Motorsport

Motorsport Monday: European MotoGP

Pictured: A contrast in emotions

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Journey of the Jackass 2020, Chapter 13: Joan M1R


Circuit Ricardo Tormo, Valencia

Image by the Honda Racing Corporation

3 races in 3 weekends to end the 2020 MotoGP World Championship, and first up was the European Grand Prix at Valencia, the first European Grand Prix run since 1995, when it was run at Catalunya to end the season, with Alex Criville leading a Honda 1-2-3-4

Since the break from the Aragon rounds, the news in the last couple of days was HUGE.

After news dropped on Tuesday that Yamaha were being investigated by the FIM stewards for their engine troubles at Jerez, Thursday came around, and Yamaha were flogged with warm lettuce.

The premise is the company Yamaha contracted to design their engine valves couldn’t fulfill their order for 2020, so they got another company to design an identical ‘Type B’ valve to complete the stock, which wasn’t part of the engine when they submitted the sample engine to the MotoGP Technical Director for homologation before the Qatar round in March, which obviously went on without a MotoGP race.

In the four month layoff between Qatar and the actual season start at Jerez 1, Yamaha changed the engine valves on all 4 bikes to the Type B valve without gaining approval from the MSMA (The other manufacturers), which is what got them in so much trouble.

While Quartararo won the opening race with what could be deemed an illegal engine (Though it wasn’t performance enhancing), Maverick Vinales and Valentino Rossi suffered engine failures during that weekend because of those faulty Type B valves, so they lost those engines, which led to Yamaha putting in another request to the MSMA at Austria to change the valves on the 8 engines from Jerez 1 back to the homologated valves for safety reasons, but when the company couldn’t provide the required evidence that there was an issue, they withdrew the application, leaving their riders with 3 engines (Vinales only 2) for the remaining 13 races, and that’s when crap hit the fan and the inquests began.

As punishment, Yamaha lost 50 points in the Constructors Championship (Effectively both of Quartararo’s Jerez wins), and in the Teams Championship, Petronas Yamaha lost 37 points (Morbidelli finished 15th in Styria with his Jerez 1 engine) and the Monster Yamaha team had 20 points withdrawn, meaning Ducati now led the Constructors race, and Team Suzuki Ecstar are odds on to win their maiden Teams Championship.

The big one though, and one that Dorna would love for the ratings, is that all 4 Yamaha riders were spared punishment, which means the title fight is still as it was after Teruel, despite the thoughts of the Marquez brothers.

To make matters worse for Yamaha, having already dropped the engine revs on the bikes by 500rpm to increase reliability, Maverick Vinales exceeded his season engine limit on Friday, and had to start the race from the pit lane, effectively ending his title hopes.

And, the cherry on top of the crap cake was that a Yamaha mechanic returned a positive COVID-19 test, forcing 4 mechanics into isolation, and almost grounding Top Gun altogether!

In other news, American World Superbike rookie Garrett Gerloff rode for the factory Yamaha team on Friday (And performed damn well) while Rossi awaited the results of his COVID test – It came back clear, and The Doctor made his long awaited return on Saturday after 24 days in isolation.

I saw the Yanks hold a big celebration for a number 46 on Saturday – I think they were celebrating Vale’s return.

Tech 3 KTM only ran 1 bike after Iker Lecuona was forced into isolation in Andorra when his brother and his assistant tested positive for COVID-19, Lorenzo Savadori replaced Bradley Smith at Aprilia for the remaining 3 races, and the most recent 2021 rider announcement is that Moto2 title rivals Luca Marini and Enea Bastianini are destined for the Esponsorama Ducati team in 2021, with Marini bringing the VR46 colours into MotoGP as he rides against his half-brother.

And, the final piece of news is that the provisional 2021 season calendar is out, with Qatar scheduled for a later opening to the season on March 28, and if we get to October unscathed, the Australian Grand Prix at Phillip Island is scheduled for the weekend of October 24, assuming they’ll actually be able to travel outside of Europe with the way the second COVID wave is going.

On that note, stay safe folks, winter is coming.


