Mat Oxley’s 2020 MotoGP Top Ten

MotoGP

Joan Mir won the 2020 MotoGP World Championship, but was he the strongest rider last season?

Franco Morbidelli, 2020

Morbidelli won three races on an indie team bike – that’s never been done before

Petronas SRT

What’s the point of a journalist conjuring up his own MotoGP top ten when the championship does exactly that?

Not much really, but looking beyond race wins, podiums and points allows us to take into account other factors, like the quality of a rider’s machinery, the strength of his back-up crew and the depth of his experience.

This year’s MotoGP top ten is a strange one, because for the first time in two decades neither Marc Márquez nor Valentino Rossi feature. Márquez, because he only started one race and didn’t finish any, Rossi, because for the first time since he joined the premier class in 2000 he doesn’t deserve to be considered one of the best riders in the championship.

 

1: Franco Morbidelli

Morbidelli was overshadowed by rookie team-mate Fabio Quartararo during his first season at Petronas Yamaha. While Quartararo became Marc Márquez’s toughest rival in 2019 Morbidelli reconfigured his riding technique to take advantage of the Yamaha’s strong points after spending his first premier-class season on a Honda.

Quartararo rides very much on natural ability, perhaps too much. Morbidelli goes to work in a different style – he takes his time to find the limit, working towards it step by step, never trying to run before he can walk. Only once he’s got the bike where he wants it and only once he feels comfortable taking it to the limit does he find that something extra.

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Morbidelli had a point to prove in 2020. He was denied the chance to race Yamaha’s latest-spec YZR-M1, so he went into the season riding a second-hand bike. Indie M1s have traditionally performed well, with Johann Zarco and others onboard, but had never won a MotoGP race, until Morbidelli came along and won three.

That was hugely impressive, because while Morbidelli may have Ramon Forcada on his side he doesn’t have the vital electronics and data resources enjoyed by factory riders.

His three victories – at Misano, Aragon and Valencia – were achieved in the usual Yamaha style: leading from start to finish, with no one getting in the way to disturb his wide, sweeping corner entries or overheat his front tyre.

Morbidelli will once again ride 2019-spec M1s in 2021. Whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing depends on the quality of the 2021 factory bikes.

 

2: Joan Mir

JMir20

Mir and the GSX-RR look superb together – totally at one

Very few riders have won the premier-class championship in their first or second years in the category. That’s one reason almost nobody expected Mir to challenge for the title in 2020.

After an unsteady start – he crashed out of the first race on only the second lap – Mir didn’t make another mistake all year. He was a joy to watch on the Suzuki – all aggressive body language and hunched deep into the bike – as he transformed himself from dark horse to title favourite.

It’s never easy challenging for the MotoGP title, especially when you only scored your first premier-class podium a quarter of the way through the season, but Mir let nothing faze him. He kept racking up the podiums and points, while never allowing the pressure of his title hopes get to him.

Mir’s breakthrough in riding technique was mimicking Alex Rins’ super-smooth throttle technique to maximise tyre life. And he’s still learning, so he should be even stronger next season.

 

3: Jack Miller

Michelin’s new rear slick changed the balance of power in 2020, helping inline-fours to dominate MotoGP like never before. The Ducati was worst affected by the new tyre, so Miller fought an uphill battle throughout the season.

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Somehow he managed to ride around the issues much more effectively than any other Ducati rider, coming within fractions of a second of victory at Red Bull Ring and Valencia. Most likely it’s his dirt-riding upbringing that makes the difference, just as it helped Casey Stoner when he rode for Ducati, using lots of rear brake to get the bike turned.

Miller had three DNFs that weren’t his fault – Quartararo’s tear-off forced him out of the second Misano race, an engine failure did for him at Le Mans and Brad Binder took him out of the second Aragon race. Without those DNFs he would have challenged for the title.

 

4: Alex Rins

Most people had Álex Rins down as a title contender, but his hopes were torn apart before the racing had even begun. Rins crashed during qualifying for the season-opening Spanish GP, fracturing and dislocating a shoulder.

