We are entering the final stretch of The Year That Went On Forever. It turns out that compressing an intense, 14-race season into the space of 19 weekends feels more like five years than five months. Speak to people inside the paddock, or even speak casually to a rider, and they will tell you how mentally draining it is. Stuck in the Covid-19 bubble, wary of venturing out for fear of becoming infected.
That was what happened to Jorge Martin and Valentino Rossi, and they paid a heavy price. Both missed two races, and it looked like Rossi would miss a third, when he tested positive for the coronavirus on Wednesday. Fortunately for him, a test on Thursday came back negative, so he is on his way to Valencia. If he has another test come back negative on Friday, he will be able to race this weekend.
You don't even have to have the virus yourself to be forced to miss races. Tony Arbolino missed Aragon after he sat too close to a person with Covid-19 on a plane back from Le Mans. And now Iker Lecuona will miss Valencia because his brother, who is also his assistant, tested positive in Andorra.
Fear and loathing
That risk leaves the MotoGP riders to live in a bubble of fear and paranoia. "This year I've been doing nothing, other than I go outside to go cycling, and that's it," Jack Miller said on Thursday. "I haven't been going out, I haven't been mixing and mingling, I go and ride my MX bike or dirt track bike or whatever, but even then, I'm trying to minimize my contact with anyone as much as possible, because unfortunately in this day and age you can never be safe."
That also means avoiding people you can't be sure haven't been as excessively cautious as you are. "Even if I know somebody's been out and about or been out shopping or been out drinking at a pub or something like that, then I try to avoid the contact as much as possible," Miller said. "Just because you never know. And unfortunately it's like getting an injury except you haven't had a crash. It can keep you out, like with Rossi it's kept him out for a long time now."
Riders are even wary of each other, Miller said "So it's something I didn't want, I think it's something I think a lot of guys have been very careful about, but also I think a lot of guys haven't been taking it as seriously as they should. Finally, our job is to come here and perform, and unfortunately that's one of the criteria of this year, being able to come here and perform. So I think the biggest thing I've had to do this year is just minimize my physical contact with people, minimize where I go, what I do. It's always at the back of your mind. For sure."
To ensure the integrity of the home stretch, MotoGP will more than ever be a closed bubble. Riders and team members have been sternly warned not to go home between races, and to stay away from situations which might jeopardize these last three races over the next eighteen days. The show must go on, and it is nearly drawing to a scintillating end.
Folly and farce
The championship was almost drawn to a premature end by Yamaha. Today, the FIM announced they would be punishing Yamaha for illegally changing the spec of the valves they used between homologating their engines before Qatar and racing for the first time in Jerez. You can find the full details here, but the upshot of it all was that the FIM Stewards decided to deduct points from Yamaha and from the teams, but not from the three riders who scored points with the illegal engines at Jerez 1 – Fabio Quartararo, Maverick Viñales, and Franco Morbidelli.
That would have left the three Yamaha riders with a much, much bigger hill to climb if they still hoped to wrest the title from Joan Mir's hands. As it is, they are still within reach of the Suzuki Ecstar rider, but as the engine lists make clear, they are fighting with one hand tied behind their backs. They have been forced to use just three (or in the case of Maverick Viñales, two) engines for the entire season. Which means less practice time, less power, and the constant uncertainty that the engine will make it to the end of a race.
There is a certain delicious irony in knowing that in attempting to - how shall I put it? - circumvent the regulations, Yamaha managed to inflict a heavy punishment upon themselves. It is not a good precedent for rules to be applied in such a way that, for example, the Yamaha riders are not disqualified from Jerez 1 for racing with an unhomologated, and therefore illegal, engine, yet Dominique Aegerter was stripped of his Moto2 win at Misano in 2017 because his team had used non-homologated oil.
Of course, the riders have no hand in preparing the bike they have underneath them, that hasn't been true for a very long time in MotoGP. Franco Morbidelli made this very clear in the press conference. "I know nothing about the engine situation. I know nothing," he said sternly. But if a rider is punished for one type of technical infringement they had nothing to do with, then shouldn't that be applied to the same extent in similar cases?
Whatever the injustice of the situation, the irony is worth savoring. It is rather amusing that Yamaha should have ended up tripping themselves up so badly over this. They tried to bend the rules, and that ended up costing them 40% of their engine allocation.
Despite the shenanigans, there is still all to race for. And if the weather is anything to go by, we are starting a week too late. Last weekend, when the FIM CEV were racing at Valencia, the weather was glorious. On Thursday, parts of the infield were flooded, and there was standing water up to the wheel arches of the rental cars in the parking lot. It was not a good time to have driven your low-slung sports car down from Andorra.
No time for setup
The weekend will start off wet, but the forecast has it drying out gradually through Sunday. That is the worst possible scenario for most in the paddock, with little or no time to find a setup that might work in the dry conditions which the race is expected to see. That should change for next weekend, but there will be an element of guesswork for this Sunday.
It will also make life difficult for American Garrett Gerloff. The GRT Yamaha WorldSBK rider has been drafted in to replace Valentino Rossi, though it now looks like Rossi won't be needing a replacement if he passes another test on Friday. Gerloff may still get some track time on a MotoGP bike on Friday, though it will then be in the streaming rain. But as he was reminded by Josh Hayes, the last time an American rider came in as a substitute rider on a Yamaha at Valencia, he ended up topping one of the sessions. Josh Hayes would remember that, because it was Josh Hayes who did that, on the Tech3 Yamaha in 2011.
With poor weather and little practice time, who starts the weekend as favorite? The Suzukis have been outstanding all year, at every circuit and in every condition, and Joan Mir is looking more formidable every weekend. His teammate Alex Rins grows stronger as well, and at a left-hand circuit, he is troubled less by his weakened right arm, as he still struggles to recover from the shoulder injury he picked up at Jerez.
Ranged against them are the Yamahas, Valencia a track they suit, and where Fabio Quartararo ended on the podium, just a second behind the now absent Marc Márquez. Under normal circumstances, Quartararo would be strongly favored, but they have their engines ranged against them. They have to spare their engines as much as possible for the remainder of the season, and so may choose to sit out much of Friday, if there is a chance that Saturday will be a little dryer. They cannot risk an engine mishap, or another failure. That would result in them starting from pit lane, and that would end any hopes that Quartararo, Maverick Viñales, or Franco Morbidelli may have of the championship.
Then, there are the Ducatis. It is ironic that such a tight and twisty track should be good for Ducati, but last year, Jack Miller and Andrea Dovizioso finished third and fourth. Even the problem with the rear Michelin tire may not be such an issue at Valencia: their biggest issue is in straight-line braking, and at Valencia, there are a lot of corners which you approach on the edge of the tire. And there's a long straight starting from a low gear, tailor made for a bike which can power out of corners.
The wildcards? The Hondas, especially of Taka Nakagami and Alex Márquez. The Márquez brothers have always been strong at Valencia, and after Alex' strong results in Aragon, he comes to Valencia full of vim and vigor. Nakagami has Aragon 2 to atone for.
Whatever happens, they get another shot at this in a week.
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