One of the many good things about being a MotoGP rider is that you get offered a lot of free stuff. Take a careful look at the social media feed of any rider and you will see stickers and logos on display, discretely or blatantly, on all sorts of items: caps, sunglasses, t-shirts, jeans, jackets, bicycles, underwear, motorcycles, leathers, MX gear, helmets. You name it, and some brand or other will have given it to a rider to show off on their social media.
What if “COVID-19” happens in the past
The 2020 MotoGP season has gotten off to a rocky start. Since the opening round at Qatar, where only the Moto2 and Moto3 classes raced, we have had two updated calendars for the season. We have had news of races postponed, then later on canceled. Speculation about the possible scenarios is changing week by week, or even day by day.
In the beginning of April, it looked like it would not be possible to start the MotoGP championship earlier than August, and multiple sources were talking about 10 races, leaving the final third of the calendar intact. The possibility of returning to Qatar round for the season finale was also being suggested.
More recently, Dorna CEO Carmelo Ezpeleta offered two possible scenarios for 2020: 10 to 12 races only in Europe, or up to 16 races, if intercontinental travel becomes possible again later this year.
The more versions we heard about, the more interested I became in seeing how the championships in the last 10 years might have ended differently with the given scenarios.
So until we know what the final and definitive calendar for this year looks like, let’s play with the numbers a bit.
Warning! During this experiment we haven’t taken into consideration the human factors. The only thing we took into account: that the numbers never lie, and in statistics everything is possible.
In the first part of Tammy Gorali's interview with Razlan Razali, team principal of the Petronas Yamaha SRT team, and formerly CEO of the Sepang International Circuit, the Malaysian team boss talked about how the outbreak of COVID-19 has affected the circuit, and the 2020 season. He also talked about how he views rider contracts, and whether he would welcome Valentino Rossi into the team in 2021.
In the second part, Razali goes into more depth on the decisions he made as CEO of the Sepang circuit, including why he chose MotoGP over F1, the circuit eventually deciding to drop the contract with F1. He talks about the importance of the Malaysian market, and getting local fans into the circuit as spectators.
Part of that drive turned into the creation of what is now the Petronas Yamaha SRT team. Razlan Razali tells Gorali about the team's journey from vehicle to get Malaysian riders into Grand Prix racing via Moto3 into fully fledged team with riders across all three classes. Razali also talks about how they see their riders for 2021, despite the loss of racing. And he discusses the Petronas' team relationship with Yamaha, and the bike the Japanese factory has brought for 2020.
Q: You stepped down from the position of Sepang circuit CEO this month. You were a very bold and unique CEO, like saying to the F1 championship "thank you guys - go and drive somewhere else"...
2020 was set to be a huge year for the Petronas Yamaha SRT team. After an astonishing debut year, Fabio Quartararo had a full factory bike and factory backing from Yamaha, and was expected to win races and challenge for the title. Franco Morbidelli had a year of experience of the M1 under his belt, and a better bike ready to take on the season. Both riders had been fast during testing, showing signs they would live up to their promise.
It was also set to be a big year for Razlan Razali, who was due to step down as CEO of the Sepang International Circuit, home to the Malaysian round of MotoGP and owner of the Petronas team, after nearly twelve years, to focus solely on his role as Team Principal of the team. He had a lot on his hands in that role: expanding sponsorship and the profile of the team, handling the success of last year, and fielding questions about 2021, with all the signs pointing to Petronas Yamaha having Valentino Rossi in the team.
The global COVID-19 pandemic has changed all of that. With the death toll around the world now already past 200,000, measures to curb the disease have been put in place across the globe. That has put any thought of international motorcycle racing on the back burner. That, in turn, has forced teams to change their plans, and raised a number of questions which teams had never even thought they would need to answer.
To get a perspective on how things have changed for the Petronas Yamaha team, and for Razlan Razali in particular, leading Israeli journalist and broadcaster Tammy Gorali spoke to the Team Principal. She covered a wide range of subjects with Razali, who spoke from his experience both as CEO of a Grand Prix circuit and as the head of the only team with riders in all three classes.
The announcement that the Petronas Yamaha SRT team had signed Fabio Quartararo for the 2019 MotoGP season was met with some skepticism. Why, the critics said, would you sign a rider with just a single victory to his name after four seasons in Grand Prix, and with two other podiums, both of which had come in his first year in Moto3?
