MotoGP: The year ahead

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(Note: Given the quickly-changing situation with regards to COVID-19’s impact on the 2020 season, this story has been updated since its first publication—Ed.).

For the past few years, it’s been business-as-usual in MotoGP. There were battles for individual races, but there was generally little doubt at the start of the season that Honda’s Marc Marquez was the overwhelming favourite. By mid-season, that doubt was completely removed.

But that’s not true for 2020, and this MotoGP season, which was to have started this coming weekend, could be one of the best in recent memory. Here’s why:

Is 41-year-old Valentino Rossi worried about COVID-19, a bug that seems to attack older people the hardest? The horror!

Coronavirus complications

Perhaps the biggest impact on this year’s championship won’t have anything to do with on-track action. With COVID-19 complicating international travel, the opening round in Qatar has already been canceled, sort of, and the round in Thailand has also been postponed.

Moto2 and Moto3 are running in Qatar, but the premiere GP class is not running, due to travel restrictions implemented before the GP racers showed up, but after Moto2 and Moto3 had already arrived, so they can race.

The questions about the second round in Thailand (originally scheduled for March 22) were answered early this morning, when authorities announced it would be postponed. Currently, officials are supposed to be attempting to work out a race date later in the year, but there’s a very real possibility the event may not happen.

MotoGP’s brain trust says it’s working on a new schedule. Does that mean we’ll see a new Qatar race pop up later in the season, as well as the Thai race? Or does it mean other dates are also about to be axed, or re-scheduled?

Now, there’s also got to be questions about the next race in Austin, Texas, on April 5. At this point, the situation is changing too rapidly for anyone to predict for sure what will happen; with so many personnel living in Italy, that may affect who’s let into the US for the race next month, although we haven’t heard of any possible restrictions yet.

Of course, not only are teams and racers based in Italy, but MotoGP races are held there. With whole towns shut down over coronavirus fears, and reports of many people basically staying indoors even in non-quarantine areas, there have got to be worries about the Mugello and Misano rounds. Stay tuned on this, as it could make everything get really weird. And when things get weird, racing can get wild.

The fastest man in MotoGP is a bit off the pace in pre-season testing, although he seems to have gotten things figured out finally at Qatar.

Marc Marquez is struggling

Moving on to the riders themselves—Marc Marquez has been in MotoGP’s premiere series for seven years, and in that time, he’s won six titles. He’s managed that with a riding style that was reckless, and also not wreckless. Marquez has had some big crack-ups along the way, and as a result, his shoulders are falling apart. He’s had trouble with both shoulders, but it’s currently his right shoulder that’s causing trouble. Off-season surgery isn’t healing as quickly as hoped; Marquez has struggled in pre-season testing, and admitted to the media that he’s not on his game.

In other years, Marquez had Dani Pedrosa as a teammate, who was able to keep Yamaha and other factory teams at bay if Marquez had to sit out a race or two. But Pedrosa’s retired now, and nobody expects Marc’s younger brother Alex, his new teammate, to make the same contribution.

Add in a Honda factory bike that is reportedly even harder to ride than ever before, and it looks like both Marquez brothers may have a tough go this season.

Having said that — Marc Marquez had 420 points last season; next-closest was Ducati’s Andrea Dovizioso with 269, and Maverick Vinales was third, with 211 points for Yamaha. That’s a huge margin, and realistically, Marquez is still the favourite, at least for now, especially as he seemed to really pull it together on the last day of the Qatar test. Having the first two rounds cancelled will also play into his hands, as it will give him time to recover. And if the Austin GP is indeed the first round this season, well, Marquez has only been beaten there once—it would be the perfect place to begin 2020, if he’s healthy.

Maverick Vinales will no doubt be very happy to have a bit more power on tap this season.

Yamaha has more power

For the past couple of years, Yamaha’s MotoGP bikes have had great handling, but lacked power. It seems, based on early-season results, that Yamaha has figured this problem out. The Ducatis are still faster in the long straights, but the Hondas and KTMs have much less advantage.