Qualifying


With the rain on Friday and Saturday, the dry FP2 session decided who went straight into Q2, and in the mixed conditions, Jack Miller was in his element, setting the fastest time in both FP1 (Wet) and FP2 (Dry), with Aleix Espargaro on the Aprilia surprising everyone by finishing 2nd overall, and Franco Morbidelli 3rd.

In the chaotic finish to Friday, the other riders to go straight into Q2 included Quartararo (Who noticably struggled in the wet again) the Red Bull KTM teammates Pol Espargaro & Brad Binder, Taka Nakagami was the sole Honda, Andrea Dovizioso, plus both Suzukis, as Joan Mir got 10th by 5-hundredths of a second from Vinales, forcing both factory Yamahas into Q1.

Thanks to some rain before Moto3 qualifying, conditions were still too wet to attempt a lap on slick tyres, which spiced things up in Q1, as Miguel Oliveira backed up a strong FP4 by progressing into the second session, as a late flying lap by Johann Zarco displaced Stefan Bradl from a rare Q2 appearance, although the German achieved a rare qualifying win over Alex Marquez in the Repsol Honda team battle.

Rossi could only manage 16th, and save for a late lap that would’ve been good enough for 15th on the grid, Vinales looked like someone who would’ve started from last regardless of a penalty.

In Q2, the sun finally appeared over a still wet track, and the Suzuki duo of Rins and Mir set the early pace, but they would be upstaged by Nakagami with a 1.40.525, while Miller waited until the final 5 minutes to set a time, and the Queenslander may very well have started on the front row, but he slipped on the foot peg exiting the last corner, costing himself 2-3 tenths.

Nakagami’s session ended when he fell at Turn 14 with 5 minutes to go, which ruined a flying lap for Zarco, who was 7-tenths up through the opening 3 sectors, but the yellow flag forced the French rider to back off, and almost certainly cost him pole position.

In a frantic finish, Rins bested Nakagmi’s time by 5-thousandths with 2 minutes remaining, but with 30 seconds to go, Pol Espargaro dumped Rins off pole with a 1.40.434, as the Suzuki rider missed reclaiming top spot by a mere 4-hundredths, giving pole to the factory KTM!

I believe we can change it to ‘Pol’ Position.

Ironically, Nakagami’s fall helped him stay on the front row, while Mir was in a perfect spot to build on his point lead, Jackass was a touch disappointing after what he did on Friday, while Yamaha’s wet weather struggles continued with only Morbidelli in the Top 10, as Quartararo and Dovi offered next to nothing in Q2.

There was confusion as to who started 6th, because at the end of the session Aleix Espargaro was in 6th and Jack 7th after both riders set a 1.40.893, with the Spaniard ahead thanks to the second-fastest lap tiebreaker, only for Aleix’s fastest time to disappear for seemingly ignoring the Taka yellow flag, then Race Control reinstated the time overnight, which put the Aprilia back to 6th on the grid…

Only for Race Control to hand Aleix a 3-place penalty for ignoring a blue flag exiting the pit lane when Morbidelli was approaching Turn 1.

Make up your damn minds fellas.


Race (27 Laps)


I imagine there were a few nervous faces in the Suzuki garage, because earlier on Sunday, the Moto3 and Moto2 Championship leaders (Albert Arenas was black flagged and Sam Lowes crashed) didn’t finish their respective races, which may have been a bad omen for Joan Mir.

Turned out they just drew the short straws in the game of luck.

With the limited dry running, teams were made to guess on what was the best tyre set up – For example, the Suzukis went Medium/Medium, Pol Espargaro went Hard/Medium, Zarco and Dovi went Soft/Soft, while Jack went a sensible Hard/Medium, thinking of not going hard early and working into the race.

The other minor note was that Brad Binder starting in 10th would have to serve a long lap penalty for causing the opening lap accident with Jack in Teruel.

As Vinales dived in to the pit lane, the lights went out as Pol Espargaro led Rins, Mir cleared Zarco and dived up the inside of Nakagami for 3rd at Turn 4, Miguel Oliveira was up from 8th to 5th, Quartararo was 9th and scrapping with the Aprilia, while Miller bogged down and dropped to 11th.

