MotoGP 2020: a year of change, loss and hope


There’s never been a season like it – Covid-19 made sure of that – but MotoGP 2020 will also be remembered for other reasons

Cal Crutchlow, LCR Honda 2020 Portuguese GP

Crutchlow after his final burn-out with LCR Honda on Sunday

LCR Honda

“The night after the first race at Valencia it all went to pieces, it went a bit wrong, with me, Jack [Miller], Dako [Dakota Mamola, Randy’s son] and Sam and Alex [Lowes],” said Cal Crutchlow at Portimao. “The funniest part of the night was at quarter to five in the morning when we half broke into Joan Mir’s motorhome. It was, like, half open, so we manage to prise the door open a bit and get in there. We thought he was asleep, so we wanted to wake him up, because obviously he had won the race, but he wasn’t there. So then we were trying to find his winner’s trophy to take pictures, but he’d taken the trophy home. It was a good night – it was nice to have a big one before I leave, because I’m off home tonight.”

And with that, the grittiest, most bloody-minded rider in MotoGP climbed off his Honda RC213V for the last time, boarded a private jet and flew home to the Isle of Man to start a new life with wife Lucy and daughter Willow.

Change is in the air in MotoGP. Crutchlow wasn’t the only one saying his farewells on Sunday. Andrea Dovizioso also made his exit, bringing the curtain down on a career that began at Mugello in June 2001. Tito Rabat too, although you could argue that the former Moto2 champion’s MotoGP career effectively ended when he hit that lake of water at rain-lashed Silverstone in August 2018.

There are always goodbyes at the end of every season: riders who’ve had enough, mechanics who’ve had enough. Living life on the tour, living out of a suitcase, splitting your time between hotel, rent-a-car and racetrack eventually gets too much for even the hardiest addicts of burning gasoline.

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One of those addicts who has finally kicked the habit is the paddock’s most famous mechanic. On Sunday afternoon Alex Briggs put away his MotoGP spanners for the last time.

Briggs gets the addiction thing. “My name is Alex Briggs and I travel too much,” he told me on Saturday, grinning widely, because he has worked his way through that mental process, from the terror of stopping doing what you love to the delight of realising that a calmer, slower life at home is going to be wonderful.

People who have worked in MotoGP for decades become addicted to the thrills of the racing life and they also get institutionalised. It’s frightening to envisage life outside the institution, but if you can make that leap of faith you’re going to be alright. It’s a bit like leaving the army.

Crutchlow and Dovizioso have travelled that same mental journey this year and eventually both arrived at the same destination.

“I’m happy to finish – I’m done,” said Crutchlow after completing Sunday’s race, his 168th GP. “Honestly, I was contemplating continuing, but halfway through the year, with my injuries and everything, I knew I’m done with full-season racing.”

Dovizioso felt the same after parking his Ducati Desmosedici for the last time. “For sure I will miss a lot of things but I also feel light at this moment,” he said after his 327th GP.

That feeling of lightness was the absence of that terrible weight of stress, pressure and fear that every motorcycle racer carries on his shoulders 365 days a year. Of course, they are aware of that load when they’re racing, but only when it’s gone do they realise its weight, so all of sudden they’re walking on air, enjoying a dizzying sense of freedom.

Over the decades I’ve seen the faces of so many top racers visibly change when they retire. The tension dissolves, the muscles relax and the mind finally switches out of kill-or-be-killed mode.

Pro racers think about racing all the time. Mick Doohan once told me that even when he was enjoying the offseason, thousands of miles away from a racetrack, he still thought about racing 90 per cent of the time. Even when you’re kicking back with friends, having a few drinks, the racer within is still shouting at you from the back of your mind. You never get to fully switch off.

Valentino Rossi, 2020 Portuguese GP

Rossi and Briggs say goodbye, after 21 years together


The fear is there too. Racers always convince themselves that it will never happen to them, but that’s only their conscious mind at work. Their subconscious isn’t so easily fooled. Consider Portimao – Crutchlow, Dovizioso and the rest of the MotoGP grid exceeded 200mph more than 140 times each over the weekend. There’s a lot of stress and risk right there.

Crutchlow has had 179 crashes since he started his MotoGP career in 2011, and those are just race-weekend accidents, so he must’ve jumped off at least 200 times, tests included. That’s a whole lot of pain, some of which will stay with him for the rest of his life.

During preseason testing at Sepang he was still in macho racer mode.

“I like to suffer,” he told me. “I have a hardness about me that if it hurts I want it to hurt more, which is the worst possible mentality you can have as a motorcycle racer, but it works for me.”

Five new MotoGP winners in 2020 can only mean there’s a major generational shift happening.

Well, it worked for him for long enough. We all hope Crutchlow, Dovizioso, Briggs and anyone else who decided that enough was enough on Sunday enjoy their retirement.

Change was already happening before Crutch and Dovi made their excuses and left the party.

There were five new winners in MotoGP during 2020. That’s never happened before, which can only mean there’s a major generational shift happening.

