It is Groundhog day one last time. The last of the back-to-back races at the same tracks beckons, the riders returning to the scene of last week's triumphs and tragedies. Will we see a repeat of last week? Will there be another Suzuki Ecstar 1-2? Will the KTMs be at the front again? Will Ducati have another worrying weekend? Does Yamaha face disaster again?
The weekend certainly kicked off with a repeat performance of Valentino Rossi's Covid-19 saga. Last Thursday, news started to leak that Valentino Rossi had failed a Covid-19 test, and would not be able to travel to Valencia for the European round of MotoGP. In the end, he had two positive tests 24 hours apart and missed only the Friday sessions, taking to the track on Saturday morning for FP3. That gave American rider Garrett Gerloff his time in the sun, or rather, the rain, the spray, and the sun, the weather wreaking havoc last weekend.
This morning, news from Valencia indicated that Rossi had once again tested positive for Covid-19. That turned out to be a false alarm – residual levels of the coronavirus were detected in the test, a hangover from the Covid-19 infection which had forced him to miss the two Aragon rounds. Doctors recommended that he take two more tests just to be sure, and when both those came back negative, he was given the all clear to ride. This weekend, he will be on track from Friday, not Saturday. With stable weather conditions forecast for the weekend, that should give him a better chance of being competitive. If his fuel pump doesn't fail, at least.
The whole experience of catching Covid-19 had been nerve-wracking, Rossi said once he was safely back in the paddock. "In reality I was not another time positive, but in the Tuesday test had something not clear. But the doctors say to me that this happens a lot of times, especially to people that had the Covid like me. But I was very, very worried because, ****, it's one month yes-no, yes-no. It's a long nightmare. So I'm tired. It's normal. But the doctors said don't worry, it sometimes happens, we will do Wednesday and Thursday and I promise you will be negative. And in fact it's like this. So I'm happy, I'm here and this is good because I can do a normal weekend working from Thursday and riding from Friday."
Wild news week
Rossi's (barely) positive Covid-19 test came on top of one of the biggest weeks of news in many years. Between Monday and Thursday, we have had the official announcement by Andrea Dovizioso that he will be taking a sabbatical in 2021, Andrea Iannone being handed a four-year suspension for doping, running through December 2023, Cal Crutchlow closing in on a test rider role with Yamaha, displacing Jorge Lorenzo, and this morning, more details on the lingering problems for Marc Márquez.
To an extent, all of those pieces of news are intertwined and interdependent. Andrea Dovizioso had been first choice for most factories in a test rider role, having talked to Honda, Yamaha, and Aprilia. Cal Crutchlow has been angling for the Yamaha test rider role, the Englishman content to retire from full-time racing and spend more time watching his daughter grow up. Iannone's suspension left a void to be filled at Aprilia, the Italian factory now no longer needing to keep the seat open for Iannone, and having spoken to both Dovizioso and Crutchlow. And Marc Márquez' lingering injury had been a factor in Andrea Dovizioso's decision, with the possibility of substituting for the Repsol Honda rider if he is not fit enough to ride at the start of next year.
So perhaps that is where we should start. For a couple of months now, there have been murmurs out of the Honda camp that Marc Márquez' injury was taking a very long time to heal. Márquez has been having a scan on his arm every week to see how the humerus he fractured at Jerez, then refractured a couple of weeks later while opening a heavy glass door, has been healing. Each time those scans have been reviewed, by Márquez' team and his medical experts, they have given cause for concern.
Márquez' humerus situation
The issue, as explained by Simon Patterson in a report on website The Race today, is that Márquez is suffering a non-union fracture. In short, this is a broken bone which does not knit together normally. This is not uncommon, especially in a situation like Márquez, where he broke the bone, had it quickly plated, then attempted to return to racing shortly afterward. That ended up with plate coming loose and the reigning world champion requiring a second surgery to insert a new titanium plate. All those plates required screws to be inserted, weakening the bone.
But this has not been sufficient: the bone has been very, very slow to heal, and it appears that Márquez could be considering further surgery to speed his recovery. That would involve inserting bone marrow taken from his pelvis into his damaged humerus to promote bone growth and speed up healing.
Whether Márquez has another operation or not, it is still far from certain that he will be fit in time for the Sepang test, scheduled (very provisionally, due to the coronavirus) for February 19th-21st. There is also a very realistic chance he will not be ready for the first race of 2021 at Qatar, on March 28th. A potential delay to the start of the season might give him some extra time to recover and be fit. But as of this moment, we can say very little about when he might return to racing. The injury does not appear to be a threat to his career in the long term. But there is no certainty over when he will be ready to return.
What effect this is having on the relationship between Marc Márquez, his manager Emilio Alzamora, and HRC is open to question. Tensions are likely to be rising. Though most MotoGP contracts have clauses which stop payment to riders if they miss a set number of races due to injury, Márquez' absence is still costing Honda money, especially in terms of the lost marketing potential of the wins and podiums they have come to expect from Márquez. Meanwhile, the information coming out of the Márquez camp has been underwhelming, leaving HRC with the feeling of being in the dark. Fissures are starting to open in the relationship, which may have consequences in the longer term.