In Jack’s words:

Normally my starts are pretty good and I got off the line alright, but I had a wheelie in fourth gear and the bike started heading towards the wall, so I had to roll out of it on the front straight and got spat back into the pack.

It’s always hard to pass at Valencia, so the first lap was all she wrote really.

The first major moment of the race occurred barely 2 sectors into the race, and in terms of the Championship, it was huge…

QUARTARARO AND ALEIX ESPARGARO WENT DOWN AT TURN 8!

Espargaro was going up the inside of Morbidelli but fell, and Fabio just fell on his own after the slightest check up!

Aleix was out on the spot, while El Diablo remounted, but his afternoon, and probably his title hopes, were shot to pieces.

Back up the front, Rins made a fine pass on Pol Espargaro for the lead on Lap 2, and Mir looked much faster than the KTM, but would have to bide his time for another few laps.

Completing an awful but brief afternoon for Aprilia, Lorenzo Savadori fell at the last turn of Lap 3, but it looked like the Italian was able to remount and continue in last place.

Mir made an identical pass on Espargaro at the Turn 11 hairpin on Lap 4, and it was now a Suzuki 1-2, and in the live championship standings, it was also a Suzuki 1-2 with Rins in position to pass Quartararo!

It was also at this time that Binder served his penalty, dropping the South African from 11th to 16th, but that was the bad news out of the way for Binder, and he was on for a big turnaround.

Yamaha’s horror afternoon continued when Valentino Rossi suffered what was described as a fuel pump issue on Lap 5, ending his afternoon, meaning Vale still hasn’t finished a race since Misano 1/San Marino, just on 2 months ago.

The out of form Pecco Bagnaia crashed his Ducati out at Turn 2 on Lap 6 to end another disappointing race, recent birthday man Cal Crutchlow fell on the same lap, which put Vinales into the points, and Quartararo would’ve been fuming, because he set the fastest lap in 16th, indicating the Yamaha wasn’t damaged.

Meantime, Miller had worked his way up to 8th, and was starting to warm up into the race, completing a pass on Morbidelli for 7th into Turn 1 to start Lap 8, setting off after Zarco 1.2 seconds ahead in the hopes of running down the Top 5.

Starting Lap 10, Rins and Mir had cleared out from Espargaro and Oliveira by about 8 tenths, but the KTMs weren’t beaten easily, and Pol started responding with personal best laps.

Alex Marquez passed Morbidelli on Lap 11, then Dovi ripped past his compatriot up the pit straight to start Lap 12, and it was almost time to rule the line through Franco in the Championship, as Yamaha were left without a bike in the Top 10.

Tito Rabat encountered some kind of mechanical drama and retired on Lap 13, putting Fabio into the points, while Oliveira was the first top rider to start hitting tyre trouble at mid-race distance, falling back into the clutches of Nakagami in 5th, as Miller had caught Zarco, but just couldn’t find a way past the Ducati GP19, as Zarco had obviously read up on General Nivelle at Verdun and took the phrase “They shall not pass” to heart.

On Lap 15, Mir closed up to Rins again in this gripping Suzuki chess match, while Nakagami completed a pass on Oliveira at Turn 14, but he was 1.8 seconds behind Espargaro and looked unlikely to reel in the gap with the pace of the leaders.

After a quick build-up, in the move that decided the race, Mir made the pass for the lead at Turn 11 on Lap 17, which Rins made very easy by going deep into the corner.

At that moment, Mir’s championship lead was 37 points, and just to send a message, the race leader set the fastest lap of the race on Lap 19, and it felt like a championship deciding moment there and then!

Something we didn’t exactly witness because of the leaders battle was that Miller was unable to clear Zarco until Lap 23, which made the hard tyre choice go to waste, but once the Aussie got away, 6th place was pretty much locked in.

In one of the rides of the day, Binder had stormed from 18th to 10th after his penalty, was the fastest rider on the circuit, and had a good chance of running down Marquez and Dovi directly ahead of him, although it turned out he didn’t even have to pass Alex, because after being passed by Dovi on Lap 24, Marquez went into Turn 1 too hot, lost the front on a damp patch, and almost took the Ducati down with him!

