It is groundhog day again for MotoGP, the paddock back in the place they left – or in many cases, never left – last Sunday. Some did, of course, and may have picked up the coronavirus as a result. Riccardo Rossi, of the BOE Skull Rider Moto3 team, is one of those, the Italian now quarantined at home after testing positive for the virus, and forced to miss the race.
Rossi – Riccardo, not Valentino, who is also still at home in Italy – tested positive on Wednesday. There is a chance that the Moto3 rider caught the virus on his way home from Spain to Italy. But there is a non-zero chance that he actually caught the virus in the paddock, the timeline from infection to positive very tight from Sunday night to Wednesday morning.
There is growing concern inside the paddock that the bubbles are failing to stop the coronavirus fro encroaching on MotoGP. That is simply a factor of the resurgence of Covid-19 cases in the wider world, especially in Spain and Italy, where the vast majority of the paddock live. "In the first races we had no cases and now every race it's worse, but not because of MotoGP but because the world is getting worse and worse," Aleix Espargaro said on Thursday.
The cases in the paddock were a particular concern, Bradley Smith said. "It's a horrible feeling, because at least I felt kind of safe inside the paddock, because I believed that everyone inside the paddock was safe," the Aprilia rider said. "But now you start to even question that. Like the fact that some guys have had it or have been close to being inside the paddock but having the coronavirus and that kind of thing."
The biggest fear of most riders was catching the virus while flying, or even worse, like Tony Arbolino, being forced to quarantine because you were sat close to a confirmed case of the disease, even though you provided a negative PCR test. That had caused riders to change their behavior. "I've driven to the majority of the races, just not to be in airports too much," Marc VDS Moto2 rider Sam Lowes said. "I've not took a flight yet, a normal flight to the races. Obviously I'm lucky in some ways, my fiancee and baby are in Italy, so I can drive quite easily to the races. I think I'll be doing a lot of driving in the next few weeks, just to stay away from the airport, but it's starting to get a little bit complicated I think."
For the most part, however, the growing second wave of Covid-19 is seen as something outside of the riders' control, and so not something they can spend too much time worrying about. "What I learned in the last years and in life is that to worry about things you cannot control makes no sense," Aleix Espargaro said. "Everybody has to be super careful. Clean the hands, use the mask. But it can still happen to all of us."
With large parts of Aragon set to go into lockdown on Monday, as cases increase in the region, everyone will be eager to leave on Sunday night, either head home or head to Valencia, and hope the season goes ahead as normal. It is impossible to start second guessing whether this will be the last race or the rest of the season will continue as planned.
That presented the riders with a dilemma. If you know a particular race is the last race, you might take more risks in an attempt to win, Sam Lowes explained. Especially if you are in the hunt for a title, as is the case for Lowes, who is just 2 points behind Moto2 championship leader Enea Bastianini. But if you do that and crash out and injure yourself, and the remaining rounds go ahead, you might regret taking what turned out to be an unnecessary risk. "It is strange," Lowes said. "A little bit different, but I think with that difference, it's still hard to change your approach, because in the end, it should be that there are four races to go, so you really have to work on that allowance of points."
The race on Sunday is as certain to go ahead as anything is certain 2020, at least. That gives the riders a chance to correct the mistakes they made last weekend. The weather should at least help: it is set to be warmer for the entire weekend, with the wind barely a factor. The schedule has also been rejigged, with morning practice pushed back an hour, and afternoon sessions 20 minutes later than usual.
Would more stable weather make it easier for the teams to figure out where they went wrong with their tire choice, I asked Franco Morbidelli during his debrief? "While you’re saying this it’s raining now," he replied with a wry smile. "I don’t know, but if it’s more stable it’s better for everybody. It’s an unknown matter still because this is MotoGP. You cannot predict many things. You can just try to react as quick as possible."
For Yamaha, that meant trying to figure out why they were so fast in practice but that speed didn't translate into the race. "Last weekend was interesting because we were fast all weekend long," Morbidelli said. "Looked like it would have been between me, Fabio and Maverick, the race between us three. Instead it went in another way. We saw in race all Yamahas made a step down. Me and Maverick were able to finish the race anyway in good condition, while Fabio struggled more. But anyway, the three of us were not on the level we were in previous sessions."
Thoroughly testing tires
Part of that was tire choice for a lot of riders. The medium front seemed to work better for most, but not for all, and certainly not for the Yamahas. The soft rear looked like being the right tire last weekend, but it was was right on the limit of tire wear. If temperatures had been just a couple of degrees higher, the medium or even hard rears would have come into their own.