If so, this is going to make a huge impact. Yamaha’s factory riders Maverick  Viñales and Valentino Rossi have the new engine, as does satellite rider (soon to be a factory rider) Fabio Quartararo. Rossi’s days as a championship contender are almost certainly finished, but if you put Vinales or Quartararo on the right bike, then with a bit of luck they could launch a serious assault on the title. Quartararo is likely to show the most improvement; in his rookie season last year, he had 192 points aboard a second-rate bike.

What’s Ducati got up its sleeve this season? It seems an adjustable ride-height system is this year’s secret weapon.

Ducati has new techno-trickery

Last year, one of the big headlines early in the season was Ducati’s holeshot device, which optimized chassis performance for take-offs from the line. Similar technology has been around the MX scene for years, and it’s honestly surprising it’s taken so long to get to MotoGP.

Now it seems there’s a new technological ploy in play. In pre-season testing, Ducati’s been fielding a bike that seems to be lowering its suspension height for fast straights. Nobody involved with Ducati is talking about it, making for some amusing press conferences, but if you watch the testing footage, it certainly seems like something’s up with the bike. Will it make all the difference for Ducati in 2020? Doubful, but if it does prove to be game-changing, expect lots of complaining from the other teams.

Andrea Iannone is still on the Aprilia team, but is not expected to be racing at Qatar.

Aprilia still hasn’t fired Andrea Iannone

In actual on-track testing, things have looked positive for Aprilia — it seems the bike’s a step up from the dismal machines of the past few years. In other news, though, it seems Andrea Iannone’s doping scandal isn’t going away anytime soon, unless Aprilia kicks him to the curb.

Iannone’s been in trouble with anti-doping authorities ever since a failed test last November. He’s currently fighting a suspension, and it doesn’t look like he’ll be on-track at the Qatar opener. Yet Aprilia hasn’t fired him. Considering the amount of drama that follows Crazy Joe around (Iannone’s teammate Aleix Espargaro very publicly threw him under the bus after Iannone claimed all credit for the 2020 bike improvements), it would seem logical for Aprilia to just get rid of him and start working with someone else.

Everyone’s more-or-less similar in testing so far, although Yamaha and Suzuki are both faster than last year.

Everyone’s basically in the same ballpark

Although Yamaha and Suzuki are faster, and Honda’s looking a bit troubled, and Ducati’s got some new weird tech, and Aprilia’s got a basically-new bike, and KTM has the fastest rookie, the reality is that after all the pre-season testing, nobody’s looking like they’ll run away with the series this year. Yamaha’s consistently been at the front, but there’s only half a second between the six factory teams, and only a second between testing leader Maverick Vinales and a 19th-place Cal Crutchlow.

Expect this to change quickly once real racing begins. The teams here are smart enough to exploit any advantage they can gain, and will most certainly spread the field wider. However, it seems that for now, there are no absolute stinkers on the field.

1 COMMENT

  1. Press release:
    Sunday, 01 March 2020
    FIM, IRTA and Dorna regret to announce the cancellation of all MotoGP™ class sessions at the Grand Prix of Qatar, including the race.
    The ongoing coronavirus outbreak has resulted in Qatar travel restrictions being brought into force that affect passengers from Italy, amongst other countries. As of today, all passengers arriving at Doha on direct flights from Italy, or having been in Italy in the past 2 weeks, will be taken straight to quarantine for a minimum of 14 days. Italy clearly plays a vital role in the Championship and in the MotoGP™ class – both on track and off – and therefore the decision has been taken to cancel premier class competition.
    As the teams and riders of the Moto2™ and Moto3™ classes were already in Qatar for the three-day official test at Losail International Circuit earlier this week, the races of both categories will be possible. The lightweight and intermediate classes will therefore compete in their season opener from the 6th to 8th March. The same will apply to the Idemitsu Asia Talent Cup, which will have two races during the Qatar Grand Prix as originally planned. Stay tuned for a revised schedule.

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