A shame for the younger Marquez after spending most of the race in the Top 10, and the Rookies title has now taken a big swing back to the South African.

It also gave the Yamahas some more small points.

With 3 laps to go, Mir had broken Rins through sheer consistency, never dropping into the 1.33s for some 20 consecutive laps and pushing the lead out to 1.4 seconds over his teammate, while further down, Zarco hit the tyre cliff, getting passed by Dovi and Binder, and completing his sensational ride, Binder got by Dovi for 7th!

But out in front, it was the story of the day – JOAN MIR WAS FINALLY A MOTOGP WINNER!

Now, what were we saying about a winless champion….

An equal-record 9th different MotoGP winner in 2020, it was the first win for the Majorcan Miracle since the Moto3 race at Sepang in 2017, it was also Suzuki’s first win at Valencia since Sete Gibernau in 2001, and if that wasn’t enough, Rins in 2nd place gave Suzuki their first Premier Class 1-2 finish since Germany in 1982, when Hall of Famer Randy Mamola and Virginio Ferrari led the field home.

It also put Suzuki into the lead of the Constructors’ championship by 7 points over Ducati, a prize they haven’t won in the Premier Class since 1982, and it’s nothing the Hamamatsu team hasn’t earned with how consistently good the GSX-RR has been in 2020.

I’m surprised Chris Vermuelen on Fox Sports didn’t recreate that diner scene from When Harry Met Sally live on air seeing all those results.

Also, Pol Espargaro shouldn’t be forgotten in all this, stepping onto the podium for Red Bull KTM for the fourth time in 2020, having never fallen more than 2 seconds behind the Blue Bullets all afternoon, in what was an extremely solid ride from ‘Pol Position’.’

All in all, 3 very deserving riders on the podium.


Results


Taka equalled his career-best result with 4th, Oliveira held on for a Top 5 finish, Miller was the best Ducati, Binder made it 3 KTM bikes in the Top 7, Dovi was the highest-placed rider to run a Soft tyre in 8th, with Zarco and Petrucci making it a Ducati train to complete the Top 10, with Morbidelli in 11th summing up a hellish weekend for Yamaha.


Post Race


Fabio holds 2nd over Alex on the wins tiebreak (3-1)

It’s a simple equation now – If either Rins or Quartararo win next week, Joan Mir must finish at least 3rd (16 points) to secure the World Championship, becoming the first new champion since Marc Marquez in 2013, and Suzuki’s first Premier Class champion since Kenny Roberts Jnr in 2000.

Although, judging by Fabio’s sheer despair in the garage, he knows deep down this title is just about game, set match to Suzuki.

Putting on my Green & Gold glasses, I suppose Sunday was a case of what could’ve been for Jack, because on a weekend where he was looking good enough to get another podium in Valencia, it just went down the toilet in the early laps.

The bogged start to leave him 11th did most of the damage, followed by getting stuck behind Zarco for 7 laps in the back half of the race, which cost him any chance of a Top 5 place, because he only finished 0.7s behind Oliveira in 5th, having made up 1.5 seconds in the last 2 laps.

All he can do is console himself with the useless knowledge he was easily the best Ducati on the day.

Finally, I’ll end on this wonderful thought.

In a year where their greatest nemesis seriously injured himself and missed the entire season, Ducati and Honda fell off a cliff, and they won more races than their rivals, Yamaha are going to end up with ABSOLUTELY NOTHING.


Moto2: The Remy Rollercoaster


The Moto2 title fight is proving just as captivating as the MotoGP title fight, and on the back of a hat-trick of wins, Sam Lowes led the Championship by 7 points over Enea Bastianini, with Sky VR46 teammates Luca Marini and Marco Bezzecchi down and almost out, sitting 23 points and 48 points behind the leader respectively.

This time around, it was veteran Xavi Vierge who claimed his first Pole Position of 2020, joined on the front row by American Joe Roberts, championship leader Lowes kept riding his momentum and started 3rd, with our Remy Gardner up in 4th chasing yet another Top 5 finish, with the other title hopefuls Bezzecchi starting 5th, Marini 7th, and Bastianini way down in 15th, although they don’t call him The Beast for nothing, as he’s proved several times on Sundays.

