The current field of MotoGP riders may only be less than a season into the first year of their contracts, but the opening salvos of the 2021 season are already being fired. That is a direct consequence of almost the entire grid being on two-year deals, which run through the 2020 season. Every seat on the grid will currently be up for grabs in 2021. And because of that, teams, factories and riders are already starting to explore their options for the next season but one.
This is not something teams are particularly happy about. Team managers will grumble both on and off the record that it is a big gamble choosing riders basically on the basis of their performance two seasons before they are due to ride for you. Fear of missing out on a top rider forces their hand, however, and so teams are already making preliminary approaches about 2021.
The extreme and unusual situation of every single seat being up for grabs means that Moto2 riders are also delaying their plans. Most have only signed 1-year deals for 2020, knowing that so many options are opening up in 2021. Remy Gardner even turned down a chance to move up to MotoGP with KTM for 2020, preferring to wait for 2021 and hope for many more options then.
How quickly things can change. At Phillip Island a week ago, Valentino Rossi was being feted for his 400th Grand Prix start against a background of concern over the nine-time champion's pace. Sitting seventh in the championship with 153 points, behind both Monster Energy Yamaha teammate Maverick Viñales and Petronas Yamaha SRT rider Fabio Quartararo, questions were being asked whether it was time for Rossi to retire.
And yet a year ago, at Sepang, Rossi came within four laps of winning the race, or at least taking the race down to the wire with Marc Márquez. The Italian crashed out at Turn 1, washing the front out and handing victory to his arch rival. But the race was as clear a sign as you could get that Rossi was still competitive, still capable of winning races.
Jorge Lorenzo finds himself in a similar situation. At Phillip Island, he had one of the worst races of his career, finishing 66 seconds behind his teammate, the winner Marc Márquez. Lorenzo is on his way out, the media and fans said, he can't ride the Honda. Yet in November last year, at the Jerez test, Lorenzo was fifth fastest overall, a tenth of a second behind his teammate, and 0.160 slower than fastest rider Takaaki Nakagami.
That Phillip Island is a special racetrack is self evident. It is unique in so very many different ways. It flows like Mugello, and has the same high speed nature, with fast corners sweeping through a loop dictated by geography rather than a CAD program. It has a fast front straight, yet it is also a track where slower bikes can find a way to stay with, and even beat, faster bikes. Speed is a factor, but the rider counts for a lot more.
What makes Phillip Island even more unique is its location, exposed to the wild weather which blows in across the Bass Strait. The track has grip, but conditions can change quickly. The sun can warm the asphalt, and the cold ocean wind can whip the heat right out of asphalt and tires just as fast. The track feels more like a force of nature than a technical challenge to be mastered.
Four seasons in one day. That's how they describe the weather at Phillip Island, and that's exactly what MotoGP got on Friday. Jack Miller's day summed up conditions nicely. "It was quite windy early as the doors were nearly blown off my house," the Pramac Ducati rider said. "Then it started calming down, then bucketing down, and believe it or not I was sitting out having a coffee at 6:30 this morning in a t-shirt as it was 18 or 19 degrees and then as I was driving to my parents’ house the temperature started going down and down and then the rain came in. I thought it would be set in for the day but it managed to clear up this afternoon and we managed to get on the slick tires."
In the end, the MotoGP riders got three session in different conditions. FP1 was cold, wet, and blustery. FP2 was warm, dry, and fairly sunny. And the special tire test session, to put the final touch on the new construction rear tire Michelin wants to introduce in 2020 was cooler, with temperatures dropping.
Those changing conditions had a fairly significant impact. First, it meant the MotoGP teams were trying to cram an entire weekend's worth of setup work and tire testing into 35 minutes, followed by chasing a time for Q2 in the final 10 minutes. Even Marc Márquez, who never stresses about chasing a time for Q2, stuck in a soft tire in pursuit of a quick lap, nearly losing out when he found his teammate Jorge Lorenzo sitting on the line through the final two corners.
On the one hand, you could say that MotoGP got lucky. The heavy rain that was expected to cause flooding and potentially force Dorna to delay or even cancel practice at Motegi was not as bad as had been feared. The sessions started on time, and ran without incident, other than the normal perils of motorcycle racing.
On the other hand, the sessions were pretty much useless in terms of race setup. The weather forecast for Sunday is the best it has been all weekend, with some sun and high temperatures. FP3 on Saturday morning was drenched, a fully wet session making race setup and tire testing impossible. FP4 saw a line dry enough for slicks to be used, though times were 4 seconds off the best time from Friday.
And qualifying took place on a mostly dry track, but again, times were more than a second off what the pole time should have been. MotoGP pole was slower than Maverick Viñales' fastest lap in FP1. Even if the track had been fully dry, qualifying is just too hectic to be working on race setup and assessing tire life.
On the record
The first race of the flyaway triple header is arguably the most important. It is, after all, the home Grand Prix for half of the manufacturers on the grid. It is the one race where the top echelons of Honda, Suzuki, and Yamaha management gather, the people behind the companies which put 10 of the 22 MotoGP bikes on the grid. If, for some sick and twisted reason, you wanted to destroy the Japanese motorcycle industry by removing its senior management, then the Motegi MotoGP race would be your second-best chance of success. Only the Suzuka 8 Hour race is a bigger deal for the Japanese manufacturers, and a more important race in Japan.
Motegi matters most to Honda. The Japanese motorcycling giant owns the circuit (as it does Suzuka) and it houses the Honda Collection Hall, a magnificent display of motorcycling history. As it is Honda's 60th anniversary in Grand Prix racing, this year's race is even more important. Before the previous Grand Prix in Thailand, HRC President Yoshishige Nomura told Marc Márquez to wrap up the rider's title in Buriram, so he could arrive in Motegi as champion, a goal Márquez dutifully fulfilled. The target at Motegi will be to clinch the manufacturers crown, which he can do by simply finishing ahead of the first Ducati.
Looked at objectively, motorcycle racing is a pointless exercise. Sure, it has some benefits. The engineering involved helps make motorcycles better, safer, and more efficient. The determination of riders to return to action as quickly as possible makes them willing guinea pigs for medical science to try out new ideas for faster and better recovery from injury. But in the grand scheme of things, being able to ride a motorcycle around a track faster than anyone else is fairly meaningless.
Unsurprisingly, that is not how the actual competitors see it. For motorcycle racers, being able to go around a track faster than anyone else is the most important thing in the world. To paraphrase former Liverpool FC manager Bill Shankly, it is not a matter of life and death, it's more important than that. That is precisely how riders end up as willing guinea pigs for medical science. As Marc Márquez explained to Spanish journalist Mela Chercoles in the sports daily AS, "to understand the limits of the bike, you have to accept that if it takes 25 crashes to understand, then you have to be willing to crash 25 times in a season."