Márquez' potential absence opens up opportunities. Andrea Dovizioso had been talking to Honda about a role as a test rider and potential replacement rider for some time, he told on Thursday. "We discussed this already one month ago, and like some other proposals, for every proposal there was a different reason why it didn't happen," Dovizioso explained. But his reason for taking a role as test rider was to keep open a path to a full-time return to MotoGP in 2022. "In any case, I am really happy to feel the support and everybody tried to take me on board to be a test rider. But at the end, to be a test rider and don't have a door open to race for 2022, for me that was too important. So that's why we decide to don't sign and be free. In motorsport everything can happen, but we will see for 2021, but especially to work for 2022."
Dovizioso wasn't closing the door entirely on the prospect of substituting for Marc Márquez should the Spaniard not be ready for the start of the season, however. "What is going on with Marc, I think nobody really knows the details, first, and also I don't," the Italian said. "Second, I don't think they will take a decision now for next year. Third, I'm free. So we will see. This is motorsport. I'm free, but it doesn't mean I will go if they call me. I will think about it. So it depends what they propose to me – I am speaking about everybody – and I will decide."
What does Dovizioso's future hold for him? He has a project with a big sponsor which he remained vague about, and apart from that, he would be racing motocross at the regional level, just for fun. The racing wasn't even the most important part of it, he explained. The primary objective is to use motocross as a training tool to keep fit and prepare for a possible return to MotoGP in 2022.
"Apart from the Italian championship there are four categories, so if I will feel good, I will do some races in the Italian championship, but next year – everything I'm doing in a professional way, but that will be to spend time with my friends and having fun," Dovizioso said. "It's not about going there and winning a title. I will go there with the support, because I'm lucky, I will have that chance. But the mentality about that is completely different. The training, the way I will train and enjoy, it will be in a professional way because I LIKE to do that, not because I HAVE to do that. But the races are just to enjoy."
The other option on offer for Dovizioso was to take over the seat vacated by Andrea Iannone at Aprilia. In a surprise comment, he mentioned that he had been offered the seat by Aprilia well before Iannone's appeal had been heard by the CAS. "I was really happy to have the push of Aprilia to do that, already we spoke in the past about that. It wasn't really true that Aprilia were waiting for Iannone, this wasn't the truth but this is normal."
Been there, done that
The reason Dovizioso had turned the Aprilia offer down was because he had already been in that position once. "I don't think in this moment that this is the situation that I need for my career," Dovizioso explained. "I think they are doing a really good job, because the budget they have is not big like Honda or Yamaha or Ducati. So they are doing a really good job, but the level of MotoGP is so high, and that is very very difficult. I already lived through this situation with Ducati at the beginning of our relationship, and MotoGP is difficult. And just when you are inside of that, you can understand all of those details, and how tough it is. So they are doing a really great job, but in this moment it's not what I need, and the reason why I took that decision."
How wise is Dovizioso's plan? It seems like a big risk to take. Getting into MotoGP is tough, coming back into it after a year off seems like a huge ask. Especially when he would be 36 years old at the start of the 2022 season. There are a lot of youngsters stepping up from Moto2 next year, and another cohort waiting in the wings for 2022. MotoGP manufacturers may prefer the promise of youth over experience.
That was something Dovizioso acknowledged. "The young guys are coming, they are very strong, and the tire change this season didn't help us," the Italian said. "But in the end, in any case the level is so high in MotoGP, everybody is so fast and so tight, so it becomes very difficult, every year more difficult. So it's not easy, but you know I want to see for 2022 what's going on. Because still there are a lot of places are not clear. So we will see if there will be a chance and if it will be interesting for me."
A better life
Cal Crutchlow is another rider who won't be taking the Aprilia seat, the Englishman looking forward to stepping back from the pressures of full-time racing. Instead, his focus is on the Yamaha test role vacated by Jorge Lorenzo. "The truth is that I’m in quite advanced discussions with Yamaha and I think in the very near future we will come to an agreement we are both happy with," Crutchlow said. "It is a project I would be very interested to do and it would suit me very well after this season with regards to my knowledge of MotoGP and my years in MotoGP and my speed. I think it would be something that would work well."
Crutchlow admitted to having mixed feelings about switching from racing to testing. "I feel happy and sad, of course. At the end of the day I’m a racer at heart. I came here to compete and so the best job that I can. I always believed I could do well. But more times than not – as you know – you don’t succeed in this sport. If success is winning then more often than not, 90% of the riders, don’t succeed at winning all the time."
Despite not winning as much as he may have dreamed of through the years, he was satisfied with his career. "I’ve had a great ten years in MotoGP, a great career and I have well exceeded my own expectations of what I can achieve in MotoGP and I’m very happy for that. I’m made a great life for me and my family. It’s sad I won’t potentially compete in MotoGP as a full time rider, but on the other hand I’m happy with what I have been able to do so far. That’s it. If I do something else then I’ll channel my energy into that thing. It’s as simple as that."