Quartararo soon proved the critics wrong. The Frenchman impressed by qualifying in fifth place for his first race, and then again by setting the fastest lap of that first race after starting from pit lane due to stalling on the grid. Four races later, he put his signing beyond doubt, qualifying on pole and battling for the podium until a broken quickshifter took him out of contention.
Since then, Quartararo has gone from strength to strength. The Petronas Yamaha rider ended the 2019 season in fifth place, with six poles and seven podiums, two of which came as thrilling battles to the line with world champion Marc Márquez. He starts 2020 as one of Marc Márquez' main challengers.
Behind every great motorcycle racer is a smart crew chief, and Quartararo is no exception. The Frenchman has Diego Gubellini at his side, an engineer with over 20 years of experience in the Grand Prix paddock, including seven seasons as crew chief with the Gresini, Aprilia, and Marc VDS teams. In 2019, he joined the Petronas Yamaha SRT team to work with Fabio Quartararo.
On Sunday, at 6pm, the desert night will erupt in a cacophony of sound, as Grand Prix motorcycle racing gets underway for the start of the 2020 season. But it won't be the vicious bellow of MotoGP machines which will shatter the desert silence; instead, the more modest howl (118 dB compared to 130 dB of the MotoGP bikes) of the Triumph triple-engined Moto2 machines will scream away from the lights and around the floodlit track.
It wasn't meant to be that way, of course. The Moto2 machines were supposed to race an hour and forty minutes earlier, their original start time planned for 4:20pm local time. Now, it will be the Moto3 riders starting their race at that time, and not the 3pm slot originally scheduled. The MotoGP machines will be sitting in packing crates, waiting to be shipped to the next race.
As I write this, it is not entirely clear where that will be. It might be Austin, Texas, unless the US authorities impose further restrictions. It might be Termas De Rio Honda, in Argentina, unless the Argentinian government changes its mind about allowing entry from Italy, or Japan, or anywhere else. It might even be Jerez, if international air travel is subject to sudden and extreme restrictions.
So testing is done and dusted – at Qatar, quite literally, once the wind picks up – and the pile of parts each factory brought has been sifted through, approved, or discarded. The factories are as ready as they are ever going to be for the first race in Qatar, at which point the real work starts. Testing will only tell you so much; it is only in the race that the last, most crucial bits of data are revealed: how bikes behave in the slipstream; how aggressive racing lines treat tires in comparison to fast qualifying and testing lines; whether all those fancy new holeshot devices will help anyone to get into the Turn 1 ahead of the pack. Only during the race do factories and riders find out whether the strategy they have chosen to pursue will actually work.
So after three days of the Qatar test, what have we learned? In these notes:
Honda, from catastrophe to optimism courtesy of old bodywork
The second day of the final preseason test of 2020 showed pretty much the same pattern as the first day: Maverick Viñales didn't finish the day on top of the timesheets, but the Monster Energy Yamaha rider clearly has the best pace, capable of running consistent low 1'54s, a tenth or two faster than anyone else. Fabio Quartararo posted the fastest single lap on Sunday, and he and Alex Rins were the only riders getting anywhere near to Viñales' pace.
As a benchmark, Quartararo posted 14 laps in the 1'54s, Viñales 13 laps, Rins 11 laps. Joan Mir was the only other consistent contender, with 6 laps in the 1'54s, and a solid race pace in the low 1'50s, high 1'54s. The Yamahas and Suzukis are looking very strong indeed at Qatar.
That was borne out by Maverick Viñales' media debrief. Once, those were glum affairs, in which Viñales would sullenly respond with nearly monosyllabic answers. His mood has improved since last year, especially since his results became more competitive in the second half of the season. This year, he is positively upbeat: he used the word 'happy' ten times in three-and-a-half minutes speaking to reporters. Two years ago, the only time Viñales used the word 'happy' was when he preceded it with the words 'we can't be'.
The Sepang MotoGP test answered a few of the questions which had been raised over the winter break, since the end of testing at Jerez in November. You can read my preliminary conclusions, reached directly after the test, here, as a primer.
Though the Sepang test answered some questions, it raised many more for some of you. Last weekend, I asked MotoMatters.com subscribers to submit their questions for me to try to answer. I received a lot of questions, 27 in total, and so many that I will have to split the answers into several parts.
So below are the answers to the following questions: