Belated, truncated and isolated, but better late than never, the MotoGP season resumes in Spain on Sunday 19th July.
MotoGP 2020 Preview
“Resumes” because the first round in Qatar took place right as the first COVID-19 travel restrictions bit. The smaller classes – 675cc Moto2 and 250cc Moto3 – happened to be there already, having just completed their final preseason test. The premier class, however, was absent, most having gone home for a short break after completing their own test just days before. They’ve been at home ever since, and the closest most have been to a racing bike is on the PlayStation.
A steady stream of cancellations and postponements preceded intensive negotiations and a new calendar, announced in the second week of June, replacing the original longest-ever 20-race list. As well as Qatar, there will be 13 more races (probably), with a few more venues on the reserve list, although with a promise that the 72nd motorcycle grand prix season will not extend beyond early December, it is hard to see how the four reserve flyaway rounds will fit in.
The schedule has been achieved by doubling up on consecutive weekends at several circuits: the 13 races will be held at eight circuits, four of them in Spain.
The last tests were back in March, when times suggested even closer racing than last year –19 riders within a second over the three days at Sepang, with a dozen in 2019. The 2020 number included several KTMs including that of fancied rookie Brad Binder, where last year only a single Aprilia interrupted the usual Honda/Ducati/Yamaha/Suzuki order.
The same question remains: can anyone beat defending six-times premier-class champion Marc Marquez? The Repsol Honda rider finished every race but one in 2019, never lower than second; in tests he languished, but for a second year straight was still recovering from major shoulder surgery. The break has given him (and fellow shoulder-surgery victims Taki Nakagami and Miguel Oliveira) welcome recovering time; by contrast Ducati’s biggest name Andrea Dovizioso suffered a broken collarbone in a motocross injury with barely three weeks to go before the first Jerez race.
Honda – more of the same
Marquez was rampant in 2019, but had to fend off unexpectedly severe pressure from a rapidly improving class rookie Fabio Quartararo in the latter races. He kept his cool and never succumbed.
Last year the Repsol-Honda team leader had adjusted his target from trying always to win to merely maximising points. He will doubtless do the same this year. He remains formidable.
But only as formidable as his RC213V allows. There were no major changes at tests, but the usual cocktail of aero, chassis and swing-arm variations. Honda’s step last year was improved engine power to match the Ducatis; a problem of twitchy corner entry seems yet to have been solved.
Marc Marquez, 27 in February, inked a four-year contract renewal at the start of the year. One possible threat of instability comes from new team-mate, his younger brother Álex Marquez, fresh from a narrow and long-awaited Moto2 title. The siblings are close, and during the lock-down it became clear that Álex’s contract will not be renewed next year, the factory ride going to Pol Espargaro. Marc will not approve.
A third factory-backed 2020 RCV goes to the usual back-up Cal Crutchlow in the LCR team, his role something of a crash-test dummy for HRC, and he has to wait, often impatiently, for the latest gear – last year it was the new carbon-fibre swing-arm. At 34, Cal is second only to Rossi in age.
Team-mate Nakagami is the second of the shoulder-surgery victims, having stopped early last year to allow himself more time for recovery. He had a strong start to his second season in 2019, but not strong enough for Honda to accede to his requests for a factory bike. He gets last year’s model, which was good enough for Marquez to take a massive title win.
Ducati – more of more
Andrea Dovizioso’s familiar role of runner up to Marquez seemed set again last year, although more distant than previously. He might find other challenges this year, and not only from other marques; Australian Jack Miller narrowly missed out on a 2020 factory seat, but his growing maturity means he is on for 2021, while his second year as top satellite Pramac Ducati team rider sees him again on top-level factory machinery.
His progress was to learn more about tyre preservation, for a more intelligent strategy. Exactly what anyone needs to challenge Dovizioso, whose racing wisdom at 34 earned him the nickname “professor”. Ultra-reliable, what Dovi lacked last year was a bike that turned well. He added only two new wins, at horsepower tracks in Qatar and Austria. Ducati chief Gigi Dall’Igna has promised attention to the bike’s corner-speed problems, and chassis revisions followed, but difficulty adapting to Michelin’s new softer rear tyre construction clouded the issue.
More clarity attended engine development. Last year Honda closed on the Desmodromic Ducati’s top speed advantage. The 2020 bike aims to redress that balance.
