So it turns out somebody does want to win this thing after all. After a wild, wild ride through the 2020 MotoGP season – scratch that, through all of 2020 – Joan Mir has finally been crowned champion. And he did it in the most Joan Mir way possible: not with an extravagant flourish, or with all-out aggression risking everything, but by understanding what was needed, riding to the limits on the day, and seizing the prize when it was offered. This was a title won with the head, with generous measure of guts and heart thrown into the mix.
There's an old cliche about swans, gliding gracefully and calmly across the water while paddling like fury below it. That was how the Suzuki rider came into the second weekend at Valencia, the race where he had the title within reach. Outwardly projecting calm, he had the turmoil of nerves to deal with underneath. Try as he might, Mir could not prevent that tension from breaking through to the surface.
There were signs of trouble when Mir washed out the front at Turn 4 on Friday afternoon. Joan Mir is not a crasher, his tumble in FP2 just his fifth of the season so far, putting him very much at the lower end of the crashing scale. Mir clearly had pace during free practice, but a botched qualifying saw him starting from twelfth. The Spaniard remained his normal, bright, thoughtful self during debriefs, and his body language in the pits did not betray a particular level of agitation. Nevertheless, the turmoil was there just below the surface.
"The important thing is that I was looking calm and I was looking without pressure, but I was not calm and I was not without pressure," Joan Mir said in the championship press conference after crossing the line in seventh, enough to put the title beyond the reach of his rivals. "I was just nervous. Doesn’t mean that this is a bad thing." Nerves help focus the mind and sharpen the senses. But too much, and they can push you into a mistake you can't recover from. Like Takaaki Nakagami at Aragon 2, for example.
Race weekends are a high-pressure environment which riders can escape from in the space between Grand Prix. But in this strange, Covid-19-stricken year, even that was impossible. "The thing that we don't mention a lot and was difficult for everybody to understand is that the pressure, normally you have it at the track, normally you disconnect. But at home, I was not able to disconnect, because I had also the pressure of the coronavirus," Mir said after the race.
An example? After last week's race at Valencia, where he took a 37-point lead, Mir asked his girlfriend to get tested for the coronavirus, and only drove home to Andorra when that test came back negative. He drove, to ensure he didn't come into contact with anyone, and then isolated at home with just his girlfriend in the few days between Valencia 1 and 2. He felt a huge sense of relief when his Covid-19 test came back negative ahead of this weekend, and he was allowed into the paddock.
Once back at Valencia, he did what was necessary: work on finding a setup which he could use in the race, assess his tire choice, check he had the race rhythm to get the job done. The couple of stumbles along the way left him starting from twelfth, in the middle of a potential pack of trouble. And on the first lap, he nearly found himself in real problems, when Fabio Quartararo missed his brake marker for Turn 2 and ran wide, almost hitting Maverick Viñales ahead, and narrowly missing Mir.
From there, Mir got his head down, made a couple of passes, and got lucky with Johann Zarco and Takaaki Nakagami crashing out ahead of him. He crossed the line in seventh, lucky to hold off Andrea Dovizioso but with a generous buffer of points over his rivals, most of whom had managed to put themselves out of contention. The strongest competition came from the rider with the smallest mathematical chance of being him, Franco Morbidelli riding an outstanding race to take a superb and exciting win over Jack Miller. But Morbidelli came into the weekend 45 points behind Mir, and a seventh place left Mir with a 29-point lead, enough to clinch the championship.
It was not a race Mir had particularly enjoyed. "This race was a nightmare. The race that I struggled more during the all the season," he said in the press conference. "It’s strange to understand the situation because at the moment I don’t know. I don’t care about the race. We got the title, but I suffered a lot. I had a lot of big moments during the race with the front. I was not able to ride comfortable like I normally used to ride."
Mir's race was an exercise in pragmatism, something he has practiced throughout 2020. He always had his eyes on the biggest prize, and did not allow himself to be distracted. At the start of the 2020 season, Mir had been a dark horse, always there or thereabouts, never the star attraction who everyone had as their favorite for the title. By the end of 2020, and with the benefit of hindsight, Mir's championship looks almost inevitable. In this most topsy-turvy of years, Mir's consistency and calmness won the day.
Pieces of the puzzle
The 2020 MotoGP championship proved to be a more complex than usual jigsaw puzzle, requiring a number of pieces to fall into place to pull it off. First, the bike had to be right, and Suzuki's GSX-RR proved to be the all-round package most suited to the string of back-to-back races and unusual conditions which marked the 2020 season. Secondly, the progress made by Joan Mir as a rider, and with the experience of a year in MotoGP under his belt. Thirdly, Mir's character, and how he held up under this most strange of years. And fourth, the team and the organization which got Joan Mir here in the first place.
Where to start?
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