A couple of days before the Misano MotoGP round – that is, the Gran Premio Lenovo di San Marino e della Riviera di Rimini, not the Gran Premio TISSOT dell'Emilia Romagna e della Riviera di Rimini, or Misano 1 and Misano 2 as most people without photographic memories or a contractual obligation to use their full names will call them – kicked off, there was a flurry of rumors and excitement over possible announcements ahead of the race. Thursday could see important news made, people whispered.
The rumors doing the rounds bordered on the outlandish, but were just far enough off that to be credible. Valentino Rossi would announce his retirement, and Petronas Yamaha would announce they were signing Andrea Dovizioso, now free of his Ducati chains, to take his place. There was of course nothing in the rumors: Petronas team boss Razlan Razali denied the reports ahead of the weekend, and in the press conference on Thursday, Valentino Rossi laughed off the suggestion.
"My retirement is big news, no?" the nine-time champion commented. "If you write on the internet that Valentino retires, a lot of people click to read, a lot of fans. I think it is for this reason. There isn't another reason because the situation hasn't changed, and I tried to explain a lot of times that I will race next year. But maybe it is more interesting to say I will retire."
A rod for his own back
A week later, and back in the same place. Plus ça change pas... The same riders are back at the same track, in the same situation. So we should have the same result, right?
That's not quite what the data from Jerez says. Sure, the first two places were the same in both races. But behind that, the results were completely different between the two races, a week apart on the same circuit. Only 9 of the 22 riders on the entry list of the first race finished both races, three of them ending up injured in the carnage of the two opening rounds.
Only Pol Espargaro crossed the line within one place of his finishing position in the second race, ending sixth in the first race, seventh in the second. Only Johann Zarco's finishing position varied by two places, crossing the line eleventh in the first race, ninth in the second. The rest of the field either finished three or more places out of position, or crashed out – and there were a lot of riders who didn't cross the line one way or another.
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
66 million years ago, an object somewhere between the size of Mt. Everest and the country of Luxembourg (or the island of Puerto Rico) slammed into what would become the Yucatan peninsula in Mexico at a speed of 20 kilometers per second, or 72,000 km/h. The impact that an asteroid of that size moving at that speed made was unimaginably vast: scientists estimate that the energy released was around 100 million times that produced by Tsar Bomba, the most powerful hydrogen bomb ever built. The devastation that impact caused, helped along by wide-scale volcanic eruptions and climate change, killed a large percentage of life on earth, wiping out virtually all land and amphibian species larger than 25kg in body weight.
It could happen again. Objects from outer space hit the earth with alarming regularity. 50,000 years ago, a nickel-iron meteorite 50 meters across struck Arizona, creating the aptly named Meteor Crater. In 1908, a slightly larger object exploded a few kilometers above the forests of Siberia, near Tunguska, flattening 80 million trees. And in 2013, a 20 meter object lit up the skies above Chelyabinsk in Russia, eventually detonating some 30 kilometers up. The ensuing explosion and shock wave destroyed windows and damaged buildings in an area a hundred kilometers long and tens of kilometers in length.
If there is one thing that we learned from the Sepang test, it is that the field is even closer this year. In Malaysia, 18 riders finished within a second of one another. That pattern has continued at Qatar, Pol Espargaro in fourteenth just 0.987 second behind the fastest man, Alex Rins. As comparison, the KTM rider was the last rider within a second of the fastest man after the first day of this test in 2019, but then, there were just eight riders ahead of him, rather than thirteen. And there was a gap of nearly four tenths of a second between the riders in second and third last year. Not so in 2020.
But if the single lap times were close, the race pace was a lot less so. Maverick Viñales towered over the rest in terms of consistent pace, with only the Suzukis of Alex Rins and Joan Mir getting anywhere near the pace of the Monster Energy Yamaha rider. Viñales laid down a real benchmark, with ten of his 47 laps in the 1'54s, which is under the race lap record. That included a run of ten laps, seven of which were 1'54s, five of which were consecutive. That is a rather terrifying race pace for the Spaniard to lay down, just two weeks ahead of the first race.