Danilo Petrucci retained his factory seat for 2020 after one win, but did not repeat the feat and is off to KTM next year. Second Pramac rider Pecco Bagnaia, fast at tests, struggled in his rookie season last year. This year, the former Moto2 champ has a full 2020 factory bike, and another chance.
Year-old bikes aren’t necessarily bad – at least that’s what Johann Zarco is hoping, in his first season with the Avintia Ducati team. The French double Moto2 champ is desperate to recover from the mis-step away from two highly promising Yamaha seasons to last year’s KTM debacle, where he didn’t even finish the year.
His team-mate, another Moto2 champion, is Tito Rabat, hoping not to be overshadowed by the vengeful Frenchman.
Yamaha – trying harder and harder
In 2015, Jorge Lorenzo rode a Yamaha to become the only rider to deny Marquez the championship. Slip-sliding away for the past three seasons or so, Yamaha have pulled out the stops in the attempt to regain former prominence.
Jorge is back with Yamaha for 2020, in a surprise volte face after his equally surprising sudden “retirement” after horrible struggles in 2019 on the Repsol Honda. It is only as a test rider, hoped-for occasional races denied by a post-COVID-19 ban on wild cards, but his smooth style is perfect for Yamaha, and he could be a significant help with development.
The M1, with the Suzuki the only in-line four among 90-degree V4s, lacks ultimate power and thus speed and acceleration; but sweet handling and high corner speed compensate. In the knife-edge MotoGP environment, small things can sway the balance.
After the significant staff reshuffle last year, this year’s bike promises a touch more speed, along with the usual chassis improvements (Yamaha’s carbon-fibre swing-arm still a work in progress); plus a new hole-shot device aping that pioneered by Ducati, compressing the suspension to work against wheelies off the line.
Yamaha’s strongest suit, however, is personnel. The factory Monster squad boasts not only the redoubtable multi-champion Rossi, 41 in February and still never to be under-rated; but also Maverick Vinales, who emerged as the more successful rider last year with two and almost three wins to Rossi’s none.
Over the winter, Vinales put his foot down. If Yamaha wouldn’t make him number one rider he would leave at the end of this year, with tempting possibilities at both Suzuki and Ducati. The Spaniard had grown increasingly tired of being stuck with Ross’s direction of development, which didn’t work for him
Yamaha in turn bit the bullet with Rossi. There would be no place for him in the 2021 factory squad, though if he wants there will still be a factory bike and factory support, in the satellite Petronas team.
In his place – Fabio Quartararo. This not only prevented the 21-year-old Frenchman from being tempted away, but also secured a rider who (like Lorenzo and later Zarco) made an ideal marriage with their M1 from the start. In fact, his first season was more sensational than either of those. Completely unfazed by any perceived machine weaknesses that troubled Rossi and Vinales, he racked up pole positions and podiums (six and seven respectively). On a full factory bike in the Petronas team, he is expected to be the strongest challenger to Marquez in 2020. And beyond.
Team-mate Franco Morbidelli (yet another Moto2 champion and another Rossi protégé) was overshadowed in the Malaysian-backed team’s first season.
Suzuki – smoother and faster
Two wins last year put Ecstar Suzuki rider Alex Rins in the top echelon, but he might have his hands fuller this year with team-mate Joan Mir, whose strong debut season last year was interrupted by injury caused by mechanical failure while testing after the summer break. Either way, the two Spaniards give the third Japanese factory a beefy line-up for their machine which has been unobtrusively improving. Similar in overall design to the Yamaha, it was a superior bike last year at most tracks.
Is this because of or in spite of the small scale of the effort? The factory continues to resist pressure from the Italian-run team to run a satellite squad, which would potentially speed up development or at least ease the pressure on the two young riders (Rins is 24, Mir 22).
Perhaps the lack of experience works in their favour. Neither has ridden any other MotoGP bike, neither has any expectations. And there is no doubt that the bike’s sweet handling and malleable power curve are helpful.
KTM – looking for the payoff
If spending money and expending engineering resources were all it took to succeed in MotoGP, KTM would without a doubt be counting the silverware by now. But while they’ve been getting closer, the final edge has proved elusive.
