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.
Bikes suffered in the heat of Jerez: Viñales, Rossi, and Morbidelli all had engines that let go at the first two races, the fault eventually tracked down to a quality issue with valves. Pecco Bagnaia's Ducati GP20 followed suit, blowing out smoke and ending a strong race at the second Jerez round. The Yamahas suffered with braking at Austria, Viñales eventually running out of brakes in the second race at the Red Bull Ring, sending his bike into the wall at Turn 1, where it caught fire. Aprilia's brand new RS-GP had to have some revs capped to ensure it stayed intact at the horsepower-heavy tracks.
That was just a start, however. Now, the Grand Prix paddock faces three triple headers in the space of 11 weeks. Two rounds at Misano followed by a race at Barcelona on consecutive weekends. A weekend off, then a race at Le Mans and two at Aragon over three weekends. Another weekend off, then a double header at Valencia, before the season finale at Portimao on the Algarve coast in Portugal. If the racing can continue uninterrupted, that is, without further outbreaks of the COVID-19 pandemic forcing an early end to the 2020 season.
So what did we learn from the first five races? And what does it mean for the remaining nine, or however many there will be before the season finishes? Are there any patterns that point to the outcome of the championship? Can we use them to predict what might happen at Misano?
If there is one thing we have learned from the 2020 MotoGP season so far, it is that it is unpredictable. Marc Márquez started the season as the hot favorite to win another title, but two mistakes during the first race – the first causing him to run wide and have to fight his way forward through almost the entire grid, the second ending with a broken right arm – and a third mistake in trying to rush back too early and stressing the plate holding his broken humerus together, requiring a second operation to fit a new plate, have ruled him out of the championship completely.
I understand that Marc Márquez is hoping to make his return at Aragon, though that is still an extremely optimistic timetable. Valencia, or perhaps even 2021 might be a more realistic option, given the views of some medical experts on the injury. The one thing that 2020 has proved is that Marc Márquez is human after all.
It's 2006 all over again
With Márquez out, that has opened up the field. MotoGP has seen four different winners in the first five races, a feat which last happened back in 2008. Yet 2020 feels more like 2006 than 2008: the four winners of the first five races in 2008 were Casey Stoner, Jorge Lorenzo, Dani Pedrosa, and Valentino Rossi, the riders who won almost every MotoGP race bar a handful in the period between 2007 and 2012. In 2006, the first five races were won by Loris Capirossi on the factory Ducati, Valentino Rossi on the factory Yamaha, Marco Melandri on the satellite Gresini Honda, rookie Dani Pedrosa in his fourth race in MotoGP, for Repsol Honda, and Melandri again.
If anything, 2020 is even wilder than 2006. Two consecutive wins for Fabio Quartararo on the satellite Petronas Yamaha (though on a factory spec machine), a rookie win for Brad Binder in his first race, and the first for KTM, then Andrea Dovizioso extending Ducati's unbeaten streak at the Red Bull Ring, before Miguel Oliveira broke that streak by winning on a satellite KTM (though the Tech3 KTM RC16s are almost identical spec to the bikes in the factory team). Three races won by riders in satellite teams, and by riders in their second season. One victory by a rookie. Only one win by a veteran, and perennial championship front runner.
The break between Jerez and the triple header at Brno and Spielberg marked a change in fortunes for Yamaha. After the first two races in Andalusia, Yamaha riders looked to be favorites for the title. Petronas Yamaha's Fabio Quartararo had scored a perfect 50 points, factory rider Maverick Viñales had a brace of second places and 40 points, while Valentino Rossi had helped give Yamaha their first podium clean sweep since 2014.
First you must finish
There was plenty of room for doubt, however. Yamaha riders lost three engines in the space of two weekends, a fault eventually traced back to a quality control issue with valves. Yamaha first submitted a request to replace the valves on safety grounds, then withdrew it when the other factories started asking for more technical details to justify the change. They believe they can manage the engine situation, Yamaha boss Lin Jarvis told MotoGP.com pit lane reporter Simon Crafar. There are credible reports that part of managing the engines involved dialing down the revs, by perhaps as much as 500 RPM, which is a lot for a bike which is already down on power.
Then there were the brake issues at the Red Bull Ring. The Yamahas were overheating their brakes, due in part to sticking with the 2019-spec Brembo calipers, rather than switching to the 2020-spec calipers (or in Viñales' case, sticking with the low mass 2019 calipers, which proved to be woefully susceptible to overheating). Those issues saw Viñales crash and the other Yamahas struggle to finish anywhere near the podium, with Rossi the best of the Yamaha riders for both Austrian races, finishing fifth and ninth. Fabio Quartararo had scored 50 points in the first two races, but could add only 20 more points in the three which followed.
