Without Marc Márquez, the MotoGP is a jungle—one where no single rider at the moment has the skills to be the lion king. The stats of this crazy championship season speak for themselves: five races, four different winners on three different manufacturers, three first-time MotoGP winners, and nine riders within 27 points of the title. From the rising star of Fabio Quartararo to veteran Andrea Dovizioso to the rookies Brad Binder and Miguel Oliveira, the title chase is wide open.
“Who will win the 2020 MotoGP title? Who knows… Every time there is a favorite, then he struggles the following race,” admits Valentino Rossi, fifth in the championship. “At Jerez Quartararo was so strong. Yamaha was strong too, in fact we did a 1-2-3 podium. I cannot say if he is suffering from the pressure; I believe he is struggling because of Yamaha’s technical problems. We are having the same issues as in 2019. I hope we can be more competitive on other tracks, hopefully already in Misano. We are 25 points from the top, we are not too far.
“We need to consider also that the level now is really high and some manufacturers like Suzuki or KTM, considered as the midfield, have improved a lot. This means that we have to count four more bikes in the fight for the podium.”
“Four riders in five races? The only reason is Márquez’s absence,” Tech3 KTM’s Miguel Oliveira, winner of Austria2 GP, says. “When we saw that Marc was not there, we understood that on paper, we all had the chance to win races and the title. We have to see who will be more consistent.”
“Márquez would not have won all the races, but his performance at Jerez, before he crashed the second time, was humiliating for his superiority,” echoes Ducati rider Danilo Petrucci, who will join KTM next year.
In Austria Oliveira won his first-ever MotoGP, the first also for the Tech3 team with a bike that, last year, was considered, together with the Aprilia, the worst of the grid. Quartararo is the leader with only 70 points. To show the variety and the inconsistency, since Nicky Hayden’s 83 points in 2006, no rider has led with such few points; nine riders are within 27 points, 10 riders are within 35.
The absence of Márquez, the new Michelin tires, the injuries, and a compressed calendar have reshaped the field of possible title contenders, so the question is: Who will be the new Marc Márquez?
“Every season is a new story, but before the start of the championship, there was no doubt that Marc was the favorite,” admits Ducati rider Andrea Dovizioso, Márquez’s number one title contender of the last three years (runner-up in 2017-2019). “His incident in Jerez 1 and his absence have reshuffled the cards. I don’t know who will win the title this year, but if someone dares to answer, well, it’s BS.”
After winning the first race in Austria, Dovi was hoping to dominate again the following weekend on the very same track; instead he finished eighth. Despite the frustrating result, he managed to reduce the gap to leader Quartararo to three points as the Frenchman finished 13th.
“It’s enough of a small change in the setup or riding style to affect the behavior of the tires. What is the key to win the title? I really don’t know, and I think we are all on the same boat,” Dovi continues. “The reality is that you are focused on improving some aspects, and then in the race the tires work in a completely different way. I don’t remember a situation similar to the one we are experiencing. On one side, we have the chance to fight and win the title, on the other side, there is so much uncertainty that we are obliged to live day by day.
“Maybe I belong to the old school, but I’m used to building a championship with hard work: We analyze the data and try to solve the problems. We study the strategies and we have a clear plan. Now I challenge any team or rider to tell me if they understand what is happening.”
Tires Under Fire
“It’s a championship decided by the tires. How can you make a plan with so many ups and downs? My strength has always been to be a consistent rider. It’s destabilizing because we don’t have the situation under control,” Dovizioso accuses Michelin for the rollercoaster of results of the whole grid. Despite that, there is another explanation for Dovi’s issues; Michelin Motorsport Manager Piero Taramasso declared that analysis of the race data showed that Dovi’s problem is due to an issue with the tire heaters so that his tires never get up to temperature. But Dovi is not the only one to charge that this championship is hampered by the tires.
“The tires are the key—it’s fastest for the rider who is able to better manage the Michelin, but the issue is that we don’t know the reasons,” states the Doctor. “The absence of Marc has opened different scenarios. I can explain the increasing aggressive riding style as the ultimate attempt to take advantage of this situation. MotoGP is turning into a jungle, with furious polemics between riders and the race direction. I think we need clear rules and a consistency in penalties, as in Formula 1. The fact that riders go on the green lanes, without penalization, falsifies the results. The green zone [is there] for safety, not as an extension of the track.”
Too Many Injuries
As Maverick Viñales has anticipated, “We will have to take more risks.” The high number of injuries in the first races can be explained by the hunger to take advantage of every single race in such a compressed calendar. The first riders to jeopardize their title chase from Jerez 1 were Honda’s eight-time world champion Marc Márquez with a fractured humerus, Suzuki rider Álex Rins with an injured shoulder, and Cal Crutchlow and his wrist; then followed Ducati rider Pecco Bagnaia and Johan Zarco with leg and wrist injuries, respectively. The Ducati-mounted Frenchman was also the protagonist of the scary incident with Franco Morbidelli in the first Austrian race that involved Rossi and Viñales.