Yet more progress was evident at Sepang tests, however, with Pol Espargaro placed sixth, and diminutive test rider Dani Pedrosa putting the latest version in ninth place, barely three tenths off Quartararo’s top time. Along with improved power comes a better-balanced package. Strong top-ten finishes are on the cards.
One problem since KTM’s arrival in 2017 has been in attracting the best riders. Another has been the uncompromising nature of the bike. Like the Honda it needs forceful handling. This was what went wrong with Zarco, who had been threatening race wins on the Yamaha, but was completely at a loss on the KTM.
Pol Espargaro was left to do the hard work, which he did very respectably. Crashes and injuries have not made it easy for the younger of two brothers, but his efforts saw him snapped up by Honda for 2021. For 2020 he is the factory Red Bull team leader; alongside him the surprise choice of class rookie Brad Binder – former Moto3 champion (and almost Moto2 as well). The respected South African’s aggressive style could pay dividends on the Austrian V4.
Binder’s works-team recruitment was at the cost of his former Moto2 team-mate Miguel Oliveira, who served a worthwhile 2019 apprenticeship with the new KTM satellite team, also backed by Red Bull. Instead the Portuguese rider stays put, but with the promised of increased factory support. His new team-mate is another rookie: Spanish ex-Moto2 rider Iker Lecuona, with plenty to learn.
Aprilia – the emperor’s new clothes
The smallest budget has cost the Italian company dear since its return to MotoGP in 2015, with riders struggling not only for speed but also reliability. A new level of commitment last season saw the arrival of ex-Ferrari team manager Massimo Rivola, freeing his predecessor Romano Albesiano to concentrate on engineering duties.
For 2020, an all-new engine and chassis abandons the 75-degree V4 used hitherto. This was faithful to the Aprilia road-bike design, but any advantages conferred by compact dimensions were lost by restricted induction. A 90-degree V4 offers straighter ports, a roomier airbox, and perfect primary balance. Aprilia now joins the rest of the V-brigade with that format.
Early test results were promising for faithful warrior Aleix Espargaro, but reliability issues with an early version of the new engine clouded the issue. Like KTM, however, Aprilia are not constrained by the rule that freezes engine development during the season, so they can press ahead. However each rider is limited to nine engines altogether (compared with seven for factory teams).
Espargaro is a real battler. And his team-mate? It is not certain who that will be. Last year Andrea Iannone joined the team, and had serious trouble adapting to the bike. Then during the winter, he was suspended after failing a drugs test, and at the time of writing was still under suspension after the B-sample of urine also showed signs of a banned steroid substance. Iannone continues to protest his innocence, but so far to no avail. His place at the opening rounds went to factory tester Bradley Smith.
And all-new motorcycle might soon be looking for better riders, rather than the other way round, as usual at Aprilia.
Moto2 – triumphant again
With the top two last year – Marquez and Binder – gone to MotoGP, the fancied runners in the second Triumph-powered season will renew battle between the dominant Kalex chassis and a few Speed Ups, MV Agustas and NTSs, KTM having pulled out.
The regular Speed Up pair of Jorge Navarro and Fabio Di Giannantonio are joined by interesting rookie Aron Canet and MotoGP refugee Hafizh Syahrin. MV’s top prospect is doubtless Stefano Manzi, strong at the end of last season.
But the main men are among the 22-strong Kalex faction, and it is an impressive list. Last year’s race winners Lorenzo Baldassarri, Luca Marini, Thomas Luthi and Augusto Fernandez are backed by rising stars Remy Gardner, Jorge Martin and Enea Bastianini.
Last year’s title contenders in this class have also moved up, with Canet and Dalla Porta in Moto2. KTM and Honda again vie for honours, with 15 of the former backed by two rebranded Husqvarnas up against 14 Hondas.
Those riding Austrian machines will be hoping that KTM’s promise of power-up engines will be fulfilled after struggling against the faster Hondas last year.
It’s the hardest class to predict, but Jaume Masia’s switch from KTM to Honda will be interesting, and he joins seasoned runners like Tony Arbolino, John McPhee and Tatsuki Suzuki on the NSR, as well as last year’s fast rookie Ai Ogura.
KTM’s big names include VR46 teamsters Celestino Vietti and Andrea Migno, as well as race winner Albert Arenas; while the fast but erratic Romano Fenati switches to Husqvarna with Max Biaggi’s team.
Images courtesy of Motorsport Images.
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