Brad Binder, Joan Mir, Franco Morbidelli, Miguel Oliveira and Fabio Quartararo all climbed to the top step of the podium for the first time during the season. Indeed these first-timers won two-thirds of the races during 2020. That’s a remarkable shift in the balance of power, from the old-timers to the new kids.

Thirty-something racers were quite a thing in MotoGP for a while – Crutchlow, Dovizioso, Jorge Lorenzo and Valentino Rossi running at the front and winning races. That era seems over now because those five youngsters will only get stronger next year. All of a sudden 30 looks old. And as for 40…

This hasn’t happened by chance. In recent seasons most factories have been obsessed with youth, desperate to find the next golden nugget, the next Marc Márquez, from the Moto2 and Moto3 classes. Suzuki has been the most successful in this, signing Mir and Álex Rins when they were young, so they could mould them into their own kind of MotoGP rider.

The loss of Márquez at the season-opening MotoGP race at Jerez wasn’t the first loss that MotoGP suffered in 2020. The global Covid-19 pandemic forced the world into lockdown, leaving governments and authorities with no option but to ban mass gatherings. Thus MotoGP 2020 went ahead beneath empty grandstands.

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Every rider, team boss and engineer mourned the loss of the fans, but there are always two sides to every story.

“Having no fans is honestly sad from many points of view,” said Aprilia’s chief engineer Romano Albesiano. “But also there was less stress working in the paddock and simply getting to the track became super-easy, because we all know how difficult that can be in normal times. Of course I’m not happy about having no fans at the races. The target is to return to the normal situation as soon as possible, but to be objective we have to say that there were negatives and positives to this.”

And whatever anyone else might tell you, there isn’t a single person in the paddock who didn’t think the same way during 2020.

Fewer traffic jams, less chaos in the paddock may have made thing easier for the workers, but there’s never been a tougher time to work in MotoGP. The post-Qatar GP lockdown was followed by an insanely intense period of 14 races over 19 weekends, between July 19 and November 22.

Many thought the 2020 season would never happen and when the second wave of Covid swept across Europe. Even more assumed the revamped championship wouldn’t go all the way. At every race, there were rumours that the next race or the one after that wouldn’t happen due to new lockdown measures introduced in a desperate attempt to slow the spread of the virus.

Ducati Corsa, 2020 Portuguese GP

Ducati says goodbye to Dovizioso and Danilo Petrucci at Portimao


Riders lived with a new kind of fear. A few dozen paddock staff contracted the virus during the season but not of them were irreplaceable. Riders, however, are irreplaceable, at least those that are fighting for championships.

Covid helped decide the outcome of at least one MotoGP title. Excitable young Italian Tony Arbolino finished the Moto3 championship just four points behind Alberto Arenas, after missing the Aragon GP, not because he had Covid but because he sat within a few rows of someone who did on the flight home from Le Mans. Italian track-and-trace laws forced him to quarantine for 14 days, so he was at home while Arenas raced at Aragon.

Everyone in the paddock had to make sacrifices in 2020. During the last pair of triple-headers many mechanics and team staff never got home and barely had a day off. Riders and staff from outside Europe didn’t get to see family or loved ones all season.

Briggs, for example, left his home in Australia in mid-July and won’t return to Australia until the end of this week. Even then he must spend 14 days in a designated quarantine hotel before undergoing a final PCR test. Only then will he get to home to see his wife and children, just in time for Christmas.

“It’s like being in the navy,” added Albesiano. “From some points of view it’s super-stressful because we leave home for a long time, so it’s hard for our family and relatives. On the hand, for the group working at the track it improves group building and the feeling of being part of the group, so from this point of view it’s good.

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Every member of the paddock, from the big bosses at Dorna all the way to the mechanics, cooks, helpers and gofers, deserve a huge vote of thanks for making MotoGP 2020 happen, against the greatest of odds.

And what of the future? Talk of viable vaccines gets louder with every day. Many experts believe that the world will start to find a way out of this mess by the spring or summer of 2021.

“While the next four months will be difficult, the promising vaccines, better testing and treatments and greater knowledge we now have about how to control this virus will make the situation far better by March,” wrote professor of global public health Devi Sridhar last week.

“The ultimate exit strategy from this pandemic will involve a safe and effective vaccine, treatments for those who have Covid-19, and cheap mass testing. We already have some of these tools, with more expected in the coming months… The progress of science means we will have a window of opportunity to break this destructive cycle of lockdowns in the spring. That should give us all cause for hope and optimism.”

The 2021 MotoGP season is due to start in Qatar on March 28, later than usual, because every week during this next phase of the pandemic will count.

However, already some events look like falling victim to the pandemic. Rumours suggest that the first pre-season tests, scheduled for Sepang, Malaysia, in late February, won’t happen, because non-essential travel to the country is unlikely to be allowed.

The Argentine and U.S grands prix, scheduled for April, are also threatened. The season will most likely start in Qatar, under strict Covid protocols, then move to Europe and stay in Europe until the Covid cloud finally lifts. At least there is hope.