If 2020 has taught us anything, it is that it is pointless to try to make sense of 2020. There is neither rhyme nor reason to this year; you just have to let it wash over you like an autumnal rain shower and hope to emerge on the other side, if not unscathed, then at least in some sort of shape to continue. It is impossible to make plans, impossible to predict what might happen next.
So it is in MotoGP too. After Barcelona, we started to believe that a shape was emerging to the 2020 MotoGP championship. That favorites were emerging who would do battle over the title for the remaining six races. Naturally enough, this turned out to be naively optimistic, reckoning without the weirdness which runs like a shimmering thread through this pandemic-blighted year. We really should have known better.
Le Mans confronted us once again with the reality of 2020. A rain shower as the bikes headed out for the sighting lap threw the race into disarray, reshuffling the cards once again. Teams had to gamble on whether the rain would persist, and if so, for how long, and make choices about tires and setup. Once the race started on a very obviously wet track, the rain came and went, ending any thoughts of pitting for slicks, leaving the riders to sink or swim by their tire choice, and how well they managed to preserve their tires to the end.
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.
What did we learn from qualifying for the Grand Prix of Catalonia on Saturday? We learned that qualifying is extremely deceptive. The front of the grid is a mixture of riders who are genuinely fast on race pace, and riders who are only quick over a single lap. But what we also learned is that the track at Montmelo, outside Barcelona, is so hard on tires that qualifying is only a very small part of the story. It is uncertain whether where you qualify will have any bearing on the outcome of the race.
The problem at Barcelona is that the track is punishing on tires. You do not get to the end of the race with tire to spare. Indeed, you may not make it to the end of the race at all. "The last laps of the race, we will struggle not to make a lap time, we will struggle to stay on the bike," warned Pol Espargaro. "Maybe by the end of the race, it's not going to be who can perform better, who can be faster, I think by the end of the race it's going to be who takes more risk, who cares less about crashing."
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.
"It's only Friday." Something you tend to hear from riders on, well, Fridays, when you ask them who they think is looking strong. Friday is the day that people are getting up to speed, evaluating different setup directions, making a preliminary assessment of tires, and putting in a banker lap when time and conditions allow. Drawing conclusions from either session of practice on Friday is fraught with difficulty.
Doubly so for Friday at the Circuit de Catalunya in Montmelo, near Barcelona. The track hosted three days of action for the WorldSBK series last weekend – now with double headers for the World Supersport and Supersport 300 classes due to the compressed 2020 schedule – and so received a layer of Pirelli rubber. There have been rainstorms during the week which have washed some of that rubber from the track, changing grip levels once again. And the wind on Friday was, in the words of Jack Miller, "pretty savage".
On the face of it, you might say that Franco Morbidelli, Johann Zarco, and Brad Binder are capable of quick times, Morbidelli and Zarco dropping under 1'40. On race pace, you might want to conclude that Morbidelli, Fabio Quartararo, Joan Mir, Alex Rins, and Maverick Viñales are all quick on used tires. But the results from Friday need to be read like you might read tea leaves. Sifted through in the hope of finding patterns; but fearful of leaping to conclusions which the future simply will not bear out.
Clean track, low grip
The Covid-compressed 2020 season has very little room for maneuver. To fit fourteen races into nineteen weeks means making a lot of sacrifices. One of those sacrifices is testing: of the original three one-day post-race tests planned, only one remains, at Misano, on Tuesday.
What is the point of a midweek test in the middle of a year where so much development has been frozen to cut costs? "I think it's just a lot a people getting bored during the week, not moving anywhere, not doing anything, so they're trying to keep each other busy, keep themselves busy," joked Jack Miller.
The Pramac Ducati rider may have said that in jest, but it is easy to believe he is right. Engine and aerodynamics development is frozen for the 2020 and 2021 seasons, which already cuts down dramatically on the options for progress with a bike for this year and next. So surely the teams and factories wouldn't have much to test?