Motorsport can be dangerous, as it says on the passes handed out by Dorna for MotoGP. We got a harsh reminder of just how dangerous it can be at the Red Bull Ring on Sunday. Both the Moto2 and MotoGP races had to be red-flagged after serious crashes left the track strewn with debris. There were some terrifying near misses, with not one but two riders having their helmets clipped by airborne motorcycles, and Valentino Rossi seeing first a Ducati GP19, and then his life flash before his eyes.
Fortunately, everyone escaped largely unharmed, except for some massive bruises and a few suspected minor fractures. All being well, everyone should line up on the grid again in seven days' time, to do it all over again. We may question the wisdom of that, but untrammeled ambition breeds courage, the will to win an appetite for risk. That is just the way motorcycle racers are wired.
In among the drama, motorcycle races were held. The crashes and disruption ended up having a significant effect on the races, and those races, in turn, had an important impact on the 2020 championship. New faces on the podium once again underlined that we are in a new era in MotoGP, as did the strength of the KTM once again.
It was one of those days. We had a fascinating FP4 session for the MotoGP class, where a clear pattern emerged for the race, followed by a thrilling and action-packed qualifying, yet barely anyone is talking about that at all. And all because early on Saturday afternoon, the bombshell dropped that Andrea Dovizioso will be leaving Ducati at the end of the 2020 season.
Though the news itself did not quite come as a surprise, the timing and nature of the announcement caught us all a little off guard. Ducati had said they had hoped to make a decision after the two races at the Red Bull Ring. But Dovizioso's manager Simone Battistella had already said he was having a meeting with Ducati management on Saturday, and Sky Italia TV tracked him down as soon as Battistella left the Ducati truck to ask how the meeting had gone. Battistella told them, and all hell broke loose.
"It’s normal to have a lot of questions and I’m a bit disappointed but this moment is not the right moment to speak about all the details," Andrea Dovizioso would tell us when we finally got to talk to him during his media debrief, held via Zoom. A debrief that was 20 minutes late, and started right in the middle of the qualifying press conference traditionally held at 5pm on Saturday afternoon. It was late because of all of the TV interviews Dovizioso had to do to explain himself, before doing it all over again for the written press.
No mood to talk
Desmo Dovi is no more. The eight-year partnership between Andrea Dovizioso and Ducati Corse will come to an end when the flag falls after the last race of the 2020 MotoGP season.
The news was made official by Dovizioso's manager Simone Battistella, after a final meeting with Ducati management to try to agree terms. Battistella told broadcaster Sky Italia that they had been unable to find common ground to continue.
We nearly got away with it. The clouds hung heavy over the Red Bull Ring in Spielberg for much of the morning, but it stayed dry for all three classes, and the Red Bull Rookies practice as well – I will leave it to the imagination of the reader as to why the Red Bull Rookies are racing in Spielberg this weekend. But halfway through FP2 for the Moto3 class, at the beginning of the afternoon, the heavens parted and the deluge began.
The weird thing about the rain is that it was so incredibly localized. The Red Bull Ring is a relatively compact circuit, not elongated like Assen, or spread out over a vast territory like Silverstone, so to have a downpour in Turn 3, the track completely soaked and water running across the track, while a few hundred meters downhill, along the front straight and at Turn 1, the track was completely dry, made for impossible conditions. A few Moto3 riders nearly got caught out as they hammered up the hill toward Turn 3, then found themselves unable to brake for the corner and forced to run wide.
If there was any doubt 2020 was going to be a historic season for MotoGP, the Czech round at Brno erased the last of them. It has been a weird year, the COVID-19 pandemic throwing the calendar out of kilter, then the resumption of racing bringing excitement, drama, and a whole boatload of surprises.
There was Marc Márquez breaking his arm one week, and trying to ride the next. There was Fabio Quartararo dominating both races. There was Valentino Rossi looking lost on the first Sunday, and finishing on the podium seven days later. And that was just the tip of the iceberg of weirdness.