Would he have been champion if fate hadn’t been so cruel? Quite possibly, because the Suzuki was the most Michelin-friendly bike on the grid and he knows how to get the best out of the bike and the tyres.

Rins was the first part of Suzuki’s far-sighted programme of betting on young riders – bringing rookies into MotoGP that could be moulded to fit the GSX-RR and educated into Suzuki’s way of doing things.

During 2018 and 2019 Rins was Suzuki’s top-performing rider and he didn’t enjoy losing that status in 2020. There is a tension in the Suzuki garage – Rins and Mir rarely share a word – and it will be interesting to see how that plays out in 2021.

 

5: Fabio Quartararo

Fquartararo

Quartararo – when he was up he was up and when he was down he was down

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Rarely – if ever – has a rider led half a MotoGP season and ended up eighth overall. The big question about Quartararo’s up-and-down campaign was how much of his inconsistency was down to the rider and how much was down to the bike?

Certainly he was much more consistent riding a 2019 YZR-M1 in 2019 than he was riding a 2020 M1 in 2020. Last season he scored three victories and those were his only appearances on the podium. The previous year he achieved seven podiums.

The problem of course is that it’s very difficult to separate man and machine in these circumstances, because each affects the other. It’s the virtuous or vicious circle thing – when the bike is right, the rider gains confidence and becomes a better rider, when the bike is wrong he loses confidence and becomes a worse rider.

 

6: Miguel Oliveira

Oliveira is MotoGP’s new Andrea Dovizioso. The Portuguese is a real thinker, who works calmly and steadily with his crew and doesn’t over-ride his motorcycle. He’s fast and smooth and only lacks one ingredient to be the complete racer – sometimes he needs to be a little crazier.

Last season only Morbidelli and Quartararo won more races than Oliveira, who scored two victories in very different circumstances. At the second race at Red Bull Ring he watched and waited behind Pol Espargaró and Jack Miller, leaping past the Spaniard and the Aussie when they clashed at the final corner. At Portimao he led from start to finish, never allowing anyone a look in.

 

7: Pol Espargaró

In the absence of Marc Marquez no one hung it out there like Espargaró did in 2020. The Spaniard rides with his heart like no one else on the grid and he is always happy to ride beyond the limit and fight to the end. That attitude can make up for many machine deficiencies.

Espargaró had to deal with younger KTM riders Brad Binder and Oliveira scoring the RC16’s first victories, but he scored five podiums, more than anyone apart from Mir and Morbidelli.

 

8: Andrea Dovizioso

Andrea Dovizioso, 2020

Dovizioso had a tough final season with Ducati

Ducati

Dovizioso was championship runner-up in 2017, 2018 and 2019, so Marquez’s exit should’ve made him world champion. But it didn’t because he was done for by Michelin’s latest rear slick. The Italian explained time and again that the only technical change for 2020 was the tyre, which prevented him from sliding his Ducati into and out of corners, which had been the secret to his speed during the previous three seasons.

Dovizioso won the fourth race of the year at Red Bull Ring, but it was all downhill from there. And like Quartararo it became difficult to separate bike issues from rider issues, because when the bike doesn’t do what you want it to do it’s impossible to remain unaffected.

 

9: Maverick Viñales

Viñales was once again MotoGP’s great under-achiever. He is one of the fastest riders out there and yet he scored only one victory – at Misano Two – which was the third and last time he stood on the podium all year.

Like Quartararo he suffered from the M1’s erratic performance, but there’s no doubt that he’s erratic himself. Viñales struggles to keep cool when things aren’t going exactly as he’s like and that’s a huge problem at a time when two-tenths of a second can drop you from the second row of the grid to the fifth

 

10: Brad Binder

Binder’s amazing adaptation from Moto2 to MotoGP had him lapping fast enough to make the podium on his premier-class debut at Jerez and put him on top of the podium three races later at Brno.

MotoGP became harder for the rookie after that. Perhaps the unexpected victory played tricks with him, but he struggled to manage KTM’s RC16 from one track to another. Indeed one of the main reasons he won at Brno was because there was so little grip and he found the RC16 easier to ride when there wasn’t much grip.