The 2019 MotoGP season was a long, hard road for Aprilia. The hiring of Massimo Rivola as CEO of Aprilia meant that the development of the RS-GP came to a standstill while he first straightened out Aprilia's organization, and allowing Romano Albesiano to concentrate on building a brand new machine, with a 90° V4 engine, from the ground up.
It was a major gamble. Aprilia was throwing away four years of development in MotoGP, and starting almost from scratch again. The Noale factory had a lot of new data to go on, but they had to make the right choices in so many areas that it would be easy to find themselves chasing down a blind alley.
The gamble seems to have paid off handsomely. Aleix Espargaro and Aprilia test rider Bradley Smith were wildly enthusiastic about the new RS-GP. "I didn't really expect that with a bike as new as this, that I would be as competitive as I am," Espargaro said. "Even with 20 laps on the tires, I can do 1'59s, it's unbelievable how fast I was. I think that with this RS-GP, the bike is a lot more close to the podium."
2019 was a long, hard year for Aprilia. The hiring of new Aprilia Race CEO Massimo Rivola signaled a year of rebuilding for the Italian factory, as Rivola took over the organizational side of the MotoGP project, freeing up Romano Albesiano to concentrate on building a brand new RS-GP from the ground up, and providing Albesiano with the resources to do so. That project forced Aprilia riders Aleix Espargaro and Andrea Iannone to battle on through the 2019 season with a bike which was struggling to be competitive.
The wait came to an end at the MotoGP shakedown test at Sepang, where Aprilia rolled out the new RS-GP, in the hands of test rider Bradley Smith. "Those six or seven months of waiting were worth it," was Smith's verdict after the first full day of testing on the 2020 prototype.
Since they returned to the MotoGP paddock officially, and not under the guise of the ART, the RSV4-based bike which raced first under the Claiming Rule Team banner, and then in the Open Class, Aprilia have struggled. Their MotoGP program got off to a bad start, the loss of Gigi Dall'Igna to Ducati forcing them to reschedule their plans.
Romano Albesiano, who took over as head of Aprilia Racing, found it hard to combine his role as lead engineer with the organizational duties of managing the racing department. Albesiano came from a development and engineering background, and seemed to lack interest in the practicalities of a running a race team. Those took time away from developing the RS-GP, and so the project floundered.
To solve this situation, Aprilia brought in Massimo Rivola. With his experience running F1 teams and Ferrari's Driver Academy, Rivola was given the organizational side to manage, leaving Albesiano free to lead the engineering side of the project. With a clearer division of responsibilities – and the people doing what they are good at and interested in – some semblance of structure was restored to Aprilia's MotoGP program, and with that came the first green shoots of progress.
2020 is supposed to be a big year for Aprilia. The reorganization instigated by Aprilia Racing CEO Massimo Rivola has helped free up lead engineer Romano Albesiano to design a brand new RS-GP from the ground up. The bike is expected to be much more competitive than the 75° V4 which has served them up until now.
But they enter 2020 with every chance of being without an important part of the MotoGP program. Andrea Iannone's lawyer confirmed to Italian sports daily Gazzetta dello Sport that Iannone's B sample from the drug test he failed in Sepang has also come back positive. The Italian now faces a four-year ban for use of the anabolic steroid drostanalone.
The quantities found in the sample were minute, Iannone's lawyer Antonio De Rensis told Gazzetta. "The counter-analysis showed the presence of metabolites equal to 1.15 nanograms per milliliter," De Rensis said. Taking into consideration that the sample was extremely concentrated due to Iannone being dehydrated from the hot and humid MotoGP race in Malaysia, that would point to an even lower concentration, De Rensis claimed. This would corroborate the theory of accidental contamination through food, according to Iannone's lawyer.