‘You can’t tell a tiger he shouldn’t go for the kill’: 2020 MotoGP Spanish Grand Prix

MotoGP

Marc Márquez, Cal Crutchlow and Álex Rins in hospital, Fabio Quartararo, Maverick Viñales and Andrea Dovizioso on the podium – the 2020 Spanish Grand Prix at Jerez was one hell of a comeback for MotoGP

Maverick Vinales pursued by Marc Marquez at the start of the 2020 MotoGP Spanish Grand Prix

Márquez chases Viñales into Turn Two – despite the Viñales’s softer front tyre Márquez was soon in the lead

Repsol Honda

The Covid-19 crisis has already taken a terrible toll on the world and last weekend, at the Spanish Grand Prix in Jerez, it was MotoGP’s turn to suffer.

A fortnight ago the Formula 1 world championship had a similarly chaotic start to its 2020 season. During the Austrian F1 Grand Prix there were no less than three safety car deployments, when it’s rare to have more than one.

Blame it on what you will, but several months of pent-up aggression, of racers going out of their minds with itchy trigger hands and feet would seem like a pretty good explanation for the F1 and MotoGP mayhem.

“Lockdown has wrecked my mind!” World Superbike rider Scott Redding told me a few weeks ago. “I want to be racing! I want to feel the hunger, feel the tension and feel the drive and pressure to be successful. I’m f**king gagging for it. It’s the adrenaline, that’s what I really miss. It’s all gone now, so it’s a bland day-to-day life.”

If only the Spanish GP had been a bit blander. Instead steaming-hot Jerez was carnage – a horrible reminder of how MotoGP riders walk the line each and every time they ride out of pit lane.

In the space of 24 hours MotoGP 2020 was turned upside down, chucked in the gravel trap and stretchered to the medical centre.

No one else in the history of bike racing has been better at saving the impossible, but there was no escape for MotoGP’s very own Houdini

It was like the racing had been time-warped back to the awesome but agonising days of 500cc two-strokes, those most malevolent of motorcycles that munched their way through riders like there was a war going on.

On Saturday afternoon Álex Rins went down hard at Turn 11, breaking a shoulder and tearing tendons. During Sunday morning warm-up Cal Crutchlow took a nasty fall at Turn Eight, banging his head and fracturing the problematic scaphoid bone in his left wrist. And in the final laps of the race Marc Márquez danced on the edge of the abyss once too often as he fought back from another of his magic saves. His race ended with a horrific crash, which broke his right humerus, another potentially complicated fracture.

The Márquez highside was from another age. It was the kind of blood-curdling, bone crunching accident that Kevin Schwantz, Wayne Rainey, Mick Doohan and others used to dread.

It was like he had pressed the ejector button.

With four laps to go Márquez was accelerating from the Turn Two hairpin into the sweeping Turn Three left-hander, his rear tyre painting the asphalt as he entered the turn, then regaining grip as he eased the throttle towards the apex. It was at the apex, as he kissed the paint on the inside of the corner, that the rear tyre let go in a big way.

Once the energy had drained out of the slide the tyre regained traction, creating that nightmarish whiplash effect that snapped both bike and rider sideways and into the air, into the lap of the gods.

No one else in the history of bike racing has been better at saving the impossible, but this time there was no escape for MotoGP’s very own Houdini, who took a savage beating in the gravel trap, finally coming to rest a few metres from where Mick Doohan ended his career in May 1999.

Why didn’t the Magneti Marelli traction control do its work? Perhaps because the fastest riders prefer to turn down the anti-spin, which can get in the way when they’re using wheelspin to turn the bike, and rely instead on carefully configured torque maps.

During practice and qualifying Márquez was frequently breathtakingly sideways through the 125mph/200km/h Turn 12, using wheelspin to point his Honda RC213V out of the corner and onto the kerb, where he stood on the footpegs and rode it like a rodeo rider.

Did the trackside paint cause the crash? Impossible to say right now, but MotoGP paint is usually grippier than the asphalt, which is why some riders now use the outside kerbs for traction control.

It was an awe-inspiring fightback that reminded everyone why he’s in a class of his own on sheer speed.