"We just have to understand what happened with the front part of the bike in the last laps of the race. This is the area we can improve," Joan Mir said. Both Suzukis had chosen the soft front, and while Alex Rins had had no issues, Mir had struggled. The second race at Aragon was an opportunity to try out the medium front. "It's something we have to work on," Mir said. "I can't say which will be correct, but for sure we will try the medium, with more temperature I think that can be positive."
The Ducatis are looking at what happened with their choice of the medium rear last weekend, which didn't give the performance they had hoped for. "Following the experience of last week we have to change format of our tire program," Danilo Petrucci said. "We are not so fast in morning when the temperature is low, so we have to be focused on the afternoon and understand which is the tire for the race. Looking at the consumption the medium has not fully complete its life. Maybe we can focus on managing the tires during the weekend."
Sharing the load
A second weekend at Aragon with stable weather will come as a godsend to KTM. The Austrian factory had been largely invisible throughout the first weekend, and had an enormous amount of work to do to catch up again, Pol Espargaro explained.
"Yeah sure we have plenty of things to try, and because we have many things to try we have a split all the work between the four factory bikes, together with Tech3," the Red Bull KTM Factory rider said. "So we are going to take different lines which we think that they all can help and we will see after FP1 who is the fastest, who has better feeling and who can make a better rhythm thinking of the race."
The revised schedule, with the race at 1pm local time, might help, Espargaro said. "But as the race is a little bit earlier this is going to help us so much. Much more than the others. Especially because the grip level is changing a lot for me and for KTM and as soon as we have a small change on the track we paid so badly."
Ironically, the race is not that much earlier than last week: the race time might be 1pm instead of 3pm, but the clocks go back in Europe early on Sunday morning, as daylight savings time comes to an end. So 1pm is really 2pm in last week's money, and the race takes place only one hour earlier than it did last Sunday. If you're confused (and you probably are), go to the Schedule page for the Teruel Grand Prix on the MotoGP.com website and use the radio button to convert the times to your local time.
The Repsol Rookie
The big surprise of last weekend was Alex Márquez, who added a second dry weather podium to the podium in the rain at Le Mans. And given the way Márquez has improved in the second leg of each back-to-back round at the same track, there is a lot of expectation on the younger Márquez for this Sunday.
In the press conference, the Repsol Honda rider tried to play those expectations down. "Honestly my target this weekend is not to win the race, it is to repeat the work I did last weekend," Alex Márquez said. "In the end the race was a consequence from the practice where we did a really good job."
Joan Mir had gotten a very close look at Márquez, having eventually been beaten by the Repsol Honda rider. "In the last laps I was struggling a lot with the left part of the tire and we saw Marquez was able to overtake me easier in the last corner," the Suzuki Ecstar rider said. "We could see that he had something and he took the right decision to use the medium front. Maybe it's interesting for us to understand, but we can see clearly that the left corners were where I was losing half a second per lap in the last laps. Problems I didn't have all weekend. So let's try to improve because it was why I couldn’t get the victory."
Seeing the Honda up close, and the way Alex Márquez was riding it, gave Joan Mir an insight into how the bike could be ridden. Previously, the Honda had always succeeded when ridden hard and aggressively, he explained. "We saw the Honda riding in an aggressive way, like braking super hard, picking up, turning the bike like an animal and open the throttle like Marc."
Smooth is also fast
That was not the case with Alex Márquez, however. "I didn't see this. I saw really clear lines. I saw like an inline four-cylinder bike," Mir said. "So it was quite impressive to see that. I didn't expect it and that's why I said that. But I think that we also have a really good bike."
Jack Miller hadn't been surprised to see Alex Márquez going so fast on the bike last weekend. "I saw he had a lot of grip," the Pramac Ducati rider said. "He was able to put the bike on its side all race and get a good exit. Mid corner grip on the edge of the tire, very similar to the Suzuki. He rode a good race but hard to say. He has confidence from the weekend before."
Taka seals the deal
There was one piece of news on Thursday worthy of note. Takaaki Nakagami was finally confirmed at LCR Honda, as had long been expected. The deal had taken a long time to finalize, and if anything, the wait had been favorable for Takaaki Nakagami. The Japanese rider has had an impressive run of form, the only rider to finish every race in the top ten, and currently fifth in the championship with at least a theoretical shot at the title.
That had resulted in a two-year deal for Nakagami. The Japanese rider will race for the LCR Honda team in 2021 and 2022. Even better for Nakagami, he will have a current spec machine to ride, for next year at least. "We still didn't talk about a 2022 bike," Nakagami said, "just for the next season I'm able to use the latest bike." It is a well-deserved promotion, Nakagami finally making the progress he should in the class. And a two-year deal means he can ride without pressure next season.
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