The youth vote
Who would take the other seat at Aprilia? "At this point there are not that many strong riders with experience in MotoGP," said Aleix Espargaro, the one rider signed for 2021 with the Noale factory. "So the best thing is to take a young rider. You see how fast is Mir and Quartararo. Look at their level after just one year, one year in a half. My opinion is that it would be good to have a young teammate."
Aprilia are said to be considering young riders like Marco Bezzecchi or Fabio Di Giannantonio. Espargaro looked upon them favorably. "They are very fast riders," he said. "I like a lot Bezzecchi.. also Di Giannantonio is very fast. Bezzecchi can be the World Champion this year in Moto2 and he doesn’t have a contract to be in MotoGP next year. They are Italians and this could be important for Aprilia."
One alternative currently doing the rounds is that Aprilia might look to the WorldSBK paddock for a replacement rider. Chaz Davies is currently without a ride for 2021, as is Loriz Baz. Both riders have experience in MotoGP, and Baz raced with the Michelin tires. But that seems something of a long shot at the moment.
Rules are rules
The reason there is a seat open at Aprilia, of course, is because Andrea Iannone has had his eighteen month suspension extended to four years. Both Iannone and the WADA, the World Anti-Doping Agency, appealed that sentence, Iannone for it being too harsh, WADA because the WADA doping code, which the FIM is signed up to, had a mandatory four-year suspension for failing a drug test for a non-specified substance like Drostanolone.
Rather predictably, WADA won. Athletes are responsible for everything that goes into their bodies, and only if they can prove that the substance they tested positive for got their unintentionally are they likely to escape a suspension. Iannone's lawyers and experts failed to present a convincing case, starting with the fact that he had been unable to specify what meat he had eaten that might have been contaminated, nor that meat contamination with Drostanolone was widespread in Southeast Asia.
You may find the WADA rules onerous. They are indeed exceptionally harsh. But as with almost every major international sport, the FIM has signed up to the WADA code, and accepted all of the doping rules that brings with it. There are arguments to be made that the benefits of doping are limited in motorcycle racing in comparison to sports like cycling or athletics. But sports have to accept the WADA code as a whole; they cannot get to pick and choose.
Given this, it was surprising how lenient most MotoGP riders were. "I’m very upset," Iannone's erstwhile teammate Aleix Espargaro said. "Especially from the personal side. Just he knows if he did a mistake or it was contamination. In the end 4 years is ridiculous. 1 year or 18 months is more than enough. But 4 years is an abuse and completely too much for me. But WADA has decided this so it’s nothing to decide any more."
Danilo Petrucci, who had worked with Iannone at Ducati, had some sympathy for his countryman. "I feel very very sorry for Iannone. I think the decision is not fair, first of all because it's not really a good thing to wait one year to have the response of everything. I don’t know exactly what's happened but if WADA and CAS recognized there was a contamination from meat, four years is too much," Petrucci said, repeating a widespread misconception that the CAS had accepted Iannone's tale of contaminated meat, something they had explicitly rejected as not proven. "But I am just sorry for the man, for Andrea, because he is one of the biggest talents I ever met on track. I'm so sorry not to see him anymore on the track."
Neither Andrea Dovizioso nor – somewhat surprisingly – Cal Crutchlow wanted to comment on the case, both also having been at Ducati at the same time as Iannone. But Crutchlow lauded the Italian's raw talent. "Andrea was always a rider, his riding style, the way he rode the bike and the smoothness – honestly there is not really another rider that can do the things he did on a motorcycle," the Englishman said. "Yes, Marc is a lot different and very special in another way, but in smoothness of opening the throttle and how he overlapped these things was incredible. So, it is a shame to see that he won’t be racing."
Jack Miller was a dissenting voice in the Iannone affair. "Not much to say," the Pramac Ducati rider said. He got the 4 year ban. I haven’t read any of the transcripts. To receive that penalty it means it must’ve been a strong case against him. But those are the rules. He was on the wrong side of it this time. I wish him all the best. We’ll see what’ll happen but at this point it doesn’t look great. We’ll see. We all know the rules, what we can and can’t do. He got caught on the wrong side."
Keeping his nose clean
Whatever the rights and wrongs of Andrea Iannone's case, the Italian will not be on track this weekend. Joan Mir will, and with a 37-point lead in the championship, the Suzuki Ecstar rider has a chance to wrap up the title on Sunday. His objective is simple: a podium puts the title out of reach for Fabio Quartararo, Alex Rins, and Maverick Viñales. If he can't manage a podium, but crosses the line in the top seven, he will still be champion if none of his three main rivals win the race.
Even if he does trip up this weekend, he will still leave Valencia leading the championship. But when you have a chance to put the title beyond doubt, it is best to seize it straight away. For in these strange, strange times, a factor beyond your control such as Covid-19 could snatch it from you. Mir has shown a cold-blooded killer instinct so far this year. There is no reason to believe that will not continue on Sunday.
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