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.
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?
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.
It should come as no surprise that in a paradoxical 2020 MotoGP season in a year full of paradoxes, a new surface at Misano should have simultaneously both improved the track and made it much worse. Yet the paradox is relatively easy to understand: the tarmac chosen for the new surface has a lot more grip, but it is also softer when it gets hot, deforming more and producing more and bigger bumps. The additional grip is great, but you can't always benefit when your wheels are being kicked up into the air.
"There's more grip than last year but the track is similar to motocross!" Fabio Quartararo told us. "A lot of bumps. Positive that there is more grip but we need to adapt because honestly the first exit in FP1 was really difficult to manage the bumps."
One of the things making the bumps so difficult to manage is where they are. "It's bad," said Jack Miller, "especially in the fastest sector, it's really quite bad. That back section, the bike just starts shaking and bouncing, and one lap you can get through there semi OK, and the next lap you're just bouncing around and you can't really get back on the track."
A couple of days before the Misano MotoGP round – that is, the Gran Premio Lenovo di San Marino e della Riviera di Rimini, not the Gran Premio TISSOT dell'Emilia Romagna e della Riviera di Rimini, or Misano 1 and Misano 2 as most people without photographic memories or a contractual obligation to use their full names will call them – kicked off, there was a flurry of rumors and excitement over possible announcements ahead of the race. Thursday could see important news made, people whispered.
The rumors doing the rounds bordered on the outlandish, but were just far enough off that to be credible. Valentino Rossi would announce his retirement, and Petronas Yamaha would announce they were signing Andrea Dovizioso, now free of his Ducati chains, to take his place. There was of course nothing in the rumors: Petronas team boss Razlan Razali denied the reports ahead of the weekend, and in the press conference on Thursday, Valentino Rossi laughed off the suggestion.
"My retirement is big news, no?" the nine-time champion commented. "If you write on the internet that Valentino retires, a lot of people click to read, a lot of fans. I think it is for this reason. There isn't another reason because the situation hasn't changed, and I tried to explain a lot of times that I will race next year. But maybe it is more interesting to say I will retire."
A rod for his own back
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?