Just when you thought the 2020 MotoGP season couldn't get any weirder, the Emilia-Romagna round at Misano threw up surprises we never even knew were possible. You would have that that having MotoGP race at the same track twice would make matters even more predictable, but instead, we find ourselves deep inside the world of Donald Rumsfeld's famous unknown unknowns.
The race itself was more a war of attrition than a bar-banging battle from lights to flag. It was hardly bereft of excitement – the battle for the podium grew intense and controversial in the last few laps – but the eventual winner spent pretty much the whole race alone. The same was true for the rider who should have won, but managed to throw it all away with seven laps to go.
That was far from the only crash. Of the 20 riders who started the race, only 13 managed to cross the line at the end of 27 laps. That is one of those surprises we really hadn't seen coming – two races and a test, combined with almost perfect weather (the briefest of showers during the Moto2 race, just enough to force a restart interrupted a week of otherwise endless sunshine) meant the newly resurfaced track had more grip than the tires could handle, and by Sunday, the riders knew every bump around Misano better than the knew their own mothers.
We are in the toughest stretch of the punishing 2020 MotoGP schedule, ahead of the second race of the first of three triple headers – 9 races in 11 weeks, in three sets of three. It is a brutal start to this stretch, with last Sunday's race followed by a test on Tuesday, then practice starting again on Friday. Over the course of 10 days, the MotoGP riders will have been riding for 7 of them.
What will the second race at Misano look like, after the MotoGP riders have already have 4 days of riding at the track? "For sure everything will be very close after a Grand Prix, race, then a test, then another race," Alex Rins predicted. "Everything will be so close, so we need to be at 100%, we need to give our 100% to be at the front, to be concentrated, and giving our best."
Why will everything be closer? Because the second race at the same circuit gives everyone a chance to try to correct the mistakes they made at the first. Take Jack Miller. On Sunday, he was persuaded to race with the medium front instead of following his gut instinct, which told him to go with the hard front. It is a decision he will revisit come Sunday, and something he worked on at the test.
It's 2020, and if there's one thing we know about 2020 is that it is utterly unpredictable. If at any point, a certain event, path of action, or result seems set in stone, 2020 finds a way to rip that up and throw it away. The Misano MotoGP race – Misano 1, that is, the round sponsored by the microstate San Marino, as opposed to next week's round, sponsored by the Emilia-Romagna region – was a case in point. The timesheets in free practice were clear: Fabio Quartararo and Maverick Viñales would run away with this race, trailing the rest of the field, led by the Yamahas of Franco Morbidelli and Valentino Rossi, in their wake.
It didn't quite work out that way. Franco Morbidelli and Valentino Rossi led the field for a while, before they went their separate ways, and a couple of young upstarts started to interfere with their plans. The pre-race favorites suffered an ignominious fate, shaking up the championship along the way. While the winner tore away at the front, a fascinating and thrilling battle unfolded for the other podium places over the final few laps. We are left with a championship that is closer than ever, and even more unpredictable than ever.
They say that the joy of motorcycle racing is that the rider matters so much. There have been various percentages bandied about over time, the most recent, and most reasonable and widely accepted, from Valentino Rossi's former crew chief Jeremy Burgess, who put the ratio at 70% rider, 30% bike. In reality, of course, putting percentages on the relative importance of rider versus machine is a necessarily imprecise art. But given all we know of the difference in performance and results between teammates and riders on the same machine, that seems entirely reasonable.
Then you get to a track like Misano, and the circuit proceeds to make a mockery of such truisms. After the two qualifying sessions on Saturday, the grid for Sunday's race consists of four Yamahas, followed by two Ducatis, followed by two Suzukis, then two more Ducatis, and then two KTMs. Only from the fifth row of the grid does it get a little more mixed up.
You would almost start to believe that the bikes are starting to matter more than the rider at some tracks. After all, the first two races at Jerez saw the same two riders start from first and second on the grid, and finish in first and second place in both races, in the same order.
The 2020 MotoGP season is divided into two, uneven halves. The first five races were something of a warm up: a pair of races at Jerez, followed by a week off, then three races on consecutive weekends, one at Brno, two at the Red Bull Ring in Austria. Those five races proved punishing for bikes, riders, teams.
Riders crashed and hurt themselves: Marc Márquez broke his right arm and put himself out of action and out of the championship; Alex Rins damaged ligaments in his shoulder and has been riding hurt since then; Cal Crutchlow and Johann Zarco broke scaphoids, and gritted their teeth to ride; Zarco and Franco Morbidelli had a horrifying high-speed crash which saw their bikes cross the track and come within centimeters of hitting the Monster Energy Yamaha team of Valentino Rossi and Maverick Viñales.
It has been an exhilarating, fascinating, infuriating, enervating three weeks in Grand Prix racing. Three back-to-back rounds, one at Brno and two at the the Red Bull Ring in Austria, have thrown up more surprises than we could ever expect. Three different winner in three races, new manufacturers on the podium, a host of unusual and long-standing records broken. There really is a lot to talk about.
One of the most surprising things is the fact that in the six races we have had in the space of the last eight days (disregarding the Red Bull Rookies for a moment) three, or fully half, have been red flagged, and a restart needed. The Red Bull Ring became the Red Flag Ring, as Twitter wits quickly dubbed it after a massive brake failure by Maverick Viñales saw his Yamaha M1 pierce the air fence at Turn 1 and cause the MotoGP race to be red flagged, for the second time in as many weekends.
Blame the track?
Qualifying at the Red Bull Ring proved as exhilarating a spectacle as ever, but like Banquo's ghost at Macbeth's banquet, an absent specter took some of the attention away from a celebration of racing. A little over an hour after qualifying finished – delayed because Jaume Masia tore the fairing from his Leopard Honda Moto3 bike after crashing in Q1, then rode back to the pits dumping oil and water all over the track – a press release from the Repsol Honda team reminded us of the absentee champion.
Marc Márquez, the press release announced, would be out for another two to three months, to allow him to recover fully from the broken humerus he suffered at the first round of MotoGP on July 19th. Of course, the problem wasn't that break, but the aftermath: Márquez had an operation to plate the humerus a couple of days later, he was doing press ups the day after that, and tried to ride again on the Saturday after breaking his arm. It went OK for one session of practice, but he felt an unpleasant twinge in his arm, and a lack of strength, and so stopped.
Yamaha has withdrawn its request to unseal the engines to replace internal components which they believe caused issues for Maverick Viñales, Valentino Rossi, and Franco Morbidelli at Jerez. Yamaha had made a formal request to the MSMA, the MotoGP manufacturers' association, to open the engines and swap out defective parts.
Initially, the suspicion fell on sensors inside the exhaust port, but it is now believed that the problem was caused by the valves. Yamaha had set out its reasons to make the change in its submission to the MSMA. Under the technical regulations, the manufacturers are allowed to unseal the engines to replace parts only if they can get unanimous permission from the other MSMA members, and that such a change does not confer a performance advantage and is necessary on safety grounds.