All we do know is that Márquez was all in at the time, like he had been throughout the entire race. In fact, as he’s been throughout his entire career.

His comeback from his lap-five Turn Four excursion – during which he showcased formidable Dakar skills – was reminiscent of his ride at the 2018 Argentine GP, when his relentless push to the front followed a ride-through penalty.

Once again he was like a runaway train, his pace consistently several tenths faster than the winner’s, never mind the fact that he had to duck and dive inside and outside a dozen of the fastest riders on the planet. And this time he didn’t barge into anyone. After he went AWOL on lap five he was down in 16th 8.4 seconds behind the leader. By the time his heroic but ultimately doomed ride came to an end he was third, just five seconds down on winner Fabio Quartararo. It was an awe-inspiring fightback that reminded everyone why he’s in a class of his own on sheer speed.

However, each rider he attacked brought greater risks – and when second-placed Maverick Viñales got the signal that the world champion was coming he increased his pace by several tenths. Should Márquez have been happy with a podium finish? Easy to say…

As one fan commented on social media, “You can’t tell a tiger he shouldn’t go for the kill”.

And as Pol Espargaró said after the race, “We know Marc, he is always on the limit and this is what makes him. Anyone who says Marc took too many risks doesn’t know about motorcycle racing, because he’s made his results with the way he is”.

Márquez suffered a transverse diaphyseal break of his right upper arm. Such fractures can bring complications through nerve damage and blood supply issues. He will go under the knife of Dr Xavier Mir in Barcelona tomorrow. Most likely Mir will plate the injury, but plating the humerus can be tricky, risking the all-important radial nerve.

During the weeks leading up to the delayed start of the 2020 championship – eight months and two days after Valencia 2019 – every single rider agreed that during this shortened season it would be more important than ever to avoid injury.

Already it seems that MotoGP’s most talented and exciting rider is out of the 2020 title hunt, barring miracles. And now, if you were in any doubt before, you know why Repsol Honda has signed Espargaró for 2021. HRC needs a double-barrelled MotoGP team with more than one bullet in the breech.

 

Maverick Vinales leads in the early stages of the 2020 MotoGP Spanish Grand Prix at Jerez

A strange sight – Quartararo and Miller chase Viñales in front of empty stands in Jerez’s stadium section

Petronas SRT

Smooth-operator Quartararo finally gets his first win

Quartararo’s first premier-class success was beautifully done and came as no great shock. It had been coming ever since he snatched Márquez’s youngest-ever MotoGP pole record at Jerez last year. More impressive was the cool, calm and collected manner of the 21-year-old’s victory, after a messy first two laps during which he went backwards at a worrying rate.

Yamaha’s new holeshot device – worth two tenths of a second in the all-important drag race from the grid – didn’t get him to the first corner first. Both Viñales and Márquez came past, then Jack Miller at Turn Six and Pecco Bagnaia at Turn Two on the second lap.

His carefully laid plans were falling apart because the asphalt – scrubbed clean of MotoGP rubber by the earlier Moto2 race – didn’t give him the grip he needed to unleash the Yamaha’s superior corner-entry and mid-corner speed.

“The track felt so strange,” he said. “After the Moto2 race the grip is normally low, but I didn’t expect that much of a drop. The pace was almost one second slower [than FP4] and it was difficult to understand the track.”

When both Pramac Ducatis came past it seemed like Quartararo was living the nightmare he had feared all weekend.

Related article

“As soon as the Yamaha has a Ducati in front of us we lose our potential,” he said on Thursday. “They are faster on the straights, so we can’t use our corner speed.”

He could’ve been forgiven for panicking, but he didn’t. It took him two laps to repass both Ducatis, then he settled into a smooth, unruffled pace and went after Viñales, who was already in trouble with his soft front tyre.

The soft front seemed like a mad choice, when every other rider on the grid except team-mate Valentino Rossi, had chosen the hard. Viñales confirmed afterwards that the softer tyre – which nearly had him on the ground several times once it got hot and bothered – had cost him the chance of winning the race.

In fact it was a great choice, because it gave him the confidence to push hard from lights outs. If he had gone with the hard, Márquez would have disappeared into the distance in the early laps and wouldn’t have needed to take the risks that had him off the track on lap five.