Are the Yamahas doomed to be swallowed up as the others catch up? That is a conclusion which is massively premature. Misano should be a much better track for all of the Yamaha riders: in 2019, the four Yamahas finished second through fifth behind Marc Márquez, with Quartararo coming within a couple of corners of winning the race. With Márquez out, the Yamahas should be firm favorites for the win at the Adriatic track.
Turning a corner?
There are plenty of reasons for optimism at Misano for Yamaha. The track suits the bike, as last year's results attest. It is not a high-speed track, or a track where horsepower reigns supreme, despite a couple of tight corners. There are plenty of places where corner speed can be exploited, and even the run onto the fastest section of the track, through the aptly-named Curvone (or Big, Serious Corner) is out of Tramonto, a corner which allows a sweeping line to maintain corner speed. A new surface means a lot more grip, which plays to the strength of the Yamahas, as was the case at Jerez.
The lack of heat should help keep the engine situation manageable, the nearby Adriatic helping keep temperatures inside a more bearable range. Maximum temperatures are expected to be around 27°C, which is warm but not excessive. The moisture in the sea air can help too. The fact that the bikes never get above 295 km/h means that the brakes are not too heavily taxed. Brembo rates the Misano circuit as the lightest for braking of the circuits raced on so far, categorizing it as a three out of five for braking intensity.
Put this all together and you get a chance for Fabio Quartararo to get his title challenge back on track. And with Maverick Viñales and Valentino Rossi only 22 and 25 points behind Quartararo respectively, a chance for them to get climb in the standings too. The championship could look very different after two rounds at Misano, which would make Barcelona a little easier to cope with, especially with Le Mans to follow, a track at which the Yamahas have excelled over the years.
Opportunity knocks for Dovi?
The main challenge to Yamaha's expected supremacy at Misano comes from Ducati. The Misano circuit is one of Ducati's two official test tracks, the other being Mugello, and test rider Michele Pirro has a couple of million laps around the track. Andrea Dovizioso won here in 2018, teammate Jorge Lorenzo crashing out of a podium position. In 2017, Dovizioso and Danilo Petrucci put their Ducatis on the podium.
Dovizioso has been struggling with the new rear Michelin tire, though he has been making steady progress with it as the season has progressed. The issue has been corner entry, and getting that right is crucial at Misano, with a number of places where the riders are braking hard with the bike leaned over. Fortunately for Dovizioso, he has two shots at getting it right, and an opportunity to use the lessons of the first Misano weekend to set the bike up for the second.
Dovizioso is just three points behind championship leader Quartararo, and Misano is a good chance to challenge for the lead. After Misano comes Barcelona, where the Ducatis can use their horsepower advantage, and then Le Mans, where they have been on the podium for the last two years. That offers the Italian veteran a chance to build a solid foundation for the final third of the championship, especially if it is cut short by another coronavirus outbreak.
Dovizioso will not be the only Ducati looking for a result in Misano. Danilo Petrucci has a strong record at the track, and like Dovizioso, is highly motivated to show Ducati that he is a competitive rider (as well as next year's employer, KTM). Jack Miller is coming off two podiums in Austria, and is showing why he was promoted to the factory team for next year. Miller is third in the championship, and though he trails Quartararo by 16 points, he is once again back in the chase for the title.
The new kids on the block
Misano will be a proving ground for KTM as well. The Austrian factory has tested at the circuit this year, and so has an idea of how the new bike works at the circuit. They are coming off two victories in the last three races, as well as a podium for Pol Espargaro. If KTM are fighting for podiums and wins at Misano, then that could change the complexion of the championship. You can already make a case that the KTM RC16 is the best bike on the grid. Two or three KTM riders battling for the podium would boost that case, while a win would put it beyond dispute.
Brad Binder is the first KTM in the championship, trailing Fabio Quartararo by 21 points. Binder's speed is beyond question – he has been the surprise of the year so far, showing his speed in correcting mistakes at Jerez, then winning at Brno and finishing fourth in Austria. But his propensity to make rookie mistakes could cost him dearly, as he has yet to figure out qualifying, his best starting position seventh at Brno. Binder's potential is exceptional, but he still has flaws which need ironing out.