Pressure Or Technical Limits?
Unbeatable at Jerez, without King Márquez, Yamaha rider Quartararo started to suffer as the circus explored different racetracks. Brno, but especially Austria showed he is not as solid as it seemed in Spain. “It was tougher than we expected,” the leader explained. “We knew the M1 could struggle on the Austrian fast track, but not like this. I also had some brake issues and it was frustrating. I couldn’t stop the bike as I wanted.”
Looking at what happened to Viñales (he had to jump off the bike at 220 kph because his M1 had no brakes), Quartararo stressed, “In the warm-up I remained without brakes once. When something like this happens, and then during the race you notice that the brake lever is loose, then you start to get nervous because you have the feeling that it may happen at any moment. It’s very dangerous and this affects you a lot. We need to understand what happened in Austria. I thought I had a competitive bike, but I spent several laps behind Áleix Espargaró (Aprilia), and I realized that we suffer in several areas. We stress the brakes a lot because we need to compensate for what we lose on the straight. The top speed is our weakest point.
“If we want to fight for the championship, we need to find a solution. We are too inconsistent, if we want to fight for the title. Like this—it’s impossible to fight for the title.
“Looking ahead, I really look forward to the next double in Misano in two weeks. We should be competitive there, but then I think of Barcelona, Aragón, and Valencia. There are tracks with long straights and the top speed.
“Who is the favorite for the title?” Quartararo ponders. “The only positive thing of the Austrian weekend is that we managed to save the lead, but I need to find again the feeling I had in the first races. In these first five rounds, there were four different winners. It means that the championship is open. For his experience, Dovizioso is one of the favorites. He is one of my main rivals in the title chase.”
What is certain is that, unlike the last seven years, 2020 will crown a new champion. With the crash at Jerez and HRC’s announcement that Márquez will miss Misano, needing three to four months to recover, the Spanish ace—who dominated from 2013 to 2019, with the exception of the 2015 title, won by Jorge Lorenzo—is definitely out of the title chase.
From his sofa in his home in Cervera, Spain, the reigning champion looked at the title fight and commented, “If I had to bet on someone, it would be on Dovizioso or Quartararo. Fabio has the speed—Dovi the experience. If Dovi wins the title, everyone will be happy because he deserves it. He finished second in the last three seasons, so he has the chance to do well and he would deserve the crown. On the other side, we have Fabio. He is a young talent, and he already proved in 2019 to be very fast. I see the battle between them. Then, we shouldn’t forget Viñales. He is always there, but if he wants to win the title, he cannot afford to lose too many races.
“Anyway, it is very difficult to bet on anyone,” Márquez continues. “The championship is very open—it could be a great show with a title to be decided at the last race. I wouldn’t mind, because right now I have to spend a lot of time at home.”
New Faces And A Veteran
If the wins of Dovizioso and Quartararo were not a surprise, the competitiveness and maturity of the young generation represented by KTM riders Brad Binder and Miguel Oliveira and Suzuki’s Joan Mir are impressive. The second part of the 2019 season and the winter test showed an increase of Suzuki’s competitiveness, especially in the ability to manage the Michelin tires. Contrary to expectations, it was not the experienced Rins to clinch the victory but the young talent and 2017 Moto3 champion Mir. As for KTM, the Austrian brand has made an incredible jump forward. As opinion maker Carlo Pernat stressed, “Alberto Puig and Honda made a great gift to KTM: Dani Pedrosa.”
“The arrival of Dani Pedrosa as KTM test rider together with the open mind of the KTM engineers are one of the secrets of the success of the MotoGP project,” Tech3 boss Hervé Poncharal explained. “The process is really fast. The work is done in-house; if Dani confirms the benefits of a new item, then we can use it straight away. Dani is experienced, but he listens carefully to the comments of the official riders. He has a good feeling with them. His experience gives him the authority, and this speeds up the development process.”
An example of the strong collaboration between track and test team is the Austrian GP. The four KTM riders used the data of Pedrosa’s test, especially for the setup of the engine on the Red Bull Ring, revealed Poncharal. Winning in the end is also the result of teamwork and the story of South African Brad Binder—a rider “made in KTM” from his debut in the KTM Red Bull Cup to Moto3, Moto2, and MotoGP—or Miguel Oliveira, also the result of the KTM Academy.
The only sure bet for the MotoGP season is to expect more surprises when the riders take to the track in Misano.