Ceremonially, the troubles of 2020 were kicked out of the back door at the end of December, and a joyous 2021 welcomed in the front. The coming season, went the refrain, would be the payback for the privations.
Ceremony is one thing. Practicality another. MotoGP was preparing for at the very least a difficult start to the new season. The 2021 MotoGP calendar, announced on 6th November, repeated the record 20 races proposed last year, but was stressed to be provisional. The “to be decided” mid-summer round 11 was awaiting confirmation from the Brno circuit, where a need for a complete resurfacing compounded existing financial difficulties. Since then hopes have been dashed. Funding has not materialised, and the Czech Republic GP is off.
Also uncertain – the new Finnish Kymiring is “subject to homologation”; likewise one of the three reserve circuits, Indonesia’s Mandalika so-called street circuit (something of a misnomer), is still under construction. Another, Russia’s Igora Drive, is an unknown quantity; but the third – Portugal’s Algarve International Circuit – would be warmly welcomed after a highly successful first GP there closed 2020.
The privations were not as bad as they might have been, thanks to some fancy footwork, several repeated races on consecutive weekends, and the capacity of series promoters Dorna (amongst others) to take a financial body blow. The original world-wide 20-round premier-class calendar shrank back to 14, all in Europe, but there was a worthwhile championship ultimately lacking only in one aspect: spectators. The TV show made up for it.
MotoGP was not the only motorsport to show resilience and adaptability in 2020, but it was among the leaders. We can confidently hope there remains sufficient buoyancy to keep the boat afloat through the aftermath of the tempest, for there is unfinished business, and the prospect of a resumption of the close racing and championship of last year.
In spite of the reduced number of races, 2020 equalled a record nine different race winners, the title was in the balance until the penultimate race. Can the coming season be as close? Probably. The answer depends on two things. The timing of the return of Marc Marquez, and his race fitness.
There’s no doubt the Repsol Honda rider’s absence after a race-one crash enlivened the 2020 prospects of every other rider, and contributed to a feast of super-close racing. The doubts concerned the length of his absence, fuelled by an absence of clear information from rider, team and sponsor with a series of mumbled postponements. It was only after the final race that the extent of his medical problems was revealed, when he went for a third surgery (an eight-hour marathon with a third titanium plate and a bone graft) to try to get his snapped right humerus to unite.
I have personal experience of the notorious non-union humerus fracture, and just how long it can take to heal and regain full strength. More than one year and also three operations in my case. One might have expected the level of medical intervention available to multi-millionaire Marc might have yielded better results, but not so far.
The first race, scheduled for Qatar on 28th March, is four months after his third surgery. We just don’t know if he will be close to full strength by then. As well as the physical side, he will have missed a full season. Even at his level it is possible to become race-rusty.
He will face a fully refreshed gang of younger riders. At 28 for the first race, Marc is hardly ancient. Rossi, after all, soldiers on, turning 42 before starting out in his new satellite-team role. But only five other riders are older than Honda’s prospective returnee, and none of them by much.
By contrast, new champion Joan Mir will be but 23, and as well-rounded a package on his Suzuki as he was last year; and last year’s failed favourite Fabio Quartararo – now in Rossi’s place in the top factory Yamaha team – just 21. The Frenchman made mistakes in 2020, but still won three races, equalling his Yamaha satellite-team-mate Franco Morbidelli, and exceeded by nobody.
Morbidelli (26) is among the older challengers for 2021, the same age as Yamaha’s Maverick Vinales, KTM’s two-race winner Miguel Oliveira and new Ducati team leader Jack Miller. Alex Rins (Suzuki) will be 25, rising Italian Ducati rider Pecco Bagnaia 24.
Age is only incidental, in the end. Talent and determination are what count. And having a motorcycle with a wide enough range of expression to allow you to exploit them. With engine and aerodynamic development frozen in the wake of the pandemic-hit season, there is not much room for designers to move. But with Yamaha, Suzuki, Ducati and KTM all winning races in 2020, it is only Honda with plenty to prove. And their biggest concern is whether their top rider Marquez will be able to do it for them. Spectators or not, truncated calendar or not, the prospects for 2021 are alluring.