The biggest issue so far for the other KTM riders has been one of consistency. Miguel Oliveira has won a race, and Pol Espargaro has a pole position and a podium. But both riders also have two DNFs to their name, though they are not entirely to blame for the zeroes on their score sheets. Oliveira is maturing into an outstanding rider, while Espargaro's impetuous nature still trips him up. Yet you feel that both riders are still capable of winning, and with Misano, a track they have tested at, and Barcelona, a circuit which should suit the strengths of the KTM, there are still victories up for grabs. Even Iker Lecuona has started to fulfill some of the promise he showed in Moto2.
The Hamamatsu Hammer
The main objection to naming the KTM as the best bike on the grid is the existence of the Suzuki GSX-RR. The Suzuki seems to have some serious strengths without any obvious weaknesses: it has unrivaled agility, an astonishing ability to carry corner speed, and yet the bike is not down on top speed particularly, giving up just a few km/h to the Ducatis and Hondas. It accelerates, brakes, turns, and holds a line well.
If anything, Suzuki is suffering from a lack of a satellite squad. Alex Rins' injury at Jerez has not slowed him up as much as you might expect, but given how strong he has been at Brno and in Austria, it's clear he had the potential to be right in the middle of the championship fight. Joan Mir has finished second, fourth, and fifth, but also has two DNFs to his name. Mir has made a huge step forward this season, building on the success of the last couple of races in 2019, and is on equal terms with his teammate.
Rins' injury makes the case for a Suzuki satellite squad. With two more Suzukis on the grid, there would have been two more Suzukis up front and scoring points. The bike is competitive, and not especially difficult to get up to speed on. With only two riders on the grid, injuries hit Suzuki more badly than other manufacturers.
Suzuki have every reason to expect strong results in the next few races. The bike has the right mix of corner speed and acceleration to go well at Misano, and it should be able to hold its own at Barcelona, where Rins and Mir finished fourth and sixth last year. The GSX-RR is a better bike in 2020, and Joan Mir has made a step forward as a rider, while Alex Rins is managing his shoulder injury rather well. The Suzuki is gentle on tires, which is a strength at a newly resurfaced track, Rins and Mir able to exploit the available grip. Mir is 26 points behind Quartararo in the championship, and is still in the race for the title.
What have we learned about Honda in 2020? We have learned that the 2019 bike is an easier package to ride than the 2020 bike, and probably a better bike. We have learned that the Honda RC213V is competitive, but only when ridden by Marc Márquez. As a result, we have also learned that without Marc Márquez, HRC are in deep, deep trouble. Honda are fifth out of sixth in the manufacturers championship, only Takaaki Nakagami's strong results on the 2019 bike saving their blushes, and the factory Repsol Honda squad is dead last in the team standings.
The hope for Honda lies with Nakagami, who is sixth in the championship and was arguably robbed of his first MotoGP podium when the last race in Austria was red flagged due to Maverick Viñales' crash. The LCR Honda rider has made good use of Marc Márquez' data from last year, and has changed his riding style accordingly. The 2019 bike seems to suffer less with the braking problems caused by the 2020 Michelin rear than this year's bike, and Nakagami is getting the best from it.
As for the other Honda riders, Cal Crutchlow has been suffering with arm pump and has just had surgery to address the issue, while Alex Márquez is making slow and steady progress getting to grips with the most difficult bike on the grid. The younger Márquez is bearing up rather well under the pressure of being in the Repsol Honda team, and has his head down to learn as fast as he can. But he is still struggling just to score points, which is not where a Repsol Honda rider is supposed to be. Filling in for Marc Márquez, Stefan Bradl is doing what might be expected from a test rider.
Finally, Aprilia. The 2020 RS-GP is a huge step forward compared to last year, but unfortunately for Aleix Espargaro, not quite enough of a step forward for it to be truly competitive. The bike still lacks power, and that has made his life difficult. Misano is a track where Aprilia has tested a lot, which should give him at least a shot at chasing the second group, the riders battling behind the podium. 2020 has shown that the Aprilia is a much better motorcycle, but it won't be fighting in the front group until 2021 at the earliest.
After the first five races, the 2020 MotoGP season is still wide open. Given the way that the season has gone so far, and how balanced the field is this year – especially without Marc Márquez – it is unlikely that the next three races will clarify the situation overly much. There are still too many competitive riders on too many competitive bikes for a clear leader to emerge. We may have to wait until Aragon to get a chance to judge who has a shot at taking the title.
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