brothers and Cal Crutchlow to put a rather tumultuous few weeks behind them. Crutchlow has had time to come to terms with the fact that HRC has chosen to drop him to make room for Alex Márquez in the LCR Honda squad, and both Alex and Marc Márquez have had time to think about Alex being demoted from the factory Repsol Honda team to open up a spot for Pol Espargaro for 2021. Having his brother, who he is very close to, replaced as a teammate by Espargaro, perhaps Márquez' strongest rival in Moto2, will not have been Marc's first choice either. But Marc Márquez is nothing if not mentally strong enough to take this sort of thing in his stride.
With Honda starting Jerez on the back foot due to the time lost during the preseason, that puts Yamaha at an advantage. Honda have won six of the last eight races at Jerez, but all four Yamaha riders have reason to be optimistic for the coming two weekends. Yamahas have won at Jerez when Honda hasn't, and the Andalusian circuit marked Fabio Quartararo's breakthrough in 2019. The Frenchman was battling for the lead when an adjuster bolt on a quickshifter snapped, putting him out of the race. This could be his chance for revenge.
Maverick Viñales will be keen to get back on the Monster Energy Yamaha as well. Viñales left the Qatar test as fastest, leading a trio of Yamahas, with Franco Morbidelli and Fabio Quartararo in second and third, and was quickest at the Jerez test last November. The Yamaha M1 has taken a big step forward in 2020, helped in no small part by Michelin's new, grippier rear tire, which gives the Yamaha that little bit more boost out of corners it was missing in 2019. Viñales has everything in place to mount a title assault in 2020: a strong bike, the right team around him, and a firm commitment from Yamaha that he is their main development focus for this year and next. Kicking off the season with a victory (or two) at Jerez would be a big step in the right direction.
Yamaha aren't the only beneficiaries of the new Michelin rear. The Suzuki has gained a bit of speed too, including improving on their single-lap pace, a weakness of the bike in 2019. Alex Rins finished second at Jerez last year, and both Suzuki riders were fast at the Qatar test, and at the Jerez test in November.
This is the year that Alex Rins will be expected by Suzuki to mount a title challenge. The Spaniard already won two races in 2019, and Suzuki will hope for more victories this year, with a bike which is a little quicker and has a bit more acceleration. Rins' weakness has been qualifying, which the new Michelin should help fix, but he has also been prone to mistakes, such as at Assen and Sachsenring last year. Being more focused will be a crucial goal if he has any hopes of fighting for the championship this year.
Rins will also face a challenge from his teammate. Joan Mir had a good start in 2019, but a massive crash at the Brno test put the Spaniard back in his development. Once he recovered his fitness at the end of the season, he was proving to be a real threat. That progress continued during preseasons testing, Mir a constant feature at the top of the timesheets. If you wanted to take a guess at one of the surprises of 2020, look no further than Mir being the dark horse in the championship this year.
Andrea Dovizioso, the man who has finished runner up to Marc Márquez for the past three seasons, arrives at Jerez surrounded by doubt. First, he is still recovering from breaking a collarbone in a motocross crash, though he has already been declared fit. Secondly, he has still not managed to agree terms with Ducati for 2021 and beyond, the Bologna factory wanting Dovizioso to take a pay cut both this year and next.
The Ducati Desmosedici GP20 is at least an improvement over last year's bike, though the enthusiasm with which it is regarded depends on who you ask. Jack Miller has raved about the bike, and how it is better everywhere compared to the GP19. Andrea Dovizioso remains skeptical, pointing to the fact that it still won't turn the way that he wants it to.
Starting at Jerez is not going to do Ducati any favors. The last time a Ducati won at the circuit was Loris Capirossi in 2006, and the Italian bikes have traditionally struggled at the Andalusian track. The problem is that the Ducati lacks both the strong corner speed of the Yamaha and Suzuki, and the extreme agility of the Honda and Suzuki. Meanwhile, there are only really two places where the Ducati can use its strength on the brakes, and the short back straight doesn't give the Desmosedici a chance to stretch its legs and make use of its surfeit of horsepower. Jerez will be damage control for Dovizioso, from multiple points of view.
Jerez will be a test for rising star Jack Miller. The Australian has been confirmed as moving up to the factory squad for 2021, and is starting to gain momentum. He had learned valuable lessons through the 2019 season, and has gained the maturity that was missing in earlier years. Miller is going to be a serious threat in 2020, and a mouth-watering prospect for 2021.
And then there were six
But perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the 2020 MotoGP season is the progress made by the series' two currently weakest factories. Both KTM and Aprilia have made big strides over the winter break, KTM bringing a new chassis which seems to fix most of their woes, while Aprilia have a completely new bike which looks like being competitive right out of the box. If, and it's a big if, it can hold together and not blow up.
KTM is reaping the benefits of hiring Dani Pedrosa as test rider. The Spaniard is proving brilliant at doing the hard work of identifying packages of parts which work correctly together, offering a huge short cut to improvement for the factory riders. The new chassis is testament to that, Pol Espargaro and even rookie Brad Binder appearing in the middle of the fast group at the Sepang and Qatar tests. Espargaro has been a massive help in getting Binder up to speed, and looks like being very competitive in 2020, after carrying the MotoGP on his shoulders through a disruptive 2019 season.
Espargaro should also get help from Miguel Oliveira. The Portuguese rider has had plenty of time to fully recover from the shoulder surgery he had over the winter – as has Marc Márquez and Takaaki Nakagami, it should be pointed out – and in his second year on the bike, he should be able to provide some real input into the KTM's development process. In 2020, the Red Bull Tech3 satellite team will have the same equipment as the factory team, if a little less support, and that should help both teams improve. It also offers Oliveira a chance to prove that he deserves the chance he has been given in the factory team next year.
Aprilia is perhaps the most interesting prospect overall, their new RS-GP proving to be a sensational upgrade over the previous version of the bike. The all-new 90° V4 does everything better and faster, though it had reliability problems during the first two tests at Sepang and Qatar. That is to be expected, given how new the bike was, and Aprilia asked for, and were given, permission to continue development of the engine in the first couple of months of lockdown. Since then, the RS-GP motor has spent a lot of time on the dyno, making sure it will stay in one piece.
That will give Aleix Espargaro a chance to prove his mettle. The Spaniard had given serious consideration to retirement though the middle of 2019, as bike development seemed to stagnate while technical boss Romano Albesiano worked on the 2020 machine. But he has been revitalized by the arrival of the new machine, and has found new motivation.
On the other side of the garage, Bradley Smith returns from his role as test rider to take on the challenge of returning to racing again, taking the place of Andrea Iannone while the Italian awaits the verdict of the CAS on his doping ban. Smith has been an invaluable part of the testing program, but has missed the ability to push on for a quick lap in qualifying mode. He is about to embark on a crash reminder course: two races in two weeks should see him get much closer to the pace. But he will need to make a much bigger step if he is to have a shot at keeping the seat for 2021, in face of stiff competition from Cal Crutchlow. The seat isn't Crutchlow's yet, but right now, it looks like betting against him getting the ride would be foolish.
All this is in the future, of course. First, in a few hours time, bikes hit the track again. It has been a long, seemingly endless wait for bike fans, with nothing but reruns and eSports to fill the gaping void. From Wednesday, the real thing returns.
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