The Vierge pole was a good tonic for the Petronas team, after Jake Dixon was declared unfit after fracturing his wrist in a crash on Friday, joining Augusto Fernandez in the Moto2 infirmary.


Race (25 Laps)


Seeking that maiden Grand Prix win, Roberts took the lead off the start line, but sadly the Californian with no relation to Kenny Roberts didn’t even make it to the end of Lap 2, falling from the lead at the slow Turn 2, in similar circumstances to Valentino Rossi’s memorable fall to cost him the 2006 MotoGP title.

The fast-starting Bezzecchi inherited the lead, and now into a podium spot, Gardner picked off Vierge for 2nd place and set off after Bezzecchi, but that VR46 Kalex was kneecapping Remy’s Green Machine in a straight fight and comfortably stayed ahead.

Just behind them, Marini had fallen to 11th, and The Beast was roaring on raceday, flying up to 6th place by Lap 3.

Lowes was faster than Vierge in 4th, but the Brit struggled under braking on the damp patches and couldn’t complete the pass on multiple occasions, which was giving the leading pair a slight break.

Lowes finally got the move done at Turn 2 on Lap 5, and that freed up the Brit to attack Gardner, as the leaders started to bunch up, and in the two-wheeled Ashes, Lowes passed Gardner on Lap 10, but the Aussie got him straight back and held 2nd for a couple more corners before Lowes made it stick.

Riding the KTM Ajo Kalex, Jorge Martin sensed the moment and passed Gardner the next lap, as Gardner seemed to be simply out paced by the Top 3, but that said, he was easily quicker than Vierge, who was forming a road train behind, led by the Flexbox bikes of Lorenzo Baldassarri and Hector Garzo.

Meantime, Marini’s championship seemed to be experiencing the curtain call, struggling in 10th and fighting Aron Canet, who had risen from 20th to 9th place, and just as he was mentioned on TV, Canet went wide at Turn 14 and dropped to 12th.

Bastianini had been stuck behind Vierge for too long, and had to make the pass on the polesitter at Turn 11 on Lap 15, and after that Vierge’s race unravelled in the space of a few corners, as Baldassari forced his way through, and Garzo got by eventually.

On Lap 16, in a moment that blew the championship wide open, as LOWES FELL AT TURN 6!

From looking like increasing his lead to 16 points, it was Bastianini in 4th who was into the Championship lead!

Lowes remounted, but his Kalex was finished, and he eventually pitted and retired to cap off a shocking turn of events.

But, it wasn’t done yet for Bastianini, as Baldassarri’s return to the sunshine saw him hunt down the Beast on Lap 18, and the other Flexbox Pons bike of Hector Garzo was going to eye off the would-be Champion, especially with Enea’s soft front tyre in danger of falling off.

Up front, the Top 3 looked pretty much set, as Bezzecchi now led by a second to Martin, who led Gardner by 1.4 seconds, with our Remy a safe 2.5 seconds ahead of Baldassarri and Bastianini with 5 laps to go, looking good for a third podium this year!

Better late than never, Marini was starting to warm up late in the race, easily mowing down Vierge, and with 3 laps to go, he wasn’t without a hope of 5th place.

Bastianini wasn’t done yet, firing back on Baldassarri on Lap 24 to reclaim 4th place into Turn 1, and starting the final lap, Marini clawed back another point with a textbook pass on Garzo into Turn 1 for 6th place, but outside of that, all riders held position on the last lap.

A fantastic win for Marco Bezzecchi, who rebounded from his crashes at Aragon in fine style, with Martin in for a clear 2nd, and Gardner in 3rd racked up his third podium in 2020, and he’s now finished in the Top 5 in his last 4 races, pushing him past 100 points in a season for the first time, which is a good building block before the son of Wayne moves to KTM Ajo in 2021 and hopefully challenges for race wins.

Of course, it wouldn’t be Remy without a celebratory wheelie!

So with the wildness of Sunday, this is looking like being the first-ever Moto2 title fight decided in the last race of the season, with just 29 points separating the Top 4 riders.

I’d have to take Enea, just on consistency.

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