With both Márquez and Viñales out of the fight Quartararo had an easy run to what will almost certainly be the first of many MotoGP victories. Remember he might have won four races last year if Márquez hadn’t been around, because he came very close to beating the Spaniard at Misano, Buriram, Motegi and Valencia.

No doubt Quartararo – whose career was falling apart until he won the 2018 Catalan Moto2 race – is now in the race for the 2020 world championship. Even during his rookie season, riding a lower-spec YZR-M1, he was stronger than Viñales, because he has a cooler head and a better ability to adapt to changing grip conditions, a vital talent during the Michelin era. Perhaps Viñales has improved since then, but so too has Quartararo.

Does Yamaha’s first one-two since Le Mans 2017 mean the factory has finally dragged itself out of the doldrums where it’s been stuck ever since the advent of the triple M era – Michelin and Magneti Marelli – in 2016? Maybe, maybe not. Because just as Quartararo would’ve finished second at Jerez last year if his gear shifter hadn’t broken, so too would he have finished second this year if Márquez hadn’t got carried away in the first few laps.

Jerez flatters the Yamaha. Its superior corner speed – through Jerez’s faster turns: Four, Five, Seven, Eight, 11 and 12 – makes it the perfect bike for the track. Quartararo and Viñales will have a great chance of another win at Jerez on Sunday, but after that things may get more complicated

There is little doubt that Quartararo is the most talented French Grand Prix racer in more than seven decades of world championship racing. It’s curious that it’s taken the French this long, because France was the first nation of bike racing. French riders, teams and machines dominated the first major competitions – the Coupe Internationale of 1904 and 1905 – and much petrolhead vocabulary – carburettor, for example – comes from the French.

 

Andrea Dovozioso on his Ducati GP 20 during the 2020 MotoGP Spanish Grand Prix at Jerez

Dovizioso won the battle with Espargaró and Morbidelli for the final podium place

Ducati

It’s a sign – Ducati’s best Jerez performance since 2006

It could be argued that Ducati’s Jerez race was better than Yamaha’s. If the Andalusian circuit is just right for the M1 it is very wrong for the Desmosedici, because while the inline-four M1 loves long, sweeping corners the V4 Ducati hates them. So much so that Andrea Dovizioso’s and Jack Miller’s third- and four-place finishes were Ducati’s best Jerez result since Loris Capirossi won there in March 2006.

This suggests that Ducati has made a bigger step forward into 2020 than Yamaha. And if that’s the case the Bologna factory has its best chance of winning the MotoGP title since Casey Stoner hightailed it to Honda at the end of 2010.

Dovizioso – still hurting from a recently plated collarbone and still engaged in trench contract warfare with Ducati – played down the Desmosedici’s performance throughout the weekend.

“I’m still not that good in the middle of the corner,” he said on Saturday. “I’m riding in a different way to last year and I still don’t have the confidence to do what I need to do.”

That caused the Italian – runner-up to Márquez in 2017, 2018 and 2019 – problems in the race. “I was exhausted because I couldn’t ride the bike the way I want and I’m still not comfortable on the bike.”

Related article

Dovizioso’s problems come more from Michelin’s 2020 rear slick than from the GP20. The new rear tyre features a softer construction that forms a bigger footprint for more grip, which isn’t necessarily a good thing when you need to slide the rear into corners.

This was Jorge Lorenzo talking in 2018, when he was flying on the Desmosedici: “You have to use a lot of rear brake, especially in corner entry, because if both wheels are in line and not sliding, the bike wants to go straight to the gravel. You need to steer the bike like a boat, with the rear.”

Miller – his 2021 Ducati factory team contract already signed – was grinning all weekend. “The good thing with the GP20 is that I have a good feeling with the front,” he said on Friday. “I’m able to understand, ‘Oh she’s tucking’, so she’s not going away unexpectedly. I can feel what’s happening.” It’s impossible to overestimate the importance of this facet of chassis performance in getting the best out of Michelin’s current front slick

“The championship is wide open,” he said after the race. “Here we didn’t see the benefit of our bike, but there’s a couple of tracks coming up where we’ll be able to let its stretch its legs and show what she’s really got.”