After the topsy-turvy events of the two Jerez races, Brno turned the MotoGP world even more upside down. In these subscriber notes, an attempt to make sense of the madness, to filter some signal from the noise. There is a lot of signal, but also plenty of noise. Here's the signals we have picked up so far:
- The rookie who finally lived up to expectations
- The new best bike on the grid?
- The consequences for the championship
- Concessions explained
- Petronas Yamaha's other rider gets what he deserves
- Yamaha's engine situation
- The Zarco vs Espargaro smackdown
- Are Ducati really as lost as they seem?
- Honda's litany of errors
Lots to get through. But there is only one place to start: with the winner.
If ever there were a day where qualifying and practice told two very different stories, it was Saturday at Brno. The tales were linked and related, interwoven in many ways, but the differences outweighed the common threads. The grid tells a tale of heroism, surprises, and the cruel application of sensible rules. Practice is a story of dark foreboding, of the grim war of attrition that awaits on Sunday afternoon. Qualifying was tough; the race is going to be much, much tougher.
Qualifying is always the highlight of Saturday afternoon, though the final free practice session, FP4, is what matters most. With nothing on the line but race setup, and conditions close to what they will face at race time on Sunday afternoon, teams and riders show what they are really capable of. Even then, the story told is not in the overall result, but tucked away in the analysis timesheets, where teams send out riders on old tires, to see how they hold up once they get a lot of laps on them. The secret code created by combining tire compound with tire age and run duration is almost impossible to decipher, but there are fragments of the real story of the weekend tucked away for the diligent student.
What did we learn from the first day of practice at Brno? Not much, but that in itself is valuable. The COVID-19 pandemic meant that the Automotodrom Brno circuit has not seen much action, so there is very little rubber on the track. The circuit has always been fairly low grip, but it is much worse now than it has ever been. It needs rubber down on it before any conclusions can be drawn.
That makes figuring out what is going on rather tricky. The track is changing session to session, as bikes deposit a thin smear of Dunlop and Michelin rubber on the surface of the track and in the crevices between the grit particles used in the aggregate. That leads to big changes in grip levels: Fabio Quartararo's fastest time in FP2 was over eight tenths faster than the best lap set by Takaaki Nakagami in the morning session. Quartararo's best time from Friday was nearly three quarters of a second slower than the best time at the end of the first day in 2019.
With the times so far off the pace – Quartararo's time is two whole seconds off Marc Márquez' outright lap record, and half a second slower than the race lap record – and grip still changing, conditions were just to inscrutable to draw any conclusions from, or at least any conclusions which might last beyond Saturday morning. Trying to work out which tire will work best was almost possible on Friday. There are still too many unknowns.
Bump and grind
With MotoGP heading to Brno for the first of three races, a new chapter opens for the championship. The two season openers at Jerez were somehow anachronistic, races out of time, and out of place. The searing heat of an Andalusian summer turned the Circuito de Jerez into an alien space, the searing heat punishing riders, bikes, and tires. It proved costly, too, Yamaha losing three engines to the heat in two races, Ducati losing one, that of Pecco Bagnaia. Those lost engines are likely to have long-term consequences for Yamaha, though it seems as if Ducati have escape a little more lightly.
These three races at two race tracks are something of a return to normality. The Czech Grand Prix at Brno, and the Austrian Grand Prix at the Red Bull Ring in Spielberg, are happening on the weekends scheduled on the original calendar, before the COVID-19 pandemic MotoGP calendar, along with the rest of the world, on its head. Much has changed, of course: MotoGP is at Brno with a much-reduced paddock, with no fans and no media outside of a small band of TV journalists. But at least the Grand Prix paddock is where it was supposed to be, in the conditions which could have been expected back in January.
Four days previously, Marc Marquez was having a titanium plate and 12 screws fitted to his broken arm