Ironic. During the soaking wet first session of practice for the MotoGP class at Le Mans yesterday, there were no fallers. On Saturday morning, with the sun high in the sky – well, low in the October sky, but with nary a cloud in sight – the morning session for MotoGP turned into a crash fest, six riders going down. That was one more than in the treacherous drying conditions of FP2 on Friday afternoon. By the end of the day, three more riders had gone down, bringing the total number of crashes in MotoGP to nine, nearly twice as many as Friday.
Why so many crashes when the track condition is so good? In part because today was dry, and Q2 beckoned. The riders had one shot, and had to push. More than this, though, MotoGP is at Le Mans in October, and even on bright, sunny days, the track temperature is on the very bottom limit of the range within which the Michelin tires will operate. With a cold wind whipping out from behind the grandstands as the riders headed into the braking zone for the chicane, it was easy to get caught out by the cold left-hand side of the tires. And that meant a trip through the gravel.
With Valentino Rossi finally confirmed at the Petronas Yamaha SRT team, the rider line up for 2021 is getting close to completion. The factory seats at Honda, KTM, Suzuki, and Yamaha are filled, as are the satellite seats at KTM and Yamaha.
The nominally vacant seat at LCR Honda is destined to be taken by Takaaki Nakagami once again, the Japanese rider still in talks with HRC management over whether he will get a 2021 spec RC213V or a 2020 bike. Nakagami's performance so far on the 2019 bike has shown him worthy of getting the latest spec, but those details will take a while to thrash out.
The next question to be answered will come some time next week, when Ducati announce their plans for 2021 and beyond. They are expected to move Pecco Bagnaia into the factory team and Johann Zarco up to the Pramac squad. Jorge Martin is likely to join Zarco in Pramac, while Enea Bastianini should head to Avintia.
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.
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.