The 25-year-old Aussie is referring to Brno and Red Bull Ring – venues for round three, four and five – which are known as MotoGP’s open-air dynos, where the Ducati’s close-to-300-horsepower engine can really do its thing.

Miller had one small but significant problem on Sunday – the end of his GP20’s right handlebar, where the brake protector attaches to the clip-on between the throttle grip and bar end – which he caused numbness in his hands and probably cost him the podium.

Towards the end of each corner Miller shifts himself forward by dropping his inside shoulder, which pulls him over the front of the bike to reduce wheelies on the exit. This contortion makes it impossible to hold the inside handlebar in the normal way. This was a particular problem at Jerez, with so many long corners.

“At this track you’re always outside of the bike and in modern MotoGP you hang half your hand off the grip going through the corners,” he explained. “Because of the issue [with the brake protector attachment] my hands went numb, so I couldn’t be smooth on the throttle, so I was a bit of a sitting duck.

“Without that I feel I should’ve been on the podium. The heat made the race physically and mentally draining. My body was absolutely cooking, with the other bikes hanging around me. My hands were boiling, feet were boiling, but I never felt out of breath.”

Ducati is putting more resources than ever behind Miller. If can keep his cool he may just turn out to be the factory’s number one hope for the title.

 

One giant leap for KTM

If Ducati has taken another small step towards winning the MotoGP world title then KTM has taken one giant leap. During winter testing there was little sign that the Austrian factory’s 2020 RC16, with its all-new chassis, would be much better than the 2019 iteration, so perhaps Jerez was a one-off, but Pol Espargaró and rookie Brad Binder were so strong throughout the weekend that they will surely be in the hunt at other venues.

“We were faster than the Ducati everywhere – on the brakes, entering the corners and corner speed.”

Espargaró was buzzing after the race, finishing 6.9 seconds behind Quartararo and less than a second off the podium, following a spirited battle with Miller, Dovizioso and Franco Morbidelli.

“At one point I thought I had the speed to catch Maverick, but the problem was that overtaking a factory Ducati was an impossible mission,” he said. “We were faster than the Ducati everywhere – on the brakes, entering the corners and corner speed. They just had a bit better traction and the only place they were faster than me was on the straight. Now we are on the same level as the others – we are in the game now.”

Espargaró’s problem was his overheated front tyre, which increased pressure, thus shrinking the contact patch. “The temperature was massive, because I was behind the Ducatis.”

KTM needs to work on horsepower for the next few races – the factory still runs under concession rules, so unlike Ducati, Honda, Suzuki and Yamaha (which have their engine specs frozen until 2022) it can introduce new engine specs during the season.

 

Brad Binder during the 2020 MotoGP Spanish Grand Prix

Binder was nothing less than sensational on the latest RC16

Red Bull

Binder’s astonishing debut – he had winning pace!

Despite all the drama unfolding out front, Binder’s MotoGP debut stunned pit lane. Incredible but true, the 2019 Moto2 runner-up and 2016 Moto3 champ ran a pace that would’ve put him on the podium and perhaps even on the top step, but for a lap-seven mistake that had him off the track and dead last.

On lap nine, when Quartararo took the lead, Binder was in last place, 29.002 seconds behind the leader. When the South African crossed the finish line in 13th place he was 29.640 seconds behind the winner.

Related article

“It was almost good,” he grinned. “It was quite exciting, because to be riding with these guys I’ve looked up to my whole life was awesome. Everything was going well until I got to Turn Five on lap seven. I grabbed the front brake and locked the tyre, then when I used some angle into the corner I lost the front. I just managed to pick it up and took a trip through the gravel. I need to say sorry to the team because we could’ve got a good result. We live and we learn – I made a mistake and next time I’ll be better.

“I was super happy with the bike. After practice I knew I could be there, but I didn’t realise I’d be able to sit there comfortably. That was a bit of a shock. I expected to be absolutely on the edge from lap one to the end. It turns out that a MotoGP race is still just a motorbike race at the end of the day.”

Binder’s debut was as impressive as those of Márquez in 2013 and Quartararo last year. MotoGP has another new star.